When I wrote my last article, I was aiming to tackle some of the problems in the Commander banned list approach the Rules Committee (RC) uses.

Then, Wizards made a giant change to Commander for MTGO.

I’m going to ignore the MTGO fiasco…because it is shit, and I don’t purposefully step in shit. (Note: a new announcement rolling back part of the MTGO changes has been announced since starting this article. [EDITOR’S NOTE -*Mostly* rolling back the changes.  Maybe.]  )

The banned list is growing too large and, more importantly, the application for banning decisions is inconsistent and haphazard. The philosophy that the RC uses for their ban criteria can be found here.  Today, I’m going to focus on how the pillars are applied and examine how many cards we can remove if we apply these pillars differently – or remove some of them completely.

One of my biggest problems isn’t that the ban list exists, but that a card needs to meet at least one pillar and needs to be seen as problematic enough by the RC. Some cards hit multiple pillars but are still legal; Sol Ring and Mana Crypt are the poster cards for this argument. This loose application is something that the RC claims to need.

I disagree. I think if we tighten down the criteria for a ban we can free more cards in a casual game.

Let’s look at the pillars:

  1. Interacts Poorly With the Structure of Commander
  2. Creatures Undesirable Game States
  3. Problematic Casual Omnipresence
  4. Produces Too Much Mana Too Quickly
  5. Creates a Perceived Barrier to Entry

Last week I talked in brief about the ‘perceived barrier to entry’ pillar used by the RC. In general, this application of the banned list is problematic and can be removed without damaging the format. Other pillars are necessary to keep the format growing and enjoyable, but for this exercise, we’re dropping the “creates a perceived barrier to entry” criteria as the format has annual products and plenty of expensive cards are still legal. Heck, one of the power nine is legal! (Timetwister)

Plus, the pillar isn’t updated or well defined; near-universally played is one of the criteria, yet the blue dual lands are hundreds of dollars. This pillar seems to exist only to take away random toys; if a card needs to be banned, there should be a way to ban it without referencing the secondary market.

The other questionable pillar that remains is ‘producing too much mana too quickly.’  While it is understandable in competitive play, the social contract and some basic discussion in individual groups should be able to regulate the difference in decks for ‘regular’ casual Commander.

Even something as simple as starting off by explaining what type of game you are looking for and the real capabilities of your deck will improve games.

The other problem is that outside tournament structures (and within them too), certain amounts of fast mana are required. In a four-player game your opponent has one-hundred-and-twenty life and draws three cards to your forty life and one card. A way to mitigate this difference is through fast mana. Getting to big plays early lets you start changing the game dynamic and swings things more to your favor. Without fast mana, the green decks are much more powerful. Green decks have mana dorks, Rampant Growth, Cultivate, and Explosive Vegetation effects; this enables them to catapult their mana development far faster than the other colors. Without some fast mana, non-green decks are incapable of keeping up.  Players would need to run ways to stop extra lands or mass land destruction, but this would not prevent green decks to have landed a large threat from a fast start and stay in an advantageous position after an Armageddon.

Let’s look at where the format is currently:

Current Banned List

Ancestral Recall
Balance
Biorhythm
Black Lotus
Braids, Cabal Minion
Coalition Victory
Channel
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
Fastbond
Gifts Ungiven
Griselbrand
Karakas
Leovold, Emissary of Trest
Library of Alexandria
Limited Resources
Mox Sapphire, Ruby, Pearl, Emerald and Jet
Painter’s Servant
Panoptic Mirror
Primeval Titan
Prophet of Kruphix
Recurring Nightmare
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
Sway of the Stars
Sundering Titan
Sylvan Primordial
Time Vault
Time Walk
Tinker
Tolarian Academy
Trade Secrets
Upheaval
Worldfire
Yawgmoth’s Bargain

Okay, then.

The New Pillar Approach

Commander should be as open a format as possible. We should encourage honest discussion about game expectations in non-tournament settings. Tournaments do need a stronger banned list because prizes are on the line; without prizes, even a game that ends on turn three lets you shuffle up with better expectations, or find a different group. Additionally, “banned as a commander” should return. Several cards are perfectly fine as part of the 99 in a deck, but result in unbalanced decks when functioning as a commander.

So…the good pillars?

  1. Interacts Poorly With the Structure of Commander
  2. Creatures Undesirable Game States
  3. Problematic Casual Omnipresence

These pillars work well for the format. Cards like Sway of the Stars and Worldfire are not something that encourage fun games, and interact poorly with the ‘battlecruiser’ and big mana approach that Commander looks for. Problematic casual omnipresence is something difficult to pin down, but Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is a solid example. When it was legal, this card was everywhere and provided ramp strategies a payoff that was a little too good.  (The annihilator mechanic is what puts Emrakul over the top in Commander.)

The ‘undesirable game states’ pillar is most easily explained through Balance and Limited Resources, which can easily strangle all the fun from a game.
By removing the fast mana pillar and the perceived barrier to entry pillar (and a couple embarrassing bans – Trade Secrets I’m looking at you) we can cut down the banned list to this:

Social Contract Banned List 1.0

  • Ancestral Recall
  • Balance
  • Biorhythm
  • Braids, Cabal Minion
  • Coalition Victory
  • Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
  • Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
  • Gifts Ungiven
  • Griselbrand
  • Karakas
  • Leovold, Emissary of Trest
  • Limited Resources
  • Painter’s Servant
  • Panoptic Mirror
  • Primeval Titan
  • Prophet of Kruphix
  • Recurring Nightmare
  • Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
  • Sway of the Stars
  • Sundering Titan
  • Sylvan Primordial
  • Time Vault
  • Time Walk
  • Tinker
  • Upheaval
  • Worldfire
  • Yawgmoth’s Bargain

Looking better already. Tolarian Academy is banned for providing too much mana, but it was legal for years. We’re trying to take only the worst offenders from the format’ an early Academy with a bunch of rocks is tons of mana but so is an early Gaea’s Cradle with mana dorks or tokens. Sol Ring and friends net mana the turn they are cast, and the Moxen do the same thing. Freeing the Moxen shortens the banned list and enables some people to play with cards that can be used only in Vintage – that seems like a good pickup for the king of eternal casual formats.

Now we can start going after the cards banned because of combos. Banning cards because of crazy combos simply does not stop combos or the most competitive players – people will simply move on to the next combo that is legal. Cutting these back also enables players to have fun using something like Panoptic Mirror with, say, Opportunity. If your opponents are going drop a Time Warp on the Mirror- they are a butt. Recommend they seek medical attention to cure the dreaded Butts Disease.

While we’re continuing to trim the banned list, we can remove the remaining Power Nine. The moneybags who can get their hands on Timetwister are allowed to play them, so why are Ancestral Recall and Time Walk banned? If Commander is proclaimed to be a casual format, then we should be allowing as many cards as possible. When someone becomes infamous for infinite turns, it’s time to stop playing with them or gang up.

Other cards are banned for being infamous with two-card combos, but we have at least a dozen legal two-card combos already legal otherwise, so the damage from adding Time Vault and Panoptic Mirror would be…what, exactly? Everyone can run a two-card combo if they want?  Well, that is already true, so lets just free them! Painter’s Servant is banned because of a two-card combo with Grindstone and poor interactions with Iona, Shield of Emeria; the Grindstone combo is just like Rest in Peace and Helm of Obedience. (See my point about inconsistent bannings…)

Painter’s Servant may enable some powerful things to happen. But it also enables crazy things like making Llawan, Cephalid Empress useful, making Jaya Ballard better, wrecking any card with intimidate, and otherwise enabling shenanigans all day long. Really, this card is almost as embarrassing as Trade Secrets being banned.

Since the Servant is a giant enabler card, we can examine other enabler cards like Gifts Ungiven and Recurring Nightmare. These are both extremely powerful and can take over games, but they can also be used for value and fun interactions. Currently, the RC judges some cards based on the worst interactions, and others on average – I can definitely see both of these cards coming off the list and being powerful, but still fine, because under average circumstances Gifts is a wacky tutor and Nightmare is a value engine. If we’re okay with Survival of the Fittest and Sneak Attack or Show and Tell, then Recurring Nightmare is fine.

Tinker is another card that can be easily abused, but has tons of fun potential. The players cheating out Blightsteel Colossus would do so another way, so I’m fine allowing Tinker if it also lets players find Wurmcoil Engine and Mind’s Eye to have better games.

Another point to get back to before we trim the list down more is ‘banned as a commander’. This should most definitely be brought back. Several cards are excellent as part of the 99 in decks, and provide good tools to halt opponents, but prove to be oppressive as a commander. Leovold, Emissary of Trest and Rofelllos, Llanowar Emissary are two great examples. Powerful cards in the 99, but ridiculous as a commander.

Social Contract Banned List 2.0

Banned as a Commander:

  • Braids, Cabal Minion
  • Leovold, Emissary of Trest
  • Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

Banned:

  • Balance
  • Biorhythm
  • Coalition Victory
  • Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
  • Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
  • Griselbrand
  • Karakas
  • Limited Resources
  • Primeval Titan
  • Prophet of Kruphix
  • Sway of the Stars
  • Sylvan Primordial
  • Upheaval
  • Worldfire
  • Yawgmoth’s Bargain

We’re almost done, but we can still pull a couple wonky cards. Sylvan Primordial is banned because of Deadeye Navigator and other similar blink effects, but looping endless Palinchron is fine? This makes no sense. Sylvan Primordial is powerful, but it does not create a mini game about who can get the most activations…it can only fetch Forests, so it is more limited in use, and it costs seven mana. It may not seem like a big jump, but the difference between six and seven mana is a lot. Six mana has engine cards and workhorse pieces, eight mana has game winners like Insurrection. Sylvan sits nicely at seven mana and is able to be a workhorse or game winner. Time to play the Primordial, coach!

Biorhythm is big and expensive and takes more work than Insurrection. Plus, it leaves you vulnerable to removal, killing you in response to your game winning spell. Eight mana spells that win the game are the type of effects Commander should be encouraging.

Griselbrand draws lots of cards for lots of life. It is disastrous as a commander, but something that our format is known for – huge plays. Griselbrand comes down hard and does tons of work, but if we remove him as a commander, the card is much more fair and lets both casual and competitive players do some crazy things. Also, if we’re freeing Griselbrand then Yawgmoth’s Bargain can be free too. It will definitely power up some decks, but drawing cards at the cost of life is not as safe with several opponents in a game.

The final card to examine here is Prophet of Kruphix. This is a card that has me conflicted. I don’t think this should ever have been banned, but man have games been more fun without seeing it constantly. The card doesn’t diminish the fun of a game, but rather it empowers a player – and there are answers and options to stop it. Players can always talk to each other about how frustrating the Prophet is, and stop playing it or create different games with and without it. While I personally dislike the card and how games acquire a strong “sameness” quality with it, the card only has casual omnipresence, and the decks that want this effect have already found ways around its banning.

Taking a ay toys is not the goal of the banned list. We only want to stop the most oppressive cards and things that fundamentally shift the game. Additionally by using only three pillars we can take the following banned list and explain why every card is on the list.

Social Contract Banned List 3.0

Banned as a Commander:

  • Braids, Cabal Minion
  • Leovold, Emissary of Trest
  • Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
  • Griselbrand

Banned:

  • Balance
  • Coalition Victory
  • Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
  • Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
  • Iona, Shield of Emeria
  • Karakas
  • Limited Resources
  • Primeval Titan
  • Sway of the Stars
  • Upheaval
  • Worldfire

Here is the breakdown for why these cards are banned – and why one card was added:

  1. Interacts Poorly With the Structure of Commander
    1. Coalition Victory
    2. Iona, Shield of Emeria
    3. Karakas
    4. Limited Resources
    5. Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
    6. Sway of the Stars
    7. Upheaval
    8. Worldfire
  2. Creatures Undesirable Game States
    1. Banned as a Commander
      1. Braids, Cabal Minion
      2. Leovold, Emissary of Trest
      3. Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
      4. Griselbrand
    2. Balance
    3. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
    4. Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
    5. Primeval Titan
  3. Problematic Casual Omnipresence
    1. Coalition Victory
    2. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
    3. Primeval Titan

I’ll keep this brief for explanations.The cards that interact poorly with the commander structure either reset games (Upheaval and friends), easily lock out a players’ ability to do anything (Erayo, Limited Resources), or do not function well in the format (Karakas stops cards the format was built around and Coalition Victory needs nearly no work to pull off). This section has an added card – Iona, Shield of Emeria. Stopping mono-colored decks completely with a single card is not something to encourage in the format. More importantly, the card regularly has splash damage that greatly limits the ability of the table to play or interact with the game. While Iona is expensive, she is routinely reanimated for cheap, or the result of a dedicated ramp strategy tutoring her to the field or casting her much faster than she should be able. While she provides an answer, she does so at the cost of halting players’ ability to participate in the game. Much like Erayo, she is something that the format should not allow as casual and social game.

The cards banned for creating undesirable game states start with the cards which are banned as commanders for proving to be oppressive. From there, Balance is never balanced when casting and will often function as a one-sided advantage dressed as a global reset. Emrakul’s extra turn, protection, and annihilator prove devastating. When she is stolen from a deck or ramped hard, it becomes worse. She is almost always the best thing any deck with a high curve can do and pushes ramp strategies while removing the defending player’s ability to recover. Erayo is banned for the above reason and for being easy to flip as early as turn two or three. Finally, Primeval Titan turns a regular game of Commander into a minigame of getting the most activations from Prime Time. This is not something to push.

The problematic casual omnipresence is the nail in the coffin for the three listed cards. Alone they may be playable, but when every deck that can play the card or copy it wants the effect then it needs to go.

Drop The Hammer

I’m certain others would create a different list, but if I was a member of the RC this is the banned list I would be advocating for. It trims down the list, tries to apply things as consistently as possible, narrows the pillars down to be more appropriate, and tries to open the game as much as possible. Commander is really multiple formats in one, and the banned list should strive to keep the format open for everyone, regardless of the type of game they want to play. Tournaments and events may need to add additional cards, but for the most part, groups can regulate themselves using this list as the only banned cards and discussing how games should play out from there.

What do you think? What would you remove or add to this list?

-Erik