Modernizing the Commander Banlist

Callahan Jones • May 12, 2024

In Drake Sasser's recent articles, Everything Wrong With The Commander Ban List and How To Fix It, he postulated that there is quite a lot broken with the EDH ban list and also suggested some solutions. While I don't personally think there's that much wrong with the list as Drake laid out, I did find one of his answers to a problem I do agree with to be quite interesting.

There are plenty of cards banned in Commander that have been banned for a long time, and with some good reasons. The reasons for many of them may be in line with what would call a "signpost" ban, meaning that that one card signals certain effects or abilities that the Rules Committee would rather people not use in Commander since they have found them to limit enjoyment and create less good games.

Signpost Bans

As the theory goes, this signaling allows them to keep the actual ban list a smaller amount to track while also giving players a reference of what they may want to avoid in their average game of EDH. The real-world effectiveness of this theory could be debated, but I'm more interested in keeping this frame, as something different would perhaps balloon the size of the list (or keep a range of annoying cards in our games).

Back to Drake's answer that I found interesting: bringing some of the sign-post bannings (and maybe some of the other bannings too) up to a more "modern" example for people to see, interact with, and also perhaps have known due to personal experience! This, of course, does also have the additional benefit of removing newer, more powerful cards that have had an impact on the format from the streets. So! I figured I would look through some of the banlist, seeing if there is anything that we could "modernize," not seeking to change the aims or effects but instead giving us newer cards on it with which to consider as sign posts.

The Cards That Are Staying for Sure

First off, I want to get the cards out of the way that I think are pretty much nonnegotiable; these are cards that are banned for non-signpost reasons, those that I think are too powerful or broken for multiplayer play to even consider taking off the banlist. They are as follows:

Sorry Paradox Engine enjoyers, there's just no way that you get to take 20-minute long do-nothing turns ever again. With those out of the way, let's get to the goods. Realistically, I can't go through EVERY SINGLE CARD left, but I think there are some prime examples that are worth going through the exercise.

Out: Panoptic Mirror

Let's look at Panoptic Mirror, the same as Drake did. It was banned in 2005, relatively soon after its original printing in February of 2004, and by looking at the official banlist on the Rules Committee's website, we can see the reasoning for it being barred from play!

Panoptic Mirror's presence on the banned 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.  Beyond the obvious extra turns-combo, it's a "trap" for casual deckbuilders because it seems like a fun value engine; however, too many different 4+ mana spells, when imprinted, will grind the game to a halt. Wraths, tutors, discard, even card draw can yield insurmountable advantage and lock up the game. - Commander RC 

Panoptic Mirror is one of those cards that's been banned for about as long as anyone can remember. It's also about as big of a signpost ban as you can get, serving to remind us that we need to do things in moderation lest they no longer be fun for the rest of the table. However, it's not even the best example of this kind of signpost ban on the banlist (Hello, Paradox Engine! Yeah, I know it isn't exactly the same, sue me)! It's slow, takes a long time to set up to create a problematic situation and... not to say that it dies to removal, but come on. It's a five-mana artifact. What spell would I choose to better communicate this same idea?

In: Nexus of Fate

That's right, so far I'm just repeating Drake. Nexus of Fate, while a card that is almost five years old itself at this point, is much newer than Panoptic Mirror and shows its own repetitive situation right on the tin, as it could be said. It's obvious what kind of problems that Nexus of Fate causes: it's an instant-speed extra turn spell that also shuffles itself back into your library! Getting to take a large amount of extra turns is repetitive and boring AND this card can also quite easily be a trap itself! I know it was to me; I thought it was sort of a "freebie" to include in one of my EDH decks in time gone past. Boy, I learned my lesson quickly.

Out: Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary is obviously a plenty powerful card: as the original ban reasoning states it can consistently make six mana out of the Command Zone on turn three every single game - no matter what's in your deck. However, if he's your Commander, you're automatically limited to mono-green, a relatively large hindrance on its own, and gain no other utility through your commander other than mana. Sure, mana is a big deal, but it isn't cheating cards into play, drawing more options, or anything like that as plenty of more modern options do. Plus, this card is dang old! A vastly small number of current players have seen it in play (it was banned in 2014), and there are better examples for this now.

In: Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy

Boy, oh boy, was somebody looking for a poster boy that will make six (or more) mana on turn three every single game? Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy often makes Rofellos' mana production look like child's play, boosting the output of every single mana rock and mana dork we end up playing. Let's be honest: having to care about nonland mana sources is not a meaningful restriction. They're the cards we want to play anyways! Tack on an incredible activated ability that gives you something to do with all the mana and a second color and Kinnan starts to look better than Rofellos in nearly every way... of course, we aren't explicitly caring about power levels here, but Kinnan has been widely used throughout EDH games and is a familiar face for plenty of players. If we can instead put this on the banlist as an example, it provides a solid card to point to that many more people are familiar with and can say "oh, that makes sense."

Out: Braids, Cabal Minion

Braids, Cabal Minion is a card whose inclusion on the banlist has been a source of contention for many for years. One of several holdovers from the "Banned as Commander" days, she does introduce a tough play pattern into the game, one which can quickly grind a game to a halt accidentally from the command zone. However, these kinds of designs are borderline a dime a dozen these days. Much like Rofellos, she even comes with the obvious downside of being single color and is an easy target for banlist derision. Feels free to get her off the list to me!!

In: Winter Orb OR Tergrid, God of Fright

This is the one one where I have two potential suggestions: one iconically and historically hated and one more in line with the design of Braids that, while having proven historically not ban-worthy material thanks to people just choosing not to play her, still seems like a good signpost candidate.

First, Winter Orb. While it may be as old as the game itself, every player who has sat across from it (most of them, I imagine at this point) have a hate and ire for it built from its ability to, well, bring games to an instant halt. It doesn't matter what was happening in the game before if nobody can use their lands anymore! In addition to the wishwash-y reason around Braid's bad effects on the game, Winter Orb has very strong signpost ban potential. It can be very easy to read into its banning, deduce why it was banned, and realize that playing these tough, game slowing artifacts slows the game down. If it was more iconic, I probably would have put Static Orb here because it's even more offensive on that axis.

A strong signpost banning beyond Winter Orb for this slot is Tergrid, God of Fright. Anybody who was around for the release of Kaldheim and plugged into online discourse heard nearly preemptive calls to ban this card, and I can also understand why. It incentivizes appallingly anti-opponent-fun gameplans and also taking other people's cards and putting them into your playspace in a more unknown environment is problematic in its own way. While the noise has passed and Tergid has shaken out to be just another commander people known (through experience, usually) to not bother building, putting it onto the list to signal to people (and Wizards) that these types of designs are just not a great multiplayer experience seems worth it to me.

Out: Sway of the Stars

Sway the Stars is another ban on the banlist that I think makes sense: somebody being able to effectively entirely restart the game, wiping away everybody's progress in hands and permanents while also resetting life to a shared seven points each seems like something that shouldn't be incentivized. "You may as well shuffle up and start a new game" is a line used in the banning reasoning, and that IS what this card does. It is also 10 mana and also seems to me to have no reasonable reason to be cast by, well, anybody.

Banned card Biorhythm is in a similar yet different camp (as it can be used as a real win condition), as is the not-so-recently-anymore-unbanned Worldfire. Sway of the Stars is obviously still here for cautious reasons that I do understand, but I think it's time for it to come down off that list and let a new signpost take up the... post.

In: Armageddon

Imagine with me, if you will. An EDH game has been going on for quite a while... there have been board wipes, exchanges of resources aplenty, and everybody's having fun. It's getting a bit late though... Hopefully we get out of here soon enough! Bad news: somebody just put Armageddon on the stack. All of the lands are blown up. The game is practically, albeit not functionally, restarted.

Of course, it's by no means as hard a reset as the "all permanents and cards and life" as Sway of the Stars, but it is infinitely easy to cast due to a much lower cost while also bringing a lot of "makes games seem like they're not over when they actually are" energy found in other places on the EDH ban list.

Already one of the most hated cards in the format that is the poster child for one of the most-hated, soft-banned effects in the game (mass land destruction), I figure it's worth it to signpost-ban away the most powerful and easily accessible of the bunch. A new card, it is not, but between its high salt score on EDHRec and its obvious historic pedigree (of being miserable) in the format, it still fits my criteria for an updated card people will recognize and have experience playing with and against.

The Final Signpost

While I by no means have the time, energy, or words in this article to go line by line through every single possible signpost exchange, I just wanted to play with the idea for a few minutes in my mind. "Modernizing" the ban list would be an easy way to get some old sign posts out to pasture, remove problematic cards from the format without growing the list and also give players who have come into the fold in the last five years things to look at that they have context for.

Of course... modernization only works so well and is a temporary solution to the problem. The instant a card is added or removed from the banlist creates an inflection point from which quite a few new players in just a few month's time will also have no context for, creating this situation we're in all over again. However, while it may be a temporary or poor solution, I think it still is an interesting thing to think about. By no means am I calling for this to happen, though I wouldn't mind if Kinnan disappeared from the format. Is there a card you'd like to see come off the ban list and a card to replace it as a

Okay fine I'll put it in here, FINE I can HEAR YOU SCREAMING.

Out: Primeval Titan

FREE PRIME TIME!!!! Or something. Honestly, I do think that Primeval Titan being on the ban list largely makes sense, and it's one of the most powerful Timmy cards you can ever cast. As clones become more and more prevalent in EDH, Prime Time warping the whole game around it could probably only increase with time, but dang it, I'm putting this in here for a bit. If something was to come off the banlist to hold the next card with a tenuous connection between the two, this is the only option.

In: Dockside Extortionist

Dockside Extortionist is, in the average EDH game, a pretty mid card. Whether or not this or its monetary cost has kept it out of Commander games is up to debate, but if you're looking for something to signal that you don't want people focusing the entire game around one card, cloning it obsessively, and ending up with a ton of mana, hey, this is your guy.

Please don't ban my guy.

Cal out.

Callahan Jones is a long time Commander player who mostly dabbles in cEDH these days. Formally a member of the Playing with Power cEDH content team, now you can find him talking about Magic and Gamecubes on Twitter.