Posted in Latest Developments on January 13, 2017

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Hello and welcome to another edition of Latest Developments. As you may have noticed, there is a bit to talk about today. This week saw the first bans in Standard in over five years. So, yeah, we should talk about that for a bit.

Last year, I talked about Kaladesh Standard. In that article, I discussed a question I asked my Twitter followers: what did they think of Standard?

The results were what they were. Some people were happy, most people were not. "3/10" may have come up a few times. In my article, I made the response sound a bit rosier than was the case, but behind the scenes there were a lot of discussions about what we should do. The outpouring of frustration at the state of Standard likely impacted what the final decision was, but it wasn't everything. We are very data-driven when working with banning decisions, and we have found time and time again after looking at our data that metagames do tend to play out toward the types of outcomes that game theory predicts. If there is one deck with no bad matchups, everyone will just trend toward either playing that deck or not playing.

One of the first things we did when coming back in this year was meet to talk about what to do about Standard, which was when we analyzed the data and finalized a plan for how to both balance the format and deal with the general unhappiness. Once we decided that banning something in Standard was a better option than leaving it alone, we needed to decide when to announce it. Part of the reason we pushed the announcement date up was because of how impactful this would be for Standard. We wanted to make sure that everyone brewing decks at home, playing on Magic Online, and attending Pro Tour Aether Revolt would have enough time to work on decks. Almost every deck in Standard was running either Emrakul, the Promised End or Smuggler's Copter. Existing decks would need some time to evolve, and people would appreciate the extra time to update their decks before the first Standard tournaments of this season.

While our last ban for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch was on the regular timeline, it felt like Modern was in a very different spot. Banning Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom would remove two tier 1 decks from the format (or at least from tier 1), but there were dozens of top-tier decks that remained totally intact. Most did, in fact.

Why now?

When we looked at the Magic Online metagame data from Competitive Leagues, it was clear that White-Blue Flash was the strongest deck in Standard; it only had one bad matchup to a tier 2 deck (Black-Red Vampires), which it was only a one-percent underdog to. That's not good. Even the decks like Delirium that people had stated they played to beat Flash didn't actually beat it with the regularity we would expect or that most people believed. That's not a good spot to be in. Now, Flash didn't dominate everything, but it didn't have anything else that was a losing matchup. This was very similar to the data we saw several months ago as we were looking at the Collected Company decks in Standard before Pro Tour Eldritch Moon.

Let's take a moment to discuss the last time we banned cards in Standard: the Caw Blade era, when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned.

The current Standard environment is far more balanced than the Caw Blade era, where you saw 32 Jace, the Mind Sculptors in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth. There are many more decks, and no card is nearly that ubiquitous (well, maybe Smuggler's Copter). Still, that environment shouldn't be the bar for banning a card—that was likely the most imbalanced Standard since the days of Standard Affinity.

There is a reasonable argument that the combo of JTMS, Affinity, and Tolarian Academy shouldn't be the bar for when there should be a ban in Standard. Although we really don't like banning cards at all, I also think the bar for when we should ban in Standard has been too high in the past. For example, looking back at last year, I believe it was a mistake to not ban Collected Company at some point. When that point was, however, I am not sure. Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar had no copies of Collected Company in the Top 8, Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch wasn't Standard, and Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad only contained eight copies of the card.

Even through all of that, though, it was clear that the deck was one of the strongest in the format. People were complaining a lot about the card, and for good reason. It wasn't until a while after Pro Tour Eldritch Moon that the deck finally gained the distinction of not having any bad matchups. By our previous bar for banning cards, there was never a point where it actually made sense to ban the card. We only took actions during the Affinity and Caw Blade eras when Standard had pretty much bottomed out—and it was clear looking back at those times that an earlier ban would've been healthier for the format, for the game, for the stores, and for the players.

But back to the bans at hand here. Our goal was to keep as many players as possible happy to be playing Standard and to not wait until the format had bottomed out before making a fix. There is a real cost to both banning cards and leaving an imbalanced format alone. What was I think most damning about this format, though, was that the format bottoming out wasn't what people were complaining about. People were mostly complaining about Aetherworks Marvel because of Emrakul. I received a ton of feedback on my question about how much people enjoyed Standard, and almost nobody actually called out White-Blue Flash as the problem. People really just didn't like playing against Emrakul. This was nearly universal. While we generally enjoyed Emrakul in testing, there is something to say for how many more games of competitive Standard people in the real world play than we can reasonably get through in R&D. Emrakul is pretty cool the first few times, but by your third or fourth time it becomes incredibly frustrating.

Just an Emrakul ban was on the table, but it would likely be a pretty bad idea to ban a card from the second-most popular, second-strongest deck, while leaving the strongest deck unscathed. Banning Smuggler's Copter certainly hurt Flash, but it also hurt a lot of other decks at the same time. In the end, we needed to hit at least one card that was unique to Flash, and Reflector Mage was where we landed after much discussion.

One of our goals for bans like this is to not totally eliminate decks from the metagame. We are aware that it can take a lot of time to get all the cards together for a deck, and a ban that invalidates every card that you have collected is incredibly frustrating. If possible, we always like to ban in such a way that the cards you own for a deck still have a ton of utility. If you have a Mardu Vehicles deck, then there are probably Black-Red Artifact Aggro or aggressive red-white decks that are still plenty competitive. You may not be able to play Mardu Vehicles, but you should have a place to go with your deck.

In Modern especially, we often attempt to weaken decks in a way that doesn't remove the deck entirely from the metagame, if we can help it. While Splinter Twin didn't have any other good options, bannings of cards like Eye of Ugin, Deathrite Shaman, Bloodbraid Elf, and Cloudpost did pretty good jobs of leaving behind decks that were still competitive, but not nearly as powerful as they were before.

In this case, we did something similar with Standard and Reflector Mage. I believe that white-blue decks will still be competitive, if a bit weaker, and the multitude of aggressive decks in the format will be able to recover from the loss of Smuggler's Copter. At the same time, Aetherworks Marvel decks will (hopefully) still exist in some form, but not be so dominant in the format. Removing Emrakul from that deck should make it more of a glass-cannon deck like it was at Pro Tour Kaladesh. It can be strong, especially if it gets to use Marvel on turn four, but it's a little weaker since it doesn't have Emrakul to cast.

The Future

It's important to realize that despite the changes we are making to the banned list in terms of the frequency at which we can ban, we are not planning on using more frequent banning windows to take undue risks in the future. Magic is very much about thinking for the long term, and that can be a delicate balancing act. If we don't print cards in Standard sets that push the envelope, then we probably aren't making cards powerful or interesting enough. To perfectly balance a format, we need to solve it first. If we could solve the format with the number of people we have playing in the FFL, and the time we are given, then the format would be very dull for people who want to explore in deck building.

We're also having a lot of very serious discussions about hate cards and powerful answers. As you have noticed with Fatal Push, we are not totally against printing very powerful answers in Standard, but we need to up that number. The pendulum of threats versus answers has swung too far toward the threats, and that has caused problems with our metagame. Our decision to not print enough answer cards also has shown to be a real problem. Some parts of this were conscious, like pushing story cards and new card types, and some were a result of moving to two-block world and removing the core set where we traditionally put many of the answers to these kinds of cards. We learned a lot from the last three blocks on how the two-block world should work and are incorporating those ideas into future sets. Again, you won't see all the changes immediately, but we are incorporating those learnings into sets you will play with soon.

As for the mid-season ban window that we also opened with Monday's announcement, it's mostly a reaction to how Standard metagames are developing now. One thing that we have seen over the past few years is that the Pro Tour metagame is almost always incredibly diverse, with five-plus different decks in the Top 8 being unique. That diversity doesn't always last, though. The most notable time this occurred was after Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, where the Top 8 was very diverse, but the metagame quickly devolved into pretty much a one-deck metagame with Collected Company. If we had a ban point after Pro Tour Eldritch Moon and we got to see what the metagame looked like a few weeks after the Pro Tour, there is no doubt in my mind we would've banned Collected Company.

As always, we will be looking at all the data we have available to see if the direction we took with this ban in Standard did good things or bad things, and we are listening to all of your feedback. We will use that data to help us make better, more informed decisions in the future.

Looking at Pro Tour Aether Revolt

Aether Revolt is a set I am personally excited about. We definitely attempted to make a format that delivered on the "inventor" promise of Kaladesh's setting by filling it with a lot of combo-rific cards. There is certainly some danger here, but also a lot of opportunity. If combo decks become the "thing" to do, we have cards and decks that should do a good job of preying on those decks. I can't say for sure that something won't get out of hand, but I think the format will be able to adjust if it does.

Most notably, we will be looking closely at the Copycat decks from the Pro Tour and seeing how they emerge and evolve over the next few weeks. I remember when Khans of Tarkir came out, there was a lot of concern that Jeskai Ascendancy combo would be the strongest deck in the format, but despite some early success, the deck remained pretty fringe. There are a lot of cards in the format that are good against Copycat, and we didn't feel like taking a preemptive swing at the deck with a banning was an appropriate action.

That's it for this time. Next week, I'll return with more tales from Aether Revolt's development.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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