Magic is Different
Any trading card game that is heavily tied to physical paper play rather than digital play will always have its shortcomings when it comes to game balance. In other competitive games, developers can look at the statistics of certain weapons, abilities, heroes (or whatever the driving force of each game is) and alter the numbers to create a more balanced game. Games like Call of Duty Warzone can simply decide that a certain gun is picked ten percent more than any other in the game and has an average kill:death ratio of 1.8 and, in response, reduce its damage by fifteen percent and increase its recoil by ten percent – and this can be done at any time. Even Magic’s competitor in Hearthstone can change card costs or tweak effects on a whim thanks to it being an entirely digital game, whereas Magic and other various TCGs can only balance their games via outright banning cards or giving cards an errata. Both have their downsides, with bannings making cards that many players love unplayable altogether, while erratas can create confusing gameplay due to someone having an older printing of a card pre-errata. The latter reasoning is exactly why Wizards almost never erratas cards and opts to simply ban cards outright for being too powerful.
Why are cards banned?
Here’s the funny thing about this question; to a certain extent, we don’t really know the answer. To clarify, obviously cards that are egregious in their powerlevel and represent an oppressive threat to a format are easy targets for bans. There are, however, other bans that don’t really fit that narrative. Bans often take place in formats in order to promote diversity or an overall fun experience for players even when the particular banned cards in question don’t meet the powerlevel criteria. A couple of great examples of this are Sensei's Divining Top in Modern/Legacy and Aetherworks Marvel in Standard.
Top was banned in Legacy due to how unpleasant of an experience the card was from a gameplay standpoint, as it resulted in games going on for much longer and nearly always going into time. This resulted in far too many draws; tournaments ran far longer, and people just didn’t have fun.
“In Legacy, Miracles—a deck that is focused on combining Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top to control what opponents can or (mostly) cannot resolve—has been the best deck in the format for some time. We were hopeful that this would change over time, but it has not. That alone is not necessarily enough to move to ban a card from the deck, but Sensei’s Divining Top comes with its own host of issues that center around the timely conclusion of matches in a tournament setting. The necessity of repeated Top activations to play the card slows down match play and leads to tournament delays. Coupled with the power of the Miracles deck, this is reason enough for us to take action on Top. Therefore, Sensei’s Divining Top is banned in Legacy.”https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/news/april-24-2017-banned-and-restricted-announcement-2017-04-24
Modern’s reasoning for banning the card, however, was strictly due to the slow nature of the card, and power level was not mentioned in Wizards’ ban discussion during Modern’s original proposal.
Data from tournaments held in previous Extended formats showed that Sensei’s Divining Top takes too long to play with. When rounds go to time, everyone in the entire tournament has less fun. If Modern ever caught on seriously, we would likely have to ban Top, so we decided to reflect that in this experiment.https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/latest-developments/modern-proposal-2011-05-26
Another example of a card being banned as a result of unfun play patterns rather than power level was Aetherworks Marvel from 2017 Standard. This is one of my all-time favorite ban announcements in Magic’s history, as Wizards takes the tone throughout the announcement of “fine; we’ll ban it, but here’s why you’re wrong about wanting it” (which isn’t the last time we’ll see this from them).
Also, with this ban announcement, Wizards actually tells us what they consider when observing the health of a format, saying:
“When considering the health of a format, there are many factors to take into consideration: Is one strategy so dominant as to be the only correct choice? Does any other deck trump the strategy in question in any meaningful way? Is there likely to be or has there been a recent shift in the metagame? Is the metagame share of the best deck higher than would be expected? Are players engaging with the format, and, when they do, are they having fun?”https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/feature/june-13-2017-banned-and-restricted-announcement-2017-06-13
A key portion of the statement, to me, is “are they having fun?” If a deck isn’t oppressive in the format but is “widely considered” to be unfun by the playerbase, is it worth having in the format? Sure, the deck is beatable, and Wizards’ even kindly provides a citation of this in the Marvel ban announcement.
However, it doesn’t matter if a deck is beatable if no one wants to sit across from the deck at all. If a player decides that seeing a deck they hate playing against once out of every four games is too much, then odds are, they’ll play another format until that deck is not an option anymore. This is the ultimate struggle for Magic, as fun is subjective. So, for every player that absolutely despises playing against said unfun deck, there’s someone who absolutely loves playing that deck. Due to Wizards’ reluctance to errata cards, the option of “powering down” certain decks usually isn’t an option, as the card that needs to be banned is usually the namesake card of that deck. Banning enablers or payoff cards before banning the namesake card has been shown time and time again to not work; and I think Wizards finally understands that.
In terms of Pioneer, we’ve seen this not necessarily with a banning itself, but a reluctance to ban. After Theros: Beyond Death was released, Pioneer was graced with numerous top decks as a result. Three of them being combo decks in Dimir Inverter, Heliod Sungun and Lotus Breach, all thanks to Thassa’s Oracle, Heliod, and Underworld Breach, respectively. What resulted was a meta consisting of a rock-paper-scissors cycle in which these three combo decks feasted on one another, and it lasted a whopping six months. Wizards, at the time, weren’t just reluctant to ban the namesake cards of these decks, but to pull the trigger on any bannings whatsoever. To make matters worse, they were completely radio silent on the matter until Oath of Nissa was unbanned in July of 2020, where they stated that:
“We are generally happy with the shape of the metagame in Pioneer, with the most played decks each having strengths and weaknesses against each other… …We are keeping an eye on the populations of combo decks in the environment. Although the perception that combo decks have dominant win rates isn’t backed up Magic Online play data. We are also seeing a variety of lesser-played decks having success, which indicates that the metagame may continue to shift.”https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/news/july-13-2020-banned-and-restricted-announcement-2020-07-13
So, at the time, Wizards felt that – similar to their stance back in 2017 on Aetherworks Marvel – the combo decks in Pioneer were not oppressive and the meta was in a position to stabilize with lesser-played decks moving up in the fray. Even when Wizards finally pulled the trigger on banning Inverter of Truth (which represented nearly thirty percent of the field at the time) they were adamant on stating that the community was flat-out wrong in their cry for a ban. They state within their ban article that:
“We continue to see many different decks have success in Pioneer, and no decks with problematic win rates against the field, we do see that combo decks as a group make up a large portion of the competitive metagame. We’ve heard feedback that the frequency at which one finds themselves facing an opposing combo deck restricts deck-building options and can make play experiences unenjoyable. While win rate data may not point to change being needed, a different, more important set of data does: player participation” (emphasis mine).https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/news/august-8-2020-banned-and-restricted-announcement
This “different, more important set of data” bring me to the point of this entire trip down memory lane: Wizards’ banning decisions are based entirely on profit.
Now look, I’m not saying that they’re aren’t people within WOTC that care deeply about this game and want what’s best for it. There are so many wonderful and talented people that will engage with players and truly put in multitudes of effort to manage and balance the best game in the world. Though, at the end of the day, Wizards is a company whose main goal is to generate a profit by selling their product.
New Cards = Profit
I believe that action was not taken on the Pioneer bans early on in 2020 for a simple reason: the new cards were selling packs. Why was Bridge From Below banned before Hogaak? Banning a card that was just born out of your brand new product is a horrible business model.
Let’s draw a comparison to other competitive games. It is widely believed that heroes in MOBAs like League of Legend, DOTA, and SMITE are routinely broken upon release to encourage players to spend money to play as the new character. Then, after a certain amount of time, they will finally take action to nerf these Heros for meta balancing. They’ll wait a while before acting, though, to ensure a large profit is made. The same goes for games like COD: Warzone where new weapons are the best in the game upon release, often locked behind incredibly difficult challenges that take hours to complete: or you can buy a bundle or Battle Pass to ensure you unlock it without needing to complete the challenge. Then, a while later, a nerf will occur for balancing’s sake, but again – not without making a profit first.
The biggest difference between these games and Magic, though, is that even when a new weapon or character is nerfed, players can still play with them. In Magic’s case, the option is outright banning the card, which creates far more pushback from players due to the nature of the secondary market and the feeling of a complete loss of investment.
Back when Oath of Nissa was unbanned, many players felt they were given the green light to invest into these combo decks because Wizards had essentially declared that that was what they wanted Pioneer to be. I, and surely many reading this, either knew someone (or was that person) who had spent money on cards and time playtesting these decks only for them to be banned outright. With the exception of Lotus Field, all of these decks were no longer possible to play, resulting in no jumping-off point for players to even justify the other expenses made. The same goes for a more recent banning in Winota, Joiner of Forces. The announcement of her ban in Explorer came with a caveat: a declaration of her unban to be welcomed with the printing of Dominaria United on Arena. Many players took this as an indication of their feelings of Winota’s position within the Pioneer meta as being fine and that there would be no bannings any time soon for her. Again, many players decided that this was their green light to invest time and money into the deck, only for her to be banned in Pioneer less than thirty days later. This time around though, Wizards was far faster to act on Winota than they had in the past with Inverter and the like. It seems that Wizards is a bit more keen on pulling the trigger on bannings than they were prior to the combo bans, and I have a theory as to why that is.
Player Participation = Profit
Wizards got a taste of what happens when they prioritize selling packs over player participation for much of 2020 thanks to their lack of action on the combo decks. Remember when I said that it doesn’t matter if a deck is beatable if no one wants to sit across from the deck at all? Well, players chose the latter option for much of the year, as Pioneer had the lowest player base it ever had in its young life. Challenges failed to fire at as low as 32 players on a nearly weekly basis, and Wizards admitted that this was the reason for their bannings in August of that year. They stated that player participation was lacking because of the disdain of these decks, and, as a result, banned them all. At the time – to myself and many players – it was the right decision, as if they had only banned one deck (like Inverter, for example) only for the meta to remain combo-dependent for months after, that could have been the death of Pioneer.
Wizards experienced missing out on a profit and, as a result, they seem more likely to hit the panic button now. Pioneer was, of course, in no threat of losing its player base during the height of Winota, as challenges consistently fired and players were indeed playing the format. Though, with the extremely vocal players flooding their social media feeds with their disdain of Winota, it’s hard to imagine Wizards wasn’t paying attention. The fear of losing players crept back into their mind and they decided to pull the trigger early this time, hitting both Winota and Expressive Iteration. Both cards were well over a year old at this point and were seemingly safe hits, so no worries of losing a profit stream by hitting a card out of a more recent set that was still selling packs.
Wizards clued us into their fear of losing players in their ban announcement. Wizards said that Winota promoted “frustrating removal-check gameplay”, which alludes back to the worry of players not finding the deck fun to play against. Though, this statement is interesting, since you can easily substitute Winota in that sentence with a multitude of cards like Greasefang, Okiba Boss, Lotus Field, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, and even Niv-Mizzet Reborn. All of these cards (with the exception of Niv-Mizzet) are played in decks that can go off on turn three, either winning the game outright or presenting a boardstate that is a hill too high to climb back from. Lotus Field and Nykthos in particular are arguably the most “frustrating removal checks” possible, as they are much harder to interact with due to being lands.
Now of course you could argue “But Brad! Both of those cards rely on other cards that you can interact with either via removal or counter magic to prevent them from going off!” To this, I say: “you are absolutely right, imaginary person in my head!” But that all applied to Winota as well. To make matters more peculiar is the fact that Winota was on a downswing in the few weeks prior to its banning, showing that the meta was seemingly adjusting to the deck and keeping it in check – the exact reasoning that WOTC originally gave regarding their lack of action on the Combo Meta back in 2020.
Of course, Wizards will never be one hundred percent consistent in their bannings because they will gladly bend the criteria of why cards are banned as long as they feel it creates the chance of more players staying in a format and spending money as a result. As a result, we can never predict what their actions will be for any format.
Player Participation = Healthy Format?
The actions (and non-actions) that keep players participating in a format can sometimes be the same as the actions that will keep a format healthy and balanced – and when those stars align, all is well. The problem is that those stars aligning – at the end of the day – is not the endgoal of Wizards. During development and management of a format, the goal will be the same: make a profit. Can both happen to the extent of players being happy, formats being healthy, and profits being made? Absolutely! The last 30 years of Magic has shown that to be the case time and time again. On the other hand, the last nearly 30 years of Magic have also shown the opposite to be true time and time again; at least in the player happiness and format health category. Card games will have their eb and flows. Magic is no different. So make do with what we get as players, take breaks from the game when need be, and enjoy the ride.
Magic has been subject to ups and downs regarding format health and player happiness for the entirety of its 30 years of existence. Throughout it all, one thing in particular has been the center of this health and happiness; bans. Taking a look at the history of format bans and understanding the real reason decisions are made from the perspective of Wizards is what will allow us as players to form an idea of what goes on behind closed doors. When we get down to it, the answer is far simpler than most would assume.