Prophet of Kruphix | Anastasia Ovchinnikova
Recently, there has been a fair amount of drama and conversation regarding the Banned List in EDH. Many believe that the only appropriate goal for a banlist is promoting balance within a format (and possibly shaping the format in a specific image). Others, including the current Rules Committee, believe that there are other appropriate goals and some even go so far as to say that the above goal is not applicable for EDH. I belong to the former camp. In this article, I will lay out a few arguments as to why the banned list should be oriented towards balance, and then I will make an attempt at modifying the banlist to give you an idea of what this would look like in practice.
I will begin by attempting to put clear labels on the terms I wish to discuss, to avoid ambiguity. The group that thinks that the banned list should aim (at least primarily) to balance high-level play - the group to which I belong - I will refer to as pro-balance. The group that thinks that the banned list should aim to promote the famous vision of EDH - “to create variable, interactive, and epic multiplayer games where memories are made, to foster the social nature of the format, and to underscore that competition is not the format’s primary goal” - I will refer to as pro-vision.
These terms are needed largely to avoid discussing the competitive-casual divide. The words have too many connotations attached and fail to clearly communicate my meaning, misconstruing the casual players as bad at Magic and the competitive players as antisocial. This discussion is not one of “What kind of EDH do you find the most fun?” but rather “What is an appropriate goal for the banned list? What goals can be realistically achieved?” In this article, I won’t talk about competitive vs casual. I will instead refer to high-power and low-power EDH as exactly that.
Balance should be thought of as diversity among top-level decks. If the format, when played at the highest level of competition, is full of decks that have similar gameplans, it is unbalanced. It doesn’t matter whether those gameplans are “Win on turn three after I resolve Ad Nauseam” or “Play fair magic and turn creatures sideways.”
There has been a lot of discussion as to whether the banned list should cater towards those who want to play sanctioned tournaments. The pro-balance camp typically argues that tournaments incentivize the highest level of competition, and so provide the best measure of balance. The pro-vision crowd will often argue that tournaments are inherently abusable in four-player formats, promote antisocial activity, and generally miss the point of EDH.
This issue I do not believe to be terribly relevant. The critical question is not whether or not EDH tournaments can or should be sanctioned and held for prizes, but whether or not the banned list should be pointed towards balance at high power levels. Certainly, if you are a supporter of tournaments in EDH, you are likely to be pro-balance, but there are a large number of folks in the pro-balance camp that at the end of the day do not believe that EDH should be played with prizes. Even if you are against tournaments in EDH, you can still play with high-power decks amongst your friends. If you do, you will want the format to be balanced. The issue of tournaments need not enter this conversation, as tournaments are not the only place where balance can be appreciated.
The RC claims that the banned list exists to promote social Magic. Here’s a quote from the Banned List and Format Philosophy - “The Rules Committee's goal for Commander is for it to be different than other Magic games. Where competitive formats seek to balance the playing field for all styles and strategies, we want to encourage a style of game that is more open and directed towards all players having a good time regardless of who wins. This is summarized as ‘Create games that you’d love to remember, not the ones others would like to forget.’ ”
Unfortunately, that goes beyond the scope of the banned list. Banned lists can only tell a player what is or is not legal in the format. They cannot direct the attitude of the player. If a banned list could successfully weed the more competitive players out of the format, I wouldn’t be writing this article, and most of the people who read my articles wouldn’t play EDH. The preponderance of controversy surrounding the banned list relative to other formats is a result of having a banned list with a goal it cannot achieve. None of WotC’s official formats have even close to as much discussion and dissent over the banned list, and WotC does a pretty good job of managing their formats. I would simply like to apply the ban philosophy of those formats to EDH. The banned list can (and should) balance the format. There are many reasons that make high-power EDH attractive, but I won’t go into that here. (If you’re interested, read this!)
The most common argument against playing high-power EDH is that the Rules Committee doesn’t cater to us. For some reason, the RC seems to think that high-power EDH is inherently broken. Sheldon Menery, the head of the EDH Rules Committee, recently made this post in the MTGSalvation Banned List Thread which sparked some controversy:
(If you’re interested in seeing more, Sheldon engages in discussion in the thread linked above quite frequently with users of MTGSalvation. I highly recommend you go to that thread and read some of the recent posts.)
Fortunately, it seems that even with the Banned List currently not aimed at balancing the format, it’s not busted. There is a fair amount of diversity in top-level play, even if some archetypes like aggro are completely missing. Sheldon claims that EDH will always be able to be broken without a huge banned list consisting of 200+ cards. The existence of EDH tournaments with a fairly diverse field proves that Sheldon is incorrect (unless by “break the format” he means something like “will play combos”). Part of this is because the current criteria for banning seems to be something along the lines of “makes me feel bad,” and hugely powerful strategies that are unbeatable definitely make people feel bad.
Why, then, should we have a banned list aimed at balance? If the format is already playable, why do we need more balance? The answer is to promote fairer strategies. Currently, the first question for just about any deck is “How do you interact with turn 3 kills?” This promotes some pretty lazy deckbuilding and decreases diversity significantly. There are a fair number of decks that have a decent theme going on, and then happen to randomly play cards like Trinisphere just to have a better matchup against turn 3 win decks. Yisan is a good example - take a look at these lists - List One, List Two - and tell me those stax pieces don’t look strange sitting next to what’s basically Tribal Creatures. If you’re not super fast, you better be creature-based so you can take advantage of cards that punish non-creature-based decks. Even stax decks are creature-based nowadays, using hatebears and Thalia effects. There are also a fair number of decks that just can’t compete because they can’t deal with turn three wins, since stax pieces hurt their gameplan too much to play. Removing a little bit of the speed of the format should allow these strategies to compete.
I do not by any means intend to say that low-power EDH is an incorrect, unfun, or for whatever reason poor interpretation of the format. On the contrary, I do not believe that changing the banned list such this way harms players who want to play low-power EDH. If you want to play your vision format where Prophet of Kruphix is too powerful, nobody’s stopping you. The problem amongst low-power EDH players is not the existence of cards like Prophet of Kruphix or combos like Iona and Painter’s Servant. The problem is that their opponents are willing to play these cards. If the banned list could shape your attitude towards the game, banning Prophet of Kruphix would be enough. But it cannot, and the player who was playing Prophet of Kruphix has likely moved on to something more broken and their playgroup will continue to complain - and for good reason, too.
The best solution to competing visions of the format is not to ban cards until what is competitively viable lines up with what you think the best way to play EDH is. It’s to talk it out with your playgroup and figure out what can be done to accommodate all parties. Ultimately, it is possible that your goals are simply too alien from your friends’, and in that case, often the best solution is to find a new playgroup.
This point of view naturally raises a natural follow-up question - what specifically should be banned in EDH? If diversity and balance is the goal, what cards are the most oppressive? Personally, I’m not 100% sure yet. EDH is a low-data format, and that makes figuring these things out harder than in more traditional competitive formats, and that question is significantly harder than simply listing the best decks. However, if you are interested in what I think the answer to these questions are... you’ll just have to wait for my next article.
Until next time!