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What’s in a banlist?

By The Duel Commander rules committee

Making a banlist involves a lot of decisions. Some of those are easily understood by players, some less so. While I don’t pretend that our choices are perfect or even the only possible ones, I’m going to describe in this article the principles underlying our banlist. In a further article I’ll give some more explanations about individual bannings, as we frequently get questions about certain cards.

Before I explain the principles, I’d like to remind you that the banlist is a living being and not everything is set in stone. You might see some banned cards for which the reason they’re banned is not immediately obvious. The banlist is 40 cards long; it has been elaborated over several years; the people working on it have not always been the same; and the principles underlying it have undergone some changes as well. We don’t like mass bannings or unbannings, as every time it affects lots of players who would have to change their decks a lot. We prefer to implement the changes we’re the most comfortable with, even if it means that some card has to wait for another opportunity or that we leave a card out for a few more months. As a result, the banlist is never “perfect” in our eyes and there’s always opportunity for evolution.

The goal of the banlist is to enable an enjoyable format. What this means varies widely if you ask different people. Some players prefer wide open formats where you’re not going to play against the same deck twice, some players prefer more closed formats where you can properly metagame and thoroughly test certain matchups. Some players like playing with combo or against it, some can’t stand it. Some players like to be able to play the same deck over years, only ever adjusting a few cards, some are fine with switching at every tournament. In the end, defining what is a good format is quite subjective and it’s quite hard to make choices that will leave everyone satisfied.

So what we’re trying to do is give every archetype a chance without letting one get overly dominant. We believe that the current format rewards play skill and deck building quite a lot, so it’s not because “there was no aggro deck in the last top 8” that the format is failing. Rather, we’ve failed if this happens consistently. Building an aggro deck in Duel Commander might be harder than in other formats, but time has shown that with clever deck building it’s possible to perform well with it.

What’s particular about Duel Commander is the life total. 30 life is a lot to overcome for aggressive decks, and it’s hard, even with a perfect aggressive creature guaranteed to be in your starting hand, to win before turn 5 with pure aggression. What this means is that the typical racing matchup – aggro against combo – can’t be even if we allow combo to kill regularly before turn 5. This is the first and most important principle we use:

Combo should not be able to kill regularly before turn 5.

This immediately precludes a wide array of fast mana. Very fast starts can be extremely hard to recover from, especially when an interaction with your commander is involved. Turn 1 Ancient Tomb, mana artifact into turn 2 Grand Arbiter Augustin IV is a huge elbow drop which we don’t want to allow. Original Moxes fall into this bracket as well. Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond are acceptable: while they allow such a fast start, it comes at an enormous cost in term of cards, making this kind of line of play riskier. Specificities of the format also have to be taken into account here – turn 2 Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary is fine if it’s just a card in your deck, but if Rofellos is your commander and you get him out on turn 2 each and every game, it means the rest of the deck can be made of big threats and still be very stable. That’s why Rofellos is banned as a commander.

Cheap combos will also fall into this bucket. It is quite possible to regularly cast Flash + Protean Hulk before turn 5 thanks to the wide array of tutors available (in case you wonder, yes we did a mistake by unbanning Protean Hulk). Grindstone + Painter’s Servant, Time Vault + Voltaic Key are other cheap combos that are too powerful for the format. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Deceiver Exarch (and all the variants of this combo, which can all be played in the same deck) is fine, because it doesn’t often win before turn 5. Some card types are more difficult to tutor for than others.

This no turn 4 kill principle would make the format slower than Modern (where Wizards’ main guideline for banning is limiting the number of turn 3 kills), but there are still some very powerful cards in the card pool, because it allows all expansions. Some of these cards have such a huge impact on the game that they can’t be allowed. Necropotence is a fine example of this. A resolved Necropotence makes it almost impossible for the opponent to come back – you will always have too many cards in your hand. The same goes for many other cards on the banlist.

A couple of cards are especially strong in Duel Commander because of the structure of the format. Karakas is repeatable removal for the commander. While it’s tempting to errata the card so that it can’t target commanders, we prefer having cards play as close as possible to their actual wording, for one simple reason: if a player finds a card, that should be all the information they need. No extra knowledge such as “doesn’t work on commanders” should be necessary. That’s why we chose to simply ban it. Humility is another such card. Because every Duel Commander deck plays at least a creature (their commander) and most decks rely on being able to cast it and use it, Humility puts a big stress on the format, even though it has not been played that much.

Duel Commander is a format that is growing fast, drawing players from many different backgrounds. A number of players have played only multiplayer Commander before coming into the Duel variant. While players trying out Modern and Legacy for the first time typically have played a number of tournament matches before and are used to stiff competition, this is not always true in Duel Commander. Some strategies are not necessarily the best choices in competitive tournaments but do put enormous pressure on the opponent from the start. It’s the case for Braids, Cabal Minion for example – if you pit it against current top decks, it may not have a winning score against all or even most of them. However, have a semi-casual player face Braids, you’re all but certain that the player is going to be disgusted and likely leave the format.

We’ve received an e-mail coming for a player who said that his group of friends started Duel Commander, but at some point one of them figured he’d try Edric, Spymaster of Trest as a Commander, and as a result not only crushed the others, but left them with the impression that there was nothing they could do about it. This group of players is not playing Duel Commander anymore. Edric was winning tournaments and the numbers could have been sufficient to justify a ban, but this kind of mishap, which can easily happen as Edric is very easy to build and play, is a big enough reason to leave it banned. We care about casual players as much as about competitive ones. Having strong decks is fine, but having strong decks which are still strong in the hands of noncompetitive players and very hard to fight against is not fine.

Erayo, Soratami Ascendant is another example of a commander that has a very linear game plan, consisting only of very cheap artifacts that guarantee you can flip it by turn 2, making it quite frustrating to play against. Even though it might not be as powerful as it once was, it’s not a style of deck that brings much to the game. It is not worth introducing one deck with marginal benefits at the risk of losing casual play groups. If you want to play a prison deck, other options are available, for example Kami of the Crescent Moon.

Finally, there are times where despite our best efforts, a deck emerges that puts up big numbers at tournaments and is winning again and again. In these cases, one possible solution is to ban a key card in such a deck. These are minor adjustments, as we’re fortunate enough that no single deck (except Edric in its time) has made up more than 15% of top 8 decks over any significant period of time.

To summarize, here are the main principles we’re using for the banlist:

  1. No regular turn 4 kills
  2. Power level
  3. Spirit of format
  4. Suitability for casual play groups
  5. Deck balancing

Some of these criteria are subjective, and of course the format evolves as more cards and more legendary creatures come out, so previous decisions have to be revisited from time to time and it can lead to cards coming in and out of the format. We banned Bitterblossom a year and a half ago, we unbanned it three months ago. The format has changed significantly in the meantime, reducing how threatening a turn 2 Bitterblossom is. We would still make the same decisions if faced with the same information – and these decisions don’t contradict each other; they simply represent the fact that the format is moving, that players are innovating and adapting their decks, that the balance has shifted.

Keep innovating!

Daniel Kitachewsky
Duel Commander Committee