Commander Banlist – Prime Time and Garbage Time
HOW TO AVOID TWO COMMON LOGICAL TRAPS WHEN TALKING ABOUT THE COMMANDER BANLIST
Man, I’m like the worst clickbait artist ever. How am I supposed to lure you in to read a whole list if there’s only two things on the list?
As I mentioned in my last column, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the Commander banlist. And I keep running into the same two logical traps in almost every Reddit thread and pleasant moment of spoiler-season small talk.
So while I’m testing our Dovin Baan Planeswalker Deck for the Planeswalker Deck Challenge, I figure I might as well do myself a favour and talk about how to avoid these fallacies. If nothing else, it’ll help all of you guys have better banlist discussions with your friends.
LOGICAL TRAP #1: “This card has so many answers! It shouldn’t be banned!”
Prophet of Kruphix is the most recent addition to the commander banlist and the card where I see this argument come up the most often, so let’s begin with it.
Yes, Prophet of Kruphix can be answered by many things, including kill spells, bounce spells, exile spells, counterspells, Speak & Spells, the musical Godspell, and Roadhog hooking her to point 2 on Ilios. The problem from an argumentative perspective is that this is also true of literally every other card in the game—including cards that are rightly banned.
Griselbrand has answers. Black Lotus has answers. Yawgmoth’s Bargain has answers. Even original Emrakul has answers—I once played in a game where someone didn’t know Emrakul was on the commander banlist, and we let them cast her for politeness’ sake. I immediately bribed her with Gwafa Hazid on my next upkeep, and the toughest creature in Legacy sat there admiring her shiny gold coin until a boardwipe came along.
When an argument is just as true of something you do not wish to prove as something you do, it ceases to be effective. This is the case when it comes to relying on answers for why a card should or shouldn’t be banned.
There are two more flaws with relying on the presence of answers as a premise for your argument.
One, remember that answers are never guaranteed to be available—someone has to have the right answer at the right time with mana to cast it. Your pod might have That Guy playing Counterspell Tribal with Talrand or Baral, but there’s always a chance they’re holding lands instead of their 19th or 20th piece of countermagic. Therefore, suggesting that the presence of answers proves a given card should be unbanned is flawed, because the answers are not always present.
And two, if your base assumption for a card is that it gets answered, why are you discussing it at all? Logically, we must assume the card goes unanswered, in order to assess its effects on the game and whether it is bannable in the first place.
So when you’re arguing for a card to be unbanned, please remember not to say, “It has so many answers, it’s fine!” That premise is flawed.
LOGICAL TRAP #2: “This card is so mechanically strong! It shouldn’t be legal!”
If you’ve ever wondered why some broken cards are legal, while much weaker cards are banned, I’m about to tell you why.
Mechanical strength is the typical measuring stick for what should be banned in most other Magic formats. So it makes sense for the Rules Committee to apply that same measuring stick to Commander, right?
No, it does not.
First, we must remember that balanced competition is not the Rules Committee’s goal. They intend for Commander to be “a refuge from competitive formats”, and to create a place where “strong cards are not a problem”. I find many faults in how they conduct themselves, but I cannot find fault in that.
Second, evidence shows that the Rules Committee almost never bans a card based on mechanical strength alone—and the current explosive growth of Commander at least partially proves that they are correct to do so. For more proof of this, we look to Tiny Leaders—as enchanting as it is, the format has largely faded away, partially as a result of insufficient work and testing on its banlist. Therefore, if a format is successful, its banlist must play a role in that success.
So we must conclude that relying on mechanical strength to prove or disprove our points is another logical trap, another flawed premise, and we must find arguments that more closely match the reality of Commander if we wish to discuss the banlist effectively.
What are those arguments?
I’ve noticed that once you get past the dexterity cards, ante cards, and “cards that interact poorly with the format” like Coalition Victory, the Rules Committee generally bans cards that create multiple turn cycles where the game is over, but it hasn’t ended yet.
To borrow a term from football, the RC bans cards that create garbage time. They allow strong cards that can end the game quickly, but ban cards that put one or more players too far ahead without actually ending the game.
And, again, I don’t think they’re wrong in this instance. Commander is a format with four players that is not explicitly competitive. It makes no sense to waste the time of one or more players by forcing them to spend too much time in a game they have a negligible chance of winning.
So Ad Nauseam and Tooth and Nail remain legal, while some ostensibly weaker cards like Prophet of Kruphix, Braids, and Primordial Titan are banned—because Ad Nauseam and Tooth and Nail at least win quickly, while Prime Time, Prophet, and Braids create garbage time.
THE AD NAUSEAM QUESTION—PUTTING “GARBAGE TIME” TO THE TEST
It’s time to apply the idea of “garbage time” to specific cards.
Let’s look at Ad Nauseam. It is a prominent win condition, or setup for a win condition, in almost every deck that includes Black. If you combine it with a card that can prevent life loss or game loss, such as Angel’s Grace, you can draw your deck for a paltry amount of mana. The card is ridiculous in its strength, and a common bugbear for commander banlist discussions.
It even meets the criteria of not ending a game on its own—or does it?
What happens when Ad Nauseam resolves? Either the Ad Nauseam player wins, or loses, and generally very quickly. Put another way, either the game ends, or the remaining players continue at relative parity. In no situation does the game continue for multiple turn cycles with one or more players alive, but out of contention. There’s no garbage time after an Ad Nauseam.
Compare with Prophet of Kruphix or Primordial Titan. Assuming as our premise that Prophet/Titan resolves and goes unanswered for multiple turn cycles (as we discussed in Logical Trap #1 above), the Prophet/Titan player has vastly, vastly improved their ability to generate and convert resources, putting other players out of contention. But the game has not ended. We’re in garbage time.
Compare also with Upheaval and Worldfire—two inclusions on the commander banlist that are less contentious. Both cards are boardwipes that allow their caster to float mana, wipe the table, then re-cast their commander or any number of cards from their hand. Again, one player is ahead and multiple players are out of contention in a game that hasn’t ended. Again, we’re in garbage time.
I argue that Prophet, Titan, Upheaval, and Worldfire are all bannable because they create garbage time, while Ad Nauseam and Tooth and Nail remain legal because they do not.
You may ask, “If some players are out of contention, why don’t they just concede?” To which I respond: if people are regularly conceding when they see a card that doesn’t even win the game, should that card not be banned?
Let’s not argue that a card should be banned or unbanned because of the presence of answers.
Let’s not argue that a card should be banned or unbanned because of its mechanical strength.
IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ME AND WISH TO ENGAGE IN FURTHER DISCUSSION, I WILL BE ATTENDING THE FOLLOWING EVENTS AT THE STORE
There’s so much going on!
In the world of Magic, we’ve got the Standard 9-Week Challenge, the GPT Farewell Tour, and Amonkhet Pre-Releases all coming up. I’ll be there for Standard next Tuesday the 11th to put the Dovin Baan Planeswalker Deck through its paces!
Also, International Tabletop Day is Saturday, April 29th—come on down to the store for special promos and special events all day!
See you at the store!
Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games. He’s going to leave what ELSE he would ban as a mystery for now. Tune in every two weeks for The Mana Dork, his column about all things Magic!