Chatter of the Squirrel – Bannings

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Thursday, March 13th – The goal of this article is to articulate why a certain card should or should not be banned given a particular set of circumstances. I believe it’s useful to examine these situations because it provides a de facto gauge for the health of a given format, and also assists us as consumers of information in deciding whether we should waste time clamoring over something that may or may not actually be bad for Magic in the first place.

As I mentioned last week, I had heard some chatter about whether or not the current Extended season was in need of any bannings, but as luck would have it fate conspired to change my topic entirely. In an even greater stroke of fortune, Evan Erwin conducted a series of interviews in his latest Magic Show that solicited people’s opinions about whether or not certain cards should be banned. This provided a perfect segue back into the topic I had wanted to discuss for some time, and also provide some concrete examples of viewpoints that I believe to be grounded in erroneous reasoning. How lucky: a scapegoat!

The goal of this article is to articulate why a certain card should or should not be banned given a particular set of circumstances. I believe it’s useful to examine these situations because it provides a de facto gauge for the health of a given format, and also assists us as consumers of information in deciding whether we should waste time clamoring over something that may or may not actually be bad for Magic in the first place.

This last point rarely gets addressed, but I’m a firm believer in the fact that public opinion holds a certain ebbing and flowing degree of currency. Magic players as a group get notoriously uppity about anything that even begins to rock the boat – we are, at heart, a bunch of know-it-alls – and I think this tendency to cry “Wolf!” at every single unpleasant turn of events is detrimental to our goal of changing the things that really bother us. To this end, then, I want to enumerate some reasons why cards should or should not be banned, and cite some examples of cards that definitely should not in order to further drive home my point.

Part of the confusion, I think, arises from fundamentally flawed notions of “power level.” If a card is really good, people think, then clearly it should be banned. Now, a lot of people’s level of understanding progresses farther than this, and they realize that a notion of ubiquity is inherent in the banning process. That is, only if a card is powerful, and it is played in a large percentage of decks, then it ought to be banned. Even that reasoning, though, remains flawed, as I will explore further.

The fundamental objection to “power level”-based trains of reasoning regarding bannings is that power is subjective. We can see this in the context of certain formats, of course: Ponder doesn’t make every Lorwyn draft pool, but it sure is a beating in Vintage and Legacy. Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero was absolutely broken in Masques Block, but has impacted few formats outside of that Standard season since then. There are certain cards, like Doomsday and Mind over Matter and Dream Halls and Earthcraft, whose “power” only passes a certain threshold because of other cards that enable them, while the spells by themselves are very unexciting. Entomb is banned in Extended, but I don’t think it would even be played much in Standard right now. So what objective criteria do you use to gauge power?

One means of doing so, of course, is the aforementioned degree to which a card warps a format. This, though, is not always a bad thing. Umezawa’s Jitte absolutely defined aggressive mirrors in Kamigawa Block. Yet many noted pros said that the Tuning Fork of Doom’s presence in the format actually made it healthier, because otherwise Gifts decks wouldn’t have had any competition. Regardless of whether that particular argument holds up, it is easy to see how sometimes it takes a substantial amount of power to keep a format from tilting too heavily towards one side or the other. On the other hand, a card can be “format-warping” without being cripplingly powerful in some ill-defined objective sense. Brainstorm absolutely defines Legacy and Vintage, yet no one is clamoring loudly for its obliteration. Ditto Sensei’s Divining Top in Extended right now – and while the arguments for its banning carry with them more merit, it’s not the type of card that seems Time Spiral or Wheel of Fortune or Tolarian Academy broken at first glance.

I’ve naysayed enough that I ought to propose my own criteria for banning. So, here goes:

A card should be banned in (non Vintage) formats if:

1) Its presence in a format unhealthy or unreasonably warps that format, and either

2) The format is substantially less fun as a result.


3) The format is substantially more random as a result.

Wait. I’ve just said that “power” is too subjective of a criteria, and then proposed fun and randomness as alternative variables?

It seems, though, that “fun” (at least from Wizards’ perspective) is a fairly measurable quantity, and upon further examination that makes sense. Most people don’t like playing the same deck in mirror matches over and over again. Most people do like to attack with big, fat monsters. Etc. Furthermore, when Magic players dislike something, man oh man do we complain. Sometimes those complaints have merit, sometimes they don’t, but the bottom line is that valid or not, our opinion tends to be pretty clear. Randomness, too, is pretty easy to gauge inside this particular context: how frequently does a card (or a deck enabled by that card) create situations where the other player can no longer interact with the opponent. In other words, how often does a particular card cause a game of Magic to cease to be a game?

In truth, really, these variables of “fun” and “randomness” are often intertwined. While randomness can sometimes be fun, like when you’re casting Fiery Gambit, it ceases to be fun when Fiery Gambit becomes a 4-of in every deck and half of your matchups are decided by “Draw 9, untap my lands.” Note also that randomness shouldn’t be confused with diversity. When Affinity-lands got banned, there were more viable decks. That didn’t mean that all of the sudden the format was more “random” because you couldn’t predict a bunch of Affinity mirrors. It meant that people all of the sudden had options.

The reason I think these criteria are useful is that they keep the goal of a format’s health in mind. The wide-sweeping Affinity ban was an extreme example of action being taken to ensure a format’s “fun-ness,” but there are several other situations where “fun” was a factor even if it wasn’t explicitly stated. I don’t know how many of you were unfortunate enough to slog through the tar-like morass that was Masques Block, but I have never wanted to jump into the Mississippi River so badly as after any PTQ that season. I think it was John Carter that famously declared watching the Snuff-O-Derm mirror match to be “like watching paint dry, except the paint actually dries.” And this was after the Port/Sivvi bannings. The format beforehand was even more ridiculous. Things went either:

Turn 1 Ramosian Sergeant. Never cast another spell the entire game. Get Lin Sivvi. Make an army. Opponent plays Wave of Reckoning to wipe your board. Oops, Lin Sivvi is a 1/3. Repeat as necessary. Alternatively, they have a Parallax Wave and then play their Sivvi, and then you play a Parallax Wave and wait for your Sivvi to come back, and then you die of old age because the match has taken about eight hundred years.

OR (because there’s so much more to look forward to)

Port you. Port you. Port you. Eye of Ramos. Flyer guy. Port you. Oh, you cast something? Bounce it, Rising Waters. Port you with Eye of Ramos

It was like “Pay a Blue, pay a Blue, pay a Blue” all over again.

I remember being 14 years old and showing my Rising Waters deck to BDavis right after they released the Nemesis spoiler. After playing two or so games against it, he remarked: “This is the most boring format ever.”

Point being: Lin Sivvi and Port were both random and unfun. Random because if you got advantage before your opponent, there was literally nothing they could do – of comparable power level in Sivvi‘s case, and anything at all in Port’s. I know Port only put you one land behind, but it entirely obliterated the possibility of playing a two-color deck. God forbid that the opponent draw two Ports.

Tolarian Academy, too, was a perfect example of a card that made formats both random and unfun. If you weren’t playing Academy that year you were an idiot, but if the opponent dropped a turn 1 Academy on you, your options were:

1) Play Lingering Mirage, which is sort of awkward, or

2) Look at him awkwardly, which is by definition awkward, and then lose a game of Magic.

It’s with these variables in mind that I turn to Evan’s most recent show, and I hope it has become clear why some of the opinions espoused just don’t accomplish a goal that’s good for either the format or for Wizards.

Tarmogoyf, for example, is never, ever, ever a card I think Wizards should even consider banning. Yes, it’s played as a 4-of in a lot of decks. Yes, its secondary market value has skyrocketed through the roof. But it has certainly not warped the format. You can’t say that “every deck has to be capable of killing a Tarmogoyf,” and that by virtue of that the format is warped, because every Extended deck for the last five or so years has needed to possess a way to eliminate two-mana creatures (or just kill the opponent before it matters). The game of Magic is constructed such that, because creatures are the most efficient means of victory, they are also the card type that is easiest to interact with (read: kill until they’re dead). Therefore, any creature that simply possesses power and toughness without any way of protecting itself is never going to be so powerful that it needs to be banned. The format can adapt around that creature without being warped. Indeed, if the presence of Tarmogoyf would cause decks to be concerned with creatures that formerly wouldn’t have to worry about them, I would argue that Tarmogoyf is making the format much healthier as a result, as I think there’s been a consensus over the course of the last few years that Magic should fundamentally involve creatures. Even Vintage players now routinely get into the red zone.

Sensei’s Divining Top, though, is a little more problematic. It goes into a whole lot of different decks, it singularly enables many of those decks (Enduring Ideal comes to mind), it makes individual games much less fun as a practical matter (I must have spent fifteen minutes looking at Melissa DeTora compute the sum total of roughly fifty Divining Top activations during our three-game set in Valencia, and none of the individual activations took an unreasonable amount of time), and it makes the outcome of Top-based mirrors incredibly random. When one person has it and the other does not, that person has a huge advantage. Nevertheless, I don’t think Top should be banned, because I think it increases the diversity of the metagame enough that the net “fun” value of all the Top-enabled decks outweighs the awkwardness it often brings to single games.

Then, of course, there is Dredge. The deck is mind-bogglingly powerful, it’s not very fun to play against (ooh, you’re flipping your deck, congrats), and the outcomes of its matches are incredibly random once you factor in the hate. Moreover, the deck warps a format more than any archetype in recent memory. People have to devote 5-7 sideboard slots that usually accomplish very little in any other matchup just to have a chance against the deck. The trouble becomes: what do you ban? Hitting Narcomoeba doesn’t do much because they’ll just wait a turn to go off with Ichorids, and even a one-turn-slower version of the deck would still mandate nearly as much format-warping sideboard hate as the existing list. The same logic applies to Bridge from Below – now they’ll just start reanimating Akromas and smashing with Ichorids, and you’ve removed from the format one of the least-awkward ways to interact with the deck, namely binning your own animal – and even Dread Return. There’s still plenty of broken things you can do with the graveyard outside the confines of existing Dredge lists. Moreover, there’s always Bubble Hulk lurking around at the periphery to take Dredge’s place if it’s ever neutered.

Point being I don’t think there’s a perfect solution.

I hope this article helped y’all consider the DCI’s banning policy in ways that you might not have considered previously. I think Extended is a bit of a loose format right now, but I don’t really believe that any particular bannings are going to help it out. It seems like Wizards’ new policy of a 7-year rotation system will solve many of the problems people seek to resolve through direct intervention, though. You keep the card pool constant enough to minimize unintended interactions, and you shake it up enough every year that designers can’t simply keep building and building upon already-solid, already-tested ideas. We’ll see how well this works out in October, I suppose, but for now all we can do is wait.