When I began playing Magic: The Gathering back in 1994-95, it was a lot less complicated. With only a couple of sets to keep track of, it was not terribly difficult to understand the rules for each and every interaction that you might encounter. It has been over twenty years since Revised Edition — the set that I remember playing and collecting the most — was released and things are MUCH more complicated now. I recently reviewed the Commander 2015 pre-constructed EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander) decks, and that was fun and all, but my main goal in writing about Magic was to provide a resource where common issues are addressed in a complete and non-judgmental way. When we come across issues while playing Magic where two players disagree on how a situation is supposed to play out according to the rules, everyone at the table hops on their smart phones and scours the message boards for the answer so we can move forward with the game without hurt feelings or bruised egos. I thought maybe we could convert our private good into a public good, so every time we have a question over a ruling I am going to post it here along with the solution. Maybe we can flood the search engines with some useful information in the process.
What is the commander cost for a general that has been returned to your hand?
Whenever your general would be put into a library, hand, graveyard, or exile from anywhere, you get the option of returning it to the command zone instead. The benefit of returning your general to the command zone is that you can recast this important central player over and over again as needed without having to wait for some method of retrieval. The down side is that each time your general is returned to the command zone, it costs 2 colorless mana extra to cast. This additional cost is called the commander tax. If your general has a converted mana cost (CMC) of four, for example, and gets returned to the command zone, it will cost 6 mana the next time you cast it. The next time it is returned to the command zone it will cost 8 mana to play, and so on, and so forth. The commander tax could be considered the convenience fee of the EDH format. You can access your general at any time without the random elements that are involved in playing your other cards, but it will be more and more expensive each subsequent time you cast it.
Since you have the option to return your general to the command zone, this means that you also have the option to allow your general to go into your library, hand, graveyard, or exile. For most players this would be a disaster, because — except for the example of returning your general to your hand — you would completely lose access to the one card that every other card in your deck is meant to interact with in either a direct or indirect way. However, some EDH decks are equipped with cards which allow you to fetch cards from your library (Demonic Tutor, for example) or cast cards from your graveyard (Meren of Clan Nel Toth). I don’t currently know of any cards that allow you to cast your general from exile, but the ability to cast your general from your library, hand, or graveyard gives you some options. It is also the source of the problem we ran into the other night.
Our friend Matt had his general bounced back to his hand. He then attempted to cast his general for its face value (without commander tax) alongside another creature. The total mana cost for both of these spells would leave him exactly tapped out. In other words, if Matt was required to pay the commander tax he could only cast one creature, but if he was not required to pay the commander tax he would be able to cast both. We were at that point in the game where everyone was rolling out their heavy hitters, so the solution to our question had the chance to seriously impact gameplay.
As it turns out, Matt — and you, by extension — wouldn’t have to pay the commander tax when casting his general from his hand. Not only that, but I could see the smile on Matt’s face as he cast both of his creatures. Win, win. If a general is cast from your library, hand, or graveyard, or if it were possible, from exile, you pay for it the same way you pay for any other card, by using the amount of mana signified in the top right corner of the card (or if you have a card that allows you to cast for an alternate price you follow that card’s text instead). I want to repeat this in case I overcomplicated my simple explanation: The commander tax only applies when a general is cast from the command zone. It does not apply when the general is cast from anywhere else.
There is another slightly more complicated issue that accompanies this discussion of when the commander tax applies. On a couple of message boards, there was some confusion regarding what happens to the commander tax once a general is cast from another zone. To be clear, casting your general from your hand (or anywhere else that is not the command zone) does not reset the commander tax. I think the best way of understanding how this works is by imagining that there are actually two costs in the upper right hand corner of your general, the pre-tax, normal cost (the one that is actually printed there) and the post-tax, command zone cost (the one that is calculated as the normal cost plus two extra mana for each time the general has been returned to the command zone). By imagining that there are two permanent costs (one subject to periodic increases), it is clear that the general will always be cast referencing one of the costs, the normal cost if cast from a library, hand, graveyard, or exile, or the command zone cost if cast from the command zone.
Let me know if you have any further questions about this issue. Also, I know I’m not perfect, and I am talking about a format that goes through periodic rule changes, so if you have a correction, please feel free to let me know. The only caviat I have is that corrections should be accompanied by a good source. As I’m sure you can all understand, I don’t want to get into a war of opinions. Finally, if you’re having trouble getting some sort of ruling on an issue that you have encountered while playing, regardless of whether it is EDH, Standard, Modern, Draft, whatever, hti me up. I’ll be happy to search for an answer and put it upon the blog. I miss talking about Magic. Let’s make a habit of it, K?