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Commander MTG Interview with Gavin Verhey

At MagicCon Chicago, we talked to Verhey about designing Commander cards, Universes Beyond, and more!

Welcome to our long-awaited second interview from MagicCon! We love Commander and Magic: The Gathering at SteelSeries, so a few of us went to the event to enthuse about the card game and see some events. Chris "Clear" Sanchez had a fantastic conversation with Principal Game Designer for Magic: The Gathering, Gavin Verhey, who used to be a pro player.

Make sure to check out our first interview with Mark Rosewater and Blake Rasmussen. Please share in your MTG community!

MTG Interview with Gavin Verhey

Gavin Verhey: Hi everybody! My name is Gavin Verhey. I'm a principal game designer for Magic: The Gathering, Which means, I design what goes on the cardboard squares that we make. I've been there for about 13 years. My first set was Return to Ravnica and I've worked on every set in some capacity since. These days, I mostly focus on our Commander line of products as well as some other ancillary releases. I also do a lot with our event side. So out here in MagicCon Chicago, I'm doing panels, Game Knights Live, running my special Unknown events and a couple other things. It's a blast, I love it!

Awesome! Who is your favorite commander? If you don’t happen to have a favorite commander, how about your favorite card?

mtg okaun and zndrsplt

Gavin Verhey: So my favorite commander is actually a partner pair that would be Zndrsplt and Okuan. It's a very special deck to me. So I made these cards in Battlebond as I was the lead designer of it, which came out in 2018. I came up with the partner mechanic, and I wanted to build a new kind of blue and red commander, something no one had ever had before. So I made these two which are all about coin-flipping, and I love them.

Then, a couple of years ago, the Secret Lair team approached me and they were like, “Hey, we want to do a secret liar commander deck. We’ve never done one of these before. Think about it. Take some time, take a few weeks. We want a deck that you think would be great for Secret Lair. That fits the kind of vibe of being a little wacky, let us know.” And then like, 20 minutes later I emailed them back, “I got my deck! here it is!” It was a coin flip deck because I already knew what deck I wanted to do. Of course I turned it into a Secret Lair deck and when it came out it was a huge hit.

Your favorite color to play?

Gavin Verhey: Blue! Give me counterspells any day. I'm sorry! I'm so sorry to everyone out there, but I mean, these days I play whatever, right? As a designer, you have to be able to play everything and beforehand, I was a professional player. As a pro, you have to play what the best thing is. I will draft whatever, I will play whatever. But I always feel like even if you're a pro or a designer, you're always putting your thumb on the scale a little bit towards the things that you love. I love my slow counterspell card-drawing decks.

Color that you hate playing against?

MTG thoughtseize

Gavin Verhey: That I hate playing against the most? Hmm.. I don't really hate playing against anything. You know, I feel like part of the fun of Magic is figuring out how your deck matches up against their deck and finding ways to kind of get around it. I will say that things like turn one Thoughtseize is always such a crushing thing because like your plan is just demolished immediately. So, if I had to pick a color, maybe I'd say black, but realistically, no color. I'm down for anything!

If you could pick a dream IP that is not Doctor Who to create a Universes Beyond set for, what would it be and why?

MTG doctor who

Gavin Verhey: My gosh, that’s a great question. Doctor Who was a dream for me, that was amazing. I lead our upcoming Final Fantasy collaboration, which will be coming out next year in 2025, which is probably the next in line for a dream IP as I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan! I've got to work on some really cool stuff and it’s possible that it’s one of my third favorites that I can't tell you about yet, so stay tuned!

Looking forward to it! I understand that you were a pro player for many years and qualified for many pro tours long before you joined Wizards of The Coast. How has your journey as a pro player influenced your path in designing cards for Magic the Gathering?

Gavin Verhey: It’s really interesting, isn't it? Because today, I mostly focus on Commander and some other ancillary releases, and I came in as a competitive player, which of course tends to not be what Commander players begin as. What I'd say is that my path is instrumental to where I am today because first of all, it gave me a good understanding of card analysis, discussion, documentation, and how to build strong decks. And when I came into Wizards of the Coast, I came in on what today we would have called play design, focusing on designing and making sure that our Standard, Limited, and other Competitive formats are as balanced as possible. Making the cards just right, more focus on the battle, the numbers and tweaking everything else.

Over time I've had a lot of roles at Wizards, but no matter what role I take up, those basic skills of being analytical about cards, understanding what can be strong and being able to communicate what I'm talking about have all been pretty pivotal to me in my card design journey. So even now when I work on Commander, I feel like because I have a competitive background, I'm able to analyze cards quicker and faster, I'm able to understand what's going to make a strong card from my pro background, which is really, really useful. So even though I'm not allowed to go play in the pro tour anymore, I wish I could, but I can't I still use those skills every day. Plus, I just love playing Magic. And so when I'm out drafting after hours, which I do all the time, it's good to feel a little bit of that competitive spirit back again.

Looping back to Commander, what do you take into consideration when it comes to designing cards in Commander versus Standard?

Gavin Verhey: Commander is so interesting because anything you put into commander will be legal forever. It doesn't rotate out like standard. You have all of magic history basically to compete against. And because of this, like the social contract many groups have, you can make a very strong card that people stop playing with, right? Different groups have different power levels, different ideas of what makes Commander fun. But in Commander, it's a lot less clear whether something is as strong or weak as we get what into it. Sometimes we make a card that isn’t very good but players just love it and want to play with, which is quite interesting. We look at balance and commander as we see it, but of course we look a lot at “Is it fun to play with? Is it enjoyable?” because if people are going to put the card in their deck, we want to create a fun game experience. With legends in particular, we have been very careful coming out of the command zone because you're going to see that card every single game. It's there, right? So you have to make sure it's fun to play with. Otherwise horrible things are going to happen. We also want to think about the longevity of the format. Commander is something that we want to keep going and going. If we keep power creeping it, making it stronger, making cards that you have to play then eventually the ingenuity, which is the fun part of commander, gets stripped out.

We made Command Tower, which goes in every single commander deck. We made Arcane Signet, which also these days goes in every single commander deck, maybe colorless decks aside. So now you build the commander deck, you really only have like 96 options because you start with your commander and then you add Sol Ring, Command Tower, Arcane Signet. The three cards you want in every deck, if you can imagine a world ten years from now, if we were to keep going down that path and suddenly we've made 15 more of those cards and every commander deck begins with the same 18 cards, that's bad. We don't want that to happen. It's important that people are able to express themselves, build decks, how they want to. So we do a lot of work to make cool, exciting, powerful cards. But these days we're trying to not make as many, like generically strong cards and more cards that go in specific decks or strategies or again, specific things. So you get that choice to build cool decks, but you don't feel like you have to play these specific cards. For example, I always like to use our board sweepers. We don’t want to just make the best in class board sweeper that's ever existed but making a board sweeper that's good in a specific kind of deck is really cool.

MTG damning verdict

Like when we made “Destroy All Creatures without counters on them”, it's like, Oh, if you build a counter deck that's exactly the card you want, but other than that it doesn't care about that, right? So it gives you that kind of selection and ingenuity in deck building. So there's a lot we take into account. There's a few of a handful of factors, but it's a lot to consider and it's a whole different ball game. And frankly, I think we're still learning a little bit because for so long, Mgic was just competitive one-on-one Standard, Limited, you know, Modern legacy, that kind of stuff. I mean, we've got a pretty good handle these days on how to balance for those formats, for the most part, and with Commander, we've learned a lot over the past ten years. We're even still learning now.

Commander has many mechanics that throughout the years have changed and you’re still bringing new ones to the table. How do you decide when to reintroduce popular mechanics versus experimental with new ones?

Gavin Verhey: So there's kind of two interesting things here. One, we can make new mechanics for Commander, and we can also bring back mechanics for Commander, and that's both on a large scale and in a small scale. I’ll be talking about the small scale first. We love bringing back mechanics on like a one-of or two-of basis in a set. “Here's the one card in the set that can Connive. Here's the one card that has phasing. Here's the one card that has rebound or whatever, right?” You have found this very enjoyable, a kind of sprinkling of returning mechanics and it's really fun to kind of take the lens of that deck or even put it through it. Or now that we do these subtle line where you have Commander decks for Ixalan or for Murders of Karlov Manor, you're able to be like, “Oh, well, this main set does not have this mechanic, but here we can make a card that has whatever mechanic you choose” which is pretty cool.

So it's fun to kind of have to bring them back to show off the world that flavor in a cool way. On a much larger scale, a good example for this is Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate which came out last year. Party is such a resonant word for Dungeons and Dragons, right? You build your party, you have a party. We try to party in the main set. It just didn't work out! But the commander deck was able to be a party, even though it has nothing to do with what's in the main set because parties are so resonant and the deck was really cool, right? It was a really beloved Commander deck that we made. And so sometimes we can bring things back on a large scale, and I think we want to try doing some more of that too, because as our main sets have started to create more and more legends that hit the themes of the set, the Commander decks can do some things that are a little sideways to that if you need to.

Thanks for reading! Please share with your MTG community. We have a second part of this interview coming as well!

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