Magic's Problem: Free Spells Trouble

Ross Gloekler
December 15, 2023


Hello and welcome back. Recently other formats saw the banning of a few cards, specifically the cards Fury and Geological Appraiser. Fury and Grief have been on the ban radar for a while now, while the Appraiser was a recent addition from the Lost Caverns of Ixalan. The former was helping a deck called Rakdos Scam dominate the Modern metagame and the other was already bursting onto the scene as a problem in Pioneer.

Fury (Modern Horizons 2 #126) Geological Appraiser (The Lost Caverns of Ixalan #150)

Granted, neither of these cards were banned in Commander. However they do share a common thread with how they could be used and abused. They could either be cast for “free” or gave you something to cast for free. The inherent problems with these kinds of cards, like Deflecting Swat or Force of Negation, are balancing their impact on gameplay while offering something cool to do for players.

Deflecting Swat (Commander Masters #214) Force of Negation (Double Masters 2022 #50)

However, like the bans highlight and many Commander players groan about, the cards tend to lend to feel bad moments and always appear to give too much power for the alternate cost or the ability they possess. It’s really the attempted balance of gameplay that most people experience, rather than the cost associated with them for the “free” cast.

So today I want to talk about some of the stuff that is “free”.


Doing Too Much

The mana system in Magic is the key braking gear on the whole of the game. You can’t cast spells unless you have enough mana in the right colors. That’s how most of Magic is played, and adding colors to cards is supposed to make them harder to cast but also somewhat more powerful than other cards at the same value on the curve of a build. Most Magic players know this hasn’t been the case for a long time, if ever.

Channel (Iconic Masters #157) Fireball (Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate #175)

Many spells and abilities these days give you some extra oomph for our mana. Even in the earliest days of Magic, Channel could give you a net 17 colorless mana if you wanted to trade your life total away. This card is probably a clear example of cost to effect imbalance, and is banned in multiple formats for good reason (banned in Commander, Historic, Oathbreaker and Legacy. Restricted in Vintage and Timeless).

Golgari Thug (Ravnica: City of Guilds #87) Gitaxian Probe (New Phyrexia #35)

This is probably the most egregious example, but it highlights when a card is released with a cool design but does much more than probably intended, especially in combination with other cards.. Some mechanics may over time give too much or produce undercosted “free” effects, like Dredge and Phyrexian Mana, and they have always caused problems for various formats and future card design.


Being Extra

Bituminous Blast (Alara Reborn #34) Bloodbraid Elf (Alara Reborn #50)

Over the history of the game these cards had been largely reigned in until about 2008 when the mechanic Cascade premiered in Alara block. The mechanic was so warping that Jund became a top standard deck built around cascade cards like Bituminous Blast and Bloodbraid Elf, and nothing had a real chance of unseating it unless you played something to oppose it directly for a hot minute. While cascade itself wasn’t the only reason for the deck, it was a large part of it especially early on.

Grief (Modern Horizons 2 #87) Fury (Modern Horizons 2 #126)

A tangent to today with the deck Rakdos Scam. Recently a deck widely regarded as having too big a part in the Modern meta, it focused on abusing two elemental cards from Modern Horizons II; Grief and Fury. Each card has the ability Evoke, which is an alternate casting cost with the cost on these cards defined as exiling a colored card from your hand to cast this for “free”. The creature was then sacrificed when the Evoke trigger resolved (which is separate from the ability trigger).

Reveillark (Morningtide #22)

Anyone who has played around with Reveillark in Commander knows the Evoke is a great ability to get things going (in Reveillark’s case, because it leaves the battlefield). The ability to just pitch a card instead of paying mana is very good when you can gain the momentum provided by the card, especially in 1v1 formats where the odds of interacting with the evoked card is minimized.

The problem with these two cards in Modern was the easy abuse. Players were able to get these effects cheaply (pitching a card to exile), having the creature die to its Evoke trigger and recurring it, OR bringing it back when it died with a delayed trigger event.


The Cringe

Flawless Maneuver (Commander 2020 #26) Fierce Guardianship (Commander 2020 #35)

Alright, I’ve talked about a few formats outside Commander so people might better understand the impact of these cards. In Commander these cards don’t make as much of an impact because of how the format is structured, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to be had.

Deadly Rollick (Commander 2020 #42) Deflecting Swat (Commander 2020 #50) Obscuring Haze (Commander 2020 #61)

The first cards that come to mind are probably the Ikoria cycle of Commander specific cards that you can cast for free if you control your commander. Deflecting Swat, Fierce Guardianship and its ilk are often complained about as having never needed to be printed. Similar was the Force cycle of cards, though specifically Force of Vigor and Force of Negation drew players ire.

While there are many ways to play Commander at many levels, many view these cards as a mistake. I think this largely depends on the power level of the cards and when they can be used, but there is no denying that being on the receiving end of these spells is just not that great of an experience a good portion of the time. It hampers planning and gameplay because the resources presented on the table might not be an accurate assessment of what your opponents can do. While players learn their way around this, it is quite off putting especially for newer players. When part of selling the format is the player experience, these cards and throw a wrench in the plan.


Rizzing Up

Apex Devastator (Commander Legends #217) Hit the Mother Lode (The Lost Caverns of Ixalan #153)

I think free spells and things that give you the ability to cast stuff for free, like the mechanics Cascade or Discover, do tend to be overused today to sell us products. For the user, the ability to do all the things feels good. It saves resources to recover, lets you see more of your deck, or lets you get in the clutch play to save yourself. People like to play Magic, and these abilities let you play more.

Wizards of the Coast knows this. It’s a feel good moment for the player and the player wants to experience it. Wizards has screwed things up before certainly, but at least in Commander we can largely police ourselves. Some like the free spells, Cascade and Discover, and Eldrazi for some reason. Others don’t. For Commander it doesn’t matter as much that the cards exist, it matters if you and your group or meta want to use them.

Except for cEDH, but I’m not qualified to talk about that.

Until next time, no matter what format you play, enjoy it with friends and family.


A note from the author:

While developing ideas and writing this article, a portion of Hasbro’s work force was let go, including many people who work for Wizards of the Coast. I hope they have the best possible luck finding new employment and can still enjoy their holidays.

Thank you all for your work on the games we grew up with and love.