Why Bans Would Wind Up Constricting Standard

Nate Barton
March 15, 2017
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Pitchforks

For the entirety of last week, the clamor in favor of the idea of banning Felidar Guardian and Gideon was difficult not to notice. I haven't heard people more sure that cards were going to get banned since Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch happened, which wasn't that long ago, but there were also much more logically coherent reasons for banning something from the Modern Eldrazi deck than there is for banning anything in current Standard. Let me be clear: I don't think this Standard format is great, but I don't think it's terrible either, and I definitely don't think that anything needs to be banned or that banning anything would increase peoples' average enjoyment level while playing the format.

WHY CARDS GET BANNED

Let me preface this section by saying that I believe the last wave of Standard bans (sans Smuggler's Copter) wasn’t really justified by the reasoning Wizards gave for them, and I don't believe it really did anything to fix the problems the format was and is currently facing. More problematically, the last wave of bans is actually completely inconsistent with why cards have been banned from Standard in the past, setting an unusual precedent that has people believing that Wizards wishes to be more cavalier about artificially policing metagames than they likely intend to be. What's more is the fact that many people believed that the addition of extra B&R announcements was mostly so Wizards had an additional safety valve specifically in case Cat-Combo got out of hand, which made many people who I consider very intelligent adopt the very irrational belief that Felidar Guardian was 100% to get banned (read: availability heuristic) when the reason for the schedule change was likely intended for handling much more catastrophic problems like we saw last year with Eldrazi in Modern.


Previous Standard bannings have been due to massive oversights in balancing categories of cards (i.e. cards that are good in aggro, control, or combo are pushed harder than cards that are good in the other categories) for constructed play, leading to one-deck metagames. We have seen examples of all of these with Affinity, Caw-Blade, and Academy/Jar, where you either played the best deck, or you weren't really playing at all.


Cards don't get banned in Standard for the reasons Emrakul and Reflector Mage got banned, and cards don't get banned for the reasons people want Cat-Combo and Gideon banned. We didn't have a one-deck metagame last fall and we don't have one now. I don't believe Wizards intends to change their approach to banning cards in Standard beyond the ham-fisted bans in January because I believe that Wizards has correctly assessed that although Standard sucked, they had one shot at shaking things up with bans, and further bannings will shake player/consumer confidence too much while not fixing anything meaningful about the current Standard format.


WHAT IS WRONG WITH STANDARD, AND WHY BANS CAN'T FIX IT


I actually think Standard is in decent shape when it comes to depth of gameplay and decisions within games despite play/draw being exaggeratedly important, and despite there being a bit to be desired when it comes to decisions about what deck you should be playing. Does this sound like a reasonable assessment of the current Standard format? If you agree that it does, then do you think this is the only time this assessment has ever been accurate about a Standard format? Does every Standard format this is true of need cards banned from it? Definitely not.


I think the biggest problem with Standard is just how much games revolve around extremely powerful permanents that are difficult to answer directly and just end the game when left unanswered. I suppose Gideon and Felidar Guardian/Saheeli Rai are among the most glaring culprits of this, but Aetherworks Marvel, Winding Constrictor, Verdurous Gearhulk and Archangel Avacyn also come to mind. Having no single card (ex: Mana Leak) to effectively deal with all of this nonsense is fine, but having almost no cards that effectively deal with any of this nonsense and no good catch-up cards for interactive decks is not. Games become about being on the board and being on the front foot, putting it on your opponent to try and find a way to break serve, which often has less to do with their in-game decisions and more to do with what cards are in their deck or more narrowly what cards are in their hand. On the draw against a Winding Constrictor and you don't have a one or two mana removal spell? Sorry friend, you're dead. On the draw against a turn 3 Saheeli that you don't have on-board attackers or a Negate for? May as well pick 'em up. Not every game plays out exactly like this, but if your opening hand doesn’t line up, you’re just going to die most of the time.


Again, this has more to do with how pushed threats are than anything else. Wizards wants to appeal to Timmy, Power Gamer with cards like the Gearhulks and insane Planeswalkers like Gideon and Chandra. They want to put more emphasis on the combat step because it's less frustrating for new players when the thing they are losing to is something they can see, as opposed to just losing to spells being cast from their opponent's hand. I get it, but I think Wizards hasn't found the right balance yet. The fact that Wizards is feigning an interest in maintaining a relationship with older players with cards like Whir of Invention makes this even more disappointing. It's pretty deflating looking at set spoilers and thinking “Oh, this one card is like that older card that is really good, except it's a lot worse. Oh look, another 5-mana 8/8 with upside...”. It does feel like some sort of ironic justice that the best strategy in Standard is a design oversight since all communication and output from R&D indicates that they are terrified of making mistakes, but I digress.


Banning the key cards for the most powerful strategies isn't going to fundamentally change how games play out in this Standard format. The feel-bads of getting Cat-Combo'd will be gone, yes, but with how hard threats are pushed, the games will likely play out similarly anyway. If you ban something from Saheeli and Vehicles, Winding Constrictor will just be free to strangle the life out of the format. So do you ban that too? How deep down this rabbit hole do you really want to go? So deep that Aetherworks Marvel is the best deck again and needs to be banned as well? I didn't think so...


CONCLUSION


I think Wizards knows there is a problem with Standard that stems from their approach to set design and intends to do something about it. Slapping a band-aid on it by banning the powerful decks in the current format will not make the current format more playable, it will just delete decks from the metagame and have the current tier 2 contenders take their place, which is not a desirable solution. I have some faith that Wizards will start making better decisions with these ideas in mind.


In the meantime, I may as well copy some cats...

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