I'm a huge fan of the recent Banned and Restricted announcement. Wizards of the Coast got it right.
We've just witnessed yet another banning in Standard. While I know this decision will be extremely controversial, I think banning Aetherworks Marvel was a necessary evil. Modern and other formats received no changes—more on that later.
The Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo was deemed too oppressive for Standard, but could be attacked as we know by at least one deck: Mardu Vehicles. Mardu Vehicles was fast enough and disruptive enough to either force the opponent to combo too early and walk right into a removal spell, or kill the combo player before they could assemble the 2-card combo. While Saheeli Combo was probably more oppressive than Aetherworks Marvel, Marvel had basically the same effect of removing midrange strategies from Standard. In recent Standard formats, midrange was the focal point.
Aetherworks Marvel was, in essence, a 1-card combo. Accumulating energy was relatively easy, and once you cast Aetherworks Marvel you'd spin into an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or more energy and with each additional spin the likelihood of finding Ulamog got greater. While you often wouldn't hit Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger right away, you'd still be adding to the battlefield while producing energy and generally keeping the game stable enough so that Ulamog would be enough to close out the game.
The reason we saw less Aetherworks Marvel decks when Felidar Guardian was legal was that it was unfavored against the Saheeli combo. In reality, the decks were remarkably similar, using energy packages and including Aetherworks Marvel and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, or Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian. Either way, the shell was good enough to incorporate these combos and make the decks flat out busted. Drawing this comparison, it seemed pretty simple that Aetherworks Marvel should be banned. But Wizards had to analyze a few things when making this decision.
There are 3 questions that need to be answered when deciding whether Aetherworks Marvel should have been banned. Let's try and answer those to understand why Aetherworks Marvel was banned.
What Do the Stats Say?
The announcement of the banning provided some statistics of each of a variety of decks win percentages against Aetherworks Marvel, and while useful, I don't think the article painted the right picture of what was happening in Standard. The numbers indicated that Aetherworks Marvel was a underdog—albeit small underdog—to 8 of the other Top 10 decks in the metagame.
Aetherworks Marvel was public enemy number one immediately after the Pro Tour. Since then, everyone interested in competitive Standard was either playing Aetherworks Marvel, or focusing on how their archetype of choice was going to beat it. If their favorite archetype couldn't find a way to win, they would simply choose a new deck that could. After the dust settled, the Magic Online data that was given to us in the announcement had a lot of decks favored against Temurworks Marvel, but the highest win percentage achievable was 61% by Esper Vehicles.
They admitted that the statistics were skewed and at higher levels the favorability of Aetherworks Marvel decks increased, which meant that at events like Starcitygames Open Series, Grand Prix, and Pro Tours, the decks that were beating Aetherworks Marvel strategies were doing so less than the data they used would indicate. Essentially, it wasn't possible to get too much better than a coin flip against Aetherworks Marvel despite it being known as quite a fragile deck in the past.
The data shown makes it look like Aetherworks Marvel might not be too oppressive, but keep in mind that all of these decks were tuned and created specifically because they could compete with Aetherworks Marvel and while doing a reasonable job, Aetherworks Marvel was still the most highly represented deck, and in my opinion the safest deck to play in Standard because it didn't have any incredibly bad matchups. If a highly skilled pilot had better win percentages than what was indicated in the data, it didn't need to get much better for Aetherworks Marvel decks to go from even to slightly favored everywhere, despite having a giant target on its back. If I had to play a competitive Standard tournament last weekend I would have played Aetherworks Marvel and wouldn't have been excited about it, or had very high expectations. It was basically just Jund now instead of Caw Blade.
The situation reminds of Eldrazi Winter, when players determined to beat Eldrazi decks tried playing decks like U/W Control and various Ensnaring Bridge decks with the assumption the decks beat Eldrazi, when in actuality they were closer to coin flips while having to compete with the very diverse metagame of Modern where they had in the past come up short. Eldrazi was just good enough against everything, including decks aimed to beat it, that it could still be dominant. It in other words, Eldrazi warped the format around it, just like Aetherworks Marvel did with this Standard format.
Are the stats alone enough to get Aetherworks Marvel banned? Well, not if we use only this isolated data set of decks aimed to beat the deck, but this is the data from right now, after the dust settled. And while it seems Aetherworks Marvel decks aren't oppressive, they're still in a good spot especially when you factor in that the announcement stated that in higher levels of play the Aetherworks Marvel decks were doing better than this data indicated, meaning that despite Aetherworks Marvel warping the format around it, it was still a top tier deck.
Is it Fun?
Playing against Aetherworks Marvel decks were flat out miserable. Your strategies were pretty simple against it. Put as much power on the battlefield as fast as possible and hope they miss their first 1 or 2 spins, or put some pressure on the battlefield and hold up counterspell mana the rest of the game to keep Aetherworks Marvel off the table. If and when they played an early Aetherworks Marvel, it was time to cross your fingers. This isn't a particularly fun way to play Magic in many people's opinion, and I am one of those people. I am kind of a fan of degenerate Magic, but in Standard where there are very few counter measures for this kind of stuff, I think it was pretty unhealthy for a Standard format.
When I play Legacy or even Modern, I expect to play a lot against degenerate decks. Decks like Goryo's Vengeance or Storm, or even Splinter Twin when it was legal, are all Modern decks that can be extremely explosive and win quickly, but Modern has efficient ways to interact with these combos with cards like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. Legacy has Force of Will, in addition to hand disruption. In Standard the best you get is Transgress the Mind and Negate, which cost 2 mana—that is a huge deal because you're not able to play a threat on an important turn of the game when it's crucial to do so to get out ahead of the Aetherworks Marvel deck's "fair" game plan of playing creatures and planeswalkers.
I'm really happy they decided to point out that they spoke to people across all levels of commitment to Magic and decided that people simply weren't having fun with, and against, Aetherworks Marvel, and used that in part of their decision for the banning. Magic is a game, and games should be fun.
What About the Future?
So let's say that people agreed that the Aetherworks Marvel deck as-is was too powerful and decided to ban Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and leave Marvel alone. People have already commented on how Aetherworks Marvel with Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh could be concerning. Basically, Aetherworks Marvel will be very good with any card that can have a huge impact on the game.
Typically, these cards cost a ton of mana but Aetherworks Marvel allows you to jump through the hoop and cheat on mana by casting a card with an extremely high impact on the game on turn 4. Generally, the impact of these cards will also scale with how early it's cast. Ulamog, for example, has a much more devastating impact on an opponent exiling 2 lands on turn 4 than it would against that same opponent on turn 8 or 9.
What I'm trying to get at is that most cards with powerful effects have a high casting cost so that the effect is less devastating at the point in the games it's cast, or the effect is so powerful that it basically ends the game on the spot. Aetherworks Marvel got to ignore all of the waiting, which made for unbalanced games of Magic.
We saw people pointing out cost reduction when Emrakul, the Promised End was banned, and Aetherworks Marvel is just that. This, in my opinion, is a very high cost of keeping Aetherworks Marvel around for more than another year, so for the purposes of designing cool and powerful cards in the future, banning Aetherworks Marvel is again the correct decision for this reasoning.
Thoughts on No Ban in Modern
So there was some speculation about a card in Death's Shadow decks potentially getting banned. Some said Street Wraith, some said Death's Shadow. I absolutely love the decision to not ban anything in Modern.
I have been testing for #GPVegas and the first deck I tried was Grixis Death's Shadow given all the recent buzz it's been getting. After playing with the deck, I can firmly state that I believe the deck is great, but it also leads to highly interactive and fun games of Magic.
First of all, I don't think banning Street Wraith would have too much of an impact on the deck. There's other efficient ways to trade off life points for effect, such as adding Dismember to the deck or something of that nature. It's clearly not as good as having a free way to grow your Death's Shadow, but it can be worked into the deck and not make it too much worse.
I also think the Death's Shadow deck leads to a ton of interesting decision points with discard spells, lining up the correct removal spells, and also interesting sideboard decisions. Having to navigate the game by managing your opponent's hand, your own life total, and play around what the opponent could potentially draw makes Death's Shadow a high skilled deck, which is the kind of deck I'd personally like to see be the formats "best deck". Modern is still diverse, and the general consensus when I talk about Modern with people today is that they generally enjoy playing it as is. So in my opinion, if it isn't broken, don't fix it.
Death's Shadow is also very beatable and most iterations are extremely weak to a card like Rest in Peace. Death's Shadow, the card, gives the deck itself an out to this card, but the rest of the Grixis Death's Shadow deck is extremely vulnerable to the card, which is to me is awesome. Ever feel helpless when an opponent plays Stony Silence against your Affinity deck? Or Rest in Peace against your Dredge deck? Having a card like Rest in Peace be extremely good against a deck, but also not end the game on the spot, makes games of Modern more fun, in my opinion. I've played against Rest in Peace a few times, and have been absolutely wrecked by it. Other times I let the opponent keep it in their hand and choose another card with Thoughtseize because I happen to have a Death's Shadow or two and my plan to win the game is easier going through the Rest in Peace.
I will admit that I do think Death's Shadow is likely the best deck in Modern, but there's always going to be a best deck—some of them are just much less oppressive and much more fun to play with and against. So when a deck is good but not oppressive, fun to play with and against, and also leaves room for decisions throughout a game, I am totally onboard with keeping Death's Shadow around for the foreseeable future.
In the announcement, Aaron Forsythe also stated that they will be cutting back on ban announcements and making them only after Pro Tours. I think this is an excellent adjustment and will lead to making decisions on how good something is after they see it play out at the Pro Tour. This also leaves players with a sense of relief that they can safely begin testing new Standard as soon as the full spoiler is out instead of pausing and waiting to see what will happen with bannings first.
I think Wizards of the Coast did a great job this time around, and though there is a cost to banning more cards in Standard, I think Wizards is moving in the right direction by fixing past mistakes, and moving towards not making any more of them in the future. I actually think we'll be done with bannings for a long while and that is exciting. Some will complain about Gideon, Ally of Zendikar but I think we'll see Gideon stick it out until rotation. What are your thoughts on the banning of Aetherworks Marvel, and no banning in Modern? Let me know in the comments below!