I've been known to try to talk people out of calling for cards to be banned and to defend combo against all the hatred piled on it. Today, I'm going to strike a totally different note: Griselbrand should be Griselbanned. There, I said it.
It feels weird to have written those words. I don't think I've ever seriously tried to get a card banned before. Even when Flash was really good in Vintage, I was in favor of getting rid of it, but I never tried to make it so. The closest I've come has been doomsaying—until today. Bad boy Griselbrand, you're the first.
It feels particularly weird because while he's absurdly good once in play, Griselbrand decks are far from dominating Legacy right now. I mean, yes, he's good, and you usually expect to see at least one Griselbrand deck in every large Legacy Top 8. But that's hardly is a sign of dominance. So how can I reasonably argue for him to be banned?
The short version? He's a big, evil Demon that sucks the fun out of any game he's involved in—pretty good top-down design, actually. Alright, alright—stop with the shouting and let me elaborate.
I laid out my criteria for when and why something should be banned here. What it all boils down to is that bannings should happen when a ban makes the game more fun for most players involved. That is the prime directive, and considerations such as dominance, archetype balance and anything else should be only secondary in nature. Obviously, they are nonetheless tightly associated with something being banned because one of those things is usually what causes a card to make the game less fun. That isn't always the case, though. A card doesn't have to break the format completely to be bad for it. That just "helps."
But I'm starting at the end here. Let me go through my reasoning with you and we'll see if you agree with me when I'm through, alright?
Argument #1: Consistency in Philosophy
I think I don't need to elaborate on why Griselbrand is essentially the same card as Yawgmoth's Bargain as far as its effect is concerned (with a slight downgrade because you always have to draw cards in chunks of seven and the upside of not stopping you from drawing cards naturally). The parallels here should be obvious. Also, Griselbrand costs eight.
So why am I calling him a better Bargain then? Two reasons: first, there are far more good ways to cheat creatures into play than enchantments. Given both cards' price tags, that's what you're most likely going to end up doing with them, though the cheating is admittedly much easier for Bargain thanks to Dark Ritual actually being a viable choice.
Secondly, Griselbrand being a 7/7 lifelink creature instead of an enchantment is, in contrast to traditional reasoning, a huge upside. Usually, if an effect is powerful, you're better off having it on something that won't be hit by all the creature removal people play. Because of his unique effect though—drawing you what feels like a million cards—having to protect Griselbrand is rarely a problem. That means the huge body that's able to race almost any board known to man suddenly becomes a huge upside. In a Bargain deck, you need to not only plan for how to get your Bargain into play, but you also need a way to win, which means you have to make a lot of additional sacrifices in deckbuilding. Griselbrand takes care of that all by himself—as long as he lives, the game is going to end three attacks later.
While the consistency argument is a pretty minor point—just because something similar is banned doesn't mean card X has to be banned—it just feels weird and illogical to have Griselbrand roam free in the format while a card that is arguably worse depending on context remains exiled.
Argument #2: There Is No Skill Cap Holding Griselbrand Back
One of the big things that keeps Legacy combo decks "fair" is how hard the decks are to play. However, Griselbrand-based combo decks could be played by a trained monkey in most situations.
Legacy combo decks are very high powered and can fight through amazing amounts of hate. With most decks, doing this requires skilled play and experience to a point where it is nearly impossible to do throughout a whole tournament and demands quite a bit of dedication to get proficient enough.
Griselbrand essentially eliminates that skill requirement through raw power. Once you have Griselbrand in play, all you need to do is protect him and you will win—pretty straightforward. Pre-combo choices are usually similarly clear. Do I have my chosen way to enable a fatty? Can I cast it? Alright, Voltron assembled.
There are sometimes meaningful decisions to make, no question about it, but most of the time these decisions are very clear-cut and anybody with a minimum of experience is able to make them correctly. This allows significantly weaker players to consistently beat better players, something a strategy game with the draw of the battle of wits between players should really not encourage.
(Yes, I know Magic is a good game exactly because variance allows the less skilled players to win games. That doesn't mean this happening consistently is a good thing, though.)
To finish this argument, let me cite what I wrote in the article linked above: "[...] the goal [behind banning cards] needs to be to keep brokenness in check to a point that trying to do something degenerately broken is a good and viable strategy but never becomes the most high EV decision for a large number of players."
The skill cap a combo deck has plays a huge role in this. As long as combo decks are sufficiently hard to play (or sufficiently vulnerable), they will never be the right choice for most players. Griselbrand makes it so that playing a degenerate deck is actually by far the best choice for a lot of people that would otherwise be better off playing something less broken.
Argument #3: Griselbrand Makes Cheat-a-Fatty Decks Too Non-Interactive
The biggest problem with Griselbrand in my opinion (at least in a high-power format like Legacy) is that he pretty much ends the game as soon as he comes down.
I strongly believe that fatty cheating should be a viable strategy in Legacy. Sure, I hate playing against (and with) Show and Tell, but that doesn't mean the strategy shouldn't be viable. There are a lot of players out there who are happiest when they can put some huge broken dude into play and swing with him. These people have as much right to be able to do that as I have to lock them out in twenty minutes with Jace and Counterbalance or to Tendrils their face off on turn 3 after casting
Yawgmoth's Will Past in Flames.
So why is Griselbrand a problem? Well, cheating a fatty into play is, as elaborated above, one of the easiest ways to combo out. You generally need two rather low cost cards—either Entomb and a Reanimation effect or a Show and Tell and your fatty of choice are the most common options—to get it done. Because getting a fatty into play is so easy to do, it is both very hard to efficiently hate (the Reanimation plan is effected by graveyard hate at least; the from-hand plan is really only affected by discard and countermagic) and very easy to protect (because of the low amount of cards and mana necessary).
Because of these facts, if you're hellbent on getting a fatty into play, you have a high likelihood of succeeding at some point. That's where Griselbrand's special status comes in. Before Griselbrand, Reanimator had to use something like Jin Gitaxias, Core Augur or Iona, Shield of Emeria, and the best Show and Tell could do before Griselbrand was either Emrakul, the Aeons Torn—an already somewhat problematic threat—or some combo involving multiple additional cards like Omniscience or Hive Mind.
All of these either required multiple additional cards to work—something that made them inherently weaker than a true two-card combo—or gave the opponent at the very least a single turn to deal with them while they were in play. Jin Gitaxias could be targeted with a bevy of instant speed removal and, at least sometimes, be stopped even after generating a single draw seven for its controller. Iona fell prey to answers in different colors and allowed the opponent multiple turns to try to get out from under her. Even Emrakul has the decency to wait a turn before gobbling up the opponent's permanents and could be dealt with from multiple angles after he hit the battlefield.
Griselbrand just doesn't allow this. Even if you manage to actually get rid of him after the opponent has drawn a ton of cards to try to find something to protect him, whiffing on the ability to protect him almost necessarily (assuming a well-built deck) means they have a way to just get something else or even another Griselbrand down as soon as you've dealt with the first one. As a result, the moment Griselbrand is dropped on the battlefield, the game is usually over. This reduces interactive possibilities against the cheat-a-fatty decks to the point where trying to deal with them is utterly frustrating because the opportunities to do so are too limited.
Another quote from my ban philosophy article: "If you build your deck in a way that makes it unable to interact with a significant part of Magic, you're making the decision to accept game 1 losses to decks focused on abusing that particular facet of the game. [...] That doesn't make these cards or strategies ban-worthy. It simply means that there is a cost to pay for every choice you make when choosing or designing your deck. This wouldn't make the experience of getting blown out without any interaction any better, though, but luckily there is a solution to this dilemma built into the rules of tournament Magic: the sideboard.
[...] Problems in this area come up when the necessary sideboard cards don't exist [or] when they are too weak to actually provide a solution..."
That's the problem with Griselbrand. Because you essentially have zero time to answer him and because there is no fatty hate on the level of Rest in Peace or even Tormod's Crypt / Surgical Extraction, you have to either manage to preemptively deal with the deck's engine or you're pretty much dead, making adapting to the strategy sufficiently to compensate for a weak game 1 matchup essentially impossible. Before Griselbrand, Karakas (and, as a result, Knight of the Reliquary) did a lot of work being the kind of tool necessary. With Griselbrand still drawing a million cards, Karakas has become too lackluster to qualify.
Yes, most of this trouble could also be solved by banning Show and Tell—once you have to involve the graveyard, there are about a million ways to shut the cheating down—but as I said above, I feel that those that enjoy cheating fatties into play should have their chance to do so even if I personally would be happier without that particular card. Therefore, toning down what can be cheated in feels like a solution that would leave more people happy than getting rid of the enabler would.
Argument #4: People Are Sick of the Big Badass Demon of Doom
We've had the flying, lifelinking Bargain around for a year now, and he's starting to get on everyone's nerves. It's time to finally put the genie back in the bottle.
Similar to what I said in my ban philosophy article when I claimed that player preference should play a role in ban decisions, I expect this argument to strike a lot of people out there as a weird point to make. After all, isn't banning about keeping the format healthy and balanced? Well, only as long as that is what promotes fun for most of the player base!
Now, you can't argue that having Griselbrand in play isn't fun. How could you resist a guy that allows you to draw infinite cards and beat down for even more? I get that—trust me, I do. Playing a few games with Tin Fins and looping my deck was a ton of fun—I won't lie about that. Just seeing the sickness that is Griselbrand in action was fun for a while; it's just great to see something that absurd actually going on.
By now, though, the excitement is wearing off, and what remains is frustration. Whenever you see a Griselbrand from your opponent, you know you might as well scoop up your cards. The whole absurdity thing just doesn't do it anymore. Instead of thinking "wow, that's such a sweet thing to do," by now my reaction—and from what I've gathered by talking to other players online and offline—has become "alright, great, go ahead, you get to do the same absurd thing again that I've already seen a million times" or "ok, I've got Griselbrand down, game's over" depending on which side of the Demon you find yourself on.
In short, it was fun while it lasted, but to my mind at least—and as I said, I'm definitely not alone in feeling this way—Griselbrand has outstayed his welcome. I mean, I've even had a lot of people who are playing Griselbrand decks agree that the format would be better off without the card. How is that for approval from an unexpected source?
Locking the Vault
Well, there you have it: my argument for finally getting rid of the latest version of Yawgmoth's Bargain. Bargain-style cards are all fun and games until they've become commonplace, and I feel like we've reached that point.
If you agree with what I said today, make sure the DCI hears about it. They are the ones who have to take action, after all. If you disagree and think I'm full of it (or just another whiner who can't stand the true reality of Eternal Magic), also make sure to let the powers that be know—just because I believe the format would be better off without the Big Bad Demon of Doom doesn't make it so. If I'm wrong and most players are happier with him around, that's where he should be.
Until next time, remember that friends don't let friends play with Yawgmoth's Bargain!