Strixhaven features some of the best Commander designs we’ve seen in an official Magic product. But who are Wizards designing for? Today, I attempt to dig into Strixhaven and Commander 2021 to find the answers.
Let’s Talk About the Precons
Before we get into the nitty gritty of card design, it’s probably best to take a moment to savor the preconstructed decks from Commander 2021.
The community’s response to the decks has been overwhelmingly positive. From the joy of discovering new cards that help different archetypes improve, to the lack of filler cards, to the ability to identify and enjoy the college that fits, there’s little to dislike.
The biggest indication of the quality of these decks is in how well-tuned they are. I’ve played plenty of games with the Lorehold Legacies deck now (check out my upgrade guide here, by the way), and it’s safe to say that my opinion of preconstructed decks has never been higher. They’re competent and synergistic, run well, and feel strong.
Given that Wizards has been designing cards for the format for many years now, the fact the precon decks have matured into something so consistent is cause for celebration. While it’s true they’ve been designing cards for the format, it might only be in 2021 that we can truly understand how they are designing for the format itself. You need only look to the fact that Commander Rules Committee founder Sheldon Menery was part of the design team for Commander 2021 to see that Wizards has stepped things up a notch.
Who Is Wizards Designing For?
If you’ve ever played an Un-set, you might have noticed the player avatars that have been printed in each set.
These avatars represent a series of psychographic profiles that have emerged to exemplify different types of Magic players. It would be banal of me to reiterate the descriptions of these profiles for the sake of it, so I’d advise you instead check out the article by Mark Rosewater which introduces them.
Wizards uses these profiles — or at least, versions of them that have no doubt evolved over the years — to influence their design process and ensure that they are delivering cards that the rich diversity of Magic players will enjoy. These profiles help designers ask questions about what a player’s motivations are; what kinds of cards they enjoy; what might motivate them to keep playing.
Rosewater states that “The point of a psychographic is to try to understand the psychological motivation behind why a person enjoys what they enjoy. It’s not about the ‘what’, but the ‘why’.”
Though it’s entirely feasible to work out which cards from Strixhaven might appeal to each of the original psychographics, I’m not convinced they’re still fit for purpose, at least when it comes to Commander. I’m not convinced that the “why” that Mark is looking for can be found in the same way when it comes to a social multiplayer format with competing ideologies.
Part of why this might be the case is because of how the original psychographics were designed with 1v1 formats in mind, sure. Another part is the outdated naming approach, which is honestly not fit for purpose. While it has admittedly been at least updated to nod to the fact that people of all genders play the game, it’s still not as inclusive as it could be, and sits behind a layer of obscurity that requires understanding to process. If I say to someone uninitiated that they’re a Timmy, they won’t know what I mean, will they?
I’d say the other large part for me, though, is how there is currently a divide between the psychographic profiles and the “aesthetic profiles”.
“The aesthetic profiles represent how players can find beauty in the game. The label of “Vorthos” or “Mel” simply means you are high enough on the scale that you use the term to self-identify where you find beauty. It is possible to be both a Vorthos and a Mel, or to be neither. Also, being a Vorthos and/or a Mel doesn’t necessarily impact your psychographic, because each one can be applied alongside the aesthetic scale.”– Mark Rosewater, Vorthos & Mel
To me, this divide seems a little arbitrary. You can be both a big Vorthos fan and a dirty combo player, but I think it’s less likely that these areas exist harmoniously when it comes to enjoying the Commander format. It’s much more likely that they are, in fact, competing in the same space. If we follow that thought to its logical conclusion, then we can also suppose that this extends to Commander card design, too.
We Need New Profiles
It might seem like I’m approaching this backwards, but I think we need new profiles. Far be it from me to assume what’s going on in R&D, but I can absolutely see that Wizards are designing for certain demographics, and that they do so consistently. Furthermore, those demographics aren’t as clear cut as the original psychographic profiles, and I think we can do a little work to arrive at a clearer place.
Without further ado, here’s what I came up with:
Artisans are the players that make up the largest proportion of the Commander player base. They enjoy getting the best out of their decks, and will generally keep their deck built up if it brings them joy. They’re also very likely to enjoy the iterative, emergent development of their decks, and part of their joy stems from the deck building process — which they might enjoy as much as the game itself!
Artisans like to play on an even footing and enjoy the game. For them, the experience is best when it’s a “Goldilocks” experience: a nice amount of interaction without being oppressive; few to no infinite combos, at least not early in the game; the combat step matters. They have an ideal game length and playstyle, often achieved through regular play with a close playgroup.
Artisans also have a real appreciation for flavor, and will often include pet cards or flavorful choices in their decks purely to satisfy their creative and often Vorthos-parallel mindset. They are most likely to choose basic lands that have significant meaning to their deck, and customize it with matching sleeves and deck box.
For Artisans, matching power level and intention is the single most important goal outside of deck building. They’re able to shift between playing “optimally” in a cutthroat way and playing more casually, and have decks for every occasion. That said, they do play to win, and their ideal win is often found in matching their unique approach to deck building with flawless sequencing and gameplay. As long as they’ve tried their best, they’re happy.
Artisans match up most with Johnny/Jenny because they are invested. As Mark Rosewater says, “Playing Magic is an opportunity for Johnny to show off his creativity.”
Strixhaven Artisan Cards
The types of cards that excite Artisans are the ones that can help them squeeze a little more juice out of their decks. Archaeomancer’s Map, for instance, is a boon to all white decks, and gives them a bit more oomph when it comes to efficiency. This card is exciting for an Artisan, and they’re likely to pick up multiple copies in the hopes of having their decks out on the tuning bench.
Artisans also appreciate elegant designs that offer options for redundancy. They like to compare cards and figure out whether one has 5% over the other for their build, but not in the same way that more competitive players do. Curiosity Crafter is an excellent example of one of these cards. It has two effects that blue players want, on a permanent type that hasn’t had them before. Artisans will enjoy comparing this to the likes of Bident of Thassa, Kindred Discovery and Thought Vessel, before slamming it into a Bird tribal deck like there was any other option.
Artisans love cards that let them showboat while “turning the corner”. Though they can and do appreciate splashy plays, they won’t overdo it, instead preferring safer plays with less chance of going wrong. They prefer ETB creatures where possible, and as such, Artisans will gravitate toward cards like Inkshield, which offer a great 2-for-1 blowout that helps them close a game.
Finally, Artisans love seeing relevant abilities on cards that fit into archetypes or tribes. A card like Angel of the Ruins will have an Artisan excited; it’s a great pickup for both flicker decks and Angel decks.
Revelers are the players who sit down to play Commander primarily because it’s a way to have fun with friends. Winning is often the last thing on their minds, and when they do try to win? It has to be in the most spectacular way possible. If someone foils their plan, they better do it in the most insulting and dangerous way possible. A Reveler will love the idea that someone could copy their Torment of Hailfire or other game-ending spell, and relish the idea that someone might try.
One distinct type of Reveler is the “group hug” player — but not all group hug players are Revelers. Playing cards that help accelerate a game by giving extra resources or cards is something a Reveler loves to do, even outside of group hug decks. A Vernal Equinox or Mana Flare can make for very interesting and explosive gameplay with way more interaction, and Revelers appreciate how that can often make for a memorable experience. They’re also more likely to play decks like Marisi, Breaker of the Coil or Queen Marchesa.
As opposed to Artisans — who prefer to play with the least amount of variance and chance, and who rely on threat assessment and player skill — Revelers enjoy the inherent chaos of Magic. They will often choose political cards, cards that help them team up against an Archenemy, cards that can help other players, or cards that dictate the pace of the game.
Revelers aren’t always a distinct player type, either. They can be taken by the mood, much like Gallia of the Endless Dance. A lot of players have one deck, for instance, that indulges this side of them, and they can sometimes find themselves swept up in the moment.
A lot of players include certain Reveler cards because they personally find them fun or chaotic, without them being “bad” plays. For instance, using a Volcanic Offering not only as an efficient removal spell, but also to sow discontent and deflect the spotlight.
Revelers are also most likely to try and deflect the attention from a player in last place, or deliberately save a player from a knockout. It might be because they feel the other player hasn’t had a chance to experience their deck and it seems premature, but it might equally be because it’s just damn funny to interfere in combat.
Revelers line up most closely with Timmy/Tammy. They want to perform big, splashy plays, enjoy the greatest amount of variance, and create a memorable experience. They want each player at the table to achieve something with their deck before the game ends, and will often interfere in attempts to win the game in wild and wacky ways. As Mark Rosewater says, “Timmy wants to experience something.”
Revelers are also more likely to want to Rule Zero to include silver-bordered cards or commanders.
Strixhaven Reveler Cards
A card like Wandering Archaic speaks to a Reveler because it’s a way to make a game more interesting, but also a way to help out a player lagging behind on the reverse. Revelers love to copy spells and make gameplay more of a minefield, and cards like this help them achieve the heady thrills of living in the danger zone.
Breena is a perfect commander for a Reveler. It’s not absurdly powerful, nor does it push a tribe or archetype. Instead, it proposes a question: how can you dictate the pace of the game, and to whom can you tie your puppet strings? Breena isn’t the kind of commander an Artisan would enjoy, but a Reveler could get a real kick out of building something tricksy and fun.
Tempting Contract is right up a Reveler’s street. Though other player types might dismiss this card as being a dead end — particularly because everyone is wise to Tempt with Discovery by now — a Reveler sees an opportunity to engage in some good old-fashioned table politics. Even if the card is all upside for the player casting it, the Reveler is most looking forward to the debates in-game, and the inevitable tipping point when the floodgates open, spilling forth a tide of treasure.
Athletes are players who get their kicks from demonstrating their play skill, their deck building prowess, and their knowledge of the format. They like to play to win, they expect each player to be on the same page, and they care less about the social contract. It isn’t that they don’t care about it at all — it’s just that it comes second to winning.
Athletes do, however, care about competing with other Athletes. Competitive EDH (or cEDH) players make up a lot of the Athlete player base, and just like an Athlete, they have little interest in showing off by facing non-competitors and rookies.
Athletes value the exploration of the format, and the exploration of how the format evolves. They like to brew and play with full transparency, and they get a lot of joy out of analyzing the ins and outs of certain lines of play. They’re often happy to go off on a tangent to test those possibilities with the rest of the table.
Athletes love to play on the stack. While combat might matter to the other player types, it matters less to Athletes, who see it as more of a means to an end rather than the core of gameplay.
Athletes also value helping and teaching other players to grow, and their goal is to level the playing field. The thought of another player having an easier time because they own an expensive card might be something to debate for the other players, but to an Athlete, it’s an abhorrent thought.
A lot of Athletes probably enjoy Constructed formats, and where other players might see Commander as a way to take a break from that level of gameplay, Athletes instead see the challenge in translating their skills to a multiplayer environment. Watching Reid Duke and Melissa DeTora on Game Knights is a masterclass of the Athletic approach outside of cEDH.
Athletes naturally match up most closely to Spikes, who like to win and have no qualms about learning and adapting others’ work. Unlike Artisans, they might not be as attached to a deck, preferring instead to playtest many builds. A Reveler and an Athlete may find it hard to play together — you can’t mix alcohol and training, after all.
Strixhaven Athlete Cards
Culling Ritual is a great example of a card an Athlete gets excited about. Athletes are obsessed with efficiency, and getting the most bang for their buck. While an Artisan might prefer something modal, and a Reveler might prefer something equalizing, an Athlete just wants to feel like they spent their mana in the best way possible. Culling Ritual does this, and helps clear the ground of utility creatures and mana rocks essentially for free. This card has similar variance to Dockside Extortionist, and is similarly powerful where that card is.
Rushed Rebirth is another card an Athlete will find exciting. Athletes often run linear decks with toolbox answers, and Rushed Rebirth satisfies the Athlete’s goal to always have an answer and always be progressing to a win at a high velocity.
Athletes are also not shy about running hatebears. Athletes see the need to slow a game down, mostly because they play at the highest level, where games can be very quick. Strict Proctor is a very interesting design that hoses the midrange value at the center of the Commander metagame, and it’s a card an Athlete will immediately evaluate for use.
The final profile I’d like to cover is that of the Explorer. Explorers have a voracious appetite for novelty, and are always looking for their next fix. They don’t rest, and often spend time trawling through old cards to look for niche effects and underplayed synergies.
Explorers are most at home when getting to take part in the emergence of a new archetype or strategy, such as Feather, the Redeemed. Explorers might enjoy different types of gameplay in the same way as an Artisan, but their true calling is in filling in the corners of the map.
Explorers derive joy whenever an opponent asks to read their cards, and whenever they get to share their experience. Like an Artisan, that joy might stem from being complimented on their choice of basic lands, but it goes far, far deeper, and is anchored in demonstrating the hidden potential of oft-forgotten cards.
Explorers love deck building challenges, and will often suggest fun ideas to their playgroups. They might also build a Commander Cube or battle box, and value the process of finding new ways to experience the rich tapestry of Commander.
Explorers are also big on trying to make less viable commanders work, or trying to force underplayed archetypes and strategies behind unconventional commanders. When they play combos, they like to assemble ones that have at least four moving pieces, and they might shy away from tutors. They want their opponents to be able to interact, but they want to present a challenge: how should they interact, and when?
Explorers love nothing more than when a new commander or keyword opens up new pathways of exploration. Whether that’s getting to use an entire swathe of underplayed cards or just unlocking a sweet sub-theme or strategy in an existing build, they’re keen to ride the wave and pioneer new approaches.
Explorers are closest to the aesthetic profile Mel, the mechanic player. They live for interactions between mechanics and the rich history of card and color pie design. They also converge with aspects of the other psychographic profiles, but with an overriding yearning for discovery that leans them toward the Mel archetype.
Strixhaven Explorer Cards
Killian is the epitome of what an Explorer loves. Orzhov Enchantress isn’t a popular archetype, and Killian nods toward that in many ways. That isn’t all, though — there’s way more ground to explore with Killian. Killian lets you experiment with Voltron, sure, but it’s the cost reduction mechanic that really excites the Explorer. Getting to trawl through your EDH bulk for cards that never quite make the cut; searching through instants and sorceries on Scryfall to see what cards you never factored in before; realizing Price of Fame always costs two mana, but sometimes only one mana. Those are the things that excite an Explorer, and push them toward deck building.
Like Killian, Mavinda opens up a whole new highway to travel down. Mavinda wants you to recast spells that target your own creatures, but only in mono-white. Compared to Killian, Mavinda is on another level, asking for an even more narrow deck building space. This is the kind of deck building challenge an Explorer yearns for, and you can expect some wild tech when they’re done.
Explorers also love when archetypes that are dying for a dedicated commander receive some love. There’s been a food deck of sorts available in Golgari for a while, but until Gyome, there wasn’t a good commander for it. While Explorers do focus on mechanics primarily, they also have a big love for Vorthos; they will appreciate that they now have a home for both their mechanical food cards and nods to flavor, like Grim Feast or Footbottom Feast.
But What About Vorthos?
You might notice that I’ve come up with only four profiles, where the official count is five. In actuality, I don’t feel like Vorthos is distinct enough in Commander to warrant creating another profile, because in many ways, a love of Vorthos runs deep in every Commander player. Commander is a social format big on creativity, and whether that creativity manifests in an Innistrad block deck big on aesthetics and flavor, or how tall a tale can be woven from an individual game, it’s all Vorthos underneath.
Consider also that these profiles are not directly analogous, but instead have some crossover — otherwise, why create them in the first place? Vorthos players sit largely within the Artisan and Explorer camps, but there’s nothing to say they can’t appreciate other deck building experiences, either.
Artisans, Revelers, Athletes & Explorers
These profiles are an attempt to highlight that Wizards is not only capable of designing for Commander, but proficient and knowledgeable about what their player base wants. These profiles are not rigid archetypes; players and the decks they own may vary wildly from game to game, and deck to deck. Maybe you’re feeling frisky and put on your Reveler hat on a Friday, but the rest of the time, you’re an Artisan.
I do think, though, that there are distinct types of players that Wizards is designing for, and that it’s clear to see that they have a deep and respectful understanding of the format given these patterns repeat again and again.
Consider the recent cards above. Who are they designed for? I can see each of the psychographic profiles I’ve created here today reflected in each, and those profiles say far more than Johnny, Timmy and Spike ever could about Commander design. They’re also easier to understand and identify with, and way more inclusive, which is a great bonus.
With Strixhaven and Commander 2021, it’s obvious Wizards has their finger on the pulse of Commander design. Though they’re paying attention to the format, the reservation has always been about whether it’s the right kind of attention. In my eyes? I’m currently really optimistic, and not only because we didn’t see any broken cards like Fierce Guardianship this time around.
I think I’m an Artisan for the most part, and I’m loving the new cards. What about you? Let me know on Twitter!