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Ban List Fever: The Never Ending Discussion of What Should (and Should Not) Be Banned


A few months ago, Wizards decided to change the way cards are banned in various formats. In the semi-distant past, there was a regular banned-and-restricted list update schedule known far in advance, which later changed to each ban list update announcement coming with an additional announcement of when the next update would happen. Now, we live in a new world with no scheduled updates to the banned-and-restricted list. Instead, Wizards tells us a week ahead of time that a ban list update will be taking place the following Monday, and we wait for the update to happen. 

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The main upside of going schedule-less for the ban list, according to Wizards, is flexibility. Wizards can see a problematic card or deck and be more "agile and responsive with changes," rather than waiting around until the Mythic Championships are ruined by Oko, Thief of Crowns or a Grand Prix is destroyed by Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. So far, we don't have enough of the new-style banned-and-restricted announcements to see how much the process is sped up in practice, although it does seem like it has been a long time since we have had a B&R (banned-and-restricted) announcement, especially considering that several of the first format-defining Pioneer Players Tour events took place in the meantime. 

While the intentions for changing how B&R announcements happen seem good, as with any change, there are unintended consequences. For the new B&R cadence, the biggest is that it seems like we've reached the end of "no changes" B&R announcements. In the past, when B&R announcements happened on a regular schedule, the most common outcome was nothing happening at all. The announcement would be posted on the Mothership, it would simply say "no change," and everyone would get back to business while they waited for the next announcement. This seems very, very unlikely to happen with the new style of B&R announcement. It seems like announcing that a B&R announcement is on its way only to not have that announcement do anything would be untenable from a public relations perspective. Once the "next Monday is the B&R announcement" announcement comes out, the expectation is clearly set that something is getting banned (or in rarer cases, unbanned), and Wizards will have to meet those expectations by making a change. "No changes" is no longer a legitimate outcome. 

In some ways, this is fine. Once the announcement of the upcoming B&R announcement comes out, the community's focus will be on the banned list for the next week. It will be the topic of endless articles, podcasts, and social media posts, and all of this information may even help Wizards in making its final decision, as an informal way to take the community's pulse in regard to certain cards or decks. 

In other ways, the new system will keep the already tiresome conversation about what should and should not be banned going, perhaps to an unhealthy level. Now, along with speculating on what will be banned or unbanned, there is the constant speculation about when the announcement will happen, so unless every format is perfect (which is unlikely to happen with so many formats, decks, and cards existing), people will be counting down the days to Monday to see if the announcement of the B&R announcement will happen, which starts the clock on an even more intense discussion on what cards will actually be banned. 

The Cost

More importantly, as I have learned on my Twitter, a large segment of the community is simply burnt out with bannings, to the point where suggesting something obvious (like Oko, Thief of Crowns being 70% of a Mythic Championship meta means it will likely have to be banned) leads to a lot of complaints about ban hysteria and an over-reliance on the banned list. It's easy for people making content or playing Mythic Championships to forget that while banning Oko, Thief of Crowns or Inverter of Truth makes gameplay better (especially on a tournament level), it has a very real negative impact on the finances of many Magic players. While Magic Arena and the shift toward Standard play being digital has perhaps lessened the harm of banning cards in the format, Pioneer, Modern, and Legacy are still primarily paper formats where decks cost a meaningful amount of money.

If your main goal in Magic isn't to win Mythic Championships, Grands Prix, or Players Tours but to have fun without spending too much money, then recoiling in horror at the idea of the cards that you spent a sometimes significant amount of money on being banned makes sense. At one point, a playset of Oko, Thief of Crowns was worth around $300. For a lot of players, that's a car payment or a decent chunk of the month's rent. Seeing that value disappear (Oko, Thief of Crowns is just $15 a copy now) thanks to a banning—even a necessary banning from a gameplay perspective—is painful. (Here, it is worth mentioning that Oko being banned in Standard didn't have a huge impact on its price—the Modern and Pioneer bannings are what really killed the planeswalker's value.)

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Furthermore, when you consider that cards that are clearly broken for tournament play aren't always problematic on the kitchen table or that even at a local FNM, stores can have their own meta, driven by factors other than trying to win hundreds of thousands of dollars, banning Oko, Thief of Crowns can kills someone's janky Rampage of the Clans Food deck that they go 1-4 with every week at FNM along with Simic Food and other monstrosities ruining tournament play, and it makes sense that many players are anti-ban (and anti-conversations about bannings) in an absolute sense. 

This isn't to say that the new way of announcing bannings is responsible for the seemingly never-ending conversation about what should, shouldn't, might, and might not get banned in various formats—that conversation has been happening forever, and it is increasingly loud in a world of Magic social media, streams, and content. But at least under the old system where bannings happened on a regular cadence, there were natural breaks in the conversation. When the community knows there isn't a banned list update for a month or two, the incentive is lower to call for and endlessly debate the merits of banning cards X, Y, and / or Z. 

The new system incentivizes the opposite. At least in theory, any Monday could bring with it the announcement that the following Monday will have a B&R announcement. Add in the facts that Wizards has shown it does do listen to feedback from the community and that banning discussion makes for easy and occasionally good content during slow periods of Magic, and the stage is set for the banning conversation to quite literally be never-ending. If you can get enough people to rally against a card and present a strong enough case for why a deck should not be legal, who knows? Maybe Wizards will announce a B&R update for the following week and get rid of it!

While the conversation about what should or shouldn't be banned is often a fine and even fun philosophical debate for the elite of the Magic community—pros who are somewhat sheltered from the harsh realities of the Magic market through a combination of sponsorships, social circles (to borrow cards and decks), and tournament winnings, along with content producers, for whom writing an interesting article or click-worthy video is a primary goal, and the like—for the average player, not only is the conversation only tiresome, but it can be scary, to the point where it can even make some people wonder if they are better of spending their $60 on a new console game rather than on a copy of Oko, Thief of Crowns, or on a new gaming system rather than an expensive Pioneer or Modern deck. 

How do you balance having important conversations about the health of formats against potentially turning new players off to the game altogether by discouraging them from investing in cards and decks within a system that almost seems designed to promote an endless conversation about what should or shouldn't be banned, in a world where Wizards seems hellbent in printing extremely powerful cards that are clearly walking a very tight rope between good and broken on a set-by-set basis? That's the question we're facing today, and there isn't an easy or clear answer.

The Solution

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I don't think it's fair or even healthy to ask the community to never talk about, discuss, or even call for bannings. The last year alone is a pretty clear example that some cards really are too good and really do need to be banned. With cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns, Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, and Once Upon a Time, apart from the fact they were printed with text that made them too good for various formats, the biggest issue is that it took Wizards too long to actually get them out of their respective formats. You can argue that Oko, Thief of Crowns crushed enthusiasm for Standard to such an extent that we're still seeing ripples today in an improved version of Standard post-Theros: Beyond Death (in November 2018, 7.1 million hours of Magic were watched on Twitch; in November 2019—the peak of Oko's dominance—people only watched 4.9 million hours). Feedback from the community regarding their play experience in various formats is important. Cutting off banning conversations altogether doesn't seem to be an answer.

There are also potential upsides to the new system of B&R announcements. While we haven't seen many (or even any) of them in practice to this point, at least in theory, having the flexibility to ban a card with just a week's notice means that we won't have to sit through unwatchable Mythic Invitationals with one-deck metas. Going back to the Oko, Thief of Crowns example, perhaps if Wizards took forceful action and banned the planeswalker right away rather than waiting weeks until Standard was—in the opinion of many—unplayable, there would be more enthusiasm for Theros: Beyond Death Standard today. As such, asking Wizards to revert back to the old system of pre-schedule announcements probably isn't ideal either. There are benefits thanks to the flexibility the new system offers.

Perhaps the best solution isn't a true solution at all but more of a reminder: when it comes to the topic of bannings, stop and think before acting. Not just think but think outside of your bubble, about the casual players, FNM grinders, and budget-conscious high schoolers and college kids who make up a huge portion of the player base (and potential player base) of the game. Just talking about bannings has a cost in terms of consumer confidence. While there are times when the benefits (getting Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis out of Modern or Oko, Thief of Crowns out of Standard as quickly as possible) are worth the cost, in other cases, the cost of having yet another conversion about bannings outweighs whatever good could potentially come from the conversation. When you step back and look at the big picture, what's "good for the game" isn't always "what's good for format X that's being dominated by card Y," at least over the short term. 

In many ways, we've reached a perfect storm for banning hysteria and endless banning conversations: powerful and ban-worthy cards being printed in every set, the growth of Magic social media and content, a new system for announcing bans that keeps the conversation going since a banning could come at essentially any time, and the pre-announcement of the B&R announcement likely eliminating the chances for "no changes" B&R announcements for the foreseeable future, setting the expectation that a ban is imminent and driving the conversation to a fevered pitch. In this environment, the easy thing is to talk about bannings more often and with more force, but these conversations, as well-intentioned as they may be, come with a high cost. The easy way isn't often the best way.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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