The Banned List for Commander is designed not to balance competitive play, but to help shape in the minds of its fans the vision held by its founders and Rules Committee. That vision is to create variable, interactive, and epic multiplayer games where memories are made, to foster the social nature of the format, and to underscore that competition is not the format’s primary goal. This is summarized as “Create games that everyone will love to remember, not the ones you'd like to forget.”
A player who wishes to break the format will find many tools available to them, and taking those tools away means they move onto the next tool. Taking sufficient cards away from them to achieve a semblance of balance simply removes many, many cards from the pool that casual players enjoy and diminishes the games the format is intended for. Instead, Commander seeks to shape the mindset of the game before players start building decks, pointing them in the direction of thinking socially before they choose their first card. Infusing the deck construction approach with these philosophies is important; we want a social environment where an individual doesn't want to (or, at very least, is discouraged from trying to) break the format.
It is easier to build decks designed to maximize fun than it is to pull punches while playing the game. The Banned List is a part of defining that approach.
The Banned List contains the worst of the offenders for games being played in the spirit described above, those which to us are obvious choices in steering the format towards the general style of games we’d like to promote. While we’ve tried to make it fairly objective, there will always be a measure of subjectivity since different people evaluate cards and their impacts differently. We’d like the Banned List to be as small as possible to make it easily understandable for the players, meaning we’re not going to ban every card that someone finds unpleasant to play against. It is not a problem that some cards are strong.
There are several criteria which carry weight in Rules Committee discussions on individual cards:
* Interacts Poorly With the Structure of Commander. Commander introduces specific structural differences to the game of Magic (notably singleton decks, color restrictions in deckbuilding, and the existence of a Commander). Magic cards not designed with Commander in mind sometimes interact with those elements in ways that change the effective functionality of the card. Cards that have moved too far (in a potentially problematic direction) from their original intent due to this mismatch are candidates for banning. This criterion also includes legendary creatures that are problematic if always available.
* Creates Undesirable Game States. Losing is not an undesirable game state. However, a game in which one or more players, playing comparable casual decks, have minimal participation in the game is something which players should be steered away from. Warning signs include massive overall resource imbalance, early-game cards that lock players out, and cards with limited function other than to win the game out of nowhere.
* Problematic Casual Omnipresence. Some cards are so powerful that they become must-includes in decks that can run them and have a strongly negative impact on the games in which they appear, even when not built to optimize their effect. This does not include cards which are part of a specifc two-card combination - there are too many of those available in the format to usefully preclude - but may include cards which have numerous combinations with other commonly-played cards.
* Produces Too Much Mana Too Quickly. Commander is a format devoted to splashy spells and epic plays, but they need to happen at appropriate times. Some acceleration is acceptable, but plays which are epic on turn ten are undesirable on turn three, so we rein in cards capable of generating a lot of mana early given the correct circumstances.
* Creates a Perceived High Barrier to Entry. Commander is a socially welcoming format with a vast cardpool. These two traits clash when it comes to certain early Magic cards, even if they would possibly be acceptable in their game play. It's not enough that the card is simply expensive. It must also be something that would be near-universally played if available and contribute to a perception that the format is only for the Vintage audience.
Meeting one (or more) criteria on the banlist is not a guarantee of a ban. Some cards fit the description, but either aren't problematic enough to justify a ban, are largely eschewed by the casual community, or possess other redeeming factors. Cards are evaluated by their general use, not simply their worst-case scenario. Similar cards may have just enough difference to put them on opposite sides of the line.
Additionally, other Commander styles (such as 1v1, Duel Commander, or more competitively-oriented groups) are not taken into consideration when evaluating how problematic a card is. Groups who seek a different experience are encouraged to discuss local changes to optimize their play experience. This Banned List is for players who are looking for the traditional Commander experience when they're not interacting with their local social groups.