June 20th is approaching and with Griselbrand-based decks rising in popularity, people are talking about the possibility of new bannings. I’ll say a few words about that issue later in the article, but what I’ll focus on today is only distantly related to that discussion — the clutter that should not be banned any longer. Why now? Because, traditionally, when the DCI decided to act and ban something, we also got something in return — we got a card or two back from the oblivion of banned space. They neglected this for Mental Misstep, but if they choose to ban something this time, I’d like them to have a list of compensatory unbans lying fresh and ready next to them.
In my opinion, balancing out of banned cards with unbanned cards makes bans, as a whole, a lot more palatable and is therefore something the DCI should endeavor to do whenever they’ve decided to curb something problematic from the format. This article is simply meant to help choose viable candidates. As such, I’d also encourage every one of you to comment on my choices in the comments; which cards do you think are safe, which aren’t — please include your reasoning, though. Just saying “Black Lotus can be safely unbanned” doesn’t make it so and will sway no ones mind, least of all the DCI’s.
Now, before you read what I think should or should not be unbanned, you might want to read this article of mine first, so that you know where I’m coming from concerning bannings in general. To paraphrase myself, the goal of bans should be to make sure people are having fun playing in the format. That is the prime directive. The most important elements to do that are to limit degeneracy, to promote strategic variety, to preserve the impact of play skill on match results and to cater to player bias (as outlined in the article). This focus of fun through a strategically varied, interactive format is what I see as the goal of the banned list. When I say a card is “too strong” now, it means it would actively make it less likely for that kind of situation to exist. There is no abstract judgment of the cards power involves, just my assumption of its power-level in the current format.
Meet Our Candidates
First, you need to know which cards we’re even considering. To cite the DCI:
The following cards are banned in Legacy tournaments:
Amulet of Quoz
Bazaar of Baghdad
Contract from Below
Library of Alexandria
Oath of Druids
Survival of the Fittest
Wheel of Fortune
The Easy Exclusions
Of these, some simply don’t merit consideration. Everything that is banned because it doesn’t fit the current framework and logistics of the game (ante cards, dexterity cards and subgame cards) is obviously irrelevant. In a similar vein, the free accelerators (Moxes, Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault) would change the format into a different entity if legal and should therefore not be considered for unbanning. These are the easy exclusions.
I’d also exclude those two undercosted cards that are obviously too powerful for their cost — Time Walk and Ancestral Recall. They’re so much above the curve of everything else in the game, they would restrict the metagame simply because you either play those cards or lose to them.
Next up, I’d exclude the five tutors on the list. Demonic Consultation is just ridiculously powerful in a format that is all four-offs (essentially the best tutor of them all) and the four others have the problem that they provide combo decks with too much post-sideboard flexibility as well as maindeck consistency. Remember what I said about limiting degeneracy? That also includes the supposition that non-interactive matchups should be possible to turn into interactive ones post-board. If combo decks have too efficient multipurpose tutoring, it impacts other decks ability to meaningfully sideboard for them because a single boarded bounce spell makes it easy to answer every form on hate that isn’t stack-based. As such, I do not think any of these cards should be touched, even though the “gentleman’s agreement” suggested by the DCI to support the Mystical Tutor ban was far from reality.
Another card that should definitely remain on the list is Strip Mine. I’m not sure how many of you have played in a four Strip Mine, four Wasteland format, but let me assure you it isn’t pretty. Half the games come down to who can screw whom with Strip effects — a situation I’d definitely consider degenerate and unfun.
Single Card Combos
Going a step further, I would keep all the one card combos on the list, that is to say, Survival of the Fittest, Oath of Druids, Tinker and Hermit Druid. What these four cards have in common is that, with truly minor conditions, just resolving either one of them usually leads to a game win within a turn or two. Two card combos are usually fine, but finding one card to win is only fine if it creates extreme deckbuilding requirements (think Belcher), otherwise, there just isn’t enough work involved in the win.
Survival is a unique case in that it takes a reasonable amount of time to actually win off of it after it has resolved because a lot of additional mana has to be invested. Even if we could consider it weak enough to unban as a one card combo, the fact that it will significantly impact strategic variety should keep us from really considering it. Survival is simply the best engine any aggressive strategy could run, leading to it absorbing all other forms of aggressive decks. Having only Survival instead of a mix of differently-based aggro decks just isn’t the same thing.
The next group of cards I’d like to look at are simply undercosted. These cards are banned because, instead of directly producing a generally fatal mana burst like Black Lotus would, instead they have their own, built in Black Lotus — they’re much cheaper than they should be.
These have to be valued in context instead of becoming more powerful over time like actual accelerators would do, they become weaker and therefore possible suspects for unbanning as the format evolves. That happens because as decks become more streamlined with refinement and new printings, their curves lower and their key spells become cheaper, meaning these might simply end up not being undercosted any more in comparison to the rest of the format at some point.
Mental Misstep is a particular card in this context as it also scales positively with deck streamlining — the leaner the decks get, the more game-breaking targets it effects, which is why a card that is only slightly undercosted has such a major impact anyway. Given how recently that card had to be banned, I think staying away from it for now is a good idea.
Mind Twist, on the other hand, is an interesting conundrum. So feared in the early days of Magic that it remained banned in Vintage for the longest time, I don’t think it would even make any waves in Legacy today. Sure, a turn three Mind Twist for five is generally game over. Given that that play only happens when Dark Rituals get involved, though, I’d rather be Mind Twisted than Ad Nauseamed. At two and three mana, Mind Twist is just worse than Hymn to Tourach and for anything above that, you could get a Jace the Mind Sculptor — which is probably just as good at emptying out an opponent’s last two or three cards. I think we have our first unban candidate.
The main reason for keeping Black Vise banned isn’t actually its power level (which, after testing, I’ve found to be surprisingly manageable given today’s mana curves) but how unfun the game states it creates are. Losing because you’re on the draw or mana screwed just isn’t fun and Delver already gives us enough early damage tempo blowouts for my liking. From a power-level perspective, though, the Vise is probably fine and definitely a candidate for unbanning.
Finally, there’s Balance. This is usually a pretty bad card, to be honest, and its position amongst the most iconic power cards of the game has more to do with legend than anything else as the conditions to make Balance broken are actually reasonably hard to fulfill.
What makes me hesitant about it is that, when it is powerful, it is really powerful. Giving control decks an unconditional two mana board sweeper to blow out aggro on turn two is already quite dangerous, but having Stax and control decks with acceleration (Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond, Mox Opal) sweeping the board and Mind Twisting for five on turn one or two seems like it might be problematic. Then again, neither of these decks is tearing up tournaments right now, so the boost may be all beneficial for the format.
Overall, I think the danger Balance represents to fair decks outweighs the likely benefits of having it around, and as such, I would probably be hesitant to unban it. It’s definitely a candidate to consider for an impressive unban, though, and far from as totally unsafe as your gut instinct tells you.
I call these enablers because they either produce a significant amount of mana to enable shenanigans or are part of a two card combo that has been deemed too efficient by the powers that be. A few short words on those things I wouldn’t unban: Channel is ridiculous (turn 1 hard cast Emrakul?), Fastbond becomes blatantly broken with any number of cards and Mana Drain is just that good.
Flash and Time Vault, on the other hand, aren’t broken in general, they are simply parts of extremely cheap, instantly game-ending two card combos. Grand Prix – Flash showed us what those cards do to the format and it wasn’t pretty.
This is where the Griselbrand/Show and Tell issue comes in: the fact of the matter is that, as soon as Griselbrand touches the table, you’re essentially dead. It’s just like resolving Yawgmoth’s Bargain — if you do, the extra cards you draw make sure you will win the game in short order — only this time you also get a 7/7 lifelinker to actually kill the opponent with.
Note that I’m not saying the decks that have Griselbrand are unbeatable — that isn’t the case. A resolved, active Griselbrand, however, almost always is. The dynamic this creates in games — stop the enabler or lose on the spot — is extremely close to something like Flash plus Protean Hulk or Time Vault plus Voltaic Key. While the game isn’t officially over yet, the result is all but set in stone. Flash was too good at two mana and Vault/Key is presumably too good at 1 + 3 (don’t forget the activation of key for the win), so I suspect Show and Tell for Griselbrand at three mana and Entomb/Reanimate at one plus one will end up proving too powerful in the same way.
The true problem here is Griselbrand, in the same way Bargain always was the real issue, not Academy Rector. There is no other legal card that on its own almost always wins the game as soon as it enters the battlefield and to keep Legacy healthy (and healthy includes the ability to play cheat-a-fatty decks as there are quite a few fans of that style of Magic) there really shouldn’t be.
I agree that we’re not seeing the results yet that would perfectly support a ban so waiting for September would be the most consistent course of action, though given the similarities to what is already on the list (and with good reason), I wouldn’t be sad to see the big fat demon of doom go in June already.Â
Returning to our regularly scheduled program, these are the enablers that I think can be safely unbanned:
Worldcraft Dragon is on the list as a relic from when Type 1.5 became Legacy, but is quite tame by today’s standards: all it does is allow for an unbounded infinite mana loop when reanimated with an enchantment such as Animate Dead. Trying to reanimate something just to create infinite mana (which means you need a third card to win with) while being vulnerable to just about any form of interaction is simply strictly worse than just reanimating Griselbrand, Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur or Iona, Shield of Emeria. There are a multitude of infinite mana combos in the format, such as Grim Monolith plus Power Artifact, that are easier to set up and harder to hate but don’t see any play at all, so I doubt that there is any reason at all to keep the Worldgorger banned.
Earthcraft similarly functions as part of a six mana, two card infinite 1/1 combo (with Squirrel Nest and a basic land), something that just doesn’t seem scary any more. It might prove powerful as a back up mana engine in Elves or Enchantress, but both of these seem like fair enough uses that won’t endanger the format in any way.
And now we come to the part of the article where you’ll call me crazy. There is one card from the list I haven’t mentioned yet: Tolarian Academy.
There are few cards surrounded by as much myth and legend as the Academy. The bringer of Combo Winter, the enabler for the first utterly broken engine combo deck in the history of the game, Academy is feared even by those players that never had to play against it. I would probably have skipped over it as “broken, next” if I hadn’t actually tried breaking the card for fun.
What I found was that a combo deck along the lines of the old Academy decks would actually be significantly less consistent and easier to disrupt (Wasteland) than Tendrils Storm decks while not being significantly faster or more resilient. Artifact decks either couldn’t make good use out of the mana boost (Affinity), or had trouble setting the Academy up to dangerous levels during those first few turns when the mana boost would be most relevant (MUD).
Now it is possible, even likely, that I missed something when working with Academy, but it definitely isn’t as overpowered today as legend would have you believe. This is another card that could see a test unban only to prove it doesn’t actually break the format.
This final group of cards includes all the tools you can build your deck around that have proven too dangerous to run free in the past. Almost all of them fit into multiple different shells, but would likely either take over the format in one particular shell or reduce strategic variety over all by obsoleting a multitude of different engines in a large class of decks (similar to what I said about Survival of the Fittest, a card that could as well have ended up in this part of the list).
I don’t think there is much to say about Bazaar other than “vintage dredge,” and if you’ve ever played with Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Will, I don’t think you’ll wonder why they should stay banned. Bargain is one of those permanents that win the game as soon as they enter play — I talked about why that is bad — and is cheap enough to reasonably hardcast of off a few Rituals. Skullclamp finally might or might not be broken compared to the format at large, but would unduly restrict strategic variety by turning all creature-based decks into Skullclamp based-decks and is therefore undesirable to have around.
The Draw 7s — Windfall, Timetwister and Wheel of Fortune — might actually be comparatively close to being fair given that Diminishing Returns and Reforge the Soul have yet to see significant play. Three mana and reduced color requirements make these markedly more dangerous than the legal cards, though, and given the nature of these beasts — if they break, they break hard — I wouldn’t want to allow them in the format without testing the waters first using Memory Jar.
Which smoothly brings us to my next unban candidate. Memory Jar is another of those classic cards everybody is afraid off because of their reputation — it was the only card to be emergency banned, ever, but I’ve played with Memory Jar a lot (in Vintage), and if you have to hardcast it, it’s actually pretty bad. Five mana for a draw seven just isn’t that good, something that is also illustrated by Reforge the Soul and Diminishing Returns not making any waves in the format. Sure, there are some powerful interactions with Welder and Metalworker but that deck might also just be better of running actual fatties or Kuldotha Forgemasters. Don’t get me wrong, there is potential in Memory Jar, but from my experience the cards is much fairer than people give it credit for. As such, this is another candidate for a splashy test unban.
Speaking of feared combo cards that really aren’t all that scary any more, Mind’s Desire is another card I’d be fine considering to unban. Getting double blue and a reasonable spell count and six mana to cast it is actually quite difficult for any combo deck to pull of with consistency, at least significantly more so than just 3BB for Ad Nauseam. As that isn’t really crushing the format as of late, having a more difficult to set up six mana version that is slightly more resilient to countermagic doesn’t seem like it would break the format. This is another candidate for a test unban.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have two draw engines in Land Tax and Gush. Tax is, I think, a clear unban. It might be reasonable as a draw engine, but Life from the Loam does what Tax does without forcing you to suddenly play the game on two mana and simply isn’t all that powerful to begin with, especially given that having to have six or more basic lands in your deck is actually a negative in Legacy.
Gush, on the other hand, looks innocuous but has a lot of hidden power. By allowing players to draw cards for free, correctly constructed decks receive an incredible draw engine that is extremely difficult to contend with. Given that those correctly constructed decks are usually low-mana aggro-control decks and that those are traditionally already among the best decks in Legacy, pushing them to the next level doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea.
This brings us to the two cards I’m least certain about, Goblin Recruiter and Frantic Search. Goblin Recruiter is incredibly powerful because it often works as a one card combo (just stack your Goblins interspersed with Ringleaders to overpower any kind of opposition) and also sets up two different game-winning combos in Food Chain and Goblin Charbelcher (the former resulting in a board full of hasty Goblins, the latter shooting them for twice the number of Goblins remaining in your deck). This makes the Recruiter an incredibly powerful card, though one that is severely limiting deck construction because you have to play Goblins and therefore would have very limited amounts of disruption or protection for the combo game plan. As such, Recruiter could definitely be considered for an unban, though its ability to one-card-combo basically every fair deck there is leads me to believe that it should remain banned. It’s definitely close enough for it to qualify as a candidate, similar to Balance.
Frantic Search is also hindered by its specificity — it wants to go in a deck that plans to generate a ton of mana by untapping lands, meaning so far the only good home for it would be High Tide. Given that High Tide is at best a turn three deck even with Frantic Search and always bears the risk of fizzling out with its draw spells, Frantic Search is also a candidate for a possible unban.
That being said, High Tide has already had a good run (including a GP Top 8) in Legacy not too long ago and is extremely annoying to play against because of its interminable combo turn (meaning it becoming dominant would be extremely hurtful to the format). As such, I’d rather play it safe and wait until it is very clear High Tide doesn’t suddenly become the best deck if given back Frantic Search, even though I suspect doing so would end up being fine.
This leaves us with a pretty long list of cards I’d consider unbanning. Here it is for sake of convenience:
The other cards would all come with some danger of actually breaking the format but also with a good chance that they would be just another powerful card in a format of powerful cards. At the very least, unbanning them on an experimental basis shouldn’t end up ruining the format during the three months until the next banned list announcement happens.
I don’t suggest we unban these all at once. The safe ones could come off in one fell swoop, the others on a one-by-one try out basis. For example, having Academy, Frantic Search and Mind’s Desire in the format at the same time doesn’t look safe at all. Having just Mind’s Desire, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as frightening.
Unban Them All
The banned list is a necessary tool to keep Legacy from degenerating into non-interactivity or single engines dominating the format. It is also a helpful tool to help understand the fundamental constraints of the format. By looking at what has proven too good before, we gain an understanding for the nature of cards that end up being a danger to the health of Legacy.
Yet a good banned list is also one that allows us to play with as many cards as is safely possible. Through the years, the format evolves, the decks become more streamlined and the general power level rises. What was broken before might be just good or even weak now. As such, the banned list should regularly be freed of the clutter of years past to allow us as players to use as many cards as possible. The shortest banned list that ensures enjoyable game play is also the best.
That’s it for today. Let me know which cards you think need to be on the list, which are just clutter and if I missed some particular application for the cards I’ve suggested as possible candidates for an unbanning. Maybe we’ll be able to sway the DCI to give some of our POWs back.
Until next time, take a risk.