Fixing Magic Online's 1v1 Commander

Feature Article from Corbin Hosler
Corbin Hosler
5/31/2017 11:01:00 AM
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I love playing Commander. I've played a lot of it over the years, from small groups to large, from casual crowds to cutthroat competitive groups. I enjoy a lot different ways of playing the format, and the variety games offer is, in my opinion, was of the factors that really makes Magic so sticky. Standard suck? Commander is a nice reprieve. Eldrazi Winter? Deal with it for a few months while you play Commander. Decks getting stale? New sets every year guarantee a small shakeup to the format.

It's really the social and political aspects of the format that draw me to Commander, so I initially viewed the announcement of 1v1 Commander Leagues on Magic Online with a bit of a “meh” response. Seems cool, but it's not really my thing so why should I care?

But my opinion changed pretty quickly when I saw that Wizards was changing the banlist. Duel Commander – as 1v1 is usually known – doesn't have the best reputation. Oppressive decks exist across the spectrum, and for a format built on wacky multiplayer interactions, locking people out with Derevi, Empyrial Tactician isn't exactly appealing.

But a new banlist piqued my interest, so I dove into the format. After all, it represented an opportunity to really get to brewing, and that was plenty enough to get me started. I picked up my favorite paper Commander – Karador, Ghost Chieftain – adapted a list to Magic Online, and went to work.

Unfortunately, the first few weeks of this experiment have revealed some pretty disappointing truths about the format, and it's those problems I want to address today.


This is a deep topic, but one I want to touch on briefly. In short, the format has both too much and too little of it, in the worst ways.

My biggest problem is tutors. Not only are they more readily accessible online than in paper – compare Grim Tutor's $225 paper pricetag compared to a $3 one online – meaning we see even more of them than we already do in paper, but the effect on a game of a 1v1 Commander is so much more outsized than it is in multiplayer.

Consider the following scenario. You're playing a graveyard-centric deck like Meren of Clan Nel Toth and spend a few turns setting up your graveyard. This is a powerful play, but one that can be interacted with. In a multiplayer game, someone can see you “going off” and fire off a Demonic Tutor to go get Tormod's Crypt. They point it at your graveyard, significantly setting you back. In paper, this means you are effective neutered, but you're likely going to get a chance to rebuild because players zeroing in to kill you means they're leaving themselves open to players with more powerful things going on than a graveyard-deficient Meren deck.

Run the same scenario in 1v1 Commander. That Tutor doesn't just set you back, it effectively ends the game. Because there is no stabilizing outside factor to draw attention away, you've essentially lost the game on the spot. In theory, this isn't a horrible thing, since reward should be punished with risk.

But in practice, it drains diversity from the format. In the paper game I described, that tutor is used in a number of ways – it may get graveyard hate for the Meren player, but it may also go grab a board wipe to punish the Elves player, or it may get a utility removal spell for a problematic enchantment, or it may even go get a win condition for the player casting it.

But in 1v1 online play, there are essentially two modes to tutors, and there are more tutors than ever. The first is getting a combo piece to win the game on the spot, and the second is getting a hate piece to win the game on the spot. Not exactly a lot of variance there, and not exactly a lot of fun.

On the other end of the variance spectrum is the one-game match structure. Drew mana dorks and not threats, or stumbled on lands? No social contract or even distracting players to take the heat off you; you just lose. Of course, this is true in all games of Magic, but the nature of 99-card singleton decks just dials the variance up to 11 every game you play. And when you're on the wrong end, you don't just lose a game, you lose the entire match and your play points along with it. Yes, this “averages out” in the long run, but it's less about EV and more about enjoyability, and this structure isn't exactly very enjoyable.

Diversity – Can It Exist?

It took a very quick banlist update for Wizards to try and address some of the most egregious problems out of the gate. Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise had to go, just like they did in every other format. But that didn't solve a problem inherent to Commander, and especially 1v1 Commander in particular: diversity. The problem plays out in several ways.

According to MTGGoldfish statistics, blue decks represent the top five most-played Commanders. Even more worrisome is that these five decks – Baral, Chief of Compliance, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Kraum, Ludevic's Opus, Breya, Etherium Shaper and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy – make up a staggering 58% of the metagame of 5-0 decks, even in a post-ban world. Extend that down to seventh (Nissa, Vastwood Seer is sixth, and that total comes up to 63%. While this is concerning enough in its own right, the fact that these represent the top 58% of the metagame is distressing. That's an absurd number. I understand that three of those top five are multicolor decks, but no other color can claim more than 34%, which really isn't all that much more than simply what mono-blue decks represent (25%). Another relevant stat is 15 of the 39 “color-specific” cards on the banlist are blue, or 38%, certainly a higher-than-expected share (next highest is green with 33%).

Okay, blue is good. Water is wet, sky is blue, Corbin loves Merfolk, etc. We get it. Can it be fixed?

That's a tough question. Consider everything I've laid out so far – all these confounding factors mean that consistency is more important than power, and in a world where countermagic is just as strong as any other strategy, nothing is more consistent than the color that gets access to all the Ponder/Preordain/Brainstorm effects it wants. I don't think you can ban enough cards to bring blue in line with the other colors, so this may be a reality we just have to live with. Blue and black may just always be the default colors because they simply have more card selection than any of the others.

Again, that's not inherently a Bad Thing, but at the end of the day I just don't think it's very much fun. For a format that only features “friendly” leagues, I'm pretty sure “fun” is supposed to be somewhere pretty high on the list.

The Inevitability of Homogenization

We've established two basic truths about the format: any given card is more devastating given the 1v1 nature, and consistency is rewarded above all else. Black and especially blue excel at this as a function of their roles in Magic, and will dominate the metagame as a result unless action is taken.

Bans are certainly one way to address that. But remember that color-specific bans already have blue the most represented at 38% (where 20% would be the baseline “expected” number) and it's still represented in the entirety of the top 58% of the metagame. The next highest color is bans is green, which by contrast makes up just 13% of that top 58% of the metagame. Even if we extend it to the top 15 decks in the metagame, we see a 65% representation of blue compared to just 30% green. Clearly, the current banlist isn't cutting it if the goal is more diversity, which I would argue it should be given how unfun it is to play against the same cards round after round despite playing a “singleton” format.

The problem doesn't stop there. While green may also be represented in a lot of decks, it has nowhere near the homogenization of black and blue. Outside of a few mana cards, the green cards in a The Gitrog Monster deck are going to look very different than the green cards in a Tasigur deck or a Titania, Protector of Argoth deck or a Selvala, Heart of the Wilds deck.

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A Hidden Fortress 15 $1.43
Card-Collecting 3 $1.43

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But that isn't the case with black and blue, for the reasons I laid out above. You're going to see the same countermagic, the same tutors and the same card filtering. Even if the decks have different commanders, if they don't play out super differently there's not much fun to be had (interestingly, this is the same problem Standard has had in recent years). The most important takeaway from all this is that due to the very nature of the format, there is no way to prevent this without (more) mass bannings.

Can we ban our way out of this? Perhaps, but how far do we want to go down that path to enforce diversity for the sake of fun?

A New Challenger Appears

Like I said, while there can be some tweaks made to “fix” 1v1 online Commander – some additional bans or changes to event structures (or at least better messaging as to the goals of the format) – could go a long way, the splitting of multiplayer and 1v1 Commander has actually opened up an entirely new door.

I'm talking about Canadian Highlander. (Link is a bit dated in regards to specific rules but is the best overview available).

If you don't want the full breakdown, the specifics are this.

- The only banned cards are ante or dexterity cards like Chaos Orb.

- It is 100-card singleton, with no commanders.
- Rather than ban cards, cards are assigned a “point value.”
- Players are allowed a maximum of 10 points in their deck.
- Points are determined with an eye toward limiting easy-win combos, tutors and fast mana.

I was first introduced to the format two years ago, and quickly fell in love with it, as did many members inside the Grand Prix circuit. There's a regular crowd and store for it in Victoria, Canada (hence the name), and a rules committee there regularly updates the point values similar to how the paper Commander banlist is handled. The biggest issue with the format in paper is cost – even with Collector's Edition (gold-bordered) cards being allowed, the price skyrockets quite quickly. But that's much less of a problem online, meaning more players could access the format than ever before.

Comparison to 1v1 Commander

I've played a lot of both Commander and Canadian Highlander, and I can confidently say that Canadian Highlander is much better than the current implementation of 1v1 Commander on Magic Online.

The genius of the format is the point system, and that's what makes it great. Even in the deckbuilding stage, rather than starting with a list of 20-30 cards you “have to” play to be competitive, you get to look at that list and pick a handful to include. It makes those cards feel like much more of a reward than a requirement, and because tutors are so heavily taxed under this system games play out very differently from round to round – no counting on a Tasigur player to cast three tutors for the same three combo pieces every game.

 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
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Because the point system is much nimbler and less monolithic than a banlist, the format can be organically shaped rather than forced to a certain point. For instance, if blue decks are too strong for the format, rather than having to ban Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, the point values of all the major blue cards could be adjusted to push players into other archetypes (Cruise and Dig are one point each, for reference, while Ancestral Recall is five). And because there are no commanders like Baral, Chief of Compliance to guarantee a payoff for a certain playstyle, players can't go all-in as much.

This has led to a relatively balanced and healthy metagame in the community. For example, a randomly picked week from last year showed 43 players piloting 36 distinct archetypes, with the finals of the tournament being a Gaea's Cradle – Craterhoof Behemoth deck squaring off against a Dark Jeskai control deck.

Can it Be Done?

A year ago, I would have said there was no way. After all, why would Wizards add a format that would probably siphon players away from their Commander base on Magic Online?

But by creating 1v1 Commander with its own banlist – and admitting 1v1 is the predominant way Commander is played on Magic Online – Wizards has essentially created their own format anyway. If they're willing to put resources into creating and maintaining an entirely separate banlist and community, why spend that energy on a format with problems inherent to its very existence, problems that can't be solved without heavy-handed solutions? Sure, it's great that Atraxa decks can build a planeswalker theme because they can rely on their commander, but it's also great that Canadian Highlander doesn't have to worry about mono-countermagic Baral, Chief of Compliance being the most-played deck.

This may be a bold suggestion, but it's one I believe is feasible given what Wizards has already committed to with 1v1 Commander. I would love to see a trial run for Canadian Highlander (or whatever Wizards would rename it to), even as a special Magic Online event to see what the response would be. It might work, it might not, but the potential payoff is certainly there, and that makes it worth the risk.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler

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