Commander Spotlight: Balancing Act

Magic has no shortage of ways it can be played, whether it’s sanctioned competitive formats like Modern or Legacy, Wizard-created formats like Archenemy, or the myriad fan-made possibilities like Horde or, well, Commander.

No one format of play is inherently better or more masterful than another, but it’d be foolish to hide the fact that some formats are more popular than others. For every Standard or Cube draft, there are a dozen kitchen table variants or house rules that don’t get any fanfare, although many can be quite fun. Indeed, the longer you play, it’s almost impossible to not become a fan of at least a few different ways of playing the game

Anytime you change the way the game behaves, though, you are inherently also altering the game’s balance. In the six player Emperor/General variant, for instance, decks behave differently whether they’re playing as one of the hard-hitting flanks or the team’s largely untouchable center player. Decks that have a more defensive approach can be terrible in the corner slots, and if the middle player has an aggressive creature deck, the whole team can be severely weakened.

In smaller doses, these fluctuations aren’t terribly drastic. At best, you learn to accept a game variant’s eccentricities. At worst, you and your play group modify those variants further to correct for it.

Inevitably, however, it’s often only a matter of time until someone somewhere recognizes certain cards and combos in any variant become even more powerful or degenerate than they are otherwise for one reason or another.

Hey, in a game that’s both designed to and encourages the elimination of other players, Magic isn’t really a game whose players are known for restraint.

Thus, once a variant reaches a critical mass of player interest, more formal and structured rules are usually needed. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of clarifying relevant rule changes, as in the case of Two-Headed Giant. Other times it’s a consolidation of several different ways people play a given variant into one cohesive system. Yet the most visible sign a format is doing well for itself is by way of a banned list.

Banned and restricted lists aren’t anything new to Magic. We’ve had them pretty much since we’ve had the idea of organized play – which came about roughly a year after the game was released. Since then, Wizards has maintained various B&R lists for their major formats: Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage.

Contrary to the knowledge of many Magic players, though, Commander is not controlled by Wizards. That list is maintained by the people created the format, known collectively as the EDH Rules Committee.

Moreover, the Rules Committee freely states that their B&R list is not meant to be iron clad. As it is a fan-made format, they believe that if your particular play group has difficulties with certain cards, you’re welcome to augment or add to their list to solve the problem. They do this for two reasons. The first is philosophical. They don’t want to have a 200 card banlist, as they feel it’ll eventually become prohibitive to enjoying the format. The second is practical: they’d rather have your group give it a soft ban if you’re having a particularly hard time with it rather than dictating from on high if it isn’t the same case for everyone else. After all, an often overlooked part of the format is that EDH should be played within the spirit of having fun instead of winning at any cost.

Combined, their approach implies that while the RC will take care of the worst offenders, your group’s self-policing of problematic cards should take care of many second-tier headaches.

You know, because that totally happens. I’m sure every play group everywhere has collectively decided to stop using Deadeye Navigator, Prophet of Kruphix, Dream Halls, etc., right?


The reality is that once a popular format like Commander establishes an official B&R list, the majority of its players will only accept what’s published; for many the format has transcended the ability to be easily self-policed. It’s not that some play groups won’t willingly forgo cards they know will be degenerative. But most no longer will eschew them so easily.

Case in point: if you look at the actual Commander B&R, you won’t find a hugely robust list. The majority of the cards on it are those that either sets life totals, draw cards way too easily, generates mana way too quickly, or are some of the most expensive money cards in the game. Ante cards notwithstanding, it’s no surprise that artifacts, followed by Blue and Green, are the most common colors with banned cards, claiming 13, 8, and 7 respectively. At the far other end of the spectrum lies Red, with only two: Falling Star and Worldfire.

A close second is White, with just three: Shahrazad (which creates a game-within-a-game situation), Limited Resources (which usually destroys lands and makes players unable to put new ones out), and Balance, the most cost efficient board wipe ever made. Balance makes players sacrifice creatures, discard cards, and sacrifice lands all at the same time, and any one of those three prongs has the potential to be abused to comical proportions. It’s banned for good reason.

That said, White board wipes have been a staple in the color since the beginning, with Balance, Wrath of God and Armageddon. The inherent problem with Balance isn’t its wrath capabilities, though, but rather how easily it is to abuse.

Wizards has actually made two attempts at a ‘fixed’ Balance over the years. The second was Time Spiral’s Restore Balance – one that you see coming a mile away. The first attempt, as it just so happens, is this week’s pick.

Today we have: Balancing Act

Balancing Act

Name: Balancing Act

Edition: Odyssey

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Board Wipe

Highlights: The creation of Balancing Act did not go unnoticed. For most people during Odyssey, Balance was still seen infrequently, and a lot of comparisons were drawn between the two. While many casual players liked this card for its easier accessibility, Balancing Act was never (and still isn’t) found in any tournament format where Balance is still legal.

Balancing Act is very similar to its progenitor. Both cards force everyone to sacrifice down to the player with the fewest types of permanents (a useful ability in the era of indestructibility), and both cards provide mass discard in White – something most people don’t expect. In fact, there are only two real differences between the card iterations. The first is that Balancing Act costs two more mana, but even at four mana it’s still quite reasonable for Commander. The cost difference is quite minimal really, especially when accepting the fact that Balance itself is horribly undercosted for its effect.

The second is the scope of what is sacrificed. With Balance,  you are guaranteed to see both creatures and land be sacrificed, as they are explicitly mentioned. Balancing Act, however, isn’t restricted to a permanent type. Instead, it has players tally up all permanents and then sacrifice down to the person with the fewest, which is often the player in the weakest position. The biggest implications of this are that players aren’t necessarily guaranteed to their land (which is usually the sore spot with Balance) and that Balancing Act affects things Balance can’t. Namely, artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers.

The resulting choices by players of what to keep should prove interesting, especially if one player is significantly lagging behind the rest. Will people retain their land for rebuilding, their biggest creatures to go on the offensive, or their utility permanents for something else? It’s all up to the players.

Admittedly, if your intent is to cause a creature wipe, then yes, this isn’t going to be as effective as something like Day of Judgment. However, if you’re instead trying to shift the relative power on the board without forcing everyone to lose everything – especially land – then Balancing Act certainly offers an, erm, balance between aggressive land destruction and indiscriminate board wipes.

It also helps that it isn’t banned.


Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.

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