All posts by Toby Elliott

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.

April 2020 Rules Update

Companion

When we first saw the companion mechanic, our immediate reaction was “well, this is cool; it won’t work in Commander.” But, looking at the mechanic, there was nothing problematic about it. It was actually the kind of thing we really like to encourage. Brew with restrictions! Since we want the rules of Commander to match up to Magic where possible and healthy for the format, we took a second look.

We still don’t think Wishes and the other get-other-cards-from-outside-the-game are something we want in Commander. We outline our stance on wishes in the FAQ and none of the concerns we have with them applied here. The only issue was that the mechanic referred to outside the game. If the companion started in the Command Zone or Exile, it would have been fine. Since that’s clearly an arbitrary mechanical distinction, how could we adjust the rules to reflect this?

It turns out that it was easy. The problem with all prior mechanics which used outside-the-game was their open-endedness. They brought cards in from a giant unbounded set. All we had to do was change one word in Rule 11:

11: Abilities which bring other card(s) you own from outside the game into the game (such as Living Wish; Spawnsire of Ulamog; Karn, the Great Creator) do not function in Commander.

Companion now works within the framework of Commander – it’s bringing itself in – and nothing else changes. Similar mechanics will be fine in the future as long as they remain self-contained (though if we think they’re problematic, we’ll obviously take another look and ask ourselves why).

We recognize that this does let you go past the 100 card rule that is iconic to Commander. However, a single extra card you have to jump through serious hoops to get is philosophically okay in the same way that a tiny number of cards (like Relentless Rats) are able to violate the even-more-important singleton rule.

Lutri

That left Lutri. We hate the idea of banning a card prior to release. We gave serious consideration to announcing that the card would almost certainly be banned with Core 2021 and letting it be legal rather than break our stance that all cards should be given a chance.

The argument that finally won the day was that not everyone would see that announcement. Many people would buy a legal Lutri as it goes alongside every deck with red and blue in it. Knowing that it would certainly be banned, we were uncomfortable setting up those folks, who are in many ways our primary audience, for far greater disappointment. Better to bend our stance.

This is where we say that it was a one-time thing and we don’t expect it to happen again, but that might not be entirely accurate. Wizards is free to explore weird spaces, and, as demonstrated here, those spaces may occasionally do something really problematic. If another card comes along that also does something novel that is incompatible with the format, we’ll ban it immediately. Note that “stupidly powerful” is not novel; those cards will get their chance to prove themselves.

Flash

Speaking of exceptional decisions, we are banning Flash (the card, not the mechanic). Enough cEDH players who we trust have convinced us that it is the only change they need for the environment they seek to cultivate. Though they represent a small fraction of the Commander playerbase, we are willing to make this effort for them. It should not be taken as a signal that we are considering any kind of change in how we intend to manage the format; this is an extraordinary step, and one we are unlikely to repeat.

We use the banlist to guide players in how to approach the format and hope Flash’s role on the list will be to signal “cheating things into play quickly in non-interactive ways isn’t interesting, don’t do that.”

We believe Commander is still best as a social-focused format and will not be making any changes to accommodate tournament play. Taking responsibility for your and your opponents’ fun, including setting expectations with your group, is a fundamental part of the Commander philosophy. Organizers who want to move towards more untrusted games should consider adding additional rules or guidance to create the Commander experience they want to offer.

Something From the Archives

When the initial Commander product was announced back in 2013, I was asked to speak at the unveiling panel at Pax East. I prepared some remarks in case I needed to give them (I didn’t). It lived on the Commander forums until they were taken down and it remains a piece of writing I’m pretty happy with. Leaving it here for posterity.

Some of the references are a little dated, but the sentiment remains.


I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about Batman.

Not the dark and gritty Christopher Nolan version, or even the dark and twisted Tim Burton version. I want to talk about the 1960s version, starring an oh-so-earnest Adam West. Those episodes, classic TV that they are, were almost always broken into two parts. At the conclusion of the first part, Batman would inevitably have been trapped by the villain and placed in some inescapable deathtrap.

These fiendish killing machines were masterpieces of Rube-Goldberg-ian baroqueness, themed around whichever particular villain had triumphed over Batman that day. But they all had one thing in common – at the start of the second part, once the villain had left the room, Batman would find an equally baroque way of escaping these traps. And by the end of the episode, the villain would be carted away to what appears to be the lowest security prison of all time, since they seemed to have no problem popping up again at will in later episodes.

Some of you out there think this seems pretty silly. Once you have your arch-nemesis incapacitated, you kill them and you’ll be able to run rampant through Gotham City for the rest of your career. Scott Evil, in the original Austin Powers movie, summed this up: “I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow their brains out!” To which his father replies “Scott, you just don’t get it, do ya?”

Scott Evil doesn’t understand Commander. He sees a format he can break easily and a banlist that doesn’t make any sense. The Joker? To the Joker, the journey is more important than the final result, and if Batman gets away, there’ll be another chance to break out of Arkham and concoct a new fiendish deathtrap. The Joker loves Commander.

Commander is a Vintage format in which you’re guaranteed to have a pretty strong card – your general – available to you all the time. You have lots of extra life, and it’s multiplayer, so people’s attentions are spread around. There are too many guns. If your goal is simply to win, you’re likely to be frustrated at how easy it is. The good news is that there are lots of formats – Standard, Legacy, etc – that are all carefully managed to cater to you. Commander wasn’t designed that way. It was built as a social format, a way to hang out with your friends, play some Magic, and see what kind of craziness develops. If a game goes well, everyone gets a few moments to cackle like a supervillain.

What we can do as the Rules Committee is try to steer people away from cards that we have found accidentally make the game uninteresting. We want to make sure that the shark-infested custard you plan to dangle your enemies over isn’t emitting toxic fumes, because that would be awkward. If you are using Erayo, or Armageddon, or putting Curiosity into your Niv-Mizzet deck, you aren’t thinking about defeating your opponents with a laser mounted on the moon, and there’s no banlist long enough to stop you finding guns too powerful for the format. But if you heard the phrase ‘shark-infested custard’ and that gave you warm fuzzies, I think we have a format for you.