Legendary creatures have evolved dramatically over the past 26 years. Wizards of the Coast has slowly refined this art, making more unique and compelling designs as the years go by. It’s unquestionable that the rise of Commander has influenced this growth. Commander went from a college dorm room, to after-hours Pro Tour halls, to garnering its own standalone events. Wizards of the Coast care now more than ever about this format, but when is caring too much?

Seeing that Commander is now one of the most popular ways to enjoy Magic, its influence has launched it toward the forefront of card design, namely with the Legendary Creatures we see each set. With that comes its own challenges, though, as Wizards of the Coast takes a more hands-on approach to this community-created format. New creature designs are flying out the door, and 2020 has been heralded as “The Year of Commander”. These developments are steering the format now more than ever, and it begs the question, “Where are we headed to from here?”

To better understand where we might be going, let’s first take a look back at where we’ve been. In my opinion, there are three distinct eras of Legendary Creature design, with how they relate to the Commander format. Today, we’ll analyze those eras, and use that to plot our trajectory of where we might be heading in the future.

The First Era: “Play What You Can Find” (1996-2011)

This era covers the beginnings of the format, right before it gained more widespread recognition. The format was first created by Adam Staley in 1996, who played it with college friends in Fairbanks, Alaska. He introduced it to Sheldon Menery in 2002, where they worked together on refining the rules. Menery, a longtime writer for StarCityGames, as well as an accomplished Magic judge, helped introduce it to the judging community. From there, the rest is history. For a more in-depth look into this backstory, check out this great article from Polygon.

In the beginning, players were restricted to only the original five elder dragons from Legends—that’s where the moniker of “Elder Dragon Highlander” originated. However, it was soon expanded to include all legendary creatures. With that, came a plethora of new possibilities for players. Now, it’s worth mentioning that Commander wasn’t even a blip on the radar for Wizards of the Coast at this time; players were taking cards designed for one-on-one play, and adapting them for multiplayer.

Though a steady hum of new legendary creatures joined the pool with each new set, Kamigawa block really blew it out of the water. Not counting the flip creatures that turned into Legendaries, Kamigawa block added 105 new potential commanders—an interesting nuance being that all but one were mono-color. Some were flops, like Isao, Enlightened Bushi, and some were smash hits, like Godo, Bandit Warlord. As history goes, most of Kamigawa block faded into memory, but there are still passionate fans here and there, such as The Professor, or Benjamin Wheeler of LoadingReadyRun.

These days, it’s not unusual to see multi-color decks with three or more colors involved. Players like options, and more colors means more options—whether in card pool or on the Commander itself. However, during the 1996-2011 era, multi-color options were much more limited. Players were limited by the quantity of distinctly multicolored sets that had been printed. There were only a few playable Commanders from Legends, the first multi-color set, so players also looked to Invasion and Alara blocks. 

It’s only when we look at these legends do we really begin to see the disparity in design between them and the following eras. Most of them could provide for a good limited bomb, or be the cornerstone of a constructed deck. However, they could often be slow and clunky in multiplayer gameplay, at least by today’s standards. As you can see with these Invasion Block cards, they had activated abilities that required either extra mana, or the premise that they’d need to survive a lap around the table. In this class, Captain Sisay is one of the few that have stood the test of time. This is mostly because of modern card design and support; each set, her deck gets new legends to choose from, whether they be creatures, lands, artifacts, or even sorceries. In 2000, though, she could only get other creatures. It’s worth pointing out, too, that her activated ability became much more accessible with the introduction of equipment like Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots.

It wasn’t unusual to see a commander that tips the scales at 5+ CMC, but still be playable in a slower format. It implies that you’d be able to cast your commander once or twice, before the commander tax puts you into double digits. It wasn’t until later that they started providing immediate value when entering the battlefield. This would allow players to get their Commander into action, and to worry less about it getting removed by their opponents.

These creatures, as well as those from Scars of Mirrodin or Innistrad block, helped shape the format for years. They would continue to do so, well into the second era. However, it isn’t until recently that a lot of these old favorites have faded into the background. 

The Second Era: “Growing Pains” (2011-2018)

In 2011, the original Commander set came out, and this comprised five decks for the wedge colors. This also gave the format an official name from Wizards of the Coast. For the first time ever, Wizards was designing cards for Commander. It wasn’t their first foray into multiplayer Magic, though, seeing that Planechase came out two years prior. Nevertheless, this set ushered in a new era of legendary creature design.

Over the course of these years, the format grew on all fronts. In 2011, Cassidy Silver started writing Fat Stacks for StarCityGames.com, and the ever-popular Commander Versus started three years later. In 2015, Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai started The Command Zone podcast. All the while, Sheldon Menery was writing for SCG, and more content creators began taking notice of this burgeoning format.

With more people playing Commander, Wizards began to scale up the attention they gave to the format. For the first time ever, cards referenced the command zone in the text box. Commander-specific keywords like Myriad, Join Forces, and Lieutenant joined the fray. This furthered the divide between them and their First Era ancestors. 

As the envelope got pushed more, controversy followed. More powerful mechanics came out, outshining those of years past. One of the largest deviations were abilities that are always live, straight out of the command zone. This started with Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, and continued into the Eminence ability of Commander 2017. While these abilities have their fans, they’ve been largely criticized by the player base. Similar to a planeswalker emblem, they give opponents no way to interact or remove the ability. They also provided immediate value with no drawback, regardless of whether the commander was in the battlefield or not. For these reasons, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a return of this controversial design.

Despite the controversy of Eminence, no Second Era mechanic was talked about more than Partner. Never before were you able to play two commanders, so these decks exploded in popularity. They offered immediate card advantage over decks led by one creature. That makes them especially popular at cEDH tables, where every card counts. Thrasios, Triton Hero is the cornerstone of this approach, allowing players the ability to win on the spot if they have infinite mana and a Thassa’s Oracle. Thrasios is often paired with Vial Smasher the Fierce or Tymna the Weaver to give it access to Demonic Consultation and Tainted Pact.

With 15 partners to choose from, a total of 105 decks that can be built. A challenge with this, though, was that the decks varied wildly in synergy. For instance, you could play Reyhan, Last of the Abzan with Ishai, Ojutai Dragaonspeaker for a “+1/+1 counters matter” deck. However, you weren’t likely to see Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper paired with Vial Smasher the Fierce. For those disjointed partner decks, you were more likely to see a generic “goodstuff” pile of cards. Objectively, they lacked an identity that other decks were more likely to have. 

Battlebond brought about an attempt to capture the flavor of Partner, with less of the broken card advantage. It introduced “Partners with”, which paired two creatures from the get-go. There was no more mixing and matching, and each pair had a distinct feel, such as Pir, Imaginative Rascal and Toothy, Imaginary Friend. Despite this push to make the mechanic more balanced, it hasn’t taken off to nearly the same scale.

Towards the end of the third era, Wizards was even more in touch with the wants of the Commander player base. They saw the success of value engine commanders like Thrasios, Triton Hero, Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice, and Meren of Clan Nel Toth, and began to steer more in that direction. That’s where we get into the third era of legendaries.

The Third Era: “Start Up Your Engines” (2018-present)

In 2018, Dominaria brought a substantial number of legendary creatures into the format— 44 to be exact. With that, came a new era of legendary creature design.

The Dominaria legends brought their own build-around engines, allowing players to adapt them in a variety of ways. Casting the commander would provide either immediate value, or you’d get free value from other things on board. This could come from drawing multiple cards, getting to replay things from your graveyard, or from large-scale mana cost reduction. Regardless of the deck, they provided card advantage and a glue to hold everything together. This helped decks smooth out their bad draws, as well as provide a player with a gameplay path to direct them through the game.

In 2019, most things about Magic kicked into high gear, or as I like to refer it, “Maximum Overdrive”. The first Brawl pre-constructed decks came out, and more value engine commanders came down the pipe. Across the Commander landscape, more and more players were using legends who could actively draw them cards, ramp them, or some combination of both. This coincided with Green’s general push, giving green-based strategies a leg up on the competition. As we’ve discussed before, these ramp strategies are largely unchecked by the rest of the format, since land destruction is tacitly written out by the social contract. Mangara, the Diplomat is being touted as the best monowhite Commander right now, which only goes to show just how far behind some of the other colors are.

Wizards is yet to provide enough natural predators for these kinds of decks. The very strategy is borne off of the commander providing more value out of the box, compared to that of the opposition. Despite their inherent advantage, it has been met with some pushback. For instance, the EDHRECast discussed the difficult nature of “goodstuff” cards in Commander, mentioning Chulane, Teller of Tales as a sort of poster child. Others ask questions like “Did Simic really need Kinnan?”

Where to from here?

With 2020 being touted as “The Year of Commander”, we’re getting an unprecedented amount of attention to the format. Some might argue that it’s too much attention, upsetting the balance of this fan-created format. We’re also seeing much-need reprints spring up in the likes of JumpStart and Double Masters. Allowing players to get their hands on more expensive and powerful cards is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, because a rising tide raises all boats—it’s just a little scary thinking about how much more optimized these new era Commanders can get.

2020 has been a non-stop flow of new things into the format, and it’s only getting bigger. Commander Legends alone will introduce over 70 new legends into the format. That will make it the most legend-heavy set of all time. Based on the track record of the past two years, I’m cautiously optimistic about what that will mean for Commander.

Simply put, we’re running out of space on the text box. Cards like Urza, Lord High Artificer and Questing Beast are absolute walls of text, making them a modern-day Chains of Mephistopheles. Because of that, we’re reaching a ceiling with legendary creature design, without that much space to improve. Granted, that begs the question:“Do we really want more power than this?”

If so, what will that look like? How will it keep from invalidating the many cards that came before it? 

That brings us to my choice of cover photo for this week’s article. When browsing Twitter during Core 2021 spoiler season, I saw many negative takes on Kaervek, the Spiteful. He was being touted as underpowered, underwhelming, and disappointing. However, I think this is just what Commander could use right now. This Kaervek challenges the deck builder in a way that the format hasn’t seen in a while. He doesn’t give you the exact blueprint to success, and leaves it up to the player to figure that out. TCGplayer writer and streamer, Chase Carroll, recently took up Kaervek’s banner, designing a monoblack control list. Kaervek is simple in design, but puzzling in deckbuilding. Personally, it’s something I miss in creature design. 

While it’s totally fine to like the direction that things are going, I don’t think Wizards can hold it much longer. If things keep pushing upwards at the rate they are, we may end up smashing our heads into the ceiling. I’m going to put on my helmet and hope for the best.

Travis is a Virginia-based player and writer, who has been turning things sideways since Starter 1999. He primarily plays Commander, Pauper, and Legacy, and has a passion for introducing new players to the game. When he isn’t making people pay the Thalia tax, he can be found mountain biking or playing the guitar. You can follow his exploits here on Twitter and Instagram.

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