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Maybe Acceptable Changes But Definitely Unacceptable Explanations

Ari Lax reads between the lines of the latest Banned and Restricted announcement and writes why he’s worried about what he didn’t see in it.

Aetherworks Marvel, illustrated by James Paick

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Have you ever been wrong before? If so, have you considered this is one of those times?

A current member of Wizards of the Coast (WotC) R&D

More cards are banned in Standard. At this point I’m past surprised and on to continued disappointment. Theros Beyond Death Standard was slightly promising, even if it was best described as a balanced system of problematic effects, and then it was right back to trash. Companion alone assured Ikoria would ruin formats as soon as a playable (read: broken) one was revealed, and the rest of the set has even more issues, as we’ve found over the last several weeks.

This entire announcement reads like Wizards of the Coast (WotC) was trying to do the minimum possible, when we are well beyond the point where starting with soft touches and seeing what happens is enough.

Here’s where they went wrong.

Fires of Invention

Congrats, this one was right. Like I said just prior to Ikoria, Fires of Invention had another eighteen months of Standard legality, and there was no chance it made it that long.

I still have moderate issues with the framing statements around the ban.

Why does a 55% win rate matter? It was cited in previous bans as well. Why is that cited as the truth? It certainly feels like a number they throw around like it has weight but it doesn’t read like it. If you have a 55% win rate with a deck, would that make you feel good about it or feel like the deck is broken? I doubt it.

To a player, that just reads like the deck was kinda good, so it’s banned. Keep in mind that, for events we watched Yorion Jeskai Lukka dominate, it regularly exceeded 60% win rates. 

WotC is better off just leaving that number off the statement. It’s info that looks like it translates the same to players and developers, yet is really in two utterly different contexts. If you want to persuade the stats nerds, throw a standard deviation or something in there. Or normalized baseline win rates from last Standard. Something to give us a reference.

Also, just a quick reminder Fires was tested to let spells be cast for free on opponents’ turns, and then this version was tested and deemed okay. Nothing productive to say, just being reminded that the entire Throne of Eldraine development process went horribly awry.

Agent of Treachery

Agent of Treachery might surpass Rampaging Ferocidon on the list of ban head-scratchers.

Or maybe that’s not quite the analogy. Both Emrakul, the Promised End and Aetherworks Marvel ended up banned. Emrakul was miserable and overpowering when cast, and cheating in free spells is broken. At the time many people said Aetherworks Marvel would still be an issue after Emrakul’s banning, and guess what? They were right, with a brief Felidar Guardian aside. 

The Agent ban just violates both sides of this history. It isn’t Emrakul, but the other cards enabling it are pretty close to Marvel.

Why did you put Winota, Joiner of Forces and Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast into a single set if you didn’t intend for this play pattern with some card, if not Agent? Why was it assumed this was safe and fun?

And beyond that, why are both of these self-contained repeatable versions of a Polymorph effect?

I do get that Agent was new ground for Confiscate effects, since enters-the-battlefield triggers are inherently more repeatable than spells or enchantments, but was it even causing any real issues prior to Yorion, Sky Nomad and Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast? Have you ever paid full retail on an Agent of Treachery and thought, “Wow, what a game breaking deal I’m getting”?

Is Agent of Treachery even the card people are abusing in larger card pools, or is it just the most convenient lever to pull in Standard among several sizable options?

Yet again, the problem remains in breaking the mana cost barrier for no discernible reason, resulting in exploits that take a single Gatherer search to assemble. 

I get wanting to have flashy and powerful Standard formats, but the last year-and-a-quarter are just a non-stop chain of taking known breakable effects and tying them to additional permanent, repeatable value. At some point you can’t just keep saying “this is an anomaly of card pool coherence” and not take a hard look at the patterns creating that problem over and over. Stop acting as if putting Vernal Bloom or Aetherworks Marvel or Polymorph on a planeswalker or creature was a good idea. 

Companions

There are a lot of places I could start, but I’ll lead off with my least favorite part of the Companion update.

Yorion remains the best companion with this fix and now might be the only reliably playable one.

This is not a good fix.

You have preserved the worst parts of the companion mechanic: they’re always there, they are overwhelming and inherent card advantage, and the deckbuilding cost remains almost the same.

Honestly, what about companion in its current state is even worth preserving? I think it’s almost exactly Umori, the Collector, and this sure as heck doesn’t save that card. It just makes it so only Yorion, Sky Nomad and Lurrus of the Dream-Den, the companions with high-impact late-game patterns that were already the best, are playable. Maybe throw Jegantha, the Wellspring on that heap since it’s free to include in so many places, and creatureless Kaheera, the Orphanguard too for the same reason.

Will people actually enjoy this? Does the companion mechanic inspire people in this hamstrung state? Is there a good and healthy outcome here?

The companion mechanic and the cards it is attached to remain horrifically flawed for competitive play. It honestly seems better to salvage companion for casual purposes and Draft while writing it off for tournament play like Conspiracies. Let people play the companions as normal cards if they want to, but none of the sideboard-to-hand garbage.

On a minor note, majorly and directly altering cards on Magic Arena (Arena) and not handling it the same as a ban for Wild Cards is a bad precedent. It’s already miserable enough for people to eat mythic Wild Cards on Winota and Lukka if you assume those two cards aren’t good, but those still work the way people expected when they cashed in for them. Heck, you could even just refund one Wild Card on each unique companion because putting the second to fourth copies in your deck is the same as before. But there’s a digital-game standard of making people whole in similar situations where a card is nerfed, and Arena isn’t meeting that.

Historic

I know nothing about Historic beyond the problem Winota deck there not even playing Agent of Treachery. WotC deciding to copy-paste a Standard announcement to that format makes me feel like they know nothing about it either. That’s not necessarily wrong, as no one has been told to really care about the format until recently, but it is what it is.

Teferi, Uro, and Reclamation

I think not banning all these cards was correct. Same thing with Nissa, Who Shakes the World; Witch’s Oven; Lucky Clover – really, whatever other card people are complaining about these days. There are some wildly swingy things, but they aren’t directly free with no window of interaction like Fires of Invention and aren’t as singularly breaking as Winota and Lukka.

Not addressing any of it? That’s probably a miss. Even a simple statement like “We are fine with the play pattern of Standard as it existed prior to Ikoria with the exception of the risks Fires of Invention posed, and while the cards in the format are high-powered, we don’t have concerns that other major breaks exist in the format.”

As I implied at the start, it feels like, as much as players are sick of Standard breaking, they are sick of what feels like WotC brushing off responsibility for the errors or talking about them with the goal of diminishing the scale. 

With the last five, ten, dozen, who-knows bans, everything is written as passively as possible. There isn’t a public failure analysis the way we got with Skullclamp or Stoneforge Mystic. Even the Attune with Aether ban two years ago had more than this off-hand lazy two-paragraph stuff. The Agent of Treachery ban is basically reading the text of the card, and to paraphrase a current Play Design member, “Your audience knows what the cards say. Don’t do that.”

They even had the audacity to say Throne of Eldraine was a fine power level and apparently mean it.

The buck has to stop with someone. And despite Mark Rosewater saying he messed up over and over on Twitter, it’s not him. How many people looked at Once Upon a Time or companion and, instead of saying, “Why does this exist?”, said, “Maybe we can fix it!” over and over?

I have all sorts of theories about what internal issue is causing this lack of oversight. Product overload, which leads to senior staff being spread thin and junior staff feeling unable to step forward in a blocking manner. Complexity overload testing so many divergent sets in a no-block setup, or that same setup forcing mechanics to be pushed for a one-and-done performance. Maybe there’s a lack of distinction between trying to break technology execution barriers, like Mystery Booster or a planeswalker in every War of the Spark pack, and understanding system constraints like the mana system.

But I’m not in the building doing this work. I don’t have most of the picture to do any kind of failure analysis and properly prevent similar issues. I just know from the outside that this is yet another instance where those doing the work aren’t showing anything that implies they are trying to do this analysis. 

Or, even worse, that they have considered whether they were ever wrong these last two years and determined this isn’t one of those times.

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