We're a month away from Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and one of the very first cards spoiled is confirmed crazy. Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines is so obviously powerful that it prompted an article from the Commander RC head Sheldon Menery. When the Rules Committee speaks, I listen. Is Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines a step in the wrong direction for Commander, or could we be having a knee-jerk reaction to a powerful, but not overpowered, card?
But First... the Apocalypse
Sheoldred, the Apocalypse is bad for Commander. Wizards of the Coast essentially forced a high-rarity, super-powerful chase card onto Standard, Pioneer, and Commander simultaneously. The price of the card will remain sky-high for the foreseeable future. Maybe that's why I do not see a lot of Sheoldred either locally or on SpellTable.
Furthermore, EDREC shows Sheoldred as a distant fifth for mono-black commander. It even appears in the middle of the pack as far as mono-black staples are concerned. However, if this card were not so pricey, I feel it would certainly be jammed into many more decks, because it just does too much for too little.
There are several ways to determine a fair mana cost for a card, but comparing existing effects is a good baseline. What is the least expensive 4/5 creature? There are several 4/5s at three mana, but they generally have a drawback; the same is true at four mana. So the most common mana value for a 4/5 body is five.
Given that deathtouch is free, and lifegain on draw is free, we only have to check the cost for two damage per card drawn for opponents. Six black mana, the cost of two Underworld Dreams. So yes, you're getting a good 11 or 12 mana in value from this (checks card) four mana creature. Yeah, Sheoldred is absurd! Seriously, who would print such a thing?
The Same Team That Printed THIS Thing
Let's see here. Vigilance, sure, we'll call that "free." A 4/7 body is uncommon, but I'm sure six mana covers it, so let's just talk about abilities. Torpor Orb, Hushbringer, Tocatli Honor Guard, and Hushwing Gryff (flash costs one here) all shut down creature ETB effects for two mana. Yes, there are a few cases where turning off ETB effects could help an opponent, but stopping all enemy ETBs has got to be worth two at least. But wait... Mother also gets Panharmonicon, which is solid at four mana, and normally that only works on artifacts and creatures. This one works on everything! Bringing us up to what, 12, 13, up to 14 points of mana in abilities on a five mana creature? I'm noticing a disturbing trend and I am not alone.
Enter the Sheldon
I agree with nearly everything Mr. Menery mentioned in their article, but I want to quote what I feel is the single highest-impact statement.
"Once we get to the point of, 'If you’re playing white, there’s no reason to avoid playing Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines' (or insert card name), we’ve reduced our effective deck size by one more card. When twenty or more of our cards have been decided before we actually start building the deck, we’ve headed in a dangerous direction. We’ve sacrificed creativity on the altar of efficiency."
This is already the case for many cards that are simply too good. Wizards clearly has data. Mark Rosewater mentions that "White has had more gains in the color pie than green in the last year and more is coming." The reason? It is commonly believed that white is the weakest color in Commander.
What is the plan to make white stronger? Elesh Norn is part of that plan. I would not mind if the mana cost were, say, five white mana, reinforcing this card as mono-white. But at only one white and four generic, this card is far too easily splashed, so is it even "white?" Costing just one more than Panharmonicon, Elesh Norn is an obvious auto-include in many decks.
Is This the Future of Commander?
Hopefully not. The Wizards creative team has been able to make cards like Winding Constrictor that saw lots of Standard play and then were incorporated into the few Commander decks where it fit. But lately, every card is more like Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider, a generically strong creature that also shuts down your opponents. New Vorinclex, however, looks downright tame compared to new Sheoldred and Elesh Norn!
Where I disagree with Sheldon is that we are already sacrificing creativity for efficiency. Why pay five when you could pay four? It's a simple question with a simple answer: we wouldn't! So outside of having a really great local group, you're going to run into problems with power level as power creep rises. While I have a lot of advice to give on the subject, it gets progressively harder when Wizards is cranking out bigger and bigger nuclear warheads every set. And to be clear, powerful effects are not the issue; it's under-costing them that is.
Seven-plus mana. Battlecruiser Magic. This is where crazy powerful creatures are appropriate. It has almost always been so. If we take a look at the Commander ban list, something stands out. Absurd creatures that cost a ton of mana! It's safe to make big creatures powerful. But at six mana? Five? Four? There are also low-mana creatures on the banned list.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is and was a powerful card. But even though it gives a lot for seven, it cannot go into every deck. Some just can't afford its mana cost. Furthermore, say you have Loran's Escape to protect your play. Having up eight total mana, with triple white at that, is tough. New Elesh Norn? Easy to save. Old Elesh Norn dies to Ravenous Chupacabra; new Elesh Norn is naturally immune. Both are 4/7. How? This is the textbook definition of power creep.
Back to the RC
Sheldon has explicitly said that Elesh Norn is likely too good for Commander and will be a detriment to the format. They seem firmly in the camp that evidence will prove this to be true. I agree. However, I myself would already have a much larger ban list for Commander that would look an awful lot like the ban list for Conquest format, which I think delivers a superior "Commander experience." The RC has a great track record keeping Commander mostly fair and mostly fun so I will wait and see.
Surely we cannot unban very many cards on the Commander ban list. Cards like Aeronaut Tinkerer and Aether Flash are just purely degenerate and never need to be re-examined. Is Elesh Norn on that level? No, obviously not. But it is a dangerous card because it's just too generically good and can go into too many decks, you know, like Dockside Extortionist.
When I look at EDREC one thing has been jumping out at me lately. New cards are at the top of most lists, whether it's for a commander or cards to add to any deck. Now, normally, I can ascribe this to the "new hotness" factor. Sure, new cards tend to be popular when they first come out, and then slowly cool down. In most cases, there were already cards that functioned the same, but were potentially better or worse circumstantially. That's what used to happen. Now? Almost every new card is either a strict upgrade of an existing card or eerily recalls the original white baddie, Baneslayer Angel. A 5/5 with five abilities for five mana, Baneslayer was incredible when it debuted, and dropped alongside other powerful white cards like Stoneforge Mystic.
Mass bans! Ban early and ban often! While I'm not completely serious, I'm also not joking either. If I were on the RC I would have already pushed for Dockside Extortionist and Thassa's Oracle bans. I disagree that those cards generate a positive game play experience for anyone.
Elesh Norn won't be banned directly out the gate. At least she does directly counter both of those other cards! So we will all wait and see. But it does not take an oracle to see how busted Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines is. How many games do players need to sit in where a turn-three Norn turns off their entire deck while also doubling future gains for their opponent? Of course, you could always run more removal. The simple fact is that if cards keep getting pushed to this level, you won't have much choice not to.
What do you think? Is Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines overpowered, or just very powerful? Will it get banned? Would you ban it? Let me know in the comments.