Nexus of the Banned

I read the news today, oh boy
About an unlucky Nexus banned from Arena play.
And, though the news was rather sad
I just had to laugh,
At the “banned” epitaph…

All joking aside, I read Wizards of the Coasts B&R Announcement and found the entire situation fascinating.

Nexus of Fate - Foil - Buy-a-Box Promo

The Nexus banning (in specifically BO1 Arena Ladder) is a unique moment in Magic history and I wanted to break it down from a couple of different angles. Let me start by saying that, on a selfish level, I’m disappointed.

Nexus decks have been my preferred choice on MTG Arena since I joined the platform. It’s not only that I think the decks are powerful—I enjoy playing them. My favorite deck of all time is Vintage Control Slaver, another “taking turns” strategy. I’ve been slogging through ladder play with my Esper Time deck for months, and I’m bummed WotC put my pet deck down.

When I write about bannings and how I view their impact on the game, I never take for granted the fact that everyday people get tased. People put in their time, energy, and money into building and learning decks, only to have them taken away. In a perfect world, cards would never get banned. It’s bad for the game and the people who play, but it’s often necessary to correct unforeseen problems.

The Shahar Shenhar Incident

The biggest story in Magic last week made us all look foolish. There was no way any layperson would look at that situation, where two human beings sat at computers for over an hour doing nothing, and think, “Wow, that’s a game I’ve gotta try!”

I went to the game store in Ontario, and it was all people were talking about. I went to the LGS back in Michigan, and it was all people were talking about. I played Old School Battle Box with a friend who only follows Vintage, and guess what he wanted to talk about? You guessed it, “The Shenhar Incident.”

A famous Pro with over 2000+ active Twitch viewers (including Hall-of-Famers in the chat) was looped by a Nexus player who could not win for over an hour. Wizards banned his opponent in the middle of the game to break it up. To be clear, Shahar did nothing wrong—he was the captive goldfish.

It was an awful look that broadcasted a serious problem with enforcing what would be obvious slow play in paper, on MTG Arena. I doubt Nexus would have been banned without the incident taking place.

Myth: Nexus was Broken

Nexus was not banned because it was too good—it was banned because it couldn’t be properly enforced on Arena. From the B&R Announcement:

“Nexus of Fate doesn’t really fit any of the power level criteria for banning.”

The article suggests that Nexus is disruptive to normal play and cites the precedent that the Modern Eggs deck was broken up for similar reasons. I’d also add that Trinisphere was restricted in Vintage for creating undesirable, non-interactive games and not outright meta dominance. I have no objection to cards being banned for reasons other than being more than 25% of a metagame. The game needs to work and be fun for players. When the game stops being fun and starts feeling obnoxious, it’s an opportunity for an intervention.

The key sentence of the article is: “The tricky thing with this situation is what makes Nexus of Fate frustrating—a combination of its design and how technology handles the ability to repeat actions. You typically don’t run into the same situations in tabletop because our rules don’t allow for certain shortcuts.”

We’ve seen things like this before in paper. One of the most famous examples is the Four Horsemen deck:

Basalt MonolithMesmeric Orb

For those who don’t remember the deck or don’t play Legacy let me break it down quickly. The basic idea is an infinite self-mill combo based around Basalt Monolith and Mesmeric Orb. The Monolith can tap for mana and untap itself using the mana it produces. Each cycle results in a +1 net milled card. Once the combo is assembled they have the ability to put every card in their library into their graveyard, one at a time.

In order to win, the deck needed to mill certain combinations of cards in a specific order. Specifically, three Narcomoeba, Dread Return, Sharuum, the Hegemon, and Blasting Station before hitting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. If you hit Emrakul, everything shuffles back and you start again. It turns out that sitting around trying to loop your deck in a perfect sequence is considered “slow play.” It creates a weird situation where all of the cards are legal for tournament play, but the actual style of gameplay is not legal. You are allowed to register the deck, but if it doesn’t hit perfectly you risk getting repeated losses for slow play.

Nexus of Fate creates a different, but similar, problem where a player can keep taking turns without a way to win. In paper, we’d call a judge to watch for slow play. On Arena, no such judge exists, and so we play on… and on… and on… until somebody gets tired and either quits or falls asleep.

It’s not that the card is too good, but rather that it can be abused on Arena.

Make It Work

It doesn’t feel like a “win”—more like useful information for the future. It’s like getting a black eye, and learning a useful lesson about what happens when you go around making claims like “people who take karate lessons are nerds.”

Of all the things that happened the past week, the only thing I didn’t like was banning and unbanning a player to end a match because it looked bad on Twitch. I get why they did it—the whole stunt was a PR nightmare watched by thousands of people.

Part of playing a game competitively is working to find ways to break the game to gain an advantage. I’m not talking about lying and cheating. I’m talking about finding outside-the-box interactions and strategies that win.

Shahar’s opponent was sailing on tricky waters because what he was doing wouldn’t fly in paper Magic and is clearly outside the spirit of the rules. But it’s not the player’s fault that the card and/or platform is broken.

I’m aware that 99% of opponents concede once they are locked out by Nexus decks and won’t make me play it out in BO1. I always play win conditions but if my goal is to win as much as possible I can skimp and count on people to scoop. If they don’t, maybe I can bore them to concede by drawing and casting Nexus for an hour until they fall asleep. Does that sound like misery? Yes. Asking players to police themselves is the definition of absurdity, especially on an online platform that is designed to handle that.

The strangest part of the whole shakedown for me is that Nexus of Fate is still legal for Arena BO3 play, but banned in BO1 play. What is stopping a player from running the same strategy that Shahar Shenhar’s opponent did in games of BO3 Arena?

Clearly, none of this is relevant to paper play because spamming Nexus without progress qualifies as slow play, but I don’t see how only banning Nexus in BO1 play fixes the issue when somebody could do exactly what Shahar Shenhar’s opponent did in Arena BO3 to exploit a pattern of what we consider normal gameplay. Couldn’t the exact same scenario that caused this bad PR play out again on a highly viewed BO3 Twitch stream? Or worse, to you or me?

The Nexus Problem Goes Deeper Than We Realize

So, why didn’t Nexus get banned in BO3 if it is just as big of a rules problem there as in BO1? I think the answer is pretty straightforward: It would create two completely different Standard formats. One where Nexus is legal (paper/MTGO) and one where it is banned (Arena).

It would severely degrade the relevance of MTG Arena as having a connection to other forms of Magic. For instance, players wouldn’t be able to test for the upcoming Pro Tour on Arena if the format had a different banned list.

As it stands, Arena BO1 now has a different card pool from traditional Standard. I’m OK with this because I’ve always contended that BO1 is a completely different format and I believe it is 100% fine for it to have its own banned list, independent from BO3. I believe it deserves its own banned list because it’s a unique format.

But it doesn’t escape me that Nexus of Fate is legal for BO3 play on Arena when “the tricky thing with this situation is what makes Nexus of Fate frustrating—a combination of its design and how technology handles the ability to repeat actions.” Not only did WotC say this, but they said it in an article where they used the statement to justify why the card needed to be banned. How can Nexus of Fate be banned on Arena because it doesn’t work, but also still be legal on Arena when that is true?

It’s not a fix. It’s a band-aid.

The band-aid is that we are agreeing to treat Arena BO3 traditional Standard like Cockatrice playtesting until after the Pro Tour. The problem is that Arena is not Cockatrice and people pay to play tournaments that allow a card to be played unfairly and outside of the bounds of normal play, as acknowledged by WotC.

If it sounds like I’m hammering the decisions that were made, I don’t necessarily mean to. I’m just pointing out aspects of the situation that are clearly problematic and will need to be fixed in the future. The only part of the story I find objectionable was the decision to ban and unban a player to break up a match. It sends a message that implies the player was doing something wrong, when clearly there was a design and platform issue that players had been complaining about for months.

I’m on board with banning a card in a format where it simply doesn’t work properly. I’m also in favor of letting people use Arena to test BO3 for the PT and not banning the card weeks before a Mythic Championship. I think the best-case scenario would be that the card dominates the Pro Tour and it gets banned from traditional Standard.

It’s also true that the card is less abusable in BO3 since it can be addressed by sideboard cards like Unmoored Ego after sideboard. Nonetheless, the situation that Wizards has said is unacceptable can still occur.

It’s absurd that Nexus of Fate even exists in the first place, especially considering its time in Standard coincides with the launch of no-clock Arena. It’s a card that by design begs every Tim, Spike, and Johnny to engage in non-normal gameplay that breaks the new platform! Why!? It’s insane, but even more so because it wasn’t even a card that was important enough to include in an actual set. It’s a buy-a-box promo that has served no purpose but to create embarrassing problems and gameplay that the B&R announcement describes as frustrating.

The big lesson is that Standard cards need to be designed to work flawlessly with the Arena game system. Obvious? Yes. Hindsight quarterbacking? Totally. Don’t make things that go infinite or loop infinitely and require paper shortcuts to work properly. Or, they should incorporate some aspect of shortcutting onto Arena.

For instance, can you imagine how miserable it would be to have an infinite life loop combo on Arena?

Viscera SeerKitchen FinksMelira, Sylvok Outcast

In an untimed setting with no shortcuts, a player could execute this loop forever on Arena. So it seems pretty clear that these types of interactions simply cannot exist in Arena formats, or Arena needs to revise its clock system to balance these types of situations.

In my view, the ban was necessary, and a net positive. I’m interested to see what happens with Nexus after the Pro Tour, especially for BO3 Arena play. What do you think? To ban or not to ban? Let me know in the comments!

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