The Future of Magic: Life After Bans
Hi everyone and thanks for tuning in! I’m Drifter, back with another article. This time, I’m doing a departure from my regular fact-based strategic content, and bringing you some of my thoughts on the recent wave of bans while talking about the future and health of Magic. Recent events have affected random magic players and pros alike, and I find myself with a lot to say, and a lot of examples to show from many discussions. I aim both to inform people of the facets of each main discussion, and to provide well-explained and evidenced viewpoints.
I’ll be exploring and analyzing the recent bans themselves within the framework of the whole of 2019, while making constant reference to the PlayDesign article which seeks to explain both their reasoning for the bans and Wizards’ approach to ongoing design. I’ll include some tweets/videos that express useful and interesting viewpoints on the whole shebang. I will attempt to remain as objective as I realistically can, and look at both what Wizards is doing well and badly – I am generally positive about the bans, and offer constructive criticism about the PlayDesign article and some issues I highlight in Wizards’ approach. I will conclude with some expectations we as a community should have of Wizards going forward, and suggest some further steps/solutions.
So first we should address the elephant in the room – the recent bans will have the most impact on our lives in the short term (since we can’t play with some of the cards now!), but just as importantly give us insight into Wizards’ long-term decision-making. Arguably more important than the state of any single format for the next few months is what Wizards learned from 2019 – because 2019 has been a year of many grave mistakes: a year damaged by a handful of cards that have completely warped the landscape of several formats. I’m not trying to bash Wizards – their job is extremely hard, 2019 certainly still had plenty of cards of merit, and a few cards slipping through the net in sets of several hundred cards is inevitable. However, this time it was more than a few, and there were bigger mistakes than we are used to. The vast majority of cards designed in 2019 were balanced and fair, but the magnitude of the mistakes is so colossal that it’s hard to chalk this year up as a victory for them; all five cards banned or restricted in the announcement were printed in 2019. Most of you will not need reminders of the state of Standard over the last couple of months, where we went from Field of the Dead being far too good post-rotation to green decks, specifically Oko decks, claiming an almost unprecedented level of dominance.
The Bans Themselves
Having said that, the bans far exceeded my expectations. There were many speculators that Wizards would not ban Oko in fears of a) eroding the trust and potentially gravely damaging the wallets of people who bought the card and b) hampering their pack sales by banning a flagship mythic of the set so close to release. I’m pleased to say that Wizards looked past these two important problems in service of a far greater consideration: the overall health, playability and enjoyment of the Standard format. The magic community as a whole, pros and plebs like me, virtually all agree that Oko was busted: the way it pushed out expensive artifacts and creatures was limiting and damaging; the fact that it was virtually unkillable by creatures or burn, and made its controller much harder to kill by creatures and burn was very frustrating and overall, it is the greatest example of an age old problem people have highlighted with planeswalkers in general: they are a black hole that forces the entire game to revolve around them for as long as they are in play. I’m going to leave it at that; most of you know this stuff anyway – but I am more detailed in my thoughts on Oko in my Sultai Food Deck Guide (a bit obsolete now but still an amusing read written in a very tongue-in-cheek way, with historical relevance!) if you’re in the minority that wants to hear about him again. I will also link this cogent and practical explanation from Hall of Famer Ben Stark; I avoided rehashing his arguments.
Once Upon a Time made Standard games boring and samey, and in a card game that is a very bad thing – as with many factors of game design, consistency requires striking a balance. Too little and it’s difficult to plan for and play around in-game events (which has its own appeal: see Commander and the singleton formats!), to build synergistic decks cohesively (i.e. decks building around Cat Oven could not exist in a singleton format) and it shrinks the value of playing decks centred on just a few important payoffs. Too much and you get the last few months of Standard: most green decks have played out in a very similar way game-to-game because the combination of Once and the London Mulligan makes them so consistent i.e. the Simic Food decks were able to curve ramp into busted midrange cards into Nissa/Krasis in the vast majority of games, and that greatly hampered the replayability and interestingness of playing both with and against them. When the invested Standard player can easily end up playing hundreds of games with or against the same good deck, this becomes a major problem and led to Standard becoming stale very quickly.
There’s also the issue of how powerful and hard to deal with consistent ramp every game that doesn’t fall off later on is – Wizards has avoided printing one drops that can fix for any colour for years, until Gilded Goose. Pre-rotation, the power of Llanowar Elves was curbed by the power of a meta-defining counter in Goblin Chainwhirler, and it was still one of the best cards in every format. It could not fix, it fell off in the late game; Gilded Goose has neither of these issues, and Once made Simic Food far too likely to find Gilded Goose on turn 1 each game. In a format where green was already far too strong, the combination of Goose and Once really pushed it to ridiculous levels. The Cat Oven decks also benefitted immensely from Once – it made them much more likely to find Cat or ramp. I think some flavour of that deck would’ve taken the reins from Oko if not for this ban and might well have been too powerful, given they took down GP Richmond ahead of the Food decks just before the update.
I am hoping the Once ban and the Oath of Nissa ban in Pioneer will lead Wizards to tone down the power of the tools of consistency that they print – specifically when a format has the best cards in a format, they should not also have the best tools to ensure they draw those cards more often. I think making Once upon a Time free much of the time was an egregious mistake – tools of consistency should have costs and the most suited cost is to make them low on tempo. Free spells have proven time and time again to be a mistake, and I think Wizards underrated the power of free consistency here.
Veil of Summer is one of the gravest mistakes of 2019 in my mind; it is far too efficient a rate for a sideboard card, and it pushes blue and black decks out of the meta by virtue of its very existence. It has already eaten a Pioneer ban because most times, sideboarded games against this card involve a player casting a removal or counterspell having that spell countered and having their opponent draw a card for 1 mana. The swing of that is completely absurd – most removal and counterspells are not merely going to cast 1 mana so your opponent is down massively both on card advantage and tempo. Part of the problem is that there are so many applications – in standard, you can counter anything from Murderous Rider to Mass Manipulation, and you can make Agent of Treachery into a vanilla 2/3 for 7 mana. It is neither too situational nor a dead draw in the late game. The feeling of casting a 6 or 8 mana spell into Veil of Summer is absolutely backbreaking, and because it only costs 1 mana, your opponent will have the mana up to counter your expensive spell most of the time. I played a good deal of Grixis Fires at the start of the Oko standard format, a deck that I quickly realised was only playable in Bo1 – I could not keep up with the card and tempo advantages that Veil provided in post-board games.
The fact that Veil, at 1 mana, is so easy to hold up means it does not lead to engaging or interesting gameplay at all – in most spots, it can’t be played around. It is the cheapest and most devastating haymaker in any sideboarded games against green, and it showed that green really did have everything in the last format: best creatures, best planeswalkers and best sideboard options.
Banning sideboard hosers wasn’t really something that was done before; there hasn’t really been a need to before because they tend to be quite limited in scope, they’re naturally situational so they don’t crop up everywhere and warp formats often. However, I think Veil definitely showed its ability to do that – it was in every Standard sideboard, most Pioneer sideboards and its very existence was enough to keep Dimir decks out of both metas. Wizards’ willingness to ban kinds of cards that weren’t a problem before shows a healthy attitude. Printing Veil in the first place was still a huge mistake, of course, but it doesn’t seem like something they’ll repeat if they were willing to ban Veil, and thereby acknowledge it as one. Whereas Oko might contribute positively to Modern, I would like to see Veil of Summer banned there also: I think the card is too fundamentally broken and the way it pushes out blue and black decks in sideboarded games too damaging. It’s probably fine in Legacy, where mana matters more and there are 0 mana counters lurking.
I’ll touch very briefly on Legacy and Vintage. I’m not an expert on these formats, but I played Legacy regularly up until a couple of years ago and have watched a lot of Vintage Super League. I can say that before Wrenn and Six, Legacy was wide open: there was a wider variety of good decks one could play both at FNM and tournament levels than I’ve seen in any other format. After Wrenn and Six, Legacy mainly devolved into 4 colour Wasteland decks – Wrenn’s ability to create massive card advantage with Brainstorm, and to recur Wasteland repeatedly to lock other decks out of the game was far too good at warping the meta around it.
As for Narset, she seemed ideally suited to Vintage – Narset is very much kept in check by creatures in Standard; Vintage is defined by spells, not creatures. When Narset isn’t killed by creatures, she does a very good Dig through Time impression (that card’s definitely never broken anything, right?), but that’s only the start. Vintage also has a huge variety of extremely powerful draw options: from cantrips to cards like Dack Fayden, Treasure Cruise, Paradoxical Outcome and Ancestral Recall. Narset is very adept at locking the other side out of the game for as long as she was in play, and she can come down very quickly with the available fast mana. Earlier this year, we saw Karn, the Great Creator (another 2019 card!) restricted for very similar reasons: it provides card advantage and locks opponents out of the game: Narset attacks the cards while Karn attacked the mana, in the form of moxen and other artifact rocks.
Wizards states in the PlayDesign article that it has seen the correlation between cheap planeswalkers and bans, and it will work to only print them “sparingly and carefully” in future. The PlayDesign article’s FIRE acronym is an amusing reflection of how much Wizards has been playing with fire of late, and how the player base has been burnt. I think the specific emphasis on planeswalkers being the issue is absolutely right, and was very pleased to see that touch: 3 of the 5 bans were directed at cheap planeswalkers and really, there are still several powerful planeswalkers that while not banned, have caused issues in the past and will continue to be at Standard’s forefront: Nissa and Teferi.
Debate has raged for many years on whether planeswalkers are even good for the game of magic, and certainly this is another ink blot on their already stained books – the situation has had pros advocating rules changes to make planeswalkers weaker, and to try to curb the tendency I mentioned earlier for games to revolve around them while they are in play. Jon Finkel, one of the greatest players of all time, outright states that he has thought planeswalkers have made magic a worse game for years.
Planeswalkers are extremely powerful engines that provide immediate value and growing ongoing advantage for a one-time investment (and as we’ve seen recently, often far too cheap of one), while protecting themselves and functioning as win conditions – if you’ve ever played with Mary Sues in tabletop RPG, you’ll be able to highlight the issue with this. They also contribute to making games samey, in that games where a planeswalker sticks on the board often aren’t all that dynamic – the player with the planeswalker is on the mode of “protect the planeswalker and use its abilities to accrue advantage in the same way, turn after turn”.
Wizards has stated that planeswalkers are inherently hard to design and that’s apparent just from looking at them – there are so many things you can tweak, so many dials you can adjust. A common argument people have made is that if Oko’s second ability were a minus or the first was merely +1, the card would be fine, and I certainly think a lot of the card’s power is in its gigantic loyalty and being practically immune to damage. If it’s endemic to planeswalkers that designing them is akin to playing with fire (and not in the fun, inviting, replayable, exciting sense), that’s certainly a strike against them.
It’s difficult because planeswalkers have also been a huge success from a branding perspective, allowing players to relate to characters within the Magic Universe on a much deeper level; they do contribute positively to the health of the game in broadening casual appeal and furthering marketing efforts.
Curbing planeswalkers’ influence is something Wizards is unlikely to do at this point, but I do think they are overall a net negative on the gameplay experience, and that long-term the solution may have to be to hamstring them in some way. There has been a recent resurgence in emphasis on planeswalkers; for a while, they contributed to standard environments rather than defined them and 3 mana planeswalkers were a rarity. Pre-War of the Spark, planeswalkers were not nearly as ubiquitous – there have been individually dominant planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but the latter half of 2019 was unique in that there were many planeswalkers all vying for the top spots at the same time, as Wizards had printed so many crazy ones in such a short period of time. There’s only so much space for great cards in decks at the top, and I do feel that the density of planeswalkers pushed out deck space for strong creatures and other permanent types, and forced design to shift in the direction of cards like Questing Beast to limit their impact, rather than having individually interesting cards (or those that aren’t affronts to elegant design).
The impact of the Bans
All in all, I do think the bans in the announcement were very positive for the health of the game and more than that, they show that Wizards does have the willingness to correct its mistakes, even when there are a lot of them. The worries that they wouldn’t in the case of Oko, or that they wouldn’t want to ban so many cards from the newest set so quickly proved unfounded, and that sends a very positive message – maintaining the playability, enjoyment and health of the game is still of paramount importance, above all else, to Wizards. Chase mythics; flagship cards; the biggest draws of the recent set: none of these are immune. This is something that many people, myself included, were beginning to doubt a little and I consider that assuaged.
However, I do think that the recent Standard crisis was foreseeable, and the lack of immediate action says detrimental things of wizard’s approach – a month ago, a vast swathe of pros and regular players alike were identifying Oko as highly problematic and petitioned Wizards for his ban alongside Field; Food decks seemed ready to immediately assume Field’s mantle. In not banning Oko or another green card, Standard worsened dramatically and the last month of Standard has been one players have identified as one of the worst of all time.
When this question was posed, Aaron Forsythe tweeted that Wizards didn’t want to pre-empt bans, since the Reflector Mage ban three years ago was poorly received, and that was pre-empting blue white being the best deck post-Smuggler’s Copter ban.
I have a couple of issues with this: I was around for the Reflector Mage ban, and I don’t think there was nearly as much talk about blue white being the best deck, and being too busted if Copter were banned. In the case of Oko, it felt like most people who had played with the card realised that it was far too strong, and would be meta-warping as soon as its main predator in Field was gone. With the advent of Arena, a lot more Standard games are being played day-to-day; the situation has changed. I interpret the Reflector Mage ban as based on more of a hunch from Wizards with testimony from a few people, whereas people had played literally thousands of games with Oko at that point, and there was real consensus that the Food decks would be too strong. Additionally, Simic Food was already doing extremely well in tournaments – it took three places of the top 8 at Mythic Championship V, immediately preceding the Field ban and outperforming the Field decks! Hence, I don’t really think a ban from three years ago in completely different circumstances should have been such a large factor in whether Oko was banned or not. I think this was a failure of Wizards to really engage with community feedback, to show the players the respect they deserved, and really listen to the consensus that something was wrong.
The need for all these bans shows an inborn issue with playtesting: I don’t really think Oko would have been released in its current state if it had been extensively tested by a large variety of people. Wizards says in the PlayDesign article that they did not “properly respect Oko’s ability to invalidate essentially all relevant permanent types” and that they lost sight of the card over a “skew of late redesigns”, which probably means that these redesigns weren’t really followed by extensive playtesting. I think a solution to this would be to allow pro players the ability to playtest cards in development to have a role for them and this idea has been expressed many times – Jacob Wilson tweeted that he approached Wizards about doing this several times, and never got a response.
Really, I think that Wizards is failing to exploit resources in the community that would be happy to help prevent future disasters. While we received an excellent series of bans, and have reinvigorated some of my optimism going into 2020, I think the reasons for 2019 being such a warped year for card design need to be investigated by Wizards and addressed publicly. I don’t really see the PlayDesign article as having gone far enough – the deluge of new acronyms to express factors like replayability that presumably R&D were already designing magic based around don’t really accomplish anything in my book. While the bans make me hopeful for the future, the PlayDesign article gives me the impression we’re going to be seeing just more of the same, but with fewer cheap planeswalkers. Maybe that will be good enough but I don’t think the player base should settle for that; I think stronger steps need to be taken to ensure the damage that’s already been done isn’t repeated.
Thanks for reading! I might well do a follow-up to this, as I have some more issues with regards to the PlayDesign article, but a constant feature of my articles is I tend to have too much to say…
The MTG Arena Zone discord: https://discord.gg/SPYMExR. Engage with your favourite arenazone content creators there, myself included!
Some peeks into the developing new Standard meta: https://mtgazone.com/twitch-rivals-mtg-arena-decklists/
 https://vintagesuperleague.com/. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning about vintage or seeing intricate gameplay from fantastic players in a format that doesn’t have much exposure.