Edit 23-Apr-2018: It turns out that I was partly wrong in a prediction here. Baral is hegemonic in 1v1 Brawl according to the first major tournament (a $25 buyin event on MTGO).
Baral made up 6 of the top 8 and 11 of the top 16; results better than Skullclamp Ravager Affinity Aggro ever put up in events during the month after Darksteel’s release.
While I’d expected The Scarab God to be the biggest danger in the format, it’s now clear that Baral needs an emergency ban. I’ll leave the article unchanged, just take my conclusions with a grain of NaCl.
Brawl was announced recently.
As someone that leans toward the Spike end of the spectrum, I can’t get into Commander. So you might ask why I’d give Brawl any thought at all.
An aside on Commander.
Feel free to skip this section down to the ‘end rant’ text below. It explains why I’ve never liked Commander despite thinking the idea has a lot of potential.
Commander promises fun times until you try to optimize decks at all. At that point, you feel obliged to play a whole lot of decidedly anti-casual effects – absurd combos like Prossh (as a commander) and Food Chain, completely broken mana sources like Sol Ring, and utterly broken consistency engines like Demonic Tutor.
But unlike Vintage, where even stronger combos are common and all of the individually broken cards are also allowed, Commander sharply restricts the available counterplay. Efficient and powerful answers like Mana Drain, Mental Misstep or Force of Will are restricted to 1 per deck, while you can play a lot of tutors.
More powerful in combo than it is in any other archetype, this card epitomizes the consistency a 100 card singleton format should rail against.
When you play to the letter of the Commander rules and observe the official ban list, and then you attempt to win, the optimal strategy is to minimize interaction while you aggressively tutor and assemble some sort of killer play. This could be Tooth and Nail, or a two-card combo where your Commander is one of the cards, or a two-card combo where your Commander can play a role in assembling the combo.
This then ruins the spirit of a singleton format. Singleton formats are (supposedly) intended to increase variance – the amount that games differ from each other. The existence of Magic’s most broken tutors, however, adds a degree of consistency at least equal to that found in Modern.
It also squeezes out all the zany plays possible in a singleton format.
A part of all Magic players – even Spikes like me – has wanted to put Followed Footsteps on Rhox Faithmender while you control Doubling Season.
Zany board states, enormous plays, crushing reversals – these are three of the things that make Magic fun.
Commander could have that feeling, and in groups that agree not to abuse the weaknesses of the ban list, it does. But it is hard to push away the Spike tendancies, and to any Spike, the official ban list screams ‘play combo, or lose to people that do’.
This factor results in me simply giving up on Commander, which is a shame because some previously popular singleton formats (like Australian 7-point Highlander, or Canadian Highlander) have been a lot of fun.
Australian 7-point Highlander in particular was something I have fond memories of. If you are unfamiliar with the format, it’s a singleton format that has a pseudo-Restricted list. Certain cards are allocated ‘points’ and you were limited to running 7 points in total. Cards like Demonic Tutor had huge point scores (4 when I followed the format), and so playing them was only possible if you did not spend a lot of your 7 deckbuilding points on powerful combo payoffs. You could play DT, you could play Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal or Grim Tutor, but you could not jam all of them into a deck alongside explosive mana and multiple two-card combos the way you can in Commander. Nor did you begin the game with a Legend already tutored up for you and protected from interaction as well.
So that’s been a bit of a rant about why Commander breaks when you attempt to optimize it. The raw power of tutors available allows you to build a consistent deck with an extremely proactive game plan, alongside generic good cards to try to win when you do not pull off your combo(s).
Brawl does not appear to have this problem.
Despite Standard having experienced two bannings related to combo strategies in very recent history (Felidar Guardian from the Crazy Cat Lady Combo deck, and Aetherworks Marvel from yet another deck that could play either a combo game or tapout control), Brawl’s nature as a singleton format with only one half-decent tutor ensures that there is no way to assemble combos reliably.
Brawl’s Ban List
At present Brawl inherits the ban list of Standard. The following seven cards are banned:
Attune with Aether
Marvel and Guardian are banned in Standard because of combos that were too strong for the format, but that are unlikely to be good at all in the context of Brawl. Felidar Guardian is not legal if Saheeli is your Commander, and if Saheeli is not your Commander, you have to naturally draw both pieces of the combo or use a janky tutor like Djeru or Mastermind’s Acquisition to find them.
This card is one of two tutors in the format that could get a piece of the Crazy Cat Lady Combo, were it legal in Brawl. You can only play one copy.
Aetherworks Marvel is even less exploitable in the format. All the energy cards are either banned (Attune, Refiner) or limited to one copy, and it’s just impossible to get the required critical mass of energy generators. Even if you do manage to set off the Marvel, big deal – the highest impact play you can spin up is probably Bolas, and you are only allowed one copy of him.
The other cards on the ban list are all there because of highly tuned decks that assembled a critical mass of synergistic cards.
Ramanup Red put two cards on the list, as did Temur Energy. Both decks simply would not function in a singleton environment.
For this reason I think that every card on the Brawl banned list, with the exception of Snugglecopter, should definitely be removed. Snugglecopter I’m less sure about but my initial thought is that it would merely be a good card and an incentive to try to play aggressive strategies, rather than the incredible powerhouse it was in Standard.
At the same time, Brawl’s nature as a format where you can guarantee access to specific cards empowers two of Standard’s more powerful threats to levels that might render them oppressive.
I’m talking Baral, Chief of Compliance (a card that was an absolute terror in MTGO’s 1v1 Commander format until he was taken out the back and shot), and The Scarab God.
The Scarab God is one of Standard’s best threats, and his existence shapes many removal choices. Players run Vraska’s Contempt largely because Vraska can actually answer TSG, unlike removal spells like Murder that would be better in most Standard formats.
However, in a format with the Commander ruleset, these cards fail to answer TSG. He can be recast from the Command Zone when the opponent draws their one Vraska’s Contempt or their one Cast Out. Instead of answering TSG, these cards simply throw it off balance for a short time, much like Unsummon would.
These same concerns about the TSG posing a nearly unsolvable threat also apply to The Scorpion God and The Locust God, but those cards are not close to as powerful as their blue-black cousin.
Baral may not even be good in the format, but his effect is dangerous when you can rely upon always having access to it.
I’m not usually an advocate of minimalist ban lists.
Standard has improved tremendously with each banning that has happened over the last while, and we’ve reached a point where the major design fuckups of the last 3-4 years have all rotated (Collected Company), or been banned (Crazy Cat Lady Combo). Standard was terrible for a period, but it’s now quite a decent format.
That said, in the case of Brawl, I’m advocating a clean slate.
Brawl’s banlist should be decoupled from Standard’s banlist, and Brawl should start out with nothing banned.
Three cards – Snugglecopter, Baral and The Scarab God – are moderately likely to prove themselves troublesome. There may be others that I haven’t considered (Bontu and Oketra come to mind in particular as Commanders that are potentially troublesome).
Even if the cards named wind up fine, if the ban lists remain coupled and Brawl is supported in the longer term, it’s almost certain that some future card like The Scarab God will cause issues in Brawl but is a positive force in Standard.
I don’t want Wizards to be faced with having the choice of either letting that card ruin Brawl, or having to hit Standard with a banning that is purely collateral damage from an action to save Brawl.
In the event that one or more of these cards actually proves itself troublesome, it should be promptly banned. But unless this transpires, Brawl provides a great opportunity to play with some of the cards that are banned in Standard but are too weak for the larger formats.
In conclusion: Decouple the ban lists, just as Legacy’s ban list was decoupled from Vintage’s B&R lists about 15 years ago. Then unban everything in Brawl, but be ready to throw Snugglecopter, Baral, The Scarab God or potentially other cards under the bus if/when needed.
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