Rotation, Bans and Bears… Oh My!

Phil Morris • January 17, 2018

As I write this it’s been about 24 hours since the banning of Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Rampaging Ferocidon and Ramunap Ruins. Opinions are flying wild and people are complaining of being victimized by Wizards of the Coast. It’s as if players think that the bans were against them personally. Wow! Just wow.


Before we get started let me first say: you are welcome to your opinion. After all I’m just stating my opinion in what I think is a clear and logical way. If you want to discuss or comment below, I’m happy to listen and give counter points.

I’ve been often asked to explain Magic: The Gathering in simple terms. My response is “It’s a game of chess where you can choose which pieces you want to play. And they all move differently.” A pure strategy game that changes and evolves. But chess is always a mirror match of the exact same pieces. I'd love to trade in a queen and a pawn to get two more knights. Or ditch a rook for another bishop. It would make chess much more interesting.

But fortunately we have Magic: The Gathering so I don’t have to use different chess pieces.

Let’s take a look at the Standard format through the lens of Rotation, Bans and Bears. And you thought the title was just me being cute.

Rotation is what Standard is all about.

The great thing about Magic: The Gathering are its multiple formats. One massive set of cards that you can enjoy in any number of ways. Standard being one of those ways. But why do we like the Standard format in the first place? Because it does change. It’s a perfect format for new players to get into because it's a smaller pool of cards to choose from. You don’t need to know the full 25 years of history to get started, you can start with just the past year.


Many kids want to be the latest musical sensation. But look at the artists that stand the test of time. The artists that are more than a one hit wonder. Without exception, after their initial success the truly iconic ones reexamined themselves, changed and continued to come out on top.

We don’t like things that are stagnant. Standard as a format plays to that need in each one of us. That ability to learn and grow that we all desire deep down. It is designed for the inventor and creator in all of us. The people who can reinvent themselves.

Banning is good for the game.

Let me take that statement a bit farther: I think we should expect bans in Standard every cycle.

A lot of people think that R&D should do a better job, or that this hole or obvious combo or whatever should have been noticed. I think that’s a bit unfair. When you work closely with a project of any sort, you start with a set of expectations. They are your design parameters. You expect things to grow and happen a certain way. You build with that in mind and you release your wonderful product. And someone figures out a way to break it. You couldn’t see that, because you never envisioned it to be used that way.


Think about warning labels. Why do we need “Don’t use while bathing” on the label? Of course while I’m showering the most obvious thing for me to do right after rinsing out my hair is to grab the blow dryer while still in the shower. Yes, it's idiotic but it's there because someone decided to use the product in a way never envisioned by its designer.

So a ban is a simple way to fix something that wasn’t originally intended. Attune with Aether is a really nice card. No downside. One drop, grab a land and get some Energy. Used in a lot of decks. It’s a great rare!

Oh right. It's a common. A quite powerful common. I’m sure the original intent was to be a little jump start for a two color deck. The designer didn’t realize all the ways the Energy mechanic could be used. You may think the power of the card is obvious now, but for the designer it was Rampant Growth with a bit of energy tossed in. But before banning, it was found in every energy deck because it is all value. The other cards banned this announcement probably have a similar story.

Bears are the base of the game

When the game started 25 years ago there was Grizzly Bears. A simple two drop 2/2 creature with no special abilities. Bland, boring and vanilla. But it is good. It is a standard by which cards are made. It sets the power level. If your creature does something more, it needs to cost more or take a hit on power/toughness. That's how WOTC balances with the bears. And for 25 years, the power level of Magic: The Gathering has stayed relatively consistent. Yes, there was the revamp at 8th edition that looked at the success of the game, reexamined and reinvented it, but the bears stayed the same because the power level was good.


As the game continues to grow and evolve, we have some things that don’t quite fit that power level. They need to be adjusted to stay within the bounds of the bear. Some people think of them like cancer that needs to be cut out, but that’s not entirely true because we have other formats. Higher power formats like Commander and lower ones like Pauper. These cards that don’t fit Standard can fit into another format.

So what does this all mean for Standard?

We want a balanced game where we can express our ever changing attitude. We want change. We actually crave change. We want to solve the problem of what to play or what fits our personality. Rotation helps keep the game fresh and new for us. Bans fix little problems of strange and unrealized card interactions.

Sounds like it’s exactly what Standard is all about.

Would it be better if cards didn’t go straight to being banned, but somehow limited? Technically, this sounds great. Like when the Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai combo was discovered there was a suggestion to not ban the cat but say that these two cards couldn’t be in the same deck together. Sounds good, but in practice that may be much more difficult to handle. If that possibility is opened then there will be a slippery slope of card combinations everyone will want on that list. And that could get to the point where it’s impossible for anyone to create a new deck for fear of creating an accidental combo. In this case, banning is better.


Another limit possibility is to first restrict problem cards to a single one in the deck as is done in Vintage. This may have some merit but in some cases a single copy of the card is all you need, so restricting to a singleton isn’t actually limiting it. If we were to do this I would expect there would be just as many opinions, but the impact wouldn’t be as drastic. It may be something that Wizards of the Coast should look into if they haven’t already.


I know some of you will say something about losing value in the cards, or unexpected changes, or a different card should have been removed, or we need core sets to print answers to cards, or…

Remember this: Standard is supposed to change. It’s supposed to change often. That’s part of the challenge of the format. Don’t try to make Standard more like another format.

It’s not.