So Many Insane Plays – Why Survival Should Not Be Banned in Legacy, But Will Be Anyway

Survival of the Fittest is putting up unseemly – even gaudy – performance statistics. By any reasonable accounting, it’s dominating the Legacy format, if measured primarily by performance on the StarCityGames (SCG) Legacy Open series. I won’t rehash that data. Admittedly, there is some question about the scope of the data – whether its exclusive reliance on American tournament performance is truly representative of global metagame dominance. More than a few European players point to the European championships as counter-evidence (Editor’s Note: as well as the LCL series and every other large European tournament that is not SCG). But with that caveat, there is more than enough statistical evidence of Survival dominance.

Should Survival Be Banned?

There are few people in Eternal Magic, and perhaps Magic generally, who are concerned as much with tournament performance in managing the Banned and Restricted lists than I am. In my long stint as a writer on SCG, I acquired a reputation for colorful charts and graphs representing all sorts of data, and even began compiling SCG Legacy Open data before passing the reins to Jared Sylva.

To answer the question of whether Survival should be banned, we first have to understand the function of the Banned and Restricted List.

The Purpose of the Banned and Restricted List

The Banned and Restricted serves one goal: to keep Magic formats fun. This is the uber-goal of the Banned and Restricted List. Every single decision regarding it must serve this end. The most practical way this happens is by managing the Banned and Restricted list to promote format diversity. Virtually everyone agrees that diverse formats are more fun.

The DCI, in its most recent policy statement, explicitly affirmed this goal:
“The DCI tries, among other goals, to maintain banned and restricted lists which keep a diversity of decks in competitive tournaments.”

There can be no doubt that promoting archetype diversity of decks is a key goal for B/R list policy. The DCI continues:
“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.”

If promoting format diversity weren’t a goal of the Banned and Restricted List, then there would never be a reason to unrestrict or unban cards. Once banned, a card could remain banned forever. The principle of diversity is absolutely fundamental to the management of formats. This principle also implies that giving people the opportunity to play with their cards in so far as possible is a compelling interest for the DCI. They acknowledge that people don’t like being told that they can’t play with their cards.

Of course, as hinted above, the Banned and Restricted List serves other goals as well. For example, the DCI has banned cards for being non-interactive and therefore unfun, such as by generating too many turn one or turn two kills or by locking the opponent out of the game before they’ve had a chance to play spells. Classic examples of this include Trinisphere and Flash in Vintage. Neither Trinisphere nor Flash were dominant performers, but were sufficiently “unfun” that the DCI felt they warranted restriction.

The good news is that the goal of format diversity can be measured. It’s an objective goal that can be pursued by evaluating tournament data. As stated above, there is no doubt that Survival of the Fittest is putting up astonishing numbers, strong evidence of format dominance (Editor’s Note: on the SCG circuit). Formats with dominant decks reduce the level of diversity within the format, not just in terms of tournament representation, but the more important statistic of tournament performance, most conventionally represented by Top 8 data. Diversity means more than whether people play a variety of decks; it means that a variety of decks are competitive and are reasonably capable of winning tournaments.

Survival Is Dominant, Right? Yes, But…

There is little doubt that Survival is dominant, at least as measured by recent SCG Legacy Open performance. But tournament dominance is merely a threshold question. It’s not, by itself determinative of whether a particular card should be banned. That’s where most people are getting tripped up when it comes to Survival. There are two key points to keep bear in mind:

1) Dominance May be Short-Run
Statistical dominance of a format by a single archetype is certainly grounds for banning or restriction. However, that dominance must be proven over time. It is only when a particular strategy has proved dominant over time that a banning is warranted.

The essential idea behind the Magic metagame is that players continue to adjust and refine their strategies to maximize their chances of winning in the metagame. Consequently, metagames are dynamic and constantly evolving. In six years of Legacy, no archetype has truly been able to establish dominance for a long period of time. Certain archetypes like CounterTop or Goblins have come close, but over time even they have been answered by metagame foils. Up until Mystical Tutor, only three cards had been banned in Legacy since its inception, and each was banned for reasons other than format dominance. Flash and Time Vault were banned due to the removal of power-level errata, and Shahrazad was banned for logistical reasons.

Survival’s dominance can, at best, be measured only in the final quarter of this year. Two to three months of dominance in a format like Legacy is not really enough evidence to know whether the archetype would remain dominant for 6 months or longer. The DCI waited patiently in the Vintage format for almost a year as Tezzeret dominated before it finally restricted Thirst for Knowledge. At a minimum, I would argue that Survival should need to demonstrate dominance for more than a few months before such a permanent and likely irreversible solution is imposed. The worst thing that can happen is that the Survival archetype continues to dominate, and then something is finally done about it in March.

2) Archetype Dominance Doesn’t Tell You Which Card to Ban
Archetypes are composed of many cards. For simplicity in communication, we often refer to archetypes by a salient card or mechanic. Thus, the Legacy deck in question that is dominating SCG Legacy Opens is referred to as “Survival,” a reflection of the fact that Survival of the Fittest has been an established archetype in the format since its inception. Similarly, decks with Oath of Druids or Flash are called Oath or Flash decks, respectively, although that short label is not very descriptive, it acquires meaning in a context.

Most Magic players who are familiar with a format have contextual knowledge that helps them understand what the short hand labels reference. Thus, when saying Oath or Flash, Vintage and Legacy players can generally picture a somewhat complete archetype. However, this shorthand is less than helpful when determining what card to ban. The labels suggest a specific strategic or card salience, but only in a context. In the context of the Banned and Restricted list, as opposed to everyday shorthand communication, these labels can be misleading. For example, Vintage Tezzeret decks were dominating Vintage after the re-errata on Time Vault. The archetype name was “Tezzeret,” but restricting Tezzeret the Seeker to deal with the problem would have made little sense, since most “Tezzeret Control” decks ran only 1-2 Tezzerets. Instead, the DCI targeted a different card, and restricted Thirst for Knowledge instead.

Just because, by convention and the tradition of the Legacy format, we refer to the archetype in question as “Survival,” does not mean that Survival is the card that should be banned.

Vengevine as the Proper Target?

It seems fairly clear, although some dispute the question, that for the first six years of the Legacy format, Survival was either dormant or innocuous. The argument that Survival is a card that is likely to require banning in the future simply lacks evidence. If Survival were so likely to be banned, then it would have proven its format strength in the past. Survival has won few major Legacy tournaments in that time period, and has generally been relegated to the domain of “green” mages. Even after the discovery of Loyal Retainers and the printing of Iona, Shield of Emeria, Survival seemed just like one player in a crowded field of interesting options. It wasn’t until Vengevine was printed that Survival decks began their quick ascent. In fact, it is the interaction of Vengevine and Survival that has produced the dominant strategy. That fact means that there are at least two possible DCI options if they do indeed choose to ban something:
1) Ban Survival of the Fittest
2) Ban Vengevine

Some people find it absurd that Vengevine might be a target for DCI action. After all, Vengevine is merely a creature. After all, isn’t Survival the reusable tutor? Doesn’t Survival have all of the hallmarks of cards that have been banned before? Isn’t Survival the degenerate card among the two?

In Legacy, almost every archetype is built around some degenerate combo or engine. Lion’s Eye Diamond, Dark Ritual, Aluren, Ad Nauseam, Show and Tell, Replenish, Life From the Loam, Natural Order, Counterbalance, and so on. Many of the best decks seek to abuse more than one combo or engine. Being labeled “degenerate” is not a legitimate criterion for banning because it tells us nothing about how to distinguish degenerate cards that deserve banning from those that aren’t. In fact, such labels only muddle the issue rather than clarify it.

Similarly, being labeled a “tutor” or a “mana accelerant” is not helpful criteria. Mana Vault is banned, but Dark Ritual is not. Mana Crypt is banned, but Lion’s Eye Diamond is not. Mystical Tutor is banned, but Enlightened Tutor and Grim Tutor are not. Unfortunately, the DCI often uses analogies like that to justify its decision making, but those frameworks are simply terrible heuristics for decision making. Each tutor and mana source is unique both in its application and contextual power. It’s only in the context of a metagame, not because of some principle regarding a card’s characteristic, that a card deserves to be banned. These labels are labels that hyperbolic and imprecise columnists use in internet debates or the DCI uses to justify decisions based on flimsy evidence. There is no such thing, in the context of B/R list policy, as “inherently broken.” And, even if there were, cards aren’t banned because they are “inherently broken,” but because they are contextually broken, and dominate a metagame. It’s time for us to get away from such poor linguistic forms.

The Argument for Banning Vengevine

Early indications by Sourcers suggests that Vengevine will still be broken in U/G Madness or potentially Buried Alive variants, even if Survival is banned. But even if those early indications are wrong, there is another key reason to ban Vengevine.

If the purpose of the Banned and Restricted List as a policy tool is to promote format diversity (see above), then banning Vengevine is a more logical decision than banning Survival. The reason is simple: Survival appears more likely to contribute to format diversity without Vengevine than Vengevine would without Survival. For years, Survival has been a quiet archetype in the Legacy format, and has been quite popular among certain Legacy players. As between those two options, banning Vengevine is far more logical in light of this criterion than Survival, even though it may strike many as counter-intuitive. It’s only counter-intuitive because people incorrectly put stock in the sloppy heuristics critiqued above. In light of the actual criterion behind Banned and Restricted List policy, it becomes the most logical option.

I have long argued that DCI B/R list policy should be narrowly tailored to achieve its objectives. Courts often require legislatures and city council’s to tailor their legislation to address a particular problem, and sweep no more broadly than is necessary. In law this is called “narrow tailoring.” For example, if a city council is concerned about the negative influence of a strip club, rather than prohibit all strip clubs through broad zoning, courts generally require tailored zoning that minimizes the harm of a strip club (like near a school) without making it impossible to open one. I believe that DCI B/R policy should likewise adhere to narrow tailoring principles.

In 2005, the DCI was confronted with the question of what to do about Mishra’s Workshop decks, which were driving players away from the Vintage format. Rather than restrict Mishra’s Workshop, they restricted Trinisphere. Mishra’s Workshop remains a pillar of Vintage today, and an important part of Vintage’s strategic diversity.

In all likelihood, this discussion is moot. The DCI generally settles its decisions weeks in advance of the actual announcement. Nonetheless, it is an important issue. Bannings that aren’t necessary have possibly negative long term consequences. Every card plays a potentially important role in the format. Strategic diversity is a strength of the format, and gives the format the natural resilience and tools to fight future metagame predators. The greatest strength of Legacy is its card pool. It is from this card pool that any answer to almost any problem can be devised. I have great faith that an answer to the Survival metagame can be found. Whether it will be or not is an empirical question to be determined, but only if the DCI allows us to discover the answer.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian