Leaving GP Vegas: Report and Bannings

It’s been a packed weekend for Modern. Not only was there a major event, but there’s been a major, cataclysmic upheaval. August 26 will be remembered as a major turning point in Modern’s history. Which way it’s turning isn’t clear. But turn it will.

In this article, I’ll give a quick report of my GP Vegas results before diving into the significance of the banlist update.

Vegas Report

GP Las Vegas was to be the first main event I’d played in for over a year. If memory serves, the last time was Dominaria sealed at GP Dallas last year. As such, I was starting from a weaker position than I’m used to. I play a lot of local events in a week, so I still had a round 1 bye. However, without those GP point multipliers, it’s almost impossible to maintain two. This may seem petty, but experience has shown that most of the randomness gets cleaned up in the first few rounds, and you mostly hit known decks starting out 2-0, which you can prepare for. Byes also mean having to win fewer games to make Day 2, and in a game where luck is a factor, that’s huge. Thus, making Day 2 would be a lot harder than last time I was in Vegas.

As I’ve alluded to several times, my plan was to just run back Spirits.

UW Spirits, David Ernenwein (GP Las Vegas 2019)

Creatures (29)
Mausoleum Wanderer
Spectral Sailor
 Selfless Spirit
Rattlechains
Supreme Phantom
Unsettled Mariner
Drogskol Captain
Spell Queller

Artifact (4)
Aether Vial

Instant (6)
Path to Exile
Force of Negation

Lands (21)
Flooded Strand
Hallowed Fountain
Cavern of Souls
Field of Ruin
Seachrome Coast
Plains
Island
Sideboard (15)
Rest in Peace
Auriok Champion
Stony Silence
Settle the Wreckage
Runed Halo
Detention Sphere
Force of Negation
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Against Hogaak, my plan was to morph into a control deck, using Champion to contain the zombies, the enchantments to draw removal away from Rest in Peace, and Settle to seal the game. I never got to see how well it worked in practice.

What Happened

I went a glorious 2-3 drop this time. Not having two byes anymore certainly hurt, but given how things went overall, I don’t think having them would have substantially helped. See, variance was entirely against me. In all my losses I was against favorable matchups, but I mulliganed unkeepable hands into mediocre ones where my opponents were keeping good to great ones. Round 2 against Eldrazi Tron saw my opponent on the play go turn 2 Chalice of the Void, turn 3 Endbringer, then Reality Smasher in games 1 and 3. Those are far from typical starts. Game 2 was far more typical where he didn’t have all the acceleration and I got some threats down. I also got to Field him out of the game.

Round four was against Humans and I lost in two thanks to awkward hands and triple Thalia’s Lieutenant each game. I might have survived an extra turn or two with different lines, but it would have taken a lot of lucky draws in a row to actually turn the corner. Round 5 I was eliminated when I mulliganed to five twice against Burn and got choked on mana while he curved out. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes your deck just doesn’t come to play.

The one match I won is also the only time I actually played Magic. Round three I was on the draw against Mardu Death’s Shadow, which I’d never played against before, but it did not impress. My opponent did an impressive amount of damage to himself both games with multiple early Thoughtseizes and Street Wraiths, which left me with anemic hands. However, he didn’t have a follow-up until he played Ranger-Captain of Eos, and by then I’d beat him too low and Fielded him off red mana. Tutoring for Death’s Shadow is great and Temur Battle Rage is scary, but without all the cantrips the deck seemed really inconsistent.

Floor Perspective

In terms of the wider tournament, this didn’t feel like Eldrazi Winter. It felt normal. I realize that is subjective, but in Detroit, there was this sense of inevitable doom-and-gloom hanging over the tournament. Eldrazi was so oppressive that it tangibly hung in the air. There was none of that this time, almost indistinguishable from any normal GP I’ve ever been to. Additionally, player experience swung wildly. For me, this was a normal field that I just crapped out on. Many other players told me the same thing. A few had run into Hogaak once, lost, then moved on. One Denver player lost consecutive win-and-in games to Hogaak, and boy was he SALTY! In Detroit, everyone was hitting some form of Eldrazi almost every round. Hogaak Summer was not a healthy time for Modern, but everything I experienced says it wasn’t as bad as commentary would suggest.

B&R Day!

However, that all happened in a past format that is no longer relevant, because it’s time for another Banned and Restricted Announcement! <fanfare plays> And oh boy, is it a doozy. In addition to a major shakeup in Vintage, Rampaging Ferocidon was unbanned in Standard. For a whole month. Then it rotates, so great? But who cares about a format most can’t afford and a functionally dead one, because Modern’s officially been turned on its head.

Modern:

Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis banned.
Faithless Looting is banned.
Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned.

Well now, that’s a lot to unpack. The first part is not at all surprising, so I won’t dwell on it too long. The real shock is that Faithless Looting has been banned. Faithless has become almost as omnipresent in Modern as Brainstorm is in Legacy, to the point that many compared the two cards. But as we’ve seen with past bannings, there are no sacred cows in Modern. Stoneforge Mystic was also released. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.

Hogaak, Banned Necropolis

And so ends the arisen menace. Good riddance and everything, but we all saw it coming. There was no other choice after Birmingham, and with Vegas confirming the previous results, this ban was inevitable:

In looking at the evolution of the archetype over time and the variety of successful ways to build the deck, it’s clear that the card Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis is the crux of the problem.

I think that if Wizards hadn’t reprinted so many sacrifice outlets alongside Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis in Modern Horizons, things would never have gotten so bad. The question of why Hogaak was deemed acceptable in the first place will likley remain a mystery until NDA’s expire, but Hogaak is a great target for Path to Exile. It’s very unfortunate that Carrion Feeder protects it so effectively. At the end of the day, Hogaak was both the payoff and the problem, so it had to go.

In fairness to Wizards, it wasn’t immediately clear that banning Bridge from Below wasn’t enough to prevent this. For several weeks it looked like there were too many hoops to jump through and that hate was effective enough to keep Hogaak in check. Then the optimized decklist was found, and the rest is many weeks of head shaking. One can only hope that Wizards learns and internalizes that graveyard recursion and cost reduction mechanics are very dangerous.

Faithless Looting

More importantly, Faithless is gone. I predicted that it was possible, but unlikely. Given everything that had happened last year, I thought that it would a really busted deck built around Looting to get it banned. Apparently, history and a desire to be done with an era was all it took.

By our data gathered from Magic Online and tabletop tournament results, over the past year the winningest Modern deck at any given point in time has usually been a Faithless Looting deck.
Faithless Looting would be a likely eventual addition to the banned list in the near future. In order to ensure the metagame doesn’t again revert to a Faithless Looting graveyard deck being dominant, we believe now is the correct time to make this change.

Basically, Wizards has enough egg on its face over Hogaak. They want graveyard decks to go away and a completely new Modern to take shape, which I respect. It was getting tiresome. There isn’t anything close to Looting, so straight replacement is impossible. The nearest thing at Looting’s mana cost is Insolent Neonate. The nearest effects are two or more mana. They also can’t be used a second time late in the game. Thus any deck that had looting will have to adapt.

This forces a complete revaluation of not only Looting decks, but of Modern itself, which is the intention. The format has been about velocity and card selection up until now, and Looting was great at both. There were so many decks that used Looting that I can’t possibly predict how they’ll all change or what that does to Modern as a whole, though slow-down is the softball answer. There are seven decks that I can think of off the top of my head, and while some will be fine most will need a huge rethink to survive.

Currently Dead

These decks are, for all intents and purposes, dead in their current incarnations. Looting was too integral to their strategy to replace, and so the deck must be completely redesigned. Every deck could remerge, but it will be have to be in very different configuration if they’re recognizable as the same deck at all.

Hollow One. Looting was the only real option for reliable early Hollow Ones, since the alternative Burning Inquiry sometimes bites back. With only two-mana options available to fill the gap, Hollow One slows down by at least a turn. Explosiveness being its primary draw, this is a crippling blow. Given that players were already fed up with the random discard and general inconsistency and subsequently abandoned the deck for Phoenix last year, I can’t imagine anyone but diehards running the deck.

Vengevine Decks. Despite losing their other payoffs in Bridge from Below and Hogaak within two months, the enabler core of Vengevine was enough for the deck to potentially return. Without Looting, that’s not possible. The deck is based around busted starts which require specific cards in hand and in the graveyard at the same time. Stitcher’s Supplier makes it easy to fill the graveyard, but as an actual setup card Supplier is lacking since you have to get lucky flips. You can’t actually filter, so having Vengevine in hand is disastrous without Looting to correct it. As the alternatives are much weaker and slower, that busted start that defines the deck disappears and so too goes the draw to actually sleeving it up.

Grishoalbrand. Another graveyard-centric, high-velocity, has-to-be-explosive deck that lived and died by its Lootings. There was already little reason to play it over the harder-to-interact-with Neoform combo. Now I don’t think there’s any question.

Heavily Impacted

The decks in this category have core strategies that remain intact, but won’t be as effective without Looting. Thus these decks need to be retooled rather than completely redesigned. Instead of scrapping the whole thing until a Looting replacement is found these decks just need to adjust away from Looting based gameplans.

Mono-Red Prowess/Phoenix. I realize that these are not quite the same deck, but they’re close enough. Looting was a very key card, and was the main way to facilitate Phoenix, so the decks will have to substantially evolve. Given how inefficient, comparatively speaking, the remaining red filtering is, I don’t think that Phoenix will remain an integral piece of the deck. This brings into question the survival of the strategy, but with Manamorphose staying legal, it is plausible. Chaining spells together remains a potent strategy and while the best one is gone, enough of the deck remains for it to survive.

Mardu Pyromancer. The poster child for “fair” uses of Looting, I cannot fathom Pyromancer surviving the banning. Not only does the deck have a lot of graveyard interactions and require high-velocity to survive, but it also suffers from the “wrong half” problem more than most midrange decks.

Mardu has historically been quite bad in Modern because it’s a pile of removal with no other unifying force. Looting was that glue. Whether filling the graveyard for Bedlam Reveler, filtering away dead cards, or just making tokens, Pyromancer leaned so heavily on Looting that now it falls on its face. There’s nothing comparable in both the late and early game. However, the core strategy of all-the-removal-colors is intact, so a deck should remain viable.  I expect Mardu Pyromancer to shift towards Death’s Shadow based on its recent success, playing most of the same cards, and having a very similar strategy.

Survivors

The final category of affected decks are relatively unscathed. Yes, Looting was an important card, but they can take the hit in stride and remain competitive without major surgery. A patch here, an adjustment there, and these decks will be ready to go.

Izzet Phoenix. Compared to its mono-red cousin, Izzet Phoenix will be just fine. Looting was the key to the versions that put Phoenix on the map, but Izzet has been moving away from the Arclight Blitz strategy for some time now. It’s become more of a combo-control deck focusing on Thing in the Ice and Aria of Flame rather than its namesake. Thus, as good as Looting is for such a deck, it isn’t critical.

Izzet also has plenty of options for replacing Looting. If it wants to go more towards combo, it can just scrap Phoenix entirely and play more blue cantrips. If not, it can adopt the versatile Izzet Charm. Or it may go for value with Chart a Course, Ideas Unbounded, or Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. The deck slows down, but the plethora of options ensures it will remain a factor in the metagame in almost the same form.

Dredge. As good as looting is at finding and setting up dredgers, Legacy has shown that it doesn’t really matter how Dredge gets going, just that it does. Like Phoenix, Dredge has plenty of options to replace the early cantrip. Insolent Neonate used to be commonly played, and could be again. Dredge could also crib Hogaak’s notes and run Stitcher’s Supplier. Regardless of its final form, there will continue to be a dredge deck that is undeniably Dredge, so the impact of the ban will be minimal.

The bottom line is that without Faithless Looting, graveyard and velocity decks are worse. But not gone.

Mystic Revival

Finally, there was the unbanning. I heard speculation that Bridge might return since it died for Hogaak’s sins, but I never believed that. If not Hogaak, something else would eventually have broken Bridge, and Wizards is done with graveyard decks for now. Bridge is barely a Magic card in the first place, so there’s nothing to be gained by an unban. Instead, Wizards decided to go all-in on slowing Modern down by unleashing Stoneforge Mystic.

While the card being unbanned is a surprise, the timing isn’t really. Normally, Wizards only unbans anything every two years and in January/February. It only being a year-and-a-half since Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were unbanned makes this unban seem out of place.

However, there’s another trend at play. I argue Mystic’s freedom isn’t because Wizards was looking to unban it, and there’s evidence to suggest they had no intention of doing so. It’s just that they had to. Wizards has a history of unbanning something after major bans. Golgari Grave-Troll was unbanned after Treasure Cruise and Birthing Pod were banned, and Wizards exchanged Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek for Eye of Ugin as an apology after Eldrazi Winter. As the list is getting thin on reasonable candidates, and seeing that it took multiple bannings to make things okay again, Mystic was unleashed to restore interest in Modern.

It is worth noting that Wizards is wary about this decision, and regards it similarly to Grave-Troll.

While we think it’s unlikely, there is a scenario where Stoneforge Mystic could come to suppress this type of gameplay, in which case we would re-examine its legality (similar to Golgari Grave-Troll’s history in Modern).

I also want to highlight that Wizards’s concern is drawn from the same place as my skepticism years ago.

The danger in reintroducing Stoneforge Mystic, and the reason it’s remained on the banned list up until this point, is that it’s at its strongest against straightforward decks that play to the battlefield.

I have no idea if those arguments still hold. Modern was completely different when I tested Mystic, and coupling that with all the disruption from Looting’s ban, there’s no way to even speculate if Mystic will be good, let alone oppressive. My gut says that the underlying principle that you can’t beat Stoneforge head on, you have to go around her, remains true. If that’s the case, then Humans may be in for a bad time. If not, then control players will be sorely disappointed.

I absolutely will extensively test in the coming weeks, but for the moment there’s no way of knowing the actual impact that Mystic may have. Also, there’s the question of what package to run. Batterskull and Sword of Fire and Ice are givens as the most powerful equipment, but the normal third piece, Umezawa’s Jitte, is banned. Standard and Legacy experience don’t really apply since those formats are so different from Modern. Further and as noted, there is reason to worry about the power level, so don’t get too attached. That said, I’m hopeful that this will incentivize more interactive decks in Modern.

Looking Ahead

Fresh Modern, fresh cards, and an upcoming MCQ means I have a lot of work to do sorting all this out. Here’s to the new era!

2 thoughts on “Leaving GP Vegas: Report and Bannings

  1. I wonder if they’re unbanning Stoneforge right now precisely because they ARE effectively blowing up the format. If a format is at relative equilibrium, then an unban of this level could have a destabilizing effect…but since they’re already destabilizing the format, that risk is mitigated, to an extent.

    1. It is a common strategy in business to use instability to slip in something new that you’re sure of but think higher ups won’t approve of. When everything restabilizes it’s a lot harder to see the impact of the new thing when it’s already been fully integrated into the new equilibrium. Thus it is entirely plausible that this is the case for Stoneforge.

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