Normally, the way changes are made to Magic's various Banned and Restricted lists is the way just about every other change is made at this company – lots of emails, meetings, and arguing lead to a reasonable consensus, which is then written up as an “official recommendation” to the powers that be, who then – assuming the decision is at least reasonably sane – rubber-stamp it, allowing it to be enacted.
That's the “normal” way, the way we like to do things when we have all the data we need weeks ahead of time. This past December 1st, however, offered some unique challenges.
We had agreed prior to leaving for Worlds that no format currently had problems to the extent that cards needed to be banned or unbanned. The big question mark, however, was Extended. The format is scheduled to be used at the upcoming round of Grand Prix and Qualifiers for Pro Tour – Yokohama, Time Spiral had just added hundred of cards to the format (many new, some old), and the very first high-profile matches of the virgin metagame were scheduled for Day 3 of Worlds – December 1st, the day that any changes to the format would have to be posted.
Responsibility for coming up with a list of changes we'd want to enact (if any) following the end of the day's six rounds fell to Randy Buehler and myself. We had other sounding boards present, like Mark Rosewater and Henry Stern, both of whom have partaken in countless previous B&R discussions, but in general it was up to Randy and me to watch games and talk to players about the format and how potentially degenerate it was.
At first glance, it looked pretty terrifying. Time Spiral brought some really dangerous toys to the party, including reusable “fast” mana (Lotus Bloom), uncounterable spells (Sudden Shock), and new storm spells (Empty the Warrens and Grapeshot). Players and reporters were constantly coming up to Randy and I saying, “Did you see [Deck X]? It's insane!” I figured we'd have our work cut out for us, and that something would definitely have to change.
Here's a look at some of the decks we had our eyes on.
The Ritual-Storm Deck
Jelger Wiegersma, 5-1
Extended – 2006 World Championships
For the first match of the day, I found myself watching Anton Jonsson piloting a “storm” deck full of Invasion sac lands like Geothermal Crevice (I assume Anton's list was close to, if not exactly the same as, Jelger's). Anton's opponent, playing four- or five- color Zoo, had attacked him down to 7 life and was threatening to win next turn. So Anton said, “Let's do it!” then sacrificed all his lands, cast some Rituals and Sins of the Past – pausing momentarily to figure out how to best fight through a surprising Mana Leak – which he did – then played Burning Wish… only to lose because he was unaware of his opponent's life total, floated the wrong color of mana, and subsequently Wished for the wrong card, choosing to make 18 Goblins with Empty the Warrens instead of draining his opponent for a lethal 18 with Tendrils of Agony. I'll chalk that one up to rust.
The fact was that Anton did nothing at all in the early turns of the game save a lone Duress; instead he just amassed cards in his hand and sat there stoically taking damage. Then, suddenly, on the brink of death, he launched into a series of maneuvers that should have ended in a win – with no permanents in play – even through a timely topdecked permission spell.
I talked to Anton over the course of the day, and he felt the format suffered because decks like his were viable. “It's boring,” he lamented. “You don't actually play a game with your opponent – you either just win or you don't.” He then suggested that we consider banning one Ritual or another just to slow decks like his down so that the format has more interactivity. “I know you've never banned for that reason before, but it's not crazy,” he added.
Later, Randy caught up to me and mentioned that Rite of Flame was proving to be more powerful than we had anticipated in Coldsnap development. Indeed. I placed it on my mental “watchlist.”
The French Egg Deck (Sunny Side Up)
Bastien Perez, 5-0-1
Extended – 2006 World Championships
This deck was the most surprising entry and the one I followed the most closely. The deck is based on Second Sunrise – one of those “Johnny” cards from Mirrodin that I, along with many others, spent countless hours trying to break. Sylvain Lauriol and his playtest partners finally did it.
The deck builds up mana and cards via the Sunrise. It looks to get Lotus Blooms into play, either by suspending them honestly or, more desirably, by “Tinkering” them into play with Reshape. With multiple Lotuses and several “cantrip” artifacts (Darkwater Egg, Chromatic Star, etc.) sacrificed, the Sunrise can really generate a ton of resources. And it gets better from there. Ghost Quarter is used on your own lands prior to the Sunrise to generate more lands. Cephalid Coliseum turns unwanted cards in hand into new goodies repeatedly. Conjurer's Bauble puts used Sunrises on the bottom of the library to be shuffled in and redrawn later, making sure the combo engine never stops. And the kill? Might be a Pyrite Spellbomb, Sunrised back ten times and fueled repeatedly by excess Lotus mana. Might be a Brain Freeze fetched by a Cunning Wish. Or it could be a Cephalid Coliseum turned on the opponent over and over again until he is out of cards. The deck can even win when faced with Pyrostatic Pillar thanks to clever Wish targets like Angel's Grace. A brilliant and scary deck to be sure.
Because France's Jonathan Rispal was floating near the top of the standings all day on Day 3, he was in the Feature Match area all day playing this deck, so I got a chance to spend several hours watching it in action. It started off well with two straight wins, but then word of the deck began to spread and the other players figured out how to start beating it. In Round 3 of the day, Rispal faced Tsuyoshi Fujita. Fujita, not knowing the details of the deck, played several Pithing Needles all naming Pyrite Spellbomb, as he figured that was the deck's only kill. Of course, Rispal had several outs – he could use Engineered Explosives to destroy all the Needles, or just win in some other way. Fujita watched and took notes, figuring out how to dismantle the deck, but ultimately fell short, putting Rispal at 3-0. If Fujita were to be given a rematch, however, I'd bet on him winning now that he understood his opposition.
Then Rispal's wheels fell off. He ran into Nick Lovett's Gifts-Rock deck with maindeck Leyline of the Void, Pernicious Deed, and lots of discard, and he could never get going. He then had to play reigning World Champ Katsuhiro Mori with Psychatog. Mori's discard and permission was too much for Rispal, whose deck's success was partially predicated on the field being light on permission. Then Rispal had to face Gabriel Nassif, whose deck featured a slew of Meddling Mages and the Sensei's Divining Top / Counterbalance combo. Nassif's disruption threw wrench after wrench into Rispal's plans, eventually winning to secure a spot in the Top 8.
Rispal's Sunrise deck started off so strong, then stopped winning when faced with strong competition armed with knowledge of how the deck worked. On the flipside, Bastien Perez did manage five straight wins before drawing in the last round, so the deck was still perhaps problematically strong.
Lotus Bloom was added to my mental “watchlist.”
Billy Moreno – Dirty Kitty
Extended – 2006 Magic World Championship
Prior to this event, I ran into Brian David-Marshall on Magic Online, and he told me he had an “insane” Extended deck. I didn't get a chance to play against it, but my interest was piqued, especially when he later told me that players like Osyp Lebedowicz and Billy Moreno were running it at Worlds.
The deck ended up being the one we called “Dirty Kitty,” a sideways joke at how hard the deck can be to play (something about a monkey washing a cat… you had to be there). It works by using Skirk Prospector and Fecundity to turn Goblins into both mana and cards and then use that mana and those cards to play a big Empty the Warrens for more Goblins, and hence more mana and cards. Keep going until you can win by attacking (thanks to Goblin Warchief) or with burn (thanks to Grapeshot). In a pinch, the deck can play like a “normal” Goblin deck, overwhelming the opponent with little attackers.
The deck can win on turn two sometimes, and Osyp was claiming that Skirk Prospector would have to be banned because of the deck. But as the day dragged on, the reality was that few players were putting up impressive records with the deck. Perhaps the deck is too hard to play. Perhaps there is sufficient hate in the environment (especially Engineered Explosives and Meddling Mage). Perhaps the deck is as good as advertised and Worlds was too small a sample. But in the end, no card in it screamed to be banned.
In the end, as you all know by now, nothing happened. We had the Banhammer primed and ready to go, and were discussing all our options with the other members of R&D and even the coverage staff when Ray “blisterguy” Walkinshaw – of New Zealand, Star City Games, and misetings fame and all-around Good Man – commented that it would be a huge letdown if the Worlds metagame leading into the PTQ season was invalidated by bannings. A fine point, and something that we may have been losing sight of in the frenzy of the day. The whole reason we schedule formats the way we do is to give players information – starting points, if you will – for qualifier rounds.
Randy Buehler then added, “Yep, something would have to be really wrong at this point.”
There were scary decks, scary interactions and scary cards. But no one deck proved itself to be too good. Smart sideboarding and savvy play can steal the combo players' edge, and the consistency of decks like Boros can often trump the wild swinginess of more complicated offerings.
Just look at what put up winning numbers at Worlds: Friggorid, Psychatog, Balancing Tings. Goblins, Tron, Trinket Angels. Sunny Side Up, Storm, Scepter Chant. Zoo and Boros, Boros, Boros. Toss in the Top 8 from the PTQ the night before, and you get Mind's Desire, Tooth and Nail, and Aggro Loam.
Looks to be a complicated Extended season coming up, one that will reward preparation and knowledge of the metagame. Ignore the new combo decks at your peril. It's a crazy world, with flashes of degenerate speed, broken combos, and hard locks. I wish I could say we planned it that way, but due to their sheer complexity we are often forced to leave bigger formats like Extended to fate.
In developing Magic, just like in playing it, sometimes you get lucky.
Last Week's Poll:
|Which of the following movie franchises is your favorite?|
|The Lord of the Rings||5263||26.1%|
No real reason for asking this… just settling some bets here in R&D.