Mechanical Engineering – Restriction Breeds Creativity

Commander Mechanic • October 7, 2021

Mana Crypt by Matt Stewart

Hey folks, I’m Chris and I’m YOUR Commander Mechanic. You may recognize me from my YouTube Channel or from guesting on major streams around the community—I’m a deck builder and brewer with a very analytical view of the format of Commander. Some have said I take a competitive mindset and apply it to casual Commander, but I prefer to think of it as taking an efficient look at deck building. More of the game is played before you ever sit down at a table with other players.

There’s a lot to be said about other players’ impact on play experience. Expectation mismatches, lack of communication, and differing opinions on what constitutes ‘fun’ can all play a part in how much you enjoy Commander.

Throughout this series I want to take a look at how you can improve play experience—your own and that of others—before you ever play a game. Avoid not being able to play the game due to deck building issues, avoid imposing poor scenarios on others, and ensure you have concentrated efforts in mind when deck building.

But, as always, Commander is about having fun YOUR WAY—don’t let anyone tell you there’s a right or wrong way to play this game.

A Wide-Open Format

We’re fortunate enough to be Commander players, a format that involves almost every card in Magic’s illustrious history and doesn’t rotate. It’s a format that only ever grows-a format that will only ever have MORE options added to it.

In recent years, as Wizards realized that Commander is THE format for the casual and casual-plus audience, we’ve seen more legendary creatures added to the game than ever before. In fact Commander Legends in 2020 added 71 new legendary creatures to the game – the same amount added the entire YEAR of 2019.

That can give new players to the format, and even existing players to the format, executive paralysis. When you can play ANYTHING, what do you play?

And, as we recently learned, many players were just choosing Golos, Tireless Pilgrim.

And all this begs the question then—what is your decision-making criteria for a new deck? A new commander? And how do we make it easier for NEW PLAYERS to get into a format that, on the surface, appears so dense and impenetrable that people might get scared off?

I have a feeling that’s WHY we’re seeing so many new legendaries.

Love at First Sight

Enfranchised players that have been playing commander for ages may have copies of Karn, Silver Golem or Sliver Queen or Merieke Ri Berit laying around but new players to the game only have what they’ve pulled from a pre-release kit, or received from a draft. And the more legends we get in every set, the more likely it is that a player is going to fall in love with that card-associate to it the feeling of opening it from a pack, feeling the call of fate begging them to put a deck together.

And that’s the hook.

It’s anecdotal but when I opened my Adventures in the Forgotten Realms pre-release kit, I opened an average of 1.5 legendary creatures per pack. Between Uncommon, Rare, and Mythic legends I was at no lack for options if I wanted to parley a one-time pre-release into a love for another format.

Again anecdotal but this is EXACTLY what happened to me at a recent at-home pre-release. Hosted for some friends (all safe, vaccinated, and regulations followed) a friend-of-a-friend was playing Magic again for the first time in over 10 years. He had long sold off his cards and hadn’t thought about the game in ages… but when he got to play with Jerren, Corrupted Bishop for the first time, he fell in love with the game all over again. His only goal all day was to flip Jerren into a big baddass Ormendhal and when he finally did it, and we saw the look in his eyes, we knew it would be a gentle nudge to get him into a format where he could play Jerren and flip him into Ormendhal whenever he wanted.

And that’s how this format and this game gets into you. In a sea of possibilities it’s the rare emotional connection you strike with a card that makes you want to capture that joy again and again. And that connection can be through gameplay, mechanics, or lore—however it resonates with you, as long as it resonates with you, the game has you.

A Villainous Wealth of Options

So now we’re learning why we’ve seen an explosion of options come up for commanders in recent years-because they’re gateways into the format and give people a starting point. They spark a connection that players want to maintain.

But what about long-time players? What about the enfranchised players that have been at this for decades and are suddenly being overwhelmed by new cards and options?

First, fight the urge to get EVERYTHING. Building a new deck is great, and wanting to build something cool is awesome, but trying to force the joy you may get from your first deck or first commander is going to be a tiresome proposition for most. If you find a card that speaks to you, go for it. Fall in love with something new all over again.

Second, draw on past experiences. It doesn’t always have to be a Legendary Creature that prompts you to build a new deck, but maybe it’s a game action or an end state. For instance, I LOVE clones, so I build decks that make clones like Sakashima of a Thousand Faces or Rionya, Fire Dancer. As long as it makes copies of a creature, chances are I’ve built a deck around it. Some players build around concepts like the number 3 or doubling effects. Some players want to use a non-legendary card as a cornerstone in a deck like Villainous Wealth or Academy Manufactor. And those are perfectly valid starting points.

Third, impose restrictions on yourself. It’s easy to lean into “all the good stuff” decks when you have access to all the good stuff. But it takes discipline, resolve, and creativity to say “I won’t put Smothering Tithe in this white deck.” I often struggle with this as I jam my copy of Wheel of Fortune into every red deck I make, which more than doubles the deck’s budget. But why wouldn’t I include it? I have it available!

Because imposing that restriction on yourself leads you to build an entirely different deck.

Grab a Companion

This whole concept of restrictions is why I LOVE companions so much. From Lurrus of the Dream Den through to Umori, the Collector, companions add a new fun dimension to deck building and how you THINK ABOUT deck building. What happens when you can’t put a Sol Ring in a deck any more? When was the last time you even considered building a deck without this staple?

Recently I took a look at the new Florian, Voldaren Scion and realized that he’d make a PERFECT partner to Obosh, the Preypiercer which forces me to build around the restriction of odd-only mana values. This may reduce my card pool for building the deck, but it FORCES me to choose some unconventional cards to add to the deck, and makes you think harder beyond “add in all the good stuff”. You can’t have Dockside Extortionist or Demonic Tutor in a list that runs only odd-mana-value cards. This means I actually have to look up cards to add, explore alternate options, and be inspired to build. To get those creative juices flowing!

Here’s the list I ended up with:

Not only does the deck follow the 1/2/3 strategy methodology I’ve discussed in the column before—with a primary strategy being group-slug dealing damage to the table, a secondary strategy of dealing combat damage or burning out opponents, and a tertiary strategy of the 1-2 punch of Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond—but it has forced me to think outside the box for several inclusions. And, personally, it’s these restrictions that really get me fired up about deck building.

Unique commanders, self-imposed restrictions, and deck building challenges force you to think about using cards you wouldn’t normally include, come up with new combos, and generally reclaim that SPARK and ENTHUSIASM about deck building and the format of Commander. Honestly, where else would you see a Spear Spewer but in very niche decks?

And it’s evident that these restrictions don’t mean that you aren’t able to build a POWERFUL deck either—the list above includes some heavy-hitters ranging from Wheel of Fortune to Vampiric Tutor to Cabal Coffers. Restrictions aren’t a weakness. Restrictions don’t mean a deck can’t be GOOD. Restrictions just mean you can’t take the direct path to good. Restrictions just make building a good deck that much more impressive.

Self-Imposed Restrictions

So if you’re feeling bored or impassionate about deck building, challenge yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by options, take a deep breath. Try something different and ask yourself if you’re up for something new. It’s ok if you’re not; no one is twisting your arm to build new decks all the time (unless, like me, you make content).

But if you’re feeling the urge and not the passion, do something FUNKY. Grab a companion, encourage yourself to build with a newly-opened commander, or choose something esoteric to build around-whatever it is, make sure you’re building something for YOU.

I will always dedicate time to someone who wants to passionately discuss their decks. To me, that’s the hallmark of being in LOVE with your choices, and being invested in your deck, your choices, and your format.

And that’s a thing of beauty.

Let me know what the last thing that snapped up your attention was-a card, a concept, an interaction? Tell me what gets those creative juices FLOWING!

And, as always folks, good luck & have fun!

"I'm Chris and I'm YOUR Commander Mechanic!" A die-hard Commander player, Chris is a brewer, deck builder, and player experience advocate. Check out YouTube for Tune-Ups, Twitter for hot takes, and catch him on streams all over the community!