As you almost certainly know by now Grand Prix Dallas was this past weekend and David Shiels came out on top with Caw-Blade. My own performance at the event didn't leave much to write home about – I played U/B Infect and went 3-3 after my byes narrowly losing to two Caw-Blade decks in three games and in both matches I would've won game one on the play but lost the die roll and stalled on three land both times in game three. My third loss came against U/B Control in the final round where I made a stunning series of mistakes over a turn and a half that I could only blame on fatigue after a long day of travel followed by a long day of Magic.
I probably should've biased my deck somewhat more against control given the trends leading up to the GP and will likely make some changes to the deck if I decide to play it again in the future. Ultimately I probably wouldn't have even been able to play Day Two of the GP if I'd made it anyway as I came down with a nasty case of food poisoning that had me locked in a multi-format match with the toilet all of Sunday morning.
What I want to talk about this week though is not my mediocre finish at the Grand Prix – or the workings of my digestive system – but the results of GP Dallas and the implications thereof. In case you were not aware the Top 8 of GP Dallas was made up of four Caw-Blade decks and four RUG decks – each with four copies of Jace the Mind Sculptor (and Preordain for those keeping score). In fact you reportedly had to go all the way down to PV's fifteenth-place finish with Boros to find a deck without Jace – there were a full sixty copies in the Top 16!
When these facts came to light after the Grand Prix Twitter was abuzz (as Twitter is wont to be) with talk of banning. People were digging for examples of similarly ubiquitous cards in tournament results going back to look at the results of Affinity decks and Skullclamp. Ted Knutson former SCG Managing Editor pointed to recent results from Grand Prix and SCG Open events to show that Jace showed up in 77% of Top 8 decks. Even Patrick Chapin Jace-lover that he is was calling for the banning of The Mind Sculptor suggesting that playing with Jace is currently the only viable strategy in Standard.
Will Jace get banned? Should Jace be banned? What are the conditions in which a card should be banned in Standard?
First of all I don't think WotC would ban Jace right now even if every single deck in every Top 8 had four copies. There's a new set immediately on the horizon which has at least one card we've seen – Hex Parasite – that has the potential to serve as a very potent answer to opposing planeswalkers. Even if the new set doesn't change anything and Jace remains the most dominant card in the format there are only six months left until Worldwake rotates. The damage that would be caused by banning Jace and angering a huge swath of your player base who forked out cash for their copies would likely dramatically outweigh whatever respite banning might provide for the next few months of Standard. Not only that but banning any card calls into question WotC's willingness to ban other cards in the future which can leave players gun-shy about investing in any future cards that might be a major force in Standard which hurts Magic far more in the long run than Jace's dominance for the rest of the year might.
That being said Magic tournament attendance has hardly dropped off in the fourteen months since Jace has been legal – in fact numbers are through the roof. Grand Prix Washington DC – the first tournament won by a Jace deck – was the biggest North American tournament ever. This past weekend's Grand Prix Dallas had nearly 1200 competitors – over 400 more players than the last Grand Prix Dallas and nearly 600 more players than the Extended Grand Prix held in Houston just last year.
Previous Standard bannings came in the wake of massive discontent over the state of Magic and marked drops in tournament attendance as a result. People weren't just complaining about Tolarian Academy or Affinity – they were voting with their feet and leaving the game in droves. Jace certainly doesn't seem to have had that impact what with Magic tournament attendance being as big as it ever has been and all. It's not just Grand Prix attendance either – events like the SCG Open Series put up huge numbers at every stop. People don't seem so sick of Jace that they're unwilling to play against him anymore. Until that happens I don't see WotC pulling the plug on his Standard legality.
I was working on the VS System TCG at Upper Deck when we had discussions about banning our first card. The card in question was from the game's very first set and it was called Overload. The design goal of the card was as a failsafe against players using a bunch of Plot Twists on a single character to quickly end the game but through an oversight of design a number of plot twist cards were able to target opposing characters which let you use your own plot twists to pump your opponent's guys and then Overload them. VS was a game which had a very narrow axis of interaction via character combat and Overload essentially provided a way to circumvent this in a way that was very unfun to a lot of players. The card completely invalidated a wide range of strategies and was being used in a manner very much contrary to what had been intended by its design. The archetype that best utilized the card – and was most resilient to it – was dominating tournaments left and right.
Ultimately we decided to ban the card because it was clearly having a very negative impact on our play environment and there weren't any good ways for players to combat it. It was a very delicate situation to manage however since at that point VS had no banned cards. Banning a single card to some players is almost like a betrayal of their trust and once you've gone down that path there's always the lingering question of whether good new cards might get the axe as well. One of the attractions of a TCG to a lot of players is that the money they spend buying cards feels like an investment – once they decide to quit or even just stop playing with those cards they can sell them or trade them away and recoup some of what they spent. If they're legitimately afraid that their cards have the potential to get banned they're less likely to invest in the game especially in big money cards that are extremely powerful and popular. Cards like Jace.
That said even if Jace won't get banned should he be? Appearing in a full 100% of the Top 8 decks in the Grand Prix is fairly alarming and even more so when you consider the trend continued all the way down to fifteenth. That said it's important to note that the Top 8 decks weren't all the same despite all featuring Jace. Caw-Blade and RUG may both be Jace decks but they're distinctly different strategies. In fact I'd even argue that Jace is not even the most important card to the success of either of them. That honor belongs to Lotus Cobra and the pairing of Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk.
RUG is a powerful deck because it leverages the mana engines of Lotus Cobra and Explore. Yes Jace is also one of the best cards in it but its winning percentage correlates most directly with the frequency of its Lotus Cobras living. Look at all of the Top 8 profiles from GP Dallas – RUG players note their best matchups as those decks that cannot remove Lotus Cobra and the worst as those that can do so easily. It's Lotus Cobra that allows RUG to accelerate into board-dominating cards like Inferno Titan and Avenger of Zendikar. I have seen “budget” RUG decks without Jace perform reasonably well against the Standard field.
Caw-Blade similarly leverages the combination of Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk as the key to its success. Remember U/W Control decks before Worlds and the introduction of Caw-Go? How successful were they? Not very. So why is Caw-Blade suddenly a dominant deck? It certainly can't be explained by Jace which U/W Control had access to back then. Caw-Blade is a deck that can quickly switch between aggressive and controlling positions and Sword of Feast and Famine makes its proactive stance one that must be immediately answered by the opponent or else the game will quickly slip away. Jace is certainly one of the most powerful cards in the deck and has particular synergy with Squadron Hawk and the many other shuffle effects in the deck but Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk are much more important to its particular success.
The real problem with Jace is Primeval Titan. Wait what? How does that make any sense? I'd argue that Jace's place as king of the hill right now is as much due to fortunate positioning in the metagame as intrinsic power level. As a planeswalker Jace's weakness is proactive creature strategies like Vengevine decks or Vampires and Valakut absolutely crushes those decks. How many Fauna Shaman/Vengevine decks have you seen that boast an excellent record against Caw-Blade but have absolutely no shot at beating a Primeval Titan? Jace decks are dominant in the metagame right now not simply because Jace is the best card in Standard but because the strategies that can fight best against Jace are oppressed by the existence of the next best card in Standard.
In truth the dominant metagame position of Jace decks is incredibly multifaceted. Vampire Hexmage is a potent weapon against Jace decks but the prominence of Sword of Feast and Famine makes playing heavy black a scary proposition. In the hands of competent players Boros decks perform extremely well against Caw-Blade and fight Jace effectively with Koth and Hero of Oxid Ridge but falter against decks with Inferno Titan and Pyroclasm which – again – scares many players off from playing it. Mono Red matches up well against both Jace and Lotus Cobra decks but runs directly into the brick wall that is Kor Firewalker against players who come prepared. Some decks can handle Jace but not Gideon or Inferno Titan or whatever other powerful trump cards Caw-Blade and RUG can throw at them.
With Valakut still the elephant in the room a huge number of players don't want to show up with decks that can't interact with opposing Primeval Titans. That generally means playing blue because you want access to cards like Mana Leak and Flashfreeze. In fact the entire Titan cycle goes a long way toward encouraging players to play blue since it's the only color that can avoid their enters-the-battlefield triggers by countering them – Primeval Titan is simply the worst offender since a single trigger often decides the game.
The issue isn't Jace – it's that blue control decks are just the best-positioned decks in the format right now. Once you're playing blue you're probably playing Jace since he's a powerful long-term card advantage engine after all. But Jace isn't even the primary reason many of these decks are blue in the first place let alone the most significant card behind their success. What percentage of these blue decks contain Mana Leak? Flashfreeze? Preordain? Jace is a staple of Standard blue decks just like these are not some broken card upon which the success of all such decks rests. Whether that's appropriate for a $100 mythic rare is another issue entirely.
I've seen attempts to compare Jace to Skullclamp in that Skullclamp was an engine card that found its way into a myriad of different strategies from Affinity to Tooth and Nail. The major difference is that Jace is fundamentally interactive. Sure there are no cards that say “destroy target planeswalker” like there are cards that say “destroy target artifact” but by virtue of being a planeswalker Jace can be destroyed by any deck with creatures. Jace is also legendary which means not only that additional copies are redundant but that he can be destroyed (or kept off the board) by an opposing Jace – even Jace Beleren.
Compare this to Skullclamp which was such a defining card at the time that it essentially necessitated that every deck play it or play removal for it. And even playing removal for it was certainly no guarantee that you could compete with it because drawing one Skullclamp meant you were drawing quite a few more cards digging you deeper into even more Skullclamps. Skullclamp was also a one-mana artifact which made it virtually impossible to keep your opponent from playing it and using it even if you packed your deck full of ways to stop it; it also meant it could fit into absolutely any deck that wanted it. For those of you who weren't playing back when Skullclamp was around let me treat you to a story.
Skullclamp was banned a month before US Nationals in 2004 but based on the peculiarities of the ban date the card was legal for that tournament because the event started on Friday and the banning didn't go into effect until Sunday. On Sunday I was playing in the Top 8 against William Postlethwait playing Skullclamp Affinity. I was playing a virtually mono-white control deck splashing green solely for four maindeck Oxidizes almost entirely to fight against Skullclamp. My deck had four Wrath of Gods four Wing Shards and four Akroma's Vengeance along with four Pulse of the Fields and four Renewed Faiths for life gain to keep me alive long enough to play them. I sideboarded in Purge which could kill Disciple of the Vault or any artifact creature even through a Welding Jar. On paper it's hard to conceive of a deck much more hateful toward creature decks and especially toward Affinity.
I lost my quarterfinal match three games to two. I won every game in which Billy P did not play multiple Skullclamps and in every game he won he probably drew 10+ extra cards off the soon-to-be-banned equipment. Billy went on to lose the next round to eventual champion Craig Krempals who used his Skullclamps to draw extra cards off his Wirewood Heralds which then searched for Viridian Shamans and decimated Billy's artifacts. Nice. Card.
Skullclamp was banned with the release of Fifth Dawn – the very next set to be released! Before its banning it dominated essentially every tournament it was legal in between Block Constructed and Standard despite those formats being warped by people trying to fight against it. It was a card that WotC had released without ever testing internally which they'd only discovered was even any good – let alone broken – long after it was too late to do anything about it.
Compare this to Jace. How many Jaces were in the Top 8 of the first Standard Pro Tour after Worldwake was released? Three – two maindeck and one in the sideboard of Niels Viene's Open the Vaults deck. How about at US Nationals last year the same tournament that Skullclamp dominated in 2004? Eight – and only four of those made it as far as the Top 4. Even if you look at PT Paris earlier this year you'll find more copies of Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic in the Top 8 than you will Jace – and not by an insignificant margin either!
Skullclamp instantly broke out as a cornerstone card in essentially all of the best decks in the format and dominated Standard from its release until its banning. Jace barely made a dent in Standard when it was released and it wasn't until now several months into a Standard season that has been under an incredible microscope due to the SCG Open Series running events every weekend that it has shown this kind of dominance. But is that because of Jace or because Caw-Blade and RUG are the best most finely tuned decks in Standard and as such are played by most of the best players in any given tournament?
The reason there's so much focus on Jace I think is because of his price. Jace brings up stronger emotions than other cards because people are offended by the fact that a Standard staple is a hundred-dollar card. Personally I find that fact ludicrous as well but it's important to keep perspective and recognize that Jace isn't a broken card remotely on the level of Skullclamp and previous cards that have been banned – he's simply a very powerful card that plays an important supporting role in the format's best decks. Hopefully WotC will learn from the mistakes they made with Jace from a card availability perspective and not release format-shaping mythic rares as the only money cards in middle sets that aren't drafted for very long.
As for what players should do in the meantime? Well I haven't played a copy of Jace the Mind Sculptor in Standard since Paris and I've been doing just fine. Check out my videos from this week if you want to take a look at a blue deck that may have what it takes to succeed in Standard without shelling out for big Jaces at a Benjamin apiece.
Until next time