About half-way through the Extended season, the Necro-Donate deck emerged and caused quite a shift in the environment, as you may know. This reputed unstoppable combo deck and its ilk led to the banning of Dark Ritual and Mana Vault in the extended format, also as you may know. It is my assumption that this banning, while effective, was nonetheless the incorrect choice and that there were other measures or bannings that could have resulted in similar changes without the martyring of several established archetypes.
While some have ranted and raved about what should and should not be banned, I believe that the best way to look at the matter is to examine all of the possibilities and their consequences. In case you haven’t already seen it, here is the official explanation for the Extended bannings:
“In considering the Extended format, we took into account the proliferation of certain combo decks, such as the increasingly popular Necro-Donate deck. Data was analyzed from Pro Tour(TM) – Chicago, recent Qualifier tournaments and Grand Prix events. Although many cards were considered (including Necropotence, Donate, and Demonic Consultation), it was decided that it was more important to deal with the core of the problem: fast mana. Dark Ritual and Mana Vault both provide mana too easily, allowing certain combo decks to win much too quickly. Removing these two cards from the environment allows combo decks to exist, but decreases the speed at which they can win, balancing the decks in relation to the rest of the field. This decision also allows other interesting, balanced deck types to exist within the format.”
In this explanation, the DCI clearly labels that out of the parts of a combo deck, the searching power (Demonic Consultation), the fast mana (Dark Ritual), the combo itself (Donate), and the card drawing engine (Necropotence), that they chose the fast mana to be the”core of the problem”. Now, let us look at what would occur if other parts of the combo were found to be the”core of the problem”.
1. Ban Necropotence. Out of all the suggestions, this was the one that was voiced the loudest. This card always appears as the foundation of a well-played deck in any format where it is legal. Were it banned, then Necropotence as a deck would be destroyed and combo decks would lose their card drawing engine. Combo decks were present before Necro-Donate, yet they did not dominate the format as greatly (with the exceptions of High Tide, Academy, and Jar, due to the unbalanced cards they used). With Dark Ritual and Mana Vault still legal, combo decks would be possible, with the Necro-Donate deck still being a powerful archetype. Past history tells us, however, that a combo deck cannot dominate, no matter how many tutors or fast mana sources, without a way of drawing at least 5-7 cards a turn. Whether the engine be Time Spiral, Necropotence, Memory Jar, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, or Argothian Enchantress, a deadly combo deck MUST draw many cards in one turn. Without Necropotence, the creature swarm decks would stand a great chance of outrunning the combo, while the combo would be fast enough to stand a chance against the swarm decks. Although the DCI has stated that it believes fast mana is the real problem, there still remains a question of sympathy towards Necropotence. Whenever people think of extended, many think of dual lands and Necro. People, in general, love to play Necro and it remains one of the most popular deck types in constructed and most players’ favorite deck. Doesn’t it seem strange that whenever Necro leaves a format, it is always because of reprinting choices and rotations? Doesn’t it seem likely that a card that is that powerful should be too good in some format? It is possible that the DCI and Wizards are being lenient on Necropotence for various political reasons and that the card is being shown a sort of favoritism by the Powers That Be. But, that sounds more like conspiracy talk and is merely one theory.
2. Ban Donate. Donate is the key to the combo. Without it, Illusions of Grandeur would be a dollar rare again. There are other cards that can exchange permanents and the like, but they would be too specific and not really viable. Necro-Pebbles would probably once again take the title of top extended deck, which although good, did not dominate the field as Necro-Donate did. The field, it would seem, would probably be somewhat like before Necro-Donate. Why, then, was Donate not banned? The best answer is that there are probably combos in the making, unbeknownst to players, that would benefit too greatly from the fast mana/Necro base engine. This engine still being legal, any number of combos could emerge, and one maybe even better than Necro-Donate.
3. Ban Illusions of Granduer. This was the card that gave the Necro-Donate deck its true power–the fact that the combo and card drawing included the player gaining 20 more life. Swarm decks are built around dealing 20 points of damage, not 40 or 60. The combo was so good because a person could Necro down very low, cast an Illusions, draw a ton of cards, and be ready to kill creatures/counter threats/push the combo through next turn. If that wasn’t enough, since the combo was blue, Force of Will could now be included. If Illusions were banned, this combo would end, but unfortunately Forbidden Crypt would easily take its place. While the life gain is not present in this version, it would most likely prove to still be too good.
Ban Mana Vault and Dark Ritual. This was what the DCI chose to sacrifice, the fast mana sources. The problem here is that it is not the fast mana that is the problem, but the types and number of mana. A combo with 8 rituals is broken, but one with only 4 isn’t so consistent. Dark Ritual also provides 3 black, making a first-turn Necropotence possible. If Dark Ritual were banned, Mana Vault does not have to be. Decks such as Suicide Brown, Sneak Attack, Fruity Pebbles, Foster, etc. would still be possible and the combo decks centered around Necropotence would be hurt just the same, while still being fast enough to be viable. As it is, these decks, along with any Hatred, Pox, or black control variants all suffer the fate of been possible, but not viable. Decks that were already very good, like Counter Sliver, Recurring/Survival, and Oath of Druids, would demolish versions not sporting Dark Ritual or Mana Vault.
There also remains an inconsistency along with the chosen banning of Dark Ritual. Think about Phyrexian Negator, Necropotence, Karevak’s Spite, Lurking Evil, Pox, and even Parallax Nexus. What do they all have in common? They all cost three mana, many of which cost three black mana. Why do other colors not have as many spells costing just three colored mana, or so many such cards even costing thee mana? Wizards R&D has obviously built a good deal of black’s cards with the intention of them being cast with the aid of Dark Ritual. Why then would they choose to damage a color based around one card so much? If black does not depend on Dark Ritual so much, then why has every black deck been able to run four of them in every format since the beginning of the game?
To those of you that do not believe that Dark Ritual is even a black ability, that maybe green should have it, we must go back to Alpha, when each color had an instant that produced 3 of something for the cost of one colored mana. White was used for protection, prevention, and life gain, so it got Healing Salve. Green was used for huge creatures, so it got Giant Growth. Blue was used for drawing cards and countering spells, so it got Ancestral Recall. Red was used for quick creatures and direct damage, so it got Lightning Bolt. Black was used for trading other resources, such as life and creatures, for other resources at a cost, so it got Dark Ritual. In effect, you were trading a card for two free black mana. While most people would say that black’s abilities involve the graveyard, they still revolve around the exchange of resources. Even Raise Dead is a mere trade of cards for creatures. Saying Dark Ritual is not a black spell is like saying Cadaverous Bloom or Skirge Familiar isn’t partially a black spell, either.
The last area of these bannings that should be addressed is the letters written in response. As in the case of”An Open Letter to the DCI” on the Dojo, it just shows that immaturity and lack of common sense can exist even in a game of high skill and intelligence such as Magic. Just because you may have an opinion does not give you the right to make a complete idiot out of yourself or others by insulting people or companies in public forums. The best way to handle your complaints are to explain them in a logically correct and sane manner, as I have tried to do. Sense and soft words usually carry further than loud and obscene insults to those that care or can change things. The DCI and R&D have to make choices all of the time that someone somewhere will not agree with and they will have to take the blame. Keep in mind that it was players that produced the situation where something needed to changed, by first developing Necro-based decks and then a majority of people trying to play them. Insulting the DCI is like insulting the highway patrolman for giving you a ticket for being caught going 75 in a 55. So please, before you decide to start slinging a swear words around, think about what you are saying and how others will respond to it.
In closing, I would like to summarize this article by saying that I believe that either Necropotence, Donate, or Dark Ritual should have been banned, and not both Dark Ritual and Mana Vault. Out of these, I believe the one that would have solved the problem would have been banning Donate, and then preventing further combos better than Donate-Illusions from being printed. But, I don’t claim to know the best answer, I merely try to guess at it. I apologize if I haven’t said anything new in this article–I wrote it about a week and a half ago, but my computer crashed and the file was lost about two minutes before I sent it off last time and I haven’t gotten around to re-writing it. I plan on writing several articles in the next few weeks explaining the playtesting that my friends and I have done in Standard over the past few months and hopefully aid others in preparing for the upcoming Regionals here. Our playtesting has been covering every major deck type, in both general standard and JSS standard, so I hope to cover everything that I can.
Once again, thank you for reading.
Commander Jason Rose il-Vec
“Ban everything until Necro is good again, then ban Dark Ritual.”
–The DCI and Wizards of the Coast 😉