January 2017 MTG Banned List Announcements: Standard Bans And Why We Need Them, by Kerry Meyerhoff
So, on January 9th, Wizards of the Coast surprised us by not only springing the B&R announcement a week early, but by making some very bold statements with their new bans that have sparked much debate, and in some cases an outcry, amongst the community.
In five hours (11AM PST) there will be a Banned & Restricted List update. We will share the article when it is live.
— Magic: The Gathering (@wizards_magic) January 9, 2017
Firstly, the very fact that the announcement came early has very much upset some people who were selling cards or buying them in, and whom only had 5 hours notice before it came early. However, the reason that Wizards decided to do this is due to the Pro Tour; the B&Rs are scheduled with set release months in advance, but knowing the magnitude of the cards they were planning to ban, they couldn’t realistically leave it a week later and let the pros test, as they would all undoubtedly be using one of the three Standard cards in their lists. They had to take a decision to let the pros know a week earlier so they can get some new decks together, and unfortunately, this comes at the cost of some speculators’ money. This is unlikely to happen again in the future, and was probably only due to exactly how much they planned on banning.
So what was the damage?
In case you’re living under a rock and haven’t yet seen the new B&R announcement, there were five total cards added to the ban list:
Additionally, they have announced that there will now be eight banned and restricted announcements each year, doubling the current amount. The extra ones will be five weeks after each Pro Tour, allowing the meta to settle down and then refining it if necessary. This allows for more flexibility with B&Rs, but they have definitively stated that it does NOT mean there will be any more cards banned or unbanned with each announcement, only that it will allow them to respond more quickly to disasters such as Eldrazi Winter.
You can find the announcements here: JANUARY 9, 2017 BANNED AND RESTRICTED ANNOUNCEMENT
So, what do these bans mean for the formats we know and love?
I will discuss the Standard bans first. To illustrate the gravity of these bannings, there has not been any card banned in Standard since Jace, the Mind Sculptor in 2011 – and now there are three at once. Reflector Mage is the first uncommon to be banned in Standard since Skullclamp! This spells some serious issues with the current Standard environment, issues that were highlighted by a few pro players some weeks back, and Wizards have responded very harshly to the feedback.
Firstly, this is in its own right a good thing. That Wizards are not only taking the time to find out what the pro community and the wider Magic player base think of their formats, but are actually responding positively to the feedback to try and make the game into something we are happier with, shows that the company is really taking its players seriously, and taking what we want into account when making important decisions. This shows great integrity from the company as well as a willingness to admit that their internal testing is perhaps flawed in certain areas, and concede to the fact that the wider player base will usually come up with something they can’t, due to the limiting factors testing entails. Hopefully, this kind of market research will help to improve the game in the future, streamlining new sets before they are released by gauging the public reaction to current cards.
In terms of the response this time around, personally I think that all three bans are a good call from Wizards. Browsing the Top 8 decks of almost any recent Standard tournament will show you a sea of Aetherworks, Delirium, Flash and Vehicles decks. While some might claim that this is a pretty diverse metagame with four standout decks and some other lower-tier but playable brews such as the Zombies list, or the Red/Blue Control deck, the issue that has arisen is that among the top four all-stars, two of them are running Emrakul as a win condition and the other two are trying to beat it.
Now, everyone can see the issue with Emrakul. The original Mindslaver was a fun, quirky card that had to be sacrificed, was a lot of mana for not very much of an effect and rarely saw much play. However, with the return of this mechanic in 13/13 trample form, which can be cast for 6 mana if you’re lucky, and re-bought easily from the graveyard should it ever die, it becomes less fun and quirky and more “I wish I wasn’t playing this game.” You would have to take your turn in the least detrimental way to prepare for someone else playing your deck next turn, rather than in the most beneficial way for you, and this introduced a whole new level of games that was frustrating and difficult to navigate, even for professionals. Far from being the Promised End, Emrakul in fact more often than not only extended mirror matches far beyond any reasonable level of play, confused commentators, warped playstyles around it and resulted in many lengthy judge calls.
I’m pretty heartbroken for MaRo, as I know he and the team were really excited with the design and flavour of Emrakul, and he hoped that it would bring a “new story every time” to games of Standard. In actuality, it just resulted in pretty much the same story every time: one person with the feel-bads because their whole board got destroyed, and another with a 13/13. I think most people agree that honestly, the card is too powerful and has a not-very-fun effect, and even before Aetherworks Marvel was in Standard, it was far too cheap. Now it’s become the win condition for a turn-four combo deck, someone had to draw the line. This is yet another unfortunate lesson about cost reduction mechanics that will hopefully stay with the designers through the next few sets.
Verdict: Was the Emrakul ban correct? In my opinion, certainly.
The seemingly innocuous card at first appears to be an odd target for a Standard ban – surely this friendly little copter can’t be categorised in the same class as Stoneforge Mystic, Memory Jar and Tolarian Academy?
Well, while you might be right about that, the reason that Wizards have given for banning Copter is the same as the reason they gave for banning Splinter Twin from Modern back in January last year – it’s run in everything. This little value engine is easy to crew, cheap and most importantly colourless, so almost every single person is jamming four in their list because why wouldn’t you? No matter what deck you’re playing, a 3/3 evasion with looting attached is great value and adds to your game plan. When one card can go in every deck from aggressive, low-to-the-ground red strategies to blue-white control lists, there needs to be an assessment of its power level relative to the current format.
In addition, the Vehicle mechanic by proxy made some of their other big-name cards virtually useless. The biggest example of this is Chandra, Torch of Defiance. She’s great on paper but when you match her up against a Copter that she can’t kill, she doesn’t seem so hot. The same goes for Nissa, Vital Force, which sees some play but is also severely limited by the presence of Copter in the format. Wizards want to see their exciting mythic planeswalkers being used, and at the moment they just don’t match up well for 4 or 5 mana against a 2-mana flier that can’t be killed at sorcery speed. By banning Copter, they’ve effectively widened the field of cards that are likely to be played, because you don’t have to jam in loads of instant-speed removal or hold up mana to stop your opponent gaining incremental advantage.
Basically, Wizards have decided that Copter has to go because it just too easily fits into everything. They want to see people using more of their cards, and with Aether Revolt just around the corner, they want some new strategies to emerge from the woodwork. If everyone is still priced into running four of these just because they’re such value cards, or priced into running removal for it, they’ll be using less cards from the new artifact set and Wizards wants to see a change. Thus, Copter had to go, as the main culprit of stagnating diversity in Standard.
Verdict: This little copter was a victim of its own value. RIP, friend, but we may yet see you back before you rotate – watch this space.
Oh, Reflector Mage, you troublesome little man. Since the days of Collected Company you have been a bane on Standard. This card has been on many players’ hit lists for a long time as a frustrating and irritating tempo play that puts the opponent far behind and sometimes can carry a game off its own back. It’s not as bad now as it was during the reign of CoCo and Rally the Ancestors, arguably, because you can’t get two of them at instant speed anymore; but it’s still a card that a lot of players would have liked to see out the door.
The reason given by Wizards is because of the prominence of the White/Blue Flash deck that has crept up as an anti-Emrakul strategy in recent tournaments. The deck aims to get in under Emrakul by putting the opponent back turn after turn with counterspells and tempo play, then beating down with Copters, Spell Queller and Reflector Mage. If the worst should happen, it’s also quite difficult to really screw up your turn with Emrakul, because half the cards are so reactionary that you have to have a set of very specific pieces in order to deal real damage, so often you can keep on playing with relatively little damage to your board state beyond losing a creature or two.
So, Reflector Mage is not only a great counter to Emrakul in a dire situation, but if you can keep putting Mindwrack Demon or Grim Flayer back into their hand and render them unable to cast it again for a turn, you are almost literally Time Walking them if it’s early in the game. This can allow you to get in under Emrakul, or if she happens, the opponent is generally on quite low life and you have the chance to bounce her and have potentially two turns before they can cast it again to finish them off.
The thing is, after deciding that Emrakul had to go – well, what of the anti-Emrakul deck? White/Blue Flash is already incredibly good, with the remnants of the old Collected Company lists, improved by Smuggler’s Copter and packed with counterspells; Wizards decided that a card had to be targeted to prevent this deck from just taking over, and lo and behold, the culprit that came up time and time again was Reflector Mage. It’s not a very fun card, and when paired with Eldrazi Displacer as some decks have been doing, you can prevent the opponent from ever having a board or casting anything ever again, and that’s something Wizards have expressly wanted Standard to move away from. So, he got the chop.
Verdict: Yes, this ban was absolutely justified. This card can result in some absolute nonsense. Once Emrakul was gone, it was next on the list.
So, though this swathe of Standard bannings was partially unforeseen and, since the days of original Mirrodin, really unprecedented, I do think that it’s a reasonable reaction to the current Standard environment, which was stagnant, boring and not very fun to play in. Having said that, my personal perspective on this is that the root cause of these issues has been: Wizards cannot, and never have been able to, properly balance artifact sets. Consider Urza’s, Mirrodin, New Phyrexia – artifacts are a very difficult card type to manage due to the fact that they don’t have summoning sickness, but they’re as cheap or cheaper than creatures. In fact, I find it quite difficult to think of many artifacts that are just “good” – though Solemn Simulacrum and Hangarback Walker come to mind. Most artifacts are either broken (see Black Lotus), unplayable (Razor Boomerang) or somewhere on each end of the scale – very few are just “good”. When you put a lot of artifacts in the same set, there are going to be a few on both extremes of the scale, and for Kaladesh, it was Smuggler’s Copter and Aetherworks Marvel that were the standouts. That said, Kaladesh has probably been the most balanced artifact-based set yet, which shows that Wizards are getting there with it, but it still warranted some extreme changes to Standard before the next set comes out.
And speaking of the next set, there has been some noise about the new Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo. People seem to think that the removal of Emrakul from the format will make way for a sea of Jeskai decks taking advantage of the new “Splinter Twin“. While the deck will almost certainly see some play, I highly doubt it will become anything close to the powerhouse people are raving about. If you want to kill on turn 4, as Twin did often, you need to have Saheeli resolve and survive an entire turn. If you want to kill on turn 6, which is the earliest you can do so without having to wait a turn to go off, you have to play into potentially 6 untapped mana on your opponent’s side and hope they have no counterspells or creature removal. If you want to go off with counterspell backup, it’s around turn 8 or 9 and honestly, you’re probably dead anyway because your opponent has been getting on with the game while you’ve been fannying about waiting, or digging for your combo. Wizards have learnt from Deceiver Exarch. Anything that can blink on entry will be carefully scrutinised; they were certainly aware of what they printed and what implications it would have, and it seems that there will be enough creature removal in the format that they are not worried about this “Twin-esque” combo. There was certainly no need to preemptively ban a card before it’s even hit the format, Memory Jar style.
So, with Standard covered, onto Modern.
Since its printing, this card has very rarely ever been used in what one might term “fair” decks. I have spoken about it at length in my Top 10 Broken Cards article where I covered Phyrexian mana; it’s a dangerous mechanic that resulted in a lot of dangerous cards. Probe has a tendency to be fairly overlooked, but in reality, it contributes to a lot of silly decks.
The card itself has a fairly innocuous effect – cycle, and look at someone’s hand for 2 life. The issue has arisen from the cards it has surrounded itself with. With the resurgence of Delve, and most particularly Become Immense, getting an extra card in the graveyard for free which also replaces itself is a massive deal. This card represents +4/+0 on a Kiln Fiend for free. It represents +2/+2 on a Death’s Shadow. It’s run as a four-of in most aggressive combo decks that want to get you dead, because they don’t have to use their brain to know if they should go all-in on their only Blighted Agent – they can just see your hand and play around everything, or see that the coast is clear.
So, while this card on its own isn’t intrinsically very powerful, in relation to the current format and the decks which use it, it’s actually a very integral part of the aggro meta. By removing it, Wizards has effectively shaved a turn off some of the quicker decks, and this might allow more control or midrange lists to get a look in again. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to slow the format down to a stage the company and the players are happy with, or whether there will need to be further bans or unbans in the future, but for now, Gitaxian Probe is gone and with it, many turn-2 or -3 kills.
Verdict: This card has been on the list of possibles for a long time, with many pros and cons. It will be interesting to see if this works out in the way we expect. Overall, though? A good ban.
Dredge. Dredge, dredge, dredge. Why, oh why, did we ever deserve dredge?
This mechanic has been a thorn in the side of R&D ever since its inception. It’s one of MaRo’s own creation and one of his personal favourites, but it really wasn’t thought all the way through. What was supposed to be a downside, turned into an engine that powered an entirely different way of playing Magic that not everyone likes or wants in their formats.
Particularly Modern players.
This card has been featured on the ban list before, but Wizards thought it safe to remove it – just before they printed Insolent Neonate, Prized Amalgam and Cathartic Reunion. Suddenly, Dredge everywhere and we’re back to where we started. Of course, the old argument is that Dredge dies to sideboard hate – but this time, it doesn’t. It has so many ways to come back from a Grafdigger’s Cage or a Rest in Peace – I’ve seen it happen – and even if those cards were still the silver bullets they should be, beating it usually relies on you drawing them turn 1 or 2, and if you don’t, well, bad luck. This battle of the sideboards doesn’t contribute to a fun playing environment, so Wizards have tried their best to again ensure that Dredge stays well and truly away from tier 1.
However, this time, I don’t know how well it’s going to work. By removing Grave-Troll once more, Wizards have effectively replaced a Dredge 6 card with a Dredge 4 in Golgari Thug. This will have the effect of slowing the deck down significantly, and potentially preventing the incredible turn-3 12-power board states that can occur, but it remains to be seen whether this is enough to shut it down altogether. One of the main issues with the Dredge deck is that it keeps coming back no matter how many times you kill its creatures, unless you have one of the sideboard cards that Wizards want to not matter so much. Removing Grave-Troll only slows that engine down, and with Prized Amalgam in the format, I don’t know if this will have the same effect as it did on the old Dredge decks.
For me, I would have liked to see a Conflagrate ban. This card not only allows them to dump their whole hand into the graveyard, but acts as a 2-mana Plague Wind or triple Lightning Bolt half the time. It clears your whole board, or burns you out, and there’s nothing you can do about it because it’s in their graveyard already – unless, of course, you have the aforementioned sideboard hate. Which sometimes isn’t even enough. This, out of all the cards in the deck, is probably the one that stands out to me as being the most dangerous, because if they “topdeck” it late into the game in combination with a Life From the Loam, they can go from losing to winning in a matter of one turn.
In any case, it’s good that Wizards have decided the deck needs to go, and it remains to be seen whether the Grave-Troll ban will do enough to slow it down.
Verdict: Right idea, perhaps the wrong card. This is a judgement call.
And so now, we move onto the final part of the announcement. Having eight B&Rs a year will allow a lot more flexibility with bannings, but it also might have backlash for Wizards if they meddle too much in formats. Having a new deck surface only to be banned out four weeks later may make people wary of investing in cards, particularly in formats like Modern where the price spikes are incredibly volatile anyway. I do think this is unlikely, as they have promised there will not be a higher volume of bannings, only a higher frequency at which they can occur, in order to make sure that a format isn’t just unplayable for three months, which is what happened last year. I think that overall this is a good idea, but that Wizards will need to make sure they are keeping good on their promise of not overdoing it, because constant bannings and unbannings may result in a lot of frustration from the player base.
So, what do you think of the bans? Do you agree with my assessment or not? Is there something else you think should have been banned or unbanned? Please let us know below!
Thanks for reading,