When he’s not developing and designing new cards for Magic the Gathering, writing articles, or creating content for his popular YouTube Channel, Good Morning Magic, Gavin Verhey can be seen doing what he enjoys most, playing a game of Commander. I was lucky enough to be invited to a game via Spelltable – a remote web based software created to play paper Magic. To say I was awe struck is an understatement! Getting to sit and play Magic with someone who helps create the game you love is honestly such a rare opportunity. I was so nervous and worried, but I needn’t have been concerned. Gavin is such a down-to-Earth person and has so much time to talk about something he is very obviously passionate about, to anyone who will listen.
“I always say Magic is great but it’s about the Gathering. I love the game, like Magic is awesome. I will play it for the rest of my life basically. But the Gathering, the people you meet along the way, the adventures you have, the post tournament dinners the decks you build together, that is the best part. It really is the people that make it what it is.”
So, who is Gavin Verhey?
Starting as a fan of the game and later on competing on the pro circuit, Gavin has been a part of the Magic the Gathering community for a long time. In fact, he’s been contributing and sharing his love of the game including writing weekly articles for Star City Games and MTG Salvation from as early as 2005. It’s hard not to recognize the joy and passion Gavin has for the game, as well as for the community. Over the past 10 years he has worked at Wizards of the Coast designing and producing new cards that bring new life to the game. Notable sets he has worked on during this time includes Conspiracy, Ixalan, Shadows Over Innistrad and his brain child, Commander 2017. Gavin has become the champion of Commander and has helped nurture the format to what you see it as today.
“Starting last year, I was heading up a project at Wizards seeing how popular Commander was becoming and was basically like, we should start doing more for Commander. One big thing we started aligning Commander decks to sets. So when a new set came out everyone would pay attention. Additionally we started making booster sets. Commander Legends came out last year, it’s the first ever full on Commander set that you can draft and play Commander with. That set is my brain child, it took about 6 years from when I came up with it to when it got printed which is pretty wild. Very happy about that one. I’m proud to say that next year we are coming out with a follow up Commander Legends 2, which is going to be Dungeons and Dragons theme and set in Baldurs Gate.”
But wait… What is Commander?
Commander or EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander) originated as a fan-made format, bringing an exciting and new way to play Magic. It allows for multiple players as well as unlimited possibilities. The decks revolve around a Legendary Creature as your Commander, and a 99 singleton card deck that contains only cards that has your Commanders colours. The beauty of Commander is that you can base a deck around a favourite Legendary and have the ability to recast it again and again. As Gavin shares,
“Every Legend is a window into a new Commander. I think that is one of the hook of the format, and why it’s done so well is that whenever you see a new legend you’re like I wanna go build a deck around that legend.”
Since gaining a lot of traction in the community, Wizards and Gavin stepped up and started releasing pre constructed “pre-con” Commander Decks. Since 2011 the Commander decks released have evolved from simplistic decks to ones that can perform well straight out of the box. As a commander player myself, I can attest that the earlier decks were indeed, not that great. However, after playing the new ‘Undead Unleashed’ precon deck with Gavin I was really surprised at the functionality and quality of the deck as it performed well out of the box.
“We’ve been making them for 10 years now. We’ve learned a lot about how to do it. If you look back at some of the old ones, frankly they’re a mess in a lot of ways. Now when you buy some of the new ones they’re very refined, they can compete out of the box with other stuff. We’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into them. I’m really proud with what we’ve come up with.”
This sounds amazing! Can anyone play?
The biggest hurdle with any game space, especially one as old as Magic The Gathering, is to make sure it is an inclusive space for all. Wizards has been working diligently throughout the years to make sure they include all players within their community.
“A question I get a lot is why don’t more women play magic, what are you doing? It’s a lot more nuanced of a conversation than that. First of all, it is a really important issue to us. It’s so important us and Wizards that Magic is welcoming and brings in a lot of people from all walks of life.”
“It’s on us to keep putting good representation in our game and keep creating things that will elevate people who have been minorities in Magic traditionally to give them that platform.”
They’ve also been working hard to make sure the their cards and characters show a range of body types, genders, abilities, sexualities and ethnicities. Gavin shared he worked on the first non-binary Planeswalker, Niko Aris, which he thought was pretty rad.
“We’re doing a lot of work internally to help make sure our game shows a lot of different types of people, because often it helps for you to want to play a game if you can see yourself in it… I think we are all headed in that direction it’s just going to take time to get there. It’s on us to keep putting good representation in our game and keep creating things that will elevate people who have been minorities in Magic traditionally to give them that platform. We’re doing our best to both create diversity in our game, in our company and then elevate people who are playing.”
It can still be daunting as a new player, especially if you are of a marginalised gender. Wizards has also noticed this and have seen a lot of success thanks to the release of Arena and Spelltable over the pandemic. This has allowed players to learn how to play Magic without the fear of walking into a game store full of men.
“One of the biggest success stories has been both Arena and commander because as you mentioned, it can be very intimidating walking into a game store that has mostly men and allowing you to start playing in a safe environment at home with arena and then getting the confidence you need to come in and go play in a store… Additionally commander is a play style that has really helped bring people in and feel inclusive as like, hey, it doesn’t matter what your experience level is, come check it out. We’ve seen a tonne of people of all backgrounds come and play.”
I was interested to learn more about this organisation so I reached out to the VML to find out more about who they are and what they provide. Haiyue, one of the Co-Chairs of the VML and tournament caster, was happy to help provide an overview of the league.
“The VML is a 10-week long MTG Arena league for people of marginalised genders aged 18+. All players of marginalised genders are welcome, wherever they are in the world – we’ve had quite a few Australian players among the ranks! We started out in late 2019 and we’re currently about to announce our 6th Season. We do roughly 4 seasons a year to match up with the Standard-legal sets.
The top finishers from each Division plus some number of wildcards, will make the playoffs. The unique structure of the VML is that we let the players arrange their own matches each week, which is great for international competitors, players with full-time employment, unconventional employment, parenting responsibilities, etc.
During the playoffs, the structure is single-elimination, and eventually we crown a winner. The winner of each season goes on to compete in the next pro Championships.”
Since they’ve begun Haiyue shared that there has been a lot of success for the competitors in the pro league. VML was able to give players the support and confidence they needed to compete. On their third season, Wizards sent an the invite to the winner into the pro circuit. Notable competitors includes, Carolyn Kavanagh, Arya Karamchandani, and Doria Keung.
“We started the VML with the mission of showcasing the talents of competitors of marginalised genders who often can’t access traditional tournaments because they can’t dedicate whole weekends to playing Magic or are otherwise excluded socially from events. We give those players a route to the pro scene that didn’t exist for them in the past.”
“… this is a huge passion project for us and we strongly believe that the top of competitive MTG should look more like the actual player base.”
It’s not just pro Magic though, Haiyue also shared her success working with VML by working as a tournament caster and broadcasting for Wizards Pro Tournaments. Another alumna Elizabeth Rice, who has been a part of the VML for multiple seasons, has recently been hired by WotC to work on play design.
“We started out with a competitive focus and that’s still the main featured event, but the VML community has created its own casual/fun spaces, such as the D&D campaign that we had throughout last season. We’ve been trying to create some casual spaces too for brawl, EDH, and limited, but since we’ve been restrained by simply not having the ability to run that many initiatives as everyone on the team works on this project in their spare time. We have been sponsored by WotC since Season 3 and it has been incredible to have their support in terms of funding the production/admin team, prize support, and invites to the pro tournaments. However, all our team members dedicate a lot of extra unpaid hours to the community and league because this is a huge passion project for us and we strongly believe that the top of competitive MTG, as you noticed, should look more like the actual player base.”
VML runs a weekly broadcast on Friday evenings during each season, with a production team made up of people of marginalised genders. These feature matches, player interviews, and the like. They have just finalised recruiting for the next league which, yours truly, gained enough confidence to sign up for!
So, I’ve never played before. Any advice?
So we have you interested in giving Commander a go? Great! I checked with Gavin the best place for new players to start out.
“If you are a brand new Commander player here is my recommendation: First of all, pick up a precon. They’re really, really great they’re perfect for picking up out of the box and playing. Second, if you have a friend already who plays commander go join their group. It might be overwhelming at first, there is a lot going on, but remember it’s social, it’s casual, you can take back things, you can ask people for help, don’t worry about it. If you don’t have a friend who plays already I recommend going and talking to your local game store and seeing if there is a group there or maybe a discord where people are organizing online to play over Spelltable. Commander players are some of the friendliest players I’ve met in Magic anywhere.”
Thanks to Gavin and the team we can share this deal online for a Commander pre-con decks or check your local game store for both product and play times. And hey, if you want to play me on Arena some time send me a message via Twitter!