How the New Banlist Policy Could Ruin Larger Formats

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Normally, I don't pay attention to bannings outside Pioneer and Modern. I've got a brand to maintain. However, Monday's Standard ban is special because it comes with policy changes. Abandoning its current, highly flexible system, Wizards has decided to move to a structured system for its Banned and Restricted Announcements. This change carries huge implications for every format, and I'm not certain it will work as intended. The worst-case scenario looks like months on end of being stuck in formats as bad as... well, Standard.

Before diving into that, here's a Public Service Announcement: MTGO is having an All-Access Pass event for the next two weeks. $25 gets you access to almost every card in Magic until June 14. This is the best tool available for testing new decks or playing formats you'd otherwise never consider. I'm not being paid for this announcement; I just want more players to know so they can try Vintage. That room really needs some new blood.

The Context

This is not the first time Wizards has changed the timing on bannings. To the best of my knowledge, from the first banlist until 2017, there were four ban windows per year, one for each financial quarter. Then came Eldrazi Winter, where the problem cards were printed just after the winter window and Wizards had to wait until spring.

To avoid this problem, in January 2017, Wizards added a ban window after each set expansion and each Pro Tour. This was quickly revised that June, after Wizards had to emergency ban Felidar Guardian in April. For the next two years, Wizards's bannings could happen every few months as needed. By December 2019, the system was untenable, and Wizards went to bans happening whenever necessary.

The policy as of Monday is that there is one and only one officially scheduled ban announcement per year. It will be in early August, before the fall set's previews start. The intention is to have a big splash before the Standard rotation. There will also be emergency ban windows the third Monday after each set release. All of this is framed with Standard in mind, but affects all formats.

Why Now? Why Standard?

There was nothing inherently wrong with the fully flexible schedule that led to this change. I never heard anyone complain about it unless it was their deck getting banned unexpectedly. For some reason, some announcements were telegraphed in advance, and some weren't. I never knew why. No, Wizards is changing the ban timings to try and save Standard.

For those that don't know, paper Standard has been drying up for some time now. Once upon a time, Standard was the format for Friday Night Magic. Today, if I wanted to play Standard, there's only one Standard FNM in the entire Denver Metro Area. Aaron Forsythe asked Twitter about this problem back in November, and my response was typical of those given:

Wizards can't just jettison Arena (even if it was the #1 reason respondents gave Aaron), and improving gameplay is always their goal, so they're working on problem #2. To address this, they've lengthened Standard's lifespan from two years to three and will be using regular ban data in place of rotation to refresh Standard every year. Now, the experiment begins.

Everyone Else

Wizards didn't address anything for non-Standard formats beyond this brief section:

Our goal is to make most of our format changes once a year for greater consistency. This announcement will happen annually before fall previews begin. This will not only include Standard but also Modern, Pioneer, Legacy, and Vintage.

In short, this is all being done with Standard in mind, and every other format Wizards manages (hi, Pauper) is just along for the ride. Wizards talked extensively about wanted to use the fall banning to get rid of strategies that dominate Standard for two years, to have a kind of soft rotation in addition to the actual rotation each fall. Whether that kind of philosophical change applies to other formats was left unsaid. We'll have to wait for the first of these scheduled ban days, August 7, to find out.

Gut Reaction

Standard isn't my specialty. I don't even play it anymore, so my opinion about the impact of those changes isn't really valid. Those more attuned to that world have been mostly positive about the changes. What's not being talked about are the impacts on the non-rotating formats. Most of that is Wizards being tight-lipped about any change in philosophy.

All of this could change once Wizards specifies how these changes impact not-Standard. However, given the stated policy change, I don't think this will work out as expected. It won't work out badly, necessarily, but there are problems with the stated plan that will have unexpected consequences should something happen outside of Standard. Non-rotating formats are quite complicated, and problems might not always be obvious in the planned timeframe.

The Pros

As with all new things, the pros and cons should be assessed. The biggest pro is the predictability of the new system. As I always have to stress in my Ban Watchlist articles, under the fully flexible system there was no way to know when or if a ban would happen. Sometimes, Wizards would give notice that a ban was incoming, but frequently we would just wake up to a ban on Monday.

Now, everyone knows or should know that nothing is planned to happen before August. Thus, players can have confidence that their cards will be playable and hold value for a certain period of time. This should increase both player confidence and investor confidence in the secondary market, which translates into more sales and interest in formats, which are good things.

The biggest effect will be on August 7. Under the current system, a card escaping an unannounced banning was no guarantee it wouldn't be banned in a month or two. Now, if a deck isn't banned in August, it's (presumably) safe for a whole year. That would cause more sales and deck building, so I'd have inventory ready well in advance for some big sales.

Mostly Normal

The other positive is that for the most part, this change in timing doesn't impact the cards that will actually be banned. For most of Modern's, Pioneer's, and Legacy's history, it has been obvious that cards will need to be banned. The only question was when. Think of Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Expressive Iteration, Lurrus of the Dream-Den, or Golgari Grave-Troll, all cards that had established themselves as clear problems well before the actual hammer dropped.

This also isn't going to affect the power-level bans. These are the cards that aren't exactly problems, but have been on top the metagame long enough to start feeling oppressive. The sort of ban that's Wizards saying, "You've had a good run, let someone else have a turn." The Splinter Twin, Birthing Pod, and Inverter of Truth bans. These tended to happen on a schedule anyway (for Modern it was January/February), so the day has moved, but not the run-up.

The Cons

The biggest con that I can see is that the inflexibility will lead to Wizards having to rush decisions. Contrary to what some online communities think, Wizards never wants to ban cards. The tale of their ban announcements has always been the desire to affect as few decks as possible and ban as few cards as possible. To accomplish this, Wizards has always had a "wait and see" approach while they gathered data and didn't act until the final hour.

Now, we run the risk of Wizards getting trigger happy (or gun-shy, depending) on the timing. If a problem emerges in late July, Wizards only has a few weeks to decide on a ban. If they don't, they'll either have to wait a year to ban it or use the emergency window, that they stated is for new cards causing problems on the level of Felidar. If it's not that level, but more like Arcum's Astrolabe, do they make us suffer longer take early, perhaps premature, action?

For example, Pioneer saw Boros Convoke explode last weekend. The deck is explosive and powerful and capable of building absurd boards on turn two. The comparisons to Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis were immediate and loud. Had this happened right before ban day, there'd have been enormous pressure to ban the deck, even though things are cooling off now. We've seen a similar spike and decline cycle with Death's Shadow in Modern, which became a healthy part of the metagame as soon as players learned how to deal with it.

The Emergency Window

The stated goal with the post-release window is to see if anything really broke Standard. They didn't say anything about other formats, so we have to assume that the philosophy will remain the same. The problem is that it takes longer for problems to emerge in non-Standard formats than in Standard because of the larger cardpool.

To continue my example, the card that made Convoke possible is Knight-Errant of Eos, printed in March of the Machines. It was released on April 21, almost exactly a whole month before Convoke emerged, and outside the emergency window. Had it been as dangerous as the initial takes suggested, would Wizards have simply waited and made Pioneer suffer because of their rigid policy?

Then there's the issue of cards emerging as problems after Ban Day. Is Wizards going to pull the trigger on a problem or just wait and see? They have a whole year to wait, and corporate culture tends to push towards waiting over action. Would Wizards wait a year on an Astrolabe-type problem card because it emerged as a problem in September and isn't Guardian-level busted?

For example, Krark-Clan Ironworks got the final piece of its puzzle with Aether Revolt in January 2017. The deck that would eventually get it banned didn't show up until April 2018 at GP Hartford. It wouldn't actually be banned until January 2019. That there was a problem was never clear thanks to lack of player adoption, not the usual data. How does the new system handle an Ironworks scenario?

Hogaak: A Case Study

Since Hogaak gets thrown around a lot, let's use the experience with that card to test how well the new system would have worked back then. Modern Horizons released on June 14, 2019. The first action taken against it was on July 8, when Bridge from Below was banned. Wizards didn't want to ban the new card, but the ridiculous combo had to go.

Initially, it looked like that was enough, and that Hogaak had died without Bridge. However, two weeks later, the beatdown version arrived and started taking over. For the rest of the summer, Modern players had to endure Hogaak, which wasn't banned until August 26.

The initial Bridge ban was three weeks and three days after Horizons released, or just outside the stated ban window. Whether Wizards would have acted earlier given the new system is unknowable. The final nail in the coffin wasn't delivered until well after the stated window for Ban Day. They waited that long to gather more data. The question Wizards needs to answer, therefore, is how their new policy will affect their predilection for waiting for data.

Bottom Line

I understand why Wizards is making this move. They need to do something to rescue paper Standard, and this might work. It certainly ticks all the boxes for a Standard-specific solution. However, they've left all the questions about non-Standard formats unanswered. If they have a different vision in mind for those formats, then all may be well. However, if they intend to treat them the same as Standard, there will be problems. As illustrated above, there are just too many possible fail cases for the new system in larger formats, and indeed examples of each from recent years jump to mind.

It's not that the change is inherently bad. Rather, it creates a lot of odd pressure on Wizards regarding ban timings. The structured emergency windows are targeted towards previous Standard problems, which tend to emerge quickly. In older formats, that isn't the case, and problems can easily, and frequently do, arise outside the intended windows. One size does not fit all.

The New Era

Wizards is choosing to end the era of uncertainty around banning windows for Standard's sake. That's fine, but it opens up the possibility of harming the non-Standard formats. Unless this new policy is accompanied by new policies and attitudes within Wizards, things could get complicated and ugly quickly. Hopefully, they've already thought this through and have a plan.

3 thoughts on “How the New Banlist Policy Could Ruin Larger Formats

  1. Standard has always been about its storyline. There’s a reason why a set like Phyrexia: All Will Be One even exists today. That’s because phyrexians became Magic’s iconic villains during Invasion block. Many of those stories could go on for years. They were extremely effective in keeping players engaged because you could see the scenes from the stories being narrated in the cards. It was a huge component of the game. Standard right now has become mostly themed sets with no continuity. Themed sets like Lord of the Rings are fine, but Standard needs a real continuous storyline from one set to another in order to stay relevant. It’s what players are asking for.

    1. It was buried in the rotation change announcement, but Wizards is apparently aware that ending the block model has had a lot of unintended negative consequences for their narratives and Standard cohesion. Wonder if changes to that are even being discussed.

      1. It shouldn’t be a full return to the block model. Those days are likely gone. A loose continuity between sets should be good enough. The next set wouldn’t need to be about Phyrexia again, but it should at the very least work as a spinoff with events of March of the Machine taking place within that universe. It wouldn’t affect themed set like Lords of the Rings as long as it always comes back to the main narrative.

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