Yesterday was quite an interesting day as far as bannings are concerned. Wizards of the Coast actually issued two different announcements. In the first one, Wizards announced that there would be no bannings in any format. Within that announcement we were also told that future announcements would no longer be scheduled in advance. There will no longer be any specific dates for the Banned and Restricted announcements; they can happen on any Monday of the year.
It is difficult to process exactly what this is going to mean going forward. On the one hand, Wizards can ban a card immediately, so we won't reach the state we did when Oko and friends were legal in Standard, and there was only one good deck. That was an extreme circumstance, but I'm sure it is still fresh in people's minds, and part of what influences the new timing for bans.
On the other hand, it becomes very tough to prepare for tournaments when cards can get banned and completely change the format at any time. For example, my next big tournament is the Player's Tour in early February, where I will be playing Pioneer. As of right now I feel like practicing for that specific tournament is basically impossible, because there is no way of knowing how many cards will be banned before the event. It seems that the window for tournament preparation has shrunk.
The last part about this announcement is that it doesn't inspire consumer confidence. It is tough to justify purchasing cards for a format where there can be lots of bannings. I don't blame anyone who has decided not to invest in Pioneer yet, but there has to be a point where Wizards tries to create some format stability. I will go into this in more detail, but first let's get to the cards that actually got banned in the second announcement yesterday. This banning announcement came a few hours after the announcement that there would be no changes to any format, which is very interesting timing indeed.
Overall, we should be happy about this from a gameplay perspective. These are two of the most hated cards in recent memory. It wasn't a matter of if they would get banned, it was a matter of when.
These cards were on the short list of (if not the top two) most oppressive cards in the format. Not only were both cards incredibly strong from a power-level perspective, but they are not particularly fun to play against. People simply don't like the cards, which makes it easier to ban them.There have been complaints that Oko should never have been printed in its current form, the card is just too good. I agree with that assessment personally, it is too high power. Banning Once Upon a Time wasn't nearly enough to stop Oko dominance.
Nexus of Fate is a silly card that invalidates a lot of strategies. Simic Nexus was never a deck players liked to play against when it was Standard legal, and the Pioneer version of the deck is pretty similar to the Standard one. It isn't quite on the same power level of some of the other cards banned in Pioneer so far, but the Simic Nexus deck was very good, and tough for many decks to interact with. As Wizards wisely shared, Simic Nexus and the Simic-based Oko decks have had the best results over the last few weeks compared to all other decks in Pioneer.
At the moment, the bannings are taking place too quickly in my opinion. If they stop happening so rapidly and the format settles down more that would be a good thing. The feeling that your favorite deck or card could be banned literally anytime is quite scary. To be fair, Wizards did let us know this would be happening immediately upon creating Pioneer, so at least we had fair warning, but it still feels pretty rough from a consumer standpoint.
Wizards has claimed that in 2020 we will reach a point where the pace of Pioneer bannings becomes more in line with other formats like Modern and Standard. I don't want to make any guarantees though, because right now it seems like the most important thing to Wizards is the health of the format, which often means needing to ban cards aggressively. Since information is spread more quickly these days, formats become solved equally quickly, which is part of the reason we have seen more bannings in general.
It feels like only yesterday that Pioneer was introduced as a format, and at that time only the five fetch lands were banned. Since then the following cards have also been removed:
Leyline of Abundance
Oko, Thief of Crowns
Oath of Nissa
Veil of Summer
Field of the Dead
Nexus of Fate
Once Upon a Time
That's nine cards! We have never seen so many cards banned from any format, in such a short time span, regardless of format. Seemingly after each banning, a new "best deck" emerges. Even with constant bannings, it's almost impossible to reach an equilibrium. Pioneer in fact, based on the wide variety of archetypes in the format, could be the most healthy format in Magic right now, even though it has had the most cards banned recently. Cards are getting banned despite it not being clear how dominant they actually are in some cases.
From the perspective of a competitive player I like format shakeups, but this is too fast even for me. There needs to be a point where it feels safe to start putting money into Pioneer, and I'm hoping that's coming soon. There is so much potential here, and removing Oko and Nexus makes sense, but there comes a point where it gets to be too much.
First let's talk about some decks that will not be good after the bans. Simic Nexus is dead without Nexus. There could be a deck that tries to abuse Wilderness Reclamation still, because that card is still really powerful when built around, but I would leave it alone for now. As far as the Oko decks, many of them evolved into "good stuff" midrange decks that happened to have Oko in them.
For instance, Sultai control will still be around in some form. There are just too many tools in those three colors for the deck to not see play. On the other hand, Gilded Goose loses almost all of its value once you take away Oko. We have seen Gilded Goose receive play in Standard Sacrifice decks after losing Oko, but I don't expect Trail of Crumbs to be high enough power in Pioneer without Oko. Gilded Goose is a one-mana creature that can make a colored mana, but it seems outmatched by Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves for the most part.I can't cover all the decks that will benefit from the bans, but one deck that comes to mind is Azorius Control. Oko might have been the most annoying card in the format for control decks, being more or less a must-answer threat for three mana. Cheap planeswalkers are a big way that midrange strategies try to gain an edge against control decks. Without the planeswalkers, cards like Supreme Verdict get better, as midrange decks are forced to play more actual creatures as their threats.
The planeswalkers in blue and white seem like they are overall the strongest in the format now. There are in fact 12 planeswalkers in the list total, with two in the sideboard. This deck doesn't have too many holes, and the more cards that get banned that are not in Azorius Control, the better this deck looks. Even if a card were to be banned from this deck it could be replaced. If Dig Through Time went away, Sphinx's Revelation seems like a great secondary option.
As far as updating the list, it's possible that you no longer need three copies of Cast Out. Cast Out was your best answer to both Wilderness Reclamation and Oko, Thief of Crowns, if they hit the battlefield. However, I'm not comfortable going below two copies of either Cast Out or Detention Sphere until the format develops a bit more. It's possible that Detention Sphere is actually the better answer card though, as being one mana cheaper is very relevant versus aggressive decks. You do need some ways to deal with an annoying threat if it gets under your countermagic.
Looking at the manabase you will notice a lot of utility lands. Outside of the planeswalkers which are so clearly powerful, these lands are the way you take over the late game. Castles are great when you can either hold up countermagic or activate a Castle end of turn. It feels really bad to play against a Azorius Control deck with lots of mana in the late game. Also notice the one copy of Geier Reach Sanitarium. This is a land that can combo with Narset, Parter of Veils to essentially stop the opponent from being able to draw any cards. This could become the top deck of Pioneer.
Still, it is tough to pick a top deck in such a large format, especially only a day after a ban. Personally, I'm most excited to see which combo decks can emerge to replace the space Nexus was previous occupying. Look for a more in-depth article from me soon about Lotus Storm, as that deck is the real deal. Aggressive creature-based decks get better in the sense that they no longer have to worry about their creatures getting nullified by Oko. Even artifacts like Embercleave gain some stock, now that they can't be turned into an Elk. We will get to see more expensive creatures enter the format that weren't viable before. The bannings really do open up a lot of options.
Seth Manfield is a professional Magic player and member of both the Magic Hall of Fame and the 2019 Magic Pro League.
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