This past Friday with the release of Throne of Eldraine, we also welcomed back a short-lived format that was very near and dear to my heart. I’m of course talking about Brawl.
Brawl was originally introduced in March of 2018 by Gavin Verhey, with the origin of the concept credited to Gerritt Turner. It was presented as a new Commander variant with the major twists of using cards exclusively from the Standard card pool, and allowing both Legendary Creatures *and* Planeswalkers as Commanders. To reflect its ties to Standard, it also used the 60-card library size, rather than 100, and shared Standard’s banned list. The format was rolled out with somewhat minimal fanfare, with a few articles on the mothership, a casual league on MTGO, and some vague encouragement to play some group games with your friends. Clearly they wanted the community to take the lead on the format and its development, but while there was a fair amount of excitement, the format was met with a somewhat lukewarm reception from some areas of the community, who were skeptical about it’s potential. For some reason reason though, Brawl really struck a chord with me. I’ve been focused primarily on competitive tournament formats such as Modern and Standard for a long time, with a handful of Pro Tour appearances and a Modern Grand Prix win to my name, but for various reasons, which I’ll get into later in the article, I was instantly smitten with this new format.
I dove right in with both feet, brewing with all my free time and assembling an arsenal of decks, playing leagues and trying my hand as a streamer for the first time. Naturally, the format had some growing pains. It became immediately obvious from the league results and the weekly challenges that certain strategies were simply much stronger than anything else you could be doing in the format. Baral, Chief of Compliance especially dominated in the early days, at one point occupying 14 of the top 16 spots in an MTGO Sunday Challenge event. But with no desire to ban Baral in standard thanks to the shared ban list, public enemy number one persisted through the April banned and restricted announcement. League participation began to suffer noticeably. My enthusiasm for the format began to lose steam because no matter what brews I came up with, I’d play against Baral in 80% or more of my matches, and the deck was just too consistent and oppressive to successfully fight through. People who were enthusiastic about the format were not shy about letting Wizards know how they felt about the state of things.
Finally in May they responded. Gavin Verhey pointed out that they were caught off-guard by the community response to the format, and that they had perhaps underestimated the scale the format would take on, and they set out to make some sweeping changes. They separated the Standard banned list from the Brawl list and Banned Baral along with Sorcerous Spyglass, which had had the unintended effect of negating a lot of Planeswalker commanders. They also made the impactful decision to separate multiplayer Brawl from the 1v1 version of the format by changing the life totals for head-to-head matches from 30 to 20. Their argument was that the extra life cushion made it too easy for powerful strategies to carry out their game plan without having to focus on anti-aggro strategies. It was a reasonable thought process, but the change ultimately swung the format completely the opposite direction. Aggressive strategies such as Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, Ghalta, Primal Hunger, and Depala, Pilot Exemplar completely dominated the format. The ability to present consistent aggressive threats paired with recastable commanders proved to be too much to handle for control strategies, who would invariably lose if they were unable to draw the very narrow and specific sequence of answers to line up against their opponent’s threats. The format enjoyed a brief resurgence but people quickly became disillusioned again and numbers once again began to dwindle. I don’t remember exactly when they stopped supporting the format on MTGO, but it left with a whimper, disappearing from the queues unceremoniously without a formal goodbye, left for us to ponder what might have been.
But this July at San Diego Comic Con, we learned that Brawl is coming back. Gavin says that this time, Wizards intends to give Brawl their full support, rather than letting their newborn out into the wild to fend for itself. We are getting a format absolutely loaded with options for commanders, with the 36 planeswalkers from War of the Spark, and an abundance of legendary creatures in a wide range of color combinations and rarities, with unique and off-the-wall abilities. We’re also receiving 4 Brand new Brawl preconstructed decks with commanders and cards specifically designed for the format, which seems like an excellent decision going forward anytime a new format variant is introduced. I somewhat regret that we missed a chance to play Brawl with all the legends from Dominaria, but Maybe Commander Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is something better left to the imagination. I’m excited to see what Brawl can do with proper support, as I think it could serve an important function as a Magic format.
I think one of the things that initially drew me to Brawl was my love of a very specific category of Magic card. That is, the Standard rares that are obviously exciting, splashy, powerful, unique and fun, but never see competitive play for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they just aren’t costed quite aggressively enough, or perhaps they didn’t have enough redundant effects to support the strategy, or maybe it was the kind of thing that was really cool when it worked, but it was just never consistent enough to be worth pursuing. So often these cards never get the love they deserve. They may show up in a brewer’s challenge from time to time, but quite often they just linger in collections until they rotate, sliding into bulk boxes, not powerful enough for commander, they’ll never again see the light of day. Brawl is exactly the format for those cards. For me, it was Rashmi, Eternities Crafter. I fell in love with that card from the moment I saw it but I knew it wasn’t quite pushed enough for Standard play. I built a Blue and Green Midrange deck with Bounty of the Luxa, Tatyova, Benthic Druid, and The Immortal Sun, cards that would all just sit in play generating passive card advantage while I slowly squeezed the life out of my opponent with cards. Without Brawl, most of those cards would have passed in and out of my collection without ever seeing the light of day. That’s what I love about this format.
If I may put on my store owner hat for a minute, Brawl excites me as a tool for new players quite a bit as well. Often when a player starts to acquire new cards for the first time, it can lead to some somewhat awkward conversations. Say a player got a Bundle or a gift box for Christmas and opened a really cool mythic rare and now they want to know what they can do with it. I can tell them about standard and point out that they may still want to open or buy several more copies of that card to compete, or show them Commander, and tell them about the 25 years of history powerful cards available to them, some of which are unfortunately rather expensive. Now I understand that that is an somewhat negative way to frame both of those things and I would never use those words exactly, but to a player who’s just getting into the game, it’s easy to see how both formats could seem daunting. However I can lay out the cards they own, offer up a few dollar rares, commons, uncommons, and a Legendary creature or planeswalker, and voila! a Brawl deck is born. They have a format and a deck to play and focus on and care about. By the time they have to deal with the realities of rotation they will hopefully be a more established, enfranchised player, and more likely to retain their enthusiasm through some adversity. Brawl has the variance and replayability of Commander but with an affordable, manageable card pool. It has the ample card availability and focused, synergistic strategies of Standard without the oppressive repetitiveness that sometimes comes along with such a heavily dissected format.
The most common strike against Brawl I hear is that, like Standard, eventually the cards rotate, and become unusable in the format. Now, I’ve mostly heard this point from Commander players, and I can totally understand why they wouldn’t want to start worrying about collecting cards that rotate. Players who already play Standard should have no problem with it because they’re already fairly familiar with the ins and outs of a Rotating format. And with new players, it’s just important to make sure they’re aware of the reality and not caught off-guard when it happens. Most of the damage from a Standard rotation can be fairly well mitigated with a bit of careful planning and trading, and some players may want to use the rotation as an opportunity to transition from Brawl to Commander so they can continue to play their favorite cards. For this reason I feel like it would be in the best interest of Commander players to help foster interest in Brawl and help it grow, as ultimately in can only serve to benefit their favorite format in the long run. Personally I view the rotation of the format as an upside, rather than a flaw. In any singleton format, you have a certain number of cards that see play in almost every deck because of their universal usefulness, and rotation allows those cards to not grow tiresome, and prevents too many of them from building up, which would clog up deck building and stifle creativity. If we assume that Brawl is going to have a long life as a format, I think we’ll be grateful for the rotation in the long run.
I think Brawl has a ton of potential as a format, and personally I will be pushing it in my store as hard as I can. I plan on continuing to write about Brawl and hopefully stream it regularly when it becomes available on Arena and MTGO. I just wanted to share some history of the format and some of what Brawl means to me, and hopefully you’ll check it out and give it a try. I’ll leave you with a few decklists I’ve been working on in anticipation of the format’s comeback tour.
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