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Magic Online Commander Changes And What It Could Mean For All Of Us

Wizards of the Coast has recently unveiled some dramatic Commander changes for Magic Online. Starting on May 10th, there will be tournament support for 1v1 Commander and they will have a new ban list for both 1v1 and multiplayer Commander. Keep in mind the changed ban list for multiplayer Commander is for Magic Online only; the paper version of Commander has no rules changes (for now). After the uproar to the changes, they quickly released a more elaborate explanation to why they changed the ban list. I'll be quoting these two articles throughout this one.

For reference, here are the cards that are going to be banned in Magic Online's Commander formats but not on the paper ban list:

And here are the cards that are unbanned in Magic Online's Commander formats:

Sooooo... a lot of changes. The only difference between 1v1 Commander and multiplayer Commander is that 1v1 will have a starting life total of 30, while multiplayer will remain at 40.

Tournament support for 1v1 seems to be well-received. The payout looks good and a strong online community is receiving some love; no problems there. Many people, however, are very upset at the idea of online multiplayer Commander having its ban list changed based on the needs of 1v1.

If you don't play Commander on Magic Online, then these changes don't affect you ... for now. But this could be the first step in much bigger changes that will affect all Commander formats, including the paper versions, so anyone who loves Commander should be following how this story develops.

I love Commander. It's my favorite format and certainly my most played format in the past six years, when I first started playing and picked up a Political Puppets preconstructed deck. I, too, reacted very negatively when I first heard about the changes. I have all my initial thoughts recorded, and they will be available soon. But for this article, I wanted to sleep on it and talk to my Commander-loving friends and see what the community at large is saying. Hopefully I can provide a little more insight on the pros and cons of this change, and what it means for Commander as a whole going forward.

Let's get to it:

Why the 1v1 Support?

Because the 1v1 Commander community on Magic Online is a largely untapped market, and they think they can make a enough money off it to be worth supporting.

The format has also been growing lately, and it's clear that 1v1 Commander is something that players enjoy and a format that we think is worth supporting.

By offering two-player queues and a Friendly Constructed League, 1v1 Commander players have the option to play their preferred format for actual prizes and play in more competitive environments, and Wizards gets money from a community they were previously making no money off of. This is great for the community and great for the company that we all want to see succeed. WIN-WIN!

Why the Ban List Changes?

Because the traditional multiplayer Commander ban list isn't balanced for 1v1, and by making a ban list that is better suited for 1v1 they hope the format will become more enjoyable and the community will continue to grow:

That said, this growth has prospered despite that the banned list Magic Online has been using is heavily slanted toward multiplayer play, and the resulting 1v1 format is relatively imbalanced.

As the developer behind the banned list, I'll give some brief philosophical basis. Broadly, the goal of this banned list is to create a format that's fun for as many players as want to play it. We'll factor in both how strong cards are and how much fun players have both playing with and against them. Cards and strategies that are frustrating and unenjoyable to play against have a slightly lower threshold for banning than cards that are universally enjoyed, but we still consider those bans carefully.

Again, this all makes sense if you want to support 1v1 Commander. The multiplayer Commander ban list has never been intended for 1v1 and so that format suffers when using the multiplayer rules. In fact, Duel Commander, a fan-run 1v1 Commander format that has been the leading this style of play for years now, has wildly different rules and ban lists for this very reason. By making a specific set of rules for the format that you're trying to promote, you make a better environment for people to play in, which means more people playing the format, more people signing up for tournaments, and more money in Wizards' pockets. Everyone walks away happy.

Also note that this ban list specifically mentions changes based on how fun it is for the majority of players. Cards that do not have high win percentages, but nonetheless aren't enjoyable to play against, can be banned as well. 

Why One Ban List For Both 1v1 And Multiplayer?

And now we get to the controversial topic that has everyone talking! The official response is many fold. The ban list announcement explains the goals of the ban list:

Given that the majority of Commander play on Magic Online is 1v1, we will lean toward optimizing that experience. But we want both 1v1 and multiplayer to be enjoyable experiences and will adjust the format accordingly.

The ban list will be primarily focused to make 1v1 Commander healthy, because that's where they'll be making profit. They'll throw a bone to multiplayer Commander sometimes too, I guess. That makes economic sense.

But nowhere does it explain why they are making a single ban list for both multiplayer and 1v1. They completely sidestep addressing that issue. They know multiplayer Commander players will be unhappy, and they're going to try to tune the list so it's acceptable for multiplayer players, but nowhere do they explain why not just have two separate ban lists? That would be the easiest way to make both the 1v1 and multiplayer Commander communities happy!

Reason #1: Multiplayer Commander players can transition easier to 1v1 Commander

So obviously there was a community uproar asking for an explanation. Thankfully, we got an official response talking specifically about the single ban list:

Our goal is to provide the best Magic Online experience for as many of our players as possible. A key part of that commitment is ensuring players can find matches as quickly as possible, including offering formats with enough players to support them. This is the primary driver behind using a single unified list.

Currently, the vast majority of Magic Online Commander play comes from 1v1 matches. When discussing whether or not to have one or two Commander formats, there was real concern about how splitting the population would affect participation. In the past we’ve supported a multitude of less popular formats, and while matches in the format would occasionally fire, players were spending significantly more time waiting to play Magic then actually playing Magic. This is not an experience we wanted to re-create for Commander.  

Translation: MONEY!

The thought process here is that, by having a unified ban list, people who enjoy playing multiplayer Commander can easily transition to 1v1 Commander (use the same deck!), sign up for tournaments, and make more money for Wizards. That's the bottom line here, folks. From an economic point of view, this makes sense. I'm going to go on a little tangent here before we analyze the rest of their reasoning. I call it:

Wizards Doesn't Care About Multiplayer

You know how much people pay Wizards for using their program to play multiplayer Commander? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. There is no admission fees to speak of; as long as you have a deck, you can play for free, forever. That's zero profits gained for a company that, by its very nature, is driven by profits. So now that Wizards has a new project to generate revenue, 1v1 Commander, they're trying to not-so-subtly push multiplayer Commander players to go play 1v1 Commander and give them money. I honestly don't know how much overlap there is, or will be, between multiplayer Commander players and 1v1 Commander players. My gut feeling is "very little." But even a little is better than nothing from Wizards' point of view, because again, multiplayer Commander makes them no money.

You know how I know this is true? The most recent example that comes to mind is the monarch mechanic from Conspiracy: Take the Crown set. When the set came out, the software team ported over a handpicked selection of cards from the set that were easy to port / were expected to see some play in constructed formats. None of the cards with the monarch mechanic were ported over. The reason was simple: they decided not to spend resources coding the monarch mechanic because they didn't expect any of the cards to show up in tournament play ($$$). The multiplayer community would've loved to have seen monarch cards, but Wizards showed that they weren't willing to dump money for a format that makes them zero returns. It was only when out of nowhere, Palace Jailer ended up being a HUGE hit in Legacy that they were strong-armed to finally code the monarch mechanic after months of delays.

$ 0.00 $ 0.00

But for the most damning evidence, we will go back a little further: did you ever hear the tragedy of Two-Headed Giant? It's not a story a Wizards employee would tell you. Two-Headed Giant was a fully-functional format on Magic Online for a long time which people like myself enjoyed. Its only crime was not generating a profit. When the set Oath of the Gatewatch was released, along with the surge mechanic (e.g.Crush of Tentacles), which was meant to support THG, Magic Online responded by removing Two-Headed Giant entirely. Not just banning the surge cards from the format because they don't want to deal with coding for a small, zero profit format, no. The. Entire. Format. Gone. 

I'm not trying to paint Wizards as an evil company. They are simply a company that is driven by profits. They will only listen to voices that affect their profit. Multiplayer Commander players on Magic Online don't affect their profit, so they have no voice. That's just how it is. So just remember when it comes to any format on Magic Online that doesn't generate profit, either directly or indirectly: they don't care about those formats and wish they were gone so that any percentage of those players would transition to a format that does generate profit. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00

Reason #2: A unified ban list is less "confusing" for players looking to play Commander

Alright, the next reason offered why a unified ban list:

In addition, we want to avoid creating confusion for players looking for a Commander experience in Magic Online. By offering a unified Magic Online Commander format we establish a consistent baseline for the Magic Online players. Players don’t have to spend time researching the differences between formats to understand the various banned lists.  Players won’t run into situations where they try to join a commander game in one format only to find their deck is illegal because it was built for a different format.  While more proficient Magic Online players might be able to successfully navigate that multitude of choices, we have repeatedly seen that offering more choices isn’t always the to the best overall player experience.  

By having a unified ban list, it's less "confusing"for people looking to join into Commander on Magic Online. Okay, this reason is, ah, a "bag of Bolas." This change is going to be much more confusing for anyone who knows the Commander format from the paper version and is trying it out on Magic Online. Suddenly you can't play your paper Commander decks online and have to juggle two separate ban lists in your head for the same format. It's also way more confusing for everyone who currently plays multiplayer Commander on Magic Online, because now that entire community has to relearn the ban list and change their decks. Not to mention every other constructed format, from Standard to Vintage, all have their own ban lists and it seems players aren't that "confused" by it.

Bag of Bolas. The reason is that they're trying to push people from multiplayer Commander to 1v1. The unified ban list makes it "easier" to do that not just by having the same bans but also souring your multiplayer experience so you'll give up and go elsewhere.

Reason #3: Online Commander is their "house rules"

The Official Commander Rules specifically states that their rules are basically guidelines and that "players often play with house rules, and are encouraged to ..." Well, the official statement riffs off that idea:

Finally, while Magic Online tries to be authentic to the paper experience when we can, we also want to fit our digital medium when it makes sense. By only offering one Commander format, we’re embracing one of the core tenants of the Commander philosophy: “House rules or “fair play” exceptions are always encouraged if they result in more fun for the local community.” Magic Online is our local community and this single Banned list represents our house rules. 

I found this to be a cute jab at the Rules Committee (RC) and their defense of "just house rule it" whenever criticism is pointed at the official list. Well, Magic Online is doing just that. As much as I enjoy sticking it to the RC sometimes, unfortunately all of us multiplayer Commander players are strung along for the ride whether we like it or not.

The ban list is subject to change!

It's important to note that this ban list is just a first draft and is subject to tweaks, possibly very quickly if they missed some glaring card issues (and they did):

This banned list may go through relatively rapid iteration as this format is put through its paces on Magic Online. The first few months may see bans at an accelerated pace if the format at launch is problematic, but the eventual intent is that it will fall into our normal banning cadence.

Let me reiterate that I’m aware that diverging from the paper Commander banned list isn’t going to appeal to each and every Magic Online Commander player.  That said, this change does provide a larger opportunity for you, as a Magic Online player, to affect what you want the Magic Online Commander format to be. We’ll be able to make changes explicitly for the Magic Online community based on game data (like event results and casual play participation) and your direct feedback (through emailing us at or via social media like Twitter and Reddit).

The initial R&D banned list is deliberately smaller than it could be for this reason. We want to gather data and learn directly from the players to make decisions on what Magic Online Commander should be. We know the format won’t necessarily be ideal at launch, but we’ll be looking at these stats and feedback regularly after next week’s launch and expect a rapid iteration on the format based on your data and feedback for both one-on-one and multiplayer Commander.  So give Commander a shot after it releases on May 10 and then lets us know what you think. We’ll be listening.  

Expect the ban list to change, folks. I doubt things like Coalition Victory to stay unbanned for long.

(Reason #4: Coding Mess?)

What if the reason for a unified ban list was actually because of complications making two separate Commander ban lists? "That's absurd," you say, "you just click a box to choose which format you want to play! Simple as that!" And I'd readily agree with you ... if this weren't Magic Online we were talking about. Their giant bowl of spaghetti code they call a client is a strange, eldritch maze seasoned with decades of underpaid/understaffed entry-level programming piled haphazardly on top of each other. I hear they sacrifice a goat to Trading Post every morning just so the servers stay up.

Could it be that coding two separate ban lists for multiplayer and 1v1 Commander is just too much work, so they're willing to piss off multiplayer Commander players (again, no voice) and take some heat because it's a better alternative to dumping resources into making the coding work? 

The Good, The Bad, and the RC

Alright, we've established the unified ban list and the official reasons why Magic Online is doing this. Now for the implications! Let's start with the Bad, because that's what everyone's been focused on right now:

The Bad

  • Different ban lists for the same format. Paper Commander and Magic Online Commander now have separate ban lists. Your deck can now be both legal and illegal in multiplayer Commander depending on which platform you choose to play it. This is confusing, annoying, and plain ol' sucks.
  • A unified ban list can hurt both formats. Multiplayer Commander and 1v1 Commander, despite having similarities, are entirely different from each other. Multiplayer Commander is traditionally defined as "Battlecruiser Magic" and has wildly different power levels based on your playgroup. Competitive 1v1 Commander is essentially Legacy-lite; watered down Legacy decks that run a truckload of tutors to combat the 99-card singleton nature of the format. Both have very, very different needs for a fun, healthy environment. It would be like making a unified ban list for both Standard and Legacy. Cards that are perfectly fine in one format can be cancerous in the other, and the only real solution would be to ban the cards from both. It would be like banning Treasure Cruise from Standard because it's broken in Legacy, even though it was a healthy part of the metagame in Standard and added to the variety of the Standard format. A unified ban list for multiplayer and 1v1 Commander will mean a very large ban list that deprives both formats of potentially cool and fun cards because it's unhealthy in the other.
  • It could kill multiplayer Commander on Magic Online. This might be a point towards "Good" for Wizards, but not for people like me who love playing it online. You're going to be pushing out people who just don't like the changes. Also by encouraging competitive play in the 1v1 scene and linking it to multiplayer, which is generally a casual goofy format, people are more likely to bring over their competitive 1v1 decks over to multiplayer (no card changes needed!) and drive out the casual environment. Battlecruiser Magic could go extinct on Magic Online.
  • It sucks for content creators like me who use Magic Online for recording. Anyone who produces Commander videos with Magic Online will now be alienating their audience because we can no longer play with the same rules as everyone who plays Commander with paper decks. Even if we adhere to both ban lists, you're going to see very different styles of decks now that so many format staples are banned. It sucks for people like me and streamers.

The Good

  • Wizards is in a much better position to make a fun ban list than anyone else could. I've always been a firm believer that Wizards should be in charge of all format ban lists because they have unparalleled access to data on the formats. They have the data from every tournament they run, most importantly from Magic Online, which automatically logs millions of games and can use that information to identify which cards are problematic. Duel Commander bases their ban list on what, hundreds of tournament results? Wizards can base their ban list on hundreds of thousands of tournament results. Of course multiplayer Commander is a different beast because its design makes tournament results impossible, but surely some things can be learned from 1v1 Commander and applied to regular Commander. The Rules Committee, smart cookies as they are, simply do not have the resources that Wizards does to make decisions. 
  • I actually like A LOT of the ban changes. This is personal preference of course, but I totally agree with a ton of the ban list changes. I've always wanted to see super fast mana like Sol Ring gone and I won't shed a tear seeing cards like Survival of the Fittest removed from the format as well. If that means I lose my precious Edric, Spymaster of Trest in the process, so be it. What worries me more are some of the cards unbanned, like Coalition Victory and Sylvan Primordial, but I feel like some of the cards people are groaning about aren't that big of a deal. I think there are plenty of broken cards in Commander that aren't banned and are just as annoying as some of the stuff coming off the ban list (hi, Paradox Engine!). The social contract still applies.
  • A unified ban list might actually work. I mean, it could work. I don't know if it will, but it could! Wizards is clearly banning based on 1v1 concerns for now, but when they start adding problematic multiplayer cards to the ban list, maybe none of them would have any impact to 1v1 anyway? If you can ban problematic cards in one format without negatively hurting the other, this unified ban list could actually work.

The RC

The Rules Committee are the originators of the Commander format; this has been their baby since the beginning. They are the source of the official Commander rules and have been for at least a decade now. They've done a good job. But their pet format has grown larger than anyone could expect, and now instead of leading a format for a hundred or so of their friends, their leading a format that is enjoyed by thousands. Any criticism to their rule decisions has always been deflected as "merely guidance" and that we are encouraged to come up with our own houserules. That's a good answer for people who play with the same established group all the time, but for the many people who play with random groups in an LGS, or at side events at tournaments, Magic Online, or even joining a different kitchen table group, the RC's rule is law. It's hard to challenge the RC's rule when you feel forced to play by their rules and not try alternatives.

Magic Online is now offering an alternative set of rules. Fast mana cards like Sol Ring, which have been hotly debated and defended by the RC for years on end, are gone. Easy-win combos like Doomsday and top-tier tutors like Survival of the Fittest are gone. Cards like Panoptic Mirror are back. I don't know if these changes are for better or worse, but I do know that I'm excited to try out cards that I was previously never able to because RC said so.

There's another implication here too: let's say the ban list goes through, they make the necessary tweaks to make multiplayer Commander a good experience, and people love the new ban list. Suddenly Wizards has a proven alternative ban list from the RC's. That would put them a hop and a skip away from taking over Commander completely from the RC, replacing the old ban list with the new. One unified ban list for all Commander games everywhere. All Will Be One. You know, I quite like that idea.

The point is that I'm actually hopeful

There's a lot of immediately bad stuff that comes with these changes. I think Wizards/Hasbro care nothing for multiplayer Commander on Magic Online and may end up squeezing the life out of it to milk any dribble of profits that they can from it. I also think that there's a lot of people working on Magic Online that love the community, love the Commander scene, and will do their best with what they've got. It's those people that I'm rooting for to figure out this ban list stuff. Maybe they cave and give us two ban lists like everyone wanted in the first place (assuming it's not a coding issue). Maybe they tweak the unified ban list and make it work for both 1v1 and multiplayer.

I'm excited for May 10th. I'm excited to try out a new ban list and see for myself how it compares with the one we've always used. It will be interesting to see what people replace their Sol Ring slots for. Hopefully things end up being okay.

This is a hot topic for a lot of passionate fans of the format right now. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, you can tweet me @BudgetCommander . If you want me to talk more about the ban list and specific cards I want banned/unbanned and general format health philosophy, I can totally do that.

UPDATE: Wizards has recently announced that they will be going back to two separate ban lists by July 5th.

My opinion on this new announcement: since it's going to take them two months to get a separate ban list, it appears that it was a coding issue. I believe that they didn't want to spend resources coding two separate ban lists, and since 1v1 Commander will hopefully make them money through tournament admissions and multiplayer Commander makes them little/no profit, they just decided to make one ban list and just take the heat from a (small and unprofitable) multiplayer Commander community.

I think what they didn't anticipate was the uproar from many Commander players who probably don't even play Magic Online. The negative publicity pushed them to (grudgingly) spend resources making two separate ban lists and keep the community happy.

Overall I'm happy with the announcement. I do believe that Wizards views creating multiplayer on Magic Online as a mistake that they'd be happy to remove entirely, but the loud uproar from the community saved it (for now). Me, and others who do play multiplayer Commander regularly on Magic Online, are thankful for you guys and gals. I'm also excited to have two months trying out an entirely different ban list for Commander with the knowledge that it's only temporary! It's the best of both worlds for me.

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