Thursday, November 6, 2014

Commander 2011 Retrospective

With the release of Commander 2014, I have been considering how far WotC’s design team has come since the first ever Commander product, the five original Commander decks released in 2011. That release was monumental, in way no one expected. It caused the popularity of the format to explode – don’t get me wrong, EDH (as it was originally called) was already growing rapidly, which is how we got an official release targeted just at us. But the release and popularity of the decks had players flocking to our format in droves, like never before. It brought the EDH/Commander format truly into the mainstream. The product was so successful, at least in terms of sales and demand, that WotC would later decide to make a new set of Commander decks every year, and at least as of now the format itself seems to be going strong with no signs of slowing any time soon.

Commander 2011’s success was so great that, in my opinion at least, even regular sets seemed to be impacted by it. We started getting a noticeable influx of crazy, splashy mythics and even rares that seemed to be designed with at least a nod towards EDH. Would we still have gotten stuff like Griselbrand, the Primordials, the Praetors or Primal Surge, had Commander been such a massive success? Sure, probably, yeah… but would we have been getting them at such a high rate, set after set? Probably not. True staple-worth EDH cards used to come along only every so often, one or two cards per block at most. Stuff like Consecrated Sphinx almost never happened.

It was great of WotC to start taking EDH into consideration and attempts to cater to us were not entirely unappreciated. It’s just that there seemed to be a general feeling that WotC’s designers didn’t quite get EDH well enough. Some cards were just grossly overpowered (Prime Time, Sphinx, Griselbees), others were just splashy in a very bad way (Worldfire). And then, looking back at the earliest Commander-specific cards, I feel like there was a bit of pandering going on there – it was as if a bunch of Spike-ish players were asked to design cards they though us “casuals” would find fun, and multiplayer “political” cards that were just a little too on-the-nose. Join Forces, for example, seems like a very trite, misguided attempt at forcing “politics” to happen, but whoever designed the mechanic simply didn’t have a good enough grasp on why politics matter in a multiplayer game, and more importantly, what makes politics fun at times and unfun at other times. But that’s not to say they got it all wrong – Edric, Spymaster of Trest, for example, was and still is one of the all-time greatest politically-minded designs.

Tempting Offer, in C13 was a better attempt, but largely failed to connect as well (though in both cases, the Green spell – a ramp spell – is the only one I saw getting played six or so weeks after release). Conspiracy, a multiplayer draft set, had the Will of the Council, Parley, and Dethrone, all of which are much better attempts at distilling the multiplayer experience down into keyword form. Though those three mechanics do have their issues, in all fairness they were designed more for 20-life limited formats, not 40-life constructed games. And finally, we come to C14 which seems to have abandoned trying to force the whole politics-oriented keyword in favor of looser, broader mechanics. We have the Offering cycle, and a few random cards like Crown of Doom and Bitter Feud.

In short it seems as if WotC is figuring out that politics are just a thing that happens in multiplayer games, but most players don’t want it crammed down their throats, and the best cards at influencing politics are the more subtle ones, not the overt. They’ve also reigned in their splashy mythics a bit. We haven’t had a Worldfire or Griselbrand since, well, Worldfire and Griselbrand. The point of all of this is, WotC is getting better at designing cards for us and that’s a good thing. I can’t say they’ve perfected their technique yet – they have ways to go still. But the improvements are clearly visible in this new Commander set, Conspiracy, and Khans of Tarkir. They will make mistakes from time to time (Prophet of Kruphix anyone?), but who doesn’t?

Anyway, I thought it’d be fun to look back at the new cards that were exclusive to Commander 2011 and see how many of them have impacted the format. Basically a retrospective review of what worked and what didn’t about the very first official Commander-specific product. There are those cards that look cool at first but don’t play out as hoped, and then there are the sleeper hits, cards that prove better than they initially appeared. Bombs and duds… looking back, what cards from C11 truly had lasting impact and which were flashes in the pan?

Keep in mind almost every card on this list will have its fans. I realize that, but this is based on my personal experiences, what I’ve read online and seen on the various forums, and just good old fashioned opinion. So if I dis a card you still play, don’t take it personally. It’s cool to like cards no one else does! Again, this isn’t based on hard data, this is just a combination of my own impressions of a card, plus my impression of what the format as a whole thinks about a card. Results may vary.

We’ll start with the Legends. These are going to naturally have a higher impact than the other cards because Legends are cool, and these are “wedge” Legends which at the time were excruciatingly rare and had very, very few options.

Kaalia of the Vast
Tariel, Reckoner of Souls
Zedruu, the Great-hearted
Ruhan of the Fomori
The Mimeoplasm
Damia, Sage of Stone
Ghave, Guru of Spores
Karador, Ghost Chieftain
Riku of Two Reflections
Animar, Soul of the Elements
Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter
Nin, the Pain Artist
Skullbriar, the Walking Grave
Bassandra, Battle Seraph
Edric, Spymaster of Trest
Almost every card on this list has some degree of playability and even Bassandra, my pick for the worst card on this list, has her fans to this day. That said, some are clearly better or more impactful than others. If I had to pick the one card I think deserves to be called “best” I’d probably have to pick Edric. Sure he has a black mark to his name, being banned in the French 1v1 variation of EDH, but other than that, I think he’s got the best blend of fun, power, uniqueness, popularity and as I mentioned he’s still one of the few success stories from WotC’s early attmepts at designing blatantly political cards.

But there are plenty of cards in this list that have definitely impacted the format for better or worse. Kaalia for example is insanely popular, and yet I don’t know a single person who is still even the slightest bit excited to see her. Her fans are wildly devoted, but her detractors are equally as passionate in their loathing for her. Several of these Legends – Animar and Riku in particular – look cool on paper and are pretty fun to play, but quickly established themselves as “MUST KILL NOW OR WE ALL DIE!” threats and as such became much less fun to play. Karador, Mimeplasm, Damia – all can be fun, fair commanders, but rarely are, and usually get popped on sight just to be safe.

A few are more middle-tier. Vish Kal and Ruhan get unfairly passed over a lot, and they’re better than most people think, but even their ardent fans wouldn’t begin to compare them to something like, say, the Mimeoplasm. Speaking of, the Ooze himself is probably the first Legend in the set to wear out his welcome, quickly becoming the most ubiquitous and predicable of the new crop of commanders, though over time it Kaalia that replaced him.

Then there are the duds. Bassandra, Skullbriar, Nin, and Tariel are definitely the bottom-ranking four. Again, I’m sure they have their admirers, but the format as a whole seems to have taken one look at these and said “no, thanks!”. I myself and partial to Skullbriar, though I still have not actually gotten around to building around him! Tariel just costs too much. Bassandra hoses too many of her own color’s best tricks… I mean, who wants to build a Boros deck with zero combat magic? Nin actually got quite a bit of love initially – she’s unique and interesting and a nice rack, so that was a given, but the number of actual Nin decks out there in the wild? Very few.

Very few of these offerings seemed to hit that “sweet spot” of being good enough to appeal to a wide audience but not so overpowered as to draw the ire of everyone else in the playgroup. Ghave, I think hits that spot, though he obviously can be a combo monster if you want to go there. But he’s pretty much THE ultimate token-deck commander. Edric, of course is in the same boat- exploitable if you really want to be That Guy, but perfectly fair if you are a fair player. Damia, Zedruu and The Mimeoplasm all also seem to fit this bill. Each of them has the potential to ruin games, but aren’t inherently so busted that you accidentally become the funwrecker just for playing them.

All in all, it’s a pretty mixed bag, but between the overpowered guys and the underpowered ones, there aren’t too many left standing as individual successes. Only a handful appear to have had a lasting and positive impact on the format.

Now we get to look at the non-Legendary new cards that C11 introduced into the format. There were a LOT of them, but in the end, only a few would go on to become enduring staples of the format. We’ll start with those. The all-stars. The unqualified successes.

Command Tower
Hydra Omnivore
Homeward Path
Hornet Queen
Chaos Warp
Scavenging Ooze
Spell Crumple

Right off the bat, we get Command Tower, pretty much the most obvious staple-to-be on the list, and one of the most universally playable lands in the format. Following that, I’d say Scavenging Ooze is probably the most ubiquitous of non-Land card introduced in this set. It’s only flaw was that it ended up being good in competitive formats and drove the price way, way up, but it is a card I would run in literally every deck I have, if I could. Easily one of the best and most lasting cards of the set. The others – Chaos Warp, Hydra Omnivore, Spell Crumple, Hornet Queen and Homeward Path are all very fantastic cards that probably deserve more play than they get. I don’t personally see Spell Crumple much as my group shuns countermagic, but I see it in online lists a lot, and the same holds true for the rest. In short these cards don’t suck.

This next batch of cards are the role-players – good in the right decks but not widely playable. They have had some impact but not a lot. You’ll see them occasionally out in the wild, but only in decks where they fit a theme or have synergy that makes them better than they normally would be.

Sewer Nemesis               
Death By Dragons
Collective Voyage
Martyr’s Bond
The Vow Cycle
Magmatic Force
Mana-Charged Dragon
Collective Voyage is the only one of the Join Forces cards that didn’t totally fall flat on its face. And I realize I put the Dragon on the list but that gets it’s minor amount of play from being a Dragon with Trample (a more rare combination than you’d think –believe me, I checked!), but basically no one ever pays into the Join Forces. But I’ve run it myself in Stonebrow (because Trample) and Karrthus (Because dragon), and it was fine. Martyr’s Bond should have been an all-star but that six-mana price tag was just too hefty and that killed it. There are still decks that want it, but many more that want it but not badly enough to pay the CMC. Magmatic Force is pretty much the only one out of this cycle that doesn’t suck majorly, and even it is pretty janky – but again, I’ve seen a few decks make good use of it, but no too many. Death By Dragons is basically a Karrthus staple that’s terrific in that deck, and unplayable everywhere else. Finally, we have the vows, which seemed cool at first, turned out to be awful, then later people started finding little uses for them here or there. Again, they’re role-players – most decks want absolutely nothing to do with them, but the occasional exception does happen.

Then there’s Stranglehold, which is less deck-dependent than it is meta-dependent. It’s fine for some groups that want to do broken things and need some hate cards to slow them down, but in a fair group this is just stiflingly unfun and annoying. Nothing wrong with hosing infinite turns or an overreliance on tutors, but screwing over a perfectly fair deck’s Wood Elves is almost never conducive to a fun game.

And so now we come to the list of shame. The resounding duds of the set. Again, even these will, to some degree, have made a player or two happy, but as for current-day relevance the format? Basically, nil.
Archangel of Strife
Alliance of Arms
Champion’s Helm
Acorn Catapult
Avatar of Slaughter
Celestial Force
Trench Gorger
Crescendo of War
Dread Cacodemon
Syphon Flesh
Minds Aglow
Scythe Specter
Soul Snare
Shared Triumph
Tribute to the Wild

Some of these I literally had forgotten even existed! Champion’s Helm? What? Soul Snare? LOL. Some of these cards I like: Scythe Specter, Archangel of Strife, Riddlekeeper – these are cards I have tried over and over to find a good home for, and even the decks that should have obviously made good use of them, they just underperformed time after time. I’d love to see Crescendo of War be good, but try as I might it just ain’t happening. Then there were cards that were obviously terrible from the beginning. Syphon Flesh, Dread Cacodemon, Trench Gorger… Basically all of these would go one to disappoint us, if they weren’t already DOA to begin with. In time, some of these may become playable – some new card or mechanic offers up a previously-unavailable synergy or whatever. But as of right now, you just flat out don’t see any of these getting played.

So, in retrospect it seems as if, on a card-by-card basis, the Commander 2011 product didn’t have that much impact on the game. There were far, far more flops than hits in the lists above. However, the impact was undeniably massive; though it came not from the individual cards themselves, but from the concept of the set as a whole. It was a game-changer, literally. Cards like Command Tower set new precedents and opened new design space. It gave us access to tons of reprints like Sol Ring and Lightning Greaves. It introduced thousands of new players to the format and gave them fairly decent entry points. And it showed WotC that demand was there for products aimed at us EDH/Commander players – even if the execution wasn’t terrific, the concept itself was just too compelling, too awesome to pass up. And as WotC learns from their early misfires and miscalculations, we should continue to see a rise in the quality of these casual-aimed, multiplayer-focused products.

I look forward to doing a similar hindsight critique of C13 and C14 in a couple of years. See if my musings really do hold up, and that their designs are getting better and more playable with each iteration. Let’s hope!

Until then, enjoy!

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