The Banning Balancing Act

Posted in Feature on November 7, 2003

I spent last weekend at Pro Tour New Orleans and a lot of people asked me what I thought of the format and what was going to get banned. This week I want to use this column to publicly answer some of these questions.

First of all, those of you who aren't interested in tournaments and don't use the official DCI sanctioned tournament formats for your casual play are excused. Much of what I talk about here may not be interesting to you. Actually, you might learn some things about how the best Magic players abuse the game's most powerful cards, but that's not going to be my main focus.

The DCI

Secondly, I should set the record straight on the timing of banning announcements. Every three months, the DCI announces what changes (if any) are being made to banned and restricted lists. Those changes then kick in one month later. So, for example, the next date for announcing changes is December 1st and whatever changes are announced then will kick in on January 1st.

(Note, by the way, that the only format where cards get restricted is Type 1. In all other formats, cards are either legal (and you can play 4) or else they are banned (and you can't play any). Type 1 is intended to be the format where all cards will always be legal, so the only cards that are banned are ante cards (since tournaments are not played for ante) and dexterity cards (since they turned out to be impossible to adjudicate in tournaments). Instead of getting banned, the most powerful cards in Type 1 are restricted, which means you can only put one copy of each of them into your deck.)

Interestingly, there is a round of Pro Tour Qualifier tournaments coming up this December and January that uses the Extended constructed format. That means that the bannings which we announce on December 1st will kick in halfway through the qualifier season. I actually think that's going to work out pretty well, but to explain why I think that I need to give you my take on the current Extended format.

I find the current Extended to be a lot of fun to watch and a lot of fun to think about, but once everyone gets really good at playing the decks, it can be too random. Basically, there are some blisteringly fast decks available that you can use to kill your opponent as soon as the second turn (and a few even have "god draws" that can kill on turn one). Those decks are actually quite fun to play with, and the stories you get to tell between rounds are pretty cool, but ultimately a format isn't healthy when games are getting decided based on who drew a better opening hand.

At Pro Tour New Orleans last weekend, most of the pros were complaining that their matches were little more than coin flips, but I think that event was much more skill testing than some people give it credit for. I spent some time talking to the members of my old team (Team CMU) and they tell me that Eugene Harvey and Andrew Cuneo were the two guys who put in the most time practicing. Lo and behold, Eugene made the Top 8 and Andrew made the Top 32 (and everyone else did worse). Team Your Move Games spent less time practicing than they normally do, made some incorrect guesses about what other people would play, and they showed up with a poor deck choice. This all resulted in them having their worst showing in years. Meanwhile, across the ocean in France several players discovered the Goblin CharbelcherMana Severance combo deck, tuned it up better than everyone else did, and France put three players into the Top 8, with Gabriel Nassif claiming second place and Yann Hamon tied for third.

I'm not saying that the format is healthy, but I am saying that I think skill and preparation were both rewarded in New Orleans. Wizards handed out $200,000 in prize money and we handed it mostly to players who built the best decks and then outplayed their opponents. Ultimately, I think that's exactly what the Pro Tour is supposed to do.

Once everyone has access to all the best decklists, and once everyone gets good at playing all the best decks, then maybe the complaint that matches are just 55%-45% coin flips will have some validity. However, that hasn't happened yet. In addition, I think the current environment has some room for metagaming. Now that the Tinker decks officially have a bulls-eye on their forehead, and now that everyone knows which Mirrodin cards go into which decks; it'll be fun to try to react.

For all these reasons, I think the first month of the qualifier season will be fine. QT players will get to feel the power of these decks coursing through their veins and the ones who play them the best will get their shot at the Pro Tour.

However, this environment does require attention from R&D and we will indeed be recommending some bannings to the DCI. I'd like to spend the rest of this article explaining why we ban cards in the first place and what our mindset will be when we go into those meetings.

The first part is easy – we ban cards from constructed formats when we believe they are so powerful that they make the format unhealthy. We look at a number of different things when judging whether or not a format is "unhealthy," but the two big things we try to ensure are that a format is fun and that it is sufficiently skill-testing. For example, if a card is so powerful that it goes into every deck and whoever plays it first always wins, the only skill that is being tested is the ability to draw and play that card. In addition, that format probably wouldn't be fun either. Similarly, when everyone is playing a deck that can kill by turn 3, there isn't much opportunity to outplay your opponent and play-skill won't matter as much as we think it should.

One obvious response to this is "Why do you make those cards in the first place?!" I actually wrote an entire article on this subject earlier this year – check out "Banning: Good or Bad?" for a discussion. The short summary is that the only way to avoid ever having to ban anything is never to push the envelope. Since we want to keep printing new exciting/powerful cards, that means we are inevitably going to make mistakes sometimes.

Is Tinker skill-testing enough?

We think we've been doing a pretty good job of pushing the envelope without having to ban anything in Standard constructed, but Extended is another story. I'm not sure if the problem is that the Tempest and Urza blocks have so many cards that are too good or if any environment with 5-8 years worth of Magic cards will always require bannings, but Extended has always had a sizable banned list. (I guess we'll find out in 3 years – the only card from Invasion-forward that is currently banned in Extended is Entomb, and we don't think we would have had to ban it if it wasn't for all the cheap "reanimation" spells from previous blocks.)

Anyway, I was detailing our theories about when and why to ban cards. I explained that we want things to be both fun and skill-testing. I should point out, however, that our goal is not to make things maximally skill-testing. Instead, we just want them to be skill-testing enough. What I mean by this is that Magic should not be chess. Chess has no randomness at all – you never shuffle your pieces, you have complete information about what your opponent's choices are, etc. We like the fact that Magic has some randomness and some hidden information. Those are among the reasons we think Magic is so much more fun than chess. One ramification of this is that we don't want to automatically ban a card just because it's the best card. Some of the Pro Tour players would probably be happier if we banned everything that could possibly be used to win the game before turn 7. Then they'd have a lot more time to take advantage of their superior skill. However, that would make the game less fun and so we would never consider doing it.

Like most things about Magic, banning decisions often come down to a balancing act. Some players have fun playing with "broken" cards, but others are unhappy when games are too fast, or non-interactive, or not skill-testing. We take each and every banning very seriously because we know that lots of players own copies that card, and that for some of them an important reason for buying it was so they could have fun playing it in tournaments. Ultimately, our goal is to make Magic as fun as possible for as many people as possible. The more cards we ban, the happier the hardcore tournament players tend to be, but each card we ban makes some players unhappy. Basically, we strive to find the middle ground. When in doubt, we try to err on the side of not banning things.

This means, for example, that eliminating turn 2 kills is among our goals, but it is not the only goal. Since every banning is painful, we try to do the minimum necessary to keep a format fun. We certainly suspected that Tinker would be the best deck after our last round of bannings (especially since we knew Mirrodin was coming), but it was not a Tier 1 deck at the previous Extended event so we left it around until it had finally, definitively proven itself. We think it's better to let people have their fun and then fix things afterwards, especially since even broken formats tend to be skill-testing before everyone gets to mooch off of the work done by the best Pros.

So that's where things sit right now. I hope this article gave you some idea of what we'll be thinking about when we sit down to debate the next set of bannings.

This Week's Poll

I could spent a lot more time and pixels discussing Extended if you guys are interested in reading more about it. I will probably write about the actual bannings in my December 5th column, but would you like me to write another article discussing the details of what has happened in this format over the last year or so for next week?

Last Week's Poll

What do you think of the new artifact frame?
Better 13878 89.4%
About the same 1058 6.8%
Worse 591 3.8%
Total 15527 100.0%

I thought about leaving off "About the same" so this could be the most lopsided poll I've ever done, but even with that choice available it still might be.


Randy may be reached at latestdevelopments@wizards.com.

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