Looking at a Random Card: Timber Wolves

(What am I doing here? Read here!)

Timber Wolves: Okay – didn’t see that coming! Seems I have to talk about banding in the context of a non-white card. (And also, what’s up with all these cards from Magic’s earliest sets cropping up? I realize they tend to have been reprinted more often, but I feel I’m talking mostly about really old designs here.)

About banding: It just doesn’t work. I believe among all Magic players which even know about that mechanic (discounting Unhinged, it’s been out of use for nearly one-and-a-half decades, after all, although you can encounter it on MTGO via the Masters Editions), only a few understand how it works exactly, and of those even fewer are able to correctly and concisely summarize and explain it. To be entirely honest, I just had to look up myself how banding works with the new damage assignment rules – it turns out, it poses an awkward exception to those rules to preserve its original function. (To be fair, that awkwardness is as much fault of these stupid new rules as it is of banding.)

I’m all against “dumbing the game down”, which actually has become a serious concern during the last years (in contrast to the majority of Magic’s lifespan so far, where this expression was used by anyone who didn’t like any simplification or clarification of the rules) due to WotC’s conscious efforts to steer the game away from the importance of hidden information, but I’m also a big fan of elegant mechanics avoiding unnecessary complications for minor effect. These preferences actually do not really collide at all, since simple rules can allow for intricate gameplay (and let’s not forget that even Magic’s most simple rules aren’t simple at all by most other games’ standards).

Banding, however, is not a case of a mechanic featuring unnecessary complications. It is a case of a top-down design which just does not allow for elegance. WotC have been trying for many years to find a better way to implement it, but failed. I have myself dabbled in the creation of a similar mechanic. It all comes down to this: The concept of creatures fighting together, coming to each other’s help and sacrificing themselves heroically for each other is just too complex to allow for a satisfying implementation in the Magic rules. If you go with an approach which is somehow intuitive (like the original banding design), you always end up with too many separate abilities which do not seem to tie together from a mechanical point of view. If you go with an unintuitive approach, the whole point of the top-down design is moot. Banding simply doesn’t work, full stop.

Fortunately, at least in constructed, this isn’t a big loss: It never had much of an impact. Boards were seldom so complex that banding made a lot of a difference, and most of the time it was downright irrelevant, since it required at least three creatures on the board all in combat with each other, and constructed always was a lot more about removal and evasion than about complex board states and blocking. (It’s interesting to note, though, that more recently there’s been a noticeable trend towards more complex board states in standard, so cards with banding, if they were available, might actually serve a purpose today!) Actually, what I believe came up most often was the ability of a blocking creature with banding to spare its controller from trample damage (for example, Benalish Hero blocking Ball Lightning) – a consequence of this mechanic’s unwieldy rules implementation which is actually rather non-intuitive. In any case, weighing banding’s meager constructed applications against its downright obscene complexity can only lead to the realization that this mechanic is not worth it.

In limited, however, things are different! Situations for banding to matter are plenty, and it seems reasonably powerful here. I actually kept creatures with banding around for a long while in my limited pool, for the following reasons:

1. Nostalgia. Banding used to be White’s signature mechanic in the game’s beginning. Also, 50% of White’s common creatures in the original set (that is, 2 out of 4 – White and Blue were nearly creatureless in Alpha!) featured it, meaning that every effort to recreate the flair of Magic’s beginning in a cube needed to consider it.

2. Hubris. My thoughts were: I’ve been playing Magic since 1994, extensively and intensively, and have written a three-digit number of articles about it, including the (in my not too humble opinion) best series to teach its strategical fundamentals, the Magic University (link leads to a German site). If anyone could understand and explain banding to others, it would be me!

3. Curiosity. It seemed clear that banding would have a relevant impact on limited play – but how exactly would it play out? When limited formats became popular, this mechanic had already gone the way of the Dodo, so I had little experience with it, and I wanted to see it in action.

Of these three reasons, only 1) is still valid for me now. I was able to satisfy my curiosity with just a little actual usage of the mechanic, and I found that, while it certainly does have an impact, that impact is not exactly desirable. On offense, it wasn’t particularly impressive – actually, Infantry Veteran does most of what Benalish Hero does here, is on average even more useful (since you can decide which attacker to pump after blockers have been declared), and several magnitudes easier to process. Worse, while using your creatures with banding on offense did improve your attack, it was usually the better play to keep them on defense, making almost all attacks from your opponent where you could apply your right to assign his creatures’ combat damage futile and leading to ground stalls. While this certainly helps recreating the feeling of playing limited with the game’s earliest base sets, it plays, of course, horribly.

I also learned that, just because I COULD explain banding to others, it didn’t mean I SHOULD (more precisely: shouldn’t need to – if I use cards with banding in a cube, of course I have to explain how they work!) Yes, players were able to grasp how banding worked, but the time this process required, and the difficulty it posed, was just not worth it. WotC R&D speaks of “complexity points” in set design – you want only so much overall complexity, and thus have to be wary where to put it. I realized that the complexity which explaining the banding rules added to my cube games would just be better spent teaching players the fundamentals of drafting, deck-building and tactics. While I do miss the flavor of banding (or a sufficiently similar mechanic), it is just not worth it.

So, banding is something you could, but really shouldn’t use when creating a cube, since it plays awkwardly on different levels. If you have to accept its existence on a card, though, Timber Wolves (just like Benalish Hero, obviously), is as elegant and adequate an execution as possible. It has the right power level, and it is a useful 1-drop (a commodity still scarce in cube design). It doesn’t even play that badly if it is used very sparingly – as a full-fledged theme, banding will drag limited games down, but a Timber Wolves here and a Mesa Pegasus there can make for interesting small creatures doing something quite unusual. Of course, using even less creatures with banding makes the complexity points needed to explain it an even worse investment, but if you play your cube exclusively with players who are familiar with this mechanic, this won’t be an issue.

Its comparative elegance and nice flavor allows for dragging this card back out of E+ -territory, where its slightly awkward gameplay and its horrendous complexity landed it (meaning two downgrades from a D for a card which you could but wouldn’t really want to use). Still, I can not bring myself to give it a better grade than D-, warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feelings aside – a better grade just wouldn’t be fair towards other cards.

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3 Comments on “Looking at a Random Card: Timber Wolves”

  1. arcanion Says:

    I like banding but i understand its removed..i mean exiled from the game.
    Not much else to say here, agtree with you.

    On a related note: I hope we get your Dark Ascension picks like you did with inn for you personal needs with explanations. always so much pleasure to read!

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