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The following card is banned in current tournament formats:

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Equipped creature gets +1/-1. When equipped creature is put into a graveyard, draw two cards. Cast 1, equip 1 (artifact).

Usually when a card is banned, I can figure out what the reason is, but for the life of me I can't figure out why this card is so dangerous. Its ability is good but not game-breaking, and I can't think of anything that it would pair with to become game-breaking.

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up vote 37 down vote accepted

Basically it's because it buffers you very, very well against creature loss. If you're playing a weenie deck it protects you from deck-clearing spells. Or if you're sacrificing creatures, this card gives you extremely cheap, essentially unlimited new draws. The equip ability means you can just reuse it over and over again.

It's also very wide-ranging - almost any competitive deck is going to be better off having a few of these around, so it distorts the format. The basis for that statement is discussed in this very detailed article from the development team:

Skullclamp was banned in Standard, frankly, because it was everywhere. Every competitive deck either had four in the main deck, had four in the sideboard, or was built to try and defend against it. And there were a lot more successful decks in the first two categories than in the third. Such representation is completely unhealthy for the format. Your deck has to either have Skullclamps, or have Skullclamp in its crosshairs—a definitive case of a card “warping the metagame.” Look, for example, at the Top 8 decks from Ohio Valley Regionals. Or at those from the more recent German Nationals. Combined, those 16 decks contained 58 out of a possible 64 Skullclamps. Never in my memory have I ever seen a card show up in those numbers.

It's interesting to note that the development team themselves completely underestimated the power of this card. The story of how it made it to release, discussed in the linked article, is quite fascinating.

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It works like "Mutually assured destruction." If you can make yourself immune to MY nuclear weapons, you have a greater incentive (or lesser disincentive) to use YOURS. – Tom Au Jul 29 '11 at 16:30

I know this is an ancient post but I stumbled upon it in a Google search and figured I could add a bit more historical context.

As others have mentioned (and linked), Skullclamp was proven pernicious in the Standard and Extended formats of its day. There was actually a period where it seemed it was getting banned from a new format every B&R announcement (first Standard, then Extended, then Magic Online-only formats).

That said, nobody knows for certain what impact it would have on Legacy or Modern because it was never legal in either format. Both of those formats are relatively new, and unusual in that they're popular tournament formats that are younger than (most of) their card pools. Because both formats started with a large card base, both formats also started with banlists that are somewhat speculative. It's tricky business because if they started with nothing banned, both formats would have been ruled by known broken decks for quite some time (what Zvi Mowshowitz termed "Oh Lord, Not Again"), so Wizards extrapolated from past tournaments in other, similar formats.

The result is that both formats have a number of cards that were "preemptively" banned in this fashion. Sometimes those cards get unbanned; Mind over Matter, Replenish, and Land Tax are apparently not as bad as they were in their original contexts. I doubt the same thing can be said for Jace, The Mind Sculptor/Stoneforge Mystic in Modern, or Mind's Desire/Yawgmoth's Bargain in Legacy.

While Skullclamp was never proven broken in current formats as such, it ruined Standard, eventually proved broken in Extended and was almost Vintage playable. It's also arguably a more resilient Glimpse of Nature (and certainly has a similar effect in the same decks), and that card is also illegal in Modern. It's almost certainly staying banned forever in Modern, and deservedly so, since that format is intentionally kept at a power level at or below the old Extended formats where we already established Skullclamp was too good. Legacy is fast enough that I can see an argument for unbanning it coming up at some point in the far future, but there's a danger of it becoming an automatic 4-of in every aggro deck and becoming an autowin against control. There's also the risk that it fits too well in a creature-based combo deck like Elves!, or that it combos too well with some other cards printed in the many years since it was ever legal in a non-Vintage format (Stoneforge Mystic? Puresteel Paladin? Scars block in general?) So I don't like its chances there either.

[^1] Technically there was one Magic Online "Modern" tournament, which I believe was open only to employees, where Jace was legal. But then the standard bannings happened and by the time the Modern banlist was finalized for the general population Jace was on it.

EDIT: After some more googling I dug up the development articles from when the banlists were new: Aaron Forsythe on Legacy and Tom LaPille on Modern. It's telling that neither felt the need to go into much detail justifying the banning. Its effect on Standard and Extended really was that bad.

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This is a pretty good discussion of the issues involved with Skullclamp in the context of competitive play as a whole. Welcome to the site! – Alex P Jan 10 '14 at 6:35

Rather than try to summarize Wizards' reasons for banning the card, have it in their own words:

On the surface of things this may not look obviously broken, but honestly, in the right deck it's an engine that says "pay 1 mana: draw 2 cards". As the article points out, at the time all the top decks were playing 4 Clamps; much as Jace, The Mind Sculptor just got banned for being ubiquitous at recent Magic tournaments. When a card becomes a non-optional 4-of constituent of any competitive deck that hopes to win games, it has to go.

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All the other answers explain really well why this card is broken. I just want to focus a little on how the R&D made this card.

The first version of what ended being Skullclamp was

Suicide Sweater (3) Artifact — Equipment When equipped creature is put into the graveyard from play, draw two cards. Equip 2

Which was a very bad card even in Limited; it then evolved in

Sac Sweater (3) Artifact — Equipment Equipped creature gets +1/+2. Sacrifice equipped creature: Draw two cards. Equip 2

Which was better, but was quickly changed to

Sac Sweater (3) Artifact — Equipment Equipped creature gets +1/+2. When equipped creature is put into the graveyard from play, draw two cards. Equip 2

Then the card was considered being OK and nobody changed anything.. until one day they decided to improve some of the equipment, as it was one of the features of the block. It was then changed to what was actually published and, because this change has been made at the very last minute, it wasn't tested before the actual print; also it was not considered worth testing because the developers had in mind the old version of this card, which was pretty bad.

Then, although the R&D quickly understood that the card was broken, people didn't realize immediately how powerful it was, so Skullclamp wasn't banned at the first ban list possible; after that, the meta had evolved in pro-Clamp or anti-Clamp decks and the ban in Standard and Block-Constructed was needed. It took a little more time but then it was also banned in Legacy.

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Well, it took a bit more time to be banned in Legacy because Legacy didn't exist yet, as explained in my answer. ;) – Chad Miller Jan 24 '14 at 16:02

The way in which in grants the creature it is equipped to -1 toughness is the real selling point for it's degeneracy. That means that any one toughness creature dies immediately to it and lets you draw two cards as a result.

Turning it into a one colourless mana, repeatable version of Altar's Reap.

Couple this with any semi efficient token producer that produces one toughness creatures and things get nutty pretty fast.

Usually when a card is banned, I can figure out what the reason is, but for the life of me I can't figure out why this card is so dangerous. Its ability is good but not game-breaking, and I can't think of anything that it would pair with to become game-breaking.

WOTC actually gives a pretty good explanation as to why they ban cards.

One key to the continued health of Magic is diversity. It is vitally important to ensure that there are multiple competitive decks for the tournament player to choose from. Why? If there were only a single viable deck to play, tournaments would quickly stagnate as players were forced to either play that deck or a deck built specifically to beat it. In addition, different players enjoy playing different types of decks. If there are plenty of viable options to play, there will be more players at more tournaments.

To help maintain the diversity and health of the Magic tournament environment, a system of banned and restricted lists has been developed. These lists are made up of cards that are either not allowed at all, or allowed only in a very limited manner.

When you take this standard you ask yourself how does this card fit into this? In regards to diversity this card would kill all of it. Every deck would run four of this card and every deck would have to have a way to deal with this card. You would basically have a slightly different version of the Jace wars we once had.

This would mean that the colours with good early creatures and artifact removal would be the most competitive. Control decks would be efficiently killed as you would never want to not run this.

So by WOTC own standards of why they ban cards this card most assuredly fits the bill.

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I've always had an issue with the banlists in general, yes the cards on there are EXTREMELY good but most can be dealt with. There might not be a super efficient way of doing so but there aren't many cards that can't be countered or destroyed... Ok you're running 4 Skullclamps? Let me counter that with Quash and I just took all of them out of the game. I know Skullclamps a 1 drop and quash is a 4 but there's always the chance they don't play it before then and even if they do....ok I cast Splinter, Exile Skullclamp from battlefeild and any that might be in your hand, graveyard, or library. – thatdude1087 Feb 22 at 14:38

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