Last updated on June 15, 2022
Dungeon Delver | Illustration by Edgar Sánchez Hidalgo
D&D and Magic go pretty well together if you ask me. They’re both high fantasy and share a lot of the same basic ideas and storytelling quirks. And D&D has plenty of powerful and iconic characters, so doesn’t it make sense that we’d get a D&D-themed Commander set at some point?
Commander Legends: Baldur’s Gate brought plenty of awesome cards, flavor, and characters to the Magic table in a draftable EDH experience. But it also brought something new with it: backgrounds.
In the D&D world, backgrounds are a roleplay element of character creation that gives your character a backstory. Where did they come from, who are they, what happened to them? They also come with a few perks that give your character extra skills, languages, or proficiencies, so they’re not all for show.
So how did Wizards incorporate this part-flavor part-practical new mechanic into the game? Let’s dive into the story and find out!
How Do Backgrounds Work?
Acolyte of Bahamut | Illustration by Kai Carpenter
“Backgrounds” are a new type of legendary enchantment that give your commander some kind of bonus or extra ability when they’re on the ‘field. These are tailor-made for the Commander format since their entire purpose is to boost your commander.
There are two ways for you use background cards. You can either play them in your 99 (if they fit in your commander’s color identity, of course), or you can play a background as a second commander.
But just like partner commanders, you can’t have a background as a second commander with just any old card. Your commander creature needs to have the “choose a background” static ability to do this, which of course is only present on select commanders in Commander Legends: Baldur’s Gate.
The History of Backgrounds in MTG
The history of backgrounds in Magic is short and sweet.
The new card subtype was introduced with Commander Legends: Baldur’s Gate. There are 23 enchantment backgrounds that can boost your commanders in some pretty interesting ways. All of the backgrounds are mono-colored save one colorless exception. Black and green feature five backgrounds each while white, blue, and red each only have four.
And in case you were wondering, there are 28 legendary creatures in the set that allow you to choose a background as a second commander. 27 of them are mono-colored cards with five each in white, black, and green while blue and red each have six. And the colorless background, Faceless One, is actually an enchantment creature that also has “choose a background,” so it falls into both categories.
Backgrounds vs. Choose a Background
Backgrounds are an enchantment card subtype while “choose a background” is a static ability on some legendary creatures that allows you to play a background card as a second commander. It’s really that simple. They work together, but they’re not the same.
Do Backgrounds Start in the Command Zone?
Backgrounds only start in the command zone if you have one as a second commander. If they’re just part of your 99, they live in your library just like the rest of your non-commander cards.
Can You Play with Backgrounds in Your 99?
You can absolutely play with background cards in your 99. They still have to follow your commander’s color identity, of course, just like the rest of the 99. No special treatment here!
Can Your Background Have a Different Color Identity? What About with Choose a Background?
Backgrounds that you play as part of your 99 still need to follow your commander’s color identity to be played in the deck.
But if you’re playing with a “choose a background” commander creature and have a background card as a second commander, the background acts just like a partner commander would. It can have different colors than your commander creature, and your color identity is determined by the color pips on both your “choose a background” commander creature and your commander background.
The biggest difference between having a regular partner versus a background as your second commander is that one is a creature (the partner), and one is an enchantment (the background).
Can You Have More Than One Background?
You can have more than one background card as part of your 99, but you can only have one background as a second commander. And if you’re sliding multiple backgrounds into your deck, they still have to follow the same deckbuilding rules as all the other cards. Color identity, singleton format (unless you’re drafting), etc.
Do You Have to Pay the Commander Tax on Backgrounds?
Yes, the commander tax applies to backgrounds when they’re acting as a second commander. It’s also tracked separately from your commander creature.
Can Cards that Refer to Commanders Target Backgrounds?
As long as the card referring to your commander only says “commander,” it still applies to backgrounds. The only time a card referring to commanders does not target backgrounds is when it specifies “commander creature,” since backgrounds are enchantments and not creatures.
But if you change this with something like Opalescence (or are using the Faceless One), then your background commander would be affected and could be targeted by anything that says “commander creature.”
Most of the cards that refer to “commander creatures” instead of just “commanders” are background cards themselves. But not all. Bastion Protector, Bloodsworn Steward, and Guardian Augmenter give +2/+2 and a keyword to your commander creatures. The green troll wizard is arguably the best of the three because it gives hexproof to commanders in general, not just the creatures.
Can You Counter/Destroy a Background?
Backgrounds aren’t really all that special. You can counter a background when it’s cast just like you could with any other enchantment, and the same goes for destroying them.
The only time you can’t interact with a background card is if it’s acting as a second commander and is still in the command zone. But you can interact with it just like you could with any other enchantment if it’s in play, in the graveyard, in someone’s hand, in a library, etc.
Choose a Background vs Partner
“Choose a background” and partner use the same ruleset, just with different card types acting as the second commander. The former lets you use an enchantment with the “background” subtype as your second commander while the latter lets you use a creature with the “partner” ability as your second commander. They’re basically the same thing other than that little detail.
Is Background Good?
Dragon Cultist | Illustration by Cristi Balanescu
Background cards are as good as you make them. The idea of having enchantments that boost your commander is definitely an interesting one, assuming the effects and the mana cost on the card line up with what you’re trying to build. But I think R&D dropped the ball on some these cards.
A lot of the backgrounds basically just give your commander a passive ability that could have just, I don’t know, lived on the enchantment instead. It’s pretty clear to me that these cards prioritized flavor over function. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I’m pretty underwhelmed by a decent chunk of these cards.
I think my main gripe with backgrounds is the lack of creativity on a lot of them. But there’s still hope. Some of the backgrounds are really interesting, and their flavor made me probably a little too giddy to be normal. Others… not so much, but I guess you can’t always hit everything out of the park, can you?
Backgrounds and “choose a background” are a good addition to Magic and the Commander format that add the potential for some cool builds. I just hope we get to see some more unique and creative card design if (when?) Wizards prints more of these in the future.
Gallery and List of Background Cards
- Acolyte of Bahamut
- Agent of the Iron Throne
- Agent of the Shadow Thieves
- Cloakwood Hermit
- Criminal Past
- Cultist of the Absolute
- Dragon Cultist
- Dungeon Delver
- Faceless One
- Far Traveler
- Feywild Visitor
- Flaming Fist
- Guild Artisan
- Hardy Outlander
- Master Chef
- Noble Heritage
- Popular Entertainer
- Raised by Giants
- Scion of Halaster
- Shameless Charlatan
- Street Urchin
- Sword Coast Sailor
- Veteran Soldier
Best Background Cards
You know the drill by now, right? I’m judging these cards based mostly on flavor and how well I think their abilities line up with what the background is supposed to be about. I’ve also disqualified any background cards that give the commander a passive ability that may as well have just been the enchantment’s effect in the first place (with one exception because I’m nothing if not a hypocrite).
With that disclaimer out of the way let’s just dive into these backgrounds, shall we?
I absolutely love Shameless Charlatan. I’m not usually a blue player but I might just brew some changeling shenanigans with this background.
Charlatans are masters of trickery and disguise and this Shameless card really captures that. From the art to the ability to chameleon your commander creature for a measly to the flavor text, this background is a 10/10 in my eyes. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t trust those quite so much with this around…
Raised by Giants
Now this is what I wish more of the backgrounds were. Raised by Giants is on the expensive side, sure, but it turns your commander creatures into giant (pun intended) threats that can end the game in a matter of turns if you can get a few swings in. And don’t forget that you can slide this in your 99 with regular ol’ partner commanders for double the fun.
Nobles are crafty little things. Sure, there’s the classic trope of a helpless, hapless noble who does nothing but sit around while being pampered all day. But the most powerful nobles got to where they are thanks to shrewd deals, backstabbing, clever words, and tricky partnerships. And a heaping pile of money, but we’re not talking about that right now.
Noble Heritage forces your opponents to choose whether it’s worth it to boost their forces while leaving you protected from their wrath. This background is perfect for a deck that wants to play politics, which is why I think it’s a major flavor win.
Okay, look, I know that Dungeon Delver falls into the same unfortunate lack of creativity that I was slamming background cards for like, five minutes ago. This effect really may as well just be a regular enchantment instead of giving your commander the passive ability.
That said, I had to mention this because it’s a really great card to add to your dungeon deck. Double the loot from every dungeon you delve into? It might be simple card design, but the flavor is good enough that I give this background a pass.
Decklist: Far Traveler Faeries in Commander
Far Traveler | Illustration by Alix Branwyn
Cloud of Faeries
Fae of Wishes
Glen Elendra Archmage
Lae’zel, Vlaakith’s Champion
Lulu, Loyal Hollyphant
Oji, the Exquisite Blade
Scion of Oona
Sower of Temptation
I make a ridiculous number of characters and backstories for D&D. I’ve made characters for my players on many occasions. This deck is literally just one of my favorite backstories simplified and turned into a Commander deck that makes absolutely no sense. It was also whipped up in about 30 minutes, so watch out for the curve and mana base.
Instead of telling you about the build, I’m gonna tell you a little (back)story:
Alora, Merry Thief is a horizon walker who has traveled to many distant and foreign planes. Some are rather ordinary, while others would bend and break the mind of weaker creatures. Alora offers their services “removing” extra-planar beings as they travel the multiverse.
Their clients consist of fey, dragons, celestials, fiends, and more who need rogue criminals or rivals taken care of outside the law. Their most recent contract was a bit more mysterious than their usual fare. All they were told was that their target is an enemy of the Seelie fey of Feywild’s Summer Court…
Noble Heritage | Illustration by Dallas Williams
Backgrounds are definitely very flavorful and I think they work well in this set as a fun and on-theme alternative to the partner mechanic. But it’s not likely backgrounds and “choose a background” will get any support or new cards outside of D&D-related products, which puts a bit of a damper on things. That said, Wizards seems very keen on printing more D&D sets so it’s possible that we might see more backgrounds and cards that support them, both as part of the 99 and as your commander, in the future.
What are your thoughts on the new background enchantments and commander mechanic? Do you think this could make for some fun new brews, or is it a flop in your mind? I’m absolutely only here to debate the merits of a new card type in a trading card game with strangers online, so feel free to shout your opinions to my ever-willing ears down in the comments or over in the Draftsim Discord.
Anyway, I’m off to go write even more backstories that will probably never see the light of day as they’re tossed in the pile of forgotten character outlines. Tootles!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: