Five Reasons Why Standard Bans Keep Happening

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
1/19/2018 11:00:00 AM
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Welp. There go four more cards in a long line of Standard bannings over the last year. That makes nine cards banned in Standard since Kaladesh, a format that hadn't seen any bannings since Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic back in 2011, and before that, none since Affinity cards back in 2005.

Rather than focus on if these bans were justified, I'm going to instead approach this from a different perspective. Why are we seeing so many bans in Standard these days and is this something that we can expect to keep seeing in the future?

Reason #1: Lack of Countermeasures

Wizards of the Coast wants people to play with the new cards they design. If every time they printed artifacts they also printed Shatterstorm, it would really reduce the incentive for people to play with the new artifacts since people could just sideboard super effective hate cards and crush them.

This sounds well and good in theory, but in practice, it has not been so great. The problem with failing to print powerful countermeasures to new mechanics and strategies is that if something ends up being too good, there is no recourse against it. Would Emrakul have been banned if proper graveyard hate existed? Probably not. Would Smuggler's Copter or Aetherworks Marvel have gotten the axe if Pithing Needle was in the format? It would be less likely. Would Reflector Mage have gotten canned if they stopped printing creatures entirely? Of course not.

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Innistrad/Return to Ravnica Standard is one of the consensus best Standard formats of all time. There were a lot of viable decks, spawned across nearly every archetype. There were ramp decks, midrange decks, grindy engine decks, control decks, aggro decks, and more. What made this format so great was that these decks all had powerful cards that made them explosive and fun to play, but other decks also had effective ways to fight back.

Aggressive decks had to contend with Thragtusk. Control decks had to battle through Cavern of Souls. Hexproof decks beat up on many strategies but got wrecked by Supreme Verdict and/or Terminus. Reanimator decks had to deal with Rest in Peace, Scavenging Ooze and Ground Seal. Aristocrat decks that functioned off “when this creature dies” triggers were even more susceptible to Rest in Peace than Reanimator decks were. This is a model to me of what a healthy Standard format looks like. Many viable decks, all with powerful options, all with weaknesses that can be exploited by countermeasures in the format.

Countermeasures don't even need to explicitly be hate cards. Sometimes countermeasures can be simply spells that are good enough to contend with creatures, or even creatures in other colors that are good enough to compete with green creatures, which is something we haven't really seen much of lately. Effective removal spells that exile, for example, are a good countermeasure to a powerful and game-ending threat like The Scarab God that oftentimes feels unbeatable.

In the future, I think we can expect WOTC to do way better here. Sam Stoddard suggested in one of his articles that they would be making sure they had tools in the format to keep mechanics in check. They have also gone back to having a Core Set once per year. It wouldn't make sense to put Scavenging Ooze into Ixalan, but it sure fits into a Core Set. Core Sets will allow them to inject necessary stop-gap measures into the Standard format without having to worry about destroying the flavor of a specific world.

Reason #2: Design Mistakes

It should come as no surprise that when I say design mistakes, I mean energy. Some countermeasures actually did exist to energy. Solemnity, for example, was printed in Hour of Devastation with a clear purpose to hate on energy strategies and decks like Black-Green Constrictor. Unfortunately, as good as Solemnity seemed like it should have been, it simply was not good enough. On turn three, especially on the draw, sometimes the damage had already been done. Servant of the Conduit into Bristling Hydra already happened, and if you took off your third turn to cast an enchantment that did not affect the board, well, you were just dead. Solemnity needed to cost 1W, or better yet, energy should have been far less powerful of a mechanic.

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Even if Solemnity cost W and had an extra line of text that also drained all the existing energy counters, it might not have been enough. For one, decks would have to touch into white to attack Energy decks, warping the format, and Energy decks would still be capable of winning through Solemnity with Glorybringer, The Scarab God and Chandra – or they could just play cards like Slice in Twain or Appetite for the Unnatural to blow it up.

Sometimes mechanics are just so good that it doesn't really matter how much hate exists. Either the hate is still not good enough or the format gets so heavily warped around the hate that it stops resembling a playable format. Affinity in Standard was a good example of this. The format warped around the hate, which was plentiful, but it still was not enough.

Frankly, they messed up with energy. Even with effective anti-energy measures in place to keep it in check, they might have still needed to ban something, because the cards are just that good. To a lesser extent, they also messed up with vehicles. Smuggler's Copter was fatally pushed a bit too hard.

Are these kinds of egregious design mistakes going to happen again in the future?

I hope the answer is yes. They should keep testing boundaries and be willing to take risks. While mistakes will sometimes be made, good sets and formats do result when they are willing to experiment. Khans of Tarkir is an example of a great set that had a fun impact on Standard for years and lots of the cards in that set were aggressively pushed.

Sets like Ixalan, Born of the Gods, and Journey to Nyx are examples of sets where cards and mechanics were weak, and those sets had a very negligible influence on Standard and helped create stagnant Standard formats where the same dominant decks simply remained dominant through these ineffective sets. While there is a danger to pushing mechanics too far, there is just as much, if not more, danger to not going far enough.

I think the new Play Design team that Wizards has put together to test future Standard environments will help immensely with this. Hopefully, that team can both identity future mechanics that will be too strong, like energy, and also identity sets like Ixalan that are too weak and make the necessary corrections.

Reason #3: We're Better at Breaking It

Magic is way different now than it was when I first started over 10 years ago. As a collective, we have evolved in many ways, which has put strain on Standard formats to survive our collective onslaught. Standard formats lack the wide card pool that formats like Modern and Legacy have, which means that there are far less answers to problems and far less variables to figure out to solve a format. Whereas a format like Modern has constantly resisted being solved, Standard is not so robust.

For one, we have evolved significantly in deckbuilding theory. Decks these days are way crisper than they used to be. We have become very good at culling out cards that don't belong and making sure our decks only contain the essentials. Sideboards these days aren't just a collection of 15 cards that are good in various matchups, but instead include specific tailored plans for every matchup with proper numbers of what should come in and what should be sided out as well as different plans for being on the play vs. the draw.

Being better deckbuilders accelerates the process of solving a format when paired with a testing ground like Magic Online. Magic Online provides an iterative process for fine-tuning and improving decks that thousands of players can simultaneously take part in. Someone goes 5-0 with a deck in a Magic Online league. Someone else sees the list, makes a few fixes, and goes 5-0. Someone else takes that fixed list, makes a few more fixes, and goes 5-0. Rinse and repeat, with each iteration pushing closer and closer to an optimized build. Couple that with improved deckbuilding techniques making us better at solving a deck's flaws, and it's easy to see how formats get solved way quicker.

The reintroduction of leagues on Magic Online has made a huge difference in how many relevant testing matches can be played. Before leagues, there were four-round Standard Daily Events a handful of times a day, but the rounds didn't start until every player had finished playing the previous one, meaning that it could take upwards of four hours for a Daily Event to finish. Four hours to play four matches. That isn't very efficient testing. Outside of Daily Events, you could play two-player queues, but those were much less relevant testing, as they were mostly populated by budget decks or brews. Occasionally they did have gold queues...well, don't get me started on gold queues. Some would say those were the golden days of Magic, but I digress. Realistically, you only got a handful of relevant testing matches per day on Magic Online before leagues.

That is not the case any longer. Now you can shotgun matches one after another, and the competitive leagues are usually mostly filled with good builds of good decks. Instead of playing four matches over four hours, now you can play 15 matches over that period of time, against better players on better decks. That drastically improves the process of optimizing decks. Whereas before it might have taken four months to solve a format – and by that time, a new set had come out to shake things up – now it might only take five weeks.

When I look back on formats of yesteryear, I can't stop thinking about how Ponder and fetch lands were legal in the same Standard format and yet Ponder saw barely any play. It is hard to imagine, in hindsight, that we were correct to play that card as little as we did. It is also hard to imagine, these days, that we would have missed on that. Someone eventually would find a shell to play four Ponder, they'd go 5-0 in a league, and the cycle would start anew.

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Many of our beloved formats from the past might not have been so beloved if we smashed them repeatedly into a testing wall until we distilled them down to the best versions of the best decks like we do now. It is possible that many of the formats that we remember fondly actually had monster decks waiting in the wings to completely destroy the format, but we just never found them and lived happily in our ignorance.

Even beyond Magic Online league play being a huge boost for how quickly we advance and eventually solve formats, we also just have a different mentality now when it comes to Magic than we used to. Back when I first started playing Magic, there was far less content and far less homogenization of deck choices at events. Nowadays information spreads much more quickly and effectively and players are much more willing to just copy the best list of the best deck to play in a tournament than they used to be. Even if a deck back then was good enough to get banned, it didn't necessarily need to, because enough people would rather play a brew instead of giving in to playing the best deck. That seems to be a less and less common mentality each successive year.

To be clear, this isn't a complaint. People can play Magic however they want to.

However, when you add it all up, it's fairly clear to me that we've become increasingly more and more adept at breaking Standard formats. While this is certainly not the only factor that has contributed to nine cards being banned in Standard, it is still a factor, and this is not something that is going to change. We are going to be just as good, if not better, at breaking Standard formats in the future. No matter how well Wizards designs upcoming sets, some might just not be good enough to survive The Breakening, and bans might be needed to fix it.

Reason #4: Ban Philosophy Has Changed

Wizards used to treat Standard bans very delicately. They would almost never ban a card unless it became absolutely necessary. Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic had completely decimated Standard for an egregiously long period of time and attendance was down quite a bit before they finally, begrudgingly, decided to ban those cards.

Now we are looking at cards like Reflector Mage, Rampaging Ferocidon and Ramunap Ruins banned. The power level of these cards is laughable compared to the power level of other cards banned within the last 15 years of Standard. The excessively strict requirements necessary to ban cards appears to be long gone. Instead, they are choosing to ban cards in Standard in a fashion similar to how they ban cards in Modern. This makes sense. Modern is well-loved and is consistently the most popular format right now, based on attendance.

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In Modern, they quickly ban cards as soon as they start to become a problem, without waiting long enough for those cards to start to produce a consistent negative impact on format attendance. They aren't even exclusively banning cards that are too powerful, as shown by bans on cards like Splinter Twin and Green Sun's Zenith, which were done for the sake of competitive diversity. Banning a card like Rampaging Ferocidon follows in this vein.

Ferocidon doesn't seem anywhere close to ban-worthy in terms of power level, but it does stifle archetype diversity, which is a pretty good indicator of how Wizards might be treating the Standard banlist from here out. Previously, it would have been madness to even consider a card like that getting banned. But here we are, alive in 2018, and anything can happen. Madness? This. Is. 2018.

I think it's likely that we would have seen more bannings over the past decade if Wizards had adopted a similar strategy as they are using now. Cards like Bitterblossom, Geist of Saint Traft and Collective Company might not have survived.

Reason #5: Two-Year Set Rotations

Last year, Wizards decided to shift Standard rotations from a system where sets would rotate out every two years to an 18-month rotation system. Then, based on a lot of negative feedback, they shifted it back again to two years, without even trying the 18-month system they had developed. Having Standard rotations at every 18 months provides some advantages for reducing the need to ban cards. If a card or strategy is becoming too dominant, it will rotate out sooner, which might remove the necessity for a ban, allowing rotation to handle the problem naturally. However, with two-year rotations, sometimes there is too much time remaining to make this a viable option, necessitating a ban.

Having sets remain in Standard for two years might just be the sweet spot for creating risk of Standard bans. It's just long enough that problem cards will remain in the format for enough time to cause lasting damage. It's just short enough that the card pool remains small and weak enough where players often lack effective tools to fight problem cards or strategies, unlike deeper formats like Modern or Legacy.

I don't think Wizards will attempt to propose shorter Standard set rotations after the backlash that happened the last time when they tried to pop the 18-month rotations on us. However, it is certainly feasible that in the future we will see something like a three-year Standard, which is fairly unexplored territory. It's possible that such a format will be large enough to avoid being solved long enough to reduce the frequency or necessity of bans.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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