I read the big news while taking a short break at work this morning: Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are officially banned in Standard. Caw Blade and its variants have been swiftly crippled, with little to no chance of recovery, and Blue/X decks across the board just got measurably weaker. There’s been a lot of talk and speculation for months, but to be honest with you, I really didn’t think it would end this way. To be doubly honest with you, I really didn’t think very much about it at all.
It’s been a very long time since Wizards of the Coast has felt the need to ban any card in the Standard format. Feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, but the last time I remember a Standard banning happening at all was when the fundamentals of Affinity were all banned to release that deck’s stranglehold on the format. That was 6 years (and 6 blocks!) ago, so I suppose R&D has been doing their job pretty well since then. Sure, we’ve had complaints and a couple of rough spots here and there (Umezawa’s Jitte, Bloodbraid Elf, etc.), but nothing people couldn’t learn to deal with and/or overcome. Jace has been rolling 4 deep ever since he was printed, and I’ve just come to accept his presence as fact. The Mystic has been lying in ponds distributing swords for even longer, and the day Voltronning it up with equipment becomes unfun is the day I suffer a head injury that makes me forget what feelings are.
Whenever talk of banning would come up (usually about Jace; Sister Mary Stoneforge has been able to keep a lower profile for the most part), my response was immediately dismissive. “Come on, they’re not that bad. We’ve been dealing with them for years, and we haven’t all died horribly. Stop complaining already.” And then, just as immediately, I would stop thinking about it all together. That’s a bad idea in and of itself, and it’s why the banning announcement was as much of a surprise to me as it turned out to be. I hadn’t stopped to really examine the power and impact of the cards in question, and whether or not they could realistically be ban-worthy material.
Some bannings are obvious. From bans that occured during my playing career (not just in Standard, but everywhere), the ones that stick out most in my mind are the super-powerful combo enablers and engines. Tolarian Academy, Mind Over Matter, Crop Rotation, Flash, Hypergenesis, and even the aforementioned Affinity pieces all fit into this category in my mind. When the game starts devolving into “Turn 3 – Untap, Upkeep, you’re dead”, then it’s easy to see something desperately needs to be banned. Standard just hasn’t had to deal with that for several years. We cast spells, we attack with creatures, and we even have to play rounds to time every once in a while. Things seem normal, right?
There’s another class of ban-worthy cards much more subtle and insidious. These are the cards that let you overwhelm your opponent with sheer card advantage. In and of themselves, the cards may not seem all that powerful, but they’re not just single cards. Each one might as well be a million cards in the right situation. These cards all say something to the effect of “Pay 4 or less mana: Crush your opponent, see him driven before you, and hear the lamentations of his woman”. What makes them so sneaky is the effect is spread out across multiple turns, and it isn’t obvious the card has taken over the game until it’s way too late for anyone to do anything about it. By then, it’s hiding behind the other cards doing all the dirty work on the front lines. During my playing career, a number of these such cards have been banned as well. Necropotence, Lin Sivvi, Rishadan Port, and Skullclamp are included in this number, and it was only after getting the chance to experience piloting them that I was able to fully understand what they are.
Jace is the most outwardly obvious example of the 1 card = 1 million cards. Not only does he hand you all the tools you need to get to doing your own thing as soon as possible, but he makes it nigh impossible for your opponent to get back to his thing once you’re able to get the slightest advantage. While your opponent is sitting there fumbling around in the mud, either you win the game or Jace wins it for you (no cards in hand and N turns to live is no way to make a miraculous comeback). Is it really okay to put so much in one spell? Experience has now shown us it is not. I’ve never gotten a chance to play with Jace, so I never got a chance to really understand him. I can read, I can understand his abilities are powerful, and I can see what he does when played against me, but on some fundamental level I never really “got it”.
Not understanding Stoneforge Mystic is my own fault. I’ve had a playset for quite a while now, camped out in a casual deck where I use them to assemble the Kaldra pieces. Funny, but nothing that seemed too dreadfully powerful. But then I added some swords of various types to the deck, and started to get the feeling something was wrong. Honestly, starting the game with an effective 5 copies of Sword of Feast and Famine in my deck, and then followed by 4 copies of my next most powerful equipment, just feels too much like cheating. It isn’t fair. It’s extremely powerful. The swords are what happened to throw Stoneforge Mystic into the 1 = 1 million role in Standard, where she’s turned into an approximation of a Demonic Tutor / Show and Tell combo, and that’s not a good thing to have around. The ban announcement shouldn’t have been a surprise.
When I set out to compose this article, I only intended to expand on some ideas I had posted in a topic on our forums. Now that I’ve gone full Rosewater on the topic, I actually feel a little embarassed, but I think I’ve at least written something worth reading. Let me know what you think in the comments. I’m curious to hear your opinions on the subject, as well.
Have fun, guys.