Q&A with Sheldon Menery
The Godfather of Commander, Sheldon Menery, was gracious enough to let me fire off some end of year questions at him (and if you haven't seen his AMA recently you should check it out here). 2019 was a busy year for him in Magic and life in general, and I had lots of things I wanted to ask that needed more than 140 characters for a complete answer.
How's the health doing? Between all these conventions and your contracting work at Wizards, you've been travelling a lot this year. Has that taken a toll on you?
It's hard to say what kind of toll it took. I know that I did a great deal of nothing the last month after coming back from CommandFest DC. I kept a pretty aggressive schedule for two months, which included flying 20,000 miles or so, and it's fair to say I was worn out (in the good way).
All in all, health is pretty good. Doctors are calling the disease "stable," which apparently has a specific oncological meaning and is positive. It means it's not growing and there are no new occurrences, which is about as good as you can hope for this early in immunotherapy. In the next half year or so, assuming it's still working, we might even see shrinkage. I'm still having a little trouble with my throat from both lymphedema and the damage from the original radiation therapy, but it's annoying, not debilitating. Folks at the events I went to might have noticed the change in my voice—a bit of a lisp on certain sounds and not nearly as much power, but that's a small price. I keep focusing on the fact that it could be a whole lot worse.
This has been a pretty exciting year for Commander players. Large Commander areas at both the summer and winter SCGCONs, and three CommandFest events. You were able to attend four of these five events. What were your thoughts on the environment there? What are your hopes for these events moving forward?
The environments were outstanding. They were a testament to the fact that Rule 0 really works. I played a few miserable games (all of them seemed to involve Grand Arbiter Augustin IV), but for the most part, everyone made sure that everyone else was on the same page as far as game style went.
My hopes for these events moving forward is that I get to attend all of them. I also want to do more than just show up. The roundtable that we did in DC with 10 or so people was better than nearly any panel I've been on, and I definitely want to do the runbacks on that.
You just finished a two month contract working at Wizards of the Coast on future products. Obviously you can't give us any specifics but are there any teasers you can talk about? Can we expect some cards that you can call yours? And how long do we have to wait to see the fruits of your labor?
There's really nothing to tease besides the fact that I worked on more than just what you might think I worked on. As far as the latter parts, time will tell. The phase I was involved in, vision, then turn things over to play design. Our job was to not worry about too many details, just be creative. Whether the card cost five or six wasn't so much our thing as just letting the creative juices flow. Between vision and play design, quite a bit can change for various reasons, often nothing to do with the quality of the original card. I trust that a few will make it through relatively unscathed, and we'll be able to see them in a year or so.
Seattle has some really good places to eat and drink. What were some memorable meals you had while you were there?
Well, clearly the best restaurant in Renton is Melrose Grill, a medium-high end steak house. In Seattle itself, there are so many good restaurants you almost can't list them all. A dream vacation of mine would be to stay at the Hotel Andra in downtown Seattle (where we stayed for a few of the professional events there) and eat at nothing but Tom Douglas restaurants for a week—like nine of them in a four square block area. Lola is co-located with Andra. Across the street is one of the most correctly-named restaurants in the country, Serious Pie. Around the corner is Palace Kitchen, a favorite of fellow RC member Scott Larabee.
I had two memorable meals on my last trip there. One was at 2120 on Sixth, in which the RC treated the CAG to a nice meal for all the great work they did during the year. In addition to the great food and friendship, Josh Lee Kwai and I had an extended conversation about hot peppers and Scoville units. I generally stop at ghost peppers; JLK has been up to the Carolina Reaper.
The second one (actually first chronologically) was when the RC (minus Gavin, who hadn't arrived yet) took Olivia Gobert-Hicks to a great place called Miller's Guild to celebrate her induction to the CAG. Olivia and I split a 32 once ribeye that we 1) wrecked and 2) I have pictures of her gnawing on the bone of. I can't overstate the goodness of the times.
It's been almost a full year since the formation of the Commander Advisory Group. How has it been working with that diverse group of individuals? Do you feel that you were successful in your goal of widening the amount of feedback you receive, as well as getting better lines of communication between the Rules Committee and the players?
Absolutely. The CAG has been an unqualified success. They're all amazing ambassadors for the format, top-shelf human beings, and do outstanding work. We don't just meet up quarterly. In addition to seeing each other at events, we have an ongoing Discord server that we have a constant rolling conversation on. We talk philosophy, practicality, and even stuff that has nothing to do with Commander.
Recently on social media you've been trying to find new content from content creators, as well as try to help struggling creators gain some traction. Could you elaborate more on this?
There are people, especially from traditionally marginalized groups, who would like to be Commander content creators, but for many reasons have faced significant barriers in doing so. I'd like to be able to help remove those barriers. Fortunately, I'm in the right place to do so. It's my intention to support those diverse voices by simple things like advice and signal-boosting or more involved strategies of helping them get their voices heard. Stay tuned, because more on this will happen in 2020.
Author's note: You can reach out to Sheldon on Twitter (@SheldonMenery) if you're a content creator and feel like you could use his help in this area]
As former active duty military, one thing I find fascinating about your life story is how you were able to become a Level 5 judge at the same time you were in the Air Force, because I knew all too well that your free time was limited and not always dependable. What kind of advice can you give to someone who wishes to pursue a time-consuming hobby or passion while juggling a full time commitment, such as school or a job?
The real thing is that you have to realize that you can't do all the things that you want to do. Sometimes you have to pick some stuff and let others go. You can't mourn what you didn't do, you can only celebrate what you did. I suspect that becoming an L5 Judge probably means I got promoted one fewer time in my career than I otherwise would have. What is worth it? No question.
You mentioned playing some cEDH at SCGCON. How did that go? Any plans on building a deck for events?
It was fine, but no, I won't be building one. The issue for me is that when you're playing something so involved, you have to pay attention. The price for me was socializing. I had my head down in the deck and the game state so much that I couldn't meaningfully interact with the people I was playing with (other than inside the bounds of the game) or the spectators. When I'm at a show, I want to play the game AND hang out with the people.
Are there any projects on your to-do list, either in Magic or elsewhere? New decks to brew? Formats you want to try out? Find any new board games?
My intention is for Commander to be nearly a full-time job for me in 2020. We're standing up a new web site and expanding our reach. There will be more events for us to attend, and someone has to figure out a way to fund how we'll get there. That someone will be me.
One of the things we're about to launch is a Commander RC Patreon. We want to do what we can to keep as many ads off the new website as we can for two reasons. First, no one wants to look at ads when they go to a site. Second, being supported by the fan base as opposed to a few companies means that the RC can stay as independent as we've always been. We'll always have great relationships with the people like Star City Games (who I've been writing for for 20 years now), Channel Fireball, and others, but we also want to make sure that we have no real conflicts of interest. The thing is that the format is bigger than ever and to do the job right will just cost more. Fortunately, none of the four of us need to worry about this being a profit-generating endeavor. We'll use the funds to get more of the RC as well as the CAG to more events more often. That way, people can interact with us directly instead of just through social media. It turns out that you can get a great deal more out of face-to-face meetings. This also reduces the distance between us and the fan base. One of the long-term criticisms is that the RC has been Ivory Tower distant from folks; we intend to erase that idea.
As a retired judge, do you still keep up with new rules and rules changes as new sets come out with the same voracity that you used to have?
Not anywhere close. Obviously, I stay up well enough on the rules of Magic, but I couldn't tell you the first thing about tournament policy except to not cheat.
My Yarok Energy deck has been lots of fun. Two of my WotC colleagues, Gavin Verhey and David McDarby, both played it (I think Gavin took it to LA when he went to be on Command Zone) played it and said it was a blast.
What card do you think is criminally underplayed in Commander?
You set 'em up, I'll knock 'em down
Author's note: Unbeknownst to me, he would be writing an article about just this topic at the same time.
What did you think of the new Dream Theater album that came out earlier this year? Any other new music you've enjoyed?
I'm an inveterate Dream Theater fan, Distance Over Time isn't their best work. There's nothing wrong with it, there's nothing bad about it, I simply find it lacking compared to works like Images and Words or their eponymous album. All in all, I found it relatively unsophisticated, and sophistication from them is something I love.
Did you have any holiday plans this year? As much as you and Gretchyn love to cook, the Menery household must be the place to go.
We had ten folks for Thanksgiving and we decided to have non-traditional protein with traditional sides. Both being from Baltimore, we know our way around a crab cake, so we had jumbo lump crab meat flown in and made our own. I also did a sous vide beef tenderloin with a pretty straightforward shallot and garlic spice profile.
We throw a reasonably large party every year on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year's. We found out a decade or more ago that people are really relaxed instead of being as tightly wound as they are in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We had about 50 people for that one. When it's 20-30, we'll cook ourselves. Over 30, it's time to have catering. This year, we did all local Lakeland (FL) places, to include Nineteen61, our favorite restaurant; a bakery called Born and Bread that does savories as well as sweets; and Dan the Cheese Man from The Salty Cow LLC, who did amazing cheese and charcuterie plates. It was a huge success.
What's your favorite Thanksgiving dish?
Stuffing. I don't really want it any other time of the year, but I love it for Thanksgiving week. At the meal, with leftovers, on a sandwich. If there's any left on Sunday morning, we make mini stuffing waffles to go with breakfast.
What most excites you for 2020?
Just being alive, my friend. Just being alive.
I think we all feel the same way.
Thanks for taking the time to do this.