would have preferred to go through my entire career as Director of Magic R&D without ever having to ban a card in Standard. Sadly, that was not to be. Banning cards in the current Standard environment was a topic my co-workers and I wrestled with for months (you can read Tom LaPille's article About Jace to see where we were on the matter a few months ago), but recent results have essentially forced our hand.
What Is Banned?
Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic will both be banned in Standard effective July 1, 2011. Exception: The deck list for the "War of Attrition" Event Deck will be legal in Standard if kept completely intact. That deck, which went on sale on June 10, contains two copies of Stoneforge Mystic.
On Magic Online, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic will both be banned in Standard as of the June 29, 2011 downtime. There will be no exceptions made for the Event Deck containing Stoneforge Mystic, as that deck will not be sold online.
Why the Concession to the Event Deck?
Magic has grown considerably since last we had to ban cards in Standard back in 2005, both in the number of players participating and the number of products we offer for those players. Event Decks are a very recent addition to our portfolio, meant to give players an easy entry point into competitive organized play, specifically Standard. To that end, we include well-known powerful cards in those decks, including Goblin Guide, Inkmoth Nexus, and, yes, Stoneforge Mystic. The fact that two copies of Stoneforge Mystic were in the recent "War of Attrition" deck list almost stayed our hand from banning the card. After all, stores have already ordered the product and expect to use it to draw new people into their tournament communities. With the best card in the deck unusable, they would have had a hard time doing so.
Allowing the deck to be played legally right out of the box, while not exactly an elegant solution, does solve both problems. It lets us ban the card that needs to be banned, while at the same time allowing a player who buys the deck for use in Friday Night Magic to actually use it. Should a player wish to modify "War of Attrition" in any way, the first mod needs to be taking the Stoneforge Mystics out.
Why Are Cards Getting Banned?
The Standard metagame is stagnant and unhealthy at the moment, and has been for months. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is appearing in winning deck lists an alarming percentage of the time, with Stoneforge Mystic appearing almost as often. For reference, 88% of the decks in Day 2 of Grand Prix Singapore contained multiple copies of Jace, and almost 70% of the Day 2 decks contained Stoneforge Mystic. The numbers from Pro Tour Qualifiers and independent large events like the StarCityGames.com Open Series look very similar.
We haven't seen cards dominate the field like this, possibly ever. Even in the heyday of Affinity (the last deck to require such drastic measures in Standard), we weren't seeing anything like this level of homogeneity. When you realize that both cards, besides being dominant in Standard, are top tier in Constructed formats of all sizes up to and including Legacy (and even Vintage for Jace), it becomes harder and harder to argue that the cards are anything but flat-out too powerful.
I have seen many arguments flying around the Internet that nothing needs to be banned, as the format is very interactive and skill-testing right now. I suppose I agree with those descriptions of the format—the Top 16 in Singapore was loaded with talented names, and the same core group of guys keeps making the Top 8s of StarCity's events. As for interactivity, when you lose to Jace / Stoneforge decks, you still feel like you're playing Magic: you cast your creatures, attack and block, yet, if your opponent plays well enough, eventually fall under an avalanche of card advantage and efficient tutoring. Game play like that is a far cry from past Standard environments containing ban-worthy cards, wherein you might get decked by a Tolarian Academy–fueled Stroke of Genius on turn three, or die from 20 on turn four to a combination of Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and Cranial Plating, both frequently at the hands of less proficient players. Those games felt more random and less satisfying, and the outcry to do something about it was loud and clear.
It was less clear this time, so we were willing to see if players were in fact tolerant of a skill-rewarding one-deck metagame. The ultimate goal is player enjoyment, and if most people were enjoying themselves, we weren't going to take any rash actions based solely on the math of deck lists.
But then the formal complaints began pouring in, followed by a drop in attendance—pronounced at Pro Tour Qualifiers, shocking at the recent New Phyrexia Game Day, more subtle but just as real at Friday Night Magic—that we can't ignore. If people don't want to play the game, we need to fix it.
There exists a crowd of competitive players who pursue perfection, who have no personal attachment to any certain cards or decks save those that reward them for their great skill and dedication. I very much appreciate that mindset; in fact, much of our organized play encourages it. But there exists a larger crowd for whom decks and cards are extensions of themselves, who revel in diverse metagames wherein they can show off their creativity. They want to be able to play decks that suit their whims and personalities without feeling like they are wasting their time; they want Magic to afford them the opportunities to individualize while still taking it seriously. Standard has lost that in recent months, and we aim to bring it back.
We don't take banning lightly in any format, and we loathe doing it in Standard. Not only is such an act tantamount to the admission of grievous mistakes on our part, it hurts consumer confidence in our product. People spend a lot of time and money acquiring cards for their tournament decks, and it stings to have them taken away. Fortunately, this time the sting should be somewhat mitigated by the fact that the cards in question have significant uses in other Constructed formats.
While the last few people to acquire each of these cards stand to be the most upset, my contention is that each of these two cards has had ample time to shine in Constructed. They were due to rotate out of Standard this fall; accelerating that process in the interest of the greater good will hopefully be seen as a measure of good faith by a majority of the player base as opposed to cold comfort by the few who enjoy what the game had become in the past months.
How Did These Cards Get Through Development?
Cards like Jace and Stoneforge slip through our rigorous system very rarely, through some combination of a lot of ambition, a touch of recklessness, and the internal acceptance that we're never going to know exactly how things are going to turn out.
My predecessor, Randy Buehler, wrote an article in 2003 (Banning: Good or Bad?) in which he laid out the devil's advocate position that having to ban cards meant R&D was just doing its job:
We could make Magic permanently safe from the threat of having to ban cards if we always played it safe. [...] Magic is more fun when there are powerful cards floating around so it's a mistake to constantly weaken cards just to avoid the threat of sometimes having to ban one. In addition, Magic is also more fun when R&D thinks up brand new effects and abilities. When we do that, we aren't necessarily going to understand how powerful they are (or how much [mana] to charge for them). In fact, the more innovative a new mechanic is, the more likely we are to misunderstand exactly how to take best advantage of it and thus the more likely we are to miscost cards. [...] Anyway, everyone agrees that innovation is a Very Good Thing and thus we should be constantly pushing the envelope. Well, if we're constantly pushing the envelope and striving to come up with cool new weird and wacky cards, then occasionally we're going to make a mistake and that might mean we need to ban a card.
He ultimately didn't agree with the argument, feeling (like I do) that all those goals can be met without resulting in bans—that's our job, after all—but putting it out there did frame nicely the constant struggle R&D faces when making new sets.
Magic set #55 faces challenges above and beyond what the other 54 before it did. Similarly, Magic set #56 faces more than #55. Players want stuff they haven't seen before, environments they haven't yet explored. I believe we could make interesting and balanced environments in a vacuum with much greater accuracy than we do now if our own history weren't such a jaded critic. You'd think that the decade of learning would actually make the work easier, and that is true for many aspects of the job, but now more than ever, with the growing popularity of humongous, era-spanning formats like Legacy and Commander, the silent demands of that part of the audience saying, "I have access to 10,000 cards—impress me" weigh mightily on us.
By my count, Worldwake was the fifty-sixth tournament-legal Magic release to contain a significant number of new cards. Fifty-six! I'm not using it as an excuse; merely setting the stage and the stakes.
I'll talk about Jace first. A huge number of factors went into getting him printed the way he was. First, to quote Randy again, the line "the more innovative a new mechanic is, the more likely we are to misunderstand exactly how to take best advantage of it and thus the more likely we are to miscost cards" holds true for planeswalkers, even to this day. Jace was only the fourteenth planeswalker card we'd ever made—the first with four abilities and only the second designed to be the "face of the set" it was in. Planeswalkers are the most difficult cards to design and develop I have ever worked on. They have more knobs to turn and more expectations to fulfill than perhaps any other cards in the game's history, and we spend a disproportionate amount of our time trying to perfect them. By the time Worldwake was in development, we had an inkling that the three planeswalkers in Zendikar were ultimately too weak as a whole, so we wanted to take a big swing with Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
The environment Jace was dropped into was tumultuous in a couple different ways. We were on a bit of a power ramp-up in Standard over the previous couple years, beginning with the Faeries deck from Lorwyn block. We had to make things like the cascade mechanic in the Shards of Alara block to fight Faeries, and then we needed something in Zendikar block capable of competing with cascade. On the flipside, blue as a color had been powered down in Shards of Alara block, Magic 2010, and Zendikar, all as a reaction to past powerhouses Faeries and Cryptic Command, so blue was poised for a resurgence, and Jace was well positioned to be at the forefront of that resurgence.
Of course, we didn't fully understand Jace's power. His first ability underwent a significant late change, going from milling two cards to "fatesealing" one. That ability was playtested very little, and we didn't recognize just how easy it was to put away games with it.
We attempted to recenter the power-level of Standard and stop the dangerous ramping up with Scars of Mirrodin block, making it closer to the power level we'd like to have the format at going forward. Subbing in an appropriately powered block (Scars of Mirrodin) for an overpowered one (Shards of Alara) turned out to allow the block in between (Zendikar) to dominate the format. But such a recentering was necessary; after all, with Jace, the Mind Sculptor showing up in Legacy and Vintage, there's no healthy way to make cards powerful enough to combat him. You just have to accept that he's the best and work to get things right in the future.
We tried to enable a few specific anti-Jace weapons in Mirrodin Besieged with Phyrexian Revoker, Hero of Oxid Ridge, and Thrun, the Last Troll, but the metagame solved those cards pretty quickly with Squadron Hawks and Swords. New Phyrexia brought with it Despise and Hex Parasite, but those cards just aren't powerful or versatile enough.
I suppose one takeaway from all this is that we need good fallback solutions for planeswalkers in the environment at all times, like Oblivion Ring or Pithing Needle. Those particular cards rotated out with the advent of Scars, and the replacements haven't been adequate.
Stoneforge Mystic was a bit of a different story. Equipment was a small theme in Zendikar block, especially on Kor creatures, and we knew it would play a large part in the upcoming return to Mirrodin, so we set out to make an enabler. On its surface, Stoneforge has all the problems of famous mistakes like Tinker—it tutors and circumvents mana costs, two dangerous abilities that get even more dangerous when combined. Again, we want to make cards people get excited about, and "dangerous" and "exciting" are very closely related. The desire to make a card that seems to break all the rules but ends up being merely "good" as opposed to "broken" is a noble one, and that's what Stoneforge was trying to do. Equipment was a very narrow, safe band of cards to play around with, and the fragility of the 1/2 creature meant that it should be easy for opponents to remove the ability to sneak them onto the battlefield.
As Scars block came together, we quickly realized that the living weapon mechanic was going to be problematically generous with Stoneforge Mystic around, so we did our best to design some powerful living weapons that didn't want to be cheated out on turn three. Both Bonehoard and Lashwrithe offer a lot of scaling power but aren't tempting to rush into play as soon as possible. As the lead developer of New Phyrexia, I wasn't going to let the existence of Stoneforge keep us from exploring all that living weapon could do forever. After all, the card was meant to be an enabler, not a barrier to making appealing cards. With eyes wide open, I put Batterskull in the set knowing that it would take Stoneforge Mystic to new heights for a few months. The mistake was not realizing that it was already going to have shown itself to be format-warping by that point.
We underestimated the impact of Sword of Feast and Famine on the environment, especially when combined with Stoneforge. By the time Batterskull came out, people were already sick and tired of Stoneforge Mystic; instead of creating a new archetype, we merely cemented the current best one in place.
I contend that without a way to cheat it out, Batterskull is merely a good card, not a ridiculous one, which is why it wasn't on the table for banning (though admittedly it, too, had a late development change that made it better and that I regret to a degree). The "Caw-Blade" deck was putting up insane results before the card existed, so it's hard to blame it for the imbalance. The card that breaks the rules—Stoneforge Mystic—is the culprit, and my takeaway is that Tinker effects are unsafe and present tough constraints on all future cards. I guess that should have been more obvious at the time.
"The world is very different now."
John F. Kennedy uttered that sentence in his inauguration speech in 1961 regarding humanity's new-found scientific power to significantly alter the world for good or for bad. Magic players have similarly acquired world-altering power in the past few years in the form of information.
In the days of the first Mirrodin block, we weren't using the Standard format at any Pro Tours or PTQs. There wasn't an independent weekly series of Standard events with constant live-streaming video coverage. There wasn't a web page of winning Magic Online decks updated daily. And we didn't have the number of players we do now.
Formats are reaching their equilibrium points faster now than ever before. Deck lists today are more tuned than at any point in Magic's history. Information is traveling faster and being processed better than ever before.
I don't know the full impact of all these changes on a competitive Magic environment, but I do recognize that our mistakes will be identified and exploited more quickly than ever. We've already had many discussions internally about how to tweak our processes to prevent any more Jaces and Stoneforges from existing, but I'm not sure that means we'll necessarily be able to create formats that will remain balanced and interesting in perpetuity under the newly increased levels of activity and scrutiny—but we'll sure try.
Believe me, it's a good problem to have, people playing your game in record numbers. I just want to point out that we're in uncharted waters now. We'll do what we can to keep things interesting in the current system, but who knows what limitations any given iteration of Standard has in this new world? All I ask is that, should it be necessary, you remain as tolerant of formats' shortcomings in the coming years as you were for the past few months, and trust that we're working on ways to keep the game as fresh and dynamic and engaging as we can.
I'm buoyed by the fact that even if one expression of Magic begins to fatigue, as Standard has recently, there are still many other fun ways to engage the game, whether through Limited play, other Constructed formats like Legacy and Block Constructed, casual formats like Commander, and video games like Duels of the Planeswalkers. We work hard on all of those things, because we want you to have options as consumers, but also because we enjoy them ourselves. Again, having all these formats as fallbacks is no excuse to screw up the most-played one like we did, but problems like the ones we are having now are a big reason why we try to create so many compelling options. I know it is easy to grow angry or annoyed with us when things get out of whack, but I assure you that Magic is and always will be a labor of love.
Thanks again for your patience and understanding.