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The Good and Bad of B&R Week


Monday banned-and-restricted announcement: no changes in Standard. Wednesday evening: emergency banning of Felidar Guardian. This week and, if we step back, the past few months have been ridiculous in regards to Standard, with bannings and calls for bannings but no banning and even an emergency banning, which has only happened once before in the game's 25-year history. Unpacking all of this is difficult because there are so many good and bad aspects to what's happened. 

While Wizards ended up doing the right thing for Standard and the game as a whole, the process to getting to this good decision was rocky at best and laughable at worst. So today, we are going to delve into this past week (and the months preceding it) in Magic, focusing on the good and bad of banned-and-restricted week. Unfortunately, things are so convoluted that it's impossible to say things are either good or bad, so rather than trying to simplify a very complicated situation down into an easy conclusion, let's instead go over the good things that happened this week, along with the bad things that happened as well.

Good: Felidar Guardian's Banning Fixes Standard

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For me, this overshadows all the other good and bad aspects of this week, so we should probably talk about it first. As far as Standard gameplay is concerned, banning Felidar Guardian is the right thing to do and was a great choice by Wizards. While there are a ton of reasons why the Copy Cat combo shouldn't be allowed in Standard (starting with the fact that it was an admitted mistake to begin with), the biggest problem is that that the deck isn't beatable by beating the combo. While cards like Trespasser's Curse might look like answers, the truth of the matter is that Copy Cat doesn't need the combo to win. If you shut down the combo, they just beat you with Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Rogue Refiner, and now Glorybringer and Manglehorn as well. If you ignore the combo and try to beat their value plan, you'll randomly just lose to the combo, not to mention that the threat of the combo changes the way you play the game (leaving up mana for removal to not die to the combo, for example), which leaves you in a position where you are losing the game slowly, even if you don't realize it. All things told, the Copy Cat combo was not just too good for Standard but also unfun, which is a deadly combination that makes people stop showing up to play Magic.

Now, some people seem to think that removing Copy Cat from Standard will lead to Mardu Vehicles becoming the dominant deck, but I don't believe this is true. Mardu Vehicles, especially with the help of new Amonkhet cards like Magma Spray, Dissenter's Deliverance, By Force, and Manglehorn, is a beatable deck. While it will still be good and perhaps the best aggro deck in the format, it will be just another good deck, rather than a 35%-of-the-meta monster. 

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While this might sound counterintuitive, the reason Mardu Vehicles was so good in Standard was because Copy Cat was so good in Standard. The main reason for this is that the necessary cards for trying to beat Copy Cat simply weren't good against Mardu Vehicles (for example, Shock versus Magma Spray or having Authority of the Consuls in the sideboard over more artifact destruction). However, there is another less obvious reason as well: the presence of Copy Cat in the format kept many decks that could potentially be good against Mardu (and a lot of fun) on the sidelines, either because they couldn't consistently beat the combo or because it is almost certainly wrong to play Paradox Engine, Metalwork Colossus, and *insert any Standard legal card here* when you could just be playing Splinter Twin. A really janky example is Aetherflux Reservoir decks, which can be built to feast on Mardu Vehicles and win on Turn 5 or 6 but are simply unplayable (on a competitive level) when there is a Turn 4 combo like Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai in the format. 

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In sum, I have high hopes that Amonkhet Standard will be amazing moving forward. Suddenly, a lot of interesting combos from Kaladesh block become pseudo-viable. Zombies has a chance to be a real deck in the format. GB Energy will return, and while Mardu Vehicles will still be a deck, it won't break the format. While it's still possible that the format will end up being average (rather than great), I think there's also a realistic shot that the format will be significantly above average. More importantly, the feeling of dread attached to watching Pro Tour Amonkhet, brewing Standard decks, and playing the format has lifted, which is a great thing for not just Standard but Magic in general. For Magic to be healthy, Standard needs to be healthy, because Standard is the way that the most players (and the most new players) interact with the game. The past six months have been as bad a period as I can remember since the Jace, the Mind Sculptor bannings back in 2011, but with the banning of Felidar Guardian, it seems that format may have finally turned the corner.

Bad: The Process

While the actual banning of Felidar Guardian is great for Standard, the way we got to the banning is troubling, confusing, and downright weird. The fact that Felidar Guardian was deemed acceptable on Monday because Wizards thought that Amonkhet had some chance of saving the format but then was banned on Wednesday is hard to stomach. There's this long-running meme that Wizards bans cards randomly, by throwing darts at a dart board, and situations like this only reinforce this idea.

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According to the emergency ban announcement, Felidar Guardian getting the axe wasn't simply because the reaction to the "no changes" announcement was overwhelmingly negative and very loud but because Wizards got data from Magic Online that showed Amonkhet wouldn't fix the format. While I'm a big data person and support Wizards making data-driven decisions, this justification is so ridiculous it makes my head hurt (I think Patrick Sullivan said it best on a recent CEDtalks podcast when he said something like, "don't lie to me, but I hope you're lying to me." Basically, the idea that Wizards would put any weight into two days of Magic Online data—during a prerelease period when almost no one is playing Standard, card availability is limited, and maybe people were just trying out new things for fun—and use this "data" to ban a card in Standard is actually scarier than Wizards just caving to the massive negative reaction to the no-changes announcement and lying to us about the reasoning. While Wizards has a well-known dislike for data, you'd have to think that even a room full of data-haters would understand that a day and a half of Magic Online during one of the weirdest times on the Magic Online calendar means nothing—the sample size is way too small, and the sample itself is hardly representative of what "real" Amonkhet Standard would look like. 

All in all, the good of having Felidar Guardian banned outweighs everything else, but the process to getting to the banning was horrible, faulty, and just any other negative adjective you can throw out there. Actually, I'm not sure it's possible Wizards could have went about it in a worse way—this week was about as bad as it gets. One of the biggest downsides of bannings is that they shake people's confidence in the format, and this banning is in some ways doubly painful because the very process of getting to the banning was confidence shaking. Basically, I'm super happy that Wizards made the right choice in the end, but the way they got to the choice doesn't exactly make me feel comfortable with what's happening internally at Wizards. It's definitely possible to make the right choice in the wrong way and / or for the wrong reasons, and while it's great that Wizards managed to make the right choice this time, when the process is so flawed, the odds that Wizards will make the right choice the next time they are presented with an important decision is quite small.

Good: Wizards Listens

Especially considering I don't buy the data excuse as the reason for the emergency banning, it seems that this is yet another example of Wizards listening to the community. While overshadowed by the Standard non-banning / banning, it seems that an edited traffic sign managed to get Sensei's Divining Top banned in Legacy, and apparently a pizza box with a message imploring Wizards to ban Felidar Guardian played at least some role in the emergency ban.

Now, when I mentioned this on Twitter, there was a very mixed response. Some people took the situation to mean that Wizards didn't listen, because if they had really listened, they would have banned Felidar Guardian on Monday. Could Wizards have listened more or faster? Sure, but this doesn't change the fact that in the end, when the community very loudly made it clear that the "no changes" announcement was wrong, Wizards not only listened but took the historic (and extremely costly) step of making an emergency ban announcement just two days later. Listening slowly is still listening.

More importantly, this is not an isolated incident. A year ago, we had Pay the Pros, a community movement that got Wizards to walk back some very unfair changes that would have diminished money promised to pro players, and Maro recently announced that they would be printing fewer Gatewatch planeswalkers and swinging the pendulum back toward the middle as far as answer / threat balance based on community feedback. 

More so than just about any company I'm aware of, Wizards not only keeps track of what the community surrounding its game is saying but actually take the feedback to heart and makes real, actionable changes based on the wishes of the community, and generally speaking, this is a great thing—or at least much better than the alternative of being a cold, heartless corporation. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there's always room for improvement, but despite some of the recent rough waters, one thing that gives me a lot of hope for the future is that I really do feel like Wizards listens to the community. 

Bad: Wizards Listens

While this might sound contradictory, the fact that Wizards is so willing to make changes based on community outrage is also a little bit scary, not so much because Wizards is doing anything wrong—we want Wizards to listen—but because of who we, the Magic community, are and how we react to things. If there's one thing that's true about the Magic community, it loves to complain, and if there's a second thing true about the community, it's that we love a good, old-fashioned witch hunt. The combination of a company that is extremely willing to make changes based on pressure from the community with a community that is all too willing to mob up and complain has the potential to lead to some disastrous situations.

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In just the past couple years, we've seen multiple cards banned in Standard (Felidar Guardian, Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter), changes to design and development philosophy (the return of answers to Standard), changes to the Vorthos aspects of the game (reduction of the Gatewatch), and even players getting banned due primarily or at least partially thanks to uproars from the community on Twitter, Reddit, and other social media. While many (but not all) of the changes resulting from these uproars have been positive, at least from my perspective, this doesn't mean they all will be in the future, and knowing that there's a reasonable chance that Wizards will make changes if we yell loud enough is, in some ways, a scary place to be.

Here's the bottom line: we want Wizards to listen, and the fact that Wizards listens so well has the potential to be a good thing. It's empowering for the community to know that, when something goes disastrously wrong (like the no-changes announcement this week or Pay the Pros), our voices will be heard and we can bring about change. At the same time, with this power comes great responsibility, and moving forward, the community really needs to pick its battles wisely and take a couple of deep breaths before picking up the pitchforks. Too much yelling and shouting could end up doing one of two things: first, it could make it so eventually Wizards just tunes us out and stops listening, which would be a bad thing because then it will be harder to bring about change when it really is needed. Second, and potentially even worse, Wizards may listening and end up bouncing around like a ping-pong ball based on the whims of the community, which would create a massive amount of uncertainty and would be a huge negative for the game overall. 

By listening, Wizards has given us, as the community, a lot of power. Now, it's time for us, as the community, to use it wisely and not abuse the voice that Wizards has given us. 

Good: The Felidar Guardian Banning Doesn't Set a Precedent

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When Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage were banned a few months ago, one of the biggest problems with the bannings was the precedent they set. Before this group of bannings, Standard bannings weren't even a consideration—they were so rare that, while Modern, Legacy, and Vintage were always hot topics of debate and conversations leading up to every banned-and-restricted announcement, Standard rarely entered the conversation because Wizards simply didn't ban cards in Standard and the community didn't expect changes to Standard. 

The Emrakul, Copter, and Reflector Mage bannings changed this expectation, not just because the cards were banned but because of the reason for the banning: instead of being banned because the cards were simply too good or because Wizards made a mistake (although we can argue that at least some of the banned cards were too good and were a mistake), the bannings were to try to make the format healthier and more fun in general. Basically, rather than banning bad cards, Wizards was trying to ban its way out of a bad format. 

The banning of Felidar Guardian, as weird as it sounds, is a return to normalcy as far as bannings are concerned. The card itself was admittedly a mistake, and Wizards—by their own admission—wouldn't have allowed the combo in the format if they had known it existed (the fact that they would print a card with so much obvious combo potential and miss an infinite combo in Standard, of all formats, is an entirely different issue). In this sense, Felidar Guardian has much more in common with Skullclamp than Reflector Mage. As such, rather than being this uncertainty-generating newfangled type of banning that's more about some abstract ideal of format fun and health instead of the cards, Felidar Guardian is just the latest in the long line of "oops" cards that ended up needing a banning, like Memory Jar, Skullclamp, and friends. Because of this, there isn't really any new precedent, and moving forward, we shouldn't take the banning of Felidar Guardian to mean anything except that things slip through the cracks at R&D every once in a while and that the end result is a card needing to be banned. 

Bad: More Banned-and-Restricted Announcements

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We just talked about how the Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage bannings set a new precedent in Standard bannings and changed players' expectations of how bannings would be handled, and speaking of expectations, a much smaller change announced at the same time is proving to have big consequences: the addition of four more banned-and-restricted announcement days to the schedule. While Wizards said in the article announcing the changes that we shouldn't expect more bannings, you don't double the number of B&R announcements without creating this expectation, whether you intend to or not. 

The end result of this change is that we get a two-week-long frenzy regarding possible bannings eight times a year, and while Wizards might not realize it, even if they don't end up making any changes to the format, more B&R announcements means more uncertainty and is a bad thing for the game. Just having the date on the calendar means that every Magic podcaster, YouTuber, and article writer is going to be commenting on the possibilities of bannings, which creates a ton of uncertainty for the average player, even if announcement day comes and goes with "no changes." 

Plus, every banned-and-restricted announcement is a feel-bad moment for someone. Take Monday. There were a lot of players saying they were going to be skipping upcoming Standard tournaments, from FNMs to Pro Tours, along with other players canceling their Amonkhet presale orders. Then, fast forward to Wednesday. There's another (smaller) group of players feeling bad because they just bought Copy Cat and their deck was emergency banned. While banned-and-restricted announcements are a necessary evil, they almost never feel good, and adding more feel-bad days to the calendar requires a significant upside—an upside I'm not convinced the extra B&R announcements are providing. 

During the Monday "no changes" announcement, Wizards talked about not wanting to ban cards with a set about to release and about wanting to collect data from the Pro Tour (and Magic Online) about the new format before deciding to ban Felidar Guardian. Wanting Pro Tour data is fine, but if having data from the Pro Tour after a set is released is necessary for a banning, there shouldn't be a B&R announcement before the Pro Tour. Basically, if this Monday wasn't enough to get Felidar Guardian banned because Wizards wanted to see how the new set would shake out, there isn't a conceivable Standard format out there that would call for a banning during the pre-set release B&R announcement. 

The long and sort of this is that we need fewer banned-and-restricted announcements, for the sake of Wizards, the community, and the game itself. The uncertainty and feel-bads created by eight announcements a year will likely be unhealthier than having to live with a not-great Standard for another month or two. As such, we really need to go back to just four announcements a year, coinciding with set releases. If Wizards wants to push these announcements back until after the appropriate Pro Tour to collect data, that's fine, but this "B&R announcement every six weeks" schedule needs to stop. 

Bad: Emergency Bannings

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I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this one because I'm pretty sure everyone already knows this is bad, but it's worth mentioning briefly on the way out the door. Having bannings in Standard is painful and costly. When Emrakul, the Promised End was banned, I was getting messages from 15-year-olds who had spent all of their money to build GB Delirium or Aetherworks Marvel, only to have their only Standard deck banned into oblivion, with no money to build another one and keep playing Standard. So, no matter how a Standard banning actually goes down, it's going to hurt people.

That said, having Wizards announce "no changes" on Monday only to ban Felidar Guardian on Wednesday is significantly more painful and costly than just sticking to the normal schedule. While hopefully the number isn't too high, I'm sure that some players waited for the banned-and-restricted announcement, saw the "no changes" announcement, and immediately went out and bought Copy Cat decks to have for this weekend's FNM or SCG events. We've talked about expectations at various points in the article, and one very strongly held expectation is that Wizards bans things on a schedule. In fact, in 25 years of Magic, there has only been one emergency banning (not counting the Magic Online-only banning of Peregrine Drake in Pauper), and this was nearly 20 years ago, when Memory Jar got the axe. So, players rightly viewed the "no changes" on Monday as a green light to play Copy Cat, at least for the next six weeks until the next B&R announcement. Thankfully, many game stores and big Internet vendors have taken it on themselves to right the situation, but it's unfortunate that they are in a position where they have to take this action.

Wrap-Up

This whole situation, from start to finish, rests at Wizards' feet. They let Felidar Guardian out the door, apparently without checking for combos, even though the card is very obviously a combo piece and the combo was found by the community within a couple minutes of the card being spoiled. They proceeded to announce "no changes" through not just one but two banned-and-restricted announcements, with Copy Cat decks making up bigger and bigger portions of the metagame and players very publicly avoiding Standard. Finally, they backtracked (in just two days) with an emergency banning after green-lighting Copy Cat for the community for another six weeks. 

The problem is that while this entire situation is Wizards' fault, they only pay a portion of the price. While having bad Standards, low LGS attendance, and poor sales hurts Wizards, the insane lifespan of Felidar Guardian hurts everyone in the community. Players are losing money on their cards and losing confidence in Standard. Stores are having to issue refunds for cards that are on their way to being worthless. Basically, while Wizards is 100% responsible for creating this chaos, everyone is being hurt by its actions.

The good news is that I expect Wizards will learn from these mistakes, and over the long term, the game will be better as a result. You can bet that they will check cards for combos next time around and hopefully strengthen their testing process in general. This past fall, I wrote an article that talked about how Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter could end up being banned, and one of my revelations was that Wizards messes up once every five or six years and is forced to ban cards in Standard. Then, with this horrible experience fresh in their minds, they redouble their efforts to avoid these sorts of mistakes and problems, and we often have good Standards as a result.

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If you look back at past Standard bannings, Affinity Standard in Mirrodin block gave birth to Kamigawa / Ravnica Standard, which many people cite as one of their favorite Standard formats of all time. After Jace, the Mind Sculptor was banned, we moved into Innistrad / Return to Ravnica Standard, another format players tend to rate highly. If this pattern holds, good things could be coming to Standard in the not-too-distant future, and hopefully when we look back on this rocky period six months or two years in the future, the pain will have faded and all of the heartache will have led to something worthwhile or even wonderful. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of this week's bannings? What can Wizards do to improve its process? Do you buy the "data" justification? If not, why do you think Wizards took such drastic action? Has the banning of Felidar Guardian restored your desire to play Amonkhet Standard? Let me know in the comments, and as always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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