This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series True Conviction

By Matt

I’m not about to preach to you about how Kukusho should be unbanned, or how Sway of the Stars is no more insulting than Time Stretch (even though both of these things are granted).  And frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn that a whole whopping 43 cards out of 10,698 cards are banned, which is just 0.40% of all the cards available to you in Magic.  In other words, I’m not at all swayed by the slippery slope alarmists who think that an unreasonably huge ban list is coming and will inevitably destroy this or any format. So let’s move on.

What I’m preaching about today is hypocrisy and mixed messages.  I’m talking about a ban list that aims to keep Commander flavorful and “in-spirit” while recklessly encouraging degenerate deck building to both newbies and veterans alike.  I’m talking about the most disputed topic in all of Commander: the terribly inadequate ban list given to us by the Rules Committee.

Yes, yes, before I go on, I acknowledge that the RC themselves have attempted to shirk their responsibility by going on record to encourage local groups to adapt their own ban list, but that doesn’t change the fact that players are still going to construct decks based around this universally accepted standard.  Given the migrant nature of Magic and especially considering the now ubiquitous nature of Commander, players have to use a common reference point that they can depend on from group to group. Like it or not, RC: you’re responsible for making this optimal universal ban list.

The main problem with the mixed message of the current ban list is one that I’ve hinted at before: players who build optimal decks are seemingly welcome to the format but are then met with opposition when the currently prevailing Casual Inquisition crucifies the strong players for bringing “degenerate” decks to a “casual” game.

But it’s awfully difficult to make the case for Commander as a casual game when fast mana, tier 1 tutors, and the majority of Magic’s most devastating combo pieces are all legal to play under the RC’s ban list.

So, unsurprisingly, a large number of new players excitedly dig out their otherwise banned pieces of cardboard and rejoice in their new-found avenue for winning optimally, in ways that would make Vintage tournament players’ naughty bits taut.  Sometimes these players — who do comprise a significant portion of the player base — delight in their 3v1 challenge, but often they long for high-level duel games.

But do you know what happens in duel Commander?  Of course you do.  Whether you’ve sat down with the intent of dueling or not, you’ve surely seen a multiplayer game whittled down to the two hardiest players. And now, finally unfettered by counter magic from three sources, one player goes for the silver bullet with the Demonic Tutor he’s been gripping all game, and the game ends in some sort of combo, likely infinite. When this inevitable end comes, the crowd moans, and not in a sexy way.

Now either NYC has the lamest meta in the entire world, or this is indication of a bigger problem at large.

Think back a moment.  Did the prevailing players out-tempo everyone else because they were fortunate enough to have fast mana in their opening hand?  Let me rephrase: did the prevailing players partial mulligan (again, an RC-encouraged rule of Commander) 6+ cards until they had Sol Ring, Mana Crypt, and/or Mana Vault in hand?  Did they sit back and wait for their opportunities to play Tier 1 tutors?  Did they win, despite having done little or nothing to interact with the rest of the game?

If you answered yes to one or more of these, you’ve probably seen games play out like this so many times that you’ve just taken these oddly-contradictory-to-the-spirit-of-the-format facts of Commander for granted.  Maybe you’ve even witnessed the degeneracy that the above-mentioned cards had on sanctioned eternal formats like Legacy but believe earnestly that Commander is a different enough format that it requires a very different ban list.  Maybe, when you first began playing Commander, it didn’t occur to you that Commander is absolutely in the same category as Legacy and Vintage and that over-centralizing cards are problematic no matter what banner they hide behind. And maybe, like me, you’re starting to wise up.

I’ve never played competitive Legacy and I’ve only been playing Magic since the Time Spiral block, yet I recognize what these otherwise banned cards do to an Eternal format.  I recognize that the majority of the cards that are banned in Legacy but aren’t banned in Commander are practically auto-includes and worth building around (instead of building around your General as you’re meant to do).  Ban-Ki Moon, an RC member, says that the worst thing that could happen to Commander is official sanctioning and inevitable net-decking from tournament results.  I disagree; the worst thing that could happen to Commander is already happening: casual players are colliding with competitive-in-denial players who are filling their every deck with overpowered auto-includes, the fault of a ridiculously unsuitable ban list.

That said, I’d hate to be predictable about this ban list topic and state the obvious, that the big trouble with the ban list is that you’re unquestionably at a disadvantage in Commander if your General doesn’t have Blue or Black in its color identity; being able to play Mana Drain and Vampiric Tutor are reasons enough to forget that there are three other colors in Magic.  In fact, there’s a third color that benefits from this sub-optimal ban list as well: Green.  When it comes down to the end game, the player who built around cards like Survival of the Fittest, Hermit Druid, and Oath of Druids will win, most likely regardless of their choice of General.  AKA the worst thing that could happen to Commander: every goddamn deck playing out the same way, abusing cards in Magic that have long-since proven problematic, while ignoring the use of the General altogether.

Quickly: rank the colors in Magic from best to worst in Commander!

Anyone who’s played for any substantial length of time and who has an intimate knowledge of the meta will answer Blue, Black, Green, White, and then scratch their heads for a minute and eventually remember that Red is also a Magic color.

To be blunt about it, Blue’s huge and uncontested advantage in Commander is having fast mana options available to them.  Black’s advantage is being able to say “lol what Singleton restriction?” by playing broken tier 1 tutors.  Green’s advantage is in cards that can be built around that have caused major degeneracy in Legacy.  White and Red mix together to make Pink.  Are you seeing my point here?  There’s a seriously lopsided representation of colors in Commander, and for obvious reasons.  With broken cards not on the ban list, Commanders become secondary and we have something more akin to a cutthroat 100-card Vintage, which is not at all what the RC was aiming for.

Tantarus of MTG Salvation conducted an interesting topic several months back, allowing players to ban 5 cards with no justification needed, essentially giving them RC powers.  I tallied the results several days into the informal poll, and the results were unsurprising. At the very least, we can agree that the majority of players intuit — either through tired ubiquity or from witnessing all the degeneracy that ensues — that fast mana is a problem. For reference, here were the top 20 player bans (note that 25% of these votes are for Sol Ring and Mana Crypt):

20. Armageddon
19. Bribery
18. Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
17. Hermit Druid
16. Mana Vault
15. Necropotence
14. Shahrazad
13. Iona, Shield of Emeria
12. Consecrated Sphinx
11. Power Artifact
10. Mind Over Matter
9. Primeval Titan
8. Sensei’s Divining Top
7. Time Stretch
6. Mindslaver
5. Sundering Titan
4. Magister Sphinx
3. Sorin Markov
2. Sol Ring
1. Mana Crypt

In fact, fast mana may be the source of problems in developed metas.  Players are far less united on their view of tier 1 tutors, as they insist that they should be available to stop degenerate early game plays that are, no doubt, enabled by fast mana (just take a look at half of the posts in the “Crazy Plays” thread at Salvation for proof of this).  And although you won’t hear much of an outcry from the general Commander community about the aforementioned problematic green cards, they have proven absolutely detrimental to the well-being of certain duel Commander circles, where all of the top decks are built around banned Legacy cards.

And now we get to the real issue: not only is the current RC-sanctioned ban list unsuitable for normal Commander (given that it brings Timmies and Spikes crashing bitterly into each other due to mixed messages from the RC), but the ban list is unsuitable for ALL environments, multiplayer and duels alike. It’s both irresponsible and disrespectful, effectively saying “to hell with everything the DCI says about eternal cards!” and “to hell with old Highlander, too!”  In trying to be unique, the list is a disaster that only works in some kind of alternate universe run by Timmies who have long since massacred all other player types.

Well, we don’t live in that universe.  There are Spikes and Johnnies in this universe, and there are mixtures therein.  But currently, when venues host tournaments of either the multiplayer or duel persuasion, the format is constantly made un-enjoyable for new and old players alike as their mentalities clash.

The simple solution, you might think, would be to stop making Commander competitive.  Well, it’s a bit late for that!  The 2/3 of player types who aren’t Timmies also love Commander for their own reasons, and there will always be venues for them to flex their deckbuilding muscles.  Unfortunately, no one can agree on how in the hell that environment should conduct its business.  Hence the whole problem.

I suggest that the RC does one of two things to solve the problems of A) dissimilar players ruining each other’s games, B) a single ban list that encourages degeneracy and C) tourney organizers having to work with rules and a ban list that are an unmitigated catastrophe for high-level play.  The first solution is to keep using the current ban list but add the VERY FEW cards that are also on the Legacy ban list.  The second solution is to make two separate ban lists, one for multiplayer and one for duels, which means that the RC needs to stop ignoring all of the other types of players who enjoy Commander and work with the community to give high-level players the best format that they can give us.

Adding the difference in cards from the Legacy ban list only puts 34 more cards onto the ban list, which bumps up the % of off-limit cards to .72%, an entirely acceptable amount in this writer’s opinion, especially after you understand what these cards do to a developed meta.  The following cards would be added:

  • Bazaar of Baghdad
  • Black Vise
  • Demonic Consultation
  • Demonic Tutor
  • Earthcraft
  • Flash
  • Frantic Search
  • Goblin Recruiter
  • Gush
  • Hermit Druid
  • Imperial Seal
  • Land Tax
  • Library of Alexandria
  • Mana Crypt
  • Mana Drain
  • Mana Vault
  • Memory Jar
  • Mind Twist
  • Mind’s Desire
  • Mishra’s Workshop
  • Mystical Tutor
  • Necropotence
  • Oath of Druids
  • Shahrazad
  • Skullclamp
  • Sol Ring
  • Strip Mine
  • Survival of the Fittest
  • Timetwister
  • Vampiric Tutor
  • Wheel of Fortune
  • Windfall
  • Worldgorger Dragon
  • Yawgmoth’s Will

For reference’s sake, here are the cards that are banned in Commander but not banned in Legacy:

  • Biorhythm
  • Coalition Victory
  • Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
  • Gifts Ungiven
  • Kokusho, the Evening Star
  • Karakas
  • Limited Resources
  • Lion’s Eye Diamond
  • Metalworker
  • Painter’s Servant
  • Panoptic Mirror
  • Protean Hulk
  • Recurring Nightmare
  • Staff of Domination
  • Sway of the Stars
  • Upheaval

It’s been suggested that certain cards like Staff of Domination and Kukusho, the Evening Star have remained on the ban list because one member of the RC (who I’m trying really hard not to name) had a traumatic experience with them years ago.  I’ve traumatized NYC with Dovescape, but that doesn’t mean it’s ban-worthy, or that, given the chance, anyone who’s played against it would add it to a universal ban list.

Likewise, banning one lone and hardly ubiquitous combo piece is inconsistent when Power Artifact, Mind Over Matter, Curiosity, Pestermite, Earthcraft, Guilty Conscience, Umbral Mantle, Knowledge Pool, Helm of Obedience, and others are acceptable. And, lo, what’s this?  Worldgorger Dragon has been recently unbanned, despite anyone ever using it as part of a two card infinite combo, arguably like Staff of Domination?  Wait, wait — I promised myself I wouldn’t do this and just look at the bigger picture, but my God do I have nothing good to say about the ban list or the inconsistent thought processes that went into most of the banning and unbanning decisions.

I think I speak for most players when I say that I don’t want to take on a management role for my friends in trying to fix an obviously inadequate ban list, especially considering the NYC meta is fairly Spikey.  In fact, I made an effort for nearly a month to encourage my playgroup to look at the findings of the more highly developed meta, MTG Salvation, and consider some new bans based on their experiences.  This was both confusing for new players and outright rejected by everyone else, who would rather have placed their faith in the founders of Commander, whom they viewed as the authority.  The dissent was even more pronounced in those who played in multiple groups and didn’t want to have to edit their decks between Magic nights.

This same experience was mirrored in developing a 1v1 tournament scene at a local store, which ended up being a huge flop as no two people could look at the ban list or any suggested ban list objectively and come to any sort of agreement.  And yet, decisions were made and lists presented, but attending tournament-goers couldn’t keep up and were confused about why the multiplayer list on the official website wasn’t being used.  The lack of a central authority acknowledging high-level play and thus acknowledging that their ban list is not suitable for most developed groups resulted in the inevitable downfall of duel Commander in NYC. This refusal by the RC to acknowledge high-level play is resulting in increasingly skeptical players who are growing tired of doubtlessly lopsided group games that are ruined by cards that ought to be banned.

It may not show when you consider the tone of this article series, but I absolutely love Commander.  Despite my harping on all its flaws, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.  I’ve never obsessed over a hobby more than this one, and I’ve owned nearly every Blizzard game.  But for all its greatness, Commander is a very broken format with a terrible ban list, dubious rules decisions, and a highly exclusive attitude perpetuated by irresponsible leaders.  If I’m going to continue this long-term relationship with Commander, then I expect the format to grow. I expect changes, or else this format will suffer the fates of Highlander and 5-Color before it.

At any rate, if Sheldon Menery gets re-elected, I’m moving to Canada.


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