“It costs triple-red forcing players to make a strong commitment to a single color.” “It only deals one damage to everything else.” “It only has three toughness.” “Goblin tribal is fun.” I can only imagine these are some phrases that were actually spoken by members of Wizards R&D that led to the creation of Goblin Chainwhirler, scourge of Standard Magic.

I was going to write about a completely different topic this week, having grown disillusioned over the past few months with the state of everything from tournament coverage to brand management but by now you’re probably seen the general numbers and know that Goblin Chainwhirler decks now make up somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% of the Standard metagame.

Let’s play a game. You are a high-level Wizards of the Coast employee and you just were involved in the decision-making process to ban Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner in an attempt to shut down the oppressive energy-based decks. You know this is going to potentially give mono-red decks too much firepower in Standard so you’re also banning Ramunap Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon.

I want everyone to read Ian Duke’s explanation of banning Rampaging Ferocidon very, very carefully:

Let me highlight a few things for you:

  • We have determined this to be one of the cards that most discourages and invalidates counterplay against the deck.
  • Two strategies that have historically been effective against aggressive red decks have been flooding the board with small creatures and gaining life.
  • As the red decks adopted more copies of Rampaging Ferocidon in their sideboards and even main decks, they were able to turn these matchups positive again.

When this was published back in January, the release of Dominaria was only three-and-a-half months away. How did no one foresee that Goblin Chainwhirler would accomplish the exact same goal as Rampaging Ferocidon did, and prevent small creature decks from keeping mono-red decks in check?

Mark Rosewater introduced the new design system last October and at that time pointed out that Dominaria would be the first set to go through the new Play Design process. Ian Duke is a member of the Play Design team under Dan Burdick. It shouldn’t be surprising that Burdick’s team has direct input into these decisions.

So how did Goblin Chainwhirler slip through the cracks? Why hasn’t it been banned yet? Should it have been banned preemptively?

In 2003, Randy Buehler wrote a bit on the 1999 emergency-banning of Memory Jar. Urza’s Legacy was released on February 15th, 1999, and Memory Jar was banned in the second week of March, retroactive back to March 1st.

Buehler explains that the problem wasn’t really just Memory Jar, but the entire combo winter following the release of Urza’s Saga, that had ruined the formats. Wizards had banned Tolarian Academy and Windfall, but it wasn’t enough, so come March 1st they added Dream Halls, Earthcraft, Fluctuator, Lotus Petal, Recurring Nightmare, and Time Spiral to the list of cards banned in Standard.

Sound familiar? Even though Memory Jar had only just been released a few weeks prior, Wizards knew it would be a problem, and decided to also ban it the next week. The problem, really, was public sentiment, and public perception, and the idea that over-powered combo decks were going to destroy the fair and competitive balance of Standard (and at the time Extended) Magic.

So here we are, almost 20 years later, and Wizards recently had to ban a bunch of cards in Standard to keep the format fair and balanced. They know that they’re three months away from printing a card that could be a problem, and they’re six months away from a massive format rotation. What do you do?

Another challenge Wizards has grappled with in recent years is how quickly the meta-game can be solved thanks to the sheer volume of games being played online. It took players time to figure out that Rampaging Ferocidon was a great sideboard tool. How long would it take anyone to figure out that Goblin Chainwhirler could replace it?

I’ll conclude with a question for you, and look forward to continue this discussion online: If Goblin Chainwhirler is banned, does it mean that the Play Design team is a failure? If Dominaria was the first set to have Play Design involved from start to finish, and members of the Play Design team were aware of this fundamental flaw in the game, but Goblin Chainwhirler was still printed this way, and had the exact effect that Ian Duke predicted Raging Ferocidon would have, and now may very well need to be banned:

Did the Play Design team fail?

Rich Stein is a retired Magic player, an amateur content creator, and a Level 2 Social Justice Sorcerer. He hopes to eventually become a professional content creator and a Level 20 dual class Social Justice Sorcerer/Bard but he’s more than content to remain a retired Magic player. You can follow his musings on Twitter @RichStein13

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