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Standard Bannings in 2019: Feature or Bug?


Magic has changed a lot in many ways over the last few years, especially when it comes to the topic of bannings. It wasn't that long ago that we didn't even bother to discuss bannings on the podcast since they basically never happened in Standard. The same was mostly true of social media. Calling for bannings wasn't worth the effort it took to type a tweet. They just didn't happen, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy Standard may have been. Sure, there were a few horror stories of Standards past, like Tolarian Academy and Memory Jar back in Urza's block, Skullclamp Affinity in Mirrodin, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor after Worldwake was released, but they were few and far between. In fact, from 2000 to 2017, there were exactly two rounds of bannings in Standard, with Affinity being banned in 2004–2005 and Caw Blade being banned in 2011. Across countless sets, blocks, and Standard formats and encompassing nearly two decades of time, exactly two decks were so problematic they were actually found worthy of a banning. 

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Things started to change in 2017. In that year alone, five cards were banned in Standard, and unlike previous Standard bannings, which were almost always focused on nerfing a single overpowered deck, the 2017 bannings ran the gambit from combos like Felidar Guardian to ever-present across-archetype threats like Smuggler's Copter to random three-drops like Reflector Mage. In January 2018, the final hammer came down, with Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and Rampaging Ferocidon all meeting their end with a single announcement. 

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While the number of bannings was shocking, at the time, it was fairly easy to write them. Like Urza's block, Mirrodin, and New Phyrexia, Kaladesh was built around an artifact theme. And if we've repeatedly seen one thing through Standard's history, it's that artifact-themed blocks tend to lead to broken cards and bannings. Plus, the timing even made sense. The Mirrodin bannings started in 2004, the Worldwake bannings started seven years later in 2011, and just about seven years after that came the Kaladesh bannings. Rather than a change in philosophy, it was easy to write off the bannings as just another artifact block–fueled set of mistakes.

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For the rest of 2018 and the first half of 2019, things were quiet in terms of actual bannings, although there were still rumblings and grumblings about cards that people wanted banned, like Nexus of Fate, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and Teferi, Time Raveler. But recently, the banning floodgates have opened up again, with Field of the Dead being banned just a month after rotation and a trio of green cards in Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time, and Veil of Summer following just last week. This most recent set of bannings made it clear that 2017 and 2018 were exceptions to the rule. Just take a look at the timeline of Standard bannings from 2000 to present.

As you can see, we've had more bannings in the three-year period of 2017 to 2019 than we had in the 16-year period from 2000 to 2016, with 13 bannings from 2017 to present and 11 in the first 16 years of the century. In reality, the numbers aren't even as close as they look on paper since six of the 2005 bannings were the cycle of artifact lands. If we lump them all together as a cycle, we could argue that we've had more than twice as many Standard bannings in the past three years as we did in the 16 years before.

On top of the increased number of bannings,  the bannings over the past couple of years feel different than the pre-2017 Standard bannings did. There's no artifact block to blame this time and the speed at which Wizards took action is stunning. Decks like Affinity and Caw Blade lived in Standard for many months before Wizards actually took action (Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were finally banned just a few months before rotation, after being in Standard for 16 months, while non-Skullclamp Affinity cards survived 17 months), based on declining attendance. Field of the Dead was banned less than a month after Standard rotated, while Oko, Thief of Crowns and friends survived almost two months. Not only are bannings happening more often, they are happening much, much quicker than in the past. Toss in the fact that Wizards published a Play Design article discussing how the power of Throne of Eldraine is basically where it's supposed to be (and where we should expect it for future Standard sets), a couple of misses aside, and it's pretty clear that the philosophy on Standard bannings as we head into 2020 is a lot different than it was over the past 20 years. 

In response to the most recent set of bannings, I posted a poll on my Twitter asking how many cards people thought would be banned in Standard in 2020. Only 14% of people choose zero or one banning, while 59% of the 4,349 voters choose the maximum option of three or more bannings. As such, it seems that it's not just Wizards but the community that is viewing bannings differently than in the past. Rather than having an attitude that bannings in Standard are so rare they aren't worth talking about, as was common for most of Magic's life, people now expect bannings to happen on a regular basis. Based on the past few months, it almost seems like Wizards' plan is to print powerful cards in Standard and quickly ban problems as necessary. Not that Wizards wants to print ban-worthy cards, but if the goal is to make sets that are 9 out of 10 in power like Throne of Eldraine, Wizards must know that bannings will keep happening as some cards end up at 11 out of 10. No matter how skilled Magic's designers are or how much cards are playtested, it's impossible to never miss high, and if you're aiming for a power level that it just below ban worthy, missing high will inevitably lead to bannings.

When we add Wizards' (and the community's) desire for powerful cards and the proliferation of Mythic Championships, Magic content, Twitch streams, and even players thanks to Arena, all of which contributing to Standard being solved and stale at a faster pace than years past, it becomes hard to view the Standard bannings of 2017–2019 as an exception to the rule or just a few bad years of design. Rather, having several Standard bannings a year starts to look like the new normal, perhaps unavoidably so in the fast-paced Magic world of the present.

How Should We Think about Bannings?

So far, we've seen that bannings are happening much more frequently and quickly than in the past, perhaps in part because of the power level of sets in the Play Design era and in part because the game moves so much quicker today than in the past, thanks to Magic content, streams, and Arena. These are just facts. The question is what we do with this information. If we assume that bannings are inevitable in our current environment, we can either try to change the environment (by calling for Wizards to pull back on the power level of sets, for example), or we can adapt and learn to live in a Magic environment that is very different than it was five, 10 or 20 years ago. Today, I'm going to argue for the latter.

It's possible that we need to change our thinking about bannings. As someone from the era of Magic when Standard bannings weren't a thing, it feels strange to write this, but maybe we need to start looking at bannings as a feature rather than a bug: as a normal and necessary part of having a healthy Standard format in the 2019 Magic environment, rather than a sign of design failure or a problem.

The Cost of Bannings

Traditionally, the biggest argument against Standard bannings is that they hurt consumer confidence. Spending hundreds of dollars on a deck only to have it banned in a matter of weeks or months feels bad and could even be a reason for someone to stop playing Magic altogether. I remember getting an email after Emrakul, the Promised End was banned in Standard from a 15-year-old who had spent their birthday money on Emrakul and were suddenly left without a legal deck to play or the resources to buy another deck. That's certainly not a good way to get a young player to love and enjoy the game. While there's no way around the feel-bad aspect of investing time, money, and emotions into building a deck only to see it banned, some recent data suggests that the financial implications of cards being banned in Standard aren't really as bad as they might seem.

Thanks to the popularity of non-Standard formats like Pioneer, Modern, and Commander, buying a card that ends up getting banned in Standard isn't always a financial disaster. Take Field of the Dead, for example. On October 21, when Field of the Dead was officially banned in Standard, it was $5.10. Today, it's over $11, despite being illegal to play in Magic's entry constructed format. Being banned in Standard didn't hurt the price of Field of the Dead. Instead, it has doubled in price in the month since its banning thanks to heavy play in Modern, Pioneer, and to a lesser extent, Commander.

The same strange trend is true of Oko, Thief of Crowns. The planeswalker hovered in the $35–40 price range for most of its Standard life until the banning of Field of the Dead and announcement of Pioneer caused it to briefly spike to almost $70, before it dropped back down to near $30 in anticipation of a banning, hitting a low of $31.90 just before it was officially banned. However, in the handful of days since the banning, the planeswalker has jumped more than $10 back into the mid-$40 range. 

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One of the things Wizards mentioned in its Play Design article about Oko and the bannings is that Wizards is intentionally trying to design cards in Standard-legal sets for non-Standard formats (Commander, Modern, Legacy, Pioneer). The fact that cards like Field of the Dead and Oko, Thief of Crowns see heavy play in other formats has greatly softened the blow of their banning in Standard, at least from a purely economic perspective. This isn't to say there is no cost. It takes time and effort to sell or trade away your banned deck; other cards that were played with the banned card could drop in price (Golos, Tireless Pilgrim went from $6 to $3 after Field of the Dead was banned); and not every card is Oko or Field of the Dead (Veil of Summer, which was banned in Standard and Pioneer, has dropped from $8 to $5). That said, based on recent experience, players don't necessarily lose a meaningful amount of money when their deck gets banned, and oddly, they might end up financially benefiting in at least some cases.

Another important aspect of bannings is 2019 is the growth of Arena. Based on a lot of announcements and changes over the past year, including the proliferation of paper Commander products, Command Fest, Command Zones at Magic Fest, declining attendance for Grand Prix main events (which are generally Standard or Modern), and the advent of about a million special printings in Collectors Boosters and the huge amount of cash that Hasbro has pumped into Arena for things like Mythic Invitationals, Mythic Championships, and various forms of advertising like embedded streams and third-party tournaments, it sort of looks like Wizards' plan is for Standard to be focused on Arena and for tabletop play to be focused on formats like Commander, Pioneer, and Modern. 

If Wizards' goal is to move Standard more toward Magic Arena over the next few years, then bannings become even less problematic since Arena cards are cheap (or even free, discounting the time you spend playing the game) and Wizards can reimburse players with wildcards for any cards that end up being banned. Plus, many new Arena players come from other digital card games, where bannings (in the form of nerfings, which aren't technically bannings but usually have a similar effect, as a card will go from highly playable to unplayable from a competitive perspective) are commonplace. Based on the reaction of the Magic Arena subreddit over the past week, the most recent round of bannings was celebrated rather than feared. While getting a $50 card banned in paper is scary, whether the price drops or not, on Arena, the stakes are significantly lower because of how the economy was designed.

All this isn't to suggest that there's no cost to banning cards in Standard. There certainly is a cost in loss of consumer confidence and, if bannings are too commonplace, perhaps even people purchasing fewer Standard cards. However, because of the changing economic realities of the Magic market and because of Wizards' focus on Magic Arena for Standard, the cost to banning a card in Standard in 2019 is much lower than it was in 2011 or 2004. 

The (Potential) Benefits of Bannings

One of the biggest issues that Standard faces is that, almost regardless of the cards in the format, it gets old after a while. By summer, the metagame is typically solved, and players often focus on other formats as they wait for rotation to shake things up. In the not-too-distant past, Wizards attempted to solve this problem by moving from one rotation a year to two rotations a year, to keep Standard fresh year-round, but reversed course based on poor attendance (although it's worth mentioning that this poor attendance happened during a very dark period of Kaladesh Standard, which likely played at least some part in the decline). 

A very easy way to solve this problem is printing high-powered Standard sets with the knowledge that some cards ending up slightly better than expected will probably need to be banned. Not only do high-powered Standard sets have a better possibility of shaking up the Standard format by themselves, but bannings—especially in formats where the top deck is 40% or even 70% of the metagame, as we've seen recently—can fill this role as well, removing a dominating top deck from the format and potentially breathing new life into a stale and solved Standard format. This isn't to say that the plan should be to print bannably broken cards, but if the past three years are to be believed, bannings are going to happen. So rather than focusing on the costs of the bannings, maybe we should focus on the benefits.

Arguably, the problem with Oko Standard wasn't that Oko (and Once Upon a Time / Veil of Summer) needed to be banned but that it took too long to ban the problematic cards, forcing players to sit through one of the least diverse Mythic Championships of all time. If social media is to be believed, many players simply stopped playing Standard while they waited for the format to change.

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Think back to last year. Would Standard have been better without Nexus of Fate? Without Teferi, Hero of Dominaria? Teferi, Time Raveler? Or how about in years past? Would Standard have been more enjoyable if Rally the Ancestors or Collected Company met their ends with a banning, rather than forcing players to sit through (or maybe sit out of) a boring, solved summer of Standard? While I don't think the cost of bannings is as high as most people think, as we've discussed before, there is undoubtedly a cost. On the other hand, there's also a cost to spending six months where every post on the Magic Arena Reddit is complaining about Nexus of Fate. There's a cost to banning players for playing a card that you printed on a client you designed. There's a cost to a new player firing up Arena, running into Teferi, Hero of Dominaria exiling all of their permanents while tucking itself into its controller's library, and potentially giving up on Magic before they even get a chance to experience what a great game Magic (usually) is. Maybe the problem with Standard isn't that we have bannings; it's that we don't have bannings often enough.

Recently, Wizards announced the Pioneer format, which appears to be an immediate, smashing success. One of the format's quirks is that for the time being, it has a banned-and-restricted announcement every week, and so far, we've had two rounds of bannings in just the past three weeks. While Wizards has said that Pioneer will move to the normal banned-and-restricted announcement in 2020 along with the rest of Magic's formats, maybe it's a better idea to move the rest of the formats onto Pioneer's banned-and-restricted schedule. 

A Standard format where Wizards can print powerful cards but also quickly eliminate cards that are problematic sounds like a lot of fun. (Again, I should make it clear that Wizards shouldn't and doesn't intentionally try to print ban-worthy cards. But with the goal being to print very powerful Standard sets with cards that are good enough to see play in non-Standard formats, it doesn't take much of a mistake for a card to go from strong to bannably problematic.) Standard would at least have the potential to change at almost any time.

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I remember a few summers ago, right before Collected Company rotated from Standard. I basically stopped watching and playing the format. While the format wasn't broken in the "70% of decks play Oko" sense, something like 30–35% of the meta was Collected Company and had been for nearly a year. It simply wasn't interesting anymore. In a world where bannings were more accepted, rather than counting down the days until Collected Company rotated and we could all start enjoying Standard again, we could simply ban it a month or two before rotation and get back to enjoying Magic. New decks and archetypes would regularly have a chance to succeed since the Standard format would likely change multiple times a year, rather than just once at rotation. Mythic Championships would be interesting again since there might actually be a chance of some surprise deck breaking out, rather than the drudgery of watching the same decks we've seen a million times do the same thing over and over again. 

Of course, this plan isn't without risk. Part of the reason why bannings have been rare in Standard history is that for most of Standard's history, players have had a strong dislike of bannings. Perhaps players will buy fewer cards since they will worry about losing their investment. Maybe fewer players will play tabletop Standard as a result. On the other hand, maybe part of the reason why Wizards seems more open to banning cards in Standard than at any point in the past is because it would prefer Standard to mostly move to Magic Arena, where bannings are far less problematic and players from other digital card games are used to having formats change with nerfs on a regular basis. 

What if the idea is to print sets in paper that, while supporting Standard on Arena, support Pioneer, Modern, and Commander in paper? If you're buying packs of Throne of Eldraine because you want to play Oko, Thief of Crowns in Modern or The Great Henge in Commander, what do you really care if the card ends up banned in Standard? Meanwhile, as we have seen with recent bannings, on Arena, Standard bannings are generally met with excitement at the freshness of the format rather than the gnashing of teeth since it is so easy to reimburse players for the banned cards.

Conclusion

I'm not saying that what I'm suggesting today is correct. As a long-time Magic player who has traditionally viewed bannings as a net negative and a sign of design failure, it feels weird to even think that bannings could be a feature of Standard rather than a bug. And it's very possible that I'm wrong and that even in 2019, having to ban cards in Standard is a very bad thing that could be harmful to the game overall.

That said, we live in a world where people want powerful cards in each set and Wizards wants to print very powerful cards in each set. We live in a world where having Standard remain fresh and fun is extremely important to the success of Magic Arena. We live in a world where Magic moves faster than it ever has before due to the proliferation of content, streams, and Mythic Championships. Maybe, just maybe, this new Magic world is one where, rather than spending our time fretting about the costs of bannings and thinking of bannings as a bug, we should embrace the benefits of regular Standard bannings as a feature that allows the format and game to succeed in the strange new world of 2019.


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