Rogue Refiner is banned.
Attune with Aether is banned.
Ramunap Ruins is banned.
Rampaging Ferocidon is banned.
In the past thirteen months, we have seen more cards banned in Standard than in the previous thirteen years. The times are a-changing, and these four offenders join Emrakul, the Promised End, Reflector Mage, Smuggler's Copter, Felidar Guardian, and Aetherworks Marvel as (hopefully) the last vestiges of a cascading series of design and development problems that created over a year of suboptimal competitive Standard environments. Fortunately, the new Standard looks to be an exciting and comparatively fertile environment for brewing up great decks, and a number of previously suboptimal strategies are going to be back in a big way in the next few months. Unfortunately, each ban comes with its own toxic fallout, and this past year has eroded confidence in Standard, Wizards, and Magic as a whole as ban after ban failed to fix the problems with the format.
Now, not every Standard format over the last decade has been fun, diverse, and dynamic. Plenty of examples abound of Standard formats with overpowered cards and archetypes, but since the Affinity debacle, only Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic actually got hit with the proverbial banhammer. What gives? Were Thoughtseize and Pack Rat okay? Was Collected Company fair? Was Umezawa's Jitte acceptable? Was Siege Rhino a normal part of a healthy format? Was Bloodbraid Elf just dandy? Splinter Twin was banned in Modern, but the Standard version of the deck was just fine? What about Snapcaster Mage, a truly overpowered card for the ages? Bitterblossom and Ancestral Vision were both completely unfair cards that polarized matchups and pushed Faeries well above all its competition. Why were those cards not banned? It behooves us to ask: What has changed to necessitate such a massive wave of bans? Is this past year so beyond the pale that it demanded this type of action, or were the repeated slaps in the faces of folks who invested in their various Standard decks not really necessary?
Of course, there is no single simple cause to blame for this year's bannings when compared to past offenders in Standard, but a number of contributing factors each bear some responsibility. Let's dissect them one by one.
A Changing Philosophy
" We like to avoid having to solve problems by banning cards, as that leads to a culture of fear. We certainly don't want people to start believing that all the good cards they own are in the crosshairs of the DCI. With that in mind, can you imagine the weird backlash that would happen if we banned artifact lands? Most players that aren't into the tournament scene would have no idea at all why we did this. Tree of Tales is banned?! It's one of the most powerful cards ever?! Are you kidding me?! While it would certainly solve the problem on the top end, it would alienate and confuse people elsewhere." -Aaron Forsythe, "December Bannings, or Lack Thereof", December 3, 2004.
It seems that some of Wizards' Modern banned list philosophy has spilled over into Standard. When there are single archetypes at the forefront of the format and no way to consistently prey on them, and they stifle the diversity of the rest of the format, they are at risk of getting hit with a ban. This is a criterion satisfied by Mono-Black Devotion at points during 2013-2014, Faeries in early 2009, Jund in late 2009, Four-Color Rally during 2015, and Delver in 2012. Back then, though, the banning philosophy was still a lot more "hands-off" than it is now, where the paramount factor was not to upset folks who invested hard-earned money into their deck of choice. Wizards did not want to upset their entrenched, enfranchised players, their most loyal customers, even at the cost of a monotonous Standard format.
With the introduction of Modern and the shift of enfranchised, invested players from Standard to Modern, the hottest format in Magic started to exert its influence over the rest of the game. Now, Wizards is a bit more free to meddle with Standard because of the reduced pressure on it as a competitive format, and Modern-think has spread into managing Standard bans as well. Cards like Splinter Twin, Gitaxian Probe, Stoneforge Mystic, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Bloodbraid Elf, and Preordain are all perfectly on-par with the power level of things like Mox Opal, Urza's Tower, Snapcaster Mage, and Thoughtseize, as well as linears like Dredge and Storm. Even cards as powerful as Birthing Pod, Green Sun's Zenith, and Seething Song could probably rejoin Modern without ruining the format. However, all of the banned cards have either committed the cardinal sin of being part of top-tier decks with no true predators (Twin, Pod, Bloodbraid), or they have been a part of a deck that reduces the format's diversity through being a component of a powerful linear strategy (Gitaxian Probe, Seething Song, Preordain). Modern has, for better or for worse, an active-ban philosophy, and where past Standard formats were governed by a passive, last-resort-ban philosophy, now active banning is the flavor du jour. But an active-ban philosophy is not in and of itself going to lead to bans; it merely indicates willingness to take action when there is a justifiable opportunity to do so. The next two factors have led to an increased appetite for bans, and they both stem from the same massively disruptive element that has changed society in general so dramatically over the last three years.
" But 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." -Aaron Forsythe, "Eight Plus One", March 4, 2005.
" Let's take a look at some matchup data on Temur Energy gathered from Magic Online Competitive Leagues. This chart is representative of what we've seen throughout the season, slicing the data in different ways and taking samples across time." -Ian Duke, January 15, 2018.
" In this chart, the percentages are how often Ramunap Red defeats the deck in the second column. Notice that Ramunap Red has positive matchups against the entire field except Temur Energy and Red-Green Pummeler. In fact, Ramunap Red's non-mirror, non-Temur match win percentage in this format is a staggering 60%. For comparison, historically the best deck in a late-season format settles to around 52-53% against the field." -Ian Duke, January 15, 2018.
Big Data has become a buzzword of sorts in many circles over the past few years, and for good reason. The abundance of huge, easily-analyzed data sets presents opportunities to see previously unknowable patterns and make decisions accordingly. Whether it's a growing trend in the number of Google searches for a certain trending topic or a frighteningly high win percentage for a Standard deck, this type of massive data set is taking over the world, and Magic is no exception. Wizards uses Magic Online data to drive their bans now. It's that simple. If a deck has a large metagame representation and no predator, it is reasonably likely to get hit. If a deck has a large metagame representation and only one predator (as was the case with Ramunap Red), it is somewhat likely to get hit preemptively alongside its one predator. Neither Temur Energy nor Ramunap Red was completely destroyed, as was the goal with many previous Standard bans. Neither of these decks was linear on an unfair axis or required the field to warp in an unreasonable or unnatural way to attack them. No, the data just showed that they were the best, and there was no true natural predator nor was there likely to be one in the next few sets, so Temur and Mono-Red each took a moderate hit to their power level. This is the new normal.
When reading Ian Duke's well-reasoned explanation of the bans, compared to articles of years past discussing Standard bans, the focus seems to be aimed squarely at win percentages derived from Magic Online data, and far less at the subjective feeling of how "fun" or "unfun" a deck feels. The increase in the adoption of large data sets in determining what is "too good" has led to a more algorithmic, less heuristic-based method of deciding on when and what to ban. The combination of a more trigger-happy banning philosophy spilling over from Modern and this big data to impartially determine when a deck has crossed the threshold from "good" to "too good" is certainly enough reason to explain about four or five of the nine cards banned this past year. But Aaron Forsythe's appeal to fun is not without merit nor has it been completely disregarded in the rush to embrace data. On the contrary, certain new ways for R&D to interact with their customers have streamlined the process by which the people in charge stay informed of public sentiment regarding their formats.
Twitter Banned These Cards
Never before in the history of post-industrial humanity have creators of product been so easily able to interface with their customers and get immediate feedback whenever they solicit it. Never before have objectively insignificant individuals been able to voice their opinions on a public platform that brings their words to potentially thousands of other individuals, and never before have individuals been able to influence crowds with no other qualifications or vetting than an email address and a strong opinion. Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Reddit) have changed the landscape of how people interact with one another and how corporations interact with their clientele. Now, a simple angry Tweet can go viral and damage a company's reputation, so corporations are increasingly attuned to their social media presence, and occasionally the feedback from their presence in the world of social media dictates policy. Consider the story of United Airlines, which faced a huge social media backlash after forcibly removing David Dao from an airplane earlier this year. The public outcry (largely driven by social media) drove them to reformulate their policy surrounding offering passengers compensation for overbooked flights. In the 1990s, such an event would never have made that kind of impact, but social media has a way of latching onto and magnifying certain unsavory occurrences.
The same is true for Magic. When a deck is overpowered, Twitter provides a platform for a few people to complain, then to garner retweets, favorites, and replies, and start to build momentum. Where in 2005 this type of complaint was reduced to angry forum posts that had a cap on who could see them, and in 2010 even an angry Facebook post often wouldn't spread past a user's direct friends list, by 2015 an incensed player could hope to garner enough retweets that everyone even peripherally involved with Magic ended up seeing something about the topic. Twitter sensationalizes, magnifies, and exacerbates, turning a few isolated embers of discontent into a wildfire of incensed customers. It's a common use case for Twitter that a person sees an angry Tweet and thinks, "Hey, other people are also angry about this! I'm not alone! I should express my discontent also!" This kind of multiplicative effect does make a difference in Wizards' perception of public sentiment, despite their best efforts to remain objective, impartial, and fact-driven in their judgment of what to ban or not to ban. Ian Duke and the rest of the people in charge of the banning policy are smart folks, and I have no doubt that they recognize the echo chamber effect of Twitter, but the human brain (and make no mistake, the folks in that boardroom are human, with human foibles) is wired in such a way that Twitter can make an issue seem especially urgent. The rise of social media contributes to the predisposition towards action over inaction, and the banning policy reflects that. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mark a distinct change from past precedent.
Of course, the bans in and of themselves are sensible. The specific quantity and choices of cards may be a bit surprising, but the facts laid out in Ian Duke's article are indisputable. The salient point to keep in mind, though, is that it pays to keep eyes on social media in the weeks leading up to a B&R announcement. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the angry Tweet gets the banning. Death's Shadow and Deathrite Shaman: you'd better get to work on building up your social media presence and hope that your disproportionately high win percentages online escape the watchful eye of R&D, because you could be next!