Indulge me in a hypothetical.
Imagine, if you will, that you have a friend who’s been blind since birth. One day, she undergoes a revolutionary new surgery, and for the first time in her entire life, she’s wandering around with you and seeing things. She turns to you and asks: “What is Red?”
Red is … difficult to define? It’s not something you’ve consciously thought about for years. Distilling the essence of a lifetime of red-colored experiences into words is not an easy task, and yet here it sits before you. One option available to you is to precisely define red. So you turn to your friend and confidently say “Red is visible light with a wavelength between 610 and 660 nanometers.”
But… your friend looks disappointed. How is it possible that this precise scientific definition of the color, so clear about what does and does not count as red, has fallen flat? You try something else: instead of defining red, you describe it. Red is the color of stop signs, of firetrucks, of these roses and those tulips, of that woman’s lipstick or that man’s shirt or that other person’s fingernails. It’s a color for fire and passion and warnings and love and spiciness.
This works! Now she’s getting into the red-ness of things, excitedly pointing them out on her own (except for when she gets overzealous and you have to say “no, that’s orange”).
“Cool story Dave, but it seems pointless? What does it have to do with PDH?”
This is the story I use to explain the utility of definitions vs descriptions. Definitions are precise tools of experts, used to create a very clear boundary between what is and what is not. Descriptions are vague and nebulous example-laden introductions for beginners, and they allow folks to build up their basic experiences of what is and is not.
This is all relevant because Wizards has just dropped Backgrounds on us, and we are all novice beginners when it comes to Backgrounds.
What is a background?
“Background” is a new mechanic in Magic’s new Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate set, and this set’s version of the Partner mechanic. Commander Legends is meant to be drafted, which naturally conflicts with Commander’s rigid color-identity rules. Partner provides players with an easy way to pivot from one color pair to another: instead of having to find a new legendary creature with the right colors, they can just swap out one of their two commanders for one that matches the new plan. The problem with Partner is that, the more partners get printed, the more out-of-control the mechanic gets. So finding new alternatives is important for Wizards.
Enter Backgrounds: this is a new way to partner up two cards so that they can both be your commander, but in a way that doesn’t compound the power-scaling problems of “Partner.”
Every mono-color legendary creature in Battle for Baldur’s Gate has the text “Choose a background.” If you choose one of these creatures to be your commander, you can also choose an enchantment with the subtype “background” to be your second commander – they partner up so that you have two commanders (and hopefully two colors worth of color identity with which to build your deck).
“You still haven’t explained what this has to do with PDH”
I’m getting there! OK, so lots of these mono-color legendary creatures in Baldur’s Gate are uncommon, so they can be your PDH commander. Which is awesome for us! And they let you choose a background, which is also awesome. So now we, the Rules Committee, are faced with an unprecedented decision to make:
Which backgrounds are legal to use as commanders in PDH?
This is a more difficult decision than it looks like.
Lots of folks saw the text “Choose a background” on creatures and felt that made the enchantment sort of subordinate to the creature, so they assumed we’d only be allowing common backgrounds. There’s nothing about backgrounds that naturally puts them into the command zone, only the ability “Choose a background” on a creature does that.
Lots of other folks saw the text “Can be your second commander” and felt that, since the things that historically go into the command zone in PDH are uncommons, that we’d only be allowing uncommon backgrounds.
Lots of other other folks saw the cool new mechanic and wanted to leave all options open to brewers, so they wanted to make all common and uncommon backgrounds legal PDH commanders.
We (the Rules Committee) talked about this for weeks, and the purpose of this article is to share with you some of the points we brought up on both sides, and the decision we ultimately made.
SPOILERS: Everyone is on board with uncommon backgrounds being legal commanders.
Literally no one is against that. If you’re reading and worried about whether or not you can use Criminal Past: you can, bless your wayward criminal heart. This article is pretty much entirely about whether or not we should also allow common backgrounds into the command zone.
“PDH has always been about putting an uncommon in the command zone”
There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up in this sentence, so let’s unpack that. “Always” is an appeal to tradition, “has been about” is an appeal to the format’s philosophy (which, at the moment, no one has written down or agrees on), and “an uncommon” conveniently leaves off the other commander requirements: that the commander is a creature, is not a land, and that other rules apply if it has something like “Partner,” “Partner with,” or “Choose a background.”
Still: this is a very compelling point. Historically, as long as there have been official rules, we have only allowed creatures with an uncommon printing as legal commanders. The introduction of backgrounds feels like a weird reason to disrupt nearly a decade of format-defining precedent. And it really is format-defining: the entirety of our format’s existence is based on rarity-based deck-building restrictions. Allowing common commanders in general would be a drastic shift in what is and isn’t allowed, and allowing common backgrounds feels like a weird exception to make.
It really would be weird to create an exception just for this. I mean, there are only 5 common backgrounds.
In addition to being a weird exception to make, it’s a weird exception to write about, since it applies equally to both sides of this argument. Proponents of common backgrounds are saying “There are only five, what’s the harm in allowing 5 extra cards as potential commanders?” and opponents are saying “you’re only losing access to 5 cards, you can get over it.”
The real argument being had here, though, is about the cleanliness of the rules. We want our rules to be clean and streamlined and easy to understand at a glance, which is why we say “your commander can be any uncommon creature” when we introduce the format to our friends. There are, of course, extra bits: “Or two uncommon creatures if they have the “partner” ability or the “partner with [each other’s name]” ability, or one uncommon creature with “choose a background” and an enchantment with the background subtype, but not Dryad Arbor ’cause it’s a land, but Tangled Florahedron is fine because the land is the back face but you can’t play the land face from the command zone, and if your uncommon creature has adventure here’s how that works…” These extra details get left off because they’re part of the definition–they create very specific boundaries and help people at those boundaries navigate their weird edge-cases. What we’re trying to do is provide a description to serve as an introduction for our novice friends.
What this boils down to is an issue of where we draw the line on our descriptions vs. our definitions. Opponents of allowing common backgrounds don’t want to have to build the “common or uncommon background” clause into their casual descriptions of what a legal commander is; they feel it’s a weird exception to have to make for only 5 cards. Proponents feel like putting backgrounds into these descriptions at all is a weird departure from the norm, and that the formal definition is already changing to allow backgrounds, so this would be a very small edit to an already big change.
This formal definition thing is already complex enough with partners and backgrounds and all the other shenanigans that EDH players don’t have to deal with. Allowing a very specific subset of commons will just confuse the players.
We definitely do not want to confuse players! We’re trying to streamline this to be as intuitive as possible. The problem lies in what different folks think of as intuitive. As I already mentioned, people had many different initial interpretations of this, in terms of what backgrounds they felt should or shouldn’t be legal commanders. We have to keep in mind, as we discuss this, that what’s intuitive for one person might not be intuitive for another.
The bigger issue to consider for keeping things simple, streamlined, and intuitive, is: we don’t want to make a ruling here that’ll undermine our other rules. Officially, you can’t use a common creature as your PDH commander (even if that commander is pretty interesting). Allowing common backgrounds into the command zone might not confuse players in terms of backgrounds, but it absolutely sends a mixed message about putting other commons into the command zone, like Ponyback Brigade or Naya Hushblade. The rules committee, for all our disagreements, are extremely united in the importance of not sending mixed messages about our core rules.
“Damn, Ponyback Brigade looks sweet. What if I want that AND common backgrounds to be legal?”
Allowing all common creatures into the Command Zone is something we talked about over the last few weeks. It would definitively solve the question of common backgrounds! But would it damage the health and diversity of the format? Would it change the competitive scene? What’s really at risk here by opening up the floodgates to a few thousand extra commander options?
It was difficult to articulate our feelings about this option. The honest answer to these questions is that opening up the command zone to any common creature would have an incredibly minor impact on the format’s metagame. So many of the common creatures just… don’t do anything interesting, and the interesting options almost always have more interesting and more powerful uncommon analogues. Allowing common creatures to be commanders would honestly change very little. So what’s the harm in pulling that trigger to see what happens?
First of all, that’s not a trigger we can un-pull, so it’s something we need to be absolutely sure we want to happen before we take that plunge. And we’re not absolutely sure. There’s a uniqueness about a single uncommon among a pile of commons. A special-ness to that card that sets it apart from the rest of the deck. EDH has its legendaries; PDH has its uncommons. We want to preserve that special-ness.
“What? ‘Special-ness’? That’s stupid. Why are you preventing me from building a Ponyback deck?”
We are, as always, fully supportive of your experimentation and exploration. Rule zero is here for you! Build the Ponyback deck and then play it. Play it against me personally, I badly want to see it in action. But recognize, as you build it, that it’s technically not a legal commander, and you should ask your playgroup if they’re OK with it before you start a game. (For the record: I, Alkadron, am always OK with it.)
This is what Rule Zero is all about: some people want to build the most powerful deck they can under a rigid set of constraints, and other people want to bend the rules a bit to explore something fun or to express themselves. PDH has room for both kinds of players (and everyone in between) because of Rule Zero.
“Uh oh. You’re talking about Rule Zero in the context of things I’m not technically allowed to do. I know what this means for common backgrounds.”
You know exactly what this means for common backgrounds, especially if you read Scarecrow’s announcement from the 23rd. After weeks of discussion, we put the matter to a vote, and the results of that vote were:
Six RC members voting against allowing common backgrounds in the command zone
Four RC members voting for allowing common backgrounds in the command zone
Zero RC members abstaining.
We decided ahead of time that this would be a simple majority-rules vote, and so for now, we have officially made the ruling that common backgrounds are not allowed in the command zone. Which brings us right back to Rule Zero: if you’re upset about this decision and curious to see how one plays, build the deck, get permission from your playgroup to play it, and let us know how it goes!
“This has been an enormous amount of text for what feels like a really simple decision.”
This decision was anything but simple – there’s an enormous amount of nuance and implication and format philosophy and intuitive-ness underlying every aspect of this decision, and we all felt differently about different aspects of it, and it all came up in our discussions. I wrote this massive wall of text so that no one would think we took this lightly, because we didn’t.
Anyways, thanks for coming on this journey with me, friend! I hope you depart this article with a more nuanced understanding of our decision than you entered with, whether or not you agree with it. Either way, let us know what you think by hopping into the PDH Home Base Discord Server or our Facebook page or our subreddit.