Excuse me while I balance myself on this wee soapbox here. Today I want to discuss a subject I feel very strongly about. In fact, I’ll be honest with you: I want to rant and roar and curse about this particular subject, because I’ve been banging my head against it for a couple of years now, and I’m convinced it’s having an increasingly bad effect on my favorite format. Still, I’ve tried very hard to restrain the burning rage that consumes me as I write this, focusing on the sort of clear, logical and brilliant argument for which I am justly famed by my mother, so please hear me out. I’m going to begin with a tirade by a much better writer than I, and use that to figure out a coherent and meaningful framework for criticizing the rules of the game, before I start spewing venom.
The Well-Reasoned Bit
The Ferrett wrote a great article a couple of years back in response to WOTC adding multiplayer to their comprehensive rules. I’ll let you read it for yourself as he makes a very persuasive argument. More broadly, The Ferrett was right that the rules contain some fairly arbitrary choices that affect not only how we play the cards, but what kind of situations we find ourselves in and ultimately what strategies are most effective. That’s why I’m in favor of lobbying for rules changes and introducing local house rules; because they allow the game to be sculpted in ways that are more fun for the Casual Tribe.
In a nutshell, The Ferrett’s pet peeve, which changed its name to avoid the negative publicity and now lives in hiding as rule 800.4a, was that when a player dies, all of their spells and effects are removed from the stack. This leads to situations where, for example, a player on two life is absolutely powerless against an opponent with a Shock—if they attack, cast a spell or tap a permanent, the Shock player can kill them instantly, and prevent them from having any further effect on the game. In contrast, old school players will remember when players died at the end of phases or turns, which meant that even if you were burned out of the game during you combat step, your critters would keep on rollin’ rollin’ rollin’. This would also allow a player on death’s door to say, “Screw you guys, I’m going home,” then cast a big sorcery like Wrath of God before getting blown out of the game. The Ferrett’s argument was that the kind of game states the new rule created (i.e. I am your bitch if I’m on two life and you have a Shock in hand) are less fun than the kind of game states that occurred under the old rules (where I at least had the opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory).
Whether you agree with him or not, I think this is exactly the kind of thing that we should be looking at when we critique the rules. Of course we need rules to make the game run smoothly, but some rules are just flat-out more arbitrary than others, and we should be open to the idea of changing or modifying them. Laws don’t justify themselves, and are only useful to the extent that they make a society better. Specifically for gamers, we should look at what game states are created/allowed/prohibited by the rules, what strategies are privileged and which are inhibited by a particular rule. For example, the highlander format has an exception for basic lands, which is great. If you were only allowed one of each basic land in your deck then monocolored decks and cards that cared about basic lands would be severely inhibited (I know from bitter experience that decks with colorless commanders can be built; I’ll leave it as a challenge for the reader to see how effective a monoblack deck could be if it could only contain one swamp), and effects that cared about non-basic lands would be privileged. Once we understand how a particular rule affects the game, we can evaluate how desirable those effects are in our individual metagames, in terms of whatever values are important for your playgroup.
An example, related to The Ferrett’s least favorite rule, has a significant impact on the relative power of some very common strategies, and the options you have for responding to them in-game. I’m going to use this to give a more detailed explanation of the kind of rules analysis I’m talking about, because it is a fairly unusual approach (although, this makes the article run longer than normal; if you’re pressed for time, feel free to skip ahead to the ranty bit that deals exclusively with commander issues). The rule in question is:
800.4a. When a player leaves the game, all objects (see rule 109) owned by that player leave the game, all spells and abilities controlled by that player on the stack cease to exist, and any effects which give that player control of any objects or players end. Then, if there are any objects still controlled by that player, those objects are exiled. [As of June 17, 2011]
The two parts in bold are the most important here. A lot of players don’t realize that the rules make a (non-intuitive and seemingly arbitrary) distinction between a) gaining control of a permanent controlled by another player (e.g. by casting Threaten), which are referred to as “effects which give that player control,” and b) putting a card owned by another player into play under your control (e.g. by casting Praetor’s Grasp, Treacherous Urge or Beacon of Unrest), which is not classified as an “effect.” Here’s how these different rules work out in practice:
- If I cast Control Magic on one of your creatures and then you kill me, you get your creature back, because the object (Control Magic) owned by the deceased played leaves the game, allowing the creature to revert to its owner’s control
- If I cast Threaten on your creature and then you kill me, then you get your creature back, because the effect allowing me to control a permanent you own ends with my demise
- If I reanimate your creature or Bribery it into play, those aren’t considered “effects which give that player control of any objects,” so you don’t get them back when I shuffle off to meet my maker. We continue working our way through the checklist until “any objects still controlled by that player… are exiled,” and you never see your creature again.
I realize this is a lengthy digression, given that this isn’t what I consider to be the worst rule in Commander, but it’s an important example of how the rules can have unintended consequences on the game (especially multiplayer), and I’m also betting that it’s a rule which many of you are not familiar with. As a rule, 800.4a serves its basic purpose, which is to order the game so that people know what to do in a given situation and conflicts can be resolved consistently and amenably. However, it also has the unintended effect of making these thievery shenanigans more powerful by allowing the thief to say, “kill me and you lose your stuff forever.”
Imagine if the rule said instead that when a player dies, all of the permanents that they control but don’t own revert to their owner’s control. In that way you would weaken the power of theft relative to other (arguably more fun) strategies, and create interesting game states where the victim of the larceny was encouraged to go after the thief in order to get their creature in play ‘for free,’ while other players would have to choose which player they’d prefer to control the stolen merchandise. For example, do you want the blue mage with very few creatures to control a stolen Stalking Vengeance, or would you prefer to return it to the Kresh player with the 34/34 Hamletback Goliath and the Lord of Extinction that is so massive nobody can be bothered keeping track of how big it is? Even if your biggest threat is the blue mage, you might have to intervene to protect them in order to prevent Kresh from being able to kill you when they regain their creature. That’s the kind of strategic complexity that I would love to be involved with, but as it stands the rules don’t let me—my best play is always to kill the blue mage in order to remove a scary player and ensure that Kresh can’t use Stalking Vengeance on me.
When we as casual players analyze the rules, we need to consider what game states are produced and what mechanics/cards/colors/strategies/etc become stronger or weaker, and how this can shape our metagame. As the example of rule 800.4a shows, you might actually improve the quality of your games if you modified the way you handle it when players join the choir invisible.
The Ranty Bit
I’m on such a Commander high at the moment (and that’s unlikely to change any time soon) that I want to talk about a rule that only affects Commander, and the mechanic that it empowers. The rule is:
903.11. If a commander would be put into its owner’s graveyard from anywhere, that player may put it into the command zone instead.
903.12. If a commander would be put into the exile zone from anywhere, its owner may put it into the command zone instead.
In other words, whenever a commander is killed or exiled, you can put it in the command zone. Astute readers will have noticed that this is actually two rules, but these two rules imply a third—whenever a commander changes to any other zone, you can’t do anything—and that is the decision that I would like to challenge.
There is a class of removal spells that put a permanent into its controller’s library, either shuffled in (Oblation), put on the bottom (Condemn, Hinder), or in some cases, put on top of a library in response to a fetchland activation that will result in it getting shuffled randomly into the library. The nickname for these is tuck effects, which is a good name, because it rhymes with what I say when my monored commander is sent to the bottom of the deck, never to be seen again. Because moving your commander into the library doesn’t give you the option to put it into the command zone instead, this type of removal is vastly more powerful than any other in this format—even though in any other situation, exile is the most powerful form of removal. Rather than allow an otherwise cutesy mechanic to be uniquely powerful in our format, I propose a simple solution: allow the owner of a commander to move it to the Command Zone if it would be moved to the library. After all, a commander typically gets exiled or killed by an opponent’s removal, and you’re allowed to respond to that by putting them back in The Zone; why should it be different for this other form of removal?
The debate about tuck effects has been played out on the message boards more than once, but there are two compelling reasons to take up the discussion here. Firstly, have you ever noticed how nobody changes their mind during flame-wars on the forums? They just get more entrenched in their positions, until logic turns into repetition and respect turns into trash-talking. A site like Muse Vessel is a far better format for hashing out the issues, and I promise a fresh, or at least more coherent, perspective than you’ll see in the forums. Along the way I’m also going to address the main arguments in favor of being able to tuck commanders. Secondly, the MTG: Commander set release presents us with some new developments that tilt the argument more heavily in favor of changing the way that tucking works. Let’s start with the effects that tucking generals have on the game in terms of what games states are created, what is privileged, and what is restricted.
From the days before EDH became Commander, a lot of the appeal of the format came from ready access to your favorite legend. I’ve heard it said that the very earliest iterations of the game didn’t involve being able to recast them, and they were just treated like any other card in your deck; that may be true, but it’s also true that by the time EDH started to explode into the world’s number one casual format, accessing your general from some variation on the Command Zone was a big part of the magic. Tuck effects limit or even eliminate this most fundamental aspect of the game—quite simply, 100-card Highlander without Elder Dragons is much less entertaining.
Let me say that again, because it often gets mixed up in message board trash-talking: access to the commander is undeniably a significant feature of the commander format. Whether it is the main feature or not is a subjective matter—for me it probably is, but for others it isn’t a selling point at all—and I am NOT saying that everyone should be able to have their commander in play at all times, or always be able to cast it without any restrictions. But denying someone access to their commander for a significant part of the game does undermine the format to a certain extent. I’m happy to argue about the extent to which this may be true, but saying “I don’t even care if I play my commander, therefore access to your commander isn’t part of the format” is a waste of time and contributes nothing to the discussion.
Invariably, someone will say that if your deck can’t win without your Commander then it’s a bad deck, but that argument is pretty weak; the fact is that if you don’t have access to your commander and your opponent(s) do, then you are at a significant disadvantage. The +2 mana cost limitation is an excellent balancing mechanic, and I’ve lost games from having my commander being killed too many times to be able to recast them (although I once paid 18 for Teneb). But when your back’s against the wall and all you draw is land, even being able to chump-block with your commander can save your life—especially when your opponent can recast their commander at will.
Another reason that losing your commander puts you at a disadvantage is synergy. Commander decks fall along a spectrum from ‘good stuff’ decks that only play that commander because of their color identity and rarely cast them (typically, a five-color Atogatog deck) to commander-centric decks that rely on casting and winning with their commander in most games (typically, a five-color Scion of the Ur-Dragon deck). There’s nothing wrong with either type of deck, although we each have our preferences. For my Kresh deck, almost every card is chosen with him in mind. Kresh is by far my most commander-dependent deck, although it can still take the table without him. All of my other decks expect to cast the commander and are generally stronger with the commander on the battlefield (like the vast majority of decks I have seen), and therefore part of the process of choosing the best cards for each deck is seeing how compatible it is with your commander. Because card choices are influenced by the commander, I can look at every single decklist I have (over 20 of them) and point to cards that are included or omitted because of my commander. Naturally, every deck has wincons other than that single legend, but for almost any commander deck it is inevitable that some or many of the cards you draw will be suboptimal or flat-out wrong for you if you don’t have access to your commander for an extended period of time.
One of the oft-repeated arguments in favor of the status quo is the old “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” argument, but as I said last week, we have to consider the how our opponents will respond to the kind of environment we create. It’s not a question of “If you don’t like tuck effects you should play them yourself and put more countermeasures in your deck,” because if everyone uses them, the game will become worse for all of us. If everyone is using tuck effects, every game will devolve into 100-card highlander games, which are so much less fun than Commander, and every turn will become about playing around that same small subset of cards—don’t cast your commander into untapped Hinder mana, don’t attack into a possible Condemn, and so on. People will play their other 99 cards, but when it comes to their commander they’ll just sit back and do nothing until they can play it and boot up immediately, and if you eventually get your commander in play without getting tucked you’ll be living in fear of a Hallowed Burial. Speaking on behalf of the Timmies, that’s not what I signed up for—I wanna cast my Commander and swing with it!
Another major problem with tucking is the fact that it is limited to two or three colors: white has the most, blue has some good ones, as well as Tunnel Vision, the cheesiest way to win a commander game, and red has Warp World (which can be so much fun I don’t necessarily mind it) and the color pie-busting Chaos Warp (which is now wallet-busting too!). Primarily, though, you’re looking at white and blue having the majority of tuck effects. Put that another way, white and blue have access to the best commander removal in a format that is often defined by its commanders; do you really think that isn’t going to warp the format? Over time, I predict that we will see more decks using the tuck mechanic, and therefore more decks using these colors specifically because of the advantage of tucking. Eventually, the power and prevalence of tuck effects (or alternately, the relative impotence of having no access to your commander while your opponents bash you with theirs) will reduce the variety that is at the core of the format.
And if the problem is going to get worse, which game theory tells us it will, what about the solutions? Tutoring is the main way to solve the challenge that tucking presents, but there are two problems with creating an environment that privileges creature-search. The first is that once again, only certain colors have access to that effect—there are a handful of exceptions, from Planar Portal and Citanul Flute to wizardcycling, but basically you’re looking at green and black. Put it all together and it’s not hard to foresee a time when Bant or Esper colors have a huge edge in controlling the board due to their ability to wipe the board, tuck the only creatures that are left, recur the tuck effects and tutor for your own commander if anything should happen to it. In the meantime, anyone who came to play with their favorite legend is left looking forlorn and hoping they can draw into enough business to make up for the loss of their centerpiece.
The second big problem with an environment that privileges tutoring is that it runs contrary to the spirit of the format—and if that sounds too subjective for you, remember that we’re talking about 99-card highlander decks. Can you really tell me that the EDH wasn’t designed from the beginning to promote variety? Access to your commander is usually the only predictable part of this otherwise über-random format, but if you force people to include multiple ways of tutoring up their commander then you’re going to see a lot more consistency and a lot less of the edge-of-the-seat excitement that you’ve come to expect from the format. Take it from someone who used to play against a deck with 15 tutors: that makes the games a lot less enjoyable.
In all the time I’ve spend thinking, talking and arguing about this issue, I’ve only heard one argument in favor of tucking that makes any sense—perhaps because it was the argument by Genomancer, one of the Commander Rules Committee guys. In essence, he said that a form of long-term removal was necessary to keep troublesome commanders in check. Getting Kresh tucked is, as he explained, a necessary evil because there will be times when you need to tuck a really abusive commander, like a Zur, the Enchanter deck that locks you down with Erayo’s Essence and Rule of Law on turn four. In theory, this is a compelling argument, but it overlooks a couple of key points. Firstly, commander is a broken format; Sheldon has said as much on numerous occasions. There are any number of ways to build crazy-broken decks, and rather than rely on banning cards the RC decided long ago to rely on social contracts to control abusive behavior. In other words, if you’re a casual player then you have other means beyond tucking to keep Zur and his ilk from ruining your fun.
Secondly, folks are dropping Condemns left, right, and center, and the innocent, red-zone-living, fun-loving Timmy commanders are getting hit by tuck effects just as much as the stone-cold killer combo-enablers. In fact, an abusive deck like Zur is much more likely to be able to deal with a tuck effect than a something relatively non-abusive like Kresh. As a casual player with a fairly well-respected social contract, it seems to me like allowing non-abusive commanders to get sent away semi-permanently by tuck effects is a lot like allowing smoking at a restaurant in order to scare away mosquitoes; you’ll achieve your goal, but the collateral damage may be worse than the original problem.
So in a nutshell, the existence of a qualitatively superior form of removal will have a significant long-term effect on the game. Specifically, I predict that we will see more players choosing the colors and cards that allow tucking, and more players choosing the colors and cards that allow tutoring, and as the threats and the answers conform to the dominance of tucking, the variety of strategic interactions in each game will become less and less as you spend more and more time playing around tuck effects, or merely ignoring your commander altogether. Of course I could be wrong, but consider that we just saw two new tuck effects printed in the MTG: Commander set; tucking is already a problem for many commander players, as evidenced by numerous forum discussions, and that problem is only going to get worse as the number and quality of tuck effects increases. That’s why I have argued that casual playgroups need to change the way tucking works now, before your metas are warped by this unique, and uniquely powerful, form of commander removal. In the mean time, you can feel free to ignore the problem and enjoy the cool new commander cards—just make sure you don’t play with your oversized foil Karador as your commander, because you will end up putting him on the bottom of your library sooner or later.
 As an example, consider the way the Stack works in multiplayer. The active player has priority, and can put any number of effects on the stack. When they’re finished, priority passes clockwise to the next player, and when all players have passed priority, the effects on the stack resolve in LIFO order (Last In, First Out). Now, I love the Stack; I think it’s a brilliant solution to a lot of the game’s earlier problems. If effects on the stack resolved in FIFO order (First In, First Out) then the result would be a completely different system, and those original problems would remain; LIFO seems like a necessary rule. On the other hand, priority could just as easily pass to the next player in counterclockwise order; that’s an example of an arbitrary rule. Changing that would not seem to have a negative effect on the game, and if there was a good reason for passing priority in reverse order, that would be fine with me.
 A simpler wording would be “If a commander would change from one zone to another, its owner may put it into the command zone instead,” which I believe would allow you to return it to safety if it were bounced as well as tucked. However, SBM pointed out that under this rule, if your commander was in your graveyard and an opponent animated it, you could opt to put it in the command zone instead of letting them have it. This would have the unintended consequence of privileging reanimation strategies (more than they already are), because black and green mages would be able to let their commanders go to the graveyard and wait safely there, while nobody else could touch them, thus getting around the +2 ‘command tax.’ Changing the rules is tricky business, but that isn’t an argument for not changing them; it’s merely an argument for changing them carefully.
 Sacrifice outlets are vital in a tuck-heavy meta, and are generally a good idea anyway, but your opponents can answer them easily enough. More importantly, Hinder and Spell Crumple make those inadequate solutions.
 I’m tempted to build a Dakkon Blackblade deck that does just that: tuck their commanders, exile everything else, and march inevitably to victory. However, I’ve argued against tuck effects in my playgroup for so long that it would be far too hypocritical, even for me.
 I’m assuming of course that mosquitoes are deterred by smoke; if I’m wrong, just humor me.