Well, that was predictable.
Omnath, I mean; Lucky Clover and Escape to the Wilds less so. Rather than waxing on how necessary this latest round of bans was, how appropriate, or even how late to the party, I decided I'd do something else this week.
Standard has been getting whacked by bans (and this thing called "restrictions" that we'll talk about in a bit) for the past twenty-five years. And yes, the nice people in Renton, WA will tell us about why they did this or that when one comes down.
But I decided I'd take the opposite position. I've actually been actively playing tournament Magic since before the first Standard ban (if not Pro quality Magic)... And I think that longevity might offer some perspective just now. I gather we are all thinking similar things about the last two years... A flurry of bans (and the occasional un-ban) that have marred Standard, repeatedly, for the first time in a decade. Similar things! But... What about past bans? The philosophies behind some? I thought it might be fun to talk about what players were thinking - or at least what I was doing - each time the hammer fell.
- Balance (restricted)
Balance wasn't actually banned in April of 1995, only restricted.
What's the difference?
Well Standard (or "Type II") didn't actually exist before 1995. Clearly some cards were more powerful than others, and powerful in ways that weren't particularly skill-testing.
But that didn't mean we - or rather, the nice people in Renton, WA - wanted them to disappear entirely. A lot of Magic's charm comes from the random element, and they've known that for a long time. "Restricted" cards could be played. Like Miracles some decades later, they made for exciting game play! But - feeding into that random-rather-than-eliminated angle - you could only play one copy. Consequently, restricted cards made the games more luck based simply because they afforded a player the opportunity to draw the restricted card at all, or at an opportune moment.
Wow what a Magic: The Gathering card!
It's kind of a one-card / two-mana Wrath of God (if you don't play creatures) and Armageddon (combined with another card we'll meet in a moment) that is as asymmetrical as it purports to be - ahem - balanced. What if you just played with artifacts and enchantments instead of creatures (and I guess lands)? I think Balance is probably the swingiest card in the history of the game.
Restricted cards eventually left the Standard vernacular; I think largely because of Balance. In early 1997 I once lost playing for a Pro Tour slot to one Jon Samuel Finkel. I only lost three games that day, but two of them were to Jon [again, for the slot]. That was Saturday; to make matters worse, Tuesday the following week, Jon received his ratings invite to the next Pro Tour in the mail. How did I lose?
Jon cast Balance.
Game 1 and Game 2.
He played four copies of this card:
Banned would have been better (for me).
I decided to group all these cards closely together because they're philosophically identical.
If you drew Channel early, you could immediately win the game with fast mana. For example, a Tinder Wall and a Fireball of some sort; maybe a lead-in from a Lightning Bolt, could do in your opponent on turn two. Restricting Channel wasn't good enough because some maniacs would just play four copies of Demonic Consultation and be willing to lose the small number of games where Channel was in their top few cards. Such maniacs would go on top Top 8 Pro Tours, go on to R&D, and go on to run digital games for the next decade or two.
Mind Twist was the same; only it was even easier to set up early because in Black you already had Dark Ritual (and any color could play Mana Vault). You didn't actually kill the opponent with Mind Twist, but the results were generally no less definitive. When played early, these cards prevented people from being able to develop their resources, or really play.
Black Vise was in some ways a worse offender. The most frustrating aspect of Magic is manascrew. It's not just that Black Vise would kind of auto-kill you in cases of manascrew... It killed everyone, at least a little. The Sligh mana curve would not be revealed until the summer of 1996. Basically NO ONE played 1-drops at this point! Sligh himself was running Goblins of the Flarg in the same deck as multiple Dwarves. 1-drops weren't good! If someone just drew a Black Vise and you were going second, you were guaranteed to lose upwards of five life unless you had an Ivory Tower. Imagine they played four! Imagine they played Howling Mine! They didn't even need you to be manascrewed. Black Vise killed everyone.
These cards prevented people from being able to play, and decided games based on something other than skill in the first couple of turns.
Zuran Orb was the same, even though it doesn't look like it. A player could have been executing like hotcakes the whole game. But then! Pow! Topdeck Zuran Orb! The game goes on for... However, mana lands they have to sacrifice. It took away the opponent's ability to play after they had already played, maybe really well. Also really volatile. Also a dumb combo with Balance.
The best I can say about the world back then was that it was different. Part of the motivation behind restricting these cards was simply that you could use them to get your restricted cards back after you had cast them. Part of it was that games went longer; as in larger numbers of turns, with greater battlefield development by both players, generally.
In this era my first serious tournament deck, inches from qualifying for US Nationals, was based on Sleight of Hand + Circle of Protection: Red [main deck]. I killed with Millstone. It was not uncommon to Jester's Cap the opponent's Feldon's Cane.
Yes, these were all cards people played.
- Land Tax (restricted)
What's shocking in retrospect is that people didn't all just play four Land Tax. It almost seemed like Land Tax had to be restricted before everyone realized they should be playing; you know; the one they still could.
Finalist Bertrand Lestree? Also 2 Land Tax.
Hammer Regnier and Preston Poulter (who would win and Top 8 the next Pro Tour, respectively) ran three each. Amazingly Eric Tam played a four-color deck way back in 1996 with only 1 Land Tax and Mark Justice - the first real superstar of Magic: The Gathering - had White for Balance and Swords to Plowshares... But nary a Land Tax. All these Magicians made Top 8!
But once Land Tax got restricted everyone suddenly understood it was the most powerful card they could play - should have been playing all along. Randy Buehler immediately won the first tournament he could playing 4 Land Taxes, and in Standard variants people were spending Enlightened Tutors to get their one copy like it was going out of style.
If you've ever played Legacy you probably know the pain of being blown out by multiple Wastelands. If you play Legacy like I do, you insulate yourself from terrible Wasteland-playing villains by running all basic lands (basic Mountains, natch). Imagine a universe where Wasteland can hit even basic lands!
Strip Mine, like Black Vise, was prohibitive to deck design creativity. It prevented development and could cut off a color back when the lands - the color-producing lands, that is - weren't nearly as good. If you were manascrewed, Strip Mine would end your dreams... And couldn't even be countered. Strip Mine, like Black Vise, could be played in any deck.
These cards were variations on the "if you draw one early, your opponent can't play" theme of Channel and Mind Twist. But they still let you play (some). Restricted just in time for my first Pro Tour!
I played one of each, of course.
- The restricted list
By January 1997 they just banned the entire restricted list. There were some set legality flip flops just prior to US Nationals 1997, which necessitated a carve-out for Zuran Orb.
I love fighting the boogeyman.
I love when there is a set bad guy, and you can really focus your energies against it. Figure out how to be competitive against paper and scissors, sure; but there is nothing like getting rock in the crosshairs.
It was actually this run of cards that gave me the inspiration to work on this article.
I have essentially no recollection of these bans. I mean, I suppose I knew the cards were banned; but I don't remember feeling anything about them.
Was I not playing?
Actually, I was playing my heart out.
I won several Pro Tour and Nationals Qualifiers over 1998 and 1999, Limited and Constructed. In fact, I wrote Who's the Beatdown? about this time.
So why don't I remember?
I was playing Extended.
Who's the Beatdown? begins with an Extended game state and uses examples from High Tide and Counter-Sliver.
I've been thinking recently... Is Magic really so different? Are cards really designed so much worse than they were twenty years ago? I'm not sure. I think that part of it is that Magic in those days had two very different attributes than Magic in 2020.
- Magic was inherently seasonal. You practiced for - and then played in - tournaments. Usually on the weekends. Those tournaments had stakes, so there was incentive to hide tech to be revealed during such tournaments. Today content creators stream and grind and thousands of people can be watching them at all hours on any random weekday. There are no stakes at all except for a tiny minority of players, so there is no incentive to hide tech. As a result, tech develops - and is disseminated - in a much more Darwinian fashion. Everything that's not the best simply ceases to be / never was.
- When all these Standard cards got banned, I was trying to qualify for the Pro Tour in Extended tournaments in New York, Maryland, California, and ultimately Michigan! Erik Lauer was solidifying how to make Mono-Black Necropotence mana bases... In Extended. Jon Finkel and Kai Budde were each crushing Extended Grand Prixs with High Tide. Patrick Chapin was figuring out how to win with High Tide after all his High Tides had been Lobotomied. NONE OF US WERE PLAYING STANDARD. Okay, to be fair, Zvi was playing Standard, invented his first namesake decks (around Dream Halls and Fluctuator) and then those cards got banned.
R&D's philosophy at this point was around identifying "broken" cards and then banning those. This is different from other ban philosophies like "one player can't play" or "no one is attending our tournaments any more" and Mind Over Matter was the last cardboard standing in Standard.
Weirdly, it wasn't doing anything at that point.
I qualified for US Nationals (and then finished 9th on tiebreakers there) with Mono-Black Hatred. A much more broken deck than anything running the by-then-depleted Mind Over Matter; but again, the ban philosophy was very specific at that point.
For all of the1990s, depending on how you count them (I, for instance, wouldn't double-count Zuran Orb), that's about 20 total bans in Standard. And that's including the overwhelming and famous deluge from 1999's Combo Winter.
FIVE YEARS LATER...
Skullclamp was - how shall I say this - something else.
It was most famously played in Affinity decks, but it also did some damage in Goblins decks. Tsuyoshi Fujita and Dan Paskins - famous Red Deck designers both - did some of their best work during this time period, going in very different directions. I am about as big a Fujita fan as there is (awesome man, not just an awesome deck designer)... But was breathtakingly inspired by how Paskins played just enough artifacts with Skullclamp and some mana to shave a turn off with Shrapnel Blast.
With the top of the metagame largely Goblins v. Affinity, I went a different direction, and made what ended up being called just "the green-white deck" with the help of Seth Burn, Josh Ravitz, and the usual suspects of that era. The green-white deck was the top performing deck of the US Open and - on a rate basis - US Nationals. Future Hall of Famer Brian Kibler slid easily through a field of Affinity decks... Only to lose to a never ending sequence of Skullclamps in the actual Top 8.
Skullclamp was so powerful it could almost single handedly defeat an entire deck devoted to beating it.
- Ancient Den
- Arcbound Ravager
- Darksteel Citadel
- Disciple of the Vault
- Great Furnace
- Seat of the Synod
- Tree of Tales
- Vault of Whispers
No other single day - at least not yet - has matched the Affinity ban.
But The Affinity ban represented a stark change in direction for R&D's Standard ban philosophy. Skullclamp - like the Mind Over Matter ban before it - was about banning a single overpowered card. Unlike Mind Over Matter, Skullclamp was actually doing something... But the philosophies were the same.
The Affinity ban was something else: Quite simply, for the first time ever, fewer people were competing in tournaments than they had the previous year. The culprit was Affinity and how much people disliked playing against it. So, they banned everything that could make Affinity Affinity, including cards (like Ancient Den) that never saw play in Affinity decks. While Skullclamp was in fact a card wildly overpowered relative to everything around it, the problem was that Cranial Plating was waiting to take Skullclamp's place - as an EQUIPMENT even - right there in the offending archetype. So robbing Goblins of Skullclamp actually made the format less diverse if you can believe it!
I actually would have argued that the ban was unnecessary from a format balance standpoint. There was some really good deck design going on! Adrian Sullivan was blocking Arcbound Ravagers with Sakura-Tribe Elders for the first time... And with Damage on the Stack, putting a solid dent in artifact battlefield positions. Hearth Kami in play, all set up by Sensei's Divining Top, made Affinity's path more and more difficult to navigate when challenged simultaneously by creature combat.
For my part, I was building the first Keiga, the Tide Star decks, and beating up Affinity as well. I liked my Mono-Blue deck so much I flew to Columbus, Ohio for a PTQ. I narrowly missed grinding in, but did put in my first Top 8 work in the Sunday booth!
If R&D were to ban on the prior criteria - card power level - they probably would have gone with this:
You know, the card that made your hand all un-counter-able instants.
But instead, they went for the hard ban hammer on an archetype; I'd say for the first time explicitly.
Macro: Standard was interesting before the ban. Standard was interesting after the ban. Jamie Wakefield made a brief reappearance as a super relevant deck designer with Mono-Green... So maybe it was more interesting after the ban.
... And we went more than another five years without touching Standard!
Personally, I've always hated this one.
Standard in spring of 2011 was maybe my favorite Standard of all time.
Caw-Blade was making a strong case for greatest Standard deck of all time. The week-to-week variations were creating deck design superstars (most notably Gerry Thompson), alongside an emerging regular video format spearheaded by our own Evan Erwin.
For my part, I got to go up against the boogeyman again. Just like against Time Spiral, against Affinity, I was able to make a sweet anti-deck (though this time using one of the weapons of the enemy). You may have heard of it? Splinter Twin.
I won a large Standard tournament sponsored by Wizard Magazine, going completely undefeated against some of the best Caw-Blade players in the world. My Top 8 matchups were David Shiels (who had just won Grand Prix Dallas in a Top 8 of 32 copies of Preordain and 32 copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor); a then-unknown Reid Duke; and Open Series superstar Edgar Flores: The all-Flores Finals.
Splinter Twin continued to exist post-Jace ban (and even won the first Modern Pro Tour)... But it was never the same for me.
That said, I didn't personally think the Emrakul ban made a lot of sense (though by contrast Reflector Mage - the Man-o'-War with one line of extra text - ended up one of the most warping cards ever).
Most of this I can get behind. I think this was the least fun I had playing Standard... Maybe since Faeries (note Bitterblossom never got banned in Standard); maybe ever.
The worst part was that the previous year's Standard was so awesome. I loved the Crush deck, but there were tons of exciting decks, all of them with a lot of interesting development, matchup specifics, and ultimately, play.
The Standard of Golgari, other Golgari, OTHER Golgari, Azorius misery, and Mardu Vehicles - oh and the infinite Cat Combo deck - was... I did not have fun at all. I spent a lot of time watching great players with Spirits against great players with Golgari and couldn't tell who should win, would win, or why. The most random, relatively non-synergistic, cards got played in equally random decks, for random reasons. None of the matchups seemed to have any edge to them. Emrakul did not seem to me any kind of a problem but I couldn't buy a match that year so maybe my vote is uninformed.
This set of bans just made no sense to me (and wait for it).
The emergence of the Standard Red Deck was a godsend. Red Aggro with enough lands? More than enough lands? It was the hero Standard needed after all that Energy.
That deck helped to break up what I already said was maybe the worst Standard ever, and actually made for a pretty good and diverse format. I met one of my best friends (David Tao) playing the Red Deck mirror in the finals of FNM. What was weird to me was a few months later how a couple of cards from both of the most popular decks - Temur Energy and Red Aggro - were banned... When both decks lost consistently to Approach. Why weren't more people just playing Approach? Sam Black's theory was that Approach was the best deck Game 1 but seemed to lose to everything after boards.
This was a special case around MTG Arena. Barely counts.
Wait for it...
- Rampaging Ferocidon... UN-Banned
I still don't get some of the Red Deck bans. Ramunap Ruins kind of just made people play more than enough lands. Ferocidon was annoying, especially if your anti-Red sideboard plan was based on life gain... But I kind of love the idea of siding in an anti-creature Gnarled Mass against an overpowered Control deck... and somehow getting there with it. How was that bad?
After the bloodbath of Affinity, a half decade went by with call it a dozen bans in Standard (depending on how you want to count Rampaging Ferocidon).
Now we come to a cascade of more bans in the last year alone. I think one or two of them border on unconscionable... But at the same time, I think WotC gets a bad rap. When we're done you might agree.
This one was super awful and I think is the singular case that destroyed a lot of confidence that players have in R&D, and the process.
A bunch of us were at Jon Finkel's house, talking about the exciting new set, Throne of Eldraine.
Player A found Oko, Thief of Crowns and bought a set for between $20 and $30 per.
Player B went home and bought a set - that night - for $40 per.
Player C declined to buy any, because he thought Oko was going to get banned.
What happened? I - I mean Player B - kind of already got squeezed, given secondary market prices went up by $10-20 in like an hour. But Player C really got messed up. He was just wrong about the ban. The ban on Field of the Dead but not Oko just made Oko and some of the other chase cards from Throne of Eldraine spike even higher near-term.
If you buy into a narrative that you had to own Oko, Thief of Crowns to play Standard... All of this is bad for consumers. Especially when...
The nice people here at CoolStuffInc will sell you an Oko, Thief of Crowns for under $20. So, if you want to buy one, you can get it for half the price I - or Player B I mean - paid for it. So that's cool for you, if you want to own a card that you can't hardly play [Oko apparently cleaned up in Vintage last year]. But for the bazillions of players who "had" to own Oko - especially those who bought in post-Field ban -- they lost a ton of value. Theoretically the card should still be legal in Standard alongside the rest of Throne of Eldraine.
This, I think, is the great failing of all these bans. We don't see it as much as so much of Magic becomes Arena-centric; but for those who previously primarily enjoyed making physical cardboard decks to play on Friday nights at the LGS, and had to invest real money to do so... Such wild drops in secondary market value can destroy enthusiasm in the game.
It's hard to tell what the paradigm for bans is by this point.
Oko was kind of a combination of Skullclamp (too powerful) and format-ruining (Affinity)... But the weird thing was that Standard at that point was super interesting. The games went long, you didn't really lose to manascrew, and more often than not, the better (or at least better prepared) player came out on top.
But what about Agent and Fires?
Was Agent suddenly overpowered? At the height of Field of the Dead, Agent barely got a slot in the Standard Ramp deck.
And Fires? I mean it's unbelievable on paper, but it was the second or third best deck to Oko, to Jund Sacrifice, to Simic Flash... In fact, I always kind of appreciated the design constraints it put on you and what it asked you to do to get that admitted oomph out of it.
These cards were obviously more mixed up in whatever was going on with Companions, and enablers. Was Agent busted without Lukka? Without Winota?
I almost don't want to count any of these. Outside of Cauldron Familiar, these were mostly the lame duck presidency of Standard bans.
(Which is not to say some of them weren't correct).
I'll refrain from any further commentary on these most recent nails smashed by the ban hammer and instead leave you with some variously collected thoughts:
- It's entirely possible this is what it was always like. I am confident Omnath is not a greater failure of Development than Bitterblossom.
- It's not just that we consume Magic differently in 2020 (primarily Arena versus primarily seasonal tournaments), the more salient angle is how Magic media is consumed.
- In the past, almost all tournaments were on the weekend, and almost all tournaments were dealt with exactly the same as one another. For a small number of players, a Pro Tour win was more significant than a Grand Prix win, which was more significant than a PTQ win... But to the average consumer of Magic media, there was no difference between a States Top 8 and a Worlds Top 8. The two types of tournaments were presented with the same kinds of language and with the same editorial thrust (learn this deck so you can prepare for next week's [seasonal] tournament). Some tournaments had meaningful stakes (e.g. a PTO) but from a media perspective, almost all these tournaments had the same ultimate value of being presented as content.
- In 2020, it's not just that the seasonal nature of "competitive" Magic has been swept away by the sheer volume of streamed games, all other artifacts of the pre-Arena game have become de-emphasized. Instead of a small number of geniuses being declared geniuses by a smaller number of pundits, deck choices are optimized by an endless number of iterations, largely where everyone can see. Do you really think it would have taken so long to figure out Land Tax if we had MTG Arena a quarter century ago?
- Is it more likely the designer of Oko, Thief of Crowns is so much less competent than the designer of Wasteland, Cursed Scroll, or Saproling Burst... Or simply that there wasn't a neverending stream of Fires of Yavimaya optimization content deciding every Tangle-versus-Slay, or the optimal number of Dust Bowls?
I can't say I know the answer definitively for today, but I did have a lot of fun re-living where I was when various cards got banned over the course of the last twenty-five years. I hope you liked it, too.