Banning: Good or Bad?

Posted in NEWS on February 21, 2003

There has been an argument running around R&D for years that it’s actually a good thing that we have to occasionally ban cards in Standard and Block play.

Mind Over Matter

This claim may sound bizarre at first – after all, we only ban cards that are considered mistakes – but there’s actually a very reasonable theory behind it that goes something like this: We could make Magic permanently safe from the threat of having to ban cards if we always played it safe. Homelands, for example, was a set where R&D made sure that none of the cards were too good by, to put it bluntly, making them all suck. Well that’s no fun for anybody. Magic is more fun when there are powerful cards floating around so it’s a mistake to constantly weaken cards just to avoid the threat of sometimes having to ban one. In addition, Magic is also more fun when R&D thinks up brand new effects and abilities. When we do that, we aren’t necessarily going to understand how powerful they are (or how much to charge for them). In fact, the more innovative a new mechanic is, the more likely we are to misunderstand exactly how to take best advantage of it and thus the more likely we are to miscost cards. (See madness and Wild Mongrel, for example. We saw the combo, but we didn’t realize quite how powerful it was.) Anyway, everyone agrees that innovation is a Very Good Thing and thus we should be constantly pushing the envelope. Well, if we’re constantly pushing the envelope and striving to come up with cool new weird and wacky cards, then occasionally we’re going to make a mistake and that might mean we need to ban a card.

No one disagrees with that reasoning, but here’s where the argument gets tricky.

Let’s say that a fairly long stretch of time goes by when R&D doesn’t make any mistakes that were big enough that they require us to ban a card. Does that then mean that we weren’t pushing the envelope enough? The controversial-yet-interesting position is “yes – if we never have to ban a card then we aren’t doing our jobs right.”

According to this line of thought, banning a card every, say, 18 months or so would actually be a good thing, in and of itself. Sure, it’s a cost that players don’t get to use all of the cards they purchased in tournaments, but (according to this hypothetical argument) that pain is outweighed by the coolness of players searching every new set for broken cards. You might find the next banned card and be able to use it first, before everyone else knows about it, and for that window of time you would be an unbeatable juggernaut, destroying friends and foes with your amazing new deck.

Basically, it’s a good thing when players say, “Wow, I can’t believe they printed this card.” If we ever get to the point where no one thinks that upon seeing new cards, then the game is probably going to die.

Fires of Yavimaya, Astral Slide, and Upheaval

I’m actually quite sympathetic to this position, but at the end of the day I think I disagree with it. I don’t think it’s inherently bad that we occasionally have to ban cards, but I don’t think it’s inherently good either. We definitely can’t allow a fear of making mistakes to stop us from doing new or powerful cards, but I think there’s a lot of room between “mistakes” and “banned cards.” For example, we’ve printed some very powerful cards in the last few years that a lot of people (myself included) would label “mistakes” (Fact or Fiction, Fires of Yavimaya, Upheaval, Wild Mongrel, Psychatog, Astral Slide, madness cards, etc). However, we didn’t ban any of these in Standard or Block and that’s because they weren’t such big mistakes that they were causing significant problems for those Constructed environments. (Something is always going to be the best deck, that’s just how tournament Magic works.)

Really what it all comes down to is: Do you think R&D was pushing the envelope enough in the last three years? Invasion block plus Odyssey block plus Onslaught block is a reasonably long stretch of time where I believe R&D did an appropriate amount of innovative and powerful cards yet we didn’t have to ban anything. Therefore I don’t buy the argument that we’re doing our job wrong unless we have to ban cards. Sure it would be a mistake to never make mistakes, but it’s not bad to never have to ban cards, in my opinion.

If you think that there have not been enough innovative and powerful cards published in recent years then maybe you agree with the “Banned cards are good” position.

In either case I hope this has helped shed a little bit of light onto R&D’s thoughts about banning cards. When you look at the big picture, it’s actually quite a complicated issue.

Last Week’s Poll Results:

Who do you think will win the Wizards Invitational?
Richard Garfield 1443 29.9%
Randy Buehler 725 15.0%
Mark Rosewater 574 11.9%
Aaron Forsythe 542 11.2%
Worth Wollpert 298 6.2%
Jeff Donais 278 5.8%
Del Laugel 262 5.4%
Bill Rose 108 2.2%
Charlie Catino 96 2.0%
Ramon Arjona 92 1.9%
Fred Royal 81 1.7%
Dan Myers 80 1.7%
Tyler Bielman 72 1.5%
John Doyle 68 1.4%
Michael Elliott 65 1.3%
Bill McQuillan 45 0.9%
Total 4829 100.0%

Interesting… I thought Richard had cultivated a public persona for himself as the brilliant but absent-minded professor type who invented this amazing game, but isn’t actually very good at it. However, a lot of you obviously think he must be a really good gamer. Tune in next Friday when the truth will be revealed.

Randy may be reached at