Commander Challenge is the creation of Matt at The Connection Games in Vancouver, BC, Canada. It is a legitimate Commander tournament format that has been running for more than 3 years now, to great success. While tournaments are normally directly competitive, and it’s tough to imagine anything otherwise, Commander Challenge incorporates the casual mentality of Commander as a part of determining a winner.
The tournament is structured around 4 timed rounds of Commander play. Each round sees players grouped into pods of 4, with 5s acceptable in case of mismatched numbers, and 3s as an emergency measure. Players are given match slips to write their names on, and record the results of their games. Each player selects a Commander deck to play for the entire tournament.
Each round, the pods play for 1 hour, at which point the head judge will call time. Any games still active at that point are given a number of player turns to finish their game equal to the number of remaining players. They begin at the end of the active turn when time is called. For example, if 3 players are left when time is called, there will be 3 turns left when the current player finishes their next end step. In theory, this means one turn each for each remaining player, though that can change if any player is eliminated during these turns. This does not mean 3 rounds of turns, where each player would have 3 turns. Games in ‘extra turns’ are encouraged to wrap things up, and slow play, especially searching one’s library for a long time, will result in penalties including ‘failure to find.’
At the end of each round, players display their names on their match slips and each casts a vote for another player. Votes can be based on any criteria the player wants. Players then turn in their slips and the next round seating is determined. Players cannot vote for a player they voted for previously during the tournament. It is uncommon to play someone twice, but it does happen.
Scoring comes from three sources. Eliminating another player in a game awards you 1 point. This covers all normal eliminations, as well as those which may involve Judge consultation, such as milling an opponent’s library out. Effects such as ‘you win the game’ effectively eliminates all remaining opponents. Being alive at the end of a game awards you 1 point as well, so killing an entire pod will generally get you 4 points, and a game that ends after time with no eliminations awards each player 1 point. Finally, a vote for you awards you 2 points. Winning the acclaim of 2 opponents is the equal of killing all 3. Maximum points in a round (for a pod of 4) is 10, for 3 kills, staying alive, and getting all 3 votes.
After all four rounds are complete, the scores are tallied, and players are organized by score into a draft order. They then draft a prize pool of the tournament organizer’s construction. This pool usually features Commander products and things that would appeal specifically to Commander players. It always has a Mystery Box, with a randomly determined prize inside, and if attendance tops 50, adds a Mega Mystery Box, with a random prize of a higher magnitude. The best pools have several items that could be considered a ‘first pick’ and several unique items, such as signed cards, artwork, or custom gear.
Having played in almost every Commander Challenge over the course of its run, I can say with certainty that there are multiple great reasons to play. You are likely to get in several if not 4 great Commander games, with a wide variety of opponents. You will also get a prize. These things are rarely guaranteed in other formats, where it’s quite common to wash out early with a couple of losses, and walk away empty handed. Regardless of your finish, playing the full complement of games, having them be quality, and taking home some loot is a big draw.
Another big draw is the timed games. While that does mean plenty of finishes with some or all players still going strong, many of those games would involve a long and complicated unravelling, with minimal payoff beyond what has already been played. Those ‘stalemates’ often involve each deck doing their thing, and can be immensely satisfying.
This format is a great thing for any players looking for a pleasant community or meta to subscribe to. You can feel free to bring just about anything to such a tournament. Decks do not have to meet any competitive or financial standard, and it’s likely you’ll meet a lot of people you’ll want to play with a lot.
Since optimum scoring is based on getting votes, quick oppressive kills are seldom to your advantage. If you can run the table and kill all of your opponents, you’ll probably get a high finish, but at the same time, you’ll probably be beaten out by a few likeable people who brought interesting decks and played them well.
There’s no set formula for winning, and I’ve played many decks I thought would do great that didn’t, and vice versa. Overall, I’d say the best thing you can do is find a strategy you enjoy, take out any cards you wouldn’t want played against you, and have a good time playing it. Make sure you also have plenty of interactivity. Your deck might be the coolest ever, but you have to do stuff with it. Handing it to your opponent to ‘take a look’ after the game usually happens after voting.
There are plenty of individual plays that can win an opponent over. A game-saver, or memorable game-changer often resonates well, as does a unique path to victory. Cool themes, cosplay, wacky old cards, unheard-of cards, and just plain making smart plays can all add votes to your score. These are all both fun and real points of strategy to better your finish in this tournament. Players who play ‘politics’ will find this an interesting wrinkle to their strategies especially, as even winning might not mean winning anymore. Another wheel to put inside the wheels. You can usually get my vote by casting Krosan Grip on someone’s Sensei’s Divining Top.
Commander Challenge is a unique and engaging tournament format that really exemplifies what’s best about Commander, and Magic in general: fun, self-expressive gameplay that rewards skill, fair play and creativity. Casual players can flourish, and oppressive strategies rarely stick around for long. I personally have had multiple high finishes (top 4) without killing any opponents at all, including one tie for first.
If you have an event space, or know of one that would suit this format, it is extremely easy to set up. If you’re looking for specific details, reply to this post. Please be generous in your prize pools. That goes a long way towards repeat attendance, especially at the shallow end of the pool.
Give Commander Challenge a shot! I believe it is the best way to bridge competitive and casual Magic I’ve ever experienced. I think it should be the de facto way to run Commander tournaments, Magic-wide, and who knows? With some support, it could be.
Thanks for reading!