Everything Wrong With The Commander Ban List and How To Fix It

Drake Sasser • March 16, 2024

Thassa's Oracle by Jesper Ejsing


Welcome back readers! As I am writing this the latest Banned And Restricted Announcement has dropped and there is a flurry of reactions ranging from gratitude to confusion to frustration in regards to the banning of Violent Outburst in Modern.

The discussions around ban list philosophy, primarily what are ideal goals for a ban list to accomplish, once again brought forth the untapped fountain of frustration I have with the commander ban list that comes to a head time and time and time again. It's past time I aired all my grievances in the healthiest way possible: an article outlining why the Commander ban list as it stands really sucks, and how to fix it!

What's The Point of the Ban List?

To really ground ourselves before diving into the nitty gritty of ban list discussion, I want to make it clear what the purpose of ban lists actually is. A successful ban list has two primary goals it seeks to accomplish:

1. Allow game creators and tournament organizers to have direct influence over how the game is played

2. Allow game creators and tournament organizers a simple, living document with which to communicate to players

The first goal is the most obvious. If something is broken or overpowered, having the authority to disallow that card or strategy via the rules of the game is an important tool to preserve the collective fun of competing in your game. The second goal is less obvious, but equally as important.

By analyzing a ban list as a whole, prospective, lapsed, or even enfranchised players will get a sense for the kinds of cards and strategies that a format or game is balanced around. By allowing players to read a list of things that are "over the line" for a format for whatever reason, players can get a better understanding of what the vision is for gameplay from the creators and organizers.

Again these are the goals of a successful ban list and remain consistent whether we are talking about a format of Magic: the Gathering, or a different game entirely! Ban lists are a tool consistently used by game makers to fix mistakes or unintended consequences that come with making games to better curate gameplay and communicate with the player base.

With that in mind, let's examine what the stated purpose of the Commander banned list is straight from their website:

"The goal of the ban list is similar; it does not seek to regulate competitive play or power level, which are decisions best left to individual play groups. The ban list seeks to demonstrate which cards threaten the positive player experience at the core of the format or prevent players from reasonable self-expression. The primary focus of the list is on cards which are problematic because of their extreme consistency, ubiquity, and/or ability to restrict others' opportunities."

The document goes on to list specific criteria that can be considered a factor for banning a card, but already red flags should be going off. The entire paragraph reads as a paradox! How can you "not seek to regulate competitive play or power level" but also list off criteria like "consistency" and "restricting others' opportunities" that are direct consequences of cards being powerful? It doesn't make any sense from a fundamental standpoint how can these things possibly coexist! Enter "Rule 0".

Rule 0 And Why It Is Exactly What They Say It Is Not

Back in 2020, Sheldon Mennery wrote an article explaining in detail what Rule 0 is and isn't but, in summary, it was a "rule" that used to appear on the commander website that stated the following:

"Rule 0:  These are the official rules of Commander. Local groups are welcome to modify them as they see fit. If you'd like an exception to these rules, especially in an unfamiliar environment, please get the approval of the other players before the game begins."

As the article states, this passage was removed due to this rule not actually being a real rule that appears in the official game rules referenced by judges and is more of a caveat than an actual rule. However this "rule" is still often referenced within discussions about the Commander format when talking about the banned and restricted list. After all, if a card is ever a problem why not just ban it from use in your game yourself?

Well this is more or less exactly what Sheldon's article says the rule IS NOT! He states " We want to create and maintain a coherent and viable structure for Commander.  We don't default to Rule 0 being an answer to difficulties that might arise.  If there's a problematic card, we don't just leave it to groups to work it out for themselves; we take action."

Okay, so the rule is there not as a rule or really even a caveat but a reminder that you should have conversations about what players like and don't like. There are a few problems with this approach. First, is that formats exist at all as a universal language shared among Magic: The Gathering players to set expectations when playing a game of Magic. If someone asks you to play Standard you have very different expectations than if someone asks you to play Commander.

This is true of every axis from cards legal to deck size to number of players playing the game. This universal language allows players who are just meeting for the first time to pick up and play the game without tedious clarifications about what their deck does or what should be allowed or disallowed. After all, they came to play, not redesign the game!

The second problem is that Rule 0 is still brought up anytime people take to social media to complain about Farewell, Voja, Jaws of the Conclave, etc. as a means to handle cards that are deemed net negative fun. The fact this is the natural reaction of players involved with the discourse, as well as the general incohesion of the cards on the Commander ban list, speaks to resounding negligence managing the ban list.

As Sheldon stated, Rule 0 is not at all sufficient as a replacement for, or frankly even a supplement to, the banned list. Yet still, members of the Commander Advisory Group and popular content creators are quick to point to it anytime complaints about ubiquity, consistency, power, or fun are brought up.

What's So Wrong With The Banned List Anyway?

Concerning the Commander ban list as it exists today, the list fails spectacularly at communicating what is "in bounds" for the format. Seeing cards like Sway of the Stars and Coalition Victory on a list alongside Black Lotus and Tinker gives you intense whiplash and leaves you with more questions than answers about how games of Commander actually play out.

People playing a game of Commander for the first time would be perplexed as to what unseen combination sets Panoptic Mirror on the list as the card immediately following Mox Sapphire on the list just to expand the newly added "explanation" section and read that its presence on the list "serves to remind players that most things are fun in moderation. It was (and remains) banned because of the incidental, often accidental, uses which lead to repetitive, boring games.


This is banned because you thought it was important to remind us that you thought it had potential to be not very fun almost 20 years ago? Are you serious? You are aware Drannith Magistrate is legal right? Armageddon? Smokestack? But PANOPTIC MIRROR is over the line on the "fun" scale????????? At this point if you aren't exploding from confusion or frustration like I am while writing this I'm fairly certain you have no concept of what a productive ban list looks like at all.

This is only one example among many of head-scratching incohesion on the list, and outside of committee members and contributors to the list, every person I have ever talked to considers the list to be entirely a joke and feels powerless to fix it. So how DO you fix it?

How To Fix The Commander Ban List

I believe fixing the banned list is a much easier task than many suggest. The ridiculousness and long-term negligence of the list has led many people to believe a massive overhaul is warranted, but that isn't true. It is still possible to take the stated conservative approach to bannings while updating the list to represent cards that are unfun within the context of the present day. Let's take the Panoptic Mirror example.

The justification for banning it is the repetition, but in today's standards where 5 mana artifacts are much more trivial to interact with in some way, a more current threat example that could make sense if you want to send the message that repetition isn't what the format is about is Nexus of Fate. Somewhat innocuous at 7 mana, but a liked-by-few hated-by-many card that already has history of being banned in other formats for being repetitive and frustrating to play against, and is certainly powerful enough to see play in Commander. It also does a much better job communicating the repetition problem using a modern day example while giving a card that has sat on the list for 20 years another shake at things.

The change I suggested isn't wild or format breaking. If your goal is to communicate changes, demonstrate a willingness to adjust for the power level spike that has come with the recent years of card production, as well as keep to your goal of being conservative about the size of your banned list (which is the only thing I think the commander banned list is doing RIGHT at the moment) this is a solid low-cost way to go about it. Many such examples exist too!

Why is Coalition Victory banned but Thassa's Oracle legal?
Why is Biorhythm banned but Craterhoof Behemoth legal?
Why are Upheaval and Sway of the Stars banned but Cyclonic Rift legal?
Why is Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary banned but Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy is legal?

Any attempt to answer these questions genuinely leads to contradiction and non sequiturs to cover for years of inaction from the RC and CAG. The fact is that numerous bans on the list are outdated and inconsistent by the standards of the format as it's played today, so even if your goal is to communicate what cards could be unfun (again, a good goal!) you are failing dramatically.

You can consistently point to widely played examples of cards that are legal, are extremely common in other people's decks, which makes Rule 0 conversations more tense, and have the exact same issues you claim to have banned other cards for. The system isn't working as written!

It's Okay To Move Egregious Cards Around

I am sympathetic to wanting a smaller banned list and having concerns around upsetting many people by banning cards or decks decks out from under them. If you demonstrate a willingness to unban things in the same breadth as you ban them and keep only the current most egregious outliers on the banned list as examples, you can do that without upsetting too many people while upholding the outlined philosophy for the format.

If anything, emphasizing trying new things and communicating with players is what Commander is very much about, and it saddens me to have the ban list be such a painfully obvious point of hesitation for the curators of the format. Panoptic Mirror doesn't deserve 20 more years on the banned list. Thanks for reading.

Drake Sasser is a member of cEDH group Playing With Power, a commentator for Nerd Rage Gaming, and used to grind Magic tournaments on the SCG Tour.