The Real Reasons Cards Get Banned

It goes without saying that some of the banned cards were oppressive, but that’s not the whole story. Ben Friedman provides excellent insight on why these bans happened beyond the obvious!

Rogue Refiner is banned.

Attune with Aether is banned.

Ramunap Ruins is banned.

Rampaging Ferocidon is banned.

In the past thirteen months, we have seen more cards banned in Standard
than in the previous thirteen years. The times are a-changing, and
these four offenders join Emrakul, the Promised End, Reflector Mage,
Smuggler’s Copter, Felidar Guardian, and Aetherworks Marvel as (hopefully)
the last vestiges of a cascading series of design and development problems
that created over a year of suboptimal competitive Standard environments.
Fortunately, the new Standard looks to be an exciting and comparatively
fertile environment for brewing up great decks, and a number of previously
suboptimal strategies are going to be back in a big way in the next few
months. Unfortunately, each ban comes with its own toxic fallout, and this
past year has eroded confidence in Standard, Wizards, and Magic as a whole
as ban after ban failed to fix the problems with the format.

Now, not every Standard format over the last decade has been fun, diverse,
and dynamic. Plenty of examples abound of Standard formats with overpowered
cards and archetypes, but since the Affinity debacle, only Jace, the Mind
Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic actually got hit with the proverbial
banhammer. What gives? Were Thoughtseize and Pack Rat okay? Was Collected
Company fair? Was Umezawa’s Jitte acceptable? Was Siege Rhino a normal part
of a healthy format? Was Bloodbraid Elf just dandy? Splinter Twin was
banned in Modern, but the Standard version of the deck was just fine? What
about Snapcaster Mage, a truly overpowered card for the ages? Bitterblossom
and Ancestral Vision were both completely unfair cards that polarized
matchups and pushed Faeries well above all its competition. Why were those
cards not banned? It behooves us to ask: What has changed to necessitate
such a massive wave of bans? Is this past year so beyond the pale that it
demanded this type of action, or were the repeated slaps in the faces of
folks who invested in their various Standard decks not really necessary?

Of course, there is no single simple cause to blame for this year’s
bannings when compared to past offenders in Standard, but a number of
contributing factors each bear some responsibility. Let’s dissect them one
by one.

A Changing Philosophy

We like to avoid having to solve problems by banning cards, as that
leads to a culture of fear. We certainly don’t want people to start
believing that all the good cards they own are in the crosshairs of the
DCI. With that in mind, can you imagine the weird backlash that would
happen if we banned artifact lands? Most players that aren’t into the
tournament scene would have no idea at all why we did this. Tree of
Tales is banned?! It’s one of the most powerful cards ever?! Are you
kidding me?! While it would certainly solve the problem on the top end,
it would alienate and confuse people elsewhere.”

-Aaron Forsythe, “December Bannings, or Lack Thereof”, December 3, 2004.

It seems that some of Wizards’ Modern banned list philosophy has spilled
over into Standard. When there are single archetypes at the forefront of
the format and no way to consistently prey on them, and they stifle the
diversity of the rest of the format, they are at risk of getting hit with a
ban. This is a criterion satisfied by Mono-Black Devotion at points during
2013-2014, Faeries in early 2009, Jund in late 2009, Four-Color Rally
during 2015, and Delver in 2012. Back then, though, the banning philosophy
was still a lot more “hands-off” than it is now, where the paramount factor
was not to upset folks who invested hard-earned money into their deck of
choice. Wizards did not want to upset their entrenched, enfranchised
players, their most loyal customers, even at the cost of a monotonous
Standard format.

With the introduction of Modern and the shift of enfranchised, invested
players from Standard to Modern, the hottest format in Magic started to
exert its influence over the rest of the game. Now, Wizards is a bit more
free to meddle with Standard because of the reduced pressure on it as a
competitive format, and Modern-think has spread into managing Standard bans
as well. Cards like Splinter Twin, Gitaxian Probe, Stoneforge Mystic, Jace,
the Mind Sculptor, Bloodbraid Elf, and Preordain are all perfectly on-par
with the power level of things like Mox Opal, Urza’s Tower, Snapcaster
Mage, and Thoughtseize, as well as linears like Dredge and Storm. Even
cards as powerful as Birthing Pod, Green Sun’s Zenith, and Seething Song
could probably rejoin Modern without ruining the format. However, all of
the banned cards have either committed the cardinal sin of being part of
top-tier decks with no true predators (Twin, Pod, Bloodbraid), or they have
been a part of a deck that reduces the format’s diversity through being a
component of a powerful linear strategy (Gitaxian Probe, Seething Song,
Preordain). Modern has, for better or for worse, an active-ban philosophy,
and where past Standard formats were governed by a passive, last-resort-ban
philosophy, now active banning is the flavor du jour. But an active-ban
philosophy is not in and of itself going to lead to bans; it merely
indicates willingness to take action when there is a justifiable
opportunity to do so. The next two factors have led to an increased
appetite for bans, and they both stem from the same massively disruptive
element that has changed society in general so dramatically over the last
three years.

Big Data

But in the past three months R&D and the DCI have been reminded
that Magic is not a series of balanced equations, spreadsheets of Top 8
results and data of card frequencies. Magic is a game played by human
beings that want to have fun.”

-Aaron Forsythe, “Eight Plus One”, March 4, 2005.

Let’s take a look at some matchup data on Temur Energy gathered from
Magic Online Competitive Leagues. This chart is representative of what
we’ve seen throughout the season, slicing the data in different ways
and taking samples across time.”

-Ian Duke, January 15, 2018.

In this chart, the percentages are how often Ramunap Red defeats the
deck in the second column. Notice that Ramunap Red has positive
matchups against the entire field except Temur Energy and Red-Green
Pummeler. In fact, Ramunap Red’s non-mirror, non-Temur match win
percentage in this format is a staggering 60%. For comparison,
historically the best deck in a late-season format settles to around
52-53% against the field.”

-Ian Duke, January 15, 2018.

Big Data has become a buzzword of sorts in many circles over the past few
years, and for good reason. The abundance of huge, easily-analyzed data
sets presents opportunities to see previously unknowable patterns and make
decisions accordingly. Whether it’s a growing trend in the number of Google
searches for a certain trending topic or a frighteningly high win
percentage for a Standard deck, this type of massive data set is taking
over the world, and Magic is no exception. Wizards uses Magic Online data
to drive their bans now. It’s that simple. If a deck has a large metagame
representation and no predator, it is reasonably likely to get hit. If a
deck has a large metagame representation and only one predator (as was the
case with Ramunap Red), it is somewhat likely to get hit preemptively
alongside its one predator. Neither Temur Energy nor Ramunap Red was
completely destroyed, as was the goal with many previous Standard bans.
Neither of these decks was linear on an unfair axis or required the field
to warp in an unreasonable or unnatural way to attack them. No, the data
just showed that they were the best, and there was no true natural predator
nor was there likely to be one in the next few sets, so Temur and Mono-Red
each took a moderate hit to their power level. This is the new normal.

When reading Ian Duke’s well-reasoned explanation of the bans, compared to
articles of years past discussing Standard bans, the focus seems to be
aimed squarely at win percentages derived from Magic Online data, and far
less at the subjective feeling of how “fun” or “unfun” a deck feels. The
increase in the adoption of large data sets in determining what is “too
good” has led to a more algorithmic, less heuristic-based method of
deciding on when and what to ban. The combination of a more trigger-happy
banning philosophy spilling over from Modern and this big data to
impartially determine when a deck has crossed the threshold from “good” to
“too good” is certainly enough reason to explain about four or five of the
nine cards banned this past year. But Aaron Forsythe’s appeal to fun is not
without merit nor has it been completely disregarded in the rush to embrace
data. On the contrary, certain new ways for R&D to interact with their
customers have streamlined the process by which the people in charge stay
informed of public sentiment regarding their formats.

Twitter Banned These Cards

Never before in the history of post-industrial humanity have creators of
product been so easily able to interface with their customers and get
immediate feedback whenever they solicit it. Never before have objectively
insignificant individuals been able to voice their opinions on a public
platform that brings their words to potentially thousands of other
individuals, and never before have individuals been able to influence
crowds with no other qualifications or vetting than an email address and a
strong opinion. Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Reddit) have
changed the landscape of how people interact with one another and how
corporations interact with their clientele. Now, a simple angry Tweet can
go viral and damage a company’s reputation, so corporations are
increasingly attuned to their social media presence, and occasionally the
feedback from their presence in the world of social media dictates policy.
Consider the story of United Airlines, which faced a huge social media
backlash after forcibly removing David Dao from an airplane earlier this
year. The public outcry (largely driven by social media) drove them to
reformulate their policy surrounding offering passengers compensation for
overbooked flights. In the 1990s, such an event would never have made that
kind of impact, but social media has a way of latching onto and magnifying
certain unsavory occurrences.

The same is true for Magic. When a deck is overpowered, Twitter provides a
platform for a few people to complain, then to garner retweets, favorites,
and replies, and start to build momentum. Where in 2005 this type of
complaint was reduced to angry forum posts that had a cap on who could see
them, and in 2010 even an angry Facebook post often wouldn’t spread past a
user’s direct friends list, by 2015 an incensed player could hope to garner
enough retweets that everyone even peripherally involved with Magic ended
up seeing something about the topic. Twitter sensationalizes, magnifies,
and exacerbates, turning a few isolated embers of discontent into a
wildfire of incensed customers. It’s a common use case for Twitter that a
person sees an angry Tweet and thinks, “Hey, other people are also angry
about this! I’m not alone! I should express my discontent also!” This kind
of multiplicative effect does make a difference in Wizards’
perception of public sentiment, despite their best efforts to remain
objective, impartial, and fact-driven in their judgment of what to ban or
not to ban. Ian Duke and the rest of the people in charge of the banning
policy are smart folks, and I have no doubt that they recognize the echo
chamber effect of Twitter, but the human brain (and make no mistake, the
folks in that boardroom are human, with human foibles) is wired in
such a way that Twitter can make an issue seem especially urgent. The rise
of social media contributes to the predisposition towards action over
inaction, and the banning policy reflects that. It’s not necessarily a bad
thing, but it does mark a distinct change from past precedent.

Of course, the bans in and of themselves are sensible. The specific
quantity and choices of cards may be a bit surprising, but the facts laid
out in Ian Duke’s article are indisputable. The salient point to keep in
mind, though, is that it pays to keep eyes on social media in the weeks
leading up to a B&R announcement. The squeaky wheel gets the grease,
and the angry Tweet gets the banning. Death’s Shadow and Deathrite Shaman:
you’d better get to work on building up your social media presence and hope
that your disproportionately high win percentages online escape the
watchful eye of R&D, because you could be next!