Imagine playing in a game tournament. You sit across from your opponent. You both finish the pre-game rituals and take your first few turns. You slowly come to a terrifying revelation; you’ve played this exact same game for every match at this tournament! What’s going on? Is it the Twilight Zone? Groundhog Day? A simple nightmare? Nope–A dominant strategy has been discovered in this game, and you’re playing against it again. This typically happens when a new piece of a game proves to be more powerful than the designers intended, be it a card, item, champion, or what have you. This is not only frustrating but can also be annoying and boring.
What can be done when situations like this occur? Physical games like Magic: the Gathering have little recourse. Magic has a variety of “formats” which dictate what cards can be played. The format “Standard”, simply put, is normally the two most recent years of cards. The designers can wait and add cards to be released to counteract the dominant strategy and wait out the environment until it rotates out of standard. If that isn’t good enough, Wizards of the Coast has the ability to “ban” cards from a format, making them illegal to use in official tournaments.
Just recently Wizards of the Coast banned a card that created a game winning combination, Felidar Guardian. As a brief aside, I will explain the combination. Felidar Guardian’s ability is: “When Felidar Guardian enters the battlefield, you may exile another target permanent you control, then return that card to the battlefield under its owner’s control.” What that basically does is allow you to refresh a card. The game treats a permanent hit by this ability as a new version of itself. How does this card win the game? The second piece to the puzzle is the Planeswalker card Saheeli Rai. As a Planeswalker, she has special rules. The simple version is that she has three abilities for you to use but she may only use one ability per turn. The combination comes from her second ability: “Create a token that’s a copy of target artifact or creature you control, except it’s an artifact in addition to its other types. That token gains haste. Exile it at the beginning of the next end step.” What this does is give you one copy of any artifact or creature you control. Normally, creatures can’t attack or tap the turn they come into play. Since the token only lasts for the turn, it is given haste which is the keyword ability that removes this restriction. So the combination is fairly simple, Felidar Guardian uses its ability on Saheeli, she uses her ability on the Guardian. The new Guardian uses its ability on Saheeli. Now that she is refreshed she can use her ability again targeting the Guardian again. This creates an arbitrarily large number of haste creatures to attack and defeat your opponent.
This isn’t the first time a combination like this has existed in Magic, however it isn’t always banned. Sometimes these combos are placed into formats on purpose to encourage different decks. Other times these combos are put into the game on accident, usually because the designers, developers, and playtesters missed it. Wizards has admitted that the Felidar combo was the latter.
Banning cards in Magic is a tough decision for Wizards, if you own a card that you want to use and it should be legal in a format, you’d be dissatisfied to find that it’s not. This is especially a problem because the cards will still show up in booster packs, and those not in the know will assume it’s legal. It can create frustration when you find out your cards aren’t allowed in tournaments. While this is true, Wizards has been harmed by degenerate standard environments in the past. There was the infamous “Black Summer of ’96” where tournaments were filled with Necropotence decks and “Combo Winter of ’98” where the joke at time was “early game is shuffling, mid game is mulligans, and late game is turn one.” These environments had players leaving the game in droves and taught the designers and developers the importance of banning cards in a timely and effective manner. Proper bannings are important when it saves a format and creates a healthy environment.
Recently, Wizards of the Coast has adopted a policy of banning cards at a specific time, which is typically the Monday after the prerelease for one of the quarterly sets. The Felidar combination existed from October 2016 until April 26, 2017, but the most recent set’s prerelease was April 22-23. This means the bannings were supposed to be April 24, and they were. The announcement had no bannings for standard but was an addendum two days later for banning Felidar Guardian. This brings us to a big problem; emergency bannings remove faith players have in the developers to not only ban cards in a predictable pattern but to effectively ban cards all together. The argument for not banning Felidar Guardian was to see if Amonkhet would improve the format against the Felidar/Saheeli combo. After only one day of Magic online data, they decided that Amonkhet would be no help. You can read the full explanation here. Many feel that it would have been best to just ban Felidar Guardian on the 24th but it would also have been best to leave it alone since they didn’t ban it. It seems that the best answer would be to ban cards well after the release of a set to prevent emergency bannings.
Another physical card game, Yu-Gi-Oh, as taken a different look at how cards are banned. Magic considers banning to be the last resort while Yu-Gi-Oh actively incorporates it into its competitive environment. Instead of having a “standard format” where cards cycle out, all Yu-Gi-Oh cards are legal except for those on the “forbidden list”. When a card or set of cards become too dominant, Yu-Gi-Oh bans them. Yu-Gi-Oh does this with announcements about every two or three months. During these announcements, forbidden cards are also removed from the forbidden list if they are deemed to be fair in the current environment. Among Yu-Gi-Oh fans, this is a generally accepted form of competitive play. Since Yu-Gi-Oh is up front about it, player’s don’t expect their cards to be legal forever, similar to how Magic players expect their cards to cycle out of standard.
Yu-Gi-Oh also has another take on bannings with two other lists. Normally, you are allowed three copies of any one card in your Yu-Gi-Oh deck. However, if a card is on the “Limited list” you may only have one copy and if a card is on the “Semi-limited list” you may only have two copies. This allows for certain powerful cards to remain legal for play while having their impact mitigated. Wizards has claimed that the use of such lists would be detrimental to Magic because it would be too difficult to keep track of and enforce at tournaments. The fact that another successful trading card game is able to have such lists proves this assertion false. However, that doesn’t mean that Magic should adopt its own limited lists. It’s up to Wizards of the Coast what to do about bannings and they can generally be trusted in spite of their reputation-damaging emergency bannings.
Banning cards is the clear choice for fixing broken combos in physical games, however there is another solution for games that are only electronic. Competitive games like fighting games, MOBA’s, PvP heavy MMO’s, and online-only CCG’s can “nerf” game components. The term “nerf” comes from the brand name of those foam versions of weapons and sports balls. The idea of nerfing is that you weaken something rather than removing it all together. Hearthstone, a prominent online-only collectible card game, has made use of nerfing plenty in its tenure so far. For example, a prominent nerf would be the card Warsong Commander. It originally gave all your minions the ability charge, which is basically Hearthstone’s version of haste. It was then changed to only give minions with 3 or less power charge, but when it was combined with the card Grim Patron, they had to radically rework it to have the ability “Your charge minions have +1 attack.”
Extreme changes like the Warsong Commander nerf have proven to be annoying to some and for good reason. Hearthstone offers recompense for its nerfs; if you have a card that is changed, you can trade it in for the full dust value to make it. It’s not the least they could do since it’s infinitely more compensation than what Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh gives to its players. (Dust is the currency to make specific cards in Hearthstone, I’ve explained it in another article.) However, Hearthstone has introduced a “Hall of Fame” for cards, which is basically another fancy word for “banned list.” Hearthstone has a standard format and a “wild” format. Just like Magic, standard in Hearthstone is the most recent two years of cards and wild is everything created to date. the “Hall of Fame” cards are not legal in standard but legal in wild, ergo a standard banned list. It seems even when you can change the cards, a banned list creeps up eventually. Perhaps this is because the drastically changed cards were so distasteful?
It’s important to remember to be honest with your audience and not surprise them with changes and give some reimbursement if you can. When it comes to games, fun is key. Sometimes, you need to remove or modify pieces in order to keep the game fun. Banned lists and nerfing are just parts of life when it comes to ongoing game design. It’s better to embrace it and make a better game than to fight it and have your game suffer.