Where You Should Play the Commander Cards You Shouldn’t Play

Greetings, Commander lovers! In case you missed it, Sheldon Menery wrote a great article last month titled “Commander Cards You Shouldn’t Play.” In it, Sheldon details cards he avoids playing in Commander, each with their own nuanced reason(s). But his list is jam packed with high-powered EDH goodies like Seedborn Muse, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, and Paradox Engine. To quote:

“The obvious common thread is that these are cards that for the most part rob players of the opportunity to play the game. The rest are cards that are so awkward that they deflate a game’s energy pretty quickly.”

But to play devil’s advocate, many EDH players (myself included) enjoy this format precisely because we can play with some of the most powerful and unique effects in Magic. For Spikes who enjoy EDH, it’s difficult to swallow the idea of intentionally neutering a deck to chase some balanced ideal that is unlikely to materialize. The idea of what is “broken” shifts with every single play group. And while we can all agree that this list does include the most egregious offenders, for every one card pointed out here there are two more that can be included.

It should also be noted that one can find a type of balance in the brokenness. When everyone is playing these “taboo” cards, the playing field is relatively even. Finely-tuned EDH decks with powerhouses like these are like trained MMA fighters–ready, smooth, and deadly. Only other MMA fighters stand a chance, but when they get in the ring, it’s a sight to behold. That’s not to say you can throw The Incredible Hulk in the ring (your Griselbrands, Emrakuls, and Trade Secrets) and expect it to pan out.

So, with this in mind, I’m detailing where you should play the pesky cards they said you shouldn’t to maximize their value. The article is in good fun as I enjoyed Sheldon’s thorough thought process. Just make sure your table knows what’s coming for them.

Armageddon

It’s true—mass land destruction is evil. There, I said it, I admit it, and I embrace it. But you know what? Even in EDH, fun comes from winning and many powerful things in Magic are not fun for others. So if winning is the objective, sometimes the fun of others must be sacrificed.

Armageddon, Ravages of War, Impending Disaster, Boom //Bust, and Catastrophe are some of the most powerful universal land destruction spells that can often lead to long, drawn-out games. Mass land destruction is at its best when you have ways to break parity.

Here are some options:

  • Have ways to recur your destroyed lands. Cards like Ramunap Excavator and Crucible of Worlds work perfectly to help you climb out of the hole.
  • Lean heavily on artifact-based or creature-based ramp. This way, you can continue playing your cards while everyone else is in the stone ages.
  • Have a way to shut the door on the game before anyone else can stabilize. This can include combo finishes or simply having a larger board presence and being able to kill the table through combat damage fast enough.

Decks that typically employ cards like Armageddon include Avacyn, Angel of Hope (granting immunity to your lands), Grand Arbiter Augustin IV (further taxing opponents’ spells and aiding yours), and Zurgo, Helmsmasher (smash face and kill ’em quick).

There is another camp of mass land destruction that I classify as “total annihilation.” Cards like Obliterate, Jokulhaups, and Decree of Annihilation are a bit more expensive to cast than your typical Armageddons but they have a more sweeping effect. These spells destroy artifacts, lands, and creatures, virtually nullifying the above ways to break parity. So how do you take advantage of these dastardly spells?

  • Indestructible. Make it so your permanents are straight-up unaffected by these spells somehow.
  • Find a way to cheese these spells out in an unorthodox way. Think Maelstrom Wanderer coming into play after you cascade into one, or Jhoira of the Ghitu unsuspending one before a huge Eldrazi takes the field next.

Decks that use total annihilation cards like this include the above two, as well as Keranos, God of Storms and Zurgo Helmsmasher.

Back to Basics

I’ll admit that I absolutely hate Back to Basics and effects like it. But as discussed, fun can be a zero-sum game and sometimes I’m the zero.

So how do you ensure you will get mileage out of this spell?

  • Play basics.

Well, that’s all folks! Until next time, make sure to stick to the basics and I’ll see you soon.

For real though, there are several archetypes that use cards like this to lock down a board. I would stick to just 1- or 2-color decks since anything more makes it a bit dicey. Stax decks like Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and Derevi, Empyrial Tactician offer bonuses exclusively for you, so you can throw Back to Basics out to your heart’s content.

Additionally, mono-blue combo decks like Teferi, Temporal Archmage and Azami, Lady of Scrolls can throw this into their deck even if it isn’t the primary game plan. Ensuring your deck has as smooth a time combo’ing off should be in your best interest and shutting off the rest of the table’s mana is a great way to do this. Don’t feel too bad. They’ll all be scooping ‘em up real soon.

Grand Arbiter, Augustin IV

With both Armageddon and Back to Basics I’ve mentioned how Grand Arbiter decks can utilize these cards. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sheldon lists GAAIV on his cards you shouldn’t play.

I just love my little Grand Arbiter. I’ve been known to draw the ire of many an EDH table slamming one down on turn 3. Costing only 4 mana ensures that you can play him early enough in the game to get great value from his taxing effect and you can redeploy him relatively quickly after his eventual demise. (When you replay Grand Arbiter IV does he become the V and VI consecutively?)

Grand Arbiter is best when used in your command zone, so rather than mention which decks use him, let’s discuss what kind of cards to use in his decks.

  • Cheap counterspells. Nothing feels better than forcing your opponent to pay extra for their spells just to have them fizzle anyway. Cards like Mana Leak, Memory Lapse, and Arcane Denial are better in Grand Arbiter decks because of the cost reduction and counterspells like Daze, Force Spike, and Censor are better because your opponents are less likely to have leftover mana.
  • Stax pieces. Cards like Kismet, Frozen Aether, Winter Orb, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben work excellently with Grand Arbiter because taxing effects work great in multiples. Who knew?
  • Fast mana. Putting Grand Arbiter out as early as possible is key, something Sheldon can understandably find issue with. It’s okay, though. If winning is the goal, this is how to do it.

Mindslaver

“I’m on the record saying that one Mindslaver activation is probably okay, but people who are playing it are going to find a way to recur it.”

Oh boy, how did he guess?! Of course we are going to make sure to recur it.

Academy Ruins, Sharuum the Hegemon, Prototype Portal, Goblin Welder, Daretti, the list goes on! I would focus on including Mindslaver only in decks that can reliably recur it, since just one activation can be a bit clunky and low impact (hence why it’s OKed).

Mindslaver still suffers from the issue of only targeting one opponent. This means that you will want to pack enough ways to combat a tricky board since sabotaging the table one at a time is going to be real tough business. Oddly, you can leave the Mindslaver in play as a political tool, noting that whoever aims to destroy it, (Krosan Grip aside) will end up with their turn taken. This can allow you the time needed to possibly set up more complicated loops using Mindslaver, but it is still unlikely. Though this sweet artifact may rank high in misery to play against, I think its impact is relatively benign on the format compared to other cards…

Palinchron

A Reserved List staple for Commander, Palinchron is known for being able to create infinite mana (and storm if that matters). Palinchron combos with dozens of cards–everything from Sneak Attack, Phantasmal Image, Deadeye Navigator, and of course, mana doublers.

Palinchron can be obnoxious but it isn’t as consistent or lethal as other cards on the list, so many may be unbothered going up against it. This highlights the ever-shifting nature of what’s “too good”. Palinchron isn’t an auto-include by any means and it’s usually a tad too slow even for High Tide decks.

I would include Palinchron in decks that can utilize it for crazy things, if not outright win on the spot. Such decks can include Maelstrom Wanderer, Animar, Soul of Elements, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang.

Paradox Engine

By far the most egregious card on this list (not even close to close), Paradox Engine takes over by storm (literally) and ends things quite abruptly. It requires less setup than one may think to go off with—so much so that if you have a Paradox Engine in hand it’s often correct to not run it out onto the board until you are ready to go off or can reasonably protect it.

The number of decks that Paradox Engine can fit into is far too vast to mention here, but the card is so consistent in executing game wins that there are entire decks built around it.

Paradox Engine tears up tables from the most casual to the most competitive, and having multiple opponents is of no consequence for this legendary beast. Just make sure your deck is chalk full of mana rocks (as it should be already) and you’re good to go. This even works with mana dorks. What were they thinking? It is easily the card on this list that I would ban myself if I had the power and I doubt many would miss it. While it’s legal, I’ll play it, but this is definitely the Incredible Hulk against the MMA fighter here.

Seedborn Muse

Seedborn Muse may forever live in Prophet of Kruphix’s shadow but look who’s laughing now. Seedborn Muse is a card that I feel is on the cusp between really good and broken. It isn’t something I get frustrated playing against, but I certainly respect its power.

Seedborn Muse works great in decks that can take advantage of instant speed spells. Even mono-green decks have options like Yeva, Nature’s Herald and Yisan, the Wanderer Bard to do things on each opponent’s turn. But I enjoy using Seedborn Muse in decks with blue in them. Blue allows you to easily refill your hand and the Muse single-handedly gives you quasi Time Walks when it comes to efficiently deploying things onto the board. Beware—everyone at the table will try and copy her with clone effects if they don’t outright try and kill her. Protect her from removal with Lightning Greaves and pack some removal in case she gets copied.

Seedborn Muse is an excellent addition to decks like Kruphix, God of Horizons, Mayael the Anima, and even Captain Sisay.

Sorin Markov

Yikes, Sorin Markov is how you make an enemy real quick. Sorin falls pretty close to the bottom of my list of offensive cards on this list. 40 life is a lot and I appreciate someone who is willing to try and beat me the old-fashioned way. If putting you to 10 is an issue, it’s because someone is going to beat your face in shortly after—an uncommon way to die, in my experience. Maybe it’s just the Spike in me, but I think Sorin Markov, Magister Sphinx, and even Infect damage are perfectly fine ways to “go”. If someone can cobble these things together, let them because they’ve earned it.

As for which decks to include Sorin in, I would (at the very least) make sure you have enough black mana sources since he costs a whopping 3 black. Maybe someone better at math than me in the comments wants to take a swing at it, but the exact number of black sources in a 99-card deck to reliably cast Sorin Markov on curve on turn 6 must be astronomical. Ring ring Frank Karsten. Come help the EDH players. Combine Sorin with Erebos, God of the Dead so nobody can save themselves once sniped or Rings of Brighthearth to shoot multiple players down to 10 at once. He also provides excellent devotion for God generals like Athreos and Mogis.

Stasis

Oof, Stasis is one hell of a Magic card. Stasis puts your goals in Commander to the test. If you are all about winning the game but pay no heed to the misery that may entail, then you may enjoy Stasis. Similar to Armageddon effects, you will want to make sure you’re packing a way to break the parity that this card creates. Forsaken City is a great, reliable way to ensure that your Stasis can be paid for and will leave the table believing God has forsaken them too. Ral Zarek also fits the bill, since he can eventually ultimate if you are ever so inclined to not pay for Stasis anymore.

Stasis is especially unholy because there are so few ways to break out of it. If your opponent drops Stasis followed up by Frozen Aether or Kismet, just pack it in. Do yourself a favor and shuffle up for another game. Stasis is a classic inclusion in decks like Derevi, Empyrial Tactician—whose triggered ability reliably pays for Stasis and Teferi, Temporal Archmage—whose minus ability can reset your lands to pay the upkeep for eternity.

Basically, Stasis is really, really crappy to play against. It does feel awful and there is no denying that. But if you pack cheap interaction (Nature’s Claim, Natural State, Ray of Revelation), you can answer a resolved Stasis and save you and your fellow teammates. Be a hero. They say heroes never quit, but if the Stasis lock in is inevitable, do the heroic thing and just go to the next game.

Static Orb

What’s that? I can’t hear you, you’re breaking up. There’s lots of… static.

Static Orb is a card that slows games down to an absolutely glacial pace alongside his big brother Winter Orb. In Winter Orb’s case, it’s much easier for your opponent to break the symmetrical lockdown effect because it only hits lands. At first glance, Static Orb appears weaker than Winter Orb, but affecting all permanent types is key. This means going-wide combat is a total mess. Mana ramp is a mess. Everything’s just a mess.

Static Orb rewards players who aren’t trying to go fast or get ahead, but rather decks that are trying to slow things down. It’s hard for everyone to operate efficiently with this card in play, so it makes sense that you will have the advantage since you know it’s coming and have prepared appropriately for it.

Static Orb works great with Brago, King Eternal, who allows you to untap some permanents (sadly not lands) and break free of the Static Orb curse. Stax decks like Teferi and Grand Arbiter also appreciate this effect.

There is one additional bonus for extra fun and misery. Static Orb only works while untapped. This means that if you tap it down at the end of your last opponent’s turn with a card like Relic Barrier, you get to untap everything. Oooh, delightfully evil.

Thieves’ Auction

Well, here we go—a card that both Sheldon and I can agree doesn’t belong at the EDH table. I couldn’t care less if Thieves’ Auction, Scrambleverse, Warp World, Confusion in the Ranks, and Possibility Storm all fell off the face of the Earth (multiverse?). I have no clue who, when, where, or why to add these to your deck, so if you are feeling crazy, go right ahead—you don’t need my help!

Winter Orb

Ah, the dreaded Winter Orb. It doesn’t take many games staring this artifact down to learn of its icy grasp. Winter Orb constrains mana in the worst way and despite being symmetrical, the caster often produces more ways to break this stalemate, either with their general or with mana rocks. As discussed in Static Orb, Winter Orb slows down the game to a snail’s pace and many players don’t appreciate that. There are great ways to lock out your opponents with Winter Orb, so I suggest adding Kismet, Frozen Aether, and Root Maze to your deck, as well as ways to untap your lands, like Sword of Feast and Famine or Bear Umbra.

Winter Orb is also a great tool at combating fast combo decks. These decks won’t be able to tutor or spend their mana to set up/protect their combo efficiently, so you have time to set up more stax elements. Like in 60-card formats, stax pieces get better in multiples, so there is no reason to not just jam Winter Orb into almost any deck packing these effects. Don’t forget to look for cards like Goblin Welder, Clock of Omens, or the classic Relic Barrier to tap down this bad boy.

Wound Reflection

My dear brother, you wound me. This black enchantment is perhaps the most casual-oriented card on this list. I understand that this card really lights a fire under the table and probably ends the game in short order, but at least that’s the opposite of cards like Winter Orb and Static Orb.

Wound Reflection is oddly political, like Edric, because it encourages players to attack each other, rather than you. Why should they attack you for 5 damage when they can attack someone else for 10? There are some other black enchantments like Painful Quandary, Polluted Bonds, and Price of Knowledge that have a feel-bad emotion attached to them. I can’t really recommend cards like this if the goal is to be competitive, but they are fun and hurt your opponents big time and all at once. They don’t pick favorites. So this makes my “should not play” list because it’s simply not good enough.

Rather, I do suggest some more powerful black enchantments like The Abyss, Chains of Mephistopheles, and Nether Void if your wallet can afford it. These spells have a track record for providing immense value to your board and will make everyone groan in agony. Regardless of your preferred black enchantment griefer cards, you will want to include them in a deck that best utilizes their angle of attack. Wound Reflection works wonders with Nekusar, the Mindrazer, Kaervek the Merciless, and Saskia the Unyielding.

Derevi, Empyrial Tactician

Sheldon always knows best. Derevi is an insane general and capable of competing at even the highest levels of competitive EDH. On top of the numerous cards Devevi breaks on this very list, it also goes infinite with a whole suite of spells. It was one of the first generals to be banned in Duel Commander and for very good reason. Being able to circumvent the Commander tax and come into play at instant speed without being able to be countered is just far too good.

But by now you know that a card simply being “too good” isn’t something to make me shy away. Oh no, we are absolutely going to try and exploit Derevi for all he’s worth and make the battlefield an absolute hell for the others. It’s not so much about finding which cards work well with Derevi (the list is far too vast) but finding the shell you’d like to play.

So, in conclusion, if it’s not on the Commander banned list, it’s in the A-okay zone? Well, not exactly. Always make sure that your playgroup is fine with such powerful and “not fun” cards being present in your deck. I don’t personally advocate house bans, but whatever allows you to keep playing with your friends is what you should adhere to. But I think there is room for these cards at the EDH table, especially those who value the power level of EDH. I want to give a big shout-out and thanks to Sheldon Menery for the article—it’s certainly food for thought! I do wonder how Cyclonic Rift didn’t make the list. Overload that card and it’s nothing but groans from the table.

What cards do you find especially awful to play against? Some too powerful, too boring, too confusing, too slow—whatever the reason I want to know. Think any of these cards should get axed altogether? Thanks so much for reading, and until next time, watch your salt intake.

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