I think a big part of growing as a Magic player and as a person is stepping back every so often and evaluating how firmly your deeply-held beliefs are rooted in reality. It’s super easy to say that a card belongs in every deck, or that you should always Bolt the Bird, or that you should have some magical number of lands in your deck. Some of these ideas are awesome, and worthy of repetition. Others tend to take hold of the zeitgeist and echo forever, even when they’re repeatedly discredited.

In my articles I often try to challenge popular opinions and traditional deckbuilding and gameplay practices to get other people to reconsider the things they’ve always thought about the format, but I think I need to do more of this myself.

Lately I’ve been thinking about whether the Commander Rules Committee (as well as the things they say and do) is overall beneficial or detrimental to the format. If any of you have spoken to me in the past you’ll know that I’ve written a lot of words on this topic, and most of them are negative. Today, though, I want to take a look at some specific examples of their behaviour and decisions and see whether my generally-negative opinion of how they manage the format is at all appropriate.

Before we get started, I want to do my best to lay out what I think could be my own sources of personal bias:

         I am 32 years old. I’ve been playing Magic since 4th Edition (1995) but took a long break between Exodus (1998) and Scars of Mirrodin (2010).

         I consider myself extremely fortunate in that I have a stable, well-paying job with good career prospects, no debt, and a fairly large amount of disposable income. I have a very large collection, including many extremely expensive cards that are not available to the average player.

         I don’t play other Magic formats. In the past I have played kitchen table Legacy (60×4 casual constructed), Modern, Standard, Frontier, Brawl, Draft, and Sealed. None of these formats appeal to me nearly as much as Commander.

         I consider myself a deeply enfranchised Magic player. I am an L1 judge, I write articles about Magic, and I try to get together with friends to play Magic weekly at a minimum.

         My favourite way to play Commander is at the very top end of the power spectrum. A lot of people call this “competitive” Commander, and it’s definitely easiest to refer to it this way, but we’re really just jamming ruthlessly efficient decks against each other in the same way that most people play their low-powered decks. It’s a laid-back, beer-with-buds environment where we laugh and relax.

         My primary motivation for playing Commander is the freedom that it brings, allowing me to create unique gameplay experiences through deck design. Even though I enjoy top-end, powered gameplay the most, I brew decks for nearly every power level under the sun.

Next, I think it’s important to lay out what I personally think the Rules Committee is responsible for. This may be different than their own mission statement, if they have one, but I think it’s important to do this so we have some kind of criteria by which to evaluate their performance. In my personal opinion, the Rules Committee should gather opinions, data, reactions, and suggestions from the people who play the game and use them to make informed decisions regarding:

1)      Managing the set of rules that are specific to Commander.

2)      Maintaining the Commander banlist

3)      Promoting the format and growing the playerbase

Over the next four weeks I’m going to evaluate the Rules Committee based on their success in each of these areas. I’m focusing specifically on whether I think the goals behind changes they’ve made are worthwhile and positive, and whether or not the decisions they made help to accomplish those goals.

Rules Management

It’s really not a secret that Magic has one of the most complex and robust rulesets of any game in the history of the human race. Commander is a variant of Magic that contains even more nuances and corner-case scenarios that are brought about due to its multiplayer nature, the use of a unique zone, and the fact that there’re an astronomical number of in-game interactions that can be created using a vintage banlist.

What has the Rules Committee accomplished as far as maintaining the format? As it turns out, quite a lot. As Reddit user /u/MissesDoubtfire pointed out recently:

Coalition Victory

was banned at the same time that they got rid of the rule that made all generals cost 6. If you’ve never heard of that rule, it’s because it was changed in 2007. The format was totally unrecognizable 11 years ago.

Source

In the early years of Commander – back when it was still Elder Dragon Highlander – there were all sorts of rules that have since changed. The name of the format came from the fact that you could only use the original Elder Dragon creatures as your commanders. Your starting life total was based on how many players were in the game. The Rules Committee has been actively tweaking the rules over more than a decade, but what are they accomplishing? Let’s take a look at the three recent rules-related decisions they’ve made, the stated goals for the changes, and whether or not those goals were accomplished with the benefit of hindsight.

 

Silver-bordered Cards Temporarily Legal (December 1, 2017)

This could probably be listed under the banlist discussion below, but previous to this change previous cards were “not legal” as opposed to being “banned”. The distinction is rarely relevant unless you’re talking about Spike, Tournament Grinder, but this is the reason why she allows you to tutor up a Black Lotus but not a Blue Eyes, White Dragon. I consider this change to fall within the domain of rules changes, especially since it involves the addition of an additional deck of contraption cards and their associated rules baggage.

When Unstable launched, cards from Unhinged, Unglued, and Unstable were legal in Commander for about 6 weeks.

The intent of this rule was to generate hype around the first un-set in nearly 15 years. Sheldon Menery explained that the change was motivated by a desire among the Rules Committee members to “allow players to play with cards you can’t (or don’t want to) play in other formats”. (Source) His rationale behind making the change is that it would allow people to try out cards they wouldn’t normally for a defined period of time in order to determine whether or not they wanted to house rule them to be legal within their own playgroups for a longer period of time.

Were This Change’s Goals Well-informed and Worthwhile?

I think that this change’s goals were well-informed. I think the Rules Committee accurately assessed that there would be a sizeable group of the playerbase that enjoys Commander and also enjoys the wacky environment that un-sets provide, and would want to explore the environment created by their synthesis. Beyond that, I think they realized that a large portion of the playerbase wasn’t actually around for Unglued or Unhinged and wouldn’t understand how some of the cards were problematic. Sheldon’s review of the set went out of its way to identify these problematic cards and offer advice to players who might be looking to incorporate them into their decks.

Did the Rules Change Accomplish the Stated Goals Effectively?

From what I saw online and in-person during the 6 weeks this rules change was in effect, I think the stated goals were absolutely accomplished. There were all sorts of articles, decklists, discussions, and stories that cropped up surrounding unique and memorable gameplay experiences.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

There were two fairly major problems with the way this change was implemented. The first being that Commander is played at large events like GPs, and the announcement caused confusion and outrage towards tournament organizers who had to explain to paying customers their decision to either adhere to or deviate from the official rules of the format of the event they were hosting.

The second was that a similar result could have been accomplished with a slightly lighter touch. Although Commander is often known for its wacky interactions, not everyone who plays Commander enjoys the incredibly unique experience of playing with silver-bordered cards. The negative reaction towards this decision was entirely foreseeable given the community’s collective repulsion towards chaos mechanics. I firmly believe that – given the soapbox that Sheldon and the other members of the Rules Committee have – an article extolling the virtues of playing with un-set cards and a sincere personal recommendation to try it would have been enough. The Rules Committee would be wise to consider the fact that changes to the official rules of the format affect everyone who plays with strangers, no matter how loudly they beat that house-rule-social-contract drum of theirs.

Vancouver Mulligan Change

When I was researching this article, I thought this change was made much more recently than it actually was. How time flies! Competitive Magic tested out the Vancouver Mulligan with Pro Tour: Magic Origins on July 31, 2015 – nearly 3 years ago! The Rules Committee was on the ball with this one, posting an exploratory article for the different mulligan rules they were considering in October of 2015.

The test was a success and was officially adopted for constructed formats, and the Rules Committee adopted the change in January of 2016. Prior to this, Commander used a mulligan rule that wasn’t used in other constructed formats – the Partial Paris rule. This allowed players to keep a certain number of cards from their opening hand and draw up to hand size, shuffling away the cards they didn’t like.

Were This Change’s Goals Well-informed and Worthwhile?

The Partial Paris Mulligan rule had its roots in the casual origins of the format. It was intended to ensure the highest likelihood that each player at the table would start the game with a couple lands and a couple cards that they could play in the first few turns. The unfortunate consequence of a rule like this is that it smooths out the early-game inconsistency of poorly-built decks, and hugely benefits decks that can represent an oppressive early-game presence a small percentage of the time. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about their deck’s capability of winning the game on turn 1 with a magical Christmasland hand, you have to understand that people were much better equipped to dig for that specific hand when they didn’t have to ship unkeepable hands away wholesale.

Did the Rules Change Accomplish the Stated Goals Effectively?

I definitely think it did. The Vancouver Mulligan rule is an elegant way to promote playable-but-not-guaranteed-to-be-broken opening hands, and to be honest it was always a little weird teaching someone how to play Commander, because they’d usually ask more than once if the Partial Paris was the actual-factual real-life way to play the game. It seemed too good to be true, and it benefited the people who were most likely to abuse it.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

In short, nothing. In my opinion, this change was a slam dunk no matter which way you analyze it. The Rules Committee acknowledged the importance of aligning with the Comprehensive Rules for other formats, which makes it easier to learn how to play Commander. They also relied on testing and research done by Wizards of the Coast and numerous pros, pundits, and armchair rules managers rather than implementing sweeping changes based on their own anecdotal experience. I believe this change was hugely beneficial to the format.

Tuck Rule Change

This is another rules change that I was convinced happened much more recently than it actually did. 2015 was an eventful year for rules changes in EDH. In March of that year, the Rules Committee modified the replacement effect that allows you to send your commander to the command zone. Prior to this change, if your commander would move from the battlefield, stack, graveyard, or your hand, to your library via an effect like Oblation, Timetwister, or Chaos Warp, you had no choice but to comply. After the change, we gained the ability to send the commander to the command zone instead of putting it into the library.

Were This Change’s Goals Well-informed and Worthwhile?

I firmly believe that the primary reason for this change was to make the replacement effect rule more intuitive and consistent. The tuck situation didn’t come up often, and a lot of players assumed that they would be able to send their commander back to the command zone if it was Spell Crumpled or Condemned. When they discovered that this was the case during a game, it invariably lead to arguments and hurt feelings, and one player playing Highlander while the rest got to continue their game of Commander.

Did the Rules Change Accomplish the Stated Goals Effectively?

This rules change had a little bit of collateral damage. Tuck effects were generally used to deal with difficult and sticky commanders like Narset, Enlightened Master, and the Theros gods.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

Referring to Sheldon’s article on the topic, I really wish he had devoted more real estate to explaining that the original version of the rule did not include the described scenario as an oversight, and that this change makes the rule consistent with what they originally intended it to be. In my opinion, this is the most positive and legitimate reason for the change, but the lede was somewhat buried under discussions about how people should want build their decks or how they should want to play the game, which are outlined under the headings Tutors and Diversity.

Rather than capping off the article with a dismissive “the sky is not falling”, I’d rather see Sheldon clearly reiterate the benefits and perceived necessity of the change. The players who are initially outraged by changes will not be assuaged by someone directly telling them that this isn’t a big deal. The players who listen to reason and might be on the fence can at least acknowledge the importance of having a ruleset that is intuitive and easy to teach to format newcomers.

Off-Colour Fetches

I know I said we’d only talk about three changes today, but I think this one is worth mentioning.

Back in January of 2016 this image made its rounds on both the EDH and CompetitiveEDH subreddits. This represents a more heavy-handed enforcement of the colour identity rule as it exists today. As Sheldon admits, the wording of this rule is extremely challenging, as ideally it is easy-to-understand, intuitive, and doesn’t create a ton of collateral problems with other cards that reference basic land types (like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth or landwalk abilities).

Were This Change’s Goals Well-informed and Worthwhile?

Well-informed and worthwhile are somewhat difficult to define here. I consume quite a bit of media related to Commander like podcasts, articles, and videos, and I play with several groups of very different players. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard someone voice their concern with off-colour fetches. I do, from-time-to-time, hear people who are surprised that you’re allowed to do it, so that might speak to the idea that their legality is unintuitive.

Did the Rules Change Accomplish the Stated Goals Effectively?

There’s no actual change to speak of yet, so it’s difficult to say whether or not the format would be better off with a change like this. If they managed to word a rule that was simple to understand and didn’t cause too much collateral damage, I think it’s very likely that this change would make landbases more intuitive for new players to the format.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

With all this being said, I think that the removal of off-colour fetches itself would have a power-level impact on 3- and 4-colour decks. These decks will be forced to run worse fixing and be less capable of casting the spells they want to cast. I personally believe this will decrease deckbuilding diversity, because the weirdest decks I’ve built are often enabled by top-end fixing and ramp, and would not otherwise be possible.

 

After reviewing some of the biggest rules changes this format has experienced in the past three years, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised by how supportive I am about the rationale and execution of each one. I distinctly remember being outraged by the silver-bordered change, slightly impressed by the Vancouver Mulligan rules change, and largely indifferent towards the tuck change. With the benefit of hindsight, I still think the silver-bordered rules change was regrettable, but I’m squarely impressed by the other two. I’m also appreciative that the Rules Committee is not rushing to a hasty decision on banning off-colour fetches, and hopeful that their silence on the topic means they have decided that the baggage associated with the change is more of a hassle than it’s worth.

How do you think the Rules Committee does with managing the rules specific to our format? Do you have any other major rules changes you’d like to chat about, or straight up disagree with me on any of the ones I discussed above? Hit me up in the comments below and let me know what you think!

Stay tuned for next week when we’ll be talking about their demonstrated ability to maintain the banlist.

4 Responses

  1. Andy

    My only issue with off color fetches being banned is your mono color decks not having access to fetches, I understand it’s just to thin out your deck but you still lose the ability to do so

    Reply
  2. Jonathan Ortiz

    I agree with some of your assessments. While the silver bordered rule was regrettable, it was short lived and only really impacted play at events due to the willingness to acknowledge the temporary rules change or not.

    The tuck rule was a slam dunk in my opinion. The unintentional betterment of blue spells (by virtue of the number of them as compared to other colors) and cards such as chaos warp, obligation and condemn, acted as an inherent 2 for 1 to take apart a player’s deck if it was built around a commander. Deck building choices and balance set aside, it made the tuck cards too strong and could induce some pretty terrible feelings all around. A counter is one thing, and I’m sure that the greater majority of the player base would rather pay the extra 2 mana to try again, versus not play their deck as intended.

    The Vancouver mulligan makes sense for constructed play, and the decision to streamline it to enable new players to get into the format easier makes sense. My play group still uses partial pairs, because it is a superior mulligan; it allows for a quick 3-4 turns. The group I play with has decks that range from 6-8 on a power level of 1-10. 9 is the worst that any of them get. Partial Paris can serve to sculpt hands, sure. However, when bad luck or a bad shuffle and cut in a 6-7+ player game results in you being so far behind that it’s not possible to come back, it’s bad. Also, when that many people are playing, if someone happens to go off between turns 4-6, its deserved. For it to be a 6v1 when someone can go off and no one can respond or didn’t hold up an answer because of poor threat assessment, you shuffle up and go again.

    Fortunately, with it being a casual format, our play group can elect to change or ignore certain rules, such as the move to the Vancouver mulligan. We hold to the banned list however.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I’m sure looking forward to see how Protean Hulk being unbanned will be covered.

    Reply
  4. Jack

    I’m glad negativity towards the Rules Committee has finally risen to this point. A banlist that is intended to be supplemented with house rules simply isn’t a banlist, especially when it’s inconsistent to the point of banning Tolarian Academy but allowing Gaea’s Cradle.

    Reply

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