It’s that time again. Another banned and restricted announcement is coming, and a lot of eyes are on Standard.
In anticipation of what Wizards might decide, the secondary market on MTGO has priced in considerable ban risk on Marvel’s most expensive pieces.
Ulamog has fallen in price by 50% over the past week, and at the same time the most played mythic in Standard, Aetherworks Marvel, is less than one fifth the price of Torrential Gearhulk, a card of the same rarity printed in the same set. This is despite Blue Hulk seeing less than half the amount of play in Standard that Marvel does, and no appreciable amount of play in any other format.
The MTGO market moves faster than the paper secondary market, but these falls indicate a growing number of people do not expect the present Marvel decklists to remain legal in Standard, and those people are panic selling Ulamog, while dealers also reduce the number of copies they hold. I’ve not been watching but I expect you will see reductions in buylist prices for those cards in the paper world too.
In this article I want to look at when, how and why the banhammer should be used in general, then look at today’s Standard and offer my thoughts about the upcoming announcement.
In Defence of the Banhammer
Since the cat was drowned, Standard has had its problems, but the format is in a much better place than it was when Copy Cat Combo was Tier 0.
That banning completely turned around the collapse in tournament attendance figures.
Nowhere was that clearer than on Magic Online, where the Standard leagues were less popular than the Modern leagues in the day following the April 24 ‘no bans’ announcement. Normally, the Standard leagues have 2-3 times the attendance that the Modern ones get.
Tournament attendance is the primary basis on which banned and restricted decisions should be made.
When a deck is driving players away from competitive play, it is too late to print an answer in the next set and hope that the answer solves the problem. Magic R&D simply does not work on that timeline.
In these situations, the format needs to be altered to deal with the problem – and the tool Wizards has historically used to do this is the banned and restricted list.
Under this criteria, the ban of Splinter Twin in Modern was not justified, because the ban drove people away from the format. I’ve seen no compelling evidence that the Twin deck was driving people away from competitive Modern.
However, the two Standard bannings, and also the recent Modern bannings (Git Probe and GGT), were both successes. As was a historic example, the mass banning of almost every card in Ravager Affinity Aggro back in the days of Kamigawa.
After Emrakul met her Promised End, the Snugglecopter was scuttled and Reflector Mage took a long hard look at itself, Standard tournament attendance revived. It plunged again when the Copy Cat Combo decks were perfected, but kicking the cat did solve that problem.
A few players may well have walked away from competitive play because they had just bought into a Standard deck to see it get banned, but the format cannot be held ransom to the demands of people that buy into obviously broken Tier 0 decks.
If you buy into a deck as overwhelmingly dominant in its format as Copy Cat Combo or OGW-era Modern Helldrazi, you have no-one to blame but yourself when the deck is smashed by the banhammer.
Buying a broken deck is not an investment to be amortised over nine months (in Standard) or five years (in Modern). It’s an investment that must be amortised in weeks – something that will not happen unless you are entering multiple small tournaments each week and a couple of big events on top of that.
Alternatives to the Banhammer
One alternative to swinging the banhammer is simply declaring additional cards to be legal in a format. This actually has a partial precedent – from October 1999 until October 2002, the Extended format (a format somewhat similar to today’s Modern) explicitly allowed the ten Revised dual lands despite them not being in any of the sets legal in Extended.
This, however, creates serious problems with card availability.
Pithing Needle is one example of a card that I believe would drive the Marvel menace to the sidelines, and might also have dealt with the Copy Cat Combo menace.
However, it hasn’t had a printing below foil mythic (Masterpiece) rarity since Return to Ravnica, which is now several years ago.
Arbitrarily declaring Pithing Needle legal in Standard (or jamming it into one of the Planeswalker decks) would set a precedent I’m not too happy with, where Standard requires a card not available in current boosters (the Masterpiece version is too rare to count).
In particular this is bad for Magic tournaments run by new shops or small shops. These stores will not have an extensive inventory of cards from a few years ago, and will struggle to meet demand – potentially pushing their customers toward competitors.
In addition to this logistical issue, adding ‘must-sideboard’ cards to an environment is (at least in my opinion) bad for the game. I feel Modern would be a better format if players didn’t feel obligated to run Stony Silence and/or Rest In Peace in sideboards.
There are only 15 slots in a sideboard; reducing that to 11 is not a good thing.
The banhammer is a last resort method for Wizards R&D to fix their own screwups. R&D needs to get better at detecting these problems (it’s hard to believe that Marvel was printed without an “Aetherworks Marvel enters the battlefield tapped” clause). But any changes in R&D coming out of the fiasco that was the last year of Standard will not flow through until (at the earliest) early next year, and R&D are still going to be human.
Humans screw up. R&D will continue to screw up. The banhammer is there to provide a painful way to reduce the damage caused by these mistakes.
The State of Standard
Standard now is a multi-deck format, but one with a clear best deck. Aetherworks Marvel combo, specifically the Temur version, is the format’s top deck by far.
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, is a perfectly fair Magic card if you ramp up to it. It takes over the game entirely, but for ten mana, that’s what you would expect it to do.
When Ulamog comes out on turn 4, it ceases to be a reasonable Magic card. In a Temur energy shell, the turn 4 Ulamog isn’t very common, but it does happen. When you fail to hit Ulamog, you either get Chandra, Flamecaller (weaker than the big Eldrazi, but trades off being weaker for also being hardcastable), or in the total fail case you get an energy source, which then helps you power toward spinning the Marvel again on your next turn.
The last weekend’s Standard GP results showed that the Marvel combo decks are far and away the best decks in Standard, and while Temur Marvel didn’t dominate the top 8s, it did dominate the top 32 of each of the three GPs, making up about one-third of each T32.
Marvel – A Design Mistake
Aetherworks Marvel is surprisingly hard to interact with, and it does extremely dangerous things.
It breaks two of the most fundamental rules of Magic.
Firstly, it allows cards to impact the gamestate without being drawn. I cover this topic in another article. Marvel’s rate for doing this isn’t particularly egregious, and so this on its own isn’t a big problem.
Secondly, and far more importantly, Marvel facilitates other cards breaking what I term the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic – that cards must have an impact commensurate with the amount of investment (mana, and other costs) required to cast them.
The present Standard format has a number of extremely high impact threats.
While Ulamog is the best of these, it is not the only one. The format also contains Kozilek the Great Distortion; Desolation Twin; Void Winnower; Elder Deep Fiend; Chandra, Flamecaller; Approach of the Second Sun and Sorin, Grim Nemesis, and these will soon be joined by a Nicol Bolas card. (I’m deliberately not going to discuss the highly credible leak of Bolas but instead I’ll just assume it’s something similar to the Conflux Bolas card – a devastatingly powerful lategame trump card with a high mana cost).
These cards are balanced by virtue of their very high mana costs – in short, the investment required to deploy them. Marvel removes this balancing effect.
The other factor making Marvel a menace is its inherent randomness. Much like losing to a Miracled Bonfire of the Damned made you feel helpless and that your decisions over the entire game didn’t matter (and winning with Miracle cards felt anticlimactic), winning or losing with Marvel often comes down to a game of percentages.
In a gamestate where hitting big will win you the game and whiffing on Marvel will lose it, assuming you play 4 copies of Ulamog and 2 Chandra, spinning Marvel basically turns the entire game into a coinflip. Again, anticlimactic.
So What’s The Solution?
I’ve spent this entire article making what seems like a case for banning Aetherworks Marvel. The deck is too large of a metagame share, is dominating major events, and creates miserable play experiences.
However, that’s not what I believe Wizards should do. Tournament attendance is not in freefall. While I believe banning Aetherworks Marvel could be justified, I believe there is a better answer.
Spell Queller is a powerful card that is extremely good at proactively answering Aetherworks Marvel. It is a maindeckable card, solid against the entire format, but truly excellent at causing combo decks to stumble.
The decision to ban Reflector Mage, while reasonable at the time, has resulted in the Queller seeing less play in Standard than it otherwise would have.
My three suggestions for the 14-Jun B&R announcement.
Firstly, announce that Aetherworks Marvel Combo is a problem deck, and that while no bans are hitting it this time around, make a firm commitment to ban Aetherworks Marvel at the very next B&R announcement if the deck improves in metagame share.
During the washup of Tempest-Urza Standard, which was dominated by broken combo decks that required three waves of bannings, Standard had a format ‘watch list’.
This was a list of cards that were not banned but that Wizards wanted to warn players were at serious risk of being banned.
As part of the ‘warning’ about Marvel, reintroduce the Watch List.
Reflector Mage is a strong card, and one that was banned because the WU Flash deck with both Reflector Mage and Snugglecopter was considered too strong.
However, that deck has lost Snugglecopter and is not well positioned against two recent printings, Heart of Kiran and Sweltering Suns. Both of those cards are absolute must-answers for the formerly oppressive WU deck. (The deck has answers; it just has to have them at the correct time).
Reflector Mage being legal in the format would add more Spell Quellers into the metagame. Queller is extremely good at slowing down Marvel’s big turn long enough to win the game, and in a last resort situation, Reflector Mage itself can answer a resolved Ulamog, potentially putting you back in the game.
The 2 power on both Reflector Mage and Spell Queller also ensures that a deck built around these cards will not easily get to use the most powerful vehicle still legal in Standard, Heart of Kiran.
There has never been an unbanning in Standard before, but there is a first time for everything.
Reflector Mage should be placed right onto the new Watch List, although I don’t think it will actually need to be banned again.
Thirdly, no changes are needed in any other major format, except to put Death’s Shadow on the Modern watchlist. Legacy is extremely diverse at present, and while Modern and Vintage aren’t perfect, both are doing pretty well.
I’ll leave the MTGO-specific 1v1 Commander and Pauper formats to people that pay more attention to them than I do. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see Baral, Chief of Compliance taken out the back and shot. Pauper seems in acceptable shape but again, I’m no expert there.
That’s enough rambling for today.
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