Magic Online has evolved quite a bit in the past few years since the infamous shutdown. Events crashed constantly. Any tournament that took more than seven rounds was likely to have to be stopped and re-started, possibly on a different weekend. There was no way to build a community around Magic Online for anyone other than the most dedicated grinders.

Now look where we are. Last week Magic Online showed off the major improvements it’s made. For the first time ever a paper expansion was available on MTGO before it released on paper. Yes, technically it was after the pre-release, but getting to a point where digital and paper releases happen simultaneously is a big accomplishment.

In fact, it’s such an accomplishment that it led to the retroactive banning of Felidar Guardian. While it’s very important to the Standard environment and the upcoming Pro Tour that this ban happened, I don’t think I can understate just how massive an achievement this is for Magic Online and how it could and possibly should shape the future of how the DCI chooses to ban cards.

Aaron Forsythe didn’t beat around the bush in his announcement. Here’s the important bit:

For the first time ever, we pre-released a new card set on Magic Online before the formal release date. This happened on Monday. What we expected to take a few weeks to understand has ended up taking two days to form a clear picture of a metagame unbalanced by the Copy Cat combo, as even its natural predator, Mardu Vehicles, fell behind.

As I stated above, this is a great achievement for Magic Online, but it leads us to the natural question, “Is two days of data from Magic Online really enough to decide whether or not to ban a card?” I would suggest that the answer in this scenario is yes, but Felidar Guardian was on watch for the past few months anyways. What about for other cards?

Given this precedent, could we see a card from a new expansion receive an emergency ban before a Pro Tour because of metagame analysis provided by Magic Online? I think the answer is yes, but Wizards should never let it get that far.

First, let’s assume that going forward all expansions will be available on Magic Online the Monday following pre-release weekend. Why shouldn’t they be? It’s safe to say that this is a goal for Wizards Digital Next, and the release of Amonkhet showed clear value in this practice.

With a few weeks of Magic Online data, can Wizards get a clear snapshot of the metagame before a major tournament? Absolutely. Back in November of 2015, Wizards of the Coast took action against MTG Goldfish for their Magic Online metagame analysis. Let’s revisit the statement that Wizards made back then (via Reddit):

We asked MTGGoldfish to suspend the Constructed Metagame series on MTGGoldfish that compiles large volumes of MTGO tournament results to paint a picture of a current Constructed format. While these articles are informative and interesting, we feel that this level of data-driven metagame analysis ultimately damages the health of those formats.

Magic thrives on being a recurring puzzle for players to solve, and intensive data mining leads to a more rapid understanding of a new metagame. Solving the puzzle then becomes less interesting, and the format grows stale ahead of its time. The number of tournament-viable deck options for players is reduced, and player interest in the format shrinks along with it. This hurts everyone creating content for Magic players, which is ultimately why we stopped publishing such a high volume of winning MTGO decklists on our own site, and why other Magic content sites have also subscribed to this philosophy after becoming aware of this impact.

At the core of this explanation is a very simple fact: you can solve the Standard metagame by analyzing the entirety of Magic Online data. And, you can do it pretty quickly. Without revisiting the outrage over these events, let’s take this fact and extend it to the ban for Felidar Guardian.

With two days of data it became clear to Wizards that Copy Cat Combo decks had grown in dominance. Now, there are a lot of factors at play here, the first of which is that the first few days of a new format are always going to be dominated by the top decks carrying over from the old format. However, one would imagine that their dominance should shrink somewhat as new decks begin to emerge.

Wizards has access to all of the data of all of the Standard matches being played across all of Magic Online. That’s an incredible amount of data. How many games of Standard do you think get played on Magic Online each day? I don’t know. But, I looked at the tournament practice room this morning and it looks like Standard matches are firing about two to four times a minute.

Even if the average was just once per minute you would have a body of 2,880 matches of data to analyze in just two days. If the average is closer to three times per minute, especially in the days following a new set’s release, you have almost an entire Grand Prix worth of data to analyze. Add in league play and daily tournaments and the picture should become crystal clear.

All this is to say that Wizards knows they need to stop making these mistakes. Aaron Forsythe acknowledged as much in his announcement when he said, “We also understand we shouldn’t let combos like Saheeli-Felidar get out the door in the first place. For that we take ownership and are making changes to try to prevent this from happening again.”

The Magic Online community can grind out thousands of Standard matches in a week. How many matches do you think Wizards R&D is able to grind out in the months ahead of locking down the final contents of a set? Maybe a few thousand? And much of that testing is with cards that keep changing in an environment that isn’t very competitive.

Magic Online is becoming a very valuable tool not just for playing the game but for analyzing it as well. Wizards is terrified of that data becoming public, but they need to find ways to continue to leverage it to make the game better for everyone. Banning Felidar Guardian was just a start, I’m sure of that.

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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