Sullivan Library: Ban the Right Cards!

We all have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen. Most likely Wizards of the Coast will ban all of the”engine” cards. People will loudly cry for the format to change, and Wizards will come through, like they (mostly) should. They will attempt to get rid of the problem decks that currently exist in the format with these bannings: Goblin Charbelcher, Tinker, Goblin Recruiter, Hermit Druid, and it’s always possible they might throw Chrome Mox into the mix as well.

But in doing so, they’ll just be making a mistake. They’ll be trying to cure the symptoms, but miss the disease.

In a few weeks, we can expect to hear from Wizards about what they intend to do about Extended. Whatever happens, these changes won’t hit until January, so we’ve got a few events to run”improved” versions of all of the Pro Tour decks, or simply send in checks to StarCityGames or our local shops and have them ship us the exact versions. After hearing back from a lot of the people at New Orleans about their experiences talking to Wizards people in the know, I have to say I’m not too excited about how Wizards is going to go about making their decision.

During Top 8 Coverage, we had an excited Randy Buehler talking about what”good Magic” we were witnessing in the Nassif/Yokosuka match. Good Magic. I know that when I think about great Magic Top 8 matches, I think about Bob Maher vs. Brian Davis. However maligned Brian’s play was in that match, he had many, many turns to recover it and take the win. I think of Tomi Walamies at Pro Tour: New Orleans a few years ago. I think of Mike Long and Mark Justice duking it out, with The Emperor ripping the match away from Darth Vader.

What I don’t think of as”good Magic” is stuff that was even possible before Mirrodin with Tinker. The Bob Maher/Gabriel Nassif match in the finals of the last Masters had almost nothing to do with the word”good.” Maher, on the back of an Ancient Tomb and a Grim Monolith, cast a turn 1 Metalworker. At the end of his second turn, he made a 10/10 Phyrexian Processor token (he didn’t need a Tinker to make that happen). On his third turn, he had made a Tangle Wire, attacked for ten, and had mana to make another 10/10.

That is not good Magic.

We all have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen. Most likely Wizards of the Coast will ban all of the”engine” cards. People will loudly cry for the format to change, and Wizards will come through, like they (mostly) should. They will attempt to get rid of the problem decks that currently exist in the format with these bannings (as MikeyP has predicted):

And it’s always possible they might throw Chrome Mox into the mix as well.

But in doing so, they’ll just be making a mistake. They’ll be trying to cure the symptoms, but miss the disease.

One of the problems, noted by 5-color legend Jacob”Danger” Janoska, is the size of the card pool:

“I think that the problem with Extended is the same problem that 5-Color faces: There are just too many good cards. Banning doesn’t really get you anywhere cause you just keep banning and banning. I think once the new rotation kicks in, things will calm down a bit, but you still have way too many cards to control.”

I agree with Jacob’s overall sentiment, but I don’t agree with the final conclusion. By banning”engine” cards, you just end up with new broken decks to take the place of the old decks. So what if you can’t Tinker out a huge Processor or Phyrexian Colossus if you can just cast it? Or if you can lock out the game with a turn 1 Tangle Wire and follow it up with a turn 3 Upheaval? If you can’t Tinker, but you can still Goblin Welder, only a single really abusive method to getting out a good card is removed.

Rob Dougherty makes a small complaint about how Wizards doesn’t take out the engine cards. Dark Ritual, in his mind, leaves the powerful cards alone, and takes out what is merely a popular”key” card.

Dark Ritual was a key card in all of the decks it was in because the fast mana was just too good. On the back of Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter was banned. Back in the Dark Ages of Constructed, a turn 1 Hypnotic Specter would often spell doom for the opponent. Your answers? Generally speaking, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, or Lightning Bolt. After that, you’d pray to get an answer. But would it have been so scary if the soonest it could come out is Turn 3?

The same thing happened with Trix. Necro/Donate was an absolutely insane deck back when Dark Ritual was around. Fast-forward to a little while after the deck was banned, and its returns were not as exciting. Certainly people were still winning with it, but even though the deck was overwhelmingly played (especially by most of the best players in the world), Grand Prixs were not overwhelmingly won by Trix. The deck was still incredibly good – maybe even too good, based on the power of Necropotence – but the power of the deck took a huge hit. My two best Dark Ritual decks, SuperNaught (Necro-Panda-Naught) and Corrupter Black (the Black deck that Slemr and Wise took to Top 8 at Worlds) has the”powerful effects” that Rob Dougherty was talking about in his brief comments from New Orleans. Yawgmoth’s Will is one of the most powerful effects ever, and Reanimate is one of the cards he mentions… But neither deck works without the fast mana.

Classically, there are two card types that can break the game: Fast mana and powerful card draw. Without much for abusive card draw in the current environment, I’m not going to focus on it.

Fast mana makes games happen too quickly. As games last fewer and fewer turns, the opportunity to actually have your strategic decisions impact the game approaches nil. Besides simply speeding up games, fast mana allows you to too easily”break” the actual cost of cards that has been designed into them. And probably most importantly, fast mana allows you to overcome one of the most basic checks on all craziness: counterspells.

It’s no surprise that when Force of Will went the way of the dodo that Tinker suddenly started doing better. With the fear of Force of Will, Tinker decks often became”turbo-nothing” decks. They’d explode in mana, and then have about 47% of their games against a control deck fall apart to a Force of Will. The time that a Force of Will bought would let Counterspell come on line.

A look at the Top 8 shows a lot of fast mana. Decks like Psychatog that wouldn’t normally want to throw away any cards are forced to use Chrome Mox whether they want to or not (and they mostly want to) just to have that chance at a Counterspell to nix Tinker’s start.

There has been a lot of talk about how there were twenty-eight (!) copies of the card Tinker in the Top 8. Certainly, this is true. What is also true is that there were twenty-eight copies of Grim Monolith. A quick glance at the statistics from the Pro Tour show that Tinker was played less than Chrome Mox, Grim Monolith, Ancient Tomb, and City of Traitors.

Rather than try to ban the engine cards – the Reanimates, the Tinkers, the Recruiters – I think it’s better to hit the cards that make all of the engine cards run so quickly.

My Suggestions for Banning:

This set of bannings would take out almost all of the most abusive openings that are possible. If you want fast mana, you’re going to have to find yourself looking at cards that debilitate your mana base if the game lasts. Syvelunite Temple and Saprazzan Skerry. Mox Diamond. Skirk Prospector. Crystal Vein. All of the pure early game acceleration is going to cost you. Certainly, you can get a”fast” draw with a Mox Diamond to get a turn 1 Tinker. After you cast it, though, all you’ll have only one card in play – the card you Tinkered for. Not too exciting.

Goblin-combo decks get slowed down, typically by a full turn. Certainly they can get faster draws, but they aren’t all that likely.

All of the combo decks become open to easier disruption. Wasteland and Rishadan Port both become reasonable disruption. Duress and Cabal Therapy have an effect on the game. Without the huge fear of being double-threated because of a huge mana burst, Counterspell gets a shot at play again, as well as Mana Leak. Even better yet, with a slower format that isn’t so abundant in mana, even Force Spike will be quite common.

Some might argue that”Tinker is still fast mana,” but this doesn’t hold up under careful scrutiny. Tinkering away almost any artifact other than Mox Diamond or Seat of Synod costs a fair amount of mana. Tinker costs three mana, and most other worthy targets to sacrifice cost two or more. At a cost of five for both spells, Tinker is a fairly safe spell. Certainly you can get a spell that costs more than that five… But when you might actually see decks with Counterspell in them, there is a much greater risk. Suddenly, playing Tinker becomes interesting strategically, much like playing Secret Force. In those games where you do Tinker away a free artifact, there are other costs. Losing a land drop by sacking Seat is not insignificant when there isn’t fast mana. Losing a Mox Diamond makes Tinker a risky potential three-for-one with a Counterspell.

Without the fast mana, where is the scary, consistent combo deck? Certainly there are draws that can do great things, but the decks that build for them are incredibly inconsistent. Where are the Charbelcher and Tinker decks? How do they compete against a field that would include even normal non-combo Goblins, The Rock, and Counterspell?

Of course, this won’t happen.

Instead, we’ll get to play against other decks that figure out how to abuse the fast mana. I’ve already got some great ideas of what I’ll want to play when the likely bannings come through… But I’m hoping that I’m completely wrong about how Wizards will work things out. Maybe, just maybe a few of the choice comments I gave to Worth Wollpert will have prompted R&D to just try building Tinker without the traditional fast mana. Maybe they’ll have tried it on their own. Maybe the world actually is a good place. And to paraphrase Aaron Souders, maybe Santa Claus really is real, and we live in a world where gumdrops and candy canes fall like rain.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Adrian Sullivan

Want me to write about something? Throw me a line at adrianlsullivan at yahoo dot com. If enough people are interested or if your topic seems cool, it’s pretty likely I’ll turn it into an article.