June 7 Announcement on Dies Triggers

As you may have heard on the CommandFest charity stream, we’re changing how commanders go to the command zone, effective with the quarterly Commander announcement for Core Set 2021. The short version of it is:

If a commander has an ability which triggers on it dying or going to exile, it will trigger before heading to the command zone. 

The long version (including how we got there and the technical details) is below.

First, new rules (specifically, a new state-based action):

If a commander is in a graveyard or in exile and that card was put into that zone since the last time state-based actions were checked, its owner may put it into the command zone.

If a commander would be put into its owner’s hand or library from anywhere, its owner may put it into the command zone instead. This replacement effect may apply more than once to the same event.

Commander death triggers are a subject that came up over the years, but didn’t get much traction. It’s not that any of us objected, it’s that none of us felt all that strongly about it. The current system worked fine and was elegant. We were happy with it and obvious possible changes had a lot of downsides. There were people out there who thought it was a good idea, and people out there who thought it was a bad idea, and no groundswell for change. You’ll find us defending positions we feel strongly are correct (like hybrid mana color identity during deck construction), but we generally didn’t engage much on Commander death triggers beyond pointing out that the rules to make it happen weren’t nearly as simple as people thought they were. We just didn’t have strong feelings either way.

The tipping point came last October when a CAG member was talking about their Elenda, the Dusk Rose deck and we had to break it to them that it didn’t work the way they thought it did. Turns out a portion of the CAG didn’t understand that commanders dying didn’t trigger death triggers and were quite passionate about the subject. That was motivation to see if we could do something with them that wasn’t a mess.

We came up with a lot of possibilities. Each had various levels of impact on the game. We had a list of a bunch of notable cards so that we could consider the implications of each approach, including Rest in Peace, It That Betrays, Oblivion Ring, Banishing Light, Grave Betrayal, even Skullbriar! If it had a weird interaction with a zone change, we probably talked about it.

In the end, we presented eight options to the CAG for discussion, all of which had different plusses and minuses:

  • Do nothing
  • Redefine the term “dies”
  • Inherent trigger on the commander
  • State trigger on a commander in a graveyard
  • State-based action (mandatory)
  • State-based action (optional)
  • Special action
  • A really crazy one where the Commander made a token copy of itself that went to the graveyard.

And then we talked a bunch. How much weirdness was acceptable? How much were we willing to change core Commander game play? Was not being able to leave your Commander in the graveyard acceptable for a very clean state trigger? For example, the special action (essentially “0: put your Commander into the Command Zone. Activate only in the graveyard, exile or library”) meant it was usually correct to have your commander in the graveyard when it wasn’t on the battlefield. Redefining “dies” to mean “is put into the graveyard or command zone from the battlefield” was super-clean, but meant that blinking a commander would trigger death triggers. Everything had tradeoffs.

After a lot of discussion, we proposed to Wizards the following state-based action:

If a commander is in a library, graveyard or exile, and doesn’t have a choice counter on it, it’s owner may put it into the command zone. If they do not, put a choice counter on it.

That worked intuitively with basically everything (shhhh, Skullbriar).

Rules Manager Eli Shiffrin (because he’s smart and good with the rules) pointed out that we could steal a little technology from, of all things, Deathtouch, to avoid using a counter (yay, Skullbriar):

If a commander is in a graveyard, library or in exile and that card was put into that zone since the last time state-based actions were checked, its owner may put it into the command zone.

We loved this, but there was one small problem. Could this apply in a hidden zone, especially with the existence of Chaos Warp? Chaos Warp targeting a Commander would put the commander into the library, shuffle it, then reveal the top card. Tracking the commander through all of that is stretching the Magic rules, and while I think we could have made it work, it was tricky both rules-wise and physically. In the end, we left the replacement effect in place for hidden zones (hand and library) and now use the state-based action for graveyard and exile. Commanders that go to hand rarely want to be moved, and commanders going to the library is a rare event; wanting to take further action before the State-based Action kicks in is rarer still. Those events working differently won’t matter most of the time.

And that’s how we ended up with the final rules above. Note that the Commander still has to go to the graveyard in order for a dies ability to trigger. If that is replaced by some other effect (such as Rest in Peace), it won’t happen, just as it wouldn’t happen on any other creature.

We’ll obviously be keeping an eye on some of the more powerful commanders with death triggers – looking at you Kokusho and Child of Alara! – but think it will be OK and opens up a few more interesting options. And Elendra the Dusk Rose now works like the CAG and a bunch of other people think it does.