Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic: The Gathering, announced it would be banning and restricting certain cards from various play formats of the game starting August 8. Wizards routinely bans and restricts Magic cards as the game changes, but what’s different this time is that some of the bans were a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a Wizards statement, more people are playing Magic online because of COVID-19. This means that games have gotten faster, and players get tired of powerful cards more easily. On top of this, some cards are simply more unpleasant to encounter digitally than they are in person.
“In an era of social distancing, the proportion of Standard play occurring on digital platforms has increased substantially,” Wizards explained. “As the rate at which players can rack up games of Standard in digital is higher than in tabletop, we believe it's correct to enact metagame change at a faster rate as well.”
Cards coming and going is part of playing Magic, particularly in Standard play where decks are built with the newest sets. Wizards releases a new Magic set every three months, so if a particular card or a style of play gets too popular or powerful, players don't have to wait long for the cards to shuffle and the game to change. According to the Magic patch notes, Coronavirus is changing the way Wizards thinks about Magic, however.
“This set of changes is a deviation from our usual banned-list philosophy for Standard, and as such, we consider it an experiment,” Wizards said in the post.
Wizards isn’t just concerned with the metagame, it also wants to make sure digital players have a good time. Some of the cards it’s banning are more obnoxious when played online than they are in person. Wizards is banning Cauldron Familiar, in part, because they’re a little too complicated for the digital game.
In a game of paper Magic, an ability that might resolve multiple times on a turn can be dealt with quickly. In the digital format, players have to wait for the computer to resolve everything. That can get tedious, especially if a certain deck is popular and keeps popping up in game after game.
“The number of triggers generated by these decks can be cumbersome for both players in digital play,” Wizard said in its patch notes.
A popular deck in Standard play had been to pair the Cauldron Familiar with another card called Witch’s Oven. It resulted in decks that were constantly generating tokens, and triggering a complicated series of effects that could be unpleasant to resolve for the player and awful to watch for the opponent. If you were playing Arena and stuck playing someone running the Cauldron Familiar-Witch's Oven combo that wasn't paying attention, it could take a long ass time for the game to end.
The card bans are just one of the small ways the digital resurgence of Magic amid a global pandemic is changing the game.
Friday Night Magic (FNM) was, until the coronavirus, the heart of the Magic community. Every Friday night, people would gather at their local game store and sit down to play Magic with their friends. Wizards officiated the events, ran special deals, and offered promotions. On March 20, the company announced it was migrating FNM online. The formerly in-person gatherings now take place in Arena, one of two digital Magic: The Gathering games.
Unable to meet face to face, the Magic community started playing more Magic digitally. Games happened online via Arena, Magic: The Gathering Online, or by playing paper Magic using a third party app called Spelltable.
"It is very important for [Wizards] to have these online platforms, to have revenue streams moving forward,” Magic pro Seth Manfield wrote in TGCPlayer in March. “We will see players such as myself start to move toward streaming from home, as in-person play is unavailable.”
Increased at-home play has given Wizards an explosion of data on its players. Friday Night Magic, while the core of the community, happened in person. Paper Magic games don’t generate raw data at the level that digital games do. Wizards can now sift through thousands of games and watch the meta for Standard more closely, deciding what does and doesn’t work, including changes to the game's meta.
“We can't anticipate what's going to happen with the pandemic, so I can't project any changes we'd make due to events and circumstances we don't yet know,” a Wizards of the Coast spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “What I can tell you is that Wizards and the Magic team are committed to delivering the best experiences possible to our fans, players, retailers, and broader community during this challenging time. Keep an eye out on official channels for any updates as situations continue to develop and evolve.”
As COVID-19 has pushed life increasingly online, the digital sphere is reshaping life as we know it. Even the world’s most popular trading card game isn’t immune.
Update: This article was updated with comment from Wizards of the Coast.