Every now and again, I like to engage in “what-if” scenarios. It's a healthy way to think. It keeps us from getting stuck in particular mindsets or becoming victims of inertia. The Commander Rules Committee does this every meeting when we discuss removing a card from the Banned List. It's not that we expect to or have agenda going in; it's that we want to keep our minds fresh, make sure our philosophy still apply to the cards on the list, and avoid thinking rigidly or dogmatically. Engaging in these kinds of thought exercises is good for the format because it ensures that we're continuing to do what we set out to do.
As I do every time I wander into thought experiment territory, I'll offer the caveat that this is not a prelude to us doing (or not doing) a particular thing. Don't try to read anything into it; this really is just as advertised—me asking the question out loud and then seeing what comes of it, both from my own thoughts and your responses. I'll also add that these are my own opinions; I ran the idea past the rest of the RC and they shot me a few comments, but mostly asked if I really wanted to poke this particular bear. Bear baiting, by the way, was a popular entertainment in Shakespeare's time. Fortunately, we've come a long way since then.
What would happen if we brought back Banned as a Commander?
The short version is that I think most folks wouldn't like the answer, since they'd be losing more cards. Of course, to some people, that might not be a terrible idea. The RC has maintained for quite a while that we'd like to keep the banned list as short as possible and give players the opportunity to explore cool synergies with some borderline cards, only taking action when cards demonstrate they've definitely crossed the line. This is a more conservative approach than some players would like, but we feel as though it's shown dividends throughout the format's history. There's no such thing as an objectively perfect banned list. I've frequently likened managing the format to art as opposed to science, so we sculpt to a kind of feel.
It's been two-and-a-half years since we eliminated the Banned as a Commander category. You can review the announcement here. Some people believe we did this because the concept was too difficult for some players to understand, which of course isn't the case at all. Commander players are smarter than the average bear (see, I went for the come-back to the bear-baiting thing, and now I'm wondering how many of you are too young for the Yogi reference), and we trust them to be able to keep the lists separate.
One of the reasons we got rid of the category is that we weren't using it for much; streamlining things seemed like a much better call. Only four cards were previously Banned as a Commander: Braids, Cabal Minion; Erayo, Soratami Ascendant; Kokusho, the Evening Star; and Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary. Only Kokusho became unbanned; the other three were problematic enough cards that we felt warranted wholesale banning. The format seems to not much miss any of the three (although I know my friend Michelle has forever put me on the “No Cake List” for sins against Rofellos-kind). Even if we were to bring back Banned as a Commander, Braids would likely be the only card added back to the normal pool. I suppose there's a somewhat reasonable argument for Rofellos to return, although I'd put it in the “too much mana too quickly” category. Erayo is one of those cards that most of us can agree is just best left out of the card pool.
The strongest argument for reinstituting Banned as a Commander would be to make some use of it—which is where things might get uncomfortable for most of us. Putting the category back into play would mean adding a number of Commanders to it. Otherwise, why bother? Let's take a look at which ones would end up getting the axe under this new paradigm and why (acknowledging that some might have stronger cases than others):
Turning artifact creatures into artifacts is pretty cool flavor-wise. Unfortunately, the rest of what comes out of Arcum ends up as less than desirable for the format. Arcum is a modified Tinker on a stick, meaning not only does it do broken stuff, but it's repeatable. The worst part about the card is that while it has some clever uses, it always (at least in my long experience with the card) ends up in the same build: first it's Darksteel Forge, then Mycosynth Lattice, then March of the Machines. No one else gets to play the game, easily fitting to the Creates Undesirable Game States category. You'll see this theme recurrent in this list of commanders which would get the axe.
The first Commander 2013 commander to find its way to the theoretical Banned as a Commander list (since it's first alphabetically), Derevi is already the subject of much discussion in the community as a card for banning. The creative space of using the Command Zone which the designers and developers of Commander 2013 explored is great. Unfortunately, they pushed the envelope too far with the final designs. You've likely heard me say before that mistakes (if that's what you want to call them) like this are okay, because it demonstrates that the designers are willing to attempt doing interesting things. Sometimes, the aforementioned envelope gets broken—but at least the game doesn't get stale. In the case of the C13 cards, they've simply given the cards too many abilities. Even if Derevi had only the avoids-the-commander-tax ability, it'd be fine. It would still be okay with having its own enters-the-battlefield trigger. Everything after the “or” in that sentence, however, makes the card uncomfortable.
Speaking of cards which take the game away from the other players, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV is a double whammy since it also accelerates the controller. It's one of those cards which the social contract currently takes care of reasonably well. Groups which don't like the style weed it out; groups which are okay with the style get to explore it. If we were to expand the list, it's an obvious candidate to go on.
I'll admit that this is one of my favorite new cards and that I've tried to build a friendlier version. I think it's okay to keep greedy opponents in check. I suspect that not many players are following my lead on this one. It's pretty easy to lock out everyone with Teferi's Puzzle Box. They've already drawn their card for the turn, so they ship everything to the bottom and can't draw any more. Again, I think this is one which the social contract can currently keep in check (or, listening to some of the online comments, maybe not), but it's an easy add to the list's expansion.
The heartburn over Narset is great. As with a few other commanders, it becomes a victim of itself in which players seem to always matriculate to a particular build—in this case, with time magic, such as Time Warp or Time Stretch—which ends up in one player doing something and everyone else watching. Narset could be fixed if it were like Medomai the Ageless and it couldn't attack during extra turns.
Weirdly enough, none of my local players have built an Oloro deck. Nonetheless, I'm still aware of the frustration with the card and some broken builds with it, especially since you don't ever need to cast the card in order for it to do something. I'd call it more of a borderline case than some of the others, but again, if we're doing this expansion, it seems like the right call to nix the stuff in the gray area in order to keep the peace.
So close. We wouldn't be having this conversation (at least about this particular card) without the second ability. Getting the Kobolds is grand and a fine use of the design space. Having easy, one-shot kills is decidedly less so. Prossh might be okay if you have to sacrifice a Kobold instead of any creature, but probably not, since it just keeps creating its own fodder. Clever players realized right away that Food Chain makes an infinite combo. Right after the card came out, I put it at the helm of each of my Jund decks with no other changes, just to see what happened. The right play was nearly always to cast Prossh as soon as possible and start swinging. A card, especially a commander, being linear isn't the gravest sin and it certainly isn't a criterion for banning, but Prossh's intrinsic quality to create easy commander damage kills would get it relegated in a new world order.
Zur has been on lots of peoples' radars since it got printed. You'd think that limiting what it can get to converted mana cost three and below would keep it in check, but it pretty easily sets up lock situations. Again, this is a shame, since there are other strong-not-broken uses for the card. Perhaps I'll work on a “cool, not busted” Zur build at some point. Of course, my capability and willingness to do it doesn't mean that, in the new Banned as a Commander world, it would get a reprieve. Evidence seems to suggest that the lockout versions would still be the predominant ones, so getting rid of the card would seem like the safer call.
Always Watching, Always Testing
I'm sure there are more some of you might add to the list. You can see a common thread among many of those which I've chosen—they strip the ability of the other players to be active participants in the game. As you'll note from the most recent philosophy update, losing the game isn't an undesirable state; it's not being able to play which is the kind of experience we want to avoid. We currently rely more heavily on people socializing such play out of their groups if they don't want it (and keeping it if they do). The best reason to return to Banned as a Commander would be to more aggressively enforce those ideals, which we'd rather leave to local environments to decide. But if we take that step, we're not done. If we're going to be more aggressive, we might as well take it even further.
Bringing back Banned as a Commander would suggest that we also expand the rest of the banned list. Again, to some folks, this might be a reason to pull the trigger instead of avoiding it; we on the RC aren't there. It would make sense to then add those which we currently consider borderline cards, those which a large enough cross-section of voices have risen against, and those which might violate what we consider the spirit of the format Such a list might include, in no particular order, Cyclonic Rift; Iona, Shield of Emeria; Deadeye Navigator; Tooth and Nail; Palinchron; Paradox Engine; Hokori, Dust Drinker; Winter Orb; Rising Waters; Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger; Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur; and certainly more. We might even think about adding Sol Ring and Mana Crypt just to keep the peace.
What expansion of the Banned List would bring is adding cards to it even if there's not a great deal of evidence that players are using or abusing them and creating the kinds of experiences we'd like to avoid. Currently often-discussed cards like Protean Hulk and Painter's Servant would cease getting talked about in our meetings. We'd be led down the road of cascading bans, which ends up with an unwieldy list at best. Nobody wants a Banned List which approaches or maybe even exceeds triple digits, which is one of the reasons that, the more I talk this out, the less I like it.
Like the format itself, which is intentionally different from others in in mindset as well as rules set, the Commander Banned List serves a different purpose from lists for competitive formats. It exists as a baseline of the worst offenders and reinforcement of the format's guiding principles, offering itself as an example for local groups to customize. Returning Banned as a Commander might seem like a simple thing, but simple things often lead to unintended and undesired consequences.
This week's Deck Without Comment is Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind.
Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:
Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; You Take the Crown, I'll Take Leovold; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever;
Shards and Wedges
Adun's Toolbox; Animar's Swarm; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke's Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith's Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; Zombies of Tresserhorn
If you'd like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that's been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group "Sheldon Menery's Monday Night Gamers."