Should Banning be Banned?
Last week saw the banning of two popular cards in the Pioneer format (one of which also impacted Explorer). Winota, Joiner of Forces and Expressive Iteration are now no longer legal in these formats for different reasons. I’d like to unpack that a bit today and discuss the larger issue of cards getting banned at all. Why it is necessary to preserve the health of the game?
Winota, Joiner of Forces
Winota is a powerhouse card that has presented problematic play patterns since she was first introduced in Ikoria. She is capable of delivering a devastating blow to the opponent as early as turn three with relative consistency regardless of the format and regardless of the support pieces around her. In Pioneer specifically, she had some incredible threats to fetch up like Tovolar’s Huntmaster and Brutal Cathar while the setup of a non-human board in the early game could easily be accomplished by cards like Fable of the Mirror Breaker and Llanowar Elves.
I don’t believe the play pattern of hitting a big threat on turn three or four is necessarily a problem, but Winota wasn’t just any big threat – she was a one-hit kill in many situations that the opponent had little chance to interact with. Additionally, the decks she encouraged could be filled with game-winning threats even if Winota didn’t show up to deliver the death blow, making for an incredibly powerful Naya midrange deck. Frankly, the deck is good enough on its own merits that some people may still play it without Winota in the list.
So what did the ban accomplish? Well, it took a deck that was potentially the best deck in the format and downgraded it to a tier-two or even tier-three deck. This is meaningful because other decks have an opportunity to shine and the meta becomes more diverse.
Expressive Iteration is an interesting case because, unlike Winota, it doesn’t win you the game. Far from it, as a matter of fact, but it’s a card that fills its role better than almost any other out there. Being able to spend two mana to dig three cards deep into your deck and practically draw the two best cards of them is incredibly efficient and provides Izzet decks with an unreasonable amount of consistency. This means that just about any combo or control deck running Red and Blue really ought to run Expressive Iteration, and many decks were incentivized to splash for it as well.
Variance is key to the game of Magic: the Gathering. Each turn we draw a random card, after all. With a deck that’s capable of consistently hitting answers or combo pieces nearly every game, the variance is reduced dramatically and the game becomes less about player skill and more about the deck simply executing its gameplan. I’m not saying that Expressive Iteration alone allowed for this type of perfect consistency, but it definitely helped. Notably, we see this type of issue with other hyper-efficient card-selection spells as well. Brainstorm in Historic comes to mind, and Ponder and Preordain have been banned in Modern.
So Why Ban Cards At All?
As with most things in a capitalist society, the answer comes back simply to money. When people talk about a format’s health or how diverse the metagame is, they’re ultimately trying to answer the question, “How fun is it to play?” We simply assume that a diverse metagame that promotes creative deck construction is a more positive play experience for the majority of players, and if the majority of players are having a positive play experience, they’re likely to continue playing. If Wizards keeps players engaged with the game, those people are likely to invest in the game and buy cards.
Conversely, if the play patterns for a format prove unpleasant, new players will be turned off before they can be converted into devoted fans and, worse yet, dedicated players of that format may choose to take a break from the game or quit outright which could drastically hurt the company’s bottom line.
So, when a card like Winota pushes other archetypes out of a format like Pioneer and heavily incentivizes everyone to play the same deck, the play experience within the tournament scene or online queues suffers dramatically. That said, the experience of having a deck you’ve purchased get banned feels awful and can also push a player away from the game. Bans are truly necessary evils that should only occur when a card could be called a mistake. I think, in the case of Winota and Expressive Iteration, these cards were too efficient for the effects they offered and deserve the ban hammer they received.
In my experience (primarily on MTG Arena) there are a number of pushed cards recently that I believe are seeing disproportionate play that could be candidates for a ban. I don’t have the play data to confirm, so I’ll refrain from naming specific cards, but I bet you could name a couple. A higher number of bans are simply a result of Wizards pushing the power of new cards to a point where some just break the game. It will be very interesting to see if this power creep continues and bans continue to be just part of the Magic experience.
While I do believe problematic cards should be removed from their respective formats, I’m also growing weary of the rate at which we ban cards these days. It’s a tough balance that WotC needs to navigate, and I believe last week’s ban was appropriate, but for the health of the game on the whole, I hope we don’t see many more bans in the coming months.