When talking about a magic card in the context of the commander format the word that is “tossed around” the most is “busted” or “broken”. Every time spoiler season rolls around there are a few cards that people say are busted. With one of our first previews from Throne of Eldraine being released, we already have a busted card. This card is Chulane, Teller of Tales. We are not officially into preview season at the time of writing this, and there is a “busted” card. Some content creators have been going wild over being able to have this card/effect as your commander. The same with K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth.
After hearing the word busted being used yet again to describe a magic card, I thought about it myself for a while. Are these cards busted? How are they busted? Why are these effects considered busted?
What does busted even mean when talking about a magic card?
The above question is my primary focus in this article. I am going to offer my suggested “definition” on the word busted in the context of the commander format, and some other words, the ones seen in the title, that can be used to describe a magic card more accurately. In this article I will discuss cards that are legal in commander as well as those that are not. I will also touch upon Paradox Engine and the recent ban announcement, which worked out perfectly in terms of timing. While I will admit I was against a lot of the recent changes to the commander ban list, this is not where I will be going on a massive rant. That is for some other unlucky soul to hear. Alright, let’s get started.
I decided that in order to define a card to the point where we can categorize it we must first define the categories. I ran into a small problem there. Turns out that everyone has their own definition for what makes a good, abuseable, or busted/broken magic card. I decided to talk to a few people to come to a more concrete, widely acceptable, definition for these categories. The first category I’ll attempt to “define” is the term “Good” in relation to a magic card.
When it came to good magic cards, this was where the majority of playable commander cards fall. This category essentially makes up about two thirds to three quarters of the playable commander cards pool. This was in no way unexpected. Most playable cards will be somewhere between good and great. What differentiates them within this category seems to be how much value they provide you with over the course of the game or even a single interaction. When I spoke to people they all for the most part agreed on this general definition:
“A good magic card in the commander format is one that either accrues value over the course of the game, or has a significant enough one time effect that it can protect or propel your game plan.”
I personally agree with this definition, and I think most commander players will as well. When I asked for specific cards that these players thought fell into this general category of “Good” I got a large amount of cards that one would expect. Mulldrifter was one of the most mentioned cards for this category.
Mulldrifter was one of the most mentioned cards for this category. It is a 2/2 flyer that draws you two cards when it enters the battlefield, and you can evoke it to turn it into divination. It has the ability to be flickered/blinked for additional value, and may even be useful in combat. Mulldrifter is the perfect example of a card that can accrue its owner/controller a fair amount of value over the course of the game. Other good cards mentioned were cards like Felwar Stone, Mind Stone, Counterspell, Assassin’s Trophy, Path to Exile, etc. Control, removal, and slower ramp all fall into this category. If the card is playable, it is safe to assume that it falls within this category. That fact also means it the easiest to identify and define. Time to move on to something a little more difficult.
The next categories encapsulate cards that are easy to abuse, are likely to be abused, and are broken/busted. This is where things get difficult. What I found when talking to people about these categories is that they almost seem to blend, and most players will have varying definitions for the two categories. In order to define these categories I decided that it would be beneficial to talk and ask about some of the cards on the commander ban list. This turned out to be half true. I will say that the biggest debate was around Paradox Engine, so I will belay remarks on that card until we get towards the end of this article, and we get some more concrete definitions of these two categories. When trying to differentiate these categories I mainly asked about these nine cards: Phyrexian Altar, Ashnod’s Altar, Isochron Scepter, Flash, Protean Hulk, Razaketh, Griselbrand, Sol Ring, and Black Lotus.
I found the altars to be two of the more interesting cards to ask about out of these ten. I personally play both of them in my Izoni aristocrats deck, and I have a strong opinion on which is stronger.
There are two main differences between the two. The first is that ashnod’s produces two mana where phyrexian only makes one per creature. The second difference is that phyrexian produces colored mana, and ashnod’s only makes colorless mana. I’m not here to argue which is better though, only to see where they fall between these two categories and use them to help me define. It was unanimously decided by everyone I asked that these two fell into the abuseable category. On the surface these two cards provide you the ability to turn one resource into another, but there is more beneath the surface. The altars also aid with card velocity. Without going too deep on card velocity, it is basically the movement of cards between game zones. When you draw a card it moves from the library to your hand. That “nets” you a card velocity of one. One card moved one time between two zones. Phyrexian Altar and Ashnod’s Altar let you generate cards velocity between the battlefield and the graveyard, and on top of that they provide you with arguably the most essential resource in the entire game, mana. The last point I will make about these cards, and maybe the most important, is that they do absolutely nothing on their own. They will sit on the battlefield accruing you no value, gaining you no advantage, unless you have creatures on the battlefield to sacrifice.
The next card is Isochron Scepter. When it enters the battlefield it lets you imprint an instant with converted mana cost two or less. Pay two mana, tap the scepter, and you get to cast the imprinted spell.
A bit more recently printed was Dramatic Reversal. When imprinted with the scepter it allows you to cast it until you either have no mana left or you win the game. Cast reversal with three mana in mana rocks and you then have infinite mana and an infinite storm count. While you do see other spells imprinted, that is the most common use for Isochron Scepter in the EDH format. The combination is infamous in the format because all you need are those two cards and you have infinite mana. Well, not actually. Even with that combo, you need to have the mana rocks to end up net positive. It’s not hard, but I think that is the biggest thing keeping Isochron Scepter from being a “busted” magic card in commander. The combo is efficient, yes, but it requires you to have two pieces before you can consider deploying it, and three or more for it to be effective. While scepter is a powerful card, just like Phyrexian and Ashnod’s Alters, it does nothing for you without other pieces to make the effect worthwhile. So just like the two alters, Isochron Scepter is an abuseable card.
The next card is one that causes players at a cEDH to tense up every time it’s cast, Flash. Flash is a difficult spell to analyze and then categorize because it requires you to have a creature card in order for you to not just be wasting two mana and a card. Flash lets you put a creature card from your hand onto the battlefield, and the “downside” is that you have to sacrifice the creature unless you pay the creature’s mana cost reduced by up to two generic mana.
Flash is a card that wins you the game on the spot or it is a pretty terrible card. It wins the game on the spot if you have Protean Hulk in your hand.
Hulk enters and you don’t pay the cost to keep it, forcing you to sacrifice it. When it dies you get to search for any number of creatures with total converted mana cost equal to six or less and put them onto the battlefield. What you get depends on the colors you are playing, but in almost any color combination (including green, obviously) you can find a combo to instantly win you the game. This is one of the most infamous combos in the commander format, having entire competitive decks built around it. Categorizing these two cards is a bit more difficult than Isochron Scepter. This is because while scepter and dramatic reversal can give you infinite mana, it’s just that, infinite mana. You don’t win because you generate infinite mana, you need to have something to do with it. Flash hulk on the other hand, if left uninterrupted, will win the game.
After talking to many people who play the format in many different ways, I was no closer to getting an answer. Most people would say one half of the combo is busted, while just about everyone else would say that both cards are busted. I’ve been writing this article for a few weeks and these are the two cards that I have struggled to categorize the most, without question. Both cards seem to sit squarely on the line between abuseable and busted without giving a clear sign at which they belong to. So looking back at the last four cards categorized I feel as though the abuseable category has been pretty well defined. The definition I would give for the category of cards that are abuseable is this:
“An abuseable magic card in the commander format is one that can provide the player with the means or resources to win the game, but cannot win the game on its own.”
With that definition, Flash is an abuseable magic card. Casting flash does not win you the game, but paired with Protean Hulk will win you the game. One half of the combo down, but where does hulk fall? How does hulk win the game? When it dies you can tutor up a combo to the battlefield. So the question when categorizing hulk is this: Is need Protean Hulk to die enough of a requirement to make it an abuseable card? Or is it so little that it could count as busted?
There are three main ways a creature like Protean Hulk will die in commander. The first is through combat. This does not really give us any information to use to categorize hulk though, so it can be ignored. The second is a board wipe. This relies on other players to both have and feel the need to use a board wipe, so this does not count towards anything either. The last is through sacrifice outlets. If you really think about it, Flash is just an efficient one use sacrifice outlet. Hulk needs to be sacrificed. It has no way to kill itself, it needs to have another card present to help it get to the graveyard from the battlefield, and that puts Protean Hulk firmly in the abuseable category.
Before moving on to the last four cards out of the nine I said I would discuss and categorize, I need to begin trying to define what a busted or broken magic card is. What does it really mean to be busted? Looking at the definition for abuseable it seems like a busted magic card should hit the battlefield and instantly win you the game. However some of the next few cards are busted cards, and they do not win the game on the spot. How is it then that they are busted?
The next two cards to be categorized are Razaketh and Griselbrand. Griselbrand is actually banned in Commander.
These two cards will help solidify the definition of what a busted magic card really is. Razaketh lets you tutor for the right card to your hand at instant speed. Griselbrand lets you draw your life total in cards in increments of seven. One of these cards is busted and the other is abuseable/good. Looking at them they may not appear very good in their base stats and keywords. Razaketh is an 8/8 for eight with flying, trample, and an activated ability. Griselbrand is a 7/7 for eight with flying, lifelink, and an activated ability. On the surface they seem like fine commander cards, but the activated abilities make these cards kill on sight. Both of these abilities let you turn one thing into another. This is where we have to get a bit deeper. There are three “main” resources in Magic the Gathering. They are mana, life, and cards. Mana ramp/acceleration is one of the most fundamental parts of the commander format. Newer players will always determine who is currently winning the game by looking at life totals. People who understand the game will look at life totals and see it as a resource rather than a scoreboard. Card advantage is one of the most talked about and desired forms of advantage across the entire game, regardless of format. The favorite three words of most magic players is “draw a card.” Having the ability to turn one resource into another is one of the most powerful effects in the game. Look at Phyrexian Altar. It lets the player turn cards into mana. There are abilities that let you pay mana for cards. While those are both great transactions to be making, the best conversion of resources is from life to mana or cards. In commander you start at forty life. That is a lot of resource that you get for doing absolutely nothing. If you ask a magic player what the best use for life is as a resource they will either say Aetherflux Reservoir if they play commander, or Griselbrand if they play just about anything else. Pay seven life. Draw seven cards. The amount of advantage that Griselbrand can generate on his own is enough to swing the balance of the game in his controller’s favor. In commander you can have him on the battlefield turn one and proceed to draw twenty eight cards. On turn one, and it only requires three cards. The tipping of the scales from Griselbrand is enough to consider it busted, but just barely. Razaketh on the other hand requires you to have creatures to sacrifice to his ability. It relies on you having other resources that you do not get for free, therefore it cannot be considered busted. Really good? Absolutely. Abuseable? Without a doubt. Busted? No.
With the categorizing of these two demons, a clearer definition for a busted commander card emerges.
A busted or broken card in the commander format is one that either wins the game upon its resolution, or is a card that allows the player to tip the natural balance of a game of magic in their favor that the chances of them losing are slim to none.
With this definition the last two cards can be analyzed. They are Sol Ring and Black Lotus.
These are likely the two most known magic cards ever. Sol Ring is the very definition of commander, and Black Lotus is the holy grail of Magic the Gathering. Both cards essentially do the same thing: They accelerate mana production to the point where the player has significantly increased their chances of winning the game. That is it. These are two cards that in the commander format, would be considered busted by the definitions given above. They are not equally busted, but they are both busted nonetheless.
With the definitions in place and the main portion of the article finished, I will touch briefly on the recent banning of Paradox Engine.
Without touching upon the commander philosophy article that was released I will firmly say and stand behind this: Paradox Engine should not have been banned from the format. I understand it is a card that allows for longer turns and was very easy to abuse, but it was just that: Abuseable. It was very much not a busted magic card. Did it push the limits? Without a doubt. Is it the most powerful card printed in the past few years? Yes. Is it unbeatable? No. It is a threatening card, but it can be stopped like any other threat. I won’t turn this into the endless rant I know it could be, so my remarks will stop there.
Let me know what you think. Share this with your play groups and friends. Tell me what you think of the given definitions, and whether or not you think I falsely categorized any of the mentioned cards. Until next time.
Warper of Worlds
Card images from: https://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Default.aspx