Today’s article is inspired by a series of interactions and engagements that occurred in response to a Tweet I made venting a bit of frustration that one of my favorite Magic cards, Library of Alexandria, is on the Commander ban list.
On the other hand, other, more powerful cards are legal:
On a game level, I can’t comprehend how Mana Crypt, Tabernacle and Gaea’s Cradle are somehow “fine” but Library of Alexandria isn’t
I don’t understand why a small panel gets to make seemingly random choices that dictate how all of casual magic is played worldwide.
— Brian DeMars (@BrianDeMars1) February 8, 2022
After more thought, I would cite Mishra’s Workshop and Bazaar of Baghdad as even more egregious examples of cards that are more even more impactful, expensive and from the same era as Library but legal for Commander play.
I was more or less just venting about not being able to play with one of my favorite old cards when, in my opinion, there are clearly more impactful and expensive cards legal in the format. I felt at the time, and still feel that many of the cards occupying space on the Commander banned list are arbitrary selections and Library is a great example when compared side by side to other powerful staples.
My point isn’t that Library is a weak card – it’s an extremely powerful card – rather, what I’m saying is that while Library of Alexandria is a powerful card, the format allows cards that I’d consider significantly more impactful to game play thus making the ban to Library appear (at least to me) arbitrary.
My random Tweet attracted responses from some pretty big fish in the Commander pond, including Brian David Marshall and Sheldon Menery. I appreciate that both of them took the time to reply in earnest and share their thoughts. In fact, I appreciate all of the MTG fans who took the time to share their thoughts on the Commander banned list.
Because that small panel is responsible for cultivating the interest and enthusiasm in the format that has led to it becoming so popular.
— Brian David-Marshall (@Top8Games) February 8, 2022
I thought BDM’s response was fair and compelling. I’ve got no issue with riding the horse that got you there in terms of trust. I’d also second that Sheldon and RC do a tremendous job of producing quality content and promoting Commander. In terms of content, Sheldon’s articles are ones that I enjoy and read regularly.
It's a way more nuanced discussion than we can have over Twitter (happy to have it elsewhere, like the RC Discord server). The short version is that Commander is a social format first and a mechanical one second. The reason for its popularity is the resonance of this stance.
— Sheldon Menery (@SheldonMenery) February 8, 2022
I also appreciated that Sheldon acknowledged the complicity of a Commander banned list, offered to chat on Discord and offered some of his thoughts on the early Commander bannings. I’m spending a bit of time in the introduction of the topic because I think it’s important to show that the individuals who oversee the health of the format actually do care a lot and are open to suggestions and input about how to make the format as fun as possible for everyone.
After reading through all of the comments, the binding theme I noticed running throughout the discourse was that everybody has their own ideas about what is fun, what they like and what should be allowed and/or included in the format.
I also think it’s possible for more than one person to make a good point, even if the points are in tension with one another. I think it’s fair for me to have a gripe about one of my favorite cards being banned in the format I play (when it doesn’t need to be banned relative to other legal cards) and it being very difficult for the curators of the format to shuffle the deck that makes up the format without ruffling a ton of feathers.
Another archetype of comment that was fairly common in the thread was the sentiment that Commander is a casual format and thus Commander playgroups ultimately have control over their own banned lists. I think this is a great point and I totally agree.
As an individual who essentially invented his own casual format (Battle Box), I’m no stranger to the concept that Magic can be played without WOTC or anybody else giving me explicit instructions for how I’m allowed to have fun with my own toys.
When I write my Battle Box articles, for instance, I try to make sure to say multiple times in each article that:
My Danger Room stack reflects my own personal preferences for game play. I talk about the kinds of cards that tend to work well and/or are problematic. I encourage players who use my stack as a guidepost to cut cards they don’t like and play with the cards they enjoy.
It’s kind of ludicrous to me that I would ever tell people they cannot play with their cards in a casual format.
I’m not really concerned with the Commander Banned List providing me a guideline for how I can or should play with a close-knit playgroup of friends. People can figure that out pretty easily for themselves. I have friends I’ve played Magic with for going on two decades and when we get together, it’s pretty easy to communicate what kind of game we are preparing to play.
The Commander Banned List, to me, feels very much like the preferences of “somebody else’s playgroup.” Is it a series of preferences informed by people who care deeply about the format? Yes. Is it well intentioned? Yes. Is it perfect? In my opinion, no and I’ll tell you why.
I think the real value of having a Banned List is that it provides a guideline for how players are allowed to build decks to play with strangers.
I would describe what I’m talking about as “pick-up Magic” in the same sense as playing pickup basketball at a gym. There’s a set time on the schedule for people of all different skill ranges to show up, come together and enjoy a game together. I would also venture that learning from the experience of playing with new and different players with decks and cards we don’t typically or regularly play against is something we take with us back to our playgroups.
To me, casual Magic is the frontier of pushing the boundaries of how Magic can be played. In “competitive” formats, there are always clear black and white lines of demarcation about what cards are legal or illegal for tournament play. I think that is an extremely positive thing for “pick-up” Magic, where strangers need to come to some kind of agreement about the kind of game they are showing up to play together. It’s what made Modern such a fantastic LGS format in its heyday before Modern Horizons 1 and 2 displaced many of the iconic format staples accrued over two decades with transplanted format staples.
We also tend to group players into a binary of “casual” or “competitive” that isn’t particularly useful or accurate as a reflection of how people tend to play the game. I tend to think about how players approach the game on a spectrum rather than a category.
These are subjective terms that get tossed around a lot. I tend to see competitive and casual as having more to do with the stakes of matches and results-oriented goals as opposed to simply trying one’s best to win the game. Most players are “competitive” in the sense that they want to play their best, perform well and have a shot at winning the game. It’s not that competitive players are mean and casual players are chill – for me, I tend to view it more as “what are you playing for?” Are we playing for money? Store credit? Opportunities? Clout? Or, are we just here to play for the experience of playing cards because we like to play cards?
“Professional players” and “grinders” are the most competitive group of players. They utilize all space within the rules to garner any legal advantage possible to give themselves the best chance of winning; including gray areas within the floor rules that feel icky, such as the infamous “Judge, my opponent beat me but didn’t know they had to voluntary reveal their morph and shuffled it back into their deck, so I win the game, right?” Does every high stakes competitive player do these things? Obviously, not. My point is that the kind of rules minutiae and win-at-all-costs mentality using every trick in the book legal under the floor rules is hyper competitive play and it doesn’t fly in a casual setting (nor, should it in large tournaments, in my opinion).
These players tend to be working toward advancement in status within the game. It’s hard to blame people who put in the time, energy and resources to travel for playing up to but within the rules. Don’t hate the player – hate the game, right? Typically, there are large prizes on the line that motivate competitive players to work toward playing as close to absolute precision as humanly possible.
“Pick up players” are the meat and potatoes of the player base. I consider my own progression as a player to have gone from being a semi-professional or grinder type of player into more of a “pick up” player. I’m in it for the social experience of hanging out with other gamers and jamming some matches on a Tuesday night. If not for the pandemic, I would typically travel to a large Magic convention within driving distance for the experience with no expectation other than to have a fun time. Typically, there are small prizes on the line to encourage and reward good play.
“Kitchen table players” are players who do not play “pick up Magic” with people outside of their group of friends. Typically, there are no prizes on the line. I would say that “kitchen table” has nothing to do with skilled or unskilled play, rather everything to do with how often a player plays with the same people as opposed to unknown players.
No matter which group of players, I think all players like to compete in the sense that they want to learn how to play better and play the best they can up to their ability. The venue in which a player is gaming has more to do with dictating “competitive versus casual” dichotomy than the player themself actually does. At the kitchen table (or any table where we are playing with people we know), it’s very easy to make adjustments to create the kind of gaming experience we all want, but that’s much more difficult to accomplish when we change venues to an LGS or convention with players we are meeting for the first time.
I also view the current Commander banned list as being highly informed by a particular group of “kitchen table” players, which sounds potentially insulting, but isn’t meant to be within the framework of how I’m describing my spectrum of competitiveness (high stakes travel players, low stakes local players and no-stakes players who tend to play with the same players). The Commander format is actually an extension of a particular kitchen table game with a bunch of house rules that has essentially become canon within the larger framework of the Magic game system, which is really freaking cool.
WOTC prints cards that have no other function than to be played within Commander, which makes elements of play such as the command zone an actual, supported facet of gameplay. These are cards that are designed specifically for “casual” Magic, in the sense that they cannot be played in “competitive” formats or high stakes events.
It’s almost impossible to separate Commander from casual at this point, as it has become the ubiquitous, populist way that non-tournament Magic is played all around the world because it’s a really fun set of house rules and a great way to enjoy all of the important components of the Magic gaming system: social, deck building, multiplayer and being able to express yourself creatively through playing cards.
Another takeaway I’ve learned as a result of the exchange of ideas that took place on my Twitter is that the early B&R choices of the format were highly informed by the optics of not wanting Commander to look like Vintage; hence, the banning of a lot of the Restricted cards in the format, such as eight of the Power Nine and Library of Alexandria. Considering the roles have dramatically reversed in terms of format popularity over the past decade, it doesn’t make sense that cards should necessarily remain banned if the original intent was to differentiate the formats.
Can Magic be played casually with friends at the kitchen table using any made up rules? Yes!
With that said, what I’m suggesting is that Commander has become the de facto way that casual Magic is played, especially as it pertains to the kind of “pick up” LGS games where players who don’t know each other come together and essentially try to negotiate their interpretation of what Commander is.
Essentially, this sort of murky territory about what is too powerful or not powerful enough is negotiated at the beginning of the match through a mechanism that has become known as Rule Zero. Rule Zero is essentially a conversation that takes place between players before a Commander game begins whereby they discuss how powerful their decks are. I find this is a great mechanism for kitchen table Magic when we’re playing with friends and a fairly inept one for pickup games. The reason is that most players are not very good at accurately assessing their own decks, and it’s not always easy for a bunch of strangers to communicate and negotiate on the fly.
While it’s a great idea in theory and quite practical for the kitchen table it’s highly irrelevant in pickup games because everybody says their deck is “like a 7.5 power level” and then they Vamp for a Cradle. The numbers are essentially meaningless and most people evaluate how powerful their Commander deck is relative to a cEDH deck (which are the top one percent optimized, most powerful decks).
I’ve never been shy about sharing my opinions regardless of whether I think they will be popular or not, and I see no reason to jettison from that mindset this afternoon. I personally don’t think any cards other than the ante cards should be banned in Commander.
I don’t think WOTC should make more dexterity cards, but I do think the ones that exist should not be banned. Chaos Orb is probably the most bizarre, fun and exciting card ever printed and it’s a shame that it can’t be used in the most played casual format. How a Chaos Orb could be used or errata’d can certainly be discussed during Rule Zero even without an official WOTC errata.
I’m getting into territory that likely only applies to a slim number of players, but that slim number of players does include me and the cards I’ve collected over the years. I’m aware that the legality of Moxen, Library and Chaos Orb in a casual format doesn’t apply to a majority of fans.
The point is that if Commander is code for “non-tournament Magic” and the rules for deck construction are so vague they require player negotiations with Rule Zero in a “pickup” setting, what’s the point of even having a banned list that dictates which cards are essentially illegal to play in a LGS “pickup game” setting?
Why is Biorhythm banned but Thassa’s Oracle is okay? It’s highly subjective and arbitrary – especially in a game with over 20,000 unique cards in a 100-card highlander format.
In my opinion, it doesn’t make sense to ban cards from being played in a casual, non-tournament multiplayer format, but I do agree that it’s extremely useful to have guidelines and expectations that players can actually adhere to when gathering to play pick up games.
I’ve said it many, many times, but the most blatant and important informer of a Commander deck’s power level comes down to money. If singles were not so expensive, it would be very easy for everybody to improve the power level of their decks. All of the most expensive Magic cards earn their price tag by virtue of appearing on WOTC’s Reserved List (cards they promised to never reprint).
Despite owning many of the old Reserved List cards, I have always wanted to see it abolished so that players can actually play with and enjoy the iconic cards. The easiest and most practical way to delineate what kind of Commander is going to be played in a pickup game would be to divide the format into Reserved and non-Reserved List.
As one of the winningest Vintage players to ever play Magic, I consider myself to be an absolute expert and understanding how fast mana impacts metagames and formats.
Sol Ring and Mana Crypt are heads and tails more powerful cards than a Mox in Commander. I get that players would obviously play Moxen in addition to Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, so a banning is likely more of not letting players have “too much of a good thing.”
WOTC also just printed this card a year ago. It’s more powerful than a Mox in Commander. It obviously has to do with money and card availability rather than about gameplay.
I tend to think the simplest and most straightforward solution tends to be the most ideal. I wholeheartedly believe that differentiating between Reserved and non-Reserved Commander does the most work in terms of setting up reasonable expectations for fair and fun pick up play. If you want to live in a world where you are playing with $1,000 cards against other $1,000 cards, pick Reserved List. If you don’t want to live in a world where that’s normal, play the latter.
To clarify (because there are a lot of different pieces in play in today’s article), I see Commander as being different from other formats Wizards of the Coast acknowledges for a couple of reasons. First, because it has unique rules, i.e commander and command zone for which WOTC prints cards with mechanics that are only usable in Commander. As far as I know, it’s really the only format that has its own rules and specific cards (other than like Conspiracy Cube Draft cards) that are only usable in a specific format.
If Commander is all of the things it’s espoused to be – a social experience where players are able to enjoy playing multiplayer games in a non-tournament setting – I disagree with banning any cards without a very, very good reason. There would need to be a specific reason, such as it’s the best card in every deck (Sol Ring) or there’s a lot of complaint from LGS players that a new power creepy card is being played in an overabundance such as Thassa’s Oracle or Hullbreacher and feels like it’s deciding an unreasonable number of games worldwide.
I want to end on a positive note because ultimately my opinion of Commander is very positive. I enjoy it a lot as a recreational activity and I’m looking forward to more opportunities to play the format with new people as we transition (hopefully) back to normalcy. I don’t think any of the things I’ve mentioned or brought up today make the format unplayable or anything like that.
I also think that maybe I just have a unique and different perspective about the format because I have a very different experience playing Magic than Sheldon or BDM. A LGS is my home away from home. That’s where I go to unwind and I enjoy just playing the game with new people. If there wasn’t Magic, I’d probably be the guy in the park battling random people at chess (which is probably not fun in Canada in January).
The point of today’s article isn’t to say that anybody has done a bad job or doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Overall, I think WOTC and the RC have done an incredible job of branding Commander and generating a lot of interest. For me, it’s all about the pickup play and what I’m suggesting is that Commander is a much more cohesive kitchen table format (played with the same group of friends where rules can be negotiated over time – like the RC) than pickup format with players we are meeting for the first time.
On principle, I don’t think cards should be banned from a noncompetitive, casual format. If players are doing all of the awkward heavy lifting of negotiating their game via Rule Zero in pick up games, what’s the actual utility of a banned list and essentially making a bunch of iconic (albeit stupid expensive) cards officially illegal at the kitchen table? Maybe legalizing Moxen is the gateway drug to proxies. Who knows?
For me the big thing I’d love to see the RC explore a little more deeply is how to generate a meaningful baseline expectation for playing pickup Commander games with new players at the LGS. I think the cEDH does a great job of making it clear what the expectation of play actually is, which is amazing. It’s hard to find a playgroup because decks cost a gazillion dollars, but if I saw a post about a cEDH game night at an LGS, I would know what to bring and what to expect. A post for a Commander open play night is likely to attract people with cEDH and precons, which is cool in theory, but lame in random pools.
If there were some kind of demarcation between say, Reserved and non-Reserved, during sign up, it would be much easier to generate better pods where people are matched a little more fairly. I suppose what I’m looking for from Commander is a little bit more specificity about how to generate more cohesive pick up play.
I put my mind to the problem and I actually thought up a pretty cool little rules variant that sort of aims to solve the problems of disproportionately powered decks in multiplayer: I call it the Jester’s Cap Commander variant:
The idea essentially builds upon the types of things that we’d typically do during Rule Zero. We sit down to play and talk about our decks, but take a few minutes to actually look at the cards in each others’ decks and decide for ourselves the power level of each opponent’s deck (as opposed to the opponent telling us what their power is). It’s also a great time to familiarize yourself with cards we may not know that other people are playing or interactions we haven’t seen before.
After we’ve all looked at each others’ decks, each player has the option to exile up to three combined cards from all opponents’ decks before opening hands are drawn. It essentially allows the table to decide which cards to ban or not ban from that particular game. It would also address playing with a bunch of tutors and a handful of busted combos, since a player could take away the Thassa’s Oracle.
It’s sort of an outside the box solution to a problem that I actually observe to exist in pick up Commander play. I also think it would be a pretty fun little ice breaker with new players, it sort of creates a little bit of backstory upon which the game is built. “Well, since you Capped my Cradle I’m going to attack you, rawr!”
I also think it happenstance is an issue that’s common but that we don’t talk about because it’s embarrassing…. WOTC released so many new cards and products last year that I’m frequently encountering new cards and interactions I’ve never seen before! I have played a lot of games where people are playing cards that other people are unfamiliar with. It may seem like a time drag to look at each other’s decks before the game, but being able to read the cards you don’t know beforehand saves so much time and confusion overall.
Long story short, the area of Commander that I’m most interested in is being able to facilitate pick up play at an LGS that is both fun and inclusive. Maybe it’s for the best that the rules are left largely up to players to negotiate with each other, but if that’s the case: why ban anything at all?
At the end of the day, I do think the Commander format embodies most of what is great about Magic and I love that WOTC has positioned it as a social experience as opposed to a tournament format that rewards fun more so than winning matches.
If you have any tips that you think are great for matchmaking during pickup play, I’m all ears and would love to hear them in the comments. Also, what did you think of the Jester’s Cap variant idea? I thought that might be a useful little variant mechanism that could do a lot of work toward letting people play whatever they want while also not being able to play whatever they want.
I’d also like to thank BDM and Sheldon for taking the time to reply to my Tweet and sharing their insights on the subject. I love the format and meant no disrespect. I’m just a fan (I use a Library of Alexandria playmat) who was a bit miffed that his favorite card was banned in WOTC’s flagship casual play format.