I Don’t Make the Rules

Today I am taking a break from cube to talk about a rather polarizing issue:

The EDH/Commander banlist.

This is often a child of the larger “Spirit of EDH” argument, but I would like to touch on it because I feel that it has a pretty clear solution. The gist of the argument is that some people think the ban list is grossly inconsistent in what is banned and why. There are many who believe that the ban list should be based solely on power level. Others will say that EDH is a casual format and that banning “unfun” cards is completely legitimate. Some people want more “unfun” cards banned and some people want more “broken” cards banned. Others want cards unbanned for similar reasons. And many think the ban list is fine and want people to quit complaining and just play the game.

Now, I am what you might call an EDH enthusiast (or an addict). I maintain 26 different EDH decks of varying power levels ranging from “tribal rogues flavor deck” to consistent turn 3 combo wins. I love all of the different cool interactions and when I have an idea for another EDH deck, I have a really hard time not sitting down and hammering out a list. So, as someone who plays frequently both in a very competitive setting and a very casual setting, I would hope that my opinion could come across as relatively unbiased.

One of the biggest arguments that current banlist supporters have is that anyone who has a problem with it should just “make a house rule”. After all, it’s a casual format, right? And to this, I say sure, people should feel comfortable with making house rules. Sure, EDH is a casual format, but more importantly, Magic is a game. When you are playing a game with your friends, and you all agree that a rule should change, change it. Nobody is stopping you. Do what you think is fun, that’s the whole point.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let me ask you one thing: Is it okay for a game to have rules that rely on the players to balance them? I would tend to say no. When you are designing a game, you should always be trying to create the most balanced, healthy, and complete game you can make. Managing a ban list is no different. So let’s talk about making the best ban list we can and we will come back to house rules in a moment.

So, there are three main metrics that seem to be viable reasons to ban cards at the moment. The first is what I would refer to as “format translation”. This is basically the concept that magic cards were designed to be used in the traditional head to head format, and when you try to play them in a multiplayer format with doubled life totals and longer games, they become not necessarily too powerful, but incredibly unhealthy for the new format. This would include cards like Worldfire, Sway of the Stars, and Trade Secrets.

The second metric would simply be power level. Cards that are too strong and warp the game heavily and consistently in favor of the one playing it. This would include cards like Tinker, Fastbond, and Gifts Ungiven.

The final metric is the most controversial, and that is how “unfun” a card is. Now, the problem with this metric is that it is incredibly subjective. Sure, in theory it is fine to ban “unfun” cards in a casual format, but in practice there is no objective way to do this. If you banned every card that one person thought was “unfun”, you may end up with no legal counter spells. But if you asked his friend, you may just be banning 13 different wrath effects. You can’t make a universal ban list with a subjective concept of fun in mind.

Now put a pin in that for a moment and look at two different scenarios. The first is game night with your pals. You and your friends meet semi-regularly to play some good old’ fashioned EDH. One guy plays a fungus tribal deck and another gal plays a mean Nekusar, the Mindrazer list. The Nekusar player runs a pretty tight list, but she doesn’t play Waste Not because “It’s just no fun for anyone”. You play a Talrand, Sky Summoner counter spell tribal deck, but it’s kind of an unspoken rule that you don’t counter anything that is innocuous like small ramp or inconsequential permanents. Your fourth player plays a silly Zedruu the Greathearted arms dealer deck. It’s not particularly scary or threatening, but you know that if anyone kills his Zedruu, he will get really upset because, “It’s not a threat, there is no reason to be a dick”, so everyone just lets him have his fun.

In this scenario, the playgroup has it’s own little set of “house rules”, whether they have specifically lined one out or not. And this is totally fine. In fact, I would argue that this the way that EDH was meant to be played. But let’s take a look at scenario two.

In this scenario, you pilot your same Talrand counterspell tribal deck. Only this time, you are taking it to your local games store for some pick-up games with anyone who happens to be there. You show up and before long you are sitting down with a few players to play. You now have to make a choice: You can ask all of the other players which spells you are allowed to counter and whose commander you are allowed to kill, and let them know any special rules you want them to follow and cards you don’t want them to play, and if you can’t come to an agreement then you just won’t play. Alternatively, you can play with the rules that everyone already knows.

In these two scenarios, everyone has their own idea of fun, but the only playgroup that is familiar with each other’s idea of fun is the playgroup that can and does make their own house rules. Conversely, the power level of Waste Not did not change when you picked up your deck and walked out the door. The point that I’m trying to make is this: Rule changes based off of power level should be made at a universal level. Rule changes based off of a concept of fun should be made at the house rule level. Cards should not be banned/unbanned based on any concept of fun whatsoever. That is what house rules are for.

That being said, I love EDH. Nothing about the way the ban list is or isn’t has impacted my enjoyment of this game in any way. If it never changes, I will still love this game just the same. The only reason I took the time to make this monster of a post is because I feel very strongly about game design. When you ban a card because it is “against the spirit of EDH” you are banning the card because “I don’t think this card is fun to play with” and that is not right no matter how you look at it. It just doesn’t makes sense. And because of this I am left to assume one of three things:

-Those in charge of the ban list are abusing their influence and just banning cards they don’t want to play against.

-Those in charge of the banlist are incompetent and don’t know what they are doing


-Those in charge of the ban list are not taking their job seriously

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I would like to think it is that last one. And based on that, I would implore them to either start taking a more active role in managing the ban list or pass the job on to someone who will (I don’t mean to imply me, I am in no way informed enough to make those kinds of decisions).

So what do you guys, think? Should the ban list change? What changes would you make? Leave a comment and let me know.

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