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.

Size Matters

As I said in my last post, my posts in the near future are going to be covering a lot of the basics of MTG cube design, or at least what I would consider the basics. Today I want to talk about cube sizes.

On the surface, this seems like a very simple decision. I mean, how much impact can the total number of cards actually have? You would be surprised.

So right off the bat, you may have already noticed that there are some specific numbers that are common cube sizes. 360, 450, 540, 630, and 720 are probably the most popular. This is because in a traditional draft with 15 card packs and 3 packs per player, these sizes are the minimum size requirements to support 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 player drafts respectively.

Now, this may not seem important, but remember that different cubes have their own unique rules. If you plan on having 10 card packs and 5 packs per player for whatever reason, 360 no longer makes a lot of sense. So before you just pick a random number, make sure you know why you are picking that number.

“Okay”, you say, “but that’s pretty still a simple decision.”

Sit back down, there is plenty more to go over. So the specific number is important, but the general size still has very large impacts on how the cube is going to play.

For instance, if you have a very small cube, and you are wanting to play with the most powerful cards in magic, you are going to have a pretty cookie cutter cube. There are quite a few powerful cards that stand head and shoulders above the rest and when you are running cards based solely on power level, you don’t have much room to be creative. If you are wanting to do cool and unique things with your cube, this may not be the path that you want to take.

“Alright, so if I want to make lots of unique design choices, I should make a larger cube”, you postulate.

Hold on, now. Remember those archetypes you were wanting to support? Well, for an archetype to work, you need to have a critical mass worthwhile supporting cards (cards with archetype-specific synergies) and enough anchor cards (cards with archetype-specific synergies with a high enough base power level to be played outside of the archetype in question) to bring the decks together. This will never be a problem for an archetype like goblins or artifacts, but what about the more unique archetypes? What about the “lands matter” deck? There are only so many cards that work with some of the more interesting archetypes, and the larger your cube becomes, the more cards you need to dedicate to a given strategy to support it. This is only a problem in singleton cubes, but I believe that is the majority of cubes nowadays.

So you see, you have to find the perfect balance between having enough room to create a unique experience while still keeping it small enough to avoid diluting any of your archetypes. You also need to make sure that you have enough cards in your cube to support the needs of your playgroup. And where is this sweet spot? What is the perfect size for cube? It all depends on what kind of cube you want to build.

So, what size cube do you run? Do any of you run an unorthodox number of cards? If so, why? Leave a comment and tell me about it.


For my first real post, I’ve decided to talk about Magic: The Gathering Cubes. I don’t want to get super technical in my first post, so let’s start with the basics:

What is a cube?

Well, a cube is a collection of cards made to be drafted from. While there are many interesting ways to draft cube, usually you make packs of 15 random cube cards and run it like a normal draft.

Cube drafting has many advantages over regular drafting, but the biggest are as follows:

-You only have to buy the cards once

-You can define your own unique limited environment.

I would like to focus on the second point. As someone who has devoted countless hours to maintaining and refining my cube, I notice that many cube designers don’t fully take advantage of this second point. I see so many cubes that are just a large collection of the “best” cards in magic. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that. In fact, as a friend of mine once so eloquently put it – “I like playing good cards” – that is one of the big draws for cube.

But what many designers don’t really take into account is that they are designing an entire limited environment. When you make a cube, it is up to you to support various archetypes. It is up to you to maintain balance. These things don’t just happen magically. With each and every card choice, you are shaping the environment, and therefore the drafting experience. You want people to have fun drafting the cube, right? So sure, you can just jam all of the strongest effects into one box of cards and call it a cube, and if that’s what your drafters like then go for it. From my experience, however, ensuring balance is paramount to ensuring fun and interactive drafts.

There have been many articles written on where to start when building a cube, so if you are interested, I would suggest checking out one of these links:



There are many methods of cube design, but most start with the same fundamentals:

-Decide on your theme if applicable

-Decide on any special rules if applicable

-Determine which archetypes you want to support and which color combinations will support them

-Develop an outline to adhere to

Now, what you do after this, including making the list of actual cards to include, should vary from person to person. I like to start with a high power environment and slowly swap out generically powerful cards for cards that promote synergy within the cube. Others may do it differently. But I wanted to stress this list of starting steps. This may seem like a simple series of tasks, but they are incredibly important to creating a fun drafting environment. Though I haven’t covered anything new here, I just want to stress these basics one more time. Nothing I say about the more nuanced decisions mean anything if you don’t have a solid base. In future posts I will be going more in-depth with each of these fundamentals and eventually into individual card choices, but for now I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.


So for those of you who are cube designers, what are your starting steps to building a cube? Anyone thinking about making their very first cube? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.


The First of (Hopefully) Many

This is the first post of my new blog, The Smokestack. Here I will be talking about a wide array of things that interest me, but don’t be surprised if I spend the majority of posts discussing Magic: The Gathering related topics. I’m a long time player and there is always so much to talk about.

My goal for this blog is to start a few discussions. I do this because I feel there are things that I want others to know, but whats more, I do this because I want to know what everyone else thinks about the things I care so much about. I’m in this to learn, so if I ever say anything that you disagree with or don’t understand, let me know. Leave a comment telling me how wrong I am and hopefully we can start a dialogue.

I will be doing my best to get a new post out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I am in the midst of moving out to California at the moment, so things may be a little bumpy to start off, but bear with me.