Few would disagree that the banned list in Modern is a net benefit to the format, facilitating its legendary diversity and ensuring games remain more or less interactive. There is, however, a certain curiosity that’s hard to shake off—just what would our beloved format look like completely freed from all its shackles? No-banned-list Modern tournaments have grown in popularity, and if they’re unlikely to usher in a new format or become the newest casual craze, they can be fun for a weekend’s lark. Last weekend I had the joy of playing in a local no-banned-list tournament. Feeling uninterested in the PPTQ grind that was starting a new season, and jonesing for some good old-fashioned broken Magic, I decided to join in on the fun and see what it was all about.
I started with a quick google search for no-banned-list decks, intending to play some variant of UR Delver. First at the top of the list of considerations was cost, and Delver decks are often little more than a pile of commons with a few fetchlands thrown in for good measure. Sure enough, I was able to cobble together most of the list I wanted from my collection, and headed off to the store to see if I could wrangle the rest in loans from other players.
As it turned out, the tournament allowed for eight proxied cards, which made things pretty easy. I spent the remainder of my prep time chatting with another UR Delver player about his choices, and sharpieing up the final cards for my ad hoc sideboard. Here’s what I registered:
UR Delver (No Banned List), by Jason Schousboe
4 Young Pyromancer
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Thought Scour
4 Mental Misstep
3 Spell Pierce
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Mutagenic Growth
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Treasure Cruise
2 Forked Bolt
4 Steam Vents
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Flooded Strand
2 Polluted Delta
2 Blood Moon
1 Smash to Smithereens
1 Thing in the Ice
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Izzet Charm
1 Jori En, Ruin Diver
1 Tormod’s Crypt
|Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)|
I built my sideboard largely with the intention of trying out a million different things (and casting spells I thought were fun in what can only be described as a silly tournament). In any case, it was pretty loose, and ended up punishing me a few times.
As for the maindeck, I was largely happy but found myself wanting an additional basic Island on several occasions. For one, it would have helped in games involving Blood Moon; for another it would have provided me more painless fetch targets against aggressive decks. Moving forward I would cut the fourth Steam Vents to make room.
Round 1 – Bye
I was disappointed this round to learn that my opponent had left his deck at home inadvertently. He tried to run home and get back in time for the match, but it wasn’t to be. I’ll take a win as it comes, but my goal was really just to spend the day putting Treasure Cruises and Mental Missteps on the stack—sad times.
Round 2 – BW Eldrazi (Win)
My opponent’s deck is a typical take on the old Eye of Ugin Eldrazi deck with a Stoneforge Mystic package thrown in for extra spice. He tells me he’s new to Modern, which is borne out by him having to read several cards and making some pretty clear-cut misplays. On a couple occasions he lets me Smash to Smithereens a Relic of Progenitus without sacrificing it first. He also forgets that Eye can tap for mana under Urborg, and one turn tutors for Batterskull off of Stoneforge and elects to pass with 5 mana up instead of hard-casting it.
I take this match pretty easily, but leave with the impression that the matchup is unfavorable against a more seasoned opponent.
I may have some of the details of my exact sideboarding wrong, but this was close. I wanted to trim on Missteps since his plan was to jam giant monsters, but he did have Relic, Thoughtseize, and Path to Exile so they were still live. Blood Moon was obviously an MVP, and it did win me a game singlehandedly. Smash was for Batterskull and Relic of Progenitus, the latter which made Cruising tougher.
Skullclamp, Thing in the Ice, and Jori En were part of my “value package” to bring in against grindy decks. I never drew Thing in the Ice, but the theory was to bounce a pile of four- and five-drops. My guess is this is just too cute and better served as something else. Jori En, on the other hand, impressed on a few occasions, the sweetest being this round when I tapped out on turn three and Misstepped an EOT Path to Exile for the trigger—value!
Round 3 – Affinity (Loss)
The opponent is on about what you’d expect, with multiple artifact lands, Skullclamp, and the Atog/Disciple of the Vault combo that defines the Pauper version of the archetype. I was debating with some friends earlier about artifact lands in Affinity, trying to contend that they’re just worse than the standard Nexuses. In any case, he seemed to make it work, and while I never saw him go off with Atog or Disciple, I will say his Ravagers were particularly troublesome and effectively never ran out of fuel.
This round I am roundly punished for my loose sideboard. My mediocre artifact hate is not enough to overcome his Ravagers and Platings, and I succumb to the robot menace. Game three I drew Annul, Smash to Smithereens, and Vandalblast, and still lose. At some point during this game I look at those cards in my hand/graveyard and realize that if they were Ancient Grudges I could not possibly lose.
Here again there’s some tension with Mental Misstep, as countering Skullclamp or an early Springleaf Drum is great but the card risks being dead. I reasoned that the remaining Spell Pierces and Izzet Charm could help defray the danger of Clamp while still giving me game against Cranial Plating.
Normally I would take out all the Probes, but with Cruise and Pyromancer in my deck they have additional value. The rest of the sideboarding is pretty standard against Affinity. As I explained above, moving forward I would just replace all the anti-artifact stuff with Grudges, and add one Breeding Pool to flash them back.
Round 4 – Jund (Win)
Ah, good old Jund. Nothing beats Jund. Before the tournament I was debating with my friend who’s more or less lifetime-committed to the archetype, and he maintains it’s still a contender even in the busted universe of no-banned-list Modern. He played it at this event (we would eventually meet in the finals), but this round I faced off against someone else.
He starts by quipping that his matches were all over quickly, which leads me to keep a bad hand of multiple Spell Pierces and no threats, thinking he’s on combo. This game goes on to illustrate one of my main issues with Jund in a world of Treasure Cruise (it was similarly poorly positioned during Cruise’s original reign in 2014). In spite of my bad hand, and facing down a reasonably early Goyf and Liliana, eventually I just rip Cruise off the top and pull way ahead. If we’re being honest, “rip” isn’t even the right word—Ponder is a messed up Magic card when it comes to generating consistency. I make a copious number of Elemental tokens to embarrass Liliana of the Veil and Tarmogoyf alike and take him down.
Game two he mulls all the way to four and keeps a hand of double Grove of the Burnwillows and Punishing Fire. Turns out that’s a tad strong against my creature base. I’m cognizant of the fact that this game is Blood Moon or bust, but I have ample time to eventually cantrip into it. With him all but locked out I finish him off easily.
Since my buddy on Jund is one of the stronger players in the room, I’ve come prepared for this matchup. I know Cruise is the best card by a long shot, so the value package comes in, sans Thing in the Ice which is too easy for them to kill. Missteps are something of a double-edged sword, since countering Bolt and Deathrite is pretty nutty, but they have a solid chance of rotting away in your hand. Similar issue with Spell Pierce vis-à-vis Liliana. It might be better to have more Missteps on the draw and more Pierces on the play, but I’m not sure.
Forked Bolt is better than normal against Jund because of Deathrite, so I left one in. Blood Moon is clearly crazy good, especially when they’re trying to Punishing-Grove you out, and the Cruises, Ponders, and post-board draw spells make it that much more likely I’ll find a copy.
Semifinals – Affinity (Win)
This opponent is the same one from round 3. His draws are much less robust this match, and between mulligans, my timely hate pieces, and his lackluster draws I take my revenge for the earlier loss.
Finals – Jund (Loss)
My friend and I are in the Top 2! Pretty sweet. Winner gets a Scalding Tarn and loser gets a Misty Rainforest, which for a $10 entry fee sounds like a pretty sick deal. Battling for the glory is the no-brainer option.
Game one he’s on the play due to seeding and casts a turn one Deathrite. The universe demonstrates its sense of humor and I draw Misstep for turn. Cool story. Turn two Liliana comes down and I’m never in it. Game two I mulligan and get run over. Either way, it’s always fun to close out a tournament with a friend, and I won’t be complaining about my $10 Misty anytime soon.
Examining the Banned List
I had an absolute blast playing this tournament, and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried out no-banned-list Modern to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised to play against an interactive deck every round, and the games were interesting and challenging. I suspect that given enough time and financial incentive, the community and MTGO hive mind would solve the format handily and plunge it into degeneracy, but in a more casual environment things were pretty balanced.
On a more serious note, testing in these hypothetical environments can give us relevant information about which cards may be safe to unban. Here are my thoughts about the banned list after playing six rounds.
- Stoneforge Mystic & Bloodbraid Elf: Neither of these cards felt unfair when they were cast against me. Granted my deck was hardly a reasonable yardstick for “fair,” but I feel that these cards are mostly safe to unban.
Bloodbraid Elf has been discussed elsewhere, and I think the community largely agrees its banning was a mistake that could easily be rectified. As for Stoneforge it’s a slightly dicier proposition, but I feel that between artifact hate, combo kills, and Lightning Bolt she would potentially be a fine addition to the format.
- Deathrite Shaman & Eye of Ugin: I’ve come to see these cards, along with Mox Opal, in a similar light. Fundamentally, they act as “fast mana” for their respective archetypes. What makes them distinct from things like Birds of Paradise, Simian Spirit Guide, or Search for Tomorrow is opportunity cost—each of these cards essentially take up no space in decklists.
Mox Opal and Eye of Ugin are accelerants that occupy land slots, of which a certain number are required for any deck. It’s not hard to see why this leads to degeneracy—they’re lands that Time Walk opponents. Deathrite Shaman is a stranger case. Obviously it takes up a spell slot, but it doesn’t reduce the amount of action in your deck. So where Opal and Eye upgrade a slot you’re already using for mana, Deathrite upgrades a slot dedicated to a win condition. In both cases you end up with acceleration in your deck at effectively no cost.
Eye of Ugin is easily the worst offender of these, providing a full-on Mishra’s Workshop for the appropriate deck. I don’t think this card can ever come off the banned list as long as Thought-Knot Seer &co. are a part of the format. Deathrite’s offense is less about raw power and more about ubiquity. Jeskai colors are the only ones that can’t run it, and such a flexible card becomes a must-include everywhere and pushes out strategies that don’t convert. It makes sense that Opal is the one of the three that has survived this long—like Deathrite it can only add +1 mana, and like Eye it must be included in a very specific deck. I could certainly see Opal getting banned eventually, but for now it seems okay—hopefully this little theoretical discussion helps explain why.
- Artifact Lands: I’m not even convinced that Affinity wants these. I recognize that Arcbound Ravager, Atog and Disciple of the Vault are best buds with Ancient Den, et.al., but I’m not sure it’s worth cutting Blinkmoth and Inkmoth. The games I lost against Affinity looked pretty much the same as what we’re all used to in normal Modern—they put a zillion permanents on the table early on, smacked me around with the “big spells” like Ravager and Plating, and post-board slammed the terrifying Etched Champion to play around my hate. It’s been a long time since Affinity was interested in any of its namesake cards, and without Myr Enforcer and Thoughtcast I don’t see a strong reason to run more than a few artifact lands.
Where artifact lands may be problematic is in creating other combo decks, most notably Krark-Clan Ironworks. I’ll leave it to other people to speculate on the fairness of that deck, but my current thinking is that the artifact land cycle is a candidate for unbanning.
- Skullclamp: I had this as a one-of in my sideboard, largely for the grindy matchups like Jund and Eldrazi. I did get to “go off” with it once, but by the time I started clamping Elemental tokens I had something like 7 and the game was basically already over. Similarly, when I saw it cast in Affinity it didn’t seem unreasonable, as sacrificing tempo and board presence to draw more cards wasn’t always advantageous. That said, this is another card that could easily enable new broken combo decks, and even in Affinity it seemed highly dangerous. I suspect that Elves would break it completely in half.
- Ponder: Unbanning Ponder (and its cousin Preordain) would be dangerous to say the least. In my Delver deck the card was profoundly overpowered, granting me a consistency that none of the non-blue decks could match. The existence of this kind of hyper-efficient selection in Legacy is one of the things that pushes down other colors.
Of course, I was playing Ponder fair. Another guy showed up to the tournament with Blazing Shoal Infect, and I shudder to think what a finely-tuned version of that would do to the top tables. To say nothing of the myriad other combos in Modern that may have been lacking an extra piece of filtering to be truly broken. Can you imagine a Goryo’s Vengeance deck fueled by Ponder and Preordain? No thank you.
- Mental Misstep, Treasure Cruise: No, no, no, no, no. Don’t even think about putting your hand in that cookie jar, kids. These ones are truly the busted of the busted, and this tournament reminded me why.
I have a strong suspicion that Delver is the best archetype in no-banned-list Modern. The two other formats where Treasure Cruise has been allowed to run rampant saw UR Delver soar to the top of the standings and stay there. When you can run 4 Ancestral Recalls nobody can out-grind you. When you have 4 Mental Missteps nobody can (reliably) out-aggro you. Just how are you supposed to beat these two cards in tandem?
Jund and the other (comparatively) fair decks like Eldrazi certainly stand a chance. But resolving a draw-three against these decks is no joke, and they can’t really interact with the top of your library or the stack. And then there was the game my opponent’s turn one Deathrite Shaman on the play never hit the battlefield… If you unbanned Deathrite, Punishing Fire, Eye of Ugin, and Treasure Cruise all at once, maybe you’d have a viable metagame—but don’t expect the hallmark diversity we’ve enjoyed in Modern over the last however many years to persist. There are very few strategies that can contend with Misstep and Cruise, and they have to do so at the same time as combating non-interactive combo. Not likely.
Testing the Limits
Next week Sheridan is back for the Wednesday slot, and I’m excited to see what he cooks up for us. In the meantime, what are your experiences testing with banned cards? Any poignant insight into the banned list or cards you think can come off safely? Let me know in the comments and we’ll see you next week.