The Commander Rules Committee recently released their rules update for Strixhaven. There weren’t any new bans or rules changes in it, just clarifications of two existing rules: how modal double-faced cards (MDFCs) work with the commander tax, and how the format handles “outside the game” effects (also known as “wishes”).

Parts of abilities which bring other card(s) you own from outside the game into the game (such as Living Wish; Spawnsire of Ulamog; Karn, the Great Creator) do not function in Commander.

(From the official Commander Rules)

Most Commander players never actually consult the official site, and if they do, they rarely read through the whole rules page. In my experience, people usually get a brief overview of how the format works from their friends instead of reading up on it themselves. A lot of people I’ve met haven’t even looked at the ban list. A reminder from the Rules Committee suggests that it isn’t just people I’ve met who were unaware of the wish rule, either. It seems like a lot of veteran Commander players were in the dark about it, too.

When there were only a handful of wish spells in the game, having a rule that shut them down wasn’t that big a deal; most players weren’t trying to run them anyway. That’s not really the case anymore. Wishes are more common than they’ve ever been before, and not just because of the Learn/Lesson mechanic in Strixhaven. In the last three and a half years, not counting Companions or Learn spells, Wizards of the Coast has printed six cards that pull cards in from outside the game:

The previous four such cards were spread out over the course of ten years. There was one each in Dissension (2006), Future Sight (2007), Rise of the Eldrazi (2010) and Eldritch Moon (2016). Before Dissension there was a the namesake cycle of wishes in Judgment (2002), and while that still holds the title for the most non-Learn wishes in a single set, it didn’t exactly set a trend. Really, since the first wish appeared in Arabian Nights (1993), the ability to get cards from outside the game was a bit of a rarity. That is, until recently.

With how frequently this effect has appeared of late, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a new player to include a Fae of Wishes or a Mastermind’s Acquisition in their Commander deck without even considering that they wouldn’t work. They’re legal cards to include in their deck after all, so even if they looked at the banned list it wouldn’t flag anything. Wishes exist in this odd grey area in Commander where they’re allowed to be in decks but just… don’t do anything.

Of course, banning every spell that can get cards from outside the game would be cumbersome and impractical, and even more so now that there are all of the Learn cards from Strixhaven. Still, it’s strange that these cards are effectively “soft-banned;” at their core, wishes are effectively tutors of a different kind, and it’s not like Commander players aren’t allowed to search their libraries. That said, wishes are inherently better than tutors; they let you grab a niche “silver bullet” card that’s good in that particular situation, but that wouldn’t normally be in your deck.

With regular tutors, you need to include these niche cards in your list. This means there’s a chance you’ll draw them when they’re bad; Choke won’t do anything against your mono-red opponent, for instance, and drawing it in that matchup would be completely useless. Even so, in a hundred-card format like Commander, the odds of drawing your dead card is already pretty minimal. Running a couple of powerful-but-narrow cards is generally pretty safe to do, assuming that’s the kind of game you want to play. If you had to wish for these cards instead of tutoring for them, it would remove the chance of drawing them when they’re useless. On the flip side, it would also mean that you could never naturally draw them in the situations when they ARE good.

Tournament Magic restricts the cards you can wish for to the ones in your sideboard, meaning a player can’t show up with their trade binder and just grab whatever card they want each time they cast a wish. This puts a cap on how powerful these spells can be, while still allowing them to function as intended.

In recent years we’ve seen how good cards like Fae of Wishes and Karn, the Great Creator are in constructed formats, even with the restriction of a fifteen card sideboard. It’s understandable that the Commander Rules Committee would want nothing to do with sideboards and outside-the-game mechanics, because they want to keep the format a casual environment for players. Nevertheless, shutting down wishes entirely feels like overkill; I think a healthy middle ground can be reached where wishes can function as intended, but are sufficiently limited so they don’t feel fair and don’t disrupt the flow of the game.

With the release of Strixhaven, Arena’s best-of-1 formats now give players a reduced sideboard of seven cards, for the express purpose of resolving wish effects like Learn. It remains to be seen whether a “lesson plan” of seven cards is still too big for Standard and Historic, but it’s a sound idea on paper. Wishes don’t need a lot of options to be good, but they aren’t oppressive when they only have a couple of cards to choose from. By adjusting the number of cards in a player’s sideboard, a balance can be found. You want wishes to be good, but not something players feel they need to include in every deck. If you greatly reduce the number of cards available, wishes become more like customizable Charms or Commands than tutors, which I think is a neat deck building space to explore. They’d still be flexible, certainly, but they wouldn’t be any worse than the sorts of things you can already do in a typical game of Commander.

The wishes legal in Commander are much more versatile than the Learn spells of Strixhaven, and the variety of cards they can access is much larger than the collection of Lessons. It’s fair to say that a sideboard of seven cards would give these wishes too much flexibility; reducing it to five cards, or even a flavourful three, might do the trick. Moreover, I’d include a deck’s Companion in that count. Allowing Companions in Commander when wishes aren’t allowed always felt strange to me, but if they were part of a player’s sideboard it would make their inclusion feel much more consistent with how they work in other formats, and also feel more internally consistent with the Commander rules themselves.

Ultimately, I can’t help but think that adding a small sideboard to Commander so that wishes (and Companions) work the way they do in other formats would be a net positive for the format. Commander already has a lot of unique quirks, such as its colour identity, but not everything should be set in stone. By removing some rules that are no longer pulling their weight, it can make it easier for new players to get into Commander, especially if they’re already familiar with Magic through other formats. This wouldn’t be the first change to a rule like this, either. Commander is constantly evolving and the rules are regularly revised. For instance, before 2016, if you produced mana outside of your colour identity it became colourless, but that rule was removed when Oath of the Gatewatch came out. That change was largely motivated by the new Eldrazi mechanic in that set, but its removal made the format that much more accessible.

Adding a small sideboard to Commander wouldn’t even make that much of a difference for most players; groups that already allow wishes would keep using them, while groups that don’t like them would continue to ignoring their existence. It’s during the pickup games against strangers where a rules change like this would help the most. If players were allowed to access a small sideboard of cards from outside the game, it would avoid a lot of confusion and “feel bad” moments if a new player casts a wish and assumes that it will work as intended. It might require the player to throw together a quick sideboard on the fly, but that’s a whole lot better than having to back up the turn or have the spell spontaneously fizzle. Who knows how long that player had been holding onto their wish, just waiting for the right moment to cast it?

Wizards of the Coast seems to really like the mechanic of pulling cards in from outside the game these days, so it’s safe to say that we’ll see more wish cards printed in the near future. For better or worse, it’s no longer a fringe mechanic, but is becoming a regular part of the game. I don’t expect the rules to change any time soon, but I hope the Rules Committee keeps an open mind about it. I might not want to use these cards myself, but I would much rather let my opponent cast a wish with a few well-defined restrictions than tell them that their spell does nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.