Game Tech: Gaming: MTG honors the King of Commander with special Secret Lair

BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — For several years, Wizards of the Coast (the creators of Magic: The Gathering) have released special “Secret Lair” sets themed after video game characters, television shows, or silly twists on the card game’s iconic card format (including horror movie posters, baseball cards, and cereal boxes). The newest of these special packs, however, focuses on the life and lasting legacy of Sheldon Menery, a man with a true love for both the game and the community that surrounds it. But who is Menery, and what sort of impact has he had on the game to warrant such a memorial?

Sheldon Menery was a well-respected judge in Magic: The Gathering’s professional circuit (as well as a formidable player in his own right), but is perhaps most famous for serving as the “Godfather” of the game’s Commander Format as a whole. According to interviews with Menery and others in a Polygon article detailing the format’s history, Sheldon was not the first person to create Elder Dragon Highlander (the game style that would later evolve into modern Commander), but he took an interest in it after meeting creator Adam Staley while he was stationed at the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. While he never actually played EDH with the original group, he was struck by the uniqueness of the format, and brought it with him during his journeys on the Pro Tour. During these travels, he would constantly rework the rules of EDH to make the game more exciting and versatile, with some of the more notable changes including removing the game’s original restrictions on Mana-producing Lands and opening up the position of deck leader to any Legendary Creature. Menery would also promote the idea by writing columns on EDH as early as 2004, which led to the idea being picked up across the general Magic community for the first time.

The results of Sheldon’s tinkering, as you may expect, were a hit with his fellow judges — and when WOTC’s Pro Tour Manager Scott Larabee participated in a game of EDH with Menery in 2005, he too was intrigued, and brought the idea back to Magic’s developers (who also quickly became fond of the format). One year later, Menery and two other Pro Circuit judges would start their own EDH rulings committee and official website to discuss the game style. Eventually, WOTC themselves would release prebuilt EDH decks as a commercial product in 2011, with very few changes from Menery’s vision other than the format’s name (Highlander was changed to Commander to avoid any copyright concerns).

On September 7th, 2023, Sheldon unfortunately passed away after a long battle with throat cancer. Now, Wizards of the Coast themselves have released a set of “Secret Lair” cards — known as Sheldon’s Spellbook — designed to honor his memory, while at the same time helping to support those who struggle with the same condition. To celebrate the life and career of Menery, it would only be fitting to highlight both aspects that made him such a beloved figure in the community — not just his experience in the game and passion for Commander, but also his legacy as a welcoming and wise person. According to an in-depth video made by Gavin Verhey (a Senior Designer for MTG who runs the YouTube Channel “Good Morning Magic“), the set was designed as a heartfelt tribute from those who knew and loved him — and in this special column, we pay tribute to Menery by reflecting on his life with Verhey himself, as well as offer a brief overview of what players can expect to find in the soon-to-be-released memorial set.

Memories of Menery

I first met Sheldon in 2003 when I was 13,” Gavin recalls, “at an event called US Nationals. It was my first ever large tournament. At the time, Commander barely even existed – Sheldon himself didn’t get introduced to what would eventually become the format until 2002. It was this thing called “massive magic” – one giant game played in the middle of the hall as a spectacle. He was the judge of the event – and was there alongside many Magic luminaries, including the designer of the game himself, Richard Garfield! He commanded a presence of total awe standing there – everyone respected him. I only was in his presence briefly, but over the next hour or so it was clear he always knew what he was talking about, was a stand-up individual, and also was warm – when he didn’t have to lay down the law as a judge, of course.”

Sheldon Menery and Magic creator Richard Garfield at the 2003 US Nationals. (Image Credit: Gavin Verhey/Wizards of the Coast)

As mentioned previously, Sheldon first rose to Magic fame due to his work as a judge on the Pro Tour — but as Gavin notes, this simple distinction does little to explain just how important he was to MTG’s early rulemaking process. For context, while modern Magic only features three levels of judges, Menery was level five, and played a major role in laying the groundwork for some of the game’s more specific rules and regulations.

“Magic judges handle rulings at Magic tournaments,” Verhey explains. “Everything from ‘can you explain this odd card interaction?’ to ‘my opponent may have cheated, can you please check it out?’ In the early days, tournament Magic – which has tens of thousands of dollars of prize money on the line! – was a bit of the wild west. Sheldon helped clean a lot of that up, and codify a lot of the rules and policies we still use today.”

In between his judging exploits, Menery also acted as a journalist for the card game, providing coverage in the professional Magic circuit and writing articles for card game websites. Until last year, Menery also served as a member of the EDH ruling committee, and worked closely with WOTC to ensure the format remained both fair and varied. This wide net of experience, combined with a jovial and wise personality, led to Sheldon becoming one of the most widely-beloved figures in the community, even outside of the game itself — not only for his role as the Godfather of Commander Format, but as someone with a genuine passion for both the game and those who played it.

“At events,” Gavin continues, “he transitioned from a judge to a special guest – playing games and talking with people. He always had time for you – and just wanted to play as many games as possible. Outside of the event halls, much of that same personality came through. He was kind and giving, and always learning. He loved good food and wine – something he taught me plenty about! – and building communities. He lived a very full life, with so many close friends. On many occasions, I had the opportunity to visit him down in Florida, where he and his wife lived, and it always struck me how robust and full of a community with so many great people, of all walks of life, he kept around him.”

Gavin’s interactions go further than just occasional crossed paths with Sheldon, however: the two would also encounter one another at many conventions and meetups. Seeing how Menery interacted with people — and likewise, how they responded to his presence — was another testament to his character, and only further cemented how important he and his work were to the community at large.

Sheldon Menery (Middle Left) and Gavin Verhey (Middle Right) at a MTG convention. (Image Credit: Gavin Verhey)

I have truly a ridiculous number of stories with the man,” Verhey states, “but there’s one from late 2022 that really sticks out to me, and is how I always want to remember him in my mind. There’s this big Magic exhibition match at our large MagicCon event called Game Knights Live. There’s a huge crowd, cheering from the audience, player entrances with walkout music – the works. It’s quite the spectacle. I was part of the show, doing commentary for it, and up on stage. Amidst all the glitz and glamor, we did one very special thing: bring out Sheldon, who was at the event, to carry the championship belt up. I got to announce him to the audience. There was a standing ovation and roaring applause. THAT’s the kind of guy he is. I mean, no matter what kind of Magic you play, Sheldon has changed your life. He’s probably one of the top five most important people in all of Magic’s history. It was a really special moment, and being there with him made it all the better.”

Eventually, Wizards of the Coast decided that the best way to thank the man for his love of and impact on the game was to release a special set of cards– Sheldon’s Spellbook — to commemorate his impact on the franchise. Although the set is set to release this week, Gavin notes that Sheldon’s Spellbook has been in the works for quite some time — and that the man himself also had a large hand during its initial planning stages.

“It can take a long time to make a Magic product,” he explains, “between getting artwork back, getting the cards ready to produce, and so on. I was put in charge of working with Sheldon on the design and card selection, and the process of making that Drop was incredible: I got to work with someone I deeply care about, and who was a good friend, to make something showing off his life. He selected the cards, making them things that were connected to him. He helped figure out the artists and work on art descriptions, along with our Worldbuilding team member Ari Zirulnik, and we even wrote some easter eggs in the artwork. We were creating something very special together to show off the history of Sheldon, in a Secret Lair Drop. He even got to see some of the initial sketches.”

Unfortunately, Menery would not live to see the actual release of these cards. The news of his sudden passing was enough to shake both the community as a whole and the design team who had grown close to him. Following this unexpected event, the group unanimously decided that there was only one way to honor Sheldon: by completing and releasing the Secret Lair both in honor — and now, in memory — of their friend and fellow player.

“One day,” Gavin recalls, “I talked with Sheldon. He said he had been up and down, but was doing the best. And then the next evening, I got the call. Sheldon Menery had passed away. Just like that. A real reminder to us all to treasure every moment we have with the people around us – you never know how the world can change on a moment’s notice. At work, everyone working on the project gathered up. We knew we needed to carry on with this vision – and do the best job we could.”

The end result of this determination is Sheldon’s Spellbook — a set which combines the history and reputation of the man in question with the determination of those he cared for. This discussion, however, does beg the question: what exactly does a memorial set of Magic cards like this look like?

Sheldon’s Special Selection

Each of the special entries in the Sheldon’s Spellbook Secret Lair was specifically chosen to represent a fact of Menery’s legacy — and as one might expect, this means that many of them are his own personal favorites. While the set does not include any brand new cards, each of the seven inclusions features new specially-made artwork, as well as new quotes (many of which are from Sheldon himself).

With Sheldon’s legacy as the godfather of the EDH format, it stands to reason that a bundle made in his honor would also need to include a Legendary figure as well. In this case, the Secret Lair honored Menery by creating Sheldon, the Commander: an alternate version of the also-iconic Ruhan of the Fomori, who himself appeared in the first official Commander Format product ever made, sporting Menery’s visage and a mighty suit of armor.

This, as one might expect, is far more than a random choice, as Ruhan served as the leader of Sheldon’s most iconic strategy — an infamous build known as “You Did This To Yourself,” which punished “greedy” opponents by reflecting damage and stealing their greatest assets. While the combat-focused Commander had very little to do with the rest of Menery’s deck (serving as a bait-and-switch above all else), and was not even the card that inspired it to begin with (that honor, he stated in a 2021 article, would go to Parallectric Feedback), Ruhan would eventually go on to become synonymous with the strategy and Sheldon as a whole, making it fit perfectly as a tribute to both his legacy and ingenuity. With such a story behind the deck, it is no wonder why Menery insisted that Ruhan be a part of the Secret Lair — and now, he will have an opportunity to live on in the Command Zones of players across the world who hope to emulate his strategy or use the giant for their own unique play styles.

Outside of his renamed Ruhan, Sheldon’s Spellbook also includes another of Menery’s personal favorite cards — Inkshield — featuring the Magic icon in its artwork. Although it does not fit into the color identity of Ruhan of the Fomori, this unique Instant perfectly represents his idea of a reactive play style and punishing opponents for attempting to deal massive amounts of damage. It almost seems tailor-made for Menery’s favorite strategies… and when one considers the fact that Sheldon actively designed the card himself, there is a strong chance that it was.

According to Gavin in his video, during a conversation at SCGCon (a convention held by Star City Games), Sheldon expressed a desire to create Magic cards after spending time judging and promoting them– and after the idea was met by overwhelming support from Wizards, he worked with the team on several projects during his cancer treatment, including the Silverquill Statement preconstructed deck where Inkshield made its first appearance. Gavin would go on to state that during email correspondence, Sheldon revealed it to be “not just a signature card, but an emotional favorite” — and that when the Secret Lair’s design team discussed the cards that would appear in Sheldon’s Spellbook, Inkshield was unanimously accepted as an automatic inclusion.

“Among many other things,” Verhey notes, “Sheldon was a man of great ideas. He would always come in with so many new card designs and things he wanted to try. He would help remind us that sometimes we need to push into new places for design – and sometimes we need to stand firm with the things we know. It was also a reminder of how much the man loved Magic and working with us. During his design stint, he would fly every other weekend back to Florida for his cancer treatment. He would not be deterred: he wanted to be in the office, working on Magic with all of us. He really loved the game and getting to work on it. Silverquill Statement was a great collaboration with Sheldon because you can really see him reflected in it. He always loved the political nature of the four-player commander game, and this deck is all about politics. The Commander of the deck, Breena, the Demagogue, encourages your opponents to attack one another while you reap some rewards in the process. Notably, this deck went on to be a fan favorite… I think that’s no coincidence.”

Arguably the most anticipated of these “Quote Cards” included in the Secret Lair from a play-focused standpoint, however, is a reprint of the famous Teferi’s Protection: an Instant that renders a player effectively untouchable until their next turn. In addition to being a staple of White Commander decks and another of the many protective spells Menery so loved, the card also highlights both his protective nature and that of the community he helped to foster in Magic: The Gathering. Ironically, the card was originally designed by Gavin in 2017 as part of the Vampiric Bloodlust Commander Deck — a fact that makes this reprint a unique crossover between community icons, and one that Verhey states is very near and dear to his heart.

“It really was just a natural fit,” Gavin states. “It’s a very popular card, and fits one of Sheldon’s favorite things: protection spells that make people feel silly for even attacking you. When we talked about it, it made a lot of sense. One thing he said to me: he liked the selection because it was “touching on my commitment to take care of other people” – a protection that Sheldon himself always tried to offer. I’m honored that a card I made was included. It’s really a special moment, because it’s a collaboration between the two of us: a card I made, which he selected.”

Heritage and Humanity

Further cards in the set highlight the pride that Menery took in his Italian heritage. Eladamri’s Vineyard, an Enchantment that provides all players with extra Mana, has never seen a reprint since its initial debut in Tempest– but has now been released once again to highlight both Sheldon’s love of fine food and drink and the group-oriented gameplay that the EDH format is known for.

While the ability to give every player extra Mana is certainly interesting, in our opinion, the stunning art is more than enough to make this a notable entry into the bonus pack. As noted in both Gavin’s video and KX’s correspondence with him, eagle-eyed art fans may notice that the gazebo in the corner of this piece bears the label ‘M&M’ – a reference to M&M Cellars,’ the home of Sheldon and his wife Gretchen.

Perhaps the more intriguing of these two Italy-inspired offerings, however, is the special version of Greater Good that will be appearing in the pack — which is printed in Italian in all versions of the release. While the card itself is a fairly common staple of Green decks, Menery famously had a habit of using its Italian name (Bene Supremo) whenever it was played.

As amusing as this quirk was, a quote from Sheldon reveals that the card’s name ultimately had a greater meaning to him beyond just a few extra cards and Life points. In an email to Gavin regarding the project, Menery stated that “Greater Good is also a philosophical underpinning of my life. I strive to work for the greater good, to do what I can to enrich people’s lives, and leave this world a little better than I found it.”

Iconic Entries

In addition to more unique inclusions befitting Sheldon’s life and character, the Secret Lair also features homages to his impact on Commander Format as a whole. The final two entries in the bundle are some of the gameplay style’s most famous entries — both of which have also received new art and quotations to go along with them.

Despite how inexpensive these cards tend to be in modern times, they are perhaps the most recognizable hallmarks of Commander, and see play in almost every deck within the format — of the over 3,500,000 builds listed on EDHRec, Sol Ring and Command Tower appear in 84% and 73% of them respectively. Most notably, the special variant of Sol Ring features a quote from a real-world author — an event that has not occurred in the game since 2014 outside of tie-in sets. This unique aspect, along with the sheer versatility of these two cards, means that both will be excellent ways to honor Sheldon’s memory and improve any strategy at the same time.

However, these additions are more than a simple shout-out: Verhey notes that Menery’s advice was pivotal for the format’s design over the years as well as it’s inception, meaning that his thoughts on the format are just as iconic as its favorite staples.

Sheldon was always big on philosophy,” he states, “and we talked endlessly about all sorts of commander philosophy, including design. What kinds of cards were good for the format? What were bad? What should we try and make? All those kinds of things. We even worked together to get it set up so that the Commander Rules Committee that manages the rules of the format – which Sheldon was a part of – would receive the card lists while they were still in design to offer feedback. We very much took a ton of feedback from him that impacted our sets!”

Overall Value

Although there is much to be said for the flavor and sincerity of the Sheldon’s Spellbook Secret Lair, at the end of the day, there are always those who will be more interested in the value of cards than their sentimental aspects. Fortunately, these individuals will be pleased to know that the value of these special-edition cards already exceeds the cost one would pay for them. Although cards like Sol Ring and Command Tower can be found for relatively cheap on the secondary market, Teferi’s Protection and Inkshield alone are enough to cover the cost of the entire foil set, including shipping charges. Below is a list of the average prices of each card in the Secret Lair’s cheapest variant (as of the time of writing this article), gathered using the pricing site MTGGoldfish.

Card Current Secondary Market Value (MTGGoldfish)
Ruhan of the Fomori $2.09
Inkshield $20.68
Teferi’s Protection $41.20
Eladamri’s Vineyard $5.78
Greater Good $9.78
Sol Ring $1.29
Command Tower $0.25
Total Value $81.07
Secret Lair Price $40 (Non-Foil), $50 (Foil)

With these prices laid out, it is safe to say that this Secret Lair Drop is not only a very impressive bonus pack from an emotional and spiritual standpoint, but also a financial one — a fact which is made even better when the incentive of donation is included. On the Sheldon’s Spellbook promotional page, Wizards of the Coast states that half of all funds from each purchase of the Secret Lair (Foil or Non-Foil) will be donated to the American Cancer Society in Menery’s honor.

At the end of the day, while Sheldon’s Spellbook is undoubtedly a product to be sold, it has its roots in both a love for the game and for one of its most iconic community figures — and as many would agree, there is perhaps no better tribute to the man than to keep his spirit alive, both in the game and in helping to make the world brighter for those who struggle with cancer. Notably, unlike some other Secret Lair sets, this collection of cards (and likewise, the donations to the ACS) is not limited in number. This final gift from Menery is for everyone who can access it, and anyone who loves the game as a whole — which, we presume, is exactly how he would have wanted it to be.

“While it is very sad to me that Sheldon never got to see his cards released, Verhey notes, “I know that, as somebody so focused on community, the thing he would have loved the most is people out there playing games and enjoying the cards he helps bring into the world. And I’m glad we get to do that today.”

Above all else, there is a greater meaning to the Secret Lair than just cards: it is about immortalizing the story Sheldon Menery, as well as the legacy that he leaves behind. Putting aside the game itself, Verhey notes that Sheldon’s work will continue to have a profound impact on his life, as well as the lives of many others.

“Sheldon has a huge legacy that is far greater than just Magic,” continues Gavin. “It’s about the people. All the players whose lives he changed while judging. The millions of Commander players around the world, who are all playing a format he helped bring into existence. The players who are now more welcome to the community because of roads he helped built. It’s larger than a game – his influence will be felt for generations.”

More than anything, Menery is remembered for his love of creating communities — as well as his belief that they are capable of truly incredible things. His most impactful words, Gavin believes, are those which perfectly speak to this idea.

“While there are many quotes of his that will stick with me forever, one of my favorites we actually immortalized on one of the cards in the Drop, on Sheldon, the Commander: ‘I’m not great at everything, but I am great at one thing: surrounding myself with excellent people. And that tends to take care of the rest.’ I feel fortunate to have been one of those people. Thank you for everything, Sheldon.”    

Sheldon Menery (Left) and Gavin Verhey (Right). (Image Credit: Gavin Verhey)

Pre-orders for Sheldon’s Spellbook will begin on February 26th at 9:00 a.m., and close at 11:59 p.m. until March 24th at 11:59 p.m. To order a copy of the Secret Lair for yourself, visit this link.

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