The Sky Isn't Falling

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
1/12/2017 11:02:00 AM
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It's rare that Wizards of the Coast makes a decision that shocks everyone, but that's exactly what happened. As someone who plays a lot of Magic and who is intimately tied to the game, I grow accustomed to the kinds of changes and decisions made by Wizards of the Coast in regards to their Magic: the Gathering brand. The deeper and deeper I journey into the MTG rabbit hole, the less and less I become surprised by their decisions.

This one surprised me.

Earlier this week, WotC made the decision to ban three cards in Standard: Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage. Goodbye, good riddance, and good night. No more games of Good Copter, Bad Copter. No more Emmy nominations for worst gameplay. No more 2/3 creatures for 1UW that bounce other creatures… Yeah, I ran dry on jokes. 2/3 ain't bad. And there's the joke. I'd love to stay and chat, but I gotta bounce.

There are a number of ways to look at this ban that go beyond just card level evaluation. Rather than look at the individual cards and whether they deserved it or not (they know what they did), I'd rather look more at the big picture implications of this decision. What does this mean for Magic and for us as players and consumers of the product?

The answer? I don't know.

Thanks for reading.

-Brian Braun-Duin






























Welllllll, alright. If you insist, I guess I'll share some thoughts. You didn't insist? I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear that and give ‘em to you anyway. I'm not sure exactly what WOTC's intentions are for the future and whether this style of action is a one-time deal or something they intend to do more often, but here's how I feel about it all.

Failure is Inevitable

One way to examine these bans is from the perspective that WotC really failed big time. Standard attendance is down, and most players had ranked Standard at about a three out of 10 when developer Sam Stoddard had asked about it on Twitter last month. This looks in some ways like a knee-jerk reaction to fix a failed Standard format.

I have a slightly different perspective. I think in many ways, Standard is destined to fail. I think it is possible for them to design a Standard format that maintains fun, relevance, and diversity of deck choices over the entirety of its lifetime, but that task grows increasingly harder and harder as we grow smarter, faster, and better at picking apart formats and finding the gems. We've become way better at breaking formats and finding the best decks, and we've also become more accustomed to playing the best decks. 10 years ago, even if someone found the best deck, it might not have dominated the format because concepts like “netdecking” were much more maligned than they are now, and there was less information and data being collected and dispersed. Nowadays, the best deck gets adopted by players everywhere who collectively work on the deck until it becomes more and more defined. Within a short period of time, it evolves into a finely-tuned machine that may not be easily beaten by other options in the format.

I feel like most Standard formats are solvable and that the only question is how long it takes to accomplish that. If they can design a format that escapes being oppressed by certain cards or strategies long enough for rotations to happen, then they have succeeded. I just don't think it is realistic to expect this on a regular basis with how information and metagaming has grown and changed in the past five years. As a result, I think a shift in philosophy is needed.

A Modern Philosophy

Previously, the philosophy WOTC has employed when it comes to banning and unbanning cards in Standard is to only touch something if it has become so extreme that it is pushing people out of the game in droves. Cards like Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were so dominant that they basically invalidated other strategies, and before that, the last bans were cards like Skullclamp that were simply egregious mistakes in development.

In Modern, they employ a slightly different strategy where they will ban cards to promote the health and diversity of the format, even if those cards weren't truly dominant. Birthing Pod was good, but not oppressive. Splinter Twin was good, but not oppressive. Eldrazi was good, but not...well, that one was a bit oppressive. But you get the picture.

As a competitive Magic player, I really appreciate “The Modern Philosophy” in terms of bans. They have a small number of people at WotC who are building sets and testing them before they release them to thousands and thousands of players who dedicate countless hours trying to break it. To me, it doesn't make sense to rigidly hold to a principle of never banning cards except in apocalyptic scenarios. It's inevitable that people will figure out things that they didn't expect, and when that inevitability happens, they should be able to fix it if it is ruining the experience for everyone.

I think the fun and enjoyment of players who play the format should take top precedence over anything else. Magic is a game, and if it isn't fun and they aren't willing to fix it to make it fun, then what exactly are we doing here again?

I don't see this as any different than things like patches to video games, or how they will change items or champions in League of Legends to balance power level, or how they will change cards in Hearthstone to be less powerful if they are ruining the metagame. It's an inevitable part of a competitive game that players will break things and the developers should have a safety switch to be able to fix it.

The main complaint I see about this comes from a consumer standpoint. People invest a lot of money into these cards and they don't want to lose their investment. That brings me to the next point.

Consumer Confidence vs. Format Confidence

A lot of people bought cards like Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter, and now they are unable to play those cards. Reflector Mage isn't quite as big of a deal since it is an uncommon and thus not very expensive. In addition to those cards tanking some in price, the deck that went along with those cards may no longer be viable, so they may lose value on those cards as well.

To many players who don't have a lot of money to invest into the game, this harms their ability to play Magic, and can hurt their confidence in investing into the game in the future. I started playing Magic in 2006, and I have quit playing the game twice since then, once for almost two years and another time for six months. Both times I quit because I was simply unable to afford playing the game due to circumstances in my life. As a result, I fully understand the plight of players who get priced out of the game or who are frustrated by buying cards for a deck using their Magic budget money and then having those cards no longer be playable.

With that said, I still believe that losing consumer confidence over bans like this is a short-sighted approach. To start with, protecting the health and most importantly how fun a format is contributes long-term to consumer confidence. I am also a consumer of Magic: the Gathering, and bans like this improve my consumer confidence. Knowing that they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep this format enjoyable for players gives me long-term confidence in investing into cards. I can buy into the next Standard format and feel safe that I won't lose all my investments into this game because they are actively working to keep the game playable.

Another point is that card values often don't tank as badly as we expect. I've had many decks in recent years lose value over bans. I bought Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, Eldrazi, and Dredge, all decks that cost a good amount of money and all decks that were banned eventually in Modern. While many of those cards dipped in price, a good number of them are still very playable cards that have found homes in other decks. Some of them have even gained in value. If I were to sell off my Birthing Pod deck right now, it's possible that it would be worth more now than it was when I initially purchased those cards. It's possible that Emrakul holds a relevant price as she is playable in other formats. Smuggler's Copter might not recover, but I've heard of people playing it in Modern and Legacy, so who knows.

I also just feel like investing into Magic cards is a volatile market anyway. I think it's unrealistic to expect to buy into cards and have them maintain their price. What if they didn't ban Emrakul, but the new Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo invalidated the playability of Emrakul decks? Cards like Emrakul or decks like Marvel might tank significantly in price anyway. And while it's true that you can still play those decks even if they are no longer tier one so long as they remain legal, the same is nearly true today. You can still play Black-Red Aggro, you just can't use Smuggler's Copter anymore. You can still play Black-Green Delirium without Emrakul, or Marvel with Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger instead. Cards will spike and tank in price over time as metagames shift and while it feels bad to lose an investment over a ban, it's effectively the same thing as losing an investment when cards fluctuate in and out of playability or rotate.

I think that is an acceptable tradeoff for the long-term health of the game and the format.

What About New Players?

Another argument I have seen is that bans hurt newer players, because they open a card like Emrakul, Smuggler's Copter or Reflector Mage in a pack and then are told they cannot play with those cards. Worse yet, they put them into a deck and enter an event.

I've also heard arguments that they should ban cards like Emrakul to help new players, so they don't feel the crushing weight of defeat every time they enter an event and get to experience the unbridled joy of all their cards working in tandem to do as much damage to them as possible while a 13/13 flying creature looms over the game.

I think any changes in this regard are hard to measure when it comes to their value to new players. I also feel like Magic is a very complicated game with complex interactions and I'm not sure decisions like this have that great of an effect on new players. New players are going to need to learn and understand complicated rules and understand format legalities if they intend to stick to playing Magic anyway. I think the biggest factor for whether new players stick with the game is less about the cards and more about how they are helped, invited and treated in the community.

Data-Driven Approach

Sam Stoddard tweeted that they used Magic Online data to reach the conclusion that White-Blue Flash was the best deck and had only one bad matchup – Black-Red Aggro - at 49%. As a result, they chose to ban Reflector Mage along with Smuggler's Copter.

I'm 100% behind the use of data to determine which cards get banned. Us Magic players will complain about cards and demand bans based on anecdotal evidence all the time, but data is the real truth. Amidst people's stories of how they always beat Emrakul and it's fine – or how Emrakul is too oppressive and has to go – data is the voice of reason< and the only way to learn the true story of the format.

As an aside, I personally believe that nothing needed to be banned in Standard based on their old philosophy on bans. But once you open the can of worms of using Modern-style bannings for Standard, then Emrakul was a slam-dunk ban. Its presence in Standard was almost entirely the cause of an unloved format. While I don't believe Smuggler's Copter or Reflector Mage had to go, I don't particularly miss them either. I'm okay with those bans.

But let's go back to talking about data. While I love their use of data to drive decision making, I do somewhat question the data they chose to use.

Magic Online does not tell the full story of a format. Sometimes Magic Online has a different metagame than paper because cost is a huge driving factor behind what decks players will use online. For example, Black-Green Delirium, a deck that was performing well against White-Blue Flash in paper tournaments, is only 1.33% of the metagame on Magic Online. It is also the most expensive deck in Standard on Magic Online, which certainly contributes to that percentage.

Flash simply has not been a dominant force recently in paper events as Delirium decks have pushed it around and Aetherworks Marvel decks have adapted to be able to compete with it effectively. On Magic Online, though, I can easily see it being very strong since it is a deck that some of the best Magic Online grinders tend to prefer and gravitate towards, and is also a deck that is generally good against the random decks that spring up a lot on Magic Online.

I can definitely see Reflector Mage being too strong in the upcoming format in combination with Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian, and if that factored into their decision making, then I can get behind that. But that was not the stated reasoning.

Ultimately, I think the best strategy is to combine Magic Online data with results from paper Magic tournaments. They can look at events like Standard Grand Prix and SCG Invitationals and Opens alongside Magic Online data and get a more completely informed and combined look at the Standard format. Sometimes those two metagames do not look the same, and in situations like that, my experience tends to push me toward believing the results of paper tournaments way more than Magic Online results.

They also announced that they will be holding Banned and Restricted announcements more often. In addition to holding them when new sets come out, they will also be holding them five weeks after the Pro Tour. To me, this signifies that we may see changes happening more frequently to formats like Standard and Modern. I think this is a good thing, for the reasons I've discussed above, but only time will truly tell how this affects Magic in the long run, and I'll be closely watching to see if the game can grow from this. I'm hoping that it helps usher in a good period of growth for the game and can help offset the danger of Standard becoming stale or oppressed with rotations back to 24 months instead of 18.

Thanks for reading,
Brian Brauin-Duin
@BraunDuinIt




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