An Elder Outsider’s Perspective On The Commander Ban List Revisited

Bennie takes a cue from one of his past articles and looks in depth at all the changes to the Commander banned list in the last three years.

Whenever we get an actual (and rather rare now) change to the Commander banned list, there seems to be grumbling in the Commander community both in the choice of the ban (for some folks who really love the card) and over the banned list in general. A lot of people, especially those who are relatively new to the format, will look at the list and think the choices feel arbitrary or random and short. They’ll be able to point to a card on the list and quickly tick off other cards that they consider just as powerful and abusive (or even more so) and scratch their heads as to why card X is banned when cards Y and Z are not. You can find the banned list here, or if you don’t want to click on the link, here’s the list for reference:

The following is the official banned list for Commander games. These cards (and others like them) should not be played without prior agreement from the other players in the game.

Ancestral Recall
Black Lotus
Coalition Victory
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Gifts Ungiven
Library of Alexandria
Limited Resources
Sundering Titan
Primeval Titan
Sylvan Primordial
Mox Sapphire
Mox Ruby
Mox Pearl
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Painter’s Servant
Panoptic Mirror
Protean Hulk
Recurring Nightmare
Sway of the Stars
Time Vault
Time Walk
Tolarian Academy
Yawgmoth’s Bargain
Trade Secrets

Additionally, the following legends may not be used as a commander:

Braids, Cabal Minion
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
Kokusho, the Evening Star

The thing is that if you’re willing to look the reasons behind the various cards on the list are pretty reasonable and clearly stated. The problem of course is that you’ve got to dig into the forum archives of the MTG Commander website, so back in March 2011 I wrote An Elder Outsider’s Perspective On The Commander Ban List where I worked backward through the various banned list announcements, gave a brief description of the reason given by the RC for the ban, and then weighed in with my own thoughts (and provided links to the actual forum posts for the bannings). Considering nearly three years has passed since then, I figured now is as good a time as any for an update!

As a quick aside, I’ve been writing about Commander a long time, so a lot of people assume that I’m on the Rules Committee. That is not the case—I’m just a prolific advocate for the format, and I tend to be on the same page with the RC’s vision for the format.

Banned List Announcement February 2014: Sylvan Primordial Banned

"If the card was just a big ramp, or just utility destruction, or just spot land destruction, it would likely be fine, but by combining both factors it becomes ubiquitous, frequently overwhelming, and repetitive."

As a fan of green, I was certainly sad to see this multiplayer powerhouse creature get the boot, but as a fan of Commander, I can certainly see the benefit of not having to worry about someone ramping into this on turn 3 or 4 and locking everyone else out of the game. The card is stellar when played fair but misery when played unfair. If you look at the reasons they gave for banning Primeval Titan (reining in the power and prevalence of ramp decks), this ban makes a lot of sense.

Banned List Announcement April 2013: Staff of Domination Unbanned / Trade Secrets Banned

"When Staff of Domination was banned, it was one of the most widespread and iconic combo cards in the format. Banning it sent a clear message that turn 4 wins weren’t the gameplay we wanted to see. These days there are plenty of scarier combo cards out there."

"Trade Secrets is a problem when both players decide to draw 80 cards and effectively turn a four-player game into a two-player game."

We went through a stretch where there were no changes to the banned list until April 2013, when Staff of Domination was welcomed back into the multiplayer fold and Trade Secrets got the boot. I recall playing Staff of Domination in tournaments way back in the day when Cabal Coffers fueled Mono-Black Control could so some really fun things with the Staff, and it always bummed me out a bit that I couldn’t play it in Commander. What’s encouraging about this and other unbannings is knowing that the Rules Committee is willing to reevaluate cards on the list as time goes on, new cards are printed, and the Commander metagame changes.

Trade Secrets is one of those cards that always seems like a great idea of a multiplayer card but never works out being a feel good card for anyone other than the two players benefitting. It’s pretty easy to play this card and basically say, "This guy and I are going to continue playing this game, and everyone else is irrelevant."

Banned List Announcement September 2012: Kokusho, the Evening Star Unbanned / Primeval Titan; Worldfire; & Kokusho, the Evening Star (As Commander) Banned

"Though [Worldfire] itself isn’t overpowered, it does have unfortunate interactions with the format, namely that the commander is available to be cast even after the spell has resolved, and our philosophy is to avoid cards like that."

"[Regarding Primeval Titan] one of the concerns that we’ve had recently is the overrepresentation of heavy ramp strategies . . .  It’s probably a little too prevalent and needs reining in a bit."

"[Since Kokusho’s banning] graveyard hate has become stronger and the overall level of creature power has risen to the point where we’re comfortable . . . that it won’t have the same impact . . . He remains banned as a commander because the mechanics of being a commander allow him to circumvent the best method of dealing with him."

When Worldfire was spoiled, I was pretty excited about the card because I thought it gave red a much needed potent and scary weapon. Red has traditionally been an underdog in Commander, and its traditional strength in competitive decks—burn—is fairly mediocre in a multiplayer format encouraging huge creatures where everyone starts at 40 life. Worldfire resets the game and brings everyone down to a level where the burn deck is in a position of strength. So I was bummed when it got the ban hammer, but I can understand the concerns of people using the command zone to circumvent the carefully worded symmetry of this card.

The banning of Primeval Titan, like I mentioned above regarding Sylvan Primordial, was a blow to my green soul, but I could certainly understand the reasoning behind it. The card is very powerful in any environment, and in one like Commander where there is even more cards to ramp and more potent lands to tutor up, I could see why it just had to go, especially when Deadeye Navigator came to town.

Kokusho was another old favorite of mine that I lamented not being able to play in Commander, and I think coming off the banned list but then being banned as a commander was just the right balance. It’s even gotten tweaked a bit in power level by not dying immediately when another player casts Clone to copy it.

Banned List Announcement June 2012: Griselbrand & Sundering Titan Banned

"Griselbrand was relatively simple choice. We knew all along it was pretty busted."

"Sundering Titan . . . was too easily both intentionally abused and unintentionally game warping . . . There has been a fair amount of community distaste for the card, and we agreed that the card overwhelmingly creates a negative experience for players."

Ah Griselbrand, a card that seemed custom made to thrive in Commander but was simply too good to stick around. Can’t see much argument against that banning. Sundering Titan was already annoying enough, but the printing of Deadeye Navigator really pushed it over the edge to being truly oppressive and obnoxious.

Banned List Announcement June 2012: Erayo, Soratami Ascendant (As Commander) Banned / Lion’s Eye Diamond Unbanned

"Erayo is a flagship example of a general whose sole purpose is to decrease interactivity . . . Adding her to the banned list sends the clearest message that generals like this shouldn’t be played . . . they make for boring games."

"LED was originally banned as an example of a two-card infinite mana combo (with Auriok Salvagers), but . . . its presence on the list is increasingly incongruous . . .  We don’t think taking it off the list will have much impact other than making the list one card shorter."

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to play against Erayo flipped, then you totally grok why this guy cannot be an available commander. If you haven’t, click on the link for the full explanation. I certainly gave a fist pump when I read this announcement.

Lion’s Eye Diamond made a lot of sense coming off the banned list. When’s the last time you’ve seen anyone go nuts with Lion’s Eye Diamond at the Commander table? Yeah, me neither. LED is at its best when it’s being recurred from the graveyard, and like the RC mentioned when knocking Kokusho off the banned list, graveyard hate is much better now than it used to be.

Banned List Announcement June 2011: Worldgorger Dragon Unbanned

"Worldgorger Dragon . . . is no longer a particularly strong example of unwelcome, format-warping, combo-play style but simply another infinite-combo piece."

Another example of the Rules Committee being willing to revise their decisions when it makes sense to do so.  Again, when’s the last time you’ve seen anyone go nuts with Worldgorger Dragon? It’s been so long that I personally would find it fun to have someone surprise me with that combo, especially since it’s rather dangerous for the combo player if things go wrong.

So that takes us back to where I was in the last article. I’ve included the topics of each banning/unbanning below, and if you’re interested in reading more, go check out my previous article (An Elder Outsider’s Perspective On The Commander Ban List).

But Why Not This, Or This, Or This . . .

One thing that’s interesting when going back and reading each statement from the RC in these announcements back to back is that this banned list is a tool they use to keep the fun quotient high in Commander. Of course everyone’s definition of fun varies widely, but the common denominator for any player is that they want to be able to play their cards. Many of the cards on the list interfere with players’ abilities to play a typical game of Commander, but it’s certainly not a comprehensive list. It really gets under some people’s skin that so many abusive and overly powerful cards are perfectly "legal" to play in Commander. So why not add them all to the banned list if the goal is to make it impossible for people to play the sort of cards that is outside the spirit of Commander?

As a thought experiment, just imagine that sort of comprehensive list, combing back through all the Magic cards that have been printed since 1993. I was actually going to do that for this article but quickly came to my senses. It would be gigantic and frankly unwieldy—imagine someone new to Commander and maybe even new to Magic trying to wrap their head around a list of dozens and dozens if not hundreds of cards they can’t play with. Imagine the arguments that would break out if someone accidentally played a card from the banned list or played a card someone thought was on the banned list. Commander has exploded in popularity in large part because it is such an approachable and fun format, and having a relatively small and trim banned list makes learning that part of it pretty easy.

Ultimately, though, what I think is best about having a banned list like this comes down to the old saying about teaching someone to fish rather than just giving them a fish dinner. Sure, the Rules Committee could spend a lot of time and energy pouring over every potential abusive and oppressive card in Magic’s history (and each set as its released) and put forth a huge comprehensive—and no doubt rather intimidating—banned list that would curtail a lot of undesirable play. But clever and persistent players could still find ways around the banned list to do things to make other players miserable. The trick is to realize that the banned list is meant to light the way and be a learning tool to find the path to real enjoyment playing Commander. It’s right there in the two-sentence preamble to the banned list:

The following is the official banned list for Commander games. These cards (and others like them) should not be played without prior agreement from the other players in the game.

The four words in parentheticals is really the important heart of the matter. It lets you know that the cards on the banned list are markers, like danger signs for unfun. If you see a card on the banned list and think "but card X is nearly as bad as this," then maybe you shouldn’t play that card either. Thinking about why a particular card is on the banned list gives insight into what’s not fun in Commander, and having that knowledge will let you make better decisions when deciding what cards you want to put in your decks.

In short, I think it’s a good decision to keep the banned list relatively lean and a tool to learn from when exploring the Commander format. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Before I go, I’d like to give a shout out to Jason Alt. He wrote an article this week as a rebuttal to one I wrote a couple years back called Letting Go Of Tutors In Commander. In my article, I talked about the downsides of relying too heavily on tutor effects in your Commander decks and the benefits you can gain by choosing to run other cards instead. His article explored some of the things I talked about and then moved on to make some good points of his own, so check it out if you get a chance.

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