Hello and welcome to the second half of my discussion on the EDH Banned List. In the first, I defended a philosophy of using the banned list to promote balance at high-power play, and argued against its use as a tool to shape the mindset of the player before the game begins. This philosophy leads us to conclude that a card should or should not be banned solely on its in-game effects, what I call “the balance principle.” This week, I’ll be applying that philosophy and showing you what a competitive banned list would look like in my view.
Before we get to the individual cards, let’s discuss what we’ll be aiming for. As we’ve said, our main goal is balance. Competitive EDH players largely agree that at the moment, the meta is defined by the fastest decks in the format, with most of the other good decks being good largely by virtue of how they interact with the top decks. Hatebear decks that use a lot of Thorn effects and counterspell-based tempo decks are the best disruptive decks in the format, with little room for true control or midrange decks that don’t heavily interact with the stack.
The existence of the Blue Storm archetype (Jeleva, Zur, Mizzix, and Jace) and some of the fastest combo decks (Sidisi, Prossh, and The Gitrog Monster) force the field to have a way to interact within the first three turns or lose. This seriously limits the number of viable archetypes. Our main goal, therefore, will be to increase diversity by making these decks less powerful. This can be done either by banning cards that these decks abuse, or just by banning cards that speed up the format in general. This will give slower decks a better chance at competing.
The most obvious ban is Ad Nauseam. It is the worst offender, and is played in five out of seven of the decks listed above. In most decks that play it, you can cast Ad Naus right before you untap, then win the game on your turn. There are a lot of one-card wins in this format, and Ad Naus is easily the best one. Only one-card wins that costs less than five mana are Hermit Druid and Doomsday, both of which have significant drawbacks - Hermit Druid is a creature with a tap ability that uses the graveyard to combo, Doomsday requires a cantrip effect and some more mana, and both lose you the game if your opponent can stop you at the right time. In contrast, Ad Nauseam costs a few more mana, but it’s an instant, and will draw you into counterspells to protect your combo, provided you have enough mana.
The decks above use it pretty differently. Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge uses Ad Nauseam to draw a significant amount of their library, then chain together Dark Ritual effects and use a High Tide engine to eventually win either with Tendrils of Agony or Laboratory Maniac. Zur the Enchanter can do all that, but can also combo Ad Naus with Angel’s Grace or (if you’re feeling especially spicy) Phyrexian Unlife. Since these are storm decks, they are playing low-cost cards and can use Ad Naus to draw the majority of their deck. Sidisi, Undead Vizier uses their commander to tutor for Ad Naus and can usually resolve it on turn three in a goldfish, and it’s the only deck that will consistently win with a main-phase Ad Naus with no additional resources. Prossh and The Gitrog Monster use it as a card-draw spell, and while it’s easily worse in these decks than anywhere else, it’s still a monster of a card.
Banning Ad Nauseam will neuter this set of top decks, making room for midrange and more classical creature decks in the metagame. It will also diversify the fast decks, since currently it’s very hard to have a fast deck with no black in it.
Sol Ring and Mana Crypt
There are probably no nonbanned cards that cause as much discussion over the banned list as Sol Ring and Mana Crypt. These cards the bread and butter of manarocks in EDH, and it’s not uncommon you hear it said that every deck should play both. Regardless of your opinion on Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, it is widely acknowledged that they are in a class of their own when it comes to mana ramp. They are mana-positive and colorless, like Chrome Mox or Mana Vault, but without a drawback. They’re also far and away the most powerful pieces of ramp in the format - this is a format where people occasionally play Worn Powerstone, a three-mana Ring that comes into play tapped.
There are many common arguments for their banning. Many argue that they limit creativity by being essentially a required slot in every deck. Others argue that Mana Crypt (though not Sol Ring) creates an artificial barrier to entry, being essentially required for a tuned decklist and also rather expensive. The veracity of these arguments is beside the point, as neither fits our criteria for banning a card - its in-game effects.
Others argue that they support a small set of decks - the powerful, fast decks discussed above - more than they support any other archetype. Faster decks benefit hugely from fast mana being legal. Why? The easiest answer is that these cards speed up the game for everyone, and a faster game means less time for “slow-deck cards” like Phyrexian Arena to matter. When you get fewer turns, you’re more likely to replace a turn-based card with something with a more immediate payoff.
Where do I fall on the discussion? I’m a proponent of a middle-of-the-road approach that I see a surprisingly small amount - banning Mana Crypt while leaving Sol Ring in the format. The two cards are so similar that this viewpoint is rarely even expressed, but I will argue that Mana Crypt is actually significantly more powerful than Sol Ring to the point of it being banworthy. Since the two cards are so close in apparent power level, I will defend this view by bringing attention to the differences between the zero-drop and the one-drop.
The biggest problem with Crypt is that it allows for insane turn one plays. Sol Ring eats your colored mana on turn one, but Mana Crypt doesn’t. Have you ever played against a turn one Ethersworn Canonist? That’s a powerful play coming off a Lotus Petal, but with Mana Crypt, you’ve gained a huge advantage over the players who haven’t had a chance to play any fastmana yet. Consider something even more backbreaking like Thalia or Trinisphere. Even if your opponent is just ramping on turn one, Mana Crypt is still much more powerful, allowing them to chain together multiple two-cost mana rocks that tap for one mana or cast three-mana ramp spells like Worn Powerstone.
Another big difference in their power is for Tidespout Tyrant combo potential. For those unaware, Tyrant is one of the most common ways to produce infinite mana in blue decks. All you need is two rocks that collectively tap for more mana than they cost, and any spell you can cast. The idea is that by bouncing your mana rocks to your hand, you can recast them and tap them again, netting mana each time. After producing infinite mana, if you have any colored mana rocks, you can do the same thing with them to make infinite colored mana. Finally, you can get infinite bounces and recasts on any of your (nonland) permanents, and if your commander is something like Azami, you can draw your deck, too.
Now, what does this have to do with Crypt vs Ring? Well, Mana Crypt taps for two more mana than it costs, whereas Sol Ring is only nets one. That means that Tidespout Tyrant can combo with Crypt and a 2-rock like Fractured Powerstone or a signet, an honor shared only with Mana Vault. Sol Ring, on the other hand, requires another piece of fastmana, like a mox or Grim Monolith.
There are also a number of smaller advantages we can add to these larger ones. Crypt can be found by Tolaria West, whereas Ring needs a Dizzy Spell, which only sees play in High Tide decks. Crypt combos with Salvaging Station and Karn, Silver Golem for infinite mana. Crypt cannot be countered by Mental Misstep, and nobody plays Nix. These are all small edges, but when you add them up it’s clear to see that Mana Crypt is dizzyingly better. The claim that banning Crypt entails banning Ring rests on the belief that that their power level is much closer together than it is in reality.
This view is a palatable compromise for both sides. It neatly dodges the entire “But Sol Ring was in every precon!” debate. We remove the most powerful piece of mana ramp in the format, which causes problems and can win games on turn one, but leave Sol Ring, an iconic piece of EDH culture. I predict that this view will become more popular going forward.
Mana Drain is far and away the best counterspell in the format. Force of Will doesn’t come close. This is a format where Counterspell sees a considerable amount of play, and Drain is Counterspell with a huge upside. As above, I will ignore arguments about expense and availability, focusing on the card’s in-game effect.
Turn-two Mana Drain wins games. Even if you’re just countering a three-drop like Yisan, you’re still putting yourself way ahead while disrupting an opponent. Powering out a turn three six-drop is no joke, even if it’s just something like Recurring Insight. To illustrate its power, I will compare the card to Grim Monolith, an auto-include in most storm builds.
I believe they are worthy of comparison. Both cards let you invest two mana on turn two to get three extra colorless mana on turn three. (It’s a fair assumption that someone will play a 3+-costed spell between your turn two and your turn three. If none of your opponents have any proactive action, then you’re not being punished for leaving two mana untapped.) Both cards do this with significant upside.
Grim Monolith can combo with Power Artifact and has a few other cutesy combos, but the card sees play primarily for its raw power, not for its interaction with other cards, so we may put that aside. The artifact is colorless instead of costing UU, which is relevant in this format, if not terribly so. Monolith also has the upside of being untappable, which is relevant to the late-game, but again, we’re primarily focused today on how these cards affect the fastest decks in the format.
Mana Drain’s upsides are far greater. The most obvious and relevant is that it’s Counterspell. Having a counterspell the turn before you want to go off can make a huge difference. Even if you have to blow your Drain on a two-drop like Gaddock Teeg or Spirit of the Labyrinth, you’re still effectively protecting your combo while Dark Ritualing. Even if you’re not threatening going off or using Drain to fuel something terribly scary, countering an opponent’s early-game resource advantage card and following it up with vomiting your hand is enough to steal many games.
Another huge advantage is the instant-speed cost. Unlike Grim Monolith, Drain lets you keep up mana for other instant-speed effects if needed. Maybe what you really want to do is use some sort of tutor for Time Warp in the end phase. Mana Drain lets you keep up the mana to do that, and if you need to blow your counterspell, you can still cast the tutor in your upkeep and cast your spell provided you have enough colored sources.
Finally, Mana Drain is not telegraphed. What I mean by this is that if your deck is filled with ways of abusing fast-mana, your turn-two Grim Monolith is going to eat some sort of artifact removal if your opponents have it, and if they don’t, they might hold up a counterspell for your bomb. On the other hand, leaving up UU untapped is much less threatening, making you seem to have a slow start where you are attempting to play the reactive game, and your opponents will be much happier to tap out for their turn-two utility spells, giving you an opening.
Hopefully comparing these two cards illustrates the power of Drain. Grim Monolith is a perfectly playable card and a staple of the format, but Mana Drain provides a similar effect while also protecting your combo from stax pieces or disrupting your opponent. Drain with two blue sources in your opening hand can steal games without your opponents doing anything crazy like turn two Tooth and Nail.
Now for the fun part - new toys! In this section, I will go through the existing banned list and remove cards that I think lack justification in their banning. Specifically, we are interested in promoting meta diversity and balance, so I’ll be picking out cards that promote archetypes currently underrepresented, and leaving alone cards that would see little to no play.
Painter's Servant's ban is entirely unjustified. The justification was that nobody is ever going to do something fair with Painter's Servant. In fact, for a significant period of time, Grindstone was banned and Painter's Servant was unbanned, but the RC decided to ban the other half of the combo to break other combos. I tend to agree that Servant would see a lot of play doing "unfair" things, ie comboing. This is not inherently bad. Currently, Selesnya lacks an elegant two-creature combo that wins the game. Painter's Servant + Iona is pretty good, especially considering how GW can power out Iona out with Survival of the Fittest and Loyal Retainers. This combo would promote a whole list of GW hatebears decks - Captain Sisay, Derevi (who most agree was significantly hurt in the recent mulligan change), and might fuel Anafenza, the Foremost stax into the higher tiers. Currently, the only top-tier hatebear deck is Karador, because it has access to Boonweaver Giant combo. Giving GW a two-card creature combo would allow other hatebear strategies to develop.
Grindstone combo is cute and might see play in some lower-tier decks wont for a win-condition, but it's not powerful by any means, since it kills one player at a time, and neither half is particularly good on its own. There are a lot of cute-but-not-competitive applications like Jaya Ballard control or putting a REB on an Isochron Scepter. Momir Vig, Simic Visionary comes to mind - selecting blue allows you to chain green creatures together, which could be used either to ramp very quickly or to tutor whatever creature you need. Vig decks coming back would definitely promote diversity, as counterspell decks are always a check against storm and Momir Vig promotes a lot of fairer, midrange strategies to beat it. With this in mind...
Prophet of Kruphix
Prophet of Kruphix was banned in January along with the recent mulligan change. This was mistake, in my opinion. Prophet was banned mainly for being a deceptively powerful strategy that doesn’t require much tuning to be oppressive. Prophet of Kruphix is absurd at a casual table in something like a Riku of Two Reflections deck - it just provides so much mana and lets you tap out while keeping up counterspell defense. It’s also very powerful against metas with little interaction, which seems to be common in lower-power metagames.
In competitive metas, Prophet is significantly less powerful. To be good, you have to have a lot of lands and creatures, which inherently suggests that your deck is slow. The fastest deck that played Prophet was probably Prime Speaker Zegana, which was by no means a powerhouse and still generally lost the race to storm or fast combo. The card also saw play in Tasigur, Momir Vig, some Derevi variants, and a host of lower-tier decks. All of these decks are interactive, and more importantly, they represent archetypes that don't see a whole lot of top-level play.
Tasigur can be built many different ways. For most players, it has usurped The Mimeoplasm as the BUG reanimator commander. This is a midrange deck that usually wins with Palinchron + Deadeye Navigator, and Tasigur provided an infinite-mana outlet in the command zone. His ability also fueled the deck through the midrange game. I do think Tasigur Reanimator is a cool deck that promotes meta diversity, but what I’m really excited to talk about is Tasigur Control. This build didn't see a whole lot of play before Prophet was banned, but I think it should have. It’s the only traditional control deck that I think is successful in the format. Prophet was a powerhouse for the deck, giving you enough mana to counter whatever spells you want and activate Tasigur every turn for incredible card advantage.
Momir Vig is basically Prophet.dek. The general plan is to put Prophet into play ASAP and start using his ability in concert with your commander to take over the game. Classic lines include casting Mystic Snake to tutor Progenitor Mimic to have a second counterspell, chaining clones together. Since the banning, Altered Ego has been printed, another cute toy for the deck. Unbanning Prophet of Kruphix would push Momir Vig back into its previous position in the meta, hovering between tiers one and two.
One of the most unique applications of the card is with its interaction with Sliver Overlord. Being able to tutor every turn and cast a sliver is insane. Everybody knows Slivers aren't exactly competitive, but I honestly believe Prophet pushed them to the low end of tier two. There are zero aggro decks in competitive EDH, unless you want to count Edric, a far cry from traditional aggro. Giving Slivers a bone isn’t going to affect the metagame much, but it will introduce an archetype that is otherwise completely devoid of representation.
Primeval Titan is one of the most overrated cards in commander, and the ban I understand the least. When you hardcast it, Prime Time is a six-mana ramp spell, which isn’t great. It doesn’t give you any mana until the turn after you play it, so it’s a bit slow. Sure, it ramps you faster than any engine in the game if you can keep it around for a few turns, but getting an attack step with a six-drop isn’t exactly hard to stop. There are some two-land combinations that synergize - Thespian’s Stage + Dark Depths comes to mind - but a six-mana ramp spell better be insane. The only other ramp spells that cost that much and see play in the format - and even so, it’s a tiny amount of play - are Mana Reflection and Caged Sun. Frankly, Crop Rotation is scarier - finding Gaea’s Cradle in a mana dork deck for one mana is insane.
A good comparison for Prime Time is Consecrated Sphinx. Both of them are absurd if you can keep them on the battlefield for a few turn cycles. Both of them cost six mana. I think, however, that we can all agree that drawing an additional six-plus cards per turn cycle is a much more powerful effect than ramping two lands per turn. Drawing extra cards lets you keep up counterspells to protect your creature, it will give you proactive cards that affect the game (Prime Time doesn’t do anything if you don’t have fatties to cast!), and it will draw you into your ramp too. While the ramp is obviously much slower than the Titan’s, you can count on drawing into enough mana rocks that you will be able to cast the high end of your curve within a few turn cycles. Since you have so many cards in hand, the card-disadvantage moxen (Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond) are effectively free.
Prime Time would see play in few high-tier decks. It’s really only powerful in decks that are playing a large amount of high-cost cards. I know I would slot it into my own Jarad, simply because grabbing Urborg-Coffers would put me to enough mana to hardcast my reanimator targets. It would also probably see play in Yisan just because there are few good creatures at CMC six and Gaea’s Cradle is absurd. It would also see play in The Gitrog Monster to find Bazaar of Baghdad, or if you have a Strip Mine effect you can even just find your Dakmor Salvage and combo off with your commander.
In summary, I propose to add the following cards to the banned list: Ad Nauseam - This is the best one-card combo in the game and defines the metagame. The prominence of Ad Nauseam decks force many other decks out of the meta. Mana Crypt - Crypt is the best ramp spell, and provides an insane amount of advantage in the opening hand. When used in conjunction with some sort of tax effect, Mana Crypt gives its controller a near-unbeatable advantage on turn one. Mana Drain - Mana Drain provides too high of an advantage for the player casting it. Not only is it a two-mana counterspell, which is good in itself, it accelerates you far faster than any other spell with a serious disruptive effect. Powering out a six-drop on turn three is a powerful effect, and tacking it onto Counterspell makes too powerful a card.
I also propose removing the following cards: Painter’s Servant - Servant gives GW a two-creature combo, promoting the hatebear archetype. Servant has lots of cute fair interactions, and fails to break the game in a serious way. Prophet of Kruphix - Prophet was a tool used exclusively by fair decks that play lots of counterspells. Increasing the number of counterspell decks at the table helps keep fast combo and storm in check. Primeval Titan - Prime Time is vastly overrated. At six mana, ramping isn’t a priority, and there are better things to cheat out. Unbanning it supports the midrange archetype, which is currently suffering because of the preponderance of storm in the current meta.
These changes will help shape the landscape of the metagame, pushing the problematic storm archetypes into a corner and forcing them to adapt. It would bring underrepresented archetypes, most notably midrange and blue control, to the forefront of the format and form a balanced and healthy metagame. That’s what a banned list is for.