Last updated on January 24, 2022
Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief | Illustration by Mike Bierek
Pretty much as soon as MTG Arena got its start, questions on if (and when) the Commander format would be added to the fray started to pop up. And it’s no surprise really since the multiplayer format is immense popular, and those of us who love it love to play as often as possible.
I’ll be jumping into the topic of when (and if!) Commander will grace MTG Arena’s doors in just a bit, but first, here’s a quick recap if you’ve never heard of it.
What is Commander?
Karador, Ghost Chieftain | Illustration by Todd Lockwood
Commander was invented by a couple of MTG judges who wanted something fun to do on their off time. They originally called it Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH for short) after the original Elder Dragon cards. The name was eventually re-branded as “Commander” when Magic became more popular years later. The rules are simple:
- Pick a Legendary Creature as your Commander
- Only cards of your Commander’s color identity are allowed in your deck
- You’re allowed one copy only of any card except basic lands
- 100 cards per deck
- You start at 40 life
If you want to find out more, you can visit WotC’s page on Commander or, for a more in-depth dive into the format, head on over to the founders’ page. Both are very useful to help orient you on your journey into this incredible format. We also have a great article on 5-color commanders showcasing the true craziness that can be found in Commander.
Commander has become the number one format for both new and old players to get into over the years because it provides the perfect combination of playing Magic and having fun with your friends. It’s no wonder Wizards has started to produce lots of products specifically geared towards Commander players. In fact, Mark Rosewater addressed this in an answer to a question posed on his Tumblr blog in November 2019:
So, all of this begs the question: why isn’t it available on MTG Arena yet?
WotC’s Stance on Commander and MTG Arena
Omnath, Locus of Mana | Illustration by Mike Bierek
As far as official announcements from Wizards go, there haven’t been any relating specifically to Commander on MTGA. There are, however, a few somewhat-relevant statements that we can interpret in different ways.
Back in September 2017, WotC made an announcement about the way they designed MTG Arena:
We want to create a game that can evolve. We’ve created an all-new Games Rules Engine (GRE) that uses sophisticated machine learning that can read any card we can dream up for Magic. That means the shackles are off for our industry-leading designers to build and create cards and in-depth gameplay around new mechanics and unexpected but wildly fun concepts, all of which can be adapted for MTG Arena thanks to the new GRE under the hood.Jeffrey Steefel
You can gather a couple of things from this. First is that new mechanics, modes, formats, and card types can, at the very least, be finagled into MTG Arena. So, new things that come out for Magic should be able to be integrated into Arena with some ease. Second—and this is important for us Commander enthusiasts—this suggests that older formats should also be not-too-hard to incorporate into Arena, too, aside from time constraints. This leaves the door open for Wizards to bring Commander to the digital platform should they so choose.
Apart from us speculating and asking questions on Reddit and the MTG Arena Forum, WotC kept quiet on the topic for a couple years following that last announcement. July of 2019 brought another update, this time about Brawl coming to MTG Arena:
MTG Arena doesn’t currently have a format like Commander where you build around a legendary creature, and now you can finally get that experience there! Before the year is out, you’ll be able to play 1v1 Brawl on MTG Arena.Gavin Verhey
Again, this is not saying anything directly about Commander, but a few things can be taken from this. The software in Arena most likely didn’t include the ability to build a deck around a legendary creature until Brawl was added. The same goes for recognizing a legendary creature’s color identity and using that in deck building as well. This was all added for Brawl, of course, but they’re steps in the direction of Commander, too.
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about what MTG Arena is ultimately meant to be as a game. To both help current conversations and lend context to the path ahead, we want to talk about our goals for MTG Arena and what this means for players as we begin to look beyond Standard.
MTG Arena is:
• A gateway to Magic: We want MTG Arena to be the definitive way for new and old players alike to jump into Magic: The Gathering whenever they want.
• Delving into Magic’s history: We plan to bring more of Magic’s history into MTG Arena through Historic and set remasters.Wizards of the Coast
A bit further in they write:
This is a long-term commitment that will eventually lead to additional format support beyond Standard and Historic. Pioneer is one of the formats that we’re working towards, but it’ll be a longer journey before we can talk specifics. As we head towards that goal, we’ll be focusing on delivering the best play experiences that these iconic card sets can offer.Wizards of the Coast
A very interesting couple of statements, don’t you think? These clearly state their intention of bringing older formats into the fold for MTG Arena. They’ve been talking about Pioneer for a while now and this is obviously their first stop, but who’s to say what comes next.
After these slim pickings and not a shred of actual confirmation that Commander will or won’t be coming to MTG Arena, one thing is at least certain. The foundation for EDH to be implemented in MTGA is in place. The one big question that remains is: why haven’t they done it yet?
The Challenges: Why It’s Hard to Make Commander Work on MTG Arena
Cromat | Illustration by Donato Giancola
As I’ve stated before, there are 20,000 unique MTG cards. With reprints, that number easily rises to over 30,000 cards and almost all of them are legal in Commander. Herein lies the biggest problem: all these cards would need to be added to Arena before you could play true Commander on the client. This is a very time-consuming process.
If you play MTG Online, you probably remember how long it took to add all these cards to the client so that we could play older formats like Legacy, Vintage, and Commander. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the time frame, it took roughly nine years. That’s a hell of a long time. Heck, just look at the addition of Historic and Pioneer to Arena for a real 1:1 comparison: we’re poised to get one “set” of 20 to 25 Historic cards every three months in the form of anthologies, and Pioneer will be a slow-going process with Set Remasters this year starting off with Amonkhet, though this has been in the works since November 2019.
Quick note: The good news is that, once Pioneer has been fully added to Arena, we’ll be that much closer to Commander as the format includes sets from Return to Ravnica forward.
Then there’s the challenge of making Commander work in a multiplayer setting. On both MTG Online and Arena, multiplayer formats are only available in 1v1 versions. The most obvious reason for this being that a screen split between four battlefields would get too small for you to see everything that’s going on in a clear and structured manner. In order to experience Commander in a multiplayer setting (as it’s meant to be enjoyed) this is a considerable problem that needs a good solution. The same goes for Two-Headed Giant.
With these two bumps—the first being a mountain-sized one—Wizards will most likely not be bringing Commander to MTG Arena for the foreseeable future. Chances are we’ll be waiting years before significant steps are made in that direction. But, not to fear, every new card added to Arena is one step closer to Commander becoming a viable option. As they’ve stated themselves, Wizards is working towards older formats and Pioneer may just be the first step in that direction.
“Are there any solutions available that wizards could implement?”, I hear you ask. Let’s look at some scenarios!
Possible MTG Arena Commander Solutions
Edgar Markov | Illustration by Volkan Baga
With the many technological advances that MTG Arena has seen, there must be something Wizards can do to give us Commander in a (relatively) short amount of time! So, what are the options?
These scenarios are the most realistic options Wizards can give us with a short-term timeline. Neither are ideal or complete solutions, but they would at least allow us to enjoy (a form of) Commander on MTG Arena sooner than having to wait for the entire catalog of relevant Magic cards to be uploaded onto the client.
In the meantime, you’ll be glad to hear that there are other ways to play Commander right now! Sort of.
Vorel of the Hull Clade | Illustration by Mike Bierek
There are a few options for you to get your Commander fix offline, online, and on MTG Arena. Let’s start with the latter and work our way back from there because Arena’s version isn’t actually Commander, but a variant of the format. We touched on it already, but let’s get a bit more familiar.
You can play Brawl on MTG Arena right now, a fun and charismatic format that‘s very similar to Commander, with a few key differences. If you’re not familiar with them, here’s a quick summary of the differences (check out our article linked above if you want the full scoop on Brawl):
Brawl vs. Commander
This is a viable option if you enjoy playing on Arena but don’t always want to draft, play constructed, or enter an event. It’s definitely more casual and can be enjoyed 1v1 playing with your friends or random opponents. Along with the official products out there, you can also build your own decks using Standard-legal cards. But it’s not quite Commander. If you like to play Commander specifically and don’t want a similar-but-different alternative, stick around for some other great options.
Erebos, God of the Dead | Illustration by Peter Mohrbacher
MTGO is the other digital platform Wizards developed for Magic way before getting to Arena. You can play all kinds of formats in Online, including Commander. All the cards are on there, so you can build to your heart’s content and make any deck you can dream of (providing it’s legal in the format).
The downside is that, unlike MTGA, the cards aren’t free; you need to buy them. Granted, they cost a lot less than IRL Magic cards, but you still need to invest to play. You can also only play 1v1 Commander.
If you want a classic multiplayer match or are on a strict budget, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Cockatrice has been around for a long time and offers a lot of formats, including Commander. The program is free to download and is available for both Mac OS and Windows. It offers 4v4 multiplayer and all Magic cards are available for free as well, so no need to invest anything other than your time.
Because the program is free, though, there are more bugs and the system crashes every now and then. You also need to keep track of all game actions yourself to make sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to. Much like paper Magic, really.
There’s another option, though, if you’re not keen on Cockatrice for whatever reason.
Daxos of Meletis | Illustration by Karla Ortiz
Octgn is pretty similar to Cockatrice. It’s free to download, doesn’t require you to invest in the cards, and offers 4v4 multiplayer. Unlike Cockatrice, though, Octgn is only available for Windows. If you have a Mac, this article may have some ideas for you. And, again, it has its own issues with crashes because it’s a free program.
It’s still a great option if you don’t feel like spending more money on Magic than you already have and really enjoy playing in multiplayer. Especially if your friends or playgroup are scattered across multiple countries and you want to play together.
If you’re not the sort who likes to play online there is, of course, one final option.
Play in Paper
This is where the format started and, in my opinion, is still the best way to enjoy Commander. In real life with your friends. There’s nothing quite like getting together and play this format with each other. There’s always lots of great talks whether it be bragging, wordplay, Commander politics, or just plain old fun. Paper play has it all. If you’re able to go out and play with your friends (please stay safe and follow your city’s quarantine rules, though!), I would recommend paper Commander above any online version.
On the other hand, if you want to get some inspiration for building your very own Commander deck, I’ve built a few which you can check out here. There are also great websites like EDHREC, TappedOut, and Command Beacon as well as awesome YouTube channels like The Command Zone and Tolarian Community College where you can get tons of interesting ideas and info on Commander.
(Another) Commanding Conclusion
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