Formats Unpacked: Commander

How a fan created format allows players to showcase their skills and personality

Hey all,

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OK. Back to Formats Unpacked

Doing the unpacking today is Ricardo Altmann. Ricardo brings Latin tech talent to the world and sometimes works as a freelance screenwriter. You can find him on LinkedIn and IMDB.

Over to Ricardo…

What’s it called?

Commander (originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander or EDH) is an unofficial Magic the Gathering trading card game.

What’s the format?

In a nutshell, a typical Commander game consists of 2 to 6 players, starting with 40 life points and their own deck of one hundred cards.

Each deck consists of one type of legendary creature as its eponymous commander and 99 other unique cards.

Once the game is started, all players take turns attacking each other until there is only one commander left and the game is over.

You can find a more complete rulebook here.

Two people playing cards on a table with cards spread over the table, two large decks and some dice

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Magic the Gathering is a super popular game with millions of players worldwide. There are a number of collectors and professional players looking for powerful or unique cards, which drives the price of some cards up into hundreds of thousands of dollars. That means that to play in official competitive formats, a player must spend a lot of money on the 10 or so cards without which they cannot win. 

What makes Commander different is that, instead of focusing only on winning, the format invites players to express themselves through personalisation and creativity. With over 20,000 unique Magic cards, and some 1,015 possible commanders to choose from, any commander can be played under hundreds of different strategies. With 100 different cards per deck, having one copy of a very powerful card doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. 

To me, the magic of Commander lies in the fact that it is a perfect showcase of a player's skills and personality. After all, some people have been playing this game for 30 years now and Commander allows them to put all that time and experience to use. 

You can build a competitive deck optimized for quick victory, or a more casual deck focused on storytelling or player interaction. There are decks that focus on a theme, such as using only elves or cats as creatures, or cards that reference literary works and characters. There are a lot of players who alter their cards to look like characters from their favourite movies, anime series or video games. There are those who use only cards illustrated by a particular artist they like. 

Someone even built a deck using only badly damaged cards featured in this video, a commentary on the economics of Magic and the true meaning of value. 

I think it is a thing of beauty that a deck of cards can have something resembling a soul.

Two cards, one titled Brallin, Skyshark Rider features a man on a flying shark. Below are detail of its value in the game. The second card features a shark bird and details of its value below

Favourite Commander Card

My favourite commanders are actually two different creatures that play as companions. While one makes me gain one life every time I draw a card, the other does one point of damage to each of my opponents every time I discard a card. So my deck works around this mechanic rather than amassing a large army of creatures to attack my opponents. Besides, what's not to like about a flying shark and its fearless rider?

Similar formats

Other popular TCGs such as Pokèmon or Yu-Gi-Oh have grassroot formats that evoke the spirit of Commander, and DC Comics has a game that allows players to build a deck around one of its main heroes.

Thanks Ricardo.

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Till next time,


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