Searching For Specs On The Commander Banned List

Magic speculators are all over Banned List changes to Modern and Legacy, but what about paper Commander? Chas Andres shares his insights!

A few weeks ago, the Commander Rules Committee decided to unban Protean Hulk. Financially, the results were immediate: within half an hour, a card that used to be easy to find under $5 had quadrupled in price. Protean Hulk is an easy $20 now, and there’s enough interest from actual Commander players for me to feel like the new price will stick. If you’d had a boxful of $3 Protean Hulks—not an unreasonable hold—you’d have no problem turning that profit into a Tier 1 Modern deck right now.

People speculate on cards coming off the Modern and Legacy banned lists all the time, but I rarely see anyone talking about cards that are banned in (paper) Commander. Perhaps it’s because the unban decisions are made by the Commander Rules Committee instead of Wizards of the Coast, and thus they can feel harder to predict. Perhaps it’s because figuring out what’s “too good” in a casual setting is more difficult than in a competitive arena. I’ll admit this week’s article is going to have wider error bars than it would if I were writing about Modern.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. There’s a lot of potential profit at stake, and I feel like I’ve got enough a good enough understanding of Commander to pick out a few cards that have a shot at getting unbanned. Before we get to the meat and potatoes, though, let’s ask ourselves a really important question:

Why Unban a Card?

The first thing I was tempted to do when writing this article was to compare each banned card to something that’s still legal in the format. For example, can you really justify having Mox Pearl banned when both Sol Ring and Mana Crypt are totally fine? To me, Sol Ring seems like the more powerful card in almost every situation. Does that mean that Mox Pearl has a shot at being unbanned?

No. Power level is only one of the things that the Commander Rules Committee considers when deciding to ban a card, and it’s important that we analyze these cards based on the criteria that they use to make their decisions. In this particular case, the fact that Mox Pearl is an inaccessible card for 99% of Commander players must be factored in.

Momentum matters, too. If a borderline card is already on the banned list, there needs to be a compelling reason to make it legal again. For example, unbanning Protean Hulk opened up a few interesting new design avenues. You don’t have to be a fan of the card to see the potential for it to make deckbuilding and gameplay decisions more fun. Does the same thing apply to a utility spell like Ancestral Recall, even if it were more accessible? I doubt it.

Luckily for us, the official Commander website has a living document that lays out their philosophy for the format as a whole and their banned list in particular. As we go forward, I’m going to use the Commander Rules Committee’s own categories to structure my analysis as best I can. That way, I can avoid falling into the trap of not realizing why a particular card is on the list to begin with.

Now that we’ve got an angle of attack, let’s take a look at the list. The Commander banned list starts with the Vintage banned list and then adds an additional 38 cards. Deviating from the Vintage list would require a pretty large change in format philosophy, so I’m going ignore that possibility for now. Instead, I’ll do my best to categorize the remaining 38 cards in an attempt to search for interesting outliers and good spec buys. Let’s start with:

Cards That Create a Perceived High Barrier to Entry

From the Rules Committee: “Commander is a socially welcoming format with a vast cardpool. 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.”

Every card on this list will set you back hundreds of dollars and give you a distinct advantage over anyone who doesn’t have access to those same resources. We might have been able to have a talk about Library of Alexandria had it been reprinted a few dozen times, but unbanning any of these cards now would frustrate all but the wealthiest Commander players and I can’t see how legalizing any of these power cards would lead to a more diverse or fun format. Let’s pass on these for now.

Cards That Create Undesirable Game States

From the Rules Committee: “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.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! Let’s discuss all each these cards in turn.

Limited Resources cannot be legal in a multiplayer format, period. As much as I’d love to suggest buying copies of a 50-cent Reserved List rare, there’s no way it comes off the list. This is practically the definition of “massive overall resource imbalance.”

Painter’s Servant is neither a likely unban nor an affordable spec. I suppose the Rules Committee could remove it from the list while sticking Grindstone back on, but that would be reversing a deliberate decision that was made several years ago. I don’t see it.

Balance is just about the least-balanced card in the history of Magic. It’s a great way to completely decimate a couple of people early on in your multiplayer game, and it rarely leads to fun or interesting interactions. It’s also not a great spec even if it were to be unbanned—too many copies are out there.

Sundering Titan is an annoying lock in a format where blink effects are incredibly common. Again, I think this card is too good at creating the sort of game where only one person at the table can execute their plan while everyone else is locked out. I can’t see this one coming back any time soon.

Sway of the Stars, Worldfire, and Upheaval all create unpleasant scenarios where one player can create a bunch of mana, float half of it, cast one of these spells, and then rebuild very quickly based on whatever you cast in the second half of your turn. The Commander Rules Committee doesn’t seem to like games that end this way, so all three of these cards are banned.

Even though these three cards are extreme long shots to come off the list, Sway of the Stars intrigues me. It’s a bulk rare that’s only been printed in Betrayers of Kamigawa, meaning that your $0.49 purchase would end up breaking $10 if Sway suddenly became legal. It’s the very definition of low risk, low chance of payout, but incredibly high reward. I’m keeping a few copies socked away, and you should too.

Recurring Nightmare is a beloved casual card, and it’s the single spell on here that I’d be the happiest to see return. Graveyard removal is a lot better now than it was when Recurring Nightmare was banned, and I don’t think it would warp the format too much.

That said, it’s easy to end up in a really frustrating game state against Recurring Nightmare where it’s just impossible to interact with the card. I’m not holding my breath for it to return. The price would jump from $12 to $40+ if it did, though, so I’m keeping a couple of copies around just in case.

Coalition Victory is a “whoops, I win!” card that very few people seem to like. I don’t think that it deserves to be on this list for power level reasons, but it’s incredibly annoying to play against. It’s a reasonable spec at just $0.49, but I’d rather go in on the higher upside of Biorhythm. It’s more interesting to build around, fewer copies exist, and there are plenty of times where casting it doesn’t just result in an instant win. I can imagine a world in which this card comes off the list and ends up in the $5-$7 range after a brief spike to $10. I’m in for a couple of sets.

Panoptic Mirror is a really interesting target as well. It’s degenerate in certain cases, sure, but it’s expensive to play and expensive to activate, and the fun potential is off the charts. You can buy these for less than $3, and it would end up at $20—Protean Hulk territory—if it were unbanned. I’m probably underestimating the number of people who are immediately going to stick this in a deck with two dozen hard lock spells to imprint, but if I were in charge I’d at least think about finding a way to make Panoptic Mirror a thing again.

Cards That Produce Too Much Mana Too Quickly

From the Rules Committee: “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.”

Tolarian Academy would break $50 if it were unbanned, but it won’t be. Ditto Fastbond, which has a negligible drawback in a world where you begin at 40 life.

Channel was legal during Commander’s earliest years, but I don’t think you can bring it back in a world where the Eldrazi titans exist. Even if it were unbanned, it wouldn’t be a great spec. Enough copies exist that I doubt it would gain more than a dollar or two long-term.

Cards With Problematic Casual Omnipresence

From the Rules Committee: “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.”

Tinker and Gifts Ungiven both combine with too many other easy inclusions. Of the two, I think Gifts Ungiven is more likely to end up appearing in decks that are both fun and fair. Multiple Modern Masters reprints have tanked the value considerably, though, so there’s not a ton of financial upside here regardless.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn would be the best finisher in the format if you were allowed to play it. It creates boring, same-y ramp decks that all win the game the same way. It sees enough play in Modern and Legacy that I doubt the price would move much if it were unbanned, either.

Sylvan Primordial scales up too well in a multiplayer formal. Once you’re grabbing a ton of land and destroying five or six permanents, it becomes absurd. As much as I’d like this card to be legal again (I have at least a hundred copies in a box somewhere), I can’t see it.

Prophet of Kruphix was banned fairly recently, and it’s one of the more controversial inclusions on the list. I don’t think that it’s more powerful or omnipresent than many other cards that are still legal, though it was a vocal minority of people who really hate playing against it. I can imagine it coming off the list at some point in the future, once the heat has died down. At just over a buck per copy, I’m in for a few sets.

Primeval Titan seems like the exact sort of card that Commander was made for. It was certainly omnipresent before it was banned, but I’m not convinced it has a strongly negative impact on the games in which it appears. It also has a lot of fans that are pushing for it to become legal again. It’s not a cheap spec—Modern interest has kept the price around $12—but it would end up around $25 if it were unbanned in Commander. If you can trade for a few of these and sock them away, you should.

Cards That Interact Poorly with the Structure of Commander

From the Rules Committee: “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.”

Karakas is stupid in a format where everyone is trying to play their favorite legendary creature, and I can’t imagine a world where it comes off the banned list. The same goes for Trade Secrets, a card that allows two players to collude in order to draw their entire decks. It just cannot exist in a multiplayer format.

Griselbrand and Yawgmoth’s Bargain are similar to Fastbond and Channel in that their brokenness is taken up a notch in a world where life begins at 40. In addition, these two cards warp the game even if they’re removed right away. That said, Yawgmoth’s Bargain is a $6 card right now and it would probably hit $40 if it were unbanned. It’s an incredible long shot, but you’ll look like a genius if it hits.

The Rules Committee lumps problematic commanders into this section, but I wanted to separate them out so that we could discuss them each in turn. Here they are:

Cards That Are Degenerate Commanders

Up until about three years ago, there were two separate lists: banned in Commander, and banned as a Commander. Back then, you could play Braids as one of your 99—you just couldn’t use her to lead your crew.

Could this rule change back? Sure! Sheldon Menery (who helps craft these rules) wrote about the possibility back in March. According to Sheldon, Braids would likely be unbanned, Rofellos could be considered for reinstatement, and Erayo would stay on the banned list. His article was written before the Leovold ban, but I suspect he’d fall somewhere between Braids and Rofellos.

Even if Braids, Cabal Minion does return, she makes for a poor spec. An Eternal Masters bulk rare, I can’t see her breaking $3 or $4 at her absolute ceiling. Foils might go from $4 to $7 or $8, but that’s it. I remain unexcited.

Rofellos is a longer shot, since it could easily be added to the “Cards That Make Too Much Mana Too Quickly” section, but it has some really enticing financial upside. It’s $13 now, but it would break $40 if it were unbanned in Commander. I’d like to at least own one or two copies just in case.

This Week’s Trends

There wasn’t a ton of movement in Standard this week, and the format’s post-Pro Tour momentum appears to have slowed. Anointed Procession, Sweltering Suns, and Metallic Mimic made negligible gains, but everything else has either stayed stable or begun to drop off a bit.

The summer is usually a bear market in Standard, and I doubt the continued dominance of Aetherworks Marvel is helping things right now. If you have any extra Standard cards lying around, consider trying to move that value into casual or Modern stuff over the next couple of weeks. You can buy back into Standard when it bottoms out in mid-August.

One big piece of Standard news: Fatal Push will be the FNM promo in September. Not only is this going to help keep the price of the card from pushing past $10, it’ll drive crazy some pretty crazy tournament attendance that month. I don’t think that this promo printing will affect the current price of the card, but it will limit the card’s future growth somewhat.

Over in Modern, things were pretty quiet as well. Between the Standard Pro Tour and the holiday weekend, price charts stayed fairly flat. Leyline of Sanctity and Runed Halo inched up a bit. Tarmogoyf and Eldrazi Temple dropped slightly. There’s more noise than signal here, and I wouldn’t read too much into any of it.

In the world of casual Magic, -1/-1 counters are still the flavor of the week. Mirage’s Harbinger of Night was the latest spike, and it probably would have gone up in price weeks ago had anyone remembered that the card existed. Blowfly Infestation and Devoted Druid also saw secondary surges as they continue to build on last month’s gains. I’m still selling all of this stuff into hype—at some point, the Commander community will move on to something else and all of these cards will get significantly harder to find buyers for.

Speaking of new Commander strategies, some very convincing images from one of the four Commander 2017 decks were leaked last week. The photos were convincing enough to make me feel pretty certain that the deck is real. If so, we’re getting a pretty sweet five-color Spirit Dragon deck in the fall.

The rest of the community seems to have been convinced as well, a position that caused Reserved List card Zirilan of the Claw to jump from $5 to $25 overnight. Foil copies of Dragon Tempest were bought out as well, and more spikes are on the way.

If you’re speculating along these lines, here are a few potential targets: Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker; Sarkhan Unbroken; Dragon Arch; Crux of Fate; Crucible of Fire; Dragonstorm; and all five of the mythic Dragons from Dragons of Tarkir.

These are all very low-risk specs at their price floors with a reasonable shot to see meaningful increases in value. Just make sure that you don’t accidentally buy cards that are already in the deck, like Crucible of the Spirit Dragon, Haven of the Spirit Dragon, Scion of the Ur-Dragon, and Bladewing the Risen. Foil copies of these cards should increase once this deck hits shelves, but non-foils will drop in price. Sell your extras ASAP.