My 2021 Commander Year In Review Mailbag

Sheldon Menery opens the Commander mailbag for questions about the Banned List, the Rules Committee’s decision-making process, future MTG releases, and much, much more.

Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, illustrated by Joseph Meehan

I like doing AMAs because they’re both fun and challenging.  Sure, some of the same questions get repetitive, but the fun is digging through and finding the ones that are different.  It’s also important to help keep the community’s fingers on the pulse of how at least one of the Commander Rules Committee (RC) is thinking; often, I can also express our shared thoughts. 

We created a channel for my AMAs on the RC Discord server.  I pulled questions from there and also cross-posted to r/EDH and r/cEDH, where some folks asked questions of their own.  I couldn’t answer them all; I’ve tried to answer as many of them in those spots (that didn’t get answered here) as is reasonable.  There’s quite a bit to dig into here, so let’s get right to it. 

First up, from the Kamigawa: Neon Destiny preview we’ve seen so far, a question asked by multiple people:

Does Kaito Shizuki’s first ability trigger if he phased back in this turn?

Kaito Shizuki

No.  Permanents phasing out or back in don’t trigger zone-changing abilities.  Check out rule 702.26d for more details.  You’ll have to find another way to protect Kaito. 

From beard_umbra on Discord: 

What’s the biggest hurdle to making Commander better for everyone?

There are too many kinds of everyones to make everyone happy all the time.  The broad swath of players, play styles, goals, ideals, and preferences means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to anything.  Our best hope is to provide a stable environment and thoughtful stewardship to the format.  We have to stay true to our original ideal that Commander is something quite different from other formats.

From Thane Tawny on Discord:

Has the RC done any succession planning for when its members decide to retire or are otherwise unable to serve the community? What does bringing new RC members into the fold look like? Would the EDH community have any input (direct or indirect) into the process of approving new RC members?

The simple answer to the first part of the question is yes.  It’s a topic that’s been on my mind for several years now, with my health situation being one of the drivers as well as simple natural evolution.  It’s been nearly a decade since we’ve brought on someone new, and it’s about time.  This is a more involved issue than would present on the surface, though.  We all have ideas on what would make a great RC member. My personal thoughts include:

  • Resonance with the philosophy of Commander
  • The ability to articulate that position
  • The ability to positively engage with the community in their own fashion
  • Proactive thinking
  • Understanding where Commander sits in the larger Magic ecosystem
  • Ability to positively engage with Wizards of the Coast (WotC) — understanding the difference between independence and interdependence
  • Ability to tell WotC no and stand by it
  • Actual love of the format
  • Understanding of their ability to influence some trends and markets
  • Understanding of their ability to not influence some trends or markets in the least

The real bigger answer to the question is that it will have to be someone(s) to whom I will be comfortable turning over my legacy (not that everything that’s happened to/with Commander is my doing, but I’m comfortable saying that I’ve had a significant impact). 

The bigger bigger answer is that it’s important that the next someone(s) on the RC represent the broader community. We’re four 40-to-60-year old privileged cishet white guys.  The next person or people that join us must come from some other demographics.  Must, in the strongest language.    

The four of us have worked together for so long that it’s going to be difficult to integrate someone one, regardless of how exceptional that person is.  It will change the dynamic that has worked for a decade and a half.  I’d want to make sure that the person(s) feel and be part of the collective, not an outsider.  This might be the tallest order, but because we’re open to it happening, I think it will be a low hurdle.

As far as the community’s input, it will be indirect.  There’s not going to be a popular vote or anything.  After all, it’s the four of us deciding on who we can best make part of our team.  It also won’t be as straightforward as someone identified with a particular play style, whether that’s uber-casual or cEDH.  It will be someone with a broad portfolio. 

I think we’re all open to listening to the community’s ideas on this.  Since I just wrote nearly 500 words in answering you, perhaps it’s worth a full article and honest, open discussion. 

From Senatorious on Discord:

Will the RC ever become more transparent about its decision-making process and the data, if any, it uses to make those decisions? (note that this question got well more detailed; I encourage you to head over to the server and read it all in the AMA channel)

Transparency is a funny thing and a fair amount more nuanced than some folks expect.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, we have to be careful about what we say when it comes to nearly anything that’s even remotely on our radar because it can move markets.  In that way, we’re going to stay pretty conservative and stay careful while trying to be as open as possible—like mentioning, for example, that Tergrid, God of Fright is on our radar.

Reading the Philosophy Document, I think we’re already pretty transparent about the kinds of things that we consider in decision-making.  We’ve also been clear that we don’t treat Commander like other formats.  There’s no hard data—in the sense that I believe you’re talking about it—that we have, have the capability to collect, or more importantly, feel the need to have in order to make Commander the best format that it can be on its own terms. 

We don’t intend to turn Commander into a tournament format, so we simply don’t have the same kind of data requirements.  What we have is a sense of what we want from the format and quite a few years of experience in making it happen. I do encourage you and everyone to keep talking with us in the Discord channel for more ideas on how you think that we can be successfully more transparent. 

From multiple people: 

Are you banning Tergrid, God of Fright?

Tergrid, God of Fright

As I mention, we’ll talk about Tergrid in the upcoming meeting in January for the February update.  What would tip Tergrid over would be us seeing the same movement as we did with Hullbreacher: more players in “normal” games not being able to resist the urge to play the card.  I don’t think we’re there yet and I don’t think we’ve moved back to enough in-person play to make a decent judgment. 

From Phwoom on Reddit (paraphrased for brevity): 

Many of us do not have tight-knit play groups, instead playing pickup games in other spaces. The Philosophy Document can be a difficult starting point in this environment. People stick to the rules-as-written because that’s what we know everyone else will be sticking to. Pre-game conversations still happen and are the best way to make sure everyone has a good time, and games are usually casual. Does this method of playing the format go against the RC’s intent? Is this subgroup of commander players one that the RC is aware of and keeps in mind?

We think that Commander is best when played in established groups, but we of course know that that can’t be the case for everyone.  That’s why we want to have a strongly established Banned List, so players in pickup games can have a baseline for operations. We know that pregame conversations with strangers can’t always work, so that baseline helps. 

We definitely keep situations like this in mind.  The best thing we can do here is help offer players the language and tools they might need to navigate pregame conversations to make sure you’re finding the games that’ll serve you best.  Honestly, we believe that no game is better than a bad game.  Declining something that’s not up your alley is a tool to put into your box. 

From DunningK on Reddit:

Do you feel that the banning of Hullbreacher compromised a release of future Commander Masters-esque products? And do you feel WotC has a different idea for the future of Commander than the RC (as in more power creep)?


Compromised? No.  Set the stage for how they approach design in the future?  Absolutely.  One or two cards certainly won’t hinder them releasing quality future products full of the kinds of cards that Commander players love. 

After the Hullbreacher and Golos, Tireless Pilgrim bannings, which Studio X supported, by the way, they got the message on what we see as dangerous design space.  I think we’re closer philosophically with them today than we’ve ever been.  Standing up Melissa DeTora’s Casual Play team (featuring Commander Advisory Group member Elie of the Veil) is a step in that direction.  We’re not in perfect lock step, so you never know if there might be stuff that comes out which makes us on the RC a little twitchy, but I’m confident that it’ll be less likely going forward than it was previously.

From Dragon’s Mantra on Discord:

Can we get a list of cards that are being watched currently both for bannings and potential unbannings?

We’ve been clear on why we think a Watch List is a bad idea.  The relatively short answer to the question is that if lots of people are talking about a card, then we’re talking about it, too.  We also don’t believe in Banned List stasis, and we frequently examine the cards on it to see if there’s room for movement.  We want that list to be as short as possible for both clarity and accessibility’s sake.

From Wombat_luke on Reddit:

I’m curious about your relationship with WotC and potentially stepping on their toes.  You guys banned Hullbreacher, one of the four main chase cards from the premier Commander set for last year.  There was some discussion around not banning Walking Dead when it was released because it was a product just being released and WotC would be upset.  Is there a time frame where you are not allowed to ban cards from new products?

We have a strong relationship with WotC.  I have it directly from a Vice President that they’re comfortable with us doing whatever we need to do in managing the format, even if that means banning a card that they made, even for Commander.

Our action on Secret Lair x The Walking Dead had nothing to do with whether or not they’d be upset. The whole incident actually spurred a good discussion between us on how to prevent some of the PR problems that came from that particular release (that I’m not at liberty to share further details of).  The cards in that product simply aren’t bannable by any criteria that we’d use.

We have a great deal of discussion with the folks in Studio X, who, by the way, supported us making the decision to ban both Golos and Hullbreacher.  We talk directly with the main figures, like Gavin Verhey, Glenn Jones, Ethan Fleischer, and now Melissa De Tora and her Casual Play team (featuring CAG member Ellie of the Veil!).  They show us upcoming Commander product at various steps during the design process and solicit input and advice.  We’re thrilled at how good our relationship is with them at the moment, since they both actively include us and respect our independence. 

From Squirrelmob on Discord:

What do you think the biggest success and biggest stumble the RC/CAG has had in the last year?

I asked the other RC members what they thought on this question as well and Gavin gave nearly the same answer I had planned on both parts — which is somewhat unusual because I think we’re the two who come at things from the biggest difference in angle (while still maintaining similar goals for the format). 

The biggest success is cementing the relationship with WotC, as I describe above.  We’re in a better spot than we’ve ever been and much of getting that done happened in 2021. The biggest stumble was not sooner recognizing and articulating Golos as a problematic card.  Pulling the trigger earlier would have smoothed what became pretty bumpy waters. 

From Peacecraft on Discord: 

What’s your favorite Christmas drink and why is eggnog terrible and the drink of choice for war criminals?

I guess I’ll be getting a call from The Hague, because I love eggnog (with liberal amounts of bourbon poured in). Definitely my favorite Christmas drink.

From Meganium1218 on Discord:

Who is your favorite Kaldheim commander?

Jorn, God of Winter

Jorn, God of Winter.  Built this deck.  Also, obviously not Tergrid, God of Fright.  That lady is nothing but trouble. 

From Chief on Discord:

What are the “meanest” cards that you personally enjoy playing in Commander?

You know I’m not the biggest fan of taking the game away from the other players but I also believe in reasonable protection, although I don’t know if “enjoy” qualifies so much as just a willingness to go to a few lengths.  Nonbasic land hate is the best answer — from Primal Order to Ruination to Anathemancer, I think that it’s reasonable to punish opponents for excessively greedy manabases.

From grapplingfarang on Discord:

What cards do you wish had been either banned or unbanned very early on in format, but at this point it feels too late?

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV Derevi, Empyrial Tactician

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV was the first card that came to mind when I read the question, which led me to Derevi, Empyrial Tactician (and more). Especially as a commander, Grand Arbiter is a card on the bubble.  We’d have to take a more liberal reading of the Banned List to get rid of it now — which we could do and remain philosophically consistent.  The question is if it would be worth the trouble.  I wouldn’t take the one action of just banning Grand Arbiter, though.  It’d have to be part of a move in how we want to implement the philosophy, so other cards would get dragged along with it.  We’re in a spot right now where it doesn’t seem necessary. 

From psychotwilight on Discord:

WotC recently premiered Alchemy, which is a new digital-only format on Arena that features the Standard card pool with some errata to existing cards and new cards with digital-enabled mechanics. In a scenario where Commander was brought to Arena as an eternal format, do you personally think it would be better to have the digital-only cards in the pool, as well as the errata’d versions of cards over their original versions?

I’m of the mind that errata are intensely problematic from an accessibility and messaging standpoint.  It’s the reason that we don’t do it for the format.  I think what you’re getting around to, however, is that if we’d have digital-only cards legal in paper Commander.  I’d offer up a strong “no” right now and would need a powerful argument on why that’d be a good idea in the long run — and honestly, currently not seeing one.  We’d simply have to let digital and paper Commander diverge further from each other.  While it’s not the ideal situation, I think we’d all find a comfortable spot with the difference.

From megalo on Reddit:

Has there been discussion about formalizing two distinct formats, with separate Commander and cEDH formats with different rules, banned lists, and so on?

There hasn’t been any serious discussion of this on the RC and the CAG is overwhelmingly with us on that.  If I recall correctly, most of the cEDH players that I talk to/get advice from regularly also don’t support the idea.  The main thing is that it wouldn’t really do anything.  It wouldn’t, for example, prevent someone from bringing a cEDH deck to a normal game.  The big downside I fear is that it would ghettoize cEDH, which isn’t really a format unto its own, but a different mindset for playing Commander.  cEDH is EDH and despite what some people choose to believe, I have no intention of driving anyone underground.  If you’d like your cEDH itch scratched in a curated Commander-like variant, I suggest you give Conquest a try

From Draz on Discord: 

Who were the commanders involved in the earliest game you remember?

Arcades Sabboth

I never actually played with the Alaska group that showed me proto-EDH although we made some big plans for doing it.  I took the seed of an idea with me when I moved to Viriginia in early 2003 and got involved with a new gaming group.  While I don’t remember who the other ones were, mine was Arcades Sabboth.  I think (but can’t say for certain) that everyone had an OG Elder Dragon.  I intentionally took the worst one because the other folks were pretty casual players, so it felt right to provide myself a bit of a handicap.  It eventually became Phelddagrif because I wanted to shackle myself even more.

From tylerisdrawing on Reddit:

Are there any plans to roll out an official 1v1 commander variant?

No.  Commander is canonically a multiplayer format and we intend to keep it that way, at least as far as our involvement goes.  If someone else wants to head that direction, like our friends in France already have, more power to them.

From jrad on Discord:

Would you consider re-writing the Philosophy Document to be two pages or more? To put it more broadly, do you think the Rules Committee effectively communicates their mission, goals, and approach regarding Commander?

Well, it seems like you’re looking for more effective communication, so then we can obviously do better.  I think that a marriage of approaches is going to yield the best results.  Keeping the Philosophy Document relatively brief makes sense because if it gets too long, then people don’t read it.  What we could do in the future is attach further explanation to it — whether that comes from hot-linking some text inside the document or simply providing longer, more detailed documents for those who really want to dig deeply into the subject matter.  Sounds like a project worth our time. 

From trappedslider on Discord:

How do you prevent getting burned out on Magic?

By being aware of my own mental health.  There are days when I just don’t look at anything Magic-related (although they’re few and far between) because I need a break.  I love the game so much that I want to play more than I do or have time for, so I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten burned out on the game itself.  It’s fighting off the burnout of the external elements that I really paid attention to, whether that was being a high-level judge or in my RC position.  The support of and interaction with the many great people I get to deal with all the time actively works against that burnout.  And I’ve been in the public eye long enough to understand that hate directed at me is never about me, but about the person spewing it. 

From RockFactsIncorporated on Discord:

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ever-lowering curve that Commander is starting to see as the format gets bigger and more optimized. Especially with two- and three-colored commanders having so many options for fast mana. It feels like a lot of five-plus-cost commanders can’t compete (unless they include green) because there’s just too much risk associated with having to deal with commander tax on cards that are already difficult to get on the battlefield to begin with.

Players feeling the pressure of speed is a big concern to me.  The problem is that there are too many ways to start really fast that unless we ban them all (which would lead to a huge banned list and would cause the kind of uproar we haven’t seen before, neither of which I have any desire for) that we have to think differently in solving (repairing? mitigating?) this issue.  

I think that players getting into an optimized style of play is fine and healthy.  What’s not is the feeling that they absolutely must play that way or get left behind.  It’s more of an issue in open environments like your LGS, where you don’t have the kinds of communication and bond you do in established groups.  Big events are also open, but it’s easier to steer players into games that suit them since there are enough players to make it work; this is less likely to happen in an LGS environment where you don’t have hundreds of players to choose from. 

It’s difficult for us at the RC level to have direct impact on open environments that don’t involve bannings or lots of education.  The latter is preferable, but might be too idealistic to make something from.  What we can do at our position is provide some guidelines to folks running games at the LGS level, a project I hope that we can do some work on in 2022.

From Tiran on Discord:

If Wizards of the Coast asked you to make a set of tribal preconstructed decks, which would you make?

I’d want to make four decks that play well together in the biodome and focus on underserved tribes — so no Elves, Vampires, Goblins, or Humans.  First up is an Orzhov Inkling deck which features You Did This to Yourself elements.

Then Jund Minotaurs, the aggressors.  Didgeridoo is on the Reserved List, so we’d have to make a new card that fits into that slot.  Deck three is Sultai Squirrels, for which we’d have to make quite a few new cards.  The primary motivation is to realize fellow RC member Toby Elliott’s dream of requiring Acorn Catapult in every deck.  The blue is for flying Squirrels, of course, and the black is because, despite their cuteness, Squirrels are evil.  There’d be a mechanic for combining lots of Squirrels into a force for destruction of permanents. 

I come from Baltimore, so the last deck would be Simic Crabs.  We could even expand that to all shellfish, adding Homarids and creating new Shrimp, Plankton, and whatever mollusks we could make in addition to Giant Oyster.  Alternately, giving in to the demands of the good folks in the RC Discord, I’d create a Selesnya Llama tribal.  Ralph the Wonder Llama would obviously be the commander. 

From trappedslider on Reddit:

What’s the oldest vintage of wine you’ve ever had or owned?

I think the oldest I’ve had in the cellar are some 1989 Bordeaux that have since been consumed.  Outside the house, I had a spectacular evening at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, home of the world’s largest operating wine cellar, where we drank some Volnay from 1926 and proceed to drink other Burgundies from 1953, 1959, 1961, a 1964 Riesling that was still singing, and a 1970 Le Tache.  Every one of the wines had something to offer.  But that wasn’t the oldest.  Because of the wines we drank and the relationship we forged with the sommeliers, we got a taste of a Madeira from 1809 during the wine cellar tour.  1809 and it was still alive. 

From ItThatObeys on Discord:

In a recent interview with the folks over on The Mindsculptors, you said that the RC designs the Banned List as more of an art than a science. Can you clarify what you mean when you say that?

Managing the format itself, not just the Banned List, is more art than science, and I’m going to try to use as few metaphors as possible in explaining what I mean.  Commander is the adaptation of the game of Magic, a variant that wants to do things that other formats don’t.  It’s about creating a shape whose edges are blurry, not a hard-lined box.  That’s why we navigate by feel and experience. 

Those are really two separate questions.  We didn’t set out to create Magic’s most popular format or take a stab at world domination; we just wanted to make a format for an underserved or unrepresented set of players.  It turns out that what we thought would be niche resonated with a whole lot more people than we expected. 

The format’s popularity is something we consider because we want to keep as many people happy and engaged as possible, although it’s honestly secondary to our vision of keeping it what it was designed to be.  We’re not going to give in to any pressure to make the format like other formats.  The more information you’re talking about is a positive because we get more help from lots of people interested in helping us keep Commander true to its roots.  That’s not to say what some other folks want to do is bad or wrong; we’re just doing our thing and hope that you like it enough to join us. 

From Theo on Discord:

What Rule Zero changes does the RC play with and how often do you play with variants like Planechase, Star, or things like that?

Gavin has a Grand Calcutron deck that he plays every now and again.  It usually leads to games where you really have to think differently (and there’s lots of swearing).  We also use the Gis Mulligan—named for former Level 5 Judge, great friend, and early format adopter Gijsbert Hoogendijk.  If you can’t play your opener, set it aside and draw seven more.  Repeat until you get a playable hand—and here’s the important part:  don’t abuse it.  We generally call three lands a playable hand.  The thing is that we trust each other enough to not abuse it; in unknown groups, caveat emptor

The only variant I can recall us playing in the time we’ve been streaming is Planechase, which Gavin (our resident mad scientist) is a big fan of.  I’m pretty sure he created the original Blind Eternities map, which is a variant in which some of the places you can planeswalk to will be unknown.  Last year, I proposed a combined Planechase/Monarch variant, which we haven’t played but I might want to put more thought into. 

From multiple people:

How’s your health these days?

Not terrible, thanks.  This round of chemo has left me with my appetite, which I’m thankful for.  It’s a rough ride for several days during the cycle, but it looks like it’s doing what it’s supposed to, so I’m willing to put up with it. I just had my third treatment of six, so it’ll probably get a little bumpier before we’re done in February, but if my appetite stays, the other stuff is easy to deal with. I really appreciate all the support folks have offered during this whole ride, which just passed the five-year point. It’s part of what has kept me going.

From NoCoinFlips on Discord:

What are your favorite three words to say/hear in Magic?

  • Hear: I’m tapped out.
  • Say: I’ll cast Inkshield

Thanks, everyone who submitted a question, to you all for a great 2021 in Commander.  We had our challenges (and will in 2022), but I’m of the mind that the format (despite said challenges) is in the best place it’s been.

Can we be even better next year?  Count on it. 

Visit my Decklist Database to see my Signature Decks, the Chromatic Project, and more!