An open letter: The failings of MTGO’s trading system, and how to solve them

This was originally posted on the old Wizards of the Coast boards in September 2014. Those boards are now long gone, but I stand by the ideas I posted back then.

I’ve edited for clarity and for the different format of my blog, but the content is the same.

As this was first posted three years ago, it references some card values that are no longer close to accurate.

 

The failings of MTGO’s trading system, and how to fix them.

Rather than explaining why I think the trading system in MTGO is the most serious ‘big problem’ with the client right now, I’ll encourage MTGO players to carry out a small experiment.

Over the next week, play as you normally would, and record how long you spend logged into the MTGO client. Don’t count extended AFK time, just the time you are there, paying attention to the client.

Record how long you spend actually playing games of Magic or other related activities like building draft decks, and how much total downtime you have (time between tournament rounds, or time spent acquiring cards you want for a deck, or time spent checking prices and then selling the cards you just drafted).

I believe that if you play either Limited or competitive Constructed much at all, you will find that collection management related downtime significantly cuts into your Magic playing time.

Collection management downtime is a big part of paper MTG, but like cards becoming accidentally damaged or sleeves becoming marked, trading is something that MTGO can do better than paper.

This letter is about my proposals to decrease the time wasted on collection management by players, so that we can spend more time on the parts of MTGO that we actually enjoy – competitive-minded decision making in a world of incomplete information and nearly unlimited possibilities.

 

An aside on trade history:

This is background info and can be skipped, but may interest some. If that’s not you – just scroll down to the next bold text.

MTGO player-to-player trading was originally designed, like many other parts of the game, to mirror the experience of paper trading closely.

Players stick their currently unneeded cards into virtual trade binders (making them visible to prospective trade partners) or they can keep certain cards in reserve. For example, I might own four City of Traitors that I don’t put in my trade binder, but if you have a Tarmogoyf I want I might be willing to make them visible then.

All transactions are direct player-to-player trades.

Early on, before I started playing on MTGO, the Event Ticket became THE established currency of trading. It could have been packs instead, but for various reasons related to prize support, liquidity of certain boosters, and tickets being a cheaper object than packs, tickets made more sense as a currency. Event tickets being a trade currency has been given ‘official’ approval by WotC in many an article since then, for example in DailyMTG.com articles that focus on budget decks.

Early in MTGO, card liquidity* was low, until around the era of Betrayers of Kamigawa, when human dealers were phased out in favor of bots.

Early bots didn’t handle the whole trade, they just spammed a trade message in various channels over and over alerting you to the offers the human behind the bot was offering.

But soon fully automated bots appeared that used optical character recognition to work out which cards a trading partner had in their binder. They quickly became common.

Owning a trade bot was initially extremely lucrative and their coding was a guarded secret, but in time they became widespread and margins became lower. Now, it is effectively impossible to be a dealer on MTGO without running multiple bots 24/7.

The human element of trading from MTGO’s early days is completely gone, and there is third party bot software available to ‘buy’ a license for in exchange for a fee.

This isn’t an attempt at nostalgia for the old days. There were positives to the pre-bot era, such as the community that developed around the ‘Auctions’ channel.

But overall I think the automation of trading has been a good thing in general – drafters can offload undesired cards with less effort than before, Constructed players (competitive or casual) can assemble decks more easily and at a lower price, and price speculators can quickly acquire 200 copies of the card they expect to be the Next Big Thing. In short, liquidity in the market has increased, and this is a good thing. Collection management downtime has decreased dramatically.

However, it’s not perfect.

* – For those without economics knowledge, ‘liquidity’ means how easily something can be traded. Increased liquidity generally reduces the gap between buy and sell prices. You can see this in paper Magic, where many dealers will offer a higher percentage of their sell price for highly-in-demand Standard cards they can move quickly, and a lower percentage of their sell price for hard-to-sell cards like a Japanese foil Goblin Welder (even though the latter will command a high price if you find the right buyer).

 

Problems with the current system:

Firstly, event tickets are indivisible, meaning that players cannot trade for low value cards without trusting a bot that has a partial ticket accounting system or finding a mutually acceptable low value trade item. This is not a good system at all as more than 95% of the cards opened in booster packs have a value well south of one ticket.

This rewards unscrupulous bot owners (closing one bot and reopening a new account can result in you stealing up to 99 cents from each of a LARGE number of players, this really adds up).

It also has nonmonetary effects – it feels much worse to trade for obscure cards. Consider a card like Clone – making a trade of one event ticket for four copies of Clone feels really bad, even when there is the promise of future credit. (At the time of writing, Clone’s price was 0.03 tickets).

If I wanted Clones, I might be happy ‘throwing away’ USD 0.88 for the convenience of quickly finding four copies of a desired card, but I would still feel bad about hitting ‘confirm’ on a trade where I’m getting only 12% of the value of what I am trading away.

Secondly, if you want a card, there is no easy way to find someone that has the card you want. (This is less true in 2017 than it was in 2014 – there are more dealers that try to stock everything than there were 3 years ago). You can go to the message boards and find someone that claims to have the card you want, but the messageboard reflects only what people claim to have, and with a limited amount of characters that can be typed into a message, it will not necessarily be accurate.

For example, take two cards at opposite ends of the desirability spectrum, Clone and Cryptic Command. (At the time of writing, the first bot I checked is buying a Modern Masters Cryptic Command at 21.01 tickets and selling at 23.49).

A search in the client for the text string ‘Cryptic’ will find a selection of bots that claim to have Cryptic Command in stock at a certain price. This can be misleading.

Often what they mean is ‘The last time I updated this message I was selling Cryptic Command at 23.49 tickets, but since then I sold my last copy’, or worse, it can mean ‘The last time I updated this message I was selling Cryptic Command at 23.49 tickets, but since then I decided to up the price to 24.99 tickets and I hope you don’t notice’.

Your search will also find bots that are offering to buy Cryptic Command at various prices, as well as people that are trading Cryptic Commands but will not disclose their prices, and it will also pick up bots with Cryptic in their name.

A search for ‘Command’ or ‘Cryptic Command’ will also work, but will show less results. Players familiar with Magic lingo often abbreviate the card as just ‘Cryptic’, and those search terms will not connect with this abbreviation.

A player unfamiliar with the nuances of MTGO trading and card nicknames may be disheartened to see only a small number of people claiming to deal with this card.

It’s worse again if you want a specific edition of the card, particularly a rare one like an ME4 Tundra.

A search for ‘Clone’ on the other hand will show very few results, as while a large number of players have the card and are happy to trade it, they do not consider this fact worth advertising.

Thirdly, there is no requirement that players honour their publicly advertised prices. This is a major timewaster for people that are trying to source a card.

Many of the larger bot chains have algorithms written into them that dynamically increase card prices as you try to buy more copies of it. So buying one Cryptic Command might cost you 23.49 tickets, but buying two might cost you 23.79 tickets each, and four might cost 24.49 each. (2017 edit: This has largely changed now – most bots will sell a playset of a card at the same per-unit price as they would sell one).

Fourth, the trade system generally requires people using it to share a language, which in practice means English as I am yet to encounter a bot in any other language.

My suggestions would overcome this barrier, allowing me (a person who speaks only English) to trade to a player that speaks only Japanese. It would also improve the experience of trading with a person who speaks French as a first language alongside just a few words of English.

Fifth, and possibly most importantly, trades require both partners to be online.

Sixth and finally, the trade system does not support large trades well. Several years ago I traded a very large number of tickets (500) for four sets of Return to Ravnica. I had to talk the set seller through a way to do the trade that didn’t expose either of us to potential fraud. Otherwise, I could have let them take 400 tickets in one trade and taken all the mythics and rares and then blocked them, effectively stealing nearly 100 tickets.

This could be much worse with 4x foil sets.

Whilst I believe WotC take a hard line against using deception in trades, it would be better if the system simply did not allow it.

 

My suggestions:

Suggestion #1 – Increased currency granularity:

Firstly, eliminate event tickets and replace them with an account balance that is used to enter tournaments, purchase digital MTGO products from the store and can be used as a currency to conduct trades (but never withdrawn for cash).

2017 edit: Note that these would be separate from Play Points, which would continue to be unable to be traded. (PP did not exist when this letter was originally posted).

If there are legal reasons (gambling laws, money laundering laws), or if credit card fraud risk stops this being viable, instead introduce a new digital object, the ‘chip’, which represents one-thousandth of an event ticket. Allow event tickets to be ‘opened’ like boosters (becoming 1000 chips), and phase out Event Tickets, using chips as the new way to pay tournament entry fees. (For example, you could enter a 2 ticket Constructed 1v1 queue by paying 2 Event Tickets, or alternately by paying 2000 chips).

Either of these would solve problem 1 outright. Low value cards would immediately become readily tradeable, as the vast majority of cards still hold a value of at least one-tenth of a cent.

Secondly, keep the person-to-person trading interface that exists now, but create and heavily promote a new trading system that mirrors the broker-based market in the MMO EVE Online (and consider paying CCP, the makers of EVE, to help you implement it into MTGO).

 

Suggestion #2 – Sell Orders:

This is basically a buyout-only ‘auction house’.

A ‘sell order’ is a pledge to sell a card for a certain price, if a buyer can be found in a given timeframe. When you create a sell order for a card, the card is removed from your collection and placed in escrow for the duration of the sell order.

If a buyer is found, the card is delivered from escrow to that buyer immediately, and the tickets/chips/account balance is transferred to the seller.

If the sell order does not fill, or if the seller elects to cancel their order, the card is returned from escrow to the seller at the end of the time period.

I see no reason to augment the sell order option with an ‘auction house’ or ‘best offer’ options when you have…

Suggestion #3 – Buy Orders:

A ‘buy order is the reverse – a pledge to buy a card for a given price, if a seller can be found in the relevant timeframe. The entire price of the cards in question is deducted from your account balance and put in escrow (alternately, tix and chips are put in escrow).

If a seller is found you get the cards and they get the escrow; if no seller is found, you get the currency back when the order expires or when you elect to cancel it.

In the event of a card being banned or unbanned in any format, all outstanding buy/sell orders up for that card would be immediately suspended until the order placer next logs on, at which point they will receive a message:

“The card Show and Tell has been banned in the Legacy format, do you still want to offer 105.003 tickets for each of four copies of Urza’s Saga foil Show and Tell?”

Buy and sell orders should be anonymous, and treat different versions of a card as totally different objects. (Example: a Mercadian Masques Counterspell would be treated as a different item to a Tempest Counterspell, even though many players would consider them interchangeable. A text search for Counterspell would show both, as well as their foil versions, and the various other printings of the card).

Players could look at their objects in escrow, buy orders and sell orders at any time, cancel orders at any time, and modify an individual buy or sell order once per hour. (Once per hour would prevent 0.001 ticket price wars being won by bots that are programmed to check if they have been undercut or outbid every minute).

 

An example of buy and sell orders in practice:

Imagine I want to acquire three copies of the card Voice of Resurgence. Being a little vain, I want my Voices to be shiny. (At the time of writing in 2014, the first bot I checked was buying foil Voice of Resurgence for 33.42 and selling for 40.49, so ‘fair price’ is around 36-37 tickets)

– I browse the sell orders and see a total four foil Voices for sale, at 36.999, 37.000, 41.000 and 236.000 tickets.

– I decide to buy the two cheaper copies of the card, but feel 41 is more than I’m prepared to pay (and I sure as hell am not paying 236). Without me ever knowing who I am trading with, I select ‘buy’ on the first two. My account balance drops by $73.999 (tracked to a tenth of a cent), the two foil Voices are transferred from escrow into my account, and the account balance of my two trading partners is increased by $36.999 and $37 respectively.

– I then decide to post my own buy order to try to get the third one more cheaply than 41.000. Looking at the buy orders up currently, I see four at 24.777, 28.599, 30.600 and 30.602. I consider offering 30.603, but then think that I will get the card more quickly if I offer a little more, and so I offer 35.000 and set a duration of 72 hours on my offer. My account balance goes down by $35, and this store credit goes into escrow. For the next three days, if anyone wants to sell a foil Voice for 35 tickets, even if I am offline, they can sell it to my order.

– Before anyone fills my order, the DCI shocks everyone by emergency banning Voice of Resurgence in Legacy. (Don’t make banned/restricted list announcements drunk, folks). I don’t care, as I wanted the card for a Modern deck. My order now goes into stasis until I log on and confirm ‘yes, I still want the card at that price’ at which point the three day order period begins again. Alternately, I could elect to cancel the order and offer it again at a lower price.

A second example:

I play an M15 draft, and one of the cards I acquire is an In Garruk’s Wake.

It is my ninth copy. I do not want this card, I don’t want any of the nine, but I cannot be bothered posting a sell order to try to get top dollar for it. I just want them gone.

I right click it in the collection and a list of buy orders for the card appears on my screen. The first person is offering 0.032 tickets for (M15 non-foil) In Garruk’s Wake but is only buying four copies. The second person (presumably a dealer) is offering 0.027 tickets for the card but is willing to buy as many as 233 copies.

I then am given the option ‘Sell four copies for 0.032 tickets each?’ which I click. After a confirmation window, 0.128 tickets leaves the first buyer’s escrow and is credited to my account balance. Then I right-click the In Garruk’s Wakes again, and have the option ‘Sell 5 copies for 0.027 tickets each?’ Again I accept, and the IGWs go to the dealer, and $0.135 is added to my store balance.

Of my six complaints about the trade system, this proposed overhaul would address five. The only one not covered is the availability of obscure cards, as many human players will not bother posting them. However, it is likely that dealers (human or bots) will fill that void, making sure that there is still liquidity in the Chimney Imp market – and more relevantly, in the market for low (non-zero) demand, low supply cards like foil Massacre.

 

Monetizing the Trade System:

WotC are a business, and implementing this system so far looks like a lot of cost for no revenue gain.

There’d be customer goodwill (which is meaningful) and also perhaps some people drafting more often because they can sell their cards more quickly. Those matter but probably would not cover the cost of recoding trading entirely.

There are other ways they could get more out of the system without undermining customer goodwill.

Taking a cut from each trade (even a 0.5% cut) would cost this goodwill, and I don’t even think it’s the best way to monetize the system either.

Presently, a moderate number of players pay third parties for licenses to use their trading bot software.

WotC should have a goal: to get this money in their pockets instead.

A concrete suggestion:

Firstly, impose a limit of buy orders and sell orders active at any time for a given account. 8 buy orders and 8 sell orders, with buy orders capped at 4 copies of the card (no limit for sell orders), and order duration capped at 72 hours, would be a good starting point.

Alternately, consider a limit of having 100 orders total, with orders for multiple copies of a card counting multiple times. So ‘Want to Buy: 3 Wasteland’ would take up 3 of your 100 orders.

That is enough to post buy orders for most of a Constructed deck at once, especially when you consider that you’d be buying many cards directly from other people’s sell orders, but it is not enough to run an online dealership or to build sets at bargain prices for redemption purposes.

Secondly, offer players the option to pay USD6 per month (by credit card, or by event tickets/account balance/chips) to have these restrictions considerably reduced. USD6 is a fairly arbitrary estimate at being a price that is reasonable but generates real, ongoing revenue. Accounts that pay this charge would have a limit of 500 buy orders, 500 sell orders, and a cap of 12 copies of a card per order and 7 day time limits.

Effectively, paying this $6 per month gets you all of the benefits you would get today by running a single bot, but the money goes to WotC, not a third party bot coder.

Finally, offer players the option to pay USD50 per month to have the restrictions entirely removed.

This expensive option would give you the benefits currently reserved for people that run trade bots on a dozen accounts or more.

A second option to monetize the system is to require a deposit on sell order listings and buy order listings, that is refunded in full if the order fills. This would dramatically cut down the number of ‘nuisance’ listings where someone posts a ridiculous lowball price such as ‘Buying foil FUT Tarmogoyf, 12 tix’ in the hopes that someone misreads that as 120 tix. This deposit could be as high as 1% of the order amount, and it would serve as a tax on dealers much more than a tax on the Limited and Constructed players that generate WotC revenue.

In summary:

The people that speak highly of MTGO’s current trading system are mostly dealers that make a living (or at least heavily subsidize their hobby) from being the middleman between buyers and sellers that cannot find each other.

The prevalence of third party bots available for license is a necessary evil right now, but poses major risks to MTGO’s integrity.

There has already been at least one incident where a ‘trading bot’ program had trojans built into it that allowed the bot owners to potentially steal cards from those running the bot. If this happened on a big scale, it would be both a public relations nightmare for Wizards, and a financial risk too.

In addition, it’s hard to know how much strain bot chains put on the server currently, but it must be significant. There seem to be over a thousand bot accounts logged on at any time, most have large numbers of cards for trade, and opening a trade with one would query the server ‘How many of each card does this player have for trade?’ every time.

There’s two more advantages WotC gain before even considering possible revenue from the trading system.

Firstly, by speeding up collection management, players that draft a lot will spend less time on collection management, potentially allowing them to fit in one more draft here and there.

Secondly, by having supply and demand driven broad price guidelines publically available in-client, WotC aren’t intervening in the secondary market, but they still manage to minimize the number of times a new player goes through the experience of being badly ripped off in a trade. This might improve new player retention.

For these reasons, I feel replacing the present trade system with a buy order/sell order system should be the next ‘big project’ undertaken by MTGO management after the completion of leagues.

If done well, it will make customers happy, entice them to spend more, and assist in retention and growth – a trifecta that can only be good for MTGO and WotC.

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Design Changes Over The Past 20 Years: A Balance Sheet, Part 2

This is a follow up to Part 1 which looks at the decline of combo (specifically fast mana and tutoring) and proactive control.

The first part focused on design changes that were largely complete by the time Mirrodin came around. Today, I’ll look at design changes that came during the naughties.

These changes may have started earlier (for instance, Counterspell was last printed about two years before Mirrodin), but I associate them personally with the early Modern era.

From Mana Drain, to Counterspell, to Cancel: The decline of Reactive Control

Reactive Control, as a deck archetype, differs from Proactive Control, in that proactive control changes the game rules to prevent its opponent from executing its gameplan at all. Reactive control instead nullifies the opponent’s gameplan.

This artwork looks spectacular, but I just cannot work out what it is supposed to represent. Constipation so powerful it causes flight?

No card exemplifies reactive control as a strategy quite like Counterspell.

Three words of game rule text can say a lot. Vindicate reads “Destroy target permanent”. Tidings reads “Draw four cards”. Simple text, powerful effects.

Counterspell goes further, using three words where one would suffice.

“No”.

For a long time in Magic, two untapped Islands was taken as a sign that any spell the opponent tried to cast could be answered cleanly.

At its best, Counterspell is a tempo blowout, trading one card and two mana for the one card and six mana the opponent invested casting their Shivan Dragon.

But at its worst, Counterspell saw you leave two mana untapped and unused for three turns, after which you eventually gave in and countered a spell that wasn’t central to your opponent’s gameplan.

In this scenario you spent eight mana in total – the six that was held unused, plus the two spent to cast Counterspell – answering a three-drop.

The existence of Counterspell changed Magic fundamentally. One drops could get in under Counterspell and were stronger as a result.

But most of all, whether you had Counterspell in hand or not was hidden information. One of the first articles I wrote after setting up this site looked at how games and matches are often decided by hidden information.

High quality Counterspell effects create all sorts of mindgames and bluffs.

Skilled players would often untap, draw, fake a smile after seeing their card, and then pass the turn with two untapped Islands on the battlefield and four irrelevant lands in hand.

The opponent would often assume that anything they played would be countered, and so would play nothing, giving the bluffer time to draw either an actual answer, or an actual threat. They had no idea that the player representing Counterspell in fact drew a Disenchant that is totally dead in the present matchup.

Counterspell itself appeared in the very first Magic sets. But it wasn’t for a few months, until the release of Legends, that we would see just how absurd counterspells could get.

This card was a mistake, although it was actually a fair Magic card when (almost) reprinted with an additional two green mana added to its cost.

Mana Drain isn’t quite good enough for Vintage these days and is banned everywhere else, although I would be interested to see the effect it would have if legal in Legacy.

Where Counterspell efficiently answers a threat, Mana Drain answers the threat and punishes the opponent severely for trying to progress their gamestate.

This card is an extreme example of an oppressive reactive control card. Put yourself in the mindset of the player facing Mana Drain.

If you do not try to advance your gamestate by casting spells, you will lose.

The Mana Drain player will remain patient and do nothing. Eventually you will have to give in, allowing them an opportunity to spring the Mana Drain trap on a big spell.

If you do not, they will eventually be able to cast their own threat with multiple counterspells to back it up.

But if you do try to advance your own gamestate, the opponent Mana Drains you, then uses the extra mana to cast an overwhelming threat.

This card was rightly retired from the reprint roster. Until quite recently it was a frequent 2-3 of in Vintage, but now the ability to cleanly answer it with Flusterstorm has largely removed it from competitive play.

I would argue that Counterspell, and various alternatives of comparable or slightly lower power (Mana Leak, Forbid, Dismiss, etc) added an enormous amount of strategic complexity and interesting gameplay to Magic.

Too much of a good thing

I love beer. But too much of it will give me a nasty headache the next morning.

Just like this, the ‘Draw Go’ era of Magic took universal answers to unhealthy extremes.

In this era, it was perfectly reasonable to build a deck with 2-4 threats, about 30 hard answer cards (Counterspells and the like, plus some one-for-one removal to answer threats that you miss), and about 27 lands. This did result in a lot of quite dull games, where the first player to be proactive lost the game.

There is a critical mass of powerful reactive control cards that, once all of them are legal in a format, they begin to dominate formats.

This critical mass is far beyond anything that has existed recently in any competitive format. These days we do not even get one card of this calibre in most Standard formats. (We do have Censor at present, which is a high-quality universal answer of a sort; I am hoping this is the first of several).

Removing almost all high-quality Counterspell effects from Standard is like swearing off alcohol entirely in response to one hangover.

I believe Standard would be much better with one or even two Counterspell-calibre universal answers.

But once players can play 4 copies of each of Counterspell, Mana Leak, Forbid, Dismiss, Memory Lapse and Force Spike all at once, these cards reach a critical mass that ruins games.

 

Reanimation: Allowing Players To Ignore Mana Costs

Two mana, and a dead creature comes back worse than it was. Surely this card is fair.

Or is it?

Animate Dead and many, many similar cards break the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic in half.

If you can perform the necessary setup, these cards allow you access to extremely powerful effects for two mana.

Griselbrand’s “Pay 7 life: Draw 7 cards”?

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn’s “Annihilator 6”?

These abilities are potentially yours for as little as one mana and some life, courtesy of Tempest’s Reanimate. (You need to jump through additional hoops to bring back Emrakul, due to her shuffle trigger, but it is still possible).

Reanimation effects have been hit over the head with the nerfbat so hard that you can still hear their families screaming for mercy.

Unconditional reanimation with a manageable drawback cost 1-2 mana from Alpha right through to Apocalypse, and a lot of cards were printed at that power level.

There were also a large number of 2 to 3 mana cards that reanimated a creature, gave it haste, and then exiled it at end of turn.

This card was awesome in Standard. With Bottle Gnomes, it founded the core of a deck named “Disco Gnomes”. Deck names were so cool in the 1990s.

Then in the early days of Modern, we saw a few 4 mana reanimation spells with upside. Dread Return and the instant-speed Makeshift Mannequin were both fine examples.

This card is banned in Modern for very good reason. I dread any day it returns to the format.

Now, we pay 5 mana for unconditional reanimation, with Liliana, Death’s Majesty being as good as these cards get.

I believe this change in design philosophy has been a change for the better.

Unconditional reanimation at low cost imposed considerable design constraints on other cards in early Magic.

Creatures that had a high battlefield impact had to be severely weakened lest they become overpowered in conjunction with reanimation.

Force of Nature is an example of a card that had a drawback designed to hammer anyone that reanimated the card early in the game. Note that if you never pay the upkeep, it kills its controller before killing the opponent.

The other cards that needed to be carefully adjusted to allow for reanimation were mass draw effects and card filtering (draw then discard) effects.

See that clause about exiling cards you discard? The design intention was for that to hose reanimation. Of all the balance issues with this card, you picked THAT one to shut down?

Now, Magic designers are free to print creatures with ridiculous gamestate impacts (like Griselbrand) and also cards like Faithless Looting without worrying that they will enable combo-like reanimation shenanigans.

Losing the ‘fair’ uses of powerful reanimation spells has been an acceptable price to pay to open up this design space. I’m 100% behind the decision to keep reanimation effects to (generally) five mana, although I would not mind seeing this bent every now and again in Standard to test the waters.

 

That’s all for today. Part 3 will come when it is ready, which might be a while. I still need to cover all of the following:

  • Creature power creep
  • Tempo-positive removal
  • Ramp
  • Planeswalkers
  • The threat/answer pendulum

and with that in mind, I think there will need to be a Part 4 as well.

  • sirgog

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The Cat’s In The Bag – Why The Emergency Ban Happened

Big news. Standard may well not suck this season.

The emergency banning has been announced.

Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, this time, they’re going down.

As depressing as that song is, I do love it.

 

In the short term this banning leaves Standard much more open for innovation, and for Amonkhet to have an impact on the format.

I initially will be trying some sort of ‘go big’ tapout strategy, straddling the line between midrange and control.

It remains to be seen whether the best payoff will be Noxious Gearhulk, Sorin, or something else, but I will initially test a BG splash W deck, using the better mana elves in the format to ramp toward those two big threats.

These plans may not work, and this deck might suck. But with the Copy Cat Combo gone, at least there is room to experiment with big lategames now.

 

Why did the emergency ban happen?

There were three main reasons for correcting Monday’s mistake, two of which Wizards touch in their announcement. The third, however, was what I believe was decisive.

The first reason was player and pro backlash.

We saw Brian Kibler announcing he would skip PT Amonkhet despite being qualified.

We saw people on the Spikes page on Reddit – a forum for players that self-identify as competitive – posting that they would skip GP Atlanta. GPs exist to cater to this audience.

And we saw widespread comments from people saying they were taking a seven week break from Standard and maybe even from Magic entirely.

This was a collection of anecdotes that painted an incomplete picture, but not enough on its own to justify an emergency ban.

Second was match results from MTGO leagues.

MTGO’s metagame moves at lightning speed.

In paper, tech percolates slowly. A Tier 1 deck with a surprise card added to it that dominates a tournament in Ohio on a Friday may not be noticed until same player pilots it to another incredible finish proving it was not just a fluke. This might take a week as many competitive players can’t get to more than one event per week.

However on MTGO, players aren’t limited in how many tournaments they can enter.

If you break a format and 5-0 a league, you can immediately reenter that league. If you keep putting up outstanding results, you will win a lot of prizes quickly, and other players have a massive incentive to reverse engineer and copy your success.

From Monday to the emergency ban, Copy Cat Combo put up even more dominant results than previously, making up about 50% of the reported 5-0 decklists. These lists are chosen randomly, so it is a reasonable assumption that 40-60% of all 5-0 lists were indeed copycat lists.

There were some innovative lists, but they were not enough to knock the Cats back from Tier 0 to a healthy Tier 1.

This data proved that Amonkhet cards helped Copy Cat more than they hurt it.

The third reason was MTGO league entry figures.

MTGO doesn’t just show how much of an impact Copy Cat was having on the tables. It showed something much more important – Copy Cat was driving people away from playing Standard entirely.

I wasn’t able to personally verify this, but I heard multiple sources state that the Modern league had more players enrolled than the Standard league, which is unprecedented.

Modern is a fairly healthy format at the moment (even if it does walk in the valley of the shadow of death). It has issues, but is generally a healthy format.

But because the format has a lot of expensive staples that can swing wildly in price, it is generally considerably less popular on MTGO than Standard is.

After the Monday bans went live, Standard attendance was collapsing, and this posed a serious problem for Wizards.

Much of the desire for Amonkhet’s cards comes from their utility in Standard. While some of the cards will see play outside the format, Standard exists to drive sales of newly printed sets.

And if Amonkhet sold poorly, we could end up with the WotC nightmare scenario – a repeat of the Fallen Empires debacle, where stores and distributors lost a lot of money on a bad set and became hesitant to buy MTG product at all.

This reason hasn’t been given publicly, but I think if you read between the lines it was the decisive reason for the second ever emergency ban.

 

Where to from here?

Like dialling 000 (or 911 for you Americans, 999 for those of you in the UK, or whatever your local emergency number is), the banhammer is an important tool to respond to a very serious situation.

And like 000, it should never be used frivolously.

Having a beloved deck or even a brew-in-progress be smashed by the banhammer is never pleasant, and I was certainly sad to see my (quite silly) attempt to port the Vintage deck Two-Card Monte into Modern get killed off in the Twin ban.

 

But the health of formats must come first. Magic is a competitive game first, and competitive games with degenerate strategies do not stay fun for long.

For anyone that owned a Saheeli deck, this ban will be a costly lesson – don’t buy into obviously broken decks lightly. If a deck is Tier 0, it will either be banned, or the metagame will adapt to push it out of Tier 0. Either way, you’ll be burned if you buy it at the peak of its popularity – and it is cheaper to get on top of this lesson with a Standard deck than with a Legacy one.

But for people that owned a diversified Standard collection that happened to include a couple of Saheelis, you will probably come out ahead overall from this ban. You’ll lose on the Saheelis and the Wandering Fumaroles, but other cards that were precluded from seeing play by the Copy Cat Combo will now see competitive demand again.

Wizards have solved the acute crisis Standard was in.

It’s now time for the design and development team to analyze the mistakes that were made and to learn from them.

Responses to these lessons that are cards will take 12 to 18 months to see print. Responses in the form of communication and decision making should happen quicker than that.

The dominance of threats over answers was the ultimate cause of the poor Standard formats since Eldritch Moon, and also the underwhelming formats before that. Emrakul, Copy Cat, Heart of Kiran, Snugglecopter, Gideon, Scrapheap Scrounger – all of these are threats that outclass most of the answers that have been printed.

Gideon remains a problem, and I would have preferred to see him taken out the back and shot. However, there are acceptable answers to him in the format in most colours – Cast Out/Stasis Snare in white; Censor, Disallow and Commit//Memory in blue, Never//Return and Ruinous Path in black, Glorybringer in red and Reality Smasher in strict colourless. Every one of those cards is highly playable in the format, and I hope they can put Zendikar’s Ally back in his place.

Overall, I think it’s time to start enjoying Standard again and to hope that Wizards learn their lesson – answers are important.

 

Wizards now have a Standard format worth promoting.

As a last point, it might be time to look into printing a couple of top-notch FNM promos in paper, and Event Participation promos on MTGO.

I’d suggest a one-off in-store Standard promotional day with full-art promotional copies of Fatal Push for all players, and a 4x playset of foil ones as a prize for the winner.

Allow stores with a less competitive clientele to distribute the foils differently (perhaps two to first, and two to randomly picked players – but anything that is communicated in advance and treats all players fairly is fine), and you don’t just cater to the Spike crowd, but you can make it for everyone.

This would really promote the set and the format.

And for people who owned Copy Cat and were disappointed to see their pet cat get drowned – it’s an opportunity to win back their interest.

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Commander B&R changes – Time to break stuff.

I’m going to preface this article by saying that you should NOT do this more than once in a casual Commander playgroup. Do it once for a laugh, but then put this broken deck away and play something else.

Today, someone decided that this little mistake was safe for Commander.

If you’ve never seen what Hulk does, it basically reads “When Protean Hulk dies, you win the game”.

You do need to run a few otherwise bad cards in your deck to make this happen, but there are a near-limitless number of ways to win once you have a Hulk death trigger. There are answers to some of the kills, but your opponents need to have them immediately or the game just ends.

How do you get the Hulk onto the battlefield and have it die? I’m glad you asked.

This card is terrible, yet banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage, because of the Protean Hulk combo. If you have Hulk in hand, Flash resolving almost immediately wins you the game outright.

One of the easiest ways to win is to tutor for Karmic Guide and Viscera Seer first. Guide recurs Hulk, then you eat both the Hulk and the Karmic Guide, but this time tutor Body Double (cloning Guide) and Mogg Fanatic (the actual kill). Keep recurring these for the win.

So that’s a two-card combo that wins a multiplayer game for 2 mana. How do you get both cards in your hand?

Early Magic designers did not understand how powerful tutors would become. With a Summoner’s Pact in your library, any of these cards can (at least indirectly) get either piece of the combo.

In theory, a 100 card singleton format like Commander is intended to be a high variance format, but the legality of large numbers of broken tutors lets you ignore this restriction. You can’t assemble a combo as efficiently as you can in Vintage, but you have more consistency than Modern players do.

And there are a lot of tutors that have been printed that are good. You don’t need to go to the bottom of the barrel – you can play more than a dozen high-quality tutors alongside an enormous amount of card filtering.

 

So we have a Hulk-Flash core. Where to next?

This is Commander so as well as tutors, we have broken mana at a level that is second only to Vintage. Sol Ring is the second most broken mana rock of all time, second only to Black Lotus, and Mana Vault and Mana Crypt come close. We’ll play and abuse them all.

While building a deck with a lot of tutors and not even the pretence of being fair, there is no reason not to include this little monster, and plenty of reasons to do so.

In a deck where every land is nonbasic, Hermit Druid’s text box reads G, T: Put your entire library into your graveyard. Once you do that there are a million and one ways to win – a personal favorite is to cast Songs of the Damned

which generates a stupid amount of mana, at which point you flashback Unburial Rites to get Laboratory Maniac onto the battlefield, and then flashback Think Twice for the win. But there are other options such as using Soul of Innistrad to bring any creature-based combo from your graveyard into your hand, or flashing back Past in Flames, or casting Yawgmoth’s Will.

For mana producing lands, we’ll need a standard 5 colour Hermit Druid manabase. Ten fetchlands, ten revised duals, some shocklands and/or Amonkhet cycling lands, and some rainbow lands (like Vivid Creek, or City of Brass). Add in some other UG, UB and BG dual lands to finish to manabase.

I’m not going to put an actual decklist together.

I’m not quite mean enough to pull the trigger on this deck on MTGO, which is the one place I have (most of) the relevant cards.

But if you do build this monster and play it on MTGO to troll Commander players, make sure to post video replays of your turn 2 multiplayer wins. Just don’t outstay your welcome – once is funny, twice is irritating, and three times is antisocial.

Unbanning Hulk was a mistake, and the Commander Rules Committee need to learn that.

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REVISED: Why I *HAD* No Confidence in Aaron Forsythe, Sam Stoddard and Mark Rosewater

Update 27-Apr-2017:

People learn from mistakes, and doing so is not easy.

Following the emergency ban, I’m going to renounce the conclusions of this article and say that my confidence in these people is restored.

There’s been lots of debate on Reddit as to how relevant MaRo is to development, as obviously it’s not his core role at WotC. I generally associate him with development decisions because of his public comments on the matter. Perhaps I’m wrong, and in that case, Mark, I apologize.

 

Six more weeks, and it is another awful B&R update.

The Legacy and Vintage changes have been contentious online, but are at least reasonable. I may not have made the exact same changes if I were in charge of R&D, but all of them are defensible decisions drawn from analysis of real data. Miracles and Mentor were both between Tier 1 and Tier 0, and both were crowding out other deck options.

Neither needed a ban/restrict, but both were in the range where a ban/restrict was perfectly justifiable.

I make no complaints about either decision.

Likewise Modern’s ‘no changes’. It’s not in line with my personal wishlist, but it was a perfectly reasonable decision and one I do not fault.

Sorry, Sensei’s Stalling Top. I won’t mourn you much.

It is the Standard ‘no changes’ entry that demonstrate a staggering degree of incompetence from Wizards/Hasbro management.

Standard is in crisis, to a degree not seen since the days where an oppressive aggro deck, Arcbound Ravager Affinity, was so dominant that eight cards were banned in one day.

Local stores that used to rely upon Standard sales to survive are dropping support for the format entirely. Mine (a fairly small store) no longer runs any Standard events, has dramatically lowered buylist prices on Standard cards, and where they used to open six cases of each new set for singles they presently plan to open at most two of Amonkhet.

Fortunately for the staff and the owner, my LGS’s Commander playerbase has grown and so the store is able to survive.

Everywhere I ask, players that used to love Standard are giving up on the format.

The format has become completely solved. Either you play Saheeli Combo, or you play Mardu Vehicles, or you lose.

There is no room to innovate, no room to explore, and no room for Amonkhet to impact the format except by improving CopyCat’s manabase and giving it anti-artifact hate. Manglehorn changes nothing as CopyCat is already used to killing Thalia, and both die to the same cards.

The format is less diverse than the mess of Affinity Standard, less diverse than Caw-Blade Standard, and less diverse than Legacy was when Treasure Cruise Delver was Tier 0.

Six weeks ago, a simple ban on Fellidar Guardian along with a ‘Oops, we screwed up’ article would have solved the format’s problems. There would have been complaining, and some individuals might have quit Standard over seeing their deck being banned out, but stores would not be abandoning the format.

That would be a minor mistake and a forgivable one. Just like the printing of Skullclamp was a mistake quickly rectified and forgiven.

But doubling down on March’s bad decision today leading to 13 unnecessary weeks of a lame duck format?

That is not a minor mistake.

If Wizards want to win me back to playing Standard again, they need to demonstrate an ability to change. They need to make more serious amends than just making the right decision next time.

The decision makers responsible for this decision need to be demoted to ensure that this debacle does not happen again, and once competent people replace them, it is time for damage control.

Until the next banned list, Standard GPs should have their format changed to a functional format.

Limited is one option, but I suggest alternate banlist Standard, with a four card banlist:

  • Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
  • Emrakul, the Promised End
  • Snugglecopter
  • Fellidar Guardian.

This format might not be perfect, but it will allow Amonkhet cards to shine, and will not be solved from Day 1 until Day 49.

Wizards/Hasbro will then need to aggressively win people back to Standard by burning some reprint equity on extremely high quality promo cards (such as an FNM Mishra’s Bauble, a full-art Path to Exile, Fatal Push or Lightning Bolt, or a repeat of the Expedition prize packs).

And this damage control will need to be done fast, before stores that are reliant upon Standard card sales pay for Wizards’/Hasbro incompetence, and card store employees that rely upon Magic for an income wind up on the scrapheap because of the incompetence of some managers at Wizards/Hasbro.

Rightly or wrongly, the public faces of R&D and the B&R list are Mark Rosewater, Sam Stoddard and Aaron Forsythe.

They may not be the decision makers responsible for this decision, and many online believe Rosewater has no part in it. (If that is true, Mark, and you read this, I am sorry).

If one or more of them aren’t responsible, this is the right time for them to disown the decision and distance themselves from it, and to salvage credibility within the playerbase.

But if they are responsible for this decision, they should return to what they are good at – card design for Limited environments – and find competent people to replace them in controlling decisions about competitive play. Those replacements should look into damage control – including allowing stores to sanction events with locally-set banlists, and/or emergency bans.

Wizards/Hasbro and lots of local game stores rely upon Standard to create interest in new cards, because for them, Standard is where the big money is. Standard sells sealed packs, and chasing the singles demanded by competitive play both drives stores to open cases of product, and provides resale value for drafters.

I’m one of many players Standard has now lost.

I’m open to being won back to Standard, but Wizards need to first demonstrate that they are competent at making an interesting format.

I do not see that happening as long as Mark Rosewater, Sam Stoddard and Aaron Forsythe run the show. While they retain my respect as card designers, I have lost confidence in their ability to manage Magic organised play.

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Design Changes Over The Past 20 Years: A Balance Sheet, Part 1

Magic is always changing.

I started playing when Ice Age was a new set. Creatures were bad, and spells were good.

Juzam Djinn was out of print when I started playing and was considered the best creature ever printed, and to be broken.

It’s on the Reserve List so we haven’t seen how it might perform in today’s Standard formats, but I do not believe Juzam would be played.

The very similar Time Spiral card Plague Sliver saw little Constructed play, and creatures have improved further since then. While not strictly better, Phyrexian Obliterator and the off-colour Polukranos, Rumbling Slum and Deadbridge Goliath all outclass Juzam.

Order of the Ebon Hand was an example of a Constructed-playable creature that wasn’t considered broken, just solid.

It was above the curve at the time, capable of killing most 3 drops in combat if you had mana to sink into it, and was immune to a certain white removal spell.

This card would not be played in Constructed today and would not even come close. The far superior Nantuko Shade did very little the last time it was Standard legal.

Swords was one of many examples of answers that were extremely powerful, far outclassing the threats. And if you thought that you’d beat Swords by casting creature over creature and overloading the opponent’s removal, you might just get blown out by

This art is just spectacular, and the lack of a foil version of this is a crime even worse than the massacre depicted on the card.

This combination of powerful answers and weak threats drove reactive control to be the best archetype of the era.

Aggro and combo waxed and waned, and proactive control – prison strategies – occasionally reared their heads. Some decks combined aggro and elements of proactive control, creating something akin to Death and Taxes, or to those Delver variants in Legacy that run Stifle and Wasteland to attack the opponent’s mana base.

Midrange was unplayable, and the word wasn’t even used in Magic discussion. A deck with high threat density, occasional disruption, and a high mana curve was one of the two styles of decks most commonly associated with non-competitive players. (Ramping into enormous creatures being the other).

Most control mirrors were decided by the player that could first resolve a threat that was difficult to interact with. The poster child of these decks was Kjeldoran Outpost – an uncounterable threat that created inevitability. You would stabilize, drop the Outpost, and then ride it to victory.

This card was considered so dangerous by Wizards development that they printed Wasteland to keep it in check, a decision that has impacted Legacy long, long after the Dude Ranch has been forgotten.

That’s what Magic looked like in its first years. Let’s turn to how it has changed, starting with the first decade.

 

The First Wave: Design changes that predate Mirrodin

COMBO

The first major design philosophy change was Wizards stopping printing the best combo cards. It took a while for them to learn what these all were (and they still make mistakes to this day), but the infamous Trix deck (which I touched on in this article last December) convinced Wizards to never again print broken fast mana or broken tutors.

Dark Ritual, Mana Vault, Demonic Tutor, Necropotence, Demonic Consultation, Vampiric Tutor – by the time Onslaught was printed in 2002, powerful cards of this type were no longer printed, except for the occasional mistake.

Note that all of these broken cards were used in fair decks as well as in combo.

Necropotence was used to fuel mono-black control decks.

Vampiric Tutor was used to fetch one-ofs of highly situational answers like Disenchant or Rain of Tears, or even maindeck hosers like Perish or Boil.

Blue control decks used Mana Vault to power out threats early, trying to avoid taking 25 turns to win.

But these cards were all at their best in combo strategies.

I would argue that removing these cards was entirely positive for the game.

Actually broken combo decks such as the Tolarian Academy decks that dominated ‘Combo Winter’ have led to a significant exodus from competitive Magic every time they dominate formats.

Even when combo decks are beatable but are the unequivocal best deck (as is the case with today’s Copy Cat Combo decks in Standard), they generally create anti-climactic games that end in a blowout. Either you resolve the combo and win, or the combo fails and you lose, and the only moment that matters in the game is one key turn.

I’m going to call the toning down of combo a positive development in Magic design.

 

PROACTIVE CONTROL

The second type of card to stop being printed was proactive control cards. Most of these are today termed Prison cards, although I would also include some effects that didn’t lock up the game (like Persecute) in this category.

Winter Orb, Stasis, Persecute and Opposition (usually paired with token generators) – these were all powerful cards that controlled the game by restricting the opponent’s options.

Unlike traditional reactive control, these decks sought to establish control before the opponent was able to enact their gameplan.

Players that were unwilling to concede particularly loathed playing against proactive control strategies, especially Prison decks, because games devolve into ten turns of the loser going through the motions of trying to break out of the lock, until a finisher card came along to put them out of their misery.

Sometimes proactive control had a combo element to it as well – Humility and Orim’s Prayer were both acceptable anti-creature cards on their own, but together they formed a very hard lock against creature strategies.

Prison decks don’t really exist outside of Lantern Control in Modern now. Some elements of proactive control are found alongside aggressive elements in decks like Death and Taxes in Legacy and the more land-destruction heavy versions of Delver in Legacy (the ones that run both Stifle and Wasteland), but dedicated proactive control is a thing of the past.

Other than Lantern, the last truly good proactive control deck was No-Stick, which aimed to imprint Orim’s Chant on Isochron Scepter to blank the opponent’s main phase, and then finish the game with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir who would blank every phase other than the main phase.

This deck was competitive in the Extended format – somewhat of a precursor to Modern – around 2007, when the format’s legal sets were everything from Invasion up to the most recent release, Future Sight.

I recall a PTQ match where I was playing an aggressive deck with elements of proactive control (Destructive Flow Aggro) in this format.

My opponent assembled the full No-Stick combo in a very, very long game 3, and was surprised that I was not conceding.

After they explained why they had the game in the bag more than once, my opponent tapped low on mana on their own turn to cast a card draw spell. In response I tapped four mana, and killed Teferi with the activated ability of a card they had completely forgotten existed.

Not a spell, not an attack: Channel is an activated ability.

With the opponent tapped low, they could not protect their Scepter unless they had a second Orim’s Chant in hand, which they did not. They chose not to Chant with their Scepter on their own turn, and so once Teferi died my Artifact Mutation made short work of the No-Stick and added two power to my board, allowing my creatures to attack for lethal the next turn.

Ten years later that remains one of the most memorable games of Magic I have ever played, despite occurring in a forgettable tournament where I threw away a 3-0 start and won the princely sum of 9 boosters.

I’ll be controversial here and state that I miss proactive control.

Proactive control decks attacked you from an axis you were unprepared for, changed the game’s texture and rules, and turned the game into a puzzle.

  • Could you break out of your opponent’s lock if they established it?
  • Would the opponent expect you to try?
  • What countermeasures might they have to stop you?
  • If you could not break out, how could you win before the lock slid into place?

When proactive control is very strong, and especially when it takes a while to win after establishing a lock, it can feel oppressive to play against. For this reason I think it’s positive that Wizards have stopped printing absolute top-tier proactive control cards.

However, the developers have gone too far in this direction.

The Planeswalker card type provides powerful tools for players to prevent themselves falling into locks, tools that did not exist when proactive control was last good.

No-Stick could not execute its gameplan against a resolved Liliana of the Veil. Opposition locks would seriously struggle to defeat Jace, Architect of Thought before he ultimates and wins the game.

And proactive control decks usually lack their own creatures or other answers to Walkers.

It’s not just Planeswalkers that are good at fighting proactive control either. Creature based aggressive decks are faster and require less mana to win now than they did in the past. Tapping out turn 4 for Opposition in Standard (note: this was written before Fellidar Guardian was put in a bag and drowned) would be risky if not suicidal.

I would be interested to see what effect a solid proactive control card, or a soft-lock combo like Isochron Scepter and Orim’s Chant would have on Standard. I would be less impressed to see such a strategy become Tier 1.

I’m going to conclude by saying Wizards got this design change only partly correct.

Wasteland, Sinkhole, Winter Orb, Stifle, Strip Mine and Rishadan Port are examples of proactive control cards that were too good at locking the opponent out early, and it is good that these cards are not legal in Modern or Standard.

But there are plenty of less oppressive examples of proactive control cards like Fulminator Mage, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver (for the ultimate, which is a credible threat), and Teferi’s Moat.

I’d like to see more of these cards in current sets.

Proactive control is inherently strong against midrange, and this provides an important safety valve against any future Standard format that degenerates into midrange slugfests.

There is almost no greater feeling than being locked down by proactive control, only to claw your way into a win that you remember a decade later.

 

Coming in part 2 and (if needed) part 3: The Modern-era changes.

  • Mana Drain to Counterspell to Cancel: The decline of reactive control
  • Reanimation
  • Tempo-positive removal
  • Creature power creep
  • Planewsalkers
  • Ramp
  • Threats versus Answers
  • And possibly more.

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Response to Amonkhet Invocations

I am willing to reserve judgement on these until I see the finished product in my hands. I expect they will look stunning.

And even if they are not my thing, art is in the eye of the beholder. Someone else will probably like them. I don’t connect with the artistic style of Terese Nielsen or Rebecca Guay, but huge swathes of the playerbase regard them as the finest artists ever to do Magic cards, and I can respect that.

But please Wizards.

Never mess with card name or mana cost readability again.

I think a very good test to run any unusual borders past is the following: “If it were an alteration, would it be legal in a tournament?” This excellent article addresses this.

Note that the mana cost and name cannot be obscured or covered.

The mana cost on these is faded and the ‘artistic’ font choice for the type line and card name are hard enough to read when face up and not foiled. The power and toughness boxes look indistinct too, at least as bad as the 4th edition layout (which was improved at the time of Mirage because P&T needed to be bold).

I will be interested to see how often a player with both Force of Will and Counterbalance Invocations in their hand in Legacy will reveal the wrong one by accident because they look so similar.

The same may happen in Vintage with Mana Drain and Force of Will if Mana Drain is in the set (this is not known at this time, but it is exactly the sort of card that Wizards would include to sell packs).

I’m fine with Wizards experimenting with designs. They should take risks and try oddball designs, especially with products like the Masterpieces. I won’t like all of them but someone will.

But readability should never be sacrificed.

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Response to the B&R announcement: Can it be April 24 already?

The ‘don’t ban ANYTHING’ brigade got their way.

Barring unforseen tech breaking out, we will have a 100% solved metagame for Standard over the next six weeks. Six more weeks for those that own Crazy Cat Lady Combo and/or Mardu Vehicles to dominate every FNM and PTQQ, and for those that do not own the decks to not bother showing up.

After that, we will get the bans that should have happened today. Gideon and the cat will be taken out the back and shot, Reflector Mage might (or might not) be rehabilitated, and we will have had six shit weeks for nothing.

Someone might prove me wrong and innovate something impressive and new that shakes the format up. I hope so.

But that someone will not be me. I’ll just wait out the next six weeks, watch from the sidelines, and instead of spending money on Magic’s main format I’ll spend it on other things.

Wizards will get some of that money (MM3) but not all of it- some of my discretionary budget will end up being spent at the local karaoke bar, instead of at the LGS or on MTGO.

_______________________________

It’s a pity because once you look beyond the format warping cards, this Standard actually has a number of diverse buried strategies that could be interesting to explore.

Tamiyo is one of the most unique Planeswalkers ever designed. She’s also completely unplayable in Standard – the decision not to exclude Fellidar Sovereign from competitive play has de facto excluded Tamiyo.

Electrostatic Pummeler can sometimes suck to lose to, but at least you see it coming. This card and its deck have a fairly unique creature-based all-in playstyle not seen in Standard since the Heroic mechanic rotated out, and unlike its Modern and Legacy variants (Infect), it’s never been an oppressive deck.

It’s not my personal favorite type of deck to play with, but it is a deck I love playing against.

Again, thanks to the decision to not ban Fellidar Sovereign in competitive play, Electrostatic Pummeler has also been removed from the competitive landscape.

Brisela is legal in Standard for about 30 more weeks. It’s a shame that for the next six she is guaranteed not to be playable. Gisela is solid on her own, and without Gideon dominating every other white ‘fair’ strategy, I think the Twisted Sisters might at least have had Tier 2 potential.

But again, from the perspective of a competitive player, the decision to keep Gideon in the format removes the Twisted Sisters from it.

_______________________________

Can it be April 24 already?

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The Crisis of Standard – Thoughts and Questions

I’m posting this before the B&R announcement, because that decision has been made already and nothing I say will be able to influence it. Set design has painted WotC into a corner and they really don’t have any good choices for this B&R update anyway.

Whatever they do, Standard will continue to be mediocre, and a lot of players will be upset. We are mostly stuck with hoping that Amonkhet fixes the format, but more likely waiting until BFZ rotates out.

Anecdotal evidence points to Standard tournament turnup only slightly increasing since the release of one of the most impressive sets of the last five years (AER) and the bannings of two cards that were warping the format (and a third that was already very good and that Wizards argues would have filled the vacuum).

I want to discuss how Standard got into this situation.

____________________________________

Present Standard is a 2.5 deck format.

You have two Tier 1 decks. Mardu Vehicles (Mardu) combines a fast clock, anti-Planeswalker pressure, and a solid removal suite. On average it goldfishes on turn 4.5.

Copy Cat Combo (CCC) plays for lategame power, combining traditional control elements and an over-the-top big finisher play (the combo) that outright wins the game. In this sense it has filled into the role that BG Delirium played prior to the banning of Emrakul.

There was a BG midrange counter synergy deck that was well positioned in the metagame early on after AER launched, until CCC adapted to beat it. The adaptations made to CCC actually made the deck stronger overall against the entire field.

____________________________________

These three decks contain a number of cards that are just better than everything else in Standard.

Heart of Kiran

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Scrapheap Scrounger

Torrential Gearhulk

Saheeli Rai (Note: Not good on its own, but extremely good in its deck)

____________________________________

I’m going to compare these to the best six cards (as I remember them) from a different Standard era. Kamigawa-Ravnica-9th Standard was a very well regarded Standard environment at the time. You’ll notice something different about the list.

Umezawa’s Jitte

Birds of Paradise

Dark Confidant

Remand

Wrath of God

Lightning Helix

____________________________________

All of the best cards in today’s Standard are hard to answer threats. The best cards from Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth Standard were a mixture of utility (BOP), threats (Jitte, Bob) and control elements (Remand, Wrath).

Why are we seeing more pushed threats and less answers?

I’m going to argue that the root cause lies with the Alara rarity reshuffle.

____________________________________

Prior to Alara, we didn’t have anything similar to modern rares or mythics. Instead every pack had a card that was about half way in between the two modern higher rarities. (For example, in 480 packs of KLD you can expect about 4 Saheeli and 8 Scrounger. In 480 packs of RAV you would expect 6 Birds of Paradise).

The rare slot included utility cards (like dual lands), resilient threats such as the (at the time very strong) Kodama of the North Tree, zany build-around me cards that were mostly terrible with the occasional exception, and almost all legends.

Post Alara these cards have been split between rare and mythic rare, with the cards with the larger boardstate impact mostly promoted to mythic, and the utility cards (like dual lands and answer cards) and early game plays demoted in rarity to ‘new rare’.

With five notable exceptions I can name (Lotus Cobra, Mindbreak Trap, Voice of Resurgence, Grim Flayer and Mox Opal – there may be more), utility cards and low-impact plays have not been at mythic but have been at rare.

Instead the mythic rarity has been dominated by threats. Planeswalkers, powerful legends (and some terrible but flashy ones too), and cards with hard-to-manage drawbacks like Inverter of Truth.

This has created a financial incentive for Wizards to reshape Standard to showcase the best mythics.

To do that, they have made it harder to answer these higher rarity threats.

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Returning to Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth era, there were plenty of cards – including at low rarity – that answered the best threats of the day and answered them well.

Remand, Hinder and Mana Leak provided temporary or permanent answers to the format’s best threats.

Mortify and Putrefy efficiently answered individual big threats. Lightning Helix hyperefficiently answered small ones.

You could even pack enough removal to kill everything your opponent tried to equip a Jitte to, and kill them before that mongrel equipment generated them any value.

Finally Wrath of God answered swarms.

It wasn’t all kittens and rainbows then – you did need playsets of a number of utility rares (Birds of Paradise, shocklands, 9E painlands) to be competitive, and those cards were rarer than they would be today. But Standard overall was much healthier.

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Contrast to today.

Yes, there are reasonably good cards that answer some of the big threats.

Unlicensed Disintegration kills the Cat Lady and her cat if you control an artifact, and at least saves you from the combo otherwise. But it is useless against the Scrounger or Gideon.

Fatal Push gets Heart of Kiran, but misses everything else.

Almost nothing answers the Scrounger.

And there are no catch-all maindeckable answers like Putrefy or Mana Leak.

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This lack of answers creates an environment where the big splashy mythics can indeed become must-have 4-ofs, which has not really been the case in much of Standard’s recent years.

In that sense it’s a short term bonanza for Wizards.

After SOI everyone needed 4 Avacyn to be competitive.

Then the meta shifted with EMN and you needed 4 Liliana and 4 Emrakul.

Then Kaladesh hits and you need the new Chandra (even if you then decide she was a mistake to buy it’s too late).

Then it’s AER and Heart of Kiran, and new life is found for Saheeli.

But it’s a short term bonanza only.

Standard is Wizards’ #1 cash cow. The present mess is the worst state Standard has been in since Arcbound Ravager was legal. And it’s been a resilient mess, with each Standard since BFZ released varying on a scale from mediocre to awful.

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So what’s the solution?

We need cards like Wrath of God, Mana Leak and Putrefy (or the more recent Hero’s Downfall) that provide maindeckable answers that can answer a variety of diverse threats. These need not be the very best cards in the format, but they should be in the top ten.

In the short term, though, the banning decision has already been made and an official article will have been written (but not posted) by the time I post this. There’s really no good options.

Wizards could also pull something unprecedented, go outside of standard policy, and do something unexpected to Standard via something like restricting a card or even adding a card to the format. The last real ‘out of left field’ B&R announcement was the Stoneforge Mystic banning (this card is banned, unless played as exactly the Event Deck list). I don’t expect this and I don’t see any great solutions to the present mess even if we don’t stick in the bounds of present policy.

For what it’s worth (not much, as I neither make the decision nor have influence over the people that do), I’d ban the cat, unban Reflector Mage, and monitor the format closely, hoping to see an interesting balance of UW tempo (possibly splashing), Mardu Vehicles and the various GB strategies that the Crazy Cat Lady is preventing now.

But whatever is done, many players’ pet decks will not be competitive in a week’s time. Either irreplaceable pieces of their deck will be banned rendering it unplayable, or the decision not to ban cards will engineer a metagame where their deck cannot compete.

The longer term issue is that answers need to get better.

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Here I want to pose two questions to readers.

Firstly, assuming that we are stuck with the Alara rarity system into the future (which I do not see changing despite my dislike of it), and assuming we are stuck with Wizards wanting some subset of mythics to be played as 4-ofs, how would you feel about more utility cards at mythic? Assume there is to be no change in the proportion of cards at each rarity that sees serious competitive play.

For example, how would you react if this card were spoiled in Amonkhet at mythic (sorry about the terrible name):

Nicol Bolas’ Variant on Doom Blade

UB

Instant

Destroy target non-black creature or non-black Planeswalker.

If the target dies this turn and you control a Bolas Planeswalker, you may return the target to the battlefield under your control.

 

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Secondly, presently in large sets, 121 packs contain (on average) 1 copy of each of 15 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 53 rares.

How would you feel about a set size reshuffle, so that instead 121 packs contained 1 of each of 25 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 48 rares? Or perhaps 31 and 2×45?

Note that your odds of opening a specific card would not change. You would open a mythic more often, but have no more (or no less) chance to get the one you specifically want. Similarly you’d be less likely to see a gold symbol, but you’d have the same chance to open a Concealed Courtyard.

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Let me know your thoughts either in the comments or on Reddit.

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The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 3

This continues on from http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=18 and http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=33, which are worth reading first.

Every year, a few cards are printed that are much more powerful than they initially appear. Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, Nahiri the Harbinger – each of these cards was initially dismissed by most players, and then became a major Constructed card.

Two of the three (Cruise, Angler) I correctly identified as Constructed powerhouses early. This is because of my methodology – looking at cards through the prism of several fundamental rules of Magic. Any card that obeys all of these rules is inherently fair, and will not be in the upper echelon of Constructed cards in the larger formats.

Any card that breaks one or more of these rules must be taken seriously, even if it looks terrible. Those cards may simply be too expensive for a format, or the support for them might not yet exist, but they should remain on your radar.

The first three Fundamental Rules of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn. This was discussed in Part 1.

2) Players have reliable access to at most X+1 mana on turn X, except for turn 1, where they are limited to 1 mana. Exceeding this limit requires extreme investment of resources. This was discussed in Part 2.

3) Cards must have an impact on the gamestate commensurate with the amount of investment required to deploy them. The primary form of investment is mana, and cards with low mana costs and high forms of other investment are often dangerous.

Let’s unpack this third rule, and start with a couple of examples. First, let’s begin with a card with an absolutely massive impact on the gamestate, Worldspine Wurm, and ask a question: “Why is this card not good?”

The Wurm is extremely difficult to beat once resolved. 15 power, all with trample, is almost always a two-shot KO and often will kill in one swing. And if it does go to the graveyard, it splinters into three individually dangerous threats.

Yet the card obeys the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic. Its impact on the gamestate is massive, but completely commensurate with the investment: resolving an eleven mana spell. In fact, you can get far superior threats in today’s Standard for nine to ten mana, and all of those cards are outclassed by Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.

The investment required to cast Worldspine Wurm is surviving until you have 11 mana, which necessitates aggressive ramping, playing a lot of lands and other cards dedicated to mana generation, and also delaying or negating your opponent’s gameplan until around the 10th turn of the game.

If you can do all of that, the Wurm is merely the finishing blow that seals a game you already deserved to win.

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Let’s contrast the Wurm to a card that breaks the Third Fundamental Rule right in half.

Treasure Cruise was good but fair during its tenure in Standard, but has earned its way into the Modern and Legacy banned lists and the Vintage restricted list, and if Frontier becomes officially supported in the future, it will probably wind up banned there.

Ask yourself: What is the total cost at which this card’s effect is fair?

The correct answer is going to vary by format, but spending 3U to draw 3 cards is a strong effect in Standard and weak but passable (maybe) in Modern. Spending 2U to draw 3 cards is strong to broken in Modern, and strong in Legacy and Vintage.

Cheaper than that is ridiculous. Spending U to draw 3 cards is (almost) equivalent to a card that is a serious contender for the most powerful card legal in Vintage, A-Call.

You’ll notice I do not include the cost of exiling cards from the graveyard. This is because in a best case scenario, this cost is marginal or even completely irrelevant, and careful deck construction allows you to set up this best case scenario often.

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What does it mean to ‘invest’ in casting a spell?

Casting a spell costs mana and sometimes other resources, for example life to cast Infernal Contract.

Each turn players have a maximum amount of mana, which is discussed in the Second Fundamental Rule of Magic.

Using these resources to cast one spell precludes using them on other spells. For instance, mana invested in casting Chandra, Flamecaller cannot be used to cast Inferno Titan.

While this last point is obvious, it is important – your spells all compete for the limited amount of mana you can generate. However, spells often do not compete for other limited resources.

For example, Treasure Cruise and Infernal Contract do not compete for their non-mana resources at all.

This is why nonmana costs, or variable costs (like Delve) where something else can substitute for mana are so potentially dangerous and why you should start by evaluating these cards in a best-case scenario. You should evaluate these cards by assuming these costs are irrelevant, then determine if that assumption makes the card broken.

In the event that it does, you should try to build a deck where that assumption (that the nonmana costs can be ignored) is true.

You might fail to do so, and for some cards, such as Rise of the Eldrazi’s long-forgotten draw spell, Shared Discovery, it may not be realistic to build such a deck at all.

In such a case, you should keep the card in mind, and revisit it in the future if the right synergistic cards are printed.

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As a corollary to this rule, cards which convert one nonmana resource (such as life) into another resources (such as cards in your hand) should always be evaluated as dangerous and potentially strong.

Even the terrible-looking Skirge Familiar was a pivotal part of one of the stronger combo decks in the history of the Standard format (then called Type 2), Renounce Bargain. If this deck resolved Bargain and Familiar, it was almost guaranteed to win the game that turn.

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Finally, what gamestate impacts are commensurate with various levels of mana investment?

Imagine a 6/6 trampling creature, with no other rules text, that is mono-green.

In Limited, you’d be content to pay 4GG for this creature, and very happy with it at 3GG. In fact you’d probably be happy first picking it at 3GG.

In Standard, there have been formats where you’d pay 3GG for this effect, and others where it would not be playable at 2GG. But usually, at 2GG it would be one of the stronger cards in the format, and at 3GG it would be a fringe playable card.

In Modern, it would not be playable at 4 mana but might see play at 1GG. (Considerably stronger combat-oriented 4 drops in other colours – Siege Rhino, Phyrexian Obliterator, Abyssal Persecutor, Desecration Demon, see little or no play in the format).

In Vintage, it might see play at 2 mana.

This question is too broad to have an absolute answer. Format-specific experience is the only way to get a feel for it, especially for unusual effects like Sadistic Sacrament or Snugglecopter (may the poor banned guy Rest in Peace).

But your starting point should be to look at cards with alternate costs, and ask  the following questions:

  • Is this card’s best case scenario utterly broken?
  • If so, can I build a deck where the best case scenario is realistically achieveable?
  • If I can, how big are the sacrifices needed to do so?

This analysis was the reason I picked Treasure Cruise as worthy of banning in Legacy as soon as I saw it on the KTK spoiler. It also results in a lot of false positives (I still half-think Inverter of Truth can be made to work in Standard, but it has done a fat lot of nothing so far…), but playtesting can allow you to filter out ideas that you cannot make work.

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