Catching Up on Commander Changes

Posted in Ways to Play on August 15, 2017

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Commander is my favorite format.

I play with friends. I play with friends-to-be-made at events. I play with coworkers; Magic peers; and, when I'm lucky enough to cross paths with them, Magic makers. I wrote about it for years and still write about it today. Commander is a format that's crossed the globe, built up a monstrous following, inspired amazing content producers, and connected Magic's cards (and players!) in amazing ways.

Playing Commander through the years has been incredible, but I'm pretty lucky—my job and friends made it easy to follow along with the game. Every event I attend, I meet players who just started picking up Commander decks or came back to the game after life put Magic on the backburner for them.

Getting into Commander for the first (or fifth) time is as easy as picking up a new deck—Commander (2017 Edition) is releasing August 25 with four fun options!—understanding what the format is all about, then falling in love with a new legendary creature. With everyone excited for the latest Commander goodies, now is always the easiest time to hop into the format.

But some of you have played Commander before. Perhaps you met Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim then embarked on your own pilgrimage. Perhaps Adamaro was the first commander you desired. Perhaps you think the Prophet of Kruphix hadn't predicted its own downfall. Perhaps you don't remember this being called "Commander" at all.

Getting back into Commander is as easy as starting fresh. However, depending on when you last stacked up 100 cards, you may have missed a few important developments along the way.

Commander in 2017

If you've only been away from Commander for a few months, you're in for a treat: 2017 has been gangbusters for the format. You should be familiar with Commander (2017 Edition) and its amazing tribal focus—as well as the return of cycling with Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation—just from a quick looking around.

While the mechanics of every set are a unique addition to Commander each year, it's the rules and ways we play that matter most. Here's the big news and updated you might have missed:

  • Leovold, Emissary of Trest is banned. As it turns out, locking everyone out of drawing extra cards was a little too good for most games.
  • Protean Hulk was unbanned. Commander is still a format filled with broken things. The things you can break with Protean Hulk are numerous, take dedicated setup, and are a little unreliable in a singleton format.
  • 1v1 Commander arrived on Magic Online. While it took a few weeks for the dedicated multiplayer Commander banned list to return for multiplayer Commander, anyone who wants to push the competitive side of the format has a new banned list and way to play.

Perhaps the most important update this year wasn't any rules changes per se, but the updated philosophy outline the Rules Committee shared. It doesn't say anything different than before, but it does lay the philosophy out even clearer. The philosophy of Commander is something Rules Committee member Sheldon Menery wrote about again when the update went through, and it's the best place to get even more insight into the vision for the format.

Commander in 2016

If it's been a year or so since Commander was last on your radar, there's a little more to pick up. Let's start with the biggest rules tweaks:

  • Prophet of Kruphix is banned. While Seedborn Muse still hangs around, Prophet was the flagship card for unfair ramping and shenanigans. It was just a little too good, and now serves as the warning against using these kinds of effects.
  • Mulligans are now just the "Vancouver mulligan." While taking a free seven-card redraw and setting aside a hand to simply draw a new one are still recommended, the old "partial Paris" and other mulligan rules are gone. Just mulligan and draw one less card each time, then scry 1 when you keep your hand!
  • You can now make mana of any color, not limited to your commander's color identity. Removing a flavorful (if sometimes confusing rule) helps streamline the format and makes borrowing opponents' permanents more exciting since you can now pay for abilities and costs you couldn't before.

As you look back through the years, Commander's evolution is all about keeping the rules as simple as possible. The fewer "differences" between the Magic you learn at a Magic Open House and Commander, the more friends you'll have sleeving up 100-card decks.

Outside of Commander refining its rules, Magic clarified an important one: colorless mana. Now, Sol Ring gives you two colorless mana, like before, but colorless mana itself can now be spent on specific colorless costs.

Colorless costs are hanging around on Oath of the Gatewatch cards like Kozilek, the Great Distortion, and I'd wager we'll see more of them in the future. By definition, "colorless" isn't a color you can choose—it isn't a color of mana, just a type. This new symbol was introduced to make more clear the distinction between colorless mana and generic mana requirements. The Oath of the Gatewatch mechanics primer has a great breakdown on what this new symbol means for the cards you might want to cast in Commander.

And finally, if you were really napping under a rock, the Commander (2016 Edition) release brought four-color commanders into the game.

  • Breya, Etherium Shaper
  • Atraxa, Praetors' Voice
  • Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder
  • Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis
  • Saskia the Unyielding

They're all excellent in their own right, so if you fancied a four-color deck, you have your tools now.

Commander in 2015

2015 was an oddly quiet year for the format—there were no banning or unbannings—except for one tiny little feature: "tucking" commanders no longer works.

"The tuck rule" was the way commanders used to work with cards like Spell Crumple and Oblation. The TL;DR is that if a commander would go to any non-battlefield zone from any other zone, its owner may instead return it to the command zone. Locking away someone's commander in their library isn't a reasonable plan anymore.

  • Oblation
  • Spell Crumple
  • Warp World
  • Unravel the Aether
  • Bant Charm

Before, you could "tuck" commanders into their owners' libraries, and it served as a line of defense against the powerful, accessible leaders we used. While the change to instead allow your commander to go back to the command zone slightly powered up already powerful commanders, it also meant the core flavor of the format was fulfilled: your commander is, barring your own deliberate choices, always accessible to you.

Tuck is still powerful for everything else in Commander. As Rules Committee member Sheldon Menery pointed out, using Spell Crumple on Sepulchral Primordial or Avacyn, Angel of Hope is still a great idea.

In more specific Commander news from the year:

  • The three-color "wedge" theme from Khans of Tarkir continued in Fate Reforged with standouts like Tasigur, the Golden Fang.
  • Dragons came to every color in Dragons of Tarkir. Dragons!
  • Magic Origins brought five legendary creatures that transform into planeswalkers. See Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Nissa, Vastwood Seer for great examples.

Commander in 2014

The end of the Theros block meant we got a complete set of Gods for every color and color pair. To say this was a highlight of 2015 for Commander would be to lie; the year was packed with changes, new opportunities, and some amazing features for the format.

But those Gods, though. Seriously.

The first big piece for Commander was a streamlining for commanders. Instead of "banned as commander" and "just plain ol' banned" as options, powerful legendary creatures are either banned or not. This led to the return of Kokusho, the Evening Star—everyone's favorite life draining Dragon from Kamigawa—and Metalworker—everyone's favorite artifact ramp creature in Vintage—but the loss of three others:

  • Braids, Cabal Minion was obnoxious and unhealthy, preying on and setting up gameplay of staring at the Braids player in angry anguish.
  • Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary was a mana ramping Elf like no other. Fast mana like Sol Ring is part of the format, but Rofellos took it far too far for fairness.
  • Erayo, Soratomi Ascendant made Braids seem downright friendly. Locking opponents out of casting anything—a de facto result of requiring someone to cast at least two spells to have a chance at the second one resolving—isn't the kind of gameplay Commander supports.

But the bannings weren't limited to leaders. Sylvan Primordial joined Primeval Titan on the list of cards excluded from the format for many of the same reasons Primeval Titan made it there first: abuse. While Prime Time was all about two-land combinations and the leap of mana that meant, Sylvan Primordial not only nabbed more mana based on the number of opponents in the game, but also set each of those players back simultaneously.

Asymmetry and generating value are important in Commander, but as someone who successfully cast a kicked Rite of Replication on Sylvan Primordial, I can assure you the format is better without a focus on those kinds of effect.

Also on the plus side, Commander (2014 Edition) brought a unique wrinkle to the format: planeswalkers as commanders.

  • Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury
  • Daretti, Scrap Savant
  • Nahiri, the Lithomancer
  • Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath
  • Teferi, Temporal Archmage

As the only five planeswalkers that can also serve as your commander, the option to build a truly creatureless deck became reality. Planeswalkers can be a powerful resource in the right hands, and never before had you been able to have access to one at all times. These five planeswalkers were a divisive addition for the format—I'm not personally a fan of them, but I have friends who love them!—that lead you to new ways of thinking about building decks.

Commander in 2013, 2012, and 2011

Over three years, Commander refined its rules and banned list to better define the format. It's easy to forget now, but the first release of a Commander stand-alone product—Commander (2011 Edition)—was a smashing hit far beyond everyone's expectations. It wasn't until 2013 that a stand-alone release (with new cards) returned.

Commander grew tremendously over those three years, and the influx of new-to-Commander players brought some clarity to the Rules Committee. The first big shift was paring away extraneous rules, such as those about choosing a commander for an in-store league or "optional" rules that were just examples of house rules common and known to the Rules Committee.

Focusing the rules was just one part of the Rules Comittee's efforts. Another was updating the list of banned cards to reflect the world players were flocking to:

  • Trade Secrets was banned for trading away too much between colluding players.
  • Worldfire was banned because it's basically the opposite of how Commander is supposed to work.
  • Primeval Titan was banned because fighting over who gets to get land combos and way more mana was tiring.
  • Griselbrand was banned for the same reasons he's currently played in Legacy and Modern combo decks.
  • Sundering Titan was banned for the same reasons Worldfire was.
  • Shahrazad was banned because Commander games can already take a little longer than players like.

I'm over-simplifying all the bannings here, but the point isn't about the individual card but the gameplay the cards encouraged. Banning Griselbrand or Trade Secrets didn't eliminate all the ways to combo off and draw enough cards to win the game on the spot, but by removing the flagship ways to do just that, the Rules Committee encouraged players to find ways to play that aren't so abusive.

Commander is inherently "broken," since the ability to do powerful things will always be in the format. The Rules Committee acknowledged this by unbanning Worldgorger Dragon, Staff of Domination, and even Lion's Eye Diamond during the same three years. You can do cool things, but look at the banned list and think about whether that coolness outweighs the disappointing gameplay you may be creating for others.

Leaping back to 2017, this focus on philosophy over banned list min-maxing underpins why Commander is so successful.

Commander in 2010 and Before

2010 was a momentous year for the format: it officially picked up its Commander name! The announcement of Commander (2011 Edition) as a stand-alone release and the rules change to make a card's color identity all of the mana symbols or colors on it put the format front and center to the entire Magic world.

While the "EDH" abbreviation remains of moniker and reminder from the format's earliest days, the name change and product support launched the format into Magic history. If you haven't tried Commander since before it was called Commander, it's a whole new world of fun filled with more players than ever before.

No matter when you last played the format, you're only a preconstructed deck and a few new cards away from getting started again in Commander. When you're ready, I'll see you there!

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