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Gavin’s Format of the Month – August 2020: Sideboards

From the inception of the Commander rules website until about 2011, there was a section for “optional rules” which the RC felt were interesting to some, but didn’t have enough common appeal. One rule which I was always a fond of was the use of sideboards for more high-powered games.

There wasn’t much in the vein of cEDH back then; a few groups in Ottawa and Paris played cutthroat games; but there were plenty people at the next tier down and I always felt that the use of sideboards (even in one-game “matches”) made those games much more interesting. If the other players all agree (in advance), playing with sideboards is viable variation of the core rules.

There’s nothing wrong with a Fencing match, but there’s no room for a broadsword.

To explain why, we need to dig into the RC’s stance on “answers” in Commander decks. Specifically, what do we consider reasonable expectations on a deck builder?

Should you play “answers” in your deck?

Yes. Obviously.

Interactivity is fundamental to any interesting Commander game. Even if your deck’s plan is an all-out blitz, you’re still looking to thwart your opponents’ plans by taking away their time. Most of the time, interactivity comes from cards which answer or preempt an opponent’s threats… removal, hand disruption, counterspells are obvious. Bigger creatures block attackers, flying creatures obviate a control deck’s blockers. The cycle goes on, but it is the interactions between our cards and our opponent’s game state which make Magic interesting.

That’s to to say that answers have to be singular in focus. Much of the interactivity in EDH games comes from cards which answer a threat and leave some resource behind: Stomping Indrik or Flame-tongue Kavu or Contagion Engine. That’s because longer games are more likely to resolve through attrition, and answers which trade 1-for-1 are inherently dangerous in a multiplayer environment. The term “Coup fourré” refers to an answer which immediately presents a threat… arguably the best kind of answer.

The downside to flexible answers is that they’re costed appropriately… the aforementioned “killer Kavu” is 4 mana, where Flame Slash costs 1. Creature-based answers are always sorcery speed… and as decks get more faster, the window to answer threats gets smaller. Draining Whelk is great in a 10-turn slugfest, and unplayable if someone is going to combo off by turn 6-8.

In higher powered, faster, games your answers must be more (mana) efficient… but those answers do nothing else.

In higher powered games, answers must be more (mana) efficient but efficient answers usually don’t advance your plan. They don’t enrich the ensuing game state as much as an expensive answer would (albeit, they enrich the ensuing game state more than an ineffective answer which doesn’t stop the game from ending). They’re a necessary evil sometimes; moreso as the power level rises.

How many [good] answers is enough?

The second problem with “answer” cards is that you have to draw them in time… “There are no wrong threats” and all that. With a 100 card singleton deck, the frequency with which you[1] draw any particular answer is low, which means that you need to put several in your deck to reliably have one when a threat arises. (I’m discounting the efficacy of answers against specific threats, and starting with the simple model of “every answer completely negates a particular threat”… later we’ll talk about different types of answers for different types of threats).

Counterplay is the idea that you can increase your chances to win by foiling an opponents’ plans, as well as advancing your own, and the interesting decisions which arise from balancing the two.

Unfortunately, putting too many answers in a deck is usually a bad thing, from both strategic and entertainment perspectives. Too many efficient answers and you’re not DOING anything to advance your position… too many expensive answers and you’re probably not doing anything at all.

So, how many answers fit in that goldilocks zone? It depends on how likely the threat is to occur. If you’re going to face a particular danger multiple times every game (say, a big creatures) then you want to have answers consistently… 10-20 creatures of your own, or targeted removal, etc. “Wide” creature strategies are also pretty common, so board wipes are popular… but you don’t need to have them nearly so often. 5-10 ways to deter a creature swarm: a mix of resilient blockers, sweepers, or a good crackback threat can be enough.

There are other types of cards which can threaten to take over the game along other “axes”… graveyard recursion, enchantments (From Omnipotence to Vicious Shadows), Artifacts, strategies which don’t win by attacking, etc. Perhaps the most prevalent is Land Ramp[2]… but that’s a topic for another day.

These “off-axis” threats require more specific answers… counterspells to stop infinite mana, disenchants to get rid of non-creature stax pieces. Stopping reanimator requires Bojuka Bog or Faerie Macabre, and indestructible or hexproof creatures can’t be answered by every removal spell.

Fortunately, those threats are less common… so in most Commander games we can:

  1. Hope they don’t show up at all.
  2. Assume they show up late enough that we can play less efficient answers which also serve to advance our board state.
  3. Play a small number of efficient answers and hope that other players do the same, such that at least one person has an answer to an early problem.

#1 is sometimes viable, but you shouldn’t be salty when you let an opponent go unchecked (and most of us don’t like flipping coins so you’ll need to find other opportunities for skill play if counterplay isn’t your thing).

But what happens when resilient or niche threats show up regularly and repeatedly in the early game? That’s what we’re talking about when we say “high powered environment.”

What happens when we play enough answers for every type of threat?

The risk (as the RC sees it) with cut-throat EDH is that, to be reliably interactive in an environment with regular, early-game, game-ending threats a deck needs to contain a very large “critical mass” of narrow and efficient answers. To make sure you’ve got lands and at least one of the “right answers” before turn 3-4, a deck needs to play 40+ narrow answers, leaving very little room for cards which advance the game and do proactive, opportunity-for-interaction things. Instead, these decks play a small set of highly reliable, hard-to-interact with threats which take up fewer slots.

The risk with cut-throat EDH is that, to be interactive in an environment with regular, early, game-ending threats a deck needs to contain a “critical mass” of narrow answers.

Moreover, because of the math of drawing a small hand from a large deck, the number of answers that must be in the deck to reliably draw at least one means that you’ll usually draw more than one.

The result is games are a tight-knit “fencing” match of counterplay, seeing who can thread the needle of opposing answers to land a threat. This contrasts with the “broadsword” or “claymore” style of swordplay that most people look for in Commander game. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a “fencing matches”… they’re elegant and skill testing in the extreme. Leaning on the metaphor a bit, they’re harder for the audience to understand though and there isn’t as much room for creative expression as there is in a high-variance format[3].

The RC generally feels that creatures are central enough to Commander that players can be expected to play a reasonable number of answers to “normal” creatures… but must-answer enchantments and artifacts, indestructible creatures, and graveyard strategies are less frequent. Expecting players to pack 5-10 answers to every threat type is undesirable.

How should sideboards work? Do they help?

Hopefully, it’s obvious by this point why sideboards could make the game more interesting. By allowing game-time flexibility in deck composition, high-powered players can cut irrelevant answers and play more proactive cards[4]. The questions which arise are:

1) What’s the downside?

Regular readers[5] know that I believe every variant has a downside to go with its upside, and sideboards are no exception. The most important one is sideboards let people play cards with large caveats while often avoiding them. As long as everyone has the same opportunity that’s (probably) ok… but sideboards only work if everyone has a sideboard.

Another downside to sideboarding is that the narrow “silver bullets” which become playable are often feel-bad cards. Chill, Choke, and even Leyline of the Void can be groan-inducing when they land well… and that’s why Sideboards aren’t part of the core Commander rules. The RC doesn’t think that they enhance most playgroup’s fun quotient.

2) How would sideboards work in single-game matches?

TL;DR – sideboard after revealing all commanders.

To make a sideboard useful (see question 4), you need to know something about your opponent’s deck. I messed with the idea of allowing mid-game sideboards, but the games which need more answer specificity need it sooner not later. Fortunately, the pregame procedure for Commander has a perfect opportunity… an opponent’s commander tells us a lot about their deck (especially in focused metagames with Tiered commanders). If we know someone is playing a graveyard deck, pulling in even 2-3 silver bullets substantially decreases the chances anyone goes off with Hermit Druid on turn

3) How big should sideboards be in Commander?

Back in the days where sideboards were listed on the website, sideboards were 10 cards… I don’t actually remember where that number came from. For simplicity’s and consistency’s sake though, 15 cards is the right number. If you’re playing a game where silver bullets are allowed and needed, that gives you 3-5 cards in each of 3-5 categories, which (assuming you have 3 opponents and a few maindeck answers each) increases the chances of someone having an answer in the opening turns to a reasonable 80%+ range.

Unlike other formats , you still have to sideboard out one card for each card you bring in. Commander has a maximum deck size as well as a minimum.

4) If I’ve got a sideboard, do wishes work?

Wishes (cards which bring other cards into the game from outside) are an interesting piece of templating technology which first arose in Odyssey block… and with the rising popularity of 1-game matches for Standard (thank to Arena) they’re seeing a surge of popularity in newer sets. Unfortunately, they come with all the same caveats that sideboards do… they drastically lower the cost for feel-bad silver bullets. That’s part of why the RC doesn’t want to see wishes in Commander, and it raises the question of whether Wishboards should be a thing in games with sideboards.

Given the time restrictions on competitive games, my inclination is that wishes are probably too slow… but I’ve leery of how burning wish was so powerful in Vintage, usually fetching Yawgmoth’s Will to end the game. Wishes, like Tutors, get around the singleton nature of Commander… and tutors factor quite heavily into cEDH games. Wishes are generally more expensive than the (best) tutors. I would probably not allow opponents to play with wishes even if we were sideboarding, but YMMV and I’m really not knowledgeable enough to decide without more testing.

5) Can we use sideboards for casual/mid-power games?

[Keeping in mind that this is still a variant, and requires permission from every opponent before it applies]

Contrary to everything I’ve said above, yes you can… but everyone (starting with you) needs to obey the same kind of social contract which makes Commander work in the first place. Use your sideboard to make the game more interesting for everyone… and that means starting with a conversation about what they find intersting. Include answers which slow your opponents down, but don’t shut them out.

Better yet, bring in answers which capitalize on opponent’s predictability, and use them to do interesting things. If you tell them you’re doing so, it will have the collateral benefit of encouraging them to be less predictable!


[1] Granted, one of the advantages of a multiplayer is that you can be saved by other players in a sort of diplomacy/prisoner’s dilemma way. Unfortunately, it’s a tragedy of the uncommons… the person who spends a resource to stop a threat rarely comes out ahead of the other opponents who didn’t. (Again, that’s why Draining Whelk and the like are popular, because answers which put you ahead avoid this trap). Worse, the multiplayer nature can also become a race to the bottom… relying on other players to break up combos or Path to Exile an early monster means you can put more threats in your own deck.

[2] Unfortunately, there really aren’t a lot of good answers to land ramp, short of Armageddon effects which reset everyone back to square zero and make the ensuing game much less interactive. There are a few, but it’s one of the things we hope to see more of from future magic sets.

[3] As it turns out, real broadsword fighting between experts actually involves a lot of counterplay and is extremely skill-testing. The difference is that broadsword matches between casual competitors is at least interesting… fencing between amateurs is boring for everyone.

[4] They can also play more relevant answers… again, there’s nothing wrong with playing control decks if that’s what everyone wants. But at least there’s more room to think.

[5] I’m not convinced such a thing exists, but grant me the rhetorical device :).

Gavin’s Format of the Month – July 2020: Augment All The Things

This is going to be the first of an occasional “series” discussing ways to use Silver-bordered “Uncards” in Commander games, for fun and value. Please let me know in the comments if you try this out and what happens for your group.

During a recent game with the other RC members I posited that, while it wouldn’t fly to make Un-cards legal all the time, there are a lot of fun mechanics buried in silver-bordered land. Toby has been killed on stream by his own Baron Von Count (twice, in the same game) and I enjoy getting chat involved with “bystander” cards. Splashing silly cards into a deck can introduce novelty, which is one of the ingredients for creating humour.

We’re not just looking for a balanced solution, we’re looking for something we can easily convince other players is balanced.

One such mechanic was the Unhinged mechanic Augment, which was really interesting in draft. Augment was a spiritual precursor to Ikoria’s Mutate mechanic (in a future variant, I’ll explore synergies between them), but the cards were somewhere between Mutate and Auras. Augments could

1) Only target a creature with the Host supertype. Each host was a small creature with a single ETB ability.

2) Provide an alternate means to trigger that ETB again.

3) Add a small buff* to the host’s power and toughness.

4) Stay in the owner’s hand* if the target became illegal in response.

5) Not augment a creature which was already augmented.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really enough Augment (or Host) cards to build a Commander deck around. So, I went looking for ways to pad out the mechanic’s card pool. I figured I won’t have any difficulty finding people willing to allow it if I did it in a way which was fun and interesting, and don’t play it too often.

A Masterful Transmutation | MAGIC: THE GATHERING | Mtg art ...

The basic idea

All of the host creatures in Unstable were simply costed creatures with a single ETB ability… in fact, many of them have a black-bordered analogues which are costed the same:

We can also see most of those effects are pretty small, so Host creatures weren’t anything special; they were just visual cues as to which creatures had ETB abilities, separating the trigger condition (ETB) from the effect. Given that, it seems reasonable that we can redefine “Host” as any creature with a single ETB ability.

What if we redefine “Host” as any creature with a single ETB ability.

Each Augment card then reads:

{Cost}: Combine with with target non-augmented creature that has one ETB ability.  (If this ability would resolve and its target is illegal, it stays in its owner's hand). 

Augmented creature gets +X/+Y.

{Conditon}: Augmented creature's ETB abilities trigger (again).

Does this work?

It’s silver-bordered land, so you’re always going to need to apply some creative interpretation occasionally, but for the most part the rules implications are no worse than normal cards. The creature’s ETB ability triggers, but it didn’t actually leave the battlefield or enter it again. That means:

  • Other cards’ abilities won’t trigger.
  • Effects which would replace entering the battlefield (like arriving with additional counters or making choices “as” it enters) don’t happen.
  • You can use Panharmonicon as a rules reference for what happens when the ability triggers/is activated.
  • The cards are combined, so anything which exiles the creature exiles both cards (just like Meld or Mutate).

We could have treated the cards more like Auras which sit “on” the creature, but IMO Meld/Mutate are better matches for the flavour intent of the cards.

All things considered, Augment was a very well designed mechanic.

Is this fair?

Our new ersatz-flickerforms aren’t quite the same as a flicker because they can’t be used to dodge removal, but can be used to exile multiple targets with e.g. Banisher Priest. We’re in the the same neighbourhood though, so it’s worth asking whether this idea is (a) too powerful or (b) unsellable? There’s a reason Flickerform costs four mana to activate. Fortunately, all of the augments take time or resources to use:

  1. At the end of each turn, if an opponent lost three life…
  2. Whenever you’re dealt damage…
  3. Whenever a non-token creature enters the battlefield…
  4. Whenever you attack with two or more creatures…
  5. Whenever a non-token creature you control dies…
  6. Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player…
  7. Whenever this creature blocks…
  8. At the beginning of each end step, if you ETB’d an artifact…
  9. Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control…
  10. Pay {5}: …
  11. {2B}, exile a creature card from your graveyard: …

Pretty vanilla black-bordered magic stuff, and nothing which is easy to “go off” with. All things considered, Augment was a very well designed mechanic.

Will other players allow this?


  • It’s a very clean rule… easy to explain.
  • Lots of interesting applications.


  • There are some pretty powerful ETB creatures in Commander.

In theory, the existence of powerful ETB abilities shouldn’t be a show-stopper… like an aura, Augments are easy to kill, expensive to lose, and we have to resolve the creature first to get its ETB ability anyway. Having a Zombified Craterhoof Behemoth isn’t going to win the game any faster than the first trigger did. A Bat-Terastodon is splashy but hardly quick once you’re into the late-game.

Nevertheless, there are some scary combinations possible; stuff like Monkey-Baloth Null would yield an hard-to-kill regrowth engine, and a Half-squirrel, Half-Kederekt Leviathan would elicit many groans. Even if most of that power comes from the non-Augment half of the combo (Kederekt Leviathan + Baloth Null is already saucy), the blame will fall on the formerly “illegal” part. The fact that your Monkey Baloth recurring nightmare cost 6GGB and two cards might be enough to convince some people it’s ok, but 6GUU for Squirrel-Leviathan isn’t going to save you any friends.

There are lots of things you can do which will leave you unable to ever play your deck again.

In practice, even if the power level isn’t higher than “real” cards in the format, potential for abuse can be deal breaker when proposing an alternative format. Many potential opponents are going to (quite rightly) be conservative about what they allow in the way of rules-twisting. They’re going to think about worst-case scenario and assume that, with some planning, you can make it even worse… spoilers: you can. There are things you can do with such a rule which will leave you unable to ever play your deck again.

As such, it’s important to remember that, if you’re going to muck with the rules, you’re not just looking for a balanced solution, you’re looking for something you can easily convince other players is balanced. Depending how much they trust you, that might be a big gap so play it safe. Reveal your deck to everyone beforehand… the surprise will still come, but the lack of huge ETB abilities will go a long way getting your deck a chance to shine.

The secret to making this work will be to tell a good story with what you do.

Spontaneous Mutation | Mutação Espontânea - carta de Magic: the ...

Let’s Brew!

Surgeon General Commander or Dr Julius Jumblemorph are the two obvious places to start an Augment deck, but the former has too many colours and the latter doesn’t have enough. Karador is an old favourite for creature-heavy decks, and lets me get creatures back from our graveyard, which will be useful. Unfortunately, I can’t cast the augments from the graveyard, even though they’re “Creature” cards, because they don’t have a mana cost, but he’ll make sure I always have hosts available.

Keen eyes will note that I’ve included most of the relevant Hosts from Unstable, even though there are certainly better ETB cards. This is a concession to the aforementioned rhetorical challenge of convincing people to play against the deck… if I skip the “real” hosts, it moves the deck away from a theme and towards just “min maxing.” I’ve also excluded any Human creatures, as a hat-tip to Mutate’s non-human host restriction.

So, there we have it… a Timmy-Johnny monstrosity-creation-machine ready to shuffle up and induce all sorts of hilarity. There’s enough value engines to keep us in the fight, even with all the removal in a long multiplayer game.

It’s definitely not optimal, even discounting power levels… I should either have more non-creature enchantments, or cut the enchantment-creature subtheme. Some of the smaller hosts are probably unnecessary, but hopefully the payoff for building such a menagerie is worth it.

I’ll try to play this against the other RC members in an upcoming stream, so be sure to tune in on Thursday evenings to kibitz and cheer for team monsters!

July 2020 Update

It’s been a busy few months in Commander, so let’s start with the easy bit: there are no changes to the Banned list this quarter.

We know that, for many players, keeping up with rapid changes can be frustrating.  A number of other things have changed since our last quarterly update, so we’ll recap those events below and strive to stick with scheduled updates in the future.  The world is in flux though and Magic is no exception; we’ll continue to monitor the experiences of Commander players and adapt if necessary.

Two events which don’t impact the format but we hope will be of benefit to the community are

  1. The introduction of regularly streamed games by the RC ( where we chat with the audience and play games on camera. We play every Thursday evening (8pm EDT), with pickup games throughout the week as time permits. The primary focus is to increase visibility and two-way communication with the player base, talking about how and why we do the things we do. We also host special guests from Wizards of the Coast and the Commander community.
  2. The creation of a Commander RC Patreon through which players can contribute funds towards both the costs of running the format, and a number of great 3rd-party content creators.

Both are part of our 2020 focus on building connections between the RC, the CAG, and you… the players who make Commander the great format it is!

Rules changes since April 1st, 2020:

Commanders now “die” like other creatures.

TL;DR – Commanders being put into the graveyard from the battlefield trigger “dies” abilities.

Previously, the “Commanders go the command zone when they die” was handled using a replacement effect — a piece of MTG technology which entirely replaces one event with another. A side effect of that rule was that cards like Grave Pact wouldn’t trigger if someone’s commander was destroyed.  This was played incorrectly by many players, so we’d been looking for a way for commanders to behave “more normally” for many years.  It turns out the templating for that rule was tricky… more-so than 99.9% of us realized. Fortunately, the RC’s Toby Elliott and WotC’s Eli Shiffrin are really good at clear, clean rules and working with Sheldon Menery (at the time with a foot in both worlds), they found a way to make “dies” triggers work correctly without any significant corner cases. 

Technically speaking, the solution is a stated-based action (SBA), the things the game does to “clean up” each time someone would get priority, like exiling a token from the graveyard or destroying creatures which have lethal damage.  The new SBA now says “if a commander is in a graveyard or exile, and was put there since the last time SBAs were checked, its owner may choose to put it in the Command zone.”  

This means a commander first goes to the graveyard, triggering abilities (of itself or other cards which say “Whenever X dies”), then goes to the command zone.

Some clarifications

  1. The owner only gets to make this choice once… if your Commander is being exiled “temporarily” (e.g. by Oblivion Ring) you have to choose immediately if it is going to the CZ or staying in exile, in hopes of being brought back by whatever card put it there.
  2. The replacement effect remains in effect for zones like the hand or library, so the commander will never arrive.

Commander no longer uses the Vintage banned list as a basis for our banned list.

TL;DR – Lurrus is still legal, nothing else changed.

The Companion mechanic has made waves in every format, and Commander was no exception.  When they were first released, we removed Lutri because its lack of additional deck building restriction made it a “free card”. As sad as it made us, we hoped that would be the end of it.  Unfortunately, Companion was so impactful on Vintage that it resulted in the Wizards banning a card in that format for a combination of mechanical and power-level reasons, something which hasn’t happened in more than a decade.  

While it’s a big deal for Vintage, Lurrus is just fine in Commander. In fact, it’s probably one of the stronger handicaps in a format with an average mana cost near 4, so it doesn’t make sense for it to be banned in the format.  That raised the question of whether we should continue using the Vintage banned list as the basis for Commander, with other cards banned over-and-above.  

Historically, The Vintage (nee Type I) banned list has been used as a shorthand for “Cards which aren’t viable because of practical, physical-world considerations.” With the addition of Lurrus this wasn’t true anymore so we needed to make a philosophical decision.  Where possible, we prefer to let people to play their cards in Commander, so we decided to sever Commander from its Vintage roots and instead explicitly call out:

  • All oversized cards
  • All cards which don’t have black or white borders
  • All cards which mention the Ante Mechanic
  • All subgame and conspiracy cards

Shortly thereafter, Wizards removed some culturally offensive cards from constructed magic.

There are some cards which just shouldn’t be played around, or by, friends — they can be unnecessarily, even if accidentally, hurtful. Wizards of the Coast took a look at the message some of its cards were sending, and decided Magic would be a better game if those cards just weren’t around anymore.

Perhaps even more than tournament formats, Commander is about social connections so it only made sense for us to follow WotC’s lead and remove those cards from our format.  

The full list of excluded cards is:

  • Invoke Prejudice
  • Cleanse
  • Stone-Throwing Devils
  • Pradesh Gypsies
  • Jihad
  • Imprison
  • Crusade

As with other cards on the Banned List, we encourage players to avoid these cards, and any others which make your group unhappy.

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.

18 May 2020 Update

You may have noticed there’s a small line missing from banned list page today. We’ve eliminated the line “Commander is played with Vintage-legal cards.” While the idea has been a useful shortcut for years, it wasn’t really a philosophical foundation, it was merely a convenience. We’ve long been proponents that Commander isn’t alt-Vintage, so it makes sense given the two formats’ divergence to decouple the wording.

The upshot is that between yesterday and today, nothing has changed for us. The exact same cards remain legal (specifically, Lurrus of the Dream-Den is not banned). We’ve clarified the legality language a bit, but none of the descriptions result in specific cards being banned or unbanned. We’ll have our normally-scheduled update in the next cycle, currently slated for 22 June.

We normally reserve changes for the regular schedule; we felt as though the clarification here warranted providing an update out-of-cycle update.

April 2020 Rules Update


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.


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.


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.