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Hybridizing Commander

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Welcome to another installment of Ray of Command! Last week I wrote about the biggest problem facing the Commander format right now, staples, and I’d love to get some more of your input on the issue. This week we’ll take a look at another one of the format’s points of controversy: hybrid cards.

For those unfamiliar, in regular Magic [card Barrenton Cragtreads]hybrid[/card] cards can be played in any deck that can produce one of their colors. Yet in Commander we don’t allow any cards with color identities that aren’t a subset of the Commander’s color identity. You can’t play any cards that are a color or have a mana symbol of a color that your Commander neither is nor has a mana symbol of.

Ever since Ravnica’s release, this issue has been hotly contested, and the argument to change the rule has always been the obvious one: if I can play Relentless Assault in my Urabrask, the Hidden deck, why not Waves of Aggression? Of course, this debate is coming up again now because of the new Phyrexian Mana mechanic. These are designed to be playable in any color, so some people might be outraged that while the rest of the world finally gets a blue Hornet Sting, Commander players don’t get access, but by the same token this argument justifies the rules committee.

Not just Phyrexian mana, but the hybrid mechanic in general, causes a lot of bleed. Wizards of the Coast has spent a lot of time debating what should or shouldn’t show up in hybrid, and towards this end, they’ve divided hybrid cards into four categories (as Mark Rosewater explained in his article for Hybrid Week).

Overlap

The most obvious place to use hybrid mana is for direct overlaps, such as Twisted Image/About Face/Inside Out. These cards certainly have no problems going into a Commander deck in one color due to color pie concerns, but hybrids have another issue: flavor.

Many people, myself included, don’t care too much for literal flavor in building a Commander deck. After all, how would [card Godo Bandit Warlord]Godo[/card] know about Argentum Armor which is both in a different universe than he is and wasn’t "created" until after his death? Nonetheless, cards that promote similar game-play in some way feel right. This issue can come up without hybrids, like Captain Sisay calling up Elesh Norn for help. On this front, I think it’s more up to the players than the rules committee to make their decks play flavorfully.

Philosophy

This category bleeds effects, but the card as a whole feels right. For instance, while unlike [card Leyline of Punishment]red[/card], black wouldn’t normally get [card Everlasting Torment]the ability to stop damage prevention[/card], [card Acolyte of Xathrid]life loss[/card] works under the same basic principle. Here we’re starting to get into a gray area, but these cards still don’t reach [card Venarian Glimmer]Planar Chaos levels[/card], so there’s no real precedent for shutting them out while Kor Dirge remains legal.

Top-Down Designs

This isn’t really a hybrid issue in particular, but rather the Form of the Dragon philosophy: Moat isn’t red, but becoming a dragon sure is. With that in mind, the bleed here is no worse than on mono-colored cards (and actually fewer thus far because there aren’t many hybrid cards).

Pretty much everyone in R&D agrees that these first three areas are acceptable for hybrid design, and none of them pose any significant issues for Commander. The issues come with the fourth type of hybrid cards which R&D (or at least Mark Rosewater and formerly R&D member Devin Low) often argue about the validity of.

Multicolor Bleed

Devin Low’s camp vouches that in the service of the overall card, abilities that are firmly stationed in one color should be allowed to bleed over hybrid cards, ala Augury Adept, Giant Solifuge or Ghastlord of Fugue. These cards would all make much more sense as normal multi-colored cards, and in my opinion, that’s where they should stay. That said, like Psychic Venom, they already exist.

Is it worth getting rid of all of the other hybrids to make room for them? If you asked me a couple of months ago, I would have confidently replied that it wasn’t worth losing hundreds of cards to keep less than ten where they belong, but New Phyrexia is a whole different beast.

With classic hybrids (excluding the Beseech the Queen cycle), the offenders would only bleed into one or two colors, but with the overload that is Phyrexian Mana, the new set has cards that bleed into four [card Gruesome Encore]colors[/card]! The Low camp seems to have won out, and allowing hybrids to be playable in decks that could pay either cost (read: any deck) would completely invalidate the color pie.

But for all this talk about the color pie, I don’t think that’s the rules committee’s main concern with hybrid cards. The color pie is already invalidated by virtue of Commander’s slow pace. Every color has had access to the majority of effects for quite a while, but they maintain their distinctness in tournament Magic and even casual play because this sort of broad bleed is only allowed on [card Spine of Ish Sah]very[/card] [card Kozilek Butcher of Truth]expensive[/card] [card Planar Portal]spells[/card].

In Commander these barriers break down, and colors’ distinctness from one another is maintained through quantity rather than cost. With each new Karn the barriers drop a little more, and while allowing hybrid cards broader access might hasten that eventuality, we’ll be glad to have more options for deck building after it arrives.

The last obstacle standing in hybrid’s way is the Duplicant problem; freeing up hybrids would not only detract from the distinctness of colors, but the distinctness of decks. Allowing every deck that is black or white to run [card Debtors Knell]Debtor’s Knell[/card] as opposed to just those that are black and white cuts down on format diversity because the card is so powerful.

As I noted last week, we aren’t going to overcome the format’s staple problem by confronting its symptoms; we need to change our entire mindset. If we continue to disallow hybrid cards while keeping our current mindset, we’ll simultaneously drown in staples while cutting off creative resources from the people who’ve managed to transcend the staple issue. If I can play Godhead of Awe with [card Night of Souls Betrayal]Night of Souls’ Betrayal[/card] in a blue-black deck regularly, there’s no reason that I shouldn’t do the same with [card Szadek Lord of Secrets]Szadek[/card] leading my forces, but with the current rules I have fewer option for cool interactions like this one to include.

Just because the reasons commonly given against running hybrids all over the place in Commander don’t hold up doesn’t mean that there’s no issue. While the color pie, flavor, and uniqueness may not provide strong reasons to keep things as they are, the rules themselves do. Changing the Commander color rules to accommodate hybrids would make them more complex, changing the rule from ‘the color identities of your cards must be subsets of your Commander’s color identity’ to ‘you can only play cards that have mana symbols which are at least partially the same as you Commander’s color identity and their color must be a subset of your Commander’s color identity excepting colors they have due to hybrid mana symbols.’

That's a mouthful.

The much bigger issue is how unintelligible the system becomes. Explaining to a new player that their cards can’t have any colors on them that their Commander doesn’t is fairly straightforward, but explaining that you’re allowed to use Dire Undercurrents in your [card Nath of the Gilt-Leaf]Nath[/card] deck, but they can’t play Mirrorwood Treefolk with [card Doran the Siege Tower]Doran[/card] isn’t going to leave a positive impression. And really, what’s the justification for this difference? If I need more cantripping artifacts for [card Glissa the Traitor]Glissa[/card], why shouldn’t I get to use Sunbeam Spellbomb? And if we allow that, why shouldn’t you be able to run [card Iona Shield of Emeria]Iona[/card] solely as a reanimation target in your Chainer, Dementia Master deck?

I say you should. I’m not advocating disregarding your Commander’s color, but rather throwing out the matching color identity rule and just keeping rule 4: “A deck may not generate mana outside its colors. If an effect would generate mana of an illegal color, it generates colorless mana instead.” This change isn’t perfect of course, but I think that the good outweighs the bad.

One major downside is that the change would power up combo decks and fun-wreckers, but this isn’t actually much of a problem. Fast combo decks were already powerful enough to dominate a casual table without getting to Sneak Attack in a Pestermite in your [card Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card] deck; the social contract, not color rules, are what hold back degeneracy. Similarly, while [card Zur the Enchanter]Zur[/card] gets more powerful with the addition of Ancestral Mask, he wasn’t exactly kosher for casual circles regardless, and the rules committee has stated that they aren’t concerned with cutthroat Commander.

The only other real drawback I see (again, assuming we as a community can get over our staple madness) is that decks might become over-reliant on Mycosynth Lattice to play all sorts of cards, but I assume that the prevalence of artifact destruction will be enough to keep this sort of behavior in check. The upsides of this change are pretty obvious: you can finally stick Fate Transfer into Experiment Kraj, that is to say, you have more options for creative deck building. Moreover, it reduces the number of ‘feel bad’ moments in the deck building process. Also, for what it’s worth, monored would get a bit stronger with the addition of [card Scion of the ur-Dragon]Scion[/card]’s cadre to Zirilan of the Claw decks.

What do you think? Should we change the deck construction rules for Commander, or leave them as they are? What philosophy should Wizards take in designing hybrids? Let me know below. Until next week…

Jules Robins
julesdrobins@gmail.com
@JulesRobins on twitter
toahaomin on mtgo

5 thoughts on “Hybridizing Commander

  1. Generally, I really nice article. I'm glad you mentioned the Debtor's Knell thing because that is my #1 reason behind flavor for keeping the rules the way they are.
    Anyways, from a writer's standpoint, I found the sentences under the Philosophy section and Top-Down Designs were difficult to read. Maybe it is only me, but I seemed to stumble over them.

    1. Mick,
      After reading back over them, I have to agree; sometimes I have trouble reading sentences without unconsciously applying the cadence I'd written them with. Thank you for pointing those out, as it should help me to alleviate the problem, and hopefully you can look forward to less convoluted writing in the future.

  2. I’d prefer the deck construction rules for EDH stay the way they are. While I agree with you that changing them opens up some more deck building possibilities, with the massive cardpool available the possibilities are already huuuuge.. I have a hard time paring down my stack of options when I build a mono-colour deck from my only mediocre sized collection, never mind building multi-colour from any card possible. The current rules seem flavourful to me, and as one of the writers on DailyMTG says, “Restriction breeds creativity.” If you really want to play a certain General, you might need to either jump through some hoops to get certain effects, figure out how to make the deck work without those effects, or if you really can’t do it then play a different colour combo – but the fact that people do build and play decks with every legend in every colour possible kinda shoots down that eventuality.

    1. That's certainly a valid point, and I know I usually start out with 200 or so nonlands that I want to include in my lists, but nonetheless it saddens me to have to tell people that they can't play with the cool idea they came up with because one of the cards is an off-color hybrid.
      On "restrictions breed creativity," I was certainly conscious of Mark Rosewater's motto in writing this. I concluded that while not letting Kemba, Kha Regent run Waves of Aggression certainly leads to more creative builds, it isn't worth the cost of disappointing players. Restrictions breed creativity, but while creativity supports fun, it isn't the format's direct aim in and of itself.

  3. Thank you, I have recently been looking for info about this subject for a long time and yours is the greatest I have came upon till now. However, what concerning the conclusion? Are you certain concerning the source?|

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