Tuesday, December 16, 2014

the ideology of modern bannings

All discussions of format banned and restriction lists are ideological debates. We have different ideas of what cards, decks, and strategies people should be allowed to play, because we have different ideas of what we want Magic to be like.

Modern brought with it a new banned list, comprising far more cards than its predecessor, the seven year Extended format, had before that format was destroyed. These bans were not targeted at making sure one specific deck wasn’t dominant, but rather, ensuring that all the good decks from old Extended wouldn’t be allowed. That metagame consisted of Thopter-Depths, Faeries, Elves, Dredge, Hypergenesis, Affinity, and Scapeshift with Punishing Fire, among other decks. Not only did all of those have crucial cards banned, but lesser decks that weren’t playable had cards banned as well, because they would have been playable in their absence.

Why were all these cards banned? The “turn four” ideology. If a deck consistently wins before turn four, it isn’t allowed in Modern. This is a new development for Magic banned and restricted lists: things are banned not for oppressing tournaments, but because if they show up at a tournament, that is A Bad Thing. Blazing Shoal Infect didn’t even have to win a single tournament before getting struck down by the DCI, because it is ideologically opposed to their idea of what Modern should be.

As strange as it may sound, there was a time when bannings were supposed to be exclusively about making a format balanced, rather than enforcing a turn limit. Combo decks were a-OK in Extended, and for many years, they thrived. Oath of Druids was legal, and good, for a long, long time before finally getting thrown out. Sure, cards from specific combo decks were banned, like Goblin Recruiter and Tinker, but they had to prove themselves to be capable of winning tournaments in a way that showed they were the best deck before they got banned. It was far from perfect, of course (Dark Ritual getting banned instead of Necropotence will always be one of the most comical DCI mistakes), but they attempted to ban combo only when it was too good instead of banning combo just to ban combo.

Patrick Chapin recently wrote about the Modern banned list (as well as Legacy and Vintage). His analysis is as well thought-out as analysis can be that accepts Wizards thinking unquestionably; he has a tendency, when giving his hot takes on Magical issues, to think of things as though he were still an employee of the company. Where he disagrees with their banned list, he disagrees in ways that accept as a given that the ideas of Modern (and other formats) are good ones, and makes marginal changes using the company’s ideology to make cases. He is the archetypal reformer within a system, rather than the radical attacking its foundation.

To ignore Modern’s underlying assumptions, though, is to debate the color of paint on additional floors of a skyscraper as its aging foundation crumbles. The idea of Modern is an eternal format whose power level remains static, whose speed never increases. It is, in its own way, an unintentionally damning indictment of conservatism; the conservatives hope and pray that the pace of life never increases, that what they adore from years past will remain eternally relevant. The only way to do that is to continually, eventually more futilely, push back in reaction to newer developments.

Legacy was invented in 2004, when it was finally separated from the Vintage restricted list. By a vote of 2963 to 2708, the name “Legacy” won out over “Traditional.” This means that 2014 marks the year when Modern covers as wide a span as Legacy did at its invention.
Constructed Magic is a game defined by its outliers. When we construct decks that include 10-75 different cards, we are picking from a pool of between 500 to over 12,000 different cards. As the formats get bigger and bigger, the percentage that are playable gets smaller and smaller (usually). They’ll accumulate more and more of these outliers (or, as many people would call them, “mistakes”). With the ever-enlarging card pool, the threshold for new cards to be outliers power-level-wise keeps going up. At the same time, though, they’ll interact with more and more extant cards that were previously unplayable.

That last paragraph feels pretty stock. Many people have written similar things. What I see in it, though, is not the soaring hope of always having new things, nor the instinctive dismissiveness that many Legacy players feel toward newer cards. What becomes visible is the inherent instability of a Modern format with a big “NO TURN THREE KILLS ALLOWED” sign at the door.

As more people incorporate new cards into old decks, innovate new ones, and refine old strategies, the power level in a format can only rise. To expect the power level to remain at the same stagnant level, and ban accordingly, is only pushing back the inevitable.

Khans of Tarkir only serves to showcase this. It should go without saying that Jeskai Ascendancy, Treasure Cruise, and Dig Through Time are going to get banned at the next possible opportunity. At that point, Modern players will have had three full months of playing with those cards that are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the format. It even led to, horror of horrors, a combo deck that crossed their line in the sand of speed.

This means that Modern does, in fact, have combo decks that are “too fast.” It simply only has them for short periods of time. Because new expansions aren’t playtested with Eternal formats in mind (they only have so many resources to spread around, of course, and those Tips and Tricks inserts are just too valuable to cut), there is going to be another Treasure Cruise and another Jeskai Ascendancy. Probably not in the next set, but in the large one thereafter… maybe. And then we’ll have another round of outcries, another season of a warped Modern environment awaiting the inevitable ban, another temporary metagame with ephemeral innovations for a vanishing format.

Why is it that the turn three kill has been outlawed, while other strategies are judged on their actual performance? The assumption is that, if someone is going to lose a game at a tournament, they will be less unhappy (and more likely to continue playing) if they lose some other way. This doesn’t line up with my experience. Players seem to value the post-match experience of complaining to their friends about how unlucky they got despite playing perfectly, and combo decks leave so much more of that intact compared to control decks.

A crucial part of the banned list thinking, and something Chapin references repeatedly, is categorizing decks as “fair” or “unfair,” and if a card gets banned from an “unfair” deck, then you should have expected it, and you got what was coming if you were playing that card, you unfair jerk (calling someone a jerk is my editorial addition, though I maintain the spirit was in the original). Trying to nail down exactly what the difference is between these two archetypes brings us to the classic problem of defining obscenity. Whether they finish immediately or not, an unfair deck is one that gets itself going a little too fast to be acceptable to mainstream society.

At the fringes of the definition, though, are some head-scratchers. Is recurring Punishing Fire “fair,” and if so, does the same apply to the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo that allows someone to pay one mana to gain a life and make a 1/1 flying token? And if they are “fair,” then are they still “oppressive?”

While a deck can be good yet still be uncontestably fair, any good deck attempts to be oppressive. It attempts to win every game in a way that the opponent never gets a chance. That’s just effective Magic. Perhaps the “oppression” that gets cited in the banning of Punishing Fire, though, isn’t the effectiveness, but the feeling. When you get hit by the same spell for the seventh time, that cuts deeper than getting hit by seven different things. The Punishing Fire begins to taunt you; its nickel-and-dime style rubs your nose in its repetitive nature, makes you notice that it’s only one spell, played to infinity, that is winning the game.

But there must be more to it, if any combo, or any single card, can be “oppressive.” Chapin categorizes seventeen cards on the Modern banned list as being oppressive by themselves or within a combo. If it’s not the player being oppressed, then it must be the other decks in a format. He swiftly explains that Dark Depths is far too oppressive, because it kills on turn three.

But a turn three combo like that isn’t oppressive, or even good, in a format that can stop it via Wasteland or a more consistent kill. It’s legal in Legacy, and not very good. A strategy can only be as oppressive as its competition is at fighting it.

Wizards has chosen to categorize these 30 cards as being oppressive, rather than allowing them to coexist and oppress one another (or something). But there will always be a best deck, and a second-best deck, and a second tier of decks. The best deck in a format will always oppress the lesser ones, whether that best deck is Delver in Legacy where Show and Tell into Griselbrand is legal, or mono-blue Faeries in Pauper. Knocking out the would-be dozen best decks in Modern just makes a different tier of deck viable.

There will always be combo. If people are so upset by turn three kills that they wouldn’t go to Modern tournaments otherwise, how are they going to feel about Splinter Twin being top-tier for an extended period of time? What’s the point in that banned list if its purpose is to make an old Standard combo deck one of the best things legal in the format?

It’s all futile. My proposal for the Modern banned list would be Skullclamp (for its format-defining power), Mental Misstep (for doing nothing other than requiring all good decks to have Mental Misstep), and Sensei’s Divining Top (for its tournament-stopping slowness), and everything else can fight it out. At the very least, this would stop the best deck at any one time from being “whatever just got printed that isn’t banned yet.”

That’s not the point, though. As much as we want to constrict Magic-related debates (especially ban-related ones) to “here is what should be done,” the actual cards that get banned or unbanned are completely unimportant compared to understanding the framework present in the bannings. The cards that Wizards will ban are not a product of individuals’ opinions on their power level, but a natural extension from their holistic view of what Modern (and Magic in general) should be. Define what experiences Magic players should be capable of experiencing, and cut away anything that doesn’t fit within that.


Andrew said...

So if Cruise AND Dig AND Ascendency all get banned, then Khans' contributions to the modern format will be fetch lands and Swiftspear? At what point does Modern become "OK, you can play with any card designed before Modern became a real format"?

Mattman324 said...

Man, this article has sure aged like milk.

Elbert said...

"stop the best deck at any one time from being 'whatever just got printed that isn’t banned yet.' "

This is especially hilarious when "what just got printed" was a set of cards specifically designed for modern. Hello and goodbye, Hogaak ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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