Standard: Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time, and Veil of Summer are Banned
If there are three approaches to bannings–the scalpel, the sledgehammer, and the blindfold–this is definitely the sledgehammer.
The only question mark for Oko, Thief of Crowns was whether they would chip away at its power level by banning everything else around it, just to preserve the legality of the new set’s chase mythic. WotC bit the bullet here and got rid of the most overpowered card in the format. Nearly 70% of Mythic Championship VI players chose to play an Oko deck, which is a kind of imbalance that demands action. And while banning something like Gilded Goose, Once Upon a Time, and Nissa, Who Shakes the World could have brought things closer to normalcy, there is no guarantee the Cat decks wouldn’t have continued to thrive, for example, if Arboreal Grazer would have done a decent enough Goose impression, or that as new sets came out Oko wouldn’t pop its head back out as soon as powerful green and/or blue cards joined the format (for example, we have no idea if they are planning to print more 1-mana acceleration in the new set, making banning Goose pretty silly). If you try to shoot an elk in the leg or the body, you may not take it down. They had to go for the head here.
Once Upon a Time is an obviously high-powered card, but still one that represents an unusual ban for the Standard format. You never directly lose to Once Upon a Time, but it provides so much consistency at so little cost. It interacts with the London Mulligan pulling things in the same direction to create a level of consistency that contributed to green being the best color by a very wide margin. I’m not sure I would have banned OUaT, but that might have been my own lack of clarity into just how powerful it is. I certainly won’t miss it.
Veil of Summer I did think deserved to be banned, and you listen to exactly why in my video here. Veil was extremely powerful in terms of the investment required (here that means how much mana you had to keep up and whether you were ever down a card), the ecosystem effects (keeping reactive blue and black-based control decks out of the metagame for the most part), and the player experience of being unable to rely on counters, discard, and removal to kill the most pervasive threats like Nissa, Who Shakes the World. The card was a mistake; it just got banned in Pioneer too, and I wouldn’t be sad to see it go in Modern too some day.
That cunning and mischievous goose (Gilded Goose) lives to honk another day. I wasn’t sure it would survive since 1-mana acceleration at this power level seems like a mistake, but Oko not being around to toss out all that additional Food does seem like a huge nerf. The London Mulligan also hangs around for now (changing this would have been a sweeping change–I don’t think it’s off the table forever, but it might be better to take away the broken card and the free Impulse, and then see what happens). Lastly, Nissa and Hydroid Krasis remain in the format to provide Simic decks a top-end that is tough to compete with. Veil of Summer not being able to shield them from stuff like Thought Erasure will help a great deal.
Nobody can be confident that Standard will immediately go to a healthy, balanced place. There are still a ton of powerful cards and I think the banned ones are truly as much symptom as disease, but this ought to help and there’s definitely a chance that balance will result. For more of my take on the bigger picture of 2019 balance and design, check out this video I made over the weekend.
Legacy: Wrenn and Six is Banned
Like Oko, Wrenn and Six is an undercosted planeswalker that was a mistake on day 1 of its existence. This time, it was Legacy that got warped by the impact of a super-fast answer to small creatures, alongside a Wasteland lock engine and fetchland regrower, and alongside a time bomb ticking up to a hard-to-beat ultimate. That last sentence where I try to describe what it does for 2 mana is a run-on sentence for sure.
The manabases in Legacy also made it so that a blue deck (Delver aggro-control) was the one that was best able to take advantage of this red-green card. They weren’t about to change how the mana works, or take away the sacred cow that is Brainstorm, so it makes sense to try and revert to a previous state of the format by getting rid of Wrenn and Six. Was this the entire problem with Legacy? Not even close. But it will make the format more fun and more diverse, at least until something else from that foolish set (Modern Horizons) like Urza or Astrolabe skew things again.
Vintage: Narset, Parter of Veils is Restricted
Like Karn, The Great Creator (already restricted) before it, the combination of a really powerful static ability in the format, a lack of creatures consistently on the other side of the board to threaten it, and a mana cost that is 1-2 lower than it appears thanks to the format itself (where Mox Sapphire is legal, for example), combine to create an effect that is so good in Narset that other options get crowded out.
The blue decks in vintage have basically been forced into a highlander strategy with their Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, Mental Misstep, Narset, Parter of Veils, Gush, Ponder, and artifact acceleration. Such is life in Vintage. In Narset’s absence from the multiples list, something like Dack Fayden or Paradoxical Outcome or Oko, Thief of Crowns or Urza, High Lord Artificer will come in and do the job.
One possible criticism here is that Narset was the blue card that was primarily good against the other blue players, so making people use Outcome or Oko or Dack instead might make things less healthy. Well, this seems aimed at diversity by splintering the blue players into these various camps rather than have them all sit in the Narset camp. Time will tell. Vintage, like Legacy, is never in a truly balanced state where the blue cards and (for example) the green cards hold similar appeal, but these changes likely make it a little more diverse. The alternatives that would do more, such as banning all cards with a 2019 copyright date, aren’t on the table.
From a card balance perspective, 2019 hasn’t even been a rollercoaster, it’s been a freefall. These changes seem positive to me, but the arc of the trend in competitive balance remains. Here’s hoping for a return to normalcy in 2020 that gets us back to talking about player decisions rather than banned and restricted list decisions.