Fans of Commander are enjoying the closest thing to a Christmas in July thanks to a new game mode in Magic: the Gathering Arena that fairly well simulates the popular casual format despite some major caveats.
Publisher Wizards of the Coast announced in a July 29th State of the Game update that Historic Brawl will hit Arena on August 10th. This coincides with the release of Jumpstart: Historic Horizons and several other backend changes to the digital client.
Game Director Jay Parker began the post glibly by announcing the arrival of Historic Brawl up top, a nod to the fact that players have been clamoring for a way to play something akin to Commander essentially since Arena first launched. For those unaware, the Commander format uses 100-card singleton decks - only one of each card can be included - helmed by a legendary creature that can be played one-on-one or in larger multiplayer matches. It's become a staple of “kitchen table”-style casual playgroups for embracing older cards and allowing a breadth of mechanic playstyles.
Arena cribbed this style in its Brawl queues, which were also singleton and used a commander but limited deck size to a standard 60. A limited 100-card Historic Brawl event ran in June of this year, seemingly testing the operation and response to a format Wizards of the Coast was already considering making more permanent.
“We've been pleased with the performance we've seen from our recent Historic Brawl events, and it's clear that there is a small but dedicated audience that's interested to keep playing in this format,” Parker said.
The format will make use of Arena’s queue system to match opponents based on the relative strength of their commander, along with preemptively banning two cards boasting the new perpetual mechanic that will be introduced in Jumpstart: Historic Horizons - as a start.
“We're starting with banning both Davriel's Withering and Davriel, Soul Broker in Historic Brawl, and we'll be keeping an eye on the rest of the effects in Historic Brawl,” Parker said.
The hundreds of Historic-legal cards added both in this upcoming set and the previously released Historic Anthologies give players plenty of deckbuilding fuel when preparing for the new mode. And while it isn’t exactly the Commander of paper Magic: The Gathering, fans have responded positively to the announcement. That’s a good sign because Parker said the company will only keep it around past September if interest is sustained - “If you want permanent Historic Brawl, play it!”
Bringing Commander online in its full capacity is a big ask for Arena. The client was originally designed and pitched to support Wizards of the Coast’s new approach to competitive Magic: The Gathering. Oddly, it launched without a way to spectate matches - a feature the current iteration still lacks, much to the consternation of players. That focus on competitive and professional play meant supporting two-player matches to the exclusion of anything else.
Those hoping Historic Brawl is an indication Arena is gearing up for a full Commander release should temper their expectations. It’s not exactly clear how much work would be needed to add support for more than two players in a match, but Wizards did stop updating its public features roadmap in 2020 due to constant delays to the projected timeline. And with several sets to release in this year alone, the safe bet is their priorities lying elsewhere.