Magic is a constantly evolving, always challenging, complex game. One beautiful thing about Magic is that it's not a solved game and probably never will be. That means that there will always be discussion, debate, and disagreement surrounding card choices, deck choices and other topics. In some ways, this is the Lifeblood that fuels the Magic community and one of the main reasons players remain interested long term. If the game didn't have these constant situations where the right answer isn't always clear, things would quickly grow dull and Magic would have a lower retention rate among players.
I spend an astronomical amount of time thinking about and absorbing information about Magic. I read a lot of things other people say about the game and then I incorporate their thoughts along with my own experiences and beliefs into a constantly updating set of opinions. I think it's important to be opinionated about things, including Magic, but it's also just as important to recognize that even our most staunchly held opinions might be wrong and constantly challenge and update them with new information.
Lately, my life has been a bit less busy than normal, which means I've had more time to think and refine my opinions on a number of Magic topics. These are some of the things I've been mulling over lately. To six. Mulling to six. I prefer not to go lower than that.
I've seen a number of people clamoring that Goblin Chainwhirler should be banned. Actually, I'm surprised at how much support this idea has. I'm also surprised by the number of people who seem to expect that it will get banned, as though the best card in Standard is just always going to get banned whenever the next Banned and Restricted Announcement rolls around. That's not how things work...I hope.
I don't think it should be banned. I don't even think it is particularly close. Not yet. Probably not ever. This whirler might be off the chains but I don't think it deserves to end up in chains right now.
The major argument I see being made in favor of banning Goblin Chainwhirler is that it pushes so many cards out of the format and is therefore oppressive. Personally, I wouldn't say that Goblin Chainwhirler entirely pushes one-toughness creatures out of the format – the last Grand Prix finals featured a Blue-Black Midrange deck with eight main deck creatures that die to Chainwhirler – but it certainly makes it much harder to play those cards and much riskier. So, to some extent, I agree. It does limit the number of cards one can play in the format or at the very least makes playing those cards way worse.
Here's the thing, though…
Every single good card does that. Goblin Chainwhirler is just more obvious at doing it. The best cards in formats put constraints on the other cards. Always. If you ban Chainwhirler, whatever becomes the new best card afterward will also limit the number of cards you can play in the format in some capacity.
The Scarab God? Yeah, that card pushed whole swaths of cards out the format for not being able to even come close to competing with it. There were decks like Tokens or Vampires that had a very small number of ways to deal with The Scarab God and if they didn't draw those cards or they were answered, then The Scarab God would beat their entire deck by itself.
Cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria also constrict the kinds of cards that can be played in the format. For example, Teferi is a pretty big contributing reason why green decks are mostly nonexistent right now, because a lot of the best green creatures are poor at pressuring Teferi in any way beyond just turning sideways into removal.
The major difference between a card like Chainwhirler and Teferi when it comes to constricting options in the format is that it's very clear when Chainwhirler punishes cards for being played. They get immediately destroyed and a 3/3 first strike is left sitting in play. For Teferi, it's less obvious. The game continues on for a while and maybe Teferi even eventually gets destroyed. But the damage is still done.
Of course, sometimes cards truly do constrict or dominate the format so much that they need a ban. Felidar Guardian and Aetherworks Marvel are such examples. I just don't think we're there with Goblin Chainwhirler. The format is young and continues to evolve, as proven by White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift making a big resurgence at Grand Prix events last weekend.
It's important to give people time to figure out how to beat things. We've only had a short period of time playing with and against Goblin Chainwhirler and we definitely haven't explored all possible ways to combat the red decks. If this problem persists for an extended period of time, then perhaps action is required, but we are still taking our first baby steps with Goblin Chainwhirler. Remember last format when The Scarab God was dominant and people were clamoring for it to be banned? Here we are a few short months later and it's only a marginal role player in Standard. Give things time.
Another argument against banning Chainwhirler is that we have another set coming out very soon that might drastically change Standard, and even if it doesn't, we are very close to having a rotation that will definitely drastically change Standard. Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks are not long for this world.
I don't think it's immediately obvious if Chainwhirler is even the best card in red decks. Is Goblin Chainwhirler better than Hazoret, the Fervent, Glorybringer, Rekindling Phoenix, or Chandra, Torch of Defiance? Chainwhirler fills a hole in those decks and serves as a brutally efficient card that can bridge the gap from the great two-drops to the great four- and five-mana plays. It's very good, but one could easily argue that Hazoret or Glorybringer are actually better cards and just as warping.
Once Hazoret, Chandra, Glorybringer, Bomat Courier, Soul Scar Mage, Earthshaker Khenra, Scrapheap Scrounger, Heart of Kiran and friends all rotate out of the format, will Goblin Chainwhirler still be dominant, or even good? Will it even see play? Who knows.
I think it would be crazy to ban a card that's only been out for a few months and might not even be the best card in its deck and might not even be part of a playable strategy in a few months when rotation completely cripples the rest of the deck. Let's give it time and see how things play out. We can wait, and in the meantime, there are plenty of competitive decks that don't play Chainwhirler.
The other day I was thinking about Modern and how the format is extremely good at self-correcting. Death's Shadow seemed unbeatable, until a few months later when it was mostly pushed out of the format. Lantern Control was a menace that won the Pro Tour and created uproar about how unfair and unfun it was. One month later it disappeared into obscurity. Hollow One was a broken strategy that went against the spirit of Modern. Now it's just another deck. Humans was a fast, aggressive tribal strategy that preyed on fair and unfair decks alike. People figured out how to beat it. Krark-Clan Ironworks is the new hotness. It's a fast, efficient and resilient combo deck that ignores a lot of the interaction in the format. For now. KCI is exploitable, and I imagine it can and will get exploited in the months to come.
The Modern format, more than any format I've ever seen in Magic, is extremely impressive at spitting out new powerful strategies and just as quickly casting them down again. Modern's ability to adapt to changes in the format is impressive and part of what makes it arguably the most successful and popular format in the game.
This line of thought about how Modern is so good at self-correcting eventually led me down another line of thought. Which deck has remained a tier one strategy for the longest period of time despite all the times Modern has adapted to prey on tier one decks? Originally, I thought about decks like Affinity and Burn, but those decks haven't been tier one in a long time. They've struggled to keep pace with the increasing power level of the Modern format as they haven't gotten major upgrades in a long time.
The answer I came up with is Tron. Over a long enough period of time, I think Tron is clearly the best deck in Modern. Years ago, Tron was putting up great results and Top 8's. Tron is still doing that today. At any given moment, Tron is almost never the best deck in the format. But it's always close. And as the best decks filter in and out, Tron always remains, always close to being the best. There were two Tron decks in the Top 8 of the most recent Modern GP. There were four Tron decks in the Top 8 of a Grand Prix a few months back. Modern consistently self-corrects to push decks in and out of prominence, but Tron always pushes back. Tron always adapts right back and continues to be a dominating, tier one strategy.
Tron might not be the best deck in Modern right now. It might not be the best deck in Modern in two months. But it will probably still be almost the best, and in a format as volatile and unforgiving as Modern, being almost the best for a very long time means you actually are just historically the best. As much as I hate to admit it, there's a really good chance that Tron isn't being played nearly as much as it should be. I always continue to expect that with each new linear strategy that breaks out and each new anti-Tron hate card that sees print Tron will finally no longer be good enough.
It never happens. Tron persists.
The two best decks in Legacy right now by a huge margin are Grixis Delver followed by Four-Color Control. Both of these decks are not just Deathrite Shaman decks, they actually could not realistically exist without Deathrite Shaman. They are the two decks that abuse Deathrite Shaman's abilities the most, which is why they are better than all the other decks, because Deathrite Shaman is the best threat in the format by a lot and they get the most out of it.
Personally, despite what I just said, I'm not convinced that Deathrite Shaman is too good for Legacy. I'm not even convinced that Deathrite is the most bannable card in the format, as I think you could make the argument that Gitaxian Probe is a more egregious card.
With that said, we've seen this before. Miracles was a deck that abused Sensei's Divining Top. Miracles was the best deck in Legacy for two years and was continually amassing more and more shares of the format until Top eventually was banned. There were decks that could compete on power level with Miracles, much like how there are decks now that compete with Deathrite Shaman decks. However, those decks never really came close to experiencing the same success Miracles did and Miracles just kept growing more and more popular and dominant, until eventually it was too much.
It's been many months with Deathrite Shaman at the top of Legacy, and judging by metagame trends, it seems to only be gaining more and more ground in the format. If we haven't figured out how to topple Grixis Delver and Four-Color Control from the top spots in Legacy over the last nine months, are we going to suddenly figure it out in the next 12 months? It seems unlikely.
I think Deathrite Shaman is going to continue to be the best thing you can do in Legacy, and the gap between Deathrite Shaman decks and the rest of the field will probably continue to widen as more and more players decide that they'd rather join team DRS than struggle to beat them, just like what happened with Miracles before. I suspect in a year or so, WOTC will eventually make a move, just like they had to do with Miracles as well.
In the meantime, I'll hold out hope for a different solution.
Over the past week, I spent a lot of time testing White-Black Midrange decks in Standard. I was doing fairly well with them, yet they were nothing spectacular. While I had a reasonable record against red decks, I kept getting into situations where I was getting beaten in games that went long because they would draw better cards than I did. The more and more I played with the deck, the more cards I began to eliminate as options for the deck for not being good enough. Towards the end of my testing, I began to notice a trend. The cards in White-Black Midrange are just not nearly as good as the red cards are, and there is no way to get around that.
I might be able to, with enough testing, find the exact perfect configuration of cards to build my deck and I might even boast a generally favorable matchup against the red decks, but the White-Black Midrange deck would probably still be a worse deck to take to a tournament. Why? Because the cards are just so much worse than the red cards, and that is an extremely important and overlooked consideration for deck selection.
There are so many games in Magic that don't go to plan or that end up coming down to a topdeck war. Those games are won by the deck that has the best cards. The deck that can topdeck Glorybringer. The deck that can peel Hazorino off the top to put a chunk in the opponent's life pad. The deck that when it finally hits land four on turn seven gets to play Rekindling Phoenix to hold down the fort instead of trying to stabilize behind a much weaker play.
There are also matches where your opponent is playing something random, something unexpected, or something that you weren't prepared for, but you still have a very good chance of beating them because your deck just has some of the absolute best cards in the format. Instead of trying to race a ramp deck with Knight of Malice and Angel of Sanctions, you're casting cards like Glorybringer, Goblin Chainwhirler and Hazoret, the Fervent. Maybe you didn't have a plan against their deck, but maybe it didn't even matter. The cards are often good enough to win anyway.
This is especially true in older formats like Modern and Legacy, where most of my success is based on consistently playing the decks with the most raw power. I like to even take it further by also choosing to play the most powerful card choices within those decks, even if they are less universally applicable and higher variance. Why is Tron a deck that always bounces back to being tier one? Check out the power level of those cards. It's disgusting. That deck constantly outmuscles better positioned and metagamed decks because there are so many cards that just win games on raw power alone. Stumble against Tron? GG.
It's not often enough that I see players pick up a deck and say: "I'm going to play this deck, even if it isn't the best metagame call right now, because this is the most powerful thing I could be doing. This deck has the best cards and the most power, and I'm just going to let the power of the cards carry me." People should care more about playing decks with the best cards in them, because those decks tend to just win more, even if they have less synergy or are positioned slightly worse in the format.
One thing I actually like about Goblin Chainwhirler is that it helps keep Llanowar Elves down. Llanowar Elves was a very dangerous card to reprint. The last time we had a card like this was Elvish Mystic and it led to extremely unfun games of Magic headlined by green devotion decks that were basically unbeatable on the play when they curved out with Elvish Mystic. That period of time might have been the least enjoyable Standard I've ever played, because so many games were decided by opening hands and die rolls.
The problem with cards like Llanowar Elves is that they are very polarizing. On the play, they can do some things that are so powerful your opponent can never win, no matter what they have or how they play their hand out. On the draw, they are sometimes slow, ineffective, and end up being card disadvantage when the tempo generated from their mana advantage can't be properly utilized. Llanowar Elves leads to a lot of snowball games of Magic where one player can never catch up and it exacerbates Magic's already too-large gap between being on the play vs. being on the draw. Those are not traits that generally improve a format.
Llanowar Elves is so good compared to other cards in Standard that it really limits the kinds of three-drops that WoTC can print over the next few years. If they print more cards like Courser of Kruphix or Tireless Tracker, then Llanowar Elves could end up being too good and breaking the format, which is a bad thing. However, if they don't print these cards, then they run the risk of green just being too weak of a color, which is also a bad thing.
With that said, cards like Llanowar Elves are perfectly fine in formats like Modern, because Modern has effective interaction that can catch you back up from the tempo advantage that Llanowar Elves provides your opponent. For example, if you have a card like Lightning Bolt that can either kill a Llanowar Elves or kill the three-drop they play with it, then Llanowar Elves is a perfectly fine card. If the spells in the format can match the power level of the creatures, then Llanowar Elves is generally going to be a fine card on power level considerations.
Because of this, I'm hoping the reprint of Llanowar Elves also brings about the start of a new era of Standard where spells are equally as powerful as creatures and planeswalkers and where interaction and threats are evenly balanced. Llanowar Elves would be a fair card in those formats, and those high-power formats with both good threats and good answers tend to be the best Standard formats anyway.
- Brian Braun-Duin