Bannings in Legacy and Why They Happen
Legacy is defined by powerful cards that sometimes lead to calls for bans. Join CabalTherapy as he breaks down some recent bannings, why these cards generate such a strong reaction in the Legacy community, and, additionally, why other, equally powerful cards are embraced by a majority of the community.
Today, I would like to venture into dangerous waters, a territory that is filled with trip hazards and land mines, but I'm planning on walking right through them.
Essentially, I want to tackle the omnipresent question of bans in Legacy, looking at some recently banned cards, and what types of cards drive people to seek new bans. Having played competitive Legacy for more than 10 years, I've seen plenty of cards get the axe and I've seen cards like Mystical Tutor and Entomb get a Second Chance. The latest victims of the hammer have been Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe, cards that saw extensive plays in many, many archetypes from combo decks – I tried the elf in ANT's sideboard to combat other combo decks and Czech Pile – to aggro strategies like Delver.
Deathrite Shaman was particularly potent, becoming a starting point for a huge portion of metagame. Overall, it was a centerpiece in too many decks for the community's taste and eventually also for Wizards's. Gitaxian Probe wasn't as centralizing as Deathrite, but its casting cost made it a logical inclusion in Grixis Delver, ANT, Depths, other Delver decks, and Sneak & Show. And that just scratches the surface.
Wizards gives different reasons for banning cards. Sometimes they're overcentralizing (too widely played) like Deathrite Shaman. Sometimes they're part of an easily exploitable engine like Survival of the Fittest and sometimes they're just an overly powerful combo piece that makes you win on the spot like Flash.
Consequently, there are many cards currently legal in the format that also seem to fit these explanations. In any given Legacy metagame, players will always find cards for which they can make suitable banning arguments. Let's talk about some criteria now.
Facts over Feelings
When discussing banning, the most important thing to understand is that personal feelings can't come into it. Data needs to be the primary driving factor, not anecdotal evidence. If you're losing to a specific strategy, you need to first try and adapt – either through playstyle or deck / card choice – and then, when adaptation no longer seems possible, start considering the wider landscape and data when deciding whether a card should be banned. Most players hate the feeling of losing to a turn one Chalice of the Void or a Blood Moon but there is no need for getting rid of these cards without a wider context.
The same is true for Brainstorm, a card that can single-handedly turn the game upside down with its filtering ability.
Tell Me More about Brainstorm
Legacy is basically divided into two philosophies when it comes to banning cards: There are the people who think that Brainstorm is great for Legacy and the ones who want it gone for good. There is no way to mitigate its power and, admittedly, there are many more people starting their decklists with four Brainstorms than there ever were with Deathrite Shaman.
However, it's important to understand that one of these spells brings nothing to the table on its own; it's dependent on the deck's strategy and while being extremely versatile in application, its power can only be measured in relation to strategy it's improving or enabling. Deathrite, on the other hand, is acceleration, a hate permanent, and a win condition for one mana that barely needs other cards to function properly.
Building an analogy from another field, one could see Brainstorm as the auxiliary verb and Deathrite taking up the space of the noun, commanding the sentence. Thus, Brainstorm connects nouns and creates a meaningful relation between them but does nothing in a contextual vacuum.
That is one of the reasons why Brainstorm allows for so much diversity. Many different archetypes are enabled by the verb that would otherwise be situational or not particularly strong.
Banning Brainstorm would eventually lead to reduction of playable decks because some strategies would easily outperform others due to their resilience. One could make an argument that Ponder, Preordain, Portent, Opt, and all the other CMC 2 cantrips could step in and fill the gap, but they are vastly different from Brainstorm's unique filtering ability. Ponder is essentially a cantripping tutor, Preordain is great for control decks that aren't look for specific cards, Portent is too slow and not an option for tempo and combo, Opt is too cute and simply too weak for Legacy in many scenarios, and the CMC 2 cantrips like Impulse, Accumulated Knowledge, and the like take more time to set up and play properly.
Consequently, I would see less tier one options and overall less diversity in a world without Brainstorm. Additionally, Brainstorm isn't anywhere near the banworthy percentages it used to have a couple of years ago.
Side Note: The Pillar of the Format and the Color Pie
Talking about Brainstorm's unofficial title is not particularly fruitful but I'll do it anyways. Removing this card from the Legacy pool would cause an identity crisis for the format that has so long been defined by the card. Because of this, it has a special status granted to very few cards. It's been in Legacy since the format's inception and has seemingly been acknowledged as a card that will never see a ban in Legacy. Alongside cards like Force of Will, it is the face of the format and the majority of players want it to remain a constant pillar that diversifies the meta. In addition, it is definitely not about the colors. There isn't really a color pie in Legacy. Such a concept simply doesn't exist anymore as access to mana fixing tools effectively makes all color combinations possible, meaning individual color identity means very little.
Let's Ban Some Cards, Shall We
Not so fast! The first criterion is to see what cards are inherently powerful and work well without specific contexts. It is much easier to have answers to specific strategies than to single cards that overcentralize the format, even if that sounds contrary at first.
Entomb was unbanned a decade ago and undoubtedly is a crazy powerful card. It does nothing, however, against an opposing Leyline of the Void, Tormod's Crypt, or any other piece of early graveyard hate. This helps keep the card balanced in the greater context of the format, but there are definitely cards that demand more effort when you need to answer them.
Wrenn and Six is a great example here. The card is an engine in RUG, 4c, and Loam decks. It has multiple abilities that are all extremely relevant in today's meta. There have already been voices that call for a ban. But what does Wrenn and Six do? It has made 4c Control and 4c Delver playable again and pushed RUG Delver to new heights.
It has also made playing Death and Taxes, Infect, and Elves much harder. Mana denial strategies are somewhat countered by the CMC 2 walker and shooting down X/1 creatures is a vital way of dealing with creature decks without having to play crowd control effects in the sideboard.
Not being a tempo card per se, Wrenn and Six has not really made any decks completely unplayable, but rather has forced these decks to adapt, getting Death and Taxes players, for example, to run more planeswalker hate like Pithing Needle in the side.
But is the card overcentralizing? The best way to figure that out is to ask whether it's reasonable to play control or tempo archetypes without Wrenn and Six. And the simple answer is yes, it is possible. U/R Delver is in a great spot right now even if RUG and 4c give it some stronger competition. Shardless BUG still exists and W/U/x control piles are still strong and posting results, both in Miracles and Blade form. X/1 strategies are definitely on the decline, but Wrenn and Six has definitely not had the overcentralizing affect people feared when it first burst onto the scene.
Are there any other cards that are oppressive enough to warrant a ban? I don't think so, as Legacy has been hugely varied and still seems to be settling in the wake of Modern Horizons. Depths is definitely performing exceptionally strong in a lot of tournaments and U/R Delver made it to the top two at CM Series Frankfurt, so it's not going anywhere any time soon.
CabalTherapy at CM Series Frankfurt
Speaking of Frankfurt, I went 6-3 (34th) with ANT. Quite a disappointing result after winning two byes the previous day. However, I had some tough match ups and won a couple of games that I really shouldn't have, including a game two win against Grixis Snow Control on a mulligan to four.
Generally speaking, the meta looks healthy right now and will need some time to settle. Will there be banworthy cards in the future? Yes, there will because that is the nature of the Legacy metagame. Someone always has to play the lead, but in a format with as many cards and strategies as legacy, there are usually plenty of understudies looking to take the lead.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.