How Could We Have Avoided The January 2017 MTG Banned & Restricted List Changes? – Teaching An Old Prof New Tricks, by Craig Jones
Hello and welcome to the first in what I hope will be a regular series of articles on my adventures playing competitive Magic: the Gathering across the UK and further afield (if I’m lucky). This will be a mixture of decks, tournament reports and my thoughts on whatever seems topical at the time.
With that out of the way I suppose I should tell you a bit about myself.
Or I could just show this:
Not that it means that much. That famous match in Honolulu happened over ten years ago. Nowadays I’m older, fatter and not really the same player that racked up a Pro Tour Top 8, 3 further PT Top 32 finishes, a Grand Prix title, a Nationals title, and 25 appearances on the Pro Tour. I still enjoy the game, and try to play most weekends. You might also have seen me at recent British Grand Prix, where I provide text coverage for the main MagicTheGathering.com website.
But let’s forget about all that. Let’s take that Craig Jones of the past and stash him in a little glass case. Kind of like those old pictures of former greats (I know, just indulge me) gathering dust in clubhouses. Let’s leave him there and forget about him. He was a bit rubbish if the truth be told…
Now there’s Craig Jones, the 2017 edition, and he’s right at square one, same as everyone else. Let’s see how far we get.
He got off to a pretty good start, with a Top 8 finish at Manaleak’s SCG IQ, which you can read about here: Tron at the Manaleak.com Birmingham Modern SCG IQ – Teaching An Old Prof New Tricks, by Craig Jones
And then there’s topical stuff to talk about. This would have been some thoughts on the upcoming B & R list announcement, and what might change, if anything. And then there was an announcement the announcement would be announced a week earlier and…
The January 2017 Banned & Restricted List Announcements
Let’s start off with the Modern changes. They were expected, sort of. Or at least they weren’t that much of a surprise.
I thought Become Immense would get the chop and maybe Grave-Troll as well.
The reason I thought Grave-Troll was a maybe is because the Dredge deck is similar to Affinity—if it gets too dominant, people just keep adding more and more hate to the sideboard until it ceases to be dominant. The deck is very explosive though, and some Cathartic Reunion draws can see the deck assemble an overwhelming board presence before hate cards like Rest in Peace even get a chance to come down. So this ban makes sense. This is the second time they’ve had to ban Grave-Troll in Modern, so I think that’s the last we’ll see of him in this format.
In theory Dredge can replace the Trolls with Golgari Thugs, but that will lose a lot of the deck’s explosiveness and also take away the deck’s backup plan of just casting monstrously huge Grave-Trolls (a valid strategy in some matchups). It’ll stick around, but probably not as a Tier 1 archetype.
Probe is more interesting. I thought the obvious pick was Become Immense to rein back the ultra-aggro decks, but this might be a sharper pick. A free cantrip gives a lot of consistency (by effectively allowing the player to play a 56-card deck) and knowing the contents of an opponent’s hand is very relevant for all-in strategies based around pump spells. Infect will still be good, but it loses a bit of consistency and the ability to have perfect information when it matters. An interesting choice to ban, but maybe a smart one.
I do feel a little sorry for the Modern Storm players who’ve seen yet another piece of their deck banned through collateral damage!
If that was it, there wouldn’t be too much surprise, but there was a reason the announcement was pushed a week early, so cue dramatic music and overly dramatic subheading…
What has gone wrong with Magic Design & Development?
*I should preface this with a disclaimer that these are my opinions and my opinions alone. While I’m not an employee of WotC, I have been contracted to provide text coverage at some events, and that might lead to people mistakenly thinking I’m speaking from an insider perspective when I’m not. These are just my feelings as a player that’s been around for a while.
Okay then, with that out of the way where do we start?
I appreciate I’m a little late here as everyone has already hammered this topic into the ground with how Emrakul was rightly axed, Smuggler’s Copter was a little too powerful and what had poor little Reflector Mage done to anyone (never trust the one that tries to look innocent), but I think it’s also important to take a good hard look at what these bannings say about the current state of Magic.
In my long experience of playing the game, WotC doesn’t ban cards in Standard unless it’s the absolute last resort. They hate doing it. It’s a horrible experience for someone to open up a booster containing a card they can’t play at their local events because it’s banned and WotC knows it. They’d rather have their teeth ripped out by pliers than break out the banhammer for Standard.
There has been a lot of bellyaching about Standard online for a while. This isn’t a surprise—Magic players bellyache about everything. We’re notorious for it. Random bellyaching on Reddit does not get cards banned. The last two major bannings in Standard (Disciple of the Vault Affinity and Cawblade) were triggered by precipitous drop-offs in local Standard tournament attendance. People got so fed up of losing to Ravager or Jace, the Mind Sculptor they stopped showing up at their local FNMs. Local tournaments are the lifeblood of Magic: the Gathering. If they start to run low it’s not good for the long-term health of the game. Dramatic actions needed to be taken. Dramatic actions were taken. And as players are still playing and talking about Magic five, ten years later, those dramatic actions did what they needed to do.
So now we have some more dramatic actions taken right at the start of 2017. Here they are:
The first one makes sense, the second makes sense and while a lot of people have expressed surprise at Reflector Mage getting the boot, it makes sense from the perspective of why these bannings were needed. Reflector Mage is an unfun card. It punishes people for playing fair decks. It is irritating to play against. You drop a critter, Reflector Mage bounces it back to your hand and you waste your next turn with multiple copies in your hand you can’t cast even though you have plenty of mana open because of that stupid damn Mage. That “you can’t cast this next turn” clause hits the psychological frustration triggers too hard, and if you hit them too hard, too often, people stop playing because it’s not fun anymore.
Emrakul is the one that annoys me the most. I think it’s a well-designed card that fits the flavour of both the character and the set. Where things go wrong is with the supporting environment. The obvious thing to blame is Aetherworks Marvel, but I’m a sucker for seeing powerful-but-flimsy combo pieces doing busted stuff in Standard. I think what pushes Emrakul over the edge is that her cost reduction is effectively permanent in the current metagame. Pure Marvel showed up at Pro Tour Kaladesh and largely imploded when seen on camera. It was when the Marvel decks started making use of Delirium to be able to reliably hard-cast Emrakul as a backup plan that they returned to the forefront again. In Green-Black Delirium she’s a finisher that comes down and ends the game from around turn seven onwards. A player can spend a lot of resources in the early game loading their graveyard up with different card types and there isn’t much their opponent can do to disrupt this. They can’t even disrupt the actual casting of Emrakul that much outside of a few narrow cards like Lost Legacy or Summary Dismissal.
So you have this ticking bomb format where you watch your opponent tick up their lands and graveyard card type count to the point where Emrakul arrives and kills you, and the only thing you can do is try to beat them to death before the bomb goes off. This is very limiting. Magic is at its very best when it has multiple viable strategies and there are multiple viable ways to attack those strategies.
Current Standard feels limited. Like someone borrowed your toolkit and gave it back with some of the tools missing.
Why is there no graveyard hate? I can understand skipping or watering it down in Shadows Over Innistrad block so that Delirium got a chance to do something (I remember Time Spiral, where Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir completely destroyed a whole mechanic), but the moment Kaladesh came in would have been a perfect moment to say, “Hey Delirium players, you’re going to have to work a little harder to keep delirium from now on.” But there was nothing, so Emrakul continued to be a ticking bomb that reliably exploded around turn 7 or 8. It was the same for Aether Revolt, not a single Tormod’s Crypt-type effect in sight. No way to push The Promised End back to turn ten or beyond by making her cost somewhere closer to her initial 13 mana.
And why nothing like Pithing Needle? Aetherworks Marvel is a scary card. It’s an artifact, but as Marvel usually activates the turn it comes into play, blowing it up achieves little if the Marvel hits a game-ending Emrakul or Ulamog on the first activation. The only answers are counterspells, which results in weird situations where decidedly non-blue Mardu Vehicle decks have to run Ceremonious Rejection in their board.
Something like Pithing Needle would do some work. It would also shut down Copter as well, but probably a little too effectively. Having a one-mana artifact that completely destroys the vehicle mechanic in the vehicle set would be a little harsh. But maybe they could have come up with a watered-down equivalent. You shouldn’t let a card as powerful Marvel run around without a few tools capable of pre-emptively stopping it from going off. Even something that drained a player’s energy pool before the critical turn would be something. But again the toolbox seems light a few tools.
And this annoys me. I can’t help think the Emrakul banning would have been unnecessary if players had access to something as simple as a Relic of Progenitus.
In hindsight Smuggler’s Copter is a mistake, but an understandable one. The design/development teams have a difficult task of making new cards powerful enough to get players excited to buy product, but not so powerful they become oppressive. It’s a difficult balancing act, especially with new mechanics like vehicles. Equipment had similar problems when it first appeared.
As for Reflector Mage I keep wondering why we’re seeing cards like this be 2/3 instead of 2/2. They already have powerful effects, is there any need to give them enough toughness to brick wall the aggro players’ bears and Savannah Lions as well?
But it’s mainly the lack of a decent graveyard interaction card that has me scratching my head.
Is this a result of doing away with core sets? In the past the core sets were where you found all the evergreen cards. They were dull for older players, essential for newer players. This was the set that ensured all the staples were still floating around in the Standard format regardless of whatever new crazy mechanics were introduced in the other sets. We don’t have core sets anymore. I don’t think we need to go back to having core sets, but it’s important that the staples find their way into the other sets and don’t end up slipping through the cracks.
Or maybe design/development focused too much on the Limited environment? This is where I will give WotC some credit. Standard might be everyone’s favourite punching bag at the moment, but I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone moan about the draft format. I’m making these edits right after having a lot of fun playing the prereleases over the weekend. The world-building and flavour of recent sets has also been phenomenal. Players were excited for Kaladesh and it’s been well-received…
…aside from the Standard format.
The problem here is that Standard also happens to be the one thing you absolutely can’t get wrong. This is where the bulk of new players enter the game. If they show up to their local tournament and get pounded into the ground by a deck full of expensive (£’s) and under-costed (mana) mythics, they’re going to conclude Magic is a rubbish pay-to-win game and go play something else.
Creating new Magic sets is difficult. From a usage perspective a single Magic booster has to fulfil several roles. It’s the main supply unit for players to gain new cards for their decks (until they graduate to getting cards off the secondary market, which sort-of officially doesn’t exist). It’s also a self-contained game component in drafts and sealed deck games. On top of that WotC is a business. They want players to buy as many boosters as possible, and so they need to fill them with cards players want to open. For the most part design and development has done a fine job with twiddling the various dials to the right settings.
But I think, after the first bans in Standard in over five years, there’s going to need to be a rethink in some design/development philosophy. Obviously, we don’t want to go back to the days of brutal hosers like Blood Moon or Chill (*shudder*), but having some answer cards floating around would give the metagame a chance to fix itself internally without necessitating external meddling such as bans.
Also, I know Magic background and story has come a long way, but is it really necessary to push some of the character cards as hard as they’ve been pushed recently? I remember other TCGs used to do this in the past, especially those based on pre-existing IPs. None of those games are around now.
And, for the love of God and Jackal Pups everywhere, stop treating 2/3 as a free upgrade to 2/2!
I’ve been negative for a lot of this article, but I’m also very positive for the future. I know some are very unnerved about these bannings and what they mean for the future of Magic. For this I’d say “Don’t be.” The game has been here before. It survived Combo Winter, Ravager Affinity and squadrons of hawks carrying swords in their beaks. You don’t need to rush out and sell your collections. Emrakul will not be the Promised End.
The one thing I did like is the addition of the extra B & R list change windows. Bannings are a very crude tool, but we are into different territory with the new four-block rotations, and they do give WotC an extra safety valve while they shake out any bugs in the system. Ideally we won’t see any more bannings for a while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other egregious power-level abusers are given an early bath from the Standard format out of necessity.
(I’m looking at you, Gideon and Avacyn. I can see what you’re up to in the corner.)
It sucks for people that have invested in cards that hit the banned list, but having a healthy player base is what makes the cards have any value in the first place.
Those are my thoughts. Feel free to chime in below with your own thoughts on how this could have all been avoided.
Next up we’ll be in much more positive territory, I’ll be reflecting on the Aether Revolt prerelease weekend!
Community Question: Was there a way for Wizards to fix the current state of Standard without banning Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler’s Copter, and Reflector Mage? If so then what do you think Wizards could have done?
Thanks for reading,