Okay, I’ve never watched Miami Vice; I just wanted to make the pun. But this week’s Standard bannings of Jace, the Final Frontier and Stoneforge Mystic allow me to talk about a few pertinent views on bannings and their implications for Magic as a whole and particularly for casual playgroups.
Aaron Forsythe, one of the heads of Magic, is a candid guy, and his explanations/apologies/etc. boost my confidence in the direction of the game. It wasn’t pretty when Skullclamp was banned and it isn’t pretty that Standard got this bad for everyone, but Forsythe pointed to a number of new lessons learned that should help things in the future. Along the way, there was a vote of confidence that the non-cutthroats of the world should be able to go to their local stores, express themselves by their tournament decks, and have fun in those tournaments (it hadn’t been said so officially before). They want people like us to have fun at FNM, to have that competitive aspect should we choose it and without having to play what everyone else is playing.
So while getting the thumbs-up from WotC, there’s also an opportunity to ask questions about what bans should and shouldn’t do, especially in your playgroup. The answers come from some intriguing sources…
Identification: What Problems Can a Card Have?
Going back to the decktagon, or eight attributes a deck can have, a card might be too good if it can embody too many of them. Consider Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The fateseal/scry ability is a form of fending/consistency, respectively; the brainstorm ability is another form of consistency; bouncing a creature is another form of fending; and the ultimate ability is raw power with a homing function. In most decks, that win condition is plan B, functioning as depth even as it has massive power and as flexibility in all cases. (On top of that, all planeswalkers have a resilience function for taking random spells and combat phases for the team; general game plans are disrupted when a good planeswalker is out.) Even if he’s Plan A, Jace is over half the decktagon by himself. When people say every deck is better with four Jaces, they might be right.
Stoneforge Mystic offers a bit less. Tutoring for an equipment is flexibility and, if you’ve built your deck around equipment, consistency and power. Any tutor can do that. The issue is that the Mystic promises speed for your tutor as well. Compare it to Djinn of Wishes and you get why the Mystic is so much better.
(By the way, wouldn’t Stoneforge Rhystic have been a much better/more hilarious card? It could search for an Equipment card unless somebody paid 1. And you could cheat the Equipment onto the battlefield…unless somebody paid 1. Okay, maybe I’m the only Masques revivalist around here. Then again, Ramosian Revivalist could be hanging out.)
So add these things up and CawBlade scored well in power, speed, consistency, depth, flexibility, homing, and fending off two main cards. That’s a problem. The rest of the deck didn’t even need to be that good; an unanswered Mystic brought speed to a Jace who brought everything else.
If a deck effortlessly can score highly in too many facets of the decktagon, it’s safe to call it broken. Normally, there are only so many points you can spend on each attribute, with some taking from others (most notably power v. speed). When you see how many things Jace can be, it’s easy to figure out why decks like RUG, which looked like Lotus Cobra decks, were just “more Jace decks.” 4x Jace had the same power level that an entire game plan did; the other 56 cards were just how to solve the rest. RUG was using Lotus Cobra and Inferno Titan to give speed and power, whereas CawBlade took less speed to go for extra consistency and depth. They didn’t need to make too many more decisions because Jace rated so highly for them.
I exaggerate a little bit, and it’s difficult to port my model into individual cards, but that difficulty is based primarily on most cards having no interaction with most of the axes.
So the main problem individual cards can have is being too many things at once. Expand it out to the deck level and it’s the same thing but with more stringent requirements. If a deck can burn people quickly, it also should not be able to hold off indefinite hate thrown at it; dedicating a ton of your 60 or 100 cards to offense shouldn’t leave much room for defense in the ordinary case. This is at its worst with a build-around commander, as commanders provide consistency and resilience to balance a format that lessens both. If the build-around is powerful enough, then some cards are going to look broken in it.
For Commander, let’s look at Niv-Mizzet. As a commander, he provides consistency. As a way to draw cards, he provides himself extra consistency. The burn aspect gives flexibility. And a 4/4 flyer with commander damage is power, though not anywhere near Jace’s ultimate power. Since building around him asks you to put in more card draw, he encourages hyper-consistency of Plan A, which he also happens to be. In short, he has many attributes packed into himself as a commander, and that’s why he’s one of the best/most broken commanders on the planet.
Relevant to my models, I’ll define a banworthy card or deck as a card or deck that scores highly in so many attributes that it has ways of dealing with every opponent’s attack plan. This is what you might consider as being unbeatable – “I hate when he plays that deck; I have no way to beat it!” From my perspective, it’s just that there are too many fronts for you to get a way in, because even if the card or deck has a weakness, that card or deck’s strengths trump whatever your deck would need to be to poke at the weakness. For example, a high-powered Sliver deck might be vulnerable to Ghostly Prison-style effects…except when it’s running Harmonic Sliver and can just mow them down. Ultimately, this probably is why many love/hate Slivers; by being in all colors, they can give each other abilities from any point of the decktagon, making any plan of attack seemingly futile. (I have a friend who likes putting Dormant Sliver in decks where possible just in case he runs into a Sliver player and can screw with them.)
The defined standard’s pretty high; not a lot of strategies can get there. I’ve seen Slivers get there, largely because of Crystalline Sliver (Allies don’t have anything comparable). I don’t know what else goes there. But I do know that if you’re talking about banning something in your group, you ought to know what is irritating you about a card or a deck. I think it’s the angles aspect to most of us, but feel free to disagree with me and say so.
Solutions: Do you hate the card out of the group, “social contract” it out, or ban it?
Now comes the tricky part, and a part that might be influenced by your political views (by which I mean actual national politics, not Magic politics). The first important point is that, in my opinion, banning a card or deck from your playgroup should be done only for the same reasons Wizards of the Coast does so.
WotC uses its banhammer for the same reason the Department of Justice runs an antitrust investigation; I speak from amateur experience on the former and professional experience on the latter. Why do antitrust investigations form? At their base, they exist to deal with a noncompetitive market. One company or a group of companies have gotten too powerful, the barrier to entering their field is too high, and so on, even as the playing field is supposed to be level by the nature of a free market. Rather than letting the market actors work it out every time, governmental enforcement mechanisms will come in via lawsuit, investigation, or something else to restore order and competition.
CawBlade wasn’t a deck monopoly as much as Jace was a monopoly, especially in its joint venture with Stoneforge Mystic. When he wasn’t there, he was controlling the other market share with RUG or UB Control. The barrier to market entry was high: have a way to beat Jace or die. Although this might not apply to your local store (whose antitrust analog conveniently is a local store), around the world generally it did.
This should be where your playgroup’s gotten to before you create a banned list. Nothing short of this should get a ban. Why? First, unless one card or deck is banworthy, there are more gracious means of dealing with it. Build a deck that attacks on multiple angles with the extra benefit of keeping the jerk card or deck honest. I’ve done this several times with R/G control, playing sweepers and enchantment/artifact destruction so that people don’t get too high on their token decks or their combo that’s only unbeatable because people haven’t woven noncreature destruction into their deck plans. Use it enough times and the player in question has to play something else sometimes, which is all you really wanted him or her to do anyway.
Honesty decks are important to a group’s health because in the vast majority of cases they’re the best available enforcement mechanism. Even a “social contract” is a more civilized version of the threat of an honesty deck. Just as peace talks and negotiations were a step up from “let’s fight about it,” so a “social contract” is highbrow code for “play X, and I’ll play anti-X.” If you’ve shown someone once why they shouldn’t go down that road (i.e. because you will make an honesty deck and play it until they weep), then the contract is a sufficient enforcement mechanism against cards and decks that have vulnerabilities.
If there doesn’t seem to be such a solution, then break out the ban. But the foregoing illustrates the second problem with bans: a casual group rarely has the enforcement powers that WotC has over its tournaments. The actual power behind the bans isn’t words or fiat; it’s disqualifying people from tournaments. If your group is going to attempt an actual banned list, the power behind the band is to kick people out of the group. Depending on where the group plays, that gets nasty quickly. Do you call the cops on a Jace-wielding trespasser? Do you refuse to tell Sliverboy where and when you’re playing? How does that work? Presumably in sane groups the threat of this is enough to keep it from happening, but presumably sane people don’t get their thrills out of beating people with the same few overpowered things. (Even if one person has many overpowered decks, few of them are so resilient in the same ways as to make playing against that person the same depressing feeling every time.) No, in a multiplayer group it’s difficult to make a banned list that is a true banned list for these reasons. What you call a banned list might be something less than that; that’s fine if it’s true, but you do yourself and your group a disservice if you think of it as similar to a full-blown banned list.
Given how difficult casual banning is, players who hate a card or deck should at least make the effort to beat it before the usual solution of incessant whining. I like to complain about certain cards m’self, but anybody can hate a card, and most of us will hate first on cards that beat our decks a lot or suddenly snatch victory from our clutches in a game where we thought we had it wrapped up. That’s different than the card being inherently hard to beat, so try an honesty deck. Given that most honesty decks involve just having the right removal and enough of it, it’s rarely that expensive to build them. Even good Wrath effects have been printed enough recently that you can get some of them cheap.
But try that instead of moving straight to banning or pseudo-banning. Full-scale card/deck bans involve the threat of a person ban, which at its core is what Wizards has that you probably don’t. Take all possible efforts to avoid that point, whether you’re the overpowered deck player or the frustrated group member. The government strongly prefers companies to regulate themselves so they don’t have to get involved. Take the hint for the sake of the playgroup free market.