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Let’s Talk About The Banned List

Sheldon Menery is opening up and giving you an inside look at the philosophies and history of Commander’s ban list. If you’ve ever wondered why some cards are not okay and others are, there’s a good chance you’ll find your answer here!

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<p>The Commander Banned List is the most often-discussed, frequently disagreed-upon, and outright contentious part of the format. Sure, there’s the ever-present casual versus competitive argument, but that’s generally part of the larger discussion. What I want to focus on here is how we sculpt a vision of the format and then implement it. </p>
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<p>I’ve always said that there’s more art than science to it, which is part of the problem we run into—most folks expect such an undertaking to be more objective and have squarer edges. I’m here to tell you that things are fuzzy at best. Managing a format like Commander is radically different from formats which are by design meant for tournament play. The types of objective measures—specifically tournament data—which Wizards of the Coast uses to craft banned lists for formats like Standard or Legacy simply don’t apply (and aren’t available) to us. </p>
<p>For one, we don’t consider tournaments as a factor of any kind. In case you want more background, here’s the <a href=Philosophy document. I’ll be referencing certain parts of it as we go along, especially as I talk about the various whys and why nots of things. This article is focused most strongly toward newer players, but no harm in those of you who have been around a while getting a little refresher.

Commander is a format unlike any other in that winning the game is not the sole objective. This, as Frank Zappa would say, is the crux of the biscuit. Different people will argue what they think is the most important goal; for us, it’s creating the whole experience. We understand that in any game, there are victory conditions. We’ve taken the game of Magic and added a new one which is pretty clear and easily understandable (21 damage from a single commander) and one which is conceptually nebulous but still inherent to the format’s success: creating epic, memorable games with a high shared enjoyment factor. There are obviously no beans we can count which will verify the latter. We have to rely on anecdotal evidence and second-order effects. Those which we’ve seen so far indicate that we’re headed in the right direction.

I want to preface this entire discussion by noting that because our goals are not specifically objective, it’s easy to contend that they’re pretty much whatever adjective you want to use (inconsistent, nonsensical, transcendent, amazing), and taken in certain contexts, you might not be wrong. You can’t take a hard measure and apply it to a soft goal; hence my contention of art versus science as it applies to the format.

Of course, there’s an argument that once an artist produces a piece of work, it no longer belongs to the producer, but to the consumer, an argument I understand but nonetheless reject (and I’ll say that debate regarding the philosophy of ownership is well beyond the scope of this particular discussion). The entire time we’ve run this format, our message has been “here’s what we’re doing, hope you follow along.” That spirit continues, and it’s how we’ll take Commander into the future.

The whole idea behind Commander, back when it was still Elder Dragon Highlander, was to create and promote a format that wasn’t like anything else being played—not just from the rules set, but the atmosphere. I wanted to capture that “kitchen table, drink a few beers with your friends, and do stuff that made everyone laugh” spirit that I knew was going on in casual games around the world. I was already thinking along these lines when the guys up in Alaska showed me the mechanics for the format. It took me a while (and I mean more than a year) to come around to the idea that I could marry the two, but once that was the case, we had a direction.

Fast forward to now, and we still want that to be the heart of Commander: “beer and pretzels” Magic. Yes, the game is necessarily more sophisticated than it was in 2004 or 2005. The hobby is simply larger, leading to more diverse opinions and ideas about what people would like to get out the format. There’s nothing wrong with any of them (although I’ll simply never be able to process why someone would want to be a griefer—I understand that it happens, but I simply can’t plug into intentionally wanting to make other people miserable while engaging in a pastime).

While we’ve adapted a bit in light of the expanding player base, the core of the vision is unchanged—but managing the banned list has become ever trickier. We maintain a philosophy, but like the entire format, the edges of the philosophy are a little blurry (and that’s okay with us) because even the banning criteria are not completely objective. As we’ve said before, it’s a confluence of factors in the banning criteria which will get a card banned, not necessarily a single one—although Interacts Badly with the Structure of Commander can definitely be a single-shot criterion.

A frequent suggestion we hear from the player base is “just ban more cards.” Under the criteria we’ve listed, we could ban a number of additional cards. We might even be able to unban a few. Over-control is the path to madness. This is where we’re trying to manage our way by nudging the attitude jets instead of turbo-boosting the rockets. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to think that another 50 or 100 cards could go on the list—at which point, the format collapses under the weight of it (which is a lesson we learned from the Prismatic format, and it’s a quagmire we’re simply not going to get into).

I’m not absolutely certain if the tipping point is fifteen cards or 50, but it’s in there somewhere. As we mention in the philosophy document, “cascading” bans (if this is banned, then you have to ban that) creates a problem because it will almost never end until the format is vanilla (and none of us want that). I’m here to tell you that there is no objectively perfect banned list. What we are doing is making what we see as the best representative list. Such a list both eliminates the worst offenders and provides folks with an idea of the kinds of other cards they might want to avoid.

Of course, there are folks who will say that if it’s not specifically banned, then it’s fair game. They’re right—to an extent. Part of managing the list is opening the door for diverse styles of play. If we over-manage and provide only a single play style, the format will wither.

I might dislike sitting down with a game featuring Winter Orb, but I like that Winter Orb gives players an opportunity to combat what they might see as other over-represented strategies. This is where personal choice comes in. Part of my hope (it’d be disingenuous for me to say that it was part of the design) is that people use the banned list not merely as the cutoff point, but as a further suggestion for cards that merit consideration. Not that you shouldn’t play them, but that you might want to seriously think about the kind of game you’re creating if you do.

Thinking about the cards you’re playing applies not just to closed groups, but when you’re going out into what (fellow RC member) Gavin Duggan dubbed “untrusted” games. You have to be aware that you might see cards and decks which you don’t appreciate, but that doesn’t mean you have to play them yourself. Talk to folks before you sit down to a game with them to see where they are philosophically compared to where you are. Obviously, if you’re going to play in an event with prizes, you have to be aware that you’re going to be in for people not caring if you enjoy yourself or not. Forewarned is forearmed.

The difficult part for us, of course, is that we do have to manage to a line. Cards are either on the banned list or not. One of the displeasures I hear from players is about “shadow banned” cards—those which aren’t on the list but the RC doesn’t want you to play. There’s no such thing. Sure, there are legal cards which some of us aren’t fans of, but I’ll return to the diversity argument. It may sound contradictory, but I think it’s a good thing that the threat of Armageddon exists while at the same time thinking that games which frequently feature Armageddon are bad.

Constantly taking away everyone else’s ability to play the game, which is an effective way to win and a less effective way to make friends, is different from punishing over-committing or over-reliance on a strategy. Honestly, I find Acidic Soil a better answer against the ramp decks than Armageddon, but your mileage is welcome to vary. The main point here is that a more open list provides more opportunity in both play style and response to style.

The Banned List is designed to create as many good games of Commander as possible. We can’t, short of that unwieldy list, make every game great (and even then, it’s probably a pipe dream). What we can do is what we’ve been doing all along: sculpt a framework for good games. At issue, of course, is that “good games” is hardly objective.

What good games are to us are games which last long enough to be compelling, where epic things occur, and where everyone has an opportunity to make something happen. Even amongst RC members, the number turns in “long enough” is slightly different; personally, ten has become my benchmark. If you Tooth and Nail on turn 15 for Mike and Trike (Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion), I won’t call it unreasonable. It’s a little boring since that’s relatively worn-out combo, but still fair.

On turn 5, not so much. For us, games in which someone combos out quickly simply aren’t good games. For one, if a game ends too quickly, there’s no chance to get into the spirit of the game; players are left deflated by being a spectator instead of participant. We’d like to prevent that as much as possible.

I can hear many of you thinking “well, just ban Tooth and Nail.” If it were only so simple. Tooth and Nail (in combination with a number of cards) is one (admittedly efficient) way of ending a game right away; it’s hardly the only one. It might even be the best—although something has to be.

Others might argue that we just ban mana acceleration. That can’t happen without getting rid of (conservatively) a hundred cards. What we’ve done is gotten rid of the worst offenders, like Channel. Here’s where the Sol Ring / Mana Crypt argument is likely to come up. Here is also where there is considerable disagreement if either provides too much mana too quickly.

We currently stand on the line that they don’t—but we fully admit it’s close. Sol Ring in particular is an iconic card which we feel draws people to the format (or at least provides an additional draw once they’ve discovered it). If it’s on the line, it gets a little benefit of the doubt. That, and we don’t think that in a multiplayer game it provides too much too quickly. It’s undeniably strong on turn 1 and gets weaker with each passing turn. Sometimes, it helps fuel the awesome stuff which fans of the format love to see. Occasionally, it fuels something broken. Getting the former is enough to put up with the latter.

The Banned List will always be a source of contention, because not everyone who plays the format agrees what the purpose of the list is; even if they agree on purpose, there will be disagreements on implementation. I even suspect that if each member of the RC were to individually and independently put together their “as close to perfect” lists, we’d get five slightly different lists. From a very knotty piece of wood, we’ve carved what we consider a rather nice statue. We understand that it’s a living work of art and will continue to make sure that the rough edges get sanded off.

Commander Rotisserie Draft League Update

We’ve played four more games since I reported on the first one. I’ll be doing a play-by-play in an upcoming episode, but I’ll tell you now to have your seatbelt ready. All the games we’ve played so far have been involved, complex, and wild, with something epic (or at least highly splashy) happening every time.

In Game 2, Shea lived the dream and killed me by casting Agonizing Demise on my Serra Avatar (although it was “only” a 56/56). Game 3 got a little silly when both Todd and I cloned Michael’s Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge. In Game 5, Michael got the complete sweep of killing everyone and dealing the most damage, although no two players died at the same time. It turns out Nekusar, the Mindrazer (which is another popular thing to Clone) and Dictate of Purphoros can deal damage pretty quickly. In the early part of that game, he had Teferi’s Puzzle Box on the battlefield and I debated whether or not I should play the Planar Cleansing in my hand, even though it would destroy my own Rhystic Study. I did indeed play it—and it was a good thing, because he flashed in Dictate of Purphoros in my end step and had Nekusar at the ready.

We’ve established a pattern that, as the only control player, I’ve been the one who has been targeted to get killed first. It’s not necessarily that my battlefield position is strongest (my utility creatures are good and all, but I need to do some more beating down), but that I can prevent lots of stuff from happening through various blinking shenanigans.

Stonehorn Dignitary is already a hated card, especially when equipped with Blade of Selves. In Game 4, Michael Cloned Stonehorn Dignitary and targeted me simply so I couldn’t get the myriad attack. I had no other creatures on the battlefield. The guys seem to fear my Coiling Oracle a great deal as well—and meanwhile, big creatures from other players are dealing out big damage. The situation has led me to be the first player out in three of the five games, a trend that I suspect will continue unless I shift things around some.

I’ll have to either seriously commit to the control game or turn the deck via the next few waiver wire picks into something more aggressive. I’m considering going with the latter, but I think it will be easier to move the deck in the former direction. Of course, I could also head along with “you did this to yourself” lines, although a number of those cards are also in red (such as Reflect Damage). Five games isn’t really enough to get a complete sense of how the deck will function in the environment, so I’ll avoid making too many changes too quickly.

After three weeks, we’ve all had three picks from the waiver wire. Unlike the Commander 2015 League, in which we picked a new card after each game, we only get one pick per week in this one, since the decks were already mostly built to our specifications. In Week 2, Shea’s choice of dropping one of his commanders was surprising, but he realized that he hadn’t much built around her (plus he can always pick her back up during the new set draft).

Week 1

Keith: Crypt Incursion in; Korozda Gorgon out.

Michael: Hive Mind in; Tempt with Reflections out.

Shea: Hammer of Purphoros in; Alliance of Arms out.

Me: Angelic Chorus in; Garruk’s Packleader out.

Todd: Wonder in; Avalanche Riders out.

Week 2

Keith: Doubling Season in; Spirit of the Labyrinth out.

Michael: Tidespout Tyrant in; Elemental Augury out.

Shea: Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded in; Alesha, Who Smiles at Death out.

Me: Dueling Grounds in; Slithermuse out.

Todd: Molten Primordial in; Conclave Naturalists out.

Week 3

Keith: Necrogenesis in; Ghave, Guru of Spores out.

Michael: Etherium-Horn Sorcerer in; Terrain Generator out.

Shea: Sacred Foundry in; Basilisk Collar out.

Me: Terminus in; Elemental Bond out.

Todd: Equilibrium in; Shardless Agent out.

This week’s Deck Without Comment is Animar’s Swarm.

Commander

Check out our awesome Deck List Database for the last versions of all my decks:

ADUN’S TOOLBOX;
ANIMAR’S SWARM;
AURELIA GOES TO WAR;
CHILDREN of a LESSER GOD;
DEMONS OF KAALIA;
EREBOS and the HALLS OF THE DEAD;
GLISSA, GLISSA;
HELIOD, GOD OF ENCHANTMENTS;
DREAMING OF INTET;
FORGE OF PURPHOROS;
KARN, BEATDOWN GOLEM;
HALLOWEEN WITH KARADOR;
KARRTHUS, WHO RAINS FIRE FROM THE SKY;
KRESH INTO THE RED ZONE;
LAVINIA BLINKS;
LAZAV, SHAPESHIFTING MASTERMIND;
ZOMBIES OF TRESSERHORN;
MELEK’S MOLTEN MIND GRIND;
MERIEKE’S ESPER CONTROL;
THE MILL-MEOPLASM;
MIMEOPLASM DO-OVER;
NATH of the VALUE LEAF;
NYLEA OF THE WOODLAND REALM;
OBZEDAT, GHOST KILLER;
PURPLE HIPPOS and MARO SORCERERS;
ZEGANA and a DICE BAG;
RITH’S TOKENS;
YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF;
RURIC THAR AND HIS BEASTLY FIGHT CLUB;
THASSA, GOD OF MERFOLK;
THE ALTAR of THRAXIMUNDAR;
TROSTANI and HER ANGELS;
THE THREAT OF YASOVA;
RUHAN DO-OVER;
KARADOR DO-OVER;
KARRTHUS 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 and this summer will be running a prequel to our saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor), ask for an invitation to the Facebook group “Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers.”