Ban season has arrived once again, and boy was it a doozy. In Vintage, Narset, Parter of Veils was restricted, in Legacy, Wrenn and Six took the axe (ba-dum-tss), and in Standard, the trio of Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time, and Veil of Summer were all banned. This banning philosophy is ideal, valuing fun gameplay over keeping marquis cards in the format to sell packs at the expense of the player base, which we all know has happened in the past.
In the banlist article, (which can be found here), Ian Duke explains the bans, underscoring the desire to keep gameplay exciting, but also diverse. When reading this, I found the concept of diverse gameplay to be one of the more profound points, which will be elaborated upon in this article. If a game was the same every time, most people would get bored of it sooner or later, which is the reason that most games have some form of variance and/or extreme depth. If a card is designed correctly, it should foster a healthy metagame and diverse gameplay, whether it be a complex card such as Prime Speaker Vannifar, or a card that enables an archetype regardless of its simplicity such as Gingerbrute.
That’s why it astounds me that cards such as those that were just banned still get printed at this rate and constantly create oppressive, polarized formats.
Once Upon a Time is blatantly powerful, homogenizing green decks and decreasing gameplay diversity not only by its ubiquitous inclusion in every deck with Forests but also the intended play pattern of casting one’s free cantrip on an early turn. Once Upon a Time goes against the concept of diverse gameplay, but the other four cards are worse offenders. The reason: a lack of counterplay.
Counterplay, similar to gameplay diversity, is a concept of game design which most people know of but is criminally under analyzed. Melissa DeTora wrote a great article on the subject here, and I believe her categorization of the two main issues with designing cards that don’t foster counterplay is correct. For those who have not read her article, she breaks up the two issues as two “problems,” the “Faerie” problem (cards that play on a hard-to-beat axis or are good against a specific type of card) and the “Doom Blade” problem (cards that are just too good not to play and warp the metagame around themselves). To categorize the newly banned cards into these categories and show additional examples, a list would look something like this:
Doom Blade (duh)
Almost Doom Blade
Scapeshift, and to an extent:
The reason that I believe Once Upon a Time does not slot perfectly into the Doom Blade category is that the card isn’t particularly good at disincentivizing one to play a certain card type or color; rather, it just makes one-fifth of the color pie simply better. If the surrounding players in green decks were truly not that great, Once Upon a Time would probably be a net positive for the format.
Overall, the Doom Blade category of cards is relatively uninteresting to analyze, as cards simply being the best at what they do doesn’t leave much room for analysis. The exception to this is the concept of a sleeper card, which I will be thoroughly delving into in the next article focusing specifically on “tech cards”. Similarly, I won’t be covering the “Faeries” category in this article for the sake of continuity and comparison. With that out of the way, let’s cover the “Both” list.
Upon first analysis, it would seem that most of the “Both” list is comprised of cheap, powerful planeswalkers, and for good reason: they are hard to interact with in their respective formats. The main way to combat planeswalkers is to attack them, and when that plan fails because they come down before players can amass a board that threatens them, counterplay goes out the window.
In Vintage, Narset falls in line with other lock pieces such as Trinisphere or Thorn of Amethyst, but also has the added upside of being pitchable to Force of Will and being a Dig Through Time on her own, meaning she isn’t even a dead card in a matchup where the static ability isn’t relevant. Playing Narset on the first turn of the game completely disables the opponent’s powerful draw spells, which would normally allow them to dig for answers to the powerful planeswalker, and can greatly slow down strategies such as Dredge that need Bazaar of Baghdad to function (although to be fair, I don’t know how much of a bad thing that is). Furthermore, if someone playing Narset knows they are against a Lightning Bolt deck, they can even just decline to -2 Narset! The best answer in the format to a Narset is a Pyroblast or Force of Will, both which, if played on the draw, would result in a two-for-one in the favor of the opponent. Regardless of how Narset enters and leaves the battlefield, her presence in games of Vintage dramatically decreases gameplay diversity since there isn’t much productive counterplay against the card in super early turns. Narset either sticks and wins the game against other blue decks, doesn’t impact the opponent’s strategy but still draws cards, or is luckily countered or removed early.
Wrenn and Six, in Legacy, is another “fair card gone prison” example. The +1 in combination with Wasteland seeks to deprive the opponent of resources and disable any counterplay by virtue of a lack of mana, and the recursion of fetchlands allows for deck homogeneity, reducing the variety of cards played in the format. The -1 ping ability is equally powerful, given Wrenn and Six is a mere two mana, as it effectively pushes all good one-toughness creatures out of the format except for cards such as Delver of Secrets that have a high power level and slot into Wrenn and Six decks themselves. One would think that a deck such as Death and Taxes would have the capacity to attack a competitive two mana planeswalker, but Thalia and her one-toughness companions can’t beat the dryad-treefolk menace.
And then we come to our Standard friends, the now banned Oko, Thief of Crowns, and the menace himself Teferi, Time Raveler. Oko, Thief of Crowns, as has already been stated by many, is simply egregiously bad design. There must have been something that happened after Play Design tested Oko (at least I hope) that pushed him to such a degree. A card like Nissa, who Shakes the World, was at least a sleeper for a bit, and it took some time for people to realize her power, especially in conjunction with cards like Hydroid Krasis. Oko is just textbook bad design, and I’m sure that anyone who would theoretically submit him in the Great Designer Search would assuredly lose that round.
To summarize why Oko was so good though, the reason is simply that after Field of the Dead was banned and players could no longer go over the top of the ramp decks with a horde of zombies, there was no counterplay left against the powerful planeswalker. Oko’s strength versus aggro, which is generally able to punish decks playing walkers by attacking them or taking advantage of the tempo loss created from playing one by threatening lethal came from his high starting loyalty and ability to create food, denying both angles of attack. The planeswalker was good versus midrange by virtue of being a strong standalone threat the dominates the battlefield, and against control, he was a cheap threat when coupled with other broken cards like Veil of Summer and Nissa. This meant that no deck in the format was actually good against him after the Field of the Dead ban.
Going back a bit further, Field of the Dead was banned for a similar reason– the card was very powerful, homogenized the format, and there was no good counterplay against a land-based ramp strategy that could also beat Food! Fantastic. Teferi, albeit not as bad as Oko but still very bad, is built to be good versus counterspells and early creatures outside of a one-two-three start. At least they didn’t give Teferi a +2, amirite?
Now that we have talked about and analyzed how certain cards affect counterplay in Magic in a more general sense, we can segue into what makes a card a “Faerie” or “Doom Blade“, and later into a third category of counterplay which stems from surprise factor and information. After that, I will try to quantify counterplay in a fashion similar to that of tempo through a game theory lens. Alas, midterms are upon me, so those addendums will have to come in the following weeks. Feel free to comment about any of the theory today, although this first article is more of an introduction, so stay tuned for more!