Flowstone Chat: With Toby Elliott
Toby Elliott, accomplished Magic player, Level 5 judge, Commander Rules Committee member, and all around great guy, was kind enough to spend a few hours sitting down with me to learn more about him, his role in Magic and on the Rules Committee, and his thoughts on Commander. He is a fun person to talk to and play a game of Commander with, and I encourage everyone to spend some time with him if you get the opportunity.
Hi Toby, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me.
Always happy to chat.
Since you aren't as publicly known as Sheldon [Menery] many people probably don't know much about you. Could you please tell us about yourself, both within the Magic community as well as outside of it?
I picked up Magic when a friend came back from Gen Con and said "hey, you need to check out this game. Go buy some packs". It was Alpha. My first rare was Lich, and it had to be the most powerful card in existence. It had 4 Skulls on it! I was hooked, and I've been playing Magic ever since.
In 1999, I qualified for the Pro Tour. That was fun, but I did it during the first tournament of the season, and in those days, that meant you couldn't play in the rest of the tournaments. So, I decided to volunteer as a judge for the rest of the summer. That went well. It turned out to go so well that I started judging more and more, and eventually reached Level 5, where I got to do pretty much everything there is to do with tournaments. Along the way, I became the person in charge of the tournament documents - the Infraction Procedure Guide and the Magic Tournament Rules - which I continue to maintain today.
Of course, part of that journey was hanging out with Sheldon and Scott, who are two of my dearest friends, and I was hooked on Commander from the early days. It was an honor to join the Rules Committee and I've worked hard to really streamline the rules of Commander.
Outside of Magic, I'm a Senior Engineer in HR at Amazon. That doesn't sound that interesting, until you start to look at the scale of hiring in the company. I've worked for Yahoo and Mozilla amongst other places, and the scaling needs of HR at Amazon are as complex as any of those. I live in Boston with my supervillain-in-training wife Jen and two cats, Robuchon and Keller.
That's pretty impressive. You must have had some wild times over the years.
I have worn a hot pink shirt while making the top 8 of PT Kuala Lumpur Zone draft. There've been some times.
I believe you said at some point that you and Gavin Duggan are cousins. How did it work out that both of you got into Magic, became judges, and ended up on the Rules Committee?
Amazingly, almost entirely by coincidence. Gavin and I grew up a long way apart, and he's a fair bit younger than I am. We interacted every few years, tops. The only credit I can take at all is that I was responsible for sending him the blue box D&D when he turned 10 or 11. I had no idea he was into Magic at all until I'm looking over the staff for one of the GP Bostons in 2005 or so and his name is on the list. We met there for the first time in years.
He's a great judge and a great thinker. Many of the interesting innovations over the years can be traced back with him, and if you get a chance to have a conversation with him, take advantage. Warning: he rarely comes at problems from the angle you think he will!
Yeah I got the chance to chat a little bit with him at Gen Con last year. He seems to have a very analytical approach. I remember in particular he was talking about the idea of banning cards on a point system. So who is the better Magic player?
Probably me. I likely play the most Magic out of all the RC, because I'm also an inveterate drafter. But there's not a ton in it.
Well I can't draft my way out of a wet paper bag, so I'll take your word for it. My friends routinely joke that I've never won a game whenever we draft my cube.
I find most Commander players to be excellent drafters. They're the two formats that most reward improvisation. You don't give yourself enough credit. Well, I guess Sealed gets in there, too.
It's not so much that I don't get the how or why, it's that I don't know the card pool or how to read signals. So how did you get introduced into EDH in the first place?
I was judging the Pro Tour Philly in 2005. The skins Pro Tour. At the end of Saturday, we're hanging out and a game breaks out. I know Sheldon and Gis Hoogendijk, another L5 Magic judge who I never get to see any more and it makes me sad, were playing and there were a couple other folks. Insanity was breaking out - there were cards getting passed around the table, giant stacks, huge monsters in play - it was basically everything I was looking for in a constructed format. I watched, and by the next Pro Tour I had my Barrin, Master Wizard deck ready to go. All the Commanders were giant monsters (because your commander cost a minimum of 6 at the time) and I thought it's be funny to try to win with a 1/1. It just snowballed from there.
Was that right around when Sheldon had introduced the idea, or was it gaining some popularity among the judges by then?
It was the early days. Basically the beginning of it being the judge format.
That must have been exciting to see it at the ground level and nearly every evolution since. So Barrin was your first deck then?
Yes. It was a steal-bounce-confuse-cause-general-mayhem deck. Crystal Shard was a highlight.
Such a good card. I used to run that to great effect in Animar, Soul of Elements. It's funny how often your opponent will forget about it and tap out.
It was also the start of me shoving Cultural Exchange into as many decks as I could put it into. And then usually cutting it after a few times, because it was never that great. But the art!
The racoon foxes?
Adorable racoon foxes.
Yes. Quite adorable. Magic needs more art like that.
It was the first original art I ever bought.
How many pieces do you have now?
Pretty sure I have the largest collection of art featuring both dragons and bunnies out there. 22, I think.
How many Commander decks do you currently have? Is there a favorite among them?
I have 5 intact: Breya, Etherium Shaper, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Omnath Locus of the Roil, Heliod, God of the Sun, and Niv-Mizzet Reborn. There'll probably be a 6th soon, as I have an empty deck box. That's my usual cap on how many I'll have built at any one time. Tasigur is the oldest, which suggests it's my favorite. It does ridiculous things in entertaining ways and sets up fun choices for my opponents.
I vaguely remember playing against Tasigur. I remember Heliod as well, Lots of tokens.
Heliod doesn't look all that threatening (it isn't all that threatening), but it just gets to a critical mass of tokens and pump enchantments and swings for a bunch.
I definitely remember playing against Omnath.
Yeah, that was the deck I built for the show match at Gen Con. We each took an M20 Commander. They just handed Omnath to me as it was clearly the Timmiest. I struggled a bit to find a sweet spot for it, but Basic Land tribal and a bunch of elementals turned out great. I usually don't have a hard time finding cards for a deck, but one of the gems I stumbled across was Avatar of Growth. Tracking that card down was a nightmare. Nobody had ever heard of it! Heliod is my winningest deck, interestingly.
Weird how throwing a bunch of ramp into a deck makes it perform well. I think that was the first time I had seen Avatar of Growth. I still haven't tracked down a copy of it.
One of my main success criteria for a deck is there's at least a few cards that people have to read because they've never heard of it. Emberwilde Djinn, Pedantic Learning, Vicious Shadows (though that cat got out of the bag quickly), Avatar of Growth.
I think Sheldon has pretty much ruined Vicious Shadows by now.
Pretty much. I can't complain, though. I pulled it on him first.
So if it gets banned, it's your fault?
I mean, I'd have had to vote for it, so yeah.
True. Speaking of banning cards, I remember I was playing Mizzix of the Izmagnus and got Paradox Engine out for the first time ever. I didn't have any infinite combos, just some mana rocks and draw spells. It was utterly bonkers and I actively was not having fun tracking all my triggers, mana, and storm count. Right after that game was over I took it out of my deck and never put it in another deck since (although I do run it in my cube still). Are there any cards that you just refuse to play?
Lots, but mostly because they're boring or too good. Sometimes I'll avoid cards contextually. I've pulled cards out of decks before because I wasn't having fun with them. Thieves' Auction was probably the best card in my Zedruu the Greathearted deck, and I stopped playing with it because it would sit in my hand because I didn't want to cast it.
That makes sense. Even in moderation the chaos cards can grow tiresome. Let alone a full blown Norin the Wary chaos deck.
I have a higher tolerance for Chaos than most, including the rest of the Rules Committee, but I'm mindful of other people having fun. I don't mind losing, but someone being bored is a problem.
Well Scott groaned at the idea of playing Planechase, so I know you have him beat. But I agree, the rest of the table having a good time is just as important as having fun yourself.
Planechase has issues, but I'll happily play it.
It has a high degree of variance that some people dislike, and it can affect the strategy of your deck.
The variance is occasionally problematic, but my main problem is that in many games it just ceases to be a thing. You end up on some neutral-ish plane as the game is ramping up and everyone just kind of forgets about it. It actually doesn't produce enough chaos.
For sure. I know a lot of players will make a rule to force rolling the planar die or automatically planeswalk after a set time.
Yeah, that sort of thing can help. Ask Gavin about Planechase some time. He's come up with like 50 different ways to play it.
I remember talking to him about one of the variants he did called Planar Map. It laid the planes out in a grid and you could move around them. It helped prevent moving somewhere you didn't want to go. Seemed like a good idea but I haven't had a chance to try it yet.
Sheldon has said that his greatest achievement in Magic has been to instill for the first time an enduring sense of integrity and fair play to professional Magic. What do you feel is your greatest achievement?
There are two that I'm particularly proud of: I gave tournament ruling a structure and I taught players how to communicate. I like to also argue I gave tournament Magic a sense of humor, too, but there are folks who would disagree! That's giving myself way too much credit, obviously, but what Sheldon did on the enforcement side, I did on the rules side.
Back in 2000 or so, if you looked at the "rules documents", they were basically "the judge comes to the table. There are three levels of infraction. He makes up a solution and there's maybe a little guidance here. Maybe it's a Game Loss, probably for a terrible reason". I set out to fix that. At GP Phoenix in 2005 or so, I gave Andy Heckt (the judge manager) a basic framework I'd been noodling on, but it didn't really get anywhere. Flash forwards to Worlds 2006 in Paris which I will argue for many reasons is probably the most important tournament in Magic history. The night before the tournament the L4+ judges got together, and the idea of rewriting the Penalty Guidelines had been recently raised. During the brainstorming I outlined the basic framework I'd come up with. It broke infractions out into three categories. Jaap Brouwer typed it up that night, and we handed a single-page sheet to the judges the next day. It gave them more direct instructions on how to handle three specific categories of error. That was the first IPG.
Over the next few months, we tackled every part of the IPG. How could we be consistent in tournaments across the world? How could we define the same play experience in Pittsburgh and Shanghai? Andy Heckt really pushed us to emphasize consistency and by the end of it we had a working draft that we debuted at PT Geneva. It all worked. Since then, it's been a ton of refinement, and a whole lot of people have made great contributions, so I don't even try to claim sole credit, but judges everywhere have guidance that will help them through 99% of the situations they will encounter.
After that, I wanted to make a run at how players communicated with each other. That was still the Wild West, and the lines between acceptable communication, legitimate bluffs, and lying were nonexistent. What was acceptable to shortcut wasn't defined, nor were some very basic shortcuts that players could take advantage of. So I started classifying information and defining defaults. Where could you be evasive? Where could you straight up lie? Where were you forced to be truthful? The first draft of those efforts (and huge credit to Nick Sephton who did an excellent refinement after my version) ultimately is what we now see in MTR Section 4, which has had enormous positive impact on the tournament experience.
That must have been a difficult time to be a judge, or a player for that matter. Was it thankless work from the players, or were they happy to see a level of consistency being applied?
They mostly loved it. It meant that when there was a problem, they weren't at the whim of whatever the judge felt like doing. We got plenty of feedback from players along the way and consistency was valuable for people who travelled from tournament to tournament.
That must have been frustrating, especially to receive an infraction one day and nothing the next.
Yeah, I got DQed from a tournament once. Sealed tournament. My opponent shuffled my Pacifism into his deck and I presented 39 cards. DQ.
Oof. Innocent mistake I assume?
I think so. Wild West.
And before everyone had sleeves too, I guess.
Yeah, I think so. Mirage-era.
So you're obviously in close contact with Wizards. Does R&D reach out to you when they're working on a new mechanic or card design to see how it would work within the rules?
Yes, I have varying knowledge about upcoming sets depending on how complex a mechanic might be for tournament play. So I got a heads-up on double-faced cards, for example, way early on. That let us be ready with all the information judges needed right upon announcement. Miracles was another one that got a lot of discussion.
That makes sense. For Commander, what has been the hardest rules interaction you've had to solve? Is there any rule or interaction you've yet to solve that you'd like to?
Most of the interactions haven't been hard; what I've spent my time doing is streamlining the rules to really get at what's important to Commander and make that as elegant as possible. For a long time, there were a lot of hacky rules and exceptions, and I've pared them back to the point where Commander is a set of deck building rules, a different life total, and the rules for adding an additional piece to the game. Everything else is just Magic. This applies in both the formal rules and the informal ones. The color identity rules are pretty elegant in the Comprehensive Rules, but they're still wordy. Being able to say "Look at your Commander. Now look at your deck. Now back to your Commander. If there are mana symbols in your deck that aren't on your Commander, take them out" is super-nice.
As to stuff I'm fiddling with, I'm pretty happy (but always tinkering). I go back and forth on whether we have the correct ruling for Extort. Maybe not, but it's sufficiently ingrained that it's probably not worth changing. I mostly hope that Wizards will decide to print Extort in something other than B/W and pull it out of the reminder text, at which point I don't have to care.
Extort always did stick out like a sore thumb. Getting rid of Rule 4 (the off-color mana production rule) took some time but it grew on me. I was sad to see it go because of the flavor it added, but it was a confusing rule that didn't work in the rest of Magic, plus there were those odd interactions like Contamination and Celestial Dawn. Plus, it made theft decks better, and that's a definite plus.
Yeah, and it turned out to not be that necessary. Rule 3 was the one that really conveyed the flavor and gave us the restriction we needed.
Nah. It's inelegance for little gain.
And then what do you do if they finally add Purple mana?
Watch people struggle to make purple Commander decks for a while, and continue to not worry about City of Brass.
Besides Charlotte [Sable], is anyone on the Commander Advisory Group a judge?
I do not believe so.
So how has it been working with a team of people who don't have the encyclopedic rules knowledge that the RC has? Have they had any cringe-worthy ideas, like giving all generals banding?
Oh sure, there are terrible ideas. We expect terrible ideas. We welcome terrible ideas. Because in amongst the terrible ideas are awesome ideas, or kernels of good ideas. I'd far rather have a group of people coming up with crazy new stuff, much of which is unworkable, than a bunch of people without ideas. Note that this is my career, too. I've had terrible ideas. Fortunately, I've had people around to tell me they're terrible. We are happy to play that role with the CAG.
I've noticed that in the last few years you and Sheldon have become more engaged with the community, most noticeably a year ago with the formation of the CAG. How helpful has social media been in getting your message across to the players, as well as getting a pulse on the community at large?
I've been on social media for years. I was active on MTGSalvation for a long time and the official forums, and you'll find me peppered through Reddit (including an AMA way back when). I pulled back a few years ago when I took the Amazon job because I didn't feel I could keep up with all of them. That meant a Twitter hiatus, which I broke a couple months back. Still deciding whether that was a good idea or not.
Honestly, it's challenging for a few reasons. I'm not the kind of person who is interested in getting into arguments on the internet. I'll go in and correct facts periodically, but even that is unsuccessful at times; there are several "facts" out there about the RC that are just bizarre, and every once in a while someone will explain the history of some aspect of Commander and I'll just look at it and wonder why I remember it differently. It comes with the turf.
Engaging with the community is great, but it does require remembering that social media isn't the whole community and adjusting accordingly. It's really just the tip of the iceberg and there's an enormous world of people out there who aren't interested in engaging about Magic online. It turns out that what those people really want to do is play Commander, which is amazing.
Well what else are you going to do on the internet if not get into arguments? Look at cat videos, I suppose.
I do appreciate a good cat video. I mostly use the internet to get paid
Years ago you posted an analogy of EDH in which you likened it to the Joker and Scott Evil. Unfortunately that is lost on the old forums, so could you give a summary of that analogy again?
I'm so sad it's gone! It's my biggest regret that the forums are unavailable. I need to ask Gavin if he has it archived somewhere.
Anyway, for the very first Commander launch, Wizards decided to do a panel at PAX East and they invited me along. They didn't give me a lot of guidelines over what they wanted so just to be cautious, I prepared a speech. I didn't need it, but I posted it on the forums for people to read anyway, and it became something of a touchstone for Commander Philosophy.
It basically said "Commander is the Adam West version of Batman. You're all concocting fiendish deathtraps that involve custard-filled shark pits and lasers on the moon and in a good game everyone gets a few chances to be the supervillan. But there's the Scott Evil school - I'll go upstairs, get a gun, shoot him, boom, done - and that's impossible to avoid because of the size of the cardpool. There are too many guns. The banlist is to steer you away from accidentally using toxic waste in your custard pit, not to stop you getting a gun"
Of course, everyone should imagine it was way more eloquent than that. It was a nice piece of writing and I'm still happy with it.
[Note: The original article has been dug out of the archives of the old site and is now available here
Do you think that with the exponential rise in popularity it is harder to get that message across?
Yes and no. Commander itself gets that message across. There are hundreds and hundreds of games like that every day, played by people who have no idea who I am, let alone that I wrote a thing. It's the default state of design for Commander. Are there people for whom that message doesn't resonate? Sure. There are people who watch Austin Powers and agree with Scott Evil. There's nothing wrong with that and I hope they're having fun in their own way.
Our goal is to communicate our philosophy, live up to that standard, and if people are enjoying themselves, that's awesome. We set out to make a format we enjoyed and it turned out lots of other people enjoyed it. If they're enjoying it, it doesn't really matter if they've heard the message or not. And if hearing the message helps them connect a little better, that's good.
With that rise in popularity, especially among different demographics, there seems to be a real conundrum in how to take into account the desires of the cEDH players in a casual format, and whether the format would be better served to if it were split into two distinct formats. What are your thoughts?
I'm going to be a little circumspect because I'm still doing research and talking and listening and pondering. I am not lying when I say that I have had sleepless nights trying to figure out the best course, and it gets into deep philosophical questions about where our responsibilities lie and what's best for the format, for Wizards, for the RC, for Commander players and for cEDH players.
I will say that I don't necessarily share the fear of microformats. I love microformats. Commander started as one, and anywhere that someone says "I've found this cool way to play Magic" is an opportunity for people to find something they love and share it with others. There are many thriving microformats and while Commander is the most successful, Pauper, Canadian Highlander, Dual Commander, Leviathan, Oathbreaker, Brawl have all been successful among many others that have their devotees, and they have arisen from similar roots (even Brawl, which was a lunchtime format in the Wizards offices that caught on).
I also find the "cEDH is EDH" mantra, while technically true, to be overly simplistic. There are philosophical and technical differences even as they mostly share a ruleset. It does not help that there are multiple claimants to the cEDH mantle, all of whom have been happy to tell me that the others aren't actually cEDH. So we're not trying to figure out how to make a group of people happy; it's more like four groups with different needs and desires. It's not a problem that lends itself to simple solutions.
There's also the concern that the "pubstompers", i.e. the ones playing the tuned decks at casual tables, are the real problem. Do you think it would be simpler if the cEDH players also wanted to make other changes similar to what Duel Commander did?
Maybe? Pubstompers are their own interesting subproblem. We really appreciate that the cEDH community has gone to great lengths to make it clear that they don't approve of pubstomping, but pubstompers themselves have adopted the language of cEDH and the decks of cEDH. An ideal solution would allow us to cleave that, or at least not enable them to do that as easily.
Well I'm happy to know that this is a subject that you all are putting serious thought into, and not just waving it away because people aren't playing Commander the "right" way.
One last hot take and we'll wrap this up. Is there a particular card or rule that people constantly debate which you wish would be put to rest?
I'm pretty tired of hybrid and wishes. There's not a lot new being said, the arguments on both sides aren't moving anybody and we're very happy with the current take. Both accomplish what we want from them.
Hybrid makes sense, what with the flavor of the color identity and the cleanliness of the rules interactions. Wishes are interesting though. I don't see a need for a change, but it doesn't seem like it would be the most controversial change you would have made. But I've probably heard all the arguments as well, and it doesn't seem like there are any fresh takes.
Well, thank you for spending some time chatting with me and answering my questions. Are you planning on attending any events this year so people can have an opportunity to talk to you as well?
Happy to chat any time. I'll be in Houston and Minneapolis for the two Players Tour Finals; I'll obviously be working them, but plan to swing by the attached MagicFest Command Zone when I get free. And I'm sure once some CommanderFests are announced I'll be figuring out how to make my way to some of those. The Seattle one was a great time; I got to play with a ton of people who were just enjoying the heck out of it. Everyone should come and hang out.
Hopefully our paths will cross again this year and we can get a game in. In the meantime, how can people get in contact with you if they want to talk Rules or Commander?
Twitter is probably easiest. I'm on Facebook, and do participate in MTGNexus when I feel like I have something to say (you can DM me there but be warned that I don't notice until a bunch pile up. I'm not ignoring you!) We're figuring out how to make Discord work for us - stay tuned for more on that in the future!