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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – January ’17 Ban List Changes

Most Australian magic players woke on Tuesday morning to a multitude of notifications. The Banned and Restricted list had been updated early! Posts ranged from disbelief, to anger, to frustration and finally; justification.

All of these reactions are understandable; decks have been weakened or thrown out of formats entirely, months of practice and tuning have gone down the drain and hundreds of dollars worth of cards are now useless.

Both Modern and Standard have been severely affected. Whether or not you believe the changes are justified, you cannot deny that the meta will shift substantially in the coming weeks, and not just because of the tumult of an overpowered new set being released.

James Fazzolari, rejoining the Melbourne magic scene following his ban, and Chris Cousens, recent GP Melbourne (modern) Top 4 and PT Sydney participant, share their views on what the bans mean for Magic going forward.

Modern

Chris: Wizards just can’t leave well enough alone, can they? Modern is of particular interest to the Australia competitive MTG community because once again, the only constructed GP here is, of course, Modern. Can’t let those Australians play Standard, can we?
And just like before GP Melbourne last year, they have decided to issue some bans. To shake things up? Just for the hell of it? Or to watch the world burn?

James:I am much more attuned to Modern, it being my format of choice for many years, especially during my suspension. An enormous number of players love Modern, despite it presenting as a broken mess. There is no clear statement on how the format should operate, meaning each player brings their own interpretation (though I vaguely remember something about a Turn 4 rule and Splinter Twin been an exemplar of the format’s character…was this a dream?). It is unclear how you can possibly make B&R decisions without deciding and then clearly articulating the format’s stated objectives.

Gitaxian Probe


Chris:

“Gitaxian Probe increased the number of turn 3 kills and gave deck ‘perfect information’, reducing the ability of players to bluff removal.” -WotC, Jan 2017

This is true. Banning it reduces those problems, but rather than hit the thing that actually causes the issue (say, Become Immense), they go for an enabler. So you still get your turn 3 kills, but now there’s a risk involved.
This is actually good for Magic. More difficult decisions reward better play, and the more that players are rewarded for making the right decision over getting lucky draws, the more enjoyable the game. The turn 3 kills will still happen, and players will be sad when they do, but on the whole, Probe is a card that did little to improve the format.

But will decks that played Probe still be viable? The short answer is that they will. As mentioned earlier, Probe enables decks by offering more consistent hands (thanks to the free card), as well as filling the graveyard for Delve cards and reducing life for Death’s Shadow. The main decks to benefit from this were Infect and Death’s Shadow Zoo.

Death’s Shadow is hurt the most. They liked having a sorcery for Delirium, played Become Immense, and wanted to reduce their life total, trigger Prowess, and draw towards their payoff cards. Probe fit perfectly, with or without the ability to see the opponent’s hand. Weakening one linear aggro deck would normally lead to the rise of others, but with Infect getting hit too, this metagame real estate will likely get taken up by Affinity and Burn.
How much weaker does the deck get? Only testing will tell. But between these banning and the printing of Fatal Push, it looks like this might be relegated to the fringe of Modern.

Infect, on the other hand, looks like it will get through well enough. Probe did good things, but thanks to Blossoming Defiance, there are actually a lot of playable spells that were already cut from Infect lists. On top of that, with Vines of Vastwood, Apostle’s Blessing and Spell Pierce, there are lots of ways for Infect to play through the removal that they would have previously Probed to see if they needed to play around. Sure, the deck gets a bit weaker, but it relies less on Probe than Death’s Shadow, and has more obvious replacements, and might have been a little too good anyway. 10/10 Blighted Agents are not much fun for anybody.

James: Gitaxian Probe being banned encapsulates the inherent problems of Modern. In time, the card will look out of place on the list next to other entries. The format is high powered with limited answers, meaning linear decks dedicated to killing you as quickly are increasingly dominant. At the same time, Modern is incredibly popular, easily surpassing Standard attendance locally. Modern is more financially accessible than Legacy and permits the type of Magic R&D seemingly does not want us to enjoy anymore.

Ultimately, removing Gitaxian Probe was quite clever. The card is not critical to any one deck, yet its removal weakens most of the linear strategies. Banning Become Immense would affect Infect more, but this allows Infect to remain viable at the highest level, while still powering down the fastest decks. This in turn should lead to more complicated game states, further rewarding player skill and increasing player satisfaction.

Golgari Grave-Troll

Chris: GGT was ostensibly banned because Dredge pushes the format too far towards a ‘battle of sideboards’. Apparently other linear aggressive decks like Affinity, Infect and Burn do not require specific sideboard cards. Wizards obviously missed the part where a lot of the Dredge hate was actually playable in the main deck. Scavenging Ooze, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, Anger of the Gods, Relic of Progenitus, all saw main deck play because whilst they were good against Dredge specifically, they have a generic effect that can be useful against other decks. Not so much the case with Stony Silence or Creeping Corrosion.
And of course, rather than ban the cards that enable the strategy, like Prized Amalgam, they ban Grave Troll, leaving people who want to make Jund lives miserable with Golgari Thug. Sure, Dredge won’t be able to compete with the other linear decks for pure speed, but it will still be able to mess with the midrange decks. Dredge becomes much worse than it was, but if you are weak to it currently, you’ll still have to dedicate some sideboard space because even the neutered version will have positive matchups.

So the ban on Golgari Grave Troll doesn’t really solve the problem WotC identified in justifying the ban. Whoops. But I suspect few people will mourn the death of a deck like Dredge that doesn’t tend to lead to particularly exciting gameplay.

James:The Golgari Grave Troll (GGT) ban makes sense; Dredge being the worst mechanic ever and there now been a critical mass of cards which make the archetype viable. While other cards were discussed online as potential bans, namely Cathartic Reunion and Conflagrate, this makes the most sense because GGT can be substituted for Golgari Thug, reducing the archetype’s power level while maintaining its character. Importantly the ban does not kill the deck and Dredge players even tell me it remains upper tier, possibly benefitting from the corresponding reduction in hate played. So look forward to seeing Dredge at future events…

Standard

James: This announcement confirms what I heard anecdotally for months: players hated Standard. Apparently attendance at events was well down. Higher-ups decided it needed to be dealt with in a major way – there was no ‘wait until rotation’. Perhaps if Wizards waited too much longer, the format would stagnate like the Jace, TMS era (RIP big man).

Emrakul, The Promised End

James: I played very little of this Standard, mostly because losing otherwise won games to Emrakul was miserable. The format lacks relevant counter play and being mind-slavered multiple times throughout an event did not encourage me to return. Control decks will now get more space to operate in and therefore they should now reliably win endgames. Finally, this ban prevents one card from dominating this format cycle in much the same way as Collected Company dominated the last. While there will always a best deck, there is a problem when the format devolves into finding the best way to utilise a single card. Overall, I approve.

Smuggler’s Copter

James: I am less enthused by the Smuggler’s Copter ban. I understand it results from the sheer volume of play. This is defective logic. Unless a card is also too powerful (and you can effectively articulate an argument for the same), a high frequency of play is not of itself problematic. Every format has staples and the high level of play has more to do with it being colourless (as necessitated in an artifact block) and therefore accessible in any colour. Fatal Push would have solved the issue of the card’s power level, so this ban merely serves to highlight R&D needs to print efficient removal again. It is unfortunate Smuggler’s Copter (and thus the players) suffered for R&D’s current design philosophy, as it would have safely continued in most other formats.

Reflector Mage

James: Reflector Mage going makes no sense upon preliminary inspection, since it is not a high power threat, played only to create a strong tempo swing. With Smuggler’s Copter also going, it loses a lot of utility already. I suppose this is a hedge against UWx decks dominating through the triumvirate of Spell Queller, Reflector Mage and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. This raises the question of whether one of the other two options were a more appropriate choice. The real problem is likely Gideon, but it would look even worse to simultaneously ban two highly played mythics.

Player Confidence

James: I feel for people who had their money evaporate in an instant. As a former Splinter Twin player (mostly foils!), I know it sucks and that you are angry. You are justified in your anger.
It looks terrible when the namesake card from a marquee set is banned.

Radical decision like these impact the player base’s confidence Wizards will continue to deliver a product worth their money. Some will become disheartened and lose interest in Standard. It is easy to forget most magic players are not diehards, so even a minor financial hit could mean they never play again. Players (and stores!) need Standard as entry into the game because the cost and knowledge required to enter Modern is too damn high.

I am unsurprised to see no actual corporate responsibility taken for these errors. Perhaps in a few months we will see a supplementary article explaining the design error of each card and providing some lessons learned.

I must assume this was done as a last resort. Reflector Mage’s banning after Collected Company is too strange; why are they addressing symptoms and not causes? The number of ‘errors’ in the past few years is worrying. I believe it results from wanting to push the marquee card of each as much as possible to drive sales. When you put a focus on short term profit rather than producing the best quality product, this is the result.

As an aside, I am very uncomfortable with Wizards telling us the available data indicates a problem, and then not revealing the data. We just have to trust them. However, they have not built trust, or demonstrated an ability to evaluate formats or really listen to player demands (where are our good spells?). If you want me to believe the players voted with their wallets, then show me evidence of the same. If you do not, it looks more like you want to drive sales of new product. Remember the claims Splinter Twin was oppressive did not hold up to even cursory investigation.

This, coupled with the now more frequent B&R announcements suggests to me there will be a more aggressive policing of formats and removal of problem cards. I acknowledge the accompanying article says otherwise, but that is logically inconsistent – if there will not be more activity, why does there need to be more meetings? There are already four announcements per year.

In Conclusion

James:
The standard bans will shake up the format, removing two major complaints identified by Wizards in their accompanying article. Combined with the power level of Aether Revolt, this means an entirely new upcoming Standard and a lot of hype for the Pro Tour. Perfect timing!

I do not think either modern ban will dramatically change the format, though the influx of new Aether Revolt cards likely will. I would predict a slight drop in Infect and Dredge, with an increase of Burn and Affinity – the format still promotes an extremely proactive play style and these decks remains best situated to execute the same.

Seriously, who do I have to kill to get a Preordain unban?

Chris: The meta game for modern going forward is a strange and unusual place; dredge gets a lot weaker, but might still be decent in a metagame filled with attrition decks. Death’s Shadow loses an important enabler, and so might be weaker than several of the other linear aggressive options. Infect gets slightly weaker though looks to still be strong enough.

Linear aggro is still the pacesetter for Modern, despite these bans. Affinity and Burn are still very strong, and Infect joins them to punish slower combo decks like Tron and Ad Nauseum. It would require people moving from Infect and Dredge to pick up midrange, attrition decks, rather than move to one of the other aggressive options, to really shake up the format. WotC probably thinks that now players can cut graveyard hate, and play more Affinity hate, and so slow down the format that way – but thanks to Melira and Living End, some respect still needs to be given to the graveyard.

So the question is what players will move to now that they are less likely to play Dredge and Death’s Shadow. And the future shape of the metagame depends on that.

We may not know the answer until GP Brisbane. I think that the format will not change too much, not the least because Modern is slow to change as players tend to only have access to one or two Modern decks at a time.

What will Modern lose next? Mox Opal? Urza Lands? Lightning Bolt? Nothing is safe, it seems, especially given the lack of a clear vision for what the format is supposed to entail. Turn 3 kills are fine, except when they’re not, and one-dimensional sideboard-guzzling decks are fine, except when they’re not.
So, dust of your sharpies and get ready to proxy all manner of things between now and the GP. These bans might indicate a lack of testing and direction, but we will need to wait and see how much they actually affect the format as a whole.

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