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This week, Griffin and I had the chance to sit down and record our podcast episode for the month. We discussed something that has been weighing heavily on Griffin’s mind. He told me he wanted to talk about the types of cards that would be Commander’s downfall. I immediately assumed he was talking about a certain Secret Lair Drop and said, “You really wanna talk about The Walking Dead Secret Lair?” He laughed and said, “No! I definitely don’t want to talk about that.” Then, to preface what he really wanted to talk about, he told me a story of a recent online game he played on SpellTable.
He was in a game with three other players and one of them was playing Niv-Mizzet, Parun. It was a fun game but the Niv-Mizzet player’s deck was going off and the rest of the table knew they had to deal with it. It’s important to know that Griffin was the second player to play after the Niv-Mizzet player in regards to the turn order. Niv-Mizzet passed to Griffin’s other opponent after an insane turn with four mana left open. That player attempted to cast a Merciless Eviction to reset the board and, of course, the Izzet player cast a Counterspell. After losing his merciless eviction, he then attempted to cast an Oblivion Stone. With the last two mana he had access to, the first player counted the O-Stone as well using an Arcane Denial.
Now it’s Griffin’s turn and he thinks he is all clear to play whatever he wants because the Niv-Mizzet deck is completely tapped out. However, as he goes to cast his first spell, he remembers that he has to keep in mind cards like Force of Will or Pact of Negation and this frustrated him a little bit. So, he attempts to cast a Wrath of God which was countered by a Force of Will. This is not out of the ordinary and was somewhat expected by Griffin so he shrugged it off and–thinking there is no way his opponent has another free counterspell–casts Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
Well, you know right where this is headed. Griffin’s Ugin was countered by Fierce Guardianship from the new Commander 2020 set for free. Needless to say, after wasting all of their resources, Griffin and his two other opponents lost to the Niv-Mizzet player on his next turn. Understandably, Griffin was a little disappointed by this and even a little frustrated.
Free spells are nothing new and there are technically hundreds of them that you can play in EDH; however, we’ve noticed an uptick in both the power level and the frequency of these spells over the last two years. There is a cycle that came out in the new C20 set and in Modern Horizons which were similar in more than just their names to the famous Force of Will for their ability to pitch a card of the same color and then played for free. Some of these are obviously better than others, which is fine, but they still bring with them an unpredictable nature that “forces” players to have to consider them when calculating and planning out their moves despite an opponent being tapped out.
WHAT IS THE COMMANDER FORMAT?
Before we talk more about free spells, let’s talk about what Commander is, why people play it, and why these kinds of cards might not mesh well with the idea or philosophy of Commander. I want to stress that we talked about this subject in regards to CASUAL COMMANDER and NOT CEDH which we believe is an entirely different format where free spells should always be allowed to “roam free”. The Rules Committee–essentially the creators of the format–has a website where you can find the rules of the format, what cards are banned, other helpful resources, and what they like to call the “Philosophy of Commander.” The very first thing it says is that Commander is for fun. Everyone (Griffin, the RC, you, and me) plays Commander because they want to have fun.
The Philosophy of Commander as written by the RC continues by stating that the idea behind this amazing format is to have resonant (full and vibrant) experiences in groups that rely on a social contract that expects everyone to be considerate of the people they are playing with. The bottom line is someone is going to win but everyone should get a chance to have fun and play a deck that expresses how they enjoy playing Magic. In regards to today’s topic of “free spells” and are they enough to ruin Commander, it is important to understand the RC’s underlying thoughts and philosophy on what the format should be. So the question becomes, do free spells make the game unfun?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO GET FREE VALUE?
There are A LOT of ways to cast spells for free or at seriously reduced rates in Magic. You can play Leylines that if they are in your starting hand then you can play them before the game even starts. Cards with the ability convoke can be cast “for free” by tapping creatures instead of mana producers. There are many zero drop artifacts such as multiple moxes, Mana Crypt, Ornithopter, etc. Cards that can have their costs reduced like Metalwork Colossus and Ancient Stone Idol. Traps, cards with affinity, Phyrexian mana, Pacts, etc.
If there are so many ways to get free spells, then why would Griffin be frustrated about the various “Pitch” spells like Force of Will and the C20 cycle that just requires you to have your commander on the battlefield to be cast for free? Many of these cards are not only easier to cast for free than most with fewer downsides, but they are also incredibly powerful. And Griffin saw that in his game against Niv-Mizzet. Even fogging for free with Obscuring Haze can be enough to completely turn around the game at little to no cost for the player casting it.
WHY ARE THESE TYPES OF SPELLS A PROBLEM?
Very few cards are banned in Commander and we at Command Valley usually lean towards the side that fewer cards should be banned or even zero cards should be banned in the format. In my opinion, I don’t think any of the spells we’ve talked about today should be banned. Although the cycle from C20 is extremely powerful, they aren’t breaking the game. Please, do not mistake this article as us calling for these cards to be banned. We believe that everyone should discuss with their own playgroups to find out what they are ok with being played–remember that people want to play their cards and having cards like Force of Will is really exciting so please be kind and considerate of that aspect of this discussion as well.
Coming back from that tangent, the rules committee has a list of reasons as to how and why they decide to ban certain cards. Two of the RC’s reasons I want to mention in relation to these more powerful, free-to-cast spells are: if a card causes severe resource imbalances and allow players to win out of nowhere. Now, these cards do NOT fall perfectly or totally under these two conditions for banning cards. But think back to Griffin’s experience of casting two spells for twelve mana and having both of them countered for virtually nothing at all. In my mind, that is a resource imbalance. Imagine you swing everything you’ve got at a tapped out, nearly defenseless opponent for the win, and because they have their commander, they can cast Obscuring Haze giving them a free fog and the opportunity to wipe your board and ultimately win right after.
These types of interactions can be problematic and don’t follow the traditional idea that you play lands to get access to mana to cast your spells. Again, we don’t believe these cards should be banned but hope that WOTC will stop pushing the envelope on making cards like these if they are going to continue to be more and more powerful. Furthermore, many of these more powerful cards can be incredibly expensive, making it more difficult for some players to get their hands on them.
THE LASTING EFFECTS
We believe that if we continue on the current trend of getting more and more powerful and free spells that the game will become less fun with each new card or cycle of overpowered free spells. If WOTC continues to print these cards, more Commander decks will be filled with potentially unfun cards that break the spirit of the format. The idea that you have to think about getting blown out by your opponents for free while they are tapped out is, in our opinion, the road to Commander’s destruction. The more players have to think this way and experience games like Griffin did the more players we could potentially lose from our awesome community. Again, we don’t think that these are breaking the game YET. Don’t go take all of your Force of Wills or Flawless Maneuvers out of your decks after reading this article. Do and play whatever makes the game fun for you, your friends, and wherever you play magic.
If you want to buy any of these crazy good spells that will drive your opponents at least a little crazy, you can through Game Grid’s new and improved website by clicking here. Thanks for checking out this article, we hope you have a wonderful and worry-free weekend! Don’t fall into any Mindbreak Traps and stay safe out there.