Bannings are tricky things. A ban in Standard is different than one in Modern or Legacy, both in terms of tone and player response. “Older” formats inherently carry the risk of bannings as a check against unforeseen interactions between new and old cards (this is the essential crux of the Golgari Grave-Troll re-banning, new cards like Cathartic Reunion just made Dredge “too good”). It’s possible that this is because formats like Modern are created with some bans already in place, so some of the bloom is off the rose from the get go. Standard, however, is a much more volatile situation. Standard is sold in part as a balanced environment, and bannings, even intended to preserve the greater good, are considered in part a failure.
BRIEF COMPARATIVE ASIDE: The immediate aftermath of a Standard ban kinda feels like when an interim head coach takes over a football team. Yes things are different with Umezawa’s Jitte gone, but nobody thinks that Dan Campbell is really going to stick around. Then again, the Jags hired Doug Marrone, so who knows?
My guess is that bannings in Standard ultimately take some of the romanticism away- players (bad ones) assume that THEY will find the missing piece of the puzzle and vanquish the scourge of whatever deck they keep losing to at FNM and then some how win a Pro Tour. I want to get to the meat of these particular bans (the Standard ones, mostly), but I will say that the addition of a second B&R announcement is an early check against Saheeli Combo disguised as a good idea. I don’t know how the Magic population writ large will respond to the idea of a more policed format philosophy, but I do think it will help prevent player bleeding in the event of a broken format.
Emrakul, the Promised End: This is quite possibly my favorite ban- Emrakul was the de facto top of the format in terms of size and effect, and it warped card choices and game plans towards it. Killing Emrakul (or rather, imprisoning her on the moon) opens up endgame opportunities for cards like Ulamog, Kozilek, or new cards like Herald of Anguish. More importantly, decks that were homogonized in certain forms can now branch out and specialize- Green Black doesn’t NEED to be Delirium anymore, if they find a finisher better than Traverse for the next best thing to Emrakul, although that’s still an option. That trickles down to mean that early game plans don’t have to be the “self-mill while trying to stay alive” tactics that they were before. I don’t know if there is a clear best winner in this situation, but there are several smaller ones.
Smuggler’s Copter: Actually, this might be my favorite ban. Copter had the same deck-building effect as Emrakul, but on the exact opposite archetypes. There will continue to be decks that want to include a mix of Vehicles and creatures, but I don’t expect there to be a 1-for-1 replacement (not even the impressive-looking Heart of Kiran).
Golgari Grave-Troll: Dredge is tough to balance, and GGT is just way too good to exist in Modern. Early impact has been a spike on Golgari Thug, although that card doesn’t have the potential to close out games like Troll does. The only Dredge cards that should be allowed in Modern are Life From the Loam and Moldervine Cloak, as they are the ones I like best.
Reflector Mage: The UW decks have a lot of congestion, and so losing Reflector Mage makes the construction of those decks more streamlined. That’s to a degree the opposite effect that the other bans are expected to have, but it also eliminates some of the weird issues that Reflector Mage had on the formats it was in (namely, Eldrazi Displacer). I think UW is still a deck after losing Mage and Copter, but I don’t think it’s a major player.
Gitaxian Probe: I can’t pretend to know everything about how this impacts Modern, but I definitely get that it’s a big deal. I’m going to pass on this as there’s way too much contextual determination on what replaces it where, and I’m not sure that there is much financial upside given that most of the replacements are things like Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. Combo decks get some degree worse, although mostly because they can’t have a Peek before attempting to go off.
To close, here are my favorite cards ahead of this weekend’s prerelease!
Yahenni’s Expertise: I think there is a real possibility that the next few months are dominated in part by Liliana, the Last Hope. That’s not to say that there won’t be other decks (we know Saheeli Combo will be a possibility for at least the first eight weeks), but I do think that Lili could stand to serve as a pillar of the format. In that situation, Yahenni’s Expertise seems INSAAAAAANE. Planeswalkers are graded in part on how well they can defend themselves, and having the opportunity to package a Languish in for  seems incredible. At $6 I still really like these, but I would rather trade for them than buy them outright.
Sram, Senior Edificer: Big IF here, but if Puresteel Paladin Combo is a deck, then this feels like a critical 4x. Definitely a high-risk situation, but Modern has been shaken up considerably. I don’t think THIS is the card that sees a tremendous price spike, but I think this is the card that makes the deck work. Key pieces that COULD see an increase include Mox Opal, Monastery Mentor, and Puresteel Paladin itself.
Greenwheel Liberator: I read this a few times to make sure that it counted my Windswept Heaths. It does! Definitely going to try this in Modern with Experiment One and Burning-Tree Emissary. Hidden Herbalists and Narnam Renegade are interesting options also- although these are all pretty narrow.
Lifecrafter’s Bestiary (foil): These feel like a sneaky-good pickup, but definitely for the long term. Most of the decks that want this have access to green already, so color identity isn’t an issue. Long term hold.
That’s all for today, good luck at your prerelease!
Welcome back everyone to the annual Accumulated Knowledge Snarkmas Spectacular! The holiday season has arrived, and not a moment too soon. Quite frankly, 2016 can’t end soon enough- we are running out of likeable musicians and it was getting to the point where I wanted to move George Clinton to a bomb shelter to ride this thing out. So let’s bid farewell to this year together, as we look ahead to the ultra-nationalist hellscape that waits ahead with Snarkmas 2016.
This is going to be a “best-of [YEAR]” style article with my own brand of edgy but accessible humor, as well as some holiday treats and even some musical guests! Honestly, if you’ve made it this far you’re probably going to read the whole thing regardless, so let’s get started!
I’ve also made this article free for everyone, because pageviews are my lifeblood I’m a kind and generous hero! Hooray for me!
BEST NEW STAR WARS MOVIE
“Rogue One”- I have to shuffle around some of the categories from last year, but this one feels pretty safe to last for a few years. I promise I won’t spoil anything for you here, but this movie was really fun. There were definitely some bumps, and it’s not going to be anyone’s all-time favorite Star Wars movie (“The Empire Strikes Back”), but for Disney’s first foray into what are basically Extended Universe movies,it was a home run. Some of the Easter Eggs in the film were the right balance of fun and inconspicuous, others were much more blunt and jarring1.
CHRISTMAS MOVIE THAT YOU SHOULD WATCH
Rogue One. Then go back and watch “A New Hope”. Then hell, you might as well watch “Empire”… and “Jedi”. You can do “Force Awakens” if you want, or just save it for tomorrow. I’m pretty wiped.
Oh, uh… “Die Hard”. That counts, right? If not, then here is one of my favorite Muppet Christmas specials- I tried to get the John Denver one too, but the quality wasn’t great.
OVER-RATED CHRISTMAS MOVIE THAT YOU’LL PROBABLY END UP SITTING THROUGH THIS YEAR
A Christmas Story- This movie is like Christmas wallpaper. Or maybe better yet, it’s the evolution of those ‘Yule Log’ programs that nobody actually uses. A Christmas Story, as a film, is essentially just a collection of vignettes tied together by a very thin plot arc. It is, however, pretty relevant in 2016- an undereducated American white male thinks a gun will solve all of his problems, and projects that warped reality onto his religious beliefs. And it even manages to get in a pretty offensive racial stereotype right before the buzzer! The crazy part is that the cable network that has been pushing this movie for years (TBS? TNT? Whichever one doesn’t have basketball on) only started airing it so much because the rights to the movie were so cheap. Essentially, this became a holiday ‘go-to’ because literally nobody went there in the first place. Fortunately there will be football on this year, so watch that. Kudos to the NFL putting Bengals at Texans as the Christmas Eve late game, ensuring that everyone would rather go to sleep, thereby assuring Santa a quick turnaround. I would rather be beaten mercilessly by Kraumpus than watch that game.
BEST NEW MAGIC-RELATED THING IN 2016
Masterpieces! They are really cool, instantaneously recognizable, and do a really good job of impacting the Standard market without creating a new rarity involving otherwise unobtainable cards. Standard is much better off now than it was prior to the Masterpiece era. I suspect it will take a while for people to internalize how these changes affected the ecosystem, but I definitely think everyone will be better off down the road.
WORST NEW MAGIC-RELATED THING IN 2016
Frontier! I have been pounding the table for a format to exist between Modern and Standard for a while now, and Frontier is an awful solution. The fatal flaw is built in at the foundation- it is non-rotating and tries to combat accessibility problems by picking a very recent starting point. The issue is that in ten years, Khans of Tarkir or M15 or whatever really doesn’t make much sense as a starting point for your format. Some important cards will be expensive, some effects will gradually over time become too good (think Wrath of God), and the format will take on a lot of the same issues as Modern. Extended, even as just a “double” or “triple Standard” makes more sense in prolonging the shelf-life of cards, rather than trying to preserve them forever.
SYNOPSIS OF 2016’S MTG FINANCE HALLMARK CHRISTMAS MOVIE
Jace is a workaholic mind mage who spends all of his time serving as the Living Guildpact for the plane of Ravnica- and then he met Chandra. Can this Manic Pixie Dream Arsonist teach him the true meaning of Christmas? Or at least the non-religious one, which is basically just “work less around the holidays”? The answer is a very low-budget “yes”.
MY BEST DECK OF 2016
It’s probably got to be the RG Energy deck. This award will be much more exciting next year, when it essentially becomes the best of my Game Day series for that year, but I don’t really remember what I was playing prior to Kaladesh. I think it was just a bunch of crappy Jund decks. Anyways, here’s the winner (and my primary template heading into Aether Revolt!).
SIGN THAT MAGIC IS GROWING LIKE CRAZY
So not to alarm anybody, but when I return in January our first topic is going to be bracing for the end of Magic’s boom phase (something that I covered briefly a few weeks back, although with an admittedly broader theme). It’s hard to say that Magic is in a bad spot right now, but I definitely think the growth is plateauing. Maybe the movie will help?
CARDS THAT YOU’LL WANT IN FIVE YEARS
One of the most painful things in Magic is looking at prices of cards that you used to own. Here are the cards that are around $5 or so that you’ll be kicking yourself for not holding onto in a half-decade (as well as a percentage degree of confidence):
Blooming Marsh (and the rest of the cycle): So Spirebluff Canal is about $8, and while the question may be “can the other lands hit $8?”, I think it’s actually “Can Canal hit $20?”. I think the answer to both of those is yes, and that the margins will eventually narrow between the color pairs. (85% confidence)
Haven of the Spirit Dragon: Cheap and relevant to an evergreen card type. Dragons are popular outside of EDH, and some kid always wants to build a Dragon deck. This is a clear 4x in any deck allowed to play more than one. (95%)
Mirrorpool: Not as wide in application, but good in almost any EDH deck. The only issue here in several years is visibility. (90%)
Aetherworks Marvel: Higher than my usual price ceiling, but because it makes AND consumes energy, it’s not required to be in an energy-focused deck. I think it’s just a matter of what ends up breaking this, and what format that pairing is in. (50%)
Saheeli Rai: This is a super cheap planeswalker in a popular color combo that already has some very convoluted combos. I don’t expect it to ever be a $40 card, it could be $15 or $20 if things break well. (33%)
Hi! For those of you who are new, and hopefully that’s at least a few of you, I’m Ross. If we think of Magic columnists as being niches like “EDH people” or “vendor folk”, then I’m probably… Abe Simpson?
Typically this column is for ProTraders only, but I like to do some broader pieces every now and then as sort of a way to grow the collective understanding of the finance community. Magic is currently comprised of a large pool of relatively new players1, and I think that the market operates more efficiently if all of the actors are well-informed. Also, if I knock this one out of the park, I figure that James might invite me to co-host an episode of Fast Finance with him while Travis is out roaming wild and free across the European countryside.
All that being said, today’s article is about some of the explicit and implicit guide-rails of Magic design and development. While you don’t have to be a good Magic player to succeed in the finance realm, you will really benefit from understanding the directions that the game is growing in (and simultaneously what is being phased out!), as it gives you a better understanding of future growth potential. These elements can be derived from both trends in design and development (color pie definition in the case of the former, “knob-turning” in the case of the latter), as well as modifications to Magic’s brand. The first two are probably things you’ve either heard before (or have subliminally inferred, especially if you read/listen to Mark Rosewater a lot), so most of our time will end up being spent on that last topic. So let’s do like I did in high school and just speed our way through all this D&D talk.
DESIGN: Of the three pillars we are going to discuss today (Design, Development, and Brand), this is probably the least important, at least as far as finance is concerned. Design is constantly pushing outward into new creative space, and is the source of cards and mechanics that have never been seen before (albeit informed by both Development and Brand choices). Once you’ve endured a spoiler season (and we’ve got one coming up!), you’ll understand why speculating purely on new design is a risky (and often disappointing) mode of operation. However, Magic design is not governed by naïve whim and folly2, and there are a lot of elements at work that guide set construction (really trying to not bleed into development here, but you see why I said that was more important).
The color pie is one of Magic’s most valuable assets, and having it be well-defined is an excellent baseline for future expectations. For example, Red is currently the color of “Fast Mana” or Ritual effects- therefore, it is foolish to anticipate White getting it’s own form of Rite of Flame any time soon. Now, while this may seem obvious, apply it one step further- blue is just about as unlikely not to get its own Rite of Flame, but there are serious implications in eternal formats. This buoys the value of a card like High Tide (which is the closest to a Blue ritual that we will ever get), which in turn reinforces the cards that are dependent on High Tide being the best available option. If [THEORETICAL BLUE RITUAL] were to become a real card, it means that cards like Turnabout suffer by association. Now, High Tide and Turnabout may not be traditional “spec targets”, and cards like Time Spiral are probably really good either way, the core concept remains that a card’s value (both monetary and in a more performance-based sense) are dependent on several associated cards. Knowing what the color pie does or does not allow enables you to make more informed decisions about what is likely to come.
DEVELOPMENT: I love development, and I think that it gets under-discussed relative to design3. Ultimately, Development is a huge factor in Magic finance, in the sense that it helps define and reinforce the (relatively abstract) concept of playability. Whereas designers come up with concepts and ideas for cards, it’s developers who cost and tweak those cards to fit within existing environments- and their choices can have major impact.
Development uses a concept called “knobs”, which refer to values or characteristics on a card that can be changed in their stage of the process (common examples are mana cost or power/toughness). If the team working on a new set feels that they want a card to be more aggressive, these knobs give them different means of finding that proper feel (by either making it cheaper or easier to cast, or by giving it higher stats than comparable cards at a higher cost).
It is important to point out, if you haven’t noticed before, that most Magic sets (and certainly all them since R&D got their act together4) follow a similar recipe. Every large set is going to have certain key elements (these are, not coincidentally, also tentpoles of the various color philosophies), and the importance of Limited play has helped to solidify the role of this skeletal structure. For example, every set is going to have some form of mass removal spell (a la Wrath of God), enchantment and artifact removal at common, as well as more brand-centric things like iconic creature types (a rare Dragon in every set!). Where it is Design’s job to compose new variations on these themes, it is Development’s to make sure that those are fit to print, and in the longer term, shape the baselines for future versions.
Take, as a popular example, Wrath of God. Originally printed in Alpha, it is considered the iconic mass removal spell. When Wrath was first printed, the understanding of Magic gameplay theory was literally nonexistent- Garfield and friends were just hoping their new game would sell! Since Alpha, however, WotC has refined the understanding of how games function (shifting primary interaction from the stack to the battlefield, for example), and this has resulted in some long-term changes. Wrath of God is no longer printable into a new Standard format, because the baseline for a mass removal spell is somewhere higher than 5. Likewise, new iterations of Birds of Paradise are extremely unlikely to cost , as that ability has moved to a baseline of - or in the case of Honored Hierarch, something that at least can’t generate mana on turn 2.
The safe money here, as was the case with the design portion, is largely in where Development ISN’T going. In constructed formats with large card pools (Modern, Legacy), there is significant value in prioritizing converted mana cost, even at the expense of the actual ability. Therefore, cards like Wrath of God and Noble Hierarch are going to have additional equity built-in to the fact that they are now above a bar that cannot be applied retroactively (unlike Hearthstone, you can’t patch Magic cards!). While this means that cards like Wrath and Hierarch are unlikely to be replaced by something new and better, it also limits severely their reprint options- the best way to increase supply of an old card is to get it into a Standard legal set, because it will be printed for a year and opened in tremendous quantities compared to any other product. When this window is shut completely, you are more likely to reprints resulting in either buoying or increased prices due to inability to meet demand. Alternatively, by understanding what the development guidelines are for certain effects, you can identify future Standard role players early in their life cycle (as was the case with Languish when it was easily found at around $2).
BRAND: Of the three topics, this is the one I’ve previously delved into the least. This isn’t to say that it is unimportant, only that my understanding of how it shapes Magic was incomplete. The thing that helped it click for me (and was the impetus for this article) was me reaching the following conclusion:
WotC is NOT reprinting Liliana of the Veil in Eldritch Moon.
This is one of those things that is really difficult to explain to people who don’t have a broad understanding of how the game functions from a marketing perspective. While Liliana of the Veil (henceforth ‘LotV’) would certainly be cool in the new set (and reprinting a $100 card would be very considerate for those who want copies but can’t afford them), it doesn’t help Wizards define Eldritch Moon or Liliana as unique moments in Magic’s canon. The new Liliana is going to be reflective of Innistrad’s current condition (BAD!) and the conflict with Emrakul, and anything less than evocative on that matter is a negative on the card’s design. In the case of LotV, her “ultimate” ability was actually very representative of what was happening in the story- she forced Thalia to choose between saving the Helvault or her people (represented by the two card piles in LotV’s ability!), which resulted in the freeing of Griselbrand (and Avacyn). Now, you don’t need to know that little bit of trivia to appreciate how strong LotV is (heck, I didn’t even know it until a couple weeks ago), but because it serves a clear and specific purpose, it is a serious consideration.
Also, of course they aren’t reprinting LotV, that card is legitimately busted.
Branding displays itself in other ways also- things like iconic creatures (dragons, elves, goblins, etc.) help push the identity of the game while simultaneously engaging enfranchised players with new additions to their favorite tribes. I also expect that the long-term impact of e-sports and streaming will have a significant impact on the way Magic brands its product and play experiences going forward; more emphasis placed on Standard and Limited (the money makers!) and less on Legacy and Modern. This is not to say that Modern and Legacy aren’t interesting or fun, only that player increases only make it harder to provide those forms of engagement, and brand growth relies heavily on immediate and consistent engagement. We are slowly getting some information about the recent summit WotC held with some of their broadcasting staff, so more on that as it gets trickled out.
Have any questions about any of these topics? Leave them in the comments! Hope you enjoyed today’s article, and that you learned something, too (even if it was just that LotV trivia).
1Okay, if you REALLY haven’t read anything that I’ve written before, check out these articles on the Zendikar Boom, and why player population is the single biggest driver in Magic Finance. The numbers have scaled up, but the foundation is the same.
2Well, at least not anymore. Basically, this is why some of the early sets (HOMELANDS) were so bad. Legends was also horrible, but it gets (undue) credit for having a few incredibly busted cards.
3I think this is because most people, especially if Magic captivates them when they are young, attempt to make their own cards/set.
4Again I point a judgmental finger at the Homelands team.
5Obviously this is a sliding scale, and the “correct” number is probably something between 4 and 5, but the fact is that modern-day versions need to either be costed higher (Planar Outburst), conditional (Languish), or multicolor (Supreme Verdict). Keep in mind that internally WotC considers an additional color in a spell to be roughly equivalent to 1.5 or 2 generic mana.
I first heard the rumors driving from Friday Night Magic, where I had just defeated Splinter Twin with Abzan Company to finish undefeated. I was headed to another store for the Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease. A scattering of Twitter posts, a deleted Reddit post, all saying the same thing: Summer Bloom and Splinter Twin were showing up as banned on the Magic Online beta.
Rumors like this fly around every three months when a banlist update comes around, and at first I didn’t want to believe it. Everyone seemed happy enough to see Bloom go, but Twin had long been looked at as the defining deck of the format. It couldn’t kill before turn four—exemplifying the “turn four rule” of Modern—and never felt “oppressive” in the same way that Treasure Cruise or Deathrite Shaman did.
But it didn’t take long for my fears to be confirmed, and it became official that Twin was getting the axe.
That was just the start of the fallout.
While I was pretty upset about the ban, and was far from alone in that sentiment, it was not a universal reaction. To be honest, things seemed pretty evenly split between people upset about the ban—many of whom were upset about the monetary value they lost (an understandable frustration but a known risk of playing competitive Magic) or because their favorite deck was no longer playable, or like me, simply liked the format the way it was and didn’t want a change—and those who were happy to see Splinter Twin and the ever-present fear it brought with it gone forever.
A divisive argument, and one that largely comes down to emotions and opinions. Unfortunately for those who thought Splinter Twin improved Modern, it’s ultimately Wizards of the Coast and the DCI’s opinion that matters here.
Decks that are this strong can hurt diversity by pushing the decks that it defeats out of competition. They can also reduce diversity by supplanting similar decks. For instance, Shaun McLaren won Pro Tour Born of the Gods playing this Jeskai control deck. Alex Bianchi won our most recent Modern Grand Prix playing a similar deck but adding the Splinter Twin combination. Similarly, Temur Tempo used to see play at high-level events but has been supplanted by Temur Twin.
We considered what one would do with the cards from a Splinter Twin deck with Splinter Twinbanned. In the case of some Jeskai or Temur, there are very similar decks to build. In other cases, there is Kiki-Jiki as a replacement.
In the interest of competitive diversity, Splinter Twin is banned from Modern.”
You and I may not like it, but it’s possible to understand the reasoning. Splinter Twin, after all, was less of a deck and more of a one-size-fits-all package. You throw four Deceiver Exarchs, four Splinter Twins, and two Pestermites into your dec,k and all of a sudden you have access to an extraordinarily consistent combo that will always be potent no matter what shell you surround it with. Sure, the pieces around it may change, but you will always have access to what may be the most powerful combo in the format (or at least “powerful enough”) but is certainly the most consistent.
We may dispute the fact that Twin was too good for Modern, but the fact remains it was the best thing to be doing at nearly every point of the format’s existence. Remember this?
That was five years ago. Since then, a few more powerful decks have come and gone via the banlist, but Splinter Twin has been a constant. Even when Jund and Pod were at the height of their powers, Twin was a top-tier deck that put up a bunch of numbers every year, because it was just so damn consistent.
Personally, I was surprised by the banning. But in retrospect, and after taking a few days to process it rather than push out an angry article with my kneejerk reaction, maybe I shouldn’t have been.
A Brief History of Modern’s banlist
“Over the past year, Birthing Pod decks have won significantly more Grand Prix than any other Modern decks and compose the largest percentage of the field. Each year, new powerful options are printed, most recently Siege Rhino. Over time, this creates a growing gap between the strength of the Pod deck and other creature decks. Pod won five of the twelve Grand Prix over the past year, including winning the last two. The high percentage of the field playing Pod suppresses decks, especially other creature decks, that have an unfavorable matchup. In the interest of supporting a diverse format, Birthing Pod is banned.”
The key phrase there? “In the interest of a diverse format, Birthing Pod is banned.”
It doesn’t end there.
“While the rest of the format is quite diverse, the dominance of Jund is making it less so overall. The DCI looked to ban a card. We wanted a card that top players consistently played four copies of in Jund, but ideally was less played in other top Modern decks. That would give the best chance of creating a more balanced metagame. The card that best fits our criteria is Bloodbraid Elf.”
There’s that sentiment again. “Best chance of creating a more diverse metagame.”
Let’s go back even further.
“We looked for cards to unban, but not only could you play the Amsterdam deck as is, other powerful cards are already available in Modern. For example, Æther Vial was unavailable to Marijn, but is legal in Modern. The Vial is considered one of the stronger cards in Legacy Merfolk decks. The problem is that other decks try to use synergy to get rewards, but those rewards aren’t any better than the Wild Nacatl. For example, the Doran decks use Treefolk Harbinger to find Doran. When it all works, the Harbinger is effectively a 3/3 for . With shock lands, Wild Nacatl is a 3/3, and doesn’t let you down when your opponent kills your Doran. With some effort, Student of Warfare becomes a 3/3 First Strike creature, but that isn’t a sufficient reward for the effort compared with Wild Nacatl. This creature is so efficient it is keeping too many other creature decks from being competitive. So, in the interest of diversity, the DCI is banning Wild Nacatl.”
“In the interest of diversity, the DCI is banning Wild Nacatl.”
Every single one of those bans was questionable at the time. People claimed that, much like Splinter Twin, Broodbraid Elf went into a variety of decks, not just one or even a completely dominant one. People argued—and still do—over whether it would be good for the format. Some people fall on one side, some on the other. We can, and will continue to, have that same argument over Twin. I feel like it was good for the format, but others who don’t like the way it forces you to play the third and fourth turns disagree.
And that’s perfectly fine.
The problem? Somewhere over the craziness of the past six days, we stopped having that discussion.
You can find the full series of tweets here, but I’ve summed up the most relevant threads.
This is the one that people ultimately ran with, but there was plenty more to be found.
There is a lot of information to digest there, and before we go any further, I want to both give props to and criticize this approach. I love that Aaron Forsythe—a high-ranking member of Wizards who has been very forthcoming with us in the past, including talking to us about coming fetch land reprints on a 2014 Brainstorm Brewery episode—is communicating with us on this issue. A more complete understanding of the thought process behind the bans is a Good Thing™.
But Twitter is not a very good vehicle for that. Not only does it reach precious few people, but it forces people to condense their thoughts into tiny paragraphs that don’t fully show context. This context should have been included in the announcement, not trickled out from Twitter in the days following. It’s this phenomenon that I believe has led us to problems.
“Splinter Twin Was Banned for Ratings.”
This is essentially how people have chosen to read Aaron’s tweets, and it sparked an outrage at Wizards we haven’t seen in, well, at least a week since the last time we brought out the pitchforks. And it’s pervasive—I’ve seen it repeated in articles, comics, and social media circles aplenty. When I asked Twitter what we learned from the ban, more than 80 percent of the responses were along the lines of “the Pro Tour needs to ban cards to be exciting.”
No longer are we talking about whether or not Splinter Twin deserved to go, the conversation has become about whether Wizards is even being honest about the reasons for the ban. All because of a few short sentences one member of the deciding committee communicated.
The only problem with this? It’s not painting the complete picture. Like so many things on the internet that are able to be reduced to social media soundbites, it lacks context.
The problem I have with the response goes a step further. Not only are people suggesting the reason for the ban was improved ratings, they’re out-and-out presenting it as the gospel truth, all based on what Aaron Forsythe described as “a pretty imaginative interpretation of [his] response.”
This is a problem. It’s one thing to debate the merits of a Splinter Twin ban—spirited discourse isn’t a bad thing—but it’s fully another to create a narrative that the man you quoted to create said narrative disputes it.
I completely understand the frustration over the ban; after all, I share in it. But if the response to a disagreement with the DCI over the merits of the ban is to completely discredit the organization based on a narrative created from an “imaginary interpretation” of Forsythe’s remarks, it crosses a line. To present something to readers as fact without any confirmation—or in this case, against an outright denial from the source—is, simply put, bad journalism, but more than that, it’s something we can do better than as a community.
How About That Context, Then?
If Forysthe’s tweets aren’t meant to mean “cards are banned to make Pro Tours exciting,” then how are we to interpret them?
I won’t pretend to tell you I have any special knowledge of how or why this decision was made. I wasn’t in that room when it was decided, but I do think I can help shed some context on Aaron’s tweets, and offer my opinion on this series of events from there.
There are a few indisputable facts we can start with.
Splinter Twin has been the defining deck of Modern since its inception. Its many variants lead to it almost always being good but not unbeatable.
Evidence of this is abundant, as Wizards etched out in its announcement and we covered above.
Nothing puts pressure on a format like a Pro Tour. Hundreds of the best players in the world huddle together for a week doing nothing but playing Magic. The tens of thousands of man hours put into this endeavor by the best players in the world solves things very well.
Wizards of the Coast made clear in the ban announcement that it sees Splinter Twin as the de facto best deck, and the tournaments cited are used as evidence of Twin stifling the ever-important goal of diversity.
I want to share a conversation I had with Magic Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl at Grand Prix Oklahoma City earlier this year, when he made the top eight with Merfolk. Being a huge fish fan myself, I was excited to talk to him about the deck, and I asked him if he had finally come around to it being the best deck in Modern.
His response? “It’s the best deck for this tournament.”
That’s how most of the players on the Pro Tour operate. They aren’t in it to play their pet deck or experiment for guts and glory; they’re there to play the game they love and take down a big check at the end of the weekend.
Keeping that in mind, let’s circle back to Splinter Twin. At some point over the last 12 months, Wizards decided that the deck was too powerful for Modern based on the evidence we’ve already cited. Wizards decided that for the long-term health of the format, the deck needed to go. Decision made, end of discussion.
Having already decided to ban it, the next logical question is: when? There’s only a handful of Modern events a year, from SCG Opens to Grand Prix. Unlike the Pro Tour, what players battle with in these events is hugely influenced by factors other than “the best deck.” Pet decks, card availability, regional trends: all of these things equate to putting much less pressure on the format at a Grand Prix than a Pro Tour. Outside of a Skullclampor Eggs-style emergency, does it make more sense to ban cards before a low-pressure event like a Grand Prix in Oklahoma, or a high-pressure event like the Pro Tour? Furthermore, because there’s only one high-pressure event a year, why wouldn’t it make sense to address the health of Modern once a year?
Since 2013, four of the five Modern banlist updates have come in late January or early February, and this marks the third year in a row we’ve had the banlist update before the Pro Tour. That’s as consistent as it gets, and outside of the emergency ban I alluded to in May 2013 (due to Eggs making tournaments nearly unplayable), Wizards has updated the format once a year like clockwork. Since the Modern Pro Tour was moved to the first part of the year in 2014, this update has coincided with the Pro Tour.
Correlation Is Not Causation
A chronological order of the Modern bannings after the initial Pro Tour.
2011: late December
2013: late January
2014: early February
2015: late January
2016: late January
Looks pretty darn consistent to me.
Now, a chronological order of Modern Pro Tours.
2013: No event due to schedule change to winter set
Wizards of the Coast has been extremely consistent with the timing of its Modern bans. What has not been consistent until recently is the timing of the Modern Pro Tour. Given that WOTC made the change to bring back the Modern Pro Tour in 2014 after an outcry from the player base, it seems extremely unlikely that it’s a coincidence the company lined the Modern Pro Tour up with its already-existing banning schedule. After all, if your plan is to update the banlist once a year, why not time it right before the Pro Tour?
The Pro Tour is not the reason for the banlist updates. The banlist schedule came first, and in my opinion, there’s a high likelihood it’s the reason the Pro Tour takes place when it does. Claiming that the already-decided bans are a consequence of the existence of a Pro Tour is conflating causation with correlation, and I’ve seen a lot of people jumping on that bandwagon because, frankly, it’s a lot easier to blame an outside influence like the Pro Tour (and by extension Wizards) than to have an honest debate about the merits of the ban on its own.
Again, I’ll stress that all of this could have been avoided with a more detailed explanation of the ban. Not only are Aaron’s thoughts on the matter hidden in tweet replies, but much of the context was lost in the translation to 140 characters. Had this more detailed explanation been included in the original announcement, it could have gone a long way to preventing a misunderstanding of the reasoning behind the bans. Of course, the alternative is radio silence from Wizards on the matter, and I don’t want the company to stop communicating with us through social media—I just want the additional context that can be provided to be addressed more fully in the official announcement, which is presumably seen by multiple people, unlike tweets.
Losing Confidence in the Format?
Now that I’ve addressed the controversy of the banning announcement, let’s talk for a moment about the banning itself. While I disagree that Twin was suppressing the format, I can’t disagree that it stifled diversity. After all, when the ten-card package you can jam into a handful of otherwise-different decks is simply better than any other option, there’s no reason not to do so.
Take another look at those banning announcements from Wild Nacatl, Bloodbraid Elf, and Birthing Pod. Every single one of them points to “diversity” as the reason for the banning. Birthing Pod wasn’t oppressing the format either, but there’s no question that playing the usual Pod package was unquestionably the right thing to do. Since then, we’ve seen several flavors of Abzan decks find a home in the format, from the combo version to the midrange version to the aggressive Collected Company builds. None of that would have been possible with Pod in the format, and there would be even less possible if Bloodbraid Elf was still running around.
Which leads us back to the question of confidence in the format. Should we live in fear that Wizards is going to ban out our deck every year simply because it’s good? I would say no—but Wizards will ban something if it’s reducing deck diversity. In both cases we’ve referenced, they haven’t outright killed the decks, they’ve simply neutered them, and that holds true this time around, as well. The “combo” element of Birthing Pod is still its own deck. Jund is still playable—and depending on the meta is very good. Nacatl was pulled off the list when it was deemed to not be so strong as to warp decks around it (thanks, creature power creep!).
Likewise, your Pestermite deck is not dead. It will almost certainly have to change to either work with Kiki-Jiki or shift toward the tempo version, but outside of your singular playset of Splinter Twin, the rest of your cards are not only likely still playable in a competitive-if-slightly-worse deck, just like Amulet of Vigoris playable but worse with a replacement like Azusa, Lost but Seeking.
Moreover, our own actions as a playerbase speak extremely strongly against the “lost confidence” argument. Modern Masters sets have been enormously popular, and Aaron Forsythe shared with us that despite the bans, Modern is the fastest growing format in terms of attendance, events, and viewership (dwarfing Legacy). From WOTC’s perspective, the bans aren’t reducing consumer confidence, they’re creating a format more and more people want to play. And while I may disagree with this particular decision, it seems to me that Wizards has earned the benefit of the doubt. Remember: Modern was created to replace Extended, a format tried in multiple iterations to no success amongst the player base. Modern is a mainstay now, but it was never guaranteed to be, and it’s as popular as it is today under the guidance of Wizards of the Coast. I was wrong about the merits of Bitterblossom’s unbanning, and I can accept the possibility that I’m wrong about the merits of the Splinter Twin banning as well.
There will almost certainly be more bannings in the format, because compared to the other Eternal formats in Magic Modern is still relatively new. Sure, the banning of Birthing Pod didn’t lead to a hugely diverse metagame at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, but I don’t think there’s any question the metagame of 2015 was more diverse than that of 2014. And while Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch may similarly be crowded by a few particular decks (I consider Eye of Ugin decks to be far scarier than Affinity in our new Modern world), if and when things do settle down, players will have to look to more diverse options than Splinter Twin as a game plan. Will this lead to a better format than the one we had? We’ll see.
If you’ve stuck with me through all 3,000 words of this, thank you. I have a very high opinion of the Magic community in regards to how we handle disagreements inside our chosen hobby, and it truly bothers me when I see people default to the “blame Wizards because it’s a corporation” stance rather than accept that maybe, just maybe, there are real people on the other side of the discussion who may happen to disagree with you. Wizards of the Coast has made plenty of communication blunders, and those errors have in no small part led to this fiasco, but I encourage everyone out there to remember that we all have the same goal here: make Magic the best it can be.
For me, at least, that means accepting that I don’t know everything. I can write about my opinion, but I can’t tell you why something was banned. I can’t tell you that Modern is a better format with Splinter Twin than without. I can’t tell you that Wizards will or won’t ban another strong deck next year. I can’t tell you the right way to respond to such an emotionally charged situation like this.