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What Makes a Card Bannable in Standard?


Last week at the end-of-year SCG Invitational, about 65% of the Standard decks to make day two were Temur or Four-Color Energy, and nearly 75% were looking to cast Attune with Aether on Turn 1. Seeing those numbers, my immediate thought was Caw Blade Standard, which might be the last time a Standard format was so thoroughly dominated by a decidedly unbroken deck. At its heart, Caw Blade was an extremely fair Magic deck—essentially just UWx Control. It just happened to be overflowing with Legacy staples, which made the deck really good in Standard, and because it was so good, it was extremely heavily played. While having 65% of the format being Temur / Four-Color Energy and 75% Attune with Aether decks probably sounds like a lot, by the time Caw Blade was banned, there were Grands Prix where 88% of day two decks had multiple copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and 70% had Stoneforge Mystic

While Energy isn't quite to the point of Caw Blade yet (while 75% is insane, 88% is even higher and almost unbelievable), it is seeing enough play where people are talking about the future of the deck / archetype in Standard. Rotation is still a long ways off, and based on the current numbers, it seems fair to wonder if Wizards will take action against Energy, especially if Rivals of Ixalan fails to shake up the format when it releases in about six weeks. 

However, whenever there's a discussion about a potential energy banning, there's always one sticking point: while energy is very, very good, it's also a fair deck. It's not killing people on Turn 4 or based on some degenerate combo or broken card; it's just overloaded with a ton of very good, very parasitic cards that other decks can't play, which pushes more and more people toward playing Energy so they can take advantage of the best cards in the Standard format. 

As such, the question is: are fair decks bannable? To really answer this question, we need to look at another, even bigger question: what causes cards to get banned in Standard? One of the great things about Wizards and bannings is that every time it bans a card, it releases an article discussing the reason behind the banning, so with a bit of digging, we can find these old announcements and get a pretty good sense of why Wizards bans cards in Standard. So today, we're going to discuss the six justifications Wizards has used for banning cards in Standard and then see how (and if) our current Energy deck fits into any of these categories, which could help us predict a future banning (or lack thereof).

#1: We Messed Up—Skullclamp, Felidar Guardian, Caw Blade

In some sense, every Standard banning is Wizards admitting it made a mistake, because unlike older formats with so many cards that it's impossible to test every interaction, Wizards does extensively test Standard, and one of its goals in making new Magic cards is to avoid making them so strong they need to be banned (Aaron Forsythe discusses this in the Caw Blade B&R announcement). But here, we're talking about a more specific kind of "we messed up."

While it's easy to forget, Wizards R&D is made up of real human beings, and even with all the safeguards they have in place, these people occasionally make mistakes, just like you or me. Every once in a while, a card that simply never should have been made ends up slipping through the cracks and seeing print. According to the banned-and-restricted announcements, we have two very clear examples of this type of mistake.

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While you should read the history of the design of Skullclamp because it's quite interesting, the bottom line is that the equipment changed a bunch of times during development, from an exceedingly safe (and perhaps even unplayable) card to a bannable card. Because the early versions of the card were so tame, no one bothered to keep track of the changes (some of which—like the changes to give creatures negative toughness—happened late in the development process), and suddenly an extremely broken card was let loose in Standard.

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The second big example is more recent: Felidar Guardian. Basically, Wizards just missed the combo potential. While this seemed hard to believe at first, considering that cards like Restoration Angel came with wording to prevent infinite combos, it's worth mentioning that Wispweaver Angel didn't have this language, and then just a few months later, Wizards printed a version of Hostage Taker that technically goes infinite with itself (even though Wizards caught and errata'd Hostage Taker before it had a chance to cause any gameplay problems), which makes it seem that perhaps Wizards has some weird blind spot when it comes to infinite blink combos in recent sets. Regardless, Wizards took responsibility for the mistake and said that it never would have let the infinite combo of Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian out the door if it had realized this was a combo, which is all Wizards can really do under the circumstances. Plus, the Felidar Guardian mistake (combined with some other issues) seems to have sparked the idea of having a dedicated, full-time Play Design team. So while there's no doubt Felidar Guardian was a mistake, it might have been a good mistake in the long run, thanks to the changes it helped bring about at Wizards

#2: Too Heavily Played—Caw Blade (and a bunch of other decks)

One thing that comes up repeatedly in banned-and-restricted announcements is metagame numbers, but it's actually really difficult to make much sense of them. The "88% Jace, the Mind Sculptor and 70% Stoneforge Mystic on day two" numbers from the Caw Blade B&R announcement are headline grabbing, and it certainly makes sense that having one deck be (essentially) the entire format is unhealthy, but we see other smaller numbers mentioned in banned-and-restricted announcements as well. Being very heavily played was at least part of the reason why Affinity was banned (although hard numbers from way back in 2003 are scarce, and the announcement focused on other things) Meanwhile, being 40% of the metagame contributed to the banning of Felidar Guardian, and a 43% number was mentioned in the banning of Aetherworks Marvel, although it doesn't seem like being 40% of the metagame, in and of itself, is a bannable offense, since other reasons were given for those bans as well. 

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Reading over all of the banned-and-restricted announcements, the bottom line seems to be that it certainly is possible for a deck to be banned almost exclusively because of the amount of play it sees (see: Caw Blade), but the numbers have to be really, really high for this to be the only justification for a banning, and even then, Wizards is likely to give the deck a reasonable amount of time in the format (to see if things change and how players respond) before actually dropping the hammer. Meanwhile, once a deck hits 40% of the meta, it reaches a danger zone. While just being 40% of the meta isn't necessarily enough for Wizards to ban the deck, the 40% number seems to be a point where the combination of heavy play and a second concern is enough to get a deck banned, at least in some cases. 

#3: Attendance Dropped / Unfun—Caw Blade, Affinity, Aetherworks Marvel

At first I was going to talk about attendance dropping and the "unfun" justifications individually, but they typically go hand in hand. In fact, Aetherworks Marvel is the only "unfun" banning that didn't explicitly mention a drop in attendance at events, although based on what I remember from last spring, attendance was an issue during the heyday of Aetherworks Marvel

Here, it's important to remember that, beneath everything else, Wizards' goal is to make money. Thankfully, the way it makes money is by making fun Magic cards, which makes all of us happy, so normally its a win–win, but if there's one thing that spurs Wizards to take quick and drastic action, it's when people stop playing their game. We not only saw this with Caw Blade and Affinity, where drops in attendance were cited as reasons for the banning, but with other changes as well (like the switch in rotation schedules, although it's possible the real reasons attendance was down at the time were Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter, but we'll never know for sure). 

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Probably the best example of attendance issues fueling a banning is Caw Blade. In the announcement, Wizards talks about giving a "one-deck meta" a shot to see how players would respond. At least back in 2011, just having one playable deck in Standard was not enough to trigger a banning (although this may have changed over the past few years, since the bar for Standard bannings seems to have dropped a bit). What finally made Wizards ban Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic was that people stopped showing up to tournaments, which spurred Wizards to finally drop the ban hammer. 

That challenge here is attendance drops are one of the hardest things for those of us outside Wizards to measure. While I'm sure Wizards has some sort of data to track attendance at events, we are usually left with a bunch of anecdotal evidence and stories from individual local game stores, and even if we have a whole bunch of these stories, it's hard to parse out the root cause. Is it because Standard is in a bad place or something else? While many of the other banning justifications are fairly easy to see from the outside by looking at metagame numbers or broken combos, attendance is tricky to measure. Just know this: if there's one thing that makes Wizards take drastic action, above all else, it's a drop in attendance at Magic events. 

#4: Not Enough Answers—Caw Blade, Aetherworks Marvel

Wizards is in a constant state of learning, forgetting, and relearning. When Jace, the Mind Sculptor was banned, one of the big lessons mentioned in the B&R announcement was that Standard needed to always have answers like Pithing Needle and Oblivion Ring. We saw the fruits of this lesson in Return to Ravnica block and even Theros, to some extent, but then Wizards started to forget the importance of having evergreen answers in every Standard format. Then, in the Aetherworks Marvel banned-and-restricted announcement, Wizards mentioned that it had considered making answers (including Pithing Needle) legal in Standard specifically to fight Aetherworks Marvel (although Wizards decided against it). Thankfully, in Ixalan, we got Sorcerous Spyglass to fill the Pithing Needle safety-valve roll.  Hopefully, the lessons learned last this time and Wizards makes sure to keep Pithing Needles, Oblivion Rings, and Duresses around in Standard for years to come, so that there is a safety net in case Wizards pushes a card just a little bit too far. 

#5: Community Outcry—Aetherworks Marvel

The Aetherworks Marvel announcement is one of the most interesting and unique of all the B&R announcements because rather than discussing why the deck was too good or too heavily played for the Standard meta, the entire first half of the announcement was about how the deck wasn't actually too good or too heavily played. According to the Magic Online data, a lot of popular decks actually had reasonable matchups against Aetherworks Marvel decks, and while making up 43% of the metagame is a lot, as we discussed before, this alone isn't a justification for banning a deck in most instances. Basically, what the announcement says is, "while we (Wizards) think the data shows that Aetherworks Marvel is okay, you (the community) don't, so we're going to ban it for you."

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In some ways, this is a great thing. We want Wizards to listen, and the fact that it banned a card in Standard (which Wizards loathes to do) is a pretty clear sign of Wizards listening to the community. On the other hand, the Aetherworks Marvel announcement seemed to lead to (or at least reconfirm) the idea that that if the community complains long enough and loud enough, Wizards will take action. We're now in a situation where the community knows that if it cries loud and long enough, we'll get our way, and since we know that this technique works, we use it more and more often. As a result, it's sometime hard to dig through the noise and figure out what is real, important crying (like card stock issues, which are a real danger to the game and don't seem to be getting better) and less important or even irrational crying (like banning Glorybringer a couple of weeks after it was printed). Basically, it's great Wizards listens to the community, but we need to double down on using our powers for good and saving our tears for really important problems, so Wizards doesn't simply tune us out altogether.

#6: To Diversify the Meta—Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, Reflector Mage

Probably the toughest bannings to figure out came last winter when Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage all met their promised end. If you look back at the metagame at the time, the numbers don't look all that broken, with UW Flash being the most played deck at about 30% of the format, followed by a bunch of Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter decks. Figuring out bannings is easy when you can point to a single card as broken (like with Skullclamp, Felidar Guardian, and maybe Aetherworks Marvel), a metagame percentage that's off the charts (like with Caw Blade or Affinity), or a major drop in attendance, but "imbalance," "fun," and "creative" are such abstract concepts that it's almost impossible to come to one definition of any of these words with regards to Magic, let alone use them to figure out when something should be banned from Standard.

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This isn't to say that the bannings of Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage were wrong, and if you read through the rest of the announcement, you'll see that it's possible both Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter could fall into the "we made a mistake" group as well, although just how much of a mistake these cards actually were isn't as clear as for cards like Skullclamp or Felidar Guardian, which slipped through the cracks and wouldn't have been printed if Wizards knew their full potential. Rather, Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter were designed to be very, very strong—that was a big part of Wizards' goal in making the cards. They just happened to miss a bit high, especially considering how light Standard was on answers to either card.

Overall, it's hard to really take much away from the Emrakul / Copter / Reflector Mage announcement, other than a vague sense of uncertainty about what actually qualifies a card as bannable. In some ways, this is great—Wizards realized that something was wrong with Standard (while it wasn't mentioned in the announcement, the rumor was that attendance was dropping at the time, which also lead to the change back to longer rotations) and took action. On the other hand, it's strange seeing cards that clearly don't fit into more traditional categories being banned in Standard.

Wrap-Up

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that, in just the past year, the justification and reasoning behind banning cards in Standard have changed a lot. Both the Affinity and Caw Blade bannings break down pretty neatly: both decks took up too large a portion of the metagame, people weren't having fun play Magic, attendance dropped, and Wizards took action by banning key cards from both decks. Clean and simple.

On the other hand, the more recent bannings don't fit into these boxes as neatly. While the Felidar Guardian banning is in the tradition of Skullclamp, with Wizards simply making a mistake, in some of the more recent banning announcements, Wizards actively argued that the card didn't meet the criteria for a traditional banning (most noticeably with Aetherworks Marvel, where Wizards went out of its way to mention how the deck wasn't too dominant or unbeatable) but banned the cards anyway for other reasons. 

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This leaves us in a weird place: clearly dominant decks that people find unfun and hurt attendance have always been bannable and likely always will be, but we now have a strange second group of bannable cards that is much harder to analyze. One of the biggest arguments that comes up against banning Attune with Aether is that it's just Lay of the Land, which isn't a good or even playable card. But remember, Reflector Mage is just an Aether Adept—another card that isn't good or even playable in Standard—and that didn't keep the Azorius uncommon from meeting the ban hammer. Speaking of energy, let's close things out today by taking a minute to discuss where it fits into our bannable categories.

Is Energy Bannable?

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1: We Made a Mistake: Was energy a mistake? Maybe, but if it is a mistake, it's more similar to Affinity or maybe Smuggler's Copter, where Wizards simply missed high on a new mechanic, than a mistake along the lines of Skullclamp or Felidar Guardian. Did Wizards want energy to be good? Yes, without a doubt. Did Wizards want it to be this good? No, probably not, but this isn't a situation where Wizards missed a broken combo (like with Felidar Guardian) or pushed a single card too far (like Skullclamp), so it's hard to argue that energy qualifies as a bannable mistake, at least in the traditional sense.

#2: Too Heavily Played: So far, we've seen that being 70% to 88% of the meta was enough of a justification to get Caw Blade banned from Standard, more or less all by itself, but being 40% of the metagame isn't enough to get a deck like Aetherworks Marvel banned without other factors playing a role. While finding hard metagame numbers is challenging thanks to Wizards cutting down on Magic Online data and because the last big tournament was the World Magic Cup featuring Team Unified Standard, which forced teach team of three to play two non-energy decks, if we go with the SCG Invitational numbers, energy was somewhere between 60% and 75% of the day-two metagame, right between the "not bannable by itself" 40% mark and the bannable 70% to 88% Caw Blade numbers. Whether 60%+ of the meta being energy is enough to push Wizards to ban the deck all by itself is hard to say. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but one thing we do know for sure is that once a deck creeps past 40% (and stays there consistently), it is on thin ice, and meeting one or two other criteria, even in a minor way, is typically enough to trigger a banning. So, at least by this measure, energy is somewhere between bannable already, just based on the metagame numbers and the amount of play it is seeing, and close to bannable.

#3: Attendance Drop / Unfun. First, as we talked about in the article, it's really, really hard to measure attendance. While some people say that Standard attendance is currently down at their local game store, that doesn't really mean all that much because the sample size is so small and we don't know what is going on at any individual store. I tried to run a very unscientific Twitter poll to gauge attendance for Standard events at local game stores, and while more people said it has been worse than normal ever since Ixalan was released than said it has been better than normal, nearly half of the people just clicked "show results," so it wasn't all that helpful.

As far as fun, while the entire concept of having fun is subjective, it's worth mentioning that people haven't been complaining about energy in the same way they were about Aetherworks Marvel, Felidar Guardian, or even Emrakul, the Promised End, so perhaps people don't really mind playing against the energy deck in 50% of their games, since it isn't killing them on Turn 4 or doing anything broken in the traditional sense. Overall, it's hard to see energy meeting either of these criteria at the moment, although it's possible Wizards has attendance data that shows otherwise, which could be the catalyst for a banning.

#4: Not Enough Answers: At this point, I don't even think there's a debate: Wizards should have printed more ways to interact with energy. Mark Rosewater said as much on his blog, stating "if we started over, yes, we'd make some more ways to interact with the opponent's energy."

#5: Community Outcry: So far, this is the biggest difference I can see between energy and many of the other recent bannings. While people were up in arms and very vocal about Aetherworks Marvel and Felidar Guardian, the opinions on energy seem to be split. While some people dislike it, others seem perfect fine with it, and we certainly haven't reached the point where the community is forcing Wizards' hand on the issue with a loud outcry. Of course, this is somewhat subjective, but from what I remember with Aetherworks Marvel and Felidar Guardian, the need for a banning was a constant conversation on social media, not just among the community at large but the pro community as well. While there are pockets of discussion about energy, the conversation feels a lot different than with past bannings. Whether this is because people don't mind energy or are just tired of bannings (or both) isn't clear, but at least for now, it doesn't seem energy meets the community outcry criterion for banning.

#6: To Diversity the Metagame: Could our current Standard be more diverse? Yes. Is our current Standard less diverse than the meta that got Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage banned? Probably. Does this mean Energy should be banned? It's really hard to say. "To diversity the metagame" is so a broad and abstract a criterion for banning that arguably every Standard format meets it. The metagame could always be more diverse and more fun. This is true of widely loved Standard formats along with widely hated Standard formats. Basically, this category is so broad that it means nothing, both in a broad sense and in terms of Energy specifically, although it does provide a reminder that not all bannings make sense or fit into easy-to-digest categories. For all we know, Wizards may be planning to not just ban Energy but Hazoret the Fervent and Hidden Stockpile as well, just because.

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So, where does this leave us in terms of Energy being bannable? Based on the information we have, Wizards could easily justify a banning based on the metagame numbers, combined with a lack of answers and maybe a small bit of "we made a mistake" thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, Wizards could just as easily default to "no bans" based on the fact that there isn't a ton of community outcry and that Energy isn't necessarily an unfun / unfair deck like Felidar Guardian or Aetherworks Marvel that kills opponents on Turn 4. From my perspective, this means Energy is somewhere around 50 / 50 to be targeted by a banning at the next announcement, with the odds increasing if Energy dodges the next B&R announcement, Rivals of Ixalan is released, and nothing changes in the format.

The wild card in all of this is attendance. If attendance is bad, which some anecdotal evidence suggests but in reality isn't all that clear from outside Wizards, then the odds of Energy being targeted by a banning go up significantly, to the point where it would be surprising if the deck wasn't banned. The combination of a huge metagame percentage and dropping attendance would make an energy banning very much in line with "traditional" bannings like Affinity and Caw Blade. If attendance is strong, than a banning is probably less likely, unless something changes over the next month or two (like a huge outcry from the community or even worse metagame numbers).

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. How has Standard attendance been at your local game store? What are your personal feelings about Energy specifically and Standard in general? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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