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Challenging Commander’s Banned List


Today’s article will step on some toes. Commander started as a grassroots format developed by players for other players. Originally, Commander, or Elder Dragon Highlander, sprang up in Alaska after being invented by David Phifer and Adam Staley. A host of community organizers, including Sheldon Menery, Duncan McGregor, Cari Foreman, Alex Kenny, and Toby Elliott, helped ensure the format’s growth through various contributions. We are very grateful to these folks and to other community contributors like Jesus Lopez (author of Elder Dragon Legend Wars), European advocates like Kevin Desperez, and the folks within Wizards of the Coast who helped promote the format by including it in Magic’s comprehensive rules and online play.

Three Principles Used to Ban Commander Cards

Over time, some of the aforementioned judges, players, and format promoters teamed with others to form a coalition that guides the rules development for the format. One aspect of the Rules Committee is the maintenance of the Banned List. Under the deck-construction section of the Official Commander Rules, you can find the official rules and the Banned List. The forum of the same website reveals a deeper discussion of the banning decisions and methodology by Rules Committee member Gavin Duggan. Here is an excerpt from Gavin’s post for reference:

EDH bannings are made on a case-by-case basis, usually based one of three principles:

#1: A card’s power level in multiplayer EDH is significantly in excess of both [its] mana cost AND power level in other formats (due to different rules or game sizes) . . . Examples include Panoptic Mirror and Biorhythm

#2: A card’s dollar cost is prohibitive for most players and the card usually detracts from the playing experience of everyone else in the game (The Power 8)

#3: A card or class of cards [cannot] be consistently interpreted by all players (Silver bordered cards)

Let’s take a look at some of the cards banned in Commander. This list is supplemented by all silver-bordered cards, the Power 8 (excluding Timetwister), and is subject to change a couple of times each year. Here is the most recent list, as published in early July:

The following cards are legal for use in decks, but can’t be used as Commanders:

The current Banned List for Commander is as follows:

Principle #1: Power Level

Gavin’s post goes on to explain the philosophy of the first principle that drives card bannings. He notes the concern with a card’s “power-to-answer” ratio. Basically, the nature of Commander forces players to limit the card availability artificially (per the color rules), thus restricting access to certain types of answers. For example, monocolored decks might not have access to answers for a certain type of threat. If the threat is game-breaking and/or format-warping, it would restrict the viability of that color’s or deck’s playability.

The Rules Committee will ban cards that it deems too powerful for the mana cost, function abnormally in Commander (versus other formats) due to the special rules and restrictions, and generally have a high power-to-answer ratio. Imagine threats that might only be answered by a single color—those that are game-winning and require a very niche answer, or those that require a combination. Those cards, according to the first principle of banning, might be on the proverbial chopping block.

What about cards that are annoying or that you simply despise? Nonexamples of cards that might be banned under the first banning principle include cards that folks might label as “overplayed.” The fact that every deck runs a copy of Sol Ring does not result in the banning of the format staple. Further, cards that can be irritating to a group of players might also be safe from banning, as long as they cause few in-game problems. Some players don’t care for the repetitive questioning, “Did you pay 1 for that?” coming from a Rhystic Study player or hate to wait through the continual activations of Sensei’s Divining Top. However, annoyance alone is insufficient to result in getting the axe.

Principle #1 generally indicates that the banhammer will only swing when a given card demonstrates a very high power level, can rarely be answered by all colors, and results in the restriction or reduced playability of a variety of decks.

I tend to agree with the banning of many of the cards that make the Banned List due to the first principle. Players generally dislike formats that are dominated by a small group of cards or a couple of deck types. In turn, they love the more wide-open formats that encourage deck diversity, the employment of varied strategies, and environments that allow the player base to explore fresh new ideas. These healthy formats encourage risk-taking and discovery in deck construction, while allowing players a chance to experience novel games over time. Unhealthy formats punish creativity and force players into restricted deck options if they want to experience success.

Recent bannings affecting the Standard Constructed format demonstrated the first banning principle. We saw the execution and removal of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. One might note that the two cards’ existences resulted in a narrow range of viable competitive deck-construction options, restricted the format’s deck variety, and asked players to pack rather narrow answers coming from only a few colors.

We might assume that the Rules Committee votes on the banning and unbanning of cards. Therefore, you get an expert perspective from folks who are very knowledgeable about Commander. However, being an expert and having an opinion (while necessary) is not sufficient. It would also appear that a fair amount of data should accompany the banning decisions.

While some cards make the list due to obvious interactions with the specific rules in Commander or the nature of a multiplayer format (see Kokusho, the Evening Star), others are banned due to the provision of a narrow, easily obtainable win condition (Coalition Victory). There are even more cards that appear on the list that might fall into a somewhat more gray area. For example, some of the “fast-mana” cards like Channel, Tolarian Academy, and Rofellos are banned, while other fast-mana options are left unchecked (Gaea’s Cradle). Cards like Emrakul are deemed too powerful, but centralizing, powerful cards like Primeval Titan and Consecrated Sphinx are left free to rain terror upon the format.

It would be interesting to understand the data that led a card like Rofellos to be banned, while Azusa survived the cut. The most potent Commander, Azami, Lady of Scrolls, and her mono-Blue army is free to battle, but Braids rides the bench. I am sure that there are reasons and anecdotal information that account for the decisions, but it is possible that the Rules Committee has taken some missteps with these rulings.

The format developed as a grassroots effort, moderated by “house rules” dictated by local playgroups. Having a list for reference is helpful and allows players the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who have more experience with the format, but at times, the heavy banhammer may have been overused. I would challenge the Banned List and cards specifically targeted using the power-level principle. I believe that local playgroups do a fair job of moderating and controlling the use of abusive creatures. Unless a creature specifically interferes with gameplay due to a specific rules limitation, I would argue that it should be unbanned.

Bring back Braids, Rofellos, and Emrakul. Give us Metalworker and Painter’s Servant. Simply focus on the spells and problematic cards that strictly interfere with gameplay because of the rules. I believe the players can sort out the rest. It is not the case that the availability of these cards will limit deck construction or will severely impair gameplay across mature leagues and casual play. In fact, it will simplify the rules and provide even more deck-construction options.

Principle #2: Prohibitive Cost

The second principle of banning revolves around the financial aspect of the format. This is where the Rules Committee and I part ways. The second banning principle indicates that cards can be banned for having a “prohibitive cost” that detracts from the play experience. As a man of science and data, I tend to err on the side of objective rules rather than subjective rules.

“Prohibitive cost” is certainly a loose term. I have play-tested the Power 9 in Commander and really only find a concern with Time Walk. Time Walk would likely be banned under the first banning principle. It is also possible that folks might take a look at Ancestral Recall, but it might be paralleled by the strongest cards in the format that do other things, like Sol Ring and Demonic Tutor. Sure, they are strong, but they are also very fun because they are powerful spells. Powerful Magic cards are the lure of this format, and players want to play them.

However, the price issue is something that I feel falls outside the realm of a banning principle. If Jace, the Mind Sculptor reached $300, would he be banned? That is pretty pricey! Portal Three Kingdoms cards are not banned. Imperial Seal falls outside of my price range, and I consider myself upper-middle-class. However, it would never detract from gameplay if one of my opponents slapped down a The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale or filtered some cards with a copy of Bazaar of Baghdad. Those cards are awesome and part of Magic’s history. Most players, even if they do not own one, have some sort of affection for Black Lotus. Sure, they are pricey, but so are a ton of cards. The game is not cheap. However, you can play and enjoy the format with a budget deck next to a fully foiled and altered deck. It might be pricey, but the value of the cards does not translate into success.

I would argue that we need to have access to cards regardless of price. The gods of the free market should reign and players should be able to cast a Mox Pearl during a game of Commander. The cost prohibition is a relative joke at this point in Magic. There are plenty of expensive cards that are not banned, and testing has shown that the Moxen function just fine in multiplayer action.

Principle #3: Silver-Bordered Cards

Although I have occasionally had a week of league play that opened the silver-bordered cards up for deck-construction inclusion, the Rules Committee pretty much got this one correct. These cards are meant as a novelty and are inspired with a sense of humor and irony. I don’t like to play Commander matches under a table and rarely care if someone plays Cheatyface while I am slinging my 10-cost spells. However, the cards are confusing and can belabor gameplay. I think folks should play some games with cards that are banned to understand the effect they have on play. Playing the silver-bordered cards can basically break the format in any number of ways. While interesting, most folks can agree that these cards were not designed to play well next to our other cards. Enjoy them casually and sport them on fun occasions. Playing silver-bordered cards is like dressing up for Halloween. If you did it every day, it would get tired and a little too odd to be enjoyable.

Notes and a Formal Banned List

There will be readers who will certainly realize that the Rules Committee has always held that local playgroups dictate house rules of play. Basically, we can do whatever we want as along as we have a consensus. The goals are social interaction and fun. However, by making an “official Banned List,” the Rules Committee is shaping which cards will and won’t be accepted for play, thus influencing the format. Some of the choices are genius. There are cards that are clearly broken because of the rules and restrictions imposed by Commander.

However, most of the banned Commanders and some creatures, lands, and artifacts seem somewhat random at this point. Players can typically point to a direct substitution or find a card equally powerful that has evaded the Banned List. Therefore, I would like to go on record stating that we should really rethink the banning strategy.

Cut the list to the most essential, rule-breaking cards. Bring back the Moxen, give us Ancestral Recall, and let us play with Black Lotus. We are big kids. We can handle it! Sure, keep the format fun and diverse, but loosen up on bannings based on opinion. Let the players dictate which creatures are strong and overplayed. The community will surprise you. Unleash the bannings based on cost. It will give a new group of players a reason to collect Power and will allow the player base the opportunity to maintain a deep connection to the game’s most desirable cards. If you choose not to play them, chances are that you will still have plenty of great social interactions and enjoyable play experiences.

Thanks for reading. Next week, we will walk through the potential Legendary creatures of Innistrad. We will examine the known Legends and possible direction to take decks designed around them. See you back next Monday.

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