Standard- And Modern-Legal Commander: Dream Or Nightmare?

In this thought exercise, Sheldon takes a look at a Standard-legal Commander deck and considers the pros and cons of Standard-legal and Modern-legal Commander.

On a recent Thursday, I was hanging at Armada Games with a bunch of regulars. One of those regulars, young Tom Delia, said that he’d built a Standard-legal Commander deck that could hold its own with normal decks. I raised an eyebrow and asked him to bring it next time. He shipped me the list, which I’ve included below. I’ll likely see him this week and we’ll sling a few games with it, but more importantly, it got me thinking about variants of the format where either Standard or Modern legality rule the day. Let’s first look at that deck.

I’ll let Tom have first crack at explaining things to you:

“The motion of the ocean for this deck is rather simple. I made it to showcase some undervalued Standard cards and to still “hang with the big boys.” Zegana is the perfect general because she allows you to get back in the game with the overwhelming card advantage she offers. There are some notable cards that aren’t included that could easily go into the deck if you felt inclined. Both Deadeye Navigator and Craterhoof Behemoth were a little too obvious. Honestly, it’s getting annoying playing these cards because the games just end. If your “meta” is rather competitive though, I can easily see running them!”

I think the deck has the element of playability to it. It’ll get you running with some inexpensive guys, and, like Tom mentions, it lets Prime Speaker refill your hand. It has a few control elements and a few tricks. I agree with Tom in showcasing some of those undervalued cards. Pound for pound, this deck is still a bit of a welterweight, which isn’t really a sin. I think it has plenty of fight in it.

Other than Cyclonic Rift, we haven’t seen too many overload cards in the format (I expected a little more Mizzium Mortars), so I really like the choice of Blustersquall. A few other of my favorites include:

Aetherize: Effectively a Fog with the added benefit of getting rid of token creatures for good.

Back from the Brink: Since there are no real recursion elements in the deck, this will let you get a second use out of creatures.

Creeping Renaissance: Part of the format is about getting to reuse your weapons. Creeping Renaissance lets you do that twice.

Gutter Grime: Once you’ve invested the five mana, it costs you nothing to replace your creatures. Eventually, they’re going to be quite large. When a board sweeper happens, you get to replace your whole team, and they’re going to be mammoth. Combine with Akroma’s Memorial for someone else’s Wrath (or even your own if you had one—something to think about for you folks with G/W decks) getting somebody killed.

Rain of Thorns: A little better than Decimate because you don’t need one of everything to cast it. You pay for that flexibility with two more mana, but since red isn’t a choice for this deck anyway, the card is quite reasonable.

Ranger’s Path: Most of the time, you don’t need the Skyshroud Claim advantage of putting them in untapped. Worthwhile card at a bargain price.

Silklash Spider: Clearly more defensively minded than many creatures at its mana cost, at a certain point Silklash gives you nearly complete control of the skies.

Simic Charm: When I reviewed the set, I was kind of ambivalent about Simic Charm. I’ll amend that to agree with the forum poster who said that I’d probably never be sad to draw it.

Sleep: A criminally underplayed card. Another effective Fog in that you can’t get battled by that player, and it opens the door for your attacks.

I’m not much of a fan of Beguiler of Wills, but that’s the only card I dislike. There are enough enters-the-battlefield creatures for the Deadeye Navigator that Tom mentions to make a showing in the deck. Craterhoof Behemoth is probably also reasonable, although if I could only choose one additional fatty to play, it’d be Sylvan Primordial. Yes, if ramped out early, it’s a nasty card. Otherwise, it’s a reasonable card that will take care of some problems. I’d like to find room for Diluvian Primordial as well, as much to get rid of the kinds of instants and sorceries that people like to recur as for just playing them myself (which is still probably pretty good).

Otherwise, I’m interested to see if the deck will indeed be able to stand up to what we normally get in the League and in casual games at the shop. It looks like it should. I guess we’ll see.

Thoughts on Standard-Legal Commander

I’ll be honest: my first thought was, “I don’t want to have to rotate cards out of my decks unless I really want to.” I love messing with my cards when I really want to, but being under the gun to do so just plain sucks. That said, let’s explore this a little.


Potentially makes the format more accessible to newer players.

Promotes play of cards that wouldn’t otherwise see play.

Less chance to do broken things too early in the game.

Might not need a banned list or banned list is very small.

Working upward, the last point is my favorite. I don’t think there are any easily assembled infinite combos or sufficient ramp to get broken things out too early. Griselbrand might still be ban-worthy, but otherwise I don’t see much of a list. I really like the idea, as Tom mentions above, of playing some underrepresented cards. As far as the first thought goes, I’m not actually sure that’s the case, but it could be.


Limited number of commanders.

Unavailability of cards printed specifically for the format.

Removes significant part of the format’s attraction.

Constant forced rotation of cards.

Fewer strategic and thematic options.

Right away, I thought of having a small number of available commanders (27 is the current count). I suspect that there would be a few like Prime Speaker and Grimgrin, maybe Aurelia, which would get overplayed. Although we could make an exception for all them, the cards from the Commander precons wouldn’t be legal. A great deal of the attraction Commander has is being able to play old cards, both janky ones and favorites from bygone days. Being forced to remove a third to half of your deck during rotations would be painful.

Finally, I don’t see the room for broad strategy and theme options. We have a smaller number of viable tribes. The smaller card pool would prevent doing other creative theme decks. I also don’t see the possibility for any kind of control-oriented decks because of the limited card pool, especially in reset buttons. Despite my personal preferences, I appreciate the diversity in decks the format has available to it. I like the challenge of playing my creature-heavy decks at a table with the guy with ten Wrath effects. It might be possible that because of the lack of super ramp, we’d need fewer board sweepers as protection, but I don’t think so. I’d be happy about no easy/early combo decks, but I’d miss the wacky five-piece/nearly-impossible-to-assemble things we see in the format.

All in all, I think Standard-legal Commander would be pretty bad. It just doesn’t feel like we’d ever be using the terms “battlecruiser” or “epic” to describe our games. I think that while, as Tom has shown us, there might be viable Standard-legal decks, Standard-legal Commander as a format just won’t fly.

What About Modern?

I think that this becomes a slightly more interesting discussion.


High-quality commanders.

Larger card pool.

No rotation.

Sufficiently close to “full” Commander.

Small banned list.

Gatherer lists 292 legendary creatures in Modern. There are more than enough to choose from that you can have many choices in your chosen colors. The Mirrodin-forward card pool also provides enough choice. The fact that nothing will rotate out is a major plus. I think one of the major draws to EDH is that it’s an Eternal format. Modern Commander would be enough like the full format to keep most of its identity.

The banned list would obviously be smaller, although I’m pretty sure none of the Modern-legal cards on the current list would come off. Off the top of my head, there’d be a reasonable argument for unbanning Painter’s Servant, but I’d want to give that a great deal more thought. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, already a card that lots of people have their eye on, would get some serious consideration for banning.


Commander-specific cards still illegal.

No “old favorites.”

Although the list of cons is shorter than the pros, not all things are equal. Again, we could make an exception for the Commander product cards, but it’d be a step to take. Much of the identity of the format is tied up in older cards or at least their availability. I don’t even really think it’s the dual lands; it’s some of the cards we have a real fondness for from the ancient times, like the often-discussed Survival of the Fittest. For me, it’s about some of the jank like Red Elemental Blast.

I looked at all of my decks to see how many cards I’d have to remove to make them Modern-legal. This includes Commander cards as not legal but doesn’t count anything on the Modern banned list (like Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Sensei’s Divining Top). The answers somewhat surprised me:

Adun Oakenshield 13 (5 lands); Animar, Soul of Elements 11 (3); Geist of Saint Traft 8 (3); Intet, the Dreamer 17 (4); Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord 10 (2); Karador, Ghost Chieftain 16 (7); Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund 21 (8); Kresh the Bloodbraided 25 (6); Lord of Tresserhorn 25 (14); Merieke Ri Berit 10 (5); Mimeoplasm 19 (3); Nath of the Gilt-Leaf 21 (4); Oros, the Avenger 16 (4); Phelddagrif 12 (5); Prime Speaker Zegana 15 (8); Rith, the Awakener 11 (4); Ruhan of the Fomori 20 (2); Thraximundar 16 (4); Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice 15 (5). My in-construction Obzedat deck is currently 21 (6).

I expected more of them to be over 20. It didn’t surprise me that the decks I’ve had together the longest, which are Lord of Tresserhorn and Kresh, were the highest, but especially with all the cool lands and a few format staples like Sol Ring, Command Tower, and Skyshroud Claim being on the outside, I simply expected everything to be higher.

Note, of course, that Animar, Karador, and Ruhan (three of my favorite decks) would be illegal because they’re in the Commander precons, as would Lord of Tresserhorn because it’s from Alliances. There are no replacements for Animar and Karador since the decks are built around the commanders. Ruhan has no replacement in the colors save for Numot, the Devastator. Lord of Tresserhorn could easily be replaced by Thraximundar because he’s Zombie as well.

Doing a quick scan of the Modern banned list, I can’t see anything that jumps out at me for immediate consideration for banning in Modern Commander. The two cards that I can see people wanting to have a discussion about are Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Sensei’s Divining Top, but I doubt they’re problematic.

I wouldn’t want to make a run at the format without the Commander cards being legal. It would just seem wrong. It would drop the numbers of illegal cards in those decks above by at least two (Command Tower and Sol Ring, although there are a few Sol Ring isn’t in), and three in the case of the green decks due to Yavimaya Elder. In most cases, each deck has at least one more card out of the Commander precons, with popular reprints like Akroma’s Vengeance, Anger, Aura Shards, the cycling lands, Insurrection, Living Death, Mother of Runes, Oblation, Reins of Power, Syphon Mind, and Wonder now being available. Of course, we add back in all the Commander-only cards—most importantly the legendary creatures printed for the set.

If we make the Commander precon cards legal, we would have to also make legal the cards from Commander’s Arsenal. The big hitters from the reprints there are Decree of Pain, Desertion, Mirari’s Wake, Rhystic Study, and Scroll Rack. Going down this road, we probably also include reprints from the Planechase and Archenemy sets that wouldn’t have been already legal plus new cards like Sakashima’s Student. Now, we have a format that’s starting to look quite a bit like “Vintage” Commander.

I want to make sure that no one thinks that this is a prelude to any RC decisions to branch off into Modern Commander. This whole thing was just a thought exercise which started with a Standard-legal deck and was followed with a tangent or two. Modern Commander—and when we say that, we’re definitely talking about having the Commander-specific cards legal—is clearly identifiable as the format we all love, just with a few missing elements.

We would lose other format favorites like Demonic, Enlightened, Mystical, Worldly, and Vampiric Tutor, and the Onslaught block fetchlands. In the trim, this isn’t a complete negative to me because it cuts down the chances for easily assembled combos. I don’t want to play Tutor-less or Mindlock Orb EDH, but eliminating a few cards wouldn’t hurt. Bone Shredder, Pernicious Deed, Oversold Cemetery, and Goblin Bombardment would be some of the cards that I’d miss the most. Fault Line is a favorite in my Intet deck. Ruhan would miss Reflect Damage and Mirror Strike, two of the major cards in its arsenal. Of course, we’d also lose the format’s original namesakes, the Elder Dragons.

In the end, I definitely wouldn’t give any real consideration to Standard-legal Commander. Modern-legal (adding the Commander products to it) Commander has some merit, but it would involve a fair amount of upset to existing fans of the format without giving them anything extra. One of the major draws to the format is playing forgotten cards from long-dead sets, and I wouldn’t want to take that away. It’s a thing I’d think about as an experiment (perhaps an eight-week League?) just to shake up things, but at this point, it’s nothing more than an idle dream on a lazy afternoon.