Jacob Lerner Talks Tournament Bias, Stakes, and the Future of Competitive Commander in Magic the Gathering

Although not one of the competitive formats sanctioned by Wizards of the Coasts, Commander has become one of the most popular ways to play. Magic: The Gathering. Whereas Magic: The Gathering is known as a highly technical and competitive game, Commander has seen popularity as a more casual format thanks to its multiplayer nature and relatively affordable buy-in. But competitive Commander, or Elder Dragon Highlander as the format was originally called, is on the rise. On the competitive stage, players “drive” multi-thousand dollar decks for a chance at even bigger prize money, hoping to land winning combos in three to five rounds while preventing their three opponents to do the same.


Like any form of high-stakes gaming, competitive HRE has enormous potential for drama, exacerbated by HRE’s history of friction between casual and hardcore. MTG players and the format’s complex relationship with Wizards of the Coast. The format was not originally developed by Wizards and therefore most competitive Commander tournaments are organized and hosted by third parties. Game Rant spoke to Jacob “Bad Dog” Lerner, a pilot and “brewer” (deck builder and theory creator) in the Southern California Commander scene, about a recent experience during a professionally organized tournament as both an indicator and a cautionary tale of bias and gate-keeping in the competitive community.

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The Frank and Son Tournament

Monarch Media, which describes itself on Twitter as “a non-profit organization MTG tournament organization specializing in cEDH content,” hosted a tournament on September 3-4 at the Frank and Son Collectible Show in City of Industry, CA. The tournament was presented in partnership with Cash Cards Unlimited, a game store founded by former NFL linebacker and avid Commander Cassius Marsh and carried a $300 entry fee with a guaranteed prize pool of $30,000 On day one, Lerner was able to compete without incident, but on day two, he was approached by event staff.

“Two judges escorted me out of the tournament venue. Even event security was confused as to what was going on. But the judges took me to an alley where Joking confronted me. He said to me: ‘I have reason to suspect that you are Bad Dog.’ I say, “I’m not,” because I know he has no way of proving it. He tells me that I won’t play in rounds five and six. So we go in, and Joking goes to the ‘back to ‘discuss the situation.'”

Nick Hammond, who plays MTG under the nickname “Joking101”, is the director of Monarch Media. He also released a 59-page “cancellation document” accusing Bad Dog of systematic harassment in the competitive EDH community, which ultimately led to Lerner being banned from a number of EDH Discord channels and competitive Reddit forums. . When registering for the tournament, Lerner avoided using his usual MTG handle because he anticipated recording problems given his history with Hammond. It’s important to note that Monarch had no formal relationship with the forums Lerner was expelled from, and the cancellation document had no official affiliation with any of the event’s other sponsors or the host store.

Lerner came to the event alone in an attempt to keep a low profile, but he had several friends present at the tournament who were concerned about the situation and challenged his disqualification. “Someone suggested that everyone pretend to be ‘Bad Dog’. It was like a real life ‘I’m Spartacus!’ moment,” Lerner recalled. Ultimately, after Hammond spoke with Marsh, Lerner received a refund and asked to leave the event immediately. Although he was not given a clear rationale for the disqualification , Lerner complied.

After the tournament, Hammond took to Twitter to address the issue, saying Lerner had been banned from Monarch events with the public release of the aforementioned cancellation document. He also claimed that Lerner threatened him saying “your time is running out”, when he was kicked out of the tournament.

The information cartel

Lerner knows he’s a controversial figure in MTG, but he also believes his experience is a symptom of systemic issues rather than a personal grudge. Specifically, Lerner is concerned about the overlap between influencers who drive online deck-building discussions, forum moderators who control conversation in low-key EDH communities, tournament organizers who host competitive events, and sanctioned judges. from Wizards of the Coast judging the game:

“Competitive EDH is essentially an information cartel. A powerful group of Boston moderators – high-ranking figures in the competitive EDH community – essentially drive the conversation. Many of them are influencers who try to get influence. So they stick together and have a huge influence in terms of representation on the East Coast.”

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Due to its huge card library and ever-growing roster MTG mechanical, professional level MTG tournaments, whether or not their format is officially sanctioned, must be conducted by judges approved (but not employed) by Wizards of the Coast. When the legality of a specific game becomes ambiguous, judges are called in to clear things up. But even for experienced judges, Commander’s decisions can be surprisingly subjective. Lerner argues that the discourse in these online forums lends itself to groupthink that results in a bias towards certain styles of play and certain players.

Lerner’s claim is difficult to substantiate, but his concern is valid. There is a conflict of interest among influencers, tournament organizers and judges forming an unspoken united front. If these same influencers reach a consensus with players involved in officiating and organizing events, players who deviate from socially prescribed tactics and deckbuilding could be viewed as problem children, opening the leads to prejudice, even outright partiality in decisions. And the money to be made MTG tournaments is just the tip of the iceberg.

Commander’s effect on Magic card prices, especially lands and dual lands, hint at the huge overall impact the format has on MTG. For savvy investors, just being able to influence Commander market trends could be extremely lucrative. The Commander community is particularly vulnerable to this type of majority consensus access control, due to Wizard of the Coast’s hands-off approach to the format, but that may soon change.

The third wolf

Lerner thinks official Commanders events sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast are just a matter of time. Lerner provides an analogy where Wizards of the Coast is a third wolf. By allowing Monarch, Eminence, and other Commander tournament organizers to work out issues in a competition format, it can reap all the benefits of research and development without assuming any risk.

“Wizards of the Coast is definitely communicating with tournament organizers like Monarch and Eminence. I suspect WOTC is trying to use them as a base or risk-free prototypes for their own tournaments. If there are three wolves competing for a companion, a wolf will wait for its competitors to weaken, then kill the winner of the first fight.”

What this means for Commander’s future, however, is ambiguous. If WOTC decides to leverage existing competitive EDH event organizers, the risk of meta-fixation and bias could continue in perpetuity, as the same conflicts of interest would exist. By creating its own competitive platform, WOTC could once again act as a definitive point of authority within the community. Even though third-party tournament organizers continue to hold their own “grey area” tournaments, players like Lerner might take their decks elsewhere to compete.

Unfortunately, the former outcome seems more likely than the latter, as the Commander tournament organizers rely on a quality-of-life conceit that defeats the purpose of WOTC: proxies. As the name suggests, proxies are cards that replace other cards; especially those whose price is prohibitive. Current Commander event organizers adhere to a common proxy list to allow for a wider variety of competing decks. However, the WOTC cannot allow any type of officially sanctioned in-game proxy listing without catastrophically devaluing the highly lucrative MTG. In this sense, using third parties to organize professional but unauthorized tournaments is a great workaround.

Despite this complicated nexus of issues, Lerner is optimistic about the future of the format. He sees social media’s quest for influence – and the inevitable drama associated with that pursuit – as the main enemy of healthy competition. MTG to play. To that effect, he urges new players to reject content creators who talk about decklists and card levels, pointing out that “most people who talk about tournaments have never won a tournament.” Instead, he suggests players have fun, “find out what [they] are gifted, and rock it.”

Magic: The Gathering is available now.

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