YW #101: Aww — Quit Your Whining!

I want to talk a bit about what makes a card broken, and what makes a format healthy. As the StarCityGames.com writer with more articles about combos that don’t work than anyone else, I am also going to talk about combo decks and their impact on the format.

(Those of you know actually know me will see the humor in that title…)

I’m writing this before the June 1st Bannings, or lack thereof. This is probably not a bright thing, since this won’t go up for a couple weeks – I have two set reviews that Ted hasn’t posted yet. [Since I have infinite set reviews, I moved this article forward. – Knut] So, by the time this goes up, everyone will know what was actually banned, or not banned, and everyone will be talking about the impacts on all the formats.

okay: I couldn’t write and proof this as fast as I had hoped. I’m doing the final edits on Tuesday, and Wizards just announced that Skullclamp was banned. So I’ll add some commentary on my commentary, in italics. Normal text – before I knew what would be banned. Italics – afterwards Wizards spoke.

I want to talk a bit about what makes a card broken, and what makes a format healthy. As the StarCityGames.com writer with more articles about combos that don’t work than anyone else, I am also going to talk about combo decks and their impact on the format. But first, a bit of debate from some guest commentators:

Ben, age 4, Green mage

Ban it! That deck is completely unfair. It just wins! It is broken and I can’t beat it, even if I Elvish Piper out my Craw Wurm turn 4. It is just too good. I can’t even try to play my best cards, because it kills me so fast. It is unfair that you can win, just because you have better cards and faster cards and besides, you stink, and your favorite band sucks, and your girlfriend – which you haven’t got – is ugly, and God hates you.

Which all proves my point.

Ken, age 5, netdecker

Ha – just ’cause you can’t deal with it, you want everything banned. Just adapt – it’s called the metagame. You can play cards that beat my deck – look, last week I got crushed when some random got {unlikely sorcery #1} on Spellweaver’s Helix, along with {new Regrowth variant} plus he had two more in hand so he got Helix going every turn. Or that other game, where this guy got {insert example of totally unlikely god draw} and whumped me. See – you don’t need to ban anything. Just play cards to beat me.

Sen Sen, age 30 something, played since before the stone age

There is no need to overreact here. The cards are not powerful enough to warrant intemperate action by Wizards. That card is scarcely a problem, and very easily countered or controlled. A balanced format should include combo, control, and beatdown (for those that cannot afford real decks.) The card in question fits that mode – no banning is necessary. I’m sure that the metagame can adapt – although I won’t make any suggestions, because I only play Type One and I haven’t read all the new cards.

Roseanne Roseannandana, SNL

{insert rant about banning”cars,” ending with”oh, you meant cards. Never mind.” You know how that would go.}

My conclusions from this debate:

1. At least half the people commenting on this topic have no fricken clue what they are talking about. [Welcome to the Internet. – Knut]

2. You do not have a God-given right to play any deck you want. Okay, actually you do, but don’t count on winning. White Weenie will not work. In any format. Ever again. If you choose to play sub-optimal (verging on total crap) decks, you should expect to lose. Bannings won’t change that. There’s a reason why no pro ever said”Ban everything until Craw Wurm is good…”

The corollary to this conclusion is that you cannot build your deck in a vacuum. You have to take your opponent into account. Decks need disruption, or tempo control, or board control, or something that allows your deck to do what it does before your opponent’s deck does – and that generally involves messing with your opponent. If you cannot be faster than your opponent, or mess with their plan, you deserve to lose.

3. Just because you mastered a broken deck doesn’t make it fair. A lot of people find the broken deck early, luck into the cards quickly, then start smashing people with the deck. That tends to make them happy – and they get pissed when bannings take their toy away. For those of you that like one deck, and a metagame of mirror matches, play Chess, or the ultimate mirror match card game – war. The rest of us like some variety in our Magic.

4. Bannings won’t solve ignorance, or stupidity, or netdecking. There are always going to be problems with Magic. It is inherently unstable. The game is based around card synergy, and there are a lot of cards. Some combinations are too good. Some stink. Some that actually suck look good, and mislead people into playing them. Bannings won’t solve those problems. Bannings are a tool of last resort to fix broken formats. Bannings won’t improve your playskills – or lack thereof.

Why Wizards Bans Cards

I was playing during the Academy bannings, the Jar-Grim preemptive banning, the loss of Dark Ritual in Extended, then Necro, then Survival, the Lin Sivvi debacle and so on. I have seen decks I hated neutered, and seen my favorite deck lose critical cards. Most importantly, I have seen broken formats, and seen them restored to health – although it sometimes took two sets of bannings.

A format is unhealthy when a single deck forces the format to change to an unnatural extent. It isn’t just that a deck is good, or that it requires other decks to take steps to beat it. A format becomes unhealthy when a particular deck is so dominant that it locks out whole archetypes, and/or requires people to play extremely narrow cards maindeck, merely to beat that deck.

Take, for example, the T1 days when four Fact or Fiction Blue decks were dominant. Sligh decks were maindecking eight Blasts to combat it, and that wasn’t enough. Mid-range creature decks were unplayable – single color decks were too slow, and multicolored decks were crushed by Back to Basics. The huge number of counters and control cards, backed by the card drawing power then available, meant that blue ruled. Restricting Fact or Fiction nerfed enough card drawing that the format got better. (It also took restricting Gush to solve the Miracle Grow / GroATog problems, but that’s another story.)

The presence of”sideboard” cards in the maindeck is not, by itself, an indication of a problem with the format. For example, I have heard people justify calls to ban Skullclamp and Ravager by noting that people are running artifact kill maindeck. News flash people: this is the artifact block. The current Type Two card pool has a ton of really good artifacts – meaning that artifacts are going to be in most decks you play against. Cards like Viridian Shaman are maindeck viable, even in a healthy metagame, because it will generally have targets, and is a 2/2 otherwise. Maindecking the Shaman or Oxidize is not a sign of a broken format – it is just reasonable deckbuilding. (Maindecking four each of Oxidize, Naturalize, Shamans, and Viridian Zealots, on the other hand, is cause for concern – that amount of hate would be unreasonable in any normal metagame.)

A format can be in trouble even if the dominant deck can be beat. You can beat any single deck. For example, assume Wizards created two cards (ignore the templating issues):

Damage Mox – 0

All your red spells and creatures do double damage

Torch You – R

Deal 7 damage to opposing player.

In addition, assume Wizards reprinted Fireblast, Lightning Bolt, and all the rest, plus Honorable Passage and the White protection cards. You could, in theory, combat the mega-burn deck with a ton of spells like Gilded Light, True Believer, Pariah, Scars of the Veteran, Circle of Protection: Red and twenty other damage prevention spells. Let’s assume that the White deck can win, consistently, eventually beating down with a pro-red 1/3. The Red deck can now be beat – is that a healthy metagame?

Of course not. The Red deck will beat any other deck – only the mono-White deck can take it. The mono-White deck, on the other hand, loses to any real deck – including Timmy with his Vine Trellis and Craw Wurm deck.

The problem with Onslaught through Darksteel Type Two is more complex than just one deck. The two dominant decks are Ravager Affinity and Goblins/Goblin Bidding. I can build a deck that can beat either one of these decks very consistently, but those decks cannot beat them both. I did build a mono-Green deck that could beat both Ravager and Goblins decks regularly – but only by making it an autoloss to Tooth and Nail and any W/x control decks. That was the problem – I could beat the top two, but nothing else. The problem is that the two tier one decks are not only dominant, they dominate in different ways, so methods that control one do not control the other. For example, resolving Akroma’s Vengeances is game over against Affinity, but just taps you out to set up a Bidding against Goblins. Worship is great against Goblins, and useless against Disciple of the Vault.

edit: okay, I skipped the whole Elf and Nail issue, which is mono-Green control that can beat Affinity, is less than stellar against goblins, and which uses Skullclamp – and couldn’t make T8 at GP Brussels. People started running LD and it killed Urzatron Tooth and Nail – if they start running enchantment hate, will that do in Elf and Nail? Whatever – you can reach exactly the same conclusions if you include Elf and Nail – it just takes another 1000 words or so.

Next, I’ll move on to talk about why individual cards were / were not banned. Remember that I am writing this before the bannings were/will be announced. Note that, if I ran the world, I would have considered only Disciple and Goblin Sharpshooter (or possibly Goblin Warchief) as banning targets. I would not have wanted to ban Skullclamp, but I would have done a lot more testing before making my decision. For this article, I don’t have to know the answers, just understand the issues.


Of course it had to be banned. The interaction with Ravager Affinity (where the Disciple caused life loss to accompany the card drawing) and Goblins (where the Sharpshooter caused damage to accompany the card drawing.) Even Tooth and Nail now runs four Skullclamps – which means every major archetype runs the card, and the other decks run either a ton of artifact destruction or Damping Matrix. Since Skullclamp would break wide open with some of the newer cards, like Krark-Clan Ironworks and Steelshaper’s Gift, it was doomed.

The flip side: it wasn’t necessary to ban it. Skullclamp was intended as a means of giving creature decks some parity to control decks, by giving each a method of drawing cards. The two problem cards were the ones that caused Skullclamp to deal damage when used as intended. Banning those cards (assuming this happened) was sufficient. (Assuming those cards were not banned:) The problems caused by Skullclamp were offset by the new Black control decks, running Endless Whispers, Grid Monitor, and Barter in Blood. Since the combo effectively donated the Grid Monitor to the Skullclamp player, it meant that the player could not play the creatures he or she drew. This really hurt Skullclamp decks. (Big question on whether this works – testing is needed. The theory appears pretty sound.)

Arcbound Ravager:

Of course it had to be banned. No, it didn’t. The problem is the other cards in the deck, like Disciple and Skullclamp. (Man, will I look like an idiot if this is the only card banned, but I’ll risk it. Ravager is not the problem.)

Disciple of the Vault / Goblin Sharpshooter:

Of course it had to be banned. The cards’ synergy with way too many other cards made them insane. Skullclamp was a very powerful effect, and the effect went well in a number of decks. G/B Cemetery, for example, is a powerful archetype because of Skullclamp. Elves relies on Skullclamp. Skullclamp was only a problem when it combined with a card that caused the opponent to lose life when it was being utilized, namely Disciple and Sharpshooter. Moreover, Disciple (and, to a lesser extent, Sharpshooter) combined too well with other cards, like Ravager, Ironworks, and even Welding Jar.

The flip side: it wasn’t necessary to ban it. The new cards keep the problem decks in check / the other bannings solve the problem.


Of course it had to be banned. The multicolored land made three- and four-color Ravager Affinity consistent by smoothing out the mana curve and color requirements. Banning Glimmervoid does nothing to make the deck less explosive on good draws, but it does make it less consistent. This means that other decks can beat it, and good players may shun it, because of the potential for color screw. The advantage to banning this card is that is does little collateral damage (although it may be better with Fifth Dawn in the format.)

Yes, this is a stretch, and really unlikely.

The flip side: it wasn’t necessary to ban it. Banning Glimmervoid really only messes with Affinity decks, and the problem is wider than that. Nailing Glimmervoid does nothing to Goblins.

Goblin Warchief:

Of course it had to be banned. The card’s synergy with way too many other cards made it insane. Skullclamp was a very powerful effect, but the effect went well in a number of decks. G/B Cemetery, for example, is a powerful archetype because of Skullclamp. Elves relies on Skullclamp. Skullclamp was only a problem when it combined with a card that caused the opponent to lose life when it was being utilized, namely Disciple (and Sharpshooter.) Moreover, Disciple combined too well with other cards, like Ravager, Ironworks and even Welding Jar.

The flip side: it wasn’t necessary to ban it. The new cards keep the problem decks in check / the other bannings solve the problem. Without the card drawing of Skullclamp / damage combo potential of Shaprshooter the Goblins deck is no longer dominant.

If I Ruled the World:

Disciple of the Vault and Goblin Sharpshooter would be banned in Type Two. I have played that format a lot, and am reasonably certain about what those decks do. Pentad Prism is, effectively, a free artifact for Ravager Affinity, and for other combos – read Ironworks – that can kill by sacrificing artifacts while a Disciple kills the opponent. Sharpshooter is the other card that means that you can kill an opponent by sacrificing your own guys. Both of these effects provide a creature beatdown deck (Ravager Affinity and Goblins) with a method of killing an opponent outside the combat phase. That redundancy makes these decks too good.

Sharpshooter can be a useful kill in a number of new combo decks built around the new combo pieces. I don’t know how competitive they will be, but the pieces that can make and sacrifice infinite creatures per turn exist. The kill could be either Disciple or Sharpshooter for many of these combos.

If I were redesigning the cards, I would make Sharpshooter only affect creatures. If I had the power, Disciple would either not exist, or would cost more and do damage instead of life loss (meaning that it would not get around Worship.)

The Effects of Potential Bannings

edit: Originally, I wasn’t going to cut anything, but I did cut the rest of this part, because it was cluttered up with a lot of”if Wizards chose to ban this, but not this” and”depending on just what got banned” sort of stuff. We know that, now, so I can condense it. I can also use Grand Prix: Brussels data in the analysis.

Skullclamp is gone. That does not eliminate Ravager Affinity. Way back, when people were still writing about Broodstar Affinity, I wrote about a pure speed Affinity deck that looked better than Broodstar. Note that it is basically two-color Ravager without the Skullclamps. I’ll post the list from that article, along with notes on what to change for a current list.

Bad Card Affinity (Speed Affinity)


4 Great Furnace

4 Darksteel Citadel (4 Seat of the Synod)

Vault of Whispers

4 Disciple of the Vault

4 Ornithopter (3 because Cranial Plating keeps them playable)

Arcbound Ravager

4 Myr Enforcer

4 Frogmite

4 Shrapnel Blast

4 Chromatic Sphere (2 Thirst for Knowledge, 2 Sphere or maybe Pentad Prism)

Tooth of Chiss-Goria (4 Thoughtcasts)

Bonesplitter (4 Cranial Plating)

Pyrite Spellbomb

4 Welding Jar (2 Welding Jar, 2 removal spells – Bolts, Lost Hope, etc.)

For Type Two, I might leave the Welding Jars, or play
Mana Leaks. For block, you could also splash green for Oxidize and Tel-Jilad Justice. If combo is as good as it seems, that is probably a good idea.

The problem is that, without Skullclamp, Ravager does not power through as many cards, so if and opposing deck can stall to the mid-game, it has a better chance of winning. Ravager can still get the Disciple / Ravager combo out, and eat all its permanents for the win, but it now has to actually topdeck the cards, not just dig them up with Skullclamp.

Banning Skullclamp does not kill off Goblins, either. Goblins has an incredible combination of overpowered, undercosted cards, and Skullclamp was just a means of drawing those cards a bit faster. At GP: Brussels, Goblins outnumbered Affinity on day 2. Here’s some quick numbers, based on data from the Wizards coverage. The total number of players was 736.


# Entered

# in T64

# in T8

% in T64











Elf and Nail





Goblin Bidding















U/W Control





Tooth & Nail





Most of the Goblins decks did not run Skullclamp maindeck, although some had them in the sideboard. Most of the Goblin decks ran artifact or creature kill instead of Biddings. Biddings were powerful against control decks – for example, they punished control decks for tapping out to cast Akroma’s Vengeance. Bidding isn’t that good against decks like Affinity, so the Goblin players adapted to the metagame by ditching Bidding.

When people talk about adapting the metagame to Skullclamp and Affinity – that’s what happened. A lot of decks ran a lot of artifact hate. Enough decks ran artifact hate that over half the Goblin decks dropped Skullclamp from the maindeck, to neutralize that hate. Tons of decks ran Electrostatic Bolt to kill Myr Enforcers and Ravagers. Tooth and Nail decks that had problems with Ravager evolved into Elf and Nail (which also took full advantage of Skullclamp). Elf and Nail decks cut swaths through the field of Ravager decks, while Goblins did in the Elf and Nail decks.

A U/W deck made the top 8, but it seems something of a fluke. A few other W/x control decks made day 2, but most were eliminated. Few W/x control decks can consistently beat Affinity, so they are culled. Those that can have problems with Goblins. The result is a three deck metagame: Affinity, Goblins, and Elf and Nail.

I have been playtesting Type Two for Nationals. I have played around with Beasts, various control decks, etc. I have also played Goblins w/ Skullclamp and Affinity. One thing is very clear – the decks feel different. With Goblins and Affinity, I am setting up amazing things, or waiting for the deck to explode. With all the others, against these decks, I am hoping that I can keep the broken decks in check long enough to stabilize – I never feel like I have a better deck or solid position. (Elf and Nail is closer to feeling broken, but I’m more used to playing gimmick green decks.)

Wizards posted about sixty of the Brussels top 64 decks. Almost two-thirds ran Skullclamp, most in the maindeck, some in the side. That was a fully adapted metagame, where people understood what the artifacts could do, and build their decks accordingly. The metagame stomped Ravager, so Goblins triumphed, though two Ravager decks made the Finals.

Some final thoughts on decks

Ravager Affinity is still around. It still has the explosive starts, and the Disciple/Ravager kills. What it doesn’t have is the great late game card drawing. This will mean that Ravager cannot come back from Akroma’s Vengeance and other mass removal quite as easily. It will still be a powerful deck in both Type Two and Block, but it will not be as dominant. The most interesting question is whether the deck can compete with combo.

Goblins will still be Goblins. Since control decks will be making a comeback, Bidding may be better than mono-Red or Red/Green Goblins.

Elf and Nail loses the drawing engine, and the reason to run Wood Elves. It should probably evolve back into Urzatron Tooth and Nail, with all of that deck’s inconsistencies. It is probably not going to do well in the future, although it does get some nifty new tools (Bringers, and the bounce-your-dudes Mahamoti.)

Beasts beat up on Affinity. It is okay against Goblins. It is not happy with Wrath of God, so it goes back to Tier II or lower.

U/W control gets better, especially with Condescend entering the format. Stifle is going to be big, as is Stasis Cocoon, because it shuts down Krark-Clan Ironworkers.

Ironworks combo decks will be built – the question is whether the hate will be sufficient. Yes, you can get Ironworks into play turn 2, then sacrifice half your artifacts to play Myr Incubator, and the other half to activate the Incubator – and you are screwed if the opponent has Echoing Truth or Stifle. These combos goldfish well – the question is whether the decks can still survive when the goldfish are fighting back. I think something as simple as a turn 1 Leonin Elder screws most of those I have seen (except the Grinding Station versions.)

Five color combo decks look interesting. I still like the Bringer of the White Dawn / Mindslaver build, because it has a lot of search as well as counterspell backup.

A personal favorite, G/B Cemetery, looks to be in trouble. It was barely playable in the current format, and only one deck did well in Brussels. That deck combined the power of Cemetery with the Wirewood Herald / Wirewood Symbiote / Shaman / Wood Elves engine, powered by Skullclamp. That engine won’t survive the banning, so the deck looks dead.

In Block, mono-Red control looks good against Affinity, but I’m not sure it has the spells to stop combo. Mono-Green has more quick artifact kill for combo, and has paths to victory. That looks interesting.

Broodstar Affinity may also make a comeback, ditto March of the Indestructibles. These decks don’t use Skullclamp now, and gain a reasonably effective counterspell. That wasn’t going to be enough when the Skullclamp decks could outdraw them massively, but should be better now.

Back to the original draft.

Now that the bannings have happened, a lot of tier 2 decks may be playable again. It’s time to check the archives for the strange stuff and try them again. A friend took my Darksteel Reactor deck to Regionals, and had a good record despite facing a bad (and unlikely) matchup, twice. That deck should be good. The mono-Black clerics decks are still around. The lifegain combo decks are also not impossible (unlikely – not impossible.)

It should be interesting.


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