The Black List

Posted in Serious Fun on August 18, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

Welcome to Exiled Week! This week is all about putting things out to pasture.

In the game, to exile something is to remove it from the game, at least temporarily. I can't begin to tell you how glad I am that writing about Magic will never again require me to type the words "removed from the game." (Which, yes, I just did, but that was strictly voluntary.) "Exile" is a breath of fresh air. It's a specialized term that people have to learn, sure, but it's shorter, and it's a heck of a lot more honest. As a plus, it's also what Exile does (and Path to Exile—I wonder if they did that on purpose ...).

The From the Vault: Exiled boxed set, which presold at Gen Con last week and officially goes on sale next week, uses a different meaning of "exile." It's talking about banned & restricted lists, which literally remove cards from the game of Magic (at least in specific formats). For tournament play, banned lists keep things fun and fair by putting a stop to particularly degenerate strategies. If a "broken" card or combo is allowed to persist, players are forced by the basic structure of tournaments to either beat 'em or join 'em, which can result in some really dull Magic.

Nearly all tournament players accept and understand the need to ban cards, and in any case, ultimately it's not their decision. Attitudes about banned lists in casual play, by contrast, vary widely from group to group and person to person. I've been pretty fortunate in that regard; generally speaking, I either loan or borrow decks, or play with people who are already using some agreed-upon format like Elder Dragon Highlander. Recently, however, I had a less fortunate experience that got me thinking about casual banned lists.

Banned Aid

I only spent a few days at U.S. Nationals in Kansas City, but you'll notice that I keep mining it for stories. That's because there was a lot of Magic packed into those few days. I already told you about one late-night Elder Dragon Highlander game, but there was another one after that that I haven't mentioned—chiefly because, while it was quite serious, I wouldn't describe it as "fun."

It was another three-person game, with me, a judge named John (but not the same one as last week), and a local guy we'll call Brian. Let me stress that I'm not telling this story to put anybody down—just to illustrate why I've been thinking about banned lists lately.

This time I was running my Nicol Bolas deck, which (as you may recall) is a sort-of theme deck feature lots of cards like Clone, Mind Control, Twincast, and Shunt that turn opponents' spells and permanents against them. John, to my right, was also rocking Grixis colors with Sol'kanar the Swamp King, and Brian had Doran, the Siege Tower.

Things started off bad when Brian chose me to eat a Hymn to Tourach on turn two. I don't recall how he chose me; I think he rolled a die (which, given some of your feedback over the last week, doesn't appear to be nearly as good a way of avoiding people's ire as people who roll dice to choose targets seem to think). Anyway, the Hymn caught Izzet Boilerworks and Cascade Bluffs, my only two -producing lands. Yeah, I think that's why they don't make Hymn to Tourach anymore.

Sol'Kanar the Swamp King
Doran the Siege Tower

Doran made his appearance on turn three and threatened me and my now color-screwed hand with a quick trip to Deadsville. Even so, there were no hard feelings—fair's fair. Elder Dragon Highlander does have a (suggested) banned list, and Hymn's a long way from being on it. And when you sit down to play Magic with someone you don't know, this sort of thing will happen.

The next turn, after hitting me with Doran, Brian cast Limited Resources. (And if you just thought of the obvious objection to this play, hold onto it for a moment.) Have you read that card lately? It's dismal:

Limited Resources

Now, in a two-player game, that could be gross in conjunction with a land destruction strategy, but it's not crippling in and of itself. With more players, though? It can come down early and lock absolutely everybody on four, three, or even fewer lands. That's exactly what it did here. And since John and I were both playing red-black-blue, there was pretty much nothing we could do about.

John did manage to kill Doran, which was pretty hilarious (read: terrible forever), because Brian no longer had enough mana to recast his General. He revealed that Doran was in fact his only real creature, the rest of the deck being packed with, you know, misery. I was still stuck on four mana of two colors, and every card in my hand needed blue mana. Ugh.

The mana counts did manage to creep up, through artifact sources and Rampant Growth-type cards from Brian, as well as one Sinkhole that let him get an extra land down. John actually got to cast Sol'Kanar, who promptly died of a Planeswalker's Scorn. We ended up having a genuinely hilarious race in which Elspeth, Knight-Errant's Soldier tokens were the only way John and I had to keep her off her Ultimate, stealing them with Word of Seizing and Enslave and trying to attack her with them.

At some point during this game, a judge at another table pointed out the objection that many of you may have raised several paragraphs ago: Isn't Limited Resources, uh, banned in EDH? A quick trip to the Internet on my oh-so-smart phone revealed that yes, in fact it is—presumably because of exactly what we were seeing.

Brian was very apologetic for having violated the banned list and offered to bin the Limited Resources, but at this point, the game state in a world without Limited Resources was irrecoverable. There were basically two options: play it out, or give the whole game up as corrupted. It was late enough that giving up was tempting, but too late to start another game, and this one hadn't exactly been satisfying. John and I agreed to play it "as it fell"—it was clearly an honest mistake, and after all, we hadn't caught it.

In the end, Doran finally returned and started bashing in 8-point increments thanks to Elspeth. I had Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker in hand the entire time—one of the few Bolas-colored ways to deal with Limited Resources—but I never drew the multiple artifact sources I would have needed to cast him.

Brian continued to apologize, but John and I continued to wave him off. It took all three of us to overlook the discrepancy, and a casual banned list is more a guideline than a rule in any case. We'd even gotten a laugh out of the game. And if nothing else, it was a vivid demonstration of exactly why Limited Resources is banned in the first place.

Format? What Format?

So clearly, there's at least some argument in favor of maintaining a banned list, particularly once you're playing with people you don't know. But some feel that the very idea of a banned list, or of a "format" at all, is antithetical to the idea of casual. In casual Magic, you play with the cards you have. Simple enough, right?

Once you settle a few obvious questions (in particular—silver-bordered Un-sets, yes or no?), it is pretty simple. Interestingly, this can go in two very different directions, and they can both work for different sorts of groups.

The simplest—and in some groups, only—option is "anything goes." If you've got it, play it. Beyond the basic four-of rule (which nearly everybody adheres to in my experience), a group like this will let you play any card you own. If there's a power-level imbalance, it gets fixed—by others improving their decks and/or tuning them to beat the powerful ones, or by a good old-fashioned dogpile.

This sort of open warfare is just about inevitable if your group consists mostly or entirely of really competitive players. And yes, there is such a thing as a casual competitive player—and it's OK to be one. As long as everybody's comfortable with an all-out arms race, go nuts. The rest of us, says my snarkier side, will be over here having fun. But there really is nothing wrong with this style of play as long as everybody's on the same page.

This sort of group, however, can run headlong into my rule of thumb for handling an open (non)format. This is the social contract, otherwise known as the "don't be a jerk" rule (or its more strongly stated equivalent, which I will leave as an exercise for the reader). In this scenario, you play to win, but you don't win by keeping everyone else from playing. Yes, with access to the right cards you can kill everyone on the first turn or lock down all their mana or counter all their spells. But for most of us, that's not actually what we want to do when we sit down to a game of Magic. A really hard "instant win" like Coalition Victory can be funny, at least the first time. But if everyone groans when you pull your deck out, well ... just ... don't be a jerk. It's a game—it's supposed to be fun.

Coalition Victory
Mana Drain

Of course, everyone has different ideas about what exactly "fun" is, and what constitutes "being a jerk." These are relative terms after all. If your group packs enough Mana Drains and Force of Wills to deal with your turn-two instant win, then congrats, you're not being a jerk. But there are plenty of tables where you could play the exact same deck and violate that cardinal rule. It's this vague and nebulous set of differing assumptions that's lead many competitive players (including myself, in a past life) to refuse to play casual entirely. It's also why many groups play with formats and/or banned lists.

Making a List

Many people just use the established tournament formats and their banned lists. These have the advantage of being unambiguous and portable, and they're a good way of drawing the line without any judgment calls. But in practice, they can result in some silliness. We're playing Extended, but my green-white deck has one copy of Asmira, Holy Avenger in it. That's not going to break the format, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Does disqualifying a deck for one harmless card from antiquity count as being a jerk? That's up to you.

Some casual groups—or entire casual formats, like EDH—have their own banned list. These are often eclectic, generally arising out of whatever specific cards have troubled this particular group. They work fine within your group, but they won't make much sense to people who join your group, and they're not especially portable—unless and until, like EDH, your format goes viral among the Magic population at large. And even then, there are growing pains; the EDH banned list has seen a number of additions since the format's popularity took off.

EDH is an interesting case, actually. The official rules page, maintained by Gavin Duggan, recently got an overhaul. When I went to look for the banned list, I didn't find it in the "Construction" section, which covers how to build your deck. Nor did I find it in "Play," which describes the special rules that drive EDH. I found it in a third section, "Social." This section explains the social contract that underlies the format and provides a recommended banned list, stating, "If you want to enjoy the type of games you've heard associated with EDH, avoid cards like these." In function, it remains a banned list, but I really like the philosophy there.

Really, Don't

Ultimately, I always come back to the "don't be a jerk" rule. Formats and banned lists are helpful in defining an upper band to the acceptable power level, but unlike a tournament format, casual can't be described solely in terms of its format. Casual play is about people, and it's up to those people to decide how they want to play.

I haven't talked much about what gets a card exiled from any given play group. That's because there are as many reasons as there are playgroups. What about you? If you maintain a banned list, what sorts of decks, cards, or effects are on it? What does it take to get something added to it? If your group relies on the social contract instead, what constitutes "being a jerk"? Under what circumstances do you voluntarily retire a deck or take out a particularly nasty card? Let me know!

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