"Many Bothans died to bring us this information. ~ Mon Mothma"
Most players don't realize it, but Elder Dragon Highlander (a.k.a. "EDH") is a format almost as old as Magic itself. As a casual way to enjoy the game with a group of friends, it has become a pillar of the modern game, and I suspect if we had statistics on such things we would find it is the most popular way to play outside of "kitchen table" Magic. It's telling that Wizards of the Coast produces product for a format they didn't invent or regulate. (In fact, in a recent "Head to Head" poll on Mark Rosewater's Twitter feed, "Commander" just barely lost to "Booster Draft" in a poll of favorite formats, by a statistically insignificant margin. Since Mark's Twitter audience trends toward the more enfranchised player, I stand by my assertions.)
During my most recent exploration down the Old School Magic "rabbit hole" I recalled some hazy memories of playing EDH in those early days. I couldn't put my finger on that exact moment I first experienced EDH, and that led me down yet another rabbit hole as I explored it's early history.
EDH (what would later be re-branded as "Commander") was inspired by a 1996 article in Duelist Issue 11 by Jesus Lopez. The article, "Elder Dragon Legend Wars" had significant differences from what would become EDH, but you could see the game swirling in the protomatter. I tracked down and scanned in the article and it's posted above for your historical reading pleasure. Finding an issue of a 20 year old, small print magazine was no small feat, but obtaining an actual copy of the magazine did put the article in a historical context. Take a look at the cover - "A first look at Alliances" "Romancing the Stone: Milling Made Easy" and "Necropotence: Harness the Power of Death" - these were the burning topics in the community when the issue hit the newsstands. It was a time when Magic was still finding its footing - and a great time to be a player. Debuting on page 52 under a banner entitled "House Rules" a column, far shorter than the one you are reading now, planted a seed that changed the game as we know it.
The rules are instantly recognizable as "EDH" with an Elder Dragon designated as your "General" and the color restrictions that would later become known as "Color Identity". Core concepts like the "Highlander" single card restriction (there can be only one), are also spelled out in the article; even if it was only in a single sentence. The similarities are striking, but the differences are far more interesting.
Deck construction was extremely regimented in this "Proto-EDH". Players were restricted to sixty card decks and were required to include eight of each basic land from their Elder Dragon's colors. Creatures were limited to a predetermined fixed number and overall maximum point value. The point value was derived from the sums of the army's total power and total toughness added together. When looking at these rules in a historical context, I feel like they probably have their roots in tabletop miniatures gaming. There was a lot of crossover in the player bases back then and most miniatures games of the period spelled out the size and makeup of armies in detail, using point costs to ensure equal strengths. This theory is reinforced by the "lost rules" that define creature ranks. At the games start, players designated two creatures as "Warlords" and three as "Captains" in addition to their "General", the Elder Dragon. EDH was truly trying to simulate a regimented army. When one of the opponent's ranked creatures was killed, that player was dealt an amount of direct damage based on their rank, while the victor gained an equal amount of life. Warlords were worth 3, Captains were worth 2 and the Elder Dragon was worth a massive 4. That is a devastating 8 point swing!
This was a time of experimentation in the Magic community. Almost every playgroup had their own rules. In my group, we played exclusively multi-player with "attack to the left and defend to the right" as our combat rule, so decks that were tuned for our small group were nowhere near as effective in another. Everyone was tailoring the Magic experience to suit their own needs, and this is echoed in rules of "Elder Dragon Legend Wars". The article contained suggestions like "decide beforehand what cards are banned" and "try combat in different ways and pick the method you like best". While this may seem odd today, in 1996 it was pretty standard to assume everyone played the game a little bit different. Like I have said in past articles, it was the Wild West. In any case, the tiny article was a success - firing the imagination of players. I was one of the original DCI members, (I still have my "Legend" card and my DCI number is under 2000!) and the membership came with a subscription to the Duelist. Re-reading the article connected the synapses in my brain and I started to remember the article and convincing my playgroup to try it at one of our Friday night get-togethers.
So back to history. While the Duelist article may have fired the imagination of many Magic players, there were two Alaskan Magic players in particular that took the rules to the next level. David Phifer and Adam Staley experimented with the rules and adapted them for their playgroup to create a "long-form" version of the game. Eventually, they introduced it to their friend, Sheldon Menery, now known as "The Godfather of EDH", and he began to spread the format outside of their small circle. Sheldon was a Level 5 (now Hall of Fame) judge and introduced EDH to his fellow judges during their down time on the Pro Tour. From this small group the format began to spread like an underground music movement. As word got out, Sheldon became the "go-to guy" for EDH, advocating the format in more public forums, and the ranks of EDH players continued to grow. The format finally exploded when Sheldon posted a feature article on Star City Games in August of 2004. EDH had come to the masses.
EDH had remained Magic's best-kept secret for quite some time, but times they were a changin'. In 2005 the EDH Rules Committee was founded. Led by Gavin Duggan it standardized the format's play and it's banned list. The group proved to be so effective in its promotion and curating of EDH that when Wizards of the Coast re-christened EDH as "Commander" and began to sell pre-constructed decks in 2011 they still allowed this independent organization to be the final say on the format's rules and banned list. Quite the accomplishment for the little underground group. Sheldon, now retired from judging, remains an active member of the community, is a sitting member of the Rules Committee and writes a regular column on Commander at Star City Games.
So all that brings us back to my continued exploration of the Old School rabbit hole. After reading the article a thought passed through my mind - "I wonder if you can build an Old School EDH deck?" I love self-imposed restrictions to push creativity and I knew that I couldn't let it go until I tried to combine my two Magic passions. The short answer is yes, you can - and I made a crackin' good deck! I call my deck "Rubina, Hall Monitor". I will do a follow-up article just on its tech, but it's a lot of fun, even when struggling against the larger, modern card pool. The bigger take-away from my deck building experience is that I think this could be a great sub-format for the Old School crowd. It could also serve as a gateway into Old School gameplay - since it would allow the use of the hundreds of cards available within the card pool, that while not tournament caliber, are viable in a more casual setting.
I would propose that an Old School Commander format play with the modern Commander rules set, not the original 1996 article. The years of refinement is something that you wouldn't want to lose, as well as the accessibility that Commander's popularity has brought to the players. This would also give the format access to a wider scope of generals - like Rubinia! However, to make the format "Old School", the card pool should be restricted to the following sets: Limited Edition, Unlimited Edition, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Homelands and Alliances. This is the card pool as it existed on the date Duelist 11 was published. This is also the card pool I used to build my deck and it offered a greater availability of cards and flexibility that 100 card Commander decks require. As with the traditional 93/94 Old School, to get the "full flavor" of the format players should use the original printings of the cards - no reprints allowed. Remember, the beauty of Old School Magic, is not just in the older cards with wonky rules, it is also about recreating the scarcity of cards. Half the fun of Old School is the card chase and with this larger pool it doesn't have to be a financial burden. After all, sealed Ice Age boosters are still out there for $12.98, and individual cards can be found in a lot of 25 cent bins.
I hope you give my crazy Old School Commander idea a try at your next game night, or at least use the restrictions for yourself when building your next Commander deck. I'm far from a rules guru or a leader in the Magic community, but I think this could be a lot of fun for your playgroup. 1996 was a great time to be a Magic player, but there is no reason that you should miss out just because you were too young to play, hadn't discovered the game or weren't even born yet! Get to the game store and start flipping through the card bins - there is some good stuff in there! Enjoy the game!
Sources and Further Reading: