Exclusive: Updated Commander Philosophy Document

The Commander Rules Committee has done some soul-searching, and they’re nothing if not transparent! Join Sheldon Menery for an up-to-the-minute look at how they view the format in 2017!

Commander is unique among Magic formats not only due to its additional rules, but because it’s the only format which has been developed around an inherent philosophy.

That philosophy and those rules are inextricably linked in order to produce the format you know and love. Early on in Commander’s lifespan (back when it was called EDH), we knew what we wanted to do. Later, we figured out how to express that vision. Part of the ongoing process of keeping the format vibrant means understanding the roots of our philosophy, maintaining consistency with it, and also considering new and better ways to articulate it. To the latter end, we’ve updated the philosophy document in hopes of opening what we’d like to accomplish to a broader audience.

This update does not reflect a fundamental shift in our thinking, but a finer distillation of the underlying philosophy. It covers both what we’ve been doing and would like to continue to do while also highlighting what we would like to avoid. This doesn’t mean we consider things that we don’t want for Commander undesirable in the broader context (for example, it would be unreasonable to think that the members of the Rules Committee aren’t big fans of competitive Magic), but that what we’re trying to do with the format is something different. As I’ve said many times in the past, we want the format to be the best that it can be on its own terms.

I’d like to go over with you each paragraph of the philosophy document (which you can find on mtgcommander.net) and make a few explanatory notes, expanding on some of the thinking therein. Hopefully I can guide you a little deeper into our mindset and what we’re trying to accomplish.

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. This is summarized as “Create games that everyone will love to remember, not the ones you’d like to forget.”

Herein is the heart of it all. Commander is intentionally a refuge from competitive formats. It doesn’t care who the best player or deck is, or even who wins; it cares what the most memorable games are. We understand that it’s a game, which means there is generally a winner (and losers), but that’s of secondary importance to helping everyone have a good time. We also understand that the definition of fun differs between players.

In the broadest sense, we’re taking it to mean that everyone has the opportunity to actually play the game. We know that prison strategies are among the most effective at winning Magic games; we also know that for most folks they’re miserable to play against. Importantly, this paragraph underscores that we’d like to create a society of Commander players—people who are to some extent working toward the same purpose together.

A player who wishes to break the format will find many tools available to them, and taking those tools away means they move onto the next tool. Taking sufficient cards away from them to achieve a semblance of balance simply removes many, many cards from the pool that casual players enjoy and diminishes the games the format is intended for. Instead, Commander seeks to shape the mindset of the game before players start building decks, pointing them in the direction of thinking socially before they choose their first card. Infusing the deck construction approach with these philosophies is important; we want a social environment where and individual doesn’t want to (or, at very least, is discouraged from trying to) break the format). It is easier to build decks designed to maximize fun than it is to pull punches while playing the game. The Banned List is a part of defining that approach.

I know I’m repeating myself again (although I think it was Toby who said it first) when I say that the secret of this format is in not breaking it. This is contrary to everything every Magic player has ever learned about every other format, making the mindset of Commander a major paradigmatic shift for nearly everyone who picks up the 100-card decks. This road less traveled by, however, makes all the difference.

The mechanic of knowing you’ll have a card always available to you from the start of the game forward (your Commander) makes it easier to break, since you’re dealing with one less piece of unknown information. In order to unbreak it, we would have to create an onerous Banned List—one that I would imagine would exceed 100 cards. Instead, we’d like to make the Banned List emblematic of the format’s mindset, and want to encourage local groups to freely add to (or subtract from) it as they see fit.

The Banned List contains the worst of the offenders for games being played in the spirit described above, those which 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, 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 addition to shaping how we think about the Banned List, this paragraph subtly underscores that we strongly encourage local groups to do what they want. We’re creating a broad common ground with a defined rules set, but we’re okay with local flavors cropping up. It’s like people who play Monopoly with the rule that you get the cash when you land on Free Parking, or calling deuces wild in a seven-card stud game. To some extent, we consider the local group the heart of our target audience.

There has to be a common rules set for when people travel to Grands Prix and other larger events (otherwise you might waste lots of time arguing over which rules you’re going to play by), but creating the mindset that we want everyone to enjoy themselves is a core principle—and local groups are better at determining what’s fun to them than we are. While we think that a hyper-competitive environment might be toxic to the broader format, if the folks you always play with feel like racing to turn 3 kills, then that’s what we want you to do. The reason the mindset for the broader format isn’t sculpted that way is that we find it to have a limited appeal.

There are several criteria which carry weight in Rules Committee discussions on individual cards:

* Interacts Poorly with the Structure of Commander. Commander introduces specific structural differences to the game of Magic (notably singleton decks, color restrictions in deckbuilding, and the existence of a Commander). Magic cards not designed with Commander in mind sometimes interact with those elements in ways that change the effective functionality of the card. Cards that have moved too far (in a potentially problematic direction) from their original intent due to this mismatch are candidates for banning. This criterion also includes legendary creatures that are problematic if always available.

In general, a confluence of factors will get a card banned. This first one is the one most likely to be a singular factor. The great folks in R&D have designed some cool cards specifically for us, but we can’t expect them to design everything with us in mind. I think I’d much rather have an environment in which they develop a card like Worldfire and then we ban it than them never pushing the Development envelope in the first place.

* Creates Undesirable Game States. Losing is not an undesirable game state. However, a game in which one or more players, playing comparable casual decks, have minimal participation in the game is something which players should be steered away from. Warning signs include massive overall resource imbalance, early-game cards that lock players out, and cards with limited function other than to win the game out of nowhere.

This criterion is certainly the fuzziest and the one which gives some people the most heartburn, since, as we’ve mentioned, different people evaluate things differently. In the end, the difference may seem arbitrary, but we feel like we’ve tapped into a mood here not only which resonates with us in particular, but a wide swath of folks who are looking for a similar game experience.

* Problematic Casual Omnipresence. Some cards are so powerful that they become must-includes in decks that can run them and have a strongly negative impact on the games in which they appear, even when not built to optimize their effect. This does not include cards which are part of a specific two-card combination — there are too many of those available in the format to usefully preclude — but may include cards which have numerous combinations with other commonly-played cards.

Staples will be staples, but no one argues that Solemn Simulacrum or Darksteel Ingot has a negative impact on games. This one kicks in when people start feeling like they have to play a particular card just to keep up—like the somewhat-recently banned Prophet of Kruphix. We like to promote variety in builds—this is, after all, the only format in which you’re likely to see a Pirate tribal or Dune theme deck, so if everything is starting to look the same all the time because of a particular card, then we’ll focus the magnifying glass on said card.

* Produces Too Much Mana Too Quickly. Commander is a format devoted to splashy spells and epic plays, but they need to happen at appropriate times. Some acceleration is acceptable, but plays which are epic on turn ten are undesirable on turn three, so we rein in cards capable of generating a lot of mana early given the correct circumstances.

Of course, the argument here becomes “How much is too much and how quickly is too quickly?” As we mention in the document, when turn 3 starts looking like turn 10, then something has gotten out of hand. Some folks will argue that the additional two mana provided by Sol Ring is too much; we disagree, but recognize that it’s pretty close to the borderline. “Correct circumstances” also means that they’re reasonably common—we wouldn’t ban something because it happened to create a bunch of turn 2 mana given the perfect draw.

* Creates a Perceived High Barrier to Entry. Commander is a socially welcoming format with a vast card pool. These two traits clash when it comes to certain early Magic cards, even if they would possibly be acceptable in their game play. It’s not enough that the card is simply expensive. It must also be something that would be near-universally played if available and contribute to a perception that the format is only for the Vintage audience.

One of the perceptions (and obviously, realities) we want to battle is that Commander is simply Alt-Vintage. We want to make sure they look nothing like each other. Additionally, the cards in this category wouldn’t add anything positive to the format; they’d aid the kinds of decks and games we’re trying to avoid. It’s not likely that we invoke this category in the future, but that doesn’t mean it needs to go away. It stands as a reminder of what page we’re on and our commitment to engendering interactive games.

Meeting one (or more) criteria on the Banned List is not a guarantee of a ban. Some cards fit the description, but either aren’t problematic enough to justify a ban, are largely eschewed by the casual community, or possess other redeeming factors. Cards are evaluated by their general use, not simply their worst-case scenario. Similar cards may have just enough difference to put them on opposite sides of the line.

It’s an important point to note that we look at individual cards individually, not in comparison to others. Cascading bans (“if this, then that”) will lead to an undesirable and unmanageable list. We don’t want to pretend that there is objectively a best list, since our objective for the format is decidedly subjective. Would banning or unbanning one more topple the delicate balance? Not likely. Is it a road we want to start traveling down? Not really.

Additionally, other Commander styles (such as 1v1, Duel Commander, or more competitively-oriented groups) are not taken into consideration when evaluating how problematic a card is. Groups who seek a different experience are encouraged to discuss local changes to optimize their play experience. This Banned List is for players who are looking for the traditional Commander experience when they’re not interacting with their local social groups.

Despite repeated insistence that certain things aren’t included in our criteria, this is the one which seems to continue tripping up folks. Again, we’re not suggesting there is anything wrong with any particular way to play, we’ve simply created a different one. There needs to be many kinds of Magic to keep the game alive; Commander is merely one of them. We don’t want to make it more like other formats, we want to make it less so, while still maintaining the link to the core of the Magic experience. This philosophy of distance and difference is what has made Commander the most successful casual format in the history of Magic. We intend to keep it that way.

This week’s Deck Without Comment is Karador Do-Over.

Karador Do Over
Sheldon Menery
Test deck on 02-12-2015

Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:


Purple Hippos and Maro Sorcerers; Kresh Into the Red Zone; Halloween with Karador; Dreaming of Intet; You Did This to Yourself;



Heliod, God of Enchantments; Thassa, God of Merfolk; Erebos and the Halls Of The Dead; Forge of Purphoros; Nylea of the Woodland Realm; Karn Evil No. 9


Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; You Take the Crown, I’ll Take Leovold; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever;

Shards and Wedges

Adun’s Toolbox; Animar’s Swarm; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke’s Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith’s Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; Zombies of Tresserhorn

Four Color

Yidris: Money for Nothing, Cards for Free; Saskia Unyielding;


Children of a Greater God


Animar Do-Over; Karador Do-Over; Karador Version 3; Karrthus Do-Over; Steam-Powered Merieke Do-Over; Mimeoplasm Do-Over; Phelddagrif Do-Over; Rith Do-Over; Ruhan Do-Over

If you’d like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that’s been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group “Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers.”