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Behind the Curtain: The Commander Banned List

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

Commander is a really strange format. In the past few years, it has absolutely exploded in popularity. Everyone has a deck kicking around these days. There are forums, there are blogs, dedicated articles are being written left and right, and the secondary singles market has been heavily affected by 99-card decks. For a casual format, Commander has a pretty serious presence.

The casual part is what makes it truly odd. Commander isn’t governed by Wizards of the Coast; despite the official support, the rules and regulations remain firmly in the hands of a governing third party, made up largely of players who pioneered the format. This is an extremely good thing, as it allows the format to be steered by able hands that hold the core vision close to their hearts.

It’s not all shiny, though. There are some holes in the game plan if you look closely. The Commander Rules Committee is essentially a privately owned company; they exist and function however they want, and answer to no one but themselves. They can make — or not make — whatever changes they want without needing to provide market evidence that they’re making the correct moves. If they felt like driving the format into the ground tomorrow, it’s a choice they could make.

Essentially, the Commander community has to trust that it’s in good hands. To be honest, this has worked out pretty well so far, but the problem is there isn’t an alternative. What we have is what we get.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

At the core of the format is the Commander banned list. Fans of Magic in general (and other sanctioned formats in particular) know that banned and restricted lists are at the center of deck construction and directly drive the metagame of any given format. They are extremely important to the health of the game.

With Commander, the banned list may as well not exist, and the Rules Committee is the first one to tell you to ignore the list entirely. Like I said … it’s a weird format.

If you look at every sanctioned constructed format, the banned/restricted list serves as a very important tool to finetune the game. The designers don’t see every possible angle when they’re trying to create a set. Certain interactions may fall outside the scope of acceptability, or certain cards may prove to dominate a format to the point that the tournament scene grows stale and interest wanes. Many players remember what Ravager Affinity did to Standard, or how Mind’s Desire was preemptively restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy before it was even released. And then there’s Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Clearly, there needs to be a panic button, or the tournament-going public could be stuck for a few years until problem cards rotate out. The word “tournament” is really the core of the issue. With Standard, Legacy, Vintage, or Modern, tournament results are widely available and serve as a tool to understand how a format is trending. If a deck or a card in particular starts to take over, things can be adjusted through the use of these official lists to make sure things stay balanced and people don’t jump ship.

But Commander doesn’t have tournament results to look at. In fact, the Rules Committee has stated many times that they have no interest in “competitive” Commander and don’t really condone or pay attention to tournaments at all.

You’d think this would make it incredibly difficult to gauge the health of the format and figure out how to add or subtract cards from it to keep a playable balance. And if you think that, you’d be right, and also likely in the majority. There are discussions on every major forum about cards that should be banned or unbanned in Commander. Lots of discussions. The fact of the matter, though, is that the Rules Committee keeps their decisions (and reasons for them) very close to the vest, even getting rid of an unofficial “watch list” that was posted on the official forums in years past.

At this point, what we get is the committee’s announcement when a change happens. The reason for any changes is given in a press release on the same day as the rest of the other Magic formats, and the reasons are summed up briefly. (We’ll be seeing one next week, coinciding with the upcoming release of Dragon’s Maze.) There are occasionally some follow-ups, but for the most part, it is what it is. The data driving the decisions are never really divulged. And they don’t have to be.

Is anyone nervous yet?

I don’t want to intimate that Commander doesn’t need a banned list or a Rules Committee, or even that the current Rules Committee is doing a bad job. To the contrary, Commander needs a banned list because of the “social contract” that forms the core of the format. (Anyone who hasn’t read it should head over to the official forums to read about this concept as spelled out by the Rules Committee. To paraphrase, Commander is a multiplayer format designed around the concept of encouraging interaction among players. The Rules Committee wants to promote fun games where interesting and crazy things happen, and everyone has a good time.)

And although they aren’t without faults, I think they are doing a pretty good job.

THE GOOD

The polar opposite of the core Commander values the Rules Committee is trying to drive would be the idea of “competitive” Commander. Trying to win as quickly as possible or lock players out of the game flies in the face of the social contract. As a result, the Commander banned list is there to prevent bad things from happening. This makes it both exactly like and completely different from other formats; no one wants a given deck to dominate Commander, but no one wants changes that will make the field more competitive either.

It’s a little confusing.

However, when you look at the basics of what exists on the current list and what has been added recently, you can get a pretty good idea of the mindset that drives the format. There are some solid concepts that populate the Format Philosophy Document that deserve a good look too.

Here are the things the Commander Banned list gets right:

1. Following the Vision

“The Banned List for Commander is designed not to balance competitive play, but to help shape in the minds of its fans the vision held by its founders and Rules Committee. That vision is to create variable, interactive, and epic multiplayer games where memories are made, to foster the social nature of the format, and to underscore that competition is not the format’s primary goal. It sets out to define the parameters of Official Commander while recognizing that local groups may wish to modify things to suit their own needs.”

The Rules Committee does a great job of sticking to core concepts. I’m not going to delve too deeply into specifics (next week we’ll publish a follow-up article that takes a critical look at the specific cards on the banned list), but there are some strong moves that clearly show they want games to be fun, social, and interesting. Anyone who remembers what it was like to face an Erayo, Soratami Ascendant deck tuned for competitive games will know what I’m talking about. Cards like that, and others such as Worldfire that promote non-interactive game states, are usually dealt with swiftly.

This vision really guides the decisions the Rules Committee makes, and they do a nice job of sticking to it. Pretty much everything else that falls outside of the vision is not explicitly discouraged. If you want to run infinite combos or mass land destruction, feel free, so long as your group accepts it. Whatever is fun for you is the goal you should build and play toward.

2. The ‘Competitive’ Thing

The banned list really clamps down on things that can give an unfair advantage to one player, should they choose to exploit it. This is why cards like Limited Resources and Panoptic Mirror are on the list. An important distinction is made between cards that can do broken things, and cards that always do broken things in spite of best intentions. In the same way that it’s incredibly hard to look at Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Pestermite in your hand and choose to not cast them, it’s really hard not to accelerate into Limited Resources or toss something other than Time Warp on the Mirror.

Most everything else is fair game, however. The Rules Committee realizes the available card pool is too big to cut out every negative interaction, and more importantly, some of these interactions are the spice of the format. Essentially, you can go as big as you want to, mostly because the Rules Committee specifically refuses to acknowledge competitive Commander when it makes its decisions.

This is critically important, because players will gravitate toward whatever boundaries are set for any format. Recognizing that there really aren’t any takes the pressure off and lets players roam the countryside to see what grabs them instead, so to speak. By refuting the concept of competition, the player base self-corrects.

3. Avoiding Undesirable Game States

The Rules Committee looks closely at cards that break this guideline (like Panoptic Mirror and Erayo), and will try to keep the format clear of things that, for better or worse, just can’t help but break things. Biorhythm seems like fun in theory, but in practice, it will wipe (at least) one player out of the game from out of nowhere. Not having an answer to Wrath of God should mean you don’t have any creatures let, not that you just lost the game.

With great power comes great responsibility. And the reality of the situation is more like, “If there’s a loophole, people will exploit it.” Remove the things that break the format down, and what’s left will shape a pretty expansive environment without the danger of things degenerating.

4. Strategic Warping of the Format

This hasn’t specifically reared its head that much, but the Primeval Titan ban did speak to it. When something is so pervasive that it always turns the games into “PrimeTime or no?”, things need to change. The Rules Committee has shown it isn’t afraid to go down this path. Primeval Titan was poised to become a Grand Prix promo card right before the ban, and I’m guessing this is in no small part because of Commander.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD

The problem with trying to maintain a format through a “hands-off” policy is that things fall through the cracks. And there are some areas the Rules Committee could manage better.

1. No clear visibility to the reason for changes

Without fail, once the Commander banned announcement is published, there will be numerous threads in forums across the Internet accusing the Rules Committee of making changes strictly based on personal opinion. Primeval Titan clearly got banned because someone on the Committee got burned one too many times by the card, right? One of the members of the Committee hates Eldrazi, so Emrakul, the Aeons Torn got hit despite the fact the format is supposed to be all about big flashy creatures and game-swinging spells, right? Clearly!

Well, that’s the first problem. If this isn’t true, the Rules Committee isn’t really saying. They have made the statement numerous times that this isn’t the case, but when pressed for actual supporting data, it doesn’t come very freely. For all anyone knows, it is entirely possible that someone Bribery-ed Sheldon Menery’s Titan one too many times, he blew a gasket, and that was all it took to send PrimeTime packing.

The problem is that things have gotten bigger in a hurry. Wizards of the Coast is designing specific Commander releases, and most regular expansions and Core Sets now have cards that were clearly tuned with the format in mind. The Commander playerbase is huge.

When this happens, it’s hard to keep things under wraps the way you could when it was just a group of DCI judges playing. There are a lot more people watching in 2013 than there was even a few short years ago before the Commander Pre-Cons were released. People want transparency. They want to know what led to the decision to kick their pet card out of the format.

People want answers, and it doesn’t always feel like they’re available.

This leads us back to tournaments. No one questioned when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned in Standard, because there were buckets of tournament reports indicating they were unbalancing the format, suppressing creativity in deck design, and driving players away from sanctioned events. By and large, Wizards didn’t need to explain or justify the decision, because it was easy for people to see the reasoning.

This isn’t the case with Commander. Without any official results, it really isn’t clear why something gets on or off the list. I still vividly remember when Metalworker was first added to the banned list; I was a dedicated Sharuum the Hegemon player, and had spent quite a bit of time and money perfecting the deck. Furthermore, I had seen exactly one other copy of Metalworker ever played, so it was a bit of an unexplained shock when I had to pull the card from my deck.

For these changes to feel like they’re being made for the good of the format, and not because of the local metagames of the Rules Committee members, the Commander community needs to see more detail that backs up the decisions.

2. Perceived inconsistency in decisions

The Power Nine are famously atop the Commander banned list. Black Lotus is a pretty explosive way to jump out to a headstart, Ancestral Recall is completely unbalanced draw for its cost, and Time Walk might just be a little too cheap at 1U.

However, just how broken are the Moxes? In a 99-card deck, is one extra mana producer really all that bad? After all, we have Sol Ring, and Mana Crypt provides two mana for the same cost that Mox Sapphire costs to provide one. Of course, this is all debatable, but I think it’s reasonable to look past perceived power level when it comes to cards that aren’t completely out-of-line with existing cards in the format.

So if we can do that, where’s the real problem?

Monetary cost. The Rules Committee doesn’t want the perceived barrier of entry to be too high. If the average player thinks she will need a host of cards with triple-digit costs to compete with even casual groups, she might think twice about building a deck.

That said, take a few minutes to look up the prices of Mishra’s Workshop and Imperial Seal. Both are 100 percent Commander legal. Mishra’s Workshop breaks both the monetary barrier rule and the “produces too much mana too quickly” rule. Imperial Seal is second only to Black Lotus in price.

Why are Moxes not legal, and these two are? I honestly have no idea.

The Painter’s Servant ban is another solid example. It’s a fairly innocuous creature that provides an interesting effect that just happens to interact with Iona, Shield of Emeria to effectively lock colored spells out of the game. We can agree that isn’t particularly fun. But Worldgorger Dragon was unbanned recently, and as far as I can tell, that card is never played in a non-combo situation. What’s the functional difference between one creature that creates a broken combo and another creature that creates a different broken combo?

This falls under the guise of trying to avoid “cascading bans.” These are basically bans that directly speak to a specific effect or outcome. The Rules Committee feels it becomes a slippery slope if it wants to ban a single card or interaction, but needs to comb the entire catalog to find every other interaction that seems similar functionally or on power level. The banned list would end up huge and unmanageable.

The problem, though, is that it creates a perceived imbalance in enforcement. If I’m a Worldgorger Dragon player, I’m happy. If I’m a Painter’s Servant player, I’m confused and angry as to why that guy over there can break out Animate Dead and pop off a table with infinite mana and a huge burn spell or a Stroke of Genius or three.

Now, I have no answer to this. In all honesty, it’s a feast-or-famine situation. You either go all-in and start cutting away at the card pool, or you recognize that people need to police themselves and let it all go. Fence-sitting sends a message that what is acceptable is entirely arbitrary, and that doesn’t help gain the trust of the community.

3. Mana Development

I could possibly still be sour about Metalworker, but this seems like the area most in need of a cleanup. Sol Ring is fine, but A/B/U Moxes are not. Mana Crypt makes more mana than the Moxes do for the cost, but it is OK. Tolarian Academy is out of the question, despite the fact it needs a board position to be really broken, and that doesn’t happen immediately. Mishra’s Workshop, however, hits the table and taps for three.

And Metalworker is not OK, but Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary is no big deal.

There needs to be some consistency here, one way or the other. If we recognize Sol Ring (for instance) as the line at which fast mana is acceptable, all other selections need to fall in line. In my opinion, this all needs to just be un-banned, letting the players naturally balance it out. That’s the push from the Rules Committee regarding the format anyway, and mana is only as broken as what you choose to do with it.

THE INTANGIBLES

This is the logical ending to the discussion. The fundamental philosophical slant that the Rules Committee takes is that Commander is a casual format, and as such, no one should feel bound by any rules or lists. If a playgroup dislikes something specifically, they should feel comfortable to simply change it. My group, for example, has not played with the Commander damage rule for as long as I can remember, and I know plenty of people who maintain custom banned lists within their own groups.

There are basic rules to playing Magic, but beyond that, anything goes outside of a tournament setting. In a game as highly customizable as it is, Magic players should be able to do whatever they want to maximize enjoyment; with no enforcement possible, there simply shouldn’t be any boundaries.

The problem, of course, is that having an official banned list provides a solid point of reference for the entire community, and it becomes hard to step outside of a playgroup or welcome new players if the house rules deviate from the norm. We’ve had more than one person show up to play at our Wednesday night league games, be informed that “General damage” doesn’t exist, and dejectedly responding that the only deck they have is one designed to win through the Commander dealing combat damage.

It’s hard not to look at the list as it stands as a hard-and-fast edict, because it becomes way too difficult to maintain different rules. The simple truth is that most Commander players use the stock list simply because it removes the problems I just detailed.

This takes us back to the importance of being transparent. Players need to feel comfortable that the list is the best possible representation of the format, because the vast majority of players will be using it. For that reason, the Rules Committee needs to focus on the fact that Commander is a global thing, and the rules and regulations should strive to reflect that, not just what a small group of players feels everyone else in the world should believe and respect. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but it seems to be a necessary one at this point to prevent Commander from fading into obscurity because of alienated players.

WRAPPING IT UP

Of course, this is all just my opinion. I really feel like the Rules Committee does a solid job of policing things for the format, and I think what they put in place is largely necessary to continue to grow the format in a larger, healthier direction. That said, there are some holes that could stand to be filled, and I think a strong and consistent foundation is the key to continuing to make Commander grow and flourish in the future.

What do you think? Are there any guidelines you specifically agree or disagree on? How in-touch with the community do you feel the Rules Committee is? Do you make any changes to the rules or banned list in your groups? Tell me all about it in the comments.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article next week. I’ll be getting specific with the cards on the Commander banned list and taking a look at any changes that happen with the forthcoming announcement. You’ll know what cards I think should stay, what ones need to go, and what I think of the current state of Commander.

Thanks for reading!

— Cass

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