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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