It didn't used to be this way.
In the sixteen years between 2000-2016, only ten cards were banned in Standard: Skullclamp, Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic, and the five Artifact Lands. All ten of those cards were printed in Mirrodin, Darksteel, or Worldwake, and five of them were part of the same broken cycle. No other set released during those four full presidential terms saw a card banned in Magic's most popular competitive format.
By contrast, in the four years between the start of 2017 and the end of 2020, a total of 23 cards were banned in Standard: Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter, Reflector Mage, Felidar Guardian, Aetherworks Marvel, Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, Rampaging Ferocidon, Field of the Dead, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time, Veil of Summer, Agent of Treachery, Fires of Invention, Cauldron Familiar, Growth Spiral, Teferi, Time Raveler, Wilderness Reclamation, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Omnath, Locus of Creation, Lucky Clover, and Escape to the Wilds. This list also doesn't include the entire companion mechanic debacle, which was fixed via emergency errata.
You don't need to be a mathamagician to know that 23 is more than twice as many as ten. In fact, if the 2000-2016 period had seen Standard bannings at the same rate as the 2017-2020 period, nearly a hundred cards would have been banned over that period. The rate of bannings seem to be accelerating, too. We've seen ten Standard bannings since this June of this year, which means that the past six months of bans has equaled the number of bannings from the end of Bill Clinton's last term to the start of the Donald Trump era.
Since it's clear that we now live in an unprecedented era of format-warping bans, I wanted to write an article to help us navigate these choppy waters. Why are so many more cards being banned these days, and is there any hope of things returning to that 2000-2016 status quo? What sorts of cards are being banned, and is there any way to avoid owning them while still being able to field a competitive Standard deck? When is the best time to buy cards that you know are about to be banned? And how do card bans effect the market as a whole?
Let's find out together.
I don't think there's one single reason why the rate of cards being banned has increased so much over the past few years. As with most things in life,it's likely due to a confluence of several contributing factors. Let's talk about each of them in turn.
First, we have to talk about the possibility that WotC does less testing (or does a worse job of testing) their cards prior to release than they did in the past. I don't know if there's any truth to this, but it's certainly possible. Programs with nebulous value to a product like WotC's Future Future League, the place where they test the next 6-12 months of Standard, are often the first to suffer when staff are asked to "do more with less."
As someone who has never worked for WotC beyond independent contracting, I have no evidence that this is what happened, but it does seem like a few of WotC's recent ban problems could have been solved with a more robust testing process. The companions, for example, were pretty obviously broken from the moment they were previewed, as were cards like Once Upon a Time. If testing was more of a priority for the company, I have to believe that some of the more egregious cards released over the past few years would have been caught.
That said, a lot of the ban problem is out of WotC's hands. Magic Arena was released in 2018, and the rate of bannings has only increased since then. This is largely because the community can now play more games of Magic in the first few hours after a set is released than WotC could ever hope to play during their testing period, even if they doubled or tripled their staff.
This is a problem, because any broken card or interaction is often found within hours instead of days, weeks, or months. Back in 2004, it took a few weeks for Arcbound Ravager to fully catch on, and even longer for the best Ravager deck to fully proliferate the community. The card would have been broken in any era, but we at least got to play for several weeks against slightly powered down versions of the deck, making it feel somewhat more beatable. These days, the best Ravager deck would probably make up roughly 90% of the Arena metagame within 48 hours—a far more miserable situation that would require a heavier hand to act a lot more quickly.
The fact that Arena allows us to "solve" each metagame within days also means that WotC is far more incentivized to use bannings as a way to shake up stale formats. While some iterations of the metagame naturally evolve into a really vibrant rock/paper/scissors format, it's far more common for 1-2 decks to prove overpowered at any given time. This has always been true, but it used to take a month or two before that deck became ubiquitous. Now, it happens in a matter of hours.
This shift means that formats become stale a lot quicker, since they settle into their new paradigm within days instead of halfway through their lifespan. It was a lot easier for WotC to wait out the problem in the past, since players didn't really start getting bored of any particular Standard until we had almost reached the next set release. But if Standard already feels awful two weeks after a set is released? Banning is practically the only option.
Problematic cards from the early '00s like Umezawa's Jitte managed to escape the ban hammer in large part because it used to take a while for those cards to overwhelm their respective metagames. If Arena had been around in 2005, it would have taken days, not months, for Umezawa's Jitte to become a 4-of in practically every deck.
It's worth noting that other card games also have this problem, but Magic: The Gathering is the highest profile digital/tabletop hybrid CCG in the world. This puts WotC in a really awkward spot. The other purely tabletop games don't experience their metagames hitting a staleness saturation point nearly as fast without the digital aspect driving metagame iteration. Purely digital CCGs, on the other hand, can simply errata cards on the fly to power cards up and down in order to balance the metagame after the fact. WotC can't simply add or subtract mana cost from their cards after the fact, which makes banning one of the only tools in their arsenal.
Another reason why there are so many bans these days? WotC's design philosophy has changed a lot since 2016. Not only are they more willing to take big risks with combo pieces and high-profile cards, but they do their best to make sure that every single rare and mythic in a set has a purpose. Back in 2004, at least half of the rares in any given set were limited-only cards. These days, nearly ever rare in every set is capable of being situationally powerful. So not only is WotC willing to push the envelope more often, but there are simply more cards printed these days with the potential to break a format in half.
Lastly, I feel like WotC no longer considers bans to be either an admission of failure or a tool to only use as a last resort. They seem more or less okay printing cards that might be too powerful and banning them later on if they warp the format too much. They also seem okay with the idea of banning cards simply because people are sick of them late in the format, like we saw with Teferi, Time Raveler this past summer. Teferi wasn't any more broken in August of this year than it was in May or June, but WotC wanted to let people play with different cards for a few months before Zendikar Rising was released. It might be hard for some old school player to accept this change in philosophy, especially since bannings were an incredibly big deal up until recently, but that doesn't make it any less real.
I wanted to cover all of this in detail because I don't see a world in which Magic suddenly reverts back to its 2000-2016 approach to bannings. Even if WotC doubled-down on their Future Future League testing infrastructure, they're not suddenly going to start powering down Magic to the point where half the cards in each set are Bloodletter Quill and Soramaro, First to Dream. They're not going to shut down Arena, nor are they going to start issuing heavy errata to tabletop cards. While I do think that WotC can and should work harder to tweak the obviously broken cards prior to release, we're going to be living in a ban-heavy world for quite some time to come.
That leaves us with just one option, then: understand what happens when cards are banned, so that we can try to take the best possible action.
One good thing about so many cards getting banned these days: we have a lot of data to work with. Let's take a look at every key card that has been banned in the past three years, and see what happens to its price tag before and after the banning.
Let's start at the beginning, with Emrakul, the Promised End:
This chart goes from Emrakul's release through September of 2017, and you can see the ban date highlighted in red if you look closely. It helps you also notice that it corresponds to that massive single-day price drop in early January of 2017.
With Emrakul, it seems pretty clear that the best time to buy was several months after the ban. And buying would have been a good thing—the card is currently worth almost $36, which is something like eight times as much as it was worth in late 2017! But does this trend hold true for any other cards? Let's find out. Here's Smuggler's Copter:
Smuggler's Copter was banned the same day as Emrakul, and it shows a pretty similar price history. This card also spiked a bit later on, when Pioneer was announced, and then it crashed again when it was banned in that format as well. Yet again, the time to buy Smuggler's Copter was several months after it was banned. Let's move on to Aetherworks Marvel:
More of the same. It's really hard to see Aetherworks Marvel's ban date, but it's that little red line right under that last big price tumble. The price dropped to the sub-$1 level after banning, and then it rebounded somewhat when Pioneer was announced. These days, it's right around the $1 mark again.
Most of the 2018 and 2019 bannings were non-rare cards, so the next key card we come to is Field of the Dead. Here's what this card's chart looks like:
Field of the Dead has actually been banned twice so far: first in Standard, then in Pioneer. You might think that the first ban was announced concurrently with that first price drop, but nope—that drop actually happened about two weeks earlier, when the community figured out that Field of the Dead was probably going to get the axe. Let's take a closer look at the period right abound both of these bannings, because it's pretty interesting stuff:
The red bar corresponds to the date that Field of the Dead was banned in Standard, and the purple bar is the date that Field of the Dead was banned in Pioneer. In both cases, I made sure to highlight the dates of the announcements, not the dates the bans went live. And in both cases, you can see the price starting to drop in the days before the announcement—in the case of Standard, it began two weeks earlier, and in the case of Pioneer, it started three days earlier.
What happened, as far as I can tell, is that the community saw the writing on the wall with this card. Everybody wanted to ditch their copies of Field of the Dead before the ban set in, which is a pretty clear response to the price drops that happened when Aetherworks Marvel, Smuggler's Copter, and Emrakul were banned. After all, if you keep holding your cards through different bannings and lose half their value in a single day, why not simply sell any cards that you expect to be banned ASAP?
Well, this chart is why. Since everybody corrected their behavior, it turns out that most of the excess copies of this card hit the market before the actual ban date. And since a lot of people who wanted copies of Field of the Dead for Pioneer, Modern, or Commander were waiting around for the ban to occur before buying in, the price actually hit its lowest figure ever in the hours right before Field of the Dead was banned in Standard. That's right—the best time to buy this card was the day before it was banned.
If we take a look at Oko, Thief of Crowns, we can see a similar effect at play:
The red bar marks Oko's ban date in Standard, the purple bar is Oko's Pioneer ban, and the green bar is Oko's Modern ban. All three bars are immediately preceded by fairly significant price drops, but Oko never saw a major drop on or immediately after the date it was banned in any of these formats. In fact, just like with Field of the Dead, Oko saw a major price surge in the days immediately following its Standard ban as Modern, Pioneer, and Commander players scrambled to pick their copies up.
Moving further into 2020, we've got Agent of Treachery:
As with the last couple of cards, Agent of Treachery started to drop over the two-week period before the ban date, and it saw a small rebound the day after the ban was announced. Unlike the last few cards we've talked about, however, that new spike immediately collapsed and the card was worth quite a bit less a week after the ban than it was the week before. Time will tell if this is a uniquely 2020 problem or not, but it's worth monitoring as we go forward.
This is Teferi, Time Raveler. While this bar might look kind of arbitrary at first glance, you can still see the price steadily dropping before that date and the drop slowing down pretty quickly after that. It's possible that Teferi was simply already close to its bottom before the ban was announced, but I wouldn't be surprised if the ban itself didn't have something to do with arresting its downward momentum. There's a sense out there that a banned card is already "at bottom" because there's nowhere else for it to drop, so people often feel more comfortable buying in for their casual decks. It's possible that Teferi might have dropped even lower had it not been banned this summer.
Here's a big one: Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. You can see how large the red bar is here, which means that loads of people were buying Uro on the day it was banned in Standard. And just like most the other cards we've talked about in 2019 and 2020, we see a large drop preceding Uro's banning followed by an uptick in price (and demand) shortly following the announcement.
Let's finish this off by looking at Omnath, Locus of Creation. Yet again, we can see the drop in price preceding the ban, but there's no price rebound here. In fact, Omnath's price just keeps dropping for weeks and weeks later. Did we come full circle? Are banned cards at the end of 2020 behaving just like they did at the start of 2017?
No. The 'X factor' here is that Omnath was banned less than three weeks after Zendikar Rising was released, which is pretty close to unprecedented. All the other cards we've talked about today were banned at least a month or two into their lifespan. And since nearly every card experiences price erosion over the first few weeks after set release, Omnath avoided an immediate rebound because people just kept opening more and more packs of Zendikar Rising over the following several months. This chart would have looked a lot different if Omnath had been banned on November 12th instead of October 12th.
Where does this leave us? In my mind, there's a clear lesson here: if a card sees play in one of the eternal formats, and it's about to earn a ban in Standard, buy your copies the day before the B&R announcement where you expect that card to get the axe. You might want to hold off if the card was just printed, like Omnath, but your chances of truly regretting that purchase are very low. Otherwise, it's best to wait between two and six months before pulling the trigger.
Another reason why WotC might be okay swinging their ban hammer a little more often? Bans drive sales. Not only are people out there picking up key cards at their post-ban price floors, but everyone is clamoring to pick up the necessary pieces for the decks that are most likely to shine in a post-ban world. This probably has less of an effect on pack sales than it does on the secondary market, but rising tides lift all boats.
Of course, this could end up proving to be a case of diminishing returns. It's hard enough to keep up with the endless flow of Magic products as it is, and the idea that each fallow period between Standard legal set releases might be punctuated with a deck-denying ban or two could lead to burnout among the player base. This has arguably happened already in Modern, where prices haven't really recovered after a series of major bans—including the one that finally took down Mox Opal and Ravager Affinity after a decade of tournament viability. But for now, at least, the proliferation of Standard bans hasn't seemed to cause a backlash in the actual sales figures. When you look at the numbers, the evidence is there: whenever there's a major ban in Standard, people buy a lot of cards.
What does this mean for you? As with all hype cycles, it means that you should be trying to buy in early and sell at the top of the market. If you're going to invest in Standard, then, the best time to buy is when a single card or strategy is overwhelming the metagame and the rest of the community is frustrated and waiting for WotC to take action. If you can pick up staples from second or third tier decks at that point, you can sell them into the post-ban hype as everybody struggles to figure out what's going to be good in the new format. Your margins might not end up being great—they rarely are with these types of Standard specs—but your sales are likely to be pretty robust.
Standard bans are usually pretty obvious to see coming. Most of them are telegraphed several weeks in advance, and even if you don't know the specific cards that are going to get the axe, it'll be pretty clear which deck or decks WotC is going to target in their next B&R announcement. The trick is dealing with the fact that you basically have a choice between buying an underpowered deck and losing over and over against the soon-to-be-banned deck, or buying the soon-to-be-banned deck and being forced to build something new whenever WotC chooses to act.
This is kind of a no-win situation. I wish I had something unique and profound to say about it, or One Weird Trick That Prevents You from Dealing with Bans Ever Again. However, the truth is that there's no way around this particular hydra. It is what it is, and we all have to face it head on if we want to play Magic in a ban-heavy era. That said, I do have two methods of interacting with Standard that I personally use to keep ban fatigue as low as possible.
First, I pick my battles with overpowered decks. If a new strategy comes out that looks incredibly fun, I'll generally pick it up and play with it for as long as I can, even if I think it'll get the axe sooner or later. Other times, if the overpowered strategy looks like a joyless slog, I'll either pick a second-tier deck and wait it out or just take a few months off from Standard entirely. By doing this, I can avoid feeling like I'm stuck on a permanent treadmill chasing the most powerful decks in Standard on a constant basis, but I also don't feel like I'm always stuck playing the second-tier deck in a world where the banned cards feel unbeatable.
Second, I accept that Standard is always going to be something of a money pit. If you want to play the format, you have to accept that there will be financial losses—to banned cards, metagame changes, WotC printing large sets every quarter, and so much more. One of the reasons why I think that every player should have a working knowledge of Magic Finance is because you often do need a lot of disposable income to keep up with the competitive formats. If you're doing any speculating and you love playing Standard, it's totally okay to sink your profits into keeping up with the latest tech. Sometimes, you can't play to win—you just have to play the money game to an overall draw so that you can have fun slinging spells.
The biggest piece of news this week, of course, is the release of the Secret Lair Secretversary Superdrop. This drop includes five new Secret Lairs designed to honor the 1st anniversary of the product, and they'll be available (both individually and as a bundle) through the 14th of December. This time around, however, there's a new wrinkle: three of the new Secret Lair drops will be available in both foil and non-foil, with the foil versions of each drop selling for $10 more than their non-foil counterparts.
If you've read my analysis of all the Secret Lairs to date, (and if you haven't, check out the link below), you'll probably already have a decent sense of what my opinion about this set is going to be. Nearly all of the Secret Lair drops released in 2020 were poor purchases, and in most instances you would have been better off buying the cards you wanted as singles a month or two after release. It's fine to buy a drop or two if you have a use for all (or nearly all) of the cards inside, but they're generally poor speculative investments.
I'm especially skeptical of any drop that gives you a full two weeks to order. The Summer Superdrop was the biggest bust of all, and that was partially because everyone who wanted a copy had plenty of time to make their buying decisions, instead of having just a single day to act and potentially missing that window. It's likely that other factors are also at play in terms of making that particular set a bust – for example, people buying the drop simply to get the foil fetchland, which won't be a problem this time around. But I'd still like to see a few more Secret Lairs end up being clear financial wins before I can wholeheartedly recommend them again.
That said, I'd still like to talk about each of these Secret Lairs in turn, because some of them are better buys than others, and individually most of them seem fine to snag for personal use.
Happy Little Gathering, the Bob Ross bundle, is my favorite of the five. All the previous alt-art basic land bundles have held their value quite well, in large part because the folks who want these cards are going to want 20-30 copies of each. Bob Ross is a very popular artist as well as a pop culture icon, and I have a feeling that these lands are going to be highly sought out for many years to come. I also can't imagine a world where basic lands ever stop having at least a small amount of utility across all formats. If you're going to buy any of these bundles, this is the one I'd go for.
I'd also expect We Hope You Like Squirrels to hold its value quite well. OMG KITTIES! is the most valuable Secret Lair that has been released to date, and second place isn't particularly close. That was in large part because speculators and competitive players underestimated demand for popular tribal cards, and the lair was widely panned at release because it seemed like the value of the singles just wasn't there. A similar thing might happen this time around with these Squirrels, making this my second favorite box of the five.
Artist Series: Seb McKinnon comes in third place for me. It's likely that the Damnation from this set will not ever drop below $25 or so, which means that you're basically paying $5 plus shipping for the other cards. That's not a great deal, but it's also possible that the Damnation will settle in higher than $25. If you want to avoid that eventuality, picking up this lair is fine. I'm personally just going to wait and pick up the singles myself, though.
A Box of Rocks is my fourth-place choice. All five of these cards are solid Commander staples, and Chromatic Lantern alone should end up back in the $15+ range at some point. I'd still rather snag these as singles about a month after release, but I do expect that at some point these five cards will be worth more than what you'll pay for the Secret Lair. You might just have to wait a while.
Lastly, we have Party Hard, Shred Harder. These cards are utterly delightful and super unique, but previous drops like this—think Tattoo Pack and Seeing Visions—have been among the biggest financial underperformers in the series so far. It's possible that this drop will be the exception that proves the rule, but I'd like to see one of these sets do well before I can recommend buying in.
I'd also opt for non-foil copies of these drops over the foil copies if you have a choice. Not only has the foil multiplier for most cards dropped to nearly nothing these days—an article topic for another time, I suspect—but Secret Lair foils have proven to come out of the box notoriously curved. By opting for non-foil copies, you're saving $10 per drop...while also ensuring that your copies of the cards aren't going to look like Pringles before you've played even a single game. I also suspect that the foil drops will prove more popular and sell more copies, which could make the non-foil drops a little scarcer over the long haul. Non-foil copies are also easier to sell, because there are plenty of players who like to avoid foil cards for the aforementioned reasons.