June 20th is fast approaching, and everyone is eagerly awaiting the announcements that day will bring. On that day, Wizards will release the official update to the banned and restricted lists for all formats. Last year, this day was anticipated by many who were growing weary of losing game after game to the caw-blade menace. On average, the field at any given standard event was around 60% caw-blade, and caw-blade was winning every event save for a small few.
Just before the June 20th of 2011 bans were announced, the deck hit a critical high when Ali Aintrazi and Jason Ford finished 1st and 2nd respectively at the SCG Standard Open in Baltimore with TwinBlade (http://sales.starcitygames.com//deckdatabase/displaydeck.php?DeckID=39259). This version of the already brutal Caw-blade deck incorporated the Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch combo within it to allow it to have a plan B that could just steal away a losing game at any time. If Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor had not been banned, TwinBlade would have been all you would have seen for the final 3 months of Zendikar/Scars standard.
Fast-forward one year later and we find ourselves in a similar scenario. The u/w delver archetype has been a very strong tier 1 strategy since Innistrad standard began. Recently, its success has risen even more with the release of Restoration Angel, which only added to the fish-esque aggro-control artillery that delver had at its disposal. The deck has been putting up very convincing numbers at many different events and now many players are crying out to Wizards to put a stop to it.
While I would not completely disagree with possibly banning Ponder, Snapcaster Mage or even both, I also have my own personal reservations concerning the possibility as well. To me, it boils down to some basic theories involving sustaining ecosystems. In Magic, as in nature, a delicate balance is constantly being maintained. In nature, the balance is manifested in ecosystems; in Magic, the balance is manifested in the meta. Whenever balance is shifted in a natural ecosystem, the outcome can result in minor species displacement, replacement, extinction or, at the very worst, death of the ecosystem. In Magic, when the balance is shifted you see similar results as in nature: some strategies decline, previously top tier strategies are replaced with new ones, some strategies die out completely and, sometimes, the metagame breaks completely.
In ecosystems, every plant, animal and organism living within the ecosystem maintains the ecosystem’s balance. Each organism within the ecosystem is linked together through a network of interactions, a nutrient cycle and an energy flow. In some instances, the balance is so delicate, that if single bacteria were to be removed, the entire system would fall apart and multiple species would become extinct. It is for this reason that ecologists strive so hard to study and understand the interactions that occur within the multitude of ecosystems that exist, in order to understand how and why these balance shifts occur and to make sure that our impact on the environment is not irreparably destructive.
Balance shifts can occur two basic ways in an ecosystem: natural and artificial. An example of a natural shift in balance would be a new species rising to dominance within an ecosystem. This can be achieved in a number of natural ways, such as, migration (leaving an old ecosystem where the species is less successful and moving into a new ecosystem where it is more successful), loss of a predator (causing the species to be able to overpopulate and take over), or evolution/mutation (allowing the species to overcome its weaknesses/predators). Balance shifts can also be artificial. Artificial shifts are the result of mankind taking action to attempt to control nature. Actions such as building dams, diverting rivers, deforestation and setting up hunting reserves are all examples of artificially caused shifts in ecosystems, and it is these types of shifts that can often times be very destructive to existing ecosystems if not done very carefully and with plenty of planning.
Shifts in the Magic metagame occur in a very similar fashion. Each format represents a different ecosystem, with eternal formats such as vintage and legacy being more stable and formats like limited and standard being more volatile. Natural shifts occur within these ecosystems as players incorporate new and old cards and create, mold and perfect strategies over the course of a format’s lifetime. This generally follows the same natural trend known as survival of the fittest. The best strategies rise to the top and the weakest fall to the bottom, or become extinct altogether. Sometimes a weaker strategy can evolve to become dominant by adding new technology. Sometimes a dominant deck may fall into decline, which allows that deck’s prey to rise in popularity once again. These are all natural ways that the metagame shifts in Magic and this is how things should and will always be.
Unfortunately, sometimes it is necessary for an artificial shift to occur in an ecosytem. Hunting reserves are a perfect example of an artificial shift in nature. I am not a hunter myself, but I know many who are and I also studied the topic in a number of my college classes. Each year, researchers and scientists team up with the forestry services departments in different states in order to establish hunting quotas for whitetail deer. These quotas let hunters know how many deer they are allowed to remove from the population during a specific hunting season. In order to come up with these quotas, the scientists and researcher conduct numerous studies on the deer population and determine approximately how many total deer there are and what the ideal number should be.
You see, humans have drastically reduced many of the deer’s natural predators in numbers over time. As humanity settled the land westward, they often encroached on the territory of wolves and bears, predators of the deer. These wild animals posed a significant threat to the human populations of these new frontier establishments, and they were often hunted as a result. As the number of predators declined, the deer populations rose almost in a perfect linear fashion. If the deer population was allowed to rise unchecked, they would eventually overpopulate. They would devour all of the available food, possibly causing their food sources to become extinct, and would then fall victim to starvation and possibly extinction. Since we are responsible for the decline in the deer’s predators, it is now up to us to fill that role and make sure that the deer populations around the country are maintained at environmentally safe levels. If we allow too many to be hunted, the deer could become endangered and the populations may die out. If we do not kill enough, their numbers will decimate their available food sources and they will starve to death. If the deer population were to die out, it could cause other animal population who rely on deer as their primary source of food to die out as well, which could then cause other species to die out in turn.
In Magic, Wizards of the Coast’s utilization of the banned and restricted list best represent artificial shifts in the ecosystem. By banning or restricting cards, Wizards is artificially setting the guidelines that the ecosystem will operate under, and like in nature, these types of shifts can be very disastrous if not handled with ample planning and the utmost care.
For example, in Caw-blade, there were two enablers that allowed the deck to succeed: Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. Just taking one of them away would not have stopped the deck, and would have barely weakened it. Wizards knew that they had to remove both of them in order to have any impact on the deck. There were many in the Magic community who were in complete agreement with these bans, but there were still some who had reservations, and with good reason. That reason was Valakut.
For those of you who were around and remember Valakut, you know exactly what I’m talking about, for those who weren’t, just imagine Wolf Run ramp, only much more non-interactive and much less fun to play against. Some players feared that, by completely dismantling caw-blade, Valakut would see resurgence in popularity and would take over the format. The only thing more un-fun than three more months of caw-blade mirrors was three months of Valakut mirrors. Luckily, though, that did not happen. As it turned out, caw-blade was still a good deck, even without Jace and Stoneforge. Coupled with the Splinter Twin combo deck, caw-blade managed to maintain enough strength to keep Valakut at a manageable level of popularity.
We are facing a similar situation in the present standard format. Currently, Wolf Run ramp is being kept in check by the U/W delver decks. With the advent of Cavern of Souls, control decks are no longer able to compete with Primeval Titan. Before Cavern of Souls, control decks such as U/B control could just attempt to prevent the wolf run player from casting a Primeval Titan and win the game through attrition. Now though, titans are mostly uncounterable, allowing the wolf run player to consistently force through threat after threat starting as early as turn 3 or 4. In response, delver decks started incorporating Restoration Angels and Sword of Feast and Famine in order to fight the green menace. It worked very well, and wolf run remained a strong, yet balanced deck.
Now, people are calling for more bans in order to reduce the strength of delver. However, this situation is exactly like the situation of last year. Delver is not caw-blade. Sure, delver decks comprise a large portion of the field, but it still has weaknesses, many more weaknesses than caw-blade ever had. In fact, the last two SCG standard opens have been won by Solar Flare, a deck that delver has a very hard time effectively dealing with. Solar Flare also won a TCGplayer Diamond Series event, fighting through a sea of delver opponents. Therefore, while there is plenty of evidence that proves that delver is a very strong deck, there is also evidence that proves it is not unbeatable or overly powered. More importantly though, look at the existing metagame.
If WotC bans Ponder and Snapcaster Mage, delver will be all but dead. Without Snapcaster Mage, Gitaxian Probe, Vapor Snag, Thought Scour, Mana Leak all become much worse. Without Ponder, the power level of delver itself drops significantly. Combined, the deck simply will not be able to survive with any amount of success in the current environment. If delver dies, then what will stop wolf run ramp from just taking over? There isn’t a fast combo deck in this format that can compete with wolf run like there was last year. Control decks cannot compete with Wolf Run due to Cavern of Souls, and midrange just folds to wolf run’s larger, more dangerous threats. Personally, as annoying as it can sometimes be to play against a delver opponent who has the nut draw of Turn 1 delver, Turn 2 flip revealing Mana Leak, it’s even worse to play against Wolf Run opponents who, beginning on turn 4, play a steady stream of uncounterable titans. I know it may be a tough pill to swallow, but perhaps we need delver in this meta.
As for the ban possibilities, I can completely understand why Ponder and Snapcaster could be banned. Ponder is already banned in Modern and restricted in Vintage due to how abusive its ability to smooth out draws is. The only reason Ponder is not banned in Legacy is that legacy is a format already defined by Brainstorm. As for Snapcaster, I could see him being banned simply because of the design constraints that he places on R&D for new cards. Think about it, every single new low casting cost instant or sorcery card that Magic R&D develops, they have to ask themselves “Will this card be broken if it could be flashed back?” That type of design limitation can be bad for a new block, and while I’m certainly not a fan of banning “new” cards from standard, especially when they have only seen less than one year of playtime, in this case I think I could make an exception. My only hope is that, if WotC does decide to go this route, that they also highly consider banning Primeval Titan as well. If they don’t, I fear that we could very well be in for 3 months of Wolf run Mirror matches, and if that is the case, you will definitely see a decline in tournament attendance as a result.
Until next time, good luck and happy planeswalking!