Instead of being posted on January 16th, the latest Banned and Restricted announcement was made yesterday, a full week ahead of schedule.
The changes to Standard and Modern were as follows:
Emrakul, the Promised End is banned.
Smuggler's Copter is banned.
Reflector Mage is banned.
Gitaxian Probe is banned.
Golgari Grave-Troll is banned.
Further, it has been announced that March 13th will be the next Banned and Restricted announcement, rather than following the Prerelease of Amonkhet.
Let's Take a Breath
There's a lot to digest here and there have been mixed reactions from folks on social media in the past 24 hours.
Before we get into specifics, overall I think that this is an incredibly positive change that will stir dramatic shifts In the Standard format. It makes me a lot more excited to participate in Pro Tour Aether Revolt than I was a few short weeks ago, and overall will likely breathe fresh air into a format that many have been largely disenchanted with for quite a while.
What is also a huge part of this announcement is a great deal of subtext. I don't mean to imply this in a sinister tone, but I do think there is a lot more information being presented through this announcement than Wizards is stating plainly.
I tackled this a while back. Emrakul is incredibly powerful, pushes out many of the interesting cards that R&D wants to see players register, and simultaneously encourages both repetitive (also boring) and unnatural play patterns. The realization that much of what you did throughout the course of the game until Emrakul, the Promised End's Mindslaver trigger is irrelevant was a disheartening theme throughout her tenure in Standard.
What's also important to note is that Emrakul hadn't quite had the time yet to reach true dominance in terms of the raw numbers. While I do believe that eventually she would have, Wizards chose to take action pre-emptively due to the displeasure of the players.
Wizards has cited that Smuggler's Copter “was the result of a new card type being pushed too far” and this makes sense.
Near the beginning of Kaladesh, players were concerned over the dominance of Smuggler's Copter, including cries of the very first SCG Tour® event featuring 32 copies of the card. Smuggler's Copter has breached almost every type of aggressive and midrange strategy while being difficult to interact with and it itself encouraging unintuitive play patterns.
It's fun if the presence of a card type forces players to have to engage in a sort of positioning dance – leaving up mana to threaten an answer to an opponent's card if they are willing to pull the trigger. This tension that Vehicles present is cool and interesting. The problem is that it shouldn't be something that can literally occur nearly every single game, starting on the second turn.
When that is the reality we live in, the format becomes completely warped – changing the type of removal we are forced to play and, in the case of Smuggler's Copter, specifically forcing players to load up on ways to fight a high-powered flier that also takes big strides to invalidate planeswalkers. It might be easy for some to argue that the presence of Fatal Push “fixes” this problem enough to where Copter doesn't deserve a ban, but that's not really a solution. It's true that more colors would have cleaner answers to the offender, but that doesn't suddenly make the games fun.
Simply, the stats are too high and the opportunity cost of playing the card is too low. A common theme of banned cards is how they stop players from making other competitive choices. Players aren't allowed to fully explore the use of a cool new card type like Vehicles through avenues like Fleetwheel Cruiser or Aethersphere Harvester when there is a card like Smuggler's Copter that just hits higher on every note.
The only reason I think that players think this is strange is because they've been so accustomed to a world where Ishkanah, Grafwidow is the predominant bridge to Emrakul. It's true that Ishkanah, Grafwidow would still be an excellent card for fighting Smuggler's Copter, but now the cost of building a deck featuring the legendary Spider is much higher when you aren't also naturally working towards the most powerful late-game possible.
Ishkanah was great at buying time until Emrakul, but that doesn't mean she is untouchable in the face of heavy hitters like the Gearhulks, which are sure to start seeing the play they deserve.
All right, this was the weird one to me, and undoubtedly many others. WotC's explanation also sounds fairly out of context for the Standard format it feels like we live in. They state that they felt the need to weaken W/U Flash as “their data showed it to be too powerful against the field.”
There is a lot going on in this seemingly innocuous statement.
It isn't actually clear what their data is. The fact of the matter is that this could be a culmination of sanctioned events, Magic Online, and the FFL [This is the acronym for Future Future League, the name of the internal Standard format Development uses to test.—Ed.] combined.
It could also be any combination of the above and metrics that we aren't aware of. While I would appreciate it if things were a bit clearer, as many that I know, including me, seem to agree that W/U Flash is a fairly weak choice in current Standard, I can also appreciate much of what isn't directly stated by Wizards.
They are willing to look at both the raw data and what is considered fun to make choices that they feel benefits the playability of their formats.
Perhaps they feel (and have explored) the Standard format without Emrakul, the Promised End and it promises dominance by Archangel Avacyn and her compatriots. It would be not exciting if a ban announcement, which is supposed to offer a refreshing change of pace, simply resulted in things falling back into a place where they were several months ago.
Frankly, perhaps they realized they made a mistake. Reflector Mage is not fun to play against. Reflector Mage is also yet another example of perpetuating the “enters-the-battlefield” effect. If a card feels utterly wretched should it get bounced by the card, then it simply isn't playable. This test is never a good thing to be present in a format because, once again, it shrinks the overall competitive card pool. Magic is a game about getting on the battlefield and interacting. Reflector Mage does too much to constrict the effectiveness of many cards of doing precisely that.
Should the latter ultimately be the reason that Reflector Mage was banned, I would not be bothered in the slightest. If a card is doing too much to warp the design space of future sets, then get rid of it. I would also just appreciate if this was expressed.
This final note on Reflector Mage also coincides nicely with my feelings on Wizards moving the next announcement to mid-March and their desire to have more control over the Standard format.
Simply, they want things to be different.
New cards should see play, from a standpoint where it is more fun to continuously explore new things in a competitive format but also simply from a place of pushing profitability.
They are paying closer attention to striking a balance where things are fresh, fun, and interesting. They want to foster a Standard format where players are excited to explore their new ideas and combine new cards with the old. After all, the life of Standard sets actually increased recently.
Should it ever arise that action needs to be taken to “fix” Standard, it is now public they they've taken the liberty to give themselves that flexibility.
I foresee there being a lot of truth in the statement: “We do not expect this to lead to an increase in the number of cards banned or restricted (or unbanned or unrestricted), but the greater flexibility will allow us to address play issues more quickly.”
It's true that it sucks when people lose money from their cards being devalued from bans. Everyone agrees that this is an unfortunate side effect of a format being unhealthy, but I would hope we can all also agree that it is more desirable to be able to play fun games of Magic.
Admittedly, I have a lot less to say about Modern, and I do think striking on the importance of R&D's overall goals is the most important part of this announcement, but I'll still touch on a few key notes:
Phyrexian mana was a mistake. It continues to be clear even today that mana-reduction mechanics always have the potential to be inherently problematic, and Phyrexian mana was the most egregious. Being able to play free spells is remarkably powerful, and I agree that Gitaxian Probe particularly reduces a lot of the tension in playing the decks that it is featured in.
No one is simply interested in playing Gitaxian Probe to “play a 56-card deck.” Gitaxian Probe is almost always a catalyst for delve cards and powers up many of the “creature combo” decks like Death's Shadow Aggro and Infect to levels that helps enable kills faster than Modern is interested in. It also heavily reduces variance, allowing players to construct gameplans that have little to no risk and give them too much freedom in navigating what is likely to only be a two- to three-turn game.
The banning of Gitaxian Probe also notably doesn't invalidate any strategy; rather, it does a nice job of simply bringing down the power level of Become Immense, another potentially suspect card, and several archetypes that often had far too punishing of draws against strategies with low amounts of interaction.
I can appreciate that this ban was made. It's yet another admission of “we can be wrong” (Grave Troll was banned previously), but also “things can change.” This amount of transparency with monitoring the health of Modern is important, as the format can change suddenly. In this case, Prized Amalgam and Cathartic Reunion were massive upgrades to Dredge that Wizards feels pushed it too far.
The removal of Golgari Grave-Troll is certainly a blow to the deck, but there are potential replacements, including Golgari Thug. Dredge will be weaker, but it will still exist. This should encourage a lesser necessity for hate cards, which should make things more interesting overall.
A Final Note
What was perhaps the greatest omission from the announcement was yesterday was acknowledging the existence of Felidar Guardian.
I would have not been shocked to see a preemptive ban.
As you can see, there a plethora of ways to slot this combination into decks, and it has the potential to encourage similar play patterns to the previously noted tension of Smuggler's Copter. While much more mana-intensive, the downside to getting hit by Felidar Guardian isn't three life and your opponent looting, but you dying on the spot.
It is my opinion that another side effect of March being the next announcement is the capacity to keep this combo in check.
Personally, I don't think Felidar Guardian will prove to be an oppressive force in Standard, as something as simple as Shock can keep it in check, but I don't understand why there was no communication regarding the card.
The best argument to Wizards just “missing it” that I've seen is the notion that Felidar Guardian showed up on the full card image gallery without any kind of official reveal. Usually something as tremendous as the reintroduction of the “Twin Combo” into Standard would be publicized.
Like I said, I think it is completely fine if a feature of Pro Tour Aether Revolt is seeing how Felidar Guardian plays out. I would just rather there be something said publically about it when there has been so much press on social media. After all, the announcement date was specifically pushed up to allow players more time to test the actual release format of Aether Revolt!
But overall, I'm pleased with the changes and my hopes for Aether Revolt continue to be high. How do you feel about the bans?