Magic: The Gathering's Latest Bans Show How Arena Is Changing the Game

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast announced a set of bans that will reshape the Standard format for the month that remains before rotation. The bans caught many players by surprise. With rotation weeks away, most expected that Wizards of the Coast would let rotation organically reset the Standard metagame. Three of the four cards banned on Monday -- Wilderness Reclamation; Growth Spiral; and Teferi, Time Raveler -- will exit the format with the release of Zendikar Rising. Wizards of the Coasts admits that these bans are somewhat experimental and break with tradition, but they're more than that. They're a sign of how the free-to-play digital game Magic: The Gathering Arena is changing how Magic: The Gathering is played and how its owner manages it.

In the ban announcement, designer Ian Duke wrote, "This set of changes is a deviation from our usual banned-list philosophy for Standard, and as such, we consider it an experiment. Outside of the very top levels of competitive play, including throughout most of the MTG Arena traditional Standard ladder, we're seeing a good distribution of deck diversity and win rates. However, at the skill level of our most competitive tournaments and the Mythic ranking on the Arena ladder, we do see a small number of decks with high win rates and play rates that have remained in that metagame position for quite some time.

"Under our usual approach, we would have allowed Standard rotation to provide a natural and predictable shift in the metagame with the release of Zendikar Rising. But in an era of social distancing, the proportion of Standard play occurring on digital platforms has increased substantially. As the rate at which players can rack up games of Standard in digital is higher than in tabletop, we believe it's correct to enact metagame change at a faster rate as well."

In other words, people are playing competitive Magic more than ever. That means Magic's designers need to take a more hands-on approach to keep the game's most popular format fun.

Some players will point out that before 2017, the year that Magic: The Gathering Arena entered its first beta phase, the last time cards were banned in Standard was 2011, when Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Stoneforge Mystic were both removed from play. From 2017 until now, counting Monday's bans, 18 cards have been banned in Standard.

But what's missing from that comparison is the rate of play. There's no telling how often casual Magic is played on kitchen tables, but organized casual games typically occur once a week at Friday Night Magic events. Competitive Magic takes place at larger and less frequent events.

But that was before the introduction of MTG Arena and its ranked ladder. Now competitive Magic is played by millions of players only a daily basis. There's competitive Standard format Magic taking place at every moment of every day as long as those Arena servers are up and running.

Some players choose to believe that the increased frequency of Standard bans are due to poor design and playtesting on the part of Wizards of the Coast. In some cases, Wizards of the Coast admitted that this was the case, as when they said that Oko, Thief of Crowns' Planeswalker abilities turned out to be more game-warping than they'd anticipated.

But that's only part of the picture. In the past, Wizards of the Coast could coast for a month into Standard rotation because of the relatively low play rate and stakes. Casual players at home aren't affected by bans. Friday Night Magic is too low stakes to weigh heavily on the company's decision-making process. How many competitive events would take place between now and September? Probably not enough to shake up the metagame so close to the rotation.

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But with MTG Arena's always-open ranked ladder, we're talking about a large number of games being affected. We can't say how many exactly since we don't have the statistics, but we're talking about 1200 Mythic Qualifier spots being up for grabs. That's a lot of a relatively-high stakes competition affected by Wizards of the Coast's decision on whether to act and if grinding mythic becomes a repetitive chore, then there's a chance people will walk away from the game.

The truth is, there's a possibility that more bans would have taken place back in the pre-Arena days had Wizards of the Coast had more reason to act. Now they have that reason, and thus they must take action. Magic: The Gathering is being played more now than ever before, and that's a good thing. But everyone involved in the Magic community should realize that with increased play comes increased responsibility.