Pattern Recognition #291 - Some Banned Cards
3 August 2023
3 August 2023
Good day everyone! My name is berryjon, and I welcome you all to Pattern Recognition, TappedOut's longest running article series. I am something of an Old Fogey and a definite Smart Ass, and I have been around the block quite a few times. My experience is quite broad and deep, and so I use this series to try and bring some of that to you. Be it deck design, card construction, mechanics or in-universe characters and the history of the game. Or whatever happens to catch my attention each week. Which happens far more often than I care to admit. Please, feel free to talk about my subject matter in the comments at the bottom of the page, add suggestions or just plain correct me.
And welcome back! Today, I'm going to take a look at some cards that were banned in one format or another and examine the cards themselves and then why they got the hit, and if it would be possible to unban them without breaking anything, or if the cards themselves were at fault for whatever reason.
Cards get banned for a variety of reasons, but the two most common reasons is first; that they are too powerful on their own or as a combo piece to provide fun and interesting gameplay. That being, you're either playing the card, or you're playing against the card with little ground between. Now, there is some leeway in this as Siege Rhino didn't get banned, but for those who were there for that Standard, it was a close thing. The other side of banning is general omnipresence. Where a card is so good just by itself, provides so much utility and effect that decks will bend themselves out of shape to put it in. In this category, but what I won't talk about include Skullclamp, Smuggler's Copter and Reckoner Bankbuster.
On the other hand, there are cards that are allowable by themselves, but when placed in combination with other cards, provides a degree of power multiplication that is too hard to match or overcome. Things like Yorion, Sky Nomad that did so much for so little, for example.
Cards can be banned for having a poorly thought out word. They can be banned for unintended consequences. They can be banned for the sins of other cards. They can be banned years after they were printed, or even before. But Wizards doesn't ban lightly. Removing a card from a format is not the best decision they can make, but Wizards has decided that they will not issue errata to a card to try and fix it, at least not without a new printing for the most part. They - and I - have seen what happens to games that are competitive when they try to freewheel their playing cards with errata to try and 'fix things' in paper. I suppose that's one advantage to digital formats. Things can be fixed far more easy.
So now, let's look at some cards and talk about why they were banned.
Balance: Restricted in Vintage and Standard, April 1995. Banned in Extended, July 1997. Banned in Commander, April 2005. Banned in Oathbreaker, March 2023. Not Legal in any other format.
Balance was first printed in Limited Edition Alpha, which should arleady tell you everything you need to know about this card. As an aspect of 's emphasis on fair and equitable play, Balance forced players to sacrifice Lands, then discard cards, then sacrifice creatures down to the amount controlled by the player with the fewest. As we'll see, this effect wasn't the problem. No, what got this card the title of Banned In Everything (Effectively) was it's mana cost.
Simply put, Balance was too cheap. In the late game, it was more than possible to hold up a single bomb in your hand, like a Serra Angel (yes, it was at the time, stop disbelieving me!) tap out and float all your mana, then cast Balance, rather than Wrath of God. Because you only have one card left in your hand, your opponent would have to discard down to that level as well, someone would lose creatures, and then there would be lands lost - maybe yours, maybe the other person's. Then you drop your Angel, and have an advantage. Or you could cast it on turn 2 or three and cut the feet out from under some rapidly accelerating player, allowing you to catch up in the mid game while they are struggling to rebuild.
Importantly though, this card didn't target Enchantments or Artifacts, a major oversight that a great many players were willing to exploit, as token generators such as Sacred Mesa was more than able to take up the slack once the board was disrupted.
Balance itself has received two major attempts to, if you'll pardon the pun, rebalance it. Balancing Act is legal in Legacy, Vintage, Commander and Oathbreaker, but because of its Odyssey printing, it not legally a part of any other format. I'm sure if it got a Modern-legal printing, it would pass that test. This version doubles the cost of the spell, bringing it up to , which is is considered the norm for a board wipe of this caliber. In addition, this version of the card didn't make the distinction between Creatures and Lands as the only permanent types. It now hit Artifacts, Enchantments, and later on, Planeswalkers and Battles. And you can pick and choose what you wanted to keep to better optimize your existing board state. And honestly? If I'm looking for a wipe in for Commander? This one is my go-to favorite because it does so much, and it also hits hands.
No one expects it at all!
The other attempt to fic this card came from Time Spiral of all places. Where every card was a reference to something older, there was a whole cycle of cards that were variants of older spells, but with the additional cost of a Suspend timer on it. In this case, Restore Balance is legal in Modern, Legacy, Vintage, Commander, Oathbreaker and Penny(what?) formats, while not printed in other formats.
Restore Balance operates by being Balance, but by including a SIX turn timer on it. Not only do you see it coming, but everyone sees it coming a mile away and more importantly, can plan for it and be prepared for when it drops. I've seen this card both cool a game off as no one wants to commit until it has passed by, or accelerated it as it's 6 turns into the future. Plenty of time to win. Unless someone is going to... I dunno... travel into the future so these cards happen sooner? That could never happen. Right?
Sensei's Divining Top: Banned in Extended, September 2008. Banned in Modern, August 2011. Banned in Legacy, April 2017. Legal in Vintage, Commander and Oathbreaker. No legal printing in any other format.
Top. Top. Top. I've given this card it's own article back soon after it was banned, and much of what I say there is still relevant here.
The Top was banned in the relevant formats for its utter ability to control your deck. The capacity to manipulate the top cards of your library, to order and arrange them as you saw fit, and draw them when you wanted was just so oppressive and controlling, it was hard if not impossible to play against. In fact, games were decided by who played their top first, as you literally couldn't remove it - it could tap itself to go to your library! It was the corner stone of the Miracles deck, which exploited knowing when and which cards you were going to draw first on your turn to cast spells on the cheap, like Devastation Tide, Bonfire of the Damned, or Temporal Mastery.
It also, and I admit to this, worked wonders with Counterbalance, which could lock down entire boards as you could just pick which three mana values you would hard counter.
In response, while Scry as a temporary measure still maintains its ability to synergize with the above decks and cards, Wizards has steered hard away from arranging the top of your library in an arbitrary manner - Index is no longer a card you'll see printed for example. In response though, they have made it such that more modern card designs, when you go looking at the top of your library, either toss the cards you don't keep or put into your hand into the Graveyard, or to the bottom of your library, thus neatly solving the issue of stacking your deck turns in advance while at the same time allowing players to go dig for answers.
I doubt Top is going to see an adjusted reprint that's anything closer than Crystal Ball any time soon. It's just too much of an enabler.
Finally, let's look at the least of these examples.
Felidar Guardian: Banned in Standard, April 2017. Banned in Brawl, May 2018. Banned in Pioneer, November 2018. Legal in Modern, Legacy, Vintage, Commander and Oathbreaker. It has no legal printing in any other format.
Felidar Guardian is a card that was banned because of a slipup at Wizards, the same degree of quality control that made the low-hanging fruit of Oko, Thief of Crowns have a positive loyalty cost for casting Kenrith's Transformation. You see, the Guardian was intended to be part and parcel of 's continuing forays into the flicker effect; that being the ability to temporarily exile and permanent and then return it to the battlefield. It's something I should talk about again at some point, but for now I'll leave it be. The Guardian, as printed, flickered a target permanent that you control. This wasn't a problem, but it was seen as an expansion of the scope of the ability because normally, Flicker only targeted creatures you controlled, for a variety of reasons that included things like how creatures tended to be the ones with all the leaves- and enters-the-battlefield effects.
Felidar Guardian was, as near as I have been able to be glean, developed and tested without worry for most of the set because its ability was to flicker another creature you control - not itself for timing fun and infinite triggers. However, Wizards gave themselves a mental slap to the forehead at some point, and reminded themselves that this was going to be in Aether Revolt, the second half of the Kaladesh block. There were going to be a lot of Artifacts in the set, including Vehicles. So they quickly decided to add Artifacts to the Guardian's trigger, but to avoid confusion and the simplification of the card, they just made it any permanent. Hey, what's the worst that could happen? Someone flickers their land, meaning the Guardian basically discounts itself by , right?
Well, enter Saheeli Rai. Saheeli was the Face Planeswalker for Kaladesh, and she is legal in all formats except for Standard, Brawl and Pauper due to rotating out of the former two, and being a Mythic Rare for the latter. Saheeli has a -2 ability that allows her to create a token copy of an artifact or creature you control, granting it Haste, but exiling it at the end of the turn. She also started with 3, so she could survive that.
What happened was you would play Saheeli on turn 3, and uptick her to 4, and probably have creatures on Turns 1 and 2 to protect her. On turn 4, you play the Guardian, and you flicker Saheeli. Saheeli reenters as a new instance of herself, and because of that, she can activate her abilities again. She uses her -2 on the Guardian, creating a token copy of it with Haste. That token, when it enters the battlefield, flickers Saheeli again, resetting her loyalty and her ability to activate her abilities. She then copies the Guardian again, and that new token flickers Saheeli.
This was a 2-card Infinite Combo. In Standard. You had infinite ETB triggers, and infinite creatures that could attack. On Turn 4. Sure, you needed to pull it off, but that's not hard. That's not difficult, even in Standard thanks to the dual lands of the block.
In the end, Wizards made a "No, we're not banning anything" announcement on the Monday, then two days later, after all the statistics of the previous weekend's tournaments came in did they see just how prolific this combo had become. They then issued a "this is not an Emergency Banning, buuuut...." announcement taking out the Guardian for being the combo enabler. This banning was part and parcel of a larger problem with the block and the problems of balancing non-colored artifacts in the game. And Energy. So we got a Standard Banning. The Brawl banning was a legacy holdover from the creation of the format and how it inherited the Standard ban list, while Pioneer decided to ban it as part of the initial waves of bannings for the format as the new card pool shook itself out. Turns out, having access to better mana fixing made this combo even more reliable! It didn't get the ban in Modern though, because it wasn't fast enough or good enough to beat out top decks, so that was one thing in its favor.
Wizards' bannings are not the result of snap decisions, but on patterns of play and how the players try to self-correct around it. The recent slapdown of Invoke Despair for example, came about after months of play where that card was the top end play for a few decks, and it had little to no response within the format. It, and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse proved to be a game winning combination for mono- control, and was quickly reaching critical mass of play. So it got banned.
But this example does lead into my next point about bannings in general. I've observed that there are two criteria that Wizards tends to default to when choosing to ban cards. Or more specifically, when a particular combo is getting out of control, and they feel the need to reduce it out of a format, or force players into less effective options.
These criteria are rarity and age. To whit, Wizards will ban older cards before newer ones - as typically it is a newer card being enabled by an older one that is causing problems, and more cynically, newer cards still drive pack sales, and Wizards likes their bottom line (which is one of the reasons Oko wasn't banned for as long as he was. Eldraine was still selling, so the longer he was in play, the more he sold product). In addition, Wizards will tend to ban the commons or the uncommons before they'll ban the Rares. The reasoning for this is also cynically economic, but there is a more practical side in that the more prevalent a card is, the more likely that the card in question will come into the hands of more people who will abuse it.
Cards will be banned and unbanned as the game progresses. It's a simple statement of fact. And as the game grows, more and more interactions will occur, and there will be more and more chances that something will break somewhere, somehow. And the last ditch effort to salvage a format is to ban a card. It is a surgical tool, not something that is meant to cut wide swathes through a format, but a precision strike to remove a problematic card after its proven how much of a problem it is, and the other cards and players can't seem to fix it.
It happens, and it's not because the game is going down the drain, but because mistakes happen, and things can be overlooked. Accept it, and move on. Especially when you are one who was enjoying the power the now banned card gave you. Relax, it's just a game.
What do you think about this subject? Comment below with your stories and opinions. Feedback is always welcome, and even if I disagree with you, I will respect it.
Thank you for reading, and I'll see you next week! Non-Rotation is coming, so I think it's time I built a new Arena Brawl Deck, and then do my annual updating of said Brawl deck into a full Commander deck. Suggestions for a Commander are welcome!
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!
Golgari Grave-Troll deserves a mention as the only card, as far as I know, to be banned twice in a format. It started on the preemptive Modern banlist, got unbanned in January 2015, and re-banned in January 2017 after Dredge, and graveyard decks in general, spiked.
https://www.mtggoldfish.com/articles/deck-evolutions-modern-dredge is from November 2016, the height of Modern Dredge, and shows off just what a high enough Dredge number can do to a meta.
Another highlight is Lurrus of the Dream-Den being banned in Vintage on grounds of overuse, the first and only card to be banned like that. Since decks would only ever use one copy, restricting it would be pointless, but it immediately and dramatically took over the format, so it needed a response. That response was a completely calm and not at all panicky emergency ban one month after the card's release, followed by a complete rewrite of the Companion mechanic.
July 27, 2023 3:04 p.m.
TTop was banned, in modern (before the legacy ban), before miracle existed, for the simple reason: it made games too long. Beyond game delay / non-purpose time wasting / taking forever for the sake of slowing the game down, using top ability takes a long time for active gameplay. This reason being near identical to Eggs, which is (partially) banned not because the deck went 15-0 in a 2013 modern pro tour sometime ago, but due to the time duration the deck would take in its single winning turn. Cards get banned because their design and subsequent usage add so much time to the game. I would also say top banned in legacy is a better example of a card popping off in a format than invoke despair, if for no reason than countertop - miracles started in 2012 and top was then banned in legacy 5 years later in 2017.
July 27, 2023 4:12 p.m.
Sorry all, but this week was ... interesting at work. I have... about 3/5 of the next article written, but it's no where near ready. I'll have it for you next week.