Sunday, June 17, 2012

"What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" - Why a Ban on Snapcaster Mage Would Insult My Intelligence

As those of you who aren't living under a rock may be aware, we are rapidly approaching June 20th and with it a potential update to the various Banned & Restricted lists that govern Magic's myriad formats.  Normally these dates will come and then pass with very little changing about Magic as a result; this time however there seems to be a growing sense (at least on my Twitter feed) that WotC will finally "do something" about the menace that is Delver in Standard.  In particular there's been a lot of chatter about Ponder, Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage being potentially on the chopping block in an attempt to "fix" Standard.  Now before we get started I want to be clear about a couple of things; right now these potential bans are only a rumor, nothing has been announced officially and I am in no way privy to any sort of inside knowledge.  I shall also at various times in this discussion refer to anecdotal evidence in the form of discussions I participated in, tweets I read and comments I remember from that time period.  Like most non-Lawyers I experience the world through my own senses and make rational deductions based on those perceptions; if you're looking for a definitive legal argument that WotC knew exactly how powerful Snapcaster Mage was, you may be disappointed.  Additionally, whether or not I believe banning any of these cards is a good idea is somewhat irrelevant to the subject but just to get it out of the way I'll tell you anyway:

No, I don't think banning these cards is a good idea because as a general rule I am against the banning of any cards in Standard.  While I'm fairly certain people will get over a ban on Ponder or Delver of Secrets I am particularly opposed to banning Snapcaster Mage a mere 9 months after it's release.  I also genuinely believe that the short term (2 years at most) cycle of the format functions as a self correction mechanism for the most part and that unless design/playtesters truly believe they have made a grievous error it's better to just leave Standard alone and let time take it's course.  A good example of this in my opinion was resisting the urge to ban Bloodbraid Elf in the post-Fae Standard of it's heyday.  Anyone who's ever played against Bloodbraid Elf can tell you the card is overpowered, idiot proof and ultimately absolutely no fun to play against; it's the very definition of a "negative play experience".  Despite this however Bloodbraid Elf was allowed to pass through it's time in Standard unhindered; Jund Summer came and went and by the time Bloodbraid was rotating out of the format he'd become just one of a number of ridiculously overpowered cards you could build your deck around in Standard.  Time and the mental efforts of a million monkeys out there designing decks have a way of curing all wounds in Magic and if WotC snap-caved to every public outcry about the need to ban specific cards I suspect we'd never have any good cards to play with at all.

It's important to note that I only feel this way about Standard; for obvious reasons Eternal formats require a more liberal use of the "banhammer" to ensure their long term health and stability.  Additionally I'm willing to accept that sometimes cards just slip through the cracks and end up impacting Standard in a way that design neither intended nor could have easily predicted; Mirrodin-era Artifact Lands, Disciple of the Vault and Skullclamp all come to mind here.  In these cases we were talking about a legitimate, honest to God mistake that lead to the banning of a number of common and uncommon cards that literally everyone was happy to see go.  Finally I should mention that while I was a little upset at the time I eventually came to understand the Jace/Stoneforge Mystic ban as a one time only effort to boost increasingly flagging tournament attendance with the understanding that both of these cards would only be legal for another 3-4 months in Standard anyway.  In short; I am against banning cards in Standard but I'm willing to make an exception in the case of obvious mistakes or overt consumer reactions that directly affect tournament attendance numbers in a negative way.  Unfortunately in this case I have an extremely hard time believing that any of these cards were a legitimate "mistake" and I near as I can tell tournament Magic is as or more popular than it's been in years.  Just a few weeks ago I attended a 181 person PTQ that was so overcrowded the organizer was openly offering 12 packs to any player who dropped after rounds 1 or 2; clearly Delver is not keeping grinders away in droves the way Caw Blade did last summer.           

Okay so now that you know where I'm coming from, let's go back down the rabbit hole to the absolute first moment you saw a preview for Snapcaster Mage.  For those of you who somehow smoke more herb than I do, it was September 2nd, 2011.  Unless you worked for WotC, were Tiago Chen, or somehow had access to the Innistrad Godbook (jokes) this was the absolute first time you laid eyes on one of the most powerful cards in the history of Magic.  Do you remember your reaction to this moment?  I do, I literally spent at least 5 minutes staring at and zooming in on a grainy cellphone image of a slide projection just trying to make sure the card was real.  Once I ascertained that the card was in fact real I would estimate it took me all of 5 seconds to think "that's too powerful" and ask "why would you print a card like that, ever?"  I also remember that I was not alone in feeling this way; within moments of the preview the "Magical Internets" as it were exploded with people rushing to praise the "new Dark Confidant" and to talk about all of the amazing cards you could flash back in Standard with him.  I distinctly remember both Mana Leak and Ponder (we'll get back to this later) coming up in multiple conversations on Twitter no more than an hour after the Mage was revealed for example.  As you can see from forum discussions like this the response was overwhelmingly positive and only the stubborn or contrary had any question about how powerful this card was.  It's also not as if this opinion was confined to beginners, whiners and "durdles" either folks; some of the best players in the world were openly singing the praises of this format defining monstrosity long before "Snappy" was even available for purchase.  You may be tempted to pass all of this off as hyperbole or exaggeration but when some of the greatest minds in Magic (snicker) are absolutely salivating to get their hands on a card you can rest assured that it's the real deal folks.  Finally, even if you were one of the few that doubted "Snappy's" power, it's hard to argue that the market as a whole wasn't very excited about Snapcaster Mage.  I know for example that at the shop I personally manage we had to keep a waiting list of customers who wanted to buy both foil and regular Mages before the set was even released; I honestly can't remember having to do that with another unreleased card before or since. 

In light of the somewhat mountainous pile of evidence above I feel fairly comfortable in saying that any reasonable person had a pretty good idea of both Snapcaster's power level and overall value.  There is absolutely no question in my mind that this card was one of the key selling points for Innistrad as a set and that WotC knew that; likely long before he was actually previewed but if not most certainly immediately afterwards.  What's more I also have a hard time believing that anyone operating in a design or playtest capacity somehow failed to understand how this card would interact with preexisting options in the format like Mana Leak (M11 and M12) and Ponder (M12).  I don't want to keep stealing from Luis here but the second paragraph of his review sums it up nicely in the very first line:

"The first place I want to go with Snapcaster is a deck with Mana Leak and Ponder, since right away that’s some nice value."

Oddly enough this was also the very first place my playgroup and I went with Snapcaster Mage and frankly if these card interactions weren't the first place the various Playtest teams working on this went, I think WotC should probably hire a new team.  The phrase "obvious card interaction is, um, obvious" comes to mind here and I pretty much refuse to believe nobody at the company read Snapcaster Mage before he went to print.  It's literally that simple folks; there is no ambiguity whatsoever about this card and simply reading the text makes it pretty obvious that this card is designed to "re-buy" cheap instants and sorceries.  In other words I believe that just by printing Snapcaster Mage the company was openly stating that they had no problem whatsoever with decks that featured up to 8 Mana Leaks/Ponders/Doom Blades/etc in the current Standard format.  Was this arrogant?  Yes.  Was Snapcaster Mage an incredibly dangerous card to actually print?  Yes.  Were we as players supposed to realize this in advance and avoid buying the card because doubling the number of counters/cantrips/kill spells in your deck is ridiculously broken?  I'm pretty sure that's a "no".  Would Innistrad have sold nearly as well without Snapcaster Mage?  I don't have a crystal ball folks but I would also have to assume that's a no; I know I kept drafting long after I'd lost interest in the format just trying to open more Snapcasters (and Trafts to be fair).  Therefore, in light of what we know and what we can obviously infer from both WotC marketing efforts and the text of Snapcaster Mage itself, is it fair in any way, shape or form to say that Snapcaster Mage was somehow a mistake?  I'm not asking if he's broken folks because I honestly already know he's broken; the question is can any reasonable argument be made to suggest that WotC didn't also know that Snappy was broken and just printed him anyways?  Even if you could find such an argument wouldn't it be so convoluted and so fundamentally based on gross incompetence as to paint the company in an extremely poor light anyway?

So now let's close our eyes and imagine that somehow this ban does happen; we wake up Wednesday morning and find out that Snapcaster Mage will no longer be legal in Standard as of July 1st.  How does this make you feel?  Are you happy that an obviously overpowered and fundamentally dangerous card is now barred from Standard?  Do you find yourself asking "what took so long?"  Does it bother you that WotC used this card to hype up/sell millions of packs of Innistrad only to turn around and ban it 9 months later after you'd paid all your money and opened up all your packs?  Would you regret the decision to buy or trade for Snapcasters as single cards?  Would you feel used?  Wouldn't it feel to you like the penalty for printing an obviously overpowered/dangerous card has been shifted towards you, the consumer when it really should be on whomever decided to print such a ridiculous card in the first place?  Would you ask for a refund and if you did ask would you actually expect to get one?  One last question folks; would your answers depend on how many Snapcasters you owned, what formats you played and how much you actually paid for the card in the first place?

Of course, we're only dealing in the realm of hypothetical questions here; I personally don't think WotC is incompetent and I doubt they actively think I'm stupid.  I suspect that there are many people involved in the "making of Magic" who wish Snapcaster Mage hadn't been printed but ultimately I trust that they know that banning Snapcaster now would only punish the customer for this design "mistake".  I also suspect that WotC keeps a careful eye on tournament attendance and therefore they know that if people really are upset about Delver being the best deck in Standard they certainly aren't saying so with their time and wallets.  Finally I believe the people who make Magic are fine geeks; men and women of honor who understand that for the time being the only fair solution is to lie in the bed they've made for themselves until such a time as normal Standard rotations remove the "problem" as a whole.    

In summation folks I would advise against holding your breath while waiting for a ban in Standard to solve the Delver "problem".  Frankly I'm not even entirely sure there is a problem; something has to be "the best deck in Standard" and at least so far the dreaded Delver hordes aren't keeping people away from tournament Magic.  If there is a ban however don't bet on it being against Snapcaster Mage even though he is obviously the most powerful card in Standard's best deck.  To take such an action would force WotC to either admit gross negligence/incompetence or risk insulting my intelligence and somehow I doubt they're trying to do either.



  1. Honestly i don't feel there is a need to ban anything this update, maybe a little in modern, simply due to the rotation factor standard faces once a year, if anything they should be pleased a card turned out to be a hot seller and given them a lot of money.

  2. I can't say I agree with your take on things, but so great to see you writing again!

  3. Thanks for the comments! If you're out there reading but not commenting don't be afraid to post; I'll not only answer but greatly appreciate the effort!

    Zero - sadly I'm afraid they actually *are* going to ban Snapcaster; despite the fact that it would be incredibly stupid. I just feel it's borderline criminal that WotC can print a card that's so obviously bent and then 9 months later say "oops, we didn't know. It's banned". I really, really hope this doesn't happen but I'm afraid it will.

    Robot - Agreement is over-rated but I honestly can't see this ban being a good idea. Regardless I'll adapt; I always do :)


  4. I play Snappy in eternal formats, so I'll still get my money's worth if he does get banned, but I'll be pretty cranky. Power level ebbs and flows -- it's okay for a card to be "too good" sometimes, the problem is when it's either WAY too good (Skullclamp, Jace) or good in a way that's oppressively synergistic (artifact lands, Stoneforge Mystic).

    Snappy isn't as good as Jace. It's better on pure card quality than Stoneforge Mystic but doesn't lead to the same kind of unpleasant gameplay experiences. With tournament attendance still high and M13 coming with Rancor, I think if Wizards doesn't ban anything in Standard, they have plenty of grounds to make that decision.

    If they're determined to take action, I could see a ban on Ponder; it would weaken the Delver decks a little, Wizards could say they "did something", and it's a common that's rotating out in three months anyway.

    But overall, I agree that banning a very playable, high-value flagship rare that still has another year in the format would be a mistake, when the deck will have to change dramatically in three months anyway and tournament attendance isn't dropping off.

  5. I've been back and forth on this issue so many times the past 3 days it's making my head spin.

    Ultimately I don't believe they'll ban Snapcaster but I'm legitimately afraid they might. The card should never have been printed but you can't just start using ban/errata as a secondary layer of design and people spent a LOT of money to open Snapcasters worldwide.

    I don't love Delver, but it's not nearly as bad as pre-ban Cawblade and I think it's actually weaker than both Fae and Jund were (yes I played both) even though it's probably a little more popular than either of those decks ever were.

    If you're looking for a culprit check out the 3 months worth of articles by pros on big websites saying "Delver is the best deck in the format bar none" without mentioning that it's only 55/45 game 1 in most of it's matchups.


  6. Looks like we'll still be able to sling ole Snappy for a while longer!

    1. Yay! Though I won't lie, I was freaking out at 11:59. Tense moments :)