It's Wednesday night. Big E, a dick, and everyone's favorite troll are all sitting down to play their weekly game of Paradox poker. Sadly, the Deceiver couldn't make it this week because he was too busy feeding his friends to their teamkilling fucktard brother, and he had the goddamn deck because someone couldn't be trusted not to let this asshole play with it. Then the Emperor remembers a game he once saw one of his minions playing with some of his troops that looked pretty fun. 10,000 years in, around Tzeench's 22nd consecutive turn, good old Cegorach got bored and decided to troll everyone by hopping back to 2011 and let the whole of the human race in on the game. The result: Commander.
Commander, known to oldfags and nerd-hipsters as EDH, is a format of the popular card game Magic: The Gathering. A drastic departure from standard MtG formats, Commander imposes a number of restrictions on decks which in turn require a very different approach to deck building. Originally a homebrew game mode called Elder Dragon Highlander, it was formatted for larger games with more than just two players (though it can be played 1v1 like normal Magic). Because the Commander originated as a fan made format and grew to significant popularity before being adopted as official by Wizards of the Coast, there are widely varied house rules and ban lists which can easily turn the game into something awesome or something that makes you weep blood. If you're going to play Commander, make sure you determine what rules you are going to use before the start of play, lest you cause massive and prolonged arguments leading to butt hurt and potential violence.
Commander is an intensely political game. Constantly shifting alliances and treacherous back stabbing can be expected in any game involving more than two players. Even players who are close friends can rapidly descend into rage when an alliance shifts to prevent them from winning on their next turn, or when they are killed on turn 3 by their opponents because they brought a $15000 deck to the table. This is another key point about Commander: Unlike certain other neckbeard games by some greedy assholes, a good game of commander doesn't require blowing a whole paycheck on game components. While an expensive deck may have incredible power, and $5000 of the best cards in Magic will certainly improve your deck's win-rate in 1v1 games, a couple of opponents with $10 decks with excellent synergy and the right handful of bulk rares and decent uncommons mixed in will almost invariably team up to crush your costs-as-much-as-a-car Spike deck just to make you mad.
So what makes Commander unique enough that players drop the core game entirely to become commander players?
In a commander game, player take control of an army under the command of a legendary creature (or Two if you have partner commanders, but thats just stupid.) Any legendary creature can be named as a deck's Commander, and immediately gets its own special zone (the aptly named Command Zone), where it sits when out of play. With the release of Commander 2014, a specific set of Planeswalkers may now be taken as commanders, in place of a Legendary Creature. These Planeswalkers all clearly state this fact on the card, so don't try to be sneaky.
The Commander restricts the color(s) playable in the deck to those of its color identity. Color identity is best described as any color who's mana symbol appears on the card in question, and a commander's deck can only contain cards with the same color identity.
For example: Rafiq of the Many is a legendary creature with White, Blue and Green mana symbols on the card. His color identity is, therefore, White Blue Green. A player may use any (unbanned) card in a Rafiq deck, so long as it is White, Blue, Green, or some combination of the three, or if it is colorless (artifacts, Eldrazi, etc). His deck may NOT contain any cards on which a Red or Black mana symbol appear. Despite the fact that cards with hybrid mana costs can be played using either of the mana symbols that are part of the hybrid symbols, they still count as both for the color identity and for the purposes of identity-related exclusion. So Rafiq's deck is allowed to use Snakeform or Selesnya Guildmage, because their hybrid mana costs include green and blue and green and white, respectively. It can't use Unmake or Double Cleave, even though their hybrid symbols include white, because they also include colors that Rafiq is not.
An equally confusing case occurs regarding lands. Non-basic lands may have a color identity. This means that an Overgrown Tomb has a color identity of Green Black, and so cannot be included in our Rafiq deck. Basic lands, however, do NOT have a color identity. That said, they may only produce colors of mana which are within your commander's color identity. Any other mana they would produce is colorless. Land names also do not contribute to color identity. A colorless artifact which says "search your library for a Swamp..." may be played in our Rafiq deck, despite the fact that a Swamp would only produce colorless mana!
Confused yet? Don't worry, because here's the best bit! Color words do not give a card color identity. That is, if a card says "Red" or "Black", regardless of context, those words do not specify a color identity for the card. A card which says "Search your library for a Red creature..." can be played in Rafiq's deck despite the fact that the creature you are searching for may not!
A Commander deck provides a slightly different set of construction rules to players, in addition to the color restrictions.
- A Commander deck must contain exactly 100 cards, including the Commander itself.
- A Commander deck may contain no more than one copy of any given card with the exception of basic lands (hence the Highlander aspect of the original name). You may have multiple versions of Ajani (say, Ajani, Caller of the Pride and Ajani Goldmane) but you can only have 1 Ajani Goldmane. There are currently five cards that can skirt around this restriction; Relentless Rats, Rat Colony, Persistent Petitioners, Seven Dwarves, and Shadowborn Apostle.
- A deck may only contain cards which match all or some subset of the Commander's color identity. Cards outside of this color identity may not be played in the deck.
- The Commander format has its own specific ban list. though as it is a casual format and no one has any say over what you do at the kitchen table, you can make your own banlist. These cards are banned in addition to the standard list of globally banned cards (Un- cards). Make sure you check this list before you play, especially if you're new to Commander. If you don't, you'll inevitably encounter the fucktard who plays Biorhythm on turn three to kill everyone, or someone decides to become the fun police in a format that was designed to be non competitive and fun. At the present time, the following cards are banned from Commander (We've also given you a reson why they're banned for context.):
- Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, Mox Emerald, Mox Jet, Mox Pearl, Mox Ruby, Mox Sapphire and Time Walk: Banned for being part of the Power Nine.
- Balance: Banned for being anything but.
- Biorhythm: Banned because it can kill people on turn 3 with enough ramp.
- Braids, Cabal Minion: Banned for Being played on Turn 1-2 and locking the rest of the table out of the game.
- Channel: Banned for too much fast mana.
- Chaos Orb: Banned for overly compicated rules issues.
- Coalition Victory: Banned for being an auto include in all WUBRG decks.
- Emrakul, the Aeons Torn: Banned for being too good a creature to exist in a Very Creature Centric format where there are so many ways to ramp/cheat in creatures.
- Erayo, Soratami Ascendant: Banned for being far too oppresive.
- Falling Star: See Chaos Orb.
- Fastbond: See Channel.
- Flash: Banned for allowing you to cheat out something huge asymmetrically, often ending the game. Also because of Protean Hulk.
- Gifts Ungiven: Banned for being such a powerful tutor.
- Golos, Tireless Pilgrim: Banned for having all the advantages of a five color commander (the ability to cast everything) with none of the disadvantages (needing one mana of each color to cast it), on top of ramping you a land when he enters to make sure you have all five colors to use his ability.
- Griselbrand: See Emrakul, The Aeons torn, And because Kaalia of the Vast was capable of running it at one time (unsuprisingly that was the time when that deck was at its most powerful in the format).
- Hullbreacher: Banned because it can be cast in response to a Wheel of Fortune or similar card to get the caster a shitload of mana while emptying everyone else's hands in the process.
- Iona, Shield of Emeria: Banned for too easily shutting down monocolored decks and generally being a negative experience for everyone on the board.
- Karakas: Banned for bouncing Legendary creatures in a format built around legendary creatures.
- Leovold, Emmisary of Trest: Banned for being far too oppresive, easy to break and overall representing everything commander players do not like.
- Library of Alexandria: Banned for being a powerful draw engine of Vintage strength.
- Limited Resources: Banned for locking down the game oppresively.
- Lutri, the Spellchaser: Has the dubious honor of being banned before even appearing in a set properly because its Companion restriction was literally free in Commander.
- Paradox Engine: Banned for warping the game even without trying to build around it.
- Panoptic Mirror: Banned because of enabling infinite turns with any extra turn spell.
- Primeval Titan: Banned because the ramp it offers is simply too good for Commander. See Inkmoth Nexus and Kessig Wolf Run.
- Prophet of Kruphix: Banned for being run in every blue and green deck, enabling players to dump creatures on their opponents turns.
- Recurring Nightmare: Banned for comboing off with many cards like Survival of the Fittest.
- Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary: Banned for making green decks too fast.
- Shaharazad: Banned for causing headaches and excessive anger.
- Sundering Titan: Banned for being capable of destroying all your opponents lands by blinking it a few times.
- Sway of the Stars: Banned for being a troll card.
- Sylvan Primordial: Banned for being a combination of Sundering Titan and Primeval Titan.
- Time Vault: Banned for enabling infinite turns.
- Tinker: Banned for being the strongest artifact tutor and being capable of cheating in  artifact creatures.
- Tolarian Academy: Banned for enabling insane amounts of mana with cards like over Matter and Mycosynth Lattice.
- Trade Secrets: Banned for letting players draw their entire decks.
- Upheaval: See Sway of the Stars.
See Sway of the Stars.LOL UNBANNED!
- Yawgmoth's Bargain: Banned for being a better version of Necropotence.
Furthermore, the following cards from the Un-sets are banned in Commander as well:
- Ashnod's Coupon: Dubious legality of action on card.
- Double Cross, Double Deal, Double Dip, Double Play, Double Take and Time Machine: Messes with other games.
- Enter the Dungeon: Shaharazad 2.0
- Magical Hacker: Too much utility.
- Mox Lotus: Grants you infinite mana.
- Once More With Feeling: The original Sway of the Stars.
- R&D's Secret Lair: Breaks all cards with erratas.
- Richard Garfield, Ph.D.: Way too much utility.
- Staying Power: Breaks every card that uses turns to determine their effects.
The following cards have been banned in all formats, to the point of removing them from the Gatherer, because Wizards of the Coast wanted to look like it was doing something to fight racism. Yes, the reason is that stupid.
- Invoke Prejudice: Actually has guys dressed up like the KKK in the art so some people might get legit butthurt about that.
- Cleanse: Because bathing is racist or patriarchy or something
- Stone-Throwing Devils: Because only blacks throw stones at things I guess
- Pradesh Gypsies: Supposedly a racist term for an ethnic group, even though that term is what they themselves use... also, Moorish Cavalry are totes fine, even though the Moors are also a real-world ethnicity.
- Crusade: There are 21 cards with "Crusade" somewhere in the name (Angelfire Crusader, Aysen Crusader, Cathar's Crusade, Dralnu's Crusade...). This was the only one that got banned.
- Jihad: But the card "Army of Allah" is fine because fuck logic
- Imprison: There are 12 MtG cards with "prison" in the name (Amber Prison, Icy Prison, Prison Term, etc.). This was the only one that got banned.
- Players start with 40 life.
- Damage dealt to a player by a Commander counts as Commander Damage (formerly known as General Damage). If any one commander ever deals 21 damage to a single player, that player immediately loses regardless of their life total. It is important to note that each commander tracks damage to each player separately. This means that if two players deal 15 and 6 Commander damage to a third player separately, the third player does not lose, even if both of the first two players control the same commander or one player clones his commander.
The Command Zone
- Each commander has his own special Command Zone. This is in essence the same as the Removed From The Game zone, or the Really Fucking Removed From The Game Forever zone. Creatures other than a commander cannot be sent to the Command Zone, and only the commander who started in a specific command zone may be sent to that Command Zone.
- A commander starts in his Command Zone at the beginning of a game. It can be cast from this zone as if it were in its owner's hand, but may not be targeted by other players while it is in the Command Zone.
- If a commander would leave the battlefield by any means (be it bounce, exile, destroy, sac, death, or even tucking), it can be put into the Command Zone instead of being placed into wherever it would have gone. When this happens, the commander gets a "flag", an imaginary marker that denotes the number of times the commander has been sent to the command zone as an alternative to death or removal. A commander can be recast from the Command Zone, but the owner must pay 2 additional colorless mana for each flag on the commander. A commander does NOT gain a flag if its owner chooses to place it in the graveyard as any other creature would be.
The Bad Rules
Due to the nature of Commander, the games tend to be slower and more heavily based around pulling hilarious bullshit rather than formulaically winning every game on turn 3 or 4 with the same combo. Unfortunately, because Wizards in their infinite wisdom decided to only carry over some rules from the homebrew, you can still pull complete bullshit and induce tons of rage. Examples include:
- Thieves' Auction is still legal.
- The fact that players die on 10 poison counters, despite having double life.
- Felidar Sovereign's life total win condition is unchanged, despite having double life.
- Serra Ascendant starts out at full power because players have double life.
Noticing a pattern yet? Things like this lead players rapidly to create their own...
Most house rules are made for the purpose of correcting shitty rules. A player at the author's LGS often stated these as "rules which increase the fun factor of the game, or remove an un-fun factor". Terrible use of the English language, but still a valid point. Commander is meant to be primarily a fun format played with friends over beer and pizza with the intent of causing copious amounts of rage and maximizing the level of bullshit which can occur. To this end, here are some of the common house rules for Commander:
Far and away the most common house rule in Commander is that all life total requirements, and the total number of poison counters necessary to kill a player, are doubled. This prevents assholes from playing a Blightsteel Colossus on turn three (with haste and sac-at-the-end-of-turn, of course) to kill a player before the game has really gotten under way. This isn't fun, it isn't clever, it's just a dick move and everyone hates That Guy. This rule also removes the need to house-ban cards like Felidar Sovereign and Serra Ascendant, because they will require double the life total to "go off".
A less common version of this rule also doubles set life totals for certain other cards. The examples of this include Sorin and Magister Sphinx, which canonically both set a player's life total to 10, setting their life total to 20 instead. This prevents dickery on a similar scale to the aforementioned Blightsteel incident, where a player can be almost completely taken out of the game in the first few turns by cheating an artifact into play temporarily. However, since this does not literally remove the player like Blightsteel, it is less common as a house rule.
Commonly, players will ban commanders they feel are particularly stupid in nature. These are usually commanders who force an entire play group to collectively and drastically alter their play style in order to avoid being beaten every time. While some feel that this is in a way the point of MtG, others feel that if an entire group has to respond by heavily altering their decks to deal with your one recastable creature, that creature needs a ban. Another common policy is to change the type assigned to a card by making a non-legendary card legendary, or to ban/unban cards that players feel should/should not be on the banned cards list:
- Platinum Angel was a common card which was assigned legendary status prior to the M14 Legendary Rule change, since having multiple Platinum Angels on the battlefield at once literally stalemates a game.
- Hinder is often banned in play groups which contain a Uril, the Miststalker deck as players feel that it is used specifically to target their deck.
- The Nephilim cycle of creatures were often assigned pseudo-legendary status to make them usable as commanders. Prior to Commander 2016, they were the only four-color creatures in Magic, and there is only one per four-color wedge. Combine this with the fact that each has a cost of four specified, different colors, and players tend to feel that they are valid for use as legendary creatures.
- Like the Nephilim above, some more casual playgroups will allow you to run certain non-creature legendary permanents as your commander, like Genju of the Realm, a legendary WUBRG aura enchantment that turns one of your lands into a creature, or double faced cards like Elbrus/Withengar and Westvale Abbey/Ormendahl which are not truly legendary creatures, due to the front facing side not being legendary, or even a creature.
- Some particularly butthurt play groups ban Aura Shards because they are scared of a little enchantment-based enchantment destruction. That said, it is a very powerful card if used correctly, and if you're a reasonable player who doesn't ban it, you should be prepared to kill it the moment it his the field. Did we mention that Slivers have their own version of it? another reason why Sliver Overlord is feared by every other deck in the format including itself.
- Play groups with particularly deep pockets sometimes unban power-nine cards from their play groups in order to speed games by improving their ability to pull massive bullshit.
- Eventually if your play group is in to the trickery and dickery aspect of Commander as much as many, someone will also convince you all to unban Shaharazad. DO NOT DO IT. Playing a commander sub-game may sound fun, but by the 5th hour of continuous Commander sub-games on that player's every turn, you'll end up so angry that even his honorable angryness will be impressed.
The Many Deck Archetypes and Themes
If you've read all of the above and thought to yourself, "Hey, this seems kinda fun, but I don't know where to start," then don't worry! Here's a list of some of the common deck archetypes that you can build and will often encounter as you start playing commander. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and many themes tend to bleed into each other depending on how you build your deck.
- Artifact: Artifact decks focus on filling their deck with powerful artifacts, either to Storm off and annihilate the opposition in one fell swoop, or to build up value over time. (EX: Urza, Lord High Artificer)
- Enchantment: Enchantment decks focus on enchantments, using cards that let you draw more cards by playing enchantments. From there, you can either accrue so much value that no one can keep up with you, or you can stick a bunch of auras on your commander and ko players that way. (EX: Xur, the Enchanter)
- Spellslinger: Decks that focus on throwing out instants and sorcerers turn after turn after turn, usually to Storm off with a ton of free mana. (EX: Kykar, Wind's Fury)
- Superfriends: Decks chock full of sticky Planeswalkers that accrue value turn after turn, and then blow their ultimates to win the game outright. Infamous for being really hard to build on a budget because all of the good walkers tend to be played in other formats. (EX: Will Kenrith)
- Persistent Petitioners/Rat Colony/Relentless Rats/Shadowborn Apostle: All four of those cards have a line of text that says you can have any number of this card in your deck. Find a commander in the color, and then jam in as many copies of the card as you can. Balance with some support cards and other synergy cards and you can make a relatively cheap deck. (EX: Marrow-Gnawer)
- Artistocrats: Decks that reward you for sacrificing your own creatures, usually by doing damage, drawing cards, or killing creatures. (EX: Teysa Karlov)
- Voltron: Voltron decks are focused on beefing up one creature (often the commander) to deal obscene amounts of damage. This is done by using a ton of equipment, auras, and combat tricks, while also protecting them from targeted removal and board wipes. (EX: Feather, the Redeemed)
- Mill: Decks loaded with things that send other cards to the graveyard/exile. It may seem hard to do at first, since everyone has a 100 card deck. But with enough value and staying power, you can definitely make it happen. Once your opponents figure out what you're doing though, expect to get piled on. (EX: Phenax)
- Group-Hug/Politics: A weird deck that involves making deals and using symmetrically beneficial effects to become This Guy. You may be wondering how the hell you're supposed to win with a deck like this, considering you do nothing for most of the game but help everyone else. Well, because you're helping everyone else equally, no one will want to target you, because you are ultimately helping everyone else accelerate towards the endgame. Everyone will tear each other apart, leaving you unscathed. Then, once it is just you and one other dude, you wipe the board with a sweeper effect and lay into them using all of the value that you made. At least, that's how it works in theory. (EX: Kynaios and Tiro)
- Stax/Prison Decks: The opposite of the Group-Hug deck. Instead of helping everyone, you exist only to be a massive pain in the ass for everyone else at the table. No one will be able to play spells, hold onto cards, or even hold onto their permanents for very long. You want to see the world burn, and everyone will hate you for playing this. It is highly recommended that you talk to your playgroup before you bring one of these decks to the table, lest you become That Guy. (EX: Augustin the Fourth)