Designing for Commander Draft Part 2: Problems to Solve and Possibilities to Explore

Written by DrChillbrain

This is the second part of a two-part article series on designing for Commander draft. They cover different topics, so the first part isn’t required reading for this one or anything, but if you’re interested in reading more about this subject, you can find the first part here.

In the previous article, I touched on how to design legends and archetypes for a Commander draft set. Since your suite of legends is going to determine what the rest of your set looks like in order to support them, I recommend getting at least a tentative set of themes and buildarounds before you move on to the brunt of the work designing commons. That’s what this article will focus on, although most of these elements can also apply to legend design as well. I’ll also be touching on a couple of notes about format rules.

Solving Problems of Multiplayer Magic

Magic was designed to be played 1v1 with 20 life. That’s a fairly neutral statement, the basic dynamics of the game were intended for that environment, and multiplayer variants were only created later on. This means that you can’t really design a multiplayer set the exact same way as a 1v1 set and expect everything to work out perfectly. That extends both ways; there’s unique challenges that a multiplayer set needs to design around, but also plenty of unique strengths that your designs can play to. I’ll be discussing each of the main considerationsand how you can design with them in mindstarting with some of the challenges a multiplayer set needs to overcome.

Attacking is bad in Multiplayer

This is something anyone who’s played multiplayer Magic has run into. You’re starting to build up your board of creatures and are getting to a point wherein a normal gameyou’d want to start attacking to put the pressure on. In the case of a multiplayer game though, you don’t just have to worry about crackbacks from one player, you have to worry about three opponents seeing you start to go on the offensive and remove some of their blockers from the equation. Not only are you vulnerable to much more crackbacks, early aggression can have a large impact on the politics of the game. All this combines to make it, in most cases, better to just sit back and let the board get clogged up, or at least it seems that way. This is something every major multiplayer set in Magic has recognized and taken measures to encourage players to attack: Conspiracy had Dethrone, Conspiracy 2 had Monarch and Melee, Commander Legends saw the return of the Monarch as well as Encore, Baldur’s Gate had the Initiative and Myriad, and you can even see this philosophy at work in a lot of Commander Precon decks. Games need to end, and boardstalls are no fun, Magic is so much more interesting when you’re engaging with the combat step.

Having mechanics that encourage combat is great, and while something like Melee adding stat buffs encourages true aggro decks, it gives little incentive for decks that want to gain passive value. This problem can be solved by, naturally, tying that value generation to combat. If you’re a deck that wants to draw cards or get extra mana or work with any sort of synergy, using attack or damage triggers can help make games with those decks much more interesting as they’re forced to reckon with the combat step. You can see this pattern repeated across many cards in canon multiplayer sets.

This is something that works great when applied to Commanders as well. I’m especially a fan of “Whenever you attack” as a trigger for generating value off your Commander, since it lets you send your other creatures in to get the trigger.That allows your deck to do its thing without putting its engine in danger. There’s a ton of different ways to get players attacking though, from just adding lots of individual abilities that want you to attack, to mechanics so central they’re essentially ruleset modifications, like Initiative or Monarch. There’s one other great way you can get games moving I haven’t mentioned though, which I think deserves its own section.

Sidebar: Put Goad in your set

Wizards considers goad a “multiplayer evergreen” mechanic, and for good reason. Goad gets games moving in a completely unique way that any deck is happy to have. It perfectly plays into the political dynamics of a multiplayer game, and forcing more timid players into having to attack and make some enemies really helps games get rolling. It’s great early game for pitting players against each other, great late game for breaking board stalls and acting as pseudo-removal for creatures that would be coming your way, and is just overall perfect for what multiplayer combat needs. Plus, it’s got a ton of design space and is easy to add on as a payoff for anything your archetypes want to be doing. 

One last note on goad: While having a goad-centric commander or theme can be fun, goad cards become close to useless once it’s down to a 1v1 game, so a goad deck may struggle to actually win once it’s between them and one other player. If you want a goad-specific deck to exist, there’s many different options you can take to solve this problem, recently we saw an interesting approach in the MKM Commander decks with Hot Pursuit, so get creative.

40 life is so much

This is a related but distinct problem to “attacking is bad.” Commander’s default ruleset starts players at 40 life. Especially when split among 3 opponents that is a towering amount of life for an aggressive deck to get through, especially when you’re playing with cards at the complexity level of commons and uncommons where the damage can only scale so much. It further disincentivizes early attacking, since you’ll be putting such a small dent in the total amount of life an opponent has. You can see the design consequences of this high life in The Initiative, having an entire Lava Axe as one room to help get around the issue of this much life. Rather than warping my cards or mechanics too much in this way, when testing for my own set I found that just changing the starting life total is the way to go here: In my experience 30 is the perfect middleground. 20 is a little low, with how players can be ganged up on in multiplayer it can lead to early player eliminations before the game is even close to being over (more on that later), while 40 is too high for the reasons outlined. It seems like Wizards has realized the same thing, the new Ravnica Clue Edition game mode has the same 30 life starting total.

Multiplayer games are Best of One

Most Magic formats are played best of three. There’s a number of benefits to this, but not the least of which is that if you have an awful draw in one game, you can still come back and win the round. This slightly mitigates the troubles of Magic’s mana system in a really clean way. Multiplayer games, however, go on much longer, and since there’s more than 2 players that can win, playing a best of X game doesn’t make much sense. Since the ruleset isn’t doing us any favors in this context, adding some cards to let all players get all their colors online and cast their spells is very helpful.

The most obvious implementation of this idea is The Initiative, whose first room smartly allows any player who’s able to take it to grab a basic land to fix their colors or just hit their land drops. This idea can also be seen in symmetrical draw and tutor effects in sets like Battlebond, which was similarly a best of one format. This isn’t necessarily something you’d need to have keyworded, but it’s worth trying to have some of these effects in your environment at low rarities to make sure everyone’s able to actually play the game. Something like a basic landcycling cycle can help with this as well.

Player elimination stinks

And speaking of making sure everyone’s able to actually play the game, player elimination is one of the most commonly cited “don’t”s in tabletop game design these days, and for good reason. Nothing sucks more than getting knocked out of a game that ends up going on for another 40 minutes and having to just wait until everyone else finishes before you get to start playing again. This is also something Wizards has been designing around since the earliest multiplayer sets, with Dethrone in Conspiracy, as well as the Monarch, Melee, Myriad, and the Initiative all encouraging players to spread their attacks around and not focus all their damage on a single player. If you’re planning on an aggressive creature keyword, I’d recommend looking into ways to incentivize attacking multiple players or changing your targets on each attack step.

Multiplayer games go long, and players run out of cards

Not in their decks, although this is a good time to mention that the 60 card decks, 20 card packs, 2 picks per pack model used by Wizards’ Commander draft formats is worth following to ensure long games don’t end in deck-out, but in their hands. This is especially a problem for colors with less card flow at lower rarities like white and green, but in all colors it’s very easy for games to quickly devolve into topdecking if you don’t design with it in mind. You can solve this problem by just adding more ways for players to refuel in the late game, but that’s still going to be limited by the color pie. For a more universal solution, adding a manasink mechanic, or just more manasink cards in general, is great for giving players something to do with their mana at every stage of the game. The Invoker cycle from Baldur’s Gate are especially notable examples here, since those cards also all helped to break the boardstalls that can cause these topdecking scenarios to arise in the first place.

Color identity leads to linear drafting

The last of the major issues with Commander draft is one unrelated to multiplayer and just related to the base rules of the format. Normally in draft, being able to pivot in and out of colors and splashes is an essential part of the game. However, in Commander, one is artificially limited in the colors they can play by the color identity of the legend at the head of their deck. The official Commander draft sets slightly circumvented this problem with Partner and Choose a Background allowing players to only have to decide on one of their colors at a time and leaving room for the “free space” legends like The Prismatic Piper to fill in the gaps, but there’s another even more simple solution.

Just. Don’t have color identity in your format.

Color identity isn’t crucial to the fun of Commander, it’s just a deckbuilding restriction to make constructed decks more thematic. It doesn’t make sense in limited, so why force it? Removing this rule allows for much more varied and expressive deckbuilding, even in canon Commander draft formats that were built around it, and I would recommend simply removing this rule for your own environment as well.

Multiplayer’s Unique Dynamics

I know I just spent seven sections of this article talking about how Magic is ill-fitted to multiplayer gameplay, but there’s a reason people love it. The dynamics of a multiplayer game of Magic can lead to incredibly fun and memorable moments and you should design your set to encourage those when possible. There’s a ton of great multiplayer focused designs in the game, and I highly recommend just skimming through the new cards from the Commander and Conspiracy sets for inspiration, but here’s some ideas to get you started.

Allow players to give incentives

In order for alliances to be formed, there needs to be something in it for the other player. Creating cards that allow for this sort of “donation” of resources allows this important dynamic of multiplayer Magic to flourish. This can be one shot effects like symmetrical card draw, or repeated incentives for players to play how you want them to, like Curses that benefit whoever is attacking the enchanted player. This is a great way to tie back into solving the best of one problem as well, letting a player who’s fallen behind due to bad draws get back in the game with some symmetrical draw or other benefits… perhaps in exchange for some favors. Beyond multiplayer specific designs like these, ensuring your format has plenty of targeted effects allows for the classic deals of “I’ll destroy this/buff this if you do something for me”, so don’t skimp on point and click removal or buffs!

Encourage table talk

Voting is a fan favorite for a reason, having to come together as a table in a pseudo-cooperative moment can lead to great stories, and also gives a great payoff for making alliances and deals. Voting isn’t the only way to get table talk to happen though, there’s a ton of design space for individual cards in the space of giving your opponents choices. Either making every opponent choose or forcing it on a single one can enable this sort of discussion, as other players tend to offer unsolicited advice even when they don’t have a final say. I’d recommend looking to other tabletop games for inspiration on this front!

Force other players to interact with each other

Get other players involved, whether they like it or not! Effects that can redirect attackers or spells onto other players are a ton of fun and lead to roping other players into interactions they otherwise would be an outsider to, leading to ripple effects in how those players interact with each other later on. There’s also a lot of fun to be had with forcing interaction between your opponents in other ways, like manipulating their permanents.or actions in a variety of ways.

This is obviously just scratching the surface of the possibilities of multiplayer Magic, but it should be enough to give you some jumping off points when designing your own multiplayer-focused designs.


These articles are far from exhaustive. There’s plenty of resources out there, especially from Wizards themselves, on the design behind sets like Commander Legends and Baldur’s Gate that I’d recommend you check out if you’re looking to learn more. However, I hope that this can serve as a good resource for anyone looking to design a Commander draft set, of what to do and what to avoid. If I can give one last point of advice, it’s to playtest, playtest, playtest! Your players are who you’re trying to make happy at the end of the day, so get the cards into players’ hands as quickly and as often as possible to help you fail faster and iterate on your ideas to find what works and what doesn’t. This applies to all Magic and all game design, obviously, but Multiplayer especially due to how many moving parts there are in a 4 player game.

If you have any more questions or comments on this subject, as always feel free to give me a ping in the Custom Magic Discord server, I’d be happy to answer anything you’d like to know or talk shop about Commander draft or designing for limited on the whole.