The five colors of mana in Magic: The Gathering.

EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander, aka Commander) is a variant of Magic: The Gathering designed for more forgiving, more enjoyable social play. In this article, I’ll be discussing some of the basic rules of Magic and how they build a certain play narrative, and some of the rule variants in EDH and how they facilitate somewhat different, more social play. I’d like for this to be the first of several articles about game variants (specifically I’d like to talk about LoL’s ARAM variant), but they likely won’t be back-to-back, so no promises!

Relevant Summary of Standard Magic’s Gameplay

In Standard Magic, players build decks of 60+ cards from the most current set, with the restriction that cards other than basic lands (the most fundamental resource) may only be included up to 4 times in a deck. This stops players from completely removing the randomness from their decks, but allows for a fairly high degree of consistency. Players draw 7 cards to begin, then alternate taking turns during which they draw 1 card, play up to 1 resource (land) card, and then play any number of spells that they can afford with their resource pool. Spells make changes to the game-state which are either sudden and brief (gain 3 mana, which disappears after this turn), lasting but with little ripple-effect (deal 5 damage to your opponent), or, most commonly, which make significant, lasting changes to the game’s overall dynamic (such as creature spells which remain in play and may be used to attack your opponent). The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life total from 20 to 0.

The considerable hand size of 7 gives players, in the beginning of the game, a fairly good idea of what their future play might look like. In tournament play, games will often end before turn 7, meaning that half or more of the cards a player has access to in their game are visible to them on their first turn. Social play tends to draw out much longer, but the 7 cards still make up a respectable amount of a player’s possibilities, at least for the first chunk of a game.

Drawing a single card means changing a player’s possibility space by a small, manageable amount each turn, not overwhelming compared to the possibilities generally available in hand and in play.

Since players are ideally playing a resource card each turn (at least for the first several turns) and at least one other spell (so that they may have any effect on the game state), and only drawing once, their hands tend to quickly dwindle. Instead, possibilities begin to open up on the table, in the shared play space. Because cards in the shared space interact in complicated ways, this causes a sharp ramping-up of information processing requirements on players. It’s generally a much simpler decision whether to play a creature spell than whether to attack with a creature—this is partially because there’s so much information available to the player about the opponent’s possible reactions to attacks, information which must be dealt with before a decision can be made.

Though the “in play” cards (such as creatures, enchantments, and lands) make up the most explicitly shared play area, there is no area in the game where one player has exclusive, privileged access. With the correct spells, players can look at opponents’ hands, decks, and discard piles, move cards between them, and even gain control of each others’ spells. This, I think, is one of the strongest aspects of Magic, because a change of state in any area can cause significant ripple effects in the game dynamics for both players.

The rising tension of Magic is caused by several factors. Ordered from most obvious to most interesting, they are:

  1. As health totals drop, the risk of losing from a misplay rises.
  2. As resource availability rises, more significant alterations in game state (through stronger spells, spell combos, or just more spells) are available to players.
  3. As hands dwindle and permanents are cast ‘into play,’ potential player actions move into the more visible, more interdependent zones, creating more dramatic interactions and richer dynamics.

Factors (1) and (2) are directly linked, and exacerbate each other, making the escalation more significant and dramatic. Factors (2) and (3) are linked in a similar way, with the more significant possibilities from (2) giving players more room to have more valuable interactions with the rich possibility space afforded by (3). This dynamic is more complicated and less directly connected to victory conditions. Instead, it traces a curve of increasingly rich dynamics, meaningful actions, and complicated decisions. While the dynamic between factors (1) & (2) is straightforward and powerful for dramatic tension, that between (2) & (3) makes Magic a far more beautiful and longer lasting game.


The EDH game variant fully utilizes all of the parts of Magic I’ve expressed so far, changing the game to deal mostly with issues I’ve not yet discussed. In EDH, decks must be exactly 100 cards, with no repeats other than basic lands (resource cards). In addition, decks contain a single General/Commander card, which must be a Legendary Creature (rare, unique, and powerful). This General stays in a special zone, and may be summoned repeatedly throughout the course of the game. Finally, player health totals are doubled from 20 to 40, but players also can lose by taking 21 damage from an opponent’s General.

100 Cards, No Repeats

In Standard Magic, the optimal deck size of 60 and per-card limit of 4 allows competitive decks to be very consistent in their play. This encourages decks to be built around very specific combos, with very predictable, early-win outcomes. Good Standard decks are very reliable in their trouncing of bad Standard decks. But good decks cost money, sometimes a lot of money. So the entry level requirement being competitive in Standard play is: a lot of money. This might be a good way for Wizards of the Coast to make a lot of money, but it makes the game much less approachable, and makes too much room for victories to be based on finances over merit. In addition, it makes games between advanced players and new players enjoyable and exciting for exactly no one.

EDH responds to this problem by lowering the max specific-card-per-deck ratio to 1/100. No longer can a player rely on a certain combo to guarantee victory, because the odds of that combo occurring are now very slim. The line between a good and bad deck certainly still exists, and a deck with cards significantly better than those in another will almost always win, but the consistency has been reduced. Most importantly, the manner in which the better deck wins is no longer regular and predictable. The dynamics that emerge over gameplay are almost guaranteed to be varied and interesting, bringing out new combinations of cards in each game. So while the drama from factor (1) is gone in that sort of game, the dynamic between (2) & (3) is exaggerated. Though the competition of a one-sided games is still null, the beautiful, rich dynamics are more present in all games of EDH than in Standard.

The General

The problem of forcing 100 cards with no repeats is that it tends to kill the thematic nature of Magic. Sure, a black deck will still be black, but no longer can decks be as meaningfully focused around a certain dynamic. This is good in a way: it increases variety. But it also destroys some of the strongest narrative framework in Magic, the characterization of decks and their interactions with one another. EDH solves this problem much better than Standard, with the General. While a Standard deck might be characterized by being a goblin deck, a dragon deck, a burn deck, or a mill deck, none of these characterizations is nearly so rich and relatable as the specific personality of an EDH deck: a Jhoira of the Ghitu deck, a Rhys the Redeemed deck, an Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder deck. And this characterization doesn’t just work in a literary sense. The omnipresence of the General and its abilities means a consistent mechanic that colors the construction of the entire deck and the dynamics of every play session.

40 Health, 21 General Damage

The doubling of health and addition of General Damage are an effective way to constrain games to a duration desirable for social Magic players. In Standard, expensive spells are sometimes hard to play due to the relatively short length of competitive play. For a lot of casual players, playing these expensive spells is one of the more satisfying things that can happen in a game, so the difficulty of playing them can be somewhat discouraging. Doubling the life total is a very quick solution to this problem, coarsely lengthening the duration of the game to allow for more exciting, bigger plays to be made.

The downside of this change is that it also gives more time for decks with a lot of healing in them to balloon out of control, with players getting upwards of 150 health in the more unfortunate games. This is a problem that emerges even in social Standard play, and can lead to long, boring games that end in anticlimactic resignations. EDH’s solution to this problem is to provide a secondary, unhealable source of damage: that from the General. Though not a solution to every game’s time run-on problem, this does give players a way to combat the issue of overly defensive decks.

TL;DR—EDH creates a more enjoyable social experience in several ways:

July 20, 2013