Magic: The Gathering Interview – Senior Designer Gavin Verhey On New Capenna, Commander, Treasures, And Why We’ll See More Of Monarch
Commander has been Magic The Gathering’s most popular format for years now. A highly sociable format that challenges four players to build decks around a single legendary creature, Commander has evolved from a niche, fan-made ruleset into one of the key focal points of Magic’s design.
The man best associated with Commander is Wizards of the Coast’s Gavin Verhey. A senior designer on Magic, he’s known for being one the main Commander spokespeople, and has led design on numerous Commander-focused products including Commander 2016, Commander 2018, and Commander Legends.
With the format so quickly changing and finding a bigger audience than ever before, I had a chat with Verhey to find out about the Streets of New Capenna-themed Commander 2022 decks, the overall health of Commander, and why he doesn’t want to stop “Time Warp shenanigans” with the deck he designed for the release.
Is Commander Forcing Faction-based Set Design?
Verhey tells me it was a “totally happy accident” that both 2021 and 2022’s annual Commander sets were based on sets with heavy faction focuses. 2021 was released at the same time as Strixhaven, and its decks were based on the five colleges of the school, while 2022 is focused on New Capenna’s families. This is different from earlier releases, like 2020’s Ikoria-themed one.
“We didn’t line it up in particular for the spring set [the one closest to the Commander launch] to have these five factions,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s a coincidence in the sense that factions are awesome for Magic. Players love choosing a faction, and they love being able to identify with something… it makes a lot of sense for us to do five Commander decks at times where it shows up”.
Commander 2022 (officially known as Streets Of New Capenna Commander) is part of a yearly product that releases a large number of preconstructed decks full of exclusive cards explicitly designed for Commander. Rather than the two ‘precons’ normally tied into a set, Streets of New Capenna will have five: one for each of the five demonic crime families that rule the setting. The five decks are the blue/black/red Maestros Massacre (designed by Verhey), blue/white/green Bedecked Brokers, blue/black/white Obscura Operation, red/black/green Riveteers Rampage, and the green/red/white Cabaretti Cacophony.
There may have been some concern that there was pressure on Wizards to keep making these faction-centric sets for the sake of slotting in a Commander product, but according to Verhey that was “totally a happy accident”, and that we won’t necessarily be getting a faction-based set every spring for the Commander products to fit into.
Goad, Monarch, and The Future of Commander Evergreen Keywords
Commander 2022 is also special in that it’s the first Commander product we’ve seen since Verhey announced that Wizards was instating its first-ever “Commander Evergreen keyword”, goad. While Commander is already free to use almost any mechanic from Magic’s 30-year history, Verhey said that goad (forcing an opponent’s creature to attack anyone but you) is a good way to break stalemates in Commander. That new design philosophy can be seen on the higher-than-previously-seen quantity of cards, most notably the face of the Cabaretti Cacophony deck Kitt Kanto, Mayhem Diva.
“Around Kamigawa [Neon Dynasty, a set released earlier this year] and Streets of New Capenna is when we started talking about doing more goading. In Kamigawa there’s a few cards that goad as well… but putting it on Kanto here, the face card for the Cabaretti deck was definitely a huge piece for us, of ‘hey, goad is here, it’s Commander evergreen’.” Verhey also points out that goad is already being treated the same as other evergreen keywords like flying and trample, insofar as it doesn’t have reminder text on the cards to explain what goad means; “this is a big debut for goad in Commander”.
The introduction and clear success of goad as an evergreen keyword specifically for the Commander format has opened the floodgates of people theorising what keywords could be next. There are lots of potentials like evoke, dethrone, or cascade, but Verhey has another, more regal idea. Though he didn’t confirm that any other Commander evergreen keywords were coming, he did feel like monarch (a mechanic that makes you ‘the Monarch’ and gives you an extra draw at the end of each turn, but can be stolen by other players through combat) is a “great example”, saying “Monarch keeps the game rolling, people generally like Monarch, it’s fine, so things like that are definitely things that we are looking at here”.
Like goad, Monarch’s role in Commander is to unstick a game locked in stalemate. Commander often can’t progress if every player turtles up and refuses to attack, and Verhey says, “one of the biggest challenges in Commander precon products is finding incentives to attack and making sure a game continues to move. Goad is great for that because it both incentivises attack and makes sure you don’t get hit yourself. Monarch is great for similar reasons, and there are other mechanics in that ilk that are exciting… so it’s a thing we’ll keep evaluating and looking at… you’ll see us continue to make goad cards and monarch cards in the future at some point, I’m sure”.
Casualty In Commander
It’s not just mechanics that have been tried and tested that are making a big splash in Commander 2022. One of the new mechanics from Streets of New Capenna is also causing a stir, with the Maestros Massacre preconstructed deck being built around the casualty mechanic. Casualty allows you to sacrifice a creature to copy a spell, and the deck’s commander Anhelo, the Painter gives casualty to the first instant or sorcery spell you cast each turn.
There was some concern about the power level of casualty – especially in a format like Commander where you have a huge back catalogue of cards to choose from. How did Verhey, who led the design for the Maestros Massacre deck, try to balance casualty in Commander with spicy spells like Time Warp, Finale of Devastation, or Toxic Deluge? The simple answer is ‘he didn’t, but with a good reason’.
“It started off as a token-based deck where you were copying tokens… but it would be tough to get enough rewards in blue, black and red to be able to make a tokens deck work. Plus, in Commander, if you know your big payoff is making four 2/2 flying tokens [with a card like Talrand’s Invocation], it’s actually not that scary” Verhey explains, before moving on to the current casualty-focused design, “When it comes to Time Warps in particular, we talked so much about it, and we talked about a lot of different ways we could avoid that. At one point, Anhelo tapped to use his ability, and said “tap: the next spell you cast has casualty 2”, to give time where it acts like a turn delay”.
In the end, the plan was to just let it fly free and be the powerhouse it is, as there are already a dozen ways to make a table’s life miserable and nerfing Anhelo to avoid it would waste a good opportunity for a new, powerful card. As Verhey says, “if what you want to do in Commander is play a bunch of Time Warp effects and take a bunch of extra turns, there are decks you can do that in already… We shouldn’t make this really cool card, Anhelo, less appealing and less exciting in the deck it’s in just to help stop Time Warp shenanigans. So yes, if you want to go build the Anhelo Time Warp deck, you are welcome to go do so, and I’m sure you’ll have fun with it. And then your table may not want to play you again afterwards. For the rest of the world, I think Anhelo is pretty well-balanced for the rest of the instants and sorceries that are out there”.
The Rise of Treasure Tokens
Of course, there is one other thing that’s currently dominating the Commander discourse, and it’s the increased focus on Treasure tokens. Treasure tokens are easily-generated artifacts that can tap and sacrifice for one mana of any colour – it sounds harmless on its own, but thanks to cards like Smothering Tithe, the now-banned Hullbreacher, and the new Bootlegger’s Stash in Streets of New Capenna, we’re seeing Commander become inundated with them. As I mentioned in a feature last week when Bootlegger’s Stash was revealed, Commander has become faster than ever thanks to Treasure, and with few ways to put some real hate on players who make an obscene amount of them, we’re only going to see them play a larger and larger role.
Verhey disagrees that Treasures are a problem at the moment, arguing that, “in general, it plays really well. It’s a nice, small reward we can give you, especially in colours that have traditionally had trouble giving you good rewards or appropriate rewards for some effects… It’s fun to get short-term mana boosts and be able to use it and cast spells a little bit faster. But then you can’t play as much next turn, so it’s a different way to ramp, instead of ramping and having 10 mana forever, you have 10 mana for one turn you can use”.
However, that is the reasonable and as-intended use of Treasures, so what about the players who find ways to generate dozens or maybe even an infinite amount of them every turn and win the game through sheer mana economy? Verhey does admit that some Treasure-generating cards have had an impact on Commander.
“Treasures have shown to be incredibly powerful in many formats, Commander included,” he says. “We have to be very careful with them, and cards like Dockside Extortionist, for example, are now Commander staples that use Treasure… [Bootlegger’s Stash] is an exciting, splashy, mythic rare and I’m glad people are talking about it and I’m very curious as to how it actually plays out. You know, for a six-mana enchantment it doesn’t do anything right away, and the next turn you have to tap [lands] and won’t get any mana off it on your next turn. There are of course effects you can play in Commander like Seedborn Muse and so on that turbocharge it, so I’ll be very curious to see how it plays out.”
The other big question asked was why we’re seeing green cards be given access to Treasure tokens so readily. In Magic, different colours can do different things better, and green is primarily the colour of land ramp. Through cards like Kodama’s Reach and Cultivate it can gain access to more lands than any other colour, so does also giving it bomb Treasure-generating tools like Bootlegger’s Stash maybe push it too far in Commander?
Verhey makes a compelling argument as to why a colour so intricately linked to land should get a card like Bootlegger’s Stash: “As the champion of mana acceleration, green gets access to Treasure. Now, it is a one-shot mana acceleration, which is a little less common through green, so we expect green to get less treasure than, say, red. But it seems to fit with green’s colour pie, and what green does. Given that it is the champion of mana acceleration, now we want to use it sparingly and in the right places, but a mythic rare piece that involves using your lands and rewards you for having a lot of lands in play felt like an appropriate way to give a Treasure reward.”
Of course, Commander is a format that can change radically with each new set, and so there may come a day where Treasures really do become problematic. If that happens, Verhey is confident things can be done to mitigate it. “As a design team, we’re carefully watching the impact Treasure is having on Commander, and there are a lot of different knobs we can turn [“knobs” being a design term for different ways the team can scale certain cards]. Treasures can enter the battlefield tapped, as they do on a number of cards in Streets of New Capenna… our internal Council of Colors [a team at Wizards who each act as an advocate for one of Magic’s five colours] is no doubt going to be talking about if this is appropriate for green in the future. But, at this moment in time, we feel like it is a thing that green can do”.
Streets of New Capenna and Commander 2022 both launch on April 19, 2022. Another made-for-Commander set is launching just a couple of months later, with Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate releasing on June 10.
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