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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Aug 07 2020 12:00pm
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State of the Program for August 7 2020: Pete's Back

For this week, at least.  Joshua is busy.

Quick intro for those who don’t know me. I’m Pete Jahn, aka 1MWords, and I wrote SotP for many years. Before that, I wrote for this and other websites, going all the way back to The Dojo late last century. I also used to do a bunch of other stuff over my 20+ years of involvement with both tournament and online Magic. I’m kind of a dinosaur, so I’ll bring a dinosaur’s perspective to this week’s issues.

And have we got issues!

The State of MTGO:

We’ll get to the bannings. Promise. But I’m going to start with some retrospective.

I started playing Magic when 4th Edition and Chronicles were in the stores. I started playing tournament Magic when Standard was called Type II, and included Tempest and Saga blocks. My first Worlds was 2004. I have attended a half dozen Worlds, a couple dozen PTs and many, many other events. I also wrote about Magic, with weekly articles from early 1998 to 2018.

I started covering MTGO back in 2003, when it was the Magic Online Digital Object (or MODO.) I installed MTGO in 2005, when my local telephone company finally got broadband (okay, early DSL) to my home. I remember the Darksteel prerelease and Chuck’s Virtual Party, the V.2 to V.3 changeover. The V.3 to V.4 changeover and the months without drafts. I remember when Kibler’s crash in a big event, and the kerfuffle that caused, convincing Wizards to shut down all large events for months. I also remember some pretty hideous interfaces. Years ago, we had strange little avatars that walked around animated tables. We had some pretty ugly loading screens, and some pretty bad lobbies.

If you don’t remember those things, count yourself lucky.

A year or two ago, I stopped playing tournament Magic. I just wasn’t feeling it anymore, and I was unhappy with the formats. For a long while, I playing pretty much nothing but Commander at my local games store, and some draft and sealed with friends. I tried Arena, but what I love about Magic is the personal interaction – which Arena completely lacks. Then lockdown hit, and I was back to playing online, or not at all. Which brings me to the state of MTGO.

In my opinion, it has never been better.

The game works. It has pretty much all the cards that are worth playing, and they work as intended. Even (Wilderness Reclamation) works as Wizards – for whatever misguided reason – designed it. (We’ll get to the bannings later.) The interface is better than ever. MTGO is great. When Arena first debuted, I wondered if Wizards could keep both Arena and MTGO going in parallel. I think they will, at least for a long while. Arena is a big program, and even powerful gaming machines struggle to run it – and that’s with just a tiny fraction of cards and interactions. MTGO, on the other hand, runs the entire card pool (okay, excluding Shahrazad and some Unglued cards) without problems. Arena barely supports Historic, and may eventually include Pioneer. MTGO handles Vintage and Legacy and everything else, now.

One huge development occurred during Gencon Online last weekend. Players looking to enter Gencon’s Vintage and Legacy online events were loaned MTGO god accounts – accounts with playsets of every card. These are nothing new: I got a god account when I played in the first Invitational, but they have been limited to certain celebrities and events like the Invitationals. Gencon marked the first time Wizards made them available to the general public.

I stopped playing tournament / sanctioned Magic a year or two ago, but I haven’t sold my MTGO account. I still believe in the program.

Okay, on to the big news.

New Products:

Just kidding. I can’t really write about the new products: there are too many, and I have not been keeping track. $100 booster packs are not for me, nor are most of the other plethora of options out there. I am super-glad I don’t run a store, because keeping track of inventory and guessing what may sell must be pretty much impossible.

I will say that Jumpstart seems like a great option for introducing people to limited. I keep a collection of Commander precons around to play with friends. I could see keeping some pre sleeved Jumpstart packs around for the same purpose. The other product that makes sense, conceptually, is the collection boosters -whatever it is called. Traditional boosters contain a lot of commons, so opening those to build a collection is super wasteful. Being able to buy something that has a higher proportion of chase cards instead of chaff cards makes sense.

And I’ve dinked around long enough.

The Ban Hammer Bashes Everything!

The big news: Wizards announced a bunch of bannings. (Article here.) Here’s the list:

Standard will have to do without Wilderness Reclamation, Growth Spiral, Teferi, Time Raveler and Cauldron Familiar.

Pioneer loses Inverter of Truth, Kethis, the Hidden Hand, Walking Ballista, and Underworld Breach.

Historic suspended Wilderness Reclamation and Teferi, Time Raveler. Teferi also has to stop Brawling.

Good riddance.

First, I want to say that I totally understand that people are upset if they have invested in cards that are now banned. It hurts. I know. I have had cards – and whole decks – banned in the past. However, I have also been involved with games and formats that were wrecked by cards that should have been banned, and weren’t. Those formats and games died. Bannings, when done right, mean that a lot of other cards and decks become playable, and the format thrives. It’s like a good, hard workout. The pain is real, but the ultimate result is worth it.

These bannings are a good pain.

Sometimes, bannings are easy. A deck is just too good. JarGrim is a perfect example. JarGrim abused Memory Jar in a totally unfun way. The deck had a very good change of a turn one kill.  At GP Vienna, the first event after the card was released, a handful of people played the deck. Four made Top 8, and Randy Buehler won the event with the deck. Two weeks later, Wizards made an emergency ban to kill the deck. (I wrote about JarGrim a couple of times, and even made some videos. The deck is amazing to goldfish. As for being too good – the deck ran full playsets of a dozen cards that have been restricted in Vintage.)

When decks like that become too dominant, Wizards bans some cards to slow them down. Another reason – and arguably the most important reason – Wizards bans cards is because the presence of the decks is making the format unpopular. In the end, Wizards wants players to play, and enjoy, their game. They want players to participate in events and tournaments. Players want the same thing – to enjoy playing the format. When players don’t play, that’s bad for everyone. I can certainly sympathize: I got really sick of playing against combo decks, whether Nexus of Fate, Kethis Combo, Field of the Dead or Wilderness Reclamation. Wizards didn’t ban those cards, and the decks I liked to play (green creatures or midrange) couldn’t win, so I completely stopped playing Standard on Arena, at my LGS, and on MTGO. I played other games, instead.

I probably won’t pick up Arena again. After six months of avoiding it, and with an upcoming rotation which will remove the Arena sets I had completed, getting back into Standard will mean grinding for Wildcards., I don’t want to do that again. Constructed on Arena is pretty much limited to Standard, and I hated Standard. I’m gone, and I doubt they will ever get me back.

I could see playing Standard on MTGO, however. I have a decent collection, and buying into a deck is a lot easier on that platform. More importantly, I can play fun formats like Legacy and, thanks to the bannings, Pioneer seem worth playing in again. And building decks for Pioneer on MTGO may get me partway to a Standard deck I like; and then back into Standard. In that respect, MTGO rocks. Arena doesn't.

Wizards has little trouble making bans when individual decks start making up a large percentage of the metagame and running up a north of 50% win rate against the field. Where Wizards appears to struggle is when a deck is oppressive and damaging to a format, but does not have excessive win rates. And I think I know why.

Twenty years ago, I remember playing, and playing against, combo decks like Trix and JarGrim. These were serious broken decks that dominated the metagame. They were also very difficult to play optimally. Take Trix. That deck used fast mana to power out Necropotence, which then let you draw into Illusions of Grandeur, which gave you more life and more cards. You then used Donate to give your opponent the Illusions, which killed them. The deck required balancing cards in hand, life totals and mana – all on a razor’s edge. The deck was also quite unforgiving – a single mistake was usually fatal.

It took a lot of practice to pilot the deck. A lot. Back when Trix was around, really good players crushed pretty much everything that wasn’t tuned to beat Trix, and piloted by a good player, and lucky. Good players with hundreds of hours of practice crushed events with Trix. However, a lot of good players with little experience with the deck, and less skilled players, took the deck to events and did not crush. The result of all this was that the win rate for Trix in the Swiss rounds of large events was not that good. Back in the day, if I was in contention, especially in the later rounds, I had a terrible win rate against Trix. In the earlier rounds, or when I was out of contention, I smashed Trix repeatedly.

Combo decks like Trix have, in effect, two different win rates: really good in the hands of good pilots, and really bad in the hands of everyone else. However, when Wizards only looks at the combined win rate of such decks across the entire field, the win rate can appear reasonable. After all, a win rate of 90% for 20 percent of the pilots and 30% for 80 percent of the pilots averages out to a win rate of just 42%. Bad pilots disguise how broken a deck really is, and players trying out complex combo decks tend to be bad pilots.

I think that is what has been happening in Standard. Decks like Wilderness Rec were better than they appeared from the across-the-board numbers indicated. The were also not a ton of fun to play against. The result was that a lot of players, like me, stopped playing. Wizards finally realized they had to act. Some of that might have been driven by the viewership – or lack thereof – of the Players Tour. I didn’t watch. Did anyone else? Wizards knows. I’m guessing that was another reason for what they did on Monday.

Pioneer was in a similar spot. When the format started, players were excited. The format was considered a brewer’s paradise. And then we got a couple of very powerful combo decks that were hard to interact with, and not a lot of fun to lose to. For me, it was seeing a few too many Inverter decks that drove me out of the format. Now, after the changes, I may sleeve up some decks once my LGS can start running events again.

I have been around a long time. I remember when Juggernaut and Kird Ape were banned. (Yes, really.) I remember Necro Summer and Combo winter. I remember Skullclamp Affinity and Caw-Blade. I have been through dozens and dozens of bans. Bans, at least when Wizards acts decisively enough, make formats and Magic better. (Except when they banned my GB Survival deck. I really loved that deck. I have never enjoyed playing anything else quite as much.)

Prices and The Big Number:

Normally, this part of the article tracks prices for important cards in all formats. Joshua does a tin of work on all that each week. I don’t have the time this week – nor his spreadsheets and tracking info. What I can do is give you the big number. That is the cost of a playset of every card on MTGO. Granted, a playset of the cheapest copy of each card, but a copy of each non-the-less. This week’s big number is $25,035. That’s down from last weeks by a fair amount – about $1,600. It makes me wonder if this is a real thing, or if I messed up the calculation. It’s been a while.

The Metagame:

I got nothing.

The bannings hit pretty much every major deck in Standard and in Pioneer. Those formats will be different.

More importantly, I have not been playing much for the last six months. What little I remember was back when Companions were new, and free. Not relevant in any way. But, thanks to the bannings, I might just play enough to know something a week or two from now. In six weeks, I might actually know the Standard format fairly well.

Six weeks. Isn’t that when Standard rotates?

Gabe Walls

Magic lost a great player recently.

Gabe Walls was, back in the day, a really talented player. He was also a lot of fun to watch, and listen to, as he played. At the same time, Gabe was  a troubled man who struggled with addiction. PSully and Matt Sperling made a tribute video, here.

It’s worth watching, even if it is hard to hear at times. PSully and Matt have some good advice on balancing life, helping friends, and regrets for times they could have done more.

Parting Thoughts:

The world is on a rough place right now. We are facing a number of crises, and not handling any of them very well at all. DO what you can, but take time to do simple things and find simple pleasures. I took a long walk through the woods after work today with my dogs. Once I finish this, I may read, or play some games to de-stress. Find simple accomplishments. I make a list of small jobs – change the furnace filter, haul out the garbage, weed the corn, etc. I get a small sense of completion when I check them off. Take care of yourselves. Keep in touch with friends and family, and hang in there. This, too, shall pass.

PRJ