Embracing The Chaos - The Banned List
You've probably already seen that there were no changes to the Banned List in the March update. I'm here to talk about why and about some other philosophies of why we do and don't ban cards.
First I'll tell you about how Thraximundar did in Week 1 of the Armada Games League. The points system hasn't changed (except for the elimination of the point for being the last person standing) but they're running things with a range of influence of one. In five-player pods the game is a star/pentagram. In four-player it simply means that you can't affect the person sitting diagonally from you. During the course of play we came up with a bunch of questions that owner Michael Fortino answered deftly—like if the guy diagonal from me attacks what happens when I Fog? The answer is his dudes do damage; the other opponents' don't.
In Game 1 as forum user Chromatone predicted it was a little clunky but I still managed to sweep the table and win by a point against Cliff (Jenara Asura of War) David (a good but loose Sharuum the Hegemon) and Patrick (Treva the Renewer). The opening grip of Anowon the Ruin Sage Sol Ring Darksteel Ingot and four lands got me going early.
It also provided an interesting strategic/play point from a philosophical perspective. Of the four of us David has previously demonstrated that he's the strongest player/deckbuilder. I've talked before about his ability to balance strong decks without going overboard and you can understand my being a little fearful of what he could manage with Sharuum. With Master Transmuter and Arcum in his creature component (mostly apparently to get out Darksteel Forge) this fear became manifest.
There's a strategic philosophy that says when you can all other things being equal you take out the strongest deck first. I could've taken out David with Thrax swings turn 5 6 and 7. I could have actually done it starting turn 4 but I'd drawn a few other small guys including Vampire Aristocrat which I wanted to get out first since Helm of Possession dropped out on David's side (but it turns out he wouldn't have had the dudes for it). Especially with Cliff (who I couldn't attack anyway) and Patrick off to slow starts the absolute best strategic play would've been to simply hit David three times with my General.
I chose not to since it would've seemed to go against my own principle of giving everyone a chance to play. I attacked Patrick next instead. But here's the thing: it almost bit me back because David quickly got into a pretty good board position. If he hadn't miscalculated once and I hadn't peeled Drana to kill the Sharuum he could flash in I wouldn't have been able to eventually eliminate him. The question still hangs—given the opportunity early in the game to make a few directed assaults to take out the guy who you know will later be the biggest threat but hasn't yet quite developed do you do it or not?
In Game 2 I was facing Billy (Kangee Aerie Keeper) Todd (Rith the Awakener) and Kyle (Azusa Lost but Seeking). My start was really slow but folks mostly left me alone. The majority of the game involved us watching Kyle play lands and draw cards. To his credit he was taking his turns as fast as humanly possible—he was definitely making a dedicated effort to do things at breakneck speed—but if we'd been on clocks he would have timed out early. The game eventually hinged on my getting too anxious.
Kyle was at 27 life and had 28 lands in play (this was probably turn 11 or so). He dropped a few creatures then with about fifteen mana open he cast Molimo Maro-Sorcerer then Spearbreaker Behemoth. Agonizing Demise in hand I responded to the Spearbreaker on the stack thinking that if there's some way for him to survive I want Molimo to die. If I just wait for him to spend the rest of his mana then I kill him—but he cleverly responded by using Dust Bowl to strip his Oran-Rief leaving himself at one life. He used the last of his mana to kill Billy's fliers keeping himself alive long enough to be able to entwine Rude Awakening a couple of turns later to kill me and Bill—another point where my own aggression hurt me. I had Decree of Pain in hand but with Kyle having only a few dudes and Todd having none I thought I'd be safe. I cast Thraximundar for nine leaving me with only three mana. I'd have taken the Chasm for the blowout of “make all my lands into dudes attack.” Todd came back to kill Kyle but I think Kyle still won the table on points.
The only change I had made since posting the deck last week was putting Echoing Truth in for Disperse but there will be other changes. I noticed that when I cast Diabolic or Demonic Tutor I didn't really have any “dominate the game right now” cards. In Game 1 I did grab the Time Warp to be able to kill Patrick who had the defenses to save himself from one attack but not two but on the whole I was a little disappointed in what I looked at when I Tutored. Backlash Phthisis and Agonizing Demise will stay with the package but I want some scarier dudes to run out there. I'll probably abandon the Vampire theme and see what comes.
Let's talk about the Banned List. If you didn't see the paragraph I included in the write-up here it is:
We see no compelling evidence that there are new cards which are warping the format nor any cards whose unbanning would significantly improve things. There are cards RC members like and dislike more than others but our personal likes and dislikes are not primary reasons for bannings. We struggle to maintain a balance for the overall health of the format.
One of the concerns we discussed is Commander's current growth and its additional attraction of newer players especially when the new materials are released in June. We considered if we needed to ban additional cards in order to provide less of a social barrier-to-entry to those new players. In the end we came to the conclusion that while a few of the less social cards might provide suboptimal experiences for some of those new players they also might not and some of those cards provide a positive experience for veterans and Johnnies as premium win conditions. Attempting to over-engineer the way players have fun in the format by banning a few cards that we consider anti-social would lead to a cascade of bannings (“If you ban X you have to ban Y”) creating a large unmanageable and undesirable Banned List which we believe is extremely unhealthy.
All in all the format seems quite healthy. We'll continue to work with playgroups individuals and the wider Commander community in an effort to keep it that way.”
You might have heard that there are Three EDH Banning Principles:
1) When a card's power level in multiplayer EDH is significantly in excess of both its mana cost and power level in other formats (due to different rules or game sizes). [Examples include Panoptic Mirror and Biorhythm]
2) A card's dollar cost is prohibitive for most players and the card usually detracts from the playing experience of everyone in the game [The Power 8]
3) A card or class of cards cannot be consistently interpreted by all players [Silver-bordered cards]
This was never intended to be a formula and absolute objective measure. As (RC member) Gavin (Duggan) said just over three years ago:
The three ground rules we described for banning a card were never intended to be a formal "calculus" for determining what cards should be banned. They are rather a general attempt (and I stress general) to explain and describe our reasons for banning a card.
Basically the principles explain our logic not guide it. We operate subjectively because no real objective formula will work. We work off of a general philosophy of what we see as the format's health in light of our vision for what we'd like to see—things we've already discussed like interactivity and opportunity—and leaning toward a particular type of player. Keeping the Banned List as small as possible is also a concern. We try to use the Banned List as a discouragement for a certain kind of play (mostly the early-turn combo kill) without trying to define play style too narrowly.
The RC has ongoing discussions about the format. We talk about cards with potential and we talk about what we think about the next quarterly update. Then in the weeks before the update we have harder nuts-and-bolts discussions about what may or may not need to be banned or unbanned or any rules changes. In the end it comes down to a vote (and we're going to keep the results of those votes private). As a sample here are a few of the things we discussed this time:
Kokusho the Evening Star: There has been a fair amount of discussion in EDH circles about the necessity of keeping Kokusho banned so we asked a few local groups to do some testing (which by the way we'd previously done with Panoptic Mirror). It's a card that has all sorts of splashy features—a big dragon big effect—and looks like it might be fun but turns out to be pretty degenerate. We agreed that from what we saw Kokusho would be as problematic today as he ever was.
Poison: With the Two-Headed Giant change this certainly came onto our radar. What we came to is that we don't want to make a change just to make a change ('fewer rules differences is better') and we've yet to see evidence that poison has become unhealthy or format-warping. Even a seemingly difficult card to deal with like Blightsteel Colossus hasn't swung us yet. I've already mentioned that I think the reason BSC isn't a problem is because Bribery (and Acquire) only cost five.
Rest assured that whenever there are cards (or rules) that lots of folks are talking about we're talking about them as well. We're bringing a different philosophy to our discussions but they're discussions all the same.
(RC member) Toby (Elliott) recently wrote up a speech that he was going to give at PAX which accurately and entertainingly describes our philosophy:
I'd like to take a few minutes to talk about Batman.
Not the dark and gritty Christopher Nolan version or even the dark and twisted Tim Burton version. I want to talk about the 1960s version starring an oh-so-earnest Adam West. Those episodes classic TV that they are were almost always broken into two parts. At the conclusion of the first part Batman would inevitably have been trapped by the villain and placed in some inescapable deathtrap.
These fiendish killing machines were masterpieces of Rube-Goldberg-ian baroqueness themed around whichever particular villain had triumphed over Batman that day. But they all had one thing in common - at the start of the second part once the villain had left the room Batman would find an equally baroque way of escaping these traps. And by the end of the episode the villain would be carted away to what appears to be the lowest security prison of all time since they seemed to have no problem popping up again at will in later episodes.
Some of you out there think this seems pretty silly. Once you have your arch-nemesis incapacitated you kill them and you'll be able to run rampant through Gotham City for the rest of your career. Scott Evil in the original Austin Powers movie summed this up: "I have a gun in my room you give me five seconds I'll get it I'll come back down here BOOM I'll blow their brains out!" To which his father replies "Scott you just don't get it do ya?"
Scott Evil doesn't understand Commander. He sees a format he can break easily and a ban list that doesn't make any sense. The Joker? To the Joker the journey is more important than the final result and if Batman gets away there'll be another chance to break out of Arkham and concoct a new fiendish deathtrap. The Joker loves Commander.
Commander is a Vintage format in which you're guaranteed to have a pretty strong card - your general - available to you all the time. You have lots of extra life and it's multiplayer so people's attentions are spread around. There are too many guns. If your goal is simply to win you're likely to be frustrated at how easy it is. The good news is that there are lots of formats - Standard Legacy etc. - that are all carefully managed to cater to you. Commander wasn't designed that way. It was built as a social format a way to hang out with your friends play some Magic and see what kind of craziness develops. If a game goes well everyone gets a few moments to cackle like a supervillain.
What we can do as the Rules Committee is try to steer people away from cards that we have found accidentally make the game uninteresting. We want to make sure that the shark-infested custard you plan to dangle your enemies over isn't emitting toxic fumes because that would be awkward. If you are using Erayo or Armageddon or putting Curiosity into your Niv-Mizzet deck you aren't thinking about defeating your opponents with a laser mounted on the moon and there's no ban list long enough to stop you finding guns too powerful for the format. But if you heard the phrase 'shark-infested custard' and that gave you warm fuzzies I think we have a format for you.
We simply operate on a different platform from a different philosophy that other formats do. We don't intend to be like them. We have no desire for Commander to be all things to all people. We want to encourage a particular subset of people to have a particular kind of game they enjoy regardless of how it also might be played elsewhere. We're not going to cater to the hyper-competitive or the 1v1 crowds but we're not going to pass judgment on them either. We're fine with local groups playing however they want but we're going spend our effort our energy and our industry on our focus group.
We're never going to be able to stop the Super-Spike from breaking the already-broken format (without banning a few hundred cards which we all agree would be destructive). What we can do with the Banned List is rid ourselves of the worst offenders and point the play of the game in the direction of the shark-infested custard.