Review – Commander (Magic: the Gathering)

              Commander was the 2012 alternate multiplayer format boutique product for Magic: the Gathering (WotC does one a year now).  I used to play Magic quite a bit, but I dropped it several years ago now.  However, these smaller products (the multiplayer ones, and the Duel Decks that are two decks specifically designed to play against each other) have intrigued me – could they be a way of enjoying Magic again without entering into the financial insanity of another CCG (I already play L5R, but that’s vastly cheaper than Magic)?  Just buy the one product, ignore the collectible part, and use it as a self-contained environment.  I never pulled the trigger on anything, but then I was giving all of Commander for Christmas, so I finally got to try it out.

Commander is a now-official format derived from a fan-created casual format called Elder Dragon Highlander.  “Highlander” because you aren’t allowed to have more than one of any card in your deck (other than basic land).  “Elder Dragon” because you have to choose a Legendary leader for your deck (such as the Elder Dragon Legends from the original Legends expansion).  The general is called a Commander now, but whatever you call it, your deck can only have cards that are the colors of your Commander.  So if your Commander is Red and White, then you cannot have any Blue, Black, or Green cards in your deck (and the rules also don’t let you cheat and use colored abilities either).  Additionally, your deck has to be 100 cards.

The Commander product is sold as five separate 100-card decks, each with a three-color Commander (plus two alternates of that same color combination).  These are normal Magic cards, so they are super-high quality compared to the usual cards you get in a board game or non-collectible card game.  And, being Magic cards, they are on average also bringing a pretty high art quality.  You also get three giant-sized foil cards of your Commander and those two alternates.

For all the fancy, there’s got to be a price, and for Commander the retail is $30 a pop, or $150 for a set (plus, if you’re a compulsive sort, like me, however much you want to shell out to sleeve up these massive decks).  Now, as I mentioned above, I personally didn’t have to pick up the tab for these, but I note it because part of the point of this whole experiment is to see if these Magic products can be played standalone without costing an arm and a leg.  So, while $150 for an experience is vastly less than one would pay if playing “real” competitive Magic, it’s still quite a lot compared to a random board game, where $150 is going to get you a massive box of plastic figures for some 6-hour epic space game, plus a new deck-building game, plus some old Silverline game from FFG.

So, what do you do, once you’ve got all of these giant stacks of sleeved cardboard sitting around a table?  Commander’s gameplay is based on standard free-for-all Magic – attack who you want, cast what you want, and super-political.  Commander starts you with 40 life points (instead of the usual 20), so it’s much harder to just wipe a player out right away.  Plus there’s the special nature of that Commander – the card doesn’t go into your deck, but instead sits outside the game, and can be summoned whenever you’ve got the mana handy.  Plus, if your Commander dies, it hops back outside of the game, where you can just buy it again – although at an extra 2 mana for every time it’s had to vamoose in this way.

Of course, that’s just how the rules work, and how any card game goes is going to be heavily influenced by what the cards are.  This is important, because standard free-for-all Magic tends to be more endurance test and chat-fest than actual game – everyone sit around, randomly pick at people, turtle up, and ignore the guy who built the abusive innocent-looking deck until he combo kills the entire table three hours later (having spent at least two of those hours whining about how he wasn’t a threat; which the other morons at the table fell for hook, line, and sinker).

Luckily, the Commander decks are designed to avoid this.  All of the decks feature big, splashy creatures and some combos, including lots of evasion, so there’s usually something out that can start swinging away.  The decks have some mass removal, and more targeted, but there are definitely more threats than there are answers – so the stalemate is generally not going to last.  But all the scary stuff does have some sort of answer – so you aren’t just going to be able to ride one threat to victory for the whole game.  There are also some nice cards that take advantage of the multiplayer format, but not loaded up in a way that makes everything seem overpowered.  In addition to the obvious things like Syphon cards (do some effect to each other player, gain benefits depending on how many other players this hit), there are cards that affect a random opponent, cards that give everyone the game the ability to “join forces” to create a big effect (for example, a sorcery that lets everyone pitch in mana and then lets everyone put lands into play from their decks), and Enchant Creature cards – sorry Auras – that boost the creature while preventing it from attacking to.  There are also more subtle things like decks having enough instant-speed removal to sometimes ‘encourage’ creatures to attack elsewhere, including several enchantments that sit in play and can kill at instant speed.

So, WotC did do a solid job of crafting these decks to keep the action moving, preventing too much turtling and one player from just crushing everyone else.  But it still suffers some from the drags of multiplayer, in particular still being very, very political – or maybe that’s “still benefiting from the joys of being very political,” depending on your point of view.  And games can, on occasion, go really long.  Although there are five decks, four players is probably the sweet spot – five player games will go longer, three player games will go faster (but have less of a multiplayer feel).  Two is right out.  If you get it, you should feel free to switch to an alternate Commander, as many of the decks have the best guy off in hiding.

Ultimately, the game is a moderate amount of fun, and improves the free-for-all Magic experience.  But it’s not great, and it’s way too expensive for what it is.  On the bright side, I succeeded at my goal of playing Magic without feeling that burning itch to go buy more cardboard crack.

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