Dear Azami: Five Unbanned Cards

Commander players love to speculate and debate what troublesome offenders should or shouldn’t be banned. Sean gives sanity a voice in this look at some dubious Commander staples!

One of the most contentious issues we have floating around in our Commander community is the format’s Banned List. Some cards make very obvious sense,
while others may be head-scratchers or only earned their way onto the list after extensive play showed that the game inevitably devolves to the point where
only those cards (and anything that lets you copy, kill, or steal those cards) ends up mattering. Some are even on the list for price-concern reasons more
than anything else; if Commander was adding to the demand for Moxes and Ancestral Recall it’s reasonable to say the price of these already-expensive cards
might be a fair bit higher… and even if they didn’t shift by much, the price of your average fully-tricked-out Commander deck would be an order of
magnitude or two higher for sure. Anyone who is trying to “keep up with the Joneses” will get their Moxes and other Power, massively increasing the
feel-bad level for everyone who is priced out of that race… or who winds up losing to a strong hand with a Mox or two. And yet curiously enough that
standard isn’t applied evenly – Time Walk and Ancestral Recall are both banned, but Timetwister’s entirely legal.

It’s hard to agree on what should and should not be banned. It’s contentious to the point where there is an entirely separate banned list – the French 1v1
Commander list – designed around the needs and interests of a group of people who try to play Commander more competitively, and ban all of the cards that
are just a little bit too degenerate when you have just one opponent trying to stop you. Forums all around the Internet often buzz with the question “Why
didn’t they ban X yet?!?” and are often followed by angry exchanges from pissed-off people who are sick of losing to a specific egregious piece of
cardboard and have gone so far as to ban it from their local playgroup. This last option is the corrective feature the Rules Council relies upon – if
you’re having an intensely unpleasant experience, you always have the option to just stop having that unpleasant experience if your group is willing to
listen and be responsive. But these noxious “Card X’es” are not always picked at random – there are some very notorious candidates, some of whom have since
been banned (here’s looking at you, Primeval Titan and Sylvan Primordial) and others of whom have stuck around to be the thorn in many a players’ side
month after month.

A lot of people hope that if a card gets banned in enough small playgroups that word of this will transmute up to the Rules Committee and that ban might
become more widely official. There is, of course, an informal mechanism for information transfer – “talk to Sheldon, he’ll listen” – but it’s not like
there is a distributed voting network of playgroups such that if 51% of these individual nodes ban a card, that ban is respected by 100% of the network.
And even the most-reviled card will still have to wait three months, as even Griselbrand didn’t earn the Commander equivalent of Memory Jar’s pre-printing
Emergency Ban; if a Yawgmoth’s Bargain you can play as your Commander didn’t get pre-nerfed, you can’t expect any card to earn that status.

Not every card that is a thorn in your side is a problem, though. There are some cases where pain is just your body’s way of telling you you’re doing
something wrong, and these “problem cards” may be illustrative of a broader problem – whether that’s a play style that hasn’t adapted to the card’s
presence in the metagame or even just a low level of knowledge as to the particularities of how that card works. Today we’re going to look at five of these
problems, poke around in that pain and see what happens.

Case #1 – Deadeye Navigator

This guy is pretty high up on everyone’s hate list, and that is an impressive fact considering that he isn’t even the only six-mana blue creature that
costs 4UU that everyone hates and wishes were banned. Deadeye Navigator has that special “degenerate” feel to it though, since it has the incredibly
annoying ability to pair up with creatures that counter spells or destroy permanents in order to go completely hog-wild. The first time you see this
Soulbond with a Terastodon will also be the last time you want to see it pair up with a Terastodon, but the more typical experiences probably involve a
Mystic Snake or Draining Whelk or something of that order just being a complete pain. Worse yet, not only can it blink these sorts of defensive creatures,
but it can blink itself too – dodging removal like it’s no big deal or just changing what creature it’s able to pass that Blink ability to when it’s time
to shift things up.

The clamor for Deadeye Navigator’s banning far outweighs the necessity, however. Yes, Deadeye Navigator does each and every one of the things I just
mentioned – and if you find yourself stuck behind it and it’s just doing its thing, it can be absolutely miserable. But it does not do exactly
what I mentioned – that’s just the common impression people have of it: an inescapable and oppressive force of nature that just does its thing, and
there’s nothing you can do about it but line up one removal spell for each 1U your opponent has and just hope that throwing seven things at it will
actually kill it dead because if they have a Force of Will on top of that mana, you’re all just exhausted and sunk. Might as well concede the game at that

Deadeye Navigator becomes far less oppressive the more informed you are about how it actually works, because it has a natural built-in foil: the stack. When Deadeye Navigator comes into play for the first time, it has a Soulbond trigger that lets you couple it with any other creature
you control. So long as it’s sharing a deep and abiding love with the Beast, Illusion, or Wizard of its dreams, both it and that other creature have the
ability to pay 1U in order to remove it from play and re-enter the battlefield, dodging targeted removal (as the unique object that removal is pointed at
will no longer be there) and triggering any nifty abilities that may be associated with that creature. However, Deadeye Navigator only possesses that
ability so long as the bond is actually there – not just a trigger on the stack but actually resolved. When the paired creature blinks out, Navigator will
no longer be bound with it, and there will be a new Soulbond trigger on the stack (as a creature has just entered play under your control).

When Deadeye Navigator comes into play and when this Blink ability has just been used, Deadeye Navigator will just be a vanilla 5/5 for so long as that
ability is on the stack. And no amount of enthusiastic blinking will dodge non-targeted removal spells; mass sweepers like Wrath of God, All Is Dust,
Plague Wind and Oblivion Stone will not care how many times the Navigator can blink itself. So long as the spell will resolve, that Deadeye will be one
dead guy. The hate against Deadeye Navigator far outweighs the reality of the card itself, and building your Commander deck to have enough instant-speed
removal and/or sweeper spells will allow you to shrug this problem off. It doesn’t need banning; playing a sufficient amount of removal is just one of
those things everyone should be doing regardless of the specific creature that’s drawing your ire today.

Everybody dies.

Verdict: not in need of banning.

Case #2 – Tooth and Nail

This one is the “should you ban this?” argument we’ve literally been having in one form or another since the format’s wider adoption. I don’t know what it
was like in Sheldon’s original playgroup back when the first five decks ever built included Palladia-Mors and Vaevictus Asmadi at the helm, but I imagine that
since it was a decade ago that some number of Tooth and Nails were likely cast in those early days. We all know the basic gist of this story, though it has
had many refrains – you can get Kiki-Jiki and Deceiver Exarch or some other two-creature combo that ends the game right there, so this spell says “9: Win
the game.” However, let’s get down to the real details here: what nine-mana spell in Commander doesn’t basically say “Win the game”? Insurrection
says it. Enter the Infinite definitely says it, though it asks a little bit more than that nine mana we were discussing.

Tooth and Nail can be countered, but we can use that weak argument against pretty much anything, so it’s an obvious straw man. The creatures Tooth and Nail
puts into play can be killed, so much like our example with Deadeye Navigator up above, the answer may very simply be to play more (and better) spot
removal. There aren’t very many creatures out there that think a Swords to Plowshares merely tickles, after all, so the real problem we’re facing is when
you can put together a lock in some way (Iona + Painter’s Servant comes to mind) or the enters-the-battlefield triggers those two creatures generate are so
immensely valuable that you don’t care if the creatures die; the triggers were the game-winning side of the spell. (Avenger of Zendikar +
Craterhoof Behemoth comes to mind there, stacking things properly so all your newfound Plant tokens count to the size of the Overrun effect that Behemoth
passes out to everyone else on your team.)

The worst offenders in a lockdown are already covered by the banned list – you aren’t allowed to play Painter’s Servant, and that is because as innocent as
it may seem, it fits into a surprisingly large number of lockdown mechanisms like this. Yes, Iona is oppressive, it’s true… but it’s “merely” a strong
card without Painter’s Servant, not in need of banning, and the Servant gets banned so that Grindstone, Iona, Compost, Reap, and who knows how many other
cards floating around out there don’t need to get banned. And yes, you can go infinite with Tooth and Nail – but going broken in Commander isn’t
very hard, especially not when you’re able to get to the top of the mana curve and start spending nine mana on a single spell. It has the same built-in
constraints that any other spell has: it’s so expensive that you can’t really play it early, and you’re allowed to play with just the one copy so finding
it and casting it is also a thing you have to build around doing if you’re going to try and focus on just this.

Realistically speaking, if I’m going to worry about a multi-tutor card just because it’s very strong at assembling combos, I think we need to have a
conversation about Survival of the Fittest long before we need to consider banning Tooth and Nail. Sure, people are using it obnoxiously to end the game on
sight, but that use requires you to not be able to interact with them on any vector, not able to lock things down with Stranglehold or Mindlock Orb, not
able to counter the spell or cast something kooky like Gather the Specimens or Time Stop to prevent the worst from happening, and not able to interact with
a reasonable set of creatures at instant speed in order to break up a combo. By the time people are able to spend nine mana on haymakers, this is just
another haymaker, not actually that special now that the worst offenders are banned to prevent their easy assembly. The bigger problem we’re facing is that
a nine-mana haymaker is, for a green deck, more like a six-mana haymaker; the color overall is very good at ramping its mana and getting ahead in mana
production consistently, so this card feels ‘off’ because the usual barrier to breaking it – the cost in the top-right corner – doesn’t impede it as much
as it’s supposed to. That has been true the entire length of the format’s existence though, so if Tooth and Nail hasn’t been banned by now, it seems clear
that it is a reality you should adjust to (play more spot removal… or actually have a few counters!) rather than a problem in and of itself.

The apparent breakage is a symptom of a different problem, and it doesn’t really matter what the expensive thingie at the top of your curve is.

Verdict: Not in need of banning.

Case #3 – Mana Crypt

It’s just another Sol Ring, right? We all know how awesome Sol Ring is, and the ubiquity of the card is clear. I actually get angry comments when
I could plausibly suggest adding the card and do not do so, or worse yet go out of my way to build decks that it would be awful
. (Of course, I also get angry comments from people when I do suggest adding it – there’s an anti-crowd for everything if you
look for it.) The games where you get to start off with a Sol Ring-like thing are so very different than the games in which you don’t that some
leagues assign negative points to getting one in the earliest turns, when the jump ahead is just so large that you run away with things.

Sol Ring lets you spend four mana on turn two… but Mana Crypt lets you spend three mana on turn one. Sure, Mana Crypt has a technical downside, but losing an
average of 1.5 life each turn when you start at 40 is not actually that big of a deal, especially if you’re off to the early lead and can start
steamrolling people. There is definitely a school of thought that says we should ban Sol Ring and anything like it – both these cards are banned in the
French 1v1 system, for example – but the argument against the Moxes but in favor of Sol Ring has been described as an economic one rather than a pure
power-level one. Maybe in a perfect universe Black Lotuses would be reprinted in Commander products and it wouldn’t need to be banned, but what is much
more likely to be true is that these cards – Crypt, Ring, and Lotus alike – are simply too powerful in the early game for the format to easily survive

With price as no object, it’s hard to say why Sol Ring and Mana Crypt are fine but Mox Emerald (aka “Elf On A Rope”) is not. Sure, Sol Ring costs mana to
cast and thus is theoretically ‘fair,’ but Mana Crypt does not have that going for it, and it’s expected to balance based on a paltry drawback that spends
life on the goal of getting ahead, life that is completely irrelevant in the face of a snowballing draw that actually benefits from this early advantage.
So let’s look at the economic argument against the Power Nine and contextualize it here: a good-condition Mox costs you somewhere in the neighborhood of
$1,000… unless it taps for blue, in which case you add a 25% surcharge for blue being the best color in a vacuum. You can get a non-tournament-legal
edition for $100, but these would require some serious conceptual wiggle room to be considered ‘legal for play,’ and these will never be reprinted until five minutes before Wizards of the Coast declares bankruptcy… it’s just not going to
happen. Before Sol Ring was reprinted it was starting to hit the $20 mark… it claimed a fairly high price for a Revised uncommon, but not exceptionally so. Now that it
has been reprinted, however, it can be purchased for somewhere around $5… clearly there is no economic argument against it thanks to the fact that it was
not covered by the Reserve List.

Mana Crypt is covered by the Reserve List, which is why the only reprints that were able to be added to the overall supply were Judge Foil copies. Somehow putting a shiny layer on the card voids the too-tight restrictions on the Reserve List that straightjackets Wizards’ actions as far as
alleviating price pressures for Legacy and Vintage staples is concerned. A top-condition Mana Crypt currently goes for somewhere in the neighborhood of $200, less if
you can find the frankly-ugly white-bordered Portuguese copy (but even then, not that much less, it’s still over $100). And the Judge Foil,
released to (perhaps) lower the pressure of demand, claims a price tag somewhere around $250.

Let’s compare Mana Crypt, which is on the face of things “allowed because it’s still cheap enough,” to a card whose only strike against it is that it is
expensive: Library of Alexandria. If Library of Alexandria were not legal, I would be very unlikely to seek a copy of the card for any of my current decks.
Sure, it’s powerful, but in the context of the format I’m doubtful it would be more important to me than Strip Mine, Winding Canyons, Dust Bowl, Thawing
Glaciers, Mystifying Maze, or Homeward Path, and you can only play so many situational colorless lands in your deck. The situation we are describing is
that you can draw two cards a turn for much of the game if you plan around it, and in four-player Commander that’s still leaving you behind the
rest of the table since Team Not-You is drawing three cards for every two you draw. Many people likely would play it if they could, and yes this
would increase the price though it’s not clear by how much as there is a limited amount of new demand that Commander can create for very expensive Vintage
cards. At a comparable price point, neither Bazaar of Baghdad nor Mishra’s Workshop are banned in Commander, and neither is played particularly often – I
believe Library would be the most playable of the three by a fair margin, but still not to the point that people felt there was an oppressively competitive arms race requiring them to go and get
their own copy.

However, unlike Library of Alexandria, Mana Crypt is actually broken in Commander and its price tag has likely inflated over the past few years because of
Commander play. Its price inflation has steadily outpaced the same price growth in the five Moxes. Mana Crypt could be found for $50 or less as recently as
two years ago, so this price inflation is likely do in no small part to Commander players who feel they have to get a copy in order to keep up with the
Joneses – the exact strike being held against Library of Alexandria, whose price tag is only some 40% higher at this point. And unlike Library, whose
“gotta keep up” pressure is largely hypothetical at this point, Mana Crypts are forcing exactly this sort of price pressure for players who want
to view themselves as “competitive” or “high-powered.”

Verdict: Should have been banned for power reasons some time ago, but should
be banned now for price reasons on top of that given the state of play.

Case #4 – Consecrated Sphinx

This one’s a sticky wicket, because unlike Deadeye Navigator, you can’t just sit there in a standoff with this trying not to be the one who blinks first.
Consecrated Sphinx doesn’t protect itself, and it doesn’t do anything as soon as it comes into play, but should it live for even a single turn
cycle it gives you seven new cards between your draw step and its triggers – you get to see a whole new hand every turn if that is what you want to do.
Consecrated Sphinx is “just” card advantage, but it’s a degenerate amount of card advantage that comes at no additional cost once you’ve sunk that 4UU
investment into it. I have seen many a Consecrated Sphinx run away with a game, and I have seen very few of them live and then just sit there,
delivering nothing but lousy cards until the table manages to kill you and be done with it. I have even seen Consecrated Sphinxes battle each other much to
the detriment of the entire table, similar to the Trade Secrets collusion ‘war’: dueling Sphinxes lead to two players colluding to basically drawing their entire deck
while the rest of us just sit there watching. That collusion element recently got Trade Secrets banned, so referencing it here should point out where people’s
opinions tend to lie.

I’ve also seen Consecrated Sphinx blow out a player who cast Notion Thief and didn’t know how the interaction would go… the player who’s allowed to stop is
the one who controls the Consecrated Sphinx. Notion Thief doesn’t have a “may” in it, so if you’re tapped out and there’s a Sphinx trigger, no really,
you’re just dead. This is Commander, odd and hilarious things sometimes happen even with the cards you “hate” and want to see banned.

We are all bored of Consecrated Sphinx, that is certainly true. You put some mana in, you get a pile of resources out, and you’re never asked to
invest anything to get it – you just put new cards in your hand, easy as that. The question is: is this a problem we need to address? And to some
degree that forces us to ask the question: is this problem unique?

The answer to that question is no, as is pretty clear when you cast Rhystic Study early in the game and reap a whirlwind of cards because no one
wants to give you that much time to hold a lead when they could let you get a few cards instead (and all agree to pound the daylights out of you). Card
drawing in Commander isn’t hard, it’s just that this is right at the envelope of maximum efficiency , and the feeling is certainly there that the game will
devolve around it with everyone trying to copy, kill, or steal the Consecrated Sphinx so that they can be a part of the corrupt circle of insiders who draw
their deck and can ignore the little people with their seven-card hands. Those who succeed at becoming insiders on the Consecrated Sphinx train then only have to focus on each other as the only real threats at the table, everyone else basically doesn’t matter. We’ve seen,
and played, enough of those games to know that particular song and dance very well – and we’re deathly bored of it.

But once it comes into play, it doesn’t actually do anything. A sufficient amount of pinpoint removal will prevent it from ever drawing a single
card, and if that pinpoint removal exiles or tucks the creature instead of merely kill it, so much the better… then it can’t get reused.

My verdict? Play more removal. Consecrated Sphinx is right on the edge, it’s true, but I don’t think it needs to be banned.

Case #5 – Ad Nauseam

I’ll presume that we are in agreement that the truly troubling part of the Consecrated Sphinx wars are when two players get a copy and use it to draw
(basically) their deck, so that they’re so far ahead of the other players that they might as well be useless. The cards that let you draw your
deck all tend to get banned – Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Griselbrand are the two most powerful ways to do that for no mana after the initial investment and
they both definitely deserve to be hosed, while new addition to the banned list Trade Secrets is banned because of the high potential to end up voluntarily in
that Sphinx-on-Sphinx end-state where two people just don’t matter and the game is now a super-high-powered 1v1 game.

Commander is very libertarian when it comes to banning combo pieces. The very worst offenders, the things that could combine with multiple different
(excellent) cards to create an insta-kill or game-locking state, are all banned to prevent the game from being about that… but other than that very
topmost tier of combo cards, the Panoptic Mirrors (… imprinting a variety of Time Walk) and Painter’s Servants, we understand that combos are a thing
that happens and that they tend to be good game-enders. Not everyone likes them, but we know we can’t break up every two-card combo and thus we shouldn’t even try: Helm of Obedience and Rest in Peace
may be the top combo this week, but ban them and it’ll just be Power Artifact and Grim Monolith or Triskelion and Mikaeus the Unhallowed… or, or, or. The number of two-card combos that can ‘go infinite’ is a very large number indeed, so Commander has addressed this at the ethos level
rather than the legality level: if you’re just going to sit there playing with yourself, we’re going to pretend you’re not there and play a real game
instead. If you keep sitting at the same table as us, well, we’ll try and kill you first until you learn to stop doing that. If you start “winning,” we go
right back to ignore mode. No one will give you the satisfaction of claiming a game win, and everyone will punish you for breaching the social

But that said, we don’t want to make it too easy, so we tend to ban the most egregious offenders, the combo cards that are so powerful that they require
addressing. And anything that is basically a single-card combo is banned…

Everything, that is, except for Ad Nauseam.

There is this illusion that Ad Nauseam can be used fairly because this is Commander – while you may start with 40 life, the very high casting cost of
Commander spells will sharply limit how many cards you can draw. I think, however, that there is just no fair way to use Ad Nauseam – sure, some people
will play it, and they will act as if it’s just a somewhat more interesting Moonlight Bargain, but really they are just misusing the card. There
are “fair” uses for Griselbrand and Yawgmoth’s Bargain too if you want to put them in a fair deck and use them fairly, but all three of these cards say
“draw your deck.” There are sub-clauses and conditions, mostly in that you have to be able to figure out how to win the game by casting Ad Nauseam: you have to build your deck around finding the card on time and casting it with enough life and mana available to do something important that turn. But
we shouldn’t make the mistake of leaving it unbanned just because we don’t consider it to be a one-card combo while Bargain and Griselbrand cards are correctly identified
as such. You require other things, sure, but you don’t actually require much – the simplest conception of this deck involved a stupid zero-mana
and the ability to cast Sickening Dreams to kill the entire table while only taking half damage yourself, allowing you to ‘afford’ a total mana cost
of nineteen within the boundaries of the rest of your deck because you need to go to one after Sickening Dreams deals you twenty.

If I am casting Ad Nauseam, I am winning right away – it’s as simple as that. Case in point, a somewhat-outdated decklist that could probably be made even
worse by adding cards from the past two years to it, first introduced in my article “The Worst Thing You Can Still Do
To People”

Sure, not everyone can borrow an Imperial Seal and Grim Tutor from their dealer friend when they want to make three other people’s afternoons absolutely miserable… but this deck is capable of killing multiple opponents with infinite life sitting behind indestructible Platinum Angels
and Ivory Masks and not even batting an eye. The basic mode is Ad Nauseam for your deck, use a copious amount of Rituals to make a bunch of mana, then Exsanguinate and/or Tendrils
the table to death. You can “interact with it” once it has drawn its deck, sure, but do you really think you can stop it? Or that the super-polarizing
shift of the game that comes with resolving Ad Nauseam to draw your deck is worth the low price of impinging all of the liberties of those few people who
misuse Ad Nauseam by playing it “fairly?” Vintage and Legacy players have correctly identified Ad Nauseam as a one-card combo that says “draw your deck”
but comes with certain deckbuilding constraints, and it is an incredibly powerful card in both those formats. It deserves the same respect – and a sharp
boot out the door – in our format too.

Verdict: How is this not banned yet but Sylvan Primordial is?

Postscript: A Novel Idea

I think it is quite interesting that we have a class of cards you can play in Commander but cannot play as Commanders – Erayo, Kokusho, Eladamri,
and Braids all occupy a special niche where they’re not considered too good to allow into the game, just too good to let you effectively start every game
with in your opening hand. When looking at the banned list and remembering fondly those good times I had with Emrakul, the Aeons Torn back before everyone
else caught up to the fact that Emrakul was the unbeatable endgame every deck should be building around, I had a curious notion: could the reverse in fact
be true as well? Is there any reasonable universe where we could let you play Emrakul as your commander… but not as part of your 99?

The only other legendary creature on the banned list is Griselbrand, whom I would like to think I personally got banned by putting him at the helm of that
awful, obnoxious Ad Nauseam deck and spreading some misery around in a campaign to give him the boot. Emrakul’s abuse tended to fixate around other cards –
the problem was acceleration, not just the card itself, with the slight caveat that I spent six or eight months solely building decks around the
two-card endgame combo of Emrakul + Erratic Portal and treated every Commander game as an hour-long dance to achieve the combo before anyone else could do
so or actually kill me. The Portal would still exist, but the other cards you could use with Emrakul – the mana doublers like Heartbeat of Spring and
Mirari’s Wake, the cheaters like Through the Breach, Sneak Attack and Show and Tell – would be banned by dint of the Spaghetti Monster’s color identity.

Playing a deck using only nonbasic lands is actually much harder than it sounds. There are only so many good ones you get to play, and there is a whole
host of things you’d think are always awesome in every Commander deck ever that you just can’t play – Solemn Simulacrum is a sad robot indeed when you are
not allowed to play any basic lands in your deck. Sure, you could get the natural Urzatron draw plus Eye of Ugin and something stupid could happen
far faster than it should, and it’s certainly true that Emrakul’s oppressive Annihilator ability plus various built-in protections are an absolute monster when you
get to pull them off. But in all fairness, it’s entirely possible that a deck allowed to play Emrakul as its commander but not as a part of its 99 would
simply not be very good. No one has broken the format with a Kozilek or Ulamog deck, and when Emrakul was legal as a card it was not exactly
played at the helm of very many decks even as it subtly dominated the format by being the literal best possible endgame. Its dominance wasn’t even that bad, though that may simply be because people “in the know” that the game was all about Emrakul were firmly in the minority. For most, it was the off-label uses with Sneak Attack and such that really made it
obnoxious, as that got all of the protection benefit of Emrakul’s untargetability and all of the annihilator obnoxiousness but with none of the pesky mana cost involved to do so.

It may very well be possible for Emrakul to come off the completely-banned list… so long as it’s banned from the 99. It may be a serviceable (and
ginormous) Commander – if a new category on the Banned List was up for consideration, “Legal Only As A Commander.” If this new category were to be added,
would any other Commander fit on it, or would it be home to Emrakul alone?

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