Problems in commander design space

I figured I would start a discussion about a few recent design problems that have crept into Magic that have greatly impacted the commander format. Thankfully, as a self-policing format that isn't often played competitively, a play group can do things like soft-ban a card or build decks that are balanced around each other but I wanted to talk about some of the heaviest hitters and most game-ruining cards in the format.

Please note: This is not a post to tell you not to play cards in any format, it's a discussion about why some cards are seen as problematic, annoying, or otherwise harmful to the commander format. Recognizing flaws in design is a great way to help improve your design skills.

1) Rhystic Study
Plenty has already been said about this card in commander. It's annoying, it's overpowered and it's been discussed by every Magic content creator at one point or another. "Will you pay one for Rhystic Study?" is a well-known commander meme.

Some background, Rhystic was a soft mechanic introduced, or at least named, in Prophecy. All of the effects do incredibly powerful things... As long as your opponent doesn't pay some small tax. Paying the tax can either nerf the effect or negate it entirely, making most of the Rhystic cards bad in general. I would argue that apart from Rhystic Deluge in some self-bounce decks and some fringe play of Rhystic Circle as a mana sink generic circle of protection, Rhystic Study is the only one that sees any play... But boy howdy, does it see play. This common is the most valuable card in the Prophecy set by a large margin. The next cards after are are the mostly unexciting Overburden and Keldon Firebombers, but you could get a playset of either for the price of one Rhystic Study.

The card's only set printing was Prophecy and one of them will fetch about $15. If you want to go for the Commander's Arsenal printing, it will set you back an even $45 right now. And the judge promo that just came out this year? Currently around $100 on a good day. If you missed it a few sentences back, this card is so powerful in commander that it was one of the 18 cards chosen for Commander's Arsenal, showing up alongside cards like Sylvan Library, Scroll Rack and Loyal Retainers. Only Scroll Rack beats it out for most expensive card from that product.

So why is it so good? The answer is pretty simple, it has the three most powerful words in Magic on it: draw a card. How often do you get to draw a card? Essentially whenever you want. What does it cost? A one-time investment of {2}{u}. Every time any opponent casts any spell, you draw a card unless they pay 1. What's so bad about paying one? Well, it's every spell you cast. If you want to cast three spells and don't want the Rhystic Study player drawing any cards, you have to have 3 extra mana. A lot of the time, not paying for it is simply unavoidable. If it sits out for two rounds around the table in the early game while people are setting up their creatures and mana rocks and the like, there's a very good chance it will draw you 6+ cards before someone is even fully capable of dealing with it. And every time you don't draw a card, you still win because you're costing your opponents more mana.

So why is it so bad for commander? This is a little less simple and where the design lesson comes in. First off, it is very powerful. Whether or not it is broken or ban-worthy isn't the point of this discussion, but it drastically tips the game in the favor of the person that plays it, doesn't cost very much and provides an incredible amount of value while seeming innocuous to newer or less experienced players. Teaching new players to pay for Rhystic Study is a regular occurrence. That alone, however, would not be worthy of mention. There are a lot of incredibly powerful cards that do crazy things, even some that are better than Rhystic Study. The main problem is how it impacts the game itself.

Rhystic Study is a trigger nightmare. Every spell your opponents cast, you have to remember the trigger. Every spell the cast, they need to make a decision. You add an additional decision to every decision that is already being made and it happens 2+ times a turn in an active game. "Will you pay one for Rhystic Study? Will you pay one for Rhystic Study? Will you pay one for Rhystic Study? Will you pay one for Rhystic Study? Will you pay one for Rhystic Study?" Every yes is a tax and every no is a card.

A card that bogs down games with constant reminders, a card that taxes players, a card that provides incredible value, all rolled into one annoying package cheap enough to regularly come out on turn 2-3, even without expensive fast mana cards. It is so ubiquitous that it is the 4th most played blue card in all of EDH, as calculated by EDHRec.

So make sure when designing your cards you consider not just how effective the card is in a game, but also the impact it will have on the game itself. You don't want everyone who sits down and sees your card across the table from them to sigh and wish they didn't have to wait the extra 10 minutes while the next two players figure out how to play around the Rhystic Study optimally.


  • edited April 2019
    To come:
    2) Cyclonic Rift
    3) Smothering Tithe
    4) Expropriate
    5) Aetherflux Reservoir
    6) Sensei's Divining Top/Scroll Rack
    7) Paradox Engine
    8) Deadeye Navigator
  • I agree with you that Rhystic Studies is annoying but I wouldn’t say it is bad in commander. In fact I would argue it is one the most perfect cards. Because it affects all opponents and it makes the game more strategy and less streamlined. Likewise unless it is your first time playing against, for me at least, I don’t bother paying usually unless I am able to freely because the decks that run it are going to combo off anyway.
  • I'm surprised something like sol ring isn't on that list.
  • I'm really interested to see how this evolves. All in all, I think that commander is the game where stuff like this is supposed to happen. Especially if you're playing with multiple people, you're going to have long games with plenty of things to remember. I think that the remembering is part of it. When I play commander, if you forget a trigger, you forget it. You don't get to go back and make someone pay if you forgot rhystic study. When you're playing with four other people, you've got to keep track of everything like and figure out what you have to do and what you don't and what you really have to remember. It's a lot of politicking.

    And in terms of game ruining cards, I'd say that things like Karlov and felidar sovereign are much bigger "game ruining" cards than some of the others on the list. A lot of these are manageable (no doubt game changing or game-winning), but I don't think many are game ruining
  • @RohanDragoon for my group with triggers we only don’t go back to them if it is a May or affects the game too much...but like if it is a mandatory action we go back and trigger it...idk something to think about
  • @DoctorFro I think that's a totally real thing in commander is just that play groups make their own rules when encountering these things. And I think it also takes into account how the game is going. If someone is totally dominating and someone is losing by quite a bit forgot a trigger, it's probably going to be more sympathetic towards the player who's not winning. But you know, if the player who's dominating forgot a trigger that gains them like 3 life and all the triggers that went with it? A little less something that one might go back for.

    But I totally take your point and I think it just brings up the fact that commander, unlike a lot of other formats, is much more casual, so its rules about this stuff are able to be negotiated by players and stuff
  • edited April 2019
    2) Cyclonic Rift

    This one is a doozy, so strap in.

    Cyclonic Rift has similar design problems to Rhystic Study but they come about for entirely different reasons. First, it's too powerful. Second, it's unfun.

    So why is it too powerful? This one is pretty obvious so I'm not going to go into too much detail about what the card does but I am going to address why what it does makes it such a supreme beating. Let's break it down:
    1. It is an instant speed 'wrath' effect. Wraths are obviously more potent in commander where you have three opponents, that's why most decks run at least a few that their colors support. Normally instant speed mass board clears can cost around 6 or 7 with the best-in-class ones costing closer to five, but the fact that this is all nonland permanents and not just creatures puts it in a league of its own.
    2. It isn't symmetrical. Your opponents lose everything and you lose nothing. They have to spend their next 2-3 turns replaying the mana rocks, creatures, commander, enchantments, etc. and it might not even be possible to rebuild given things like tokens, counters and the like usually don't come back the same. Players also often have to discard some or many of the cards returned if they don't have the resources to play out enough to lower their hand size. This means it isn't too different from the caster taking two to three extra turns.
    3. It only costs one blue. While 7 might seem like a hefty cost and it isn't insignificant, only one of that mana is colored mana. This makes it incredibly easy to play even if you're in a three, four, or five color deck. You only need one source that produces blue mana to cast it.
    4. It is an answer to 'anything'. If the problem is on the board or interacts with cards on the board, Cyclonic Rift beats it. Creatures, planeswalkers, enchantments, artifacts, combos. Anything except a spell on the stack gets beaten. It doesn't target so hexproof creatures and players don't matter. It doesn't destroy so indestructible things don't matter. If it isn't a spell targeting you on the stack, Cyclonic Rift will make it so the problem (and everything else) simply go away.
    5. There is no good way to answer it. You can't give your creature hexproof, you can't give it indestructible, you can't flash something out. You can counter it, or it happens. If you aren't holding a counter or you're holding fewer counters than the player that cast it, you're out of luck.
    6. It has the hidden mode of being Disperse in a pinch.
    This is a card that can both win you the game and prevent you from losing the game. It is a one-stop shop for any issue. It is easy to cast and easy to splash. It is an instant. It punishes other players for actually playing the game by making them retake their turns.

    For anyone that is curious, it is the second most-played card in EDH, after only Sol Ring.

    So what design mistakes can we learn from Cyclonic Rift? First, that answers should usually be a bit more narrow. Even recently-printed 'omni-answers' like Assaassin's Trophy are limited in their scope to single targets and can't remove things with hexproof or indestructible. Second, you need to be careful about cards that impact all or each of anything at instant speed. There's a difference in two-for-oneing someone by removing their creature in response to equip and X-for-oneing all of your opponents at once by removing all of their nonland permanents in response to an equip.
  • @Lujikul - Sol Ring isn't on the list for two reasons. First, it doesn't cause problems or feel-bads in the game, it's just fast mana. Second, there's much better fast mana available in commander, it's just the most ubiquitous because it's the most affordable. I wouldn't mind if Sol Ring got a ban because it would make building commander decks 100 cards instead of 99 but it's not exactly a problematic design.

    @RohanDragoon - Being friends with your playgroup helps mitigate a lot of problems in commander balance. If someone wants to be the big shot and start dumping their money into dual lands and fast mana, it's going to either be an arms race that ends in no one really enjoying brewing any more (cEDH) or people will stop playing with them/that deck. I wouldn't suggest your playgroup changing the rules of the game, but talking about what you want out of playing and discussing how deckbuilding can impact that with certain cards is a good idea.
  • @strongbelieves haha yeah i think that's a good point. I think that commander's got a bit more openness because it's more likely to be that format that is played casually due to its less intensive investment. And i think that moving into discussion about deckbuilding and intentions is a nice start with that. The sheer difference between commander turn 4 win decks and pure casual decks is insane and play a 4 turn win deck against casually brewed decks is really not a bro thing to do. So yeah, in that context I think I definitely see where some of these cards come into more of the, I'm gonna crush you versus the I want to try this cool idea
  • edited April 2019
    @strongbelieves - Glad you're tackling this topic! I regularly find myself turned off of playing EDH simply because cards like the ones on your list bog down the game or eradicate the option for players to do the things they want to do.

    I'm in accord with your thoughts on the 'Rhystic'-type effects, including Smothering Tithe. The added brainspace of every spell having a bonus trigger isn't where you want to be in most games and the sheer value you get over a single multiplayer turn is obscene.
    I'm more down on fast mana in general as it tends to make games lopsided. I don't mind fair accelerants - they're certainly part of the game after all - but turn one in a casual format is where it gets dicey. A player who plays Sol Ring on turn one for example has such a huge head start compared to their opponent that just played a tapped land. I sometimes wish there was a way to give a Sol Ring to either everybody or nobody.

    Looking forward to more of these. Thanks!
  • @strongbelieves from what you are saying it sounds like you are having a problem with the whole threats vs. answers shebaz, in this case Cyclone Rift sounds like an unstoppable threat OR a mega answer depending on how it is played
  • With this it could be determined that Cyclone rift is extremely op
  • @EnvyReaper Essentially yes. You can use Cyclonic Rift to prevent anything from happening or just cast it on the end step before your turn to clear the way for your own win within the next turn or two while everyone struggles to rebuild and get things back under control.
  • I think mainly the way to determine if a card is op is by using the threats vs. answers dynamic with relations to cost and other externalities
  • Like a planeswalker's loyalty, for example
  • Smothering Tithe and Rhystic Study I agree with. Even if they aren't too good they're simply annoying and make the game less fun.

    Also, I think one of two things should happen:
    - Prophet of Kruphix should be unbanned.
    - All the other cards that demand to be answered but are fairly easy to should be banned. (Consecrated Sphinx; Gisela, Blade of Goldnight; Sheoldred, Whispering One; etc.)
  • B. No Infinite Combos: Even with a Card Pricing rule, you can infinite combo with Aetherflux Reservoir + Bolas Citadel, Deadeye Navigator + Peregrine Drake, etc.

    In my opinion, it's more perjudicial to the format to play Contamination and Bitterblossom to completely lock black mana on the table while using Moxes and mana rocks to play your Commander and indefinitely swing for commander damage (Zur The Enchanter), or having an infinite turn and combat phases Narset. For being clear, playing a deck to not let others play the game it's bad to the format.

    I suffered on a LGS a 10 minutes Turn 1 mono blue Teferi(PW) deck, that finished having infinite mana and a Tabernacle of Pendrell Vale against three creature heavy deck, all on turn 1.

    I play an Enchantment/Superfriends Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis, my deck uses the power cards we can have on them: Oath of Teferi, Doubling Season, Rings of Brighthearth, Oath of Ajani, Sensei's Divining Top and then a wide array of Planeswalkers and spells, with a lot of ramping spells, a Blackblade Reforged, a Narset (creature), Swiftfoot Boots and Whispersilk Cloak, and only one spell of extra turns, Beacon of Tomorrow. It's not an easy deck to setup, but it's highly effective when done correctly, as far as I can go with a correct setup:

    - Exiling permanents while drawing cards (Teferi)
    - Exiling permaments while playing spells (Venser)
    - Opponents doesnt untap more than two permanents (Dovin)
    - Opponents can't play noncreature spells (Narset)
    - Omniscience (Tamiyo)
    - Indestructible permanents (Elspeth)

    But, all of this can be prevented much earlier on the game if the players get the right calls, if not, I utterly win, even without all of this conditions, I closed a game with a Gideon Champion of Justice with 135 loyalty counters on it, and finished exiling all permanents on table with it, and swinging 120 damage to each one, that was possible because my library only had ONE card and was beacon of tomorrow, so, I play it for 0 because Tamiyo emblem,(1 extra turn), then drew it with Teferi, then play it again (2 extra turn), then draw it again with Dovin and play it(3 extra turn), swinged with Narset, played it again (4 extra turn). So, in the end for each turn, I get 4, so, 4 extra turns will become 16 extra turns, totally locking all the players and call them to concede when I exile all permanents, all an all, I already had an Emergency Powers in hand to refill my library if needed, but even having a Tamiyo emblem and 1 card in the library will sufice to finish the game.

    And even this, doesn't hurt a format where the whole point is to be flashy and powerful.
  • @strongbelives , you ever gonna finish this?
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