Is Once Upon A Time A Bigger Design Mistake Than Oko, Thief Of Crowns?

Shaheen Soorani, Andrew Elenbogen, and Patrick Sullivan answer some of the burning questions about Pioneer, Modern, and more!

Once Upon a Time, illustrated by Matt Stewart

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Welcome to another edition of Fact or Fiction! Today, Shaheen Soorani, Andrew Elenbogen, and Patrick Sullivan are here to give their takes on five statements on the March 9th Banned & Restricted Announcement. Don’t forget to vote for the winner at the end!

1. Banning Once Upon a Time in Modern was a good decision

Shaheen Soorani: Fact. Along with Veil of Summer, Once Upon a Time was running out of time in Modern.  Both green cards are mistakes in research and development, requiring a ban from every relevant format.  I’m disappointed that Veil of Summer didn’t join Once Upon a Time in the abyss, but its day is coming.  Out of the two, Once Upon a Time is the more egregious spell that goes beyond breaking the rules of Magic, adding a level of consistency that every green deck has taken advantage of up to this point.

Free spells should not exist, especially with this level of power.  Amulet Titan will take a small hit from this but remain one of the top options in Modern moving forward.  The green decks will have to mulligan like the rest of us and not have the luxury of searching for the perfect Turn 1 land or early creature.  The power level of these green decks will not suffer, but the consistency advantage they had over the rest of the field is over.

Andrew Elenbogen: Fiction. Once Upon A Time is an egregious card and printing it in the first place was a clear mistake. But that does not imply that it should be banned in every format. At the moment, Once Upon A Time appears in a large number of Modern decks and most of them are completely fine on power level. Giving a boost to old favorites that have been struggling lately, Infect and Mono-Green Tron for example, is pure upside.

The only problematic deck that contains the card is Amulet Titan. That might eventually result in a ban, but I think the results so far are inconclusive. There have been so few Modern events and people are still adapting to the newer Valakut builds. I think Wizards of the Coast (WotC) should have waited until the dust settled before pulling the trigger. Once Upon A Time was very likely to get banned in Modern at some point, but I do not think that now is a particularly logical point.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. Much has been made about Oko, Thief of Crowns, and with good reason, but I think Once Upon a Time is the more baffling design to let out the door. In short, there is almost no way that a zero-cost cantrip with this level of selection can go well. It scales perfectly with the power of various formats — low powered formats are usually defined by managing land/spell ratios, and Once Upon a Time is great there, and high-powered ones are about putting together certain synergies together as quickly as possible, and Once Upon a Time is awesome there as well.

Baked into that is how repetitive it makes games, both by producing the same openings, and because Once Upon a Time is in decks at the expense of different cards that have text boxes (think about Gitaxian Probe in Modern Infect — when that card was banned, it wasn’t replaced by the next-best cantrip, but rather with a blend of cards that spoke to the deck’s strategy.) I believe the tolerance for this sort of thing should be going down anyway, in light of the London Mulligan dampening the variety of opening turns in constructed Magic across all formats.

The rate is out of line both theoretically (I remember furrowing my brow on first read) and in practice (it is all over the place in a bunch of the best strategies), and I don’t think it’s desirable or even possible to manage Modern well with it as part of the equation. Good riddance, move along.

2. Banning Underworld Breach in Legacy was a good decision

Shaheen Soorani: Fact. Just as we are seeing in Modern, Underworld Breach is not an acceptable card in competitive Magic.  Yawgmoth’s Will was a terror to play against before and this is just an upgraded version.  Having the originally used spells return to the graveyard is a huge boost in power level, not to mention it costs one mana less and can have additional cards added while going off.

Legacy isn’t on everyone’s radar these days because of its lack of use in premium tournaments but it is still a very popular format that many of us old souls care about. With the little I’ve paid attention to; I knew this ban was coming. Even though it seems that Underworld Breach is a two-card combo machine, it’s often game over by itself. When the other pieces required to kill the opponent are in the graveyard, and casting Underworld Breach alone revives them, then it’s obvious that this can’t remain in any of the competitive formats.

Andrew Elenbogen: Fiction. Much like Once Upon A Time, Underworld Breach is a card that should not have been printed. But banning cards is a huge cost and I think the right methodology is to wait for them to demonstrate a high level of success before taking action.

Underworld Breach combo was unarguably strong in Legacy. It was capable of killing on Turn 1, sometimes through disruption. But let’s be real: Storm decks in Legacy could kill just as fast and were comparably resilient. Maybe Breach decks were better, but I am skeptical they were massively better. Additionally, there were few major Legacy events showing off the power of the card. If it was dominating events, I would be fine taking action against it. But banning it this soon feels premature. This card was legal for less time than Treasure Cruise, which just seems crazy to me.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. I’m not sure how much attention is being given to Legacy at this point, but I play the occasional league and Breach is, uh, not okay, to put it mildly. It alongside Lion’s Eye Diamond makes winning trivial with a variety of cards (Brain Freeze, Intuition, whatever), and I think it is worth subsidizing Lion’s Eye Diamond as something foundational to the personality and experience of the format.

Even absent Lion’s Eye Diamond, I’m not sure Underworld Breach would be sustainable. It’s also very good with Lotus Petal, for instance. I think the number of bans required to make Underworld Breach a “healthy” part of Legacy would be numerous, and I’m not sure I would stomach even one to keep this around. Much like Once Upon a Time in Modern, I don’t think this call was particularly difficult, either.

3. Dig Through Time should have been banned in Pioneer in today’s B&R announcement

Shaheen Soorani: Fact…but don’t tell anyone! I have written extensively on the power of Dig Through Time and how it violates format health with its very existence.  WotC is kicking this can down the road and will eventually have to ban it, along with Treasure Cruise.  For as long as Dig Through Time remains legal, I would be shocked if people play anything else besides Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, and Opt to accompany it.

Dimir Inverter is the best deck in Pioneer, but that is only because Dig Through Time exists.  Even in decks like Lotus Breach and Azorius Control, the glue that binds them together is the best draw spell that has ever been printed, outside of Brainstorm.  Most of these decks that utilize early disruption and card draw will crumble without the power of Dig Through Time.  Treasure Cruise may be good enough to uplift them; however, it is clear that Dig Through Time stifles the power of aggressive decks. 

Due to the consistency of these combo decks, the aggressive decks struggle to have an advantage.  Adding that disadvantage to the existence of Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Pioneer is broken and needs some assistance through bannings to recover.  I do not want to lose Dig Through Time because it personally benefits me and decks I love, but this is bigger than an old man’s personal preference.

Andrew Elenbogen: Fact. Unlike Once Upon A Time and Underworld Breach, Inverter of Truth decks have demonstrated sustained dominance in Pioneer. Dimir Inverter has been dominating both on the SCG Tour and at the Pioneer Players Tours. It substantially constrains the playable decks in the format and forces it to revolve around combo decks and disruption. When Gideon of the Trials is a maindeck hate card, you know things have gone pretty far. If Pioneer could adapt to Dimir Inverter, it would have done so already.

Given that something needs to be banned from Dimir Inverter, it is debatable what it should be. The combo itself would be difficult to execute, if there were not cards that both cleared your graveyard and located pieces in one fell swoop. Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise were always living on borrowed time, and I think banning them would make Dimir Inverter much more vulnerable to traditional forms of disruption and worse across the board. At the moment, I prefer that to banning the combo outright.

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. For me, the question of Dig Through Time in Pioneer is very similar to the one around Thoughtseize — the question isn’t “is this too good?”, because it very obviously is, but rather “is this a fun and desirable card to balance the format around?” I’m not sure I’d bet on it being legal two years from now, because it has the same scaling issues Once Upon a Time does. Every good, cheap piece of interaction that gets printed makes it more likely that Dig Through Time hits a boiling-over point, and every new and powerful synergy does the same. If the card is already borderline to being with, why not act now?

Dimir Inverter is clearly very good, but a bunch of data-driven and anecdotal information suggests that players have been able to adapt, and now it is merely one very good deck among many. We have been neck-deep in bans for years for situations that aren’t exactly crises, and it is nice to signal to the community that yes, this card is very good, and maybe it can’t survive forever, but we trust our players to find solutions to problems and want to give a longer runaway before intervening. I do not think Dimir Inverter is a crisis now even though it looked that way about a month ago (both in terms of power level and play pattern), and I think the competitive game is much more satisfying when the collective player base gets a chance to address the problem first.

4. Primeval Titan should have been banned in Modern in today’s B&R announcement

Shaheen Soorani: Fiction. Primeval Titan is frustrating to play against and possibly too powerful for the mana it costs, but it is not ban worthy.  This creature costs six mana and requires a significant portion of the deck to be built specifically for it.  With the mana and building restraints, Primeval Titan is beatable and should remain in the format as a contender.

Due to the banning of Once Upon a Time, Amulet Titan and other Primeval Titan decks will get weaker. This may be the opening for big mana, aggro, and control decks to take a chunk of the percentage back in the matchup.  Even though other decks use Once Upon a Time, no deck took advantage of it like Amulet Titan did.  I do not think the big mana or Dimir Whirza decks were disadvantaged against Amulet Titan and that was before banning their best tutor in Modern. Primeval Titan may still command the Tier 1, but we are very far from banning a six-mana creature.

Andrew Elenbogen: Complete Fiction. Primeval Titan is a six-mana creature. I do not care what it’s text box says, because there is only one way a six-mana creature can be broken: fast mana. If the mana engines that power Primeval Titan are too strong, either their speed or their consistency needs to be reduced. That means banning pieces of the engines themselves or the tutoring and filtering that supports them.

If you ban Primeval Titan, those mana engines will just move onto the next best expensive payoff.  The power level on six-mana cards these days is high enough that I doubt this represents a massive downgrade. Moreover, Primeval Titan is a key part of Valakut, which is a fun and fair strategy that is healthy for the format. That deck should not die for Amulet Titan’s sins.

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. I get the argument the other way — the joke is getting a little bit old, and Amulet Titan has been the best thing going for a while now. Still, I think it’s easy to get hung up on the thing that’s killing you, rather than the stuff that’s making it so the same thing is killing you over and over again. Amulet Titan plays a lot of cheap cards that aren’t the easiest to interact with (a one-mana artifact, a one-mana creature that snowballs the game if they get to untap, a bunch of creatures that kill you even if you have a Terminate the second they enter the battlefield, lands that do stuff, etc.) and it picks up its deck over and over again. To me, to the extent there is a problem, that’s the root of it, not Primeval Titan’s admittedly very high value over replacement.

I think banning Once Upon a Time is a step in the right direction. Were I forced to choose another card, I would certainly pick Summoner’s Pact, and probably one or two others before speaking to Primeval Titan. The card inspires a number of decks and subsidizes weird cards that otherwise wouldn’t see play. Zero-mana tutors and twelve mana on Turn 3 kind of sucks. I’d rather address the latter directly than the former.

5. You’re happy with the current state of Magic’s B&R list across all formats

Shaheen Soorani: Fiction. After having very little practice, I was able to take down SCG Regionals in North Carolina a few days ago.  This was on the back of Underworld Breach, which is still legal in Modern and Pioneer.  Although I think it is weak in Pioneer, it was absolutely busted in Modern, giving me the positive vibes from my Ironworks days. I think it was too early to ban it in Modern, but it will have to go eventually.  Once they remove that blemish, Modern will be an interesting format.

Pioneer is a two-deck format with Sultai Delirium and Dimir Inverter.  If this doesn’t bother you, then Pioneer is great.  There are other decks that can be competitive like Mono-Black Aggro, Lotus Breach, and Azorius Control, but I will not be engaging in any other nonsense besides the two best decks by a mile.  The issue isn’t deck diversity here, but power level.  These top two decks are so much better than the rest of the field, outside of a tuned Lotus Breach deck, that the competitive scene will be very stale moving forward.  You have just started seeing Dimir Inverter mirrors and it will get worse unless there’s a significant change moving forward.  They must ban Dig Through Time at the very least to kick start everything, making their inaction a real head scratcher.

Andrew Elenbogen: Fact. Every banning season, I see tons of takes on Twitter that make me incredibly glad WotC runs the show. Ultimately, my disagreements with their banning policy come down to timing. I would have waited on Underworld Breach and Once Upon A Time, and would have pulled the trigger on Dig Through Time, but I think that my policy and theirs will end up in a similar places. None of those cards are likely to remain legal in the long term. Moreover, Pioneer and Modern are both reasonably healthy, and the Throne of Eldraine bannings have left us with one of the best Standard formats in years. The proof is in the pudding: If the format is good, then the banning policy is at least solid.

If I was in charge, I wouldn’t have banned Mycosynth Lattice in Modern as none of the decks that played it were even clearly Tier 1. But the play pattern is bad enough that it is hard for me to be too upset. Overall, I would give R&D a B: There is room for improvement but the fundamentals of the policy are sound.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. It’s never going to be a perfect fit — I know I have a lower appetite for cheap, powerful variance reducers than other designers, and if the banned list was mine to cultivate it would probably look slightly different. That said, I’m playing a lot of Magic lately across all formats and there isn’t any particular card or deck that is ruining my experience. That has not been the case at all times over the last few years, and I think today’s announcement gets rid of some offenders at no cost to the definition or character of the formats they were once part of. Constructed Magic has been fun for me lately and I believe WotC’s wisely, and at low cost, paid off a little bit of debt with the bans in question. I definitely wouldn’t have advocated to preserve the cards that were banned, nor would I have strongly pushed to add anything else.

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