This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series The Social Contractor


The banned list in Commander is a perennial source of controversy for it’s community. Given the exponential growth of the format and it’s diverse range of players, along with it’s billing as a ‘casual’ format, this makes sense; the definition of ‘casual’ varies wildly from group to group, and even player to player. When different ideologies on how the format is meant to be or SHOULD be played collide both in-game and in discourse, players with conflicting viewpoints often think that a change to the banned list would make the format more accommodating to their own vision of EDH, regardless of the explicit statement next to this ban list that it is a guide for casual play.

I recognize the importance of a banned list for Commander, even if it is sort of ironic to have one in the first place. Considering the historical context and rapid spread of this format’s popularity, some central regulation is a bonus. It puts everyone on the same footing and, in a way, speaks to the expectations of the format’s creators. It’s widely debated whether the banned list needs to include more ‘antisocial’ cards to cultivate the ‘casual’ culture of the format or remove cards to enable more ‘serious’ or ‘competitive’ play. I contend that these two aren’t mutually exclusive and that BOTH perspectives benefit from a minimal ban list composed of only a narrow range of cards.

The cards that belong on this minimalist list are the Worldgorger Dragons of MtG: otherwise janky cards that are only good at doing one exceptionally powerful combo and have no other real applications. Lion’s Eye Diamond is another card that falls into this category. Uses for LED in anything but a combo in EDH are incredibly limited; it’s one of the most narrow cards out there. Protean Hulk is an unfortunate example of a card that has fair applications, but is so abusable that leaving it available to players is likely to cause more grief than anything else. It’s most common uses, by far, are restricted to narrow combos. Gifts Ungiven is a similar card; for every ‘fair’ use of the card, we have ten others using it as 3U: win the game. These are the kind of cards that belong on the banned list.

You will notice they’re very specific CARDS and not entire archetypes of strategies. As an Eternal multiplayer format, a lot of the format’s appeal is the broad range of available strategies. Snuffing out LED doesn’t kill an archetype, and shouldn’t make anybody feel persecuted. If you have an EDH deck with a Lion’s Eye Diamond, chances are you could remove it without having to scrap the deck. Surgically removing singleton cards that are only used for abusive combos lets the format retain diversity while keeping players happier rather than more upset. This seems ideal to me, and helps keep the format open and ‘casual’–and by that I mean BROADLY casual, rather than tailored to a single vision of ‘casual’ play.

In this context, the banned list is doing a reasonable job. We don’t need any more waves of protest to “ban these hated cards” or “ban Blue” crashing onto the lengthy, trash-littered shores of internet forums. We need more people thinking about why we follow a ban list, what purpose it should work to fulfill, and then consider what kind of cards should be added to or taken from it. I don’t think there’s much to add to it; in fact, I think if anything I would like cards taken off of the list.

My reasoning hinges on what purpose I believe the banned list serves, or should serve ideally. Are we going to treat EDH as a ‘serious’ format, or a ‘casual/social’ one? The current ban list blurs that line. Should cards be banned because they’re ‘too good’, or put one person too far ahead? Well, that question holds no value unless we assess the purpose for an EDH ban list existing in the first place. Do we use it to control antisocial play? Do we use it to balance the format? Can we try to do both?

To maintain Commander’s roots as a social/multiplayer format, the ban list can serve in a supervisory capacity to make sure people ‘play nice’ (to an extent) by ensuring the most obnoxiously antisocial cards are placed on the list. This list means that we have a sort of forcibly imposed social contract. It enables us to play a wide range of cards, but also means the division between the best and worst decks widens; variance between metagames is larger. More play styles are accepted in theory, but, at the same time, when those diverse players interact, some encounters will end poorly.

Alternately, the ban list can strive for format balance (these two philosophies are not mutually exclusive, as I’ll cover later), at which point I think the Rules Committee needs to go back to the drawing board altogether by starting with the Legacy ban list and going from there. In this capacity, the list will make the format stronger in a traditional sense, and more competitive. But it also carries the side effect of turning EDH into a ‘me too’ format. What provides Commander it’s most important differentiation from existing ways to play MtG is the social element that is intended to be part of the game. Without this social element, Commander is still potentially interesting, but it’s also entirely different. Banning strictly for balance demands the Rules Committee accomplishes the unheard of task of producing a strong, format-balancing ETERNAL banlist designed for MULTIPLAYER. This is a ridiculous task, especially of an entity that currently monitors the format with the intent of creating a social, casual game.

I’d say we’re better off trying to make the Banned list support social play–the “kind of games you’ve heard associated with Commander,” as it were. We have many formats that already provide Magic players with the ability to test competitive skills. Commander can still be used for those purposes if you want, but it’s nice to have a banned list that lets the average player use a wide range of cards in less abusive ways, without concern that it’s banned because a minority of super-competitive players have destroyed the format using it. While leaving cards like Sol Ring and Time Stretch in the format can produce soul-crushing, boring games where one player dominates a table, they also let somebody use Sol Ring to deploy Ib Halfheart on turn two.

Try to keep in mind, even as a member of the Casualness Inquisition, allowing these superpowered cards in the game also allows players in other environments to enjoy a different style of play from yourself. Whether you would like to play against these people is irrelevant; as advocates of casual play, you should be exercising social means of controlling your metagame, and playing against opponents you LIKE playing against. But people who pride themselves on being ‘casual’ should be careful not use this nebulous status as a weapon against others with a differing vision of what is acceptable; “agree to disagree” is only a cop-out on the internet, and is a valuable and widely accepted tool in real life. Finding the line between regulation and amicable disagreement is sometimes a complex affair, but simply remembering to respect other’s choices and preferences when talking about playing a casual variant of a fantasy trading card game serves as a solid compass.

Almost all multiplayer games are strictly improved by larger player-bases. Keeping a small banlist encourages a wider variety of styles, attracts more players, and fosters a more diverse range of decks and strategies. Even if they aren’t decks or strategies you necessarily care for, that shouldn’t be a problem as you hold the power to avoid them. The most casual players on earth benefit from hyper-competitive players in a format because they can learn tricks from them, see cards they never would have considered, act as watchdogs for locating the truly antisocial cards, and can even inspire less competitive players to try out new cards.

Now, that said, there is the flip side: unban everything if we expect social regulation to work so well. That is a grand theory; if super-competitive players stick with their own kind and enjoy playing their Upheaval/Academy decks, then let them do it, right? While I personally think this is a fine solution, having the barest of frameworks for those increasingly-frequent occasions where strangers meet and play Commander is a benefit that even the Spikiest of Spikes should approve of.

After all, if your goal is to win the game, play the best cards, and challenge yourself against skilled opponents, then that’s cheapened–I would argue, lost entirely–when you lose or win strictly on the strength of cards and not play. We all know the feeling. This is a nexus where balance-oriented and social-engineering banlists converge. The worst cards for a format are often not only overpowered and broken to play against from an in-game sense, but are so obnoxious that they also make the game unpleasant socially even for the most competitive player who is searching for a test of skill. Social players should be adverse to these cards because they aren’t fun, and their only interesting applications are narrow and typically antisocial. Strong players support effective ban lists that remove true degeneracy from a format, because this leads to more technically satisfying, skill-oriented games. Cards in the Worldgorger Dragon category meet these criteria for both types of player. Casual players should generally avoid them because they promote ‘unfun’ play. Truly competitive players should NOT be interested in them. They reduce the level of your game instead of providing you with a challenging experience in the deckbuilding and gameplay elements of Commander.

So what is the hallmark of cards that are both antisocial and overpowered? That’s a great question, and really, could be another article. But in painfully brief and one-dimensional terms, I think some cards have proven themselves clearly to add nothing constructive to games, competitively or socially. These are again commonly the cards I mentioned as belonging to the ‘Worldgorger Dragon’ category. Cards such as Sway of the Stars and Biorhythm should not interest either side of the debate on Commander as a casual/competitive format for any real length of time. A competitive player will not find the card creates skill-testing games and a social player will only be irritated by their unsatisfying impact on games. These cards are few and far between.

Overall, the banned list right now is functional. Could it be better? I think so. The last thing that would improve it is adding a swath of cards to it before it’s clarified why we, as a player base, follow a banned list in the first place. I support Commander being a social, casual format. Half of keeping a format social is that you have to accept a measure of responsibility for what sees play in your local environment; the other half is respecting the wishes of how people with differing perspectives want to play their ‘casual’ Magic.

To support this vision, the most offensive cards should be on a banned list not because of players ‘abusing’ them for power level purposes, but because they would be played primarily as a means of griefing. Whether this means the competitive player is denied a solid, skill-testing game or the casual player is refused a long, epic battle of obscure cards is irrelevant, as both players want the same thing at the end of the day: a good game. We have to keep in mind the definition of ‘good’ is flexible and avoid impinging on how others choose to play a ‘casual’ format.  Coincidentally, the Worldgorger Dragon group of cards are ones reasonable members of all camps are likely to agree they do not want to play, leaving only one faction out in the cold: griefers. Banning only a narrow range of cards both groups find offensive is the only sensible solution to me, not only for the enjoyment of all parties–who deserve equal consideration–but the prospective health of the format we love.

Note: I wrote this about a week ago, but since then my attitude has changed significantly. I’ve adapted a more relaxed attitude towards the issue. It’’s easier for me to simply accept the official banned list isn’t my thing, probably never will be, and move on. I understand this has ramifications some consider enormous, but to me, they’re at worst minor inconveniences. Asking other players if having Kokusho or Staff of Domination in my deck is cool probably won’t strike me with a kidney stone; playing a deck that meets the standard list is also very easy for me as I have a collection of more than ten playable EDH decks. This way I can enjoy playing cards I want to play, and if another player has a problem with them, I can easily accommodate them with no drama. I actively encourage others to do the same.

Series Navigation<< Social Contractor 01 – The $30 Wrexial ChallengeThe Social Contractor 03 – The Worst Thing About Commander >>