Revising the Rules - Is Commander Damage Outdated?

Jake FitzSimons • August 15, 2021

Uril, The Miststalker by Jaime Jones

Welcome to the second instalment of Revising the Rules, where we talk through potential changes to everyone's favorite format. Last week we looked at lowering the collective life totals, but today we'll be assessing an adjacent topic: commander damage.

A defining feature of the format, commander damage is a holdover from the days where there were only five possible commanders; the original cycle of Elder Dragons. With each one weighing in at seven power, three hits in a row seemed like a healthy failsafe against mass lifegain strategies, which godfather of the format, Sheldon Menery, felt were the strongest thing to be doing in multiplayer games of the day.

To say things have changed drastically since then would be an understatement. Your commander is as likely to be a demon or a dwarf as it is a dragon, with powers ranging from 0 to 13, let alone a planeswalker completely incapable of dealing combat damage in the first place. So if Commander has changed, why hasn't commander damage?

Removing It Altogether

The first thing I want to get out of the way are head designer Mark Rosewater's comments on the issue. In episode #771 of his Drive To Work podcast, MaRo noted commander damage creates undesirable cognitive load: an additional thing for players to keep track of and consider. We've all played drawn-out games where we've lost count of how many times we've been hit by a certain commander or where someone has accidentally tipped over the die keeping track of it. This so-called cognitive load is enough that MaRo would actually get rid of the mechanic altogether, and while I see where he is coming from as a designer, I couldn't disagree more.

For one thing, Commander is a multiplayer format with games that last for multiple hours and boardstates that can verge on over a hundred cards in play at a time. The amount to keep track of already borders on the ridiculous and for many players - yours truly among them - this is part of the appeal. Would removing commander damage ease this load in any appreciable way? Is it really the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to keeping track of all the moving pieces in an average game? Surely not.

Which is to say nothing of what would happen to the already underpowered and often underrepresented archetype of Voltron. How many Bruna decks would fade into nothing? How many Urils would retreat into the mist, never to be seen again? How many Narset, Enlightened Master's would - wait... maybe that would be for the best. 

If you read last week's article, you'll know that I'm a big proponent of aggro having a home in Commander. This isn't because I adore aggro (okay fine, I have been known to play a bit of Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow) but because I'm a fan of archetype equality. The more viable strategies in your average Commander pod, the more diverse range of players the game will appeal to, and with life totals the way they are, Voltron is one of the best outlets for players who want to beat face as their primary plan. 

Raising The Roof

But even if cognitive load isn't a big problem, that's not to say it doesn't have gameplay issues. One of the troubles with a Voltron plan is it incentivises exclusively targeting a single player in a game where you have three opponents. There's no reason to spread the damage around and share the love because you're not achieving anything worthwhile that way. Short of chaining turns or combat steps, you'll be hard-pressed to wipe out each player simultaneously with commander damage, meaning the first player you kill will be forced to sit on the sidelines until the game reaches its natural conclusion. Truth be told, this is an inherent facet of the format, but at its most frustrating with a Voltron deck at the table. 

How many games have you played where the Voltron player suits up their commander, nukes a single opponent from orbit in one fell swoop, but then loses everything when they pass the turn and eat a well-timed boardwipe? It's not quite kingmaking, but it can make for some terrible feel bad scenarios.

Would raising it help? What if commander damage was 31? Or 28, in homage to the multiple of seven precedent set by the Elder Dragons? Well, two problems. The higher the threshold is raised, the weaker an already weak strategy becomes, which doesn't seem fair to players who just love that all-eggs-in-one-basket gameplay. Yes, some of those feel bad moments would be avoided, but at the cost of all the feel good moments that Voltron players crave.

But more importantly, commander damage feels like a pseudo-infect mechanic, at (almost) half the starting life and with no way to mitigate or remove the damage once you've received it. The smaller the gap between the commander damage threshold and the starting life total, the less distinct it becomes as a feature of the format.

Lowering the Bar

As fun as it can be to play a Voltron deck, if your playgroup starts to get a little spikier, it won't be long before you're left in the dust. The fact of the matter is that all-in strategies are inherently fragile, glass cannons that break as easily as they go boom. So what if that boom felt a little bigger? Would helping Voltron decks get a kill sooner be in the best interest of the format?

Given my stance on life totals, you might think I'd be all for a lower commander damage threshold, but I fear it would actually create more problems than it would solve. Take it down to 10 and it risks becoming too close to infect, which would both strip that mechanic of what makes it unique, and be way too powerful. Infect strategies are notoriously weak in Commander, but not due to the weakness of the mechanic so much as how difficult it is to create a critical mass of creatures with infect in a 100-card singleton format - with the notable exception of the dreaded Triumph of the Hordes.

Let's consider the threshold at 15 as a midpoint then. Jeska, Thrice Reborn becomes a far more terrifying partner than she already is. The almighty Yargle, Glutton of Urborg would almost be capable of a two-hit kill without help. The archetype certainly becomes a bit stronger, but the majority of the kills I see from Voltron decks are already one or two-shot kills. Having said that, I do feel commander damage should adjust in proportion to the starting life total, were that ever to change. 

Pooling Commander Damage 

Another alternative for twisting the commander damage rules would be codifying a misunderstanding that more than one player has had. Rather than the 21 damage threshold being tied to individual commanders, it could be a shared pool where a combined total it kept track of.

Declan attacks Jeff with Kraum, Ludevic's Opus three times for a total of 12 commander damage. Then Robyn attacks Jeff with Winota, Joiner of Forces once for a total of 16 commander damage. Jane finishes Jeff off with one swing from Kodama of the East Tree for a total of 22 cumulative damage.

This would have some advantages. Commander damage would be easier to track and more consistently relevant on a game to game basis. Every player needs only a spindown die in front of them that goes up every time any commander hits them, and it would be far less likely to be overlooked as even little hits from a Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive or a Tymna the Weaver could contribute to someone's demise. 

However - and I recognize this isn't actually a gameplay issue - I think this change would rob a lot of the character and flavor from the mechanic. Your commander isn't just any old character: it's your fearless general, your mage of might and mystery, or the shadowy mastermind pulling the strings of your deck. Such a powerful being deigning to enter the fray themselves and take down an opponent should feel unique to that specific character. Opening them up to collaboration with opponents risks straying too far from the original flavor and intent of the format.

Why hasn't commander damage changed as the format has grown? Ultimately, because it doesn't really need to! The mechanic is not perfect and will remain polarising in certain playgroups as long as it exists, but it doesn't pose significant enough of a problem to warrant a change, and none of the commonly discussed alternatives add enough to justify themselves. For those few playgroups who are having trouble with it or want a change of pace, I think rule zero is the way to go. 

The mechanic is a little outdated, you might even call it a relic from a bygone era, but it's one of the things that makes Commander what it is. I am naught but a single voice baying into the abyss though, so tell me what your own experiences with commander damage are like. Do you love it? Loathe it? Can't remember the last time it even came up in a game? Let me know in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter!

Jake FitzSimons is a writer from Sydney and a Magic fiend. He's either the johnniest spike or the spikiest johnny, nobody is sure which. When he isn’t brewing or playing cEDH, he can be found writing, playing piano, and doting on his little cat.