Inquisition, Spanish Style – The Article You Did Not Expect

The new Banned and Restricted list is coming out on Wednesday. What does this have to do with Knut’s article? The answers could surprise you and might change the face of Magic for the next year. If that doesn’t interest you, maybe a picture of the new sunburst foil process from the Japan Juniors Royal Assassin and Slith Firewalker will. Click the article my friends, or you’ll miss out on what may be the most controversial article of the year.

Azn Bling

Some days you just gotta start an article with style over substance to set the stage. It’s like the ice around Jay-Z’s neck and fingers – it ain’t necessary, I just kinda like the way it feels. Now that your potency has been primed with the oysters on the half-shell appetizer, it’s time for the filet and Courvoisier.

As most of you know, after Regionals this year I wrote a little article predicting the banning of a certain one-mana artifact. This kicked off a firestorm of controversy wherein I was informed that I was crazy, hated Affinity (even though my team helped develop a good version at 2003 States), obviously didn’t know what I was talking about, and somehow didn’t understand that Skullclamp was necessary for players that don’t have much money to compete in Standard.

The amount of people who told me that Skullclamp clearly was not the problem was staggering. I’m not saying people are dumb or anything, but I’m pretty thankful some of you don’t have anything to do with decisions about the Banned and Restricted list or we would have had a 100% Affinity Top 8 at 2004 States. If you like that idea I have two words for you: psychiatric help.

In “Houston, We Have a Problem” I also argued that banning the Clamp alone would not be enough, and that Arcbound Ravager needed to go as well in order to limit Affinity’s dominance of the field. Fast forward a few months and Skullclamp was in fact banned, Ravager Affinity obliterated Block Constructed in spite of the loss of Clamp, and though the deck is weaker than it was at Regionals, its dominance of Type Two is still unquestioned.

Oh fine – some of you are bound to ask questions, so I’ll have to break out the numbers stick and beat you with it, per usual. Will you never learn?

Thanks to the very hard and underappreciated work of Matt Walker, who saved me the massive hassle of compiling this info myself and did a fine job while he was at it, we know that Affinity took home 129 of the 353 Top 8 decklists tabulated, which equates to 36.5% of the Top 8 slots. These numbers would seem to lead us to a specific question that I don’t think anyone has discussed since States…

Is Standard Still Broken?

Assuming you have a large sample size, I’d say a problem exists 33% or more of the Top 8 slots at one of the open Standard events are occupied by a single deck. I’ve never done or seen stats for States Top 8’s, but according to the Regionals numbers I compiled in my earlier article, 36.5 is still a fair chunk above the 30% threshold that decks have topped out at in “healthy formats,” and it’s above the 33% problem barrier. At the very least it’s in the bothersome range that makes R&D step back and at least consider whether something needs to be done. However, it’s not a lot above that mark, and there weren’t a ton of complaints about States like there were about Regionals.

If taken by itself, I’d say that this isn’t that big a deal, but there are greater concerns here that merit weighing. For starters, this is a deck that has already had cards banned and still managed to dominate not only Standard but an entire Block season as well. The banning of Skullclamp wasn’t directly aimed at this deck, but Wizards certainly wasn’t going to complain if it took hits in the crossfire. Affinity did take a few shots, but not enough to make it anything less than the consensus number one deck for nearly a year now.

Next we have the States metagame to consider. Going into the tournament there were only two decks that you wanted to target as a deckbuilder: Affinity and Tooth and Nail. Affinity once again succeeded in spite of the bullseye on its forehead, and this time no one underestimated how good the deck was or what kind of presence it would have at States as some people accused players of doing at Regionals (which wasn’t true, but whatever). Perhaps counterintuitively, even though people knew just how good the deck was, fewer people actually played Affinity at States than at Regionals. The reasons for this vary, but most of it comes down to the fact that people are sick of the deck, and this time they didn’t want to play a deck everybody was gunning for.

As it turned out, you could still play the deck and expect to succeed as long as you were a good player. The margin for error was clearly slimmer, but it existed and was exploited.

So the deck has already gone through a banning, was considered the deck to beat before States (presumably making it harder to win with it), was played by considerably fewer people, and yet still pulled in 36.5% of the Top 8 – a better percentage than any deck in recent history. What once looked interesting but relatively harmless is once again a real cause for concern.

That said, my opinion is that the current environment is actually pretty good. Type Two is more diverse now than it has been in years – something I certainly did not expect going in to States. Unfortunately, Affinity still looms over the format like the specter of Geordie Tait over an amusing simile.

Are There Other Factors To Consider?

Last time I listed deck constraints as one of the reasons why Skullclamp had to go and it applies here as well. Wizards cannot be happy that the majority of Green decks have to run Oxidize in the maindeck merely to compete. Naturalize is a versatile choice that will see maindeck play in some metagames and it’s not a big deal – Disenchant was an important part of many decks of the past and nobody batted an eye. However, if Shatter suddenly started seeing a lot of maindeck play back in the day in every single deck that ran Red, it would have been a signal that maybe artifacts were a bit too powerful.

That’s exactly the situation we are in today, except it’s not “artifacts” that are too powerful, it’s the Affinity deck itself. By forcing every deck in the environment to have at least four to eight maindeck answers to a single archetype drastically constrains deckbuilding options. From the perspective of a healthy format, deck hosers should be played in the sideboard. They should not take up 10-20% of the playable slots for every single other deck in the field.

There’s another concept that I did not discuss last time that deserves mentioning here – the fun factor. Does the presence and strength of Affinity impinge on the amount of fun players are having when the go to Friday Night Magic or similar tournaments? If so, will the fact that players are having less fun because a particular deck is so powerful mean that it will hurt sales or the game as a whole?

These are clearly judgment calls where it’s hard to be objective, but R&D has to consider these factors as part of their job. I’m sure some people in the forums will focus on this particular aspect to the exclusion of the rest of my points, but if you ask me, Affinity makes the environment less fun. The constraint on deck design is an important aspect of the fun factor, but people are sick of losing to this deck time and time again, even when they adjust their maindeck to beat it. The glum “oh-look-you-just-topdecked-a-Disciple-and-sacked-me-out-again” face has made FNM look like Survivors of Botox Gone Wrong convention, and that’s just bad for the game.

Would things be different if Elves or some other deck more representative of fun (say Tooth and Nail) were dominating? Possibly. I confess – this is one of the weaker elements in the argument for banning a card, but I’m pretty sure it plays a role in R&D’s decision-making process.

What Needs to Be Done?

Unlike last time, I’m not sure anything needs to be done here. Type Two doesn’t suck right now and banning anything in Standard is always a very touchy subject. There are several decks that can handle the Affinity menace with aplomb and still fare reasonably well against the rest of the field, so it’s not like there are few other good choices like there were back in June.

On the other hand, there is evidence that further action could be warranted here. 36.5% is beyond my personal threshold for concern (I haven’t discussed this thing with R&D so I don’t know what their number happens to be), and it probably could have been a lot worse if as many people had played Affinity as at Regionals. This is purely anecdotal observation, but back at Regionals I think Affinity was 35-40% of the field while at States it was probably closer to 20-25%, though this varied widely. If a similar number of people at States had played the deck as last May, you would have seen 45% or more Affinity decks in the Top 8. That’s not good at all. Affinity continues to outperform its representation in the field by significant margins.

At this point only R&D knows whether there will be further Affinity hosers in upcoming sets, but seeing how well recent ones like Imi Statue have worked, it might just be better to get rid of the problems instead of trying to fix them anymore.

What Should Get Banned?

It’s been said many many times before that the artifact lands are the real culprits in this Affinity mess, and Aaron Forsythe even wrote an article admitting that this is where the real f***-up occurred in Mirrodin (well, aside from Skullclamp). If you cap the artifact lands, you hinder affinity, Ravager, Disciple – the works. The problem here is that it’s probably not worthwhile to ban five cards when one or two will suffice.

What Will Get Banned?

I think they’ll do what they should have done last time and ban Disciple of the Vault and/or Arcbound Ravager. The tough part is deciding which one to give the +b to, since I don’t think they have to ban them both in order to effectively neuter Affinity.

The Case For Banning Ravager

Well, it’s probably the best creature since Psychatog, which puts it on par with what most players feel is the best creature ever. It’s also the “Ravager” part of Ravager Affinity, meaning that you score points in the perception category if you ban Ravager. I’ve said all along that the real “problem” with Ravager Affinity is not the Affinity side of things – we had Affinity at States and it was merely a good aggro deck instead of ridiculously broken. No, the real problems lie with the Modular mechanic, which lets Ravagers translate resources into permanent power/toughness advantages and the fact that Ravager is the primary enabler for the instant-speed Disciple combo. The deck isn’t nearly as good without Arcbound Ravager, and probably falls to tier 2 status or lower without the electric boogaloo.

The Case Against Banning Ravager

It’s a rare, and one that’s still on the expensive side. This means that players and dealers alike will scream bloody murder if it gets the ax, so the political implications aren’t particularly attractive. Even if you ban Ravager, Atog gives you a decent approximation of the combo element, though it is a considerably weaker card overall. Quashing Ravager means that you are killing the entire archetype of “Ravager Affinity” as we know it, though I would be unsurprised to see some sort of Affinity deck continue to exist.

Does R&D want to kill Ravager Affinity? I guess we’ll find out on Wednesday.

The Case for Banning Disciple of the Vault

A few months ago I argued that this card was not the proper card to ban because it was fine in Broodstar Affinity decks as a way to help deter mass removal. It wasn’t until Ravager came along that Disciple was truly broken. I still believe this to be the case, but these days I’m more willing to listen to other arguments.

This is the card that gives Ravager Affinity the combo element of the deck, and without it you end up with a good aggro deck that contains card drawing, but considerably less explosive power. Unlike the Atog for Ravager swap, there is no replacement for Disciple anywhere in the current cardpool, therefore by banning this card you are assured that you will not have the same Affinity decks running around that you have had since February. What you will end up with is a lot more speed/Paquette Affinity style decks or slower, counterspell-laden decks, but not the explosive Vial decks that you’ve since the summer.

Plus, Disciple is a common. Commons carry much less fallout in the community when you ban them, so while it will contribute to a market crash for Ravagers, it won’t stop you from playing four of the many rares that you’ve collected in the last year.

The Case Against Banning Disciple of the Vault

It’s getting harder to make this argument, but Disciple is just a measly 1/1 with a triggered ability – how bad can he be? There are only like, twenty or thirty removal spells for him in the format. He certainly wasn’t broken before Ravager and Clamp were released into the world, so why should he be made to suffer for the transgressions of other cards? Sure he’s synergistic, but so are the artifact lands, and those are the real problems. Disciple is just an innocent bystander in all of this that doesn’t deserve to take the fall. He’s a patsy, I say. A patsy!

I didn’t think this when I started writing this article on vacation, but if they aren’t going to ban artifact lands (and they won’t – why would they ban five cards when one or two would have the same effect?), I’m leaning more and more toward banning Disciple. Stop yelling at your screen. Give me a minute and I’ll explain my thinking here.

When I started thinking about this after reading Matt’s article, I figured, “Just ban both parts of the combo and be done with it. At least one of them should have gone in June, so be sure you fix both parts and wash your hands of the whole thing.” If you aren’t going to do that, at least ban Ravager. It’s only one of the greatest creatures of all time, and its presence in the environment has warped it well beyond normalcy. Maindeck Oxidize and Viridian Shamans (or Annuls and Relic Barriers, etc) are not good for the game if they are occurring in Standard, and squashing Ravager like the electrical bug he is goes a long way toward solving the issue.

But then I put some real thought into this and realized that Wizards is all about triaging and minimizing the effects of their policies on the card-buying public. The current policy seems to be “Cut as little as you can to hopefully solve the issue and then reassess next time when you have more data.” That’s what got me thinking a lot more seriously about that lonely little 1/1 fellow.

Yes, he was perfectly fine before Darksteel, but these days he’s just too good. If you just ban Disciple and leave Ravager alone, you leave the aggressive nature of Affinity in tact, but you cut out the combo elements and probably shave a full turn or more off the fundamental turn of the deck. Players would no longer die with March of the Machines on the board as Affinity players with a Disciple or two in play keep playing lands that immediately die. Sure, you’ll still die to topdecked Shrapnel Blasts, but that is a much more acceptable part of the game than Atog or Ravager + Disciple = Death, especially when they don’t even have to pay for the damned things to put them into play and you can’t counter them when they do. Thank you, Aether Vial.

As I said before, banning a common is a much easier PR battle than banning a rare that most people paid $20 for. Leaving Ravager around doesn’t even kill the deck – you can still play Ravager Affinity if you want to, you’ll just play a less impressive version. Hell, the deck will still be good, it just won’t be ridiculous like it has been in both recent incarnations. Will it still see play at Regionals? Probably… it’s hard to believe there will be a better pure aggro deck in the field by then. In fact, there better not be, or we’ll be right back here next July, and I’ll be ranting and raving about some new problem.

What Would I Do?

Assuming that banning is warranted, and it probably is though there are reasonable arguments to the contrary, I’d give both cards the boot. If you don’t want to see maindeck Oxidizes as a deckbuilding necessity, the only way to make certain that occurs is to nuke the site from orbit. Ban Ravager and Disciple, make players switch back to Broodstar Affinity, and completely open up the Standard metagame to see what other decks out there might be good that simply can’t withstand the Ravager menace. People are ready for the break.

Merely banning Disciple would be a cute solution to a tough problem, but there’s a scary cloud hanging over that option: it might not work. If R&D were to ban Disciple and Ravager Affinity somehow still pulled in 30% of the slots at Regionals, they would have failed to solve a problem they directly targeted resulting in a much bigger black eye than not banning anything at all.

Just banning Ravager should fix the problem, but I’m not sure it will be enough to get rid of all the hate cards in the maindeck. Why leave the possibility lying around that someone will find four cards to replace Arcbound Ravager and Affinity will still dominate Standard for two straight years? The safe play is to ban both. Of course R&D doesn’t make the safe play that often, possibly because they have different goals in mind than most of us perceive, so what they will actually do on Wednesday is open for speculation.

Oh, and for those of you that asked why anyone would analyze the States or Regionals results as closely as Matt did this time and as much as I normally do, this is why. I would have had no clue there was still a problem if I hadn’t seen the numbers.

Two More Notes

While on the subject of Banned and Restricted lists, I don’t think anything will get the boot in Extended, though Ravager/Disciple should probably go on the watch list. It remains to be seen whether even that format has enough card power to keep this deck down when players are actually aiming at it. Null Rod is what keeps it from being ridiculous in Type One, and Extended doesn’t have that particular tool. Right now I’m not too worried about it, but come February I might be.

Speaking of Vintage, I’d say there’s a reasonable chance that Mishra’s Workshop will get restricted this time around. If I had more time to do a full analysis here, I would, but there have been strong indicators this summer that Workshop decks are a little too strong. The greater problem is that there are actually multiple flavors of Workshop decks and it is difficult to aim directly at one, even if you want to. Workshop Prison and Workshop Aggro require different plans to tackle, but both are capable of playing the dreaded turn 1 Trinisphere (perhaps the most unfun play in what is generally a fun environment), and both are also capable of faring extremely well at any particular Type One tournament.

Once again, I’m not sure this needs to happen, but I have heard rumblings that it may. It would certainly throw the Type One format into another spin cycle where 25% of the known metagame must scramble for something new to play, and shake up whatever the best deck is from week to week even more than it is now.

That’s all for now, kids. Chime in with your cries of hell and damnation in the forums, and I’ll attempt to weather the storm.

Ted Knutson

Teddy Card Game

Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2

P.S. I’ve been so busy in recent months that I’ve lost track of what I’ve linked, so if I’ve already posted this one, I apologize. If I haven’t, it was created by a buddy of mine from a picture of me holding a friend’s baby at an apple orchard, and it’s one of the funniest things I think I’ve ever seen. Except that it’s really creepy. Anyway, here it is:

Creepy as all hell, dawg