What the Standard Bannings Really Mean for Magic

Feature Article from Corbin Hosler
Corbin Hosler
1/10/2017 11:00:00 AM
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Emrakul? The promised end came a bit too soon.

Smuggler's Copter? Barely knew ‘ya.

Reflector Mage? Well, sure, these things do come in threes, after all.

Some Modern cards were banned too – good riddance to Golgari Grave-Troll, and RIP Gitaxian Probe – but they aren't worth talking about today. Given the history of Dredge it's not surprising to see it take a hit, and Probe enables some of the fastest decks in the format. We can debate the merits of the bans, but they don't really represent much out of the ordinary.

But Standard. Reflector Mage? Really?

I'm not typically that outspoken when it comes to matters like this. I feel like I have an educated opinion on Modern, but I leave Standard up to the experts—many of whom write for this site. Wizards of the Coast, for all the complaints, has a pretty good track record of creating stable formats. Sure, Standard may not always be great, but it's rarely downright horrible, and it's even more rare that cards are banned from the format. After all, it's been nearly six years since Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned. Their “miss rate” is lower than that of many gaming companies, and before we go further they must receive some credit for that.

With that out of the way, I'll be blunt: these bannings terrify me. So I have a few goals I want to accomplish today: to shed some light on exactly what it takes for us to reach a point of Standard bannings, and what it means for the larger picture.

Let me be clear: it's not what these cards did to Standard that scare me. I get that being Mindslavered is a horrible feeling and it sucks to play against Copter every game. Reflector Mage has been insane since its printing, and with the new “CopyCat” Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo coming to Standard, giving that deck access to Reflector Mage with the other two cards gone wouldn't have gone well. As a result, it becomes the first uncommon banned since Skullclamp.

But, if I'm being honest, that doesn't really scare me by itself. After all, it's far from the first unfun Standard we've had, even in recent memory. Collected Company, Rally the Ancestors or Thoughtseize-Pack Rat ring any bells? All three were the best deck of their respective Standard, and if we go back a step further we have White-Blue Delver of Secrets plus Restoration Angel plus Runechanter's Pike running rampant with Ponder, Mana Leak, Snapcaster Mage and Geist of Saint Traft. That's quite the list of Modern all-stars (or banned stars), and it was all in one Standard deck. Heck, even Smuggler's Copter isn't a new problem: Thragtusk served the same “show up in every deck role” back in its day.

All of those cards and decks were problems. Problems in decks that were just as dominant as the triumvirate of Copter-Emrakul-Mage are today. All had players complaining, and all kept other, “fun” decks from showing up.

But none of those brought on a ban.

That's not a coincidence.

Not-so-Standard Bans

There are just two examples of Standard bans in “modern” Magic: Darksteel-era Affinity and CawBlade Standard (which, coincidentally, also contained the Splinter Twin combo that got banned in Modern). These are the obvious starting points for comparison's sake, but I believe people are focusing on the wrong parts of the ban. Sure, all the things about hurting deck diversity and keeping competitive balance are just as accurate today as they were then, but you could say the same thing about the other Standard periods I mentioned.

There is something else that sets those two periods apart, and Director of R&D Aaron Forsythe has been the man behind the pen for both those explanations that I'll quote here.

You see, it's not exactly deck dominance that brings out the Standard banhammer. It's tournament attendance.

From the article detailing the Affinity bans:

“…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."

One of the most damning statements that can be made about a game is that it is not fun, and that's exactly what we've been hearing lately about Standard. Sure, ever since Affinity first showed up after the release of Mirrodin (and more so after it was revamped and supercharged with the release of Darksteel), people complained about it. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence in my inbox of people quitting Magic, threatening to quit, or stepping away from Standard for some amount of time because of the dark cloud of Affinity—and believe me, each of those emails made me unhappy—but recently the evidence of the general public's disdain for what the format looks like has gone from anecdotal to measurable. With some of the biggest Standard events of the year—Regionals, Nationals, and Worlds—on the horizon, how many more players could we continue to frustrate and alienate…?

“We had to alter the reality of the format, but we also had to let the world know without a doubt that we 'slew the dragon' as it were. Affinity had to go away, and everyone that was having doubts about the future of Standard needed to understand it.”

And from the banning announcement for Stoneforge and Jace:

“Game play like that is a far cry from past Standard environments containing ban-worthy cards, wherein you might get decked by a Tolarian Academy fueled Stroke of Genius on turn three, or die from 20 on turn four to a combination of Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault and Cranial Plating, both frequently at the hands of less proficient players. Those games felt more random and less satisfying, and the outcry to do something about it was loud and clear.

It was less clear this time, so we were willing to see if players were in fact tolerant of a skill-rewarding one-deck metagame. The ultimate goal is player enjoyment, and if most people were enjoying themselves, we weren't going to take any rash actions based solely on the math of deck lists.

But then the formal complaints began pouring in, followed by a drop in attendance—pronounced at Pro Tour Qualifiers, shocking at the recent New Phyrexia Game Day, more subtle but just as real at Friday Night Magic—that we can't ignore. If people don't want to play the game, we need to fix it.”

Two Standard bannings, two admissions of plummeting attendance.

Which brings us back to this week's bannings.

“…We banned three cards in Standard—Smuggler's Copter, Emrakul, the Promised End and Reflector Mage—to improve and diversify the Standard environment. These changes were driven by play data that demonstrated an imbalance in Standard as well as anecdotal evidence that players found these specific cards to limit their ability to stay competitive with creative, fun, diverse decks. Let's look at these card by card…

Our data showed the White-Blue Flash deck was too powerful against the field, and Reflector Mage has been on players' lists of most-disliked cards since the days of Collected Company. Other cards were discussed to check White-Blue Flash, but Reflector Mage came up time and time again as both frustrating and a targeted way to diminish the White-Blue Flash deck.”

There's a lot less transparency here than in the previous announcements, but you can see the same thread running through all three. The word “fun” is repeated in each ban explanation (six times in this week's), and this passage from the 2005 article on Affinity sums it up best in its explanation of a Trinisphere ban.

“Now that it has been floating around for a while, the Vintage crowd understands that the card does good things for the format, and bad things to the format. While it does serve a role of keeping combo decks in check, it also randomly destroys people on turn one, with little recourse other than Force of Will. And those games end up labeled with that heinous word—unfun. Not just 'I lost' unfun, but 'Why did I even come here to play?' unfun. The power level of the card is no jokes either, which is a big reason why I don't feel bad about its restriction.”

It's clear that R&D associates “fun” with “tournament attendance.” And while this obviously makes intuitive sense, it's important to establish that baseline before moving on. Current Standard is just not fun, and the history of Standard bannings means that likely correlates with a drop in attendance (which is in line with anecdotal reports).

Why does any of this matter? Because it's important to the real concern, one that Wizards won't announce publicly for obvious reasons but worries me nonetheless, that Standard is in the midst of a huge dropoff that Wizards hasn't figured out how to fix.

… And They've Been Trying

Look, it's no secret that Wizards exists to make money for Hasbro shareholders. And it's no secret that the gaming world is a competitive place and Magic's place at the top is by no means assured. Competitors have been releasing cards games both digital and paper inspired by Magic en masse in recent years, and it's inevitable that Magic–coming off the tail-end of record-breaking growth earlier this decade–would not be immune to these market pressures.

There have been a series of moves to bolster Standard–and by extension sales of new sets–for the past year. Some of them have slipped quietly by while others have been high profile. For instance, we've seen the continual pushing of new, “flagship” cards that aim to place Magic's newest set in the forefront. From Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to colorless mana to Archangel Avacyn to Emrakul, the Promised End to Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Smuggler's Copter, we are seeing an extremely heavy hand from development.

In a vacuum, there's nothing wrong with this. Building hype is, after all, a necessary and worthwhile part of the job. But when the line shifts from “let's make sure the face of the set is cool” and “let's make sure Vehicles are competitive” to “we have to push Emrakul or the set won't sell” or “we have to make Smuggler's Copter great because we need vehicles to make a splash in Standard to sell the set,” you have a problem.

I'm not claiming that's what is happening inside headquarters at Renton, but it's a trend that seems much more pronounced in recent years. In many ways, it's a forgetting of the lesson we learned with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, when they hid pieces of the best planeswalker ever printed in locations across the world and engaged the community to find them. Yes, it was an awesome promotion, but when you mix such a high-profile marketing activity with the design of a card, all for the goal of making it “the face of the set,” everyone involved understands the card can't be a flop. That naturally leads developers to err on the side of “we'd rather this be a little too good, than not good enough” and it's how you end up with such a disparity in power between the obviously “pushed” cards, and the rest of the set.

When they get the balance right, it goes mostly unnoticed. When they miss, it's painful. We're seeing that now.

There's more: developments that I've covered extensively for TCGplayer. They killed the Modern Pro Tour, aided by the cover of Eldrazi Winter. Zendikar Expeditions were the first salvo, culminating in the Masterpiece Series. Next up was the hastily made Standard rotation change. While there are a lot of reasons for these moves–Masterpieces are pretty freaking cool and the rotation change allows players to use the cards for longer–there is a more basic reason for these moves: they are trying to grow Standard attendance. Faced with competition across the board offering a lower price of entry, Wizards is trying to keep up without cannibalizing the current, lucrative business model.

Taken from the article announcing the Masterpiece Series:

“Challenge No. 1. Standard is the most-played Constructed format. It's designed as an entry point for players who wish to play Constructed Magic. Through market research and social media, we learned that many of the players who were interested in playing Standard felt it was something beyond their reach. We had to find ways to address this.”

And then later…

“We found that Zendikar Expeditions drove more players into the Battle for Zendikar block, which resulted in greater accessibility for all the non-Expeditions cards. Zendikar Expeditions actually made it easier to play Standard. Hmm, a way to address challenge #1.”

And this quote from the rotation change:

All of these are moves to prop up Standard – a vital Lifeline for new players and for the game's future – and now things have gotten so bad they've been forced to resort to what historically has been the nuclear option: banning Standard cards. More than that, they're implementing a new, second banned list announcement date: five weeks after the Pro Tour. That's cover to stop broken formats before they force out players, and from that viewpoint it's understandable, but it is also going against 20 years of precedent in Magic's history, and it's a marked departure from even the past 12 years where outside of calamitous consequences they've been content to let things play out even when they weren't so great. The announcement stated that they don't Anticipate more bannings than usual, but even the threat of the second date is enough to Undermine player confidence in the cards they're sinking hard-earned money into.

Conclusion

Any of these developments, taken in isolation, isn't evidence of anything. But when you take a step back and look at the whole picture, it becomes clear that Magic is still struggling to find its way in this new world of competition and mobile gaming. That's what scares me, far more than any individual set of cards they choose to ban in Standard. Magic is the best game ever made and the community the best I've ever been a part of, so I think we have a vested interest in periodically taking tabs on where the game is going.

Why does putting all of this information together matter? Because a lot of people have a vested interest in where the game stands. The industry represents a livelihood for tens of thousands of people across the world, from pro players to online dealers to tournament organizers to local game store owners, not to mention a treasured hobby–hell, lifestyle–for millions of players across the world.

The last time Magic took a downturn, Wizards was forced to pull a Pro Tour off the schedule. That's the sort of thing we don't want to be blindsided by as a community, and while I'm not saying we are anywhere close to that sort of thing, I do think we are stronger as a community for having conversations about these issues. What do we want from Standard? How do we want them to balance long-term stability with short-term success? What do we want from our Friday Night Magic experience? After all, Wizards' employees listen to just about every piece of feedback they receive, and when we can provide that feedback without shouting, the game is better for it. As much as it can seem otherwise in the Echo Chambers of the internet, it isn't the community versus Wizards; it's both groups working toward the same goals. The transition into the world of esports was always going to be a bumpy one, but the important thing is that lessons are learned from every bump.

The sky isn't falling, even if it is obscured today by an Emrakul-shaped cloud.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler
@Chosler88




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