Hello friends! Kenny Wisdom here again, with another Underground article. This time, we’re going to be talking about Expanded, but in a much different context than you’re probably used to.
With everyone’s mind being focused on the upcoming Dallas Regional Championship, I figured now would be a good time to spend some time writing about Expanded. There’s only one problem, however: I won’t be attending the event. Although flights were cheap enough that I briefly considered going, some scheduling conflicts ultimately prevented me from pulling the trigger. Still, I look forward to watching the stream all weekend, and hopefully one of my fellow writers can bring a trophy home!
Because I won’t be playing in the event, there’s not a strong incentive to spend a ton of time testing/paying attention to the format (though being best friends with Travis Nunlist means I receive roughly four messages about Expanded per day. More on the weekends.) in a competitive sense, but that doesn’t stop me from spending an unhealthy amount of time thinking about Pokémon in general. Someday, I want to write an article about how much time and energy Pokémon truly takes up in our minds/daily lives, but I digress…
It’s this thought process that has led me to the topic of our article today: The Expanded banlist. Over the next 2,000 or so words we’re going to discuss the banlist as a concept, why it exists, what has and hasn’t been banned, and more. I think this is a pretty fascinating topic that can help us to to evaluate future cards and metagames, and I hope you’ll agree.
(Editor’s Note: The Ultra Prism Quarterly Announcement will go live tomorrow, January 18. Keep an eye out for any new bans, which would affect March’s Costa Mesa Regionals!)
The Purpose of Bannings
Let me use this time to say that I’m not a game designer or developer, nor am I an employee of TPCi. All of the opinions expressed in this article are just that, opinions. I definitely spend more time than the average person thinking about this sort of stuff, but I am far from an expert or professional. I can’t speak to the exact motivations of any group or organization that I’m not a part of. I can only use my brain to produce the best thoughts I can, and put them into words for all of you.
With that being said, I think there are a few primary reasons why cards end up on the chopping block.
Firstly, some cards are simply too powerful for their environment. Strangely enough, I don’t think there is a good example of this sort of banning on the current Expanded banlist. (It can be argued that Forest of Giant Plants was banned for being too powerful, but I think it actually fits better into different buckets, which we will discuss momentarily).
Still, this is probably the easiest concept to grasp. If Night March were to win every Expanded tournament for the next six months, and TPCi banned all of the Night Marchers, that would make sense to most people. Clearly, if a deck beats all the other decks in the field and is winning all of the tournaments, something needs to be done. This is an extreme example that is very unlikely (knock on wood) to ever become reality, but it illustrates my point well.
Some cards are banned due to the unfun game states that they create. Of the cards currently on the Expanded banlist, I think both Archeops and Forest of Giant Plants were banned for this reason.
Archeops was never extremely dominant. Sure, the Yveltal-EX decks that featured it were very strong, and probably the best deck in the format at one point or another, but it’s not like there weren’t other options. Some decks didn’t care about Archeops at all, it didn’t appear to have significantly a higher winrate than any of the other top decks in the format, and it was far from unbeatable.
Forest of Giant Plants existed in much of the same space. It was never over the the top broken, there was nothing particularly dominant about it; it was just another powerful card.
So then, why were these cards banned?
Because they’re simply not fun to play against. As competitive players, we can sometimes forget this, but the primary goal of a game is to be fun, and to keep people playing. It’s not fun to build a deck full of Evolutions and not get to play them. It’s not fun for your opponent to set up 3 Decidueye-GX on turn 2 and start doing 60 damage a turn without even attacking. It’s certainly not fun for your opponent to put a Vileplume into play on the first turn of the game, while you sit there with a hand full of (now useless) Item cards, knowing that your next several turns likely involve draw-passing until you lose the game.
Lastly, some cards are banned simply for how dramatic of a shift on the metagame they would have. Shiftry was banned for this reason (though it was likely also due to being horrendous to play against).
Shiftry never got a chance to be legal in conjunction with Forest of Giant Plants, so we can’t really say how it would’ve turned out. We do know, though, that people would’ve played Shiftry, and therefore people would’ve had to tech against it. Even if the deck was overhyped, if the majority of your players are either playing Shiftry or anti-Shiftry, you’re not in a good place. Particularly when “anti-Shiftry” amounts to playing 4 Baltoy AOR in your deck, or whatever.
Sometimes cards are banned for more or less specific reasons, and sometimes cards are banned for multiple reasons. Still, I think these three categories account for the reasoning behind the high majority of cards getting banned, or being considered for a banning.
Are Bannings a Good Idea?
I don’t think it’s possible to have a discussion about bannings without addressing the issue of whether or not they are a good idea in the first place. There are certainly a lot of things to consider, and it’s not an easy question to answer, but I think it can be broken down to a simple question:
Will the format be better without these cards?
Now, “better” means different things to different people. To some, the format definitely isn’t going to be better if you ban a crucial card to the only deck they own. To others, the only deck they own loses to this stupidly broken deck, so of course it should be banned! To most of you reading this, it probably doesn’t matter too much, as we’re all much more deeply invested than the average player (which is very easy to forget).
For example, I personally think that a much larger banlist that updates much more often would be a ton of fun. It would be great to have to think of new decks every few months (and, as a caster, to get to talk about them), which more shakeups would certainly produce. I would love to see a world where Battle Compressor is banned for six months while Archeops and Forest are unbanned, for instance. Six months later, Compressor is legal again, but this time Zoroark-GX is banned.
Something like that would be great for me, someone in a very specific position, whose primary relationship to the game isn’t actually playing, and who has no trouble acquiring whatever cards he might need at any given time. Obviously, it would be a horrible move for the game and I would never actually endorse such a change. This goes to show just how many different motivations have to be factored in to answering a question as broad as this one.
At the end of the day, the only way we can come close to objectively answering this question is to look at player data. If there was a format so horrendous that we saw Regional attendance dip by 15% across the board, then it’s almost inarguable, at least from TPCi’s standpoint, that something should be done. If the game isn’t fun, if people aren’t playing the game in the first place, then something is definitely wrong.
As an aside, say what you will about the Pokémon R&D department, but I think the fact that we haven’t seen a format be truly dominated by a single deck for any significant amount of time is a testament to their ability. Do they always get things right? No. But as someone who has followed various competitive card games for a very long time, they have a pretty darn good track record.
Lastly, there’s also the question of whether Expanded should rotate or not. We’ve largely avoided bannings in the Standard format because rotation serves much of the same role, while avoiding a lot of the feel bad moments that can accompany bannings.
Overall, I don’t think Expanded should rotate. I like the idea of having this wide open, powerful format that has a rich history to it. I think rotating Expanded would be a particularly bad idea while Standard cards are still making such an impact. If we ever get to the point where the format is too powerful and the only way to win is to play with expensive, decade old cards, I’ll change my mind, but for now, I’m hoping the banhammer will help keep things fair.
Is the Current Banlist optimal?
To answer this question, I’m going to go over the cards currently on the banlist, as well as a few that I think should/have/will be considered for a ban.
The Current Banlist
As much as it pains me to say it, I think this card should probably stay. I think Item lock and other control strategies are an important part of the metagame, but Forest of Giant Plants in combination with Vileplume AOR is only fun for one person, and certainly decreases the net happiness in the world. Trevenant and Sableye are about where you want these types of decks to be, and they’re represented enough without having Forest in the game.
Forest isn’t just about Vileplume, though. If the main argument is that Vileplume is unfun to play against, shouldn’t we ban Vileplume? While that logic seems sound at first, my answer is a resounding no. While banning the card that’s actually presenting the unfun thing might sound right at first, it’s important to realize that, if Forest of Giant Plants is in a competitive deck, it’s most likely for an oppressive reason.
If Forest of Giant Plant is good, players won’t be using it to evolve into fair Stage 2s. It will only be good in a world where there is a Stage 2 worth playing, and getting that Stage 2 out on the first or second turn of the game, sometimes in multiples, will almost certainly be too good.
You don’t want to just ban every Grass type Stage Two, because those cards have utility outside of doing broken things. The above average Stage Two can be fun to play with and against, and can be included in decks that are not degenerate. It can be good without causing issues. The same can’t be said for Forest of Giant Plants.
Archeops NVI 67
I feel a lot less strongly about Archeops than I do Forest. I spoke about the logic for banning Archeops earlier, and, while I believe that logic to be sound, I think it could pretty safely come off the ban list at any time, and the format would likely still remain healthy.
With that being said, I am in favor of Archeops staying on the list simply because of the philosophy I believe TPCi should be trying to promote in their tournaments. There are already plenty of decks that rely entirely/heavily on Basic Pokémon. There have been even more in the past, and I’m sure there will be more in the future. The format is at a point now where Evolutions are being prioritized a bit higher than normal, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Unbanning Archeops probably wouldn’t hurt, but it definitely wouldn’t do too much good, either.
The first banning of the modern era, and the most cut and dry one, as well. Lysandre’s Trump Card, more than any other card on the list (or in the history of Pokémon, at least that I can remember), made game play absolutely horrendous. The play pattern with Lysandre’s Trump Card was to play out all of your Items on the first turn, and draw through as many cards as possible using things like Shaymin-EX, until you couldn’t play any more cards except Lysandre’s Trump Card, sometimes starting the process over again, or sometimes waiting until the second turn of the game to do so.
Not only did this make most opening turns dreadfully boring, ten minute affairs, but it also made them nearly identical. I was working backstage (though I hadn’t been official hired by TPCi yet) at the Madison Regional Championship stream in 2015, and all I could think the entire time was how happy I was not to be casting. That isn’t a thought I’ve had since.
I think Lysandre’s Trump Card should stay banned, for all of the reasons listed above. I could maybe see a world where the card isn’t completely degenerate, but that would at least require a few additional bannings, so it’s probably not worth the trouble.
After looking at the format – both past and present – these are the cards that I think make for an interesting discussion, or that I could realistically see being banned over the next few years.
This could would fit squarely in the “unfun to play against” section above. Sableye plays unlike any other deck in the format, can be extremely frustrating to play against, and I imagine newer players would have an incredibly difficult time navigating the average Sableye match up. It’s not the most played deck, but it has certainly made an impact on the game.
While not all of that is necessarily positive, all of those reasons are why I think Sableye should stay legal in the format. It’s fun, and, at times, necessary, to have a deck that competes on a different axis. It’s not your average deck, it’s not doing the same things as everybody else. It’s hard to play, it’s hard to play against, and I think that’s what makes it beautiful.
When I think of Expanded, I think of Battle Compressor. It’s a unique card that is unique to the format. Without Battle Compressor, the entire format would be different. Without Battle Compressor, so many of the decks I’ve talked about in this article would be much worse, and some wouldn’t even exist at all. It has always been included in most of the top decks in the format, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Just as I believe that Forest of Giant Plants should be banned for being the enabler to so many powerful strategies, I do believe Battle Compressor should be banned for the same reasons. However, I’m not sure it’s as cut and dry as most are probably thinking. Because Battle Compressor is in so many different decks, it’s entirely possible that there are fewer decks in a Compressor-less world, causing the format to become stale rather quickly. While having more decks doesn’t always mean a format is healthier, it’s entirely possible that the specific type of enabling that Battle Compressor does is integral to the format.
Still, it’s like I always say, no gamble, no future.
I’m solidly in the camp that if something isn’t going to be done to reduce the price of Tropical Beach (a reprint, even a functional one), then it should be banned. It’s a card that should never have been released in the way that it was in the first place.
However, I’m also sympathetic to the people who have spent hundreds of dollars acquiring a playset of the card, and don’t want to see their investment be made worthless by a widely-available reprint or a banning. When buying a card like Tropical Beach, you’re assuming that it’s going to hold a somewhat steady value. I get it.
Tropical Beach helps a lot of really cool decks to function (Wailord, Groudon), and doesn’t fall under any of the previously-mentioned categories for why a card might get banned. If only a small percentage of players can actually get their hands on the card though, something has to happen at some point. I’d like that something to be a reprint rather than a ban, but that might just be wishful thinking.
Thanks for taking the time to read my article today! As always, I’ll be active in the comments, and on Twitter @kwisdumb.