So Many Insane Plays – Decoding the DCI

The DCI is a body composed of some of the smartest people in Magic. Unfortunately, intelligence does not entail the ability to communicate ideas or thoughts clearly or effectively. Tom LaPille was a notable addition to the staff of Wizards of the Coast, not simply because of his accomplishments in Magic, but because of his ability to communicate the groupthink of a nest of brainiacs to the outside world. With notable speed Tom became the voice of Wizards R&D as he took over the reins of the column titled Latest Developments. This is not to say that Erik Lauer, the individual responsible for explaining the most recent changes to the Banned and Restricted List, has not explained the changes clearly or effectively. However, further elaboration or insight would be helpful. The implications of the most recent B/R list announcement reach Vintage as well as Legacy. Permit me to attempt to decode the DCI…

Erik Lauer begins the DCI’s official explanation:
“The DCI has made efforts to control the size of the banned & restricted lists, especially for eternal formats where banned cards never rotate out of the format.”

To some extent, this statement cements a change in DCI philosophy that has become more apparent and expressly noted this year. In the Fall, when unrestricting Gush and Frantic Search in Vintage, Lauer pointed out that the Legacy Banned List was as short as it had ever been since the inception of Legacy, and the Vintage Banned and Restricted List as short as it has been since 1999.

The tacit premise is that a shorter B/R list is a virtue, and a good thing. Why mention it otherwise? It’s my belief that a lot of the backlash over some restrictions in Vintage, particularly the June 2008 restrictions (of Brainstorm, Ponder, Merchant Scroll, and Flash), has helped propel the DCI on this course. While the DCI had taken seriously efforts to unrestrict cards in Vintage over the last decade, I believe that the DCI has pursued this course with greater vigor and enthusiasm in both Eternal formats in more recent years, and the last two years in particular, where they have peeled numerous cards off of both the Vintage and Legacy B/R lists.

Why might shorter B/R lists be a virtue? Erik does not explain this point, at least directly, but if we read between the lines, and make the connections explicit, the answers become clear. There are at least two major reasons. First of all, unbanning or unrestricting cards that no longer require that status to maintain the health of the format have the potential to generate greater format diversity. Format diversity – more deck options – makes for a more fun format. Secondly, it’s clear that, at least in Eternal formats, players enjoy the option of playing with all of their cards. That’s the idea behind Eternal, is that it is the last safe haven to play your cards after they rotate out of the frequently churning formats like Standard and Extended. Bannings and restrictions reduce the deck building options, and reduce the fun that Eternal players have.

In the previous B/R list announcement, Erik explained the first point:
“The DCI tries, among other goals, to maintain banned and restricted lists which keep a diversity of decks in competitive tournaments. One way to do this is to ban or restrict cards which are leading to overpowered decks. Another way is to unrestrict cards which may allow new competitive decks, and then hope that those won’t crowd out more decks. While the lists for Eternal formats do tend to grow over the long run, the DCI has been making a particular effort to make changes by taking cards off the list more than by adding cards.”

Apparently Erik did not feel the need to reiterate this point, but my doing so helps shed light on his explanation, and makes clear that the first rationale I explained is operative. As for the second rationale, the repeated references to Eternal formats, and the desire to maintain smaller restricted and banned lists in those formats, makes clear that they understand the feelings that people have about bannings and restrictions in formats where players are allowed, as a first principle, to play with all of their cards.

Erik continues:
“The current Legacy banned list is shorter than the Legacy banned list when the format first debuted in its current form in 2004, and is equal in size to the shortest such list ever. Several thousand cards have been added to the format since then, and the percentage of the format that is on the banned list has plummeted. The current Vintage banned & restricted lists total to fewer cards than the lists had 10 years ago. Again, the percentage of the format that is on the banned list has fallen, to an all time low. While these lists may grow in the future, they have not been growing recently.”

Again, Erik is going out of his way to explain that Eternal B/R lists are smaller, not just in absolute terms, but in relative terms as well (as a percentage of the available card pool). They are bending the curve downward, and intentionally so. Why not just explain the rationale directly? I believe this is an area where I can lend some insight. Erik Lauer is a numbers dude, a math man. He likes to communicate via numbers and statistics. That’s his genius. This is, I believe, his way of making that point. This point, about keeping the B/R lists as small as possible, I believe, also had played a role in the decision to unban a card in Legacy, which I will get to in a moment.

Erik now turns to address Survival of the Fittest:
“In recent months, Survival of the Fittest decks have been outperforming other decks in Legacy. This has caused the competitive format to become significantly less diverse. This has reached a point where the DCI concluded that it is appropriate to ban a card.”

There is a shift in logic, but it’s an implicit one, and easy to miss. Erik has been discussing the size of the B/R lists in Eternal formats, and how the DCI tries to control the growth of the B/R list. The rationales I advanced explain why they believe this is a good thing. It is only once we understand those rationales, however, that this paragraph becomes comprehensible. Remember that they believe, as I do, that format diversity (i.e. archetype diversity within a format) is a critical goal of the B/R list. They can use the B/R list to generate format diversity, as Erik explained in the September 2010 announcement, by banning or restricting cards that dominate an Eternal format, or by unrestricting or unbanning cards that would not dominate a format.

Survival of the Fittest has put up unparalleled performance statistics (at least in Legacy) as measured by the recent StarCityGames Legacy Open results. It’s not only the most winning deck, but has the greatest proportion of Top 8s, tournament victories, and performance against the field. By any chosen metric, it’s a dominant deck. Given these facts, the DCI is well justified in deciding to ban Survival. It had been my hope that they might wait a few more months to see if the format can adjust. In general, I believe that a card must demonstrate dominance for a threshold period of time before warranting a ban, such that the natural defensive mechanisms of the format are allowed to operate (i.e. metagaming). That threshold probably lies somewhere between 2-6 months. Survival had been around for several months, enough time for the DCI to justifiably issue a ban.

Survival was banned for format dominance, and its banning sets a standard for measuring dominance by an archetype in Legacy. It is a benchmark by which future proposed bannings should be evaluated, but apparently was not the only thing the DCI considered.
“Other cards were considered, such as Vengevine.”

Why would they consider Vengevine? Many people believed that Survival was the “obvious” ban. After all, Survival was the “real problem,” the “engine,” the “enabler,” “unfair,” the “degenerate” card, etc. The DCI is smart. The DCI knows that the purpose of the banned list is not to serve as a rogue’s gallery for perceived “broken cards,” but rather something far more banal: it’s a policy device for managing a format.

Given the purposes of the B/R lists, if the goal of promoting format diversity can be achieved through banning one of several cards, the card that should be banned is the card that best achieves that goal. In other words, as between several possible ban targets that would equally accomplish the same end, they should ban the card that maximizes format diversity and has the least collateral damage. On that basis, I recently argued that they should consider Vengevine as an alternative target for action. I’m glad that they did.

However, note the caveat “equally accomplish the same end…” If one card seems particularly likely to contribute to another format dominant deck, then the banning options are not otherwise equal. That’s the basis of the decision to ban Survival instead of Vengevine:
“However some of the winning decks do not even play Vengevine; instead, they primarily rely on combinations with Necrotic Ooze.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I cannot find any single instances of this being the case, so if any readers can point to top 8 finishes of Survival Ooze decks without Vengevine please forward them to us.]

This is the single best argument against banning Vengevine in place of Survival. It is not conclusive evidence that Vengevine-less Survival lists would in fact dominate, but it is reasonable to suggest that it might. Given the gray areas here, the DCI is empowered and has the authority to make those judgments. Given the fact that Necrotic Ooze Survival lists might be just as dominant post-Vengevine, it makes sense to choose the card that supports both kills, rather than Vengevine, and leave open the realistic possibility of Ooze dominance. This is logical, and Erik then points out another consideration about Survival:
“Also, Survival is a card that gives the decks a lot of resilience to potential answer cards. Some combination decks fail when they draw cards intended as answers to opponents’ decks instead of cards that are part of their winning combination. However, with Survival of the Fittest on the battlefield, a drawn Qasali Pridemage can be replaced with any other creature in the deck for one mana.”

Note the language. The DCI is describing features of Survival without using summary labels like “unfair,” “degenerate,” etc. No where did the DCI, in this explanation, rely on spurious adjectives to describe Survival. It simply and tersely identified it as contributing to format dominance, and explained why banning other cards would not have accomplished the same end. Being labeled “unfair” or “degenerate” or an “engine” is a label applied when a deck or combination becomes format dominant, but it is the format dominance, not the label, that is the basis for this banning.

Now comes the part where most people are truly confused. The DCI also announced the unbanning of Time Spiral. Here’s what the DCI had to say:
“Time Spiral is unbanned to give the Legacy the potential for another deck. Time Spiral was overpowered in some formats. There are other reasons some cards are banned; some cards cause logistic problems for tournament organizers running large tournaments. For example, some cards cause so many matches to run out of time that it can cause a strain on judging and tournament organization, and even force tournaments to finish outside of the normal tournament venue. We identify such cards by whether they actually caused such problems when they were tournament-legal. Time Spiral did not cause such problems.”

What do tournament logistics have to do with Time Spiral? How do these “other” considerations bear on Time Spiral of B/R list policy generally? It reads as if the vast majority of the paragraph is simply irrelevant to the issue. What’s going on here? These are questions readers woke up thinking this morning.

This is another area where Erik was saying things that are important and relevant, but needs further explication. First of all, Erik is making clear that the DCI believes that unbanning Time Spiral may contribute to the diversity in the format, just as the unbanning of Dream Halls and other cards in recent years has helped create new archetypes.

Although oddly out of place, Erik is actually making a very important point and revealing more about the DCI’s ongoing refinement and elaboration of B/R list policy. He is explaining that aside from tournament dominance, there are a few other important reasons why the DCI bans or restricts cards. We know one of those is decks or cards that win games too quickly. But another major consideration is tournament logistics.

A number of cards have been banned or restricted in Legacy and Vintage on account of or in part because of logistical considerations. Shahrazad is a prominent example, and was banned in the initial 1994 banned list for the same reason. However, there are others that may not be so well known. Gifts Ungiven was a top performing deck in Vintage previously, but aside from performance the tournament time considerations were another nail in the coffin. Resolving three or more Gifts Ungiven per game took up an excessive amount of time between both players making Gifts based decisions. Most people are familiar with the example of Sensei’s Divining Top in Extended, a card that was well known for eating up the tournament clock with every activation.

In some ways, this could be seen as an apologia for Land Tax. Land Tax is probably the single card that the Legacy community, myself included, would most like to see unbanned. Polls I’ve conducted in articles and elsewhere bear this out. The time consideration criteria is most likely a major reason why Land Tax will likely not be unbanned during the Lauer era of DCI B/R list management.

So what does this have to do with Time Spiral? The tacit premise is that Time Spiral’s recursive function has the potential to add to the match time. Repeatedly Time Spiraling in a single game requires repeated shuffling (and shuffling of opponent’s deck) and drawing of new hands. With that premise visible, the rest of the paragraph makes sense in regards to the safety of Time Spiral. Although Time Spiral has the potential to slow down matches, it has not done so enough in their experiences. Furthermore, they don’t believe it will slow down matches enough to warrant keeping it on the Legacy banned list moving forward.

Finally Erik wraps up by stating:
“In balance, the DCI believes the benefits of unbanning Time Spiral outweigh the risks.”

In an article I wrote earlier this year, I identified six cards that could potentially be unbanned in Legacy. Time Spiral was one of them. In a poll embedded in the article, I asked the audience whether Time Spiral could be safely unbanned. 573 people voted, and 72% voted “YES.” The Legacy community and the DCI, it seems, would concur.

I look forward to the new Legacy.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian