Reflecting on the June 1st B&R Announcement and Errata: What I Wanted, and What We Got
On June 1st, 2020, Wizards banned its fourteenth and fifteenth cards in Standard across nine sets in three years: Agent of Treachery and Fires of Invention. Wizards does not take banning cards lightly; they do so because they believe that the hit to consumer confidence and their reputation is a lower price to pay than allowing things to continue the way they are. Ban announcements are admissions of failure, but they're also opportunities.
Bannings and Reaction Periods
For the most part, Standard bannings fall into two categories. The first is the “Felidar Guardian" ban. Something snuck through and is singularly problematic regardless of the metagame. Splinter Twin is undesirable in Standard, so Guardian had to go.
The second, far more common class of banning is the “Metagame Ban.” Wizards decides that, whether it be power level (Oko, Thief of Crowns), homogeneity (Jace, the Mind Sculptor/Stoneforge Mystic), or too large of an unfun factor (Aetherworks Marvel), the Standard metagame cannot be allowed to continue as it is. Banning is huge because it is an admission that the gameplay is so bad that Wizards believes the hit to consumer confidence and its reputation is the preferable cost to pay. By banning, WotC believes that improved sales and tournament enrollment following the ban is a net positive.
When Wizards bans, there are really two distinct reaction periods. The first is the up-front hit to confidence. But, like most admissions of failure, this is a one-time concession. Whether Wizards bans three cards (Oko, Thief of Crowns/Once Upon a Time/Veil of Summer) or eight cards (Artifact lands/Disciple of the Vault/Arcbound Ravager), I would argue that the hit to consumer confidence and reputation is roughly the same.
The second reaction period is the important one and is why Wizards is so incentivized to get it right the first time. Following a ban, three things can happen. The first is that players can actively enjoy the format. This is the best possible outcome; players honestly just want to play Magic and have fun doing it, and if a banning results in a better metagame, then players are likely to forgive WotC for its mistakes. This occurred after the Oko ban, when players were elated to not have to play against the miserable planeswalker and his Green instant friends.
The second outcome is the realization that Wizards did not go far enough. We saw this in the excruciating string of bannings in 2017-18. First it was Emrakul, then it was Marvel, then it was Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner. Wizards does not want to play whack-a-mole; this leads to ban fatigue. Players worry about which cards are going to go next, and there's just something crushing about a format still being awful after the bannings were supposed to fix it.
The third is somewhere in between. Wizards makes its bans and the “big problem” goes away, but the format continues to be haunted by smaller problems that make the format unfun. One thing that Wizards got right in its string of 2017-18 bannings was eliminating Reflector Mage (too unfun) and Rampaging Ferocidon/Ramunap Ruins (red decks would be too strong); they don't get enough credit for foresight like this that plays out invisibly in a better Standard format. This third category is a pretty awful place to end up; the bans might stem the bleeding and stop sales/tournament entry from dropping off too much further, but it's unlikely to get people excited and motivated to come back to Standard.
So, where does the June 1st banning fall?
The current Standard format has a multitude of problems, many of which I touched on in my previous article. Here were what I wrote about as being the biggest problems in the format, along with the cards that are at fault.
- Cheating on Mana: Fires of Invention, Wilderness Reclamation, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast, Growth Spiral, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Winota, Joiner of Forces
- Lack of Variance: Companions
- Problematic, Too-Long, Do [Game Action] As Many Times as You Can End Game: Agent of Treachery
(Witch's Oven could arguably fall under both categories 1 and 4, but it is far less egregious)
As you might imagine, I was disappointed with the ban of only Agent and Fires. While, as people frequently say, there will always be 'best cards' in the format, it's not a good sign when the best card in your format is a universally hated one that prevents players from casting spells (Teferi, Time Raveler).
Wizards successfully solved one half of the end-game problem and approximately one fourth of the mana problem. I predict that with Agent of Treachery gone, the ends of matches of Magic will not feel as miserable as they have for some time. Additionally, with Fires of Invention gone, you will have fewer games that are decided on Turn 5 by whoever was on the play. You will likely play more games of Magic that feel normal, with beginnings, middles, and ends, but you may not have a majority of games like that. Simply put, there are far too many ways to continue cheating on mana to expect that people will decide that the bans mean they should try playing fair.
I believe Wizards undershot the bans. In my opinion, in order to really revamp the format, Teferi, Wilderness Reclamation, and Nissa at minimum needed to go in addition to Fires and Agent. Players will initially be excited to brew and try new things, using the banning to pull out old, unplayable decks, but before long, Teferi and cheating on mana will reassert themselves as kings. I believe this post-ban Standard format will be looked at as the miserable end of the reign of Teferi and mana cheating in Standard. Games will be more fun, but Teferi and excessive mana ramp will continue to prevent games of Magic from actually feeling like Magic.
As discussed earlier, Wizards was going to take roughly the same immediate hit whether they banned two cards or six. People just wanted them to save Standard. Choosing not to seize the opportunity to get rid of Teferi was surprising and disappointing.
The Companion Fix
Suppose one day, the Gods of Chess come forward and say, “We bestow upon ye a new chess piece: the Zeus. Each turn, you roll a die; if the die is even, you gain control of the Zeus. If it's odd, you don't. It can move in every way that any other piece on the board can move!”
Chess players around the world are unhappily forced to play the new version of chess. Eventually, the Gods of Chess ask for feedback, take notes, and nod. They then issue their decree: “We hear ye that the Zeus is too powerful a piece! As such, it can instead only move as a pawn can move. Have fun!”
The Gods of Chess heard the wrong message: the Zeus piece, while it may be too strong, is hated because it introduces variance into chess, a game which people play because it does not have variance.
Magic, like many card and board games, is a game with a rule set that is regularly overwritten by rules set by its pieces. As a basic example, the game says that when a creature attacks, another creature can block it. But the rules of Menace overwrite that; now, it requires two creatures to block it instead. This is one of the things that makes Magic so exciting; it is fundamentally a game that breaks its own rules more often than it follows them. However, there are certain rules that cannot be broken without undermining the game. The mana system, the color pie, and the mix of strategy and variance are vital. This is what draws players to Magic in the same way that the pure strategy and complete absence of chance draws players to chess. Chess players would primarily hate the Zeus piece not because it was too powerful, but because it undermines the very essence of chess; by introducing randomness, it turns it into a new game.
When Wizards introduced planeswalkers, this was a fear that many competitive players had. The planeswalker card type violates the mana rule of the game. After an initial investment, planeswalker loyalty abilities are free. Every turn, the player who controls a planeswalker is able to get a free advantage that the other player doesn't. All card types occasionally offer advantages without the payment of mana; what distinguishes planeswalkers is that every planeswalker generates this mana-free advantage.
I am not arguing that planeswalkers should not exist, only that they are intrinsically dangerous and need to be tested more rigorously than other card types. Colorless artifacts, which also subvert a foundational rule of the game (the color pie), require similar attention. In the beginning, Wizards played it very safe. Check out the first generation of planeswalkers, printed in Lorwyn.
Mark Rosewater has said before that planeswalkers have very narrow design space relative to other card types. This is because they are confined to abilities that are not broken if they do not cost mana. Wizards' struggles with the card type become apparent as you move to the present day, with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, seemingly every Teferi printed, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Narset, Parter of Veils, Karn, the Great Creator, and Nissa, Who Shakes the World warping formats around themselves, lending credence to the fear that planeswalkers would turn Magic into a different game. Nevertheless, planeswalkers remain immensely popular among the playerbase, and are well-worth their trouble for WotC. I'll go more into planeswalker design in another article, but how does all of this come back to Companions?
Colorless artifacts violate the color pie, planeswalkers violate the mana system, and Companions violate the variance of the game. Colorless artifacts have an automatic cap on power level lest they become played by every deck, and planeswalkers have an automatic cap on design space of loyalty abilities lest they generate things for free that really need to cost mana. While many cards mitigate variance (card draw, draw smoothing, tutors, etc) none of them go as far as Companions toward removing it.
When Wizards decided that Tutors were too unfun, leading to repetitive gameplay, they didn't adjust their cost; they stopped printing them with frequency. This is why the Companion fix confuses me.
Will the three-mana tax mitigate the problems we see today? Absolutely. Aggressive Companions like Lurrus and Obosh become extremely weak because no aggro deck wants to take a turn off to do nothing. Yorion, on the other hand… perhaps not so much. But as in the chess example, Wizards is misunderstanding where they went wrong. It's not that Companions are too good, it's that Companions remove the variance from the game. Worse, this gives WotC permission to print more Companions, which is something I'm afraid of. I believe that Wizards should have banned Companions and refrained from printing more in the future.
The Extreme Fun Test
Allow me to introduce you to the Extreme Fun Test. The test is this: take any card and assume that it ends up being much better than you anticipated. Is it fun? Is it playable? What if it ends up being much worse than expected? Is it fun? Is it playable? If the answer to both questions is no, you probably don't want to print it. If the answer to some of the questions is no, you should figure out what would cause that to be the case, and then either don't print it, or ensure that your Standard environment does not contain those things. Let's apply the Extreme Fun Test to some cards that we've discussed today, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, and some other cards that had good designs.
Too good: leads to miserable, highly repetitive gameplay
Too bad: still playable in EDH, casual formats
Notes/Restrictions: Too good if it can be cheated in or blinked repeatedly. Additionally, we know that players do not enjoy land destruction, which is why we've stopped printing it. Better make sure Standard doesn't do that.
Conclusion: Do not print into a Standard format built around cheating on mana.
Too good: People will just lose on Turn 5
Too bad: The card becomes completely unplayable. Someone can probably find something wonky to do with it in casual formats.
Notes/Restrictions: Activated abilities become dangerous.
Conclusion: There is no reason to print this card because there's no middle ground.
Too good: Becomes a Green boardwipe
Too bad: still a great rate for the body, still powerful in Limited
Notes/Restrictions: Becomes too good if average power of creature in Standard is low, Deathtouch is easily granted, abundant mana is available, or instant-speed removal is weak. Monstrosity can only be activated once, which is a built-in safety valve.
Conclusion: Safe to print.
Too good: Player casts entire deck
Too bad: It's a wonky red enchantment that will probably see play in casual formats.
Notes/Restrictions: Don't print with zero-mana spells or with multiple rituals that can be chained.
Conclusion: So long as it cannot cheat the mana system, it is safe.
Too good: Games become highly repetitive, every deck is a companion deck
Too bad: They see no play
Notes/Restrictions: Does there exist a sweet spot for this mechanic? Any deck they see play in will play out the same way every game. Otherwise, they see no play.
Conclusion: Like Fires of Invention, there is no reason to print these cards because there is no middle ground.
With the new tax on Companions, Wizards has simply weakened the mechanic, but they have not changed any of the dangers it poses. If any current or future Companion becomes good enough to see regular play, the deck it is played in will take an enormous hit to its variance. Can Wizards acreate Tutors that are balanced power-wise? Absolutely. They choose not to because they do not add fun gameplay. Companions are no different. As we've seen across all formats, games with Companions tend to be less fun than games without.
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.
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