By the time I publish my next article, the Modern collective will already be deep in the throes of rage, elation, shock, and joy after reading the January 18th banlist update. Monday can’t come soon enough! The last time I was this excited about a scheduled announcement was the first Force Awakens trailer. As for Magic-themed content, it was last year’s January 19th article, and you can rest assured we will Tweet about this year’s the moment we see hints of it on the Wizards home page. Until then, it’s time to make predictions and lay down stakes about where we think the banlist decisions will fall. Most of you already know how I feel about at least one deck in the banning crosshairs, but there is so much more to discuss!
Because banlist consequences feel so weighty this time around, more a function of internet buzz than of the actual cards in question, I’m going to return to the format of our first banlist prediction article and list some ban scenarios. Framing the update this way accounts for the varied approaches Wizards could select on Monday. If last year’s timeline is any indication, Wizards has already made their final decision for the 18th, so all we can do is parse the evidence and figure out what is likely to happen when next week rolls around. Based on the data and the state of the format, I envision two possible scenarios for the pending update. I’ll also end with cards that are unlikely to be banned/unbanned no matter how much hype surrounds them.
Scenario 1: The Safe Bet
As I talked about in yesterday’s Amulet Bloom article, and my turn four rule piece before that, Wizards tends to set and follow their own precedent on bannings and unbannings. Following that model, and considering the metagame as it stands today, I think this is the likeliest scenario for Monday. It’s also one of the most boring.
Yawwwn. Next scenario please!
In all seriousness, Scenario 1 represents the maximally conservative approach Wizards could take on the 18th. It combines a targeted ban against a known turn four rule violator with a limited unban which boosts an underrepresented archetype. Although Wizards might not follow the examples they’ve already set, as internet logicians and their “appeal to probability” warnings will remind us, we haven’t seen a lot of evidence to suggest they won’t follow them. This makes Scenario 1 the safer bet, even if it’s definitely not certain.
Summer Bloom is Banned
Let’s start with the ban side. By all accounts, Amulet Bloom is a major turn four rule violator, and will probably get treated the same way as UR Storm was in 2012-2013. If you don’t think it breaks that rule, read the linked articles and then come back. I’m going to proceed under the assumption it does violate the guideline and Wizards will act accordingly. This means a ban on at least one card from the deck. When would they ban two or more? The only time a combo deck had multiple cards banned in a single update was during Pro Tour Philadelphia, when Rite of Flame and Blazing Shoal got axed alongside Ponder and Preordain. In that case, however, the latter two cards were problematic outside of the Rite and Shoal combo decks. They ate a ban for a mix of factors and not just contributing to a single turn four rule violator.
Based on that, Wizards seems unlikely to ban two cards from Bloom because no other Amulet staple (not even Ancient Stirrings, you ban maniacs!) is part of another problematic deck. This points to an isolated, single-card ban on the combo strategy alone.
Taking 2011 and 2013 as examples, Wizards appears to prefer banning fast enablers instead of combo killers. The ritual Rite of Flame got banned in 2011. Grapeshot, Pyromancer Ascension, and Pyromancer’s Swath were left untouched. Seething Song fell to the ban hammer in 2013. Grapeshot (again) and Epic Experiment escaped unharmed. Following those examples, and admitting the risk in extrapolating from an N=2 precedent, it looks like Wizards will ban one of Amulet Bloom’s “rituals”. This points squarely to Amulet of Vigor or Summer Bloom, which are the two early-game fast-mana effects which enable the insane turn two and turn three plays.
Between those cards, Summer Bloom seems likelier than Amulet. As Wizards wrote in the Song banning, “The DCI looked for a card that was very important to the turn-three wins but not one of the cards that make this deck unique.” Amulet of Vigor is an irreplaceable and “unique” effect that is a staple of the deck. If Amulet is banned, “Amulet Bloom” loses its core identity much in the same way that a Grapeshot ban would have gutted UR Storm. By contrast, Summer Bloom is a Song-esque ritual with ample, albeit worse, replacements in Explore/Journey of Discovery/extra Azusa, Lost but Seeking/etc. Wizards ended their 2013 banlist update by stating “While there are other options for fast mana, none appear as efficient and reliable on turn three as Seething Song.” First, replace “Seething Song” with “Summer Bloom”. Next, compare all the Explore effects that stay unbanned with the Pyretic Ritual spells left in the wake of the Song ban. This kind of logic leads us directly to the more conservative Bloom ban and not the Amulet of Vigor cut.
Sword of the Meek is Unbanned
Looking at metagame updates since August, blue-based reactive control has been largely absent from Modern’s top-tier. Alternately, depending on how you view the strategy, it has been completely monopolized in URx Twin (Note: this says nothing about Twin being overpowered (it hasn’t exceeded 12%-13% since the summer), and everything about how bad other reactive blue strategies are). Meanwhile, we’ve seen huge metagame shares for aggro decks like Affinity, Burn, Burn Zoo, Gruul Zoo, Naya Company, and the countless Wild Nacatl/Lightning Bolt permutations throughout Modern. These conditions aren’t exactly unhealthy, but they also probably aren’t as diverse as Wizards wants for the format. Unbanning Sword of the Meek addresses both.
From a historical perspective, every single unban has targeted a low-tier deck. Again, this doesn’t mean all subsequent unbans will follow that trend, but it does suggest a pattern we are safer betting on. Valakut’s unbanning resurrected the nonexistent Scapeshift combo. Nacatl was aimed at the vanished Zoo species, as Bitterblossom targeted the <.5% Faeries. This was also true of Golgari Grave-Troll, which fit into Dredgevine strategies that had only enjoyed marginal Tier 3 and lower success for years. This conservative unban style does not favor blue-based control cards like Ancestral Vision, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Preordain, all of which could have sweeping ramifications. But it does point squarely at Sword.
The Sword of the Meek/Thopter Foundry combo slots into UBx and UWx decks, none of which are tearing through top tables these days. Grixis and Jeskai Twin are certainly prominent, but I’ve tested the Twin Sword (Sword of the Twin? Thopter Twin?) deck and it’s a mess. Grixis and Jeskai Twin gain much more from splashing into discard, removal, manlands, etc. than they gain from jamming eight combo pieces that don’t do anything with the rest of the deck. This angles Thopter Sword into Jeskai Control, Esper Teachings, UW Control, and other similarly fringe strategies, not into Tier 1 pillars. We might also see Grixis Control and Midrange strategies adopt the combo, but again, those decks are hardly top-tier. Non-Twin Grixis strategies haven’t exceeded 3% of the metagame for months, and I predict the relative benefits of adding the combo to non-Grixis blue decks would more than make up for any possible edge given to Grixis.
As for aggressive strategies, Thopter Sword directly fights against those decks while (more importantly) not pushing them out of the format. My main evidence for this is the improved cardpool since Thopter Foundry reigned in Extended many years ago. Aggro decks have better graveyard hate (Scavenging Ooze), removal (Destructive Revelry, Wear // Tear), and anti-lifegain (Skullcrack, Atarka’s Command). They are also much faster today than in the Extended of old. As a related safety measure, the metagame is packed with forces that beat up Thopter Sword decks if they every get too powerful. The biggest player here is, naturally, BGx Midrange and its Abrupt Decays, Scavenging Oozes, and Kolaghan’s Commands. Thopter Sword didn’t have to deal with these forces back in the day, and will likely struggle against them in 2016.
Final note on Sword of the Meek and other possible unbans: we have no evidence to suggest Wizards rigorously tests every combination of unbanned cards before releasing them to the format. Instead, it appears they make reasonable, common-sense metagame assessments before trying them out. We see this in the Valakut unbanning, where Wizards states “The DCI is unbanning a card to see how that affects the format”, suggesting a level of cautious uncertainty that would be present in any unban. Similar language is present in all later unbannings, and would likely also accompany a potential Sword return.
Scenario 2: Crazytown
Let’s spice things up a bit.
Or should I say, let’s spice things up a lot.
Maybe Wizards jumps the shark and decides it’s time to go bananas before a Pro Tour. Maybe Wizards ditches past precedent and starts to set a new example. In both those cases, we are unlikely to see the conservative approach in Scenario 1 and are instead plunged into a wonderland of Scenario 2. This would pave new trails in Modern banlist policy actions and would have major implications for the format’s future.
Alternate Amulet Bloom Bannings
A Summer Bloom banning is predicated on Wizards following the Seething Song example and conducting a limited strike on Amulet Bloom. What if Wizards goes against these previous turn four rule violation examples and sets a new precedent? This would likely manifest in either a Hive Mind banning on the more conservative end, or a Amulet of Vigor banning on the harsher side.
All things considered, Hive Mind isn’t a terrible candidate. It’s incredibly unfair, leads to the least interactive Amulet Bloom openings and wins, is built to do purely degenerate things, and isn’t integral to the deck’s identity. The big-mana, over-the-top Bloom style of play with Primeval Titan, Hornet Queen, Dragonlord Dromoka, and others isn’t nearly as problematic as the Hive Mind kills. They are also much easier to race against and interact with. Following from this and in a slight reinterpretation of the Seething Song ban, Wizards might nix this win condition to preserve the deck’s core identity while also jailing its most offensive component. This would be a good ban if Wizards has data suggesting Hive Mind disproportionately participates in the turn three kill, which suggests banning the enchantment would prevent Amulet Bloom from violating the turn four rule. You can beat the Titan opening with good removal. Hive Mind is much more resilient.
Alternately, Wizards could assault Amulet Bloom from a much more punitive angle and slash Amulet of Vigor itself from the format. This would remove the deck’s most iconic and unique element, although (perhaps counter-intuitively) it might not be as destructive as a Summer Bloom ban. Bloom still allows the Amulet player to drop lots of bouncelands on turn two and then open turn three with a Titan or Hive Mind. Amulet of Vigor is only as good as the lands following it, although its synergy with Primeval Titan enter-the-battlefield triggers is also nasty. Ultimately, I think both the Amulet or the Bloom ban would be about equally destructive to the deck, but I can see Wizards blasting the artifact instead just to make a statement.
Outside of these three cards, other Bloom pieces should be safe. Primeval Titan (and Summoner’s Pact, to a lesser extent) are used in other decks and don’t fit previous ban patterns. They are also the most interactive pieces of the Amulet Bloom engine, and creature-loving Wizards is unlikely to go after them. Similarly, cards like Tolaria West and Slayers’ Stronghold are way too niche to be realistic ban options. Since when has Wizards surgically removed such a subtle piece from a combo deck? This leaves the banhammer aimed solidly at Summer Bloom, Hive Mind, and/or Amulet of Vigor when Monday comes around.
Stoneforge Mystic is Unbanned
No, I’m not very optimistic about this either. But with a $1.5 billion powerball jackpot drawn later today, luck and unprecedented outcomes are in the air. Maybe Stoneforge Mystic is due for parole Monday. To be totally honest, a huge contributing factor to this prediction was the Grand Prix promo announcement in December. If Mystic does not get unbanned, this would be the first promo card since Modern’s founding that wasn’t Modern legal. It would also be odd timing for a Legacy reprint given the reduced focus by both StarCityGames and Wizards on the eternal format in 2016. Add to that the suggestive wording in the article (“I wonder how many promo Batterskulls we’ll see next to these new promo Mystics by springtime next year…”), and it’s hard not to read into her reprinting!
From a more concrete metagame standpoint, I think Mystic is way safer than many allege. Modern is a fairly powerful format and an incredibly hostile one to creatures. They don’t call this the Lightning Bolt format for nothing. That said, Deathrite Shaman is totally fine in Legacy but was an unqualified disaster in Modern, so being a creature alone is no guarantee of safety. I still think Mystic is a plausible unban, if not a likely one, just based on the current metagam climate in Modern. For one, white is terrible in Modern. We haven’t had a primarily white-based Tier 1 deck for all of 2015. Abzan was the closest, but by all accounts the deck has an ebbing and flowing relationship with fellow BGx staple Jund. Mainstay white strategies are few and far between. Mystic is the exact kind of unban Wizards could use to revitalize interest in white, even if it’s potentially a risky one.
More importantly, I think Mystic is less problematic to aggressive decks than many believe. She was totally fine in the Abzan vs. Affinity matchup, and the limited testing I conducted with her against Burn and Zoo decks was also fairly balanced. Batterskull is a great card on turn three, but contemporary aggro strategies have more outs than players often acknowledge. Of course, Wizards initially banned Mystic for fear of Modern becoming a Mystic-dominated format, which is certainly possible if she gets released on Monday. Even if she isn’t crushing aggro decks left and right, you can bet players will do everything in their power to fit her into Tier 1 and Tier 2 shells across Modern. Wizards likely expects that, which could be a strike against her potential unbanning.
One final worry with Mystic is her power in the so-called Twin Blade lists we have seen theorized across the Modern community. This dual-angled Twin and Mystic threat can be very challenging to handle, although my limited testing with the list has not produced conclusive results. I expect Wizards would do no testing whatsoever on this kind of synergy, so it’s more a matter of us speculating about how they will process such a deck and less a matter of them actually piloting it in a test gauntlet. In the end, I expect the dangers of Mystic outweigh her potential benefits, but I still hold on to the promo announcement as a promising sign.
Safe Cards and Unsafe Bans
After jumping down the Mystic rabbit hole, let’s wrap up with some more grounded analysis of a few cards that are unlikely to be banned or unbanned on Monday. I won’t say too much on each option, but feel free to discuss them more in the comments.
- Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch
URx Twin doesn’t violate the turn four rule and hasn’t reached the metagame shares of Pod, TC Delver, DRS/BBE Jund, etc. It polices the format and actually increases diversity by keeping linear decks at bay.
- Goryo’s Vengeance/Nourishing Shoal/Griselbrand
The Grishoalbrand deck may win a lot before turn four, but it’s nowhere close to top-tier. This insulates it from the turn four rule.
- Blood Moon
An integral policing card in Modern that discourages certain big-mana strategies and fights back against greedy, homogenized manabases. It doesn’t see too much play at top tables and gives more to Modern than it takes away.
- Become Immense
I actually don’t have a lot of data on Infect, so this might be a likelier ban than I give it credit. Infect is definitely top-tier, but I don’t have numbers on whether it consistently wins on turn three or earlier. Assuming Sam Stoddard’s May article is any indication, Wizards thinks the deck is fair enough for Modern. The hard stats, however, could prove me wrong.
- Urza’s Tower and friends
RG Tron has only recently solidified its status as a Tier 1 deck, where it still hasn’t exceeded an overall 8% metagame share. This is about half of the Pod and Delver-era metagame offenders, so it’s pretty clear Tron doesn’t warp the format by Wizards’ historical metrics.
- Ancient Stirrings
Stirrings Could get the Ponder/Preordain treatment for eliminating variance, but the decks using it don’t have enough of a metagame share. Tron is a great safety measure against BGx dominance, and removing Stirrings disrupts that equilibrium without any reason: Tron also doesn’t take up enough of the format to be a problem worth banning.
- Bloodbraid Elf
Jund may be losing ground to Abzan, but it’s still Tier 1 and will always probably fluctuate between Tier 1 and Tier 2 depending on metagame context and relative Abzan positioning. Jund just gained Kolaghan’s Command this year, so the top-tier deck doesn’t need extra help. Maybe it will one day, but that day is not the 18th of January.
- Ancestral Vision
Potentially improves Twin too much and Wizards just had problems with efficient card-draw spells pushing BGx Midrange out of the format. This probably won’t get unbanned for at least a year or two.
- Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Like Elf, Jace is potentially a fair Modern card which could maybe improve the ailing blue-based control decks. Also like Elf, it slots too easily into an existing top-tier deck (we already know how much work Twin puts in with Jace, Architect of Thought), and there’s a huge pricing issue which Wizards is surely aware of.
That’s all for today! I look forward to seeing the update next Monday and hammering out a piece right after it goes live. Let me know in the comments what you think about the banlist scenarios, the card assessments, and the format’s prospects on the 18th. No matter what happens, it promises to be an exciting day.