Tiny Leaders – Smaller, Faster, Stronger

My love of alternative formats almost approaches the unhealthy. While most of the time I’m handing over some cash and my DCI card it’s to play Limited, I love constructing decks for new and esoteric ways of slinging card-board at a willing opponent. Of course I have many EDH, excuse me, Commander decks, but I’ve also constructed decks for Pauper, Noble, Rainbow Stairwell, Pauper EDH, and even tried my hand at making a rules set and a few decks for a Hearthstone-esque mod to Magic. I probably love these formats for the same reason I love Limited, It allows me new and interesting problems that have not been solved by the concerned effort of Magic’s Hive Mind. Unfortunately, many of these alternative formats do not have any “legs.” These formats are interesting for a while, but they don’t really grab us the way more mainstream ways of playing do. The novelty wears off and after a week or two, my play group and I lose interest and fall back to old standbys to get a Magic fix, only to again embrace the exotic when another fit of fancy overcomes us.

So when a format really holds our attention and doesn’t let go, consuming hours of playing and commiserating between meetings, and being a popular topic to talk about over a shared meal, I think we really have something. The ideal format works on your brain the same way a well formulated junk food works on your taste buds. Every bite gives you a pleasing but not overwhelming flavor, and always invites you dig into the bag a little deeper, searching for more, but never quite sating you. While your taste buds just demand another chip, or another sip of pop, your brain demands more decks, more playing, more intellectual stimulation in its search for the bottom of a endless depth. I believe we have found the next Coke or Doritos or Commander of Magic, and it’s called Tiny Leaders.

Format Rules

The essence of Tiny Leaders is basically Commander cut in half and turned on its ear, the “Cool Ranch” to EDH’s “Nacho Cheesier.” You have a general, you obey the general’s color identity, and there can be only one copy of a card besides basic land, but all the cards in your 50 card deck and 10 card sideboard, including the general, have to have a converted mana cost of three or less, drawing from the breath of Magic’s history, excluding a format-specific banned list. Instead of multiplayer, Tiny Leaders is designed to be one on one, and leans more towards competitive instead of casual play. You have 20 life instead of the 30 or 40 of French or normal Commander, and mulligans are resolved using standard Magic rules. A complete legalese version of the rules an be found here, where Tiny Leaders was first conceived. Most of it, however, is very easily grokkable for those already familiar with Commander in general. However, the focus on three CMC or less, and the one on one format creates an entirely new playing field.

If the spirit of the format in Commander is “Ridiculousness,” then the spirit of the format of Tiny Leaders is “Interactivity.” While Commander can suffer because the tools to fight combos and massively unfair board states are suppressed because of the life-total bump and the politics of multiplayer, Tiny Leaders has all of the best removal, disruption and aggression in the game to keep players honest as well a significant number of the best threats ever printed. The games tend to be quick, very skill intensive, and immensely fun. This makes games resemble Modern or Legacy, but there are more than a few curve balls thrown in. Like any alternative format, cards will fluctuate in value as environments change. This is one of the great joys in exploring this untrodden ground. My first attempt at making a deck for the format was Geist of Saint Traft, using a bunch of cards that would not be out of place in Legacy deck. However, it has been beaten by and had very good games with an Anax and Cymede deck that more or less looked like a good Gatecrash draft deck. Lots of room for a variety of strategies and decks exist here, and finding and implementing them, along with the interactive play, is what gives real depth to Tiny Leaders.

The banned list, besides the 5585 Legacy cards banned outright by the central conceit of the format, is in its infancy along with the format itself. I don’t like banned lists that try to legislate without real testing of the format, especially in more unofficial and casual formats. For example, some Pauper EDH primers outright ban Psychatog and Bloodbraid Elf as generals, with very few data-points in that small and esoteric format to say that these cards are truly problems, and not just “these are most powerful uncommon creatures we can think of.” Right now, I’d consider our banned list more of a guideline than anything else, with more certainty and “set in stone”-ness coming as the format expands and is played more, but for now this is as official as it gets. The cards that are problematic are those that are simply intrinsically too powerful for format because of its unique rules (Counterbalance I’m looking at you and Sword of Body and Mind, ironically enough, because of the deck size limitation), are too powerful for the tools available for the format (Umezawa’s Jitte) or are just simply design mistakes (most of the Vintage banned list and Skullclamp). Future bannings will take place along these lines or if they violate the spirit of the format by limiting interactivity and/or fun.

Strengths and Weaknesses

We have to talk about the weaknesses of the format, though they also lead us into the opportunities that the format offers. The first is the barrier to entry. Due to the realities of the game of Magic, efficiently costed spells and creatures are some of the most monetarily expensive in the game. However, until Wizards discards the Reserve List, stops pandering to hoarders and speculators, and prints Modern Masters 2: We Are Releasing Enough This Time, this scarcity is not unique to this format. However, since Tiny Leaders only requires one of a card, compared to four for a Modern or Legacy list, your one dual land or Dark Confidant can find a home here instead of waiting in a trade binder for its ship to come in. Also, you have a much greater chance of actually playing with the card, since the 50 card deck amplifies the effect of each card choice.

The second is a lack of generals. Since most legendary creatures are designed to be splashy, and are now designed to be splashy with Commander in mind, they are often four mana or more. This limits the number of possible decks. This leads me to one of the other great joys of the format, cooking up and designing new Generals. While the originators of the format only suggest vanilla 2/2 creatures for the three color edges not represented by printed cards (WBR, BUG, and RWU) so much design space exists making 3 mana or lower generals, it would be a shame not to explore it. Now for any “official tournament” your options would probably be Limited by just using these “Placebo Generals” but with a stable and adventurous play group, new challengers can approach the Tiny Leaders battlefield. These are a few of our favorites, given life by Magic Set Editor, presented here for entertainment value only:

A few awesome ideas for new Generals.
A few awesome ideas for new Generals.

As long as you and your peers are cool with it, you are only limited by your creativity and good sense.

So right now what the formats needs is data. I’ve had a massive amount of fun with it already, culminating in this article, but I’d love to see it grow. I’d also love to see what the whole design space looks like, what cards are problems, and what cards are hidden gems, given their chance to shine in the tiny sun. I would hugely appreciate comments on this article, and feedback and stories that you have of Tiny Leaders.