A Call For Transparency: An Open Letter To The DCI And The Magic Community
I had stopped writing articles for the web. I originally wrote about decks and new technology but I eventually realized that I was not a good enough player to write these types of articles. This is a realization I wish many Internet writers would come to - but alas we are not so lucky. Instead of tech I decided I would only write articles related to community issues.
I wrote my last article around the time Odyssey was released. That article discussed the fact that Wizards decided to print many staple effects as rare cards. That piece caused a good deal of furor and I hope that it had some effect on Wizards' publishing strategy. The number of powerful cards spread across all rarities in Onslaught was impressive. The same thing can be said about Mirrodin. Whether not this is because of my article I don't know... But either way the change took place. And I was happy. I have not seen any reason to write since then. There were no issues relevant in the community that from my perspective necessitated an article....
As of this writing Tinker is not yet banned in Extended. Given the card's utter dominance of Pro Tour: New Orleans I would be surprised if the DCI hasn't taken action by the time this piece makes it to the public. In the Top 8 there are only thirty-two possible slots for any single non-land card - four of a card per deck eight decks - and there were twenty-eight Tinkers present.
This is unprecedented domination. Even during Pro Tour: Lin Sivvi there were only twenty one Lin Sivvis in the Top 8. Many articles since New Orleans have noted this problem. I want to add my voice to that chorus. I also want to address more than a single problem card. I want to address the process itself. Banning Tinker in Extended corrects one small part of the problem with the Banned and Restricted List. The DCI needs to take some dramatic and public steps to amend the process they use to determine when a card needs to be banned or restricted in a given format.
When the game debuted ten years ago it was a wild time. One of my first decks from nearly a decade ago included four Sol Rings. This deck was short lived as the DCI the tournament organization wing of Wizards of the Coast decided to take action to improve what turned out to be a degenerate unbalanced and boring metagame. Moxen and other rule-breaking cards so dominated the metagame that players could easily abandon the basic structures of the game. There is no need to play land and thus limit a deck to one mana producing resource a turn if one can play twenty Moxen and four Loti.
Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that Wizards did not take into account the zeal of players to collect all of the rare cards in each set. Wizards believed that by making a card a rare they were in effect restricting it. No one they believed would be crazy enough to go and get four of each powerful rare. They were wrong. As such they had to restrict certain powerful cards to one per deck. These cards were generally cards that had tremendously powerful effects (like Timetwister) or cards that generated reasonable effect far too cheaply (the Moxen). They targeted what we now call broken cards.
However some of the cards included in this initial set of restriction sweeps are laughably bad. Dingus Egg was restricted based on a general idea that losing land was punishment enough and players should not be rewarded for hindering an opponent's mana development. We now know that this is the premise of two historically powerful strategies: Land Destruction and the more successful Prison-style decks and neither of these decks use Dingus Egg when they show up in tournaments. Ali from Cairo was also restricted but for reasons that we will never have to contend with again - the card pool was too shallow. Certain colors had no way to deal with Ali from Cario in combination with Jade Monolith and thus could not win short of Millstoning their opponent's library away.
Now we have Worship and Platinum Angel two cards vastly superior to this fragile combo and neither are tournament powerhouses except in sideboards and weird combo decks (see Final Fantasy PT: New Orleans 2003). There was a time when a person could play four Balances one of the most easily breakable cards of all time and only one Dingus Egg. A person could play four Strip Mines perhaps the most brainless disruption of all time and only one Sword of the Ages. Many many cards fell unnecessarily before they removed Necropotence/Illusions of Grandeur from Extended. Many cards also fell in Standard during Necro Summer instead of limiting Necro. Doomsday was restricted in Vintage based on a rumored deck. Crop Rotation is restricted because of a terrible design mistake (Tolarian Academy). Suffice to say that the DCI is not flawless in their choices of which cards to restrict or ban.
B. The Problem
The problem the DCI faces is not one of substantive decision-making. That is I am not writing to complain about any one choice to act or not act against one card or another. The DCI for the most part corrects these individual mistakes by reversing their decisions in later announcements. As such these choices represent only a passing problem for the game. The real long-term problem is that the DCI does not disclose the process they use when deciding whether or not to take action.
We have no idea what sort of event prompts them to take action. Does utter domination of a format motivate them? Does a card's hype prior to release make them look closer at that cards? Do combinations and decks that could be good because they use the given card cause them to add the card to the Watch List? We have no idea. Carefully following the history of the organization and their decisions can give us some idea as to the process but this is merely reading tealeaves. This sort of procedural opacity would be fine if the DCI was a covert shadow agency for the government but they support and organize the hobby we all enjoy. They are like www.magicthegathering.com something that came into existence because of customer demand.
Now is the time for us customers to make another demand - it is time for the DCI to lift off the veil of secrecy and make known and public the process they use to decide when to banned and/or restrict a card.
Some may protest:"But the DCI does tell us why they ban certain cards." To be fair this is partly true. Here are some of the justifications for actions they have taken in the past year:
The Extended Constructed format has gotten too fast. One of the biggest culprits is the Goblin deck and Goblin Lackey is the most egregious offender. The introduction of the Onslaught block (and especially the Scourge set) has given Goblin decks some extremely high quality Goblins and the Lackey's ability to put them into play for free is simply too good for a first turn play.
Entomb is also an extremely powerful first-turn play that speeds up the format too much. Entomb serves as a"tutor" for Reanimator decks putting a card into the graveyard where it's easy to get into play very quickly. That's simply too much power for a one-mana spell.
We've known for years that the"free spells" from the Urza block were a mistake. This whole class of spells keeps showing up in combo decks that need only a few turns before they can"go off" and win the game in a highly noninteractive manner. Frantic Search was contributing significant power and speed to multiple combo decks in the Extended environment so it had to go.
Every good"tutor" card is restricted in Type 1. Entomb is one of the best tutors left in Type 1 and it now joins Demonic Tutor Demonic Consultation Enlightened Tutor etc. on the restricted list.
Earthcraft joins the many other combo cards that are restricted in Type 1.
Looking over these terse statements they seem more like conclusions as to why a particular card should be banned or restricted. There is no reasoning from premise to conclusion via the analysis of facts. There is no testing data tournament results or explanation of combination interactions. The DCI simply provides us with conclusions. The justification of Earthcraft's restriction is particularly shameful. It essentially reads:"Combo card."
So with as much insincerity as I can muster:"Thanks DCI!"
Why these cards and not others? For example why not when certain combo decks need two cards to work ban the least useful card thus operating under a principle of limited collateral damage? Trix needed both Necropotence and the Illusions of Grandeur/Donate combo to work. Why not accomplish the same effect - killing Trix - by eliminating Donate an obvious design mistake instead of the more popular Necro? There are reasons one can cite for banning Necro over Donate but the DCI did not provide any reason one way or another aside from pointing to the speed with which Trix won games. We should no longer accept these flaccid vague justifications.
1. The Root of the Problem
Looking back over the ten years since the game began I see three reasons why the DCI would not want to open its thought processes to public inspection. The first relates to an old unwritten rule against openly ranking cards in terms of power. Similarly perhaps the DCI fears leaking secret tech that would ruin a format both for the Pros that work so hard to find this tech and us the average players who like exploring formats. Finally I think that like all human beings Wizards employees might not want to air their mistakes in public.
One of the reasons I believe the DCI has been reticent to provide more lucid reasons for their actions is a traditional bar Wizards has against openly comparing the power of cards. I recently submitted a piece to www.magicthegathering.com for the 10th Anniversary of the game but Wizards said I needed to remove statements that referenced particular cards as weak cards. The email went on to say that Wizards does not like such language on its official sites because it tends to frustrate and belittle the card choices of new and/or casual players. With such editorial constraints on my piece I promptly refused to alter it and they rejected it.
In the past this informal bar was even worse. For a long time Wizards' official publications - the Duelist Sideboard and web content - rarely if ever openly discussed a card as being powerful or broken. Until recently most notably with the opening of www.magicthegathering.com Wizards did not openly discuss how cards were made or why changes were made during design. The official line was something like this:"Some cards appear good and others appear bad but truly creative players will see that all cards are created equal all cards have a purpose." They have stopped kidding themselves.
Beginning with Mark Rosewater's important article on why bad cards have to be made Wizards has dropped this faade. Preview cards are traditionally quite good and the authors some Wizards employees and others freelance writers make little bones about it. On the Sideboard Mike Flores heavily touted Ravenous Baloth prior to its release. We could all see the obvious power of the creature. The fetchlands perhaps the most important lands since the original dual lands were similarly praised and were equally powerful.
Wizards knows and we know that what George Orwell tells us is true:"All cards are made equal some are just more equal than others." Now they acknowledge this in most areas.
A related problem that perhaps prevents the DCI from operating in an environment of full disclosure is the potential that they release format-crippling tech before a Pro Tour and thus ruin the hard work of many pros. Similarly perhaps they believe that after the event releasing such information would stunt exploration of the format by Pro hopefuls. As I will demonstrate below if done properly opening up the process would never do this. So long as the tests for DCI action remains firmly based on hard data cards that warrant action will not be surprises. If the test below is adopted (or one similar to it) everyone will know which cards the DCI is looking at simply by going to a tournament and looking at the top tables
The final possible reason why the DCI does not make public its reasoning process is perhaps like all humans Wizards employees do not like admitting mistakes.
Mark Rosewater wrongfully an object of scorn on the Internet recently shattered this taboo in his article found here. In the article Rosewater did what the DCI needs to do - come clean about mistakes and take decisive action to change course. Not admitting that mistakes have been made flies in the face of having a Banned and Restricted List in the first place. The function of the list is to maintain a healthy game by riding tournaments of mistake cards something that is necessary for Wizards to make a profit. Without an active tournament scene and the DCI I believe Magic would have faded long ago but because the company took an active role in the tournament scene we enjoy a thriving game and a rich community.
Furthermore these mistakes as Zvi Mowshowitz publicly proclaimed are necessary. In order to make the game interesting they need to be consistently creative and push the envelope of card design. They need to make strong cards. Sometimes they cross the line but most of the time they do not. It is this tension - a high-wire act really - that helps sustain the game.
By constantly innovating R&D never lets the game get stale. I am sure that most (if not all) gamers would be willing to stomach the occasional restriction and/or banning if it meant that the game would remain fresh over time. As such these mistakes are not something to be ashamed of they are battle scars of good design. This does not mean however that they should go unchecked or that we should tolerate a high number of these mistakes close together (see Urza's Block). This simply means that admitting mistakes and correcting them quickly keeps the game great. Prompt decisive action is in everyone's best interest - the DCI Wizards as a company and us as a community of gamers.
Allowing disclosures related to card power and inviting increased public participation through sites like www.magicthegathering.com has been a boon for the game. For the first time in years there are loyal followings for multiple formats. Attendance at this year's Regional tournaments unofficially the biggest amateur event of the year was up across the globe. Grand Prixs and the Pro Tour are now an institutions of the game.
In short disclosure is good for the company. Knocking down this final taboo and speaking honestly and openly about how it makes its decisions can only improve the DCI and the game.
2. DCI Trends
As it stands now we have precious few clues about what spurs the DCI into taking action. We can however piece together some general trends. The fact that this detective work is even necessary highlights the problem - no officiating organization should operate with this much secrecy and lack of disclosure. We are not Talmudic scholars or C.S.I. We are trying to play a game they organize. The DCI and players should not be enemies. A more candid discussion of what sort of cards trigger DCI action would help dispel this inherently negative situation.
One trend that is apparent from examining the Banned and Restricted Lists for various formats is that the DCI will not tolerate dominating combo decks. They have some patience for them but when combo starts winning too fast or winning too much the DCI usually takes action.
This is not to say all combo pieces are banned or restricted. We do not know why some pieces remain legal while the DCI bans or restricts other cards. We have no justification from them one way or another. For example why is Mind's Desire not on the Banned List in Extended while Mind Over Matter is? They give us no explanation. When is combo too broken? We have no idea.
We also know from past action that cheap Tutor effects are problematic cards. While some such effects have survived the DCI often targets those that do not include a loss of card advantage like Demonic Tutor and Demonic Consultation. According to the DCI these Tutors are bad for two reasons: First they duplicate the effects of restricted cards in essence unrestricting them; and second they allow combo to thrive by providing an easy way to get pieces of the combination.
However the DCI has not uniformly acted in this area either. Wishes seem to break the no loss of card advantage rule but remain legal in every format. Tinker not only has no loss of card advantage it allows to play the card tutored for free. Why is there this inconsistency in DCI action? Why is Vampiric Tutor okay in Extended but Entomb - which necessitates the use of at least one more card than Vampiric Tutor - not? Again the DCI provides no guidance or reasoning.
There has also been a trend towards limiting"cheap mana" (cards that provide more mana than they cost to play) and instant-speed mass card drawing (Ancestral Recall and the like). Why then is Grim Monolith not banned in Extended? Why is Stroke of Genius not banned in Extended? Does the DCI not act because tournament results fail to demonstrate these cards dominating the metagame? Or are there cards the DCI just"thinks" are not broken like the seemingly innocuous Goblin Recruiter? What information do they use to make these determinations?
They have also indicated in the past especially with the action taken against Goblin Lackey that they do not like cards that create an unrecoverable early game swing. They fail however to flesh out what this means. Is a Turn 2 win too much of an early game swing? What about Turn 3? Turn 4? Is the amount of impermissible"swing" format dependent? I would think it would have to be but we have no idea for sure. This standard is so vague that the DCI could use it as a justification for banning nearly any cheap card.
The DCI also has an informal policy of banning dexterity cards. Chaos Orb and Falling Star are currently the only non-ante cards banned in Vintage. Why? Aside from the rules headache they cause why not allow them in Vintage as restricted cards (or even an unrestricted card in the case of Falling Star)? If overly complex rules necessitate DCI action why are Word of Command the Licids and Vesuvan Doppelganger still allowed in Vintage? Again the DCI provides no guidance or justification. I truly believe that Chaos Orb would be a welcome and interesting addition to the Vintage format. Whatever technical problems have arisen related to tournament play can be worked out. If the Rules Team can fix the copy mechanic and make Mindslaver workable certainly Chaos Orb a unique and powerful card in Vintage can be salvaged.
We know that the DCI doesn't like combo tutors fast mana or instant speed mass card drawing. We do not know how deep these prohibitions go. Nor do we know why certain cards that break these guidelines are permitted in tournament play. If perhaps they proved it to us with data or reasoning we could better understand the process and trust DCI judgment. We would be more willing to invest in the time and energy necessary to test given formats (is anyone even working on Extended right now?). The incessant talk of restrictions in Vintage circles would die down. In short with clear guidelines the community could focus on the game and trust the DCI when it takes action.
Just as exploring the design process has softened the criticism of a new set in the first weeks of its release further disclosure by the DCI would give its actions instant legitimacy.
3. Why Tell?
By this time the average tournament player might be asking:"Why should I care about the process the DCI uses to ban and restrict cards? All I need to know is which cards are legal and which are not." To a certain degree this is a true statement. However it is a statement that belays an attitude that if left unchecked would ruin the game.
During the domination of Blue Academy-based combo we as a community could have done nothing and tolerated the situation but the game had become so fast and so luck-based that it invariably drove away new and casual players. These people are the well of hope for the future of Magic. If the game is so utterly imbalanced that one card or strategy wrecks all others these players will never see and enjoy that part of the game that has hooked all of us - exploring cards and formats and building new decks. Why buy new cards and build different decks if they always lose to that one overpowering card?
By disclosing the process they use to determine when a card warrants action the DCI would allow for more targeted and profitable feedback from their customers - us. If for example the DCI was trying to figure out if Spoils of the Vault was ruining Vintage because it better facilitates turn 1 wins in Long.dec they could ask for tournament results from the community.
Gamers that care about the game could then turn in these results and the DCI could use hard data to make their decisions. R&D cannot test every card interaction. Neither can we as a community but the more people that help with the process the faster we can find problem cards and eliminate them.
Furthermore by providing us with more information about the process the DCI can take our feedback and improve how they manage organized play. This is not to say that banning and restricting cards should be a democratic process. That would be disastrous. Timmys would vote Blue off the island and angry children everywhere would want to allow more than four Lightning Bolts in a deck. On balance though some feedback would be helpful. The DCI cannot possible scour the globe to find every problem card in every format. Nor can they monitor formats that are screaming out for changes (see below Separate the Lists). Reporting troubling issues to the DCI would help ameliorate this problem.
For example in Europe combo is running rampant in Vintage. If the process was open to feedback regional differences that point to future widespread trends could put the DCI notice. Though some see the lack of Wastelands as the root of Europe's combo fetish perhaps there is something hidden in the data that would show conclusively that certain cards are too powerful. In the area of law state statutes are often seen as a laboratories for federal law. They allow the federal government to observe the effects of experimental legislation without creating havoc nationwide. Increased participation and disclosure could allow the DCI to do the same thing.
Regions of focused interest could allow the DCI to get a jump on problems before they wreck entire seasons of a format. Upstate New York with its strong concentration of Vintage Restricted tournaments could serve as a bellwether area for reporting 1.5 problems. The sheer volume of players alone would allow the DCI to rely on these tournament reports as somewhat accurate representative samples. Europe with its highly active and organized tournament scene could serve a similar function for Vintage. Tournament results and reports from Japan New England and New York with their high concentration of good players and Pros could help filter out problem cards for Standard Block and Extended. This global reporting would be enormously helpful in collecting information.
The more information the DCI has at its disposal the better the decisions they make will be. The better their decisions are the healthier the game is. The healthier the game the more people will play it and buy cards. In the end opening the process up is in Wizards own best interest. An open DCI means a healthy game and this equals more profit.
C. The New Test
Ironically the DCI has already been provided with a good test taking action against specific cards. About two months ago Stephen Menendian offered this test on StarCityGames:
- Is the card the key factor in an dominant deck?
- Is the card a key factor in a deck that is excessively metagame distorting?
- Is the card too powerful on its own?
- Does the card distort 1.5?
I would drop factor four and add one new factor to the test:
- Does a card create an unrecoverable early game swing?
I am not going to go over each factor above in detail. Steve does a good job at justifying each factor of the test in his article but I am going to comment on their general characteristics and then more specifically define my additional factor.
1. Steve's Factors
First and most importantly one should note that a legal model of reasoning shapes and guides Steve in his construction of this test. In various areas of the law courts use multifactor tests similar to this one to determine the legal import all sorts of factual problems. Trademark violations search and seizure law divorce property division and the like are all governed by these sorts of tests. The purpose of these tests is to allow a finder of fact and law (in the Magic context the DCI) to make decisions based on information that is reasonably organized innately related and repeatable by others.
Multifactor tests allow adjudicatory bodies from the Supreme Court down to the DCI to make fair and consistent decisions based on facts drawn out of the complexities and messiness of real life. Using this sort of model to make its decisions allows a court to craft opinions that are easily understood by the parties it affects and easily reviewable by appellate bodies. In short these tests make it easy to see why a court made the decision it did.
Multifactor tests such as Steve's test are excellent ways to organize an argument. In the Magic context they would make it far clearer why a card was banned than the perfunctory concluding one-liners we get today. Go back and look at Earthcraft's justification. What does that mean? With a test like the one above we could see what motivated the DCI to act.
Steve's model is also very much grounded in results. Banning or restricting a card is a very serious action. When the DCI decides to act in this way it is essentially telling customers that paid for products it makes that they cannot use them. That is a big step to take and they should not take it lightly. But when they do act they should act in a way that everyone understands. Acting on nebulous reasons is usually as bad as acting for no reason at all.
As such by using a test that depends on results the DCI would only take this radical and decisive step when necessary. Furthermore by using results to determine when a card should be banned the DCI would avoid one of the problems mentioned above. Because a card would warrant DCI action only when results determine that it is a problem admitting a card is on the DCI Watch list would not be giving away any big secret. The DCI if it used this test would not ever give away format damaging tech by disclosing prior to a Pro Tour a card or combination that is overly powerful. Only in rare instances such as Memory Jar and Mind's Desire would the DCI act without results and in these cases the cards would be preemptively banned thus saving secret tech and the format all at the same time.
Finally the power of this test is that it agrees with our innate sense of how the game should operate. If a card is so warping and broken that it consistently dominates the field over a long period the game is not fun. It is at this precise moment when DCI action is most appropriate. The Banned and Restricted List began as an attempt to keep the game fair and fun. By using a clear test based on results the DCI remains true to the original purpose of the List.
2. Early Game Swing
My additional factor is that of unrecoverable early game swing. The DCI used this idea as the touchstone reason for banning Goblin Lackey and Entomb in Extended. There are good reasons why the DCI should use this factor. If a card creates an early game swing that is impossible or nearly impossible for an opponent to recover from it places improper emphasis on a non-skilled aspect of the game - determining who goes first. If my deck can"go off" on Turn 2 then going first - and thus getting to Turn 2 first - has a large impact on winning. The more winning is based on luck the less fun this game supposedly a game of skill tends to be. As such the DCI should ban or restrict cards in their appropriate format when they create an unrecoverable early game swing.
How does one define precisely when an unrecoverable early game swing occurs? To a certain degree there can never be a precise definition of this term in part because of the randomization factor built into the game but certainly it is possible to articulate some workable standard. What follows is my attempt to do this.
I believe an unrecoverable early game swing occurs in a given format when the fundamental turn of a deck powered by the problem card occurs significantly earlier than the point at which the average tournament card in the given format can be played. In more concrete terms if a deck containing the problem card has its fundamental turn on Turn 2 but the average tournament card in the format is played on Turn 5 then there is a problem. In order to fully understand what this formula means we need to look at the definition of two terms:"fundamental turn" and"playing the average tournament card."
In Magic parlance deck wins the game the turn it has"fundamental turn." This term taken from an old Zvi article originally published on the Dojo means simply"the turn that a deck does what it does to win." Some may confuse this with the turn when the deck actually wins and this is incorrect. For example suppose Player A is playing a theoretical Prison-style permanents-based lock deck. This deck can lock down its opponent as early as Turn 4 but cannot kill the opponent on that turn. Instead this hypothetical deck relies on a slow but hearty creature Nether Spirit to do the dirty work of dispatching the opponent. In this example the Prison deck's fundamental turn is Turn 4 though actually winning occurs much later. This is a very simple example but it conveys the basic idea.
By"playing the average tournament cards" I do not simply mean the average converted mana cost of the pool of tournament cards in a given format. Instead I mean that point when any player can play the average tournament card in a given format in a way that affects the game.
In Invasion with the high concentration of gold cards and the necessity of playing lands that come into play tapped the point when the average tournament card had an effect (either came into play as a permanent or altered the conditions of the game as an instant or sorcery) was somewhere between Turn 3 and Turn 4. The number of"bears" (2/2 creatures for two mana) anchored the turn when the average tournament card was played at a low number but the fact that many of the responses in this format cost three mana (Repulse the Gold Counters Urza's Rage and effectively Terminate) pushed the number higher. The tap lands pushed this number higher still.
Thus in a rough sense playing the average tournament card occurred on Turn 3.5. This is a relatively straightforward example but it does not capture the full nuance of the idea.
Looking at another format shows how difficult it can be to define this number. In Onslaught Block there were many behemoth creatures in tournament decks some costing as high as eight mana the most any tournament creature has ever cost but playing the average tournament card occurred much sooner than people thought. Those that realized this consciously or unconsciously stood in good stead. Because many of the cards in Lightning Rift/Astral Slide decks were played via their cycling ability playing the average tournament card occurred much earlier than most people believed.
Slide was essentially playing cards as early as Goblins was. This arms race between a premiere control deck and a premiere aggro deck left decks using the behemoths of Pro Tour: Venice out in the cold. The format even left behind mid-range decks like Beasts. Given this playing the average tournament card in Onslaught Block occurred around Turn 2.5.
Note that I did not look at when a player can play the average tournament-viable card. This part of the unrecoverable swing definition is not theoretical. It is based solely on results. By averaging when the cards that appear in tournament standings are played in a given format the DCI can roughly figure out when one plays the average tournament card. This sort of calculation requires results and hard data. It also requires the DCI to open its doors to the public in a more complete way.
Tying the two parts of the definition together we see in a rough way what constitutes an unrecoverable early game swing. When a problem card lowers the fundamental turn significantly below the turn when a player plays for effect the average tournament card the problem card warrants DCI action. How significant is"significant"? This is where the format becomes important.
In Vintage where Long.dec can win on Turn 1 Rectal Agony is not far behind and Welder-Mud can cast two Spheres of Resistance out of the gate the fundamental turn of the fastest decks is very low perhaps as low as Turn 2. This is balanced out by when one can play tournament cards for effect. Force of Will Moxen Duress and Chalice of the Void are in the pool of tournament cards and consequently individuals can realistically play a good deal of the tournament cards in the format on Turn 1. Thus as it stands under this factor there are no confirmed problem cards with the possible exception of a Yawgmoth's Will powered Lion's Eye Diamond. Lots of hard data would help prove this but alas we have none to work with.
In Extended however the story is different. PT: New Orleans practically defines the archetypal situation of unrecoverable early game swing. Looking at the Top 8 we see decks based on the Tinker skeleton (Tinker Grim Monolith Ancient Tomb City of Traitors) hitting their fundamental turn on Turn 2 on a regular basis. This is very early significantly earlier than the turn most of the tournament cards in the format are played for effect. Only a hand full of spells and hardly any creatures in Extended can be effective as early as Turn 2. Even then a single Counterspell or a lone Jackal Pup is usually little more than a speed bump for the crushingly powerful Tinker decks in the format.
Pernicious Deed does not come on line until Turn 4 Isochron Scepter is typically usable by then Goblin Recruiter has gathered his army and Oath of Druids has started to run by Turn 4. Unfortunately they are too late. Thus in Extended we see a metagame where one deck (or deck family) has its fundamental turn nearly two full turns earlier than most of the cards in the format can be played for effect. The current Extended environment is a format where a card plays a focal role in a deck that wins much sooner than most other cards in the format are effective. This standard however changes with the card pool. In a slower format like Standard a two-turn difference is probably not enough to warrant DCI action because the turns in question are more likely Turn 8 or 9 and Turn 10 or 11 not the beginnings of the game like in Extended.
Note just how difficult it is to meet this standard. I am not saying a card warrants action from the DCI when it is the focus of a deck with a lower fundamental turn than the fundamental turn of the rest of the decks in the format. In order to warrant DCI action the card must give rise to a deck that is faster than most of the cards not even decks in the format. In other words the deck has to be so fast that almost no card in the format can stop it since none of them can be played for effect in time. That is blindingly fast. Showing such domination based on actual tournament results would prove to be difficult as it should be. As I stated before banning or restricting a card should be done as a last resort but sometimes it is necessary.
3. Wrapping Up the Test
Steve did an excellent job with the first three factors. I added my factor as an obvious addition based on recent DCI activity. If after looking at the situation the DCI realizes that there are some factors that seem to favor of acting against a card and others that do not they should not act. We want to play with our cards and banning or restricting them should be an absolute last resort.
Furthermore the DCI should not weight the factors equally. Those that rely on actual results and real world data should count for more than the theoretical tests. Dominance of a metagame should count more than a mere intuition that a given card creates an unrecoverable early game swing. Factors based on real world performance show what we as members of the community are dealing with. As it exists this five-part test would be extremely difficult to satisfy. It would also prevent the DCI from trolling the waters looking for cards to ban or restrict a fear many in the Vintage community especially have about the potential for an activist DCI. If they used real world data the information would simply appear - like a warning light coming on.
The light would be telling them right now: Twenty-eight Tinkers in the Top 8 - time to take action.
D. Correcting Old Mistakes
One of the problems I see with the current system DCI uses to take action is that they make announcements to the public that essentially paint themselves into a corner. In his article for Type 1 week on www.magicthegathering.com Aaron Forsythe laid out a few principles which the community took as gospel and ran with. Now in order to not contradict themselves it seems that the DCI is foregoing obvious solutions for the sake of consistency. This is stupid. Even the Supreme Court overrules themselves every once in a while.
I am in no way advocating for an activist DCI or an organization that changes the rules on a regular basis but some of the policies they have announced as irreversible are ludicrous. Consistency produces reliable rules and results - something that is crucial to the game it if is to continue to prosper - but consistency should not come at the cost of rationally solving problems. Below are four areas in which I think the DCI should reverse their current policies. In many instances their reasoning and justification for the policies are contradictory with other actions Wizards takes. In a few areas their current policy isn't irrational - it just seems to me that there is a more rational alternative.
1. End the Errata Boycott
In the above-cited article Mr. Forsythe stated:
"Issuing errata isn't even really a consideration anymore as we feel that doing so is more damaging than it's worth. Casual players really really hate errata. (In fact the Casual Players Alliance was formed because of the errata issued to Waylay in August of 1999. True story.) Our policy has changed in recent years. We don't want to errata cards and will only do so under certain circumstances. We'll issue errata on cards that work in ways that most players find confusing. We'll issue errata on cards that don't work inside the rules of the game. But we won't issue errata on cards to"correct" power levels especially older cards that people are used to playing with. If they turn out to be problems restrict or ban them."
This sort of thinking is simply ridiculous irrational and damages the game. Two weeks before the writing of this letter Wizards announced that the print version of the Sideboard was going to cease publication. The reason they claimed was that the game changed too fast for the print medium as opposed to the web to keep up. In the past few sets they have reprinted a number of cards making subtle changes to them.
Yotian Soldier the recent subject of an Ask Wizards' question was changed to have a creature type of Soldier. None of the previous versions of the card includes this language. As such there are two or more versions of many cards in print or easily accessible to tournament players. Many Dark Rituals out there bear the mark of a short-lived card type: Mana Sources. These cards functioned differently as Mana Sources than they do now and this difference has an impact on many games. A Nether Void deck is far better for example if Dark Rituals followed the mana source rules as opposed to the rules they currently follow. Longbow Archers in Extended now get bonuses from Auriok Steelshaper as do Yotian Soldiers but few versions of the physical card indicate this interaction. Tournament players know that is how they work.
Similarly Wizards released Mindslaver with a page or more of rules specifically developed for it. Tournament players know how this works as well. There is nothing on the card to provide guidance in difficult rules situations. There are a myriad of"invisible" rules that tournament players encounter on a very regular basis: Issues related to morph and the stack rules related to effects that copy something many of the subtle interactions between discarding cards and madness (such as the obscure"madness zone") the exact three-pronged effect of"protection" and many others.
All of this proves one thing - players are more than able to handle cards that have different text in real life than they do in the Oracle Wizards official card database. If we can handle Mindslaver Longbow Archer and Yotian Soldier all of the rules for morph madness and protection along with all of the errata that existed before no errata rule was articulated I think we can handle some more errata in situations that desperately call for it. If the game is moving so fast that print magazines are useless and cards do not mean what they say now what harm is there in correcting a few cards that have unintuitive and problematic text now?
Everyone knows that Waylay pre-errata was far too strong a card. The power of the card distorted the environment and did not parallel the intended purpose of the card. Similarly Wall of Roots/Magma Mine decks were so complex and so intricate that only tax attorneys who played Magic had fun with them. Finally and perhaps most illustrative is the Abeyance Debacle. When Weatherlight was released Abeyance was essentially a Time Walk cantrip for White. An erratum corrected the card and reduced it to an appropriate power level.
These all illustrate the problem in Mr. Forsythe's logic. Sometimes errata are necessary to fix cards when banning or restricting the card would be inappropriate. Of the three examples above only Abeyance-based U/W control decks could accurately be described as dominating. Yet the card interactions of Waylay Wall of Roots and Magma Mine all deserved errata to rid the game of bizarre almost accidental wins.
It is time for Wizards to utilize errata again. Illusionary Mask and Worldgorger Dragon are two of the most egregious examples. What makes matters worse is that Illusionary Mask's Oracle text is not the same as its physical text. In other words Mask is only useful now because of Wizards' past meddling.
By correcting these two mistakes the DCI could do far more harm than good. The harm would be that they would kill off two decks in Vintage one of which is a fast non-interactive combo deck (something they have an admitted disdain for in the first place). This is not a slight action. Killing two major decks would significantly affect Vintage and it would be devastating for those people that have spent upwards of $400 on their playset of Masks or Bazaars of Baghdad.
But the good would be profound. Much like the change in card face using errata again would allow the function of the game as a game to take center stage. We would no longer be subject to bizarre broken and unintuitive card interactions. The cards would play as they are supposed to as they were designed to be used. More beneficial is the fact that by issuing errata to correct old mistakes Wizards would better understand templating and text that causes problems and avoid them in the future. The game plays best not when a rules lawyer is explaining comes into play effects and infinite loops to newbies but when cards do what they are intuitively designed to do.
Worldgorger Dragon was not supposed to create an infinite loop. Certainly creative uses of cards should be permitted but when those uses are so complex and so powerful that they create dominating decks which few people thoroughly understand (there was a mistake made by the Vintage champion in the Top 8 of the Championships because of the subtle rules questions related to Dragon) the cards need to be changed. Doing so eliminates two problematic cards with silly bizarre and confusing interactions.
Errata are admittedly a sinister solution and one that could be daunting to new players. However when you balance the fact that some old cards no longer mean what they say versus the value of a smooth and efficient game I think the well-managed intuitive flow of the game should win out. The reason errata should be used again to correct problem cards comes down to this single point: The game is better for tournament players casual players and new players when decks win in a clear easy-to-understand and decisive way. Winning games because of the"fine print" is so antithetical to the spirit of a game that it harms the game as a whole. Just as we all despise fast-talking sales pitches and staggeringly complex cell-phone contracts no gamer wants to lose in a way that only a rules lawyer can understand. If combo decks are bad because they do not promote player interaction losing to cards like Mask and Dragon are worse. They are paths to victory only an insurance actuary could love.