Howdy, folks, and welcome to the Crystarium! I hope you’ll forgive the attention grabbing title, I have no intention of haranguing anyone for wanting bans. Rather, I’ve noticed a lot of people clamoring for bans over the years, moreso than in any other card game I’ve played, and today I’d like to counterbalance that with my own opinion. I may be a filthy liberal tradition-hating commie in real life, but when it comes to bans I have an extremely conservative view. And rather than uselessly and endlessly debate people in comment threads and over discord, I have chosen to abuse my article series to publish an extremely biased op ed to stand as the de facto law of the land. Just kidding. I intend to present a well reasoned discussion of the topic. I will address and promote my own beliefs, but I also intend to do right by my ideological opponents and as faithfully as I can represent their best arguments as well (spoiler: they’ve got some good ones). Oh, real quick, while I’m sure the timing of this piece may make it seem like a direct response to Mattiske’s recent video, I assure you this has been in the pipe for some time now. Their proximity is coincidence, and I absolutely respect that kind of well considered and articulated reasoning. I hope you’ll watch and enjoy his thoughts if you haven’t had a chance yet. With that said, please join me as I sink my teeth into this topic. Even if I don’t convince you to join with me and stop clamoring for the ban hammer, I hope that by the end you too will be able to well consider and articulate your reasoning.
Look, I get it. I get why we speculate on what should go. It’s fun to discuss the future of the game! The developers have banned cards in the past, and it’s engaging to predict what might they may ban in the future. I myself do still think bans should happen. Some cards are exceptionally degenerate: Rikku and Ghido allow for playstyles outside of the intent of FFTCG and completely warp deck design; Thaumaturge and Gesper create an extremely oppressive environment and completely warp deck design; Sterne Leonis and Macherie provide value far and above what any other card provides and completely warp deck design (I’m seeing a trend here). I agree that every card on the ban list deserved to be banned, not only for the impact they had on the decks that played them, but also on the decks that had to co-exist with them. But it feels like constantly I see people asking for bans for cards aren’t meta-changing. Hell, I’ve seen calls for cards that have never even been in a Tier 1 deck! So in a futile attempt to curtail that, today I’d like to address why it benefits both Square Enix and us as players that bans, while a crucial tool, are used as an absolute last resort.
But first I want to talk about a smaller and similar way to accomplish the same general goal of a ban. Outside of bans, there are other ways that games can change cards, thereby change metagames. FFTCG lives in the same world as Digital-Only Card Games, where developers can and do adjust cards on the fly, and we see both Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra tweak their cards on a regular basis, in pursuit of a more healthy metagame. The most popular TCG on the market, Magic the Gathering, introduced a format called Alchemy where some amount of cards are demonstrably changed. Yu-Gi-Oh and MTG both print errata’d versions of cards, sometimes to reflect how shifts in the rules require new wording, and sometimes to cause an actual functional difference. I’m sure there are other methods used by other card games that I’m unfamiliar with, too (I’d love to hear about them!). It’s easy to look at other games using post-release methods in an attempt to improve the metagame and say “boy it sure would be nice if we had that.” But those methods come at a cost, especially when it affects tangible, printed cards. Each of those developers has decided that cost is outweighed by the benefit, but each developer draws that line at a different spot. FFTCG, at least so far, has stuck to the extremely conservative philosophy of older MTG. Fiddle with cards as little as possible post release. But why is that? What do we lose when cards change? Well lets look at some examples.
This is a very low-impact errata. This errata makes it so two Suzuhisas on opposing sides of the field don’t create a constant feedback loop and end the game in a draw. Since the card is a Common, it’s not at all unlikely for both players to have one in Opus 10 draft. Because of this the errata is definitely worth having, or else limited formats with Suzu would be unplayable. But this still means that there are a lot of copies of Suzuhisa out there with the wrong text on them. And while this specific example may not change much for the average player, lets look at a couple that do. Through an error in translation or in transcription, Zidane was printed wrong in English. His second ability didn’t specify “Wind” Character, meaning he could target any element. This opens up many new combo possibilities, like Yunalesca, or the banned Gesper. Death Machine was similarly misprinted in English, and was supposed to read “if either player controls no Forwards.” This is a huge change in functionality. Put yourself in the shoes of a new player for a moment. You see one of these cards somewhere, get a cool idea for a deck based around it, buy all the cards online, show up to your locals, and the very first person you play says “oh, no, that Zidane can’t target Yunalesca. It’s been errated.” Your core deck idea doesn’t function now. Sure, there are many Zidanes now with the correct printing, lessening the chance of this misunderstanding, but every Death Machine out there still carries this error. Unless a new player goes out of their way to check the errata page, there’s no way they would know that these cards don’t do what they say. Well, until someone tells them, likely too late. Again, these kinds of erratas are important, fixing cards to make sure they work properly needs to happen. Errors in translation plague every TCG. But along the way, someone’s day will be ruined at some point. Despite that, making a card work correctly is definitely worth the errata. If we look past simple corrections like these, and compare to what Online-Only TCGs are able to do, making actual balance changes with errata is a much larger beast. There was some discussion before their inevitable bans around changing the text of Sterne Leonis and Macherie to tune them down slightly, in a manner reminiscent of the errata we’ve been looking at. Ideas were thrown around of having it be a once-per-turn restriction, or increasing the cost of the activation. There’s a big difference, though, between the slight corrections we’ve had and this talk of fundamentally changing the way that a card functions. While some physical TCGs like YGO and MTG have decided that change is worth the cost of having incorrect printings, Square Enix seems unwilling to take that plunge, as do most physical TCGs. Because the physical cards already exist, we don’t have the luxury of Hearthstone or LoR where a patch can rewrite every copy in existence. But enough about errata, this article is supposed to be about bans! Where are the bans? Get to the bans!
The reason I spoke about errata and the negative impact that it can have is that bans cause the exact same negative impact, except worse. Imagine you’re that same new player who saw a cool card, built a deck, and showed up to your locals, except this time your first opponent says “oh, that card is banned. You can’t use it. Ever.” I’ve accidentally won multiple games of Title Series where my opponent played Jessie or Neo Exdeath against me. It sucks. I hate winning that way. So you’re a new player, you’re at one of the first local events you’ve mustered the courage to go to, you’ve played out a card you didn’t know was banned, and now your deck is straight up illegal. You can’t even play out the rest of the event, and you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of everyone. At least with the errata you would have a less functional version of your deck, but now? Your deck isn’t even playable. Did you buy three copies of that banned card? Well that money is gone now. It’s a different situation than when the card just doesn’t work the way you thought. You outright can’t use it. At all. Ever. And worse, not only does this devalue the card for that new player who mistakenly hunts this card down, a ban devalues it for everyone. Did you pick up three foil Dadalumas for a 2019 Crystal Cup? Did you scour the net for a Wave 1 Rikku when Famfrit was spoiled? Did you open a Full Art Doga? Worthless. All worthless. Not only those cards, but the cards that support them. Did you ask your buddies to sell you foil Folkas to use with Macherie for Reraise Dallas? Get fucked, Oki. Which leads me into my next point: Bans represent a breach of trust between the developers and the players.
When you open a pack, when you purchase a card, when you trade for stuff you need, you should be able to trust that you can use the cards Square Enix sells. That is their commitment to you. That you are receiving a useable product. You should not have to worry that a given card might not be playable some day. You’re not just a player, you’re a customer, and if they sell a faulty product they risk you deciding not to be a customer anymore. When the Galaxy Note 7 started spontaneously catching fire, Samsung issued a recall to avoid a class action lawsuit. We have no such recourse. We can’t send in our Miounnes and get a fresh pack in exchange. We’re stuck with them. We can’t file suit for loss of value on our playsets of Ghido. At the end of the day the product they sold us is a piece of fancy cardboard with ink on it, and that hasn’t changed. A card is still a card. Whether it’s legal for use in specific formats or not doesn’t change that. There’s no legal means to recoup any losses, because those losses are in speculative secondary market value, not actual real value. A good friend recently said to me that when you play a broken card you should expect something to happen, and while I don’t disagree (as long as that card is genuinely broken) I think that expectation butts heads with the expectation that you should be able to use your cards. It’s tough to balance those two paradigms. Again, it comes down to where the line should be drawn. When you compare impact to the players versus benefit to the metagame, which one comes out ahead?
There’s another consideration that may make a developer hesitate to make post-release adjustments. A ban represents oversight. A mistake. A failure to accurately gauge the impact a card will have. The developer has to come out and say “we did not predict how strong this would be.” “We didn’t understand how this card would warp the metagame.” Putting aside that pride, making that admission of fault, that may be difficult for some. Many corporations’ internal philosophy would rather they sweep failures under the rug and pretend they don’t exist than ever address them directly. It does need to happen. After all we all make mistakes, and it’s important to recognize them so that we may learn from them and move on, but it is worth a quick aside to mention the cost in pride. As a player, I don’t care at all about that cost, and I hope none of you do either, but it’s important to understand that the developers do see this consequence, and may just hope that the meta corrects rather than have to admit any amount of fault.
A cost that is relevant to us players is that of time investment. I’ve practiced with and against every card on the Standard ban list. With those cards removed from the format, that practice loses a lot of its value. The time people spent perfecting their Macherie builds for the Reraise in Omaha was useless. The tech choices people devised to prey upon the impact Macherie had on that meta? Worthless. As cards get power crept from the format we’re still able to play them if we choose, but where power creep slowly encroaches, bans are a sledgehammer. Consider the person who shows up to locals with an extremely outdated deck, because it’s what they’re comfortable with, it’s what they like playing. They can play that obsolete deck all day long if that’s what they want. A ban puts a hard stop to that. To put a personal spin on it, I can never play an old favorite of mine ever again, a deck that took me to Nationals. The long hours I spent on every slot on that list is lost, like tears in rain.
One more reason (that is losing its relevance as Organized Play opens up again) is that for the past couple of years, there hasn’t been the powerful motivation of Nationals and Worlds to drive exploration of each metagame. We had individual events like R4 and Haunted Hotel, and last year we had the Reraises, but the motivation to really look deep for answers to problems wasn’t on the same level it will be this year. How many events do we need to collect enough data to warrant a ban? How competitive do those events need to be? How many more local events are being negatively affected by a potential problem card? How many roads must a card walk down before we call for a ban? There’s no hard answer to these questions. If there had been more motivation to find an answer to Macherie, could we have done it? Is there some solution within the cards available to us that we just haven’t seen? After all, we’ve seen decks come out of nowhere to sweep a “solved” meta before. When it’s getting bad, do we keep the meta on life support while we hold out hope for a miracle? Or do we pull the plug and end the suffering now?
The last potential impact, and one that thankfully hasn’t happened to us yet, is that a card may be filling a crucial role in the metagame. I’ve seen more calls to ban Opus 3 Zidane H over the years than any other card, and I think that newer versions of it like Cait Sith that can’t hit Backups show us that even the devs felt Zidane was a little too strong. However, even though every now and again he would strip a crucial Backup and totally ruin someone’s early game, it was crucial in keeping many of the potentially degenerate decks honest. If your deck was too greedy, Zidane was there to rein you in. As a related anecdote, I’ve heard from people who play Marvel vs Capcom 2 that for a while they considered a format where the top tier characters would be banned. If you’re unfamiliar with that game, four characters are considered to be head and shoulders above the rest, and many Top 8s are filled with them. However, after testing the format where they banned the top tier, they realized that the power gulf between those four characters and the next best characters was way less than those characters and the next most powerful. By banning Cable, Magneto, Storm, and Sentinel, they managed to create an even more inbred metagame! Now while this won’t happen most of the time (and admittedly this is 100% anecdotal evidence), it’s important to consider the possibility that a card or deck is gatekeeping something even worse. (If you’re curious, MvC2 players did succeed in making an alternate format: Ratio)
I do believe this is a nuanced topic. Like I said earlier, R&D makes mistakes, and I think that sometimes this action is necessary to correct those mistakes. I believe it’s important to weigh the pros and cons before leaping into that action. With that in mind, I’d like to take some time to address the other side of the coin. I’ve spoken at length now about the negative impact of bans, so now I hope I can do justice to the point of view of those who feel we should be more free with adding to the ban list.
First and foremost: Playing against broken cards is intensely frustrating. Starting a game against Turbo Discard by having two cards ripped from your hand before your first turn feels awful. Sitting there unable to keep a Forward on the field while Rikku knocks card after card from your deck is a grueling experience. If you’ve ever cast removal in response to a Baralai infinite, only to see his controller pitch a Water card to reactivate Ghido and go infinite again, you know what I’m talking about. No one is obligated to run a deck that’s fun to play against, but there’s a difference between being beaten by a really strong deck and being beaten by an unfair deck. Of course, everyone has their own bar for what makes a deck or a card unfair, but I think most of us can agree that the cards that have been banned so far fit that category.
Second: Cards get “shadowbanned” all the time. Look at two of the most dominant decks of the Opus 10 metagame, Ranperre and WOFF. These decks were everywhere. But nowadays? Only a handful of cards in either deck still see serious play. The only relevant text Ranperre sports is Job King. His actual text box may as well be as blank as Evoker’s. When a new set is released, we expect that it will invalidate some amount of older cards. During Opus 8, it wasn’t uncommon to hear calls for Veritas of the Dark to be banned. These days it’s almost inconceivable that you would play it over newer, stronger options. Should we be upset that Veritas is “worthless” now? Of course not. It’s a natural consequence of new cards being printed. Similarly, the argument goes, we shouldn’t be surprised when our banned cards lose their value.
Third: Certain decks are strong, capable of standing toe to toe with all the other decks in the metagame, except for that pesky matchup with a card that should be banned. What would tournaments have looked like if Gesper, Doga, and Sterne had never been printed? We’ll never know what strategies may have been.
Fourth (and this one’s my favorite): If the devs are more willing to ban cards, then they can explore riskier concepts with those cards. Maybe they make a card that is maybe potentially too good maybe? But it’s really cool! With this philosophy, they can say “let’s print it! It’ll sell product, push the game in an exciting new direction, and we can always ban it if we need to.” This way we as players get access to cards that may step into new and riskier design space. If only one out of ten of those cool new cards gets banned, is that a worthwhile tradeoff, to have nine awesome cards but lose one permanently?
Fifth: Why bring card value into a discussion about game balance? Cards have been volatile since the first baseball cards in the 1860s. Their mercurial worth shouldn’t impact the quality of the game itself. It’s expected that their value will fluctuate. What’s one more variable in that equation?
So as we can see, there are strong arguments both for and against the banning of cards. Bans need to happen, I won’t argue that. Some cards can create environments that drive away players. But clearly there’s a limit to what can be banned, lest our faith in purchasing product be shattered, and our dedication to practicing and solving each metagame be eroded. So we’re left with a question that is up to each of us to answer personally. Where do we draw the line? At what point do we consider a card to be so oppressive that we remove it from the card pool? And this is the question that the devs wrestle with when watching how metagames evolve.
At this point I’m going to lay out exactly where I stand. I’m certainly no authority, and I absolutely do not want this to come across as me telling you the one and only answer. Everyone’s opinion is valid (barring total extremes of “ban nothing” and “ban twice a week”). This is mine:
I believe there are two situations that warrant a ban. Situation One is when an oversight leads to a deck archetype that goes against the intent of the game. Rikku led to decks that didn’t even try to establish a board presence. Ghido cause a 2-card infinite combo. Macherie led to decks over half way filled with summons to maximize high impact EX Bursts. Sterne led to decks which nearly abandoned Backups altogether. When a strong deck deviates too far from what SQEX sees as the core of the game, they should and do take action to protect the sanctity of competitive play. There are whole archetypes that, though popular in other games, do not exist here by design, and I don’t begrudge action being taken when the game strays too far into those archetypes. Situation Two is when a card is so absurdly strong that it takes over a metagame. When we see 35% or more of the players at a tournament running the same card, that starts feeling like a problem. This was one of the issues behind Turbo Discard. Even though you could build a deck to prey upon it, it was still a huge huge percentage of each event. Every major, every qualifier, every locals, you could bet your bottom dollar that you’d play Turbo Discard about once every three rounds. That kind of unwanted reliability makes what should be an exciting event feel like drudgery. When this goes on long enough, when players get frustrated enough, they don’t just stop going to events; they sell their cards and find something else to do.
It is my belief that a card needs to fall under one of these umbrellas for it to be banned. Every card banned so far has crossed one of these two lines, so it’s my belief that the developers share a similar philosophy. That a card needs to be a Serious Problem before they will take that drastic an action. To me, a ban should be an absolute last resort to save a metagame that is truly broken. To solve a problem that cannot be solved in any other way. A final, indelible decree that takes away from each and every one of us that plays this great game.
At the end of the day, all we have the power to do is ask. We have no real ability to impact bans other than to express our frustration, and I get that. I just feel that for many of us, we’re only considering how frustrating a given card can be, and not thinking about the greater ramifications. And I’m not turning a blind eye to the fact that we featured an entire article here on the Crystarium asking for bans. Again, I don’t think we should never ask for bans, just that given how extreme an action it is that it should only happen when absolutely necessary. I hope I’ve been able to lay out my opinion well, and even if you are unconvinced I hope I’ve been fair in covering your side of the argument. As always, thank you for your time, and I hope to see you again, next time on the Crystarium.