After exploding in popularity in recent years, there is no question that Commander is MTG’s most popular format. This is hardly a surprise considering that Commander is one of the most varied, affordable, and enjoyable formats around. Despite all these enticing selling points, however, there’s a remarkable amount of negativity toward the format. Some MTG players even bemoan that Commander is ruining Magic more than controversial formats such as Alchemy! While Commander may not have introduced six-sided cards to MTG, its influence on development is plain to see. In the eyes of many players, Wizards’ focus on Commander is coming at the expense of other formats, which jeopardizes Magic’s future.
Throughout recent years, MTG players have been seeing more and more Commander-focused cards creeping into premier sets. In theory, this problem shouldn’t be a concern, as premier sets feature dedicated Commander decks and cards to appease players. In reality, however, these supplemental products haven’t kept the format’s influence at bay. Subsequently, throughout recent sets, players have noticed cards like Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines becoming the norm. Is this icon of Phyrexia: All Will Be One powerful? Absolutely yes. Are they playable in anything other than Commander? Well, there’s growing evidence to suggest it might be a Modern powerhouse, but otherwise, barely.
Due to the growing prevalence of this issue, MTG players have been speaking out against Commander with growing regularity. It wasn’t too long ago, for instance, that Commander was being blamed for ruining all of Magic, for instance. Five months later and this topic has flared up once again, thanks to a grim portent from Magic’s biggest content creator. Speaking in a recent video, which celebrated hitting 800,000 subscribers, The Professor, of Tolarian Community College fame, claimed that Commander “cannot stay as the center of Magic: the Gathering.”
Explaining this self-described hot take, The Professor continued to say, “[Commander] is a great format and one of the most fun ways to play, but it cannot be the only way to play Magic: the Gathering. It cannot be the center of this game, it won’t work, it won’t last, and there’s going to be trouble if we don’t figure out how to get back to how we were before Commander took over.” After issuing this warning, The Professor played into the spiciness of their hot take, proclaiming “hot take! Discuss! Discuss,” alongside some frantic jazz hands.
Doing as The Professor instructed, u/phizrine took the discussion to Reddit, riling the MTG community up into a frenzy of discussion. Somewhat remarkably, however, especially considering past concerns, many MTG players on Reddit quickly jumped to Commander’s defense. “Commander has that self-expressive casual draw that makes things like fighting games and MOBAs popular. You can ‘main’ a character you like,” u/RWBadger commented, explaining one of Commander’s key strengths. While each MTG deck is inherently personal, u/Show-Me-Your-Moves highlighted how Commander offers more deckbuilding freedoms than any other format.
“Ya many players want the ability to express themselves through building and tuning their own unique deck while also having a realistic shot at winning the game. Commander is one of the few places you can actually do that, and you get access to almost the entire card library with 100 slots to fill.”u/Show-Me-Your-Moves
Due to this near-limitless freedom, Commander is seen as the most logical step up from the lawless wasteland of kitchen table MTG. Arguably more importantly, however, is that Commander, outside of cEDH, is predominantly a casual format. With organized casual play being a bit of an oxymoron, these casual formats are exceptionally rare in MTG. Subsequently, kitchen table players who’re looking to get into Magic are essentially only offered one stepping stone to take. As u/Atechiman points out, this heavily incentivizes developing for Commander, which Wizards is more than happy to do.
“There is an overlap between the single largest player type in magic (kitchen table) and Commander. Especially at the precon +$50 level and below. By making the game goals align with a group of players who will communicate (Commander players) they also make the game more enjoyable for the silent juggernaut of their sales.”u/Atechiman
Considering Mark Rosewater has previously stated that 75% of players are casual, it’s no wonder that WotC and Hasbro want to tap into this immense potential player base. To that end, prioritizing Commander is just good business, as the format stands to grow even more popular over time. While this should ensure that MTG becomes a billion-dollar brand, some players, such as The Professor, obviously aren’t convinced it’s the right thing to do.
The Commander Conundrum
As much as many players highlighted how Commander is good for MTG, there were those who concurred with The Professor’s message. This even included a member of the Commander Advisory Group, Rebell Son, who agreed Magic needs more than Commander alone. “As a CAG member, I’d love it if more players enjoyed different formats of magic beyond Commander,” Rebell stated on Reddit. “ Commander does certain things really well, like creating a social experience or allowing you to enjoy the game in a non-competitive setting, but it also falls apart for other needs that magic players have. Trying to fit everything under one format doesn’t work, and I think Commander players would enjoy Magic itself more if they had more experiences with all the other ways to play.”
Taking Magic’s need for multiple formats one step further, some players even claimed MTG doesn’t need a centralized format. “I don’t think that there’s any one format that needs to ‘hold MTG together’, personally,” u/CertainDerision_33 commented. “One of MTG’s strengths, which Maro has talked about, is that it’s not really just one game, it’s more like an ecosystem of games with some shared rules.” Favoring a buffet metaphor, Mark Rosewater has talked at length about Magic’s ability to cater to all kinds of players, regardless of what they may enjoy. While this is a sensible design strategy, it’s not guiding the development of MTG.
Admittedly, MTG’s buffet model has impacted the game, with a plethora of new products being created. For better or worse, however, it is not the driving force in the game’s development, as that is still Commander. As Mark Rosewater recently discussed, so long as Commander is MTG’s most popular format, WotC can’t not develop around it.
“As the maker of the game, I don’t know how we don’t design for it [Commander]. It’s a widely played format that players are constantly asking us to make things for.”Mark Rosewater
Ultimately, it is difficult to say if Commander’s corruptive influence is actually a bad thing. Sure Standard, and to a lesser extent, Limited may suffer as a result, however, that’s not necessarily the end of the world. After all, disappointing the comparatively small number of Standard players is a small price to pay for a lot of happy Commander players and a billion-dollar valuation. Thankfully for Standard fans, the format hasn’t been eradicated by casual play just yet. In fact, throughout 2023, Standard may even see a moderate renaissance.
Alongside MTG’s competitive scene slowly revitalizing by the Pro Tour’s return, MTG Arena may be Standard’s saving grace. While no date has been confirmed just yet, in 2023, MTG Arena is due to launch on both Steam and Consoles. Additionally, the digital client will be getting a refactored new player experience to entice more players to the platform. With Standard being the go-to format on Arena, this could breathe new life into the format, encouraging prioritization from Wizards. In theory, this could encourage a focal division between Standard and Commander (in set creation) that could allow both formats to flourish. Whether or not this would happen, however, remains to be seen.