Legacy: Reviewing Bans and Restrictions

It has been two years (eight Banned/Restricted cycles after the format was created), and the Legacy banned list has not decreased in size. There are a few cards with very strong arguments for unbanning, and some with more ambiguous positions. However, the DCI has not indicated that they are even considering modifying the list.

On September 1st, 2004, the DCI made a very important change to the banned and restricted lists of what would later be called the “Eternal” formats. The format known as “Type 1.5” ceased to exist, and a new format was created in its place – one with more independence and arguably more balance – that would later be named “Legacy.” This format no longer had to suffer being tied inextricably to “Type 1” in a primitive B/R arrangement, but received its own list. To some players, this change represented a harsh and insensitive destruction of a format, but for others like myself, it was very exciting. It was clear from the beginning that Wizards had a lot of hope for this new format. In some ways, it seemed to resemble old Extended, but it would become evident that the formats were quite different. It was also apparent that there was potential for Wizards to take advantage of the rapidly growing interest in older formats, and possibly support this format professionally. Many powerful and fun cards were legal, the card pool was enormous, and it was completely unexplored! For experienced deckbuilders, this was very good news indeed.

Even more good news followed. Wizards announced that they would be scheduling two Grand Prixes in the Legacy format. Interest was high for these tournaments, but it declined after they were over, and no more tournaments were scheduled. It seems logical to conclude that Wizards was disappointed in the turnout and/or composition of these tournaments.

I anxiously monitored all the information about the format, including the secondary market, player response online, and any relevant announcements by Wizards or the DCI. After the pressure was off for Legacy to support a professional environment, I had hoped that the DCI would allow some new cards to enter the format.

Having played Vintage for a few years, I was well aware of the improving policies of the DCI, and its changing approach to managing older formats. I strongly agree with their conservative approach to changing the B/R lists, but it is clear that the DCI has different goals about the ultimate form of the lists. My position is shared by many other Eternal players, and it is a relatively logical one – that the lists should be as short as possible. (Taken to the extreme, this ideal has even prompted some players to suggest introducing the counterintuitive idea of banning into Vintage, in the hope that such action would enable more unrestrictions). In the case of Vintage, this means that powerful cards should be relied upon to counteract and balance each other, rather than DCI action being used to control the format. Dissatisfaction with the DCI has largely originated in allowing cards to remain on the restricted list for far too long (some of it does come from restrictions, such as the one in March 2005).

It is one of the jobs of the DCI to determine what the correct B/R decisions are for every format, but for obvious financial reasons Vintage is not a high priority. The methods that the DCI has used to make their decisions regarding Vintage are not well understood (at least by me), and in recent years it has been somewhat unsettling to learn that players’ vocal response plays as large a role as it does. However, things are definitely “good” right now for Vintage, and the DCI has significantly raised its standing in the minds of Vintage players in the last couple of years. (There are several things that we appreciate. One is finally getting Portal – this is very exciting and fun for us. Another is taking off some cards that were banned in different times, like Braingeyser and Fork. Aaron Forsythe‘s discussion of DCI action is also very important to the community. We hope you continue this process.)

I mention my experiences with Vintage because it is the only thing comparable to what is currently happening with Legacy. Since it was created, the DCI has not taken any action regarding Legacy (Mark Gottlieb’s controversial interpretations notwithstanding).

It has been two years (eight B/R cycles after the format was created), and the Legacy banned list has not decreased in size. There are a few cards with very strong arguments for unbanning, and some with more ambiguous positions. However, the DCI has not indicated that they are even considering modifying the list. (As Eternal players have seen in recent years, there are several avenues for the DCI to talk about these decisions, including the DCI announcements, Ask Wizards, Rosewater & Forsythe’s columns, certain noted forums, and even emails to players themselves.) I think it’s time that Legacy players spoke up and asked about the Legacy banned list and about what Wizards has planned for this format.

In my opinion, there are only two positive choices for the future of Legacy. The first is that Wizards can attempt to popularize Legacy again by offering prize support for tournaments, but I think this may be impractical for financial reasons. The second, and this depends somewhat on the first not occurring, is that the DCI will allow several cards to come off of the banned list, so that the format can advance. The alternative is for Legacy to remain indefinitely an underdeveloped format.

Last year, when the Grand Prixes were on the horizon, the stability of Legacy was understandably valued by Wizards. The DCI’s inaction during this time period makes sense considering the goals of the GP experiments. However, now that Legacy is on par with Vintage in many ways, it is an appropriate time for the DCI to start cleaning up the B/R list.

The obvious danger in this process is the potential for unbalancing the format. However, if the DCI adopts a policy similar (and hopefully more rigorous) to that used with Vintage, conservative and staggered unbannings would produce positive results for the format.

One frustrating aspect of the B/R list is the way that cards arrive there in the first place. I noted before that the DCI is much less preoccupied with taking cards off of the list than many Eternal magic players are, but are appropriately interested in putting them there. This policy is not necessarily the best thing for a format. As Aaron Forsythe mentioned recently, sometimes it is hard to separate the truly broken elements of a deck from the acceptable ones when it is very successful. Important examples of this phenomenon are the decks based around Necropotence and Tolarian Academy. These decks justified changes to the B/R, but the cards chosen for action were not necessarily part of the problem, and their proximity to the problematic elements created confusion. Vintage and Legacy are still suffering from these fears, as there are cards on both lists for these arguably unjustifiable reasons. There are also some additional problems, such as rules issues or card availability, but I will not address those in this article.

In considering cards for unbanning, it is useful to examine what decks currently exist in the format. That way, a more logical approach can be taken in considering the potential deckbuilding changes that would occur. If a card does not affect the top tier of the format, then there is probably little danger in unbanning it. These B/R changes should be made in the near future. However, if a card could affect the top tier, it is still possible for such a change to be beneficial for the format. This is a much harder conclusion to support, and the DCI should definitely wait to consider these cards until more obvious ones have been returned.

For the sake of comparison, I will briefly describe the top tier of the format. The three best decks in the format are Goblins, Solidarity, and Threshold. Goblins and Solidarity can usually win around turn 4. Threshold is slower, but its cards are consistent and efficient. Together, these three decks contain some of the strongest cards in the format. The following is a list of commonly played cards in the top decks of the format (these three plus a few others):

Goblin Lackey
Aether Vial
Dark Ritual
High Tide
Force of Will
Swords to Plowshares
Rishadan Port
Meddling Mage
Goblin Piledriver

These are very strong cards. Some of them have been banned or rotated out of smaller formats for significant power concerns. However, they coexist in Legacy very well; actually there are many arguably stronger cards that see far less play. As I am generally proposing in this article, Legacy can handle (and even needs) the addition of some currently banned cards. To give you an even better idea of just how resilient Legacy is, here are some cards that are unbanned in Legacy, yet are not commonly present in the top tier of decks:

Lion’s Eye Diamond
Lotus Petal
Mox Diamond
Chrome Mox
Ancient Tomb
City of Traitors
Grim Tutor
Mystical Tutor
Enlightened Tutor
Fact or Fiction
Hymn to Tourach
Lightning Bolt
Cursed Scroll
Umezawa’s Jitte
Nevinyrral’s Disk
Survival of the Fittest
Voltaic Key
Disciple of the Vault
Arcbound Ravager
Goblin Welder

The cards on this second list, while potentially more powerful as the ones on the first, are less frequently played, and clearly do not pose a threat to the stability of the format. Many of these cards are restricted in Vintage and have been banned or rotated out of other formats for having degenerate interactions with cards there – but as you can see, the change in the environments makes a huge difference. Legacy is different enough that these cards are safe, and allow deckbuilders much more freedom to develop and respond to the environment.

Legacy already has a huge amount of existing decks. Once you move past the top tier of decks, their power level becomes very close together. There is little danger in adding cards at the highest level if it will diversify the best decks in the format and add complexity. The top decks of the format are strong enough to consistently defeat decks that try to abuse the list of very powerful cards above. It is my hope that the top tier of the format will accept many more decks through unbannings.

I will talk about what I consider the most important candidates for unbanning. The first two are the most agreed upon.

1. Mind Over Matter

This card doesn’t even do anything in Legacy. Academy has been banned forever. Look at the decks that are winning Legacy tournaments – they wouldn’t even notice if this got unbanned.

2. Land Tax

Unlike Mind Over Matter, this card might see play in Legacy. It could also spawn a viable control deck – something that does not exist in Legacy at the moment. It is my opinion that the DCI deliberately sought to focus Legacy on creatures when they created it, and this effort was successful. Land Tax is an unfortunate side effect of this strategy, one that should be remedied now in order to allow the possibility of a successful Control deck. However, the viability of Control is still very much in debate, even in the event of this card being unbanned. Building a deck to take advantage of this resource requires significant tempo investment – a dangerous proposition at best in Legacy.

These next two cards are less obvious, but I still consider them good candidates for unbanning. One reason why I have confidence in these cards is that Force of Will and Swords to Plowshares exert strong pressure on the environment.

3. Entomb

Reanimator and Ichorid are inconsistent decks in Legacy. This card gives fragile combo a small boost, but in order to be successful, it would have to be better than the combo that exists now, and this is unlikely. Additionally, graveyard hate is very common due to Threshold and Ill-Gotten Gains, so a deck using Entomb would have even more pressure from non-combo decks.

Even if this deck were good in the format, its effect would be to reduce the prevalence of goblins and allow control more room to enter the format, which I would consider to be diversification of the top tier.

4. Hermit Druid

Similar arguments apply to Hermit Druid. The combo process of this deck is easy to disrupt, as is the threat at the end. The top tier would not have much trouble overcoming another fragile combo deck – whether in its current form, or one in which control plays a more significant role.

In different environments, these next two cards were quite powerful. However, as I have emphasized before, Legacy is unlike any environment that has previously existed. It is an entirely different game to Vintage, and has much less in common with old Extended than it appears. Most of the powerful cards from those two formats are banned, yet the best decks in Legacy are still fast and consistent.

5. Replenish

This was the central card in one of the strongest combo decks in all of Urza Block Standard. It made Top 4 at Worlds 2000. The deck was updated in Extended to include the Pandemonium/Saproling Burst combo (with Frantic Search and Demonic Consultation). However, as I have emphasized before, this deck existed in a much different environment. Other decks that existed in that season were: Trix (with Necropotence and Vampiric Tutor), Tinker (with Tinker and Mana Vault), Turboland (with Gush), and Oath (with Oath of Druids). These eight cards were on the original banned list in September 2004. Legacy is so different from that format that Replenish would be another combo deck struggling (and failing) to overcome the cheap disruption that defines Legacy.

6. Grim Monolith

On my above lists of powerful unbanned cards, you will see several mana accelerants that are much more powerful than Grim Monolith – yet this card remains banned. Combo decks have much better options than this, and I doubt this would make any difference there.

The only other archetype that could be affected by this card is Prison. I have been developing Stax in Legacy for a long time now, and I am familiar with its limitations and weaknesses. I have considered the possible benefits of using this card, and I doubt that it would cause problems for the environment. I can see how the DCI might be intimidated by last year’s Vintage Stax issues with Trinisphere, but the environments are so different that they are just incomparable decisions. Legacy is missing many cards that made Trinisphere a problem in Vintage, and has many more that alleviate it. Without real artifact acceleration, Workshops, or Strip Mine, Trinisphere is much less threatening. Legacy Stax has difficulty overcoming the early development and cheap disruption that many decks play – such as Aether Vial, Daze, and Wasteland. Grim Monolith is not substantially better than Lotus Petal with the cards currently played in Stax, and I think many Stax builds would even choose not to run it.

Finally, I want to discuss what I consider to be an inconsistency in the B/R list, even though it is motivated by concerns for format stability. I mentioned before a list of unbanned cards that are not heavily played. On that list are these cards:

Enlightened Tutor
Mystical Tutor
Grim Tutor

To experienced Legacy players, it is recognized that these cards are fair in the format. However, someone without the benefit of experience would look at Vintage and old Extended and possibly come up with a different conclusion. The DCI was not worried enough to ban these cards initially, but they were worried enough to ban another, very similar card:

Vampiric Tutor

As is obvious from this analysis, I am suggesting that Vampiric Tutor’s place on the B/R list may be undeserved. I am not asking for Vampiric Tutor to be unbanned, although I don’t think it’s out of the question. I do think it is worth considering, at least to understand why it is on the list. Mystical, Enlightened, and Grim Tutor already get the most broken cards in the format – but all the really “broken” cards are banned. This comparison is pretty important, since there isn’t really anything you would want to get with Vamp that you can’t already get. The only advantage to Vampiric Tutor is increased versatility. Considering the level of play that the legal tutors see, it is fair to say that Vampiric Tutor is not necessarily degenerate in Legacy.

However, if this still seems like too much of a change, there is an intermediate step – reprint and unban Imperial Seal.

Vampiric Tutor is comparable to Mystical Tutor because they are both instants. However, Imperial Seal being a sorcery makes a huge difference, one that might even make it worse than Mystical Tutor. If an available Seal were legal in Legacy, it would be a much smaller risk than Vampiric Tutor, and a demonstration of its fairness might even allow Vampiric Tutor to re-enter the format at some time in the future. The only problem with reprinting Seal is its power level in smaller formats. P3K flavor issues are not a problem, as evidenced by the recent tenth edition poll.

If you share my concerns about Legacy, please write to Wizards and/or the DCI about these issues. I am hoping they will have some things to say soon about the future of the format.

Christopher Coppola
Machinus @ The Mana Drain, The Source, StarCityGames, and Gmail