What more does a card have to do to get banned?

Jonathan Richmond (aka norbert88) wrote this today on twitter, which I thought encapsulated the sentiment of the post-GP DFW discussion about Jace quite well:
Ted Knutson, who knows how to leverage controversy into blog traffic, has written about the case for banning Jace here. It’s a worthy read, and it segues into what I’m hoping will be an entertaining propaganda poster contest.
The question Jonathan asked can be simplified into the more basic, “What gets a card banned?”
Click through to the extended to find out.

The only reason

So what does get a card banned?
Really, there’s no fundamental underlying engineering or liability concerns driving a banning in any format. Wizards was not on the hook for a class action lawsuit if they didn’t ban Survival of the Fittest in Legacy last year.
The way we tend to talk about “the health of the format” can make it feel as if either of these might be true. It sounds sort of like what you’d hear someone from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say in talking about shutting down access to a fishery for a five-year period to allow a recovery of critical salmon stocks.
The only actual reason to ban a card is because it being present in a format is upsetting a significant portion of your relevant customer base. I’m stuck being fuzzy here with the term “significant” because I don’t know where that breakpoint is. Is it “more players are angry now than we will make angry later?” I actually kind of doubt that, since I suspect in the case of most cards that would get the ban these days — Jace, Survival — the scale of upset in the players who paid for the card will be larger than that of the players who wanted it gone.
Notably, this does not map one-to-one onto the relative prevalence of the card in winning decks. Consider that Preordain has been more abundant in top eights than Jace. This is natural, it fits more decks. So why aren’t we deeply frustrated to see the “dominance” of Preordain?
Intuitively, it doesn’t feel as bad to be “Preordained” as it does to be “Jaced.” I think it was Sam Stoddard who recently asked which modes of Jace felt the worst for your opponent (or possibly Sam answered this when someone else asked, I’m not sure). The general consensus was that being Fatesealed was the most frustrating experience, but all of Jace’s abilities have the potential to crush your opponent’s spirit. After all, they are:

  • You don’t get to draw any cool cards
  • I draw more cards than you
  • I keep bouncing your best creature
  • I steal all your cards and throw them in the trash

This aspect of Jace places him in the same category as another would-be ban recipient, Bloodbraid Elf. Although not nearly as multirole as Jace, Bloodbraid Elf gave players the ability to topdeck back into a winning position, using an ability that could be summarized as “I punch you in the face, and get a bonus punch in for free.”
There’s a parallel but related aspect of frustration with a given card, which involves its appearance in a deck that is prevalent. Bloodbraid Elf was hated largely for its role in Jund, but Jund could actually still be a giant pile of aggravating two-for-ones even without Bloodbraid. Similarly, calls to ban this dynamic duo:
…come about because if you play in a reasonably competitive tournament these days, you can expect to run into some well-armed Hawks, especially around the winners’ circle.

Money, money

The other big player in driving folks to want a ban is, of course, price.
Jace will run you $99.99 (aka a hundred bucks) at ChannelFireball and other online vendors right now, and that means that anyone looking to the top eight of GP DFW sees that each deck has a minimum $400 buy-in if they don’t already have the Jaces.
That’s naturally frustrating. I can empathize from the days when I didn’t have Moxes and was being roundly schooled by the folks who did. The total cost of a Standard deck has not gone up much over the years, but there’s something gut wrenching about paying a hundred bucks for a single card.
Consider that even with California’s relatively high (for the U.S.) price of $4.23 for a gallon of regular gas, each Jace would let you fuel a Honda Civic roughly twice, and all four together amounts to a whole lot of gas or food money that isn’t going to gas or food.
The psychology of this price is why ChannelFireball has them at $99.99 rather than $100. Even if we incrementally pay a lot to play Magic, the shock of dropping a hundred bucks all at once is significant.

But do you ban it?

Obviously, this comes down to a customer sentiment issue for Wizards, and these will always be resolved using data to which we are not privy. That said, even though I was genuinely surprised that a card quite as powerful as Jace was made, I remain dubious about arguments based too heavily on card prevalence or player frustration.
My wariness on both counts comes about because there are two big influences I see in players who call for bannings of cards.
First, there’s the “indie rocker” thing — if it’s prevalent, we hate it. I’m especially acquainted with this idea because I do tend to want to build and play something different from the typical deck…but these days, I don’t shy away from good cards. When I recently wrote about U/B Control…well, of course the deck list featured four copies of Jace, TMS. He’s a natural fit, and it would be weird not to use him in that context.
Second, there’s a desire to free roll the opponent. My feeling (for what that kind of thing is ever worth) is that there’s a subset of players who’d really just like to goldfish to victory in every game. For them, cards that you have to beat are obnoxious, adding effort where none is particularly desired.
Okay, to these I think I should add a legitimate and large third for folks who’d just like to run into more variety on a day-to-day basis. That is a laudable desire, and one that I share. But it’s also really, really hard to keep a fairly contained environment (such as a card game) from optimizing to a narrow subset of regular winners.

How bad is it?

Here are the top four most played cards from the top eights of the last four SCG Standard Open events:
The number next to each card is how many copies appeared across all four top eights. Thus, there were 88 Preordains played in the 32 decks appearing in those four Open Series top eights, or about 2.75 Preordains/deck (if that’s in any way a useful figure).
By way of comparison, here are the top four cards from the last four SCG Standard Opens that took place during Alara-Zendikar Standard:
What’s most striking, in comparing the two, is that the “least played” of the top cards from our most recent four Open Series events showed up in more copies than the most played card in the Alara-Zendikar events.
This may be a somewhat unfair comparison, as we are at the height of Caw-Bladeness in Standard, and those four events are not from the height of Jund. However, there may not be an equivalent “height.” The events are also less than fully comparable since the bye system that’s now in place for the Open Series didn’t exist at the time.
Still, this difference may reflect what is genuinely frustrating about Standard for some players. In a phrase:
“The good cards are the good cards.”
Even when I “innovate” and beat face with a GW Aggro list, it has four copies of Squadron Hawk. If a player were to top eight an Open Series event with my list, they’d contribute to its “best cards” uniformity by dint of those Hawks.
The upshot of all this could be that players find themselves frustrated at seeing the same cards over and over again generally, and Jace, being the most expensive of the set, is the obvious target.
Alternately, the hypothesis may be that Jace is the enabler here, and we wouldn’t even see so many Hawks, Mystics, and Preordains if he weren’t around. I’m not sure how much I believe that. The fun way to evaluate the situation would be to run a series of “no Mind Sculptor” Standard tournaments to see what mini-metagame you evolve in Jace’s semi-absence. I strongly suspect there would still be a dramatic showing from all the other cards that have been regularly joining Jace in the top eight lately.

So, what does it take?

Prevalence is not enough, and being good or even “too good” really isn’t enough to get Jace banned. Our friend the Mind Sculptor would have to be seriously driving players away from the game to make it at all reasonable for Wizards to ban him in Standard, and that just isn’t happening right now.
Personally, I don’t find Jace annoying. It’s an overpowered card, but it’s not nearly as frustrating as a runaway Sword or a player casting Preordain to get them out of the bad situation you just spent so much effort putting them into.
Now, I do like to see more variety in top eights, but as many commentators have noticed, we’re in a Standard format that has a reduced amount of direct planeswalker hate, so the natural response is to max out on playing the most powerful walkers. I’m still generally happy with the idea that we’re seeing a lot of give-and-take and a lot of onboard interactions.
In fact, the only thing I really don’t enjoy in Standard right now is being combo killed by Valakut.
In the end, I tend to agree with PV (Valakut dominance would be so much worse) and Conley (if we had one O-Ring or Pulse, this wouldn’t be an issue at all). Jace is overpowered but is nonetheless highly interactive, so if we had a few more elements that interacted with him, I think we’d all be fine. So I’m not big on banning a card that is genuinely fun to play and that forces you to keep solutions around that involve punching your opponent in the face (so to speak). I’m just hoping that New Phyrexia will contain a few additional cards that help mitigate Jace enough so that we see more top eights like those late-Alara-Zendikar ones.