Behind the September 2008 B&R Changes

Posted in Latest Developments on September 5, 2008

By Bill Stark

Hello all! Latest Developments is back this week with a guest author. Many different people in R&D and elsewhere in the company contributed to the decisions laid out in the recent Banned & Restricted Announcement on September 1. R&D member and web team intern Bill Stark talked with the decision-makers to find out the thinking underlying those format changes, which he presents below.

Tune in next week for a Shards of Alara preview by guest author Mike Turian.

Kelly Digges

The most recent announcement regarding the banned and restricted list impacted a number of Magic formats, both online and off. Today we’re going to examine those changes and why they were made. Before we do, however, I want to take a moment to thank the people who were involved in the decisions surrounding the changes both for their hard work and for offering up their insights and explanations for this article. In no particular order, thanks to Matt Place, Mark Gottlieb, Del Laugel, Lee Sharpe, Tom LaPille, Ken Nagle, Mike Turian, and Erik Lauer.


For many readers, the biggest surprise to come out of the recent announcement was the decision to ban Sensei’s Divining Top in Extended. Making the decision to remove a card from an environment completely is never something taken lightly, and this time was no exception. Sensei's Divining Top caught the eye of Organized Play as being a potential problem during the Qualifier season for Pro Tour–Hollywood, but ultimately the decision was to monitor Top’s performance through the season and reconvene on the matter later in the year.

Sensei's Divining Top

Ultimately Top 8s throughout the season were littered with the one-cost artifact either in conjunction with Counterbalance to lock opponents out of games, Trinket Mage to be found reliably, or (and usually in addition to) Onslaught’s sac-lands to allow players to shuffle away cards they didn’t wish to draw while peeking at a fresh set of three cards. Such a pervasive performance during a single season created a different problem as well: it made tournaments take too much time.

The constant activating of Sensei's Divining Top bogs games down, which ultimately leads to an increase in the number of matches that go to time and beyond, which in turn leads to tournaments running much longer than they have historically. Furthermore, the Top encourages players to maximize the number of shuffle effects they play in a deck and the constant shuffling, cutting, presenting to an opponent to repeat the process, and then continuation of a turn exacerbated the situation. In the past the DCI has banned such cards on those grounds alone (Shahrazad is a good example of this, with Land Tax and Thawing Glaciers also having been banned for similar reasons) but in conjunction with the Top’s popularity during the last Extended PTQ season, the decision was to ban the card from the format it was harming.


In addition to the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top in Extended, the Vintage format saw a bevy of previously restricted cards rejoin the format as four-of playables: Mox Diamond, Chrome Mox, Dream Halls, Time Spiral, and Personal Tutor. This reflects the DCI’s attitude towards the Vintage format: that it should allow players to play with as many of their cards as reasonably possible. But why unrestrict cards? Doesn’t that provide the possibility of decks finding a means of abusing these “new” cards?

Prior to making the decision to unrestrict the cards, those are the very questions the DCI was faced with. The world of Vintage that existed when each of the unrestricted cards was added to the restricted list is very different than the one that exists today. Repeatedly, the game’s most powerful cards have seen continued use in Vintage even after they’ve been reduced to singleton status in players’ decks, but for each of the cards removed from the restricted list that has not been the case. That in and of itself is not enough to determine that a card poses no risk of being abused by the strongest Vintage deck builders. After careful examination of the Vintage restricted list, it was determined that the five cards presented earlier this week posed the least amount of danger to the format and could safely be given the opportunity to see full play again.

Mox Diamond
Chrome Mox

In the case of Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox, they represent one of the best known aspects of Vintage play: artifact acceleration. Whether players use the original Moxes — majority shareholders in the mythic “Power 9” — the iconic Black Lotus, or even non-colored mana sources like Mana Vault or Grim Monolith, Vintage is famous in part because of the powerful plays that occur with the use of these cards. So why add two more in the form of Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox? The answer is simply that these cards are much weaker than the artifact acceleration already available. The investment of an additional card to garner a boost in mana with both Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox curtails the power of the two cards significantly enough to see unrestriction, particularly in light of all the other options available to players currently.

Over time, the Vintage format has demonstrated that cards without such a drawback, even those that only provide a short term bonus like Lotus Petal, will see heavy play in unrestricted form and will still see play despite being on the restricted list. Because the drawbacks on Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox are so severe, and because they haven’t seen heavy play in one-of fashion while on the restricted list, the DCI felt the time was appropriate to return them to the Vintage fold.

Personal Tutor

A second Vintage cornerstone is the powerful nature of tutor spells. With nearly the entirety of Magic’s card pool at a player’s grasp, cards that increase the virtual count of restricted cards in a player’s deck have proven to be very powerful. Still, not all tutors have proven themselves abusive. Grim Tutor is one example and, after careful consideration, the DCI determined that Personal Tutor should fall into this category and be given the opportunity to see full play. Because the card can only be played at sorcery speed and does not put the searched-for sorcery directly into a player’s hand, Personal Tutor is much safer than ancestors like Mystical Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, and Demonic Tutor.

Dream Halls
Time Spiral

Dream Halls and Time Spiral are both former combo engines for decks that were much too powerful for the Standard and Extended formats they existed in. They have also seen play in Vintage, but the world of Vintage from that time is very different than the world of Vintage today, and the likelihood of a Dream Halls or Time Spiral combo deck coming into existence that is significantly more powerful than the Dark Ritual based storm decks already in the format is remote. There is nothing wrong with players creating a powerful but not abusive deck based around either Dream Halls or Time Spiral (or both). If over time either card, or any card in Vintage, does manage to be broken, the DCI will re-examine its status as unrestricted at that time.

Ultimately the possibility of any of the five cards being abused excessively was determined to be minimal so the risk of leaving Vintage less interesting and dynamic than it might be while reducing the number of cards available for players to play was deemed to be a more problematic concern. Thusly, welcome back to Dream Halls, Time Spiral, Mox Diamond, Chrome Mox, and Personal Tutor!

Imperial Seal
Mana Crypt

Online Classic

While the Vintage format saw cards unrestricted with the September announcement, Online Classic saw two cards added to the restricted list in the form of Imperial Seal and Mana Crypt. The upcoming release of Masters Edition 2 will see these cards added to the format, and they are being preemptively restricted due both to the abuse they have seen in previous cardboard formats as well as for the abuse they would be projected to receive were they allowed to be played as four-ofs. Imperial Seal compares favorably to Vampiric Tutor, a card already restricted in Online Classic, and Mana Crypt is one of a long line of mana accelerants that has proven to be overly powerful in great number time and time again. For the health of the format, these tools are being restricted to one per deck.


Online Vanguard

Arguably the bigger announcement for Magic Online was a shift in the policy regarding Vanguard avatars. Beginning September 17th, Vanguard avatars will rotate according to the format-legality of the real-world cards they are tied to, disregarding Banned and Restricted lists for those real-world cards. This means Vanguard avatars are legal for Standard play only if they represent cards that are Standard-legal; you can still play Reaper King because it was printed in Shadowmoor and Platinum Angel because it was reprinted in Tenth Edition, but Rumbling Slum (Guildpact) or Viridian Zealot (Darksteel) will no longer be available for Standard events. The simple rule of thumb? If you can play the avatar’s card in your deck (again, ignoring potential corner cases where an avatar’s card is banned in the format), you can play the avatar.

There are five exceptions to this rule, and they are the basic avatars that come with the Magic Online client (Serra Angel, Prodigal Sorcerer, Grinning Demon, Goblin Warchief, and Erhnam Djinn) which are legal in all formats. Additionally, players concerned this decision might somehow impact which avatar they use to represent themselves during in-game play or while participating in games of Momir BASIC can rest easy: this decision has no bearing on those things. Players are still able to choose from any of the avatars they own during Momir BASIC games or for representing themselves while enjoying Magic Online. Of the 59 avatars available online, a full 31 of them are legal for Vanguard Standard play. Here’s what that breakdown looks like:

Basic Avatars: Serra Angel, Prodigal Sorcerer, Grinning Demon, Goblin Warchief, Erhnam Djinn
Tenth Edition: Arcanis the Omnipotent + Squee, Goblin Nabob
Coldsnap: Haakon, Stromgald Scourge + Diamond Faerie
Time Spiral: Jaya Ballard + Stuffy Doll
Planar Chaos: Braids, Conjurer Adept + Mirri the Cursed
Future Sight: Jhoira of the Ghitu + Heartwood Storyteller
Lorwyn: Ashling the Pilgrim + Mirror Entity
Morningtide: Stonehewer Giant + Maralen of the Mornsong
Shadowmoor: Murderous Redcap + Reaper King
Eventide: Figure of Destiny + Ashling the Extinguisher

Plus these "legacy" avatars reprinted in Tenth Edition:

Birds of Paradise
Elvish Champion
Phage the Untouchable
Platinum Angel
Royal Assassin
Stalking Tiger

And, of course, one from the Time Spiral "timeshifted" sheet:

Akroma, Angel of Wrath

So why was the decision made to create this rotation? For many of the same reasons the original play rotations were created for formats like Standard and Extended. In the infancy of Magic Online the small number of avatars available for Vanguard play meant the avatars didn’t encroach upon one another. As that number has crept higher and higher, the power level of each avatar has at times shifted too far one way or another, forcing the alteration of avatar stats to return things to a balanced equilibrium. With the number at 59 and counting, the decision to create a rotation was made to prevent the constant need to tinker with individual card stats and to better reflect the realities of card formats like Standard in the first place.

Vanguard avatars will rotate out when new sets go live on Magic Online. This means that the release of Shards of Alara will introduce two new avatars to the Standard Vanguard world while booting nine from the rotation with Time Spiral block and Coldsnap.

A Word on Time Vault

Time Vault

That concludes this week’s Latest Developments, but before we go for the week it bears mentioning that Time Vault’s power-level errata will be removed in conjunction with the next Oracle update scheduled for September 26. As a result the card has been banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage; the explanations regarding those changes will be given when the Oracle text is officially updated later in September.


What do you think about the changes to the banned and restricted lists? What format do you think will be impacted the most? Head to the forums and speak up!

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