A HISTORY OF DUEL COMMANDER
The birth of a spark
5 August, 1993.
One of the first days of a long awaited heat wave in the USA. A beautiful, bright summer.
The ignition. The magic starts. Limited edition alpha hits the stores in the USA. The opening of what would then be the start of the greatest adventure ever in the world of Tradable Card Games (or Collectible Card Games -CCG as some prefer-). Along with the baseball cards, the football cards, the Legend of the 5 Rings cards, the Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, the Pokémon cards, and many (many) other licensed products.
Magic The Gathering comes from rolists’ inspiration, vast and infinite mechanics rule the world of roleplaying, but same goes for the worlds of medieval fantasy, magic stories, or board games.
In such a world of creativity, and having such richness in one single game, it was obvious that people would develop several rules with the same cards. The first, original rules stated that one should “start the game with 40 cards at least in a pack, shuffle them and go!”, or something like that. No Limited formats, one constructed format only: buy, collect and play! Easy, ain’t it?
But, then, the real stuff started. As the editions grew in number, size, popularity and diversity, more and more rules began to appear. Once they were too many cards, chronologically-restrained formats appeared in 1995. They were then called “Type I” and “Type II”, at first, which you now know as Vintage and Standard. An intermediate list/format was then created, called “Type 1.5” in 1997, a format well known as Legacy now, since 2004. Other DCI-sanctionned formats appeared, like Extended, who had a rebirth then disappeared again in favour of Modern, but also limited formats and many other ones.
It is at that time, before year 2000, that people started building alternate, casual, non-DCI-sanctionned formats. Pauper, Peasant, and many other ones began to appear. Wizards of The Coast currently lists a hundred of them, on a “cleaned” list from the old version of the website which used to list more than 200 of them! Many, many casual, alternate formats emerged from the communities of players.
Finding the wick
Among them, one particular format exacerbated the “random” effect of Magic The Gathering, called Highlander, in the beginning of the 2000’s. A format which induced the concept of singleton choices for deck building. One needed to have a strict number of cards in his/her deck, one of each at a maximum (instead of four, like one can have 99.9% of the time, less for restricted cards, more for limited formats), except for basic lands.
Meanwhile, another idea one would have noticed was introduced by an idea of Jesus M. Lopez, a writer for Duelist article (a paper magazine by Wizards of the Coast, that you can still find on eBay auctions - this was the time when gamers used to read paper articles and stuff, yay! -) called: “Elder Dragon Legend Wars”. At that time, Jesus M. Lopez introduced some fundamental ideas to what could be a fun format, take a look yourself (the following contents is copyright - © Wizards of The Coast):
Nicol Bolas, Chromium, Arcades Sabboth - legendary creatures of immense power and stature. They look just great in your binder and are probably rarely, if ever, used. Well, take them out, dust them off, and gather up three or four of your friends. It's time to let the Elder Dragons battle it out.
Tournament Magic, while exciting, is so cutthroat that the visual aspect of seeing beautiful cards in play is diminished. In "Elder Dragon Legend Wars", armies have time to assemble, and powerful creatures abound. The basic rules for this variant are designed to create a balanced environment while allowing individual creativity and strategy.
- Three or more players are recommended.
- Players choose (or select at random) an Elder Dragon Legend as their army's leader. The dragon must be supported by creatures and spells corresponding to each of the Dragon's three specific casting colors.
- Players include 8 basic lands for each of those colors in their decks.
- Decks must have 20-24 creatures and may have no more than one of the same creature. All creatures should be 3/3 or better unless they have a special ability (i.e. regeneration, mountainwalk, etc.)
- To help ensure balance, the total power and toughness of each player's creatures should not exceed a number pre-determined by the players.
- Players designate and announce three of their creatures as "Warlords" and two creatures as "Captains". If an opponent destroys a Captain, the Captain's controller takes 2 damage, and the destroyer gains 2 life. If a Warlord is destroyed, the controller takes 3 damage and the destroyer gains 3 life. And for an Elder Dragon, the controller takes 4 damage, the destroyer gains 4 life.
- No more than one of each spell may be included in a deck.
- Decide beforehand which cards are banned. Some cards that tend to be unbalancing because they have such global effects include Balance, Wrath of God, Anarchy, and Gloom.
- Players begin playing with one of each land type already in play.
- Players start with 25 life.
- Players have a 60-card-minimum deck, in addition to the lands already in play.
We've played free-for-all, attack-left, and "temporary teams", where as soon as one team lost, the temporary alliance would dissolve and the remaining 2 players would battle it out. But since the intent of "Elder Dragon Legend Wars" is to increase playing pleasure, feel free to introduce your own rules and requirements.
You will find more ideas throughout the history of Magic The Gathering. There are tons of articles on the Internet for you to read. What matters next is that one year, in the early 2000’s, one guy named Adam Staley, a player living in Anchorage, Alaska, had a brilliant idea with his friends: merging the ideas mentionned above (and a few other ones) in one casual, but funny-as-hell format. They called it Elder Dragons Highlander (EDH). One of them held a Reddit AMA a few years ago to get a chance to tell people a few things about how everything started before they sink into history, tales and legends. This was the second spark for the format you know.
No Command Zone, 100 cards in library, and only those legends as a commander, color limitation by that choice of a “General”, and a strict singleton (yup, even for basic lands, without any online Magic database and with only less than a third of the printed cards we know as of today, headache ahead!).
One different dragon per friend. A total starting life points split by dividing 200 by the number of players, pack and go!
The first fires
Then the spark ignited the wick and soon, fire went to the powder kegs. The rules extended the commander to the whole Legends set (no more “Elder” in EDH!), then to the whole legendary world of Magic, then fair, friendly restrictions applied (like “, then fair, friendly restrictions applied (like “no Wrath of God until a certain creatures count is on the battlefield”), then the beginning of a strict restriction list appeared (because too many people were involved and you could not keep the fun in everywhere), a banned list whose first entry was probably Biorhythm, then the need to play three legendary creatures as a rule, then the Commander Damage rule got added, then it spread out across people, until they met Sheldon Menery, who is without a doubt one of the most important people in the history of Magic. He tells his part of the story here. Then he brought the concepts to Virginia when he moved, then so did he to the judges of the Pro Tours (try reading this and this if you want to know more).
Then Test of Endurance and all the original “wish” cards were banned, people had a watchlist, then in 2005 a Rules Committee was born, with Magic The Gathering judges (Gavin Duggan, Duncan McGregor, then Alex Kenny, Tobby Elliott, then Scott Larabee -Tournament Organizer at Wizards of The Coast- and then Kevin Desprez. Wooooh, that’s some heavy name-dropping, here! Gods of Magic were summoned!). They all decided, then, to create a rules book, a website, a banned/restricted list, and a quarterly update like Wizards of the Coast does for sanctionned formats, based on the same calendar. EDH fixed the starting life points to 40, and lots of obvious “banned” cards were put aside to keep the fun in.
Then, the next stage happened when it got showed to people all across the planet, while Wizards of the Coast got more involved in the process.
Then Archenemy introduced the Command zone in 2009, the Partial Paris mulligan system was adopted to balance the multiplayer format that could take ages to start, and then... Havoc.
Wizards of the Coast announced the first pre-constructed Commander (the new name of the format) packs late 2010. That year, everything changed, and this was the start of the main difference between the multiplayer, casual and friendly-evening format on one side, and the 1vs1 (subsequently renamed “Duel”), competitive, rules-intensive format. The official MTGCommander site stated in its announcement (as a humoristic way of describing the event):
“The world ended. Planets fell from the sky. The seas rose up in anger.”
From flames to braziers
Kevin Desprez (then level 4 Magic judge, now level 5) brought the idea to France (yup, he happens to be French) and probably to Europe, along with the idea that this had to be played like other games: with two players only. The idea spread out to lots of people who got involved in the Duel Commander Committee.
A new, separate, committee grew up: Claire Dupré, Emmanuel Bernuau, Daniel Kitachewsky, Moondust -still keeps his name private, sorry bros-, Manuel Le Marec, Antoine Fruscio, Olivier Arnold, Benoît Verwaerde and many more amazing and devoted people got involved and contributed to making the format grow, and even though some of them left, everything ends up today with the Committee as you know it nowadays.
The committee established itself in 2007, and from time to time, as a legacy, it was let into other people’s trust, for life goes on for everyone, passed from hands to hands with trust as a legacy, now being made of judges, players (whether being Duel Commander regular players or simply good players) and consultants. It also started writing down ideas and gathering opinions on forums, structuring its announcements on a dedicated website, etc. A rulebook was also written in a web and downloadable format, to help judges and tournament organizers.
Then, sanctioned national tournaments (which existed at that time) started offering country-wide Duel Commander tournaments, as well as local, store-sized tournaments, and the competitive vision of the game developed. The Internet did the rest: websites, databases, articles, optimization, net-decking... Soon a metagame emerged.
The stores and organizers were set free to explore different rules if they wanted to, as everyone has always been able to (and always will be able to). People began optimizing decklists, working on specific commanders, and step by step, what used to be a format where people chose colors to play a dragon with became a format where commanders began to matter, as a card-centric way of building decks around it.
The rules changed. 30 life was set as a starting total, a command zone, a Commander tax to go along with it, the opportunity to put the commander back in command zone from anywhere it came from (hands, libraries, in addition to graveyards and exile), 16 more cards were added to the multiplayer list, ... Then, consultants were added, as non decision-maker but still wise sources of advice.
Some of the cards got authorized again later on, more cards were added, other were removed, the color limitation rule changed, starting life totals changed again to end up at 20 in 2016, much alike every other duel game in Magic, among other changes.
Lots of structural updates happened.
Here’s a glimpse.
In 2011, absolute legendary Vintage bomb cards like Mishra’s Workshop, Necropotence, Strip Mine, Vampiric Tutor, The Tabernacle at the Pendrell Vale, or Mana Drain, for example, definitely went on the banlist. The overwhelming potential of those cards totally exploded the balance of the games they were found in. They happened to be almost as dangerous (if not more) in Duel Commander than what they were in Vintage.
Then, in 2012, more structural, yet less harming cards like Biorhythm, Intuition, or Recurring Nightmare were legal again, as the format got more challenging and those cards could now match the rest of the metagame without being as unfair as they used to be. Fastbond made a comeback while Ancient Tomb had to go away.
2013 was the year the format started to really go further in terms of tempo, average mana cost of decklists, and competitive development. Therefore, harmless cards like Staff of Domination or Bitterblossom came back while Humility or Loyal Retainers, were not up to stay, for they were annihilating too many strategies and either closing games instantly or giving no comeback for too many decks. That was a decisive move to balance the format, which got healthier and more developed.
In 2014, some new commanders had to be banned, like Zur the Enchanter, Derevi, Empyrial Tactician, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, which left us for good reasons: they were starting to prevent most of the other strategies to be played and offered extreme, unfair games to anyone playing them.
On this year, consultants were added to the list of people with influence. Those team members do not take part in the final votes, but they’re hired for their wisdom, influence and ideas. This was done as an answer to the Committee being downsized to 4 people at that time.
The Committee started going worldwide to add more people to its decisions and to collect more ideas, feelings and feedback. Like all members, it was decided that people could start coming from all around the world, for the people started getting interested in Duel Commander in many many countries. The game started to grow all across Europe, in Italy, mostly, but each country started to get interested and eventually starting organizing tournaments.
Shaping the volcanoes
In 2015, tempo-agressive and low mana cost cards like Entomb, Mystical Tutor, Sensei’s Divining Top and Fastbond left the field because they were ending up too many games, allowing impossible, unfair comebacks, turn 2 game locks or overly oppressive starts while stuff like Winter Orb were made legal again, now the format had grown down in terms of cost and in terms of speed, which made a real difference with the multiplayer decklists, mostly due to the competitive aspect of Duel Commander that was seriously increasing. Sensei’s Divining Top unfortunately had to go away again, for time concerns, mostly. Not every decision is made based on power, this one was made as a global test, which ended up being positive regarding the drawbacks of such cards in such a format.
In July, rules changed so that the Commander could now return to the command zone as a rules replacement effect when put to -almost- any other zone (graveyard, exile, the library, or in its owner’s hand). This changed a lot of things, since it wasn’t the case before, and commanders could be put into their owners’ hands or shuffled in libraries without being offered a choice. A few cards allowing that situation in Magic The Gathering helped taking this decision so as to simplify the rules.
That year also marked the mulligan rule to change to go back to normal (the Vancouver mulligan), with the addition of the “scry 1” rule, in September. It was adopted in every game of Magic The Gathering and was therefore moved to Duel Commander aswell. The previous, “Partial Paris” mulligan allowed people to agressively keep key cards in their opening hands while making too many bets on their first moves and helping chances a little too much, and, despite the little shuffling time difference, that was worth it.
In 2016, the “watchlist” went away in July, after a few months. Through that, a tryout had been made to warn players about cards that were harmful for the format so that everyone could foresee major changes. Due to the pression it applied on players, and after reading a lot of negative feedback from the community, it was finally removed so that the banned cards list work like any other one.
The same year, The same year, Regional Coordinators were added to the team. That part of the project was settled down so as to answer the need to now have more feedback from all the countries in the world that were also playing Duel Commander.
Since it had to start somewhere, people were asked to candidate, and lots of people sent messages from the other sides of Earth, asking to get involved. The first Regional Coordinators who got accepted came from Russia, Italia, Philippines, USA and Brazil, and the team grew up to 13 people at that time. Regional Coordinators help a lot to keep in touch with foreign communities and countries and do a great job in making the unseen visible. The team then grew up and more and more Coordinators are always needed, even nowadays. Applications are always and still open! The goal of that move is to have people from all around the world.
In order to keep a healthy format, some commanders had to be banned that same year. Tasigur, the Golden Fang was now banned as a commander only because its delve ability was going against one of the structural basics of Duel Commander: the commander tax. Yisan, the Wanderer Bard suffered the same fate, so did Marath, Will of the Wild. Those two commanders were offering too many threats to almost any other decks, and showed a tremendous superiority to most of the format. Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise were also banned, as they are in other sanctionned formats (they suffer from limitations in Legacy and/or Vintage).
In April, the color limitation in mana pools (previously limited to the color identity of the commander or converted to colorless mana) was also removed, to allow players to understand correctly the new symbols of mana and the first colorless costs symbols appearing in the game (in addition to generic mana symbols) after a three-months extension with the previous rule.
Last but not the least, along with all those cards being removed from the banlist, the decision was made to lower the starting life totals to 20 points, after a one-month and a half transition from September to November. This was the last time health points moved again, from a (far) original division of 200 depending on the number of players (the initial fun), to 40 (multiplayer value), to 30 (adaptative value), to 20 (dueling value), as you now know, which is the standard for duel Magic The Gathering games. When the starting life totals rule changed, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Serra Ascendant, Grindstone, Necropotence and Balance could come back to the decklists, for they were now safer to face in this new metagame that would be developing onwards.
Along with that decision, the Commander Damage rule was removed. Dealing 21 or more combat damage is not longer a sufficient condition to win a game. That occured at the same time the partner-ability commanders hit the stores.
Along with the last announcements of year 2016, a fifth person was added to the voting crew of the Committee, Brennan McAlear, from Ohio, USA, supporting the beginning of internationalisation of the Committee, rules were also re-written in order to help Tournament organizers, along with a quickstart guide and a FAQ for players.
A burning planet
Once again, Wizards of the Coast shakes the world of Magic: The Gathering and proved how much they are attentive to the vast community of players. On the 22nd March, 2017, the product managers of Magic Online published a first announcement stating that MTGO would now handle 1 versus 1 Commander games differently from the multiplayer variant.
Then, on the 3rd May, 2017 an article was posted on the official website that settled down everything, with an immediate update on the 5th May. From now on, Magic Online will handle separate rules for multiplayer and duelling variants of Commander. This only applies to digital games, not to paper games, though.
This is the first time an official move was made towards 1 versus 1 games in Commander. Yet, the first proposals made did not match what had been building over the last decade, even though it was a fantastic start. Therefore, the Duel Commander Committee chose to keep running the same way and, as Wizards of the Coast wrote in their article: paper communities “shouldn’t be disrupted” by such announcements, and should keep working the same. Everyone is now free to play commander on Magic Online with separate rulings for duel games. And we’re now waiting for the next moves... With great impatience!
Ever since then, the format fluctuated between ups and downs. Now the Committee is expanding with new Regional Coordinators from all around the world. In 2019 another world record was still pushed up to 233 players. Experimental changes are set in motion by the Committee as a way to get data on specific cards, the last Power 9 card finally has to be banned. There are now tournament results coming from over twenty countries, and this is not stopping here.
In 2020, many other cards were made free and disappeared again. The core members changed, more consultants and regional coordinators were added to the team, the first Commander draft edition was out, adding over 110 commanders in one single edition. And that was just the beginning, despite swimming in the middle of the COVID-19 situation the whole year through. Companions appeared, too, forcing the Commander rules to change, so did the Commander death / exile rule. A new website was created, a Discord server was open, announcements started to be schedule every two months. And many other things are yet to come.
History is never written before it happens, and the Commander fire still burns, now, everywhere on the planet, into the minds of everyone who wishes to play their favorite format. There are now thousands and thousands of decklists published each and every year, the current metagame-dominant commanders change every few months, and, from a single spark that burst out into a brilliant maths teacher’s head, from students gathering for funny evenings in the northern America, to people going by the hundreds to harder, yet more rewarding, tournaments for a greater challenge every day.
And there you are.
What happens next is in your hands, commander of Commanders.
(illustrations ©Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All Rights Reserved)