Are too many tournaments bad for Magic? – Fact not Fiction with Michael Maxwell

Fact not Fiction – The Winners and Losers from Pro Tour Paris by Michael Maxwell


Announcement date: June 20th 2009


Bitterblossom is banned.

The DCI has been keeping an eye on the Faeries deck for several months, and has now felt compelled to act. Taking half the top 8 slots in Grand Prix over the last 3 months, as well as consistently having a win percentage over 60 on the independent tournament circuit, the deck has clearly proven to be too powerful.  Tournament attendance has dropped significantly and it is the belief of the DCI that banning Bitterblossom will make Standard a more fun and diverse format.

Announcement date: June 20th 2010


Bloodbraid Elf is banned.

Standard has been dominated by decks featuring Bloodbraid Elf for several months now. Although the DCI is loathe to ban cards, the number of decks featuring this card has become unhealthy. Cascade has proven to be an unpopular mechanic amongst many tournament players and has caused tournament attendance to drop significantly. Six of the top 8 decks from the last 4 Grand Prix have included 4 copies of Bloodbraid Elf, and it has been a constant presence in winning decklists in Starcitygames Opens and similar tournaments.  With Standard being so stale the DCI has decided that in order to encourage a more diverse format the banning of Bloodbraid Elf is necessary.

Hi everyone,

It’s been a while since my last article, which is mostly because I’ve been at a loss for what to write about, plus some pesky thing called a thesis that I apparently have to write. I was going to write a report for GP Lille after making day 2, but I didn’t feel like I could recommend the deck I played (esper spirits) as the metagame was becoming much more hostile towards it, and I don’t find tournament reports to be overly exciting to write or read – although the thought of dedicating half the report to beating Cyrus Bales on day 1 did almost tempt me to write it…

For what it’s worth I thought the spirits deck was excellent, although times have changed and it has pretty much dropped off the radar completely. I made day 2 at GP Manchester too, but a 9-2 start turned into 10-5 and an 80-something finish, and given that reports of limited matches tend to be even less interesting than constructed ones I again didn’t bother.

At the Nottingham double header I played Delver to the top8 of the PTQ and 11th in the WMCQ, but my list was fairly standard and I figured the last thing most people would want to read was another report on killing people with 3/2s for one and 6/6s for three.  Matt Light running the ‘scoop on turn 1 because my keep was too embarrassing’ gambit after being probed was probably the highlight of that one.

So a series of ok but not spectacular finishes, the dominance of Delver, the end of Modern season left me at a loss for what to write about, but then the debate over potential bannings came up, ending with the announcement that nothing was getting the axe. I don’t particularly want to talk about the bannings or lack there-of itself (I was on the side of ban nothing or ban Ponder personally), but the debate got me thinking. Last year we had the first Standard bannings in 7 years, and this year we must have come close. There is still the possibility, judging from the tone of the announcement, that something gets the chop before the end of the season.

Does this indicate a change in philosophy from the DCI? I don’t think so. Particularly when it comes to Standard the DCI seem to be very reluctant to ban cards, and rightfully so in my opinion. So why have banning discussions become much more commonplace? As I alluded to in the opening B&R announcements I made up, the sheer number of tournaments that take place nowadays is having a significant effect on metagame evolution.

In all of the time Bitterblossom was in Standard, do you know how many Standard GPs there were? 6. Plus 2 Pro Tours and 2 World Championships. That’s 10 tournaments total, not counting various Nationals. Oh, and 3 of those 6 GPs came within 3 weeks of each other! There were several periods of 3-4 months during the time Bitterblossom was legal that there were no high-level Standard tournaments happening.

Do you know how many Standard GPs there have been in the 9 months since Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage were printed? 9. Plus a PT and Worlds. Care to guess how many SCG Opens there have been in that time? 33! That’s 44 high level tournaments in 9 months, compared to the 10 in the 21 month period Bitterblossom was Standard legal.

Now you may be thinking ‘durrr, everyone knows there are more tournaments now than there used to be’, and you’re probably right, but when you look at the numbers it is quite startling. 44 tournaments in 9 months compared to 10 in 21. That’s a 10-fold increase, or near enough. It’s not hard to imagine Gerry Thompson and friends tearing through SCG Opens week after week with Mistbind Cliques and Cryptic Commands, each week tuning their deck to be slightly more unbeatable than last week, until the constant wave of faerie tokens drives people away from tournaments.

I’ve been picking on Bitterblossom here, but I think the same argument can be made for a lot of Standard formats. When there is only one tournament every other month compared to every single weekend it’s much harder to evolve a deck through testing in real tournaments against top opposition. It’s astonishing to look back over the last few months and watch the evolution of the Delver deck. If this were 2008 we’d probably all still have Phantasmal Bear in our decks! Do you think anyone would be clamouring for a ban if that were the case?!

It used to be that there would be a GP, people would put a week or maybe two into preparing for it, then forget about Standard because there wasn’t another GP till after the next set came out. Now you have a group of extremely smart people working together to win Standard tournaments week in week out. Is it any wonder that metagames are starting to get solved on a regular basis?

You might argue that although the number of top level events has increased, the number of FNMs and PTQs is more or less the same, and bannings never happened before. I think FNM can be fairly easily discounted from that argument as, and this is especially true since ELO went the way of the dodo, players largely play FNM to have fun and test decks and therefore play all sorts of wacky stuff. Yes if there’s a PTQ the next day you want to test your top-tier deck, but in my experience people don’t turn up to FNM and crush people’s casual/fun decks with turn 3 Deceiver Exarch into turn 4 Splinter Twin every week for months on end before they get a ‘real’ match or two towards the end of each night.

As for PTQs, obviously they are much more competitive and most people will play what they think can win them the tournament, but at least in the UK I cant imagine many people play more than 4-5 Standard PTQs a year, and the season only lasts a few months. WMCQs replacing Nationals has also increased the number of tournaments.

It used to be the case that if there was a PTQ coming up and you want to look up the latest tech you either had to go off a GP from several months ago (and a new set or even a rotation may well have happened since then) or look up in some squirreled away archive what made top8 of the PTQ in Budapest 2 weeks ago. 

Nowadays the WotC and SCG homepages have coverage of events all over them and writers telling you how well they did with a deck. Then they’ll tell you the same next week when they top 8 again with the same deck but with a few tweaks to beat all the people who copied their deck from last week. There is then a snowball effect as more and more people pick up the deck, the same good players keep doing well, and then write saying how good the deck is and how bad you are for not playing it. There’s only so long people can ignore that before they jump ship.

So, do I think there should be fewer tournaments? Far from it! More people playing in more tournaments is exactly what Magic needs in order to grow, but I think there are 2 major things that are going to come up because of this.

  • Bannings are going to become a lot more common in Standard. At the very least I expect B&R announcements to be something that Standard players actually watch out for and think about, rather than something they ignore since all they ever contain is an announcement about some obscure card getting unrestricted in Vintage. I’m not saying that every 3 months something is going to get cut in Standard, but that discussions about it are going to become commonplace and bannings will happen. It’s easy to ignore a deck winning 2 out of 3 events when they’re 4 months apart, not so much 6 out of 8 within 2 months.
  • Wizards R&D have a huge task on their hands. Do you think that testing in the Future Future League (the internal testing league at WotC) has increased 10-fold since 2008-09? I would bet against it. Wizards do a great job of designing sets and formats, they really do, but they are going to have to step it up a notch if they want Standard formats to be able to survive week after week of high level play without top players boiling the format down to the best 2 or 3 decks, or even worse a clear one best deck.

It might sound like I’m all doom and gloom and that I wish there were hardly any tournaments at all, but that isn’t the case at all. I’m just trying to present the facts so that you can see for yourself what is happening and hopefully use that information to get a leg up on everyone at your next tournament. Metagaming, and also inbred mirror match metagaming, is becoming even more important than it was before and you need to realise that in order to be successful. Also, get used to discussions on Standard bannings.

I’ll leave you with a quote from an interview with recent Canadian WMCQ winner Lucas Siow: ‘I played Day of Judgment in my Delver sideboard because Gerry Thompson didn’t.

Food for thought.

Thanks for reading,

Michael Maxwell


Please let us know what you think below...

Visit our Manaleak online store for the latest Magic: the Gathering singles, spoilers, exclusive reader offers, sales, freebies and more!

Magic The Gatherig Freebies Giveaways