Marginal Missteps – Why Banning Brainstorm Won’t Stop Blue
There’s been a lot of chatter recently in the Legacy scene about banning Brainstorm. The argument is that many tournaments have had their top 8/16’s full of decks with Brainstorms, and since this is the only common card in those decks (Force of Will is both not a 4-of all the time, and everyone with even a minimal amount of thought process can see why banning it is a horrible idea), many have immediately come to the conclusion that Brainstorm should be banned.
Brainstorm is arguably one of the best cards in Legacy. I can even consider it the best card. So, whenever we have a best card, will we ban it? Whittle the format down slowly? Don’t worry, that’s not my point. But I do want to point out the fallacy of assuming the best card should be banned. The real argument here is obviously the “dominance” of Brainstorm and blue being the “best” color.
What does that mean? Is blue the best color? If blue is the best color, why are so many “blue” decks at least 2, if not 3 colors? Clearly blue is not overpowered by itself; otherwise it wouldn’t need other colors. Blue is, however, the best support color. For most of this article, I will not talk about Brainstorm-including combo decks like Reanimator or Storm, because those decks are abominations that should be handled by themselves.
When have you ever died to a Brainstorm? Ok, that’s unfair; Survival of the Fittest didn’t kill you either. When have you died directly as a result of a Brainstorm? Unless you are playing against Storm, the answer should probably be “never.” What cards do said dominant “blue” decks use to kill people? The answer is Tarmogoyf, Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, The Mind Sculptor. Now here’s a thought exercise:
Q: What happens if we ban Brainstorm?
A: The “dominant” decks replace Brainstorm with Ponder, and if they were already playing Ponder, replace it with Preordain.
Q: Now which decks will be dominant?
A: The exact same decks. Hymn to Tourach will become better, so probably BUG decks will rise.
Q: Wait, I thought banning Brainstorm, clearly the most broken card ever, was supposed to stop Blue’s dominance?
A: Nope, still the same. Hell, Merfolk decks got even better and they don’t even play Brainstorm!
Now here’s an alternate scenario: Let’s say we ban Tarmogoyf and Stoneforge Mystic (bear with me).
Q: Where did all these dominant decks go?
A: They got beaten by Goblins, Zoo, Maverick and Combo because they can’t reasonably beat those decks since they don’t have a clock anymore.
Q: How does Zoo beat anything without Tarmogoyf?
A: Ever heard of one-drop zoo? Those cards and Knight of the Reliquary are still very real threats.
Q: Wow, this scenario is way better than banning Brainstorm…
A: Told ya…
The problem with blue decks is that they have threats that can easily splash (SFM, Tarmogoyf) that end the game so quick that the other decks don’t stand a chance. Backing that up with the card advantage created by Brainstorm to protect those threats makes blue-supported decks very hard to beat. People without a deep understanding of the history of Eternal formats (read Carsten Kotter’s excellent article on hybridization) have only tournament results to look at to judge the health of the format, and the mono-Brainstorm results look bad to them. The fact is that Brainstorm is an enabler, and probably the best one, at that. If you are in the color, it is silly not to play the best enabler. If Brainstorm were banned, all those decks would just be playing Ponder.
Now, I know you want to yell at me, because banning SFM and/or Tarmogoyf seems like a really weird idea, but hold that thought. I want to talk about Ponder. How and when to play that card, compared to its peers, is always a matter of discussion. One thing that is clear is that it will be the closest approximation to Brainstorm if Brainstorm gets the axe. Not to sound repetitive, this will cause every deck to fill that slot with Ponder. Has anyone tested what would happen in this case? Here’s a simple exercise: Take a deck with Brainstorm, do the Ponder replacement, and pit it against a deck that it would normally easily beat. What happens? It makes almost no difference. The ”Ponder deck” will still beat the other one. What happened? Nothing, you just weakened a support card of the deck, the engine still runs but it is slightly less oiled, it didn’t stop. Now what? Do we ban Ponder too? Preordain? Ban that too? Alright, then why would anyone play blue? For Force of Will? You can’t support the card disadvantage Force of Will requires! Blue will become unplayable, because a very important element of blue’s role is to draw/filter cards. If you remove that ability, there will be little to no point to play the color.
Now, on to SFM and Tarmogoyf. Why am I talking about these cards? Tarmogoyf is very easily splashable in any color, and the color that can best take advantage of it is blue, because you can counter the removal on your Tarmogoyf, and you can take advantage of the defensive wall it provides by drawing into more answers. Banning Tarmogoyf does not stop green from doing what it does best, which is having big dudes that turn sideways. There will still be Scavenging Ooze, Terravore, Knight of the Reliquary, Wild Nacatl to name just a few. It is unfortunate that the best green card suffers like this, but there is only one type of deck that absolutely relies on Tarmogoyf, and that is the blue-supported deck. Every other deck with Tarmogoyf can replace him or easily skip him. Look at Ari Lax’s Small Zoo list—the deck looks even better without Tarmogoyf. And since blue-supported decks can’t block every dude you play with a Tarmogoyf or Batterskull, these decks become even better! Also, many non-blue decks have started to move away from Tarmogoyf, whereas blue-supported decks have started relying on Tarmogoyf even more. Look at Maverick, it doesn’t even play Tarmogoyf! So you’ll only hurt the RUG/BUG decks with this.
As for SFM, there are only 3 decks that play him: UW Blade decks, Maverick and Deadguy/Junk. Deadguy and Junk were doing just fine before SFM existed, so they can simply go back to their old formulas. Maverick mainly relies on Knight of the Reliquary, so it’s not hurt badly by this loss, if they really want equipment they can play Enlightened Tutor, otherwise they can play some aggressive beater like Jotun Grunt. The only deck that absolutely relies on SFM is UW Blade, which is one of the aforementioned “dominant blue decks.” Banning SFM completely invalidates that deck and forces them to have an actual game plan rather than rely on stalling everything and dropping a SFM to win the game. SFM was good enough to be banned in Modern and Standard, and an argument can be made for it in Legacy too.
Banning those two forces blue to rely on cards like Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage, which are very fine threats but in no way overpowered without the immense stalling Tarmogoyf and SFM provide. Maverick, Junk, Goblins and every other deck can easily fight those cards, and blue can stand a fair chance against those by playing Brainstorm.
Now we come to the big problem though. Without Tarmogoyf or SFM, many decks can’t present a solid enough clock on Reanimator or Storm, thus making life against them very difficult. I’ve always argued against the unbanning of Entomb, so I’d be fine if that card was back on the banned list. This might not be enough though, but at least you can fight back with discard, Scavenging Ooze and graveyard hate. I need more analysis to back this point up. Storm is a bigger problem, because having a clock is everything against that deck. Many have been arguing for the banning of LED, which would solve that problem.
Why am I so against the banning of Brainstorm? Setting aside all non-objective reasons like “definition of the format”, “difference from Modern” and other sentimental statements, my main argument, as demonstrated above, is that it won’t make a difference. My secondary argument is that it sets a precedence of “banning whatever card is good.” The two criteria WOTC uses for banning are 1) dominance of a card and 2) how much it warps the format. The dominance of Brainstorm is indisputable, but I argue that it is a symptom and not the cause. As I said before, it is a symptom of power creeping creatures that let you stall the game indefinitely, which directly benefit Brainstorm-fueled decks. As for the warping, how is Brainstorm warping Legacy? The argument is that you have to be either playing the card or be prepared to hate it out, or you lose. Decks that don’t play Brainstorm don’t play any hate for it either. Where’s Chains of Mephistopheles, which is an excellent hate card for Brainstorm? Where’s Chalice of the Void set at 1? I have not seen a single person play a hate card for Brainstorm. People are playing Spell Snare, Tower of the Magistrate and graveyard hate, which are hate cards against Tarmogoyf and Stoneforge Mystic, among other cards like removal spells and Stifle. Ari Lax made an argument for Goblins to play Tarfire, which shows how badly Stoneforge Mystic can warp the metagame. Tower of the Magistrate is just absurd and should never see play. A deck that can’t beat a resolved Brainstorm can easily top 8 a tournament, but a deck that can’t beat a resolved Tarmogoyf or SFM can never do well in a Legacy tournament.
If you want to argue about the format, since Legacy is an Eternal format that has existed for a long time, you can easily argue for banning Tarmogoyf and SFM. The format existed and was very healthy before those cards, while Brainstorm was also unbanned. Tarmogoyf can still be played in Modern, but Brainstorm cannot (SFM is simply a mistake and I can’t argue for that card in any format but Vintage (ask Patrick Chapin)). By banning Tarmogoyf you can easily have Legacy keep its own identity. No one even identifies with Tarmogoyf; he’s just a boring dude!
Overall, banning Brainstorm won’t make a big difference in the short run, and it can even make a negative difference in the long run by setting a precedent for poor bannings and disabling a lot of interesting decks— perhaps even making blue unplayable. On the other hand, banning Tarmogoyf hurts BUG/RUG decks the most; whereas banning SFM hurts UW Blade decks the most. Seeing as those are the most dominant decks, banning those two would fix the problem. Junk decks might suffer from this, but the archetype has existed long before both of those cards and it will continue to exist. RUG and BUG decks will stop playing green, and they will turn into UR tempo and UB control, which will have significantly less stopping power, and UW Blade will turn into UW control. This will put them on par with other, normal Legacy decks. Without a giant wall/clock, blue decks will feel more like blue decks used to feel, and they won’t be able to drown other decks in card advantage because they will have to answer the board and try to win the game. The solution isn’t perfect, but if we ban Entomb and LED, the format should turn into a very healthy metagame. This way, blue mages can keep their favorite cards, and we can keep the “spirit” of the format by having it feel more like good old Magic, as opposed to a format centered around power-creeping value creatures.