Ban Sheep

Ted Knutson makes the argument that because Skullclamp is nigh universal, it should be banned. Ban Skullclamp! My problem with his argument is threefold…

The issue of metagame variety is a long-standing complaint against R&D. Sometimes these complaints are ill founded, at other points, they are quite accurate. North American Regionals results are slowly coming in, and for the most part, the news of Ravager Affinity dominating the format is neither new nor truly news. The realization that Ravager Affinity is the best deck in the format crept up on the player base months ago, and no amount of metagaming or adjustment has changed that.

Many players at this point will begin crying for a ban. Actually, to be more precise, players will be crying for a ban more than usual, since there’s almost always someone saying something should be banned, hosed, nerfed, or in someway made less effective.

Why should cards be banned? This is goes along with the arguments for why the colors and archetypes should be balanced. Essentially, Magic is a game that appeals to players for many reasons. One of those reasons is variety within a given game, a given match, and a given format. In a healthy format, you can sit down at a tournament and play against a variety of decks, which modifies the type of game you play. In this way, Magic is designed in a fashion which helps to keep down repetition. Repetitions leads to more or less boredom. If humans enjoyed repetition, they’d probably delight in sweeping floors a lot more than they do. If a card promotes reduction in deck archetypes, it tends to make the game more repetitive, which inevitably leads to a "stale" format. This also causes a problem where rogue deck designers feel slighted, and tend to get very frustrated.

(I know you’re there, Dobbs)

On many levels, removing problem cards from a format can allow it to open up and take advantage of a broader base of cards within the format. This, in turn, pleases players, deckbuilders, and probably the stores that sell the card. Any card under higher demand can be more difficult to pick up in vast quantities without cutting down on one’s profit margin on the card.

Why shouldn’t cards be banned? This, on the other hand, is a more complex question. The most relevant point is what might be known as dead card syndrome, if it happened in Standard more often. If you ban a card that is currently in print, the people purchasing the packs for draft or otherwise may encounter this card when opening packs. And my oh my, they won’t be very happy. This reduces the confidence players have in acquiring hot rares, which puts a damper on sales, and overall just doesn’t make anyone too happy. Even if other rares increase in value to make up for the loss, players just aren’t too happy to have dead cards in their binders.

There’s also the point that banning a card doesn’t necessarily fix a format, and can lead to not only the card itself becoming unplayable, but entire decks. This leads to a cascade of dropping values and generally a lot of disgruntled players. If a format has a vulnerability, at times, another deck could – and most likely would – step in to fill in the "broken" deck’s place. This argument of course can sometimes be a slippery slope. Is banning a card always going to lead to "just another" good deck cropping up and returning the format to it’s degenerate status? Probably not.

So, we return to the main thrust of this article. Are we in a format where cards should be banned? Is the format more or less on the broken side?

Well, there’s some truth to that no matter how you look at it. Around the time of Invasion, or maybe Mercadian Masques, or who knows when, Wizards decided to”slow the game down.” The game slowing down has pretty wide implications – when the weight of turns is altered, mana balancing and the cards in the main set change in value. It could be argued that Counterspell was one of the most noticeable victims of such a change. Regardless, there is also a vulnerability created within slower formats. As the universal speed of cards drops, the emergence of super-fast decks overwhelms the general strength of the format dramatically and narrows it down.

The original versions of Affinity were Aggro, but somewhat later on control versions of the deck evolved to the top of the metagame, due to the vulnerability then Aggro versions had to control decks. With the advent of Darksteel, multiple cards served to make Aggro Affinity a much more promising archetype than before.

Unfortunately, I guess you could say Aggro Affinity promised to alter the format and did just that. Ravager Affinity was popularized probably in February of this year, though I admit I don’t recall following its rise very closely. The important point is, it was an extremely obvious deck, it was developed in a short period of time and now, here it is.

At the top of the format. So, clearly, banning discussions are going to sprout up. Ban Fires! Ban Tog! Ban Skullclamp! Ban Dark Ritual … wait, wait, did anyone ever …

[author name="Ted Knutson"]Ted Knutson[/author] makes the argument that because Skullclamp is nigh universal, it should be banned. Ban Skullclamp!

My problem with his argument is threefold.

Skullclamp has a lot in common with another very powerful once-banned card: Rishadan Port. Lands, like Artifacts, can go into almost any deck, assuming the card supports the theme of the deck. So, of course, Skullclamp can go into any deck since the desire for card drawing is almost universal. There is essentially no deck that doesn’t want to draw cards. Control, combo, or aggro all desire to put a couple more options into hand. It’s a universal desire – would any deck want to inexpensively tutor for cards? Yes. Would any deck desire to recurse cards from it’s graveyard? Yes. Now, admittedly, the costs involved in usage or deck construction may become too great, but in Skullclamp’s case, it’s obviously more a matter of deck construction than mana cost.

Skullclamp only requires access to a dork to Clamp before it offers up cards, besides the rather normal need for mana. It does this at a relatively inexpensive cost. Since Skullclamp can be put into almost any deck and almost any deck desires what Skullclamp does, this means it’s going to end up in a lot of decks. We’ve all heard about the various aggro decks that have used it. The Japanese combo deck centered around Auriok Steelshaper and Brain Freeze has already shown Skullclamp is a possibility in such a deck. Controlwise, the amusing Elf and Nail deck that supposedly did well in the NorthWest Regionals would imply that Skullclamp can, with some work, go in control decks.

(I admit I don’t have the notes in front of me on the deck, nor do I think at the moment it’s important to discuss that exact deck.)

Is it bad that almost any deck in the format desires to have Skullclamp? Frankly, I’m not totally sure. Since it is an artifact and draws cards better than any spell or permanent of the same type in Standard, it is arguable that it’s impossible to design a card like Skullclamp that wouldn’t be format defining. Anything this cheap, this artifacty and this desirable is going to get snapped up by everything. That’s simply the nature of the beast.

If the spellbombs in Mirrodin were printed with colorless activation costs, how common do you think they’d end up being? It’s the same difference, really.

Now here’s where things get a bit problematic. Does Skullclamp actually constrict the format? The oft given reason for Rishadan port’s banning is that it constricted multi-color decks and was simply too common in the format, which causes a natural bias in deck building that limits creativity. So the question that becomes immediate is : Is it Skullclamp that makes Ravager Affinity ridiculous or is it Ravager Affinity that makes Skullclamp ridiculous?

Ted has the following to say:

"Skullclamp is the catalyst that lets Ravager Affinity explode into regular turn 4 kills"

This is, in fact, complete and utter nonsense that has no relevance on how Ravager Affinity actually works. First and foremost, Ravager Affinity maintains a total of two normally seen one-toughness dorks other than Ravager itself – Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Worker. Without Ravager, Skullclamp can’t be actively used within Ravager decks – if you’re Clamping your Disciples, your deck isn’t going very fast. Second, the Ravager affinity nuts draw is generally based on the interaction between Arcbound Ravager, various artifacts, and Disciple of the Vault. The most blisteringly fast draws do not include Skullclamp. It has almost nothing to do with Ravager’s blisteringly fast speed, and to be honest, I think Ted completely lost his mind there.

What it does have to do with is Ravager Affinity’s overall long-term consistency. Whereas previous versions of Affinity were vulnerable to Akroma’s Vengeance because it set them back so far in cards and tempo, Ravager Affinity is able to get ahead on cards, and then bank on Akroma’s Vengeance not setting them back so far. Add to that the ability to keep a massive Ravager alive via Welding Jar, and the old hate looks a little stale.

Yes, it’s true that Skullclamp is very powerful in Ravager Affinity. The problem is that if you remove it, and it alone, it has no real effect on Ravager Affinity’s ability to pull of turn 3 to 4 kills. The deck can still do it. Sure, it won’t do it a little less often, but Skullclamp requires men to be broken down, mana to be spent and other things that put you away from winning the game.

Is the problem that Ravager Affinity can win games of Magic, or that Ravager Affinity can win games of Magic faster than anything else in the format that doesn’t involve three Piledrivers and a Warchief? If we’re going to argue for a banning, then we’re going to have to narrow down which situation is the problem.

Beyond that, we return to the other reason for banning: Deck diversity. Is it Skullclamp that constricts the format, or Ravager Affinity? I would say Ravager Affinity has a far worse effect on the metagame than Skullclamp has, will or ever could. But I would also say Ravager Affinity itself is not the problem.

The other problem is Goblin Bidding.

If you were to sit and consider the effectiveness of many "Hate" decks on Ravager Affinity, you would likely find the following realization: Decks can beat Ravager Affinity and they can often handle T/N or W/x control decks. What they generally, almost overwhelmingly can not do, is fight off Goblin-Bidding. The theory goes that fighting Ravager Affinity effectively requires resources dedicated to slowing the game down that do not rely on killing lands (or at least lands that occur in most decks). Once Ravager Affinity is somewhat slowed down and other cards can take effect, the matchups become a lot more even.

Well assuming they didn’t get the nuts”kill you on turn 3″ draw.

Unfortunately, this plays directly into Goblin Bidding’s gameplan. Certainly Bidding, like any Goblin deck, is capable of fast plays. But with the continuing adventures of Siege-Gang Commander, Goblin Sharpshooter, and Sparksmith, the deck’s resources are not so biased towards blistering speeds as overall game plan consistency. And it also has the dreaded Patriarch’s Bidding, which in many matchups, manages to beat out hate directed it and reads "You win the game." Bidding is a late game card.

You are trying to stall Ravager into the mid to late game.

Do you see the problem here?

The metagame at Pro Tour: Kobe, where Ravager Affinity was arguably at 90% of it’s would be power in Standard, somewhat fixed itself. Ravager was the big deck. Ravager did not take home the big prize, Skullclamp and all. Certainly it came close, but the format in Kobe was won by Fireball. Or well, Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. Anyway, the big difference here – beyond the lack of White control – is that there is no Goblin Bidding present. This means, oddly enough, that the metagame of the block is capable of fixing itself. The metagame in Standard is not. If we follow the logic that the cards in Ravager Affinity are completely broken and distort the metagame horribly, why was it a Red deck won the Pro Tour? Doesn’t that make the numbers look a little inconclusive?

There’s something jamming the door to a better metagame here. If we’re going to argue for a banning, we should consider perhaps the following two thoughts: First, Ravager Affinity probably is too fast. If we want to fix it, rather than look at the card that bolsters it’s overall consistency, we should look at the cards that make the deck too fast to handle. In my opinion, the serious problem card is Disciple of the Vault. While there are always the thopter, Ravager, Frogmite, triple Enforcer draws, those are just like triple Piledriver draws – they represent a flaw in the development of the cards that emphasizes random chance, but since the chances don’t come up that often and can be disrupted with well timed Electrostatic Bolts, we sorta brush them aside while silently cursing R&D. Yes, they’re a problem.

Disciple of the Vault, however, offers Ravager-Affinity two primary assets that I feel make it too much of a problem. First, it allows the deck to get around the combat phase. Anything that does this is bad for creature-based formats, since it evades your opponent’s defenses and well, quite frankly, makes the game a no-brainer. Combat math is tricky. Adding up the number of artifacts you control, subtracting them from your opponent’s life total, and drawing a smiley face on your scorepad when you realize you can kill him is not. Second, it allows the deck a massive amount of direct damage that both retards the usage of Akroma’s Vengeance, which kept the previous incarnations of Affinity in check and makes the math absolutely silly. All for the low, low cost of one Black mana.

One Black mana for an average of five points of damage a game? Sign me up!

If you don’t feel Disciple of the Vault is a problem, take it out of the deck and see if you have trouble pulling off those "Skullclamp fueled fourth turn kills" and if your opponent’s life-total seems a little bit harder to crack. When you Clamp through men, don’t you find you’re looking for the Disciple?

Well aren’t you?

There’s arguments to be made for Skullclamp or Arcbound Ravager to be banned, of course, but personally, in my mind Skullclamp shouldn’t be banned. If the deck’s speed is the problem, I don’t think Skullclamp is the issue here.

Second, I think Goblin Bidding is a problem. I love the deck – oh how I surely do – but I feel like Goblin Sharpshooter is a dismal card that has very little to do with being a Goblin and acts in a way which makes opposing creature decks a miserable idea. Obviously, this deck is going to leave the format sooner than later, but it does a lot to hamper the diversity of the format while being a little on the stale side. Goblins are not going to die out if this deck takes a hit or two, though it’s arguable which cards should head on out. I’m partial to Goblin Sharpshooter or Patriarch’s Bidding being banned; I really hope Siege-Gang Commander doesn’t get the axe.

It could be noted that Skullclamp being banned would effect both decks, but it would also effect a wide variety of other, lesser aggro decks, making them way too weak towards control. Plus, supposedly Goblin Bidding doesn’t "need" Skullclamp, but I haven’t seen complete Regionals results yet so I don’t know about that.

Now, there’s a couple points to be made,

Fifth Dawn comes out pretty soon. Unless I’ve forgotten to take my meds again, which I’m not actually on, Fifth Dawn will be legal for Canadian Nationals and Worlds. Fifth Dawn is rumored to be a pretty powerful set, although early implications make me think it has a bunch of good Green cards. Either way, it’s hard to prepare a real case for banning when not only do we not know which cards are coming out, we also don’t know if the cards we do have acted to keep cards in Fifth Dawn or Champions of Kamigawa in check during FFL testing. Banning a major card might very well result in something slipping out of R&D’s plan for the next couple years of Magic, which could be a major oops.

So personally, I’m not so sure there will be bannings on June 20th. R&D has a wait and see approach to bannings, since they are the most heavy-handed action Wizards can take. Bannings most likely would help the variety of this format, but it’s kinda fruitless, since this format is soon to disappear under the Fifth Dawn anyway.

Beyond that, a summary of something I’ve realized over the last couple blocks: I’d really like if R&D would stop doing the following things.

First, please no more Wild Mongrels. Efficient creatures that can use resources other than mana to increase their damage output are just a problem. Arcbound Ravager, Wild Mongrel, Psychatog – All of these cards share the same design flaw. Mana is the time constriction on damage abilities, just look at Nantuko Shade. A great card, but even with the power of the Cabal Coffers behind him, he wasn’t all that broken was he? No, because he was held down by the most intelligently devised part of Magic.

Psychatog? Oops, best creature ever.

I love playing with these cards but they seem to end up as broken a little often. Hell even Atog is good nowadays, and we used to plaster floors with Atogs years ago.

Second, these block themes that lead to decks being built for us? We’re sick of them. Stop it. They are not "good for the game." They are crutches that need to be abandoned. It’s one thing to make an artifact block. It’s another to jam a succession of cards into a block that all work together oh so marvelously. I know stability within design is the hallmark of an understandable and controllable design, but things like Tribal or Affinity just take it too far. Why am I playing 4/4 men for free exactly? Did you think we wouldn’t find that mechanic a wee bit abuseable?

Did anyone notice Affinity decks all use the same cards because they have to?

That sucks. I love the creative stuff R&D does. I am certainly not complaining about the work they do in that sense, but Ravager Affinity and Goblin Bidding are the product of going a little too far on pushing a theme. Hold back a little. Or make a set theme for casual players. Casual players never hurt nobody.

That’s enough out of me,

Iain Telfer