What really sets Commander apart from other formats isn’t the colour identity rule or the singleton nature of decks. It’s not even the looming creature (or planeswalker) waiting in the Command Zone. While these obviously have an impact on deck building, once players draw their opening hands these factors largely fall by the wayside. What really matters during a game of Commander is your starting life total of 40. This single rule dictates how games play out, and plays a major role in how players build their decks.

Ramp or be Left Behind

Casual Magic is often seen as a place where players get to cast big, flashy spells. Several fan-made formats even have extra rules to give players more mana each turn, which all serve to “get to the fun part” of a game sooner. In Commander, this plays out in the form of ubiquitous mana-acceleration spells. A typical deck in the format will have around 37 lands and a suite of cheap artifacts, like Signets and Talismans, to help speed things along. The first two or three turns of a Commander game are typically spent getting as much mana into play as possible, as players race to get their expensive threats into play. But why is this strategy so popular in Commander?

It could just be a reaction to competitive play. Competitive decks always aim to streamline their card choices by using cheap, efficient spells, after all; you’re unlikely to see a seven-mana spell at a Modern or Legacy event unless your opponent is playing Tron, or some other a deck that can cast one by turn three. If players who like big spells don’t have an opportunity to cast them in competitive play, it’s not unreasonable for them to look elsewhere to play Magic. It’s only natural for these players to build formats that let them use their favourite cards, and to make casting them easier. And so we see the creation of casual formats that let players play extra lands each turn, or, in the case of Commander, where your life total is high enough that you won’t be eliminated before you cast your big spells.

Modern, Legacy, and even Draft still have the occasional ramp deck, but they aren’t as omnipresent as they are in Commander; you’re just as likely to face a turn one Goblin Guide or Delver of Secrets in a tournament as you are a Noble Hierarch. The same can’t be said for Commander, though; aggressive one-drop creatures are all but unheard of there, and it’s no surprise that this has to do with the format’s higher starting life total.

“But wait,” you might be saying, “competitive formats like Modern are head-to-head games. Surely the multiplayer nature of Commander is a bigger factor than your life totals!” Setting aside 1v1 Commander (which has a different staring life total anyway), let’s look at the impact multiple opponents has in other casual formats, like Conspiracy and casual 60-card multiplayer Magic. These other formats have a starting life total of 20, so they should be a good comparison.

The Midgame Stall

Regardless of the format, a typical multiplayer game of Magic develops into a standoff by turn three or four. By the very nature of free-for-all games, players are disincentivized to attack one another, since doing so would leave them vulnerable to multiple counterattacks. It’s often more important in these games to build up your defenses first, and this means games will go on longer. Still, in formats where players have a smaller starting life total, the early game is more varied than it is in Commander.

In multiplayer, aggressive decks have their work cut out for them, even at 20 life, but they always get in a fair bit of damage before the battlefield gets cluttered with blockers. With some well-placed removal spells or a bit of evasion, these decks can continue their assault well into the midgame board stall, and a smaller life total means that something as innocuous as a Wind Drake can be enough to eliminate a player if left unanswered. This makes aggressive decks that much more viable, and forces players to keep them in mind when building and playing.

A Big Buffer

When players only have 20 life, early threats are a serious concern; there’s a real chance that you won’t survive long enough to deploy your big threats. This isn’t the case in Commander; everyone has so much more life to work with that aggressive strategies can largely be ignored. By the time you get whittled down to 20 life, even if you haven’t finished building up your mana base, it’ll still be a long time before you need to worry. That Wind Drake that’s been chipping away at your life total is about to be outclassed by whatever you have lined up, and at worst it’ll still be ten turns before it can eliminate you. Sure, if it knocked you down to 20 you’re technically at half of your starting life total, but it’s as if you’re playing Modern Soul Sisters against Burn: all the aggressive deck managed to do was be a nuisance.

The consequence of all this is that early aggressive plays quickly become irrelevant; Commander players need to go over the top with bigger spells if they’re going to impact the game. Think of it like this: with twice the life to work with, it’s as if the power of attacking creatures was halved. If you’re trying to take out an opponent with combat damage a 2/2 might do the trick, but a 1/2 won’t cut the mustard unless you’ve got another trick up your sleeve. Your opponents will have far too much time to find an answer, which is what we see play out in games of Commander.

Without a reasonable threat from aggressive strategies, players don’t need to dedicate early resources to defense because they’ll find something better to cast eventually. This leaves players free to focus on early game mana acceleration instead, and pushes the format to its inevitable emphasis on big spells. By contrast, other multiplayer formats require players to consider whether casting a mana rock is better than playing a blocker, since their late game isn’t guaranteed.

A Skewed Metagame

Don’t get me wrong, I like Commander a lot. It’s just that I’m tending to notice how similar games can be, especially in the early parts of the game. Moreover, some common criticisms of the format can be traced back to the players’ starting life total: red and white decks struggle in Commander because the rules of the format are hostile to these colours’ aggressive play style. In constrast, green decks dominate because it’s the best colour at mana acceleration. When players don’t need to worry about damage in the early game, ramp is by far the best strategy, and Commander provides players with an ample buffer to keep them safe. Naturally, if players started the game with only 10 life this would skew the other way, and the metagame would play out very differently.

The rules of Commander aren’t changing any time soon, though; we aren’t suddenly going to start games at 30 life, even if it’s a tempting thought. With a reduced life total, games would be a bit faster, and the early turns wouldn’t always look the same from game to game. Still, players have adapted to Commander’s ramp-focused metagame, and they seem to like having extra time to set up big plays. I don’t really mind the extra time, either; it’s not like there’s only one viable end-game strategy in the format. You can win just as easily with a single massive creature as you can with a flurry of spells… just so long as you pack enough mana rocks to get you there!

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