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January 19, 2016

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Musings of The Madman – So Long, Simic Queen!

After years of infuriating play centered around Momir Vig, Simic Visionary and other blue-green value engines, the chief offender in Simic – the Simic Queen herself – Prophet of Kruphix, has finally met a deserved end on the Commander banned list. (If you hum the article’s title to the tune of Candle In The Wind, I’m sure the ensuing verses will form in your creative mind.) One of the more centralizing cards in the format is gone, offering Simic players a chance to play Magic on their own turns and not on every one of our turns as well. Yes, they can still cheat stuff with Leyline of Anticipation and Seedborn Muse. But that’s a completely acceptable combination of cards and nine mana-worth of investment.

The announcement itself, found at this link on the Commander forums:

“This was challenging. Prophet is not a traditionally obvious problem card for Commander, so we chose to take a conservative approach and see if casual groups could adapt. In the past, we’ve seen unpopular cards generate a lot of outcry, but be handled reasonably well. Powerful cards existing is OK and exploring them responsibly is an essential part of Commander.

“This didn’t happen with Prophet. Casual groups haven’t been able to work around it and problematic play has not dropped off in hoped-for ways. Instead, the primary approach has been to steal it, clone it, run it yourself, or get run over. Ultimately, it seems the card is too perfect – it does everything U/G Commander players want to be doing and it does it in a way that makes counterplay difficult. With traditional boogeymen such as Consecrated Sphinx, you’re forced to expend a lot of your mana to cast it and will have a challenge protecting it as the turn goes around the table. With Prophet, it has virtual protection built in, negating that disadvantage almost immediately.

“Prophet becomes only the second multicolored card on the banlist (after the structurally-problematic Coalition Victory). Its [sic] telling just how pervasive Prophet is despite such a restriction. Yes, U/G is the most popular color combination in Commander, but we’ve reached the point where Prophet is driving U/G deck choice, rather than vice-versa. That’s centralizing in ways we can’t ignore, so it’s time for Prophet to take a break.

‘Whenever we decide to ban a card, we take a long look at the current list to see if any cards can come off, as we believe a casual format is better served by a minimalist banlist. After extensive discussion, however, we concluded that everything on the list served a purpose, so we won’t be unbanning anything. It’s been two years since the last (non-consolidation) card got banned, which is an acceptable growth rate!”

Although their statement that Prophet of Kruphix is not a “traditionally obvious problem card for Commander” does raise eyebrows, I suppose it indicates that they don’t feel it generates too much mana, or costs too much real life money and so on. However, the Prophet was very centralizing in an unhealthy way. You needed removal almost immediately and that often proved insufficient as the colour combination led to plays such as Mystic Snake stopping your response or Man-o’-War variants returning it to its owner’s hand. On top of that, its existence in the green part of the colour pie meant that even though it did (occasionally) perish, you could simply recover it via outlets such as Eternal Witness and restart the whole absurd, sanity-destroying cycle once again.

Let’s observe a moment of silence for this insane value engine.

On the other hand…

Sorry to everyone who abused the crap out of this broken engine. Justice is served and it feels fantastic.

This has not been the only announcement made today – the sunniest and best day of the year.

Rule 4 is no more!

Some rules clean-up occurred and Rule 4 has disappeared. For the uninitiated, Rule 4 limited the mana you could produce to those in your Commander’s color identity. This rule is now as distant a memory as Prophet of Kruphix’s omnipresence, so let’s take it back to the official announcement for more elaboration!

“We still love Rule 4. It’s a nice piece of flavor and reinforces the idea that this format goes beyond simple mechanical restrictions into a deeper philosophical approach around color and mana symbols. Its effect on the game was pretty small, but that flavor message made it worthwhile to preserve.

“However, the mana system of Magic is very complicated, and trying to insert an extra rule there has consequences in the corners. Harvest Mage. Celestial Dawn. Gauntlet of Power. And now, colorless-only mana costs.

“Being able to generate colorless mana more easily in Commander wasn’t going to break anything. But, it represented another “gotcha” moment for players, who were now likely to learn about Rule 4 when someone exploited the colorless loophole. We could paper over it (both “mana generated from off-color sources can only pay generic costs” and “you can’t pay a cost outside your color identity” were considered), but a lot of the flavor would be lost in the transition, defeating the purpose. Without the resonant flavor, Rule 4 was increasingly looking like mana burn – a rule that didn’t come up enough to justify its existence.

“We don’t expect removing the rule to have a big impact. Some Sunburst and Converge cards might get a bit more of a look. Sen Triplets works more like you’d expect, as does Praetor’s Grasp. The clone-and-steal deck, already one of the most popular archetypes, gets better, but less than you might think. It turns out there really aren’t that many impactful non-blue activated abilities on cards that commonly get stolen in Commander. It’s OK if you can regenerate that creature you just stole, and you’ll need to work for it a bit anyway.

“One side benefit to the removal of both the color production and mulligan rules is that, in terms of game play, Commander becomes a normal game of multiplayer Magic with a higher life total and a set of additive rules to bring a new piece (your Commander) into the game. That’s good streamlining in terms of teaching people the format and reducing gotcha moments while still preserving the essential flavor of Commander.”

In other words, you can add City of Brass and Vivid Marsh to your mono-black deck so that when you Praetor’s Grasp someone’s Time Stretch you can cast it and turn the tables on them! This rule deletion also removes another weird corner case to the format that causes people to take a step back and stop doing something un-intuitive. And hey, it makes Abhay Mehta happy that his Sen Triplets deck can do cooler stuff now. And a happy Abhay means a happy table, turn two Grave Titan notwithstanding, of course!

Vancouver Mulligan is the new standard.

After much debate and testing (including computer models!) the Rules Committee has settled on the Vancouver Mulligan (with a free multiplayer Mulligan) as the new standard. While I’ve already explored this issue in a previous column, the Rules Committee disliked the hand-sculpting aspect of the rule. As an avid Commander player, I will admit to abusing the blue blazes out of it. My best case scenarios were to have a Serra Ascendant in hand then throw out high cost creatures for lands and an Armageddon or throw back to find a Mana Crypt and/or an AEther Vial to accelerate my Thalia, Guardian of Thraben to create an oppressive board-state for all the fellow control players.

The announcement itself:

“We promised in the last update that, with the advent of the Vancouver Mulligan, we’d be evaluating the mulligan process in Commander. This announcement is the culmination of that research. After examining several popular options, and coming up with a few of our own, we’ve concluded that the Vancouver Mulligan (with the standard first-one-free in multiplayer and a Scry once you go to 6 or fewer) is the best option. The RC continues to use and recommend the Gis (“Mulligan 7s to a playable hand. Don’t abuse this”) for trusted playgroups, but that’s not something that can go in the rules.

“Ultimately, the goal of mulligans in Commander is to ensure that you start the game with enough lands to be a participant. With Commander games running an hour plus, it’s unfortunate if you can’t play anything because you miss land drops and get run over quickly.

“We didn’t want to solve the problems of Magic itself – mana screw and mana flood are part of the game – and players need to make a reasonable effort with their land counts, but we wanted a mulligan rule that tried to minimize unplayable opening hands. So, we brainstormed, and ran computer simulations. And what ultimately came out was… it didn’t much matter. Nothing provided a clear enough upgrade to justify having additional rules for mulligans. For example, with 37 lands, Partial Paris was “successful” (which we defined as playing a 4th land on turn 4) 89% of the time versus Multiplayer Vancouver at 86%, but it came at a cost of about a fifth of a card on average. On the whole, 86% success is a rate that seems reasonable.

“If you find yourself playing 1v1 (perhaps while waiting for a friend to show up), you should still use the free multiplayer mulligan. With a deck this size, variance is high enough to make not having the free mulligan potentially punishing – without the free mulligan you drop down to about 80% success rate, which, combined with being the only opponent to focus on, leads to too many unfortunate games.

“Finally, it’s not an official rule, but we recommend setting aside the hands you’re mulliganning away until you get a keeper. That saves shuffling time, and we’re all for minimizing shuffling 100-card decks.”

We get a little card selection by peeking at the first card of our library without getting to sculpt our hands. This should prove fair for all groups. Cutthroat groups can simply elect to keep Partial Paris for their own events or iterations.

Before we go, let’s take a look at a bullet dodged!

The Fetchlands, All The Fetchlands!

A private text conservation between Sheldon Menery and a citizen leaked onto the interwebs and suggested that off-colour fetches for Commanders would be a thing in the future. A Commander like Thrun, the Last Troll would be unable to use any fetchlands since all them get another colour by default. This would be crippling to single colour Commanders and a nuisance to others as well. While the idea of flavour defining your land base is laudable and green should be the last to complain about ramp options, this creates needless complications and additions to the format. It brings up questions about cards like Farseek and so on, which mention other basic land types as well. The Rules Committee made the correct choice here by leaving well enough alone. This is something that should be left to the players’ discretion and not “fixed” via a rule change.

So, there we are! For the first time in a long time a Commander rules update offers positive vibes all around. The new Mulligan is great, the elimination of Rule 4 is already setting us up for some zaniness and no one will miss the Simic Queen’s tyrannical grasp on the format.

Until next week, may your mono-blue builds abuse your opponent’s Fauna Shaman!