The Banned & Restricted list exists to provide stabilization to formats that are unhealthy. The function of course, is to maintain overall health within each format to ensure the enjoyment of the player base which should, in turn, protect and cultivate the Magic ecosystem – which in turn means Wizards of the Coast maintains the value of a booster pack. Without consumer confidence, the house of cards would likely collapse. This outlook is important to understand, because Wizards – at least in the past – has only wanted to ban cards as a last resort. But that may have changed; what we're looking at now is a complete revamp of how and why cards are banned. Coinciding with a point in time where Magic looks to be more digitized than ever, the end result is the potential for an entirely new approach to how Wizards designs Standard, and how the format evolves.
Magic is a great product, one of the most prolific and consistently popular games of all time. Over the years, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast have adopted a protect and hold approach. They haven't tried anything too crazy or aggressive to change things up. Chris Cocks, CEO and President of Wizards, created an entirely new digital team and announced a move into the digital space one month before the Magic Digital Next announcement. In a recent interview, he said that Wizards is creating several “Small Boat” projects (corporate speak for “experimental”) to tie to the whales that are Magic and Dungeons and Dragons to pursue new opportunities for those brands.
Of course, Magic has had a rough time lately in the public eye; the number of unbalanced cards coming out recently has been unacceptable. But I have faith in Dan Burdick and the brand-new Play Design team he is leading (Disclaimer:many are friends of mine). Once they have their feet wet, I'm imagining many great things from them. Most of the public doesn't understand just how slowly change can be, and often it's best to ease into progress to not risk breaking something in an overhaul.
Even more frustrating for many Magic players was the excitement built up from these digital-oriented announcements only to be let down with Magic MMOs and MTG Arena. This is still better than nothing, and in my opinion an immensely positive development. President Cocks is clearly trying to Cultivate Magic within an online and digitized world. Of course, Wizards should have made a simplified version of Magic, like Blizzard did with World of Warcraft TCG and Hearthstone. One can only hope that one of these “Small Boat” projects is exactly that (especially since Arena seems to provide a platform for the infrastructure needed for such a game). They are still clearly working toward a future where Magic (the franchise) is more than just M:tg. The outcry of hatred toward MTG Arena is unwarranted, as it seems apparent there are many developments and new projects to come. I agree that it's okay to be disappointed, but it's clear that they have hopes to build Magic in such a way to make it thrive in its new form. They make this rather clear in the initial announcement, saying it's a game they can evolve.
Remember that Wizards is almost exclusively a tabletop gaming company, as Magic and DnD are their most profitable and popular games – and they are in an entirely new market when it comes to this stuff. It's going to take some time for them to turn the page, especially since it's important for them to maintain what they already have working. They have a brand-new president, who was selected for his previous accomplishments in the field. They are now demonstrating their willingness to adapt Magic for a digital space. Melissa DeTora came out with a simple yet insightful article detailing templating and design with a digital player in mind. While this may not seem like much, Rivals of Ixalan has many cards that are templated in this manner – so many that it was actively noticeable that this is one of their main goals. This kind of article is published for a reason. They are working towards Arena, and who knows exactly what Arena will become in three years as they ease in new projects and development.
This recent set of Standard bans has shown that Wizards is changing the way they view Standard, and how they may handle it in the future. Initial reactions are quite negative toward the idea that so many bans are necessary, and people are struggling to identify what this could really be about. Change is generally positive, especially any change improving Magic's digital orientation. While this series of bans was for the overall enjoyment of the community and the longevity of Magic, it also is making a statement about the future. An eventual digital product gives Wizards of the Coast a new avenue to revolutionize how they balance and maintain Standard. Digitally cards can be changed. Hearthstone, which passed 70 million players last May, has never banned a card, instead changing cards that have been problematic for years. While Magic is likely to remain a cardboard game firstly, it's likely that a move into the digital realm will allow for balance and maintenance like never before.
Many of the banned cards in recent memory were exceptions and interesting designs, and could likely have been completely reasonable with minor tweaks. Many people, (WotC employees included) might cringe at this suggestion, but the idea that a card like Rampaging Ferocidon gets banned will become a thing of the past. Making a card game is hard, and Ixalan block has really shown what sets will look like when the designers and testers are being overly careful of what they print. It's important for and open design space to exist so we get new and exciting cards instead of stale and useless blocks.
This is all coupled with the fact that resources are being piled into Magic testing like never before – just take a look at the design process of Emrakul, the Promised End. Put me on The Rack and tear my Lotus in half, that article did not age particularly well! The horrendous testing of this card, put on display in this article by somebody who played it in the same deck as Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, is a thing of the past. These mistakes were short term, and play design will certainly give us vast improvement in the quality of testing.
It's hard to say whether Wizards was actively thinking about a digital game when it came to these bans. It's more likely that they weren't, but if not this could be a perfect stepping stone for them as they seem to be gradually moving into a new, unexplored world. Players give them too much flack for their decisions, and if anything I feel as if they likely listen to the player base way too much when it comes to issues like these that are clearly up to them, their ethos and backed up by several factors and projects that the average players doesn't know about. Let's just put it in the air to be patient with them, as players. While we're at it, hopefully Wizards identifies that they are actually doing a swell job. It's apparent that these are the most turbulent times for them in a long time, and they should stick to operating exactly how they want to accomplish their goals – especially when it comes to the digital world and projects to come.
- Steve Rubin