Almost everyone who’s ever been involved in a Barigord Studios adventure has been passionate for gaming! We love board games, table games, video games, roleplaying games, and game shows! This post is best viewed on the home site with plug-ins.
Last week’s post can be found here.
The artwork pictured is ‘Life’s Legacy‘ by Howard Lyon.
Hey Gamers. Last week, Sheldon Menery left us, after a long, hard-fought battle with cancer. I didn’t know him personally, but I know his work, and if you play Magic the Gathering in 2023, so do you.
The Godfather of Commander
The creation of Commander isn’t really attributed to a single person. It makes sense, as it takes several people to play it, and game systems rarely get far without lots of playtesters. But Sheldon Menery is considered to be the Godfather of Commander, and the driving force behind the format’s success in reaching the playerbase. And that’s really something.
Commander is the most popular Magic format today, full stop. It began as a fun variant played among some Tournament Judges, Menery included, in the 90s. One of the expansions of the era, Legends, provided 5 creatures that were extremely cool, but almost unplayable in any serious Magic format. Even the unserious ones.
These creatures were the original Elder Dragons. Nicol Bolas, Chromium, Vaevictis Asmadi, Palladia-Mors and Arcades Sabboth. I know them well. I typed their names from memory. I had Bolas and Chromium in the 90s. They were cool, but I hardly ever managed to get them to do anything useful.
There have been many popular Magic variants, including Mental Magic, developed by Magic Judges, just like Commander. Mental Magic arose in response to a certain set of conditions, mainly that the Judges knew so many rules and cards by heart that they didn’t need the actual cards to play.
Commander also came from a set of conditions, though they were less of an endorsement of the game than savvy Judges.
Cards were getting expensive and sometimes hard to find, especially in multiples. Tournaments had distilled the playable cards from the unplayable, and a fair amount of fun cards were rotting in boxes. Some of those, like the Elder Dragons, begged to have some game to them, as they were so flavourful.
Magic players wanted a narrative. They wanted the name creatures to be the centre of the narrative. Can you blame us?
It doesn’t really matter how it actually happened. Some Magic games. Probably some duds, and some where the rules didn’t quite make sense, and some where they had to stop and start over doing something different. And of course the ones where everyone went away feeling great and determined to do it again.
Somehow, Menery and co arrived at 99 card piles, with only one copy of any card allowed. The decks had to be Commanded by one of the Elder Dragons, and were restricted to those colours. They called the format Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH. It took off.
Many Years Later…
But it took a long time. Eventually any Legendary creature was allowed as a Commander, and the rules around colour identity, the ban list, and the Command Zone evolved accordingly.
In 2011, Wizards of the Coast acknowledged the format with a series of preconstructed deck products, called Commander. Each deck was coloured like the original Elder Dragons. They introduced Command Tower and established Sol Ring as a super-staple that everyone should have.
The 2011 decks did okay, but more weren’t printed until 2013. Since then, they haven’t stopped, and the annual precons have become precons released with every set, plus extras like Warhammer 40k and Doctor Who.
Leaving a Legacy
There’s a lot of negative sentiment around Wizards of the Coast and the parent corporation Hasbro, and it is almost entirely as a result of Commander. Even many of the complaints against other formats are a result of that format being neglected in favour of the cash cow.
Wizards milks Commander for dollars on a level we’ve never seen before. The format is almost completely unregulated. It has been a really long time since the RC (Rules Committee), headed by Menery, even weighed in on new cards. There was some opposition to Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines but there was no action taken over it.
There’s a longstanding EDH ban list, but there are few additions other than the potentially ubiquitous companion Lutri, the Spellchaser and the game-wrecking Hullbreacher, Leovold, Emissary of Trest, and Paradox Engine. But not The One Ring, any of the recent free spells or a groaner creature like Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider, and definitely no revisiting of old cards that are a certified pain in the butt, like Cyclonic Rift or Sensei’s Divining Top.
Your Tabletop or Mine
CEDH, or Competitive EDH, has emerged as both a popular variant and a potential tournament format. While that might force some regulations and more liberal bans, the majority of Commander is played on the tabletop without much support in the event of a mismatch.
In fact, mismatches are the secret selling point of Commander, as you can bling out a focused deck full of OP cards and tutors, and sit down with a table of casuals and smash them. Sure you’re basically playing a Legacy deck, but the only thing stopping you is opponents who are too disgruntled to play any more with you.
Seriously, no casual deck needs a Jeweled Lotus or Doubling Season or Mana Crypt, and if you didn’t open one, you spent close to $100 for those. It makes sense that people who spend that much for a casual format want to win, especially as those cards enable the crap out of winning. Are you supposed to play Doubling Season and then not win?
The Commander format, without tourney regulation, sees designs that would formerly be silver-bordered (ie. experimental) only. They also reprint all of the old mistakes that were made before things were scaled for multiplayer, like Rhystic Study. Legendary creatures enter the format from all angles, including specialty products like Secret Lairs.
One of the most obnoxious things about Commander in 2023 is the presence of tutor cards like Demonic Tutor and the new Beseech the Mirror. Those cards essentially break the singleton rule, and make decks more consistent. Which really isn’t the point.
The conditions Commander was created under have arisen again. The format was a response to expensive cards, must-have cards, irrelevant cards that should be played more, and repetitive gameplay. We have all that in abundance.
I personally got into Commander in 2015. It appealed to me on a number of levels. A singleton format suited my small collection, and made getting cards I wanted much easier. There was a longstanding backlog of cards to explore, and tons of weird interactions available. No card seemed completely unplayable. The deck building restrictions were fun and interesting. The Commanders gave the decks an identity, something you could use to express yourself and find your ideal play style. The games were long and interesting, and winning was secondary to seeing Magic’s potential for awesomeness.
There were also fewer Legendary creatures. They were a little more special. For one thing, they had to be somewhat Standard playable. Recent sets have literally dozens of unremarkable Legendary creatures, none of which would ever see the light of day in a Standard deck. Because they were unabashedly printed for Commander.
For a while, I called Commander ‘Magic as Garfield intended.’ Not Garfield the lasagna-loving tabby, Richard Garfield, Ph.D., the creator of Magic. The original sets were necessary, but full of mistakes. Commander made things make sense in a way that is palpable. The popularity of the format is proof enough.
These days, however, I wouldn’t say that. Hasbro’s bottom line has undermined that notion completely. I’m looking for a new format, because I don’t want to play with or against the kinds of cards they want to print. Wah wah, cry cry, right? Well, I’m reacting to my game the same way Sheldon Menery did.
Commander as Sheldon’s legacy is maybe a bit short-sighted. What he did more was prove that you could take the game that frustrates you and work towards a better version. Something you want to play. Something that changes the way you look at your cards.
It creates a new puzzle, a new way to explore a landscape you love, a justification for old things that could shine again. A rebellion against profiteering, bad design, and corporate values.
The real Legacy is Rule 0. It always existed, but he showed us how it could really work in practice. And it could be applied to any game.
We have proof of this. We know some dude named Sheldon Menery and his Magic Judge pals cooked up some nonsense with their cards, and now most of the Magic-playing universe plays it. Post Malone plays it with his multi-million dollar cards. You can watch him and other play it on the internet. Some of those people earn their living from those videos, never once playing ‘competitively.’ Thanks to a different way to play a favourite game.
Sheldon Menery showed us what’s possible by thinking outside the box, and I feel confident there’s someone else out there nurturing a tiny little format under a bare bulb in their basement too, that will grow to be tomorrow’s EDH.
I bet it was a wild ride. We can all hope that our creations grow out of control and take over the world and become bloated monstrosities. It’s something all parents hope for their children.
Thanks Sheldon, and all the best on the next phase of the wild ride. I never knew you, but you will be remembered so fondly.
I also want to thank you for recommending Terraforming Mars. It plays like a really great game of Commander, but set in space. No wonder we both love it.
Thanks for reading!