A Voice for Casual Magic: Shivam Bhatt

Tom AndersonCommunity

The impending release of Commander Legends feels like a big moment for Magic. It’s the clearest and most significant expression of WotC’s whole-hearted conversion to the cause of casual play. Commander and other casual formats have always been the underwater bulk of the Magic iceberg, but it took the rise of social media and content algorithms to really show it. Now the voices of casual and Commander players are being heard, and Shivam Bhatt is consistently one of the loudest and proudest among them.

Shivam has loved casual Magic for decades, ever since he discovered the game as a middle-schooler in 1994. After this initial dalliance, he moved on — only to be pulled back in years later by Duels of the Planeswalkers on Xbox, and the tantalizing gothic flavor of Innistrad. This second life in Magic introduced him to Commander, just in time to watch it take off with the advent of WotC’s first dedicated Commander products. Now that he’s a prominent member of the Commander Advisory Group, I’m eager to hear how Shivam views the changing landscape of Magic’s main casual format.

Commander is many things to many people, but overwhelmingly it has become synonymous with casual Magic. How do you define “casual Magic,” in that sense, and what does it offer that’s different to the competitive grind of organized play?

To me, casual Magic is the essence of the Alpha rulebook — you are a wizard, summoning monsters and casting spells against another wizard and their menagerie. Casual Magic is looking at this sea of 21,000+ cards and finding the ones that sing to you, that tell the story you want to tell, that allow you to just relax and have fun. We could be hanging out with our friends playing Mario Kart or Call of Duty or Catan, but we chose a pile of fantasy cards. Casual Magic is optimizing your cards not for the metagame, but for the thing that brings you the most happiness. It’s what Magic was when you first discovered it, before you become blinded by the glare of organized play and tournament spikery. Sit back, sling your cards, and live the good life. 

Now, as to Commander becoming synonymous with casual play, this is both true and not true. Commander is the most popular “formal, organized” method of casual play, sure, but it still pales next to “Cards-I-Own: The Format.” Commander has the benefit of being universal and transportable and still casual. You can sit down at any table from Manila to Moscow to Milwaukee and have a relaxed and fun play experience with everyone on the same page. Kitchen table and 60-card casual sadly doesn’t have that cachet.

It seems as though the last ten years have seen WotC slowly realize how large, invested and distinct the casual audience is. Do you feel like there’s better support and consideration for casual play now than when you first discovered Commander? What impact has that had?

Absolutely. WotC has long understood that something like eleven out of every twelve Magic players is completely outside of the ecosystem they foster. That means no organized play, DCI numbers, FNM, online engagement, none of it. These folks are obviously not grinding the GP circuit, but they’re still buying cards by the pound. And it turns out the thing they were doing is making Commander decks and kitchen table decks. Having WotC turn the Eye of Sauron to this group of players is fantastic, because it means we get more fun and casual cards and interesting ways to play that aren’t just slamming 75 cards into each other for 25 hours a weekend at some con hall.

The downside, of course, is that when WotC pays attention to you, the mystique starts to go away. The joy of Commander was delving old boxes of obscure and forgotten cards and finding that one amazing card from Masques block that no one thought about for decades but suddenly was the key to make your deck sing. But when Wizards decides to spotlight the format, suddenly we have Command Tower and Chulane and Edgar Markov and the idea that a large chunk of format staples were printed in 2018 onwards. It’s a double-edged sword, but on the flip side, this also means that Commander players get to have their own spaces at events, unlike before, when we’d be begging for chairs and end up sitting outside the con hall on the floor.

Your most prominent role in Magic is as a member of the CAG. Commander has a complex power structure: WotC’s team on one hand, then the Rules Committee, and then the CAG. Can you describe the role you and the CAG play in shaping Commander?

The CAG, or Commander Advisory Group, is a group of content creators and judges who have an incredibly deep and broad understanding of Commander — and, more importantly, the reach to speak to and hear from a huge swath of the engaged Commander audience. Our job is to bring the rumblings of the people to the Rules Committee and tell them what is and isn’t working, and if there are problem cards or slices of the format we haven’t thought about that could use the attention. We’re also there for the RC to bounce ideas off of to give them a feeling of how these ideas might float with the general public, and to workshop things until they are the best fit for the format. We don’t, however, make any decisions about what to ban, though we do offer a lot of input and feedback.

The official Commander website mentions the CAG are there in part to keep the RC in touch with the community; true to that, you are consistently one of the most visible and outspoken leaders in public discussion about Commander. Is that a role you have to lean into, or are you just an engaged fan with a bigger platform than most?

I’m sure the RC would love it if I were a little less engaged, lol. The thing is, I’m a communicator and a mediator at heart. I absolutely love that this role affords me the chance to talk to and hear from so many players, and I relish the idea of being able to bring their problems to the table and help make this small part of their lives more enjoyable. I can’t speak to anyone else on the CAG, but personally, I live for the discourse. I take my job really seriously, and care very deeply that everyone is having the most fun they possibly can with Commander, and I will happily take the occasional hits in order to be the most effective I can be. 

Apart from keeping in touch with the playerbase, the CAG seems to have also been a huge step forward in ensuring better representation in the governance of the format. How important is it to you that people of color, women, trans folks and other marginalized groups have a voice in shaping Commander (and Magic)? Do you consider providing that voice to be part of your role with the CAG?

Oh, 100%. The other day I realized that I was one of the most prominent PoC voices in Magic, and that terrifies and saddens me. It’s incredibly important that the game reflect the audience that plays it, but also that it reflects the audience it wants to have. Magic is home to a vibrant and thriving queer community, and there are more and more PoC’s visibly playing every day. And this is not to discount the huge and long thriving Magic communities in places like Japan and Brazil, mind you, but the leadership positions in the game have long been very white, cis, het, male.

The more we can do to change that perception, even in a voluntary role like the CAG, the better we can make the game for everyone who plays it. Racism and sexism are pretty widespread and insidious in Magic communities, and this is a reflection of the fact that there were never people in positions of power who could provide a counter-narrative. When we lead, we set examples and people react to that. And sometimes, that example is just being a visible member of the community, reminding folks that these jokes and ideas are not ok.

You’re certainly among the most respected persons of color in the community who push back on that behavior. You’ve also argued passionately for more nuanced treatment of religious subjects in the game and — though it’s on an utterly different scale — demanded respect for casual Magic players. How did advocacy become so integral to your involvement in Magic, and has it changed your relationship to the game? Do you have a strong vision for making Magic better for people who aren’t cishet white men?

Even before I was on the CAG, I had been a loud voice calling for better representation and understanding from the folks who make Magic, be it in terms of people of color, cultural appropriation vs appreciation, people of faith, people of different gender expressions and so on. In my other life, I’m a Hindu priest, and that informs everything I do. I believe that the game is only as good as the people it invites to play, and it is our job to invite as many people into the room as possible. I can’t stand gatekeeping. The game is huge. There is room for everyone, and we only gain by having more voices at the table.

The thing that I wish folks realized is that just because pop culture was pointed at cishet whites for the longest time doesn’t mean that everyone else didn’t also consume it. We had to adapt to white power fantasy games and novels and anime and movies, and that means we also play Magic and D&D and everything else, because we all came from the same crucible. So when you hear arguments about how the majority can’t relate anymore because of all of these new “woke” ideologies infesting their game, I have to roll my eyes. Like, I lived my whole life learning how to relate to cishet white men in games and culture, and I am pretty sure that the reverse is just as possible. 

Yes, advocacy draws anger and hate from entrenched positions, but frankly, I don’t care about them. I care about making sure that the next generation of folks who come in find a path has been cleared for them and a place at the table has been set out. I want to make sure everyone who wants to play Magic finds that Magic wants them to play just as badly, no matter who they are.

While you don’t make the rules of Commander, your position obliges you to think about them a lot. What do you think the role of the Commander rules and ban list should be? And how important are official rules when most players seem to prefer using “Rule 0” to pick and choose which rules apply at their table?

That’s not what Rule 0 is. Rule 0 is simply asking folks to have a conversation before they sit down to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to things like power level, play style, and what they hope to get out of their game experience. It’s not a bludgeon to tell people to stop asking for planeswalker commanders or whatever.

The rules are a shared guideline to make sure that Miguel from Barcelona and Pim from Bangkok can hang out at GP Canberra and play a game of Commander without trying to hash out house rules. Rule 0 is there to make sure that if someone is out there with a Thrasios and Tymna deck, they don’t end up sitting down across from Marhault Elsdragon Rampage tribal. It’s just about making sure the next two hours of your life are as fun as they can be.

The rules and ban list are incredibly important and equally incredibly misunderstood. They are not there for game balance, though there is probably no one on earth better equipped to balance the format than the four folks on the RC. Commander is a designed format with a philosophy and a stated vision. Every rule and ban is a step toward realizing that vision. It was meant to be a strict alternative to competitive play and also a format distinct from singleton vintage. 

The RC knows what it wants Commander to be. They want it to be a format where you can play huge, swingy, busted cards in explosive ways, and pull off combos and tricks that competitive Magic’s pressures don’t allow you the time to set up. They want to make sure the ban list is small and tight, to let people play as many of the cards that they own as possible, which is one of the biggest draws of the format. And they want to make sure that those cards that do end up getting banned are actively detrimental to the play style they want to cultivate.

Yes, people have taken the rule set and card pool of Commander and turned it into every kind and speed of game imaginable, and to a large extent, that’s by design. There will always be folks trying to skim the very best cards off the top to make some incredibly powerful and fast kills, and that’s fine and rad. But they aren’t the focus of the ban list or rules at all. Whenever folks say we should just dump the ban list and let people come up with their own lists, I say go right ahead. But Commander’s biggest strength is that people can take their decks and travel and know that, everywhere they play, the core rules will be the same, and that’s no small thing.

Outside of your involvement in the CAG, you’ve been expanding the discussion around casual play through your podcast, Casual Magic — which has featured a who’s-who of community leaders and plenty of WotC staff. What are your goals with that podcast, and how do you lock in such influential guests?

I started Casual Magic because I wanted to talk about more than just Commander. I love Commander, but I love chaos drafting and brawl and cube and so much more than just 100 card singleton. Casual play deserves to be highlighted as a legitimate way to play Magic, and all the content around right now is either super spikey tournament grinder stuff or limited grinder stuff or Commander. I wanted to give other styles a chance. Plus, one of the dirty secrets is that Magic players, especially content creators? They love way more than the format you know them for. And I wanted to give folks a platform to talk about the Magic they love, but that doesn’t fall in the sphere of their own content. And then it just expanded outwards. 

I hadn’t intended to make it an all interview show, but there was a void since the end of Deck Tease years ago, and hey, why not, right? I have made a lot of friends at WotC over the years, and I invited a bunch of them to come chat about things they worked on, and I’ve had folks come on to talk about the community, from card addiction to WotC’s trouble with religion to blinging out your decks or even just living your life. I mean, I had The Mountain Goats on talking about Krishna, of all things! All I want to do is celebrate the fun side of this game we love, and that means the people that make it fun. 

With a new set coming out soon, I have to ask: What is your favorite card spoiled so far in Commander Legends? Favorite mechanic in the set? I’m curious to hear what you think about partner specifically, given the polarizing history of the original dual-color cycle and the influx of new partners in this set.

I absolutely adore partner. I love mix-and-match chaos, and i think a lot of the negativity has been from the top end of the format and folks playing Thrasios/Tymna decks. Just cause those two are broken doesn’t mean that Vial Smasher and Bruse Tarl can’t be fun. I look forward to all the new pieces we have to work with. 

As far as individual cards go, I have wanted Fyndhorn Elves to be reprinted since the From the Vault: Twenty box came out, and I finally got to see it happen. Mechanics-wise, I think monarch is one of the best mechanics ever made in Magic, and all the new monarch cards look amazingly fun.

Fyndhorn Elves

Finally, you’ve talked more than once about the storytelling aspect of casual Magic. How important do you think this mindset is to creating better Commander experiences, and how can it be better promoted across the community?

I think that this is more about deck build than gameplay, though I’m a big fan of emergent storytelling. I think it is super cool to build your deck to highlight a story or plot or concept you want to share. It helps folks understand the idea behind the deck better, and also gives them a foothold in an incredibly complicated game. But this is one of those things that I think shouldn’t be forced. The stories that come out of games of Commander are best when they are a confluence of people playing cards that never should have worked together in order to make something awesome, and you can’t artificially create that. Just let it happen, and play the game however you find the funnest. 

Shivam’s vision of Commander as an inclusive, expressive vehicle for social fun is one I can get behind wholeheartedly — and luckily, one reflected in many of the weird and wonderful new Commander choices printed in Commander Legends. WotC seems to be warming to the task of introducing powerful new options for players while still leaving room for players to “discover” hidden gems of their own. I can’t wait to see what new tricks the community will discover once this set is released!

In the meantime, you should follow Shivam on Twitter at @ghirapurigears, and check out his interviews with Magic designers and other luminaries at https://casualmagic.libsyn.com/!