Barigord Gaming Weekly – 08/30/23 – Top 10 Cards that Should Be Banned in Commander

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Last week’s post can be found here.

Hey there gamers! Last week I mentioned WoTC’s recent ban/restricted list update where they talked about The One Ring and Orcish Bowmasters and how they’re everywhere, but that’s not a problem and if anything, we should all get more copies of these cards for ourselves. Ideally by opening random booster packs.

These cards are all over Commander, and might end up with a lot of calls for their banning. It’s pretty early, though, and we lack the bigger picture on their toxicity. Modern, Legacy and Vintage have a better idea, with regular tournament results and decklists available.

It’s tough, really to apply any of the same banning metrics towards Commander cards. Where’s the support data? What’s the support data? Loudest complaining voice? Best situational example caught on video? Most credible person finally breaking a long silence? EDHRec? We certainly can’t rely on the kitchen and casual tables where the majority of Commander games happen to provide us with anything more than small-sample-size, heavily-meta-influenced anecdotes. Pet peeve cards. Stuff your friends played that outrageously sucked. Stuff that left you scratching your head at the way someone was able to abuse it.

It’s tough to translate that into criteria for banning. This is a ~30,000 count pile of cards we’re dealing with. But there are some cards that shouldn’t be in the format, for reasons that I hope will make a lot of sense. Stuff that undermines the entire purpose of the format, breaks rules, and changes how the playerbase is forced to interact with their game. Let’s go!

Dishonorable mentions…

Tergrid, God of Fright (and Tergrid’s Lantern)

The much reviled Tergrid, God of Fright is just a nightmare to play against. Utilizing a fast and focused all-black manabase, decks built with Tergrid as a Commander start slinging discard and edict spells quickly, keeping their opponents from participating in the game other than watching their own cards beat them down. Also being an artifact in the Command Zone is annoying, but Tergrid’s front side is so dominant, it hardly matters.

Tergrid is terrible, but killable. Mono-black means few good answers for artifacts and enchantments, and the deck can totally fizzle. It’s also something you can’t inflict on your friends over and over without them ganging up on you from turn 1, or not playing with you at all. New Capenna’s The Beamtown Bullies works similarly, but fizzles easier. Just unfun.

Kellan, the Fae-Blooded

What? This guy’s new! He isn’t even in stores yet, and he’s on the ban radar? Why?

The creature part is irrelevant. This is a 2 mana tutor spell in the Command Zone. That means whatever Sword of Blank and Blank will do the most damage to their deck is yours on turn 2. Every game, from the Command Zone. Expect to see Eldrazi Conscription cheated into play early, or Kaldra Compleat. Every game, from the Command Zone. I hate this already, but maybe it won’t be so bad. It will very likely be a pox on cEDH. Don’t forget to have fun, cEDHers!

The Actual List

10. Exquisite Blood

With a whopping 2 printings, in Avacyn Restored and one of the Jumpstarts, Exquisite Blood is expensive and not easy to get. This is both a blessing and a curse, because we don’t need to see this everywhere. Conversely, it’s a powerful, game-winning card that many players can’t afford.

What makes it so good, and worth banning? It used to be the singular interaction between Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond but has since expanded dramatically, including to the Command Zone, with Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose. Combine these cards and either gain a life or have an opponent lose one somehow and oops, you win the game on the spot.

The combo is very hard to interrupt, uses lifeloss instead of damage which means even ‘protection from everything’ won’t stop it if you use something that doesn’t target like Cliffhaven Vampire, and is really easy to put together in black which specializes in tutors and fast mana. It also takes very little skill to assemble.

As a unique effect on a scarce card, this is also something that would be easy to snip without too many people being affected. It’s unlikely, as it’s dodged banning for years already, but we can always hope.

9. Craterhoof Behemoth (and Finale of Devastation and Torment of Hailfire)

We jump from fewer players being affected to many many players being affected. Craterhoof Behemoth is a very popular card. So too are Finale of Devastation and Torment of Hailfire. With good reason.

Each of these cards does essentially the same thing. They ask for simple, easy to achieve conditions, then they (almost always) win the game for you. Instead of comboing with a card or two, they combo with the board state.

Playing miscellaneous creatures followed by Craterhoof Behemoth will win a lot of games. Any creatures. Plant tokens, elves, eldrazi, anything. Because Craterhoof also has haste, it can come down on a loaded board and present a lethal threat even if nothing else is able to attack. The card does too well converting any favourable green-based board into a win, and being green makes it easy to make this happen while other players are still frantically trying to keep up on resources. There are also plenty of cards that do similar enough things, like Decimator of the Provinces, that we can live without the Hoof.

In many ways, Finale of Devastation is worse than Craterhoof, as a tutor itself plus the best of Craterhoof’s effect, and granting everything haste. But at least it can’t be cheated out so easily, or blinked, or abused in any way a creature can be. It still wins the game once you get to 10 mana, which is easy for green, especially before a lot of decks can do anything meaningful about it. And it can also win the game for less mana than that.

Finally, Torment of Hailfire. This card may seem dated, but a player than ramps to it early will win the game by virtue of putting the others so far behind it doesn’t matter what they do. In the later game, there’s a point where this will simply kill everyone but the caster. It’s either a matter of enough mana, lower life totals, a wiped board, topdecking, empty hands, or some other natural outcome of playing. Like Craterhoof and Finale, Torment of Hailfire allows the caster to completely ignore everything that has happened in the game so far and win in a way that requires no extra skill or effort. If it does whiff, Torment of Hailfire will still set players back drastically, making it a huge pain regardless of what it ultimately does.

These cards are heavily played, fairly expensive and often loved by those who play them for their powerful effects. I don’t ever expect a ban for them.

Watch out also for the upcoming Moonshaker Cavalry. Being white means it’s less likely to be a bogeyman, but adding flying means it’s going to be lethal a lot. White doesn’t have the ramp and tutors that green has, but it has blink, cheap reanimation, and lots of go-wide options to make those Xs huge. Expect to see a lot of this.

8. Dockside Extortionist

It’s tough to imagine what led to the printing of Dockside Extortionist in Commander 2019. We hadn’t yet seen the explosion of treasure cards, and yes, mono red was dying for some way to keep up with green decks on mana that wasn’t a rickety pile of rituals. But damn.

The Dockside provides an absurd boost for only 2 mana. At base, it’s a scaling ritual that gets better the better your opponents have been doing. It capitalizes on the fact that a lot of the early plays in Commander (and Legacy/Vintage) are cheap artifacts. Mostly mana rocks. It only costs one red, so it’s very splashable. It has 2 very well supported creature types, though it hardly needs them. It’s gross with clones, and blinking, and all sorts of loops because nothing about it cares about summoning sickness.

And then there’s treasure. Treasure is its own problem, and a sudden swath of treasure tokens is all sorts of powerful options, synergies, and triggers. Everything from artifacts entering the battlefield alongside Reckless Fireweaver to being sacrificed with Mayhem Devil to tapping for mana with Inspiring Statuary. Plus lots more. If the Dockside only generated a red mana in place of each treasure token, it would still be completely broken.

Like Exquisite Blood this has 2 printings, is unique, and costs a small fortune. Banning this card would be a benefit for the format, though as long as it sells packs, it’s doubtful that will happen. Watch out if it ever drops to $10 or less because of overprinting, then maybe.

7. Sensei’s Divining Top

There are plenty of good arguments for banning Sensei’s Divining Top that have nothing to do with its power level. As much as every Magic player likes to think they’re some efficient, in-the-moment wizardly wizard, we all take too long looking at our cards and thinking about what order to put them in. It’s a card game/human nature problem. The Top throws gas on this fire by making micro-decisions and second-guessing oneself cheap and easy. The Top holds up game action, and often so a player can agonize over the same three cards they just agonized over on the previous player’s turn.

I can’t stand Top for this reason, but it’s not the worst of this card. Personally I think it’s bananas-too-powerful. The one mana activated ability that allows for rearranging your top 3 cards is incredibly good. Not just for selection, but also protection against stuff that might affect the top of your deck, or making sure the right mana cost or card type is on there for some other payoff, like with Counterbalance. That combo held up for years in Legacy.

But Top has more going on than that. Did I mention it’s a 1 mana artifact? It will be played turn 1 or whenever a player draws it. Top also has the completely bonkers line of text that lets it tap to draw a card. There’s an additional effect to that, which players have definitely discovered is upside, and a one mana artifact that taps to draw a card plus upside is just plain too good. But wait, there’s more.

The Top is bad for new players. Not just because it’s very expensive, even though it was initially an uncommon. But because a savvy player with experience using the stack can make a fool of a new player with it. Deck manipulation is one thing, but the ability to save the Top from removal at instant speed while also drawing a card is terrible for the newbie. They just wasted removal on something that works with the game’s rules in a way that seems unfair. Oh and it’s back immediately. And the player who is playing it will often claim it’s not really that good. When the newbie goes to get their own and finds it at upwards of $40, that can make or break a gamer. Why is any of this suitable for the format?

6. Rhystic Study (and Smothering Tithe and Esper Sentinel)

Another card that has transcended its initial rarity to become a chase rare/mythic is Rhystic Study. This card is a design that was never appropriate for multiplayer, and scales way too efficiently with 3 opponents. Which has led to it seeing tons of Commander play.

How many cards does Rhystic Study have to draw over the course of a game to be considered too good on rate? 8? 10? 12? 35? Bear in mind this is a 3 mana investment and a direct comparison can be Divination. How about in a single turn cycle? 8? 10?

On rate, this is often the best card-draw spell, period. But it doesn’t end there. While the ability for the opponents to pay to negate the card draw should be a drawback for Rhystic Study, it’s actually more upside. This also applies to both Smothering Tithe and Esper Sentinel and is the reason why these cards should all be banned.

The mana tax effect forces the taxed player to rethink taking action. If they don’t want the Rhystic Study player to draw yet another card, they might have to delay that spell one turn. If they don’t want the Smothering Tithe player to get yet another treasure, maybe they don’t play the cantrip. Smothering Tithe having the ability be every draw is annoying and awkward, and should have been ‘other than the first’. These cards want you to compromise by doing nothing at all, making them into some absurd kind of Time Walk factory.

The effect also adds super-fun mathematical complexity to the game, usually early on, and I’m sure everyone loves to be asked, ‘You pay the one?’ or ‘You pay the two?’ over and over again.

Modern Horizons’ Esper Sentinel enjoys play in other formats, and doesn’t need to be a Commander staple to retain value. It can be safely banned, but it’s very unlikely. The other two sell packs like crazy, and both are featured in the Wilds of Eldraine enchantment slot. I don’t expect them to ever be seriously considered for banning unless the playerbase is completely done with them.

5. Doubling Season

There are several cards that double tokens, either once or on an ongoing basis. It’s a powerful ability for sure. Parallel Lives, Anointed Procession, and Primal Vigor all make it easy, and at least the first two see a lot of play. You could make a good argument that Panharmonicon and Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines double tokens for many strategies.

There are lots of cards that proliferate, and add extra counters when counters are added. Most of those are kept reasonable by limits like only affecting +1/+1 counters, or only adding one more counter, not doubling them.

In an ideal world, Doubling Season would have been Primal Vigor. Both double counters and tokens, but Primal Vigor is reasonable about it, doubling tokens and counters for all players, and only affecting +1/+1 counters.

Much better than Primal Vigor, Doubling Season would be broken enough if all it did was double tokens and +1/+1 counters for the owner, instead of the whole table. But it’s non +1/+1 counters that break things too much. The interaction between Doubling Season and Planeswalkers is simply demented. It’s odd that it was ever considered legal, and there has never been a subtle change in how Planeswalkers work to correct this situation.

While Planeswalkers doubling their +loyalty abilities can be a lot, it’s entering the battlefield with double counters that should never have been allowed. Getting to a Planeswalker ultimate is trivialized in this way, a process that is designed to take multiple turns and require the player to manage it carefully. Considering many planeswalker ultimates are game-winning or worse, like Karn Liberated, a lone, already-overpowered card should take the fall instead.

Demand for Doubling Season is enough to keep it in the $70 range despite several printings, including in both Commander Masters and Wilds of Eldraine. It’s a cash cow, and a mistake WoTC will milk as long as they can.

4. Fierce Guardianship (and friends)

Other than Dockside Extortionist, every card so far on this list was, in theory, designed for a 60 card 4-of format like Standard or Modern. Why does that really matter? It means those cards are rigorously tested by players for tournament play and are considered for restriction and banning if they get out of hand. We get some indication of their power level, and a system exists to address their toxicity. We get data that can directly point to how much the card is skewing things.

The cycle of free spells from Ikoria Commander, and now Commander Masters, Fierce Guardianship, Deadly Rollick, Deflecting Swat, Flawless Maneuver and yes, even Obscuring Haze, are nearly unplayable in any format that doesn’t involve Commanders. They weren’t designed for those formats. Which isn’t always a problem, but here it’s huge.

I call these spells ‘free’ even though they’re highly conditional. But it’s an easily achieved condition. In fact, most of these cards would want to be played after your Commander is in play anyway.

Paying mana for effects is what the game is all about. These cards really flaunt that, with no additional resource requirement when they are free. You just need to meet the conditions to cast them. This is in contrast with cards like Force of Will and Commandeer, which require another card at least.

Being able to counter an opponent’s strategy while tapped out is powerful, but even more powerful is the ability to tap out, and then make an unsuspecting opponent waste their big play with your free response. Sometimes that costs your opponent their only removal option, sometimes it also costs them resources like treasure tokens or mana rituals.

In a casual format, it’s nice to have the release valve of knowing that a tapped-out opponent has limited options. Having to play around a free counterspell any time a blue Commander is in play is too much, but that’s either in the back of every player’s mind now, or will be once they get burned. Even if that blue player only has one card in hand.

It’s tough to make an argument other than ‘free spells bad,’ but the cards in Magic’s history that give a player upside for no cost beyond the card itself at all are stuff like Black Lotus, the original moxes, Lotus Petal, Elvish Spirit Guide and Simian Spirit Guide, Once Upon a Time, and then a steep dropoff to Ornithopter, Memnite and Kobolds. Notice any pattern here? 6 of the most powerful cards ever printed. Some other cards banned in multiple formats. Some random garbage creatures that still see tons of play in decks like Affinity, Hammer Time, Puresteel and Cheerios. These cards almost all see a lot of play. Still. Even when they’re bad, free spells are good.

Holding free spells back with other requirements barely changes how good they are. Force of Will, Force of Negation, Solitude, Grief and Fury, among others, are heavily heavily played in multiple formats despite costing a full second card. Spell-esque effects like those on Street Wraith and Faerie Macabre are heavily played. Narcomoeba and Dread Return are heavily played.

The cycle past Fierce Guardianship is a lot less influential, but all of them are free spells that can dramatically change the course of a game. Magic has a long history of banning free spells for being a problem. These will never see any testing in any other format to help prove that they need to be banned in Commander, and because of that (and they sell packs) they’ll likely never be banned.

3. Jeweled Lotus (and Mana Crypt, Mana Vault and Grim Monolith)

Before The One Ring, Wizards printed a piece of jewelry that started life with a $100+ price tag. You can’t even say that about Black Lotus or the various moxes.

In many instances, Jeweled Lotus is Black Lotus, a card that has been proven to be too good for the game. For many decks, the best thing they can do is play a powerful 3 or 4 drop on turn 1. As long as you don’t have too many different coloured pips on the card, Jeweled Lotus can make that happen with your Commander, a card that you always have access to at the start of every game. If it’s the deck’s top priority, you can mulligan to the Lotus. It completely changes what’s possible early on in a game, and ignores the interplay between power and resources that Magic ultimately is. Or was. It also promotes extremely linear gameplay, as all the card can do is deliver your Commander drastically ahead of schedule.

As one of the most expensive cards seeing regular Commander play, it’s not exactly friendly to newer players. There was never a cheap buy-in time. Either you opened one, or you paid a lot for it. It shows how Magic is a pay-to-win game better than almost anything. It should never have been printed in the first place. But that price tag means it’ll never be banned.

So what about those 3 other cards? Mana Crypt was a mistake from the old days, and while it’s a cool relic, it’s much too strong, scarce and expensive to be of any real benefit to the format. It might be better overall than Jeweled Lotus which is saying something.

I personally own and play with a Mana Vault, but I would happily see it banned, and Grim Monolith too, for very similar reasons. Both are basically rituals, not mana rocks. Mana rocks are a repeatable source of mana, and while that’s a strong effect, we can live with it. Because it’s basically just like a land.

The Vault and the Monolith are different. They’re there to power something out ahead of schedule. Sometimes they’re just used once, and sit there tapped for the rest of the game. They have huge upside if you can untap your stuff with Voltaic Key, Unwinding Clock or something. Basically, they’re never used fairly. Grim Monolith is also on the Reserved List and costs a medium fortune. Printings of Mana Vault are expensive enough too.

All of these cards do little more than power out combos that make for non-games, and they all cost a large amount of RL money. What’s the upside for the average player here? One of the reasons Commander was created in the first place was to get away from expensive chase cards that led to unfair starts. Like the original moxes and Black Lotus, which could be had at the time for similar amounts to these cards now.

One little blurb about Sol Ring. I think Sol Ring is very strong, and should be hot gas on turn 1 like always. It feels good, and might inspire some envy from other players, but they likely have one to play on their turn, or will draw one in some game that day. Because Sol Ring is cheap and widely available. It also doesn’t grant coloured mana. It gives a big advantage, but rarely one that can’t be handled by 3 other players. I’m comfortable with it being pretty much the strongest thing you can do on turn 1, and would be fine with keeping it in the format. Anything better, and it should be banned, like the other cards here.

2. Thassa’s Oracle (and Laboratory Maniac and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries)

There’s a basic principle in games that winning can’t be too easy. Otherwise why play? What does the easy win even represent? Another basic principle in games is that, even in solitaire, everyone playing the game should participate.

There are simply too many scenarios where a player can empty their library and win with Thassa’s Oracle without requiring the other player(s) to be present at all. Or Laboratory Maniac or Jace, Wielder of Mysteries. The Oracle is the worst offender though, as the way it’s worded makes it really tough to interact with.

While these cards are unlikely to win the game on turn 0 or 1 or even 3 or 4, win it they will. Sometimes it will be at the end of a quick turn, involving something like Hermit Druid, or at the end of a long turn, where your opponents watch you draw card after card and then finally drop the Oracle or Lab man. Nobody really wins those games. They just end. They have all the appeal of a movie where the climax is a line of text in the out-of-nowhere credit sequence.

There are other win-the-game cards, and some have really low bars to clear, but even the easiest for Commander, Felidar Sovereign needs help to be anything other than a big target that dies on an opponent’s turn. Or else it lives but the whole table makes sure you never see 40 life again.

Another easy-to-activate win is Revel in Riches, but again, it triggers on upkeep. It also requires some interaction. Some game stuff to happen.

Cards that do little more than win the game under completely gameless circumstances shouldn’t be allowed. I don’t know why these ones are legal. There were years where Laboratory Maniac was the only one, and it somehow never got banned. It certainly wasn’t because it sold packs. None of these are expensive cards. Banning should happen before more of them are printed, but for some reason, it’s simply not going to happen.

1. Tutors

We’re here! Did you think Edgar Markov? Cyclonic Rift? The Great Henge? Worthy choices, to be sure. Edgar sucks, and it wins easily, but it’s not fun to play. CycRift sucks, and either wins the game or prolongs it unnecessarily, but blue lacks any other decent sweepers, and it can be played with skill for several situations. The Henge creates an avalanche of value, and frequently costs much less than it should, but it guarantees nothing. A bunch of bad draws and it’s only decent.

Instead, the ban worthy cards at the top of the list are tutors. Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Worldly Tutor, Mystical Tutor and the rest. I’ve written a whole column on why they’re the worst mechanic in Magic. In short, they break several game fundamentals. First, the max number of copies of any given card. Second, the idea of random draw.

How do we all feel about giving decks one more Cyclonic Rift? Just one more. One more over the normal limit. Pleeeeeeeease? That’s what a tutor is. It changes the math on drawing any card the tutor will find.

In Commander, a singleton format, a single tutor really changes the math. Imagine one of those cards that looks at the top X cards of your library and gets you something. Those cards are often great if they look at more than 3 cards. A tutor in Commander is like a card saying, ‘look at the top 90 cards of your library, choose one and put it into your hand.’

Tutors are the ultimate affront to the structure of Commander. It exists to play singleton, to have high variance, and to not have to spend, spend, spend real money all the time on powerful cards that mostly shrink your deck.

Commander is a singleton format for a couple of reasons. One is power level of cards. One is cost of getting as many as 4 copies of cards. Both are great reasons. Tutors allow easier access to power, and let more affluent players play more copies of cards than they should. Because tutors are big money, pack selling monsters.

Since there are so many tutors, I wouldn’t actually propose a ban on any of them, but instead a rules errata for Commander in general. It would read that ‘any effect that searches your library may only find a card allowed in multiples.’ That means basic lands and stuff like Relentless Rats or Persistent Petitioners. This bans no cards, preserves the spirit of the singleton format, and leaves new-player friendly cards like Evolving Wilds and Rampant Growth unaffected. Even fetchlands will still be relevant.

Changing the rules in this way isn’t so farfetched. My LGS runs a regular Commander tournament where searching libraries is banned. I’m the only person I know who’s completely cut search effects from my decks, but I’ve heard of someone else trying it and finding it fresh and exciting.

Another way this could happen is if the pantheon of expensive tutors across Magic become printed so heavily that they’re not selling packs any more. If most tutors float low below $10. Then removing them might create a new $ emphasis on different cards, and tutors will be banned. I doubt this will happen, and new and more over-the-top tutors will appear. Get used to seeing a lot of Beseech the Mirror.


Banning a card in a Magic the Gathering format is a big deal. That card has to really be egregious. It has to be unbalancing, and unfun. It can’t be reasoned with.

Commander’s banlist is pretty silly in places, and would look very different if the format actually accumulated data and approached things like any other format. Until then, we have personal choice and localized rule variants.

It’s not all bad, though. Commander arose in response to unfavourable gaming conditions in the mainstream format. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see what’s next.

Thanks for reading!

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