Today we’re going to move right along and evaluate the Commander Rules Committee by the next item on the list of things I think they should be doing. If you haven’t read part 1, please do that before reading this article as it provides some context into what this is about and why I’m doing it. Today we’re going to talk about the Commander Banlist, and the Rules Committee’s role in maintaining it.
What is a Banlist?
When we use the term ‘banlist’ in Magic we’re talking about the lists of cards that are not legal in a given format. This is outlined in the Magic Tournament Rules:
6.2 Card Legality
A card may only be used in a particular format if the card is from a set that is legal in that format or has the same name as a card from a set that is legal in that format. Zendikar Expeditions and Masterpiece Series cards may only be played in formats where the card is already legal. Cards banned in a specific format may not be used in decks for that format. Cards restricted in a specific format may only have one copy in a deck, including sideboard.
In other words, a banlist is a list of cards that would normally be legal based on the definition of a format, but have been removed from the pool of available cards.
What is the Commander Banlist?
Commander is played using the Vintage banlist, which consists of 25 Conspiracies, 9 ante cards, 2 manual dexterity cards, and Shahrazad
From there, the RC has also identified the following cards as being banworthy:
Many people have noted that the banlist appears to be inconsistent. This is a list of cards that includes some of the most objectively powerful cards in the history of the game, like Tolarian Academy, as well as fat, do-nothing sorceries like Biorhythm and Worldfire. I frequently see discussions over what should be added or removed from the list, but I think a lot of them miss the mark.
This is the official banlist of the format, and its power over deck construction and organized play is as binding as its counterparts in Legacy, Modern, and Standard. Conceptually, though, the Rules Committee has chosen to define the term ‘banlist’ to mean something slightly different than it means when we’re talking about those other constructed formats.
The following is the official banned list for commander games. These cards should not be played without prior agreement from the other players in the game, and may steer your playgroup to avoid other, similar cards.
Commander is the only format that adds a caveat related to how players want to play the game, noting that prior mutual agreement from the players involved is enough to override the official banlist. When you see me juxtapose Tolarian Academy and Worldfire you might think that I disagree with the Rules Committee’s choice of cards. In a sense, I do, but my disagreement is rooted in the idea that the list above is not a banlist in the traditional sense of the term. This list of cards is a conceptual framework to help guide inexperienced players through learning the format in a way that they can avoid alienating their friends before they are familiar enough with the format to self-regulate the power level of the decks they construct.
In my personal opinion, redefining the term banlist as the Rules Committee has done is detrimental to the format. It leads to confusion as players from other formats assume banlists to reflect an exhaustive list of cards that have been judged on objective criteria to be toxic to the format in which they’re banned. Similar to how the tuck rule change and the Vancouver Mulligan change made the format’s rules more intuitive and aligned with other Magic formats, I believe the Rules Committee would be well-served in revisiting the use of the term ‘banlist’ to describe this list of cards. That’s not to say that I think they need to change their methods for banning cards. Rather, I think that if they used a term other than “banlist”, it would help people understand what they’re actually trying to accomplish.
I’m going to touch on Rules vs. Philosophy when I wrap this whole series up, but I will say that I think that codified rules should be exhaustive and concise (a view that I believe is shared by most Magic judges), and they shouldn’t include caveats like “unless you don’t want to”. Rules have the most value when they are interpreted and applied in a logically consistent manner, and the format banlist is a rule that people are required to follow when they play according to the official rules.
In my opinion, this is one area where the Rules Committee has really missed the mark.
Bans and Unbans
Protean Hulk – April 24, 2017
I could probably write an article entirely about the unban of Protean Hulk, because I think it’s one of the most interesting things the Rules Committee has ever done.
On the other hand, we feel as though it’s time to let Protean Hulk off the leash. A number of factors led to this decision. Support within the community has been tilting toward Protean Hulk for quite some time. Inside the Rules Committee, we have been leaning in that direction for a while as well, but didn’t have enough of a consensus. Now we do. We acknowledge that the card will be strong, but are of the opinion that it won’t be the centralizing factor it once would have been. Back when Protean Hulk was banned, both creatures and graveyard control were nowhere near as strong as they are today. We know combo possibilities exist with the card, but they need to be specifically built around, so to us it becomes a great value card instead of a dangerous combo piece in casual environments. We suspect that Protean Hulk will be much like Kokusho, the Evening Star when it was unbanned: powerful but not broken in the current Commander landscape.
I think this unban is particularly interesting because — given a Vintage card pool — Protean Hulk is one of the most powerful cards in the format. I would even go so far as to say that it’s in the top half of the cards listed on the banlist if you were to sort by some objective power level.
Nearly a year after the fact, Sheldon had this to say of the unbanning:
Yes. It’s played out as we hoped, a value engine that no longer sticks out too badly in a sea of value engines. I thought it would have a bit bigger impact on casual games, but people seem to have found the sweet spot for it.
This quote struck me as being extremely odd. Calling Protean Hulk a value engine demonstrates an ignorance of what the card actually is and what it does. I don’t fault Sheldon for this — I know he’s a strong proponent of play at lower power levels, and Protean Hulk isn’t even particularly good in a deck that isn’t built around it. This statement, in my mind, is like saying Gaea’s Cradle isn’t powerful when you’re running it in a deck that doesn’t have any 1-drop mana dorks, or saying Tolarian Academy isn’t powerful when all of your artifacts cost 4+ mana. It’s objectively true, but it belies a misunderstanding of the card’s typical use case.
At the end of the day, I agree with Sheldon in that Protean Hulk’s unbanning didn’t cause waves in casual playgroups. I can tell you from personal experience that it shook up the top-end of the format, along with the sudden freedom to build 4-colour decks with an infinite mana sink in the command zone. I know that wasn’t an intended consequence of the change (as Sheldon has repeatedly stated that they don’t consider the top end of the power spectrum at all in their discussions), but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that it happened.
Leovold, Emissary of Trest – April 24, 2017
We had hopes for Leovold and gave him every opportunity to prove that he would be strong but safe in the format. He simply wasn’t. Leovold violates the tenet of creating undesirable game states by easily locking other players out of the game. We prefer to encourage situations in which everyone gets to play, and it’s too easy for Leovold to create the opposite, even unintentionally.
For those of you that I talk to frequently online, it won’t come as a shock that I don’t buy the idea that certain cards “prevent you from playing Magic”. I think it is equally ridiculous to suggest that a soccer goalie prevents you from playing soccer, or that your opponent having a racket prevents you from playing tennis. There’s a pervasive thought that opponents defending themselves and taking proactive steps to prevent you from winning the game is somehow not part-and-parcel to the game of Magic, and I absolutely do not agree with it.
Please don’t misinterpret this to mean that I support power level mismatches and utilizing powerful strategies to oppress an unprepared meta, because that’s not what I’m getting at here. I am and always have been a very strong proponent of building a deck that’s appropriate, power-level-wise, for the meta in which you play. I’m totally content to make the distinction that you shouldn’t play mass land destruction if your meta plays at lower power levels where appropriate counterplay might not exist, but I would never shy away from a strategy simply because someone thinks that certain things like lands are sacred or off-limits.
With respect to power level, it’s tough to argue with banning Leovold, if that’s the aspect of the card that you’re using to evaluate whether or not it’s admissible to the format. Leovold is a powerful card. It’s two strong effects printed on a decent-sized body at an efficient cost in a relevant tribe in perhaps the best colour combination in the format.
Having played the deck, I will tell you that it’s relatively easy to set up a lock using Anvil of Bogardan or Teferi’s Puzzle Box. It’s probably about as easy as it is to set up a beneficial Armageddon in the early game while sandbagging a few lands. The one thing that I will note, however, is that Leovold is conspicuously terrible at actually closing out the game. Because setting up one of those two locks usually involves expending a lot of your resources in the early game, you’re generally not working towards something that actually wins the game. The deck is really most appropriate as a midrange deck that uses the hand-stripping capabilities of the Box lock to clear the way for a game-winning combo, but people commonly built the deck as a race-to-the-Box-lock deck that relied on people scooping to win.
To be honest, if the general reaction from the Commander community mirrored the reaction from my personal playgroup, Leovold wouldn’t have been a problem at all. My personal playgroup loaded up on low-cost, instant-speed interaction that made me think critically about when it was appropriate to cast my commander.
Overall I’d say I’m pretty lukewarm on the banning of Leovold, Emissary of Trest. I can definitely understand why people would want it banned, and it certainly fits with the philosophical framework of the banlist in its current state.
Prophet of Kruphix – January 18, 2016
Powerful cards existing is OK and exploring them responsibly is an essential part of Commander.
This phrase is… something, that’s for sure. This is directly from the announcement that Prophet of Kruphix was banned, and I’m going to touch on it again when I talk about how the official rules and the philosophy document are often inappropriately intertwined. When I read through this announcement, I’m struck with way more questions than answers:
problematic play has not dropped off in hoped-for ways
We have a reasonably thorough explanation of what is considered problematic play, which is referred to in the philosophy document as “problematic casual omnipresence”:
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.
To be honest, I’d love an explanation of what the Rules Committee hoped for when it came to Prophet of Kruphix. I think it’s generally safe to say that if a card is legal and powerful, and its interactions are broadly applicable, its rate of play increases over time as new cards are printed to interact with it and more players discover that they enjoy playing with it. We see this with other currently legal cards like Paradox Engine, Doubling Season, and nearly every mana-efficient tutor in the game.
I don’t have a huge problem with the banning of Prophet of Kruphix in a vacuum. Having played quite a bit before and after the unbanning, I think that their assessment of the card is not horribly warped. If the banlist were exhaustive I think there would be quite a few cards that provide similar in-game experiences.
Banned as Commander – September 12, 2014
Once upon a time, the Commander Rules Committee maintained two separate banlists: one list of cards that were banned from starting the game in your command zone, and another list of cards that were outright banned from the format. This was their way of maximizing access to cards that might be okay when the variance of a 99 card singleton format limited a player’s access to it, but not at all okay when that player has access to it as though it were always in their hand.
I’m going to be honest and say that — prior to 2014 I wasn’t actually aware that there were two different banlists. We mostly played at the kitchen table, and none of us owned any of the cards on either of the banlists so it never actually came up. I think this is a pretty good testament to the fact that the rule was unintuitive. As I mentioned above, the default assumption is that a banlist works in Commander the way it works in other formats.
I honestly believe that — although we lose a few toys we might get to play with in the 99, like Braids, Cabal Minion (of #freebraids fame), having a single unified banlist is simpler to understand and simpler to maintain, and we don’t have to waste our time talking about whether it’s appropriate for a card to be “mostly okay in specific circumstances”.
Perceived Barrier to Entry
Creates a Perceived High Barrier to Entry. 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.
This banlist criterion is often cited when we look at the presence of 8 of the power 9 being on the banlist, sometimes accompanied by Library of Alexandria.
Lately we’ve all seen the totally unhinged behaviour of reserved list card prices. As of June 15th, 2018 when I am writing this article, a revised copy of Underground Sea just topped $900USD (nearly $1200CAD). The ABUR dual lands are the textbook definition of cards that are near-universally played if available.
Frankly, I don’t think these price spikes have lead to the perception that Commander is a format that only exists for players who can afford $5,000 manabases for their decks. The introduction of quality preconstructed decks has blown the format wide open in terms of accessibility, and there are libraries of information on how to play the format on a tight budget.
I do think that there are great reasons for 8 of the power 9 to remain banned, but it’s tough to make the argument that Black Lotus is banned because it’s expensive while The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale is unbanned, despite being more expensive than all of the Moxen.
Even if it doesn’t affect which cards actually remain banned, I think the Rules Committee would be doing themselves a favour and improving their credibility if they updated the banlist criteria to accurately reflect today’s economic climate within the game. Players who have been around as long as I have will understand why this rule was originally in place, and it might be good to note this somewhere in the philosophy document, but at this point it’s an appendix that can be safely excised.
Ultimately, I think that confusion with respect to what the banlist is and how it’s managed is a very negative aspect of Commander today. Although I appreciate the mostly-hands-off approach that the Rules Committee takes when evaluating cards to be banned, I think they need to remind themselves that the banlist is one of the rules that players rely on to ensure that they can sit down with a table full of strangers at a GP or LGS and be relatively certain that they are actually playing the same game. The philosophy of the Commander banlist and its deliberately vague nature are very useful for guiding discussions of local house banlists and how we should interact with each other socially. Inevitably, though, players see the published list as implicit approval of the cards that aren’t on it.
I really wish I could have written this article in the same format as I did the for the last article on rules maintenance. I think I would have been able to do that if at any point the Rules Committee had committed to any form of consistency in their application of rules. At the moment, though, the best any of us can do when we’re discussing the banlist is wave our hands and tell people that their local meta is welcome to come up with their own house rules and deviate from the published banlist when they feel it’s inappropriate or unfun.
In looking back over what I’ve written here, I think it’s safe to say that — with the benefit of hindsight and trying to be as objective as possible — I think my attitude towards the Rules Committee’s discussion and premise for the format’s banlist is largely negative, but my attitude towards their actions is largely positive. It’s simply impossible to evaluate whether goals are being accomplished when the goals are as nebulous and subjective as the ones we’ve got.
What do you think of the banlist? Have you had any luck playing without a banlist, or with a banlist you’ve curated based on some kind of objective criteria? As always, hit me up in the comments below!
Next week we’ll round things out with an article about how the Commander Rules Committee has been doing when it comes to growing the format and ensuring that we all have people to play against! Stay tuned!