Pattern Recognition #137 - The Short Life and Longer Death of Oko

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


16 January 2020


Hello everyone! Welcome back to Pattern Recognition! This is's longest running article series. In it, I aim to bring to you each week a new article about some piece of Magic, be it a card, a mechanic, a deck, or something more fundamental or abstract. I am something of an Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass, so I sometimes talk out my ass. Feel free to dissent or just plain old correct me! I also have a Patreon if you feel like helping out.

So, I was honestly working on what was supposed to be this week's article when, on the 13th of January, Oko, Thief of Crowns got banned in Modern.

So while I don't play Modern seriously, I found myself with a little bit of that German word that describes the joy one feels at the suffering of others for that particular announcement. But hen the thought just couldn't get out of my mind. What is it about Oko that caused this? And perhaps more importantly, why was this allowed to happen in the first place?

And so, my planned article for today got waylaid, and instead, I found myself writing this far faster and with far more precision.

To begin to understand the reasons for the banning of Oko, Thief of Crowns, we should step back and start to look first at how he was mechanically designed, and build up from there.

Therefore, I strongly encourage you to mouse over Oko, Thief of Crowns when you see it, so that you can actually look at the card yourself. Those of you on mobile can tap the link, and it will call up an image of the card for you.

For those of you who can't, Oko, Thief of Crowns is a Planeswalker that costs with three abilities and a starting loyalty of 4. The first, for +2, you simply create a Food Token. For +1, Oko turns target artifact or creature into a Green Elk with base power and toughness of 3/3. Finally, for -5, you then Exchange control of target artifact or creature you control and a creature an opponent controls with a power of 3 or less.

Now, none of these abilities are out of the ordinary. Out of curiosity, I decided to break down the cards that cared about Food in the set, and the results were surprising. Of the 26 cards in Throne that care about Food, I found a couple interesting things. First is that with the exception of Fortifying Provisions and Bartered Cow, all these cards are . But seeing as how and share the Knights theme with in this set, I'm not really that surprised.

Of these cards, there is a good representation across all rarities, so that's not an issue. Though only Oko is Mythic, but that's OK.

But, having a Planeswalker generating Tokens? Here we see one of the fundamentals that led to Oko's downfall. Here, we are seeing the concept of Pushing.

Pushing is a concept in not just Magic and Wizards, but in anything that involves selling cards. That is the idea that a valued and wanted item - in this case a Planeswalker - has this as an integral part of the item. This would allow you to associate power and success with something that may or may not be something that you would want in of itself.

So by putting a simple Food production on Oko, and rewarding the player for using it with a large gain in loyalty, Wizards encourages the use of Oko and Food at the same time to help along a theme of the set! It's good!

The last ability, the -5 is pure . The exchange of the control of two permanents is something that that colour can do at Rare and higher, so this isn't out of bounds. The limit of the target to being a creature with a power of 3 or less isn't actually that bad, as there are a lot of useful creatures that can still be targeted.

Now, these two abilities are built to be part of the way that Oko was _intended to be played. You see, on Turn 3, when Oko comes into play, he can then +2 to create a food token. Then, on the next turn, he can -5 to exchange control of the Food and a creature your opponent controls, leaving Oko with a single point of loyalty to stay on the battlefield.

This sort of internal synergy is good as it shows how Wizards is making the effort to allow any card to better stand on its own, rather than being horribly dependent on another card. Not to say that this is always the way things turn out, but that there is a certain knowledge that you as a player can trust in with a single card.

And you may have noticed that I skipped the second ability. There's a reason for this.

I talked last time about how doesn't properly destroy things, and how I cited Pongify as a card that would be re-worded if it were a new-printing in this say and age would remove the destroy function in it. And as proof, we have the middle ability on Oko, Thief of Crowns and his casting of Kenrith's Transformation.

Ok, let me be clear here. Every time Wizards bans Oko in another format, this is the ability that gets cited. The capacity to turn any artifact or creature into a 3/3 vanilla Elk immediately had the player base sit up in worry.

You see, from when Oko was first previewed, my comment to my local friendly Spike and the people at my FLGS was "You know, I think Wizards made an error there. That +1 should have been a -1." It would have been a simple error on the keyboard. These things have happened before. I mean, look at the history being Tarmogoyf and its casting cost. Issuing a day zero errata would be egg on the collective face of Wizards, but honestly, the vast majority of the player-base can look at that and go "It was an honest mistake. Thanks for admitting to it up front and we forgive you."

That... didn't happen. Wizards didn't fess up an error of any sort and Oko was printed as is.

No one plays Oko for his first or third abilities. They're ancillary. I only played one game on Arena where the Food making was used with any relevance, and that was because Oko slipped past my mono-black control deck and hit the table. So he spent his time making Food tokens and popping them for life to offset my Ill-Gotten Inheritance

I lost. It was a grind, and I still lost.

The thing is that for Oko's second ability, turning the artifact or creature into a 3/3 is supposed to be a downside, a ridiculous supposition given that he's in the colours that can look a mere 3/3 in the face and laugh. By doing that, the opponent is expected to then attack with their new (probably bigger) creature at Oko to kill him.

Except that doesn't happen. Oko is currently at 5, and taking three damage doesn't kill him. Had the positive been a negative, Oko would have been at 3 loyalty facing down a 3/3 which would have been an interesting trade in terms of utility and timing.

But that was not what was happening. Rather, when Oko transformed a creature or artifact, it was usually an early game one, where the ability of the creature was more important than the stat block. And this was in a colour that could have something blocking that 3/3 without much issue. Or otherwise making it irrelevant because Oko has 5 loyalty and can take the hit.

And this would happen. Turn after turn. Turn. After. Turn.

Oko, Thief of Crowns was a control powerhouse, and things are about to get worse.

You see, I have four points I want to cover today, and everything you have read so far was point the first.

Point the second was the meta.

You see, if it were just Oko by himself, he could be contained and dealt with. Murderous Rider could take him out on the same curve as Oko. That's not a problem.

No, part of the reason why Oko is Broke-O is that he came into a current standard that has a very powerful Simic deck - two of them in fact! Two decks into which he can slot without difficulty and use his ability to his utmost.

The first is the Simic Stompy deck, or words to that effect. This is a deck that seeks to build quickly into Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Hydroid Krasis as the endgame, pushing out bigger and bigger creatures with more and more power and toughness. Oko fit into the deck as a low-cost control option and damage sink, removing individual threats to the later Nissa as well as buying time with the occasion Food token against mono- Burn.

Oko was a solid enabler in that deck, and he fit in perfectly.

The other deck was Simic Flash. Now, while the purpose of this deck is to play cards on your opponents turns - cards like Brineborn Cutthroat, Frilled Mystic, Nightpack Ambusher, Spectral Sailor, and Wildborn Preserver all encourage play when it's not your turn, and Oko, Thief of Crowns into an almost unoccupied mana slot in the deck. And once it's played, Oko can do his thing without taking up mana better spent on other cards on someone else's turn.

You see, Oko appeared in a meta that was all but made for him. There were multiple decks that he could fit into with a degree that a person more paranoid than me would claim was planning, but I personally think was more closer to synchronicity than anything else. And being surrounded by good cards only made a powerful card more menacing and dominant. And Veil of Autumn certainly did no one any favours.

Oko, Thief of Crowns was casually banned in special Arena events within weeks. He was formally banned in Brawl a week before he got the Standard Ban. Another month, and the deeper card pool of Pioneer was found to be insufficient to the task of curbing Oko, and he was taken out of that format. Less than a month after that - less that three months IN TOTAL, Oko was banned in Modern for his synergy with Urza, Lord High Artificer.

So yeah, getting the knock in Modern actually hinged on his ability to generate an Artifact token each turn which would feed into Urza and Mox Opal and other resources that came from having free artifacts.

With all these accumulated problems, how could Oko have been fixed? Well, there are a couple of ways I think that could have worked, but only one is on the card itself. As I mentioned, making the +1 into -1 would have done wonders for keeping him in 'kill' range of cards like Skewer the Critics and the Elk he makes. That would have certainly helped.

The larger problem came from the environment he was in, one that won't be resolved until the summer rotation that will take War of the Spark out of the equation, which takes the Krasis and Nissa with it. That, along with the cards that will be coming out between now and then should be enough to convince Wizards that they can try to unban Oko.

But here's my real issue.

I don't think Wizards learned a thing from all this. Oko was made, tested and designed to do the things he did, and Wizards thought that this was a good card. This could be a marketing decision, to have a Face'Walker they can use to draw in new people. This could be a design decision to put too much into one card because they think they know what the players want.

This could be the decision of a single person who has an idea, but that idea falls in the face of reality.

Or worse yet, someone wants something and is willing to twist the game to get it.

I want to say that Oko, Thief of Crowns was an aberration. I fear that it is not. That someone with the power to make decisions isn't thinking about what effects will be had on the long term health of the game when they make splashy cards that drive sales but hurt the players in the process.

I also know that Magic is a big game. There is no way for a card to be properly tested in all formats before it is released into the wild. But the Future Future League is supposed to check Standard at least. How did this pass them by? Or is there something coming that was supposed to keep Oko in check, and now we have to wait for it?

I... just don't know. I love the game, and to see cards like this, that are so obviously a mistake just pains me.

I can only hope the next mistake on this scale is a long time coming.

So please, join me next week when I get back on course and talk about the anti-Mercadian Masques. A set that doesn't receive near enough the poor feelings that it should.

So, until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #136 - Counters The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #138 - Fallen Empires

99LandOTK says... #1

I believe you mean Veil of Summer instead of Autumn's Veil , but otherwise I completely agree. The next big splashy thing may not be a planeswalker, but it could just as easily be something like Kenrith, the Returned King , a creature with a litany of abilities that can all either be used during your turn for value or let you hold up mana and get value on an endstep. I personally don't mind the game heading in a value direction, but something needs to be able to handle it too, and not in a this-will-work-against-one-annoying-threat-but-will-otherwise-be-useless way. Maybe more all purpose removal? I'm not sure. Great article, please keep em up.

January 16, 2020 12:16 p.m.

TypicalTimmy says... #2

Now that Wizard's of the Coast is owned by Hasbro, they require a lot higher margin and profitability.

I wouldn't be surprised if they continue to print cards with these glaring "mistakes".

It's what sells packs, and Hasbro demands more be sold now than ever.

It's just pure business. Nothing more, nothing less. Wizard's has long abandoned the player base and will continue to do so.

Honestly, I'm hanging on by a thread. The literal only reason I stay in Magic anymore is for this site and the wonderful user base it has here. This is like Facebook - You can log on, send messages, post things, have good laughs, help out, brew ideas, etc. It's a social platform and I enjoy the company.

But I don't even go to my LGS anymore. I haven't bought a deck in almost a year. I don't have a play group. And all because the game is far too expensive these days, and these cards are just dumb.

January 16, 2020 12:50 p.m.

99LandOTK says... #3


Given enough abuses, people may be more accepting of proxies. So long as you're upfront about it, my local LGS goers seem pretty ok with it. They understand that the game is slowly pricing itself out of existence, and would rather play with someone than pride themselves on pricey cardboard at the expense of playing with it. It may be worth exploring that if you're still interested in playing.

This goes for everyone who is debating between buying MTG cards and something else. One can be proxied, and the worst case scenario is some wasted paper and time. Best case is fun matches without the need to pay hundreds (just please don't go overboard with the Black Lotus es

January 16, 2020 2:05 p.m.

Last_Laugh says... #4

This problem goes back to the fiasco that was 2017. I honestly think that year was a test run by Hasbro on seeing what MtG customers would actually put up with. Since that time pushed cards selling packs is the norm with the banhammer being THE go-to answer. Before 2017 Standard bans were VERY infrequent... since then, not so much.

Hasbro is clearly pushing this to happen... there's no way WotC's test group hasn't approached higher ups with a 'this is busted!' for ANY of these banned cards. I actually feel bad for the playtest group as they seem to have been created solely to be a scapegoat (and placating gesture to the players) for corporate greed.

Hasbro's sales for non-WotC products have been bad for awhile and it's mainly MtG and whatever profit they can squeeze out of it that has Hasbro's attention. As long as sales look good and the game continues to see the growth in popularity that it has... this trend won't change (or rather, will be forced to continue).

January 16, 2020 11:55 p.m. Edited.

TypicalTimmy says... #5

I think players would be more receptive of busted cards if they weren't almost exclusively in blue and secondary in black.

Spread the love. If they are going to print one or two broken cards a set, at least change up what colors they are in.

Make a broken white draw spell, or a broken green creature spell. Make a broken red looting spell.

Not these "blue control / black free-cast / draw" things over and over.

Honestly, every single set these days seems to have a black legendary creature who IMMEDIATELY becomes an extremely powerful Commander. That says something.

The vast majority of cards that have been banned in Magic's history are held by colorless rocks that produce mana for nothing, and following those are mono-blue cards, followed by cards that share blue in their identity.

Blue needs to be nerfed, and if that means breaking a few colors to do so I support it.

If blue is just turned off, players will complain and the game will see negative reception. If white and red are powered up, it will reinvigorate the meta and push new ideas.

The solution, unfortunately, is to make things worse. But, at least then everyone can be equally happy (annoyed, but happy)

January 17, 2020 1:43 a.m. Edited.

Boza says... #6

"The vast majority of cards that have been banned in Magic's history are held by colorless rocks that produce mana for nothing, and following those are mono-blue cards, followed by cards that share blue in their identity." Lets check this!

Current modern banlist:

39 cards
1 W
6 U
2 B
6 R
6 G
2 GB
1 UG
7 artifacts (of which 2 are broken mana Moxes)
8 lands

Green color identity cards comprises 9 cards, more than any other category.

Legacy banlist has 89 cards:
1 W ( Shahrazad is not counted as banned for power level) 15 U
8 B (there 3 ante cards, which I do not count as banned for power level)
2 R (there are 2 dexterity cards, which I do not count as banned for power level)
6 G (1 ante card here as well)
1 GR
1 GB
14 artifacts
5 lands

Broken mana is indeed the most banned stuff. Followed by blue cards, black color identity cards, and then green color identity cards.

TLDR: Green and black are generally equally bad offenders as blue in the current game. Blue was allowed to do too much in the first few years of the game, as everything was in its color identity.

January 17, 2020 7:39 a.m.

Boza says... #7

"Before 2017 Standard bans were VERY infrequent... since then, not so much." Let's check! 10 year challenge of standard bans (I am going to include block constructed, since these were errors really not caught during standard set creation):

2010: nothing.
2011: June - Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are banned.
2012: March -Innistrad Block Constructed: Intangible Virtue and Lingering Souls are banned.
2013: Nothing
2014: Nothing. 2015: Nothing.
2016: Nothing. 2017: January - Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, and Reflector Mage are banned. April - Felidar Guardian is banned. June - Aetherworks Marvel is banned.
2018: January - Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and Rampaging Ferocidon are banned. 2019: June - Rampaging Ferocidon is unbanned! October - Field of the Dead is banned. November - Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time and Veil of Summer are banned.

So, while it may seem like there is a litany of bans in the last couple of years, there were two years between Kaladesh and Eldraine where nothing was banned, despite extremely oppressive cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Nexus of Fate seeing print.

This does not signal a change in design philosophy. It signals "we did not catch these errors whoopsie". Standard bans were present in the following blocks: Urza (literally the whole block would make you think Wizards fired their testing team) and Mirrodin (anyone they did hire after Urza block was asleep during the creation of Mirrodin), a single planeswalker in Worldwake, then yet another artifact block in Kaladesh (strike 3 out of three possible for artifact blocks) and finally, Eldraine.

Thus, the majority of Standard bans are WOTC unable to create balanced artifact-centric blocks. Only now with Eldraine do we get any hint of power creep and non-artifact related blocking.

TLDR: The theory about Wizards going for a "Print and Ban" strategy is moot. General power level of standard has increased, but most bans are the results of artifact sets mechanics and cards.

January 17, 2020 8:18 a.m.

Last_Laugh says... #8

Boza - You kinda disproved your own argument there and then make up some nonsense trying to convince people that 1+1=3...

"So, while it may seem like there is a litany of bans in the last couple of years, there were two years between Kaladesh and Eldraine where nothing was banned..."

It doesn't 'seem' like anything my man. You literally took the time to list bans by year for the last decade (thanks for that). 2010 through 2016 saw 4 bans total across 7 years. 2017, 2018, and 2019 saw 13 cards banned in 3 years. Clearly a major uptick in this type of thing happening, especially considering 2013 through 2016 had no bans.

Where is this '2 year' gap in bans that took place between 2016 (Kaladesh) and 2019 (Eldraine)?

Going back to the Urza block or even Mirrodin to scrape up examples to argue my point just proves my point that bannings were infrequent. They also didn't have a testing team until 2017.

January 17, 2020 9:26 a.m.

Boza says... #9

The two year gap in bans is the gap between Fall 2017 set bans (Kaladesh) and Fall 2019 (Eldraine) set bans. Play design team or the "testing" team's first set was Amonkhet.

Yes, the bannings in standard were infrequent and coincided with all three artifact-centric blocks. The standard bannings that are not related to artifact-centric blocks are Planeswalker related - Jace, the Mind sculptor and now Oko. Additionally, if average bannings per year is a measure:

1998 - December - Tolarian Academy and Windfall are banned. 1999 - March - Dream Halls, Earthcraft, Fluctuator, Lotus Petal, Recurring Nightmare, and Time Spiral are banned. Memory Jar is banned retroactively in mid March. (Special award to Memory Jar for the only card banned before its release) June - Mind Over Matter is banned.

9 in 3 months! Even 20 years ago, Wizards were employing a print-and-ban strategy! They just our money, only to ban them later!

That is the hysteria I am trying to assuage here.

January 17, 2020 11 a.m.

Last_Laugh says... #10

"Yes, the Standard bannings 'WERE' infrequent". I find this weird... they now employ a dedicated testing team yet there are more and more of these broken cards getting pushed and then banned... and this is somehow acceptable?

Urza block back in '98-'99 was while WotC was still learning about power creep and the long-term health of a game (hell they were still figuring out what colors got what effects at that point).

Mirrodin was the first artifact set WotC ever did and they clearly failed miserably and underestimated artifact lands.

The important thing about both those mistakes is that they learned from them and there were huge gaps between these mistakes and the mistakes that followed. Between Urza and Mirrodin was about 6 years ('99 to 2005). Mirrodin to Worldwake was another 6 years ('05 to 2011). They again had about 5 years until Kaladesh.

I'm also still failing to see the 2 years. Jan 2018 to October 2019 is close enough I suppose... but it's not a big enough gap to argue that the frequent use of the banhammer isn't a trend that started in 2017.

The part that worries me is Urza and Mirrodin bannings drove players to quit in droves and WotC had to react accordingly. Nowadays the game continues to see growth despite the constant 'mistakes' that are clearly fueled by greed. Growth despite poor decisions doesn't light a fire under anyones ass to change anything... so they won't.

January 17, 2020 12:26 p.m.

CharonSquared says... #11

"The exchange of the control of two permanents is something that that colour can do at Rare and higher"

Not that this is relevant to the main point of the article, but blue can exchange permanents at uncommon as well: Switcheroo , Eyes Everywhere , Vedalken Plotter , Shrewd Negotiation , Shifting Loyalties , Legerdemain , and Shifting Borders .

January 18, 2020 4:10 p.m.

berryjon says... #12

I am corrected there.

January 18, 2020 4:36 p.m.

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