Commander is widely considered the most popular format to play Magic: The Gathering. What is Commander? What are the rules? What do I need to play it? How many players do I need? Read ahead to find out.
What is Commander?
Commander is a multiplayer format of Magic: The Gathering using 99-card singleton decks led by a legendary creature of your choice. This creature is kept separate from the deck as the 100th card. The format is also known as Elder Dragon Highlander or EDH, which refers to the original legendary creatures used (the first Elder Dragons were printed in 1994) and how players must only include single copies of each card in the deck (“There can be only one”).
The legendary creature you choose is set aside and available for you to cast repeatedly each game (at escalating mana costs) so that you do not need to draw it from your deck. This legendary creature is called your “Commander” or sometimes “General”; it defines the colors of cards you can play in the deck, and it often provides a thematic structure for the types of cards you choose to play.
Unlike most Magic formats, which pit two players against each other, Commander games tend to feature four players, with variants for two, three, or five players as well. This makes Commander perfect for group play, as it invites more collaboration and alliances between players.
What are the Deckbuilding Rules?
The Commander Rules Committee sets the specific rules of the format, which apply on top of the standard Magic gameplay rules.
Each Commander deck uses single copies of each card, with the exception of Basic Lands (like Mountain or Forest), which can be played in multiples. The format has a short list of banned cards, but players can include cards from the entire history of Magic in their decks. Each deck must include one legendary creature as Commander and 99 other cards (which can include other legendary creatures).
Magic has five colors of mana: white, blue, black, red, and green. The colors that appear on your Commander card (either in the casting cost at top right or inside the text box) are the only colors you can include. Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice, pictured above, is a popular choice as Commander, as it allows you to play cards from four of Magic’s five colors (every one but red). However, if Atraxa is your Commander, you cannot include any spells that require red mana, nor can you use any lands or other cards that produce red mana.
Your Commander can also help focus your deck’s strategy, but that is not required. An Atraxa deck probably wants to play lots of effects that put counters into play so that you can use her ability to proliferate those counters, but you can ignore that if you like.
Golos, Tireless Pilgrim is another very popular Commander, and one that lacks an obvious strategic angle of attack. Even though Golos is a colorless artifact creature, its text box has an ability that uses all five colors of mana, which means you can play all five colors in your deck. And because Golos has no strategy beyond “find more lands and play cards for free,” a Golos deck can do anything you want it to do.
What are the Gameplay Rules?
Commander games usually feature four players each vying to be the last survivor who wins the game. Each player starts with 40 life, draws seven cards for an opening hand, and turns progress clockwise around the table. Every player reveals their Commander and places it in their Command Zone, which allows them to cast their Commander without needing to have it in their hand.
Every time a player casts their Commander from the Command Zone after the first time, they must pay an additional two generic mana. This cost escalates and each player must track how many times they’ve cast their Commander, adding two more mana to the cost each time. Some Commanders, like Derevi, Empyrial Tactician, have abilities that avoid this escalating cost.
If a Commander would go to another zone from play (like the graveyard if it dies, or if it is shuffled into your library via a “tuck” effect), you can choose to put the Commander in the Command Zone instead. Sometimes players will want it in another zone, however. This all comes down to Commander’s strategy, making it a versatile game mode flexible to various players’ styles.
The primary path to victory in Commander is to reduce the other players’ life totals to zero. You don’t have to be the one dealing the killing blows, however—often the winner benefits from the offensive work of another player.
In addition to the normal life total counts, a player loses if they are dealt 21 points of damage from a specific Commander. Some decks, like Uril, the Miststalker, focus on building up a very large Commander and making it difficult to block, potentially eliminating an opponent in one or two hits. And of course, you can “win the game” through playing a card with an alternate win condition, even if other players still have life totals above zero.
Overall, Commander is a fun and casual format where players can socialize during the game and play themed decks that match their style of play. Regardless of whether you’re a veteran player or a newbie learning the game, it’s still a perfect way to get together with your friends and play an exciting game of Magic: The Gathering.