Today we’re going to wrap up our three-part series about the Commander Rules Committee. If you’ve missed the first two parts of this series, you can read them here and here. I’ve saved this one for last because I think there’s a ton of productive, positive discussion to be had on this aspect of the topic. Today we’re going to talk about the Rules Committee’s efforts to grow the game, and whether their efforts have been a net benefit for the community as a whole.
It might seem strange to talk about growing the format when we’re talking about what’s perhaps the biggest format in all of Magic: the Gathering. The fact that you can sit down at an LGS in Berlin, Tokyo, or Winnipeg and likely find a few people to shuffle up and jam a few games obviously speaks to the fact that the Rules Committee has made a few good decisions in the past. What were they, though, and what made them good decisions?
Attracting New Players
Increasing the number of players that play (or are willing to play) Commander regularly is one of the most important things the Commander Rules Committee has focused on since the format was created. Plenty of formats have flashed in and out of existence in the history of Magic, but they’re doomed from the beginning if there’s nobody to play against. There are some really genuinely creative Magic variants out there, but many of them require you to build a deck specifically for that format. If you can’t convince people to go through the effort of doing it, the people who have already gone through that effort don’t have anyone to play against.
How Has the Rules Committee Attracted New Players?
It’s been really spectacular to watch the growth of the format, because new players — as a rule — learn about Commander’s existence and how to play from other players by word of mouth. The Rules Committee’s role in this (initially, at least) was that they really did build a better mousetrap. Interestingly enough, Commander isn’t the only format that has a good hook. What, then, sets Commander apart from the myriad other niche formats like Horde, Kingdoms, Planechase, Archenemy, Tiny Leaders, and Judge’s Tower?
I read a book a few years back that might help to explain! It’s called Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger.
Berger asserts that some combination of the following elements are generally present in ideas and products that go viral:
Graphic Credit: Paul Marsden, brandgenetics.com. Content can be found on p. 209 of Contagious: Why Things Catch On
Social Currency, Emotion, and Stories
When I think about the rhetoric I’ve seen from the Rules Committee, I think it’s fairly obvious that they put a lot of emphasis on these three points. I don’t know if they’ve ever read this book, but they’re — deliberately or incidentally — engaging in exactly the type of behaviour it recommends. The format’s Philosophy Document has this to say within the first few lines:
That vision is to create variable, interactive, and epic multiplayer games where memories are made, to foster the social nature of the format […] Create games that everyone will love to remember, not the ones you’d like to forget.
The Rules Committee places a lot of emphasis on the emotional reactions people have to in-game events, and players’ desire to tell stories about their experiences. If you’ve followed my column for a while you might think that my proclivity for competitive deckbuilding means that I diverge from the Rules Committee on this point, but you’d be wrong. The tendency to relive games through storytelling is as common in the cEDH community as it is anywhere else. In fact, while drafting UnStable at a Judge Program Christmas party last year, local L1 Ryan Zacharias cast Summon The Pack to open the pack of Avacyn Restored that I brought with me and proceeded to open 9 creatures and an Avacyn, Angel of Hope. I’ll never not tell this story when people are talking about UnStable, because it was awesome and memorable and ridiculous.
(loud video warning)
Beyond storytelling about actual factual games of EDH, for a lot of players (especially older ones like myself), there’s a ton of emotional attachment to specific cards. When I was young, I played my fair share of Shivan Dragons, Royal Assassins, and Lhurgoyfs. A ton of these cards have simply been outclassed by new hotness as the game has evolved, but every time I see them I think back to my slightly modified 4th Edition starter deck that I’d play at lunch hour in grade 5. The variance and “build whatever you want, even if it’s awful” attitude recreates a lot of the playground Magic atmosphere for me, and immediately sucked me into the format. There’s a bit of a thrill that comes from playing a deck that hasn’t been largely “solved” by the online community, coupled with a real focus on playing the cards that you enjoy playing.
Triggers and Practical Value
The Rules Committee’s involvement in product development can’t be understated here. What better way to get people talking about the format than having Wizards of the Coast make products that specifically cater to its playerbase? Commander-specific products get the Magic community buzzing just as much as a Standard or Masters set, and having them behind the counter provides an easy entry point for players looking to break into the format. A decently-cohesive deck with broadly-useful deckbuilding pieces at a reasonable price point is perhaps one of the best ways to communicate that the format is accessible to the uninitiated.
The massive card pool also appeals to people like me, because it allowed me to do something with the giant cache of ancient bulk commons and uncommons I have in a box in my basement — something which most other formats don’t allow me to do. Not only could I use the existing cards in my collection to build a deck, I wouldn’t have to worry about them becoming obsolete like I would with other rotating formats. This allowed me to tweak and learn over time rather than relying on decklists created by other people. Being a non-rotating, eternal format had some real practical value to me and people like me, especially from a collection management standpoint.
The Perfect Recipe?
I’m not going to claim to be an expert on why Commander exploded in popularity. I can tell you that the actions and design of the format appear to have been designed deliberately in a way that gets people excited about playing it, and I feel totally comfortable calling this out as one area where the Rules Committee hit a total home run.
It’s not just enough to grow the format from infancy to adolescence, though. Maintenance of the format ensures that it doesn’t go the way of Tiny Leaders or Frontier, where people may have been quick to try it but lost interest quickly.
Ongoing maintenance of the format takes a few forms:
Monitoring and Reacting to Trends
Magic is a game that can change pretty drastically over time. Players innovate, new cards are introduced, and playstyles evolve. The Rules Committee has the role of tracking player trends such as card choices and deck composition over time, and determining if these trends require any kind of action.
The other change has been the rise in creature power over the past ten years, especially big creatures. We used to have to scrape to find worthy monsters
I wouldn’t even stop at saying that creature power has increased over time. I’d take it one step further and say that Commander deckbuilding has become more sophisticated over time. People have effectively incorporated deckbuilding concepts from other formats such as card advantage and hypergeometric distribution into the conversation. As a result, decks today are considerably more effective than when the playerbase was smaller.
Many of the Rules Committee’s reactions to concerning trends resulted in changes to the banlist. I’m not going to rehash those. If you’re interested in my thoughts on the Rules Committee’s treatment of the banlist, check out part 2 of this series here. Pay particular attention to the sections on Protean Hulk and Prophet of Kruphix.
Communicating to the Playerbase
Forgotten One asks, “How much does the rest of the Rules Committee commiserate with/wish you were in Sheldon’s shoes as the “face” of Commander and all the praise, notoriety, and faceless vitriol that comes with it? It would seem to me that you guys that know him well would have a unique perspective on how one handles such a position.”
If you wanted to design the face of a format, it’d be hard to top Sheldon. He’s outgoing, charismatic, a great storyteller, clear in purpose, and leads from the front. He has thick skin (we all do; it’s a job requirement).
There was a time when I would have laughed at the response to this question, but my experience over the past 2 years writing articles here has somewhat changed my mind. I’ve definitely learned first-hand that when you try to create something, there will always be a group of people looking to tear you down for it. I’ve worked pretty hard on a lot of my own articles, and I think it’s changed my tone significantly when it comes to giving feedback to others on things they’ve obviously worked hard on. I definitely have a lot more admiration for the members of the Rules Committee that choose to put themselves out there for public scrutiny, because I’ve been on the receiving end of a fraction of the criticism that Sheldon has and I haven’t handled it with a fraction of the grace he has.
Andy Belford asks, “Has the Rules Committee considered more high profile community engagement, maybe tapping into podcasts like Commanderin or The Command Zone?”
That’s up to each individual member. Sheldon does a lot of engagement. I already have a pretty high profile elsewhere in Magic, so I’m not going to seek anything out, but I’m always up for a guest spot or an interview.
“Although we don’t yet have the numbers of other Commander podcasts, remember that Anthony Alongi and I have recently started one called Elder Dragon Statesmen: the only Commander podcast with 100 years’ worth of hosts. You can find it here. And like Toby, I’m always happy to go on the good podcasts” -S.
I think this speaks to the level of dedication these people have when it comes to communicating with the playerbase. The linked article starts by outlining some of the non-Commander responsibilities they’ve got. I’ve also had the benefit of learning how much work it is to create and edit written, audio, and video content in the past little while. If you haven’t, you should know that making yourself available for a podcast, video appearance, or interview could potentially involve devoting several hours of what would be your own free time.
I may not always agree with their decisions or rationale, but I can definitely tell you I admire them for voluntarily opening themselves to criticism and scrutiny by consistently engaging the playerbase.
I think it’s worth repeating — the size and ubiquity of the format speak for itself. We know that some combination of the decisions the Rules Committee has made have contributed to its wild success.
Did I miss something that you think was integral to the explosive growth of the Commander playerbase? Do you think growth and promotion is even one of the roles we should expect the Rules Committee to fulfill? Would you have made any decisions differently, given the benefit of hindsight? As always, hit me up in the comments!