This week I was considering doing a Standard article, and then I saw a top eight of the following at SCG Boston.
1 UG Aggro
Then I looked at culminated Regionals results and saw CawBlade had everything non-RUG beat by a laughably huge margin. It only tripled the qualifications of RUG. Nice joke. I’ll leave it to people enthusiastic about this to write about any pre-New Phyrexia Standard.
Instead today I’m going to talk about the history of bans in Standard and Extended starting with Combo Winter and working forward. Why start there? Those bans are among the most well-known, but the numbers of people who were playing back then or who have dredged through history finding information about them have gotten smaller and smaller over the years. I want a bit of a one-stop shop for the B/R announcements and why such cards were banned to give people a bit of perspective. Once the discussion of a Jace ban came up, I found that many people had absolutely no idea why older cards were banned or what context they were banned in. Once I had to explain to someone why Necropotence was banned in Extended, I felt the need to write this.
Combo Winter Bannings
• Windfall is banned.
• Tolarian Academy is banned.
• Braingeyser is UNBANNED.
March 1st, 1999
Dream Halls is banned
Earthcraft is banned
Fluctuator is banned
Lotus Petal is banned
Recurring Nightmare is banned
Time Spiral is banned
Announcement Date: June 1, 1999
Effective Date: July 1, 1999
-Mind Over Matter is banned
-Time Spiral is banned
July 16, 1999
Effective Date: August 1, 1999
-Yawgmoth's Bargain is banned
Effective March 1, 1999, the following errata have been issued for the "free" creatures (Cloud of Faeries, Great Whale, Palinchron, and Peregrine Drake): "When [this creature] comes into play, if you played it from your hand, untap up to [the appropriate number] lands." Also, Priest of Gix has the following errata: "When Priest of Gix comes into play, if you played it from your hand, add [three black mana] to your mana pool." (This should be treated as if there were actual mana symbols in the text box.)
In explaining the implications of the errata, Bill Rose (Magic lead designer) had this to say: "With this template it's obvious you don't get to untap lands (or in the case of Priest of Gix, add mana to your mana pool) when you put the creature directly into play with an ability such as Recurring Nightmare's or Sneak Attack's. Remember that 'played' is not the same as 'put into play.'"
For those who don’t know about the errata part of the banned list, WOTC would occasionally level Power Level Errata on cards. What does this mean? The simplest explanation is that the rules templates on the cards as printed allowed for loopholes to be exploited which made them better than they were originally intended to be. As a result the Oracle text was modified down the line and the cards functioned differently as printed. In the case of Combo Winter this was significant for the untap creatures (specifically Great Whale and Palinchron) interaction with Recurring Nightmare.
As for the bulk of the bans, many of them were obvious in retrospect to anyone who has played or seen these cards before. Tolarian Academy and Windfall were the first to fall, but shortly after that the DCI just about every single relevant combo deck in Standard and many of them in Extended. For those who aren’t familiar with these combo decks, nearly all of them were capable of turn three and four kills on a consistent basis with turn two not being out of the realm of possibility. Extended was actually the most prominent example of Academy decks as many of the people who know about Academy remember it from Pro Tour Rome.
If you want to read the winner’s report, that’s actually still available at classicdojo.org along with many of the top eight reports. http://classicdojo.org/t984/ptro.981208tho.txt
Tommi Hovi – Academy 1st PT Rome
Federico Dato –High Tide, 4th PT Rome
A summary of that tournament (Extended) and the ensuing Standard season can be summed up as turn four combo decks going off against each other every other round. Also a contingent of people continuing to try and play Sligh in every format regardless of their opposition, some things never change. Even at the Pro Tour where Academy and High Tide were top choices coming in, people were still bringing the little red men to the table. On the upside you had a sweet Necropotence match, too bad about the rest of the metagame though. The funny thing is that eventually control decks had caught up just enough to not be overpowered by the combo decks and actually had taken a fair amount of metagame space back from these monsters. Having a larger card pool does in fact help counter design mistakes to some degree. The lack of free flowing information also meant that people couldn’t instantly netdeck a ridiculous deck at the touch of a mouse.
If you want to take a look at the various flavors of Standard decks at the time that weren’t Academy, I’ll direct you over here: http://classicdojo.org/feature/nov98deck.html
The First and Only Emergency Ban
Announcement Date: March 11, 1999
Effective Date: April 1, 1999
Memory Jar is banned.
Memory Jar is banned.
Urza Block Constructed:
Memory Jar is banned.
Classic-Restricted (Type 1.5) Constructed:
Memory Jar is banned.
Zuran Orb is UNBANNED.
Classic (Type 1) Constructed:
Memory Jar is restricted.
* Please consider this an addition to the March 1st announcement.
Memory Jar: As was mentioned in the March 1 announcement, several cards were banned in order remove fast "Combination Decks" from dominating the Standard environment. However, Urza's Legacy has introduced another card, Memory Jar, that lends itself towards that same deck archetype. Many players have brought to our attention that this card, while perhaps not as strong as some of the other cards that were banned, is nonetheless strong enough that its presence diminishes the tournament environment.
Note that Combo Winter happened before R&D was heavily playtesting sets before release. What may have been obvious in hindsight wouldn’t be readily apparent if you merely looked at all the cards in a vacuum, although arguably some of them should have been.
As for Memory Jar being deserving of a ban, feast your eyes on a first generation Jar deck.
Randy Buehler and Erik Lauer's Memory Jar
A piece from Randy Buehler on why Memory Jar was emergency banned.
"The one card that was ever subject to an emergency ban was Memory Jar, which has the unfortunate text "draw seven cards" on it. However, the power of Memory Jar itself isn't why the DCI broke with its normal policy of quarterly changes. The only reason the DCI chose not to wait until the next regularly scheduled dates was because the very health of the Magic game was being threatened by "Combo Winter." Urza's Saga was four months old when Memory Jar came out in Urza's Legacy. During those four months, there was a large and loud public outcry about the way the game was being ruined by all the "broken" cards in Saga. Since Saga was affecting all Constructed formats, not just Extended, there wasn't anywhere for Magic players who didn't like combos to go. They either played against a steady stream of combo decks, or they didn't play at all. The DCI's first round of bannings in December 1998 didn't fix things and players began leaving the game in droves. It was vitally important to the health of the game to clean things up before too many more players walked away, so quite a large number of cards were included in the DCI's March 1, 1999 announcement, which would become effective April 1 of that year. Players were optimistic that Combo Winter was finally going to end.
That's when Urza's Legacy came out and introduced yet another broken combo card to the environment. The stakes were high and the DCI did not want to see Memory Jar undo all the work they were trying to do that March, so they issued an emergency ban. (Specifically, the Jar deck was discovered mere days after Legacy rotated into Standard on March 1 and about a week later it was retroactively added to the March 1 list.)"
Memory Jar as a card was a mistake and ultimately a terrible card from a design perspective, a pure gimmick card with no fair uses. Introduced in the most comboriffic time in Magic’s history WOTC was effectively splashing napalm on top of the burning remains of the format. It wasn’t just that Jar was a powerful card; it was a number of other factors that contributed to the only emergency ban in DCI history. In fact it could be argued that Jar decks weren’t even as powerful as High Tide or even necessarily any more unstoppable than other fast combination decks. GP Kansas City, the last Grand Prix Jar was legal for, was won by a red deck packing 8 Red Blasts (Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast) along with the usual set of Wasteland… Oh and Raging Goblin.
A side note, recently a number of comparisons have been drawn between Jace, the Mind Sculptor and other previously banned cards pointing out that Jace is not as powerful, nor enables turn three or four kills in Standard. While true in the literal sense, Jace doesn’t exactly end a match when he comes into play; I feel that some people are missing some of the details here. Many of these banned cards wouldn’t necessarily be banned in today’s Standard. In fact some of them may not even be playable!
You’ll notice a theme throughout the article, starting with Combo Winter that many of the combo mistakes existed with one another and that typically widespread bannings cleaned them up. Often it wasn’t just a single mistake that made the best deck into the stuff of legends; it was a multitude of borderline cards and bannable ones that created these distorted formats. Not only did Combo Winter feature more potentially busted card drawing engines than any other format, it also had the largest number of efficient fast mana cards available outside of Vintage.
Take a card like Memory Jar, Windfall, or Dark Ritual, and insert in into modern Standard and it might not have a real impact. How much can you really do with a draw-seven when you’re paying full price for it? Does Dark Ritual spawn a new deck or merely gives Vampires a boost in speed? Cards like Skullclamp will potentially be broken in every single format since there’s no end to X/1 dorks and what you can do with an endless stream of cards. Survival of the Fittest was a borderline card that was eventually banned in Extended and lived a happy live in Legacy until Vengevine came along and pushed it to a bannable power level.
Now take Jace. He may not have the incredible upside of some of the banned cards, but he has a much better baseline for potential use in other formats. Take Jace and insert him into other formats. If they aren’t incredibly high powered ala Necro Summer or Combo Winter, I fully believe he’d be one of the best cards in a fair number of past formats. Would he necessarily be in the best strategy? No. But the power level of Jace as a card on his own is very high where as a fair number of banned cards simply wouldn’t have any support to get them off the ground.
If you talked to someone who was playing back in the day, you could likely get them to attest to how much power a card like Jace would have considering the average quality of card people were playing in many formats. Patrick Chapin may exaggerate at times, but there’s a reason he really sold the power level of Jace in comparison to other banned cards. Jace may promote some level of interaction with the opponent, but he can put some major constraints on what actually works on the board-level. I just wanted to get that out there for some balance to the thought that all these old broken combo cards were complete monsters by themselves.
From the B/R Announcement:
"In considering the Extended format, we took into account the proliferation of certain combo decks, such as the increasingly popular Necro-Donate deck. Data was analyzed from Pro Tour™ - Chicago, recent Qualifier tournaments and Grand Prix events. Although many cards were considered (including Necropotence, Donate, and Demonic Consultation), it was decided that it was more important to deal with the core of the problem: fast mana. Dark Ritual and Mana Vault both provide mana too easily, allowing certain combo decks to win much too quickly. Removing these two cards from the environment allows combo decks to exist, but decreases the speed at which they can win, balancing the decks in relation to the rest of the field. This decision also allows other interesting, balanced deck types to exist within the format."
Nowadays you would guffaw at the sheer absurdity of anyone defending Necropotence as a fair card or useful pillar of the metagame. Back in the day however there were serious inquiries into how powerful the card actually was and if it would be correct to leave it around. I point this out because it's important to give context to the Mana Vault and Dark Ritual banning. In essence they boiled down part of the problem that plagued the Extended season (and many more to come), but stopped at that point and took a wait-and-see approach with the rest of the issues surrounding it. Necropotence was a vastly popular card and strategy and they wanted to leave the decks viable for the future, just weakened enough as to not dominate the format.
By banning some of the fast mana and leaving all the egregious engines, card selection tools and combo pieces around they ensured the Trix (AKA: Necro Donate) would continue to be the best deck and that nearly every successful deck in the format would be based around a combo engine or built specifically to fight combo decks. Looking back on this we can see the takeaway that would later reinforce the Affinity bannings. By only eliminating part of the problem they left the most powerful deck still viable and merely shifted the format slightly instead of a major change. Ironically, later that year Demonic Consultation and Necropotence were restricted in Vintage.
For those who don’t know, the best decks in the format by a fair margin were Necropotence and Oath decks. Necro Trix was the best of all the decks, but was underdeveloped at the time and not fully embraced by the community. Once we got further into the season it was clear the NecroTrix was the best deck in the format and promptly warped the metagame around it.
Free Spell Necro - Brian Davis, 2nd PT Chicago
A year after the Mana Vault and Dark Ritual ban, a variety of engine bans finally took place taking out Necro, Survival and Replenish combo decks all out of the picture. Additionally arguably the best tutor ever printed was also banned, taking away a key piece in any black combo deck and even hurting certain tempo fish-esque decks which used to cheaply find answers to problems. As for reasoning behind the bans the list is a who's who of absurd card advantage mechanisms and tutors. All three engines have been the cores of very successful combo decks and even when applied 'fairly' were top tier decks in Standard, Extended, Vintage and Survival even transitioned to modern day Legacy.
Trix had continued to dominate in a weakened form and the rest of the format was either insane hybrid decks or more combo. As a result the DCI took it a step further banning-wise then last time, taking care of two other potential metagame breaking engines before they could fill the vacuum left by Necro Trix's supposed absence.
For those who aren't familiar with these types of decks here are some sample lists.
PandeBurst - Gordon Lin, 1st at GP Sydney
While the bans were effective, in the end Trix continued to prevail in a new form and Kai Budde would show the world that Trix was still the best deck with his win at Pro Tour: New Orleans.
Trix: Kai Budde
As for the end of Old Extended, while not technically a ban, it could be said its rotation (cutting out nearly every top deck in the old format) was accelerated in the face of every deck winning by turn three or playing Force of Will / Winter Orb in an attempt to combat that. Think of the end of Old Extended as a narrower more broken version of Legacy today. There were still a variety of decks, but those decks had to fit within very specific criteria to remain viable.
Extended gets a major facelift
Announcement Date: December 1, 2003
Effective Date: January 1, 2004
Taking into account what the DCI learned from Combo Winter and previously ineffectual Extended bans, this time they cleaned house in the aftermath of a broken Pro Tour. What flavor of broken deck did you enjoy here? If you wanted to kill off fast mana, artifacts and storm then you had a deck, killing on turn two with a creature? You have a deck. Killing on turn three with Goblin Charbelcher? Again, you have deck. In fact my favorite deck of all-time was located in this time frame, Food Chain Goblins. You had the traditional resiliency and aggro factors of a Goblin deck mixed in with a combo kill and the equivalent of Red Necropotence in Goblin Recruiter.
If you ever want to point to how drastically card values can change with the addition of new sets point to this set of bannings. All of these cards were fair or at least not unfair to the point of banning in the past, and then with a few sweet additions (mostly from Mirrodin block) they went over the top and broke the world. Oh hey another subtle hint toward Jace, Stoneforge Mystic, and Valakut, and how they slowly kept rising in power until they became absolute pillars.
This was supposed to mark the end of combo dominated Extended formats.
Skullclamp and Affinity Bannings
Announcement Date: June 1, 2004
Effective Date: June 20, 2004
Skullclamp is banned
Announcement Date: March 1, 2005
Effective Date: March 20, 2005
Arcbound Ravager is banned
Disciple of the Vault is banned
Artifact lands are banned (Ancient Den, Great Furnace, Seat of the Synod, Tree of Tales, Vault of Whispers, Darksteel Citadel)
In case anyone missed how broken Clamp Affinity was or how prevalent it was.
I could go into a long spiel here about why these cards were banned and how they ruined Magic for about a year. Instead let me check off all the criteria previously used to ban cards in the various formats to this point.
Unfun to play against? Check. Not only were Clamp decks and Affinity difficult to interact with without completely warping your deck, you weren’t necessarily going to beat them even with these major concessions. They killed very quickly and Ravager Affinity could take the concept of luck to extremes which painted MTG as a coin-flipping contest. There’s a reason Pierre Canali was taken to task by Osyp when he was on his Pro Tour-winning run with Affinity. One of the few broken decks in history you could play like a complete buffoon and still have a reasonable chance of dominating your opponent.
It was everywhere / Dominance: Check. Look at the above link and feel free to poke away tournament results during the Clamp and Affinity era of the game. Affinity is one of the few decks in history where you could claim the field was 40%+ of Affinity and actually be correct. All too often nowadays people claim the best decks are “everywhere” and they mainly win due to a large portion of the population filling out slots deserved by other strategies. This is almost universally untrue and only Affinity and certain Jund tournaments could make a case for a ban-worthy strategy being everywhere.
Sheer Power: Check. Notice how many cards on this list are either insane or in the context of the format where they were banned, well, ban-worthy. Skullclamp is one of the most unfair cards ever printed and could virtually be ported to every format where you had enough time to play creatures and haumph them with Clamp. So while it may not be good enough for Vintage or the absolute fastest formats in Magic’s history, it’ll be good enough for the rest. Ravager Affinity was no slouch either with a huge number of hands that could win on turn four through disruption and a large amount of resilience built in to surviving counter-strategies.
Nearly impossible to counter: Check. Even in a completely warped metagame setting if there’s a best deck and a counter to it, a format can still exist and even be fun to some degree. In the case of Clamp any counter-Clamp strategy you came up with would almost inevitably be made better by… Wait for it… Little more…. PLAYING SKULLCLAMP. The deck trying to cast nine mana sorceries still wanted to play Skullclamp - there wasn’t exactly a direct counter to this outside of having the Oxidize in response every time.
Once again I have a simple way of explaining how resilient Ravager Affinity was. You could play a deck with maindeck Oxidize, Wing Shards, Wrath of God, Pulse of the Fields, and Akroma's Vengeance, and still lose a fair game to Affinity. I’m not sure what more I need to say about that. If turn three combo decks were legal, then Affinity wouldn’t have been that much of a problem; otherwise run away.
It drove people away from the game: The massive Affinity ban was done in an attempt to salvage an already terrible year of Magic attendance. People were actively leaving the game in numbers big enough that WOTC sat up and took notice and even admitted as much when the DCI made the decision to ban all the cards. They did it so the deck was completely unplayable and nobody would have to worry about it again.
Now that I could continue down the banning timeline and touch on Flash and Survival of the Fittest over in Legacy, but those were recent and had quite a bit written about them. What I wanted to do with this piece was show what cards were banned, the criteria given (and implied) by banning them and how this has shaped up during a 6 year period where bannings every year were a given. You can apply many of these to Jace, the Mind Sculptor and even some to Stoneforge Mystic and Valakut.
I already gave my opinion on Jace; I believe it meets the criteria for banning in dominance and power and the format would’ve encouraged more variety if it gets banned. That said I’m of the same hope that New Phyrexia (which looks very strong) pushed some decks far enough to disown the CawBlades of the world from their seat at the front of the bus. This may or may not happen though, considering that Batterskull (at a glance) looks frigging amazing and CawBlade is best situated to take advantage of it.
Hopefully you’ve learned something about the DCI and the history of bans in pro level constructed formats.