Talking Commander Legends with Gavin Verhey

Kristen GregoryCommander

Kristen sits down with Gavin Verhey, Senior Magic Designer at Wizards of the Coast, to talk designing Commander Legends, the secrets to surviving lockdown with your sanity in check, and a little card called Jeweled Lotus.

Hey Gavin, hope you’re well! How’s working from home going? Do you have any ingenious ways to spice up your routine?

Hi Kristen! Always great to get the chance to talk with you.

You know, I’m always someone who has been very good at adapting. So despite the fact that I’ve  gone from traveling basically every weekend to now never leaving my house, I’m pretty good. I’ve found loads of things to do and get caught up on.

That’s the secret to surviving the lockdown, right? Getting some good projects under your belt to keep you going outside work. What’s been your baby?

The big thing for me is that I’ve started doing this new YouTube show three days a week which eats up most of my extra time. Video is time intensive! But I’m really enjoying it – you can go check it out over on my Good Morning Magic channel.

Right! It’s been great to watch it evolve from its beginnings as Twitter content into a fully fledged YouTube channel. I have to say, I was tickled by your homage to Julie Nolke in your recent “Talking to your pre-lockdown self” skit. Comedy genius. Sad to see the beard go, though!

So, what’s been your lockdown food quest? Sourdough, smoked meats, kombucha cultures? You have to have discovered a new recipe!

While I do cook a lot, a big thing for me has been trying to support local businesses and try out new places. I make it a point to order in from one new place a week, to both help them out, and also to learn about all the great places near where I live.

How has being out of the office changed how you approach your work? Have any new strategies or ways of working emerged that have turned out to surprise you?

It’s definitely been an adjustment, especially for a game where you play and test with paper cards! We’ve had to come up with some really ingenious solutions (that I unfortunately can’t talk about too much), but I am super impressed with the whole team. Recently, we had a set slideshow for an upcoming set – the first one that had most of the tail end of the work, where stuff gets into shape, done in quarantine. In my heart, there was this totally irrational fear we would get there and it would be…  I don’t know, stick figures and cards with 90 words each. Turns out, it’s still an awesome-looking Magic set. 😊

The biggest culture shift I think has been making sure to widely communicate information. There’s a lot you just picked up by osmosis hanging out in the office, whether it was mentioned over lunch or heard at a nearby desk. That all went away now! So we’ve spun up some processes to help make sure people are better informed about what’s going on.     

Preorder Commander Legends!

We’re here to talk Commander Legends. Can you tell us how you felt when this set got the green light? 

To set the stage a little bit, we have to roll back the clock nearly six years. I had the idea for a Commander Draft set, mentioned it to Ethan Fleischer and Shawn Main, and they thought it sounded cool. So I started tinkering with it. I built up a prototype on my own time, and played it with them – it had a lot to figure out, but it was a blast!

Slowly but surely, over the course of a year or so, I started showing it to people and getting positive responses. Until eventually, it was time to pitch to Aaron Forsythe, Mark Gottlieb, and Mark Globus. We did a draft and… they also liked it!

The problem, though, was that there was nowhere on our product roadmap for it. So, despite all my work, I shelved it for the time being.

And then the Hackathon came around.

The infamous R&D hackathon that brought us Modern Horizons and Jumpstart was the same one I pitched Commander Legends on. I ran the team and, at the end, presented the product – which ended up being selected as one of the winners and greenlit.

So, as you can imagine, I was elated. This was my first product pitch to ever get greenlit, a product I had worked on for years, and something I really believed in. Truly an amazing moment in my design career – and now, many years later, it’s finally coming out!

Those hackathons sound like such great fun!

I was about to ask how the success of Modern Horizons helped to enable this product, but turns out it was going ahead concurrently. How important do you think a set like Commander Legends is to Commander players? 

Right – this product was greenlit at the same time as Modern Horizons, so that didn’t impact this at all. Really, to me, the key here is that this is a Commander Draft format. You’ve never been able to do this before! A big goal here was not just to provide people with new cards – but a brand new play experience. I can’t wait for you to all try it!  

I’m pretty stoked to open some of this product, I won’t lie to you. I’m also sorely tempted to put aside a box to set up an eight-person pod when things open up again. 

Let’s talk mechanics. With Commander Legends being designed to work as a draftable set, how much did that impact the mechanics chosen for the set? Where would you say the complexity is? Is it closer to a Standard set, or a Masters set?

Originally, my first drafts of the set looked far more like a Masters set or Modern Horizons: lots of mechanics from Magic’s history. But what I found pretty quickly is that draftable Commander already has a TON of complexity going on – and you don’t need to add in 30 different unique mechanics to still make it plenty deep. So we took an approach much more like a Standard set in selecting mechanics.

Partner on monocolored creatures is the glue that makes the whole format work. It’s key to drafting, because it lets you pivot colors: if you draft a UR Commander but then want to pivot into UG, it’s going to be very difficult. But if you draft a blue Commander with partner, it’s a lot easier to find the green Commander you need to play it. 

It’s a mechanic that seems so delightfully elegant and appropriate in this scenario. 

Right – it really makes the whole thing work. 

Monarch, on the other hand, is a great multiplayer mechanic that keeps the game moving. Commander games have a tendency to stall out – monarch helps prevent that by keeping plenty of attacks happening.

Monarch’s a favorite of mine for sure, and a big fan favorite. It’ll sate us until Conspiracy 3, at least. What about Cascade?

Both of the previous two mechanics were pretty load-bearing mechanics. But cascade? Cascade is just here because it’s fun! It can be problematic in competitive formats because of the high variance, but in formats like Commander where you don’t build around it as much, it’s a lot of fun. 

And finally, encore was added as a way to spend your extra mana late in the game and make large, haymaker-y feeling plays.

A lot of players who might not normally draft will be trying this set out. Do you have any advice or top tips for people drafting the set?

Every two-color combination has a theme. There are plenty of different decks to be drafted, but if you’re nervous about finding your footing, grab a two-colored legend and move on in. That will help point you toward the right themes and give you a solid direction to work with.

How did you shortlist and eventually choose the mechanics, and were there any that didn’t make the cut that you were hoping for?

When it comes to reprint mechanics, these were definitely the ones at the top of our list. We tried lieutenant for a while, but ultimately tried a new mechanic in its place that didn’t make it called advocate. 

The way advocate worked is it gave you a bonus whenever a Commander entered the battlefield or attacked. For example, a two-mana 2/2 creature with, “Advocate – Whenever your commander enters the battlefield or attacks, create a 1/1 white Soldier creature token.” However, it ended up being too strong with low-mana cost commanders: those commanders are naturally advantageous anyway because they cost less, so they put the power in the wrong place.

On the whole, I like our mechanics suite a lot! Enough to make things interesting without making the games convoluted.

Yeah, I think you picked some great mechanics. As an avid extra-combats fan, though, I’d love to see advocate in print one day. I can but pray.

The other main draw of this set is the chance we get to revisit characters from Magic‘s deep lore. Can you tell us a little about how that selection process went, and some of your favorite cards? Did you get to choose any legends to include yourself?

I thought we should revisit characters from all over Magic history. I’m a pretty big lore buff, and Ethan Fleischer and Kelly Digges are both masterful lore buffs. So early on in the process, I had Kelly create a list for me of legends he thought would be awesome to do here. I still keep it on my desk to this day – that’s how many great picks there were in there! I usually would just pick legends off this list, and several made it into the set.

A few of my favorite legends to make the cut are Gor Muldrak, Hans Eriksson, and Belbe. I just love the deep cuts the first two provide, being from flavor text, and making new Weatherlight storyline characters is something I love doing – so Belbe fits in great there. 

The saddest cut from the set after I handed it off? A RW Mother Yamazaki, a riff on Brothers Yamazaki where they could both partner with each other. Someday I’ll get you all that RW Samurai lord! Someday…

You know better than to taunt me with unprinted Boros cards, Gavin.😉 

Did the rise in popularity of competitive Commander (cEDH) have an impact on some of the reprints chosen for the set?

There are many cards that overlap between the two formats, and when one of them overlaps, that’s definitely a force multiplier for putting it in the set! We mostly just focus on social Commander, but we certainly keep competitive versions of the format in mind during our discussions.

I feel like we can’t chat today without discussing one of the most exciting and controversial cards revealed so far: Jeweled Lotus

What was the overall design goal with Jeweled Lotus? Was it for competitive fast games, or casting big splashy Commanders that feel hard to cast? Both, maybe?

This is certainly one of the most hotly discussed cards in the set, and rightly so. It’s not the sort of thing we went into blindly: the team talked about and played with this card a lot. And while it was added to the set after I handed it off, I was definitely asked what I thought about it many times.

We don’t want to homogenize the format: it’s very important decks have variety, and creating too many must-plays in decks is harmful to the long-term health of Commander. 

The conclusion in playtesting was that it was great in specific decks that had synergies with it, but on the weaker side elsewhere. Because of that, we weren’t as concerned about the homogenization problem. While you can play it in decks with four-mana commanders to play it on turn one, after about your second turn, it becomes a pretty weak draw. And for many commander decks, turboing out your Commander isn’t even particularly impressive or strong. 

That said, there definitely are decks where this will be very powerful, and the opening of it on turn one to play your four-drop commander can immediately make you the archenemy. It can be a very powerful card: it generates three mana for free, after all! 

I’ve had a think on it myself, and I think it’s more about the cards it’s enabling than the card itself. There’s a lot of power in that four-drop slot in the Command Zone. Urza, Jhoira, and even Najeela on three. It seems you’re aware of that – are you going to be watching closely?

It’s a card I know all of us – Wizards, the community, and the Rules Committee – have their eye on to see how it plays out.

Sure. That’s the best way – give it a chance to see play and see where it goes.

Onto another feature of the set: how were the cards chosen for the foil etched treatment? Is this a feature we may see again in the future? They look awesome!

Well, first of all, giving every legendary creature in the set a foil etched version was a no-brainer. Let’s give the new cards a cool version! But the reprints are perhaps even more interesting. When we decided we wanted to do 32 of these, it was up to me to select them. I looked through popular played Commanders, and wanted to create a spread of colors. I did look at a lineup that included three monocolored commanders, but ultimately eschewed that to focus on multicolored commanders – especially since the set has so many monocolored Commanders with the partners already.

As for if we’ll do it again… Let’s see how popular it is and we’ll go from there. Let me know what you think.

Ha, so I know who to blame if I don’t get a foil-etched Aurelia, then.

It’ll be interesting to see how far off the picks from my article were — I know the inclusion of partner reprints has already wiped out a good chunk of my predictions. 

Players face off in Card Kingdom’s 2019 Chalice charity tournament at Mox Boarding House Bellevue.

With social distancing, some players may find it hard to draft this set. I know we will be able to draft it on MTGO, which sounds awesome, but for those with smaller groups of friends or family, do you have any guidelines on how best to play this set Sealed, prerelease style?

Totally! So we playtested it for sealed as well, and it’s pretty straightforward: six packs, as usual, and all the normal deck-building rules Commander Legends has.

I will also note that we tested Draft all the way down to four players! So if your social bubble is four or five people, still consider drafting, too. My general guideline is:

  • 6-8 people: Draft and split into two games
  • 4-5 people: Draft and play one big game
  • 3 or fewer people: Play Sealed 

…Or if you just like Sealed more, you can play Sealed with any number of people, too. 

That’s some great information for people to have! Thanks, Gavin. 

Finally, to round things out for today: which Commander(s) are you most excited to brew around for the set?

There are so many it is truly hard to choose just one! But I’m always a big fan of headscratchers, and Obeka, Brute Chronologist is one of them. Ending your turn? Why would you do that? Well, it turns out there are a lot of cards that get sweeter when you skip past your end step! What about you?

Obeka’s certainly going to be interesting. I have my eye on trying out some of the partners — Rebbec, Architect of Ascension looks fun with Silas Renn, Seeker Adept, and I’m gonna see how quick I can shred life totals by adding Jeska, Thrice Reborn to Akiri, Line-Slinger voltron. 

Thanks for joining me today, Gavin. It’s been a pleasure!

No worries, Kristen. It’s always great to chat Commander with you. 

And so ends our interview with Gavin. It’s always great to get to hear some interesting stories about game development, and especially exciting when it’s a set like Commander Legends! If you’re looking to preorder Commander Legends, we have what you need here at Card Kingdom

What are you looking to build? What are your thoughts on Jeweled Lotus? Let me know on Twitter to continue the discussion.