Oppressive Aggro and Magic’s History – Lessons from Mirrodin Affinity

Howdy folks.

I definitely caused a shitstorm a while back with my post on the state of Modern. Since then Modern has continued to evolve.

The trend toward hyper-linear strategies – mostly aggro with elements of combo – has continued, but with one new deck: Cathartic Reunion Dredge, which is rapidly becoming the new bogeyman and is already drawing calls for a banning (as well as lots of people who regard the idea of another banning in Modern as utter heresy).

I’m not going to comment directly on the banning calls. A month away from actively playing Modern has left me unaware of nuances of the metagame and so I’m not qualified to judge format balance right now.

I would shed no tears for Cathartic Reunion if Chandra and Pia are taken out the back and shot, reuniting them with Kiran (sorry -too soon?) but this article is not arguing for that to happen.

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I’m going to assert that Cathartic Reunion Dredge is a synergy based aggressive deck. Some would term it aggro-combo, others would call it outright combo.

But fundamentally I would argue it plays the same game as Bushwhacker Zoo – its goal is to deploy a critical mass of aggressive creatures extremely quickly, and to overrun the opponent before they can develop their own gameplan.

While Bushwhacker does this via Magic’s normal mechanisms for casting spells, Dredge uses other means. But its mechanism for winning is the same as other go-wide aggro strategies, and it has similar problems with a resolved Ghostly Prison, Anger of the Gods or Porphyry Nodes as Bushwhacker has. (Both decks can beat all of those cards; just pointing out that they interact with the strategies in the same way).

I draw the line between aggro and combo somewhere between Affinity (synergistic aggro) and Infect (creature-based combo). Readers are free to disagree with this division and draw the line elsewhere if you want – I hope the points made will still be useful if we disagree here.

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There is an idea common among Magic players that certain strategies are more ‘oppressive’ than others. When these strategies have been good, Draw-Go, hard prison decks (including land destruction strategies) and combo decks – particularly those where the deck’s best hands win blisteringly fast – are often termed oppressive. I don’t agree with this.

Aggressive decks can be oppressive too. They are responsible for the second worst Standard of all time.

I’ve played competitive Magic for almost twenty years, and have encountered three truly oppressive formats.

The first and the worst was the Standard format utterly ruined by Tolarian Academy combo. This deck resulted in the banhammer getting a serious workout, and taught Wizards that fast artifact mana is inherently unfair.

The second to occur, and the third worst, isn’t all that relevant to this article as it was Mercadian Block Constructed with an old version of the Legend Rule.

The most recent truly oppressive format is the one we can learn from. Mirrodin-era Standard, with the Affinity monster.

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The banhammer that had been working out during the Tolarian Academy era got a fresh workout with Mirrodin era Affinity.

Skullclamp was banned first, for obvious reasons.

But after players got sick of maindecking Oxidize, eight more cards – the six artifact lands, Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault, were all given a bullet in the biggest mass banning Standard has ever seen.

Cranial Plating was spared to add insult to injury – as the second best card in the Affinity shell, it was left a shadow of its former self, legal to play but basically unplayable.

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The Affinity deck was a synergistic aggro deck with considerable reach. Builds varied, but the deck would vomit out a mass of threats as early as turn 1, then would either win turn 3 or 4 on the back of going all-in on one threat, or would play a more cautious game, chaining Thoughtcast or even going bigger with cards like Somber Hoverguard, before finishing the game out of nowhere with Shrapnel Blast.

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Why was it oppressive?

Standard is a format that usually has fundamental turn of 5 or 6, with aggro decks often coming in at around 4.5. (The concept of the fundamental turn was first introduced in this excellent article from over 15 years ago).

Prior to Darksteel’s release, the two versions of Affinity were Broodstar affinity (a control deck that used Talismans and artifact lands to ramp into its namesake card) and AtogDisciple of the Vault aggro. These had fundamental turns of 5.5 and 4.5 respectively which made them perfectly fair decks.

Then Darksteel and Fifth Dawn completed the decks, and suddenly the ultra-tuned Ravager Affinity monster had a fundamental turn of 3.25-3.5.

This meant that if you were not playing Affinity yourself, you had to dedicate multiple cards – Oxidize and the like – just to stay alive long enough to have a chance.

Playing those cards maindeck meant that your deck was worse against all of the non-Affinity decks in the metagame. And so the correct call was to play an Affinity list tuned to beat the mirror match.

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During the period where Ravager Affinity Aggro dominated Standard, tournament attendance plummeted despite better than average FNM promos (even for the time).

Wizards eventually saw the need to act and terminated the Affinity deck with extreme prejudice. Where three bannings would have saved the format (Ravager, Disciple and Cranial Plating), they instead banned eight cards to make a statement that they were serious about turning Standard around.

Since then, there has never been a need to ban additional cards to make a statement like that. This should be a testament to how oppressive Affinity was.

Modern a month ago (when I last had the time to play it seriously) wasn’t as dominated by oppressive aggro as Mirrodin era Standard was. But it was the closest we have been since.

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The Standard changes – It’s all good… until the next Jace, Telepath Unbound. Then it will be terrible.

Quickly chiming in on the change from a 5-6 set Standard to a 7-8 set Standard – but mostly from a financial perspective.

A side note – all prices are US dollars unless specified otherwise. Where I don’t have accurate USD prices (specifically for 1990s historic prices), I’ve used prices in Australian dollars and my best recollection of the exchange rate at the time.

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It’s not really possible to say whether this will make the format more or less interesting. I’m optimistic, but time will tell. It will depend upon the metagame, and also the presence or absence of cards (cough, Collected Company) that single-handedly transform the environment.

Generally speaking though, Wizards have been pretty good at creating interesting synergies across blocks and I expect this will continue.

One thing needs to be said though.

Just like the recent MTGO redemption changes, this is going to make Standard more expensive for paper Magic players, and this price increase will be most prominent on the most expensive cards.

Before explaining this, I want to introduce what I term the Tarmogoyf effect, named after the first rare in Magic’s history to hit $45 during its Standard tenure.

Future Sight wasn’t well regarded at release. Tarmogoyf was the most underrated card since Umezawa’s Jitte, and many of the cards that later became Modern powerhouses weren’t seen as anything amazing at the time.

But about six weeks after the set hit the shelves, people realised the little green dude was absurdly strong. He went from bulk rare to semi-chase rare, to chase rare ($20 was typical for a chase rare at the time), then kept growing in price to an unprecedented $40-$45.

This resulted in the Tarmogoyf effect – people kept buying Future Sight boosters in the hope of opening the $40+ little green man (even though opening FUT boosters was still a negative EV lottery at the time). Future Sight sold out faster than most sets from distributors and stores loved it, because customers loved buying lottery tickets.

Wizards learned from this, and reshuffled rarities around as soon as possible after they learned from the Tarmogoyf effect. The whole Alara rarity structure was designed to ensure that the next time R&D fucked up and printed something broken, the Tarmogoyf effect would be much more pronounced. And what happened? JtMS hit $100 in its Standard tenure.

Again the Tarmogoyf effect ensured that WWK sold out everywhere in record time, despite a cracked booster not actually having all that high an expected value at the time. (The dual lands that are now high $ cards were not all that expensive at the time – the set’s value was tied up in Jace and SFM, but mostly Jace).

Wizards were not in a position to fully capitalize on the Tarmogoyf effect here as they screwed up and didn’t reprint WWK enough. But they learned. They always learn.

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Jump back to recent times, before the two recent changes.

Consider Jace, Wallet Unbound, as the extreme outlier of a Standard card. There was a perfect storm of factors that made it so expensive:

  • Large set (larger than usual for a large set – JVP was 1 per 126 packs, compared to Liliana the Last Hope at 1 per 88, or Chandra, Torch of Defiance at 1 per 121)
  • Underdrafted set (ORI was only drafted alone)
  • For a period, the card was a 4-of in around 75% of decks by metagame share.
  • A low mana cost and not dead if you drew multiples.

JVP hit $90-95.

Many people ask “How did he get so high?”. I want to answer a different question – why didn’t he go higher?

After all, dealers pay about $2 per pack (it’s not exactly that and a bit over $2 for smaller stores, but let’s call this $2). 126 packs cost $252 – why would dealers accept only 40% of that sum for Jace when he was the only card in the set that was super-easy to sell?

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The answer was two factors.

One – more relevant to this morning’s announcement – was that at his peak, Jace was 9-10 months from rotation. Magic players do not like spending large amounts on cards with under a year’s Standard tenure left. Players are generally bad at the economics of Magic – but they perceive that buying cards that are far from rotation is better value than buying ones close to it. So the 9-10 month factor suppressed demand somewhat – and this morning’s announcement means this will not happen for the next Jace.

Two – MTGO redemption. Paper dealers had an alternative to opening cases – they could buy complete digital sets of ORI on MTGO from MTGO dealers for about $133 (at the peak) and then pay $25 to turn them into paper sets. This method of arbitrage allowed many individual dealers to source hundreds of copies of JVP at a price that was lower than cracking cases. This would be less of an impact today due to the limited redemption window – and for Jace, his price explosion would have been too late for redemption to rain it in.

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At peak, Jace was 60% of the wholesale value of a redemption set (the most efficient way to source the card). Without redemption, if the 60% remained constant, he would have had to be $150 (60% of the wholesale price of 126 boosters). The 60% assumption may be an exaggeration, but $500 a playset would have been likely even before today.

Now add in more demand because of today’s announcement and you have an even worse perfect storm.

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I’ll jump in with something about a counterveiling factor that many hope will suppress prices – Masterpieces. I think the Masterpiece effect is being overstated.

I played when Urza’s Legacy hit and introduced foils, and the hype was incredible. Foils added over $1 to the expected value of a cracked booster, with bulk foil commons worth the retail price of a pack, and bulk foil rares (yep, even trash that’s worse than Champion’s Helm) were AUD35 (USD20 at the time).

The hype ended, but people kept opening foils in new sets. Foil Urza’s Legacy sets that were lovingly hand-collated at a cost of over $2000 hold nothing like that value today, and today, foils in typical sets add around 20 cents to the EV of an opened booster.

I expect Masterpieces will fade away somewhat in time, and much of their EV share will come at the expense of pack foils and low demand casual cards, rather than cards with Standard competitive demand.

The cards that lose the value in Masterpiece sets will not be the extreme chase cards (Polluted Delta, Mana Vault) but will instead be the next tier of cards (Godless Shrine, Sol Ring, Cascade Bluffs). Mediocre to bulk foil rares once held values of AUD35-50 but this lasted only five sets. The last time I was excited to open a booster and see a shit foil rare was Prophecy – even a couple of sets later, by Planeshift, the demand was just gone. I expect Masterpieces to follow the same trajectory.

I hope to be proven wrong on this point. Time will tell.

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In summary: Today’s announcement will make Standard more expensive. Players will need cards from more sets, increasing the barrier to entry to the format, which everyone already realises, but additionally, the most undersupplied cards will see larger price spikes than in recent history.

If Wizards’ present policies (Masterpieces, Redemption and 21-24 month Standard tenure) had all been in place when Origins hit, I expect JVP would have smashed the $100 barrier and maybe even hit $125-150.

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MTGO’s ‘Treasure Chests’ and competitive online play

Weighing in on another controversy here.

There’s a lot of unease or even doom and gloom about the MTGO prize changes.

I’m not someone who jumps on board every MTGO change. At the time I was quite hostile to the introduction of Play Points, although MTGO later added enough PP sinks to allay my fears.

That said, I think the Treasure Chest system is actually fairly positive overall – with caveats and room for improvement.

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I’m not talking about the redemption changes here, other than a three paragraph aside (skip ahead if you want to avoid a rant). While I disagree with the prevailing opinions on the Treasure Chest system, the redemption changes are a steaming pile of shit that will enrich speculative traders at the expense of Standard players.

In the short term the redemption changes will also seriously hurt the high-volume low-margin bot chain traders that (in the absence of a good in-client MTGO trade system) serve as the lubricant that makes MTGO so smooth. Dealers like MTGOtraders, Goatbots, Clan Team and Cardhoarder have the largest collections on MTGO, and so changes that reduce consumer confidence in the MTGO platform (and hence reduce the secondary market value of Event Tickets in USD) hurt them more than anyone else. If tickets fall from USD 0.98 to USD 0.92, this might cost my collection USD 200 but might cost Goatbots USD 10000 or more.

Many people think ‘I never redeem so this doesn’t affect me’, but people that played MTGO when Zendikar was the newest set know how much restrictions on redemption fuck over players that have never redeemed a set and have no plans to ever do so. Those players saw their collections lose a third of their value during the redemption freeze.

But that’s enough ranting for now.

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On MTGO, any prize that is available from Constructed events can and will flood the market unless it is desirable in extremely large quantities. As an example, Theros boosters spent much of their second year in Standard valued at around 80 cents.

It wasn’t that people didn’t want Theros packs. Drafters destroyed them all the time, even after the focus moved on to KTK drafts. Theros still had some cards that were in considerable demand and after FRF launched, it had a higher EV than KTK packs.

But there had just been too many of them awarded for drafters to absorb them all.

The most common reaction to Treasure Chests is to assume the same will happen. I dispute this. The very high rarity of the most desirable cards will prevent this happening, even with a large number of Chests being paid out as prizes.

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So far the only information we have on Treasure Chest contents is the announcement, plus a video of Lee Sharpe opening ten of them.

The announcement states the following:

  • Specific rares (e.g. Snapcaster) are twice as common as specific mythics (e.g. Godsire) in the ‘Modern legal rare slot’ found in some treasure chests.
  • Curated cards are in different rarity tiers and there is no information on these tiers.
  • You get an average of 1.25 of the ‘good items’ (Modern rares/mythics, bundles of PP, curated cards) per chest, with a minimum of 1, and an average 1.75 of the ‘chaff’ (Standard commons/uncommons).

In the ten opened chests, Lee gets 2 curated cards, 6 modern legal rares/mythics, and 50 PP. While this is not enough information to determine the rarity of each of those prizes, I will make the assumption that this prize pool was fairly typical, and so will assume the following distribution:

  • 50% of the ‘good items’ are Modern rares/mythics
  • 35% are 10 Play Point bundles
  • 15% are curated cards.

This distribution would make the probability of opening a specific Modern rare (for example, 8th Edition Ensnaring Bridge) at around 1 per 5000 Treasure Chests. 1 per 10000 for a specific mythic (for example, Magic 2012 Time Reversal).

There is not enough information to determine much about the rarity of individual curated cards. However, given Wizards’ past practice with PZ1 (the most similar set conceptually), it’s reasonable to estimate that the most desireable curated cards will be 5 times as rare as the non-chase ones. (For example, PZ1 True-Name Nemesis, a mythic, is about 5 times as rare as PZ1 Arcane Sanctum, an uncommon).

If this is accurate, it’s plausible that Rishadan Port is 1 per 15000 to 1 per 20000 Treasure Chests.

This won’t trash the card’s value overnight like the Lion’s Eye Diamond reprint did (that card fell from 183 tickets to 60 with a promo reprint of only 2000 copies, then down to 12 with VMA).

To get 2000 copies into circulation would require of the order of thirty million treasure chest openings. MTGO is bigger than people think, but it is not that big.

Expect a price impact that is more like the effect that Zendikar Expeditions had on the existing cards on MTGO – ultra-low supply cards like Kor Haven and Dust Bowl did fall, but even low supply cards like Horizon Canopy and Cascade Bluffs were not impacted much.

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Expected Value and Variance of Treasure Chests

Most analysis of Chests has been predicated on the assumption that the chests are worth almost nothing. This is wrong.

Expected Value is a term used to describe the average results of a random event, ignoring variance. For example, roll 3 dice and add the numbers showing, and your expected value is 10.5 (even though you cannot get exactly 10.5 at all, and the probability of getting exactly 10 is 12.5%, with exactly 11 also only being 12.5%).

For example, when Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was 94 tickets, he added 0.75 tickets to the EV of opening an ORI pack, even though over 99% of ORI packs did not contain a copy of the card.

Variance can be ennumerated via a statistical term called the Standard Deviation, but I won’t go into that here other than to state that variance on Chests is very high.

The EV of a chest under my above assumptions is given by:

  • 0 value for the chaff (Standard commons/uncommons). It’s not technically 0 (you might get a Reflector Mage) but it’s close enough to be just a rounding error.
  • 1.25 ‘good items’ – that’s 0.625 Modern rares/mythics; 0.4375 bundles of 10 PP, and 0.1875 curated cards.
  • Each Modern rare or mythic has an average value of about 0.7 tickets (thanks to the guy on Reddit that determined that 0.8 tickets dealer sell price is the average at present – his post is here). This may seem hard to believe as a large majority of Modern legal rares are less than five cents. But the EV is propped up by the large number of 5+ ticket cards in the format and in particular by the 20+ ticket cards you will rarely see.
  • So the Modern rare/mythic slot contributes about 43c to the EV of a chest.
  • The PP slot contributes 44c under our assumptions.
  • Finally the curated cards can’t be estimated because we do not know their relative rarities. The mean value of a curated card ignoring their rarity weighting is about 5 tickets (thanks to BenBuzz790 on Reddit for this information), so I will estimate 2.5 tickets once we factor in rarity weighting (which may be miles off but it’s the best estimate we can do for now). That puts the curated card value also at around 45c.

So under these assumptions the EV for an opened chest is actually $1.35. The assumptions could be wrong, but I don’t see these errors tremendously changing the overall EV.

Once more the variance is high. Not as high as entering an Origins draft was back when Jace was 94 tickets, but it is still high, and it will not be rare to open 8 chests and to find the best things you got were 20 PP and an Anger of the Gods.

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EV of events

Under the assumption that chests are worth 1.3 tickets, the ‘friendly’ events have the following absolute EVs at various win percentages:

50%: -10.6 PP

55%: -1.4 PP

60%: +8.15 PP

65%: +18 PP

70%: +28.4 PP

 

And under the further assumption that boosters are worth 10 tickets per draft set (an assumption made because of the draft entry fee changes occurring at the same time), the competitive events have the following absolute EVs:

50%: -13.5 PP

55%: +14.8 PP

60%: +46.3 PP

65%: +80 PP

Because the competitive events have better competition I will not give figures for 70%. That win rate is not sustainable.

Note that this provides a strong incentive for good players to get out of the kiddie pool and to swim with the sharks. This is definitely a good thing for MTGO’s future as it helps people who aren’t yet at an elite level play weaker opponents while getting tournament experience.

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Improving the Chests

The four things I think Wizards should do with the Chests to make them more appealing are:

  • Make the damn things tradeable. Some people find a thrill in variance, others hate it. Let people make their own decision on what level of variance they will tolerate. Otherwise you will get a flood of rants from people that win 16 chests and open pure shit in them, and these people will speak louder than the people that open 3 chests and get a Port and a Liliana.
  • Publish transparent rarity information on everything in them. I helped Goatbots design the EV calculator after magicev.com stopped being updated, and it is a tool that a lot of people use. Magic players like to know the odds and are usually suspicious of any situation in which they do not know the odds.
  • Consider replacing some of the PP ‘consolation prizes’ in casual leagues with fair amounts of Chests. I think everyone that enters a friendly league should get a consolation prize of a chest instead of the 10PP consolation prize you get for a 0-5 record.
  • Reduce some of the complexity in explaining what you get in them. I don’t see any need to have the 1-in-200 possibility of triple ‘prize’ packs – this should just be rolled into a better chance of getting a double prize pack.

Anyways this is pushing 2000 words now so I’ll leave it there and will respond to Reddit comments and comments on this site over time.

 

  • sirgog

 

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Kaladesh Standard – First Thoughts

I’ll preface this by saying these thoughts are theorycrafted only, not tested.

Smuggler’s Copter is arguably the strongest Kaladesh card, and it can fit into any strategy that plays small creatures.

This card will dramatically affect the power of Planeswalkers in Standard.

Almost none of the Standard Planeswalkers can defend themselves or their controllers against a flying creature that is not a creature during the Planeswalker’s controller’s turn. Nahiri is an exception.

This means that Walkers other than Nahiri are much more vulnerable in the new Standard than they used to be.

Sorry, Liliana. You had a great ten weeks in the centre of attention, but you aren’t there any more.

Ob Nixilis and Big Sorin in particular are looking a lot worse. They can still kill a crew member, but often the Coptor’s controller will just cast a new creature – almost every creature will do – and then proceed to get revenge against the Walker.

If you want to play Walkers, you will need actual flying creatures to defend them, and/or quite a bit of instant speed removal.

I also think that the mythic vehicle, Skysovereign, may see play as an occasional curve topper. This card will also mess up Walkers like there is no tomorrow.

For this reason I believe the coming Standard will be the Standard where Walkers have the least impact they have had in the past ~9 years that the card type has existed.

 

Interesting times.

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The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 2

This continues on from http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=18, which is worth reading first.

Every year, a few cards are printed that are much more powerful than they initially appear. Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, Nahiri the Harbinger – each of these cards was initially dismissed by most players, and then became a major Constructed card.

Two of the three (Cruise, Angler) I correctly identified as Constructed powerhouses early. This is because of my methodology – looking at cards through the prism of several fundamental rules of Magic. Any card that obeys all of these rules is inherently fair, and will not be in the upper echelon of Constructed cards in the larger formats.

Any card that breaks one or more of these rules must be taken seriously, even if it looks terrible. Those cards may simply be too expensive for a format, or the support for them might not yet exist, but they should remain on your radar.

The first two Fundamental Rules of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn. This was discussed in Part 1.

2) Players have reliable access to at most X+1 mana on turn X, except for turn 1, where they are limited to 1 mana. Exceeding this limit requires extreme investment of resources.

The Second Rule isn’t as fundamental as the first rule.

In Vintage, it’s not true at all – you have access to various ridiculous mana artifacts from the ridiculously broken Black Lotus, Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, to the slightly less broken (but still ridiculous) original Moxen, and a lot of less powerful cards that still break this rule in half.

Vintage is balanced around the assumption that the Second Rule does not apply, and the presence of Force of Will and Mental Misstep in the format as 4-ofs serves as glue that keeps the format from totally breaking.

However, in the other formats it holds much more true.

Cards that break it – Simian Spirit Guide, Dark Ritual, Summer Bloom – are all cards that allow backbreaking lategame plays or outright game-ending plays to be made earlier in games than is the standard for the format in question.

For that reason, any card that breaks this rule – no matter how terrible it might seem if assessed in a vacuum – must be taken seriously.

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Corrollary to the First Fundamental Rule of Magic

This refers to the following article: http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=18

The Commander format allows you to take any legendary creature and make it break the First Fundamental Rule.

This is the primary reason that Commander, when played with a Spike mindset, is such a fundamentally broken and combo-dominated format. Not only does your Commander break the First Fundamental Rule by starting the game effectively in your hand, but each time it is dealt with it breaks this rule again, albeit at a lower rate.

Commander still works fine when everyone at a table goes into a game without building their decks to win. If one player wants to grind value with boardwipes and Gearhulks, while another tries to ramp toward the biggest and silliest Dragons from Magic’s history, and a third seeks to cast spells that cause battlefield chaos, Commander can still be fun.

It’s when people push at the edges – which Spikes are always looking to do – that the format breaks apart.

After all, if Prossh is your Commander, Food Chain is a one-card combo that creates infinite Storm, and infinite mana (restricted to creature spells), and infinite board presence. Any card that can tutor for Food Chain is also a one-card combo.

It would do a lot for Commander to partially restore the First Fundamental Rule by restricting players to casting their Commander from the Command Zone at most one time per turn.

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