Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#BanJace - Or Not

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a good card.

You don't need me to tell you that, by now.

Is it problematically good? Now, that's a question still up in the air.

Some would argue that a card that appears 32 times in the Top 8 of a major event (and 60 times in the Top 16, apparently) is a problem. Although, if that were the only criterion, then Preordain would need some serious examination, too.

Why do we live in a world with 32-Jace GP Top 8s where literally only two archetypes were represented? Did Wizards fuck up?


Is it entirely their fault?


Does the format need to be fixed?

No. (Besides, New Phyrexia is coming out within weeks and may take care of it without further handling.)

If it does turn out to need fixing, though, is the answer to ban Jace?

Hm… Good question. Why do you ask?

Well, Ted Knutson went and completely upturned Twitter yesterday with his controversial blog post, calling for the banning of Jace TMS. He makes compelling arguments there, and on his Twitter @mixedknuts. Now, the Magic Twitter community is all #banjace here and don't #banjace there.

Man, that Teddy CardGame sure is a fire starter…

I recommend reading his blog post if you haven't already.

The major trigger for this outbreak of opinion was the Top 8 of GP Dallas/Fort Worth, which was neatly split between RUG decks and U/W Caw-Blade decks, with each deck obviously containing four copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. In short, the Top 8 was completely overtaken by "Jace decks," the handy label used for basically every blue deck in Standard (the notable exception being Kibler's U/B Infect build).

Before we raise the ban hammer, we should take note of a few things, here:

a) Jace is not an inherently broken card, as I'll explain below.

b) We need to take care not to take the results of a single GP over-seriously (although, if it's serious, it's serious; the problem is knowing when and whether we've gone overboard).

c) Before making a decision, we need to account for what such a ban would do to the metagame and whether the resulting format would be healthier – or if it would be worse than before.

Jace Is Not Broken

There are some very proficient blue players who would disagree with this statement (Sam Black, for one), and there's no mistake that Jace is one of the most powerful cards in Magic. In the hands of some of the best blue players, Jace will earn them the big bucks – and how!

However, Jace has never been the subject of serious ban consideration until recently. Today's Standard is a Jace format, but this is not because Jace is inherently too powerful. It is because the format has come to a point where Jace is allowed to reign; the necessary checks and balances are no longer in place.

Do you remember when everyone was complaining about Bloodbraid Elf and wanting it to be banned? Patrick Chapin was one of the ones worried that the removal of Bloodbraid Elf from the format would simply let Jace take over, and he was right. How did we not see that one coming from a mile away? Well, maybe some people did.  

Zac Hill noted on Facebook that R&D used an underdeveloped build of Valakut when testing in the FFL. Because of this, they underestimated the oppressiveness of Valakut in the format – on random creature decks and midrange in particular. (R&D can't predict all the decks! But Destructive Force in Valakut? Ick.)

The result is obvious from here: R&D ran suboptimal versions of Valakut and thus found more creature decks (with Vengevines, presumably) to be viable in their FFL format. However, in reality, Vengevines and other midrange creature decks have been nearly completely eliminated by Valakut's overbearing presence. The suppression of Vengevine has allowed Jace to take up any remaining metagame space. Standard is thus a Valakut-or-Jace format, with Goblin Guide decks trailing behind for whatever scraps they can get.

Good metagames should be based on triangles, or a Rock-Paper-Scissors system. The triangle should be Titans-Jace-Vengevine/Aggro, but the balancing skew has made Scissors untenable.

Jace was actually a perfect fit in the metagame in previous Standards. Why does it seem like people have forgotten when Jace was not actually an oppressive force? For a while, Jace was actively bad because of the Bloodbraid Elf-Blightning threat. Jace was even boarded out in many matchups.

Jace is not a problem that can't be solved with some metagame tuning – in fact, it was probably built into the metagame as one of its essential pillars. R&D just had some balancing issues. Thus, current Standard has reached a point where Jace is the best place to be, and no one can stand up to him.

It's not Jace that is too good. However, the format is in imbalance. Should Jace be banned to solve the metagame's troubles?

The Metagame Without Jace

The power of Jace is that he allows blue decks to answer threats that cost five or more that would normally dominate games (namely Titans but also Eldrazi, Wurmcoil Engines, Baneslayer Angels, etc.). The format currently has very few value-adding or efficient answers to such monsters, outside of black. No Path to Exile; no Bloodbraid Elf into Maelstrom Pulse; not much in terms of counterspells outside of Mana Leak; no discard spells that can hit creatures of casting cost greater than three (other than Memoricide, which is a fringe sideboard card). Tumble Magnet is actually the next best card for dealing with one creature at a time – at three mana and at sorcery speed, with very few alternative applications.

Do you see the picture that's emerging?

Jace is a linchpin of the format, holding it together with two fingers. Without Jace, the floodgates open. Various Titan decks, but particularly Valakut, would be free to roam the hillsides of Standard. It would be a Zergling vs. Battlecruiser format (Zerglings are fast, quickly multiplying creatures that embody aggro; Battlecruisers are giant, slow-moving but powerful, flying spaceships that embody the Titan strategy).

I previously put the chances of Jace getting banned at 15%. Now, after contemplating it, I think it's even less, at 5% (which is what Seth Burn put it at). Development designed Standard to be a certain way and knew Jace was one of the pillars of the format; they placed it at a pivotal point such that it could function as one of the major tools to fight the Titans they brought about in M11 (and subsequent Titan lookalikes such as Wurmcoil Engine). Without Jace, they would've had to print another three- or four-mana card that could deal with Titans at profit.

Aside on balancing formats:
The mana cost is important, and the "at profit" bit is also important. Standard's decks are based around the three stages of Magic; we need decks that peak around 1-2 mana (Stage I), 3-4 mana (Stage II), and 5 or more mana (Stage III). (Note that Stages are not necessarily restrained to a mana range, but for this example, I'm simplifying.) The benefits of peaking at 1-2 mana and 5 or more mana are obvious. The benefit of peaking at 3-4 is based entirely on getting lots of value but not outright winning the game. Decks like Next Level Bant and Jund exemplify this idea. Thus, a new three/four-mana card is necessary to fill whatever hole Jace leaves because otherwise, those decks no longer have a good linchpin.

Banning Jace would upturn whatever work Development put into developing the format a year ago.

It's entirely possible I'm wrong; I am not privy to the true inner workings of R&D. However, I'm just trying to work backwards (from the watch to the watchmaker), and what I'm saying makes a lot of sense to me, and I think a lot of the patterns are too obvious to dismiss or ignore. If I turn out to be wrong, then shame on me for putting words into mouths (especially mouths that can't say much of anything back).

The one notable thing all this implies is that Wizards is not at all averse to putting format staples at the mythic rarity. They already put planeswalkers, Titans, Swords, and Vengevine at mythic. These cards have all defined Standard in their own way. Expect this trend to continue, folks, because this is simply how Wizards does business. Mo-ney, money, money.

Standard is at a rough spot right now, but I think people are taking too lightly the ramifications of removing Jace from Standard. And they're possibly also taking the results of GP Dallas a little too seriously.

It's Lonely At The Top

The results of GP Dallas/Fort Worth can be explained by a few things.

a) The format has reached a maturation point where the best decks are Jace decks – and Valakut.

But then where was Valakut?

b) None of the top players played Valakut. Very few of the top players actively like the deck. It has tons of raw power but little play and is honestly not so good that players have no choice but to play it. It's the Jund of the format – players would rather find ways to beat it than join it.

c) The top players who chose not to bring Jace brought a significantly inferior choice. Interestingly, some of the top players did not in fact bring Jace to the tournament. Luis Scott-Vargas managed to convince a number of top players to take Boros instead. They had some representation at the top of the standings (including Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa in the Top 16).

However, I can only cock my eyebrow at this decision by LSV and others. According to Glenn Jones' Too Much Information – collected over the period of four SCG Opens – Boros is actually one of the worst and most grossly overrepresented decks in the field. It had a ~47% or worse match-win percentage against all the top decks. Red Deck Wins actually was more of a real contender. I think if they'd been on any other plan, they would have collectively done better.

However, to get a full view of the situation, one must ask the players who brought Boros and ask them firsthand. So far, all I have is this one quote from LSV:

"The Boros experiment didn't go so well in Dallas today, but I'll just file that under lessons learned." –LSV

I'm sure LSV wished he were on RUG or Caw-Blade for Dallas; however, I think more than that, he simply shouldn't have chosen Boros as his "foil" for the format. For whatever reason, Boros has simply been underperforming for more than a month now. It's seriously overrated.

At least it didn't go so badly for Juza, Rietzl, and PVDDR, who all made Top 64, but it could've gone a lot better...

d) The Open Series has a homogenizing effect on the metagame.

Here's the analogy: if you a run a contaminated liquid through a cloth repeatedly, you're going to end up with a purer and purer product every time – i.e. more of the same. (For a nerdier analogy, I like the one of genetic algorithms: if you run a genetic algorithm on a population repeatedly, subsequent generations will weed out the lesser individuals, and outside of a few random mutations, you're going to end up with a sample that looks largely the same. Yay science!)

The more times you run that loop, the more you're going to converge.

In addition, a weekly tournament series like the SCG Open Series incentivizes good and reliable decks over risky, innovative choices – versus Pro Tours, which highly incentivize innovation over "known quantities."

The Open Series results then influence the rest of the American populace and tell them which decks are the best (in the context of the Open Series), thus sculpting the American landscape to look very similar to what each of the Opens look like each week.

Essentially, the incentive to diversify the format has been reduced because of the Opens, and that has trickled down to everywhere else. (Overseas, in Europe and Asia, this effect is felt much less. I imagine it's not even felt in Asia at all…)

I'm afraid to say, then, that GP Dallas was the unfortunate culmination of all that same-old, same-old getting funneled into a GP-level event, where players felt even less incentivized to try to find new and interesting builds. Instead, most players went the "safe route" and just played Caw-Go, which they knew from the Opens would probably give them the best chances of winning.

People just haven't been properly incentivized since Pro Tour Paris to make the real effort to innovate. There are people still innovating at our Opens, but I think there is even more that could be done.

None of that is meant to dissuade you from your opinions on Jace's dominance of Standard. Jace is definitely dominating Standard. Jace definitely represents a threat to the metagame's health right now.

However, I would avoid pointing fingers at GP Dallas as any kind of definitive proof that Jace needs to be banned. GP Dallas was what it was. However, I don't think it means that you have to drop everything you're doing and switch to Jaces. If you play Valakut, Vampires, Mono Red, Infect, Vengevines, Elves, or whatever, I don't think you need to go all-in on Jaces in order to stay competitive. You're still viable and can fight the metagame head on. You just have to understand that Jace is on top, right now.

According to Glenn's TMI, Caw-Blade is about 17-20% of the field, including the black and red variants; Valakut is next in line at 10%. RUG is at 8%. Mono Red takes up 7%, and Boros takes up another 6%. The rest of the field is mostly composed of decks like Infect, Vampires, Eldrazi Ramp, Fauna Shaman decks, etc.

The results of GP Dallas seem to indicate that you literally can't win with anything but Jace right now; however, this isn't remotely true. Jace decks have the edge in the format; they are probably the correct choice for most competitive players; however, there are many, many more viable choices. If not at the GP level, at least at the Open level. (No more Standard GPs until post-New Phyrexia anyway.)

And again, banning Jace doesn't fix the problem so much as cause a slew of other problems.

Is it then right to ban some other card?

Nah, let's not go down that road. (Seriously, now you're just getting degenerate.)


We still have three Opens left until New Phyrexia is released. The weeks leading up to a set release are some of the most brutal for players, who are itching to get their hands on new cards. This has always been true, and formats have always suffered in these weeks. That's just as inevitable as apple pie. (Trust me. Apple pie is very inevitable.)

But if there is any time to try to mix it up, it's now. You know which heads have the targets, so aim your guns.

Most players, as already evidenced by the online PTQ, will trend more toward playing Jace than before. The story and impact of GP Dallas are so great that players are now convinced that Jace is the only real thing happening in the format (i.e. it's a self-perpetuating problem! The worst kind). This is going to make the next few weeks of Standard very tough – and potentially just downright annoying.

Look, man, if you decide to bail now, I don't blame you. If you put down your decks and just walk away, maybe switch to Legacy, maybe just stop playing Magic for a while, maybe read that book you've been meaning to pick up, etc., I. Don't. Blame. You.

Jace is here to stay, though; because chances are, it's not going anywhere. So you either have to suck it up and deal with where the format is, or you can take a break and just do something better with your time. Magic will definitely still be here when you return. 

For additional perspective, read Alexander Shearer's blogpost on the issue.