Hello everybody. A few weeks ago, WotC posted the updated Banned & Restricted (B&R) list for Standard and Modern and the key bans in those formats really shook up the meta game. In a short couple of weeks from now the banlist shall be updated again, and although many debate whether there will be continuing bans, the conversation around banlists is an interesting one. Today I thought I’d bring that topic to Elder Dragon Recycling and discuss the intent of bans, their effectiveness and what the current banlist is and how it could be changed.
This will be an introductory session to players newer to the format or those who simply want a reminder on the topic of banlists at hand, so if you don’t want to hear some rehashing feel free to drop to the next paragraph. Banned cards are cards that are not legal to play in your deck, whether mainboard or sideboard. Normally this is enforceable at tournament levels and in formats played there, but Commander is almost exclusively a social and more casual game. Why have a banlist at all? The Rules Committee (RC) has criteria, which I will lay out later, for what gets banned but the general rule is to promote the social and casual aspects of the format. To this end, the RC banlist is not the be-all-end-all like it would be for Standard or Modern. Instead, this is the suggested banlist to start off with and the RC encourages players to make their own changes and play with rules and cards their playgroups are comfortable with. But in the end this banlist is adhered to by many people, if only for its simplicity and the fact that it makes it easier to play with new people and not have conflicting decklists.
The RC has laid out some basic criteria for when they consider banning cards. The following link leads to a list of those criteria but I will also be going over them in short here: http://forum.mtgcommander.net/EDH_Forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=12254.
- Interacts Poorly With the Structure of Commander.
- Creates Undesirable Game States.
- Problematic Casual Omnipresence.
- Produces Too Much Mana Too Quickly.
- Creates a Perceived High Barrier to Entry.
Let’s discuss them quickly. Rule 1 largely refers to cards that go TOO big or don’t operate within the “spirit of the format.” A perfect example is the card Worldfire which is basically antithetical to the structure of Commander. Rule 2 is simply that generally equal decks can become massively imbalanced in one direction by the use of specific cards. Trade Secrets is a tool that might let an otherwise average deck draw massive quantities of cards out of nowhere and bury their opponents in card advantage. Rule 3 is a fancy way of stating the card sees too much play. Prophet of Kruphix was, for its’ time, the most played creature in UGX decks, regardless of strategy, power level or budget and was simply everywhere in the format. Rule 4 is referring cards like Channel or Fastbond that can accelerate players ahead very rapidly, dropping creatures like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn far sooner than most might consider fair. Rule 5 is mostly for the Power 9 (the Power 9 are the 5 Moxen, Time Walk, Timetwister, Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall, all of which are banned with the exception of Timetwister) and cards like Library of Alexandria that are considered simply too expensive for the vast majority of players and so they are banned in the hopes of keeping the desire for the cards out of the format in the first place.
This is not to say that I or many players agree with their reasoning or the mentioned cards, but there is a clear method to their decisions. The one rule I take umbrage with though is Rule 4. I can understand wanting to keep acceleration from getting out of hand but stating that making too much mana too quickly is a problem in a format that allows Sol Ring, Mana Crypt and Mana Vault seems a bit contradictory. I’m not arguing to ban these cards but if you’re going to ban cards that make too much mana too early then these are also prime contenders for that reason alone. One of the main reasons these cards don’t get banned however is likely the inertia behind them. These are cards that see play almost exclusively in Commander (and obviously Vintage) because they don’t belong anywhere else. It also doesn’t help that Sol Ring itself has been printed in every Commander precon deck released by WotC to date, and suddenly having banned cards in most of your precon products seems like a bad idea. The RC is independent of Wizards but WotC does maintain some presence on the committee and there is a lot of communication between the two bodies.
This is a lot harder to quantify when the goal of a ban isn’t to improve competitive play and measure deckspread with data to back up conclusions. But Commander is particularly healthy at the moment and, unlike some other formats, usually us quite healthy. When EDH becomes problematic, it usually readjusts post-ban and stays that way until new cards come out. I argue that banlists for EDH do their job properly when curated properly and that they serve the format as a whole rather decently.
The Banlist As It Sits
Now I want to go through the current banlist and discuss the reasons behind them and whether or not they could be taken off of the list. Afterwards I’m going to discuss some cards that the community has constantly debated adding to the banlist, regardless of the fruition of these ideals.
Ancestral Recall is infamous for the sheer level of card advantage you get for a single blue mana. This card is on the list for violation of Rule 2 and largely Rule 5, running at its cheapest in the realm of $1500. Even gold-bordered reprint copies, which are not legal in formal tournaments but are legal in EDH (varies per playgroup) are around $100 dollars. I don’t believe this card should be taken off the list. Every blue deck would be running this and burying other players in cards. Sure once is bad enough, but most decks playing this would be able to get it back to cast at least once more. Stay Banned
Balance is ironically one of the least balanced cards ever printed in the game of Magic. Newer players may notice that it makes each player equal in count but it’s easy to break that balance with quality. If each player gets left with their best creature and yours is a Griselbrand while Timmy and Jessica each just have something like a Sun Titan, you’re going to be showing that imbalance very quickly. Not to mention that by playing this card you will be far more prepared for it and your opponents will be over-committing to the board. Whether this is by saving resources in hand or preparing ways to recur them through reanimation effects or simple graveyard shuffling, you’ll be losing far less than every other player in the game. Stay Banned
Biorhythm is kind of strange. Shaman of Forgotten Ways has Biorhythm as an ability but it’s obviously weaker since it costs more, needs criteria and for you to have the Shaman able to tap. The power to Biorhythm lies in it lying in hand waiting to nuke an opponent or all of them, seeing as green rarely has this kind of reach outside creatures. This one is questionable at best but I think it’s safer on the banlist than not. Stay Banned
Black Lotus If Rule 5 were not a thing, this card might very well not be banned. Sure it’s one of the most powerful cards in the game, if not the most powerful but outside of Competitive EDH lists it’s very hard to take advantage of. Late game topdecks are worse than Sol Ring since the mana isn’t permanent and even early it’s hard to truly break more than Mana Crypt and Sol Ring already do. It’s absurdly powerful turn 1 but after that loses most of its potency in a big mana, big card, singleton format. Questionable
Braids, Cabal Minion Braids is the first card I do not believe belongs on this list. She is a almost strictly worse Smokestack with a coloured cost and as a creature she is easy to kill. She does not tick up the way Smokestack does and is a little weaker since Smokestack can hit enchantments and planeswalkers. Token decks will never be impacted by her either, whereas with enough time and effort even Smokestack can slow down Rhys the Redeemed enough to be a valid play. All of these reasons are why Braids needs to be freed. Unban ASAP
Coalition Victory This is one of the first cards the RC decided to keep out of the format. Straightup winning the game is always a powerful effect and this one is pretty straightforward to achieve in a five colour deck. I believe this card is banned not necessarily for power level, since every other “You win the game” card is deemed fair for EDH, but rather because it would violate rule 2 and 3. If Victory were legal every five colour deck would be pressured to run it and would often lead to people racing to find and protect or kill this card every single game. I don’t care if it’s banned or not but I can understand the reasoning behind keeping it out. Questionable
Channel Possibly the epitome of broken fast mana, old time players discovered a combo with Channel + Fireball that could lead to killing the opponent as early as turn 1 if they could just deal a single point of damage beforehand. Channel makes even more mana in EDH since we start out with 40 life and many of the formats best cards are colourless, most mana rocks are colourless and there are countless X-cost spells that could be accelerated far larger with the use of life over mana. Too good for EDH. Stay Banned
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is the most powerful creature ever printed. She can’t be targeted by removal, she flies and tramples and has annihilator 6. If you cheat her out she’s impossible to answer and hits your opponents resources along with their life. If you ever cast her, first of all, congratulations. Secondly she can’t be countered and gives you an extra turn. Which you will likely use to screw over someone who’s been egging you on all game. There are a few arguments to be made that she has a few answers in her absurd cost and the omnipresence of Wrath of God but even these pale to the power of a single Emrakul hitting the board. Stay Banned
Erayo, Soratami Ascendant Erayo is mostly on this list to prevent him from being your Commander. This makes sense when you consider his flipped form is a hard to remove enchantment that counters one spell per turn, minimum. For free. Erayo is fine but seeing him as a commander is a terrifying idea. Stay Banned (As Commander)
Fastbond Necropotence. Channel. Yawgmoth’s Bargain. Paying 1 life in exchange for something is honestly such a stupidly low cost that it might as well not even have one. Add in our double lifetotals and this becomes an absurd engine for chugging through decks, especially with ways to play lands off your library like with Oracle of Mul Daya. Stay Banned
Gifts Ungiven Gifts is an unassuming card that can assemble two card combos or easy reanimations for low cost. However, with the abundance of tutors in the format this card seems less and less unfair as time goes on and simply another tool to play with. Unban
Griselbrand Remember what we said about life for resources? Imagine if Yawgmoth’s Bargain could also get you your life back while also beating your opponent to death. Yea, Griselbrand is better than that. It’s possibly safe enough to unban but I wouldn’t count on it and I don’t think anyone’s missing it staying on here. Stay Banned
Karakas This is the best card on the list in my opinion. It’s stupidly expensive, which would discourage the average player from acquiring the card, and right up front it discourages anyone from playing their commander, which is what this format is all about. Stay Banned
Library of Alexandria This card is powerful, but not as much when you can’t activate it. One extra card won’t break the game in EDH the way it might in Legacy. Library is solely here for it’s cost and not for anything else. Unban
Limited Resources You might think “Armageddon is legal, why not this?” It’s true that the land destruction effect isn’t exactly fantastic. But by being one of the few cards in the game that prevents opponents from playing lands, this card screams unfair and imbalanced game states, as well as making everyone miserable. Stay Banned
Mox Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald Jet and Pearl – Mox Sapphire and friends are very expensive and probably more powerful than lands. Which is hard to quantify but they accelerate very quickly and interact nicely with artifact decks. Power level varies based on colour but even the weakest is stronger than it probably should be. Stay Banned
Painter’s Servant This card is only on here because of Iona, Shield of Emeria. The combo with Grindstone is weak. Grindstone does nothing on its own and plenty of other two card combos are more deadly to more players. Iona being in the format though makes it much harder for this to be legal, and even without Iona there are other cards that push this effect further than usual. I don’t know that it needs to be banned but I’m uncertain if it is safe to unban. Questionable
Primeval Titan When this card came out everyone was excited. Casual players, tournament players, Legacy players. This card was powerful and it showed. Two extra lands helped ensure that if you cheated it out you could likely cast the next one for its real cost and it gave you even more if it ever attacked. Not to mention it gets you any lands and is a 6/6 with trample to boot. Some might argue that EDH is the format for ridiculous land grabs but this seems to be a bit much. Stay Banned
Prophet of Kruphix I love this card. I played with Prophet for as long as it was legal and I still wish it was legal. But it shouldn’t be legal. It gives too much advantage and ensures you never have a ‘shields down’ moment in a game where your opponents can answer you. All you need are some counterspells and card draw and you will be taking your turn every turn. I miss it but most don’t. Stay Banned
Protean Hulk Normally tutors are considered fine in Commander. But tutors that put those cards right on the battlefield are pretty absurd. Especially when you can recur those tutors and use them repeatedly. Hulk does that and more. It’s a famous card from the Flash Hulk combo deck in older formats that could win as early as your opponents 1st turn when you haven’t even gone yet. It’s too powerful and easily assembles multiple combo pieces or sheer value for minimal cost. Stay Banned
Recurring Nightmare Reanimating big scary threats for cheap is a mainstay of powerful deckbuilding. Being able to do that over and over with one card is where it starts to get unfair. I played with this card in a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant deck to test it out and it was easily the most powerful card in the deck. Sacking a token to reanimate a Grave Titan then recasting it and saccing another token to get back Gray Merchant of Asphodel and repeating this process until victory was a real lesson in why the card is on this list. Stay Banned
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary As a Commander Rofellos is obviously strong. Doubling your mana from turn 3 onward, and it being coloured and abusable makes ramp even easier than it already is. Not to mention his low mana cost. In the 99 he is still too strong, as the usual downside of late game mana dorks is mitigated by his ability to tap for possibly dozens of mana all on his own. Stay Banned
Sway of the Stars This is a bad and overcosted Timetwister. But setting your opponents and yourself to 7 life seems to go against the spirit of the format. I personally don’t mind this card but I don’t really think it’s a great injustice to be on the list. Questionable
Sundering Titan Destroying lands feels bad but is rarely grounds for banning in this format. It’s one of the few answers to heavy ramp players and problematic lands like Cabal Coffers. Where it gets out of hand is when it becomes abusable. Titan hits one land of each basic land typ, meaning in most games you can lose only one or sometimes no land, while your opponents lose several. And the five colour players always cry. That’s too saucy for me. Then it does it again. Not when it dies but when it leaves. This means you can’t even exile it to avoid the effect, and the Titan will still get one last “screw you” in before it goes. Stay Banned
Sylvan Primordial One of the first cards Wizards released in a Standard set that was designed for Commander, it eventually proved problematic and was axed. It generated lands on a level not dissimilar to Primeval Titan before it but was also a removal spell, hitting everything but your opponents creatures. It was more than a 2 for 1, it was something like a 7 for 1 in a 4 player game. Which pushes it over the edge in terms of fairness. Stay Banned
Time Walk This is easily the most powerful of the extra turn cards in the game since it’s so cheap. But extra turns are really meaningless if they aren’t infinite or if you’re not winning the game. There’s something to be said for its efficiency but there’s also something to be said for it’s most abusable interaction with Panoptic Mirror being banned that it might not be unfair. Rule 5 is the driving factor in this one. Questionable
Time Vault The most abuseable Time Walk variant, it goes infinite with something as simple as Voltaic Key. A ridiculous combo piece, it goes with so many cards that untap artifacts and there are so many of them. Key can Stay Banned
Tinker As we discovered with Protean Hulk the line to draw with tutors are when they put the card directly onto the battlefield. Whether it’s turn 1 Blightsteel Colossus, Darksteel Forge or Mycosynth Lattice this is a card that is safely locked away. Stay Banned
Tolarian Academy Taps for no mana on its own but in a format with tons of mana rocks, and decks that are almost exclusively artifacts, Academy generates far more mana than almost any other land and is easily abuseable with untap abilities. Stay Banned
Trade Secrets Have you ever played a game where two players had out Consecrated Sphinx and they both just decided to draw as many cards as they felt like? This is that. I don’t think this card is unfair but it also doesn’t exactly play truly fair either. Questionable but Stay Banned
Upheaval Upheaval seems like it does nothing. It seems like it just restarts the game. But it does more than that. Float a bunch of mana, play lots of cheap rocks or dorks and you can return your boardstate to what it was before and be further ahead than anyone else when the turn comes back to you. It’s not too powerful but it probably doesn’t belong in Commander. Questionable but Stay Banned
Worldfire This poses the same questions and problems as Upheaval and Biorhythm but is far less likely to actually result in someone winning. Remember, the game ending is far more desirable to most players than to it dragging out with everyone at 1 with no cards. Stay Banned
Yawgmoth’s Bargain If you’ve ever had the chance to play with this on Magic Online Cubes you know how ridiculous this is. 1 life for 1 card is a meaningless cost, especially if you have ways to gain that life back or to protect yourself from aggression. Necropotence has some key downsides in not getting you the card immediately and exiling any excess cards you may end up discarding. Bargain doesn’t come with those downsides. Stay Banned
There are also a few cards that are constantly in the discussion for banning. Consecrated Sphinx, Iona, Shield of Emeria and Sol Ring/Mana Crypt are on message boards and in minds whenever a banlist discussion comes up. Sphinx draws an absurd number of cards from one go around of the table and only grows exponentially as the game draws on. An early Iona utterly blocks at least one opponent from playing the game properly and probably slows down most of your opponents in general. Lastly, there are many who argue that Sol Ring/Mana Crypt are too close to the bill of Channel and Fastbond and give too much mana too quickly. It is unsurprising – when was the last time someone played Ring or Crypt against you on turn one and you felt unconcerned? Of these, I think Iona has the most merit to getting banned. The defense against her, that she is costly and only hoses one colour, is not very strong. Most of the time she’s being cheated out. Whether it’s reanimation in Karador or coming in hot off of a Kaalia, Iona rarely costs 9 mana. And even when she does, she’s far more oppressive than most stax effects, keeping people off of entire colours, and monocoloured decks from playing any cards entirely. If any new cards were to be added to the banned list, Iona is the first in line.
Since I haven’t issued much beyond direct discussions, I want to get to the real purpose of today’s article. Bring back the “Banned as Commander” list. The RC did away with the list several years ago over concerns that it was too much information for newer players to keep track of and could send mixed signals. I counter that it was a healthy way to allow legendary creatures into the format that might be too toxic or overpowered as commanders. As mentioned before, Braids, Cabal Minion is a perfectly fair card that is only broken when she’s your commander and you can accelerate into her on turn 2 or 3 where you use her to keep your opponents from every getting out of the early stages of the game. But bring back the Banned as Commander list and you keep these problems from occurring without removing otherwise fair cards from the format completely. Kokusho, the Evening Star was removed from that list and later the banlist as a whole after the RC discovered it wasn’t actually as oppressive as they thought it was. This sort of thinking could help liven up the format without the dangerous shakeups that plague more competitive formats. I think we should discuss this idea more in our community and pressure the RC to bring the list back, especially since it might help end the griping against the more competitive commanders out there.
I’ll see you next time for a study in morphology.