What Do the Latest Bans Mean for the Future of Pioneer?

Once Upon a Time, Field of the Dead, and Smuggler’s Copter are banned in Pioneer.

Important Background

CFB readers have seen these Banned & Restricted List announcement reaction pieces from me before. And they often take on a tone that reflects how serious a step it is to ban a card and sometimes even what might have gone wrong to lead to the imbalance in the first place. But Pioneer bannings in 2019 are a little different.

Wizards announced that the Pioneer format would be launched with a minimal banned list (5 fetch lands), but that in the initial weeks of the format, they would look at online data and paper event results and be quick to make changes based on what was actually being used to steer the format in unhealthy directions.

This quick trigger to essentially beta test the format and produce an “initial” banned list that is better than just a guess is a new approach and one that they identify as “positive” in today’s announcement. I mostly agree that it’s positive. It makes it a little bit awkward to wade into an exciting new format early, but they are assuring us this early stage is winding down as we head into 2020. And the benefit of outsourcing this Play Design task to thousands of players couldn’t be more obvious than in 2019 where Wizards’ own Play Design team is clearly overworked and understaffed by virtue of the huge mandate in front of them.

This time around, three cards that were previously banned in their Standard formats get the axe in Pioneer.

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

I can’t remember a time I was more confident that a card would be banned than I was this week about Once Upon a Time in Pioneer. Playing with and against the card, it was obvious that it was too powerful, in too many places—and that the powers that be regretted how strong it is and were thinking about that even after it got banned from Standard.

It just had to go. 0 mana, look at five choose one, where the restriction is you have to take one of the two card types that are most important on turn 1 (land or creature in a format with Llanowar Elves and Gilded Goose in addition to creature-based combos), is not fair. I keep advocating for some kind of “unprint this” type of solution for these design mistakes, but I know they are costly and probably don’t make sense for Wizards to implement at this time. Once Upon a Time is drawing comparisons to Gitaxian Probe as a card that just makes Magic worse, because 0 isn’t a real mana cost.

Green decks take a hit here, but I suspect they’ll be fine. They were way too good going into these bannings.

Field of the Dead

Field of the Dead

For all three of these cards, the reasoning is essentially a copy/paste from the reason it got banned in Standard. For Field, it is very powerful against any slow, fair deck. And they don’t print good answers to lands because those tend to be problematic in their own right, so a ramping Field deck ends up squeezing out too many fair decks to be palatable. Will this look silly in a few months when combo decks are located and slow decks still aren’t winning? Maybe, but I think this ban makes sense and the ramp decks have plenty of other things to be doing to make ramp still an available and viable strategy.

Smuggler’s Copter

Smuggler's Copter

When the best card at a certain point in the curve costs 0-2 colorless mana, there is a big risk that the card becomes ubiquitous at that spot in the curve and squeezes out a bunch of other potentially interesting choices. Again, this isn’t a new concept as applied to Smuggler’s Copter—it’s why the card was banned from its own Standard format back in 2017. In that 2017 Standard, other vehicles like Heart of Kiran proved that the concept of Smuggler’s Copter isn’t fatally flawed, but this card’s numbers are off. Crew 1 is too easy, 3/3 flying for 2 colorless is too big, and looting every turn is too strong a tack-on effect given those other efficiencies.

I don’t think this eliminates any deck completely, it just makes things more interesting. Sounds like a pretty good ban.

I know there is a temptation to say, “the format wasn’t very broken, why ban anything?” when people were winning with different kinds of decks. And there’s another sentiment in which banning interesting things just makes the same old uninteresting tools the king of the hill (Fatal Push that, yay, fun). I think there’s some truth there. But I’m fairly encouraged by the total number of interesting things to be doing in Pioneer that I’m not losing sleep over mono-black aggro being weakened, for example.

Bigger Picture: Should All Previously-Banned-in-Standard Cards be Banned in Pioneer?

This is where things get interesting. Felidar Guardian, Veil of Summer, today’s batch of three cards—each of these was banned in Standard, and then proved to be oppressive in Pioneer. Some questions jump out. Should Oko be banned? Will it be banned? What about the energy cards that got banned? Is it more fun to find out how good those cards are, or more fun to assume the broken cards are broken and let other cards shine rather than spend 6 or 12 months clearing through all the previously banned cards first?

I’m not sure. It does stand to reason that at some point things slow down enough that Emrakul, The Promised End plays the role Field of the Dead was accused of playing in today’s announcement, and gets banned for the same reasons it was banned in Standard. Why let that happen? On the other hand, there’s no guarantee it ever becomes too good, even if it becomes good.

What about Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise? If they keep banning cards, eventually these will be pretty annoying to slog through with your powered-down aggro deck or nerfed ramp deck. True. I don’t know what to tell you.

On the other hand, what impact would it have on future bannings if giving something like Oko (a chase mythic) the axe in Standard automatically took it out of Pioneer, which would otherwise soften the blow of the banning? The answers aren’t known, but the way I lean probably won’t surprise you: I’m the “un-print it!” guy. We don’t errata cards in Magic due to its paper formats, but we have the ability to identify those that aren’t costed appropriately for competitive play, and I’d rather kiss those types of cards goodbye than relive the nightmare in multiple formats. But I understand the trade-offs, and my preference is simply that.

Watch List Update

There is no official watch list, but I think Nykthos is still walking on eggshells, combo pieces like Lotus Field are never super safe, and Thoughtseize is a Legacy card hiding out in Pioneer so it can’t be that safe. Oko is Oko, and it could get banned. 1-mana mana dorks are too good, but there’s multiple, so it’s an awkward ban. As the dust settles from this round of bans, new watch list candidates will emerge (previously banned stuff is your most likely bet, but who knows). Everything is on the watch list! At least for the next few weeks.


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