Welcome to another edition of Fact or Fiction ! Today Ari Lax, Ryan Overturf, and Patrick Sullivan are here to give their takes on five statements on the November 4th Pioneer Banned & Restricted Announcement . Don't forget to vote for the winner at the end!
1. Banning Felidar Guardian in Pioneer was a good decision.
Ari Lax: Fact. Felidar Guardian was one of the cards that made me wonder why only five cards were banned to start Pioneer. It was really clear up front the card was a huge issue, as we have many similar instances with Splinter Twin and Felidar Guardian to show this style of combo only gets better as the other 52 cards you play get tuned as the format ages.
But I don't mind that we got a brief trial period to see it in horrible action. I think if you're starting things off with fairly low stakes, it's nice to let it all ride. Not only might you find out things aren't as bad as they seemed, if a card does wreck everything you can just point to that when evaluating the format years down the line. The alternative is the "Golgari Grave-Troll in Modern" scenario where an unban occurs only to have to be reverted, and that is not good times.
Ryan Overturf: Fact. I've been having a ton of fun playing Pioneer. A big part of that is searching through the selection of legal cards and seeing how the pieces fit together in new and interesting ways. For as exciting as Pioneer has been, the Felidar Guardian combo stood out as having a "not this crap again" vibe.
Beyond being profoundly boring, the Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian combo doesn't fit the texture of what the other decks have been doing in the format so far. Many of the matchups are interesting and cause you to think a lot about how to interact with your opponent, while the Copy Cat combo just leaves you looking at a very narrow selection of cards while mostly hoping that they don't have it. Did I mention that the deck is very boring?
The broader question is one of whether Felidar Guardian or Saheeli Rai was the correct ban. Guardian seems more likely to break again in some other way, so I buy it as the correct ban. Saheeli is kind of soft-banned on account of being such a bad card, but I think this is a lesser consideration.
Patrick Sullivan: Fact. I don't think it's feasible to manage the format around Felidar Guardian + Saheeli Rai, and of those two cards I think keeping Saheeli legal isn't a particular close call. Saheeli is a Mythic Rare that is fairly innocuous and novel outside of its combo applications; Felidar Guardian is boring as hell even in its fringe applications. I would have been extremely surprised to see Felidar Guardian survive past the first ban list update, and I think Wizards of the Coast exercised good judgement here in not playing with fire.
2. Banning Oath of Nissa in Pioneer was a good decision.
Ari Lax: Fact. Oath of Nissa was Faithless Looting in Pioneer. I pointed this out on Monday , but it had properties as a permanent with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Eidolon of Blossoms, properties as a mana fixer with Teferi, Time Raveler and Saheeli Rai, properties as a card type with Kethis, the Hidden Hand and Traverse the Ulvenwald, and more on top of just being a solid cantrip. The only reason we don't see more Oath of Nissa in Modern is that format has more spells like Scapeshift or Mox Opal driving synergies than creatures or planeswalkers.
But really, it points to another bigger issue. Much like Modern had an early reckoning with Ponder, Preordain, and blue cantrips, Pioneer is going to have a reckoning with green draw fixing. Once Upon a Time is the Ancient Stirrings of the format, the way too efficient card selection spell with a joke of a restriction. Traverse the Ulvenwald and Attune with Aether fit a similar but weaker mold. I don't know what the cutoff point of too good is, but each of these remaining cards caused issues in their respective Standard formats. If you want to build new green decks in Pioneer, figure out how to exploit them.
More seriously, the next best cantrip in Pioneer after Oath of Nissa is Opt (shut up about Once Upon a Time), and the Oath of Nissa decks were doing their things much more consistently than the other decks. So, along that metric, you get another example of cards and decks that feel like they're playing a different format. Oath also just has a ton of relevant interactions on top this. It's a pip for Devotion, you can value bounce it with Teferi, Time Raveler, it's a very efficient enabler for Delirium, etc...
There's a pretty loud statement here that they want Pioneer decks to have dynamic gameplay, which is something I find difficult to argue with.
Patrick Sullivan: Fact. Oath of Nissa seems pretty innocent, but it has all the makings of a card that creates problems over time. It's a powerful, variance-reducing cantrip that puts a permanent onto the battlefield and is Legendary, so it has a very high floor and interacts with all sorts of other stuff (things that count about mana symbols, enchantments, Legendary characteristics, etc.) Modern is already defined by these sorts of cards, and it's good for each format to be defined by different things. I think it is especially worth culling cards that make the first few turns play out the same way in light of the London Mulligan.
I like the Oath of Nissa ban for a larger, systemic reason as well – I believe that Magic is overpopulated in almost all formats by cards that just replace themselves and provide a little bit of value instead of, you know, actually doing something or advancing the game state, and I think Magic would be well-served by having more cards in the latter camp define constructed than the former.
3. Banning Leyline of Abundance in Pioneer was a good decision.
Ari Lax: Fact. The Mono-Green Devotion deck in Pioneer made me wonder if we should be building that deck in Modern. It really was that good, and it was largely based on additions from the last two sets. While Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx was the mana centerpiece of the deck, it normally was something that required mana investment for mana output. It had limiting factors based on card density, crumbled under interaction, and is notorious for having awkward payoff-incentive balance issues in deck building.
The problem with Mono-Green Devotion was clearly one of the free spells. I talked about Once Upon a Time before and wouldn't be shocked if that needs to go later, but Leyline of Abundance was kinda Mox Emerald that also had double green in the cost. I think with another visit to Theros upcoming and possibly bringing more Devotion cards with it, swinging at the scary proactive enabler was a fine start.
Ryan Overturf: Fiction. This is where they lose me in a big way.
My favorite feeling in Magic comes from the various iterations of Shocking Llanowar Elves. Bolting Birds. Lava Darting Noble Hierarchs. These are the reasons I get out of bed in the morning. This feeling is dramatically amplified when my opponent has also mulliganed by putting Leyline of Abundance on the battlefield. There's a huge opportunity cost to play a card like this to the point that absent Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx you would see immeasurably fewer Leylines. There's more than one reason we don't regularly see decks of this nature in Modern.
Maybe they never reverse the decision to ban Leyline, but I won't be the least bit surprised if we see this decision mostly walked back by an eventual banning of Nykthos. It's true that Leyline is the best enabler for the card, but what's truer is that there are plenty of other configurations with Nykthos that generate way more mana than other decks in the format. Maybe you want a big mana deck that can function with this kind of engine, but once again you'll feel like you registered for the wrong tournament the next time your opponent goes off with Burning-Tree Emissaries and Nykthos. This is a very heavy-handed ban defending Nykthos, a card plenty capable of showing up in other busted shells. This isn't on the level of Bridge from Below biting it for Hogaak/Faithless Looting, but the texture sure feels similar.
Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. This one is puzzling to me for several reasons. The first is how this interlocks with the management of the banned list in the first place. WotC has declared that, at least for the foreseeable future, they will be announcing updates to the Pioneer banned list every Monday. I'm not sure how I feel about that as a policy, but one of the upsides is that they can be extremely efficient with how they react to problems. It's one thing to be cautious in the face of uncertainty when the next opportunity to ban is three months about, it's another altogether when you can react the morning after each major event. In that framework, it seems strange to ban something without a consensus that the card is at least problematic; I'm not sure I saw the card mentioned as a likely candidate by people either "in the know" or vaguely invested.
I think this matters because the early ban announcements will signal to the community how aggressively WotC intends to manage Pioneer. The signal here could be damaging to the early enthusiasm in many parts of the community – fatigue around bannings and the related conversations is a real thing, and while WotC got out in front of things by saying they intended to ban early and often, there are limits to people's tolerance for it even when it is set as expectation. Given these considerations, I'm surprised to see WotC take action on a card that was both "off the radar" and easy to create consensus around in the event it proved problematic.
This ban also represents a big bet on Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, and that was even alluded to in the article itself . I have my doubts that the format can be healthy with that card as a foundational element, nor am I the biggest believer in its gameplay, even if Devotion encourages at least some play on the battlefield. I think I would have preferred either a ban to Nykthos or to let things play out a little bit longer (and then take action against whatever makes the most sense) rather than ban something so far out of left field while also propping up something that might not be sustainable in the long-term anyway.
4. Dig Through Time and/or Treasure Cruise should have been banned in today's Pioneer B&R announcement.
Ari Lax: Fiction. Having fiddled around with the Izzet Phoenix deck that is the current best home for Treasure Cruise, I was really reminded of the potency of the delve card draw spells in Standard rather than non-rotating formats. There aren't fetchlands to give you a bonus delve mana every turn. Cruise and Dig Through Time are strong card draw spells, but they are later plays that don't chain into additional copies that well. I've heard of people wanting to play Tome Scour to get them going, and at that point what are you really accomplishing?
I wouldn't be shocked to see an eventual world where these cards end up finding the enablers to break them, and by eventual I could literally see someone figuring it out tomorrow. But for now, I think both are in the Thirst for Knowledge or Fact or Fiction tier of card draw for Pioneer. They are good, but they aren't broadly overpowered.
Ryan Overturf: Fact. You know, I hate to say it, but you may as well.
I loved the initial decision to start with fetchlands as the only banned cards fully understanding that more bans would be coming. Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time, cards banned pretty much everywhere else, were near the top of my list for eventual bans. Giving the format time to shape up made sense and made the starting point for the format more interesting, but now that we're swinging the hammer we may as well hit the obvious ones.
Completely ignoring the fact that Izzet Phoenix was one of the best decks in the format prior to yesterday's update, these cards only get better the larger the format gets. It's abundantly clear that these are whens and not ifs to anybody remotely capable of managing a banlist. I'll be packing Izzet Phoenix featuring Treasure Cruise when I make my way out to Richmond en route to compete in the Season Two Invitational in Roanoke the week after and I can't shake this sinking feeling that Cruise just gets banned next Monday. I suppose I'm cool with a ban that hits anytime other than literally next Monday, but for Cruise the writing is already on the wall. You could more realistically make a case for keeping Dig around, but why bother.
Patrick Sullivan: Fact. I'd rather ban the obvious cases right away as to limit the total number of announcements with bannings in them, given the frantic schedule they've set up for themselves. I guess the hope is that the format can be managed around these cards? That blue needs this sort of subsidization right now, and you can get away from it later without much backlash? These seem to be low-probability bets to me against the scenario that people acquire cards to build around them, the cards are problematic for the reasons they've been problematic in every other constructed format, and then you ban them anyway. I don't think many players would have batted an eye if they appeared on the first update, but the costs go up the longer you wait. I'm interested to see what the plan is here, if any, but were I working there they'd be near or at the top of my list of cards to get rid of ASAP.
5. Having a B&R announcement every Monday is good for the long-term health of Pioneer.
Ari Lax: TBD. I was really skeptical of this prior to this weekend's results. It really felt like there wasn't enough public data from one event to make real decisions.
But last weekend made it fairly clear that Copy Cat was just a miserable barrier to entry into the format, and Mono-Green Devotion felt like it was operating on a completely different level. You could leave this all legal and hope it sorts itself out, but I don't think that is how R&D wants to align this new format. They took aggressive bans to try and sculpt the format, and they all made sense.
While I like Abe quite a bit, this tweet is legitimately everything wrong and everything I hate about competitive Magic conversation in 2019 https://t.co/TIFzvePr3C— Cedric Phillips Burbank (@CedricAPhillips) November 4, 2019
The reason this is TBD and not Fact is that a decision point every week leaves a lot of room to make fast, reactive, and just straight up bad choices. Modern in 2019 would be a much worse place if the reaction to Death's Shadow in 2017 was aggressive, and that deck really did dominate for a solid six or eight months.
This is still a really fidgety subject, and I can't pile it into one Fact or Fiction response. The old world of super reactive bans also sucked at times, like when Bloodbraid Elf Jund was the best deck in Standard for half a year. Forcing a format into a box eventually fails, like we saw in Modern. There's a medium, I think this first announcement was on point, but there isn't info to say if WotC will use their power wisely and let the format breathe or have everyone living in constant fear of the hammer swinging. Honestly, with this much uncertainty the certain outcome might be that finding the balance is going to fail and you just have to hope you don't go too far out of line either way when it does.
Ryan Overturf: Fiction. My hangup here is the "long-term". I'm not sure at which point you end up putting Pioneer on the regular schedule, but having updates every Monday is clearly a short-term solution to make sure you don't have multiple weeks in a row where your relatively uncurated format ends up being miserable and kills initial excitement. The weekly updates are arguably a very good safety valve for keeping momentum going as we explore the format early on, but the longer they keep posting updates weekly the more likely the format fades into obscurity as consumer confidence shrinks progressively over time.
I get why they're handling the format this way. The optics of announcing this methodology after we had all dived into the format are quite bad, but they at least make some sense in the short term. Emphasis on short. I'm a huge fan of Pioneer and I really want to see the format succeed. I believe that making a plan to move off of a weekly announcement regarding potential bans as fast as possible is essential to the format's success.
Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. I guess it depends on the actual reality on the ground; WotC could start of very aggressively and then pivot to less frequent updates once the format has settled a little bit. The Leyline of Abundance ban signals something very different, but maybe that ends up being one outlier among what are mostly expected changes. That's only part of the consideration.
When I played Magic at my most competitive, WotC had an entirely different ideology surrounding bannings; that they were measures of last resort and represented a failure of the design team responsible. Clearly there has been a shift; it is expressed more as breaking some eggs while making an omelet nowadays. One can argue which approach is better; certainly, I've played some absolutely miserable formats as a result of the previous ideology, but one clear benefit was that conversations around bannings were barely any part of the discourse. Players knew (consciously or not) that the problems weren't going to solve themselves so they set about solving them as best they could. I can't imagine approaching SCG ten years ago with an article about the banned list for any format; it would have been more topical to discuss how to avoid game losses due to manufacturer defects on your sleeves.
As WotC has taken a more aggressive approach to bannings, it occupies more space in the community conversation (and lowers the bar for what types of cards are deemed worthy of discussing), and I can't think of many topics more fatiguing and dampening of enthusiasm to engage with for most players than arguing about which cards we shouldn't be allowed to play with anymore. I can't imagine that being lessened by an announcement every week, with the volume of speculation and deconstruction that comes before and after the fact. I have a higher enthusiasm for these conversations than most (maybe all), but even I'd like to get back to talking about the game a little bit.