As we start to close in on the end of the year and prepare ourselves for 2020, I thought it would be interesting to look back on 2019. A lot has happened, but a recurring theme of 2019 has been the banning of Magic cards from various formats. From my point of view, it has been interesting to understand different peoples’ predictions or takes on the direction that they think ‘should’ or ‘could’ be taken. Some post-ban reactions I’ve observed have understandably been quite emotive due to them being voiced in the ‘heat of the moment’, so in this article I want to share my perspectives, having had time to reflect both on how they have affected me as a player and the game itself. I’ll recount 2019 month-by-month, highlighting all the bans (and unbans) we’ve had. I’ll share my personal take on bans in formats I’ve actually played (Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Pioneer). Apologies in advance if you were here for my insights on the Pauper bans and Vintage restrictions!
Having not touched Modern for almost a year, Wizards axed Krark-Clan Ironworks (KCI). The deck built around it had a very good win-rate at the Grand Prix-level, but its polarising pre-sideboard win-rate, extremely long combo turns, and difficult rules interactions were also considered as part of the decision to ban it.
There’s a sentiment that Ironworks died for the sins of Mox Opal, primarily because I think Opal made the Ironworks deck ‘consistently broken’ as opposed to just ‘often powerful’. Having said this, I think banning the Opal at this time instead would have meant other decks like Hardened Scales or traditional Affinity would have been somewhat neutered. They aren’t guilty of format dominance but would have gotten caught in the crossfire anyway. The Opal itself, along with Ancient Stirrings, were also given consideration in terms of which card to ban from the deck but, ultimately, I think banning the namesake was the right decision.
This ban is quite interesting because it was a made specifically due to factors relating to Magic’s digital environment. It was only banned in Best-of-one (Bo1) Standard on Magic: the Gathering Arena (MTGA). The heart of the problem Nexus of Fate presented was that it could be ‘looped’ to take ‘infinite turns’ quite easily. This in itself creates a non-interactive game, the negative aspects of which are exacerbated in a digital environment. In paper events. players can mutually agree what is going on or call for the assistance of a judge. However, on MTGA, there are no such shortcuts and winning games through infinite turns sometimes took half-an-hour upwards due to the need to implement each game action, trigger, and effect properly. During that time, one player is likely not doing anything.
I understand the rationale to ban this in only Bo1 on MTGA and keep it legal in traditional formats where things like sideboarding, mutually acknowledging a ‘loop’, or ‘calling a judge’ exist. I’m personally not a fan of the card, even though it didn’t completely dominate Standard at the time. A card that grants an extra turn combined with the possibility of simply redrawing it leads to non-interactive and repetitive gameplay all too easily. I’d have just got rid of it entirely, but that’s just my opinion!
Nothing was banned, but that didn’t stop people talking about Nexus of Fate due to the amount of time the decks that used needed to win and also that the card was only available as a Magic 2020 Core Set ‘Buy-a-box’ promo (as opposed to being found in booster packs). Wizards clarified in the (March 11) Banned and Restricted announcement that, while these things may be true, they are not enough to justify banning a card. There was no announcement in April.
As mentioned in the introduction, I don’t play a lot of Pauper, so I can’t speak from any experience on the above cards getting banned.
These were pre-emptive bannings in light of increased tournament support being provided for paper Pauper events. Wizards decided to unify Pauper played via MTGO and on paper as certain cards existed in the online format that did not on paper. As a result, over 400 new cards officially became legal, except for the above three.
Modern Horizons was released to ‘shake-up’ Modern, and it definitely did. A deck built around Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Altar of Dementia, and Bridge from Below quickly established itself as the dominant strategy in the format.
I actually was lucky enough to win a European Modern Series Qualifier with this deck, which I wrote about in this article. The article itself even has a ‘what is getting banned’ section which speaks volumes to the obviousness that something had to go. I thought Hogaak, the ‘free 8/8 trampler on turn two’, should probably have gotten the boot, but they banned the Bridge instead. It’s a Magic card that does either ‘absolutely nothing’ or ‘busted stuff’, so removing it from the format is generally going to be a net positive over time. In spite of this, I was fairly confident at the time that Hogaak was getting banned shortly anyway.
My thoughts on the Faithless Looting ban are a bit more interesting than those on the expected and ‘necessary’ Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis ban. Looting was incredible fuel for any deck looking to take advantage of graveyard synergies. It supported a variety of decks and gave non-blue decks some card filtering. In this sense, it was a proponent of a diverse format. However, the problem with the card was its high potential to be an enabler for dominant strategies in the future. As hinted at before, there are similar sentiments surrounding Mox Opal and Ancient Stirrings, as these cards will only get better over time as new decks using new combinations of cards find a home for them. Over time, Looting has powered Dredge, Hollow One, Izzet Phoenix, and Hogaak to lofty heights. Hogaak got the ‘breakthrough’, but the common denominator that is Looting cannot be ignored. It even powered graveyard strategies to the point of demanding the use of maindeck graveyard hate in some decks, which restricts deckbuilding freedom and diversity. Overall, I’m in agreement that getting rid of Looting was a good ‘safe’ play, but I didn’t actually expect it to happen. Now I’m watching Opal and Stirrings even more closely than before.
The unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic reversed a ‘pre-emptive ban’ from 2011 at Modern’s inception. That was just after a period of time where Caw-blade had absolutely dominated Standard. I was a bit worried at first that aggressive strategies would fall to the mighty Batterskull on turn three, but having actually played the format post-ban, this isn’t actually the case except in some polarising scenarios. Modern is a format where far more overpowered things are going on, so despite my very initial apprehensions at the time, I’m very much in agreement that this card is a bit of a ‘free unban’ in Modern.
This dinosaur bit the dust when Ixalan joined Standard, and probably died for Hazoret, the Fervent’s sins. At the time ‘Ramunap Red’ was a very strong strategy and red decks continued to dominate Standard for a lot of the year. It felt like a safe unban. I don’t have too much experience playing with Ferocidon after it got unbanned, partly because I chose not to invest in this particular window of Standard play.
Fastbond was already restricted and got unrestricted. The other cards were restricted for various reasons that I’m not really positioned to comment on having not played Vintage.
Nothing was banned, the announcement schedule goes straight from 26 August to 07 October. During this month, Mythic Championship V took place and the dominating strategy at the time was a deck based around Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and Field of the Dead (Golos-Field). At this event, the only viable deck choices were either Golos-Field, decks that could beat Golos-field, or decks that could prey on anyone not playing Golos-field – a sign of things to come.
Due to the dominance of decks using Field of the Dead in Standard, it seemed like the realisation of a foregone conclusion here. This card provided a roadblock for aggressive decks, inevitability goes over the top of midrange decks, and present recursive threats against decks trying to go over the top of it. Field of Ruin was really missed as the format had very few ways to interact with lands.
There was also a sentiment that Golos-Field was masking a lurking predator in Oko, Thief of Crowns. I strongly believed this to be the case. Oko provides a defensive and aggressive route for any Simic or G/U/x deck and fuelled powerful Food-based synergies. Despite not being favourable against Field of the Dead, it was hotly anticipated that this card would take over Standard in the absence of hordes of zombies and should therefore also be banned as a precaution.
In this month, the Pioneer format was announced with the fetchlands from Khans of Tarkir being pre-emptive bans. As I was focussing on preparing for the upcoming Mythic Championship VI in November, I, unfortunately, did not pay much attention to this format at the time, but I think embracing the challenge of using less than perfect manabases sounds exciting! Wizards explicitly announced that they would curate this format in its early stages with a weekly ban update. I took comfort in the fact that my late interest in the format might not be a big deal due to the frequent changes that were expected by the time Mythic Championship VI was over.
The poster-child of the new set finally got the boot. As anticipated by myself and many players, Oko, Thief of Crowns did, in fact, take over Standard once Field of the Dead left. As a competitor, I can confirm that jokingly dubbing Mythic Championship VI as the ‘Oko Championships’ is humour based on stark reality. With 69% of the field adopting Oko and close to 40% of the field playing the Food archetype, the writing was on the wall. I do think the lack of diversity may have made things trickier than normal for the coverage team for the event.
Once Upon a Time has lovely flavour, but it felt like a bit of a no-brainer as a free spell that dramatically improved early game consistency.
I actually expected them to do something about Nissa, Who Shakes the World at the time, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had banned that instead of Veil of Summer. This might have just been a case of me not paying as much attention to cards that are pretty much ‘sideboard material’. The card has always seemed like a serious bump up from similar cards in the past like Autumn’s Veil or Display of Dominance (which weren’t strong at all). Veil just seemed to have been pushed a bit far. I think if it didn’t have ‘draw a card’ tacked on it might have been a fine, and possibly uncommonly played, card. I can see the reasoning for it being banned. Nobody wants to be Cryptic Commanded for one green mana! Nissa costing five mana makes it much less banworthy!
These cards lasted only a short couple of weeks. Felidar Guardian has been admitted as an oversight with respect to its combination with Saheeli Rai in Standard (2016). Leyline of Abundance was deemed to cause too many explosive starts for decks utilising Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Oath of Nissa was more of a precautionary measure against a powerful card selection tool.
I can hardly say I’m surprised that history has had to repeat itself in stopping Saheeli/Guardian combo taking over a format. With respect to the Leyline ban, there’s always the possibility that Nykthos is the real problem that explodes again when combined with another card yet to be discovered. However, Wizards were explicit in that they hoped it could add diversity to the Pioneer metagame. With respect to Oath, I think the real problem is that they have printed too many Planeswalkers that both cost three mana AND are very powerful (and might need to get banned themselves), so the rationale about it combining too well with these walkers does leave me thinking it’s not actually the Oath that’s the real problem here.
Veil of Summer was banned later in November due to an ‘overrepresentation’ of green aggro and ramp, confirming the serious boost green has been given in recent years. My opinion of this ban is largely swayed by the fact that, at the time, Pioneer was still in an exploratory phase, so a card like Veil showing up all the time and not really letting the blue and black interaction demonstrate its capabilities is probably a good step forward in helping to curate the format a bit. I wouldn’t want Wizards to be doing this through ‘green-tinted glasses’!
Although Wrenn and Six was printed in Modern Horizons, there’s no denying that its abilities made more of an impact in Legacy. The ability to recur Wasteland and repeatedly take down X/1 creatures while only costing two mana unsurprisingly sent shockwaves through the format and rendered old favourites like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Young Pyromancer ‘unplayable’.
To be honest, I saw this one coming as soon as I read the card and took a step back from actively playing Legacy. I anticipated it becoming mandatory to play this card if you wanted to ‘fight fair’ (as opposed to combo) and personally decided not to ‘bite the bullet’. I’m not saying my hunch was completely accurate, only that I guess this is one of those times I admit that anticipating a ban actively made me shy away from a format. I completely support this ban, and hope that the Death and Taxes players of the world can now show Emrakul the Aeon’s Torn, Marit Lage, and casters of Dark Ritual who’s boss once again!
All of these cards have demonstrated their prowess by getting banned in their respective Standard formats and played an integral role in the shells of some dominant strategies in Pioneer up until this point.
The dominance of Mono-black aggro, arguably held together by Smuggler’s Copter, sealed the card’s fate. Thinking beyond Mono-black aggro, Copter could just move onto the next shell and create a new dominant deck. Rather than any of the black cards being guilty of being overpowered, they were simply pawns in reminding us that this vehicle was maybe pushed too far. All roads in ramp decks started to lead to Field of the Dead, and a slight bias of green continued thanks to Once upon a Time‘s effect on early-game consistency. This provided enough evidence to support known problem areas for metagame diversity with respect to these cards. I’m quite sympathetic to the ‘necessity’ element of these bans, as much as I enjoy playing the Copter!
Oko, Thief of Crowns was very recently axed with the data from MTGO Pioneer leagues demonstrating a dominating win percentage in Simic Food Ramp. This data backs up things we already know about it from Standard earlier this year. Nexus of Fate was banned mainly on merit of the data suggesting that Simic Food Ramp was pinning this deck down a bit – a precaution against opening the floodgates for it. In addition, what we already know about it creating frustrating play patterns was also given as a reason.
There’s very little I can say at the time of writing that makes me disagree with these bans. There’s the slim possibility that I am a bit distorted by my recent experiences in Standard when in supporting the bans. However, I can’t see a future context where Oko is a ‘safe’ unban. I actually support Nexus going a bit more because abusing it involves creating a miserable gaming experience for opponents.
I’ll admit that the Pioneer format’s early stages, which includes intentional weekly ban reviews, has ramped up the number of bans occurring this year. I hope this article has not only provided a nostalgic reminder of how the competitive multiverse has been reshaped dramatically over the course of a year, but has also offered some perspective on the bannings from the point of view of the growth and progression of the game we all love.
Having seen a lot of negative press during the year about bannings equating to ‘failures in game design’ or the printing and then banning of popular cards ‘ruining’ Magic, I wanted to provide a bit of a case study from the point of view of a regular competitive player. This is because, in spite of occasionally being personally affected by some bans or unbans, I think real importance in comprehending the intention and rationale behind bans as a move towards a more enjoyable game environment for all.
It’s true that if some of the ‘overpowered’ or ‘problematic’ cards had never been printed in the first place, there wouldn’t be a need for so many bans. I agree very much with this in theory, but I think, if applied rigorously, we may see a design team avoiding risks and cards perhaps becoming less interesting over time. I’d rather have an adventurous design that was corrected with a bit of trial and error rather than a product that was too conservative and lacklustre as a result.
I’m taking some time off for the holiday season. I’m qualified for Players Tour 2 in Copenhagen in May as I cannot attend the one in Brussels in February. This does void my participation in the next season of WPNQs though. Personally, I’m looking forward to Theros Beyond Death and exploring some more Pioneer!
Whatever you’re doing this holiday season, I wish you well and hope you have fun. As always, thank you for reading!
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter @Chris54154 – feel free to hit me up with your thoughts online or if you see me at an event. I regularly attend competitive tournaments in the UK including Magic Fests and events pave a pathway to the Player’s Tour. I also have a love of casual play including Commander and Cube.