At the beginning of May it was announced that a one-versus-one Commander format would be officially added to Magic Online's competitive play options. It was reported that the majority of online Commander games being played casually were heads-up, not multiplayer, so it made sense to support this style of Commander with an official format complete with leagues and tournaments. The 1v1 Commander format requires cultivating its own banned list separate from multiplayer, so the online team started with the multiplayer banned list with the intent to regularly update it as the format develops. The differences between a casual multiplayer game and a competitive heads-up game are significant, so it's certain changes are needed if the format is to thrive.
The release of new Challenge premier events online this month means that the 1v1 Commander format was released into shark-infested waters beyond the casual leagues. This is at odds with the online team's declared intent for 1v1 Commander to be a more casual format, because the high prizes of these challenge events draw out many of the most competitive players, who inevitably wield the most broken decks and exacerbate and highlight the issues with the format. This doesn't create a casual environment, but it does quickly provide valuable information that can be used to fix whatever is deemed to be broken in the format, which is compatible with the online team's statement that they would be reactive when it comes to banning cards and they the list would go through "rapid reiteration." Last week the first update was announced, and Strip Mine was banned along with both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time.
The banning of Strip Mine is easy to understand - it's so good that it's must-play card for every deck, offers little-to-no counterplay, and makes it too easy to lock the opponent when combined with recursion effects like Crucible of Worlds.
It's also no surprise that the powerful delve cards that have proven themselves too powerful for all of Magic's competitive formats were too good for 1v1 Commander. The banning of these cards serves to highlight one of the biggest issues of the format: blue is overwhelmingly the most popular and successful color. It's a truth familiar to anyone who has played Legacy or Vintage, and to many a feature of these formats, not a bug, a place where blue cards can flex their might with nothing but open water and blue skies ahead of them. To everyone else, these blue cards have Drowned the format by preventing any other strategy from coming up for air. If the 1v1 Commander format wants to exist as a format to be taken seriously and be something that players keep wanting to come back to there must be balance, so banning these Delve cards was a conservative but irrefutably correct first step towards reaching it.
Removing these overpowered cards has done little to lessen blue's impact on the metagame, and no matter how many cards are banned the color has an endless supply of quality cards to replace them. That said, opening up the cardpool by making more cards playable is exactly the goal, and over time will lead to diversity in the format. Since these cards were banned, nearly every deck now has space opened up for a land, and blue decks have two slots to fill, and that's exciting for a format with so many possible cards to fill them. A look at decks now compared to before shows no clear consensus on how to replace these cards. There has not been a specific next-best set of card drawing spells to replace the delve cards, and people aren't just putting Ghost Quarter where Strip Mine was – they are exploring any number of dozens of quality cards they couldn't previously fit.
The metagame moves at a fast pace on Magic Online, so the best strategies have quickly made themselves apparent, especially with the Challenge events functioning to further weed out the best from the rest. Unsurprisingly, blue decks of all variety hold the majority of the metagame. The most common is Baral, Chief of Compliance, which uses its ability to chain together counters and keep opponents from ever playing the game. It wins at its leisure, with the standard endgame being using a Polymorph effect on its commander to easily put Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play.
The second most-popular deck uses Tasigur the Golden Fang as the commander of a Sultai control deck.
The next most popular deck uses Kraum Ludevic's Opus paired with Vial Smasher the Fierce to create a Grixis control deck.
Another blue deck uses Breya, Etherium Sculptor as a commander with a wealth of artifact mana to support it.
These decks share many of the same blue staples, but they do show off a variety of other cards across colors to create some diversity and allow other cards in other colors to shine because they are supported by or support the best blue cards. It's important for the format that there are non-blue decks that can be competitive and successful in this blue metagame, and there are a few beacons of hope,
Selvala, Heart of the Wilds, is the core of the classic green mana-ramp strategy into huge and powerful cards. It's awesome that a deck like this can be successful in the metagame, and it's apparently it has the potential to fight back against the blue decks.
Marath, Will of the Wild supports a Naya creature toolbox deck with Birthing Pod, Chord of Calling and Green Sun's Zenith, complete with the Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker combo and a ton of value creatures, another classic strategy that is a perfect fit in a balanced metagame.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is the perfect commander (aside from Craig Wescoe) to lead a deck of small white creatures into battle, especially because it serves to counteract Baral, Chief of Compliance and what blue decks are bringing to the table. It goes further by playing all of the typical Death and Taxes cards like the mana denial of Rishadan Port and all the best hatebear creatures like Vryn's Wingmare to back up its commander.
An alternative to a mono-white deck is a more Maverick-style green-white build that uses the best of colors. It's designed with beating the blue decks in mind, starting with Gaddock Teeg as a no-nonsense way to completely shut down the most important blue payoff cards. Main deck considerations including Choke and even Dosan the Falling Leaf as a direct attack on the blue decks, and a wise inclusion in a format where matches are played as best-of-ones without sideboarding.
The online team said they would evaluate this one-game structure and were open to the typical three-game match. This would allow decks to sideboard and better tailor their decks against specific strategies. This might seem to allow decks to get a better grasp on the blue decks, but the reality is it would probably just strengthen the blue decks, especially the multicolor midrange ones, by giving them access to relatively more powerful sideboard cards. Midrange decks like Jund have always been known to be dominant after sideboard, so it it would be a poor tradeoff for mono-color and linear decks like green ramp and red aggro that have fewer options to draw from less ability to change game plans.
On the topic of red aggro, it seems like a good deck to have in a balanced metagame, and while it is has not been extremely successful, there are some signs it has the potential to be competitive, like this Zurgo, Bellstriker deck that finished 5-0. There are a ton of red cards to choose from, and getting the configuration just right could push the deck over the top. There are some particularly hateful cards that stand out, like Pyrostatic Pillar and Spellshock, but I can't help but want Eidolon of the Great Revel, Manabarbs, and maybe even Boil to really attack the blue decks.
A mono-black aggro deck with Drana, Liberator of Malakir as the commander has been competitive in the metagame, and its wealth of black disruption combined with efficient and disruptive creatures allow it to stop what the opponent is doing while closing out games. It's supported by some underplayed but broken cards including Skullclamp, Umezawa's Jitte and Smuggler's Copter, which blue decks will struggle against if they don't have a Counterspell or leave their shields down and tap out for their commander on turn two. I'm excited by Persecute as mono-black's own brand of hate against blue decks, and it's even more devastating against the green ramp decks that can't counter it.
There's definitely room for tuning here. One of my favorite mono-black cards, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, is missing. Underworld Connections would be a fantastic way to grind out games against blue deck that aren't dealing damage, and Phyrexian Arena is even better. That concept could even be taken further by moving to a more controlling shell with Cabal Coffers, or even a Pox-style deck with all of the best hosers like Nether Void and The Abyss, which might keep Emrakul, Aeons Torn, mono-blue's finisher, in check.
If blue decks continue to oppress the metagame, then more extreme bannings could be warranted. Banning the delve spells lowers the power of blue decks, but they didn't have any real impact on the metagame because it didn't fundamentally weaken the deck. A more direct banning would be Baral, Chief of Compliance, which would be a severe blow to the counterspell-into Polymorph plan that relies on its mana-reducing effect. On the other hand, this banning would simply allow Jace, Vryn's Prodigy to rise to power. Banning Baral, Chief of Compliance and seeing how the metagame adjusts seem like the next logical step, but a more severe banning of both of these legends could be warranted. Blue decks will survive despite these being banned, and can exist without access to such overpowered and efficient commanders compared to what other decks have access to.
There's also an argument for banning Tasigur, the Golden Fang, which with delve is just as undercosted as the delve spells that were just banned. Its ability also fundamentally breaks the rule of commander that commanders cost extra mana every time they are cast. The shard has other good commander options, like Leovold, Emissary of Trest, that are more balanced.
It also seems draconian, or perhaps better suited for multiplayer, that Humility and Moat, are banned. They certainly do hose many cards and strategies, but no one is playing fair in this format, and there needs to be strong answers to that. These cards are legal in Legacy, and the core of the Commander banned list is very similar, so it can be argued that these should be legal too. There is also plenty of counterplay to these enchantments, with blue having Counterspells and bounce, and green and white decks having Disenchant effects, black discard, and red burn. White seems to be the worst performing color in the format, and unbanning cards that would give it a lot more play than just an aggressive creature deck.
A simple way to make unbanning Humility and Moat less necessary would be to ban Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, which would cut away the endgame of the blue decks and force them to get more creative with how they win the game. It won't stop blue decks, but it will make games a lot more interesting because they use tutor effects to reliably find it in essentially every game. It seems in line with banning Griselbrand, another top-end creature that typically wins the game but is even easier to interact with and stop than Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
1v1 Commander is not Commander in the traditional sense, and in my online experience it is most reminiscent of 100-card singleton, an old format that was very similar except it didn't have commanders. I have good memories of playing it, so one option would be to remove the commander element altogether and revert to that format. It seems like an unlikely direction given the fact that Wizards wants to support their Commander product, but it would certainly help to relieve some of the feeling that games are similar because they are always decided by the same commanders. The best compromise would be to more aggressively ban these commanders, like Baral, Chief of Compliance and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, so hopefully that's where the banned list is headed.