This entry is part 4 of 23 in the series Savor That Commander Flavor

Hello true flavor followers! As Newbie Week draws to a close, I can’t help but think about one of the fundamental rules of commander that most new players have questions about: color identity.

Yup, we’re going to commander 101. As such, I’m mostly going to be addressing newbies in today’s feature, but the vets might want to follow along anyway.

“What makes color identity? Why can’t I use Debtor’s Knell in my Jenara deck? Why is the rule there?”

It’s a topic that’s been discussed to death on forums all over the internet, and it’s certainly not going to stop anytime soon. Players have constantly tried to figure out ways to get the issue of color identity resolved beyond their in-house rules, and none of them have succeeded. There’s a good reason for that.

Right now, the rule concerning color identity is as follows:

“A card’s color identity is its color plus the color of any mana symbols in the card’s rules text. A card’s color identity is established before the game begins, and cannot be changed by game effects. The Commander’s color identity restricts what cards may appear in the deck.”

A deck may not generate mana outside its colors. If an effect would generate mana of an illegal color, it generates colorless mana instead.”

This means cards like Noble Hierarch can’t be used in your Omnath, Locus of Mana deck, since Noble’s rule text shows a W mana symbol as well as a U mana symbol.  It also means that while Birds of Paradise is allowed in this same mono-green deck, it can’t provide anything other than G or colorless, turning into a flying Llanowar Elves.

This is a simple enough rule to follow. If you ever need to know if you can play a card, just look which mana symbols can be found on it and compare them with what’s on your general’s card. It keeps people from shoving in every powerful creature into their deck just to use reanimator or Sneak Attack effects.

But then what about cards like Obelisk of Alara? Why is this card exclusive to five colored decks? Can’t we just keep the “you can only produce colored mana if they match your general’s identity” rule and let it be so you can only active two or three of the card’s abilities?

Rules like this are in there for simplicity’s sake, but they can also be explained if we take a look at the flavor that commander’s trying to accomplish.

I’ve said before that when you find the general you want to lead your army; you make a contract with them that’s mutually beneficial. But part of that contract means adhering to your general’s abilities as well as their personality.

Even though it only requires one particular kind of mana to activate any of its abilities, the obelisk can’t be handled by someone who doesn’t have expertise in what the card is fully capable of.

Yes, I can use an iPhone just to call or text someone since that’s all I know how to use it for, but if I’m not careful I could end up posting unwanted photos online without meaning to. Once it’s on the internet, it can NEVER be deleted.

Similarly, when you’re dealing with magic you need to know that whoever you have in charge is capable of safely handling the power you give them. Could you imagine what would happen if Kresh the Bloodbraided tried to use a Courier’s Capsule? He’d probably break it while trying to get the damn thing to work.

But what about the hybrid cards? According to the rules, a card is represented by all colors you could use to pay its mana cost. But they seem like they should be a special case; an exception to the rule.

Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic R&D and known to the magic community as “Maro”, has already gone on the record to say that the cards were designed to be one color OR the other. Yet for all intents and purposes, we treat them as both colors. Not just in commander, but in all formats.

According to Maro, the nature of the hybrid cards were to represent the “cross-sections of philosophy” between the colors involved. For example, Mirrorweave can be seen as white and blue’s philosophy of having a certain amount of uniformity. This is an effect that fits into both color’s philosophy, ergo, the card could be paid for with either one.

However, it’s for this very reason that I feel the hybrids DON’T fit well with off-color commanders. After you’ve studied the color wheel for a while, you start to understand the interrelationships that connect the colors themselves.

Yes, white and blue both have a need for structure, but they want it for different reasons with different goals in mind. So while white wants to use Mirrorweave to give everyone a level playing field and make things fair, blue wants to use it because the target creature represents the best possibility for success.

With that in mind, while Grand Arbiter Augustin IV would probably make great use of Mirror Weave, does that sound like something the impatient, self-serving, and power hungry Kaalia of the Vast would want to do?

Nope. Kaalia’s on a mission to destroy. She doesn’t want to even the playing field. She wants to destroy the field entirely, sending in waves of enormous beings to fulfill her personal vendetta against everyone else.

While I’m sure Azami, Lady of Scrolls can appreciate the sentiment behind white’s involvement in our example card, she’s doesn’t share that cross-section of philosophy. In this case, the community that white has doesn’t interest her as much as the knowledge that she could be obtaining through careful study and planning. This is why she’s a mono-blue card to begin with.

Last week I finished a two-part article about what commanders can say about their players. If you’re playing a certain color set, then you obviously have some sort of a philosophical connection to those colors, while having personal disagreements with what the other colors believe in.

For the longest time, I hated blue. I mean, I absolutely loathed it. I refused to have anything to do with that color. What was the big idea behind countering everything? Why wouldn’t the blue player just let me have fun? Who was he to decide what was acceptable and what wasn’t? To me, blue was just the color of the wet blanket player.

I’m a very Boros planeswalker. I want to settle things with action and combat, not through thought and consideration. So why on earth would I have anything to do with the hated color? Yes, I could play white spells, but I used the white spells that leaned towards what red wants to do, and visa versa. If there was a part of white that did what blue wanted to do too, you could count me out of it.

My opinion of blue has changed since then, but it’s still a classic example of why certain generals refuse to use these “either/or” cards, and treat them with the same disdain they’d treat a spell that was outside of their colors normally.

But with all of my talk about the flavor behind the rule, it’s still more or less a way to simplify the game.

It’s relatively difficult to come up with a “one-size fits all” rule that covers everything from what’s available now to what could possibly come out in the future. When the hybrid cards were created, they were done so with the intent for standard and limited play, not Commander. By then the rules had already been in place.

As I’ve heard it, the Rules Committee for the EDH community has taken the stance that exceptions to the rules are bad for the game overall, and that simplicity for its own sake is needed to keep the game fun for everyone. When certain exceptions are made, it opens a can of headaches for newer players who can’t make heads or tails of what is or isn’t playable anymore.

Color identity is a concept that’s always been a part of Commander. It restricts how we can build our decks and that restriction can encourage creative deck building, rather than having all of us stuff Griselbrand into our deck to abuse in one fashion or another.

A lot of the rules are like this, which is almost unheard of for a “casual” format; and I love every bit of it. So much of the game’s flavor doesn’t have an outright explanation as to why things are the way they are, and it’s up to the players to figure out what’s what. This includes not just the rules, but the format exclusive cards that have been released, and will be released in the future.

As always, if you have comments, questions, ideas, or just feel like striking up a conversation, feel free to leave a comment below in the comments section; or email me at wiehernandez(at)gmail(dot)com.

Follow me through the multiverse next week, as I start chasing a certain variant due for release soon.

Until then, go forth newbies and explore the world of possibilities with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Series Navigation<< Savor That Commander Flavor 03 – What’s in a General? Part 3Savor That Commander Flavor 05 – Catch Me If You Can >>