Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Game Theory Explains Why WoTC Hasn’t Banned Anything (Yet)

Update the morning after: Well, would you look at that, they went and did it. The community mystification now seems centered around "Why would R&D not ban something only to ban it two days later? Why does 'Look at me, I'm the DCI' seem more and more like an accurate representation of R&D's ban process?" 
Image result for Look at me, I'm the DCI
And all of the analysis below is just as applicable to explaining why WoTC would not ban on Monday and then ban on Wednesday as it is to explaining why WoTC would not ban on Monday. The key factor, then and now, comes down to their certainty in their read on the metagame, in this case coming from MtGO data. As long as the metagame is uncertain, WoTC acts in fear of landing in the bottom right quadrant. With some certainty that the format would improve from bannings, WoTC can balance the cost-benefit ratio of banning cards against improving the format.


Despite being on record as an apologist for WoTC R&D (though my faith was recently shaken by their admitted failure to catch the Saheeli-Cat Combo), I must acknowledge what pretty much everybody knows: Standard is really bad right now. So bad, that people seem can’t seem to comprehend how WoTC could fail to remove some of the problem cards from Standard in Monday’s B+R announcement.

Reddit and social media are filling up with commentary from Pros and average players alike wondering the same thing: what is WoTC thinking? After all, standard is definitely in a worse place today than it was preceding the last Standard banning in January. What gives?

In fact WoTC’s behavior makes perfect sense if we just game out some of the scenarios they’re faced with. Here’s the approximate payoff matrix:

Would Hypothetical Bannings Create a Healthy Format?

Don’t Ban
Customers can play with all their cards.

Format isn’t as good as it could be.

Poor outcome
Customers can play with all their cards.

Format is good.

Best outcome
Customers feel bad about their cards being taken away.

Format becomes good.

Poor outcome
Customers feel bad about their cards being taken away.

Format stays bad.

Worst outcome

Granted this is a simplification of the forces at play here, and format health/customer confidence are dimensions that are more of a spectrum and can’t be reduced to binary good/bad. But it still expresses the essential insight: the “Ban” row has a lot of red in it. The absolute worst outcome, from WoTC’s perspective, is to end up in the bottom right quadrant - to incur the very real costs of banning cards while not even getting an improved format out of it. In fact, given sufficient uncertainty about whether or not a format will improve post-bannings, the dominant strategy is to not ban. 

In order for WoTC to be able to ban cards, they need to be confident in their predictions of how the format will change, else they risk ending up in the worst-case scenario. If WoTC has strong belief that hypothetical bannings would create a healthy format, then they will be willing to do calculus of figuring out if the non-ideal outcome of creating a better format while shaking customer confidence is preferable to the non-ideal outcome of tolerating a bad format and preserving customer confidence. Absent this strong belief, the clear choice is to not ban.

Under this model, we can predict that WoTC will be more ban-happy in those formats wherein they can confidently project the future. Non-rotating formats where the format grows by 2% or less with each set are far more stable and predictable than standard, which grows by ~15% per set, and so just as the model predicts, we do see that WoTC is far more assertive with bans in non-rotating formats.

Worst-Case Scenario Realized: The Pre-PT Aether Revolt Ban Announcement

Which brings us to WoTC’s most recent standard banning, the consequences of which we are probably still feeling today: the January announcement that removed Emrakul, Smuggler’s Copter, and Reflector Mage from Standard prior to PT AER.
Image result for Emrakul Image result for Smuggler's Copter Image result for Reflector Mage
In retrospect, this banning was an unmitigated disaster. Yes, the banned cards were problematic. But WoTC took on the significant cost of banning cards, and then the metagame that followed the banning was somehow worse than the one before it. After Sam Stoddard polled Twitter to rate standard this past winter, it became fashionable to deride KLD as the “4/10 standard.” How fondly we look back now at a standard mediocre enough to be a 4!

While a bad format definitely hurts WoTC’s bottom line, it’s important to emphasize that banning cards has a similar impact, especially in the gateway format of Standard. People who spent their budget for Magic for the next few months on a playset of Emrakuls are just not going to play Magic for a while. Not all of those players will come back. If this were offset by the format becoming more fun and attractive for players, that would be acceptable. But that didn’t happen, and Wizards was stuck with a scenario where they lost both the customer that was turned off by an un-fun format and the one that was turned off by the bannings. At least if they didn't touch the format they'd still be making money from one of those two. This experience has certainly made WoTC more gun-shy about future bans.

What to Expect from Standard B+R Announcements Going Forward

With all of this in mind, we can make some predictions about WoTC’s ban behavior in the future:

1) WoTC will continue to only ban when there is low uncertainty about how the format will evolve. Which means we can expect there to be fewer bannings in standard than in non-rotating formats.
2) WoTC will be more likely to ban cards from standard after there is a clear picture of what the metagame looks like. This means they’re much more likely to ban Standard cards after the the Pro Tour than before it.
3) When it comes to the present situation specifically, I predict a ban will occur in two months if the new metagame remains as clearly unhealthy as it is today. But if it's at all plausible for the format to be interpreted as healthy, WoTC will continue to err on the side of not banning.
4) This last one’s not really a prediction, but I’d bet Goyfs to Seances that MtG’s designers and developers are consumed with jealousy when they look at how digital games can just patch in their latest balance tweaks every week.

Think you can predict what's going to happen in the metagame? If you're right, you could win $40 in Cardhoarder/Isle of Cards credit by filling out the Amonkhet metagame prediction survey.


  1. Your missing the box that shows how they pretty much have to ban the cards after the protour as the top 8 will have one new deck in it, and the rest will be the 83% of the the same old shit that's been happening since the last protour. Where the bottom right box happens but then it gets worse.

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