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EDH and the Issues Inherent to Eternal Formats

The progression of EDH has been incredibly enjoyable to observe. From its inception as a casual format created by Adam Staley to being the most popular format in the game, EDH shares a lot of traits with other eternal formats that I’ve found interesting to dissect. While the format is at the apex of its popularity, I think it will follow the same lifecycle trends that we’ve seen from Vintage, Legacy and other eternal formats past.

 

 

Header - Eternal Formats

Due to their constantly expanding card pool, eternal formats become impossible to adequately manage ad infinitum. Keeping track of every possible synergy within the games nearly 30 year print history isn’t really possible. New effects mixing with older ones inevitably leads to volatile results.
Imagine you have an empty glass alongside bottles containing oil, water and food coloring. What happens when you pour them into the container? 

Oil being less dense than water will float on top.

Food coloring, being more dense than both will sink to the bottom. 

Now, let’s say you take the above glass and begin pouring a random selection of fluids in. At some point, one or more of those liquids would have an uncontrolled volatile chemical reaction with one or more of the other fluids. That’s how the addition of new sets act within non-rotating environments.

Brain FreezeUnderworld Breach

For example, Brain Freeze was a largely unplayed card in Legacy. Outside of it’s play in High Tide, it wasn’t really making any waves within the metagame. Que the printing of Underworld Breach, and you have a format-warping synergy.

Similarly, Vizier of Remedies isn’t a notable threat by its lonesome, but in conjunction with Devoted Druid, you have the foundational synergy of a format mainstay. Now, say you had a valve at the bottom of this jar, and establish a rule that you can have no more than four fluids in the container at one time so anytime you go to add a fifth, you open the valve and drain out the most dense fluid. Wouldn’t that make it much easier to keep track of what fluids are where and be cognizant of any potential reactions? That’s how the addition of new sets act within rotating environments. 

So, the question begs to be asked, “how are we supposed to manage the power level of eternal formats in the long term?”

Ostensibly, the modus operandi is to keep a handle on the format for as long as possible. However, eventually we’ll pass a threshold that leads to three options:

  1. Aggressively ban powerful effects as soon as they show any format-breaking potential. This method is employed in the management of Modern, Pioneer and Historic.
  2. Create a new format for newer players, leaving the previous one as a variable sandbox for the most dedicated enthusiasts to host self run events such as the Buffalo Chicken Dip events. Vintage, Legacy and Pauper are examples of this approach. 
  3. Send ’em to the farm upstate.

All of the above options have their respective pitfalls:

  • The first option has historically led to an array of community discontent. Players who felt the card was fine will be frustrated because they’ll see the ban as unwarranted format micromanagement. Inversely, others will be frustrated about the card not being axed sooner assuming apathy and aloofness of those in power. Additionally, there’s a more generalized demographic that sees ownership of cards as an investment and will be frustrated at the monetary loss due to the ban. 
  • The second option lends itself to players feeling neglected and unsupported by as a whole. Players love having a sandbox to explore until the experience becomes stale. 
  • The third can have a similar effect in that players will feel neglected, but to a lesser degree given that the only formats that get definitive ends are those that have largely lost an interested player base. 

From a community managerial/relations standpoint it’s a lose-lose situation because no singular act that will be viewed favorably by the entirety of a formats player base. Though it might be prudent to empower enthusiasts of its predecessors to have a say in that format’s management. Entities such as the CAG and Pauper Format Panel already act as proofs of concept. Hopefully, similar groups are formed for managing Legacy and Vintage in the future. 

 

Header - Eternal Disillusionment

Eternal, or non-rotating, have two big selling points that draw new players in.

First, when compared to Standard, they’re slow to change from a top-down perspective, making them a worthwhile investment for those who either have no interest in keeping up with the constantly cycling card pool. A viewpoint commonly rooted in not having the means to financially keep up with the format’s shifts. Those who can keep up with the financial demand might not have the spare time to play enough to justify their purchase. Subsequently, the prospect of being able to play the same deck for an extended period with little need to sink extra money or effort into the matter becomes more and more appealing. 

Second, slowly evolving metagames facilitate a “play what you want, how you want” mentality amongst players. While some players will choose decks based on competitive viability; others will do so via a more subjective ideal of fun, oftentimes integrating their deck choice into their identity as a player. We’ve all known someone who considers themself an archetype specialist. This sort of interfacing with the game adds an additional level of engagement for those who do so.

The first of these selling points is true. Eternal formats are generally slow to move. The second is more of a half-truth; there is room for exploration and the subsequent expression that comes with it, but there are bounding factors that come into play. 

Formats become stable due to the omnipresence of their pillars, the “cream of the crop” archetypes that if left unaccounted for, will completely dominate the environment. They promote by providing a stable backbone so players can explore deckbuilding options. However they simultaneously provide a set of restrictions that must be accounted for on a deckbuilding level. 

Conceptually, their presence acts similarly to that of the guard tower within a Panopticon – a prison structure of circular design in which the guard tower is placed in the center. This allows the guards to hypothetically see everything that’s happening, while the prisoners can’t actually see if the guards are looking in their direction, or if they’re even within the tower. This layout subsequently induces a perpetual state of anxiety amongst the imprisoned that leads them to self police. They don’t know if they’re being watched at any given moment so they act as if they’re being watched at every moment. 

Source: The Guardian.com

Pillars act as somewhat of a philosophical parallel to the aforementioned guard tower in that they force players to make the Sophie’s Choice of choosing between playing a card that might be more synergistic within their decks strategy versus playing a direct answer to a known quantity. 

For example, Splinter Twin was a dominant archetype within Modern metagame from the formats inception in 2011 at Pro Tour Philadelphia, which the deck won in the hands of Samuelle Estratti from Modern’s inception in 2011 until it’s ban in 2016. Interestingly enough, the only PT that the deck didn’t put at least one copy into the Top 8 of was PT Return to Ravnica, whose metagame was saturated with Jund decks boasting the at the time newly printed Abrupt Decay.

During the deck’s period of legality, a control deck could get away playing three or four Path to Exile, four Snapcaster Mage, some enchantment removal and a few copies of Dispel. These are all effects that these interactive shells were fairly likely to play regardless of Twin’s presence. Meaning, while the deck had a strong hold on Modern over an extended period of time, players could address the threat without having to play a glut of non-synergistic effects.

However, if a shell wasn’t able to utilize interactive effects or kill before Twin’s critical turn, then it would be rendered unplayable. Which is why the most viable fair decks were either decks such as UWR Control or BGx variants whose central game plan revolved around playing a glut of interactive effects and as such didn’t face a huge loss of equity when choosing to play additional removal spells. Or conversely, decks such as Scapeshift, Melira/Kiki-Pod, etc that could match Twin in having a largely interactive game plan while also having access to their own game-ending combos. Also, there was Affinity, whose plan was to throw hands and hope to not catch a fade. 

Within the Legacy realm, Ad Nauseum Tendrils players circa 2016 had to ask themselves if constructing a more proactive or reactive sideboard was beneficial. The answer was to do the latter and devote half of their available slots to combatting Counterbalance even though that didn’t afford them much space to address the sideboard cards the opponent has access to.

Note the Abrupt Decay, Krosan Grip and extra Tendrils

Legacy Storm by Rodrigo Togores

For Vintage players circa forever? At the least, by 2016, the pervasive mindset was that if you didn’t have seven or eight sideboard answers to Dredge, then you weren’t even trying to beat the deck. See Joe Brennan’s Mentor list 

Note the Containment Priest, Pithing Needle and Rest in Peace in the sideboard.

Vintage Mentor by Joe Brennan

Outside of the most homogenous formats like Standard, where you can count on playing against certain decks, uou generally can’t deck build with complete foresight in eternal formats. While a shell might be an ever-present threat in theory, it’s possible to play events and come across more off meta strategies than pillars. Meaning that each slot devoted to combating a particular strategy comes at a progressively increasing opportunity cost. This can lead to a strong case of the “feel bads” if you cut a more broadly applicable card in order to directly address a specific deck and have the matchup lottery go poorly. 

So, how do pillars form? The process essentially breaks down as such:

  1. A strategy is identified early on as being inherently powerful.
  2. Spikes looking to win are attracted to the previously identified powerful strategies.
  3. Said Spikes form a focused hivemind bent on making their mutually loved deck the best it can be. 
  4. New competitively-minded players enter the format and are told to play a pillar deck if they want a competitive advantage
  5. The braintrust increases in size thus allowing the shell to circumvent hate cards, and adopt new technology at a faster rate than opposing players are able to produce relevant hate cards/strategies for the given deck shell. Oftentimes, this leads to a situation where the best answer for the best deck was a version of the best deck that played more cards to address the mirror

In the long term, this dynamic causes players to get bored, frustrated and feel that the format is getting stale… even though not much has actually changed from a top down perspective. 

Conversations surrounding the Legacy ban list over the years can very roughly be surmised as such:

  • 2012-2013: Is Stoneforge Mystic a problem?
  • 2014: Treasure Cruise is too good. 
  • 2015: Thanks for banning Cruise, Dig Through Time next please
  • 2016: Wow, is Miracles winning everything?
  • 2017: Please ban Miracles -> Yay, Miracles got banned
  • 2018: Hmmmm, maybe Deathrite Shaman, and Gitaxian Probe might actually be a problem 
  • 2018 (post DRS Ban)-2022 -> Now: Can we please ban something out of Delver, I’m tired of losing to the broken combo of one-drop threat backed up by Daze. 

This progression of logic is interesting when you aggregate the data, using MTG Top 8’s classifications from the Legacy meta over the years and see the following. 

Throughout the last 10 or so years the most dominant archetypes within the format have been:

  1. URx variants of Delver being dominant within the more aggressively slanted shells with the second most common decks being Maverick, Jund and Death & Taxes. All decks that have traditionally boasted favorable matchups against the average Delver pilot. 
  2. UXyz variants of Control, Usually Miracles, occasionally a Grixis based shell but almost always some Brainstorm shell 
  3. Arbitrary Lotus Petal combo shells with a large slant towards Show and Tell. 

As such, it shouldn’t come as a shock that since the banning of Mental Misstep almost every card that’s been removed from the format was done so largely, or wholly due to their inclusion in a Delver or blue-based control shell. 

Note: While Dig Through Time and Underworld Breach did see play within fair blue shells such as Miracles and Delver respectively, the primary reason for their banning was their inclusion in the Omnishow and Breach combo shells.

So that begs the question, if by and large the most dominant decks in the format have held their position for roughly a decade, why is the player base now vocally galvanizing behind something changing? 

Essentially, players like when pillars are good at their job, but take offense when they do it too well. Rock/paper/scissors metagames are enjoyable in rotating formats because new set releases refresh the environment. Each cycle of Standard is essentially a new format. However, in eternal environments, where the same shells can be dominant for 10 or more years leads to a stale gameplay experience in a broad sense. 

Different variants of Delver have waxed and waned in playability. After a while, players care less to discern between BUG, Grixis, RUG or UR Delver as individual entities as the overall experience amalgamates in their head as seeing Delver as an abstract omnipresent entity. 

As their average gameplay experience trends towards losing more and more to the pillar decks, discontent grows, and players either exit the format or begin playing the pillars themselves, subsequently increasing the homogeny of the environment. 

 

Header - Relating It to EDH

Commander also has long standing archetypes that have gotten stronger and stronger as time goes on. In the process of doing so, their structure becomes more and more homogenous as cards begin to establish themselves as staples of their respective archetypes. Players had more wiggle room for expression in deckbuilding in EDH of yesteryear than you do today. Pick a common archetype like three or more-color good stuff, green ramp, artifact shenanigans, reanimator, URxy spells and try to construct a list from the ground up and you’ll probably immediately find yourself thinking of 50 or so “must play” cards. Not very exciting huh? Stock deck lists are kinda boring, right? 

That said, I think a potential solution is to create sub-formats within the Commander umbrella that will provide players with a more catered experience. Doing so would address some issues inherent to the format in a few ways:

1. Addressing Oversights within the Rule Zero Conversation

Fun as a concept is subjective and trying to address that within a single top-down way leads to issues. The Rule Zero conversation largely doesn’t address that decks can’t be unilaterally evaluated on a singular one to 10 rating scale.

Let’s say three players of different dispositions sit down to play a game. The Johnny playing a combo deck, the Timmy playing a Green Machine deck, and the Spike playing RUG spells. Each player states that their deck functions within the three to four range as denoted by CFB’s provided scale:

Do you think each player is going to leave the table having had a mutually enjoyable gameplay experience?

I doubt it.

Even though each player stated that their deck operates at a casual level, what qualifies as “casual” relative to each archetype is a wholly different matter.
Say the combo player kills everyone at the table on turn 11 or so. Seems like a reasonable point in the game for a casual combo deck to win given that these shells can otherwise do so as early as turn one, right?

Now, switch to the perspective of the Timmy whose green deck likely hasn’t made many, if any relevant plays by this point in the game. So, while the combo player feels fulfilled in winning, and the RUG Spells pilot might feel fulfilled in having had the opportunity to make plays that interacted with the others at the table. The green pilot will feel as if they’ve been shorted a fulfilling gameplay experience. While each of these decks may be a three or four on their own subjective scales, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation in power across the archetypes.

If the goal is to have a fairly casual game amongst these three archetypes, then this is roughly where each deck would need to relate power level wise on their own individual scales to create a roughly even experience for all players involved.

That said, this only addresses the raw power level of each deck. How players approach piloting them creates an added layer of complexity. 

 2. Provides Room to Explore Different Ban List Philosophies

Managing a ban list as large as EDH’s is a Herculean task of sorts. The philosophical approach as denoted by Sheldon Mennery states that cards are scrutinized under the following parameters:

  1. Creates undesirable games/game situations
  2. Warps the format strategically
  3. Produces a surplus of mana at an accelerated rate
  4. Functions poorly with the format’s structure
  5. Creates a perceived high barrier to entry. 

The parameters make sense for managing a more casually slanted format. Implementing them only seems possible over a relatively short period of time. 

One thing I find interesting is the current focus on addressing specific cards as opposed to addressing types of effects. For example, mass land destruction is a contentious effect amongst players. Some people love these cards, while others find them abhorrent. As such, I find it interesting that Upheaval has remained banned, while Worldfire and Armageddon remain playable. Subjectively, I see these cards as essentially doing the same thing to the game state upon resolution; create a situation in which players have to evaluate what’s left of the game state and ask themselves if it would be fun to continue trying to play it out. Generally, the decks that utilize these effects are the most insulated from the collateral damage making them less symmetrical than they might seem at face value. This is even more so the case when you consider that the decks that are most able to abuse these effects tend to be blue-based artifact mana-heavy pseudo-ramp shells.

Sheldon did note that the above philosophy was avoided in order to keep the ban list from becoming unmanageable. But, it seems that not implementing such a policy has led to the format getting trapped in the exact pitfalls that were intended to be avoided.

That said, I don’t think overhauling the EDH ban list would really be possible, or even advisable at this point. You can’t implement a sweeping ban on artifact mana that costs two or less mana as an enforcement of the third tenant, just like you can’t do a sweeping ban of Reserved List cards to have the format better operate under the fifth. 

Any mass changes of this sort would lead to a surplus of player discontent. Remember what I stated earlier regarding how players respond to ban list management in eternal formats? The same applies here. EDH has outgrown the point in which the gameplay experience can be managed via a ban list and is trending towards the point in which it should be left as a sandbox for players to explore. 

The creation of newer sub-formats would allow the managerial staff to take lessons from the past and approach the ban list philosophy in a different light.

Consider this quote from the Tom Lapille’s article discussing Modern during its inception.

We used two criteria to guide us in choosing what cards to ban. First, we have a rule of thumb about Legacy that we don’t like consistent turn-two combination decks, but that turn-three combination decks are okay. We modified that rule for Modern by adding a turn to each side: we are going to allow turn-four combination decks, but not decks that consistently win the game on turn three. We banned enough additional cards that we think such decks no longer exist in this format… Our second criterion was that any deck that dominated a seven-year or four-year Extended format that only included Modern-legal sets had the danger of being crushingly powerful in Modern. There are also a few Legacy decks that can be easily ported into Modern that had a similar potential. If we left them all intact, those would likely be the best decks; if we left only one intact, it would probably be the single best one.”

This directive set a clear set of expectations for players on how management would function, and it didn’t come as a surprise when a number of cards were removed from the format for breaking the stated rules. Namely, effects that enabled extremely fast combos. To this day, the methodology for managing the format hasn’t strayed much from what was stated during its inception, and has been effective as such.

3. Providing Additional Variance in Gameplay Experience

The existence of formats that players are familiar with provides easy to utilize bounds for sub-formats. It’s fairly easy to appropriate the card pools of existing formats. Consider: 

  • Standard EDH (Brawl)
  • Modern EDH
  • Pioneer EDH

The list could theoretically go on forever. While you could hypothetically set format boundaries at any point, using the bounds of existing formats makes sense given that players will already have access to the cards within those pools. cEDH already operates as a proof of concept in that it caters to competitive players, and I’m glad that it exists to do so. People having spaces to play the game how they want with other like minded players is a wholly good thing from my point of view. Especially since these spaces existing in no way detracts from other formats. What if there existed EDH variants that catered to players of other dispositions. Timmy EDH? Johnny EDH? The sky’s the limit, and the creation of new formats doesn’t inherently threaten the existence of their progenitors. 

Ultimately, Magic: while a game isn’t about the cards. It’s about the people. You don’t remember the games you played, but you remember the people you met and the connections you made along the way. So why not create environments that better facilitate like minded players having the best experience possible? People don’t remember the outcomes of most games they play, but they do recall the ones that provided particularly enjoyable or miserable experiences. Why not mold the game to better create positive experiences? 

4. Managing Cost and Price of Entry

EDH is hitting a point where the perceived cost of entry is awkwardly high. Dual lands and other Reserved List cards present the risk of creating a “pay to win” format. Limiting the card pool would actively address the overall conversations regarding the need to purchase expensive, out of print cards. 

But what about preconstructed decks? Ostensibly, there isn’t really a major change in their management. Sure, you’d have to possibly omit cards like Sol Ring or Signets from future builds but really, who cares? Their inclusion in previous lists was to address supply/demand issues during the onset of the format’s popularity. It made sense to include Sol Ring in every deck when there were relatively few printings of the card, but at this point card availability is a nonissue. 

5. Possibly Providing an Avenue for EDH to be a Sanctioned Competitive Format

EDH as a format presents interesting deckbuilding options and gameplay possibilities that you can’t really get anywhere else. It’s not a shock that a subset of players will want to explore the more competitive possibilities, and even less of a shock that those players would want to do so within a sanctioned environment. The existence of Duel Commander, and the brief stint that MTGO supported 1v1 EDH events are proof of such interest.  

I’ve also heard whispers of folks pushing for cEDH tournaments, but I think the glaring issues with this are:

  1. Time constraints are barely manageable in one-on-one events. Four-player pods would be a nightmare in a tournament format.
  2. Psychologically, EDH works because the outcomes of the games don’t matter in the grand scheme. Once you add stakes to the matter, players will become keenly aware that 75 percent of the people in the room are losing each round. Competitive players tend to attach their self worth to their results and having an environment where odds-wise going to lose is a great way to have players get stuck in the worst parts of the Levine Trench. 

3. It’s better to create formats with their intended environments in mind than attempt to retrofit an existing format for a new purpose. 

Regardless, I think there’s a lot of design space to explore within EDH landscape. Hopefully we’ll see more exploration of the possibilities instead of trying to keep the experience monolithic. 

P.S. Brandon and I hope y’all had a good Black History Month.

 

Header - Works Cited

 

4 thoughts on “EDH and the Issues Inherent to Eternal Formats”

  1. I will be honest. As I read this I can’t tell, you either dont play commander or you miss the main part of the format. Yes you have hyper competitive decks that are tuned to play only the best cards in each slot. You also have playgroups that limit what can be played. Commander is not about paying an entry fee and winning a prize pool. The format is about building decks around pet cards and themes that you normally can’t play in a 60 card format. LGS are able to make adjustments as they need or even limit power levels. players are able to discuss what the power level is going to look like. There is a reason Commander is doing so well and Brawl failed, Standard is all but dead, and other formats are gasping for air. There is a reason you can visit 10 LGS and 9 of them offer a commander event once a week or more. The main part is 8 of those 9 do not play for a real prize, the 9th shop has a hard time getting players. For competitive formats your spot on but for Commander… I would say play at a couple more LGS and branch out of your normal playgroup and you will quickly see why the normal rules don’t apply here. Or I’m wrong and I’m just super lucky at every shop I play at.

  2. I’m more in favour of an app that ayers drop decklists into, then the app puts an objective score based on cards/synergies inside the deck. Cards are rated between 0-5 points, and then you can create formats based on total allowable points in the deck.

    You could then essentially get rid of most of the banlist and let people choose within a set limit which powerful cards they want to have in the deck. The total points limits how many of the most powerful cards/synergies you can cram into one list.

  3. Great article! Since you mentioned competitive, 1v1 variants of EDH, I would definitely suggest you (and everyone who reads) to take a look at the Centurion format:
    https://centurioncommander.eu/home/0
    It’s widely popular here in Italy and it’s growing fast in other countries in Europe as well. Hope you like It!

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