How Many Players Do You Need to Play Commander?

A Magictation by Mikeal Basile

“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.

How many players are needed to make the perfect Commander game? If you said four, then you are wrong. Five? Nope. Three? Wrong again. Two? I didn’t say cEDH, did I; you’re wrong again. The answer is easier than you might think. But why take the easy way, when we can get there the hard way? There’s so much Commander content now that I can’t help but think that everyone has the correct answer. But, how can that be? If we’re all correct, then we’re all also wrong. It’s like a tie…no one and yet everyone wins. Are we all losers if we play with the incorrect number of people? Do we only win if we play with the optimal number? How many people do I need to play Commander with to have fun is actually a bit complicated. Let’s walk through the group numbers and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of setting up a Commander game with a variety of group sizes.

The Core Four

Those of you that say four players is the optimal size are probably in the majority. While those that say two are probably looking for a competitive duel style experience. I’m going to ignore cEDH, as I’d like to dive into the cases that include multiple players. These types of groupings offer some room for both analysis and discussion. A four player group enables politics with cards like Expropriate, Play of the Game, and other undaunted style spells to shine. Using cards that have will of the council also makes sense in these groups. These politically motivated deck strategies get better with a larger number of opponents. Likewise, spells with higher casting costs tend to be more playable as there is a larger damage cushion in these games. People tend not to just pick on one person and eliminate them early on, but instead spread the pain. These four player games often allow people to “do their thing” during the course of the game. This is usually the argument for having four players. The games go longer than smaller groups, and the spells and turns favor bigger plays. Godzilla taught me that bigger is better, so shouldn’t these decks and these games be the best? Perhaps.

Four Player Commander Game downfalls

Yet, the very strengths of a four player game are also its weaknesses. The downfall of games with four people is that the politics and actual turns slow down the pacing. Slowing down the pacing means you get to play less magic. There’s more stuff on the board, so people take longer to make decisions. Yes, you can play some big spells, and have some big turns, but the emphasis is on some. You can only spend so much mana during the course of the game. When we lean everything into our big spells, then we don’t cast multiple spells a turn. We toss out a few haymakers, and wham, game over. These games can tend to build to a crescendo that ends with big slamming turns and ridiculous combos that have finally been assembled. This is great if that’s what we want. What if you don’t want this style? What if you want to get in more than one game in three hours? What happens when you have a time restraint or you just can’t focus for that long? Well, you find another way.

Three Player Commander Games

Having three players at the table allows the action to move much more swiftly. The pace of the game increases, and slower decks are often punished even more. The need to punish slow starts arises from the danger of those decks being able to take out both opponents at once. Seeing a deck crush two opponents at once is much easier to imagine than seeing a deck crush three players or an entire table at once. That fourth player adds just enough cushion. However, removing that fourth player means that slow starters get punished much more readily. This is great in that it keeps the game advancing, and also makes it easier to punish people for overextending. Alliances can still happen, and politics can still exist, but they don’t necessarily play as heavy a role in the trio. We usually feel awful teaming up on the weak guy at the table. Meanwhile, teaming up to defeat the clear front runner is something that can happen very quickly and be undone just as fast. Alliances are fleeting, but still possible in this smaller pod. Does this mean that a trio is actually a better group to play with? Perhaps.

When Trios fail

The problem with the trio is just that if one deck jumps out ahead of the rest, then that one player can easily demolish someone with a slow start. If only one person has a decent start, then one of the slower starters gets eliminated too early to matter. This leaves someone in the unfortunate position of watching a duel unfold while they wait to play Magic. The hard part is that they never really got to play in the first place. Sure, they’ll end up playing another game in more or less short order, but when your first game never really happened, well, that sucks. Who wants to shuffle up, draw cards, play no spells, die, and then shuffle up and wait to do it all again? Yeah, I didn’t think I’d see anyone’s hands up for that one. What happens when your trio gets highly specialized? The games become hyper competitive paper, rock, scissor matches that involve knocking out the biggest threat early on and then duking it out with the deck that poses the least threat. Perhaps that is what any well navigated multiplayer game evolves into, but when you start with three you skip the whole process of evolution. An evolutionary leap in play style isn’t required, but it certainly feels inevitable when playing in consistent trios.

EDH/Commander with Five or More Players?

Yes, this is actually how it was intended to be way back when. The original Elder Dragon Legends were meant to be the original commanders that lead the five different decks at the table. The balance and politics are widely available in the beginning of larger games. The spells and variance are tremendous. The turns and development that occur during the course of the game is truly an epic saga of Magic storytelling. Watching a table with five or more decks at once is a pretty big deal. The clashing of various decks and personalities is always fun to watch. It’s even better to be involved in. While playing games like this you can expect that it will take anywhere from 3-5 hours to complete a game. Seriously. This type of legendary game play is what urban legends are bred from. It’s a veritable breeding pool in which the survival of the fittest is truly put to the test. I can’t emphasize enough how crazy and wild games like this can become. An arms race just doesn’t do it justice. It is more akin to a Colossus of Sardia blocking a Force of Nature that has banded with a Benalish hero. Does this mean that five player or larger pods are the best way to play EDH/Commander? Perhaps.

The Epic Downfall of Five Player EHD/Commander Games

The biggest draw to games like these is the way it builds to tremendous turns that include things like an insurrection followed by someone else grabbing the reins of power only to have a holy day. Yet, this takes an awful long time to happen. Sure, someone might help things along with a group hug deck, so perhaps it only takes four hours to play the first game of the night. Yet, unless you have ten hours to devote to playing at a clip, then the epically long games are actually a downside. Four player games require plenty of attention to the complex board states that develop, and when you add one or three more players the board state basically gets two or three times harder to follow. I don’t always play for this long, but when I do, I try to remember it really is a Magic marathon. I applaud you if you have time for these types of games. I look back at the years and I don’t think I’ve played a game like that in over a decade. The crazy part about it is that I do remember playing that last marathon of a game. I can even recall plays that were made during it (someone Conquered my Tundra). So, perhaps that’s a good thing. I worry that too many marathons will lead to some epic burnout and not to routine play. So, the very thing that was its strength shall be its downfall? Perhaps. 

What is the right number of players for a Commander Game?

The right, optimal, correct number of players for an EDH/Commander game is clearly whatever number makes you happy. I hate to take the easy way out, but what other way is there? We just took the hard way by analyzing what makes each group size good. We’ve taken a hard look at what the shortcomings for each size group entails. It really seems a matter of what you’re after when you play. Do you want a well-balanced game with political potential that should be done in 1.5-3 hours? Then you’re looking for a four player group. You want a faster pace and less politicking? Get a Vendilion clique styled trio together and you’re ready for action. You want truly large and epically long games? Go five or more and you’ll be signing up for a marathon. The matter of finding what your playgroup wants is simple, but also a little bit complicated. Sometimes it’s just a matter of whoever can get together. It’s not so much about choosing the right group size, but knowing what to expect from the group before you get into it.

Knowing is half the battle. 

Do you have the right decks for the size of the game you intend on playing. When you look at your collection do you have enough decks to meet all of these situations? Can you find a cEDH deck for duels? Have you built a ridiculous battle cruiser deck that eschews most cards under 6 CMC? Do you have a balanced or slightly faster deck? Heck, I remember when I only had one deck, and I played it whenever I could. I knew I’d lose 1 v 1 games. I knew I only stood a chance when there were more than three players, but I was OK with that. I wanted to win when there was a bigger audience. I wanted to just play whenever I could. My suggestion to you is that you should play with what you have. Enjoy the games you get, and plan to build for your games in the future. This helps you find maximum enjoyment no matter the playgroup and no matter the time constraints. Building your collection and preparing for all groups sizes is a great way to approach potential games nights. Here’s to hoping that this summer will hold many game nights for you all at whatever group sizes you manage to muster. Take care and best of shuffles to you.

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