Bannings in Legacy

Rich Cali
September 05, 2017

Wizards of the Coast seems to have a Laissez-faire system in place when it comes to bannings in Legacy. As I noted in my first article on this site, bannings in this format are few and far between, generally only occurring in seemingly extreme circumstances. Since 2011, there have only been 4 cards banned in Legacy: Sensei’s Divining Top, Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise, and Mental Misstep. The latter 3 proved to be far too dominant in the format very quickly and did not stand the test of time. Top, on the other hand, has been around for more than 10 years. It was only recently, with the dominance of Top Miracles, that it became clear that something needed to change.

This relatively hands-off approach is beneficial for Legacy players. The less focus that the format has from the mother company, the more likely it is that we will get to keep playing with such awesome cards as Brainstorm and Ponder that are played in more than 60% of the decks in Legacy (For an expansion of this topic, read Philipp Schonegger’s article “It’s a Good Thing They Don’t Care!”). In addition, the test of time has proven that Legacy is largely very good at self-regulating. Most decks that pop-up and take over the tier 1 (i’m looking at you, Omni-Tell) become managed by the large card pool and powerful hate cards Legacy has to offer. Thus, even relatively dominant decks are well-managed by metagame shifts, which has mostly kept the format healthy.

However, from time to time, cards do need to get banned in Legacy. While the format might not be at that point yet (or possibly at all), I think creating a dialogue around the cards is important for the format as a whole. Recently, the two cards with the largest discussion surrounding them are Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe. As a disclaimer, this article is almost entirely an opinion piece (which, of course, all of my articles are, but this one is especially so). I certainly don’t think my views here should become a reality, but, rather, this is an interesting conversation to have and keep in mind when discussing Legacy.

Deathrite Shaman

It seems like when the banning conversation arises every now and then, this is the number one offender. It checks off a number of boxes that might lead to a cards eventual removal from the format. Because it can be cast for black or green mana, Deathrite Shaman is ubiquitous and is played in a large number of decks. Most fair decks with black or green are actually incentivized to play it and can play it with nominal costs. It disrupts graveyards, applies pressure, ramps mana, threatens an activation, and can block well. Due to the fact that it is so powerful, it greatly hurts certain decks that might otherwise have a place in the metagame, like RUG Delver.

All of these factors make it seem difficult to defend the cards presence in Legacy. Despite this, I don’t think Deathrite Shaman should be banned. While the card has completely redefined the concept of midrange in Legacy, I think that is a good thing. While it is more powerful than most other creatures, let alone cards, in the format, having the best card in the format be midrange-oriented seems like it has more benefits than detriments. In general, this leads to more interactive games that are played. Even if these types of games aren’t preferable to some people, it is generally more healthy for the format to have an increased amount of fair matchups. If the card in question was making some number of combo decks too powerful, that would be worse for the format. While format health is a subjective concept, I have found Legacy to be at its healthiest when there’s a wide range of every archetype that sees play. I think at the moment, that is the situation we are in, and it makes Legacy more enjoyable for me.

While Deathrite Shaman does make these interactive matchups more common, it doesn’t completely push out most combo decks (Reanimator does take a rather large hit, though). It does provide decks with main deck graveyard disruption, which does check the power level of certain decks, but again, I think this is a good thing for both fair and unfair decks. It makes life a bit more difficult for various unfair decks, but some of those unfair decks would completely dominate the format if not kept in check somehow. Giving fair decks access to a powerful, main deckable hate-card actually promotes format diversity, even though it does limit certain decks. This is a concept that was recently reviewed in the Legacy’s Allure podcast on Deathrite Shaman, and I highly recommend checking that out.

Overall, my verdict is that Deathrite Shaman should stick around. It definitely pushes the limits of what cards should be able to do in Legacy, but its effect seems to be primarily beneficial.

Gitaxian Probe

This conversation seems to have been sparked by the banning of it in Modern and the restriction in Vintage. For a long time, I thought Gitaxian Probe might be too powerful even for Legacy. Information is such a valuable resource to have in Magic. 2 life is barely a cost for the benefit of perfect information, and it replaces itself, too! This gives one a distinct advantage over their opponents, and it’s relatively easy to take advantage of the information mismatch that is created. Anecdotally, it simply feels bad to have my opponents start on turn 1 Gitaxian Probe. I always feel like I am playing from behind because they can predict exactly what i’m going to do for the next 2 or 3 turns. In addition, Probe allows combo decks a totally free, productive way to find out if the coast is clear, and decks like Storm can abuse that information mismatch better than any other.

Legacy also has a number of ways to directly abuse both the information and free nature of the card, with Cabal Therapy being the most common. The fact that Gitaxian Probe costs 0 mana most of the time means that most decks generate a lot of momentum from simply casting the card. With cards like Therapy or Young Pyromancer that momentum is converted into a somewhat significant advantage, all while being able to perfectly navigate through the opponent’s game plan.

In the past, I thought that Probe should have gone with Sensei’s Divining Top. While I still think I would be happy to see it go, I no longer think it needs to. After considering the topic for a few months, I think it is largely fair game in Legacy. It is obnoxious, and can be very frustrating, but as I mentioned in my article from last week it is simply a cantrip, of which Legacy has plenty. While Probe does see play in a few decks, it isn’t as ubiquitous as Deathrite Shaman. In addition, it doesn’t really prevent any deck from flourishing, but simply makes certain archetypes much better. Finally, when considering Wizards of the Coast’s use of the ban list in Legacy, I don’t think the power of Probe warrants a change. I want Wizards to keep ignoring Legacy because most of the cards I love playing with would be subject to a ban by their standards for any other format. Gitaxian Probe doesn’t explicitly break any rules that many of the other banned cards have broken. As such, I think it should remain legal in Legacy.

Legacy is Great

I think the overarching fact that Legacy is incredibly fun to play at the moment with a fair amount of format diversity really makes it difficult to for me to promote banning a card. I think both of these cards are very close calls for me, especially when considering how Wizards of the Coast has banned cards in other formats. However, neither of them seem like they meet their standards for a Legacy ban. I think this is a really interesting topic overall which likely has many factors that I haven’t even considered. I’m definitely willing to admit that I could be wrong, and don’t think the margins are large enough to make a definite call one way or the other. I would love to hear some opinions on the topic so feel free to sound off in the comments!