Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Commander's Intent

Recently, the Rules Committee for the Magic: The Gathering format “Commander”, more commonly referred to as “EDH” (Elder Dragon Highlander) made a controversial change to the rules, one that upset a lot of the more avid players.  This ruling completely nullified a way in which players could prevent problematic commanders from going stupid very quickly; at the same time, it made people wonder where the hell the logic for such a change existed, if it did.

For reference, The Rules Committee is run by the original creators of the format, non-Wizards of the Coast employees, and the official page on Wizards’s site states that they make the rules.  This means individuals who may decide they don’t like something one week might ban it, and vice versa, unaware of the larger implications in individual playgroups.

The ruling affected sending a Commander (or General in EDH) into the library or hand.  These cards (called “tuck” cards colloquially) are solid answers to Commanders that pose a very real danger to a board state becoming something other than fair.  Many of these Commanders offer a lot early-, mid-, and late-game, and the longer the more they can be played with little fuss the more problematic they can become.

First off, though, we need to look at the rules of Commander.

Commander is a singleton format, with a 99-card deck and one card called the Commander.  In the format, the Commander’s color identity (this is, mana symbols in the casting cost, mana symbols in the cost of activated abilities, and mana symbols in activated or triggered abilities) determine the cards that can be played in the deck.  For example, if you have Rafiq of the Many as your Commander, you may only run lands that provide Green, White, or Blue mana.  Artifacts and permanents you control must cost either colorless mana to play or only those three colors, and effects they generate muct require only those colors or colorless mana.  Spells you play can only have those colors as well, and things such as “Kicker” must follow the same rules.  You can only spend your mana on those colors unless a card effect states otherwise.

Aside from basic lands, you may only have one of any other card in the deck.  In theory this tends to whittle down on the consistency that a deck has.  Under normal circumstances, a Magic deck will consist of sixty cards with a fifteen card sideboard, of which aside from basic lands you can’t have more than four of each card between the two “decks”.  Because you have exactly 99 cards in your library and can have only one of each card available, this cuts down on the deck’s ability to be consistent without outside help.  There’s loopholes to this rule, such as if a card states you can have “any number” in the deck you can run up to 99 of them in the deck, but it’s pretty much a hard-and-fast rule.  Alongside this, the format has a banned list which represents cards considered too powerful, and thus unplayable in the format.

The format adds a new “zone” to the game, known as the “Commander Zone”.  This is where your Commander sits when he isn’t in play, in your library, or in your hand.  You play your Commander from this zone as if it was in your hand.  Each time that your Commander is killed or exiled, you have the option to immediately put him in the Command Zone as a replacement effect.  However, each time you do this, the Commander costs 2 more colorless mana to play.

Overall, the format is the most fun you can play (in my honest opinion), mixing the longevity of the eternal formats with the shenanigans available in the standard and modern formats.  It makes for interesting interactions, and as it was created to be a multiplayer format, it really pushes diplomacy over brute force.  There’s variants of the basic Commander format (such as “French” or “Duel”, “Pauper”, and a new variant referred to as “Tiny Leaders”), but overall they follow the same general outline.

Now in general, there are loopholes to the rules, just as there are in the other formats.  But these loopholes have larger consequences, especially when concerning Commanders.  To give you an idea, my previous decks involved Commanders such as Glissa, the Traitor; The Mimeoplasm; Karador, Ghost Chieftain; and Brago, King Eternal.  Brago and Karador lent themselves to combo-tastic shenanigans that I freely admit required little to no interaction on the parts of my opponents, and while I enjoyed them I took them apart because they really pushed the limits on the fun of the format in the playgroup.  However, not everyone is going to view the format as something other than serious, and I certainly have my competitive decks.  My Commanders tend to be competitive, especially my Erebos deck, which is my longest-standing deck right now (given, it began as Drana, but it changed into the monstrosity it is today).

So what changed?

Previously, there was only one real way to handle commanders in any way that was considered remotely permanent, and that was by using the tactic called “tucking”. To put it in laymen’s terms, “tucking” is the act of using a card whose main objective is to put a permanent into a library, and normally they had a downside because of how strong the tactic was: Oblation allowed the player who owned the permanent to draw two cards, Chaos Warp allowed them to reveal the top card of their library and place it into play if it was a permanent, and so on, and so on.

The change that occurred was that “tucking” the commander, placing it anywhere in the library or into the hand, was changed so the commander could be placed back in the command zone, much like if it was sent to the graveyard or exiled.  This replacement effect essentially negated a large way to interact with problematic commanders, such as Derevi and Skithryx.  Using it on a commander, in most cases, will result in the commander returning to the command zone.  The caveat is that even if this happens, any other effects of the card still happen, because it still successfully resolved.  This means the negative interaction still ends in a win-win for your opponent, because that nearly permanent solution no longer applies.

Previously, white had the strongest amount of tuck effects, with blue coming up next, followed by red.  Red got a boon in the form of Chaos Warp, which many people felt was too powerful given its drawback normally hit a land.  This was an important card—a staple, in fact, in any deck running red.  Red is considered the weakest color in the entire format by far for many reasons: starting with a higher life total makes red’s cheap direct damage spells weak, and the format is slow enough to allow creatures with high toughness playable, even if under normal circumstances (read: modern and standard formats) they wouldn’t be viable.  Green is similarly placed as a weak standalone color, however it makes up for lack of control by posing a lot of questions (playing large creatures faster than other decks under normal circumstances).  Generally, green has a lot of creatures that are hard to get rid of (green makes use of a lot of creatures with shroud or hexproof, requiring board wipes to deal with more potent threats.  Or more frightening in nature is that creatures like Vorinclex and Omnath allow for large beaters that simultaneously control the board, and also giving you access to large amounts of mana.  Green also has a wide variety of cards that can tutor up creatures and put them directly onto the battlefield, which can cause havoc if the spell itself isn’t stopped in some way.  Green’s main control is via destroying non-creature permanents, which it can excel at.  Black’s variant of tuck is to either kill the creature, or to kill the player.

So that leaves us with white and blue.  Blue isn’t necessarily affected by the change, since it does a lot of countering.  White, however, took the brunt of this decision, and it sucks for the color because a lot of its control tends to revolve around tucking or exiling.  In fact, many of white’s exile effects (such as Oblivion Ring and Journey to Nowhere) are essentially a free trip to the command zone, unless they have a way to handle the enchantment/spell/creature.  With such exile effects having returns that can make a commander more expensive, in general people played these cards to handle other threats as well.

That’s not to say that the tuck cards are now bad in the format, it just removes a lot of their power for dubious reasons, at best.  Cards like Terminus are still highly effective for removing board states revolving around overextension, and sending multiple commanders to the command zone is certainly a big boon; however, in a situation where only one commander is on the board and/or opponents aren’t overextending, its power wanes significantly.

But we’re here to discuss the reasoning behind the decision, so let’s get into it, shall we?  And keep in mind, this is going to come directly from the original EDH/Commander page.

1.       We want to engender as positive an experience as we can for players.  Nothing runs the feel-bads worse than having your commander unavailable to you the whole game.

The format itself is supposed to be open and interesting.  Like the legacy and vintage formats, very few things are actually prevented from being used, and because of this is has made the Commander scene rather vibrant.  New cards routinely come out to make new commanders viable: it wasn’t long ago that mono-black was nearly unheard of, but the addition of Skithryx, Drana, Sheoldred and Erebos made the color valid.  Black had a lot of power, but it had little interaction with combos, especially those that involved artifacts and enchantments: it had to go outside the color for this to happen, usually in the form of artifacts and artifact creatures.  Additional spells like Sadistic Sacrament made black a powerhouse, and in many instances black has the capability to ramp mana as fast—if not faster in many cases—as green can.

Before I enter into my second point, however, I need to mention the second “reason” they give for the rule change.

2.       The presence of tuck encourages people to play more tutors so that in case their commander gets sent to the library, they can get it back—exactly the opposite of what we want (namely, discouraging the over-representation of tutors).

Black has always had an overabundance of universal tutoring, from Vampiric Tutor to Diabolic Revelations.  Black’s ability to mana ramp has allowed various power changes in the tutors over the years, and while in Standard and Modern such cards might not be run, a format in which Cabal Coffers can be copied by no less than two other lands and several black and artifact mana expounders being present, these tutors are only seeing more play.  Anecdotally, I have had 23 mana on turn 6, which is a severe outlier for the deck itself, and many times I find myself not getting close to that amount.  Black is never going to give up many of the cost-efficient tutors, ever.  Tuck made it so that a tutor was required to search up the commander if it was so integral, rather than looking for a win condition, unless said win condition ended the game then and there.  If anything, tuck allowed for a bit more in terms of control with regards to any black deck.  With commanders such as Skithryx and Erebos being present, removing such blatant threats and forcing them to spend mana and a card to get them back meant that players might be safe for at least one more turn.

Green was probably second in being better off, in that the more cost-effective tutors put the card in the hand, and green’s tutors specifically target creatures.  This made it possible to have cheaper tutors for the same objective—namely, finding a tucked commander—because of the restrictions, which black had nothing of.  More to the point, many of green’s creature tutors had the ability to place the creature from the library directly into play, meaning they had more versatility: what’s more, some of those cheats are at instant speed, so there’s even less time to interact with them!  So green’s not lacking in its ability to recover a tucked commander.

Blue?  Blue has oodles of card draw, which restricts how much time the commander may be in the deck.  Cards like Blue Sun’s Zenith are even instant speed, so you don’t really lose out on much.  Sure, of the five colors blue tends to be more combo-centric, but they have ways to control the board state until they can recover.  So, while blue might lack tutors, the card draw can and often does make up for this shortcoming.

White?  While lacking tutors and card draw, white had control to maintain a very powerful board state.  Some commanders even fall into the artifact category, so they have some tutors to get them but not many.  What’s really powerful is enchantment searching in white, but there are very few commanders in mono-white that are enchantments: Heliod is the only one I can think of off the top of my head, currently.  White also has some card draw, generally with a drawback (the addition of Armistice certainly helps mono-white players).  Their main defence was and is to send things back into the deck, or exile them, so white can maintain a very powerful presence while waiting to find their commander again.

In truth, the weakest has always been red, but that is because on the whole, red is the weakest standalone color in the format.  Usually, red’s very cost efficient burn spells will wreak havoc throughout the game.  But in other formats, the starting life total is 20, and so a 3-point Lightning Bolt will be felt all the time, unless their opponent has gained an insurmountable amount of life.  Because EDH begins at 40 life, that Lightning Bolt loses a lot of potency, and with only one copy in the deck, it’s not like you can back-to-back chain those burn spells for a huge advantage.  Commander is also intended to be a multiplayer format, thus reducing the effectiveness further, and really putting them to creature removal spells.  Red, however, has a solid tutor in the form of Gamble: tutor up your commander, but discard a card.  Oh well if it’s your commander, you can play him next turn—or this turn if you have the mana.  Chaos Warp provided a lot of power for red, and yes, it became a staple in any deck that splashed it, much like Oblation was.

So was tuck increasing the amount of tutors being run?  In general, no.  Green and black ran them because of their strength, and the other colors ran them for utility.

3.       While we are keenly aware that tuck is a great weapon against problematic commanders, the tools to do so are available only in blue and white, potentially forcing players into feeling like they need to play those colors in order to survive.  We prefer as diverse a field as possible.

In a debate, this would be referred to as a “slippery slope” argument, among other things.  It is taking one thing, and making a judgment without reason because the cause is true.  In this case, the Rules Committee assumes that because tuck is admittedly a strong mechanic, more and more players would feel forced into blue or white to deal with commanders that are problematic.

The problem with this is that there is no proof that it is the case, and that there are a lot of powerful commanders outside those colors being run in a competitive sense: Omnath, Locus of Mana, Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, Erebos, Ulasht, and a multitude of others outside those colors see a lot of play because of their strength.  There is no proof that people feel forced to run blue or white because of tuck being so strong.

Skithryx, Derevi, Shaarum….there are a lot of commanders out there requiring a more permanent answer before they become a problem.  Simply sending them to the Command Zone is not going to work to stop them: it becomes more and more useless as time goes on, especially with Derevi.  Commander is a multiplayer format, is it not?  That’s what the Rules Committee has said previously.  So there will usually be a blue or white player sitting at the table to deal with that problematic commander while the rest of the table plays around.  The format is supposed to develop more diplomacy than anything, so why is the rules committee making decisions that affect the power of diplomacy in the format based on weak analytical reasoning?  Blue and white have routinely been the most diplomatic of the colors—until, that is, it’s time for them to win.  You can always expect decks to do what’s best for them first, and blue and white have always been more diplomatic than the other colors.  In the case of white, you’ve told them to run more boardwipes, and for blue to run more bounce.  In either case it’s going to piss off the players, isn’t it?

Or better yet, white will now run Armageddon effects more and more, to make sure those problematic commanders are dealt with in a more permanent fashion.  How long until we see Armageddon banned because of “how powerful” it is?  And will the reasoning above be used as justification for that ban as well?

MMOs routinely understand that power creep is an issue.  That’s why they look to balance rather
than remove.  You can always make a justification that the new flavor of the month is too strong and demand it be nerfed.  That just makes something else too powerful by comparison, and overall it will lead to constant complaining until everyone can only play with sticks, or in this case basic lands.

Commander has been a healthy format with the tuck rules for years.  Only now it is being seen as unhealthy?  That brings to question if it’s the effects, or the new legendary creatures in those colors that are the problem.

4.       It clears up some corner case awkwardness, mostly dealing with knowing the commander’s location in the library (since highly unlikely to actually end up there).

This is the oddest one of the lot.  They use the fact that Fate Reforged brought about the Manifest mechanic, and if your commander is manifested, even face-down attacks by the commander still count as commander damage.  The only corner case I can recall was with Praetor’s Grasp, in which if you pulled the commander with it, you had to reveal it to your opponent despite it being exiled face-down (because they had the “right” to send it to the command zone).  I can understand, for a bit, the issues that would come from manifest.  After all, if you were attacking, you had to let them know commander damage was incoming, and they had the right to block it.  But if it’s such open knowledge, than the commander being manifested doesn’t really create much of a corner case in the classical sense: you still know which one to block, though it tells people what creature not to waste a kill spell on.

Sheldon Menery goes on to claim in an article on Starcity Games that this affects very few commonly-played cards, and that overall it shouldn’t have a deleterious effect on the format.  So, if the numbers are truly so few—or rather if this fact needed to be mentioned at all—why did it need to be changed?  This isn’t a case of a format being dominated by one or two colors, or one or two commanders.  Almost every color combination has a solid, healthy representation via a number of viable commanders—mono-red being the sole exception as it is very weak overall.  There are other cards and rules that have been a source of contention for years, and the Rules Committee has either ignored them or given similarly bad excuses as to why they haven’t modified anything.  Examples include:

-          Several years ago, the Rules Committee said they would be looking into “split mana” cards, and if the color identity issue should be modified to allow them to be played in decks running only one of the colors (for example, Shattering Blow could be run in either red or white).  Some players said this would break the color pie, others said it was necessary to bring colors up to snuff.  The Rules Committee said they’d be looking into this, but to date has not made a ruling one way or the other.

-          Players have begged for years for Infect and Poison Counters to be increased in Commander, because it was felt 10 Poison was too few in the format.  Defenders of the current rules point out that they card pool for Infect is pretty subpar: there’s only one commander for a true Infect deck, and beyond that not many cards that are very powerful for it.  The Rules Committee stated they wouldn’t change this rule for a variety of reasons: they didn’t want to change the base rules (despite the format beginning at 40 life), the further we move from seeing a new Infect card, the better they feel about the decision, and that Commander is a multiplayer format, and infect tends to be bad in it.  Which leads to the obvious question of, “If it’s a multiplayer format and there are so few cards and you’re unwilling to change the rules, why are you banning a mechanic and using those reasons to do so?”

So what is the general conclusion?

It is quite hard to say whether the entire playerbase actively agrees or disagrees with the changes.  You have several camps, ranging from the “Fuck yeah, this decision rocks and it’s about time!” camp to the “What in the fuck are you idiots smoking?” camp, and everything in between.  I generally fall into the “WTF” camp, I’ll admit.  I don’t agree with this rule, I think the excuses for changing it are spurious at best, and overall I feel like there were other rules they should have been looking at because they are more important than this.

More importantly, potentially problematic commanders just became even harder to deal with in any form of permanency.  Who became even worse?  Let’s list them!

                - Derevi, Empyrial Tactician
        - Skullbriar, the Walking Grave
        - Shaarum, the Hegemon
        - Any God card
        - Brago, King Eternal

Let’s just say it: any commander who had a negative effect when put in the library or hand is no longer weakened.  Skullbriar, especially, has become stronger, so expect more decks with him as the commander showing up.  Derevi completely nullifies two rules, one of which is specific to Commander itself.  The God cards are indestructible, and sometimes not even creatures, thus making them that much harder to deal with.

Combo decks are now able to worry less about losing a combo piece so easily many times.

Heavy agro decks have lost a substantial weakness, since now the commander—many times the win condition in and of itself—can’t be tucked.

Control and tempo are slowly being weakened in this format, which is sad because of how healthy it was.  In time, people will grow annoyed, and I can see the prevalence of land destruction decks showing up.  Boros Charm on Isochron Scepter, and get ready to start the board wipes with Kamahl, Fist of Krosa and Day of Judgement, or just simple Armageddon.  As something becomes more prevalent, we risk the likelihood it will be banned because people are tired of playing against it.

And then it truly will be, “You can only play Grizzly Bears as your commander and 99 Forests” in the interest of being “fair”.