Revising the Rules - Bringing Back 'Banned As Commander'
Lutri, the Spellchaser by Lie Setiawan
The last three years of Magic have seen over 100 bans across all formats, more than the previous ten years combined. Of that ever-growing banlist, Commander contributes just five cards. One of the pleasures of this format is how rarely we have our toys taken away from us, and how hesitant the RC has been with the banhammer. But that's not to say their approach is perfect.
Exactly seven years and one day ago, there were two distinct banlists; banned in Commander and banned as commander. Certain legendaries were deemed troublesome in the command zone but acceptable in the 99. But on the 12th of September, 2014 the banned as commander list was abolished, and with it went Braids, Cabal Minion, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, and Erayo, Soratami Ascendant.
Why Did The RC Remove Banned As Commander (BAC)?
At the time, the RC said that having two banlists was "unnecessary information overhead" and a single list would be more streamlined. Commander players at large took this as the RC lacking faith in their ability to make sense of two banlists, at least enough for Sheldon Menery to address it earlier this year.
Sheldon stated that overwhelming complexity was not the reason for the change. He has every faith in the average Magic player's ability to understand two banlists, but feels maintaining a unified list is "crisp, clean, and straightforward to communicate". I see this as contradictory. If the average Magic player can make sense of a more nuanced banlist, surely said list can tolerate being ever so slightly less crisp and clean?
(Spoiler alert: I think there should be three banned lists, but we'll get to that.)
The Virtues of Banned As Commander
It isn't hard to see that having a banned as commander list allows for a more nuanced approach to banning in general. To look briefly at more traditional 60-card Constructed formats, take Lurrus of the Dream-Den. The ability to recur cards from the graveyard every turn is a strong effect, but not a broken one. What makes Lurrus - and the companion mechanic at large - so incredibly powerful is having guaranteed access to a card in a zone separate from your deck. Imagine Lurrus without its first line of text. The card you're picturing is unlikely to cause any problems at all.
The same principle applies to Commander. Cards consigned to your deck are usually harder to abuse and less likely to cause problems than the ones in a special zone you always have access to. So it stands to reason a format with a unique zone should have a banlist that acknowledges the unique challenges of that zone.
Wouldn't This Lead To More Bans?
I am a player who prefers unbans to bans. But as Sheldon has warned, the reintroduction of BAC could lead to more bans rather than less, so perhaps I should be careful what I wish for. Sheldon suggests a number of legendaries would go onto the BAC list, but roughly half of them were in wide circulation before the September 12 change of 2014. If they didn't warrant inclusion then, why now?
I'm not arguing Derevi, Empyrial Tactician, Hokori, Dust Drinker or Sen Triplets make for fun play experiences, but I struggle to see how they've become more problematic over time. Even if the reintroduction of a BAC list did mean cards were added to it, I'd argue this would create a healthy safety valve for WotC. I don't pretend to know the inner workings of how cards are designed, but it's safe to assume every legendary creature has to be considered in the context of Commander. WotC would have more freedom in how they design their legendaries if they knew BAC was an option: cards could be printed without fear of being removed entirely from the most popular format.
Do We Need Rules For Corner Cases?
Sheldon makes clear in his reassessment of bringing back banned as commander that "you don't make format-level rules for corner cases." While this sounds reasonable, the printing of companions and their friction with Commander's lack of sideboards lead to a rewriting of rule 11 and a mention in rule 3. If not a format-level rule for a corner case, I'm not sure what else to call this change.
I'll concede that the return of banned as commander would also be a corner case, but with the amount of cards being printed every year increasing rapidly and WotC working in curiouser and curiouser spaces, I wager we'll be seeing a lot more corners. Rules for corner cases are a good thing and allow for more freedom for both deck builders and card designers.
The Hateful Eight
There are currently eight banned legendary creatures and it wouldn't be fair to advocate for this change without being upfront about my thoughts on each one.
Braids, Cabal Minion is one of the clearest examples of a card that has every right to be available in the 99 but no business being a commander. While not broken in the sense that she wins the game out of the command zone, she creates a boardstate where nobody can progress, often including whoever played her. But if Smokestack is legal and easier to cast, why not Braids? She's a beloved character, has exceptionally unsettling art, and is a flavourful tool for aristocrat decks to have fun with.
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is a tricky one. Sheldon thinks she might be alright in the 99 but I think that's where she's at her most dangerous. She can't be reanimated, but cards like Sneak Attack, Elvish Piper, or any sort of Polymorph effect make cheating her into play trivial. Consign her to just the command zone though, and I think she might be passable. Even with the knobs turned to eleven, colorless decks are abysmally underpowered, and while Emrakul can't be countered, the rest of the 99 is a glass cannon. I think Emrakul makes a compelling case for "banned in the 99." She is the largest and most terrifying creature in Magic's history. Free her from the moon! Sorry, I mean banlist.
Erayo, Soratami Ascendant should remain banned as commander. In the time since she was banned, the amount of free spells has spiked dramatically as have the ways to protect her. She is too easy to flip and too easy to create a gameplay experience where nobody can do anything. In the 99, she is safer but likely still troublesome, if not explicitly broken. Interestingly the RC said they would consider revisiting her banning in the future, but that future is yet to come. I'd lean towards keeping her banned across the board.
Griselbrand is likely the most problematic legendary creature in the format. In the 99 or as the commander, it is simply too easy to abuse Griselbrand when you have 40 life. Even moreso than legal powerhouses like Ad Nauseam and Necropotence, Griselbrand trades life for cards at a 1:1 rate, which is impossible to play in a balanced way. Yawgmoth's Bargain is banned and should remain banned, so one can only imagine what the same effect would be like in the zone or as a reanimation target. Put him back in the Helvault and throw away the key.
Iona, Shield of Emeria is similar to Emrakul as a card that causes more problems in the 99 than she does as a commander. As the RC noted when she was banned in 2019, she seems safe on account of her casting cost, but there are "many ways of getting it onto the battlefield without paying that cost." This holds as true now as it did then, but I'm unsure if she should remain illegal as a commander. Consigned to the color with the worst card draw and worst ramp, she is a whopping 9 mana. But in a post Jeweled Lotus world, a nutty opener can mean a hard lock for one or more players. I'd lean towards banning her in the 99, but possibly making her a legal commander, particularly if cheating her into play is the major justification for her banning.
Unbanning Leovold, Emissary of Trest as a commander would be utter madness, especially in the wake of the Hullbreacher ban. Draw replacement effects are incredibly powerful, and should never be available from the command zone. However, both Narset and Notion Thief remain legal, and I'd argue Leovold in the 99 is more restrictive than either. Needing three different pips and being relegated to Sultai+ decks makes Leovold harder to play and less ubiquitous. If they are allowed to roam free, I don't see why Leovold shouldn't be legal in the 99.
Lutri, the Spellchaser is the poster child of this discussion. I have never heard a compelling reason for why Lutri should be legal as a companion. To give every single Izzet+ deck a 101st card that costs nothing to include is silly. But why on earth is Lutri banned as a commander? This is the ONLY legendary otter in existence! Why can't it be run in the 99? There is absolutely nothing broken about its effect, particularly when Dualcaster Mage exists. Dualcaster has a less restrictive color identity, can hit opponents' spells, and combos with Twinflame and Heat Shimmer. Lutri can do none of this, but languishes on the banlist regardless, which leaves me in otter disbelief. By all means keep Lutri banned as a companion, but leave it at that.
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary made a lot more sense to be on the banned in commander list back in 2014. But it's 2021, and both Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy and Selvala, Heart of the Wilds exist. They both produce more mana at a quicker rate and have inbuilt card advantage. They may require slightly more focused deckbuilding to reach their full potential but they are certainly the stronger cards. The problem with Rofellos is that a deck of just commons and bargain-bin rares can always guarantee six mana on turn three. This creates problems at lower to mid power tables. He is probably okay to unban as a commander, and definitely okay to unban in the 99. Yes, even with Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth now in print. I don't see him being much worse than Cabal Coffers.
Three Banlists Then?
I mentioned earlier that I'm in favor of having three different banlists, which is technically true. A banlist for commanders, a banlist for the 99, and a banlist for companions. You might think it silly to have a banlist for companions given that only Lutri would go on it, and you'd be right. But practically, this can all be the same banlist. The only thing needed is an asterisk next to each banned card. The conditions for a card's legality could be clarified by a simple footnote. Vintage can handle it, why can't Commander?
But as always, that's just how I see it. What matters most is your take, and how your playgroup feels about it. Whatever you think, I'd love to hear your thoughts.