24, Nov, 23

The MTG Commander Banlist Needs to Change

Article at a Glance

Think back to the last time something happened to the Commander ban list. September 2021, over two years ago. That was the last major action of the Commander Rules Committee, banning Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and unbanning Worldfire. Since then, the format has been left untouched with some minor rules clarifications and addenda, but nothing of any real substance. You can flip a coin between “No changes” and “We’ll be careful to monitor new cards” if you want to simulate previous announcements. Another announcement just passed this Monday, much to the same sentiment.

Meanwhile, just last year, pre-EDH has had a relatively good start by proposing a format with literally thousands of bans by removing years of cards from the format. This isn’t about pre-EDH though. Let’s talk about those last two cards because they are eye opening for the future of the format and the RC.

Unbanned and Seeing Little Play

Commander is no stranger to huge, game altering spells. Therefore, why was Worldfire singled out for a banning? Here is the unban quote:

“Worldfire was once banned due to the problematic interaction with floating mana and having access to your Commander. We want to foster a Commander environment where 8- and 9-mana spells are viable and likely to show up in a game, so we evaluate the expensive ones in that context. Unlike Coalition Victory and Biorhythm, which we continue to believe are problematic in that environment, the level of effort needed to make Worldfire effective is sufficient that we suspect it will not be as much of an issue. There are already cheaper ways to do similar things in the format. We believe the social contract and robust pregame discussions will keep Worldfire out of games in which it doesn’t belong.”

Yes, huge spells, especially ones that don’t say “instant” or “can’t be countered” are always going to have a massive, game shaking effect, but they certainly aren’t immune to interaction. Sure, the fear has always been “play huge spell, game ends suddenly” but that is outdated logic for a multitude of reasons.

Number one, there are far easier ways to end the game on the spot. The RC admits this. Number two, what about small spells that set up the end of the game even faster? Those are fine?

Why are degenerate combos and competitive commander play, where a card like Worldfire will never show up, being ignored? If Biorhythm were unbanned tomorrow, it would still see zero competitive play. According to EDHREC, Worldfire in its unbanned state is seeing more play than ever, thanks in part to the Doctor Who set. However, it’s still not format defining or common by any stretch of the imagination. It’s simply a massive spell with a potentially game ending effect; Magic rolls out one or two of those at least every quarter nowadays.

The ban announcement mentioned this when talking about Golos in particular:

“There are many problems with the card, but the greatest is that in the low-to-middle tiers where we focus the banlist, Golos is simply a better choice”

Yet, Stasis, Armageddon and Divine Intervention remain unbanned. Are those cards acceptable for the “low to middle tiers”?

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Low Tier Cards That end Games Abruptly

Ghalta, Stampede Tyrant

Here’s a new The Lost Caverns of Ixalan bomb that dumps the creatures into your hand directly into play. It costs only eight mana, one less than Worldfire. There’s also The World Spell from Dominaria United. This lets you dump two non-Saga permanents into play for seven mana if you read ahead, and if you want more value you can start it at one or two. Faster than Worldfire for sure, and easily as game ending.

Bolas’ Citadel is six mana, play your deck, while K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth is four mana play your deck. We can go much further back for a card like Tooth and Nail.

There are many, many examples of cards that are crazy powerful but simply don’t impact enough games to necessitate a ban.

Meanwhile, Thassa’s Oracle is winning games for as low as three mana and can pair with multiple different cards to end the game for vastly less than nine. Why have such concern for, relatively speaking, impossible to cast late game spells?

Creatures can be cheated out significantly easier, reanimated and so on. But big sorceries? Most of the time you simply have to hard cast them, and by the time you can do so, everyone has had time to prepare their defenses, try to go off sooner, or just counter them. Very few Commander tables think “Oh it’s turn seven, why are these massive spells threatening the game state so early?” when there are hundreds of cards that do that starting turn one.

Just look at the EDHrec top 100 list and see that almost nothing costs more than three mana except say overloading a Cyclonic Rift or Eerie Ultimatum. The game is clearly dominated by low cost effects to set you up to win and stop others, not haymakers. So why the unneeded scrutiny on big spells and the lack of policing on under-costed effects?

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When Will This be Banned?

Mana Crypt

I am not in point of fact suggesting that Mana Crypt be banned in Commander. I’m suggesting that a massive number of fast mana cards, tutors and other effects be banned in Commander. Massive. All of this is with the proviso that it’s supposed to be a casual format.

Sure, not everyone agrees with that point of view. I myself play cEDH and cPDH. But, if you look at ban lists for Conquest format, Canadian Highlander, Duel Commander or any of a large number of other variants, they all significantly ban or otherwise restrict absolute piles of cards. These ban lists are not small!

All of these formats share many of the same “problem cards,” yet for ordinary Commander, we have two years of inaction. Many, many players know what cards are too good for the format, so why haven’t things changed?

That’s not only on the ban side of the equation, though, it’s also on the unban side as well. The format has shifted and so many new and powerful cards have been injected into the system that, what was once grossly unfair is merely powerful, replaced by new grossly unfair cards that aren’t banned. So why are some older cards still banned? Great question.

They Might Tell us…Next Year

“The format continues to be in a pretty good place overall, and LCI/LCC don’t appear to contain any cards that challenge or detract from our vision for the format.

Although this will be our final quarterly update for 2023, we’re planning on continuing Sheldon’s annual tradition of a STATE OF THE FORMAT article in early January, prior to the release of Murders at Karlov Manor in February 2024…”

Jim Papage

If you were looking forward to any more RC news this year, you’re out of luck. If the next announcement truly comes in February 2024, that makes it nearly two and a half years of “no changes.” Sure, Commander is in a decent spot. The format is playable. But there are concerns of fairness and fun brought up every day in-person and online that are warranted. Banned cards like Flash and Tinker introduce completely toxic play patterns and need to stay banned forever. So many new cards, though, are extremely close to those same toxic play patterns. Maybe the format would be even healthier and even more fun if those cards were gone.

The passing of EDH Godfather Sheldon Menery has undoubtedly been on the RC’s mind as they look to the future of the format. In his excellent foresight, Sheldon already outlined his plans for 2022 and beyond, establishing a framework for the future. One of the things he touched on was further outlining of why particular cards were banned and needed to stay banned to protect the format. But, so far, we have gotten very little of that and won’t for months.

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Let’s Really Look at Golos Then

Is this what a banned card looks like in 2023? Golos, Tireless Pilgrim was, without a doubt, the best five color commander in 2019 when it was released no question, hands down. Did this card need to be banned? In 2019, sure, it was grossly overplayed and definitely very powerful with no real weaknesses. With the same format philosophy, though, why were more cards not banned afterwards? Let’s go over some of the reasons for the ban.

“Its presence crushes the kind of diversity in commander choice which we want to promote.”

Gee, there are cards that see immense amounts of play, those don’t get banned. There are also commanders that see absurd amounts of play both competitively and casually, those aren’t banned either.

Just as one example, Tymna the Weaver and Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus has a massive 82% representation here. Sure, that’s for cEDH. But taking a look at EDHREC, you can see there are certainly some over represented commanders that have lingered too long.

“We’ve talked to the folks in Studio X and they understand the problems created by generically-powerful five-color commanders that don’t have WUBRG in their mana cost. We don’t expect similar cards to come from them in the future”

Hmm, Morophon, The Boundless, Najeela, the Blade Blossom, Sisay, Weatherlight Captain? Of course they mention Kenrith, the Returned Kind who is a clear step down from Golos, but realistically it’s a half step. Meanwhile, Najeela is only three mana and impacts the board way sooner than Golos on average and both Sisay and Kenrith exchange mana for “Free spells”, pretty much just like Golos.

Two ubiquitous, low mana, five color commanders that don’t have WUBRG in their mana cost that see plenty of cEDH play and win events are perfectly fine, but Golos is a line too far? No further bans in two years? Not necessary, right?

Maybe they are hanging up on the “generically powerful” statement. However it’s a difference with no distinction. Power is power. Whether that’s getting advantage from Warriors or Dragons or artifacts really does not make much of a difference to the outcome of a game. Getting way too much for too little is a problem.

What Happens Next?

There are two options. One is to continue to do nothing. The other is to make changes. It is time to take a wrecking ball to the current Commander ban list and completely revamp it from the ground up.

One innovative solution is the Canadian Highlander format where even Black Lotus is legal to play but with a catch: you can only play a few ultra powerful cards based on a point scale. This makes it so you can have one card like Time Walk but not Demonic Tutor or Sol Ring in the same deck. These restrictions make deck building far more interesting and far less formulaic.

The alternative is simply playing all the best cards that are legal, which is the current order of the day. Decks tend to see homogenization in this case and everyone playing the same, best cards doesn’t lead to better games and a healthier format. Currently, there are way too many cards that are generically good, and they are in so many decks. Even though Wizards makes more new cards every year, only a handful of the best see significant amounts of play. This leads to a relatively stagnant format that has not seen any real changes in years.

Changing this should be of interest to Wizards of the Coast. If the format was less uniform, new cards could become a bigger part of the commander format overall.

2024 is coming, and I wait with hope and anticipation for the change that the Commander format has long needed to unify it into one game rather than two. Time will tell if the RC thinks it’s time for a change or continue to believe in business as usual.

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