How Magic: The Gathering Online got an infinite damage combo banned in two days

A big thank you to Cascade Games for helping us set up these interviews.

Magic Online, the digital version of the godfather of competitive card games Magic: The Gathering, doesn't always get a lot of love. It's been plagued with performance issues and interface problems for a long time, but it's also been a place to play Magic digitally for nearly 15 years. But last week saw Magic Online spring into the spotlight by providing enough immediate data to get a card banned from both the digital and physical versions of Magic in only two days. 

You can watch the video above to see what some Magic players from this weekend's tournament at DreamHack Austin thought about Magic: Online's uncommon influence on both versions of the game, and read on to get the full story.

The newest Magic set titled Amonkhet officially launched this past Friday the 28th, but every new set gets a pre-release the week beforehand to kick things off. Normally Magic Online would have to wait up to two weeks after the physical pre-release to get access to the new cards, but this set bucked tradition and pre-released Amonkhet digitally on Monday the 24th. So, for the first time in Magic's very long history, a new set was being played online before its official launch date.

With the release of every new set also comes an updated list of banned or restricted cards. This time, that list came on the same Monday Amonkhet hit Magic Online, and somewhat surprisingly contained no bans or restrictions for Magic's Standard format. However, the blog post announcement from developer Wizards of the Coast did say it was "still watching the format closely," calling out one combo in particular (endearingly called the Copy Cat combo) involving two previously released cards, Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai. With the right draw, these two cards could deal an infinite amount of damage to your opponent as early as turn four. 

To sum up the Copy Cat combo, Saheeli Rai has the ability to summon a copy of a creature that can attack that same turn, but the copy then disappears at the end of the turn. Felidar Guardian, the now banned card in question, is a creature that can "blink" another card, which removes and then immediately replays it to the battlefield—so you can play Felidar on Saheeli to use its copy ability again, while Saheeli can copy Felidar to cause another blink effect. Enter, the combo: Saheeli copies Felidar, the new Felidar blinks Saheeli, Saheeli copies Felidar, and so on and so forth until you have an infinite number of Felidar Guardians all ready to attack.

Obviously that's a strong combo, and one Wizards of the Coast has since admitted should have never even made it into the game, saying "we also understand we shouldn't let combos like Saheeli-Felidar get out the door in the first place." But although the combo was already on everyone's radar, Wizards of the Coast stuck with the wait-and-see approach. It looked like the Copy Cat combo would at least survive past Amonkhet's full release, but that's where Magic Online's pre-release stepped in.

"What we expected to take a few weeks to understand has ended up taking two days..."

Aaron Forsythe

Two days later on Wednesday the 26th, Wizards of the Coast released an addendum to its previous ban list, now saying Felidar Guardian was banned from Standard. What changed? Wizards of the Coast said it saw hard, convincing data gathered from Magic Online. "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," senior design director Aaron Forsythe said in the addendum.

"Saheeli-Felidar's win-loss ratio and metagame share has actually increased since the release of Amonkhet. In Magic Online Standard Leagues since Monday, Saheeli combo has made up approximately 40% of 5-0 and 4-1 decklists—up from prior to Amonkhet's release." What this means is that the release of Amonkhet may have actually made the decks built around the Copy Cat combo stronger, and Magic Online made that clear in just a matter of days instead of weeks. "While we never take decisions like this lightly and recognize this is a change from the norm, when a plurality of the data points in a clear direction, we will take action."

It's an interesting example of the way stat-tracking can change games, even if the decision was in the works before Monday's online pre-release. Entirely digital card games have comfortably used data like this for a long time now, and balance patches happen much quicker as a result. Magic clearly can't alter card text in real-time as a game like Hearthstone can, but I'm curious to see if Wizards of the Coast decides to keep pre-releasing sets in Magic Online, and if it starts to rely on that data as a way to gauge the metagame before the official launch.