The inescapable truth about “And” as a brand strategy is that two things are harder to pull off than one. Every person and every company has limited capacity to consistently make solid, timely decisions (and announcements) about a brand. But there is a lot of upside too. Managing MTGO and Paper MTG (tabletop if you prefer) as basically one offering didn’t lead to the kind of success Arena is having as an esport (or is it Esport, or maybe e-sport?). I don’t begrudge Wizards for trying, but we’ve got reason to be anxious AND excited about how it could go.
The decision to ban a card, Nexus of Fate, in some of the online-only formats but not all online formats, and no paper formats, is an interesting milestone in this journey. To use a programming analogy, these kinds of forks give you flexibility, but now you’ve got a multiplying number of rules/formats to monitor and maintain. Having only one banned list for Standard isn’t necessarily better or worse than two. But it’s certainly different.
The key feature of that difference is that best-of 1-Standard is even more distinct from traditional Standard and paper Standard (the latter two are for now identical but there’s no commitment to that going forward). It was always distinct (sideboards are a big deal), but now even moreso with entire archetypes neutered or missing.
Let me try to digest this in three parts: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Maintaining a different banned list for best-of-1 (“BO1”) is a solution to a real problem. It’s hard enough to balance a format when sideboards are keeping degenerate strategies in check, but without that check it becomes much harder. Nexus of Fate provides a valuable case study. Requiring players to maindeck Duress, Negate, etc. when they might play against Red every time they boot up the program can be pretty frustrating for those players. If the format has strong aggro, midrange, control, and combo, what to sleeve up can feel like choosing between rock, paper, or scissors. Sideboards used to be a location for much of this fine-tuning and metagaming, but in BO1 you have no choice but to stage that battle in the main deck. And if something is frustratingly powerful but doesn’t show up every time (perhaps it’s expensive to build, slow to play, and/or difficult to play–sound familiar?), you might not be able to fight that deck much and you’ll just end up cursing at your screen when paired against it. Banning that deck solves the problem.
This is in many ways a test case for something that might NEED to happen if they ever push graveyard combos too hard or artifact synergies too hard (it could be anything, but these are repeat past offenders). In the context of a “Dredge” or “Affinity” deck in a world without sideboards, something will have to happen. A 1W cantrip split card that exiles a card from the graveyard is nice and all, but it’s a speed bump if things get truly pushed. It’s nice to have a tested mechanism of fixing the BO1 metagame without asking players to add Scrabbling Claws to their Mono-Red main deck.
Another key piece of “good” with any online-only banning is that you can dust people’s banned card into a wild card so the collection impact becomes positive rather than negative. Since they were always reluctant to ban something a kid may have just spent $25 or $40 on, this may go a long way toward explaining why they are deliberately deciding to have a faster trigger finger online than they do in paper.
Here at Sick of It Enterprises™, we never skip this section, and today won’t be an exception. For starters, they fixed one of the issues with Nexus of Fate without taking the opportunity to fix the biggest one! Nexus of Fate was only available in paper as a foil buy-a-box promo, and yet it became a tier 1 tournament card. Banning it across all Standard formats (or my preference, changing the legality of buy-a-box-only promos) finally puts that issue to bed. They didn’t go for it.
Standard best-of-3, whether online or paper, still has a deck trying to take all the turns and perhaps even win by Teferi tucking itself to deck the opponent. Not the end of the world, but not ideal either. The fact that you have to put foils into your deck or use proxies is closer to the end of the world, but still not the actual end of the world.
Players might be surprised by the timing here. I found out about this on Twitter, but some people have a life or common sense enough to delete their social media accounts. In-app announcements will help fill the gap I suppose. In a future world where people are preparing for BO1 tournaments, I assume they won’t want to find out days or hours before those events that something is banned in BO1.
The most important downside systemically is that BO1 is no longer as relevant a tool for ramp-up to BO3 as it used to be. As a result, Arena isn’t as relevant a tool for ramp-up to paper as it used to be. This is what happens when rules sets or card legality diverges. You could never master BO3 by playing only BO1, but you could at least get some exposure to all the archetypes and key combos/synergies before trying your luck in paper or in traditional.
There’s also a mental load of even remembering that this is the case and remembering what the differences are. It seems like a tiny mental load when the change was just announced and there’s only one card banned, but remember this is about systemic issues with the policy and these types of things add up. A future is rapidly approaching where cards X, Y, and Z are banned in BO1, only X is banned in BO3, and Z doesn’t even exist in paper or on MTGO. It’s hard enough to just maintain collections in Arena “AND” paper, let alone master three or four different Standard formats and memorize what is legal and what is effective in each.
“AND” sometimes means “NEITHER,” as in a response to the question, “Where can I get relevant testing for an upcoming paper event?” If things stay exactly as they are now, you can turn to MTGO or traditional events on Arena. Are any of us confident that things will stay exactly as they are now?