July 13th B&R Announcement: Sorry We Burned Down Your Format, Here's an Oath of Nissa

Ryan Normandin
July 14, 2020

***Disclaimer: I love Magic, have a lot of respect for Wizards R&D, and understand that building formats is tougher than I can imagine. This article certainly contains criticism, but I hope it is all constructive.***

On Monday, July 13th, Wizards of the Coast announced the latest update to the Banned and Restricted list, including changes to Historic, Pioneer, Modern, and Pauper. This article will be focusing on Pioneer and Modern. 


Oath of Nissa is unbanned.


The Pioneer format debuted to widespread excitement. Players wanted a post-Modern format, and Wizards delivered. Felidar Guardian, Smuggler's Copter, and Oath of Nissa were axed, followed by the “What was Wizards thinking?” cohort of cards from the last two years.


In the short window between the December 2019 bans and the release of Theros: Beyond Death, Pioneer was considered by most to be healthy, living up to players' hopes and expectations. Here are snapshots of just a couple of Top 8's from Pioneer events in that window. (Left to right, top to bottom: two PTQ's at GPNJ, MTGO Pioneer Challenge, three MagicFest Austin PTQ's, PTQ @MagicFest Portland)


But then, Theros: Beyond Death was released, cementing Pioneer as The Combo Format.


The months since have been tumultuous in Magic: widespread quarantine occurred, Ikoria released Companions into the world, and then Companions were nerfed. This is to say that there are a lot of variables impacting how people interact with the game of Magic. But the end point of all of this is that in the last two weeks, only two of a possible sixteen Pioneer Preliminaries have fired on MTGO. This is in contrast to eleven of sixteen Modern events firing, according to MTGGoldfish. Extending the search to the last thirty days finds that there have been a grand total of seven Pioneer Preliminaries firing in that time. 

There are two possible conclusions to draw. The first is that people are choosing to engage less with Pioneer due to the lack of paper events, quarantine, etc. If this were the case, we might expect a similar lack of engagement in other formats. The best comparison would seem to be Modern, as Standard is most heavily played on Arena, for which there isn't data. The high engagement of players in Modern tournaments as compared to Pioneer would suggest that the problem is not with low engagement with Magic during this time. However, it is impossible to say for certain, as there are other viable explanations (perhaps players are more entrenched and invested in Modern via MTGO, as it is older, or maybe players who play MTGO are, for whatever reason, less inclined to play combo-centric formats, leaning more toward Modern than Pioneer, furthermore, the PTQs these preliminaries fed into no longer exist, leaving the QPs they award to only be usable to enter once-a-month Showcase Challenges).

The second explanation is that Pioneer as a format is not enjoyable to a large fraction of players who would otherwise be interested in playing. Anecdotally, this seems to be true at least in Discord and on social media, with complaints about Inverter in particular being widespread. Whether or not any of this is true, the perception among players is that Pioneer is unhealthy, dominated by combo decks, and in need of change. That sentiment is what makes this paragraph from the B&R Announcement so utterly tone-deaf: 

"We are otherwise generally happy with the shape of the metagame in Pioneer, with the most played decks each having strengths and weaknesses against each other. We are keeping an eye on the populations of combo decks in the environment, although the perception that combo decks have dominant win rates isn't backed up Magic Online play data. We are also seeing a variety of lesser-played decks having success, which indicates that the metagame may continue to shift."

That Wizards of the Coast is “generally happy with the shape of the metagame in Pioneer” does not address the problem that a substantial fraction of the player base is not happy with it. The failure to address these concerns is surprising; is Wizards unaware of how players feel? If they do understand player concerns, why not post the data that shows that they're unfounded? The announcement as a whole is simply confusing; it really feels as though Wizards believes everything is fine, that their conclusion about the format was made entirely via looking at data and not at all from considering players' perspectives. This is despite the fact that they know Pioneer events aren't launching. It's worrying that players seem to think Pioneer is dying, but Wizards seems unconcerned. 


The major player concern around Pioneer is the prevalence of the combo decks which continue to put up the best results. Players expected the announcement on Monday to address this perceived problem, and Wizards' responded with a claim that the decks are not as good as players think. If WotC wants players to believe them, change the decks they're playing, and move the meta to a healthier place, then WotC should post that data.

The unbanning of Oath of Nissa only enhances the view that Wizards is out-of-touch with the format. The complaints around Pioneer have been almost exclusively focused on the prevalence of combo decks, and Wizards has responded by unbanning a card that has the potential to put Kethis Combo back on the map. While Oath's ban was largely a response to problems caused by Oko, Once Upon a Time, and Veil of Summer, it feels like Wizards didn't really consider the impact on the format of unbanning the card. They mention that they want to give Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx ramp decks another tool, which feels a little bit like unbanning Splinter Twin to give Soulherder another tool. While that might be an application, it misses entirely the problematic application. If this announcement had come five or ten years ago, I might be more inclined to give Wizards the benefit of the doubt, to believe that they carefully weighed the decision, tested it in Kethis, and decided that it wasn't dangerous enough to warrant keeping it on the banlist. But in the context of a rather tone-deaf article in the midst of repeated mistakes with power level and formats, I'm far more concerned that Wizards simply missed that it could go in Kethis.

So what is necessary to save Pioneer? The challenge with any discussion along these lines is that since War of the Spark, Wizards has fundamentally altered every format in the game with pushed cards that lead to bad gameplay and violate their own fundamental rules about the color pie and the mana system. Nevertheless, it might still be possible to salvage Pioneer and return it to something more closely resembling the diverse format that existed in the month before Theros.

Pioneer is incredibly strange right now because the three most-played decks (which make up between thirty and forty percent of the metagame), while all including combos, play quite differently. Inverter is control-combo, Monowhite is aggro-combo, and Lotus Breach is pure combo. In theory, this feels like it might be acceptable, as all three decks provide very different play experiences. In practice, this means that in a third of your matches, your opponent is trying to put two cards together and essentially win on the spot. New players particularly can feel cheated when, for example, they navigate through Monowhite's aggro plan, are ahead, and then lose from fifteen life because their opponent top-decked a Walking Ballista to join their on-board Heliod.


The combo-hybrid decks, Inverter and Monowhite, are also notoriously difficult to interact with. Putting a Jace or an Oracle into the graveyard only allows the Inverter player to Invert the graveyard back as their library. Additionally, the Inverter deck has access to the most efficient spells in Pioneer: Thoughtseize, Mystical Dispute, Fatal Push, and Dig Through Time, which means you'll almost never be able to out-interact them. The Monowhite deck benefits from Heliod being an Indestructible enchantment and the ability to go off in response to removal spells. You can sandbag a Fatal Push in your hand for as long as you want, but any decent Heliod player is going to be able to play around it easily.

These two decks take the reasons that Twin was banned and split them in two. Like Twin, Inverter is simply the best thing to be doing if you're looking to interact because it does it better than any other deck, is resilient, and has a beatdown backup plan. Like Twin, Monowhite's combo is theoretically able to be interacted with via creature removal, but the ability to operate at instant-speed renders that plan far less effective in practice.

Lotus Breach, on the other hand, is a more traditional combo deck. The one element of Lotus Breach that makes interacting with them exceptionally challenging is its ability to hide away combo cards in its sideboard and grab them with Fae of Wishes // Granted . It means that Surgical Extraction-style effects pack less punch, as you need to hit both the combo pieces and the Fae of Wishes.


Whenever there's a discussion of Pioneer, it's unavoidable that someone will complain that “just because one person doesn't like Combo doesn't mean that they shouldn't get to play it,” and “every format has a best deck.” The problem with Pioneer is not the presence of combo decks; it is the apparent dominance of exclusively combo decks. While I certainly can't make any claims about how most players feel about one archetype or another, the dominance of combo decks in Pioneer appears to have led to a format that simply isn't being played. If people want to be able to continue to play any combo deck in Pioneer, then Pioneer needs to survive, which means other archetypes need to be playable as well.

If I were in charge of the Pioneer banlist, I would start off by banning Inverter of Truth and Heliod, Sun-Crowned. I would also consider banning Fae of Wishes, but I believe that Lotus Breach, as the easiest to interact with, can fill an important role in Pioneer, serving as the combo pillar of the format. Of course, if I really wanted to actively try to make Pioneer the best format it could be, I would certainly ban Teferi, Time Raveler as well, and I'd consider banning Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath (more on this later).

Of course, if the combo decks are actually all secretly terrible, then all Wizards has to do to show that is to post their data.


Arcum's Astrolabe is banned.

Predictably, the latest card to break the color pie in Modern was banned from the format. Arcum's Astrolabe allowed players to play three or more colors off mostly basic Islands while also insulating from Blood Moon, sitting on the battlefield to be bounced or blinked, and serving as an Artifact for decks that cared about the synergy. A card that allows players to have consistent access to Supreme Verdict (1WWU) and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath (UUGG) on Turn 4 goes too far in fixing colors, instead leaning into the territory of making the color pie irrelevant.

The Arcum's Astrolabe ban was good; it should substantially alter the Snow decks, forcing them into pure UG or UW. Three-color decks will need to make real compromises in terms of consistency and/or their manabase, opening them up to exploitation by strategies that Astrolabe was immune to (ex. Blood Moon).


Regarding other bans or unbans in Modern, the typical suggestions of unbanning Splinter Twin or, this time around, Birthing Pod, are rightly ignored by Wizards of the Coast. It's remarkable that some of the same players who complain of their dislike of Pioneer's combo-centric format advocate for unbanning even stronger, format-warping combos in Modern. 

The one card that I believe can come off the banlist for Modern is Mox Opal. Opal was banned when Wizards felt that banning Oko would leave Urza decks too dominant in the metagame, but with the Astrolabe ban, Urza decks have been crippled even further, both in terms of their critical mass of cheap, playable artifacts, and in their ability to play three or more colors. Bringing Whirza and Affinity decks back to Modern would be great; if Uro happens to also need to be banned in order for that to happen, that seems like an easy net positive.

As for other bans in Modern, I will continue to advocate for the removal of Teferi, Time Raveler. I also believe that, like Teferi, Mystic Sanctuary is a card which adds a net negative “fun factor” to the format. Decks with Mystic Sanctuary will be just fine without it, but any deck which seeks to enter a play pattern that loops every turn (*cough* Nexus of Fate *cough*) has not seemed to be enjoyed by most players.

Wizards' “Note on Standard”

At the very end of the B&R Announcement, Wizards briefly discusses Standard, mentioning that Growth Spiral decks make up a larger fraction of the metagame than is ideal, but that there has been a shift away from ramp recently. This short remark just feels bad; I'm not sure how else to describe it. After two years of overpowered cards, nonstop bannings, and unfun games, the comment that “Yeah, Growth Spiral decks might be a tad too good” stings.

Wizards opened the floodgates when they started banning more cards in the last two years than at any other time in the game's modern history. Banning went from a rare, scary thing to the norm. Ideally, we would experience a long period of time with no bans to get back to the trust that players used to have in Wizards. Instead, Wizards keeps printing cards that shouldn't be printed, and they have to keep banning them because the alternative is even worse. 

Writing articles discussing banned and restricted announcements has become more difficult in the last couple of years because it feels similar to discussing which color band-aid we should use for someone who has just been shot through the chest. There used to be a time when people largely agreed on the problems, and there was some disagreement on what exactly the solution was. Should we ban Bridge from Below or Vengevine? Eldrazi Temple or Eye of Ugin? KCI or Stirrings and Opal? Gitaxian Probe or… okay, that one people agreed on.


Today, the problem with Modern, Pioneer, and Standard is not one deck nor a small number of cards, but a build-up over the last two years of cards that do not play to what players tend to enjoy about the game. The fact that the cards that break Magic's most important rules are also the most pushed has led to “rotations” of eternal formats, transforming them into the worst parts of Standard instead of the best. So many of the most problematic and unfun elements of Standard (which have leaked into Modern) either:

1) Cheat on mana


2) Generate free cards (cause an effect worth a card without leaving you down a card in hand)


3) Generate free effects (impact the board without costing mana)


4) Prevent players from playing the game


Breaking rules is exciting – until you have to play a match with the cards. Designing Magic cards is super hard; I get that. Things like Skullclamp and Smuggler's Copter are going to fall through the cracks. But so many of the cards above fit into multiple categories of broken rules, and so much so that it's hard to understand how these problems keep happening. 

Bans Going Forward 

Finally, I no longer know what Wizards' vision is for bans. What are the metrics they're using to decide when to ban a card? What are they hoping to accomplish with bans? Is it formats that are more fun? More diverse? Instead of bans as rare, scheduled events that were viewed as the admissions of failure they were, it feels like Wizards has run from disaster to disaster, playing whack-a-mole without stopping to address the larger problems underlying the symptoms that are frequent bans.

It's a really sad place to be when new set releases bring spoonfuls of apprehension alongside excitement. What will they break next? Much of the player base seems to believe that pre-WAR Modern and pre-Theros Pioneer were superior to the present day incarnations, and because Modern and Pioneer do not rotate, it's hard to imagine how we can ever escape the shadows of Uro and Teferi. 

The last two years of Magic deserve a bigger response than constant bans capped off by “Oops, Growth Spiral was a tad too pushed” tacked on at the end of an announcement. Based on the tone-deaf Pioneer announcement today, I do not think it's safe for players to assume that Wizards knows how they feel, or for WotC to assume that players know that they're being heard. 

I'm certainly living in Magical Christmasland here, but I would like to see WotC, at a time when their design philosophy has caught up to the learning that hopefully took place this year and last, announce: 

1) a big, final set of bannings across all formats of the most egregious cards from WAR-present (Teferi, Uro)

2) a clear vision for what their goals are for each format

3) their philosophy on bannings going forward and how it will apply to each format

4) a return to regular banning announcements which include a discussion of the health of each format and a watchlist of cards that are “in danger”

5) their philosophy on how new sets should impact older formats

6) that they will post full MTGO league data going forward

This would go a long way towards rebuilding trust in WotC by, at a bare minimum, letting us know that they have philosophies on these items; based on the last couple of years, I'm not convinced that even they know what their philosophies are on older formats, bannings, or anything else. I would love it if they brought the era of running from fire to fire to an end. From there, they can slowly work to rebuild the trust and credibility that they've hemorrhaged from their customers over the last two years.

Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.