Commander Official Banned List And Format Philosophy

Sheldon discusses the updated Commander official banned list and format philosophy document, the changes to the banned list, and the Rules Committee’s process for deciding on banned cards.

You’re going to skip over whatever clever intro I write anyway, so I’ll just tell you that we’re going to talk about three things today: the updated banned list and format philosophy document, the changes to the banned list, and the Rules Committee’s process for deciding on banned cards. First, what you tuned in for:


Primeval Titan


Kokusho, the Evening Star

Banned As Commander

Kokusho, the Evening Star

From the official release:


This banning was largely expected. While the card 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. Since outside of this one quirk there aren’t a lot of interesting applications to the card, we don’t anticipate it’ll be missed much. Unlike…

Primeval Titan

One of the concerns that we’ve had recently is the overrepresentation of heavy ramp strategies, to the point where it makes up a large proportion of the aggregate decks out there. While we think ramp should be good—this is battlecruiser Magic, after all—it’s probably a little too prevalent and needs reining in a bit. With that in mind, we’re banning the most egregious offender, Primeval Titan.

This decision won’t be universally popular. Primeval Titan is dripping with awesomeness, and we ourselves are big fans of the card. But its ubiquity and effect on games couldn’t be ignored and sad though we are to see it go, we think it will make for a more interesting and diverse format.


It’s appropriate that Kokusho comes off at the same time as Prime Time goes on, as Kokusho was originally banned along the same lines. Its presence had a similar warping effect on the format in the early days, with too many decks reusing the Dragon over and over (even if it didn’t start in their deck!). However, in the intervening time, graveyard hate has become stronger and the overall level of creature power has risen to the point where we’re comfortable—more so after some testing—that it won’t have the same impact.

It remains banned as a commander because the mechanics of being a commander allow it to circumvent the best method of dealing with it—the aforementioned graveyard hate. Getting it into exile as a creature is the end of it. As a commander, its license to start again.

Commander Official Banned List and Philosophy

The banned list for Commander is designed not to balance competitive play but to help shape in the minds of its fans the vision held by its founders and Rules Committee. That vision is to create variable, interactive, and epic multiplayer games where memories are made, to foster the social nature of the format, and to underscore that competition is not the format’s primary goal. It sets out to define the parameters of official Commander while recognizing that local groups may wish to modify things to suit their own needs.

The official banned list is as follows, with further discussion of the ideals and philosophies below.

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

Additionally, the following legendary creatures are banned as commanders:

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

The Rules Committee’s goal for Commander is for it to be different than other Magic games. Where competitive formats seek to balance the playing field for all styles and strategies, we want to encourage a style of game that is more open and directed towards all players having a good time regardless of who wins. This is summarized as: "Create games that you’d love to remember, not the ones others would like to forget."

While the banned list helps to define what can be played, Commander is unique to Magic formats in that it seeks to shape the mindset of the game before players ever start building decks, pointing them in the direction of thinking socially before they choose their first card. It recognizes that due to the Eternal nature of the format, there are too many cards to try to shape it via only the banned list, but that infusing the decklist construction approach with these philosophies is important; it is easier to build decks designed to maximize fun than it is to pull punches while playing the game

This is the direction of the format, with full understanding that it’s not for everyone. We recognize that without drastic measures (like a 200-card banned list), we can’t actually prevent an individual from breaking the format. What we can do is create a social environment where that individual doesn’t want to, or at the very least, is discouraged from doing so.

The banned list contains the worst of the offenders for games being played in the spirit described above, those that to us are obvious choices in steering the format towards the general style of games we’d like to promote. While we’ve tried to make it fairly objective, there will always be a measure of subjectivity since different people evaluate cards and their impacts differently. We’d like the banned list to be as small as possible to make it easily understandable for the players and manageable for us, meaning we’re not going to ban every card that someone finds unpleasant to play against. It is not a problem that some cards are strong.

In creating the banned list, there are several factors that are only taken into small consideration, if at all:

  • Competitive Balance. There are Commander tournaments, but this philosophy simply doesn’t take them into account. We feel that to do so violates the ideal of the social format.
  • One on One Play. A 1v1 community exists (and the French community has created a banned list for it), but Commander is designed as a multiplayer format.
  • While we’d like to maintain a measure of consistency (we wouldn’t, for example, ban Grizzly Bears and not Balduvian Bears), we want to avoid the minefield of "cascading" bans ("if this is banned, then that should be banned") because it inevitably leads to an unmanageable list.

There are several criteria that carry weight in Rules Committee discussions on individual cards. It is sometimes the intersection of these criteria that lead a card to be banned, not a single unified rule. Common criteria include:

  • Creates Undesirable Games / Game Situations. Some cards produce the kinds of games we’d like to avoid, and we see them as creating a negative experience for a majority of the player base. They tend to be anticlimactic wins out of nowhere, unexpected combos that end an otherwise enjoyable game, or creating situations which completely take play of the game away from the other players. This includes some cards that have a casting cost far too low for their effect or whose abilities simply break the format at any cost.
  • Warps the Format Strategically. Commander decks are about variety, and if a strategy becomes sufficiently omnipresent that the games become very similar even across different playgroups, we may need to try to rein in the presence of that deck.
  • Produces Too Much Mana Too Quickly. Commander is a format about epic plays, but the turn 10 epic play happening on turn 3 is deflating. Limited acceleration is good, but we don’t want the format to turn into "who can go off earliest," so we rein in large quantities of early mana.
  • Interacts Badly with the Structure of Commander. Magic is not designed with Commander in mind, and the different rules, especially the presence of the commander in the command zone, can create degenerate or unfortunate situations. This is also why some cards are acceptable as one of the 99 but not as commanders.
  • Creates a Perceived High Barrier to Entry. Because it’s a non-competitive format, we don’t want players to feel as though they need to spend a great deal of money to be able to play. It is not sufficient for a card to simply be expensive—expected ubiquity and the availability of suitable replacements are also considered. This rule is mostly invoked for cards fifteen or more years out of print and is unlikely to impact the list further.

Local Groups

We believe that both official Commander and local variants can successfully coexist. What works in the broader audience may not resonate around your local game shop or kitchen table. We encourage you to modify both philosophy and banned list locally to suit your own needs while being aware that when you travel outside your local area, perhaps even on the other side of town, you’ll need to be ready to play with the official rules, including the appropriate spirit. Likewise, when new players enter your playgroup they may have expectations closer to this official philosophy, and it will usually help the transition to discuss why they/you do things a particular way.

How We Got There

If you’ll notice, there’s not actually anything new or previously unsaid in the philosophy. The document is an effort to coalesce everything we’ve thought about and preached for a long time into something cohesive and coherent. It’s an effort to help more folks understand the direction we’re heading with the format. We all had input into it, although I want to specifically thank Toby (who has some experience writing policy documents) for structuring my somewhat stream-of-consciousness thoughts into something with far better structure.

The point I want to focus most on is that we operate with guidance from this philosophy but an intentional lack of specific objectivity in banned list decisions. The primary reason is that we don’t want to back ourselves into corners ("OMG Rummaging Goblin meets the criteria! It must be banned!"). The second is managing this format’s list is as much art as it is science. Some things simply can’t be reasonably broken down mathematically and objectively. That’s why we use the phrase "intersection of criteria." We’d much rather use a deft and delicate hand to guide things than a hammer to shape them.

The Process

We had a great, three-hour meeting over IRC to discuss not just what we were going to do for September 20th but how we were going to do it now and for the future. We came up with a slightly more formalized methodology with which we’re all quite happy. To make a long story short, we use a weighted voting method that lets people express their opinion and how strongly they feel about individual cards. Weighted means per person per vote. No one member’s vote is worth more than another.

We start by making a list of the cards on our radar. Then, for each individual card, there’s a discussion where everyone expresses their opinions on the card—upsides, downsides, whatever anyone wants to talk about. When discussion is exhausted, we vote. We use a —X to +X system, minus meaning "ban" and plus meaning "unban/don’t ban." We then tally the votes, and if the result is far enough away from zero, we take the appropriate action. If cards are in the near zero range, we table them for the next meeting and further investigation in the interim.

I hope this is a sufficient amount of transparency into the process. We’re not going to discuss individual votes, only results and only in the abstract. Four of the six of us have Hall of Fame votes, and although I’m personally fine with facing the scrutiny that being public about them brings, I appreciate that some folks aren’t and don’t want or need the added baggage of that publicity. In a small group like ours, even one member being public with their individual votes creates an easily assembled picture of the others, so we’ll avoid that as well.

We also don’t feel as though publicizing the spread of values is of any particular merit. The voting methodology is there to provide us with an internal understanding of our collective positions, not to create a formula by which we shackle ourselves. We use numbers that we’re comfortable with, that we feel give our group the right insight. I will tell you that Primeval Titan actually scored slightly more on the negative side than Worldfire did, although both were clear mandates. That’s despite the fact that I love playing with the card and that I had one in every green deck.

I believe that’s a clear signal that we don’t ban cards because we hate them (or because we’ve lost to them); we ban them because we think they’re unhealthy for the format. Personally, my major concern was that while Magic is at its heart a resource management game, the format had become a resource acquisition game, and as we mention in the official release, Prime Time is the worst offender.

We’re also not going to talk about all the cards that we discussed but took no action on. For one, we don’t want to create any panic for players or fodder for speculators. We found in the past that a watch list created more administrative work and headache than benefit, which is why it was dropped it. I hope that you trust we talk about all the cards that are getting talked about by fans everywhere. Just like most of you, we want the best experience for folks who play our favorite format.

I expect that we’re going to get a great deal of discussion on the various forums about both the banned list updates and the philosophy section. We look forward to engaging in reasoned and polite discussion wherever it’s to be had.