Reading the Tea Leaves of Commander 2018

John Humphreys • August 28, 2018

Holy cow... that worked!? Just goes to show if you hijack the right person's password it can actually land you a gig 🙂

Hello again Cardsphere comrades, it’s your new oddball Internet friend Johnny Slivers. After some intense haggling over the return of blog control back to Ted I was able to convince him that I was worth a gamble, so here I am in all my casual glory. Since my format of choice has been Commander for some time this is where I will start to make my home at Cardsphere. I’m a big fan of format variants and unstapled decks so you can expect to see technical deck talk from me along those lines. Other times, as with today, I'll be weighing in on the state of the format.

Commander 2018 has arrived and from what I can tell the reviews have been mixed with one of the harsher criticisms coming from the Professor at Tolarian Community College grading this year’s commander product at a lukewarm B-. Two big complaints have been the general powering down of the product aong with seemingly lackluster list of reprints. While I think these criticisms are fair I don’t feel they fully account for all factors influencing the behind-the-scenes decisions. Today I'll speculate on what these influences might be and why the Commander 2018 decks are a stronger product, once they are considered.


The Power of Nostalgia

I hereby pronounce 2018 the Year of the Magic the Gathering Nostalgia Parade. With the celebrated return to Dominaria and the “much-hype” anticipation for Guilds of Ravnica, Magic players are finding themselves steeped in the familiar fuzzy feelings of yesteryear. These are the two worlds in the all history of Magic the Gathering to which we're most attached. Knowing this, I'm betting Wizards of the Coast thought carefully about how this design strategy was going to affect our purchasing habits. They counted on these emotional connections to drive sales. This proved true for Dominaria and we can reasonably expect similar from Guilds of Ravnica.

So why is this relevant to the design of Commander 2018? In the last few years Wizards has begun to realize that there's only so much cash in the community. Since it is likely they are counting on the lion's share of that revenue to pour into nostalgia sets, odds are good lower sales for summer sets like Core 2019 and Commander 2018 were anticipated. On the flip side it's also possible that Wizards powered down Commander 2018 to temper demand for the product to avoid undermining expected sales for Guilds of Ravnica. Now, in a vacuum this idea can seem like an act of madness considering how successful the Commander preconstructed decks have been in the past. Fortunately for us, Wizards is not about to slap the Commander customer base in the face.

Spreading Love… and Your Purchasing Patterns

In addition to big nostalgia Wizards of the Coast signaled an even broader support for singleton formats when they officially announced the sanctioning of Brawl, a standard legal singleton format very similar to Commander. Brawl was synchronized to launch in tandem with Dominaria which provided in excess of 50 legendary creatures and Planeswalkers. This was a needed boost considering the average number of legendary creatures in previous sets were usually in the range of 7 to 9 with 3 to 5 planeswalkers. This influx of new commanders created a brewer’s paradise for both Brawl and Commanders players alike. Effectively, Wizards incentivized Commander players to be a part of that nostalgic purchasing trend, even if they weren’t interested in playing standard. A convenient side effect for a new format.

There has even been clear indication by WotC's Gavin Verhey on Twitter that they are planning future sets with Brawl in mind. For Magic Core 2019 this equated to 10 legendary creatures and 10 planeswalkers (if you include the Planeswalker Decks.) Commander players will see an overall increase in the number of new potential commanders each year if this pace continues. Regardless, what matters is the fact that Commander players have an increased incentive to be engaged with the latest standard sets, even if only slightly.

Consider this alongside the fact that Battlebond is widely regarded as being “Commander Masters” given the quality reprints it made available. It's also the case that many of the top end reprints overall for 2018 work well with strategies in the commander 2018 pre cons. Looking at cases like Crucible of Worlds, Scapeshift, Doubling Season, Land Tax and even Death Barron it's easy to see how these cards are automatic upgrades for the Commander 2018 decks. Irksome though it may be, those much-desired commander reprints are found in the surrounding sets. Yet another added incentive for commander players to be engaged with the latest Magic products.


So if Wizards is appealing to more commander players with sets outside the Commander Pre-cons, who are they designing those pre-cons for? I think Commander 2018 is actually an effort to retain Standard players who are suffering from rotation burn out. The best examples at the moment for me are the theme of the Exquisite Invention deck and Varina, Lich Queen.

Exquisite Invention is clearly going to be the home for wayward Kaladesh cards that can’t play in standard after rotation. A Standard player who was all in on Kaladesh can easily look at this deck and think to themselves “…Hey, I’ve got a whole trade binder of goodies for this deck” and not bat an eye at picking it up. Varina, Lich Queen gets a lot of solid cards from Shadows over Innistrad and Amonkhet, where zombies and graveyards-matter strategies went hand in hand. Varina carves out a second home for zombies in both sets thanks to her Esper orientation. A very welcome addition especially for zombie players of the Amonkhet block who are sitting on small mountains of white zombie creatures.

Taking all this into consideration the design of the Commander 2018 feels like they have a kind of macroeconomics sub-plot driving their mission. And knowing Wizards of the Coast there's no way these decks are designed with only previous sets in mind, making me ask:

Is C18 a Glimpse into the Future?

That’s right. It’s speculation time. This is where I attempt to call some shots on what kind of mechanics we can expect to see in Ravnica, based in part on the commanders and strategies in the 2018 Pre-Cons.

Dimir: I think Dimir is going to be making things disappear. Specifically, manipulation of the Exile zone. A key descriptor, as far as our Vorthos friends are concerned, is that they purport to not actually exist. Mechanically, I think this means they will weaponize Exile. Think mini Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver.

Golgari: I think things get weird for the Golgari. Be on the lookout for Golgari creatures gaining value from non-creature cards entering and/or leaving the graveyard.


Rakdos: Xantcha, Sleeper Agent is probably one of the best Commanders a Rakdos player could have ever hoped for and this is why the Rakdos will be the house of the Harmless Offering abilities. Well, their ability will be more along the lines of some kind of Eye for an Eye threat where everything an opponent does will cost them some blood, no matter what.

Simic: I think Simic may end up going for something like Melding. I’m thinking maybe an ability where two creatures in play can be joined together to combine strength and abilities kind of like The Mimeoplasm does from the graveyard.

Orzhov: In the Subjective Reality deck, a key interactions that it's concerned with is permanents entering AND leaving the battlefield. I see Orzhov caring very much about this subtle difference between creatures “dying” and “leaving the battlefield” with the latter having a much greater potential for abuse.

My Final Verdict

I think the Commander 2018 decks signal that Wizards of the Coast is assigning a different job to this instalment of the product line. This is not a product for enfranchised Commander players.

It's instead aimed at new Commander players and keeping standard players engaged in the game instead of burning out. This opportunity to extend the life of standard staples keeps players from taking those extended breaks from the game. Also, if the decks synergize with sets to come, they can be an incentive to get Commander players hooked into Standard for relevant sets, even if only for a handful of drafts. Commander 2018 decks cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Should we see them find greater relevance through synergies with upcoming sets like I believe they will, then I think they will be deserving of at least a B+.

Feel free to yell at me on twitter @JohnnySlivers 🙂