The Unstable Cards You Should and Shouldn't Play in Commander

Feature Article from Bruce Richard
Bruce Richard
11/28/2017 11:01:00 AM
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For the past few weeks I have been talking about Unstable. I have been a big fan of the Un- sets and Unstable is no exception. With the entire card list out, the set appears to offer a little something for everyone and I can't wait to start drafting this set!

The only disappointment I have with Unstable is the replayability. Unglued and Unhinged set a standard for silver-bordered sets that led to the sets as a whole to be banned from Commander. I feel like this was a travesty, but understand why it happened. Going through each of those sets to determine which cards would be fair and which wouldn't would be a nightmare. That is something best left to individual groups. I went through some of the cards I think should be included in play groups, but asking that they become Commander legal across the board, is probably too big an ask.

But Unstable? The set was designed to be drafted. So many of the cards are going to be delicious in Cubes everywhere. I started looking through the card list and felt like there weren't that many cards that would have to be excluded to make the set as a whole legal in Commander. However, I wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to this set, so I thought I'd ask others who maybe aren't quite so enamored with the idea of a goofy set to see if I'm way off base or is this set something the Rules Committee should consider being legal in Commander.

The responses proved to be a more than a list of cards that annoyed players. Quite often, players described a group of cards they felt were problematic. Let's take a look at the primary culprits.

I figured there would be players who would just automatically say no to all of them, and there were a few of those. Twitter is not the best platform to give carefully reasoned explanations, so I can't say why some people simply say no to Unstable. I assume these players are poopypants who just don't like fun. It could also be that some cards are broken in certain decks and telling one player that they shouldn't get a great card for their deck while another player should be allowed a broken card for their deck is a nightmare some groups aren't prepared to deal handle. Who can tell? ;)

There are a few cards that ask for involvement from people external to the game. Whether it is a high-five or having someone else play your turn or make a choice for you – or having someone join your game – these were thought to be problematic. I can see that to some extent, but I think the bigger issue is how big a swing in power these cards have, depending completely on where you are playing the game. A game of Commander at a local game store with plenty of Magic players versus a game at your kitchen table with no one else around makes the same card great in one instance and frustrating in another. A card like Kindslaver in a small child's Commander deck can be as devastating as Mindslaver, while the same card in my deck against that small child will likely offer me nothing other than derision from the player being brought into the game.

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I can understand the desire to eliminate this from the game, but knowing your meta is part of Commander and part of deckbuilding. There are some cards that are not played in my meta that may work wonderfully in yours. Most of my Commander games involve Magic players who are there and aren't in the game. I would happily run many of these cards! The chance to run through a convention attempting to high-five as many people as possible just sounds amazing! The opportunity to have someone who is just watching the game to take over a player's turn is just straight fun, while the opportunity to have a player who has been eliminated by a player get to play that player's turn is the kind of sweet revenge that great stories are made of!

I completely see where this makes sense. These cards just scream out to players to break them. Offering infinite power has never gone well in any story I've ever read. I also know there are plenty of combos in Magic that would create infinite loops if the black-bordered rules allowed it, so I'm okay with this card being legal in the same way that I'm okay with other combo cards being legal. I won't be running it in my decks, but if your group does the combo-out-to-win thing, go wild!

As far as pi goes, as anyone who saw me at Thanksgiving knows, I'm never going to turn down pi. As the reminder text on Just Desserts says, pi is “a smidgen more than three.” You'll be fine. Trust me, pi is a good thing.

Subgames were the big no-no. The major issues were space and time. Sometimes you simply don't have space to set up a second game. You can't just pack up your first game and play the subgame in the same space. You either need to shift everything to a tiny space or find a new place to play the subgame. When you realize you are setting up a new four-player Commander game, this can get even more messy. However, consider the subgame you are being asked to play. It is a game with a starting life total of 1. You aren't likely going to need all that much space. Three lands and a few permanents are probably going to do the trick. You can likely make that space at the top of your playmat just by stacking up your lands from the main game.

Time is the other issue. Between setting up the subgame and playing it out, there is time added. I believe this is the main reason Shahrazad is banned in Commander. I don't think this is a valid reason this time around, though. The Countdown Is at One is the only subgame card in Unstable. It asks that everyone start at one life, which means that the game is likely over within a couple of turns since the smallest creature, the most minor direct damage spell or life loss causes a player to lose. When you add to this that every player who loses will be taking double the damage instead, the main game will move much faster. The Countdown Is at One will make games faster.

I understand why players would want this card banned. I can see Commander games quickly devolving as players scour your battlefield to find Entirely Normal Armchair. The game stops being about Commander at all and could quickly turn into a mess. When you consider that most Commander games take place at a kitchen table in a home, it would hardly be surprising to find that players leave the table to get food, use the washroom, or other responsibilities a host might have. Entirely Normal Armchair would force everyone to be at the table the entire time to watch everyone else to make sure no one is going to sneak Entirely Normal Armchair into play.

I suspect this distraction would vary per group, but making it legal for every group is probably going too far.

When you stop and consider that most Commander players don't have the rules knowledge necessary to actually use this card properly, I agree with Justin. I also think this card will be used as a way to make combos run. Eliminating state-based actions just makes too many interactions completely broken to the point where games just won't be fun. Whether you like winning a grinding game, or through creature combat, or with control elements, or through a combo, Rules Lawyer promises to make the game less fun for everyone. I can't imagine how Commander games will somehow be better with a Rules Lawyer in the game. And if there were two of them…

In the end, I would encourage the Rules Committee to include Unstable as a legal set for Commander, and only ban Entirely Normal Armchair and Rules Lawyer. The set offers so many interesting cards it seems a shame to simply exclude it without a second thought. Am I saying that I think these are the only broken cards in the set? Absolutely not! There are plenty of cards that, in the right situation, would be broken. Grusilda, Monster Masher in a deck that aims to fill its graveyard would certainly create creatures that could be virtually impossible to stop. Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K. offers up similar issues. However there are already plenty of cards in Magic that are completely broken in Commander that aren't banned in Commander. We simply expect players to use those cards in responsible ways. If those players are able to use those cards in responsible ways, then I think they can use the cards from Unstable in a responsible way as well.

Bruce Richard
@manaburned




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