Review: Commander, a Magic the Gathering variant

MTG LogoMagic the Gathering (MTG) has been around for years. If you’re into gaming on a table then you will most likely have seen it somewhere. You may have played it or know people who do.

A popular nickname for MTG is cardboard crack. It’s addictive, it’s expensive and you always want just 1 more hit…

MTG is a collectable card game (CCG) designed by Richard Garfield, it’s owned by Hasbro.

Players assume the roles of powerful wizards & mages. A prebuilt deck of cards represent the spells that they can cast, creatures they can summon and the lands they control and draw power from.

Using these decks they do battle to see who is the most powerful by destroying their opponents. This is usually a direct 1 v 1 affair, but the Commander game is designed for multiplayer. It is playable with 2 players but it really shines in multiplayer.

For the TL;DR version you can jump to the Conclusion. This is a fairly long review.

Opening the box

This differs based on which box you buy, or if you buy a box at all. You could buy individual booster packs of 15 random cards so you can build your own custom deck from scratch. Prebuilt decks are available too, you can add cards to tweak it just the way you like it or play it as is.

MTG Boxes
Various ways to purchase MTG.

Commander is the only MP variant of MTG that I can think of that has official pre-made decks available and there are new decks released each year. One of these is a good place to start, it should clock in below the cost of your average board game.

There is also a huge market for 2nd hand MTG cards, both locally and internationally. You can build a deck 1 card at a time but therein lies madness as it can get ridiculously expensive. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to have a fun game.

In most other MTG formats you need to have 4 of each card to be competitive or to not be destroyed in every single game. In Commander you are only allowed to have 1 copy of each card in your deck, bar basic lands. That’s a big plus of Commander which can save you money.

What you don’t get in most of the boxes are the rules. The full ruleset for competitive players is available online. The starter sets do get an abridged, easy to learn version of the rules.

Theme

The MTG universe is huge. There are comics, novels, short stories and a movie in the pipeline. Each expansion, revolves around a central story line in a different plane with its own history and culture. One is like feudal Japan with sneaky ninjas and eastern dragons; another is a planet that is covered by a single city, even the oceans.

These stories contain heroes and unique characters of importance. You might be able to fill your army with Ogre warriors but you can only have 1 Derevi, the Great Tactician, fighting on your side. From the ranks of these ‘legendary’ creatures you select one to be the leader or commander of your deck.

MTG Commander Derevi
Derevi, is a commander from a prebuilt deck.

The planes, characters, creatures, items and events from the stories are all well represented by the cards themselves. The art on the cards are really good, it’s actually well worth the time to take a look and admire them. At the bottom of the cards is usually a piece of flavour text that relates to the card itself.

In a typical game of MTG players have a 60 card deck consisting of spells, creatures and other things that they use to defeat their opponents, the deck will also include land. It’s from the land that wizards draw their mana which they use to cast their spells and summon creatures or create wondrous artifacts. Lands produce different colours of mana which generally leans towards a particular style of play.

  • Mountains produce red mana, like the volcanoes they are unpredictable and dangerous, home to dragons, goblins and ogres.
  • Swamps produce black mana, they are linked with death and disease and all things generally considered ‘bad’ like zombies, vampires and demons.
  • Plains are the opposite of swamps producing white mana which is used for healing and protecting and things considered ‘good’ like angels and questing knights.
  • Forests are the realm of nature, teaming with life and producing green mana, summoning elves and treefolk and creatures of the wild.
  • Islands, found in the great oceans, represent the ever changing nature of the seas and can be used to summon merfolk and illusions.
MTG Lands
The 5 basic lands.

You can theme you deck anyway you like or build the most efficient deck that you can with the cards that you own.

Gameplay

NB: I’m not going to go through the full ruleset here as that will be too long, this will be a basic summary so that you can understand the game and the concepts.

Each player starts with a deck of 100 cards and 40 life. If your life reaches 0 or you take 21 damage from any 1 particular commander then you lose. It a typical game the last wizard standing wins. Commanders are kept separate from their decks in an area called the Command Zone.

Players start by drawing a starting hand of 7 cards and then take turns which consist of several phases:

  • Untap: Used cards are refreshed to be used again.
  • Upkeep: During this phase a player might have something in play that requires a cost in order to remain in play e.g. a powerful demon who needs to be fed another creature each turn.
  • Draw: Draw 1 card from the Deck.
  • Main: This is where most of the game play happens. Players can play 1 land, cast spells, summon creatures and attack opponents.
  • Discard & Clean up: If you have more than 7 cards you discard cards into your discard pile, which is called a Graveyard and end any effects that only last for the current turn.

Players tap a land, by turning it sideways, to show that they are using the resource that it produces. Every card or spell will have a mana cost in its top right corner. It will have 1 or more mana symbols and usually a number in a grey circle. The mana symbols need to be matched by tapping lands that produce the appropriate mana while the number in grey represents colourless mana and can be paid for using any type of mana.

MTG Fireball
Fireball needs 1 red mana and then as much mana as you can spare in any combination of colours to do damage.

Once the card is paid for it is considered cast. The card will either become a permeant that goes into play, like a creature or an artifact, or it could be a spell. Creatures and artifacts come into play and can be used when they are in play. If you cast a spell you read the card text and that effect happens.

There are 2 types of spells, Sorceries and Instants. Instants can be cast during any players turn while you can only cast a Sorcery during your own turn.

Most cards that you have in play can be tapped to use their abilities at any time. Creatures however have the ability to attack an opponent. In order to do this you need to declare that you are attacking 1 or more players during the main phase of your turn. Then you tap the creatures that you will use to attack and declare who they are attacking.

The players that are being attacked then have the opportunity to defend themselves by using their own creatures to block the attacking creatures. These creatures will fight each other and any unblocked creatures will deal their damage directly to the player that they are attacking.

Combat, on its own is a simple affair. Each creature has 2 numbers on their bottom right corner which represent Power (attack) and Toughness (life). Damage dealt to a creature is deducted from its Toughness. If its toughness ever drops to 0 or less it dies and is moved to its owners Graveyard. The exception to this is your commander who can go back to the Command Zone so you can summon it again. When 2 creatures are in combat with each other they deal damage to each other equal to their power, and the winner remains standing.

MTG Grizzly Bears
Grizzly Bears have 2 Power and 2 Toughness.

Creatures can gain various abilities, like flight which means that because they fly they can only be blocked if the blocker also has flying or some ability that allows it to block flying creatures.

Typically the cards have text on them which allows them to bend or break the rules. In this case the cards always take precedence.

Then the next player gets to have a turn. This repeats until the win condition has been met.

Conclusion

The game itself is not as complex as it appears. It is very easy to learn and play but hard to master. There are literally 1000’s of cards to play with and new cards being released every few months. This means that replay value is off the charts. Even if you don’t change your decks the chances of have the exact same game twice is very remote.

Setup is about as easy as it gets, select your deck, shuffle and then give an opponent a chance to cut your deck and then start playing. Similarly packing up afterwards is as simple as putting your cards into the box that you store them in. It very easy to get a game started.

The different playstyles that the game allows for is also impressive. You can try to build a deck to overrun your opponents with creatures or something that will win with a specific combination of cards or find a way to generate an infinite amount of mana to power a single spell to kill all of your opponents. The options are endless and for some players building a deck is half of the fun.

MTG Eternal Dragon
Eternal Dragon can come back from the dead, if you have the mana.

For me the politics is a lot of fun too, trying to convince others that someone else is the biggest threat but also trying not to look like an easy kill. Biding your time until you can gain some form of control.

My gaming group meets every Thursday and Commander is one of our staple games. We play Commander at least once a month. A game could end in turn 3 or in hour 3, you never know what’s going to happen. We often play to see what epic plays will happen and just to have fun than to try to win.

Can I play this at a braai?

I have played this at braais and even in a Dros once. The amount of space that you need is dependent on the type of deck that you are playing. There is no board, so you can re-arrange your play area as you need to when you need to, which helps. Each player only needs to keep his deck handy and then you can use an app on a smart phone to track life totals or a pen and a napkin will do.

MTG Emergency Mana Leak
Emergency Mana Leaks. Useful to counter a spell that can kill you.
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