The Four-Drops Are Coming! Unban Reaction

Wizards really dropped a bombshell on us Monday morning. Jace, the Mind Sculptor AND Bloodbraid Elf unbanned? Oof, didn’t see that one coming. I’d been outlining articles for the various cards that I could see getting banned or unbanned, but these two together were not on the list. Never even considered it. However, it happened. I’ll be examining Wizards’ reasoning and then providing my own take based on my history testing the cards.

The Announcement

For those that haven’t read the announcement, you can do so here. To summarize:

  • There’s plenty of time before the next Modern Pro Tour to let the format adapt
  • The decks Jace and Elf would fit into don’t seem to be too powerful
  • We are reprinting Jace, the Mind Sculptor so he will be attainable
  • Sorcery-speed four-drops don’t see much play outside of Eldrazi and Tron
  • Neither card wins the game on the spot
  • By unbanning both cards, we give multiple color combinations options for curve-toppers

As a side note, nothing was banned.

To editorialize, these seem more like excuses than justifications. Just because there’s plenty of time before the next Modern Pro Tour doesn’t make a decision right. It still impacts everyone playing, and will have a huge impact on the upcoming SCG events and Modern Grand Prix. Furthermore, I’m really disappointed. The four-drop arguments could be copy-pastes from any internet discussion about the cards. Open any forum or subreddit thread on unbanning Jace or Bloodbraid, you will see them there. It is possible that they genuinely believe this, but I expect more from Wizards. Their previous announcements have shown far more nuance and non-public insight compared to this one.

The Cynical Reading

If you’re feeling a bit cynical about this unban, you’re certainly not the only one. And I can’t fault you for thinking that way. I’m not saying you’re right, but I can’t fault you, because the unbanning of Jace specifically and unequivocally looks like a cash grab by Wizards. He was one of two cards featured in the announcement of the Masters 25 set. Wizards even cited this fact in the announcement:

  • The reprint of Jace in Masters 25 will provide greater availability for our player base.

Honestly, how else is anyone supposed to see this? Now, I’m not saying that it actually is just a move to sell packs; only the mysterious cabal that controls the banned list knows for certain. However, perception matters, and if everybody thinks this is what happened, that’s all that will matter. As I’m typing this all the big sites have Jace, the Mind Sculptor listed as “out of stock” (despite having had plenty on Sunday), so the idea that money drove the decision is definitely plausible.

Don’t Be Hasty

Wizards isn’t necessarily being greedy and/or evil. It is equally possible and indeed equally plausible that the link goes the other way. Wizards may have decided that they were going to unban Jace at the first safe opportunity some time ago, and that opportunity just happened to coincide with the decision to reprint Jace in Masters 25. They did reprint him in Eternal Masters, so they might have wanted to release Jace for a while. 2016 saw the unbanning of Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek, and they’ve been slowly releasing cards from the original banned list since 2012 to test the waters. I’m speculating, but I’ll bet that they didn’t unban anything in 2017 because of uncertainty about Death’s Shadow requiring action, and because they’d just re-banned Golgari Grave-Troll. I can’t blame them being a bit gun-shy.

This suggests that Wizards has been priming the proverbial pump with reprints so that when the time was right, they could take the action they’d decided to take and the price wouldn’t skyrocket. Tarmogoyf used to be ~$200, but thanks to constant reprints it’s down to ~$90. If this is a long-coming move then now is the perfect time. With this third printing, the price will drop, so it will not be comparatively burdensome to acquire the mythic rare.

What About Bloodbraid?

The money-driven reading doesn’t work for Bloodbraid Elf because it’s an uncommon. Those don’t tend to drive pack sales or the secondary market, current price spike notwithstanding. In a month or two, that spike will die down. Instead, the cynic would say that Bloodbraid is being released as a balance, both for the format and for perception. It’s a bone thrown to the non-blue fair decks so they don’t disappear, damping the reaction. This is not an unreasonable reading, considering Wizards says as much:

Adding attractive options at the same mana cost in different color combinations at the same time mitigates the risk that one or the other could pull too many decks toward it at once.

It seems pretty clear that the decision to unban Bloodbraid alongside Jace is motivated more by balancing a Jace unban than for the merits of Elf itself. Wizards’ justification focused more on the diversification of BGx decks rather than on specific ideas about Bloodbraid, also lumping it into the “four-drops have to win the game” argument with Jace. I have a hard time refuting this cynical view as a result.

The Data

I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone that I have generated plenty of hard data about the impact of Jace and Bloodbraid in Modern. I spent all of January discussing Bloodbraid Elf. I have clear results which show that both significantly improved their test decks. Both had strong the strongest impacts against fair decks and a weaker impact against combo. Aggro was a bit muddy; Jeskai with Jace did better against Affinity and Bant Eldrazi than without, but not statistically significantly. The only true aggro deck Jund with Elf faced was Affinity, and there was no change there. This strongly suggests that there was incentive to run those boosted versions over the alternative. It also suggests that they would be favored over large swaths of the greater metagame.

Their History

Of course, I never tested them against each other. There was no reason to; besides, it’s scientifically invalid to test more than one variable under most circumstances. However, it has long been held that Bloodbraid and Jace counter each other. Wizards acknowledged this belief in the ban announcement, though that’s not the justification they give for the simultaneous unban.

While there is something poetic to the age-old enemies of Standard’s past both being reintroduced to Modern together, it isn’t our intent that these cards balance one another out directly. It is true that Bloodbraid Elf is effective at killing Jace, but our reasoning behind the simultaneity of their unbanning is more subtle.

I will agree that Bloodbraid was good at killing Jace in Standard. However, Bloodbraid into Blightning was great at killing any planeswalker and control decks in general. The fact is that Jace and Bloodbraid have never had a chance to compete. Their overlap in Standard was less than a year long, and Jund was so pervasive it wasn’t an even fight. Legacy doesn’t count: the format is so blue heavy because Force of Will is so important against combo that Jund never had a chance.

The evidence available suggests that Bloodbraid is better than Jace because she answers the planeswalker and gains additional value. That’s what happened in Standard. Whether this will be true outside of Standard is yet to be seen, but given the history of Jund being better than blue control in Modern, it is reasonable to believe that Bloodbraid will win this fight.

My Take

I think this has been coming for a long time. Jace and Bloodbraid have dedicated advocates who have been petitioning Wizards for years. Wizards does listen to feedback and has shown a desire to give the original banned list have a chance to be vindicated. After years of pressure and evidence that appeared to back up what they were hearing about the cards, they took their shot to enact a decision they’d made some time ago. I assumed it was going to happen eventually when I rebought Jace just over a year ago.

But I don’t agree. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: almost everything they said in the announcement could have come from a forum post. That’s really disappointing and concerning given these cards’ histories. It sounds like they didn’t do any testing which suggests that they’re just blowing smoke. If nothing else, Jace and Bloodbraid provide enormous pulls into Jund and blue control, which will negatively impact diversity and flies in the face of their justifications. Why would you play any other variation of BGx when you could have Bloodbraid? According to my testing, which showed both decks received statistically significant boosts across the board, it doesn’t make any sense. Now, maybe they did do a lot of work and just aren’t elaborating for whatever reason. I don’t know that they’re just spitballing about this unban. However, the way they presented their decision doesn’t inspire confidence in me.

I strongly believe that we will see reduction in diversity in the midrange and control decks as the result of this unban. You will be playing Bloodbraid or Jace, and I believe that a “correct” shell for each will be found. That’s what happened last time each was played. Whether the rest of the format can cope is hard to say. My data showed that their impact was weaker against unfair or aggressive decks. Maybe they will adapt, or it might be right to simply plan to go over or under the four-drops.

What Happens Now?

Well, I can say with certainty that Jeskai Tempo is ded. D-E-D, ded. As if Bloodbraid wasn’t killer enough, there is absolutely no reason not to run Jace in Jeskai. This changes the fundamental nature of the deck, so the old system won’t work. Exactly what the new deck will look like I can’t say, but I’ll definitely start with my test build, Jacekai. As for Jund, the early decks filtering out look like my test deck, so again I’d start there. Either way, you should assume that your local metagame will be full of players rocking the playsets of Jace and Bloodbraid they’ve been sitting on for years, hoping for this opportunity.

Maybe the metagame has matured to the point that the addition of Bloodbraid and Jace will be fine. Maybe this will be a disaster. It’s too early to say. What I do know is that Todd Anderson said somewhere (I think it was an article comment) that if Jace was ever unbanned he would make it his mission to make Wizards regret their decision. The gauntlet has been laid down.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

10 thoughts on “The Four-Drops Are Coming! Unban Reaction

  1. Bloodbraid Jund could maybe run Grim Flayer?
    1.) He fuels graveyard for himself and goyf.
    2.) He reogranizes the library so you can set up BBE cascade triggers.
    3.) He lets you dodge Dark Confidant damage by leaving lands on top, or lets you minimize damage and avoid hitting Bloodbraid off the Confidant Trigger.

    I tested it and it seemed very powerful.

  2. I think you may be extrapolating a bit too far to say bloodbraid will crowd out all non-jund midrange decks. Jace alone makes sultai plausible in a way it never was otherwise, but also there will always be the possibility of a meta where path and souls are just better than bolt and elf, esp if we factor in our white sideboard cards.

    I will feel a lot better talking about both cards once we see what actualy happens and whether various fears were legitimate, because I am highly skeptical that bloodbraid elf is that good, let alone a format defining card that invalidates all other 4 drop options and entire shards/wedges from contention.

    Jace I think is good but managable. Decks will adapt as needed to have more ways to push him off the table (needles? Dreadbores? Flash/haste? Jaces defeat? We’ll see)

    1. I agree about midrange. Shadow still has significant advantages over traditional midrange in its vastly improved big mana matchups (which are likely to increase, as big mana is good versus both control and midrange). White still provides reasons to play Abzan. Honestly Bant Eldrazi might see a comeback as it’s pretty well-positioned against both Jace and BBE decks. Mardu Tokens still grinds better than Jund or Abzan can. I don’t think BBE changes all of this–keep in mind that Jund was actually one of the least popular midrange decks before the announcement. Even if BBE has a significant impact on Jund’s meta share specifically, I think it’s safe to assume that midrange will remain very diverse.

    2. i feel its less that it will crowd out other cards in midrange as the format goes on, and more that the cascade targets are so much better. As Mark Nestico noted, “Bloodbraid elf into Kolaghan’s command sounds like a lot of fun till it happens to you.” While that in and of itself is not the only reason to want to play Bloodbraid, in jund’s current Rabblemaster iterations the deck will happy mold itself into a bloodbraid shell. The deck is FAR more aggressive now as well meaning the haste matters. All you have to do is stay at 22 lands, do the bob/ Goyf/ Rabble/ Ooze creature rotation, bolt, fatal push, terminate, dreadbore, thoughtseize, K command, LOTV, etc. The >=3 slots in Jund are so particularly potent and so much better than other colors (especially with side cards like ancient grudge, and even blood moon, since bloodbraid will do the casting if you’re greedy enough to fetch G/B basics) That the support for those cards in Jund colors makes it THE deck to be playing.

      Who knows, maybe even a Jund hollow one deck with bloodbraid might rear its head. (though I doubt it)

      1. I disagree that the 3+ slots in Jund are necessarily more potent than other colors. White gives Lingering Souls, and I really doubt Jund players will incorporate Blood Moon considering how greedy their manabase is. Obviously these slots matter more in Jund simply because of BBE, however their power level individually isn’t higher imo.

  3. “…it’s scientifically invalid to test more than one variable under most circumstances”
    And that is exactly what I thought when I saw the announcement of the double unban. Wouldn’t it have been wiser of WOTC to unban those monsters one at a time, to check the development of the metagame? In this manner, will they be able to attribute possible issues to the correct card, in case problems arise?
    Anyhow I believe that just time and testing can give us a correct answer, if at all. As you once stated, speculations are just educated guesses.
    Thanks for the content!

  4. Modern Nexus – thank you as always for tangible insight.
    I am looking at the un-banning as potentially very positive.

    But am concerned, it will detract from the current healthy format.

    I never played Jund so I can’t speak to that deck but I am thinking new decks (or Legacy Archetypes) are going to start popping up. Miracles could end up viable.

    Time will tell!

  5. I really think Jace is enough of a win-con on his own that the only way you are beating him is if you treat him like Karn or Ugin. You either have to go under him or over. And for my money there’s not much way you can go over a Karn-esque planeswalker.

    My opinion is that Jace will be banned by the next B&R. He’s just way too strong and generates too much value on his own for a UW/UWx deck.

    This was 100% a money making move to prop up the next set. I highly doubt WoTC would have stuck their play team on testing this at all.

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