Home > Spreading Cheese > Spreading Cheese – #BanJace: An In-Depth Analysis

Spreading Cheese – #BanJace: An In-Depth Analysis

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Noyan Tokgozoglu, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Joey and Bigheadjoe.

Hi all. I’m kind of on a semi-hiatus right now, but this issue is too good for me to pass. I’m a debater at heart (used to be in the debate club, was the “hitter” of the debate team, I basically trolled people at crucial moments when they weren’t allowed to respond by the rules, thus winning my team the argument), and this whole controversy has my fingers itching.

What’s the subject? The argument for the banning of Jace, The Mind Sculptor. This is presumably invoked by the recent results of GP Dallas fort worth, where every single deck in the Top 8 played four copies of JTMS, and it is estimated that (haven’t seen the actual numbers, hence the “estimated”) there are 60 (out of 64 possible) copies of JTMS in the Top 16. This has led people to think that Jace is dominating the format, and thus should be banned. [Editor’s note: Also be sure to read Ted Knutson’s thoughts on the matter, which did a great deal to bring the topic to light. – Joey]

Before I begin, let me give you the following disclaimer: I own 4 copies of JTMS (was 3 when I had started writing the article, jumped up to 4 as we speak). So it suffices to say that I have no shortage issues. I am also not a trader, I like holding on to my cards, so I have no issue with the value of the card dropping or increasing. I also have no issues with playing him in my decks, but I also do not feel obliged to do so.

Now, here’s how my train of thought goes: Planeswalkers are overpowered by design. They are, within a package, implicit card advantage, life gain, and depending on the planeswalker itself, many other effects. Yes, this is an old-school way of thinking, PWs are a part of the game and they’re not going anywhere, and the general power level of the game has risen anyway. So it’s more or less fine anyway. Or is it? There are very few cards that efficiently and explicitly deal with planeswalkers. Yes, you can attack them, but your opponent might as well block or remove your creatures, and some PWs have their own way of dealing with creatures. That’s not final enough. Yes, you can Pithing Needle them or use similar effects, but in that case, you are setting yourself up to a worst case 0-for-1 (your opponent might not even draw the named PW), or a best case hypothetical 4-for-1 (hypothetical because your opponent won’t actually lose the PW, it will stay in their hand/in play until they deal with your Needle or shuffle it away). That might be good enough for most, but I am a firm believer in firm answers, and firm those cards are not. They can be played around. Then there are burn spells, but good planeswalkers put themselves out of burn range within their first activation anyway. So you end up 2-for-1ing yourself. You can play a smaller version of the planeswalker if available (only applies to Jace and Chandra in Standard), but you have to have it before your opponent, otherwise you end up on the losing end of the PW roulette. You can counter their PW as they cast it, but good players will know how to play around that, and they are likely to have their own counters. Vampire Hexmage and the upcoming Hex Parasite seem to be answers, but Hexmage can be played around and requires a commitment to double black. Hex Parasite isn’t out yet, but that card also requires a heavy mana investment to deal with a planeswalker, which might not be available. However, it seems like the best available option so far.

Yes, these are all insubstantial arguments, just like last year’s “Baneslayer is bad because she dies to Doom Blade!” (well, Frost Titan is amazing in that area though). But Oblivion Ring is such an amazing answer to planeswalkers. It is very direct, and very final (at least more final than attacking with creatures and/or burn). It requires your opponent to destroy it to get his PW back, so it puts them in a position where they need to act. Other answers require them to sit behind their PW and just enjoy the ride. Of course, O-Ring is also overpowered, a 1W costing O-Ring that couldn’t target creatures would be perfect, and it wouldn’t invalidate Journey to Nowhere. But those cards aren’t available right now. So our actions must be in context of what we have to work with.

Planeswalkers are overpowered, and hard to deal with. I’m fine with this. After all there is a PW available to every color and many different deck design strategies. So everyone can have a ride on the Imba-Train. What’s problematic is that JTMS is overpowered even amongst his overpowered brethren. Why? Let’s take a look at the card:

+2: Look at the top card of target player’s library. You may put that card on the bottom of that player’s library.

This ability can be used to potentially lock your opponent out of the game once they get to a position where they’re topdecking, and thus it also implicitly protects Jace. A very powerful ability that relates to library manipulation.

0: Draw three cards, then put two cards from your hand on top of your library in any order.

Free Brainstorm on a stick. Every turn, if you need to. Let me remind you that Brainstorm is restricted in Vintage due to its power. It is simply the best card draw spell in the game, only surpassed by Ancestral Recall, and even then so, it’s not a “strictly worse” card, due to its interaction with shuffling effects. The card advantage offered by this ability is already significant, and combined with Squadron Hawks and Fetchlands (Caw-Blade or RUG), it becomes even more obscene. It can also be implicitly used to protect Jace, since you are effectively drawing 3 cards, which might contain an answer to your opponent’s threat to your Jace. Another ability related to library manipulation.

-1: Return target creature to its owner’s hand.

Wait, what? So Jace can also explicitly protect himself too. Having repeatable “free” creature bounce has warped the game so much that most pros consider creatures that don’t affect the board the turn they enter it (i.e. fail the “Jace Test”) to be worthless. That can’t be right! This invalidates so many cards! Also, it has nothing to do with library manipulation.

-12: Exile all cards from target player’s library, then that player shuffles his or her hand into his or her library.

This looks supremely overpowered initially, but getting to 12 isn’t too easy. If your opponent has no cards in hand, you can just fateseal them constantly, but if you put something on bottom they have a chance to cast an answer. Of course, it will be bounced or countered or destroyed, so it doesn’t matter in the end. This almost always wins the game, but it’s not that big a deal because you should be winning by this time anyway. Again, this relates to library manipulation.

Now, Jace has 3 library manipulation abilities and one completely unflavorful ability that has warped the perception of even the pros. And the library manipulation effects are significantly powerful by themselves anyway. So, you may ask, why hasn’t Jace been a problem before? Why is he suddenly a problem now?

Well, first of all, Alara block had Oblivion Ring, which dealt with Jace easily, and also Bloodbraid Elf. The power of BBE is already well known, so I won’t go into that. Those two factors, in addition to the existence of aggro decks with many creatures, kept Jace in check. When they rotated away, Jace was again kept in check by Titan decks, some of which ran Jace anyway, but there were several titan decks (UBC, Valakut, MGE, UW), and none of them had a clear dominance. What happened next? The StarCityGames Opens happened. Every week, there was a major enough tournament that people would take it seriously, and every week new decks made their debut. Finally, RUG was introduced as the big bad boy. It was a Jace deck, but that fact was easily hidden by Frost Titan, who was very troublesome for the rest of the metagame. When Kibler finally “broke it” during Worlds with Caw-Go, titans became irrelevant and the rise of Jace began, which is also partially owed to his interaction with the Hawks. Slowly, people began to realize the weakness of RUG when they don’t get their Cobras, and that card advantage was crucial to the deck. Over the weeks, both decks battled each other and Valakut, with no clear victor in sight. There was even one instance of RDW winning. Soon, Caw-Blade became a thing, and the Caw decks started infighting by adding red or black. Slowly, the Caw decks started to rise. But they still weren’t dominant. Why? Patrick Chapin noted that the Caw decks have levels of win percentages similar to that of Survival of the Fittest decks, but they weren’t dominating because people weren’t playing them. Finally he himself caved in and made an example of the format by going all the way to top 8, dropping to GerryT out of respect. People slowly started to realize he implications of Patrick’s foresight.

Now, let’s look at something that most people overlook. Some people who are smart enough say that GPDFW is just one event, so it is a small sample size so its impact should not be taken too direly. I counter that with Glenn Jones’s excellent metagame assessment of the Open series: Too Much Information Marches On. If you haven’t already read that, you definitely should. Caw Blade wins 58.87% of its matches. RUG wins 57.19% of its matches. Caw Blade with black wins 54.13% of its matches. Everything else is around 52% or less, so it’s only slightly better than a coin toss. However Caw-Blade and RUG have scary results. It’s not as bad as survival, which had 67% win against the field, but it’s still pretty drastic. And again, this is with only less than 10% of the field playing these decks, so imagine what would happen if more people actually played these decks.

What do all those numbers mean? If you do not register JTMS when you enter a tournament, you are implying that chances are you will lose against those who do register JTMS. Obviously it’s not that simple, what I’m stating is derived information, not fact, but my statement isn’t contradicted by the facts. Considering the results of GPDFW along with the SCG Opens, the following statement is most likely correct: “If you want to win, play either Caw-Blade or RUG.”

What is common between those two decks? Jace and Preordain are immediate answers. Some people who think themselves witty have made “Ban Preordain” jokes, but it is obvious that Preordain is just a means, not an end. If we take a look at trends, cards that get banned are usually cards that are overpowered by themselves, not cards that are cantrips. Preordain is not a tutor, not a combo piece, not an enabler, not an engine, not an “I win” card. Thus arguing for its banning is futile. Thus eyes turn to Jace. Obviously, there are monetary motivations in this for some people, but I have no interest in discussing that. Jace is an enabler, an engine, and an “I win” card. Which are usual markers for being banned. Also, looking at WOTC’s article justifying the banning of Skullclamp, there are some similarities in the “Why It Was Banned” paragraph.

Let’s talk about Standard first. Skullclamp was banned in Standard, frankly, because it was everywhere. Every competitive deck either had four in the main deck, had four in the sideboard, or was built to try and defend against it. And there were a lot more successful decks in the first two categories than in the third. Such representation is completely unhealthy for the format. Your deck has to either have Skullclamps, or have Skullclamp in its crosshairs—a definitive case of a card “warping the metagame.”

Look, for example, at the Top 8 decks from Ohio Valley Regionals. Or at those from the more recent German Nationals. Combined, those 16 decks contained 58 out of a possible 64 Skullclamps. Never in my memory have I ever seen a card show up in those numbers.

You can replace “Skullclamp” with “JTMS” in that paragraph, and it would be mostly true. Right now, the top successful decks are the ones that run 4xJTMS. Some people have given me the argument that “Valakut is not built to defend against it”, but that is because Valakut is a combo deck, thus it has no interest in the opponent’s plan. They also said that the aggro decks in the format do not have JTMS in their crosshairs, which is partially true. They try to win through a Jace though. Also, the line about 58/64 Skullclamp is interesting, especially since we have observed 60/64 JTMS. Anyway, there are indeed similarities with this situation to our current one, but that is not enough.

Is Jace, The Mind Sculptor absolutely dominating the format, without doubt? Patrick Chapin and Louis-Scott Vargas seem to think so, and rarely ever call for banning a card (Survival of the Fittest being a recent exception). But other pros don’t seem to share their opinion. GerryT has stated that “All this talk of banning Jace is ridiculous. How about ya’ll work on solutions to your problems instead of hoping they go away?”, which is kind of amusing actually, since he’s owed his recent success to playing Caw-Blade. Brian Kibler seems to think banning Jace is unnecessary, and so does Michael Flores. The analysis of the “pro scene” remains inconclusive, but readers know I have great respect for Patrick Chapin, and he has stated that Jace is better than BBE, Skullclamp, Cryptic Command, Umezawa’s Jitte and Mind’s Desire—all problematic cards in their time.

What’s my opinion? I think he is extremely powerful, but my main problem with him is the lack of solid answers that also do not gimp you when you decide to play them. The best answer to Jace right now, given current technology, seems to be playing him yourself. Note that as a Legacy player I have no problem with him in Legacy, because the power level of the cards in that format make Jace not as problematic, and he even is kind of slow in that format. But should we ban him in Standard? That is a dangerous question. There are two sides to this question.

The gameplay side: What happens if we ban Jace? Most have said that Valakut will run rampant (growth. ha ha.), but I disagree to a degree. Pyromancer Ascension has a great matchup against Valakut, and so do fast aggro decks. Also, some UW control deck with Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge should also do well. The format will definitely shift towards playing more varied creatures, now that the threat of imminent bouncing is gone. Also, Gideon will be a big player. The card manipulation power of control decks will drop significantly, but most decks will be at the same level if that happens. Right now, if you’re playing a deck that does not contain JTMS, you’re basically saying that you’re OK with running out of cards at some point while your opponent out-draws you to oblivion.

Then there’s the more sinister side, the financial side: First of all, it’s been argued that if Jace cost $5, we wouldn’t be having the #BanJace discussion. I disagree entirely. If Jace were really cheap, EVERYONE would be playing Jace, and then we would really see what “warped format” would mean. Jace’s price still keeps him out of reach of many, which encourages deckbuilding. I like that. But let’s get to the meat of the argument. Jace is pretty much the primary reason Worldwake still sells. Banning him would probably also invalidate the Caw-Blade deck, thus also dropping the demand for Stoneforge Mystic. This means the demand for Worldwake product would decrease drastically. That is not good business for WotC. Now let’s look at the marketing angle. Jace is pretty much WotC’s poster boy, the protagonist of the story, the face of the game. Banning Jace decreases the flavor appeal of the game, and would make WotC lose face. Also, WotC have been arguing time over time that Mythics aren’t supposed to be overpowered. Banning a mythic decreases their credibility in that department. Also remember that Jace is the breakout 4-ability planeswalker, so banning him would imply R&D’s experiment with 4 abilities didn’t go so well.

But here’s the crutch: Even though they never openly acknowledge it, WotC have always respected the secondary market. Take a look at their Reserve List policy. These are cards that they have declared that they will never print again, in order to preserve the collector’s value of the items. People have expressed frustration at the existence of this list for years, but last year WotC tightened the policy even further to include promos, which means there will be no reprinting of those cards, ever. They know that the secondary market is very real and an important source of indirect revenue, and they do not want to anger the collectors. JTMS is right now between $80-$100. Banning him would create a sharp drop in value, which would anger a lot of people who have paid a large sum of money to obtain the card over the past year. WotC does not want this.

Overall, I do not think it is likely for JTMS to be banned, just because the community isn’t unanimous on their animosity towards the card, and it is not good business for WotC to ban JTMS. We will receive stall arguments like “Wait for New Phyrexia,” “Hex Parasite will be a good answer,” “The card isn’t that dominant yet,” “Stop bitching, start brewing,” (On a sidenote, I like the phrase “Stop bitching, start brewing,” but it’s become this hater word that is just uttered without thought, whenever one expresses dissatisfaction about something in the game, that is an automatic answer, no matter how ludicrous it may be. It’s easy to blurt out non-sequiturs, but most people say it to dismiss arguments when they have no solid answer. I’d like to see you come up with an answer of your own!). While these are valid answers, I do not feel like they are going to be enough. I only expect an increase in the dominance of Jace decks. Oh, also, “There’s only a few months left until Jace rotates, deal with it!” isn’t even a valid argument. If a card is breaking the format, it has to go.

The question is, is Jace breaking the format?

Maybe. I think it is, but there isn’t enough convincing evidence yet. We shall wait and see. In the meantime, I have a non-Jace deck that has a good matchup against Jace decks and other decks, but I’ll have to tune it before I post it next week. Until then, keep an eye out for Jace, and just to be safe, play Caw-Blade.

-N (@nayon7 on twitter)

  1. April 12, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Good Reading!

    (Simone, from Italy!)

  2. Noyan
    April 12, 2011 at 8:55 am

    One clarification: The conclusion is unclear because there is no tried and true method of saying “ban” or “no ban”. In the end it’s up to WOTC. If they use statistics, they’re just as likely to ban Preordain. So they must use some human decision factor. But with the introduction of human decision factor comes human bias. And I think WOTC is biased towards not banning. Thus I believe it is unlikely that he will be banned.

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