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The Curtain Torn: Banned Commander Cards

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

The fundamental concepts that the Commander Rules Committee uses to drive the changes they make to the Commander banned list are by and large pretty successful — multiplayer Commander is a pretty healthy (and incredibly popular) format these days. In Part 1 of my look at the Banned List, I broke down the guiding philosophy that Commander was built on and the specific components that are used to evaluate whether a card should be allowed in the format. This article will take it a step further by looking at the specifics.

Part 1 is recommended reading to better understand the statements and evaluations that will be included here, but the abridged version is that the Rules Committee does some things very well, while other areas are a little lackluster. Moving forward, I want to take a closer look at the cards that are on the Commander banned list to see how well they stack up against these guiding principles.

In the same way that the guidelines used to select them are designed to promote fun and social play, the majority of the cards on this list are here because they break the “gentleman’s agreement” in place and create game-states that are not enjoyable to the core casual audience. However, there are some cards that miss the mark, or seem to be on the list despite what the committee says, rather than as a result of their decisions. Let’s take a closer look to see what makes the grade, and what falls short.

The April Announcement

There’s no better place to start than the announcement that came down on Monday, April 22:

It’s the right call to unban Staff of Domination at this time. It was originally added to the banned list at a strange time. Metalworker, one of the two cards in the format that really served to “break” Staff by potentially going infinite with it, had been banned for well more than a year at that point. More confusingly, the other card, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, was banned as a General in the same announcement. It was as if the Rules Committee was trying really hard to make an example of one of the classic interactions in the format.

Meanwhile, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Pestermite breathed a sigh of relief and continued to go infinite.

This is a critical point; Kiki-Jiki is a very strong creature with several available interactions that can simply end games, but many more that provide great utility. Staff of Domination is in the same position. Infinite combos aside, Staff is a veritable Swiss army knife that provides a ton of solid effects in a tidy package. Possibly most importantly, it provides good draw to colors like white and red that don’t have good access to it otherwise. Past that, minor lifegain and a split Twiddle effect in the same package made for a good all-around tool.

There are other cards in the format that can be as (or more) broken as Staff of Domination can, so this is a good sign that the Rules Committee is willing to open the door on cards that can be used as strong role players. Unbanning it is the right call.

On the other hand, Trade Secrets is at best a decent-if-surprising choice, and at worst a bad decision that will validate a lot of preexisting fears.

When I saw the announcement, I went to Twitter to gauge the atmosphere and spent some time browsing the various Commander forums for discussions. What I found was interesting. For every person who had no idea the card even existed or never saw it played, there was another person who swore up and down that banning it was a great idea because of how broken and collusion-riddled the card was.

The kicker for me what that nobody had this card in their sights recently. Love it or hate it, it was essentially a surprise inclusion on the announcement. That is a significant piece of information.

I don’t believe Trade Secrets is ban-worthy. Despite the potential for bad things to happen, this card barely exists in my local metagame, and the players all seem to understand how to handle it when it hits play. No one abuses it, and incidences of collusion featuring it simply wouldn’t be tolerated. It is a non-issue.

The fact that it went from off-the-radar to banned is a problem. In Part 1, I pointed out it was dangerous for the Rules Committee to make decisions without either the transparency into why it occurred or the ability to look at data (such as tournament results) to support the decisions.

Trade Secrets seems like it got hit out of nowhere, and there doesn’t seem to be any real way to refute this. Consecrated Sphinx is a daily point of discussion on broken draw engines that need to be removed from Commander, yet it remains legal while this relative unknown card is gone. Indeed, some of the post-banning discussion on the Official Commander Forums pointed to the fact that while Consecrated Sphinx is recognized as a potential problem, it was left alone because it is a relatively well-used card, while Trade Secrets was banned because it was relatively unused and thus would not be an issue.

That is a seriously slippery slope to be hanging out on.

Those people who believe that the changes to the Commander banned list happen because one member or another complained to the rest of the group have picked up a decent bit of ammunition with Trade Secrets. Regardless of how bad the card actually is, removing a card like this while worse offenders exist is a bad way to instill faith in the community that our best interests are being protected.

Worse yet, the integrity of the Commander precons is now damaged because this card was included in “Political Puppets.” Those of you that had faith that buying an official Wizards of the Coast product designed for the format would mean your investment was safe are incorrect.

While I’d love some clarification, I’m not sure what could be offered that would explain things to a satisfactory level. The usual postmortem from Sheldon Menery on his weekly StarCitygames.com article also didn’t happen this time, leaving no specific details as to why it was so important to remove Trade Secrets from the format so suddenly.

This is a decision I do not in any way agree with.

Fine in the 99

There is a small subset of legendary creatures that are not allowed to be used as Commanders, but are still legal includes in the main deck itself.

Erayo, Soratami Ascendant

Personal feelings aside, Erayo falls into the camp of being a creature that simply never gets played fairly. Before the ban, I had never once seen someone play Erayo and not do everything possible to flip it as quickly as possible and lock the other players out of the game. That’s a pretty strong indicator a commander isn’t a good fit for the format.

The nature of Erayo’s essence is that it is designed only to let the blue control player shut the game off. It doesn’t have another purpose. In most Commander circles, this is really a cardinal sin; even infinite combos will be tolerated more, because at least then the game is over and you can shuffle up for another. With Erayo, you often have to suffer the indignity of being on a 40-turn Memnite clock until something better comes along.

Because of all of this, Erayo is banned completely from the format. Some legendary creatures can handle being one of the maindeck cards, but this is not one of them. This is the right call.

Kokusho, the Evening Star

This card was recently unbanned as a whole, but the Rules Committee actually publicly tested it (it was allowed for a time in the Armada Games Commander League, of which Sheldon Menery is a regular participant) and deemed that while it was no longer the threat it once was, it was still too powerful if it could be easily accessed from the command zone.

Kokusho could be unbanned across the board with few ill effects. It is one of the more powerful legendary creatures out there due in part to the symmetrical lifeloss, which makes it far better in a multiplayer format. From there, a five-point loss of life requires a baseline six mana plus a sacrifice outlet. In black, tutors are a thing. It simply isn’t difficult to find Kokusho in the maindeck, and Exsanguinate is also a card, so the effect isn’t nearly as pronounced as it once was.

Making it a commander will only serve to increase the replay cost at times, with minimal gain in availability. This does not seem like a bad thing.

Rofellos, Llanowar Emmisary

Rofellos, on the other hand, requires randomized access to avoid what will always be a broken start. If your commander will accelerate you to six mana on Turn 3, he is always the correct Turn 2 play, and will likely still be the correct play whenever available.

As it is now, Rofellos isn’t an automatic arrival for a monogreen deck, but when he shows up, he can be backbreaking and hard to overcome. This is what Commander is all about, but removing the randomization makes playing against Rofellos an exhausting grind. It’s not fun to race every single time someone sits down with a deck featuring him, so a commander-only ban is good for the format.

Braids, Cabal Minion

Last up is Braids. At first glance this is a balanced effect, but the inherent problem is that it isn’t incredibly difficult to accelerate into a Turn 2 Braids that can effectively lock the rest of the table. It forces each player to keep sacrificing their lands, likely the only permanents they have in play that early in the game.

From there, who knows what happens; the parity means the Braids player is also making sacrifices and likely is low on resources as well. This might mean that each other player is on an 11-turn commander damage clock if the Braids player not being able to muster up anything better.

This is precisely why cheap instant-speed removal is a good idea no matter what format you play. Braids can stay banned as a commander, having violated the spirit of the format by essentially prison-locking the table. No fun.

Setting the Stage

Not all of the guidelines for banning cards are enforced closely, and some are outright at odds with themselves. Before looking at individual cards, here are the core concepts that guide my opinions on what should stay on the banned list and what should get cut:

  • No card should be banned for monetary considerations.

It has been said time and again that the real joy of Commander is about combing the search engines to come up with off-the-wall choices that make decks and games unique and interesting, and the Rules Committee specifically notes that competitive play is not considered in their decisions. For that reason, the argument that a player would need to spend thousands of dollars to “stay competitive” if Power Nine were legal holds no water. The fundamental nature of 99-card singleton play means the playing field is able to absorb power-level spikes and still stay relatively level to begin with, so there should be no problem.

There’s also the dual land issue. Revised duals are slowly creeping up in price, and they already are cost-prohibitive; however, they’re also poster children for Commander, and it would be very surprising to see them removed at any point. Pile that on top of the existing high-dollar options such as Mishra’s Workshop, Imperial Seal, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, and even Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and it becomes clear that monetary considerations are fringe at best.

  • Cards should be banned only if they functionally break the dynamic of the format.

Think about it. How often does the first person to take a strong lead in a game end up winning? How often do they instead tend to get targeted by the collective might of the table? Did someone just combo off extremely early and end the game? Great! Everyone can start a new game, making sure the person who ruined the last one knows that line of play isn’t appreciated. Are you sitting down to play a game where all players agree to field stronger, more competitive decks? Great! There’s an understanding in place that anything goes, and the game should be treated accordingly. Everyone expects what will happen, and there should be no surprises.

This is what Commander is supposed to do as a format. It should self-correct using the social contract it was built around. The cards that should be excluded are the ones that simply can’t be used fairly (see Erayo above). Otherwise, a minimalist approach should be employed to let things play out organically. For example, Black Lotus is only a problem if the social contract breaks down, and if that happens, an old piece of expensive cardboard is the last of your concerns.

That said, it’s time to get specific.

Green Means Go

The following collection of cards should be no big deal if they were format-legal: [/card]Black Lotus[/card].

Black Lotus should be fine in Commander.

Still here? Good.

As detailed in Part 1, the concept of “fast mana” already has holes in it. Sol Ring is a format darling, and Mana Crypt is still legal. Lion’s Eye Diamond is legal, and time has proven that it isn’t difficult to get around its designed restrictions. Rofellos is legal as a maindeck card, and I already mentioned Mishra’s Workshop. This guideline is already pretty leaky.

Black Lotus is only as dangerous as the cards you play with it. Sure, this can lead to some pretty broken openings, but realistically, the fundamental concept of the format should correct for this anyway. Fast mana in general shouldn’t be an issue in casual Commander, and the following cards should be un-banned right behind Lotus:

Channel — It isn’t as if green can’t ramp already. Channel should go mostly unplayed in a typical casual metagame with strong convictions anyway, because it really isn’t good at doing much of anything past enabling something broken to happen quickly.

Fastbond — See Channel. The player that ramps this into Boundless Realms will be gang-piled out of the game, or congratulated on their sweet goldfish and either not included in the next game or forced to sit around for an hour or two while the rest of the existing one finishes up.

And you think Mirari’s Wake, Debtors’ Knell, and Rhystic Study get snap-destroyed? Fastbond will regulate itself. It might serve to make solid players out of some current less-than-stellar choices for commanders, such as Borborygmos Enraged. (And this is coming from a guy with a Borborygmos 2.0 deck.)

Metalworker — If Rofellos is OK for the 99, Metalworker should be as well. With the Commander card pool, it really doesn’t tutor up any easier than Rofellos does, and it doesn’t do anything particularly broken that Rofellos doesn’t do as well. Like the Rules Committee said about the Staff of Domination unbanning (and yes, I recognize the irony of discussing these three cards together), just use it responsibly, and it won’t be a big deal.

Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, Mox Pearl — If Black Lotus is OK, the Moxes are really OK. Color identity rules will mean that these won’t be spammed in every deck, and as I explained above, there are already existing cards that match or exceed the net mana production of the Moxes for the upfront cost. Once the shock of these being legal wears off, they’ll be regular includes. But they will be only as much of a shock as fetchlands or Sol Rings are.

Tolarian Academy — The rest of the cycle still exists as legal cards in Commander, and some are arguably just as strong (Hello, Gaea’s Cradle!)

Moving on to other areas:

Ancestral Recall — Is it the best draw spell ever printed? Absolutely. Does that mean it’s too strong for Commander? Not at all. Again, Ancestral Recall forces a player to draw three cards. That’s it. There are other cards in the format that do the same thing. I get that the mana investment is higher elsewhere, but the fact remains that Ancestral isn’t a fundamentally broken card. It doesn’t say “You win the game” anywhere on it.

Sure, if you stick it on an Isochron Scepter, there will be a table of other players out for your head. Otherwise, this is about as broken as Sol Ring, and should only be as offensive as well.

Library of Alexandria — We’ve got a Magus that provides the same effect. Now, understanding that lands are easier to protect, Library is clearly a better card. That said, in this age of ramp and acceleration, land destruction to one extent or another should be as important as graveyard hate.

As well, there are other lands that are just as problematic from a position of providing advantage. The aforementioned Gaea’s Cradle is a good example, as is perennially hated antihero Cabal Coffers.

As a Commander player, you should expect to have to deal with problem lands. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The card draw here is good but not overwhelming, and it forces a very closely metered gameplan. Library should be one of the more mild cards to come off of the list.

Time Walk — No surprises here. There are plenty of extra-turn effects that already exist in the format, so Time Walk really boils down to casting cost. There should be a pecking order for any effect, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have something a little overpowered sitting at the top. Extra-turn effects are very strong, but Time Walk isn’t all that far off from Time Warp when taking into account the mana regularly made in Commander.

Besides, Final Fortune only costs two mana, and it’s perfectly legal …

Painter’s Servant — Things were fine until Iona, Shield of Emeria showed up. In this case, I think Painter’s Servant got the raw end of the deal, because Iona is by far the more annoying half of the equation. Painter’s Servant also opens up some interesting design space, and it’s a shame not to have access to it.

Still, we’ve decided that Worldgorger Dragon can exist in a format where Animate Dead is legal, so this shouldn’t be a stretch to bring back into the fold.

Flashing Yellow Lights

The next category moves into an area of caution. These cards aren’t inherently broken, but are riding the fine line of acceptability. These are the cards that make up the “Watch List” in my book.

Tinker — One of the stronger artifact tutors, effectively coming bundled with whatever mana acceleration is needed to hit the intended goal. That is a dangerous combination.

Still, Tinker is only as bad as the card it digs for. Pull up a third-turn Darksteel Forge enough times with this card, and your playgroup will make sure you understand what you’re doing wrong. Being able to grab an Oblivion Stone, Relic of Progenitus, or a Wurmcoil Engine is far-less egregious. Like Staff of Domination, this could see fair play.

OK, OK … make that “reasonable” play.

Recurring Nightmare — I’ll admit it; I don’t get this card. Well, not the card, but why it remains on the list. The most important rule to learn about Commander is that things don’t stay dead for long. If you build your deck the right way, the distinction between your graveyard and your hand should blur nicely.

The takeaway is that graveyard hate is extremely important. It has been getting better over the years as well. Tormod’s Crypt gave way to Nihil Spellbomb and Relic of Progenitus, and Planar Void got upgraded to Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace.

Recurring Nightmare is extremely hard to deal with, but one solid way is to prevent it from having targets. It is manageable, and shouldn’t be on the list.

Gifts Ungiven — This was pretty clearly added to the list because of the propensity for simply tutoring up combos. Managed fairly, Gifts actually makes for a pretty interesting card, and is a great focal point for building a deck with strong redundancy.

You know the mantra by now … play it fairly, and it shouldn’t be a problem. Play it unfairly, and your playgroup will deal with it — and you.

Protean Hulk — This one follows along the same lines as Tinker. It has the ability to be built into a one-stop combo tutor, but at the same time, if played fairly it should be a pretty interesting addition to the format. It would be fun to make the decision of whether to kill it off or continue to take beatings from it, assuming that the answer wasn’t “Lose immediately.”

Hulk is a great utility creature, and would also make for some interesting deck designs if handled properly.

Red-light District

The brakes need to be applied somewhere, and this is the place. The rest of the cards on the list manage to suck the fun out of the game, suck the ability to play the game out of the game, or just can’t manage to be played fairly no matter how hard players try. These cards need to stay buried.

Balance / Upheaval — These cards are a problem because it becomes an overwhelming advantage to the person casting them without fail. In the case of Balance, artifacts are unaffected so it becomes extremely difficult not to shoot out a few mana rocks and pop this off to force a mass discard that leaves you in the game with decent resources and everyone else struggling to draw lands to get going. In the case of Upheaval, you float a bunch of mana and end the turn with a relatively decent board position, while your opponents all start the game over.

Both cards create game-states that involve a lot of sitting around doing nothing as a whole, and that’s precisely what Commander is trying to avoid.

Biorhythm — I’ve built several decks that exist as creatureless with the exception of the commander. I’m not advocating the ban on Biorhythm for personal reasons, but the point is that you shouldn’t auto-lose to a design constraint.

Other than that, Commander is the format of board sweepers, and this card will likely take out at least one player every time it is cast. It could very easily just win the game on the spot for the caster prepared to follow up his Damnation with a cheap creature.

Best-case scenario? Everyone lives, but goes to two or three life each, thus largely invalidating the game up to the point it was cast. That’s not fun.

Coalition Victory — This card is nothing but a win condition that requires the owner to build a deck around it and then essentially ignore the rest of the table in order to goldfish a victory. It has no other viable use.

Karakas — Sadly, Karakas devolves to the level of a griefer card in Commander. It doesn’t get around hexproof or shroud, but the Rules Committee nailed this one; Commander is a format that defines itself through the use of commanders, and Karakas is an easy, colorless way to invalidate that.

If you play Merieke Ri Berit or Zur the Enchanter, you probably deserve to have it repeatedly bounced. If you play Ramirez DePietro or Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile … not so much.

Limited Resources — This card was not designed for multiplayer games. Ten lands spread out over four or more players is enough to essentially grind the game to a halt, and like Balance, the player who casts Limited Resources is usually in a position to take better advantage of it.

To make matters worse, the restriction it places also makes it really hard to get rid of. Did you skip out on Naturalize because you play Indrik Stomphowler and Acidic Slime? Sorry … better luck next game.

Sundering Titan — The fact that it triggers when it enters the battlefield and leaves the battlefield is strike one. The fact that it hits basic land types is strike two, with all of the dual lands and shocklands that drive manabases in the format. Strike three is that nine times out of 10, it gets played by a deck designed to not be affected by it, and that also strangely is packed to the gills with bounce effects.

This is one of the cards on the list that is there because people just can’t help themselves.

Primeval Titan — Speaking of titans, this one is still fresh, and still painful on both sides of the equation.

The major mark in the “No!” column is that games featuring Primeval Titan tend to refocus to the point that they become all about getting, keeping, or destroying it at the expense of everything else.

Past that, the design is just too strong. Land tutors with no limitations are bad enough; ones that happen in pairs once cast are pretty strong; and ones that then happen once a turn are over the top. Prime Time is a runaway train.

Panoptic Mirror — To the three of you out there that can resist putting extra-turn effects in a deck featuring this card, I salute you.

Sadly, you are vastly outnumbered by those people who can’t resist, or those who lie and say they can resist using them together.

Except, you know, for when they’re staring down a losing position and happen to draw into Mirror and Time Stretch.

Sway of the Stars / Worldfire — For all intents and purposes, these two might be the worst of the bunch. No matter how cool the game has been up until now, the moment one of these is cast, it all becomes totally irrelevant. These cards invalidate everything.

Worse yet, things are reset at dangerously low life totals, so the person who stabilizes with any creature of any size is likely handed the game on a silver platter. In this format, Black Lotus looks totally reasonable in comparison.

Time Vault — Completely unplayable, until Voltaic Key or Tezzeret is introduced into the mix, at which point it becomes a game-ending combo. There is sadly no middle ground.

Yawgmoth’s Bargain / Griselbrand — These are both more examples of “I dare you” cards. As in, “I’m targeting that busted thing with removal. I dare you not to draw 21 cards in response.”

Remember what I said about Ancestral Recall? The line between acceptable and broken card draw in Commander is pretty much the place where it becomes free. It’s pretty hard to lose a game when you’re playing with half of your deck in your hand, and these two just need to resolve to get you there.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn — In their quest to create the biggest, baddest creature ever to see print, Wizards of the Coast managed to overshoot the format that loves big, bad creatures the most. Emrakul is a little too perfect — it can’t be countered, has evasion, and the best form of haste ever (that would be the one that also lets you untap, draw, and play another land as well), can’t be removed with targeted spells of any kind, and then there’s that backbreaking annihilator trigger thing.

It’s simply not fun for anyone but the person playing it, and turns games into a mad scramble to deal with it or just lose. The other impact is that the deck playing it will likely not have a plan better than to ramp into enough mana to play it, so it homogenizes games as well.

Wrapping Things Up

As a final word, it is really important to note that I’m in no way taking one-vs.-one Commander into account with this list, and I need to reinforce that I’m not taking competitive Commander into account either. Commander was designed to be a casual format, and I truly believe that maximum options and the social contract will serve to keep a balance. The banned list should only apply when specific cards can’t be played without warping the games around them.

I’m also honestly not unhappy with the current state of things, and I’m happy to play within the confines of the current format. I don’t expect that most of these suggestions will ever become reality, if any do at all. Still, it is important to stick to your fundamental beliefs, and the Rules Committee goes well out of its way to let us know Commander is a casual and social format designed to work out the kinks within each playgroup. The banned list as it currently stands highlights the fact that they don’t fully trust in the environment that they’ve created, and it should reinforce that environment instead.

It’s not perfect, but it could be closer to perfect with a little work, and the community as a whole would be better off for it. The Rules Committee strongly suggests that players sculpt the format to fit their individual needs, and that alone should render the concept of a banned list for a casual format unnecessary. It’s time that we all took this to heart.

Thanks again, and please feel free to open fire in the comments below. I’m looking forward to a lively discussion.


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