Were the Bans Right?
by Tom Fowler
Wait . . . Ravager Affinity? Are you getting that “One of these things is not like the other” song from Sesame Street in your head? After all, Necro, Trix, and their ilk were all broken decks that ruled over their respective formats. Is Ravager Affinity really that broken?
In a word, yes.
Since its debut on the Pro Tour last year, Ravager Affinity has clearly shown itself to be the runaway best deck in at least two formats – Mirrodin Block Constructed and Standard. Not to be outdone, it also captured the Extended format Pro Tour stop in Columbus last October. Skullclamp was abusive in the deck, so it was banned, the first card banned in Standard in five years. Affinity marched on, replacing the Clamp with the more aggressive Cranial Plating. The deck has proven to be resilient to the hate it faces in every matchup. Standard has been a stale format for quite some time now, with the 800-pound gorilla of Affinity smashing the many inferior decks that tried to take it down. Clearly, something more had to be done.
We all know folks who have lost interest in Standard since Affinity became dominant. Once Onslaught Block took White-based control and Goblins with it, we were left with the Mirrodin Block metagame, with Champions of Kamigawa not bringing much to the table. In light of the stagnation of Standard, and the latest set doing little to change that, R&D member Aaron Forsythe promised action in his column dated February 11th. Here is the relevant portion that has started a lot of discussion:
Ravager Affinity continues to exert its chokehold on the rest of the format. It has gotten absolutely out of control despite the efforts of determined players and worried R&D and DCI officials. Banning Skullclamp didn't stop it, nor did printing subtle hosers in Champions of Kamigawa like Samurai of the Pale Curtain, Night of Souls' Betrayal, Horobi, and Imi Statue. As many of you now realize, the “answer” to Affinity was not in Betrayers of Kamigawa either.
I just got out of the quarterly Events Team meeting that handles the management of the Banned and Restricted Lists, and we've finally decided to put our collective feet down. On March 1st, we will be announcing major changes to the Banned List that should finally correct what has been an egregious problem with Standard over the past year.
So, we were promised B&R list action, and now we’ve gotten it. In a large way, in fact. Affinity is not only dead and in the ground, but WOTC paused to spray-paint the headstone and pee on the corpse while they were at it. I’m here to opine about whether it was right, if it was enough, if Standard is healthy again, and what other realistic options were out there.
Were The Right Cards Banned?
Absolutely. Many people got the impression from Aaron Forsythe’s article that WOTC wanted to slay the Affinity monster in Standard once and for all. They’ve certainly done that. Let’s look at the individual cards that were banned:
Disciple of the Vault: This fellow was a problem that had gone on too long, in my opinion. I really expected it to be banned when Skullclamp got the axe last July. The problem with the Disciple is that he’s a one-drop who can easily do 6-10 (or more) damage per game (if you’ll allow me to fudge loss of life into damage for a second) without ever turning sideways. Most creatures deal their damage by attacking. Those which don’t, like Grim Lavamancer, at least require a mana payment and the consumption of other resources – cards in the graveyard, in the case of Grimmy. Disciple of the Vault would just sit in play and kill your opponent. There were plenty of times, in Onslaught/Mirrodin Standard, when I would see a W/X Control player with a real conundrum. If he didn’t cast Akroma’s Vengeance, he was dead on the board. If he did cast it, the Disciple would kill him. That was ridiculous. No one-drop should ever hold such sway over the game. Personally, I feel banning this troublesome card was about nine months overdue, but the right decision was finally made.
Arcbound Ravager: The namesake of the deck, this was another big problem that needed to go. Ravager’s undoing was that it helped you win in so many different ways. You could sacrifice useless artifacts to it and swing for the win in a two or three turns. You could sacrifice most of your permanents to it and let Disciple of the Vault do its dirty work. And, most annoyingly, you could sacrifice most of your permanents to it, then move all those counters onto a Blinkmoth Nexus (or an Ornithopter in some builds) to create an arbitrarily large flying creature. If Ravager just got fat, it wouldn’t have been as bad, but the size combined with the modular ability was what sunk it. Atog could have replaced it for artifact-chewing, and the subsequent Disciple tricks, but not for counter-moving.
The Six Artifact Lands: These were the ones a lot of people didn’t expect to get the axe. However, I think banning Ancient Den, Great Furnace, Seat of the Synod, Tree of Tales, Vault of Whispers, and Darksteel Citadel was definitely the right move. This shows that WOTC learned from the sad case of Necropotence in Extended. Several years ago, Necro decks were tearing up the format. Instead of just banning the engine card, the DCI banned most of the other cards in the deck. Different Necro decks would emerge, with the worst of them being Trix. Finally, The Skull itself was put to rest. This time, the DCI banned the engine of Ravager Affinity: the artifact lands. Broodstar Affinity or Skies Affinity could have been playable, and could have won on turn four or five. By taking the artifact lands out of the environment, the DCI put a rest to these shenanigans. Affinity as a mechanic is unplayable without the lands to power its insane early turns. Sol Ring has been restricted for a dog’s age, and at least that required you to pay initially. With Affinity, each of your lands became better than Sol Ring, since they were both free and provided a colored mana. Seat of the Synod essentially tapped for 1U. The artifact lands were an interesting design, but ultimately too strong with the powerful Affinity mechanic.
Was It Enough?
Yes. Heck, there wasn’t much more they could have done. The goal of these B/R List actions was clearly to kill Affinity dead, and that goal was accomplished. We can speculate on whether or not this was necessary; after all, every format has a “best deck.” However, interest in Standard had waned, and the last two sets were getting no love because all they did was play Fay Wray to Affinity’s King Kong. Clearly, Affinity had to be stopped, and the DCI’s actions have put a stop to it.
There are consequences for other decks, though. Krark-Clan Ironworks decks are now as dead as their Affinity cousins without the artifact lands to power them. Not banning the lands would have left KCI in a very strong position, and the DCI was responsible enough not to let that happen. Red decks that used to splash artifact lands for Shrapnel Blast will now have to rethink their plans. It’s interesting that the banning of the artifact lands will have splash damage on other decks, considering that non-Affinity decks playing artifacts suffered from splash damage because of all the artifact hate everyone had to play.
Those losses are unimportant, however. The B/R actions were necessary, and they were enough.
Is Standard Healthy Again?
Yes. There is no 800-pound gorilla stomping all the inferior creations. Decks which were unplayable simply because they rolled over to Affinity will now return. Decks which couldn’t survive the splash damage from rampant artifact hate will now find a friendlier climate. Innovation will be rewarded again. I’m sure a new “best deck” will emerge, since every format has one, but it won’t be something that tyrannically rules the format for a year or more.
One of the many reasons Affinity had to be destroyed, in my opinion, was the short shrift that the two Kamigawa sets were getting in Standard. R&D spent months on each set, even working in some cards designed to keep Affinity in check, and all their new creations just got stomped and killed by a monster they’d previously made. No one wants to see their hard work go to waste. Let’s not forget that WOTC is owned by Hasbro, a publicly-traded company ultimately beholden to its stockholders and the bottom line. Large companies like Hasbro know how to do market research. If sales of the Kamigawa sets were stagnant because the cards didn’t have the muscle to stand up to Affinity, Hasbro would want action to be taken.
What Else Could Have Been Banned?
Not much, really. A lot of people are giving the DCI a lot of flak right now, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt about the new Standard. When the news first broke that we’d see significant B/R List action, I expected something to get banned from Tooth and Nail decks, too. Why slay one 800-pound gorilla, after all, if the result will just be that another was created in its place? T&N decks, however, are easy to sideboard against, and are not as resilient to hate strategies as Affinity was. While something like Tooth and Nail, Eternal Witness, or even Sylvan Scrying could have walked the plank, none did. I think we’ll see that they didn’t need to.
Free Bonus Section: Other Major March 1 News
Yes, that’s right: this bonus section is being provided completely free of charge. All commentary succinct, pithy, and correct, or your money back.
Magic isn’t just about Standard. Vintage, popularly called Type 1, saw another card added to its Restricted list in Trinisphere. While Mishra’s Workshop seemed a more popular target among players, Trinisphere was the real problem. Workshop forces you to play artifacts early, and it’s easily replaced with the more versatile Ancient Tomb. A first-turn Trinisphere, after a Mishra’s Workshop and a Mox, was ludicrously unfair. If the opponent didn’t have Force of Will in hand, they were in for a serious uphill battle. Casting Trinisphere on the first turn is the equivalent of casting two Time Walks, and that presumes your opponent actually makes his second and third land drops. Type 1 decks don’t have to play 20+ lands because of the ubiquity of cheap artifact mana; it’s common for a deck to have between 10 and 16 lands. If your opponent missed one of those land drops, you basically won the game, just by casting an artifact on the first turn. That’s way too powerful to exist in numbers.
Also, the DCI announced that cards from the Portal and Starter sets would be made tournament legal on October 1st. This has been a popular request among players for a while now. While the Portal sets had a few very good cards in them, there’s also a lot of chaff out there that will never get played. Sure, you’ll see Imperial Seal, Personal Tutor, and maybe even Jungle Lion, but I think this will have a small impact on Vintage. Legacy, with its more reasonable power level, might well be a different story.
Speculation is already rampant about what will be good in Standard now that the spectre of Affinity no longer looms over it. This just shows that people are excited about Standard again. Those of you who were late to the party and just recently got your Ravagers: jump on the bandwagon before it’s already trampled everyone to death next time. The DCI’s recent bannings were necessary to create a fair and healthy Standard environment. While a lot of people will be carping about the mistakes made (and there were definitely some of those), let’s also give the folks at the DCI credit for cutting the problem off at the knees like they did.
Now go forth and innovate.