Everything You Need To Know About Commander/EDH

Magic the Gathering has lots and lots of different ways to play. Different rulesets, different cards, more players, fewer players, co-op, competitive, the list is endless on how you can change things up. Each of these different styles of play is known as a 'format', and there's one that's more popular than any other: Commander.

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Thanks to its open-ended deckbuilding and focus on social play over laser-focused competition, Commander is a lot of players' first introduction to Magic. But what is it, and how can you get started with the format? Here is everything you need to know about Commander.

What Is Commander?

As mentioned, Commander is a format – a set of rules that change certain things about how Magic is played. Formally known as Elder Dragon Highlander (or EDH, which is still used in a lot of communities to this day), Commander is a 100-card, multiplayer, singleton format.

Essentially, this means two things: first, it being multiplayer means it's intended to be played with more than the two people usual Magic is. The standard size of a Commander game is four players, but anything two or bigger is possible. Meanwhile, Singleton means you can only have one copy of any card that isn't a basic land. Including your Commander (we'll get to that), decks have to be 100 cards.

Another notable thing about Commander is the life total. Unlike most formats where the life total is set to 20, Commander games start at 40. The reason for this Is that the larger number of players and creatures on the battlefield can otherwise make games end too quickly.

What Are Commanders?

Commanders are the defining trait of the format. Every single Commander deck has to be built using the colour identity (every coloured pip on a card, bar any in italic rules reminder text) of a specific Legendary Creature, who is your Commander. For example, a deck with Kwain, Itinerant Meddler can only use cards that are colourless, white, or blue, while an Odric, Blood-Cursed deck can use white and red.

Of course, there are some exceptions to this. Some Commanders have the Partner or Friends Forever mechanics, which let it pair up with another creature with the same keyword and have both as your Commander. Your deck's colour identity is then going to be the combined identities of each creature combined – Ardenn, Intrepid Archaeologist and Krark the Thubmless both have partner, and so putting both as your Commander will let you run colourless, white, and red cards in your deck.

Commanders aren't a part of your deck in the same way your other cards are. Before the game begins, your Commander (or Commanders) is removed from your deck and placed in a place called the Command Zone. Commanders can always be cast straight out of the Command zone, and don't need to be put into your hand or drawn beforehand. If your Commander leaves the battlefield for any reason – it's killed, exiled, bounced to your hand, or shuffled into your deck – you can elect to instead put it back into the Command zone – other than a few edge cases like a Drannith Magistrate or Darksteel Mutation, your Commander will always be available to you.

The catch to this, though, is the Command tax. The first time you cast your Commander from the Command zone, you just pay its usual mana cost. Any time after that, you pay an additional two generic mana for each time you've played it from the Command Zone. Dina, Soul Steeper costs one black and one green the first time it is played, then two generic, a black, and a green, then the third time it will be four generic, and so on. While this doesn't technically put a limit on how many times your Commander can die, it does mean you can't be too reckless with them.

Note that, unless specified on the card, Planeswalkers cannot be valid Commanders. They are Legendary, but they're not Legendary Creatures, and so don't apply. The one exception to this rule is Grist, the Hunger Tide – the card doesn't say it can be your Commander, but it does say it's a creature anywhere other than the battlefield, which includes the Command zone.

What Is Commander Damage?

Commander damage is the format's answer to lifegain decks getting too out of hand and going far beyond what any deck could reasonably deal with.

If your Commander deals 21 combat damage to a player, that player immediately loses the game, no matter how much life they had remaining. The damage has to be have been dealt through combat, and it has to have all come from the same Commander – if you've got a Partner pair, one of them has to have dealt 21 total damage, while each other player's Commander damages are tracked separately.

Despite being called damage, it isn't tracked in the same way as normal damage. If your 5/4 Adeline, Resplendent Cathar Commander deals five damage to an opponent, they still lose five life like they would if they were attacked by any other creature. The "Commander damage" component is just a way to track how often you've been hit by one creature.

21 damage may sound scary, but Commander damage generally isn't that big a role in the format. Outside of certain decks that use equipment to deal big damage (also known as 'Voltron' decks), it's generally a backup plan for when your deck's other lines of play have failed.

What Cards Are Banned In Commander?

The beauty of the Commander format is its very small ban list. It is a non-rotating format, meaning almost any card ever released in black-bordered Magic is legal in Commander, from the original Alpha set right the way up to Innistrad: Crimson Vow and beyond.

However, some cards are banned in Commander. According to Sheldon Menery, one of the founders of the format, cards tend to be banned if they can too easily do one of several different things, such as: causing severe imbalances in resources, allowing unexpected and sudden wins, can lock other players out of a game, can contribute to a 'power creep' where players feel they have to run answers to that specific card, can be difficult to interact with, work against the multiplayer nature of Commander, or become too repetitive in how they play.

Out of the more than 20,000 cards in Magic, there are only a few that are outright banned. These are:

One thing that should be kept in mind, especially when reading or watching older Commander content, is the idea of 'Banned as Commander'. In the past, certain cards like Braids, Cabal Minion would be allowed in your 99-card deck, but not as your Commander. The ban list was then simplified, and now call cards on it are both banned in your 99 and as your Commander.

Of course, one of the key components of the format is that this ban list isn't inherently binding. This is where rule zero and the social contract come in.

What Is "The Social Contract" and "Rule Zero"?

Whether players agree with it or not, one of the key aspects of the Commander format is the idea of the 'Social Contract', which simply says "hey, let's make sure everyone gets to have fun here".

Games can be cut-throat and competitive, or they can be forgiving, chill affairs. They can change the ban list to add more the group doesn't like, or take ones off people want to play. They can even adjust the rules, like a player wanting to use a Commander that isn't normally legal or ignore the concept of Commander damage. This is all called "Rule Zero", but they can only do this as long as all players agree on it before the game has started.

The social contract of a game, and any proposed rule zero changes, are discussed in a "rule zero discussion". This isn't a formal part of the game but is highly encouraged by the community to help gauge which decks people are playing, how powerful they are, and what sort of play experience the table wants.

For example, say I was hoping to play with my favourite deck, based on Kwain, Itinerant Meddler. I would explain to the rest of the playgroup that it is very heavy on counterspells and card draw limiters like Narset, Parter of Veils, but is lighter on blocking creatures and doesn't often win through combat. I would explain it can win as early as around turn seven in a perfect situation, but often needs a bit more time. From there, the other players could pick their decks based on how they want to go about this game, or even ask me to pick another deck (which is why you should try to bring at least two when playing).

Rule zero discussions are imperative for a good play experience. Otherwise, one person bringing a slow deck that wins through simple combat could be playing against a highly-optimised combo deck that wins as early as turn two – it isn't fun for either player.

Who Manages the Commander Format?

Unlike formats like Standard, Modern, Pioneer, and Legacy, Commander is unique in that it's governed by a team of players outside of Wizards of the Coast. Wizards has influence over the format in terms of what cards it prints, but anything to do with rules or ban lists comes from the four-person team known as the Commander Rules Committee.

There is a second group that is also influential in the format, known as the Commander Advisory Group. The Commander Advisory Group (CAG) doesn't directly ban cards or make decisions on the format, but instead, work as advisors and ambassadors for the format, and provide the Rules Committee with a wider breadth of real-world experience of where Commander is at. These players tend to be more well-known in the community, often being content creators, judges, and competitive players.

Despite not making the key decisions for Commander, Wizards of the Coast does have teams internally focused on it. The format's most prominent voice at Wizards is probably senior designer Gavin Verhey, who served as the lead designer on Commander Legends, the first made-for-Commander draft set Wizards has ever put out. Recently, though, we've also seen the introduction of the Casual Play Team, a team of designers at Wizards of the Coast led by senior designer and former pro Melissa DeTora who are focused primarily on the Commander format.

What Is the Easiest Way Of Getting Into Commander?

By far the best way to get into Commander is to just dive in and make your own deck. Find a Legendary creature you like the look of, and ram together 99 more cards that share colours with it. There are plenty of tools online to help make building a Commander deck easier, like Moxfield, EDHRec, and Commander Spellbook, but making a deck you understand will help a lot when playing your first game with three other people.

If that sounds too daunting for you, Wizards of the Coast has released a huge number of preconstructed Commander decks, and a lot of them are really very good. Though earlier ones may be more difficult to track down, every main set since Zendikar Rising has had at least two Commander precons released alongside them that include staples and a few exclusive cards for added value.

But None Of My Friends Play Commander?

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to play Commander online.

By far the best tool made is Spelltable, which is a free online service that lets you host games of Commander over webcam. More than just a video conferencing tool, Spelltable lets you track your Commander, life total, Commander damage, turn orders, and even has image detection algorithms to let you click on any card on anyone's camera to see a high-res version of it. Just put a webcam facing down at your desk, find a lobby to join, and get going.

If you want to dip your toes in digitally before splashing out on a paper deck, Magic the Gathering Online supports Commander as well. You'll still need to buy the cards (or rent them), but there's less of a commitment to playing digitally than in-person or over webcam that may appeal to some people.

Is Commander Coming To Magic The Gathering: Arena?

Despite it being the game's most popular format, Commander isn't in the digital Magic the Gathering: Arena, and it likely won't be any time soon, if ever.

There are two reasons for this, and both of them are technical. First, Commander works best with four players, something Magic Arena doesn't support. One-on-one Commander is possible, but it tends to strip away the social, political aspects of the format that people love so much and so is considered its own, distinct format known as Duel (or French) Commander.

The second reason is to do with the card pool. Commander's biggest strength is it allows almost any card ever printed for the game. Putting that into Arena would require virtually every card ever made be programmed into it, complete with art, animations, sound effects, and rules interactions. Considering each set released on Arena comes with an update of around one gigabyte in size, imagine how big an update 20,000 cards over the last almost 30 years would be.

As mentioned, Commander is supported on the much older Magic the Gathering Online, though the interface can take some getting used to. On Arena, there are the Brawl and Historic Brawl formats, which are one-on-one singleton formats inspired by Commander that only use cards released for Arena.

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Joe Parlock (416 Articles Published)

TheGamer's TCG Specialist and Verified Card Boy, covering all things Magic: the Gathering, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Flesh and Blood and more. His favourite Pokemon is Porygon, and his favourite Commander is Kwain, Itinerant Meddler!

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