Last week, we started taking a look at some of the pressures on Magic: the Gathering’s Standard format. Paper Standard, that is, playing Standard face to face with physical cards, has dropped off significantly in terms of engagement since the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with local game stores open and trying to run events, in many areas the format just hasn’t managed to return to its pre-pandemic levels. Players and store owners alike have put forward a lot of ideas, but the jury is still out. What is killing paper Standard?
Once upon a time, Standard was the entry point for most newcomers to Magic. Starter decks came out with every new set, tempting new players into checking the game out. When I came back to Magic, the very first thing I picked up was a Planeswalker deck so I could re-learn the game’s mechanics. Starter decks were cheap, which made them a low-risk teaser. Pick up one for yourself, one for your buddy, and play a few times. If you didn’t like it, you were only out thirty or forty bucks.
The Year of Commander
In 2020, after finally realizing that one of the most popular formats for casual play is Commander, Wizards of the Coast declared it the “Year of Commander.” Before then, preconstructed Commander decks had come out roughly once a year, and support sets tailored for the format were essentially nonexistent. Battlebond was the first booster-based product designed for 3+ players. And Wizards advertised it as specifically for Two-Headed Giant. It was released in 2018, a little over two years before the Year of Commander was announced.
Since Ikoria in spring 2020, every new Standard set has launched with at least one Commander deck. Wizards openly talks about how performance in Commander is a factor in card design for basically every release. Reprints seem like they’re picked more because of how desired they are in Commander and less because of how well they fit the theme or lore of the set in question. Even if that isn’t the case at the official level, player sentiment is based on feelings, not facts and data. And with the volume of product released in whole or in part for Commander, it feels like Wizards has all but abandoned Standard, Modern, and other non-eternal formats in favor of it.
Standard vs. Commander for new players
As a general entry point, Commander is problematic. While yes, it is the format many, if not most players use to introduce friends and loved ones to the game, it is less than ideal for a single new player to jump in. A game of Commander is best experienced with 3-5 players. It’s a singleton format, which uses a very different mindset than traditional constructed play. Commander deckbuilding, especially for new or very casual players, doesn’t translate well to Standard, Pioneer and Modern. On top of that, Commander intro decks are expensive. A Standard Planeswalker deck might have cost $15 or $20. Preconstructed Commander decks today cost $40 to $60 dollars. Where two friends could spend less than $40 to learn the game together, those same two people would have to spend more than twice that on Commander products.
If I were a new player today, I would have almost no choice but to pick up a Commander precon. That deck is only legal for one format, and that format requires several players to really shine. I can’t take that deck to FNM Standard. I can’t sit down with a staffer at my LGS, play an intro deck one on one, and get a feel for what I’m getting into.
Without knowledge of the mechanics, or even with limited knowledge from playing months or years ago, large multiplayer games are intimidating. The pace of Commander gameplay, and having to keep up with multiple boardstates, makes adjusting as a newbie downright hard. When I started playing Pokémon again, I was able to grab a precon off the shelf and jump right into the Sunday afternoon event at the shop. The deck wasn’t necessarily competitive, but it was enough to learn mechanics. Even though I lost every match, I learned a lot and had fun.
Standard vs. Commander at the LGS
The people I spoke with at my LGS told me that Commander makes sense as an introductory product because that is what’s played the most in our area. Now that the shop gets credit towards WPN headcounts from Commander events, the incentive for them to host multiple weekly events is real. Especially with other formats struggling, it can seem like the most effective way to keep your player count high for purposes of product allotments. Turnout for these events is huge relative to other formats, which these days struggle to fire. With a typical pod being four players and a lot of Commander players having steady playgroups of 4-8 people, it’s easy to see how those events get big fast. Even better, LGS owners can get away with less prize support for these events because they are “casual” and “noncompetitive.”
The result: more organized Commander events. That means more competition for player time and LGS attention.
So what do you think? Is Commander crowding out Standard for in person play? Is this a good thing? And how does the dominance of Commander as a format effect the influx of new players to the game? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!