Look, partner as a mechanic is kind of a problem. Setting aside jokes from Melissa Detora about ‘hating the partner mechanic,’ Partner, as presented at first in Commander 2016, is a mechanic that put its foot forward in a bad way. This isn’t unheard of; Devotion’s first appearance was as the mechanic Chroma back in Shadowmoor, and when Wizards returned to that, they managed to absolutely smash it out of the park. Heck, Partner, after its first appearance, has come back twice, and each time it’s been really good.
I like Partner a lot – it’s a way to represent a story between two characters, it’s a way to examine common ground between mechanics, and it’s a way, crucially in smooch month, to represent kinds of relationships that a game about combat and conflict and faeries doesn’t often have room to show.
Let’s talk about Partner, then.
WOTC Employees: This article is entirely about about unsolicited game designs, with example cards.
Okay, so partner has problems. Some of those problems are just problems of execution. The first wave of the damn things were just ‘do thing: draw a card,’ undercosted and undersized like Tymna, generic ramp, or just an infinite outlet for mana like Thrasios. Those are not inherent problems with the mechanic, but with execution of it.
The design space Partner opens up is valuable, though. Partner was a way to give decks access to two two-colour commanders, letting people play four colour commanders. There are other iterations on them that work out really well, the pleasantly weird almost-limited commanders of Commander Legends and the Partner-With Partners of the Commander precons. These are, in my opinion, good executions.
To try and stick to this idea of ‘good execution,’ then, I set these rules out for myself, and I recommend them for if you want to build with partner.
A partner is Worth Half A Card
We get a lot of cards these days that are ‘engines.’ They both enable a behaviour and reward that behaviour. A good example would be (for example) Woe Strider, or perhaps the Meathook Massacre – cards that have an impact and then a lasting application of that impact. In the case of Partner cards, you need to think about the two things you want those cards to do and break that apart.
Akiri benefits from having equipment, but Akiri doesn’t draw you cards for having equipment. Bruse gives double strike and lifelink, but isn’t itself a remarkable creature to have those effects. Like you wouldn’t spend 2RW on a 3/3 double striking life linker as a commander, it’s the application of spreading that around onto something else that makes it exciting. And yes, I think Bruse and Akiri are two of the best commanders in that set.
Point is: Partners should not be self-contained engines. Partners that do cool stuff when you have them both out? Great. A partner that does everything it needs to all at once? Not a good choice, Thrasios.
A legendary version of a classic utility card, or maybe even a card you wouldn’t normally think is worth putting in your deck but would love to have if you always drew it? That’s a place to start. Some archetypes are great fun in constructed but rely on an effect you can’t have in the command zone, and therefore, can fail when they don’t get started. It’s okay to use a Partner to set up a deck design, though, as in the next point:
Partners Need To Direct The deck
This is another problem with your Ludevic and Thrasios designs. These cards don’t really direct you to do anything, they just want to reward you for doing stuff you were going to do anyway. Thrasios gets you lands and cards if you pump mana into him and that means he’s good if you, well, ramp mana and spend cards to make that mana. Ludevic, same thing, he rewards you for making sure people take damage, which does encourage velocity, and he does shy people away from you, but there isn’t really a lot of reason you’d use that with any kind of remarkable cards. You don’t need Ludevic to live in a deck with really oddball cards.
That’s the thing: Partners want to be cards that benefit from interacting with cards that aren’t just Good Stuff. Partners can be lords of weird tribes (Homarids and Orcs, for example) and that immediately means they push you towards doing something that is more interesting than just A Deck Of The Best Cards In This Colour,
Partners Have To Not Be Cheap
This is a bit of a hedge rule and it’s a bit more complicated. See, the first round of Partners have a bunch of problem cards, but almost all of them would be solved if they just weren’t really cheap. Vial Smasher as a 3 drop comes down so fast and so consistently you might as well rush it out on turn 2 because you’ll ‘always’ draw it and it’ll always start generating good damage immediately. If the same card was, say, a 5 mana 5/5, yeah, it’s less powerful, but the situations where it shows up, it’s going to do more and it’ll be arriving after the game has had more chances to be different.
If you’re too cheap, odds are good you’ll show up twice in the early game – once at two, then again at four. Five is the first point, typically, where a deck needs to ‘draw’ a land. This can be forgiveable, if the purpose of the commander is to enable something that isn’t normally capable of supporting itself in the format. Like…
Partners SHould Be Aggressive, Be, Be Aggressive
You don’t want the early turns too consistent, Thrasios, you don’t want your literal best two drop to be one of your Commanders. I do like early-drop commanders, but I want them to be aggressive creatures that encourage the game to start moving, rather than early defensive walls you sit behind, Thrasios. But this means that if the absolute cheapest a card could be is say, a 1/1 for 2, then I’d rather bump it up in size and give it some combat keywords.
Let commanders attack goddamnit. And that’s something cheap commanders often resist. Making a partner capable of attacking is very important because if they aren’t then you’re much more encouraged to treat them as cogs in a machine. And that also ties into costs that can curve. Partners should both want the other in play – there shouldn’t be a ‘right’ order to play them in. That means matching costs is a good idea, or have a cheap one that really benefits from arriving after the first one.
There, that’s the basics. These are rules that I think will make Partners better, in general:
- No self-contained engine cards
- The deck should change based on what the Partner provides
- Partners should cost 3+
- Partners should be able to attack
There. That’s the big basic header of what I think about when I try to design commanders with Partner.