The past few years have not been good for competitive balance in MTG. Following yesterday’s deservedly heavy-handed B&R announcement, standard is now at 14 cards banned since 2017. Before 2017, the standard bannings have been relatively sparse. Working backwards:
2011 - cawblade standard, 2 cards banned 2005 - affinity standard, 8 cards banned 2004 - skullclamp banned 1998-1999 - the infamous combo winter, 9 cards banned
So this period from 2017-2019 has seen the most bannings since the affinity era, and may even be comparable to the unquestionably disaster that was Urza block in `98-99.
The ironic thing is that since 2017, Wizards has instituted a Play Design team within their R&D to help manage the play balance of their competitive formats. The Play Design team supposedly looks at sets around a year before release, so responsibility for the failures in playtesting that led to the unbalanced environments in 2018 and 2019 largely fall on them. They came out with an article yesterday acknowledging the shortcomings of Play Design, so at least they are aware and taking responsibility.
Most of the bannings are caused by one or more of the following:
- cheating on mana costs (aetherworks marvel, once upon a time)
- super pushed cards (oko, veil of summer, smuggler’s copter)
- linear, parasitic mechanics they didn’t know how to balance (energy)
- cards that faced less opposition after rotation (field of the dead)
So, if I were the play design team, I would pay special attention to these things as they pass through play testing:
- 3 mana planeswalkers
- cheating on mana costs
- new mechanics, especially linear, parasitic mechanics
- cards that generate free resources for no additional cost (field of the dead)
- cards whose answers are rotating out
These days I really only play Standard on Magic Arena, not much on paper, but it’s still interesting to follow. The high power level is kind of a good indicator in that we know they are pushing cards and trying to find the limits of an exciting competitive environment, but it also means they have to be super careful. Even some pros were complaining that some of their expensive decks were now worthless after the bans, so the consecutive bannings are really bad for the playerbase and disincentivizing them from investing in the game.
I do hope the play design team has learned its lessons, and hopefully we start to get a more balanced competitive environment once Theros 2: Elspeth Boogaloo rolls out early next year.