Last Thursday Wizards of the Coast announced the creation of a new format called Brawl. It is essentially a variant of Commander with the following rules changes:

  • The card pool is restricted to standard legal cards, and utilizes the standard banlist.
  • Decks are exactly sixty cards, rather than one hundred.
  • Starting life totals are 30 rather than 40.
  • Legendary Planeswalkers can be your commander in addition to Legendary Creatures
  • Commander Damage has been removed as an alternate win condition.

That’s a huge announcement. Time will tell if Brawl is a huge hit like EDH/Commander or if it flops like so many custom formats before it, but for now it’s enough to draw my attention away from Magic Story’s first foray into Dominaria and the MTG Arena Beta, both topics that I intend to devote future articles to.

I have extremely mixed feelings about Brawl as a format, which is what I’m going to be going over today: exploring the pros and cons of Magic’s latest format. If that isn’t interesting to you, I’ll be back later this week with my first look at what a Brawl deck might look like.

On a personal level, I despise the fact that Brawl will be tied to the hamster wheel of Standard rotations. I’m definitely on the poorer end of the spectrum as far as Magic players go and from a financial standpoint I simply can’t justify buying into a deck that will partially phase out in a year or two, let alone building another one after rotation and again after the next one. Even if that wasn’t the case, I hate the idea of losing a deck in a year or two’s time. (Incidentally, I really wish they’d introduced Brawl immediately after a standard rotation, instead of halfway between two of them.)


Brawl isn’t designed for me. I am fully aware that I’m not even close to the target demographic for this format. In fact, odds are that if you’re reading this article Brawl isn’t intended for you. Brawl is very obviously designed to be easy to get into, especially for newer players that don’t have cards from years past and haven’t had time to build up playsets of the cards they are opening. At its core Brawl will hopefully be a fun gateway format that leads to both Commander and Standard.

I think Brawl has a real chance at succeeding in that space. It’s just not a format I ever expect to play unless my friends and I decide to proxy up decks to play one week or it comes to MTG Arena as a supported format.

A natural extension of this situation is that the social contract will take on a new meaning for Brawl. Most of the things the social contract encompasses (mass land destruction, hyper-competitive combos, stax decks, etc) simply don’t exist within the standard card pool. That doesn’t mean the social contract goes away though. Brawl utilizes the standard banlist, but that also means that there’s next to zero chance that a card will ever be banned because it causes problems in Brawl.

Unless the Commander rules committee decides to pick up the slack, it will be down to playgroups, stores and individual players to regulate problematic cards. And that’s where the social contract comes into play. If you manage to make a particularly broken deck that is consistently making games unfun, consider policing yourself, because nobody else will and this is a format primarily for newer players.

If any store owners or tournament organizers are reading this, I want to caution against putting substantial prizes on the line for any Brawl events you run. Commander is easy to break, and I expect Brawl to be the same. No matter what you do, if there’s a profit to be made or packs to be taken someone will decide that securing that prize is important enough to ruin the day of everyone they’re playing with.

As far as the decks themselves are concerned, I predict that the color imbalances inherent to Commander will only be worse in Brawl. To put it simply, some effects scale a lot better to a format where everyone has 30 life and there’s multiple opponents than others. Wizards has gotten better at trickling in effects for red and white to be relevant in multiplayer, but many of them come into the commander pool through supplemental sets and there certainly isn’t the necessary density of them in the standard pool to equal the colors that just naturaly have card draw and/or mana ramp in their arsenals.

Speaking of colors, there’s going to be a constant tension about the number of colors you want to play. At this point we’ve all gotten used to being able to play as many colors as you want and having it work, but between the restricted card pool and the singleton nature of the format anything more than two colors gets very shaky. On the other hand though, there’s a limited number of cards that work well in multiplayer formats, and actually finding thirty six good spells for a monocolor deck is far from guaranteed, especially if you’re building around a somewhat restrictive theme such as tribal, artifact matters or voltron.

Trying to predict what strategies will actually be viable is futile at best given that there’s more than a hundred legal commanders, but by far the easiest decks to build will be midrange-based, with a mixture of ramp, flexible removal and big creatures. Anyone who wants to play combo will have to dig extremely deep to find synergies in the limited card pool, while agro will suffer the same problems it always does in multiplayer formats. Voltron takes a hit with the removal of the commander damage rule, but for certain generals it will still be powerful. I have no clue what to think about control decks in Brawl, but we have Azor the Lawbringer as a potential commander, it would almost be a crime if there wasn’t a decent control deck to be built around him.

I think Planeswalkers will be quite potent in Brawl, which is probably surprising given my rather harsh stance on planeswalkers in commander. That’s always been because I think the average power level and scale of Commander has left most planeswalkers in the dust, but the same can’t be said for Brawl. Incremental value engines seem perfect for this format, especially since they’re all available in the command zone if you want to build around them. Personally I want to see if Gideon of the Trials can work, because having Platinum Angel as your commander seems like way too much fun.

As an additional point to that, this seems like the format that the Planeswalker deck Planeswakers were made for. The likes of Liliana, Death Wielder and Nicol Bolas, the Deceiver were intentionally costed out of viability for Standard, but that doesn’t mean they’re weak once they’re in play. If ever there was a place for seven and eight drop planeswalkers, this is it.

That just leaves me with one point.

For those that haven’t heard, Firesong and Sunspeaker are (is?) the Buy-A-Box promo for Dominaria. The preview article hinted that they’d been explicitly designed for Brawl, and they were used as a major highlight in the article that announced the format.

That preview article also revealed that they will only be available as the Buy-A-Box promo. Firesong and Sunspeaker won’t be appearing in booster packs, the Planeswalker decks or any other printing in the foreseeable future. This is the first time Magic has printed a (black border) promotional-exclusive card since Nalathni Dragon in 1994, and they’re trying to use it as the face of a brand-new format.


I won’t pretend that this is a travesty or an abuse of trust or anything like that. There are far bigger problems in the world than the exclusivity of a piece of cardboard. It it an objectively bad business decision.

From Sensei’s Divining Top to True-Name Nemesis, to Felidar Guardian, Wizards has proven on multiple occasions that they often can’t anticipate which cards will be entrenched as tournament staples. Most of the time that isn’t a huge problem. Magic has enough moving parts that it can self-correct. But sometimes it causes a big problem. Sensei’s Divining Top needed to be banned in almost every format where it was legal not because it was too powerful, but because it incinerated hours upon hours of gametime when used optimally. True-Name Nemesis doubled the price of the preconstructed deck it appeared in and has been making Legacy games miserable ever since because they didn’t consider how the card would play outside of multiplayer games. Felidar Guardian had to be banned because they missed a fairly obvious two-card infinite combo, which was nearly identical in practice to the Kiki-Jiki/Restoration Angel combo that had been a part of modern for years.

I don’t mean to suggest that Firesong and Sunspeaker will be broken in any sort of competitive format—far from it. Nor am I saying that those previous mistakes should’ve been caught. There are very real limitations on how many resources Wizards can devote to playtesting new products, and things slipping through the cracks is inevitable. But that’s kind of my point.

If Wizards does this sort of printing on a regular or even infrequent basis it’s only a matter of time before an extremely rare product is suddenly in massive demand. And that’s when people will really get angry. That’s when trust breaks down in a big way. That’s when Wizards will regret their decision financially.

Putting that eventual case aside though, Firesong and Sunspeaker is a card that they’re trying to push as the face of a new format, and it’s one of the first R/W legends that encourages anything other than all-out aggression. There will be demand for it, regardless of whether it’s powerful or not.

The good news is that Maro has already responded saying they’ve gotten a ton of complaints about this being exclusively a promo card, so hopefully  the Minotaur Clerics receive a reprint soon and we don’t see this nonsense for another twenty-four years.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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