Is Commander Magic’s Best Budget Format?

Scott CullenCommander

Magic is going through a particularly tumultuous patch at the moment, much like the rest of the world. If you’re feeling like there’s no escape from bans and metagame shifts, or that you’re finding it hard to connect with the game in the same ways you’re used to, know that you’re not alone. I felt the same until very recently, when something remarkable happened that made me question my perception of the game, and how I enjoy it.

Into the Story

Art by Jason Rainville

Before I tell you about how I got out of this rut, let me tell you how I got into it in the first place.

I started playing Magic in May 2017, so I was quite the late bloomer. I might lack tall tales about playing Invasion block in the school yard, witnessing the birth of Modern, or how the game was better back when damage used the stack, but I make up for it with a passion that would take the average player many years of experience and nostalgia to build up.

My first real experience of Magic was when my good friend Brian handed me a $25 Izzet Spells deck for Amonkhet Standard, gave me the address of our LGS, and told me not to be late for FNM. The closest approximation of kitchen table Magic I have ever experienced was when he came over a week beforehand to teach me the ropes, before being launched right into a small Standard tournament. It took me three months of attending weekly to finally win my first game.

This aggressive introduction to sanctioned Magic taught me how to lose and learn from my mistakes, for which I’m very grateful. It wasn’t a perfect method, however; this approach led me to believe that this was the “right” way to play: in a sanctioned event, following tournament rules with no take-backs, and playing to win.

Price of Progress

Art by Yohann Schepacz

Fast forward a couple of years, and now I’m a Magic writer and creator. Exclusion based on financial situation is something I never want to see in my hobbies, and I write budget content to actively fight against it. There’s no better feeling in Magic than beating decks that cost more than your entire collection; as a creator, there’s nothing like hearing that someone took down their FNM or made it to Diamond with your budget build. 

Unfortunately, this has been happening less and less lately. Gone are the days where you could take Two-Tix Red or Mono-Blue Tempo to a PPTQ and squeeze into Top 8 on breakers, at least not without adding a playset of Embercleave or Brazen Borrower. It’s becoming increasingly apparent with every new set release that the latest face mythic is the best thing you could be doing, and it’s not even close. When other expensive decks can’t even hold a candle to the likes of Lukka Fires, Simic Food, or Omnath Adventures, what hope does a $50 Dimir Rogues list have?

While I’m sure this resonates with many players, as a budget creator, it just hits differently. It can feel like your attempts are fruitless, and nothing you can brew could hope to beat the best decks. The sense I’ve been getting from several formats recently, particularly Standard and Historic, is that they’re moving heavily towards a Pay-to-Win model. “This format is not for you” is a conclusion I keep coming to, no matter how I look at it.

Unexpected Results

Art by Mike Bierek

For some time, I was at an impasse. I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to keep making budget content I was happy with, or even how I could continue to enjoy the game. I missed the sense of togetherness I got from meeting up with friends before a tournament, and I wanted to play with the cards I enjoyed without getting trounced repeatedly by the best decks. The pandemic and current design philosophy had definitely compounded these problems, and made these realizations sting that little bit more. I was becoming concerned that maybe this game wasn’t for me after all.

But then, something unexpected happened.

A couple months ago, the lockdown restrictions here in Ireland were lifted just enough that I could visit a couple of friends that lived nearby. They were arranging a night of pizza and Commander, so I jumped at the chance for some social interaction. I tried Commander a few times before and wasn’t wild on it, but the prospect of carbs and cards was too enticing for me to worry much about the format. I built a deck, and I took the opportunity to incessantly flick my cards with others.

I was hooked. Not only did that evening satisfy my need for conversation and engagement, but it gave me something I haven’t experienced in months: some good, proper games of Magic. Sure, there were some games that ended abruptly because someone comboed off on turn six, but that was okay; we just shuffled up and went again. Every game was different: there were close calls, tense decisions, moments of utter mayhem, and subtle but decisive choices. It was everything I needed, and more. I came home feeling refreshed, energized, and ready to build more decks.

New Perspectives

Art by Darek Zabrocki

The biggest influences on someone’s enjoyment of a game are the participants, and I’m very lucky to have friends that appreciate the importance of enjoyment first and foremost. With that said, though, the game has to be worth playing in the first place. Commander has really stepped up and taken the mantle of the format worth playing for me, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the range of archetypes that are viable on a budget is astounding. Budget Commander decks are far more pliable, reasonable, and competitive here than in any other format. Just a few days ago, my $97 Jori En, Ruin Diver deck took down a pod whose collective deck costs were in the thousands. The fact that the format is much less affected by the contents of new sets compared to the likes of Standard is very welcome to me, too. Plus, I can play my pet cards! I can sleeve up Thousand-Year Storm and not feel like I’m actively detracting from my game plan or win percentage just to have a bit of fun. In fact, I become the enemy of the table when I play it now.

I’m sure the majority of Commander players already know the positives about their beloved format, but to those that haven’t caught the bug yet, let me break it down for you.

  • If you’re a brewer, this format is for you: pick a legend you like and get building. The format’s your oyster.
  • What if you prefer to play more than brew? No problem at all; just grab a preconstructed deck and join a game. The premade decks that Wizards releases are all fantastic first time entries to the format.
  • Don’t have any friends nearby that you can play with safely in these times? There are countless games being played over webcam through Spelltable, Discord, or even Zoom. So video call your friends, or join one of the many games online with some new potential buddies.
  • Whether it’s help to optimize a brew, tips on your webcam setup, or just making sure your deck is at an appropriate power level for the other decks you’ll play against, the wealth of assistance that other players are happy to provide is just incredible.

It seems the only thing this format cannot provide is the potential for positive returns through tournament winnings. If that’s not something you’re aiming for, you should probably be playing Commander. If not Commander, then Brawl, or Oathbreaker, maybe Pauper… The options are endless for fantastic and unique experiences in Magic right now, though Commander is by far the easiest to get into. Play the games that you want to play!

Forced Adaptation

Art by Trevor Claxton

You would think that the story of my introduction to Magic would cause some difficulties in this format due to its rigidity, but it’s been a surprisingly pleasant transition. Having learned how to lose early on, I had absolutely no difficulty in adjusting to losing in multiplayer games more than winning. And as there are no strict tournament rules, there’s a much more personal and easygoing feel to everything. It wasn’t until I was complimented on my choice of basic land that I realized how much I enjoy the social and aesthetic aspects of the game, too.

The community has also been incredible to me so far. As soon as I mentioned that I was playing more Commander, I had people asking me what Commanders I liked and when I’d start doing budget Commander content. I even started getting invited to take part in webcam games with other creators! I’m definitely regretting avoiding Commander for as long as I did.

The craziest part is that none of this would have happened if I didn’t go for pizza with friends that night. I already have six decks built in paper, with plans for two more soon. If that’s not a testament to trying anything twice, especially when you’re stuck in a rut, I don’t know what is.

Even without taking Commander Legends into account, 2020 really is feeling like The Year of Commander, at least for me.