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41 New Partners Coming In Commander Legends! Good or Bad?

Commandfest 2 began with a special panel covering the future of Commander with Wizards of the Coast employees Jules Robins, Ari Nieh, Gavin Verhey. You can watch the entire panel over here on Twitch and there was a lot of sweet things revealed that I'm very hyped for, such as the fancy reprints in Commander Collection: Green, promises of White finally getting better card draw and ramp options over the next two years, and what exactly is in Commander Legends, how the draft format will be played, and some exciting card previews from the set. All of this stuff was great to see but there was one thing in particular revealed that worries me:

There are 41 new partner commanders coming in Commander Legends.

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Partner is a commander mechanic that was first introduced in Commander 2016. It lets you have two commanders if both have the partner mechanics. So instead of having a 99-card library with one commander in the command zone, you have a 98-card library with two commanders in the command zone. Both commanders' color identities combine to determine the deck's color identity, so if you have a Blue and Green partner commander like Thrasios, Triton Hero paired with a White and Black partner commander like Tymna the Weaver, your deck can run Blue, Green, White, Black, and Colorless cards. Other than combining to figure out deck color identity these commanders function independently; for example, they track commander tax and commander damage separately.

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Partners were initially very well-received by the community and became very popular commanders, allowing players to build mix and match partners to make unique decks with up to four colors. But while each partner commander was designed to be roughly half as powerful as a solo commander since you get two of them, pretty much all the partner combinations ended up being very powerful, with some partners even being hilariously busted and even stronger solo than most non-partner commanders! I'm looking at you, Thrasios!

After C16 we got a more restrictive version of this mechanic, the "partner with" mechanic in Battlebond and Commander 2020, limiting which other card can be used as co-commander, such as Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark. These two cards follow all the regular partner rules except they can only be paired with each other, so no more mixing and matching.

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And now with Commander Legends we're back with open-ended partners: 41 new partners in this set compared to the C16's initial 15, bringing the total up to 56 partners that can pair with each other! That's 1,540 partner combinations! And boy howdy do I have thoughts about this, so let's break it down with the good and the bad:

The Good

Let's start with the Good, because there's actually a lot I like about this announcement.

First and foremost: I love the concept of open-ended partners. Brewing is my favorite part of Magic and partners offer up the promise of endless brewing possibilities, mixing and matching partners together for over a thousand different combinations. If there's no solo commander that enables the exact kind of deck you want to build, chances are there's probably now a partner combination that can do a good job of it. You can even just pair up two partners at random and see how you'd build a cohesive deck around their abilities. The endless tinkering opportunities made me instantly fall in love with the C16 partner commanders.

And I'm not the only one who loves open-ended partners either, of course: like I said before, they were tremendously popular when they were released and even to this day they're still some of the most popular commanders in the format. Sure, the high power of many partners and the otherwise very few other 4C commander options out there contribute heavily to the C16 partners' popularity, but I believe that many people are also drawn to their open-ended appeal.

Also not all the C16 partner commanders are exceptionally powerful. While many are what I'd consider close to the power of a solo commander, there's quite a few partners that hit what I feel is the correct power level, like Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa or Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist.

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Finally and most importantly, I think the focus on open-ended partner commanders is a brilliant design decision in Commander Legends, a product designed for drafting Commander decks. Drafts are all about building the best deck with what you're being given, changing your strategy and colors based on what's open. You need to introduce modular commanders that work well in a drafting environment, that allow you to easily swap colors and strategies instead of punishing you. As mentioned in the panel, if you pick an Azorius commander like Gosta Dirk and some sweet Blue cards like Counterspell only to later find out that White is being heavily drafted but Green is wide open (Cultivate), you have to ditch your commander entirely and hope to find a Simic commander that can run your Blue and Green cards. This would lead to inconsistent draft experiences. But by including lots of mono color partner commanders, if you took a Blue partner commander and White partner commander early on you only need to ditch the White partner for a Green partner instead while keeping the Blue partner, which is much easier to do in the draft.

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So open-ended partners are the perfect commanders for a set that is intended to be drafted, they're incredibly popular in the community, and they offer unparalleled brewing customization options. Lots of good reasons to bring them back with Commander Legends and really expand the concept.

The Bad

As much as I love open-ended partners in theory, the one thing that worries me is power creep.

Intentional power creep has been an ongoing problem in the Commander format ever since WOTC started officially supported (aka commercialized) the format with products specifically targeted at Commander players. If you want players to buy your product then you have to entice them with bigger and better things, and each new product has to one-up the previous products or else people won't be impressed with the new stuff. The rate of intentional power creep has exploded recently as the Commander format has become the undisputed largest constructed format in Magic and literally all of WOTC's products are now targeted at Commander players as the primary consumer. But that is for a future article which I won't go into detail here.

But what worries me about open-ended partners isn't intentional power creep but rather unintentional power creep. 

By WOTC's own admission, the original C16 partners weren't meant to be as powerful as they are. But an underestimating of the power levels of the commanders, the advantages of the partner mechanic itself, and of the more powerful partner pairings, all combined to make some of the strongest commanders ever printed. It's understandable that they missed the mark with so many of them: the partner mechanic was brand new and probably didn't get as playtested as much as it should've been, and even with just 15 original partners that's still 105 partner combinations to consider. And so powerhouse partners like Thrasios, Triton Hero, Tymna the Weaver, Vial Smasher the Fierce, Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix and others got unleashed upon the world, surging in popularity and taking over many playgroups.

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So my initial reaction to the panel's reveal of 41 new partner commanders was a bit negative!

As I mentioned before, many of the original partners cards were simply way too strong, so it makes me nervous when WOTC announces that they made 41 new ones. To be fair, I think they did learn some lessons from their first go at it: being mono-color instead of two-color does lower their power ceiling a bit, and the three commanders they showed us -- Sengir, the Dark Baron, Halana, Kessig Ranger, and Alena, Kessig Trapper -- all seem toned down compared to the C16 partners. Some of these commanders are intended to be primarily for Limited, not Constructed, which allows them to be a lower power level and less worrisome. It could be that all of them have hit a more reasonable power level goal, but the sheer number of them -- 41 friggin' commanders! -- drastically increases the chances that at least some of them will be broken. 

However, Gavin Verhey is clearly aware of power level concerns and has recently gone on record stating that balance was an important design goal and he made significant effort to ensure as much playtesting and outside assistance went into it:

But while balancing individual commanders is something I'm hopeful about, the real problem is that now there's 56 partners, a total of 1540 combinations. That's an impossible task to thoroughly playtest all combinations with the limited manpower they have at WOTC. It just ain't happening. So there's always a potential that some busted combination gets discovered by the thousands of brewers in the Commander community shortly after release, far more busted than intended.

So overall, while I remain hopeful that the majority of partner commanders will be absolutely fine in Commander -- except for the ones intentionally powered up to push product, of course -- I fully expect quite a few new broken partner pairings to emerge. Hopefully they won't be too format-warping.

This Looks Like A Job For CEDH!

In the panel, Gavin mentioned that they went to a bunch of people in the Commander community for feedback and playtesting on the partners, specifically naming Sheldon Menery, The Command Zone, and the Commander Rules Committee as people they showed the partners to. I think this is great, as the more people you get feedback from -- "beta testing" the cards -- the higher the chances you'll catch and correct any potential problems before release.

However, if the community is worried about power creep issues with these commanders and you're looking for feedback specifically to find partner combinations that are far stronger than you intend, why are you not approaching the members of the Commander community that specialize in finding busted combos? The CEDH community is the perfect people that you should be approaching for feedback for this specific issue: people like Play to Win, The Spike Feeders, Playing With Power, Casually Competitive, Laboratory Maniacs, the CEDH subreddit and more, this community is KEENLY familiar with C16 partners (their metas have been dominated by them for years!) and have tons of experience identifying the most degenerate things that can be constructed by any pile of cards that you throw at them. They're going to break the new commanders in a few days after release anyway, so why not let them show you what's up beforehand?

What Do You Think About New Partners?

Obviously it's too soon to pass judgment on the new partners, but what do you think about the announcement? Are you excited for new partners or dreading them? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

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