From the First Bans and Restrictions to Oko
- Pietro Cavalletti
In 1994, Wizards released the first list of banned and restricted cards, dealing with presumed problems such as Dingus Egg and Orcish Oriflamme. Compared to Oko, Thief of Crowns and Once Upon a Time they seem … to be coming from a different game. We've come a long way, but some things never change.
Once upon a time, when Magic was born in 1993, there was no concept of restricted and banned cards. To be precise, the concept of "maximum four copies of a single card per deck" didn't exist either. I don't know if you ever heard of the format "Alpha40" which only allows cards from Limited Edition Alpha. There you can build a deck without any limit, meaning for example 15 Black Lotus, 10 Timetwister and 15 Lightning Bolt.
Since those (happy) days many things happened in Magic. The past 26 years saw the introduction of "formats," the blocks, the rotation of expansions, and of course … the banned and restricted list!
No Alarms and No Surprises
Let me tell you a little story: the other day I won a "mythic wildcard" on MTG Arena and I immediately went to the shop to get an Oko. After quick reflection, I changed my mind thinking, "Oh wait! this guy will surely be banned."
Then, just a few days later, the following news came out:
November 18, 2019 Banned and Restricted Announcement
- Oko, Thief of Crowns is banned.
- Once Upon a Time is banned.
- Veil of Summer is banned.
- Oko, Thief of Crowns is banned.
- Wrenn and Six is banned.
- Narset, Parter of Veils is restricted.
Well … I don't want to pretend I'm a genius or a prophet. The banning of Oko in Standard was easier to predict than a victory of Roger Federer against a weekend tennis player. In fact, after 25 years, we as Magic players have developed a pretty good grasp on the logic and the dynamics that lead Wizards to ban and to restrict cards. It's often easy to know them before they get announced.
But … has it always been like that?
No Alarms. But Some Surprises
Let's go back in time. It's January 1994, and the first banned and restricted list in Magic history is released. Some background: at that time, the printed sets were Limited Edition Alpha (August 1993), Limited Edition Beta (October 1993), Unlimited Edition (December 1993), and the first Magic expansion, Arabian Nights (December 1993). For obvious reasons, there was no (or little) information available on decks played and tournament results, nor was there official and reasoned analysis of play aside from what the designers, the playtest team, and the first Magic fanatics contributed.
Last but not the least, the concept of a "format" didn't exist yet, as you were just "playing Magic." Here's what came out:
- Ali from Cairo
- Ancestral Recall
- Black Lotus
- Dingus Egg
- Gauntlet of Might
- Icy Manipulator
- Mox Pearl
- Mox Emerald
- Mox Ruby
- Mox Sapphire
- Mox Jet
- Orcish Oriflamme
- Rukh Egg
- Sol Ring
- Time Vault
- Time Walk
I don't want to argue about the bannings here: as you can see, they're all "play for ante" cards other than the mighty Shahrazad—one of the three Arabian Nights cards banned or restricted one month after the set's release.
Let's take a deeper look at the "limitations"—that's the expression they used at that time. First, there's the obvious restriction of "the jewels" (Moxen, Sol Ring, and Black Lotus) and of the "big blue" cards (Timetwister, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, and Braingeyser). Then there's the case of Rukh Egg: flash-banned for creating 4/4 fliers just by discarding it. And then there are some more interesting candidates …
Ali from Cairo was flash-banned only one month after going on sale. It's true that removal wasn't as common at the time, but … was it worth restricting the card?
Everyone loves Berserk. It also saw some play in Infect decks many years later. Restricting a card that doubles the power of a single creature and kills it in the process seems dubious nevertheless.
Gauntlet of Might: "Big Red" didn't even exist yet.
Icy Manipulator was a powerful card back in the days, but there's no call for restricting it.
A Brutal Comparison
You probably agreed with me on some of the absurdity so far. Now take a look at a card restricted in Vintage in the last few days and a card restricted back in 1994. It's true and important to underline that the Alpha version of Orcish Oriflamme only cost 2 instead of 4. But I don't think that anyone would have restricted that card … at any time.
Narset, by contrast, costs only 3 mana, stops your opponent from drawing extra cards, potentially tutors for two cards at your convenience, and isn't susceptible to creature removal. Can you notice a slight difference?
A Matter of Power Level?
Through the years, but more often in recent times, I've read and heard many people arguing that the power level of new cards is much higher compared to old cards. This can be true at a general level, but can it justify the difference in the cards banned and restricted last week compared to the ones restricted back in 1994? And while it applies to cards such as Oriflamme or Rukh Egg, it can't be true when you look at Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Black Lotus.
I personally think that the experience acquired, the team working on Magic, and the amount of data available now through the web—remember that the first banned and restricted list was published on Usenet—leads to precise and punctual decisions on that kind of matter.
What the Two Lists Have in Common
You might argue that it's obvious that the first banned and restricted announcement has got nothing in common with its equivalent nowadays. And that leads to the crucial point of this article: if now, at the end of 2019, all what concerns Magic is more detailed, tested, balanced, and improved—why do two cards get flash-banned only one month after their release, just like Ali from Cairo, Rukh Egg, and Shahrazad did in 1994?
I'm not saying there was a design error or a lack of playtesting, because maybe Oko and Once Upon a Time were designed with other formats than Standard in mind, but I do know that more than one player, myself included, got frustrated playing against such an unbalanced card. On the other hand, it's also true that at the end of 1993 you could have an opponent playing three or four Ancestral Recalls while taking multiple turns with Time Walks, all of which makes Oko look quite tame in comparison.
In these 25 years, the banned and restricted list saved not only the game, but also the sanity and the wallet of many Magic players, that's for sure. I hope you enjoyed this jump to the past. I'm convinced that if you browse the history archives—as I do often—you will notice many other similarities to modern Magic, more than you would think.
For example, who else had a flashback thinking of Shandalar while downloading and playing MTG Arena?
Finally … If you're disappointed about the money you've lost when Oko went from €45 to €25 on Cardmarket, just think of a player that had multiple copies of all the Moxen, Lotus, and Ancestral Recall at the beginning of 1994!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.