120 is the new 100

Dana Roach • October 15, 2021

Rules are made to be broken, or at least changed

In professional baseball, prior to the year 1892 what was known as the pitcher's box sat 50 feet from home plate. That's ten and a half feet closer than where it sites today. It was still the same height as the batter's box, but being that close gave hitters a much smaller window with which to track and swing at a pitch. As a result, pitchers in that era often dominated the game.

Then in 1892 Major League Baseball removed the pitcher's box and replaced it with a mat similar to the batter's box at a distance of  60'6″ from home plate in an attempt to even things out. It worked, but too well; by 1904 the pendulum had swung too far the other direction and hitters were dominating the sport. To fix this the rules were changed to allow pitchers to throw from a mound, but it was restricted to a maximum of 15 inches higher than the field.

By 1968 baseball again attempted to rebalance the game towards offense, so it lowered the pitcher's mount 5 inches to a standard height of 10" inches above the rest of the field.

That in brief is the history of changes made just to the location of the pitcher in an effort to balance Major League Baseball. Similar changes have been made over the years to field dimensions, bat size and shape, equipment allowed, and even what performance boosting drugs players are allowed to use.

Changing the Rules

Assuming you've made it this far you're probably wondering why I wrote all of that about baseball in a column about Magic: the Gathering. It's because I'm now going to argue that we should do the Commander equivalent of adjusting the pitcher's mound by increasing deck sizes to 120 cards.

I'm sure you have a lot of questions about why I'd suggest such a thing, and pretty low on that list of questions is why 120 vs something like 110, or just removing the cap and setting a minimum deck size like we have in other formats?

Well, with a minimum deck size there's a strategic advantage to staying at 100, for reasons I'll address when justifying raising the cap. As a result, some amount of players will stay at 100, and that will encourage everyone to stay at 100. The point is to increase everyone's deck size.

So why 120? I have two reasons. First, a 10% increase in deck size doesn't quite seem as impactful, especially in a world where partners exist in the zone, and companions and dungeons can virtually increase your deck size to 104. Second, and perhaps less important is that I just liked the symmetry of Commander running decks twice the size of other formats.

So now that I've addressed why 120 cards, let me try to justify why I'm suggesting any change at all.

The amount of new cards is going up and finding room is hard

1993 saw the release of the first set, named Alpha. Alpha brought 295 cards added to our pool. Shortly thereafter we picked up another 92 from Arabian Nights giving us 387 total cards to pick from during Magic's first year.

The following year brought Antiquities, Legends, the Dark, and Fallen Empires adding 615 total cards to the cannon. 1995 added 524 more new cards with Ice Age and Homelands, and 1996 saw another 549 between Alliances and Mirage.

This trend of adding 500-600 or so cards continued for quite a few years, though the numbers did tilt gradually upward. A decade ago in 2011 saw 594 new cards from expansions and another 97 new cards in the core set and 51 from the first Commander precons, putting the total at 742. That's a larger amount than what we were getting in the early 90's but it's not that substantial of a leap over what we were seeing in 1996 or 1997.

We no longer live in the world of incremental bumps. We added 1,201 new Commander-legal cards to our pool in the year 2020, and through the 2021 calendar year we are on track to potentially see 2,000 new cards from which to choose.

The size of our available card pool is increasing dramatically each year. Our deck size hasn't increased to match this, and maybe it should.

Diversity occurs in the margins


The reality is there's some set amount of staples most people run. Yeah, you could not run Arcane Signet because it's in a gazillion decks, but you'd just be being obstinate; it's an absurdly efficient, powerful and affordable ramp option any deck can utilize.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. If I'm playing white Swords to Plowshares is in the deck. Beast Within is in all my green lists, Chaos Warp is in the red, etc. There's some cards that are just hard to avoid. It's not a full deck worth, however.

No, where things tend to get creative is at the edges, after you've added the things most people add. Take mana rocks. Yep, you've got your Sol Ring, Signets, and Talismans, maybe the zero-drop rocks if you're playing at that power level. But where do you go from there? After that is where people tend to make actual decisions. Fellwar Stone for example gets way more interesting in a three- or four-color deck, where as maybe you'd prefer a Liquimetal Torque in mono-red to let your artifact removal spells hit any target.

The best way to see a more diverse array of cards in decks is to expand the slots for people to run that those cards.

Sheldon Menery recently wrote an article about what he feels are his top five worries about the state of the game, and homogenization was one of them. Expanding deck sizes would address that because out on the fringes are where the choices become way less clear.

Checking the stats on EDHREC bears this out:

  • The most commonly played green card is Cultivate which shows up in 141,271 decks. If you play a green deck, there's a really good chance it's running Cultivate.
  • The second most played? Kodama's Reach and it's in 35,000 less decks. Mathematically you're 35% less likely to see a Kodama's Reach in a deck than you are Cultivate.
  • The tenth most popular card is Heroic Intervention in 64,872, and by the time we get down to #20 we're looking at just 40,936 for Seedborn Muse.

You see the same in every color. Yes, there are a lot of commonly played cards in Commander, but once you get past the top picks, brewer choices open up. So let's give everyone more slots to make those more diverse choices.

It will dilute the occurrence of the staples that are frequently played

In addition to diversify the cards showing up in decks, expanding to 120 will also dilute the occurrence of staples that do frequently show up in decks. Instead of that Rhystic Study being 1 in the 99, it's 1 in 119. Here's how that changes how often you see a specific card:

Cards drawn Chance to draw in 99-card library Chance to draw in 119-card library
7 7.07% 5.80%
10 10.1% 8.40%
15 15.2% 12.6%
20 20.2% 16.8%

Now, the obvious rebuttal is that people can just run more tutors to find that specific card more easily, and that's true. People can already do that though, and if you're playing in a meta where people are packing every available tutor option to find a specific card, this won't change that. For everyone else though? If you're not already packing some density of tutors to find a specific card, going to 120 isn't probably going to change that. As a result, you're just going to see heavily played format staples show up less frequently on the battlefield.

You are remembered for the rules you break

There's obviously some downsides here, too. Most of our deckboxes don't hold 120 cards, and sleeves don't come in packs of 120. Also, Commander decks in the best of circumstances are difficult to shuffle, and increasing the size by 20% is going to make things worse. On top of that, Magic cards aren't free; a deck with 20 more cards is going to cost more money to put together.

So is 120 the new 100? I don't know, but I think it's something worth considering for all the reasons stated above. I'm interested in hearing what you think, however. Are things fine as is, or are you curious what a Commander world with 120-card decks looks like? Sound off below and share your thoughts, and thanks for reading.

Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcasts. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son where he has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.