Unlocking Legacy – VoroshStill and the Philosophy of the Ban List

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Monday, June 9th – The new banned and restricted list announcement shook up Vintage but left Legacy unscathed. Kevin looks at the philosophy of the banning arguments, and asks readers to take another look at a Legacy deck.

A. VoroshStill, or “When Did Standstill become good again?”

First, no updates on the Threshold build I posted at the end of my article last month. I have been fed up with Threshold for a little while now; I felt that you had too far to go to win your bad matchups. You potentially have a lot of trouble with more aggressive decks, even with the Worships I sideboarded. My local tournaments have a lot of developed decks, but they tend towards aggressive strategies and decks like Ichorid. I combined this with a belief that Pernicious Deed is the best card in Legacy right now, and I wanted to play something UBG. I talked to friends and scoured the net, narrowing my options to Dan Spero VoroshStill and David Gearheart’s It’s The Fear. VoroshStill has Standstill, Wasteland, and Mishra’s Factories; It’s The Fear has Intuition-Loam, Vedalken Shackles, and Swords to Plowshares. Based on the sturdier manabase and a perceived better resistance to early game assaults, I picked up VoroshStill and started to get ready for my tournament. Basically, I’m sick and tired of building decks that ramp up to their mana for Intuition only to get Dazed and beaten down by Tarmogoyfs. The list I ran was the exact list Bardo sent me, with a Tormod’s Crypt subbing for the 3rd Extirpate in the sideboard:

I wanted to swap the 4th Counterspell for the 4th Counterbalance; Counterbalance is just too good not to. I have recommended the exact change to friends who had the same Counterspell/Counterbalance makeup. I ended up not making the swap because I didn’t know the list, and in hindsight, I’m glad I did not. Most of the time, you want all the Counterbalances you can find, but not in a Pernicious Deed deck. Some argue that the two cards do not belong in the same deck, but they absolutely do. Pernicious Deed will win you more games than you lose by losing an extra card to Pernicious Deed. Most of the time Counterbalance forces your opponent to over-commit, making Pernicious Deed better. The main problem with the 4th Counterbalance is when you face an opposing Tarmogoyf. Probably the most common occurrence in testing and games is your opponent resolving an early Tarmogoyf and you not having the removal spell. In this deck (and probably It’s The Fear as well, with only 2 more Swords to Plowshares), you basically have two options. The first is that you waste an Engineered Explosives or Pernicious Deed on it, and you will take a few hits in the meantime while you ramp up your mana. The second is that you just take a few hits while digging for a removal spell. The third option is that you play your own Tarmogoyf. Neither this deck nor It’s The Fear has a flying creature (although ITF has Shackles, which ameliorates this problem somewhat), which means eventually if you want to win the game, that Tarmogoyf is going to have to leave the board. Basically when you play your turn 2 Tarmogoyf you do so knowing it will likely die to your own Pernicious Deed or Engineered Explosives, and it is solely serving as a blocker. Consequently you are not going to want to commit a Counterbalance to the board because it will just get blown up. Especially in this deck, and to a lesser extent in Threshold and ITF, owing to more spot removal in both, you are hesitant to lay out Counterbalance in a ground stall. But sometimes you lay the Counterbalance lock, find your removal spell, and just crash through for damage. If you put more removal spells into Vorosh, then you want the 4th Counterbalance.

The singleton Breeding Pool is incredibly lazy. Dan includes the Breeding Pool because an early Wasteland and Extirpate on Tropical Island from a Black disruptive deck can quickly end your chances at a game. For the same reason and based on my experiences against Dragon Stompy, I want to take it a step farther and add Green fetchlands and a basic Forest. Something like -1 Breeding Pool, -3 Polluted Delta, +2 Windswept Heath, +1 Wooded Foothills, +1 Forest. In a game 1 situation, an early Blood Moon will leave Vorosh literally unable to win the game: you only have basics of one color so Blood Moon will only let you lay Engineered Explosives for two. Having access to the Forest gives you at least an out.

It is kind of amazing; the biggest problem I ran into playing the deck was that I had to mulligan three hands for the exact same reason: I drew both Crucible of Worlds in my opening hand. Crucible is a card you do not want to see early anyway. I would strongly consider cutting one for another removal spell; in the games where you need Crucible, you will see just one in time. The number of matches where you want a third spot removal are far greater than the number of matches where you want the second Crucible. You win far more games with Tarmogoyf than with Mishra’s Factory anyway.

I would strongly suggest this deck for a Legacy tournament:

B. The Philosophy of the Banned and Restricted List

Wizards, we don’t get how you do things. The little blurbs you write explaining what gets banned and restricted is insufficient. By nature we’re geeks: lawyers, computer programmers, general nerds. We want to know exactly how you make your decisions so we can figure out what is going to happen to our format. We want more details about how the process works. What criteria do you use to decide what is too good or needs to be banned or restricted? How did you figure out what to ban when you created Legacy? What does it take to get a card banned?

The rest of this article is my attempt to answer those questions. I have some hunches based on the things that have been written and observing formats. There are arguments in favor of unbanning and banning certain cards; I want to look at the arguments behind it and try and figure out why certain decisions were made the way they went.

Should we unban a card? There are two values that support unbanning cards. Some players place value just on having a minimalistic banned list; even if a newly unbanned card will not see play, they still find value in removing it from the banned list. This is by far the weaker argument to unban a card since, by the argument itself, unbanning the card will do very little. The better argument centers around concept of “metagame diversity.” According to what Wizards R&D has said and the Standard environments they foster, Wizards of the Coast wants more decks to be viable. Most of the decks on the Legacy Ban List are flagship cards that power a deck: things like Dream Halls or Flash. Unbanning those cards would create brand new decks. If these decks are not unusually powerful, having more decks is a good thing. Some people take this argument a step further and look at the way the new decks will change the metagame. Primarily players talk about the lack of a good combo deck, but other archetypes fit here. The argument runs something like, “Threshold is dominating the metagame. Unban Necropotence to create a new combo deck that can keep Threshold in check.”

The arguments against unbanning cards generally fall along the lines of “Better safe than sorry.” All of the cards on the Banned List were problematic or powerful cards at one time or another. Through testing it is possible to prove that a card is broken (by breaking it), but it is impossible to prove that a card is fair. It is only possible to say that the card has not been broken yet. Even so, there are many more people working on breaking existing cards than new cards.

Every argument centered around unbanning a card features around two issues: A) the card’s potential power level, and B) a comparison of values. The first argument is much easier to describe but far harder to argue. We do not have a clear idea of what Wizards considers “broken” or too good for Legacy (are you listening Aaron or Devin? Now would be a good time to tell us!), so instead Legacy players guess. We have a fairly uneven power level for comparison. It is clear that Tinker and Demonic Tutor are too powerful, but what about Land Tax? Land Tax is probably the objectively weakest card on the list (if you can directly compare the power level of such disparate cards); there are unbanned cards that are probably more powerful.

Of the 63 cards on the Legacy Ban List, 9 cards deal with ante, 2 with manual dexterity, and 1 is Shahrazad. Of the 51 cards remaining, almost all the banned cards power up combo decks. Only Balance, Bazaar of Baghdad, Black Vise, Land Tax, Mishra’s Worskhop, Library of Alexandria, Mind Twist, and Illusionary Mask do not, and that depends whether you consider a Bazaar of Baghdad powered Ichorid deck as a combo deck or not. Magic players tend to hate combo decks, and a broken combo deck tends to demonstrate its power level far easier than other decks. A broken control deck still leaves the illusion that the opponent is in the game because you can still play spells and try to interact. Even a broken aggro deck gets interacted with by removal. A broken combo deck gets noticed very quickly because games fast. Wizards has shown a desire to decrease the power level of pure combo decks and reliance on committing cards to the board. If Wizards has to err on one side of the Banned List or another, I think Wizards is going to prefer to shy away from enabling a broken combo deck.

One of the most common arguments is, “Unban X card and try it out. If it turns out to be broken, ban it again, and then we’ll know.” What three months are Legacy players willing to give up? The last time a card was “unbanned” and then banned immediately after, Steve Sadin won a Grand Prix. A broken unbanned card has the potential to drive new Legacy players away. Personally, I think the metagame is fine. I am afraid of a card coming off the banned list and breaking things apart. Legacy is not fully explored; players are constantly finding new approaches and new ways to use older or obscure cards, and the release of new sets adds new cards and interactions to the format. Asking for cards to be unbanned seemed like it was asking Wizards to build decks for us because someone is having trouble finding new decks or tweaks on existing strategies.

What about banning a card? The power level of cards like Lion’s Eye Diamond, Tarmogoyf, and Counterbalance are very high, especially compared to Earthcraft and Land Tax, two of the most often recommended candidates for unbanning. Power level cannot and should not be decided in a vacuum. In order to really recommend a card for banning, it should be in some format-warping deck. Goblin Lackey and Aether Vial have both been candidates for banning by Wizards of the Coast, but they did not ban those cards. Based on the one new ban since the inception of the format, Wizards seems to want to wait to ban cards to see whether the metagame will adjust. And each time it does. Wizards has refrained from using banning a card to neuter a powerful strategy, but instead choose to wait until something is truly broken. We know Wizards employees read Star City Games; it is not unreasonable to assume they check out Legacy websites especially around banning time. We can draw comparisons to other formats too. In many ways, Threshold, the current deck for banning according to some, is like Standard-legal Faeries. I imagine Bitterblossom dodged the axe largely due to the results from PT: Hollywood, and that deck represented more than twenty percent of the field on both Day 1 and Day 2. Remember that for Wizards to want to ban a card, the deck that abuses it needs to do more than test well; it needs to perform far better than it should based on its population and it needs to do so consistently. A surprise deck can take several Top 8 slots and slip by unscathed (like Meandeck Oath when Forbidden Orchard was printed) if it falls off the radar afterwards. I think in order for a card to be banned it needs to represent a significant portion of the metagame, suggesting that it pushes other strategies out of the metagame, and it needs to take a disproportionate amount of tournament Top 8s. I’ve heard 40% bandied around; I do not know if 40% is right, but I do not even think the current Threshold numbers come close.

What about cost? It has been said that the cost of certain staples, mainly Illusionary Mask, helped determine their place on the Legacy Banned List. It is not immediately clear how much, if at all, this truly was a factor. In the format inaugural column, Aaron Forsythe calls out these cards because they were dominant cards in Vintage, and are likely to tear through Legacy. He does acknowledge scarcity, and therefore price. However, price is not a sole factor for a card’s banning, or Tarmogoyf, Imperial Recruiter, or Sea Drake would be on the list. Of those, Tarmogoyf is probably the closest, and as far as anyone can tell it is considered fair in all formats.

The so-called weakest cards on the list, mainly things like newly unbanned Replenish, Land Tax, Earthcraft, and Hermit Druid, came from problems in Extended. With the unbanning of Replenish, these cards are the most likely to come off the list because of the printing of Faerie Macabre and Leyline of the Void, as well as better removal. “These include Earthcraft, Goblin Recruiter, Hermit Druid, Land Tax, Oath of Druids, Replenish, and newly exiled Skullclamp and Metalworker.”

I think Wizards got things pretty right when they created Legacy. It’s possible that they could unban some cards and not destroy the format, but I think they prefer to leave things as-is as long as the format remains pretty fair. The standard for banning cards now appears to be higher than when the format was created. To the committee that maintains the Banned List the risk of screwing up the format seems to outweigh the marginal value gained from unbanning cards. The format is stable and fun now, so I see no reason to put things in jeopardy.

Kevin Binswanger