The Year of the Banhammer
- Rodrigo Martin
2019 will be remembered for many things: insanely powerful cards, Arena Mythic Championships, the creation of Pioneer. However, one thing stands out among the others: a total of nine banning announcements featuring changes, more than in the two previous years combined. Let's review the Year of the Banhammer.
Welcome, everyone, to my last article for 2019. Christmas holidays are around the corner, meaning gathering with family and friends, plus maybe more spare time to play some Magic. It also means this is the perfect occasion to review the year before it ends.
Today, rather than write about a specific deck or archetype I wanted to review 2019 focused on banned cards across all formats since each and every one of them, from rotating ones like Standard or Brawl to nonrotating formats like Modern, Legacy, and Vintage, all have suffered the impact of Wizards' banhammer. I also like to add some historical perspective and compare it with previous years and finally make some predictions and end-of-year wishes for the upcoming 2020. Let's break it down:
1. A Decade in the Forge
Let's imagine you are introduced to trading card games and more specifically to Magic: the Gathering for the first time. Once you know how everything works, the combat phase, the deck building, and formats, at some point someone tells you that not all cards from the sets legal in a format can be played.
Your first reaction would be to ask why. Well, the answer is pretty obvious: banned cards are either too powerful, or feature a mechanic such as ante that was later forbidden. Finally, some of them aren't format-breaking but rather enable a specific kind of strategy that's problematic some other way, like combo decks that slow down the game or are frustrating to play against. For the past 25 years, Wizards have tried to give a proper shape to every format in their "R&D forge" by designing new and appealing cards. But when something goes wrong, it's time for the banhammer to do its job, and as sad as it is, some cards are better off banned in order to maintain a healthy, fair, and exciting metagame across all formats.
On this simple chart, I tried to show the number of cards banned in the last decade, except that on the Vintage section cards are merely restricted. Plus, I didn't take into consideration any unrestricted or unbanned cards since for the most part, that's always good news. Since Pioneer only is a couple of months old, it should be analyzed aside later in the article. For now, let's focus on formats that have been around longer.
2. Bannings Across Standard
Total cards banned (last decade): 16
Total cards banned during 2017–2018: 9
Total cards banned during 2019: 4+1
Standard has been a problematic format in the past three years, ever since Kaladesh was released. The great fiasco started when they created a parasitic mechanic in the shape of energy, resulting in the 2017 bans of Emrakul the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, Reflector Mage, and later Felidar Guardian as well as Aetherworks Marvel in two different banning announcements. Even with all that effort, it wasn't enough and energy remained the most predominant strategy alongside Monored, so early in 2018 four more cards were added to the list in order to balance the situation: Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and Rampaging Ferocidon all walked through the exit door.
The last case is quite hilarious since Ferocidon was a recently printed card from Ixalan at the time, and earned its suspension simply for other cards' sins. The poor thing spent most of its Standard life in prison until it was released a few months before rotation.
Now we get to this current year, were things looked quite positive initially. The first two expansions set on Ravnica were both balanced and the power level was distributed fairly among all the guilds. Then War of the Spark showed up and things started to get out of control—albeit mostly in other formats; not a single card from that set has been banned in Standard, although Teferi, Time Raveler and Nissa, Who Shakes the World have been in the conversation for the last few months.
Core Set 2020 and Throne of Eldraine put the final nail in the coffin by creating several Standard metagame iterations where one dominant deck completely warped the format. First it was the combination between Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and Field of the Dead. Then, after an Arena Mythic Championship dominated by Field decks, it got the axe in October thus creating a new Eldraine Standard 2.0 iteration where Food-based decks featuring Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nissa became the absolute tier zero. We had to wait until another Mythic Championship—tabletop this time—full of Food mirrors for three new bannings from the two most recent sets: Oko plus Once Upon a Time left Standard only two months after being printed, along with Veil of Summer, which was also banned in other formats.
A small note before we continue, the +1 banning refers to Nexus of Fate, another problematic card, especially in tabletop play as only foil versions are available. The card dodged the bullet in Standard, although it was partially banned in MTG Arena's best-of-one format.
3. Bannings in Modern
Total cards banned (last decade): 22
Total cards banned during 2017–2018: 2
Total cards banned during 2019: 4
Modern became a sanctioned paper format on August 2011 with an initial ban list of 24 cards. At present, some of them are legal, the most recent one being Stoneforge Mystic. It only had to wait eight years to become Modern legal. In recent times, the metagame kept evolving due to the influx of new powerful cards with no need to shake it up from time to time with spicy bannings. Back in 2016, after the Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom banning, things went rough in what was later called The Eldrazi Winter, beginning at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch's showcase of colorless aliens dominating the scene. As a result, Eye of Ugin was hit by the hammer and that brought back peace to the format until 2017, when Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll said goodbye to Modern. Moving on to 2018, things were pretty smooth when Wizards decided to unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf in a smart move that didn't tear Modern apart, rather improved the variety of archetypes available.
This year, tough, some crazy things have occurred, starting with the banning of Krark-Clan Ironworks, which wasn't an insane card on its own and which had been legal in Modern from the very beginning. In this case, it wasn't so much about an overpowered strategy as such but about a strategy pretty efficient at winning while creating this "feel bad" experience for opponents who had to wait for ten minutes to find out whether the KCI player's combo turn would fizzle or not.
A few months later, Wizards released the first Modern-focused product ever. Modern Horizons featured some reprints as previous Master sets had done, but it also included brand-new cards expressly designed for the format. Long story short: the experiment went badly, insanely so. In retrospective, I believe Horizons wasn't needed, and while it has brought a ton of new cards into the format, the set has done more harm than good, even increasing decks' prices and diminishing the trust in Modern overall. The outcome can be easily summarized: Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis was an absolute design mistake that completely nullified other strategies. To nerf Hogaak decks, Wizards first aimed at Bridge from Below, so they didn't have to shoot their newest card. That didn't work out at all. The deck became even more robust and dominated Modern until they finally decided to get rid of the Golgari Avatar along with Faithless Looting in a move to disrupt graveyard-based strategies once and for all.
Nowadays, Modern seems to be on fewer people's radar as a result of Pioneer's existence, a fancy, more affordable, undiscovered format that sooner or later will take some of Modern's thunder.
4. The Legacy Case
Total cards banned (last decade): 10
Total cards banned during 2017–2018: 3
Total cards banned during 2019: 1
I won't focus much on Legacy since it's almost a ban-proof format that only gets Wizards' attention from time to time. In 2017, Sensei's Divining Top was finally exiled from the format, as previously had happened in smaller formats like Modern or Extended. The card simply made games go longer with its ability to look at the top cards of the library at any time, and combined with Counterbalance created another oppressing environment. 2018 was the turn for both Gitaxian Probe and Deathrite Shaman to leave, a couple of problematic cards that also were banned in Modern. Probe even earned a ban in Pauper and a restriction in Vintage.
For the most part, Legacy had been in a pleasant place, until Modern Horizons made its appearance, adding a ton of options including Force of Negation, Arcum's Astrolabe, Plague Engineer. But the most impactful thing was an absurd 2-mana planeswalker: Wrenn and Six. This card did so much at such a small cost. First, it creates a two-card combo with Wasteland that completely destroys nonbasic mana bases. Secondly, the fact that it could kill toughness 1 creatures invalidated a handful of strategies, mainly Death and Taxes or tribal decks like Goblins or Elves. Surprisingly, Wizards chose to lift the mighty hammer and ban Wrenn for good a few weeks before GP Bologna.
All in all, I think Legacy is safe from further bannings in the coming months since it contains the most efficient answers in the history of Magic, although at the same time I am vigilant regarding how Oko is slowly taking over the format more and more now that Wrenn is gone.
6. A Small Note on Vintage
Total cards restricted (last decade): 15
Total cards restricted during 2017–2018: 4
Total cards restricted during 2019: 5
Before I even start, let me be totally honest: I always enjoy watching Vintage games, but I have never played myself. There isn't much I can add from a player's perspective, so I will throw you some facts about which cards have been restricted previously and this year. In 2017, four cards were restricted: first Gitaxian Probe and Gush, later in the year Thorn of Amethyst and Monastery Mentor, all four very powerful cards obviously.
Nothing happened during 2018, but this year a total of five cards have been restricted. Curiously, most of them were newly printed: first Karn, the Great Creator, Mental Misstep, Golgari Grave-Troll, and Mystic Forge, and then Narset Parter of Veils also was restricted.
Ultimately, we are talking about a format that is really hard to support on paper due to cards' prices and that doesn't attract new players. What is the common trend is that recent cards are getting banned or rather restricted among all formats.
7. Other Formats: Pauper and Pioneer
Total cards banned in Pauper (last decade): 11
Total cards banned in Pauper during 2019: 4
Total cards banned in Pioneer (so far): 14
Before closing up the article, we have to touch a little bit on two other formats that also suffered bannings through 2019, starting with Pauper. It's a format that had its up and downs, but this year finally became a sanctioned format. In May, Gush, Gitaxian Probe, and Daze were banned. After all these years of blue Delver dominance, Wizards decided to get rid of some core cards to trim down the power a little. Later in October, Arcum's Astrolabe also got the axe, as it apparently was seeing a ton of play in lot of decks, completely changing the rules of the mana bases. I won't go deep into it, since I am not a Pauper player anymore, but as previously pointed out, another brand-new card had to be removed.
Pioneer is a whole different story as it's just a couple of months old and is expected to have an outstanding future in 2020, with a great number of high-level tournaments and Wizards' full support. When counting the number of cards that are currently banned, there's the fetch lands cycle from Khans of Tarkir and then there are the four ban announcements.
First banning: Felidar Guardian, Leyline of Abundance, Oath of Nissa
Second banning: Veil of Summer
Third banning: Field of the Dead, Once Upon a Time, Smuggler's Copter
Fourth banning: Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nexus of Fate
Out of nine cards, five of them were printed this year, more specifically four are the same that also were banned in Standard, continuing with the power trend of cards designed lately. Starting next year, it's expected that Pioneer gets a regular banning announcement just like the rest of the formats but it's possible that the list keeps growing.
8. Wrap Up: Some Data and Predictions
And that ends the Year of the Banhammer review. I have been throwing about a lot of data regarding years and numbers during the article and I want to summarize this last year one more time:
Overall total cards banned/restricted in 2019: 29
Miscellaneous: Arena Standard (1), Brawl (1)
Rest: Standard (4), Modern (4), Pioneer (9), Legacy (1), Vintage (5), Pauper (4)
Bans/restrictions from the latest sets: 16
Throne of Eldraine (5): Once Upon a Time (2), Oko (3)
Core Set 2020 (6): Veil of Summer (2), Field of the Dead (2), Mystic Forge, Leyline of Abundance
Modern Horizons (3): Wrenn and Six, Hogaak, Arcum's Astrolab
War of the Spark (2): Narset, Karn
If you frequently read Wizards' R&D notes after bannings, you probably saw their article about recent mistakes regarding pushed cards from the latest sets. Eldraine cards are way more powerful than, let's say, Ixalan block cards, which felt quite disappointing. They missed with Oko and made him too broken, but the tendency is to increase the power level of newer cards so they can attract more players to the game. That said, I think we should get used to regular banning announcements for next year, since it's the safest, easiest way for Wizards to manage their errors, and they will happen again. Looking at the list above, you can already notice that from a total of 29 bans and restrictions sixteen cards were printed in 2019. That's not a coincidence.
Finally, here are my predictions regarding cards on an unofficial watch list that I consider ban-worthy. Please share your picks for 2020 in the comments!
Standard watch list: Cat-Oven combo, Fires of Invention (if it gets out of hands)
Pioneer watch list: Dig Through Time
Modern watch list: Urza, Lord High Artificer (at some point), Once Upon a Time
Legacy watch list: Oko, Thief of Crowns
As usual, thank you for reading. Enjoy the holidays!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.