The Power of Ban Narratives

I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation as a “Modern Lover” over the past month. It’s like having a weird shadow stigma that follows me around wherever I go. I walk into a game store and I can hear the whispers and snickers behind my back:

“Hey, it’s that guy who loves Modern…”
“If you love Modern so much, why don’t you marry it?”

And then they make kissing sounds. It’s immature.

Modern Pro Tour. I can’t speak for anybody else but I really enjoyed the coverage. As a fan of the game, I was pretty into what I was watching.

I really like playing Magic. It’s been that way since I got my first Starter Deck back in 1995 more than 20 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of stuff and played a lot of games. I’ve played great formats and complained about ones I thought sucked. It’s not an uncommon trajectory: Individual enjoys Magic, spends next 20 years raving about things he enjoys and complaining about things he doesn’t.

Praise what you love. Complain about what you don’t. What an age to be alive!


When it comes to expressing yourself, there is an undeniable relationship between feelings and the stories we tell to relate to one another. Stories are compelling and powerful. There’s a reason people go so deep on Star Wars and Harry Potter. A good story captures the imagination and makes us think and feel in our hearts and brains.

We are a culture obsessed with narratives and anything can be transformed into some newsworthy, fantastical tale: Famous celebrity looks into window at a baby store—insiders believe baby to come!

Is it possible that she’s buying a gift for a friend?

“Who cares? This is way more interesting! Maybe she’s having an affair! Or even better, two affairs!”

The possibilities are endless and the story writes itself. It’s just speculation, so what’s the harmagoyf in a little creative licence? After all, it might be true…

I love talking about Magic. It’s a subject I’m passionate about it to a fault. I once had a date walk off without me noticing for 20 minutes while I had a conversation with a complete stranger about Legacy at a hot dog stand. For some reason that relationship didn’t pan out. In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious why we ultimately split up. Seriously, how boring is a person that isn’t fascinated by sideboarding in the Delver mirror?

Still friends with the hot dog stand guy, though.

I have dozens of Magic-related conversations on a weekly basis and many of those brainstorming and theorycraft sessions serve as the catalyst for what I end up writing about. I write about what I think is interesting enough to talk about with my friends at home and then I enjoy continuing those discussions with the readers in the comments. For me, it’s all just sharing insights into a game that’s infinitely complex and trying to learn how to improve my skill and enjoyment of the activity.

I often worry that we live in a culture that is becoming increasingly adept at spinning a good yarn but less interested in critically thinking about what we are listening to. We are bombarded by so many narratives on a daily basis that it is easy to find ones that suit our tastes and easy to ignore anything that doesn’t fit our preferences.

Ban First, Ask Questions Later?

In the Magic world one of the most compelling archetypal narrative stories is a banning tale. Well, after scandal, of course. What kind of self respecting player doesn’t love to pile on and add fuel to the fire when their friends and peers are under attack? I mean, if we weren’t supposed to behave this way, why would various online outlets make it so easy for people to slander one another with zero consequence? It probably has nothing to do with the fact that those outlets make money hand over fist by providing a space where people can behave that way in complete anonymity without repercussion.

The point is that the hotter and more racy the topic, the more attention and traction it is bound to pick up in the social media age. As far as actual Magic topics go, bannings are pretty high stakes and tend to get people fired up. There’s a lot on the line. People’s decks will be made obsolete. Formats will be shaken to their cores. Change is coming…

People love to talk about potential bannings and unbannings. Should the Codex Shredder card go? Can we bring back Jace? How would these changes impact the format?

It’s actually hard not to have an opinion because the topic is so obviously attractive to talk about. Admit it—you were answering those questions in your mind…

Gossip about bannings is in many ways a more interesting topic than talking about real games or formats. It’s all speculative and everything is unknown. The consequences are larger and further reaching.

I watched a fair amount of PT coverage last weekend and enjoyed it. I thought the format looked dynamic and the games were intense. It made me want to play more and even try some new decks.

There were seven different decks in Top 8. I enjoyed watching high profile players pilot their respective archetypes on a big stage. I’ve got that “Modern Lover” label so it’s pretty obvious that I’m going to spin a fairytale, but try to hang with me as I round the final bend here.

A quick reveal: The reason I like Modern so much is that I believe it is a fundamentally great format. I haven’t been super into it forever, and I’m some format specialist. Despite the fact that the format has been around awhile and goes back a long way, it isn’t full of the cards I’m nostalgic for from when I started playing.

Modern isn’t boring. In a world where Netflix exists and I can have anything from Amazon at the click of a mouse, is there anything more valuable than something that simply isn’t boring?

When did “not boring” become such a valuable commodity?

I wasn’t at all surprised that after the Pro Tour ended my Twitter feed was bombarded with people calling for bans to Lantern Control (among other things).

In fact, knowing what I know about how people always want to jump to the spiciest story, I would have been shocked if it wasn’t so. I would venture that no matter what had won, people would be rushing to the “what do we ban now?” step.

Untap. Upkeep. Draw. Let’s back up before we get to the ban step.

I watched hours upon hours of Modern coverage and what I saw was good, interesting Magic being played. Were people shocked that something was actually going to win the event in the end? We also know that Modern is a format where matchups can play a big part in the expected outcome of games. Lantern was fortunate to have some nice matchups in the Top 8.

The fact that Luis Salvatto had a great list and played it fantastically probably had nothing to do with it. Let’s be sure we don’t ever give anybody credit for their accomplishments. The deck did all the work.

The problem is that Lantern is just too good, and now that people know it, Modern is ruined forever. In fact, I bet Luis Salvatto didn’t even practice or know what he was doing. He probably just netdecked it and round 1 was the first game he ever played. The deck is so good it plays itself. Am I right?

Oh, wait… isn’t Lantern, like, one of the most skill-intensive and difficult decks to play…? That is really inconvenient for this narrative, so let’s pretend that I never said that.

Speaking of narratives, how about this one:

STACKED Modern PT TOP 8: 7 different decks piloted by many of the best players in the world, including multiple future Hall-of-Famers.

Somehow, in a format rumored to be about coin flips and unplayable matchups across the board a bunch of stone cold masters playing a bunch of different decks ended up in Top 8. Just as I always suspected, Reid Duke and Gerry Thompson are just much luckier than everybody else. I always suspected… but this pretty much proves it.

Hasn’t Reid Duke been playing that same deck for like a decade? I bet he got only good matchups and won all the die rolls. His opponent’s probably just mulliganed to three every game.

As for Lantern having good matchups and winning the Top 8, it’s also proof that Modern is unplayable. It’s the first time ever, in any format, that a deck with good matchups in a Top 8 won the event. Every other Top 8 ever played has been won by either Jon Finkel or Kai Budde who were 40-60% underdogs playing true skill formats like Rochester Draft or flip cup.

Modern has swingy matchups.
A deck with favorable matchups in Top 8 pulled it off.
Clearly, Lantern is just too strong.

I’ve been playing Magic for a really long time and that gives me a unique perspective. Not so unique that I’m even close to the only person who can see it or understand it. And here’s where I spin a narrative:

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, Magic has undergone serious, serious change over the past four or five years. The types of cards that see print. The access and speed with which information is shared and disseminated. The amount of content available. The age demographic of who is playing and how they play. The power level of the cards. And even the banned and restricted lists from non-rotating formats.

Magic always changes. It’s the one given constant and the single greatest strength the game has going for it. It’s dynamic because it evolves from set to set.

The challenge of creating, honing, and maintaining formats that don’t become immediately and fundamentally broken or stale, in a time where there is so much information available, has proven hard. Hundreds of thousands of people grinding MTGO for endless hours can solve things in days that a design team working for a year simply cannot. It’s a numbers game.

The information available online when put into proximity with power creep and a changing of the direction of the types of cards that are “good” has created problems over the past several years for Constructed formats.

Modern needed a lot of bans to get to where it is. Standard has had more bans in the past few years than the previous decade. Even Vintage and Legacy have had significant shakeups to their B&R lists to alleviate the pressure that powerful new printings had brought.

Has it gotten to the point where we just expect bannings all the time in order to facilitate change or entertain us?

I’ve always thought of bannings as a mechanism to relieve stagnation in a format. Look at the most obvious examples: Gee, this Tinker card is pretty unbeatable in Extended and nine Tinker decks in Top 8… there’s no other workaround.

Granted, Constructed Magic has had a lot of these problems over the past few years, especially with stagnation in Standard. We’ve actually had a lot of moments where Wizards has had to step in and ban cards in order to break up metagame gridlocks and mistakes.

Perhaps, people have just gotten accustomed to it. It’s just part of the game now. We expect wish fulfillment bannings for anything we don’t enjoy for any reason. I don’t like losing to that deck, so get rid of it please!

Ugh, Lantern why did you have to win? Couldn’t somebody have just come up with a sweet Sprout Swarm/Saproling Burst Combo deck to make everybody happy and excited? To be honest, I’m kind of a sicko and really enjoyed watching the Lantern deck being played expertly on camera, but that is neither here nor there. I was always the guy who loved playing against Workshop $T4K$ in Vintage. I love the puzzle.

Magic has undergone serious change and is a very different game than it was even a few years ago. There’s been some costs along the way. We’ve had some broken decks, some obnoxious cards, and some stale formats. But, look at where we are now…

Wizards has pruned Modern in such a way that it has bloomed into a format with like fifty playable decks.

Wizards banned all of the stupid Storm spells and has been reallocating cards to common online in such a way that Pauper is poised to become one of the most beloved Constructed formats ever.

Wizards has been consistent about sucking it up and banning problem cards in Standard in order to find a balance that works. I’ve made my disappointment with Standard known over the years, but I respect that they are working on finding a balance that works. After a few weeks in, Standard is shaping up to be a decent format.

Wizards has even made important changes to Eternal formats in the past few years.

We can complain that there have been things that didn’t work in the past, but from where I stand right now there are a lot of really good and positive things going on in Magic. And all in an age where these things are more difficult to accomplish than ever because of how much access to information that we, the players, have to break it!

There’s nothing wrong with narratives and making sense of a complex situation by verbalizing the story in a way that makes sense. It just occurs to me that it’s easy to get carried away sometimes for a variety of reasons and that we can end up telling a story that, while interesting, can be sensational or exaggerated.

How about this for a narrative:

The Modern Pro Tour was fun to watch and showcased a dynamic and skill intensive format that I can’t wait to play with my friends at my LGS tomorrow.

Bring it on Lantern! I’m ready for you. I’ve got Shattering Sprees for days.

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