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The History of Standard Bannings


Over the past couple of months, two events have increased the chatter about the possibility of bannings in Standard. The first takes a more long-term view—with the return to a once-a-year rotation schedule, broken cards and decks are in the format for a longer period of time, which suggests that bannings may be more necessary in the future. The second is more short term, based on the fact that UW Flash and GB Delirium currently make up about 50% of the Standard meta, which is a historically high metagame share, and cards like Archangel Avacyn, Spell Queller, and Emrakul, the Promised End have the ability to invalidate entire archetypes all by themselves, especially in our current answer-lite Standard. 

The thing is, Wizards hates banning cards in Standard. While changes to older, non-rotating formats are fairly common, the banning of cards in Standard is incredibly rare, and Wizards does its best to avoid them. Not only are they an admission of design failure (remember: Standard is the one format that Wizards actually tests regularly), but they create a huge feel-bad for players. While Modern and Legacy players are theoretically so invested in the game that they won't quit based on a banning (especially when the banning improves the format), if someone buys their first Standard deck and it's suddenly banned, it's very possible that these players will give up on the game altogether. 

As such, today we are going to take a few minutes to look back over the history of bans in Standard and try to get a sense of just what it takes for Wizards to bite the bullet and actually ban one or more cards in the format. 

The Early Years (1995–1997)

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Standard became an official format in 1995, but in all honesty, the format was really still under design for the next several years. The makeup and card pool of the format changed several times before finally taking what is (more or less) its current form in July 1997 (with one core set and two blocks forming the Standard format). Because of the newness of the format, it's really difficult to learn much from these bannings, and things are further complicated by the fact that in the early years of the format, Wizards used a restricted list (much like we have in Vintage today, where you can only play one copy of a restricted card in a deck) alongside the banned list, and while many cards were restricted in the early years (Balance, Fork, Zuran Orb, Black Vise, Land Tax, Hymn to Tourach, and Strip Mine), only two were outright banned. 

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Now, in fairness, the time when Balance and Mind Twist were legal in Standard predates my time playing Magic, so I don't really know if there was a specific deck or combo that caused these cards to be banned. This said, both cards are currently banned in Legacy, and they are both brokenly powerful on their face, so my guess would be that they were simply too good for Standard, rather than being part of a specific oppressive combo. Most of my experience with these cards comes from cube drafts, and both are easy first picks. Remember: in the early days of Magic, fast mana like Moxen, Dark Ritual, Mind Stone, and the like were a major part of the game, and fast mana pushed both of these cards over the top. With Balance, if you can get some artifact mana on the battlefield, you can break the symmetry of the card and leave your opponent without a battlefield or hand, while you can keep casting your spells thanks to your mana rocks. Likewise, when you can make five or six mana on Turn 2, it's pretty easy to use Mind Twist to wipe out your opponent's entire hand and essentially win the game on the spot. 

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As a testament to the strangeness of the early years of Magic, Zuran Orb was eventually banned in Standard after Ice Age had officially rotated from the format. I mentioned earlier that in July 1997, Wizards moved to a Standard format that looked similar to what we have today (with two blocks and one core set), and along with this change came the end of restricted cards in Standard. Moving forward, a card would either be legal or banned outright. The result of this change is that Ice Age block suddenly returned to Standard after it had rotated (under the old schedule), and since Zuran Orb was restricted the first time around, it was preemptively banned when Ice Age came back to Standard. As weird as it sounds, apparently the combo of using Thawing Glaciers to keep getting lands and then sacrificing those lands to gain life with Zuran Orb was simply too good. 

Combo Winter (1998)

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I mentioned before that in old days, Wizards really liked their fast mana, and perhaps no single card exemplifies this better than Tolarian Academy. While there isn't a format where Tolarian Academy would be a fair Magic card, the fact that Urza's block and the Tempest block were basically broken piles of combo cards with tons of powerful artifacts didn't help matters. On the other hand, Windfall would arguably be fine in our current Standard format—by itself, it isn't all that problematic—but in a world of fast-mana artifacts like Lotus Petal, Mana Vault, and Mox Diamond backed by Tolarian Academy, it facilitates absurd combo decks, like this one:

While it might not look like much on paper, this deck is absurdly powerful and one of the main reasons why Tolarian Academy and Windfall were banned in Standard. Unfortunately, I don't have the name of the deck's creator, but I do know that it was extremely popular back in its day. The basic idea is that you get a Mind Over Matter on the battlefield along with some mana artifacts and a Tolarian Academy. Then, you use Mind Over Matter to tap out your opponent (to avoid counters) and then continually untap your Tolarian Academy, which is likely tapping for three, five, or even more mana. When you run low on cards (which are needed to activate Mind Over Matter), you simply Windfall, Time Spiral (Wizards loved "draw sevens" back in the late 1990s), or Stroke of Genius to refill your hand. Eventually, you'll have hundreds of mana floating, and you target your opponent with Stroke of Genius to force them to draw their entire deck and lose the game by drawing on an empty library. Time Spiral survived the initial round of bannings but met its end the following year, along with a bunch of other combo-centric cards.

More Combos (1999)

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By 1999, Wizards was getting tired of broken combos in Standard, so they decided to get rid of all the problematic cards in one big banning in March. Earthcraft can easily go infinite with Wild Growth and Sacred Mesa. (Side note: I imagine Wizards designing Earthcraft and being like, "This really needs to say basic lands so it's not broken with Tolarian Academy" and feeling like they dodged a potential bullet, only to print the card and find out it was still super broken.) Playing cards for free with Dream Halls has the potential to do some really broken things; Fluctuator allows for free cycling, which may not seem like a big deal now, but in a Standard full of cyclers, it was pretty nuts in Astral Rift; and Recurring Nightmare enables some super-powerful loops from the graveyard. As such, it makes sense that all of these cards were banned. What doesn't make sense is the broken card that Wizards missed. 

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The Memory Jar banning might be one of my all-time favorites because it came in mid-March of 1999, just a couple of weeks after the big announcement we were just discussing and also because Wizards had just got burned by the combination of fast mana and draw sevens the year before. For some reason, it didn't make it on the normal March banned list update. Then, there was a tournament that featured this deck:

The basic idea was simply that you find your single Megrim with your tutors and use your fast mana to cast a Memory Jar. Then, when you crack the Memory Jar, your opponent takes a bunch of damage from Megrim from discarding cards, and you simply draw into more tutors, Memory Jars, and fast mana; play and crack another Memory Jar; and essentially burn your opponent out with Megrim triggers. It seems like Wizards really believed they got all the busted stuff out of Standard and suddenly had to scramble to ban yet another busted combo deck. As a result, Wizards retroactively added Memory Jar to the March 1 banned list, which was updated two or three weeks later. 

For the rest of the year, things were fairly quiet, although Wizards did ban Mind Over Matter—the last remaining reminder of the Tolarian Academy madness from a year earlier. 

The Quiet Years (2000–2003)

After the disasters that were Urza's block and Tempest block, Wizards seemed to learn their lesson and change philosophies when it came to Standard: rather than printing any crazy thing that popped into their head, they would actually try to design cards in a way that would reduce (and hopefully eliminate) the need to ban cards in Standard. They also realized there wasn't much they could do about older formats—if you are going to keep printing cards, you simply can't test every synergy in every format, especially older formats where all of the cards in Magic's history are legal, so bans in Legacy and restrictions in Vintage would still happen from time to time, but Standard, with careful set design, could be a ban-free zone. 

Unfortunately, Wizards took its newfound desire to avoid printing broken cards a bit too far, which led so some extremely underwhelming sets in the Masques, Invasion, Odyssey, and Onslaught blocks. Eventually, as the years went by, the overcompensation away from printing powerful and potentially broken cards diminished, and by 2004, Wizards slipped back into its old habits, and at the worst possible time—during a block focused on artifacts.

Mirrodin (2004–2005)

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Skullclamp was, quite simply, a mistake, and even with the best intentions and design practices, mistakes will happen (especially when dealing with new card types, like equipment in Mirrodin block and perhaps Vehicles in Kaladesh). Skullclamp started off as an equipment that cost two to cast and two more to equip that allowed you to draw two cards when the equipped creature died. While it's hard to say for sure, it seems like this version of Skullclamp would probably be a (mostly) fair Magic card. You might use it in some sort of sacrifice combo deck (where it could still be broken), but simply playing it and hoping an opponent would kill the equipped creature wouldn't really be practical and would likely have kept Skullclamp from being ban-worthy. However, just before going to print, people started changing the card. First, they boosted the power and toughness bonus it granted, then dropped the cost to only one mana to cast and equip, and finally made it so it gave the creature 1 toughness, and it ended up being that fateful 1 that made Skullclamp into a monster, since all you had to do was play one-toughness creatures and you suddenly had a repeatable, colorless, one-mana Divination. By the height of Skullclamp's reign, 58 out of a possible 64 copies showed up in the Top 8 of two major tournaments, often featured in decks like this: 

While Skullclamp was the fall guy, there were actually a ton of problems with the above deck list, and over the course of the next year, Affinity—even without Skullclamp—became a devastating force on the tournament scene. While it was beatable, it took over a large portion of the meta and warped a lot of card choices into a "play Affinity or beat Affinity" paradigm. Last week, I wrote about the evolution of Dredge in Modern and suggested if we get to the point where that deck needs a banning, we need to shoot the head by banning powerful cards with the dredge mechanic and not simply ban support cards. This is exactly the tactic Wizards took when it finally banned Affinity in Standard. 

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When Wizards announced the Affinity bannings in March 2005, it completely gutted the deck, taking away not only two of its key win conditions in Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager but all six of the artifact lands as well. Make no mistake about it, this sent the message that Wizards clearly wanted Affinity to no longer exist. This wasn't a "let's ban Eye of Ugin to make Bant Eldrazi more fair" scenario, this was a "let's hope everyone forgets we messed up again" situation. However, the most interesting aspect of this banning isn't the banning itself but the reasoning Aaron Forsythe gave in his article explaining the banning.

After explaining that, by the data, Affinity wasn't that bad, Aaron mused that, in the past three months R&D and the DCI have been reminded that Magic is not a series of balanced equations, spreadsheets of Top 8 results and data of card frequencies. Magic is a game played by human beings that want to have fun. One of the most damning statements that can be made about a game is that it is not fun, and that's exactly what we've been hearing lately about Standard. 

Aaron went on to explain that, while people had complained about (and even threatened to quit the game because of) Affinity ever since the cards were released, the effects of Affinity had become measurable—people literally stopped attending tournaments because they simply weren't enjoying playing Magic. Of course, these types of bannings are not ideal because they "lead to a culture of fear,but when faced with people not just complaining but actually giving up on the game, Wizards really had no choice. 

The Quiet Years: Part 2 (2006–2010)

Much like the years just after Urza's block and Tempest block, Wizards followed up on the mistakes of Mirrodin block by powering down future sets. Kamigawa block is widely considered to be one of the least powerful blocks of the Modern era, and then Wizards slowly started to up power levels over the following few years. Thankfully, Standard was in a good place and bannings were unnecessary. By the time the mythic rarity came to be in Shards of Alara, Magic was entering into a golden age. Then, just like last time, Wizards forgot a few of its own rules and went a little bit too far with a new card type.

Caw Blade (2011)

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The bannings of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic back in 2011 were the most recent to impact a Standard format, and these bannings, focused on the Caw Blade deck, were mostly a numbers game. By the end of Caw Blade's reign in Standard, there were GPs where Jace, the Mind Sculptor was in 88% of day two decks and Stoneforge Mystic was in 70%. (Right now, the most dominant cards in the format have a level of dominance that is unheard of, even including all of the other broken decks and banned cards we've been talking about. For perspective, the two most dominant cards in our current Standard format—Smuggler's Copter and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar—are showing up in about 50% of decks.)  

Once again, it's not so much the bannings themselves but the reason for the bannings that is of note. In the article announcing the banning, Wizards suggested that it was willing to see if players would tolerate a "skill-testing, one-deck metagame." As such, it seems that a deck being 75% of the format doesn't automatically necessitate a banning. However, similarly to the Affinity banning, attendance to Standard events, from Game Days to FNMs to PTQs, dropped, which finally forced Wizards to pull the trigger. 

Today (2012–Present)

Since the Caw Blade banning, there hasn't been a single banning in Standard. In fact, I'm not sure we've even had a card that's come close to being banned. While we've had dominant decks and cards like Collected Company, Siege Rhino, Pack Rat, and Rally the Ancestors, those formats didn't see huge drops in attendance, and for the most part, by the time the outcry got loud, the problem card was already close to rotation (if you look at Rally and Bant Company, their most dominant times were in the two or three months before they rotated from the format). As a result, it seems like the combination of Wizards designing great cards and sets with the lessons learned from the past may finally be coming to fruition. 

On the other hand, if you look back over the history of bannings in Standard, you could make an argument that the pattern suggests we are about due for another banning. There were about five years between the Urza's bannings and the Affinity bannings, and then six years between the Affinity bannings and the Caw Blade bannings. Right now, we are currently in the fifth year since Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic got banned, which means the next year or two could be the time where a mistake happens (or perhaps Wizards lets its guard down and starts forgetting past lessons).

Putting It All Together

Bannings, by Color

As far as Standard bannings go, lands and colorless cards make up 56% of the 23 bannings that have happened throughout the format's history. If you throw blue cards into the mix, the percentage rises all the way up to 78%. This makes sense for a couple of reasons. For blue, it comes from the ability to draw cards, and colorless cards and land have the tendency to be especially dominant because they can theoretically fit into any deck (and the opportunity cost of playing lands is significantly lower than that of other card types). On the other end of the spectrum, we have red, which has never seen a Standard banning, while white (Stoneforge Mystic) and green (Earthcraft) only have one banned card each. 

Either Combos or Attendance

Over the course of Standard's history, there have been two broad reasons that cards have been banned. In the early years of the game, nearly all of the bannings were targeted at cards that facilitated broken, fast combos (and therefore broken, fast decks). In fact, before the Affinity banning, and discounting the weirdness of the Zuran Orb situation, every single banning in Standard involved a combo-based card. In the Modern era, we've only had two Standard bannings, but in reading the reasoning for the Affinity and Caw Blade bannings, the bottom line wasn't so much that the decks were too good, that the cards were too powerful, or that the meta was out of whack. While all of these things preceded and influenced the bannings, the bottom line with both bannings is that tournament attendance started to drop. While the data may inform Wizards' decisions, the financial implications of low tournament attendance and people quitting the game are what spur Wizards to action. 

Most of the Problems Are Fixed

If we look back over the history of Standard bannings, it's clear that 90% of these bannings couldn't happen today because the banned cards wouldn't be printed in the first place. Many of the early bannings were cards that either produced fast mana (like Tolarian Academy or Lotus Petal) or were broken because of fast mana (like Windfall, Memory Jar, and Time Spiral). The rest are narrow, powerful combo pieces like Earthcraft, Dream Halls, Fluctuator, and Recurring Nightmare. Because of the problems in the past, Wizards simply doesn't print these types of cards anymore. More importantly, Wizards has moved the goal post back on pretty much all dangerous card types, to the point where even if it makes a mistake, the mistake likely won't lead to a ban-worthy card. 

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Maybe the best example of this is mana rocks, which don't have a long history of being banned but do fall into the dangerous fast-mana category. In the old days, the baseline for mana rocks was to actually produce mana the turn they came into play, like Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, the Moxen, and Grim Monolith. After realizing that fast mana is dangerous, Wizards powered down mana rocks to the level of Signets, which cost two mana but immediately gain you back one mana, essentially making them cost one mana, in most situations. While we can argue about whether Signets themselves are simply too good for Standard, I think most people would agree that if they aren't too good, they are, at the very least, right on the border. As such, if Wizards' baseline power level for mana rocks was the Signets and they accidentally miss by printing a cycle that's a little bit too good, we're right back into the fast-mana danger zone. Because of this, Wizards powered down mana rocks once again, with most cycles today being three mana (Banners, Keyrunes, Cluestones) or being two mana, coming into play tapped, and having an additional downside (like Corrupted Grafstone or Sphere of the Suns). With these cycles being the norm, Wizards has given itself room to miss. If they accidentally print a cycle of mana rocks that are too good, they end up with Signets and not Mana Vaults. 

This trend has continued through most dangerous card types. Draw sevens no longer come with upsides like untapping all of your lands; they come with downsides, like Day's Undoing. Cantrips cost two mana, as do mana dorks. Anything that has the slightest whiff of combo potential is either extremely overcosted or based around creatures to allow for more interaction. Much like with mana rocks, this gives Wizards room to miss without printing bannable cards. As a result, with the modern design philosophy and sensibility, it's really difficult for Wizards to print cards that even have the potential to be banned in Standard. 

The Exceptions

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Now, let me make this clear right away: I'm not saying that Emrakul, the Promised End or Smuggler's Copter need to be banned in Standard; however, these two cards provide examples of the two ways Wizards is mostly like to "miss" and end up with a card that is broken enough to be banned in Standard, in the current day and age. While Wizards learned long ago that fast mana is problematic, it still likes to mess around with cost-reduction effects for some reason, which leads to 13/13, flying, trampling Mindslavers that cost only six mana. The same is true of the delve mechanic and the Phyrexian mana mechanic, and while neither of these mechanics ended up needing to be banned while in Standard, both are right on the border, and one slight miss could lead to major problems and bannable cards. 

The second way Wizards is likely to miss is with new (and relatively new) card types like Vehicles. If we look at the two Standard bannings in the Modern era—Affinity and Caw Blade—both of these bannings were aided by new card types. For Affinity, it was equipment, highlighted by Skullclamp and Cranial Plating (which wasn't itself banned but certainly helped create the insane Affinity decks that led to mass bannings); for Caw Blade, it was planeswalkers, which were still only a couple of years old at the time. 

When it comes to creatures, spells, and land, Wizards has years of experience and data to figure out what the right baseline power level is, and as we just talked about, they tend to aim far enough to the "safe" side that even if they miss, the result is a very good card (like Collected Company), rather than a ban-worthy monster. On the other hand, when it comes to new card types, the baseline is missing, which makes it much more likely that a "miss" in design will actually lead to a bannable card, because the safety valve is missing. 

Furthermore, when Wizards makes a new card type like Vehicles or Planeswalkers, they are under a lot of pressure to make sure at least some of the cards of the type are playable on a tournament level. While having to ban cards in Standard is bad, hyping up a new card type and having it fall flat and go unplayed is (perhaps) just as bad, so Wizards is incentivized to take more risks to make sure new card types see play. When you combine these two factors together, new card types are the most dangerous cards that Wizards makes and are the most likely to need a banning. As a result, Aether Revolt will be one of the most interesting sets in years because it will contain not one but two card types (here, I'm counting energy as a card type, even though that's not technically correct) that are dangerous, and Wizards likely felt some amount of pressure to "top" Kaladesh with Aether Revolt. Because of this, it's not impossible that we see a Skullclamp Vehicle (although some might argue that we already have one in Smuggler's Copter) or a fast-mana (or free-spell) energy card that is simply way too good for Standard. 

What about Right Now?

To bring things back around to the beginning, do the current calls for Standard bannings have legs? Here, I'm going to leave you with a less than satisfactory answer. By the data, our current Standard isn't extremely diverse, but it's also not "88% of Top 64 decks with Jace, the Mind Sculptor" homogeneous. I did a bit of research, and I believe that right now, the top two decks in Standard (GB Delirium and UW Flash) are about as dominant as they have been over the past few years, but there isn't one deck (or card) that's dominating (or breaking) the format. As a result, if we are just looking at the numbers, I'd say the idea of a Standard banning is silly. 

However, I've been hearing anecdotal reports that Standard attendance is down significantly. While I don't really have enough data to say this for sure, it seems possible or even likely that this is the case. Assuming this is true, a banning probably isn't off the table altogether. With both the Affinity and Caw Blade bannings, Wizards' primary motivator was falling attendance, and if Standard attendance is currently dropping, it's not impossible that Wizards would ban something in an attempt to improve attendance and get more players back to their local gaming stores. 

Another reason I think a banning is unlikely is because I have no idea what Wizards would ban, since there isn't really one card or even one deck that is dominating the format. Smuggler's Copter is the most dominant card (by percentage of decks that play it), and while it's featured in both of the big decks, it's also propping up a bunch of second-tier decks like Mardu / RW Vehicles and Bx Zombies, so getting rid of the looter scooter might actually make the format less diverse, as odd as that sounds. As for the two big decks, I guess you could ban Emrakul, the Promised End from GB Delirium, but I'm not even sure how much that would matter; we've seen some successful GB Delirium decks drop the Eldrazi titan altogether. Meanwhile, for UW Flash, you have a bunch of value creatures, and while banning any one of Archangel Avacyn, Spell Queller, Selfless Spirit, or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar would hurt the deck, none of those cards really stick out as being too good in a vacuum—they are just very strong when combined together. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. How is Standard attendance in your area? What are you currently playing in Standard? Even though a Standard banning seems incredibly unlikely to me, if you could ban one card in Kaladesh Standard, what would it be? Let me know in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive, or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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