Adventures In Magic the Gathering: Aether Revolt Banned & Restricted Update

For every major booster set release for Magic the Gathering, Wizards of the Coast releases a special news update called the Banned & Restricted Announcement that seeks to inform the larger playerbase community on whether or not the powers that be have decided to ban, unban or restrict certain cards for the major sanctionable formats. Usually these announcements come just a week before the official paper release of the respective sets and outline how these formats might change. However, this past Monday some of this got thrown out the window for something that’s a real shake-up.

Coming in a full week early, the Aether Revolt edition yesterday of the B&R announcement has seen three premier cards banned from the Standard format, and two cards banned from the Modern format, with the other formats receiving no changes. The Standard bannings have shaken up the community in significant ways, and that is mostly what I will be talking about here, and touching on the Modern bannings as well. Overall, while I feel that all the bannings are deserved, there’s much to unpack here and it is not a clear-cut scenario at all.

aetherrevoltThere have been many articles written about these bannings and multiple Magic podcasts have also taken up the news and delivered their own verdicts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and more will be incoming this week and even beyond.

The community appears to be conflicted, rightly so, with a lot of people having their faith in the system shaken considerably. We saw something similar last year when the namesake card of the Splinter Twin decks for Modern was banned because the card and its resulting archetype hindered diversity in the format and because it was too ever-present. There have been other similar bans over the years, such as the Birthing Pod ban just two years ago. Or the other significant Modern ban last year following the Eldrazi Winter which came out because of the Splinter Twin ban. However, all these are Modern bans. Not Standard. The last time we had a ban in Standard was in the Scars of Mirrodin block with the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic at the end of the life-cycle of the third set of the block, New Phyrexia.

So what does it mean, five and a half years later, that we have more bannings, with three cards from three different sets being banned? That’s certainly a head-scratcher at first glance. So let’s see first see which cards have been banned from Standard:

Three cards from three different sets, with two of them being premier cards for their sets, whether because of the lore aspects and callbacks or because of entirely new mechanics introduced to the game.

EmrakulThis is perhaps the card that saw the most grumbling from the playerbase once Eldritch Moon was released, players got to play, and found out just how outright busted this card was. When I went over the spoilers for Eldritch Moon, this is what I had to say about this card:

Personally, I’m not a fan of this card. I’ve been the target of Mindslaver-locks in Modern plenty of times to really hate the middle effect on Emrakul, the Promised End. It is depressing and a huge put-down. The card itself is pretty great, and gets across the flavour of the character really well, though it doesn’t really compare to Emrakul’s previous iteration of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. This is really tough to get off the field, and answers are few and far in between at the moment, so we’ll see how things shake out. This is going to have a huge impact on the format, especially when someone can string together the dream of casting this for 9 mana or less.

My fears were quite justified, as it turned out. While the designers and developers really hyped this card up and hoped it would lead to some great stories and moments in the game, what happened instead was that this led to some really depressing moments. The Mindslaver effect combined with the clause “protection from instants” meant that this card was extremely difficult to answer by most decks, especially as it was being brought in on turns 6 and 7 with relative ease. However, things didn’t get really bad until we got the card Aetherworks Marvel in Kaladesh this past Fall. All of a sudden people were putting down big bad Eldrazi Titans on turn 4 thanks to one of the most broken artifact cards in recent times.

Matters were further compounded because the artifact let you get the Eldrazi cast triggers on turn 4. That was just back-breaking. All of a sudden the new Emrakul wasn’t the big glorious achievement for WotC but one of the biggest mistakes they had made by putting it in the same format as Aetherworks Marvel. And player dissatisfaction has been high indeed. This card has been a target for calls for banning for several months, and I certainly agree. I’ve played against it multiple times and there are very slim percentages of fighting against this behemoth successfully, because it got pushed too far up the playability spectrum. Plus the recursion effects of the Delirium decks absolutely demanded a response or you would lose outright.

smugglerscopterThis was also one of the most exciting cards from Kaladesh as the above card. Vehicles were an entirely new mechanic and there was excitement that something that had been brought up again and again for so long had finally been made a reality by WotC. People were genuinely happy, thought a bit apprehensive that this too might be too good. When going over the Kaladesh spoilers a few months ago, this is what I had to say:

Vehicle decks need some solid early drops, and Smuggler’s Copter is here to fulfill that requirement. A 2-mana 3/3 flier is an amazing rate, and this one goes one step further by providing a way for you to improve the quality of the cards in your hand. And this is also very easily crew-able as any random token or 1-drop can get in the cockpit. This card is clearly very heavily pushed, and there does seem to be enough support out there for a legit WR Vehicles deck for the new Standard. I would love to play the deck myself.

Once again it seems that I was able to pinpoint a potential card, but to be honest, no one could have really calculated how problematic this card would become. In one of the most stunning developments in Standard in recent years, last’s Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur Top 8 was absolutely stacked with Smuggler’s Copter. That is, all the top 8 decks were running a full playset of the card. 32/32 possible spots in the top 8. That is just ridiculous.

Since then, the card has shown up in various aggro decks and has pushed lots of other cards like the marquee planeswalker Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh and various others out of the format in terms of playability. Many new cards such as Dovin Baan and Saheeli Rai just can’t deal with this. Being a Vehicle and thus immune to board-wipe effects is a part of it, but it really was just too good. With the general scaling down of answers (counterspells and removal spells in general) over the last years and the shifting focus towards creature-centric midrange battles, Smuggler’s Copter proved to be a powerhouse, going in every deck that wanted it because it is ridiculously easy to crew as it turned out.

And finally we have a former Standard all-star.

reflectormageWhen this card was spoiled, there wasn’t too much about it that seemed broken. It seemed like a good value card and by WotC’s admission, the card was created to shore up the weakness of UWx decks in Oath of the Gatewatch limited. This is what I had to say in my coverage of the set’s spoilers:

Reflector Mage stands out as the best of the bunch because not only does it bounce an opponent’s creature, but also keeps them from playing it again in their next turn. That is some serious tempo advantage, and this card could definitely see some Standard play, perhaps even some fringe Modern play.

Problem was, they never bothered to test it for Standard. Because when combined with the power of cards like Rally The Ancestors and Collected Company, this card was just straight up abusable. Being a 2/3 meant that it blocked most early creatures and at that time there were so many damn 2/3 creatures around that it was just painful almost. This card contributed to tons of board stalls in Oath of the Gatewatch Standard and beyond that to all of Shadows Over Innistrad block, though with Kaladesh and the rotation of Collected Company, things have improved considerably. But it is still powerful, and the best case for banning this card from the UW Flash decks is that with a ban for Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler’s Copter, the percentage points gained by that deck over other top decks that in the Standard metagame that lost the above cards is likely too high and so the deck needed a preemptive ban. WotC’s own explanation is a little sketchy, but reading between the lines, I think the reasons are clear.

So anyway. That’s some of the context behind the Standard bannings. What does all of this really mean for the format moving forward?

Looking Beyond The Bannings

In my opinion, the biggest conclusion that we can draw here is that Wizards’ research and development and their testing has failed miserably. First, they never really tested Reflector Mage for Standard. Then, the multi-faced problems with Emrakul, the Promised End were never caught. And finally, they pushed too far with Smuggler’s Copter because they wanted to make Vehicles playable and splashy and didn’t do the due diligence. Some people would say that company executives are to blame for some of these cards because they wanted the sets to sell better and of course, what better way to do that than put in some marquee cards that are really good and make people want to buy more product? But that’s kind of a tinfoil hat theory. For me, the more likely explanation is just that the designers and developers let their feelings get in the way of good sense.

Before, whenever there has been a banning in Standard, it has been because of serious design and development mistakes that were not caught before the cards were released. And most egregiously, pushed artifacts have been the biggest offenders.

One takeaway from all of this is simply that Wizards should stop printing powerful cards because recent years have shown us that they tend to skew too far on the spectrum. But that’s not something that I ascribe to personally because when cards are underpowered, that’s not a fun format to play. Battle For Zendikar showed that aplenty with its dearth of playable cards in Standard, leading to a format dominated by just the various Battle Lands, Gideon, Ally of Zendiar and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Oath of the Gatewatch fixed that to a degree, but then the set went and broke Modern, Legacy AND Vintage. That too was a big oversight because R&D played down the issues with printing cheap Eldrazi creatures when a card like Eye of Ugin exists. Then we got Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon which brought balance again, even though some cards like Emrakul still led to issues.

Maintaining a proper balance of power is really tough. As someone with training as a games designer, I recognize that and a lot of other professionals who play the game agree on this. I would prefer that Wizards not get scared off from printing powerful cards because I want them to constantly push boundaries. That makes the game more fun and it gets the players really excited to get their hands on these cards and play with them.

The core problem is that their testing is entirely lacking in picking up powerful synergies and the “brokenness” of certain cards, which is where professional players of the game excel since they get together in large groups and try to break the formats before and after each Pro Tour of a booster set. That’s their job after all because their goal is to be the best. And the people responsible at Wizards just cannot match that intensity of testing.

IshkanahDespite such a handicap however, I consider mistake cards like Emrakul and Smuggler’s Copter to be near-unforgivable. Where were their checks and balances for these cards? We are more than a year along from when Rally the Ancestors proved to be a dominant deck in Standard. We are coming close to a year along from powerful graveyard effects and cards in Shadows Over Innistrad being legal. And yet we have no adequate graveyard hate. One of the best cards in Standard right now is Ishkanah, Grafwidow which absolutely needs the graveyard to be on turbo-speed to work effectively and it is a card used in two of the best decks right now. Ishkanah leads to a lot of frustrating games in and of itself as a result. Having decent graveyard hate (to be clear, I’m not talking about something like Rest In Peace because that’s a graveyard lockdown card, not a hate card) would have gone a long way towards making the Rally and Emrakul games more manageable for the players on the opposing side.

And the same goes for artifacts because we are lacking any good artifact hate in Kaladesh block (as of writing all of Aether Revolt has been spoiled) that can answer cards like Smuggler’s Copter, Aetherworks Marvel and all the broken-looking cards that are coming up. Certain lead designers/developers at Wizards have expressed an aversion to printing hate cards because they are “unfun” for certain players. The same goes for them printing cards with a strong control element. We’ve seen the result of such a short-sighted policy. We might get new players coming in, but once that stage is crossed, we come to the issue of retention, and that is likely where a lot of players step off Standard for other formats. Mission failed spectacularly.

To get back to the bannings in Standard. Wizards would absolutely not have needed to ban anything in this set cycle if their due diligence had been done. Stage one was testing Reflector Mage with both Rally the Ancestors and Collected Company and making the small change of having it cost 4 mana instead of 3, and even making it a 2/2 instead so that it would have been a bit more fragile. Stage two was toning down the abilities on Emrakul, the Promised End. Have it cost a little more instead of going with the whole “13” theme of the block, remove the “protection from instants”, or even remove the whole delirium-style mechanic of the card itself. Stage three was changing Aetherworks Marvel to have a converted mana cost restriction, or having it enter tapped so that the opposing player gets a full turn to respond before the controlling player goes off, or even just removing the cast trigger clause on the card which I feel is the most problematic thing about it. Stage four was changing Smuggler’s Copter to both 3 CMC and Crew 2, so that it is not as aggressive a card and takes slightly more work to activate. And then stage five is printing some decent hate cards which didn’t even have to be reprints of other decent hate cards we’ve seen before like Pithing Needle and Tormod’s Crypt. They could have printed strictly worse versions of both these cards, and even reprinted something like Smash To Smithereens. That is surely not much to ask?

pithingcryptAnd none of this even goes back to the issue of how powerful the threat cards in general are versus the answers for those threats. Which is a somewhat separate discussion.

Additionally, with some of these cards like Emrakul and Copter being as expensive as they are, and the announced change to the B&R update where it will happen twice for every major booster set release from now on (8 a year instead of 4), player confidence is shaken in that they will be less likely to invest in big flashy cards. There’s nothing worse than investing hundreds of dollars in a deck, only to see the marquee cards get banned down the line because of Wizards’ own mistakes. This is a powerful lesson for us all. Splinter Twin and Birthing Pod bans in the last two years were leading us down to this path and I feel that the new bannings have really accelerated that.

The Modern Landscape

Finally, the Modern bannings. Nothing out and out crazy here. There have been rumblings for quite a long time now regarding what needs to be banned or unbanned for Modern, and they run the gamut of all the powerful cards that see play right now, or have in the past. Last year’s bannings and unbannings made people really apprehensive for the format, since Wizards first totally messed everything up and then attempted to correct that. All well and good, but the format was still not in a healthy space since decks like Infect and Death’s Shadow Aggro could kill you very easily on turn 3, and even turn 2 with perfect hands. That’s just ridiculous.

Anyway, here’s what’s been banned out of the format:

Both these cards take a bite out of some of the top decks in the format right now, and I think that they are very safe bans that don’t kill decks, just like the banning of Eye of Ugin last year didn’t kill the Eldrazi decks. That is certainly the approach that Wizards should take in general for Modern, rather than going super-nuclear with banning cards like Splinter Twin or Birthing Pod.

golgarigravetrollThis unassuming skeleton troll has a dubious history in the format. Fearing the power of the old Dredge decks, it was outright banned from Modern when the format was incepted and languished there for years while the Dredge decks attempted to compensate with other substitutes and even changing their approach entirely. When Wizards saw fit to unban this card two years ago with the Fate Reforged update, there was some excitement in the air, but even then few people really took to the card. That all changed last year with the printing of Cathartic Reunion in Kaladesh, and before that Prized Amalgam and Insolent Neonate in Shadows Over Innistrad. The natural recursion and speed of Dredge improved considerably and in conjunction with the engine of the troll, Dredge decks finally began to put up big numbers in tournaments, even winning a few events.

And now the card is banned again. To be honest, I think that this is a very safe ban because with it gone, the Dredge decks lose a few percentage points against other decks. As long as cards like Stinkweed Imp are around, the deck will continue to perform but will just be slower than they would have been otherwise. The cards I mentioned above have added a lot to the power and consistency, and the Dredge decks won’t suddenly become bad. So everything is good on that end. Further, this signifies that Wizards is fine with banning cards that they have relatively recently unbanned if the decks that those cards go in start to become too dominant. Many people thought that this wouldn’t happen. But happen it did. Again, it is all about admitting to mistakes. And to be fair, Golgari Grave-Troll did jack-all until last summer once people picked up on the goodies from Shadows Over Innistrad.

gitaxianprobePhyrexian mana has shown itself to be one of the mistakes of the game, just like Dredge before it. Not nearly as horribly broken, but with the banning of Gitaxian Probe, that makes it TWO 1-mana phyrexian spells that have been banned from Modern, the other being the wonderful Mental Misstep. You look at this card and think, it’s not so bad. You get two advantages out of it but you do have a big drawback if you pay the life. Turns out however that it adds a lot of consistency to decks like Infect, Death’s Shadow Aggro, UR Kiln Fiend and a few others because aggro decks like these can play this for the value or to find out if the coast is clear for them to go all-in. And in the first two, it is particularly great at fueling other cards like Become Immense and the DSA deck doesn’t even care for the life loss since that’s what it is trying to do anyway, to make the namesake card Death’s Shadow that much better.

Compared to the troll, this card going away is going to have the biggest impact on the format. The decks I mentioned above lose a lot with it and with cards like Fatal Push from Aether Revolt coming into the format, I believe that Modern will become slower by at least a turn. Right now it is right on the edge of being a turn 3 format, but from January 20, I think that will change to being on the edge of a turn 4 format, at the least. The control decks of Modern have a new tool to fight all these aggressive decks. Also, there will be less incidental life-loss in the format. Which is all well and good.

Honestly, I would have asked for a banning of all the phyrexian spells, such as Mutagenic Growth and Dismember since in my view these cards are too easily splashable and they make a mockery of the inherent restrictions. The decks that usually want these cards don’t really care about that restriction. Dismember is a bit more iffy about that, but we have a great replacement of it coming in, so I think it would have been fine. We already know that phyrexian mana is considered a mistake by R&D, so pulling the trigger on it now is the best thing to do. But I understand that this would have been too big a change for too little reward. Best to see how things work out in the next year or two and then revisit the concept.

*****

So that’s all that I have on the bannings. Any and all feedback is appreciated.

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Posted on January 11, 2017, in Gaming, Gaming News, Magic the Gathering, News, TCG News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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