Magic is in an odd place right now. Standard is a relatively narrow format with two key elements dominating the field. Modern is diverse but features a Death’s Shadow deck that is starting to creep up on banworthy. At least Legacy’s still great! Don’t get me wrong; I still love Magic and think it is a great game. But something just feels a bit off. So today, let’s figure out just what’s going on, and how Wizards of the Coast might be able to fix it.
I thought that the twice-yearly rotation schedule was an awesome idea, freshening Standard twice a year so it didn’t become too stagnant. But there’s just one major problem: too many people were unable to keep up with their collections losing so much value twice a year as opposed to once a year. As someone who has “lost” thousands of dollars over the years by Standard rotating, I can empathize. But if you really take a look at your collection, and some of the cards that “lost value” when they rotated, you’d see a lot of hidden gems that quadrupled or higher in price, thanks to…Modern!
But I get it. Magic cards aren’t cheap, and compromises have to be made in order to make sure the customers keep coming back. But how much do you really love your copies of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar now? Do you think it is feasible to play with/against Four-Color Saheeli for the next year and a half? Think about it. With both pieces of the combo being printed in the same two-set block, we’re stuck with it together until both of them rotate in October of 2018. That’s a very long time to get grinded out of games while also bracing for death on the fourth turn.
Will the combo get banned at some point? I think it’s very likely. And, if Gideon, Ally of Zendikar didn’t get the axe this time around, I don’t think they’re going to touch it until it naturally progresses into the void.
To be frank, I think the good people at Wizards of the Coast aren’t making great decisions as of late. Not only are we getting cards through design and development that were admitted unintentional mistakes (Felidar Guardian), but they’re also putting us into a position where any of the decks we build could be banned just weeks after we put them together. I haven’t seen this much uncertainty in the game in a very long time, and it is creating a lot of instability.
Will they? Won’t they? It’s like an episode of Friends.
Personally, I’m losing faith in the company that makes this great game that we all love because it feels like they’re dropping the ball on a regular basis. Last year we had mid-sized Eldrazi completely destroy Modern, followed by Emrakul, the Promised End making a much bigger impact on Standard than expected. Mistakes happen, and I’m fine forgiving those mistakes when my confidence in the company is high. But, over time, those little things add up to a big problem.
But you know what really bugs me? When you make a mistake, just admit it and rectify it. Don’t let it go on as some twisted experiment, hoping everything will be okay. I would have much preferred Felidar Guardian be banned in Standard before it was ever legal, showing that the company has an understanding of what would, or even could, happen. When the best-case scenario is that it isn’t good enough to see regular play, the safe bet is to just ban it. Just rip off the Band-Aid!
And when they got a second chance to rectify the mistake, they didn’t. Do you really need more data to determine if an arbitrarily large two-card combo on the fourth turn is too powerful for Standard? Do you not understand how frustrating it is to lose a game to something so blatantly unfun/unfair? Get me some chicken noodle soup, because I’m sick of it.
Yes, Mardu Vehicles is helping to keep Four-Color Saheeli in check. And yes, a Temur Dynavolt deck won one of the two Standard Grand Prix last weekend.
But what about the rest of the field? Aside from a novel Jund Eldrazi deck, both Top 8s were flooded with Four-Color Saheeli and Mardu Vehicles. By banning Felidar Guardian and/or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, the format would have opened up so much more. Decks that don’t have to worry about dying on the fourth turn can open up a bit, and perhaps even match the strength of the Mardu Vehicles deck. I know that Amonkhet could be powerful enough to do that instead of bannings, but the slippery slope of continually printing more and more powerful cards to help keep other powerful cards in check feels a lot like that lady who swallowed a fly I heard so much about as a kid.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, banning cards does come with consequences. The job of designing and developing new Magic cards is not an easy one. Each card goes through a good number of iterations before seeing print, and it usually takes a few weeks for even the best players to see the full potential of the cards in a new set, let alone doing that with a small team while every card is constantly in flux.
On top of that, you have to try to capture the flavor of the story you’re trying to tell, while making some of the characters relatable enough for us to root for or loathsome enough for us to root against. Every ability on a planeswalker has to encapsulate what that character stands for. Every spell needs to have a connection to the color casting it. I don’t envy the people in the position of making new cards for this insanely complex game, but those people do need to be held accountable, in some way, for the blunders that ruin the customer’s experience.
Accountability is important in any business, as it provides the customer with a level of confidence that the business understands that we matter, and what we value. I value my time, and I choose to spend it playing Magic when it is a fun experience. When Wizards of the Coast makes decisions like banning or unbanning cards seemingly at random, or leaving heinous mistakes to fester, my confidence becomes shaken. Wizards, take responsibility for those mistakes, and do what’s in the best interest of the game, and your customers, to fix them.
Hotfixing the Bugs in Standard
Once you ban Felidar Guardian, things can open up a good bit. Saheeli Rai is less playable, which ultimately makes a bunch of different archetypes much stronger. Decks don’t have to focus on spot removal as much and can spend most of their time trying to gain battlefield advantage rather than trying their best not to die. This is the easy one.
Once Felidar Guardian is banned, you get to open things up a bit. As much as I might not like it, unbanning Reflector Mage is a good start. It was certainly powerful in the Collected Company decks, but that was mostly because Collected Company (and Rally the Ancestors) were just ridiculous Magic cards. Personally, I’m under the impression that Reflector Mage was banned as a preemptive measure to help keep the Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian decks in check. Once they realized their mistake and were willing to give Felidar Guardian a chance, banning Reflector Mage made sense. You didn’t want to give the combo deck a busted card to continuously copy and blink with Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian. Getting your creature hit with Reflector Mage once is tough to handle. The second or third time it happens, you start to get frustrated.
While Reflector Mage would probably reinvigorate the W/U Flash deck that saw a good bit of play before Aether Revolt, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. While it was tricky to play against, it provided the format with a buffer of sorts against some of the wacky combo decks that were creeping in from the sidelines. It was a solid choice in a field full of Aetherworks Marvel, and gave players an alternative strategy: tempo. While unbanning Reflector Mage might not “fix” everything, I think it would certainly be fine in a world without Felidar Guardian or Saheeli Rai.
While Smuggler’s Copter saw a lot of play across a variety of aggro decks and is probably too good in a vacuum, you have to admit that there were a lot more Standard decks running around when Smuggler’s Copter was legal. While Heart of Kiran did its best job to replace it, the cost of three power to crew is a much tougher restriction. Personally, I’d like to see Smuggler’s Copter unbanned as well, if only to open up the options at our disposal. White decks have the best chance of abusing Heart of Kiran, due mostly in part to Toolcraft Exemplar, and I would like to see aggressive decks open up a bit on colors.
While Smuggler’s Copter was almost certainly “too good,” what it did to the format was interesting, and the play patterns it provided were actually pretty interesting. Much like Scrapheap Scrounger, which saw a ridiculous amount of play at the last Pro Tour, any cheaply costed artifact “creature” with good abilities is going to see play in aggressive decks. At least Smuggler’s Copter let us do some really cool stuff.
Banning Emrakul, the Promised End did a lot to weaken this deck, but I think it is safe to say that cards like Aetherworks Marvel are just dangerous. The primary reason this card isn’t seeing a lot of play right now is that it is inherently weak to the Felidar Guardian combo. Both decks play a lot of the same cards, building energy and other resources to use in different ways, but casting a quick Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger just isn’t as good as killing your opponent with infinite kitties.
If Felidar Guardian is to be banned (which is should be), I think it only natural to take Aetherworks Marvel with it. Cards like Aetherworks Marvel have such a high ceiling that it doesn’t matter what the floor is. It restricts you from making any expensive card too good, because that card could be played for much less than intended. Getting six energy is far too easy with the cards provided, and every activation leads to a giant monster or an interactive way to trigger the Aetherworks Marvel again.
Much like Green Sun’s Zenith or Birthing Pod in Modern, Magic cards will continually see print that could make this even worse than it already is. Cards like Aetherworks Marvel limit the design space that developers have to work with and create a lot of unfun games of Magic. The “shock and awe” factor of Aetheworks Marvel wore off long ago, and I would much rather see this go away for good rather than linger over the format once Felidar Guardian is gone.
Oh, I’m not falling for this one. Let her stay trapped in the moon or whatever.
Whatever your opinion is on banning or unbanning cards in Standard, understand that any decision can’t be made lightly. That is one reason why I was so shocked that they seemingly wrote this article over a week before the “due date.”
I can agree with some points in the article, namely that taking the safe route is often more favorable than taking action. Banning cards does create a bit of tension in the customer/company relationship. But does anyone who owns the Four-Color Saheeli deck honestly think it won’t be banned at some point? Are people really that delusional?
The two finalists at Grand Prix New Jersey were certainly under the impression that their deck of choice was not long for this world. Why should it be? Everything we’ve been told about how to keep Magic healthy, or what is and isn’t okay for the game, pushes us down the path of banning this card. Do you really think they’d just go and rip up one of the marquee cards in their deck if that wasn’t the case?
Personally, I was shocked that they allowed Felidar Guardian (and Standard in general) to continue as it is. Turnouts haven’t been great, and that is mostly due to a lack of diversity in the format. This, in turn, is pushing many Magic players toward Modern, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a vacuum, but Standard is the format that keeps people buying booster packs. Without Standard to keep the engine running, there isn’t much reason to buy new cards, since so few of them are powerful enough to make a lasting impact on any of the older formats.
While Modern is certainly in a fine place at the moment, I could see it getting stagnant in the very near future. And that, primarily, is a result of Death’s Shadow.
Analyzing the Modern Impact of Death’s Shadow
While Modern doesn’t really need to be “fixed,” I’m under the impression that banning and unbanning cards should be done at a much higher rate than in any of the other major formats. This is mostly due to the volatile nature of the games, but in the past has also occurred thanks to the dominance of one strategy. At the moment, Death’s Shadow is taking over when many thought it to be a much weaker deck with the banning of Gitaxian Probe. In actuality, we just needed Gitaxian Probe to get banned so we’d be inclined to try out different variants featuring one of the most strangely busted cards in the format.
While Death’s Shadow doesn’t seem like it should be too good for the format, the tools at its disposal make it an extraordinary threat. One mana is a criminally small investment for such a large creature, even if it does require you to deal yourself a hefty amount of damage in order to cast it. But that’s the thing: Modern is full of cards that deal you damage as a “penalty,” and Death’s Shadow just capitalizes on the strength of those cards. The manabase makes it fairly easy to accomplish dealing yourself that much damage, and stuff like Street Wraith has added value besides making your deck 56 cards (pumping Tarmogoyf, late-game threat, etc).
Banning Gitaxian Probe was supposed to weaken both Death’s Shadow and Infect, largely taking away some speed of Become Immense. But once the Death’s Shadow players were able to build their deck in such a way that they no longer needed the gimmicky combo pieces, the deck became a variant of Jund with a very low chance of ever drawing too many lands. With Mishra’s Bauble and Street Wraith still around, having a smaller virtual deck allows you to play fewer lands and even helps turn on delirium for Traverse the Ulvenwald while also pumping Tarmogoyf. Support cards like Kolaghan’s Command give you elements of removal that can help contain other creature decks, while also giving you a way to keep up if your opponent is playing enough removal spells to kill your creatures.
Old-School Jund was notoriously good at winning “topdeck wars” after it ripped your hand apart with discard spells. Threats like Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant were powerful ways to close games and push advantages when you were able to tear your opponent’s hand apart. Now, with the decreased likelihood of flooding out after trading one-for-one with discard spells, the Death’s Shadow deck is everything the older Jund decks ever wanted to be. At this point, I don’t see any reason not to play Jund Death’s Shadow in a Modern tournament. It provides the pilot with speed, consistency, and disruption for a very small mana investment.
While I don’t think banning Death’s Shadow is the right move, I do think that it is important to understand that this situation could change. Every new set release comes with the possibility that other archetypes get a bit of a boost, which could alter the dynamic of how Death’s Shadow influences the format. We’ll just have to wait and see for Amonkhet to know for sure.
What I would love to see is control decks getting a bit of a boost. At the moment, blue cards are a bit of a downer in Modern. Remand is arguably unplayable, and most counterspells are generically underwhelming. At times, Spell Snare or Spell Pierce are desirable forms of interaction, but they often get stuck in your hand in the wrong matchups. That’s one of the major reasons why discard effects like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are seeing so much play right now. While discard spells do get weaker as the game goes, they are very rarely dead cards in the early turns of the game. Counterspells are rarely live cards on the first or second turn, but they also have the same drawback of becoming weaker as the game goes long (assuming those counterspells are conditional).
That means that, as a control player, you’re bottlenecked into playing discard spells instead of counterspells, which takes away a lot of the flavor behind why you’d be playing blue in the first place. While I don’t advocate unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor, arguably the only true control card left on the Banned and Restricted list, it would make me happy to have some new cards from Amonkhet able to make the grade in Modern. And maybe, just maybe, the release of Amonkhet will bring with it a much-needed revival for Standard.
But I’m not holding my breath.