The Commander ban list is a joke. Everyone knows this. The people playing the format know it, and the people not playing the format definitely know it. The ban list is a joke, and its absurdity is made only more apparent and egregious with the latest ban of Sylvan Primordial.
But it’s a joke for a different reason than you might think. In regular constructed formats, ban lists are required to regulate the balance of power and encourage diversity. In Commander, the ban list is meant to be a universal guideline to strengthen and convey the social contract of the format: that every game should be fun for all players.
The social nature underlying the Commander ban list correlates to the social nature of Commander as a multiplayer format. While many players have their own tight-knit playgroups where house rules can be readily agreed upon, Commander has grown so much as a casual format that pickup games are likely more commonplace. For a multiplayer format with so many participants, a universal guideline such as the official ban list is necessary to keep games among random players from devolving into a filthy, hot, arguing mess about whether or not someone should be playing Sundering Titan or Painter’s Servant.
Despite its noble intentions, however, the official ban list is a joke because its porous, inconsistent nature hinders it from carrying out its purpose to any relevant extent. Yes, cards like Worldfire, Biorhythm, and Limited Resources are obviously format-breaking and should be unquestionably banned. Emrakul and Griselbrand are examples of creatures that warp a game merely by being played, and in my eyes were ban-worthy. The line begins to blur, however, when cards like Primeval Titan and Sylvan Primordial are banned.
Yes, Primeval Titan and Sylvan Primordial are game-breaking if recurred. The problem is that, in Commander, a LOT of cards become game-breaking when they’re recurred. Primeval and Sylvan can be game-breaking when they are ramped out. A LOT of cards break games when ramped out. If cards like these-abusive if copied, recurred or ramped-are bannable, why not ban Tooth and Nail? Consecrated Sphinx? Bribery? All of these cards can be played “fairly,” but most of the time they aren’t, yet they still exist in the format. A ban list should not revoke some cards while letting cards of similar power levels remain.
To take things one step further, why not increase interaction in the format by banning the enabler cards that make the above cards so abusable? Deadeye Navigator, Survival of the Fittest, and Mind Over Matter are Commander cards that are never played with fair intentions and generally act as centerpieces for game-winning combos. Given a scenario where you choose between two cards, one a potentially abusable but sometimes reasonable card, and the other an unquestionably powerful card that often functions as a combo enabler, which one would you ban? To use Legacy as an example, would you ban the Survival or the Vengevine? I know my answer.
Nothing meaningful is accomplished by banning cards piecemeal. The player who runs Deadeye Navigator will continue to use Deadeye Navigator. The player who runs Tooth and Nail will still run Tooth and Nail. Unless a stance is taken to entirely remove these strategies from the format, people will continue to wonder why Primeval Titan is on the same ban list as Channel and Painter’s Servant, while Iona and Survival are still fair game. This inconsistency is confusing to both new and experienced players, as well as to those outside the format. And for good reason-it expresses a lack of conviction. As in all other formats, a ban list should go all-out or not at all. The Commander ban list should be no different.
As I mentioned earlier, individual playgroups have the decadent luxury of being able to modify, ignore or recreate altogether their own errata and ban lists for their own games, and I feel this is an approach that has been sorely neglected. If you are lucky enough to play with a tight-knit group of players, discussing and arriving at a consensus for individual cards is the ideal solution for ensuring a fun experience for all players.
Many players already know this, but I want to stress: Don’t follow the ban list if you don’t want to. As long as your fellow players agree to it, play Commander the way you want to. The blessing and curse of this format is that you can do whatever you want. And until the official ban list conveys some semblance of consistency, you should always keep an ear open to new possibilities in how you regulate and play your games.
I don’t envy the Rules Committee. Attempting to regulate a casual format is almost an exercise in futility, and the social-gameplay dichotomy behind the ban list only serves as a microcosm for the global tension between “strong” and “fun” that exists in the format. But as Commander becomes even more mainstream and legitimized thanks to Wizards’ support, its ban list should make sense. For a proper format, casual or no, that in itself just makes sense.