The Comboist Manifesto: On Jeweled Lotus and Dark Ritual


The Tentacled One
It’s been well over a month since the release of Commander Legends. Since the set was spoiled, I’ve been mulling over my gripes regarding a somewhat controversial card in the set, Jeweled Lotus. Wizards of the Coast clearly viewed the upcoming artifact as something that should be exciting, and I wasn’t the only one to find the design both lazy and bad for gameplay. Online, wherever Magic spoilers were being discussed, Jeweled Lotus quickly became a focal point for debates. Such debates have mostly died down and run their course. I avoided direct involvement, but did follow some of those discussions with interest. And that peaked with Gavin Verhey’s claim on Twitter.

I'd go as far to say that Arcane Signet is significantly better than Jeweled Lotus in a majority of decks. In Commander, cards like Dark Ritual - trading a card for quick mana boost - are traditionally not very good. There will be decks where this is strong, but in many it won't.
While I find that argument itself depressingly specious, it was really the discussion surrounding it that frustrated me. Before the set was even out, I’d planned on writing this article, explaining my own position on the matter. But I kept hitting snags as I thought out the structure of such an article because really, I had three major issues with the commentary I was seeing surrounding the comparison between Jeweled Lotus and Dark Ritual, and I couldn’t think of a strong way to connect those threads. I schemed up a few approaches, but didn’t like any of them. And really, I still don’t. But I keep running into these issues well over a month later, and I can’t hold back any longer. So I’ll state that up-front: this article is going to be a mess. I’ll be complaining about three separate issues, and some of the people involved in the arguments to which I’ll be referring would really only be guilty of getting one of these points wrong, rather than all three. Perhaps instead of being one cohesive article, this shall be three mini-articles that all just happen to tie into the evaluation of Jeweled Lotus and the card’s implications for EDH.

My first issue: Dark Ritual appears to be underplayed and undervalued in EDH by a lot of people, and I’ve noticed a trend of competent, experienced players dispensing poor deckbuilding advice because they have misread the effect of tempo advantage in multiplayer games.

I suppose that my enthusiasm for Dark Ritual as a Magic card is no secret. It’s my favorite card of all time. I’ve written about it before. I’ve evaluated the card in a “Magic Memories” thread here at the CPA. When contemplating the article you’re reading now, one of my initial ideas was to just throw the stuff about Dark Ritual into that “Magic Memories” thread and try to forget about the other issues. So I’m biased on the topic of this one card, but after careful self-reflection and consideration of what I’ve been observing in online discourse, I really think that I’m right about this.

Let’s be clear about this: underestimating tempo advantage isn’t universal and isn’t limited to Dark Ritual. Observation of decklists from a variety of sources easily shows that a large portion of decklists online do take advantage of Dark Ritual and similar cards. According to data collected by EDHrec, Dark Ritual is the eighth most popular black card in the format. Magic has grown considerably in recent years, EDH is a popular format among newcomers. This is anecdotal, but my experience in the West Coast Commander League left me dumbfounded at how many people I played with who had gotten into Magic within the past couple of years, but who had well-tuned decks with lots of powerful cards. But other than Masters 25, Dark Ritual hadn’t been printed in sets these newer players would have actually seen. So Dark Ritual is doing just fine in EDH, and its numbers might be depressed a bit due to low adoption rates among those newer players.

Despite my passion for the card, I don’t run Dark Ritual in every deck that has a black color identity. Particularly in three-color decks and more polychromatic decks, sometimes there just isn’t enough of a payoff for Dark Ritual to be worth it. I’ve elected not to run Dark Ritual in some two-color decks, although that’s infrequent. In my own EDH decks, Dark Ritual has probably been my fourth most-played black card behind Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, and Toxic Deluge. What makes this so strange and frustrating is that dismissals of Dark Ritual as bad in the format or as a super-niche card seem to be coming from otherwise knowledgeable sources, rather than from people who just don’t have a clue. There are voices of reason out there. I’ve found statements along the lines that Dark Ritual is a strong consideration in decks with three or fewer colors that have close to a proportionate share of black mana symbols, that it’s especially valuable in decks containing cards that confer large advantages when played early, that it becomes harder to justify in decks with a lot of green-based mana ramp, that it’s weaker in slow-rolling control decks, that it doesn’t belong in every deck but is flexible enough to often be worth it, etcetera. I’d agree with all of that. I don’t endorse some hypothetical extreme position that the card should be in every single deck. And yet, I often see it dismissed as only being good in combo decks or only being good in cEDH.

Back in August, I brought up how an EDHrec-based video on Nekusar didn’t include Dark Ritual at any point, even though the card was a shoe-in for the “average” deck. Since then, I know that I’ve argued for the card in other EDH decks, including most recently Rakdos, Lord of Riots. And then just yesterday I saw another one of these videos, this time on Meren of Clan Nel Toth. While the Meren deck lacks the inherent explosiveness that makes Dark Ritual such a good card in the Nekusar deck, it’s still a deck that would benefit from a speed boost. I’ve never built a Meren deck, but I played against one a whole lot. One of the regulars in the West Coast Commander League started out with Meren and his Meren deck was basically his baby. He even deliberately downgraded it so that he could keep playing the same commander against lower power-level decks. But the expensive version of his deck was formidable. Dark Ritual was excellent there, but actually, I was more scared of Culling the Weak, an even more powerful accelerant that doubled as a sacrifice outlet to help his deck go off, frequently threatening third-turn kills. Curious to see that Dark Ritual and Culling the Weak didn’t appear in the “average” Meren deck, I began looking at some lists myself, in a range from true dedicated cEDH lists down to some high-power casual lists. To my surprise, Dark Ritual was not an inclusion in most of those decks. Furthermore, some of the decks that did run Dark Ritual appeared otherwise similar to the ones that didn’t, so the omission didn’t seem to be the result of a strategic shift that made Dark Ritual unsuitable. I didn’t do any testing, but I thought that the Dark Ritual lists were superior to their counterparts that were missing the card, with a couple of possible oddball exceptions like an extreme prison-style build and an all-creatures Umori partner build. And on top of all that, the lists that included Dark Ritual always seemed to also run Culling the Weak alongside it.

In the 90’s, inexperienced players would sometimes dismiss Dark Ritual because of the card disadvantage incurred when a spell it pays for gets hit in a trade. The classic would probably be a situation in which I cast Dark Ritual and use the mana to pay for Hypnotic Specter, then you Lightning Bolt the Hypnotic Specter before I ever get to attack with it, forcing me into a 2-for-1 trade. But in the 90’s, Dark Ritual was so prolific that pretty much all experienced players understood the risk and understood that Dark Ritual was a strong card anyway. Somehow, a bunch of EDH players have all gotten it into their heads that Dark Ritual is a lousy card for the same reason that some newbie in the 90’s would have, only they added a few more steps. But ultimately, all of the objections to Dark Ritual I’ve seen boil down to some version of the Lightning Bolt on Hypnotic Specter problem.

All that would be bad enough, but I think those of us with a better sense of perspective could win out, rhetorically, against the “Dark Ritual isn’t even good in EDH” crowd through logic and demonstration of bonafide results. But there’s one more aspect to all this that ruins it and makes the whole affair infuriating: the caveat that Dark Ritual isn’t good in “normal” EDH decks but only works in “competitive” decks. While I don’t really believe that this kind of bifurcation holds water, I’m left without solid proof that the people espousing this are wrong. There’s no universal standard for when an EDH deck is sufficiently casual. For any given use I can come up with to show that Dark Ritual is a good card, I could just as easily turn around and argue that such usage doesn’t count because it’s not the right style. Taken to its logical extreme, this argument would mean that any analysis of any cards ever is fundamentally useless. But there’s a kernel of truth that makes this a bit more nuanced than that. Competitive EDH games have some distinct play patterns that make some cards better or worse than they’d be at the majority of EDH tables. For instance, Carpet of Flowers is highly popular in cEDH because the likelihood of opponents using islands is elevated in cEDH. And Mystic Remora is much stronger in cEDH than it would be at casual tables because opponents are all but compelled to play multiple non-creature spells early to set up their own win conditions. Dark Ritual probably does gain some traction in cEDH. I just don’t think that the effect is so pronounced. It’s still a great card for casual tables.

My second issue: Jeweled Lotus isn’t like Dark Ritual. It’s a lot more like Black Lotus, a card that has always been banned in the format.

It’s kind of obvious, but downplaying Jeweled Lotus by switching the card in the comparison from Black Lotus to Dark Ritual is a bit strange. I mean, obviously the ostensible rationale would be to compare it to a card that’s actually in the format, so you can point at actual gameplay and say, “Look, not that bad.” But then the catch is inescapable: Black Lotus isn’t in the format. And that’s for a reason.

Black Lotus produces three mana of any one color. Dark Ritual can only produce black mana. Black Lotus requires no mana input to cast it. Dark Ritual needs a single black mana to be cast. Black Lotus nets +3 mana. Dark Ritual nets +2 mana. Black Lotus can be cast and left on the battlefield until it’s needed. Dark Ritual must be cast within the same part of a turn as its mana is used. Black Lotus is an artifact, which can be recurred and easily used in some decks as part of an engine. Dark Ritual is an instant, and generally only recurred incidentally or a single time as part of an effect that effectively gives it the “Flashback” ability. I spent a lot of this article already talking up Dark Ritual. I do think that it’s underplayed in EDH. And it’s my favorite card of all time. But even I have to acknowledge that Dark Ritual is no Black Lotus. Sure, rarity and prestige play into this, but Black Lotus should, in theory, be exactly as rare as Blaze of Glory. The reason for its reputation is at least mostly owed to its extreme potency in speeding a deck up.

Now, I’ve disputed the framing of Jeweled Lotus as basically a lot like Dark Ritual, which supposedly isn’t even good on the grounds that Dark Ritual is actually very good. And I’ve disputed it on the grounds that Jeweled Lotus is a lot more like Black Lotus than it is like Dark Ritual. Although much of the commentary I’ve seen has shown me that such an explanation is necessary, I do have to acknowledge that there’s room for legitimate skepticism as to whether a banned card, or rather a card that is somewhat like a banned card, would be a problem. After all, I’ve criticized the EDH ban list myself as having too many needless inclusions and as being poorly developed. Most of the list dates back to the early days, and EDH in its current form isn’t really comparable to any other format, to the extent that which cards are broken might be dramatically different from what players are used to in other formats. Still, the intuition of the average player is probably that yes, Black Lotus is totally 100% banworthy. But rather than attempting to demonstrate it with a thought experiment or some generalized examples, I can do better. There is a suitable environment in which Black Lotus is available as a card, with usage comparable to the usage it would see in EDH. That environment is known as NBLEDH or “No Banned List EDH.”

I’d already heard of gimmicky EDH pods where groups of players agree to build decks without any cards banned, at least as far back as 2016. But those games were few and far between, and from what details I saw, it seemed like some of the participants just upgraded their existing competitive decks for normal EDH (cEDH decks). But then I stumbled across a Discord server explicitly dedicated to facilitating NBLEDH. The server was created in 2020, although I’d seen the “format” as an idea going back to 2016. It seems that there’s now a small, but dedicated community who actually play this way. It’s not just a novelty, at least not completely. They’ve fleshed out a real metagame and published some sample decklists. So, when (almost) all cards are totally legal and available, how many EDH decks run Black Lotus? The answer appears to be pretty simple: all of them. For my part, that’s no surprise, but just in case there was any doubt, there you have it.

There are some substantially black decks that do happen to be constructed in such a way that Dark Ritual isn’t a good fit. There are no strong decks in any context where Black Lotus, if available, is not a good fit. Of course, the limitation on Jeweled Lotus is pretty severe, and makes it much more constrained than Black Lotus. I contend that this is actually a bad thing. Reserved List and Banned List aside, if we just gave every Magic player a Black Lotus to use in EDH decks, it would be an “autoinclude” along the same lines as Sol Ring, and be about as bad for the format as Sol Ring is. Much like Sol Ring, it would do more for some decks than for others, but generally it would just speed every deck up. Jeweled Lotus isn’t like that, because not every deck can take advantage of it. The decks that can use it get a speed boost from it, while the decks that aren’t suited to rush out a commander get nothing and fall behind relative to their competition.

Jeweled Lotus by itself won’t ruin EDH. But it does skew things and it’s part of a larger trend that has been skewing things. This leads me to my final, and most important issue.
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The Tentacled One
My third issue: Jeweled Lotus augments almost any deck built around quickly resolving a commander, while doing nothing for decks that operate on a different axis.

It might seem self-evident that in the “Commander” format, decks are built around “commanders.” But the format has evolved over the years, and most of this evolution has been driven by WotC introducing new dedicated cards meant for use specifically in the format. When Gavin Verhey wrote that comment comparing Jeweled Lotus to Dark Ritual, it was in response to a complaint about how Jeweled Lotus was the next card along the same lines as Arcane Signet, another “autoinclude” made by Wizards of the Coast explicitly for the format.

EDH rose to prominence without help from WotC, and their earliest dedicated products didn’t do much to disrupt the format. EDH gained popular appeal, at least in part, because it was such a convenient place for people to play cards that wouldn’t see play anywhere else. The format started out based around the five original elder dragons, and there were no special “Commander” cards. The format just used the regular cards that were already in the game. The first time WotC did anything official with the format, they released a couple of MTGO decks to support the format on the online platform. The commanders of those decks were Rubinia Soulsinger and Xira Arien, two of the most potent commander options out of the original 55 legendary creatures, and two of the best options, at the time, in those color identities. Those decks weren’t bad by the standards of 2009. They’d be unplayable trash by today’s standards.

The first set of five Commander decks introduced some new cards, mostly ones that let the designers play around with multiplayer-themed mechanics, as WotC at the time had a policy of releasing a multiplayer-focused product each summer. They also printed ten new legendary creatures for the “wedge” color combinations, which finally gave players much-needed options in those colors. Prior to that, the “shard” tricolor combinations had a bit of variety in their options, but the “wedges” had only the dragons from Planar Chaos (and Doran, the Siege Tower).
They also gave some more interesting commander options to the five “enemy color” pairs. The product as a whole was explicitly designed with the Commander format in mind, but mostly what it introduced was reprints, some multiplayer toys, and some decent legendary creatures in underrepresented color combinations. At the time, this product seemed to be good for EDH. But it did introduce the first dedicated “autoinclude” card: Command Tower.

In 2012, WotC released Commander’s Arsenal, which included a selection of oversized legendary creature cards meant for players to be able to have giant cards in the command zone, something they thought was cool at the time (although pretty much no one actually uses those silly things). This seems informative because each oversized card was chosen by a WotC employee as a personal favorite commander, something they wanted to offer the Magic community in oversize form. Alexis Janson chose Azusa, Lost but Seeking. Scott Larabee chose Brion Stoutarm. Steve Warner chose Glissa, the Traitor. Kennet Nagle (aka NorYtt) chose Godo, Bandit Warlord. Ethan Fleischer chose Grimgrin, Corpse-Born. Dave Guskin chose Karn, Silver Golem. Eric Sorensen chose Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund. Charles Rapkin chose Mayael the Anima. Aaron Forsythe chose Sliver Queen. Tony Reppas chose Zur the Enchanter. Now, I didn’t actually play EDH in 2012. I hardly got to play any Magic in 2012, or do much of anything in 2012. But I was playing and following the format a bit in the surrounding years. That selection of ten commanders seems pretty good for the time. We don’t have good data for EDH back then, but I’d imagine that all of the commanders WotC did as oversized cards back then were pretty reasonable and at least semi-popular choices. I think I have some notes from some of my own games in 2010 or 2011, which I could also bring in as examples, but I’ll just stick with that pool. It seems pretty good. So, in that pool, probably 6 out of 10 are just ordinary legendary creatures that are strong contributors to a deck, but which a deck could easily play well in their absence. 2 of the 10, Zur and Godo, are build-around commanders, with strong abilities that can form the keystone of a strategy. And then Mayael is kind of halfway between, with a unique ability that can potentially power out big creatures, but a Mayael deck generally has other tools to deploy those creatures, not being entirely reliant on the commander to do so. I wouldn’t normally consider Mayael to be a pure build-around commander, especially not with what was available in 2012, but for the sake of the argument I’ll lump Mayael in with Zur and Godo. The other 6, though, are simply powerful cards that synergize with a strategy that isn’t really dependent on them.

Prior to the advent of WotC designing legendary creatures for the format, most commanders were chosen as good fits within a strategy, rather than being truly dedicated build-around cards. Within this WotC-curated pool from 2012, the ratio is about 30%. And keep in mind that for the original elder dragons, build-arounds would have been at 0%. But really, ever since the early days, commanders that were strong build-around options have been popular choices. It’s just that in 2012, that mostly meant cards that accidentally functioned this way as commanders, such as Uril, the Miststalker. Still, those probably represented something like that 30% figure, compared to the more numerous commanders that were just generically good synergies, like Thraximundar in a deck themed around sacrificing creatures. Again, I’m pulling the 30% estimate from that pool WotC employees gave us as a sample in the summer of 2012. We don’t have good data to get the true percentage, which likely fluctuated over the years. Maybe it was closer to 20% or 40%. I don’t know. I’d guess that it climbed over time, but that’s speculation. All of this got upended in 2013 when we got a new type of commander: one that had special function as a commander. The Commander 2013 product release included 5 decks with 10 new commanders and 50% of them had some special function with the command zone. All of those immediately became huge hits. Early EDHrec data shows those 2013 commanders as some of the most popular. And every year since then, new decks have come out with new commanders and new gimmicky mechanics meant to have special functions in the Commander format. We’ve also seen legendary creatures in other sets clearly designed with their functioning as commanders in mind.

The strongest and most popular commanders are almost all ones that WotC designed to be commanders, rather than ones released for some other purpose and subsequently discovered by players. In fact, all of the top commanders of the past two years, according to EDHrec, are either from special Commander-oriented product releases, from new sets within the past two years, or both. I say this not to complain about power creep or how the old cards are obsolete. This isn’t just some old man yelling at clouds. We’re talking about how a format has changed from something the players used to express themselves and do wild stuff to a format enormously curated by WotC. The most popular commander is Golos, Tireless Pilgrim. This is a five-color build-around that only takes generic mana to get going, fetches a land when it enters the battlefield, and has an ability that snowballs and takes over games all by itself. Remember those first two commanders that WotC chose for their MTGO decks? Xira Arien and Rubinia Soulsinger. They were considered good commanders back then. Neither one has a viable build-around option. They’re more like the backup or complement to a maindeck strategy. And to be clear, I’m not against build-around commanders: my first commander was Zur the Enchanter, a commander that I believe dates back to before the format had universally started allowing “generals” other than the elder dragons. But the decision to use a commander as a maindeck complement, as a pure build-around, or as something in between has been part of the format for a long time, and even if that balance has shifted over the years, it’s still a balance.

A card like Jeweled Lotus necessarily helps the decks with build-around commanders, specifically the ones that are easily cast with help from Jeweled Lotus. Decks that use the commander as a reliable helper or backup plan don’t get this benefit. Once I get my hands on a copy of Jeweled Lotus (a card I still don’t own as of the writing of this article), I’d be a fool not to run it in Gitrog County Municipal Lake Dredge Appraisal, as the deck is 100% build around The Gitrog Monster. Other popular commanders that have been mentioned in the context of being broken with Jeweled Lotus include Urza, Lord High Artificer and Grand Arbiter Augustin IV.

The evolution of the format is inevitable. Classics like Rubinia Soulsinger and Xira Arien might have been destined to obsolescence. What I take issue with isn’t that power creep is making old cards obsolete, but that cards like Jeweled Lotus are artificially forcing a kind of streamlining in a narrow direction. Jeweled Lotus is a powerful, explosive card. The sorts of decks that can make use of it all become that much better, and the ones that can’t, they don’t. So Jeweled Lotus is worse for the format than Black Lotus. I don’t advocate for an unban on Black Lotus. But hypothetically, it’s a card that could be a kind of rising tide, lifting all ships. Jeweled Lotus is selective. What’s worse for EDH than Black Lotus? Probably a lot of things, but now we have a new answer: a Black Lotus that only some decks get to use.