May 28, 2015

(Un)Ban Outfitters

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Commander is unlike any other constructed format out there, and I don't mean the sky-high decks or compelling conundrums around colors and creatures.

Tormenting Voice | Art by Volkan Baga

Commander as a format isn't built on the decklists of competitions and extensive testing by teams inside of Wizards of the Coast. It's a volunteer group of Commander fans who helped build and steer the format since its earliest days that guides us: the Commander Rules Committee.

The official Commander website covers all the rules and hosts an excellent forum of discussions, ideas, and other topics of Commander interest. You've helped me interview two long-standing members, Sheldon Menery and Toby Elliott. It's just a small cadre of characters that handle rules updates and other high-level direction for the format. (If you have Feedback for them, the aforementioned forums are an excellent place to go.)

Like you, I'm not a member of the small council charting Commander's path. So when changes happen or questions get asked I have just as much fun thinking about it as Nathan Holt does:

Well, perhaps with a bit less satire layered in:

It's no secret I'm team #AntiDeadeye, for reasons I'm not alone in as I shared while explaining "harmonic synergy":

Shortly after I had my hands on the card, I began to discover its potential far exceeded my expectations. In nearly any Commander deck using blue, it became a powerhouse engine unto itself, and I found myself using it so often it became the card I wanted to get to the most when I knew it was in a deck.

In just a few months it was clearly taking over games, even when it was answered shortly after it arrived. By the time it was wiped away, the damage—the advantage it created for me—had been done. After creating and later dismantling what I'd argue is the most powerful Commander deck I've ever built, I decided it was time to set aside Deadeye Navigator. I couldn't envision any creature with an "enters the battlefield" trigger that I would play in Commander that also wouldn't be too advantageous alongside the Navigator for my tastes, so I eschewed it altogether.

Deadeye Navigator isn't alone in this regard of being a card that can become a combo with almost anything else. It's part of why Gifts Ungiven and Recurring Nightmare are on the banned list of cards for Commander: both of those cards have plenty of unhealthy uses, even if players intentionally avoid the worst-case scenarios.

I've taken Deadeye Navigator out of every deck I've put it in. Every time I try to keep it fun, the power of "enters the battlefield" triggers hits hard again. And I've rarely seen the Navigator appear for someone else without tomfoolery following soon thereafter.

At least that's why I'd ax the big blue baddie if it were up to me.


Forces of Will

Of course, it's not up to me. It's not up to any of us, really, but it's all an idea we like to entertain. It certainly elicited plenty of responses when I posed to the question to you.

Rio started things off with the card that first struck me as counter to how the format was meant to be experienced:

While I believe Sol Ring warps commander too much, a card that many people in my playgroup (myself included) run that I think should get the ban hammer is Magister Sphinx. The addition of being an artifact as well as a creature makes it easier to reduce its mana costs or cheat it into play (evil looks to Master Transmuter). In long games it can make any life you've built up irrelevant, and can combo with cards like Wound Reflection for insta-kill. While it can be helpful against somebody running masses of life gain, we already have commander damage to deal with that and I feel like that's a better way to beat a life gain player than to make all their work irrelevant and then say "you have two turns to draw a flyer!" I run it in my Esper deck mostly to counter the other ones in my playgroup, plus it's a big sphinx, which fits them.

Rio's Sydri, Galvanic Genius

COMMANDER: Sydri, Galvanic Genius
Planeswalker (1)
1 Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Enchantment (1)
1 Stormcaller's Boon
99 Cards

Both Magister Sphinx and Sorin Markov have abilities that set players' life totals to 10. Both function in practically the same way every game I see them in: Annihilate the player furthest ahead with a surprise life total of 10 and being bashed over the head immediately thereafter without an opportunity to recover.

Magister Sphinx gets more notoriety given how it can be brought into play from the hand, graveyard, or library several ways each (Read: It's an easy, redundant combo to execute.) but both are problematic in my book. I have a hard time justifying either card as powerful without their 10 life effect, and therefore find them as boring as Rio—who wasn't nearly alone in calling out these two.


There's another effect that quickly gained notoriety from my earliest Commander experiences, and it's one several chimed in with as well. Derek summed it succinctly:

Ban these game breakers:

Public enemy one: Prophet of Kruphix

Public enemy two: Seedborn Muse

In a four-player game, a player with one of these cards gets to take three extra turns! Any turn is the Prophet player's turn.

Imagine you are sitting at a table with two Prophets. You have to wait through five other players' turns before you can than finally untap the traditional way, the way Richard Garfield meant you to.

Seedborn Muse was one of the centerpieces of my original Rhys the Redeemed deck, and it's in the reborn version too, doing exactly the same thing. The ability to untap lands and creatures on each other players' turns breaks the symmetry of the game. Activated abilities can be activated en masse.

I've never seen a deck do tame, unassuming things with quadrupled mana (Or more!) left unchecked.

Sorin Markov | Art by Michael Komarck

Of course, not all cards that came in are those I can share the perspective on. Take AJ's for instance:

Of all the cards I have come up against in Commander, there has been one that—no matter what deck it's in—seems to always just crush the enemy. And that card is Mana Reflection.

It may be green and may be six mana, but if it's not dealt with by the following turn; you can expect that opponent to: A) Dump his whole hand and take over the game; B) Easily fuel an infinite combo, typically through extra turns or untapping lands; and—the worst part—C) Take a turn that lasts way to long. I would say A, B, and C happen 90% of the time the Reflections comes out.

It's literally the only card in all of Commander that I find to be grossly overpowered because of the interaction it has with the rest of the table. They get double mana from ALL sources and it just kills the game and allows that player to take over by simply playing one card.

I believe the player that ends up playing it, at least with the people I play with, wins the game 95% of the time. As soon as it lands, I say to everyone "You have one turn to kill him/her or destroy it because if you don't it's 'good game.'"

Sure there are some cards like Sol Ring, Sorin Markov and others that are also worth of banning, but I'm sure you'll hear a lot from players about those cards and I want to throw my two cents in for banning Mana Reflection.

Please take a moment to think about what I said and consider putting Mana Reflection on the ban list.

Mana Reflection is not a card I've encountered breaking games. I've seen it several times and even gave it a go myself when I first brought Rhys the Redeemed back out of retirement. But each time, I was left disappointed: Either it didn't survive to my turn, or getting double the mana on my next turn wasn't enough to fight against the entire battlefield united in taking me out.

It put a big target on my face, and the payoff never really felt strong enough to justify that target.

Of course, every deck is different. In a deck filled with ways to take extra turns, draw more cards, and dump extra mana into powerful effects, Mana Reflection puts in more work. But I don't play many cards that take extra turns or create a loop that destroys a game. As always, how a card is used leads to the experience it creates. There's nothing intrinsic about Sorin Markov or Seedborn Muse that makes them break the game, but it's the ease with which it happens that stands out to us.


Drop the Hammer

What I found most interesting about your answers to this question wasn't that most of us have cards we'd like to see go, but that virtually no one wanted to see any cards came back. Fond mana-filled memories of Primeval Titan and Sylvan Primordial cropped up, but the universal push was in a direction of fewer cards in the format to, ideally, create fewer issues in games.

Primeval Titan | Art by Aleksi Briclot

It's an admirable desire to make every Commander game a good one. Banned list or not, it's up to each of us to choose cards, themes, synergies, and plays that contribute to everyone's enjoyment. Otherwise we might lose sight of the reason something ends up getting added to the no-fly list.

This week's question is a fun one I hope you answer playfully: What's the most surprising-yet-successful play you've ever seen in Commander?

  • Feedback via email, in English
  • 300 word limit to explain the play and its effect
  • Sample decklist (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)
  • Your Twitter handle if you use it

Join us next week when we go back to the beginning. See you then!



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