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What If: Commander Was Legal in Modern? (Part 1)

Modern is such a strange format. It's non-rotating, but not eternal. It's full of broken combo decks, but missing a few safety valves. It's extremely fun to play, but almost impossible to prepare for. It has its own Pro Tour, but only begrudgingly. So far, through Modern's four year history, Wizards has kept the format fresh by bannings. Whenever a deck gets too good, or too heavily played, or takes too long to win, the ban hammer drops a few months later. While this approach is one way to manage a format, another way is to add cards to the format to deal with specific problems or to shake up decks / matchups. 

Currently there isn't a good way to introduce cards to Modern because under our current system, every card in Modern has to first pass through Standard. This is true of not only new cards, but older cards that could be format-changing reprints. It's possible Force of Will would be the solution to all of Modern's problems. Under our current system, we'll never get a chance to see that because Wizards isn't going to print Force of Will in Standard. They just won't.

I believe we need to change the system and create a mechanism for getting cards into Modern without first passing through Standard. For reasons I'll explain, I believe the annual Commander deck series is the best option to fulfill this role. So today we are going to embark on a three part series to look at what would happen if the Commander series was retroactively made legal in Modern. We will talk about Commander and Commander 2013 in Part I, Commander 2014 and Commander 2015 in Part II, and in the last installment of the series we'll break down the numbers. 

Before we begin, I do realize that there would be card availability issues involved in making Commander decks retroactively legal in Modern. There simply aren't that many copies of cards from older Commander decks (e.g. Flusterstorm) floating around in the wild. The new demand from Modern could push the prices of these cards to extreme heights. However, there's a simple and elegant solution: Commander Anthologies. Basically, stick all five Commander decks from each release together in one package, print them to demand, and sell them for somewhere between $100 and $150. Wizards would make a killing and we'd have access to all the cards we need for Modern. 

Why Does it Matter?

We need a mechanism for getting cards into Modern without first passing through Standard. This past week Caleb Durnwald wrote an article on ChannelFireball stating Modern needs Force of Will (and other cards), which is worth considering. The problem is, how do you get Force of Will into Modern? Wizards isn't going to print Force of Will in a Standard legal set. While I believe there is an argument that Force of Will is safe for Standard (mostly because Force of Will is bad if you aren't worried about staying alive on turn two), most Standard players have never played in an environment with Counterspell, let alone a free counterspell like Force of Will. The "feel bads" are too problematic for Wizards to even consider reprinting it. Likewise, there are tons of new designs that would be really interesting in Modern, but are simply too weird or powerful to see print in Standard. 

Why Commander?

If we look at other supplemental products as potential landing places for Modern cards, there are all kinds of problems. Duel Decks are geared towards new players and don't contain new cards. The summer supplemental product is widely inconsistent. Some years we have Archenemy or Planechase, which would be awkward places to release new-to-Modern cards. Other years we get Modern Masters 2015, which should have new-to-Modern cards, but would need to be printed in a much higher supply. The benefit of using the Commander series is that the supply is massive. There are still Commander 2014 decks sitting on the shelf at my local big box store. The deck list nature of Commander puts a hard cap on the price of new cards, assuming the supply remains unlimited. 

If a new Modern staple (e.g. True-Name Nemesis) was first released in Modern Masters, the price would be extremely high because the supply would be so limited relative to the demand. If it were printed at Mythic, it's possible we'd be talking Tarmogoyf level prices. However, if True-Name Nemesis was released in a Modern-legal Commander deck, the price would be capped at the price of the deck itself (between $25 and $35), while the product was in print. If True-Name Nemesis ever jumped to $50, people like me would spend a couple days driving around to Targets and Walmarts and buying every copy of the deck possible to resell at a profit. This scenario is exactly what happened when True-Name Nemesis was released, which would drive the price back down under the price of the deck. 

But are Commander Cards Safe for Modern?

This is probably the most interesting question: would Modern be destroyed if cards from the Commander series suddenly became legal in the format? For this we need to look at the Commander decks themselves. Since many of the cards released in Commander are either already Modern legal or irrelevant (e.g. bulk Rares, Uncommons and Commons), I've narrowed down the list of cards in each Commander release to the ones I think are at least somewhat relevant to Modern. We'll be looking at three things: why each card is safe for Modern, why each card may be unsafe for Modern, and the odds of a Standard legal printing. The last topic might seem odd, but I think it's important. If we are talking primarily about cards that Wizards could eventually reprint in a Standard legal set, then the argument for making Commander Modern legal is diminished. Instead of taking the risk of making a whole new product legal in the format, we'd just have to wait until Wizards gets around to reprinting the cards in Standard. On the other hand, if most of the cards are unsafe for Standard, it reinforces the idea that we need a way to get cards into Modern that bypasses Standard altogether. 

Let's Get this Out of the Way First

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Since we are going to discuss all four Commander releases, and I don't want to talk about Sol Ring four different times. Sol Ring will never, ever, in a million years, be printed in a Standard legal set. 

If you have any doubt of Sol Ring's power, all you need to do is look at Cube draft. I've been playing a lot of Vintage Cube lately on Magic Online. Would you like to guess at the card I want to open most pack one pick one? It's not a Mox, it's not Black Lotus, or even Ancestral Recall. The single best card to open is Sol Ring. Do we really want a card with a power level on par with the Power Nine legal in Modern? 

Commander (Original):

Not Happening, No Way, No How

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Why it's dangerous: Invigorate takes Infect from a very good deck to a dominant deck. It's the best pump spell in the deck, and makes turn two kills far more common. There's no way it should be legal in Modern while Infect is part of the format. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: There's a pretty good argument that, assuming we are talking about an non-infect Standard format, Invigorate is safe to reprint. When you are trying to kill people with actual damage, it only gives +1/+1 (thanks to the life gain). It becomes more of a Green removal spell than an aggressive pump spell. Plus, Become Immense is apparently safe in Standard, and in a non-infect deck, Become Immense is typically the more powerful of the two cards. The problem is the formatting on the card is archaic. Wizards doesn't print free spells very often (or at all) anymore, so there is a good chance it will never be reprinted in a Standard legal set — not because it is too powerful, but because of its formatting. 

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Why it's dangerous: It's hard to explain just how powerful and oppressive Mother of Runes is if you've never played against her. Basically, she is a one-drop that, unless you can kill her on turn one, completely takes over the game. Not only does the protection ability means she's almost impossible to kill with targeted removal, but in the late game she ends up making attackers unblockable and blockers unkillable. Eventually there will be two or three copies of Mother of Runes on the table, and you end up being locked out of the game by a one-drop. Imagine a Modern Hatebear deck where Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Leonin Arbiter, and Mirran Crusader have protection from all colors. That's Modern with Mother of Runes.

Odds of Standard reprinting: Not happening. For one thing Wizards has said they are trying to cut back on protection from colors. Today's Standard is built around creature combat, and I highly doubt Wizards would want to print a one-drop that can completely dominate this aspect of the game as thoroughly as Mother of Runes

Questionable, but Safe (Maybe?)

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Why it's dangerous: He comes down on turn two off a Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic and generates a ton of card advantage. You don't even need to untap with Edric since his ability will trigger right away. Edric has seen a slight bit of Legacy play, and Legacy playable creatures are often Modern playable as well.

Why it's safe: First off, Edric is Blue and Green, and Elf decks in Modern don't really want to be Blue and Green. He dies to everything. He's legendary. Basically, when I first looked over the list for Commander I put Edric, Spymaster of Trest in the dangerous category, but the more I thought about it, the more I found myself wondering if he would even see play in Modern. While the effect is powerful, it's not that different from Bident of Thassa, which only costs one more mana and doesn't die to Abrupt Decay, Lightning Bolt, or Path to Exile. At this point I think Edric is mostly safe. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: I guess it's not impossible, especially in the new world of no one-drop mana dorks, but it seems fairly unlikely. The effect is still very powerful and possibly too powerful for Standard on turn three. 

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Why it's dangerous: It would immediately become the best instant speed draw spell in Modern. While it might help control decks gain some traction, the issue is Twin could leave up mana and have their choice of Deceiver Exarch, Pestermiteor Fact or Fiction if they don't need to counter something. 

Why it's safe: With Fact or Fiction, I wonder how much of its power is based on nostalgia and history. Is an instant-speed draw three really that broken in Modern where we have turn two Primeval Titans and turn three Karn Liberateds? Plus, Fact or Fiction is widely held as one of the most skill testing cards ever printed. I'm all for skill cards in Modern.

Odds of Standard reprinting: I don't think it's impossible for Fact or Fiction to show up in a Standard legal set, but it is remote. We've had some powerful draw spells in recent years, but most of these have been late game cards like Sphinx's Revelation or build-around-me cards like Treasure Cruise. We also had an extremely nerfed pseudo-version of Fact or Fiction in Steam Augury, which ended up being unplayable. I'm guessing Wizards views cheap, instant-speed draw as too good for the format.

Cards I Want in Modern

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Why it's safe and should be in Modern: Flusterstorm is less powerful in Modern than it is in other formats. In Vintage and Legacy, Flusterstorm is often the Last Word in a counter war. In Modern, it would likely be more of a sideboard card in a specific matchup (e.g. Twin mirror). Plus it does nothing against a large percentage of the format. Tron doesn't care. Amulet Bloom doesn't care. Affinity doesn't care. Jund/Abzan don't care all that much. While there are some situations where it's great, it does nothing enough of the time that I'm not worried about it breaking the format. 

In Modern, I'm not sure Flusterstorm is better than Spell Pierce, Dispel or Stubborn Denial. At least Spell Pierce can hit a turn three Karn Liberated or a turn one Amulet of Vigor

Odds of Standard reprinting: While I think Flusterstorm would be safe in Standard, it seems unlikely Wizards ever prints a card with the storm mechanic in Standard again. 

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Why it's safe and should be in Modern: The cycle lands probably wouldn't do anything in 90% of decks, but they are fun cards. They might be good in some fringe decks, like mono-color decks or with Life from the Loam. For me, cards that obviously don't break the format, but might make it in some Tier 3 decks are exactly the type of cards I want legal in Modern. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: This one is actually very likely. Maro has suggested we are almost certainly going to see cycling again, and having lands that cycle is a natural tie in. While I wouldn't call it a guarantee, I think this cycle will be reprinted eventually. 

Other Cards of Note

  • Chaos Warp gives Mono-Red decks an interesting answer to non-creature permanents, but it seems unlikely that the super aggressive red decks in Modern would be interested in playing it over another burn spell, except against Leyline of Sanctity.
  • We already have a three-mana Living Death in Living End, so I'm not too worried about making the original Modern legal. That said, Living Death removes the "you can't play spells with converted mana cost less than three" restriction, so maybe there is a broken deck out there? 
  • Ghostly Prison sees fringe play at best, so having Propaganda legal is unlikely to make any waves.
  • Ruination is an interesting addition as a budget replacement for Blood Moon, although it is so much worse than Blood Moon
  • Fire // Ice could be good in Twin and would likely see some play, but I doubt it would be broken. 

Commander 2013

Not Happening, No Way, No How

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Why it's dangerous: It costs three-mana and taps for three-mana. If you look at the history of mana rocks, you'll see that they went from netting mana (Sol Ring, Grim Monolith), to being mana neutral like Basalt Monolith, to producing less mana than they cost (every mana rock printed in the past 15 years). "Free" mana rocks like Basalt Monolith are a relic of the game's past and are not the type of cards that should be legal in Modern. They are simply too powerful. We don't want most decks to play turn three Karn Liberated (e.g. Noble Hierarch, Basalt Monolith, Karn Liberated). Plus untapping and tapping for three-mana can be problematic, especially on Magic Online where people can use it as a way to drain their opponent's clock. On the other hand, the idea of a Wake Thrasher combo deck is fairly appealing. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: Seriously? The most recent mana rocks we've seen cost three mana and tap for one mana (e.g. Pristine Talisman or Golgari Cluestone). We'll see storm in Standard before we see Basalt Monolith

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Why it's unsafe: While strictly worse, it's pretty close to a Vampiric Tutor. For two-mana and some amount of life, you can guarantee that you'll draw whatever card you want the next turn, all at instant speed. The argument for Lim-Dul's Vault is that Spoils of the Vault does something very similar for only one-mana, and you get the card directly to your hand. However, the difference in life payment is huge. 

Even if we assume you are looking for a card you are playing as a four of, Spoils of the Vault will often cost you 10 life to find it, and it can even kill you outright. That's why Spoils of the Vault is only played with Angel's Grace. With Lim-Dul's Vault, 10 life will allow you to look through your entire library, and in many cases you'll only need to spend a couple of life to find the card you want. Modern combo decks don't need another way to be more consistent, and Lim-Dul's Vault is too good for the format. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: Considering modern tutors cost at least four-mana and typically five-mana, I'd say the chances of Lim-Dul's Vault showing up in Standard is zero. 

Questionable, but Safe (Maybe?)

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Why it's safe: I came into this article expecting to write about how True-Name Nemesis is completely busted and should not be allowed into Modern. After thinking about it for a while, I don't believe it would be that oppressive for a few reasons. First, True-Name Nemesis is awesome in Legacy mostly because of equipment and Stoneforge Mystic. Second, and most importantly, most of the popular decks just don't care all that much about a 3/1 for three, even if it has protection from everything. Check out this breakdown of decks ordered by percentage of metagame. 

Why it's dangerous: Even if it's not scary on turn three, playing a True-Name Nemesis on turn two off a mana dork feels strong and annoying. While the equipment in Modern isn't nearly as good as the equipment in Legacy, we still have the sword cycle and True-Name Nemesis swinging a Sword of Fire and Ice or Sword of Feast and Famine would close out games fairly quickly. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: Standard is all about creature combat and True-Name Nemesis dominates creature combat. Not happening. 

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Why it's safe: It's only one-mana cheaper than Damnation. It's costs a lot of life to kill something big. If the goal is to kill a board of Elves or tokens, Drown in Sorrow is better. Plus, paying life is more of a cost in Modern than it is in Legacy. It's not like you can just jam four copies of Toxic Deluge. It seems more likely it would be a one- or two-of alongside Damnation or a sideboard card for specific matchups. 

Why it's dangerous: There really isn't a comparable card in Modern. Toxic Deluge is unique because it's a three mana sweeper that can not only take down Lingering Souls tokens, but also Primeval Titan and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. It's a hard card to evaluate. I may be massively underrating how good it would be in the format.

Odds of Standard reprinting: Wraths in Standard now cost five and aggro decks don't have enough reach to punish a control deck for paying life. Maybe it's not impossible Toxic Deluge shows up in Standard, but it is unlikely. 

Cards I Want in Modern

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Why it's safe: When it comes down to it, Baleful Strix is a 1/1 for two-mana. It is the very definition of a fair card. It offers a lot of value and does a lot of things, but none of what it does is broken in the slightest. While it might be pretty good in Grixis Control where it could block, kill a creature, and then come back from the graveyard thanks to Kolaghan's Command, how much better is this play than just getting back Jace, Vryn's Prodigy

The main reason I'd like to see Baleful Strix in Modern is it makes non-affinity artifact decks more playable. Tezzeret Control pops up from time to time on the very fringes of Modern. Having access to Baleful Strix might push it from fringe to borderline playable. In short, it's hard to imagine Baleful Strix breaking anything because it's such a fair card, and it might increase the diversity of the format. 

Odds of a Standard reprint: I might be crazy, but a reprint doesn't seem impossible. While it would be very good in control decks, we already have a two-mana creature with flying and deathtouch (Tidehollow Strix) and a two-mana creature that draws cards (Coiling Oracle). Having all the abilities together in one package isn't out of the question. That said, I don't expect it to see print any time soon. Maybe if we ever return to Alara? 

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Why it's safe: The stats on Angel of Finality aren't above the curve (see Linvala, Keeper of Silence and Restoration Angel). We have the same ability printed on a land (Bojuka Bog). There a good chance that Angel of Finality wouldn't see play in Modern at all. Probably the best case scenario is that Angel of Finality finds a home in some sort of Hatebear / Death and Taxes deck, probably out of the sideboard as a graveyard hoser. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: 100%. This is not to say that Angel of Finality will be reprinted in Standard, but it is exceedingly safe to reprint in Standard if Wizards chooses to go this route. 

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Why it's safe: While chances are Goblin Bombardment would have very little impact on Modern, I'm a huge fan of cards that can facilitate interesting decks and unique combos. While 99% of decks wouldn't give Goblin Bombardment a second look, there is a chance of something really cool and fun in the one percent that would. 

Odds of Standard reprinting: I guess it's possible, but the fact that Barrage of Expendables came with a mana cost to activate the "sacrifice: deal one damage" ability makes me think that Wizards has moved away from making this effect free, at least on an inexpensive Red enchantment. 

Other Cards of Note: 

  • Maybe Goblin Sharpshooter is the card that can make Goblins relevant in Modern, because it certainly wasn't Goblin Piledriver.
  • Karmic Guide might see play somewhere, but she seems really slow for our current Modern format. We no longer have Birthing Pod in the format, and she doesn't get hit by Collected Company.
  • Unexpectedly Absent is an interesting answer because it's instant speed and can hit any non-land permanent. It can be pretty punishing in response to a fetch land activation (shuffling away the target permanently), but it doesn't feel above the curve for Modern. 
  • There is probably some crazy combo involving Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge, but I'd be surprised if a four-mana creature that dies to Lightning Bolt and needs to untap will have an effect on Modern. 

Wrap Up

Now that you've seen my feelings on cards from Commander and Commander 2013, I want to hear what you think of the idea of having these cards legal in Modern. Remember, this is just part one of the series, and part three (the final part) is going to be based around breaking down the numbers. I'm willing to change my opinion on cards based on what the community has to say. 

So here's the deal. I've included a poll featuring the cards we've talked about from Commander and Commander 2013. You can vote for as many options as you like, and a "yes" vote means that you believe the card in question should be Modern legal. If you leave the box blank, this is a "no" vote and means you believe the card in question should not be legal in Modern. So please take a second to vote, and we'll use the votes when we come to a conclusion on whether or not the Commander series should be Modern legal. A couple of quick notes on the voting, and then we'll get to the poll!

  1. Assume card availability is not an issue. Don't vote against Flusterstorm because you are afraid it will be too expensive. If you are going to vote against Flusterstorm, do so because you believe it is too powerful, or otherwise unhealthy for the Modern format. 
  2. If you want to explain your vote, use the comments below. I'll be reading all of them and take them into consideration for the final article in the series. Like I said, I'm more than willing to change my mind about any of the cards on the list. Just give me some good, solid arguments for why I'm wrong. 


Anyway, that's all for today. Make sure to leave all your thoughts, idea, options, and suggestion in the comments. You can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 

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