The Strange Case of the Metagame and the Unbannings

It begins, gentle seekers of glory. Today is a day of great opportunity and gangrenous rot. The pallid sun meekly illuminates the great ravenous hordes as they linger, eager and anxious, waiting for their moment, when they shall be unleashed upon the world to slack their unending hunger for inadequately-proportioned sugary confections. For those whose time has passed, however, there is business to attend to. Business both eldritch and neoteric. This article is being published on Halloween, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious. Therefore, I recommend reading it in Doctor Orpheus’ voice. For today we shall contemplate both the All-Consuming Metagame and The Wrongly Banned Things.

Two great tasks remain before the sun again rises, relegating their purpose to eternal exile in the purgatory of missed deadlines. And not one has anything to do with candy, to the lament of all. Unless you accept that knowledge is the candy of the mind.

Let us begin at once with the new, for new knowledge has been granted to us of the All-Consuming Metagame. Though not as potent as previous revelations, we are now able to observe its shape, and may infer insight of things to come. The next, I must at last renew the Great Work. Investigating the truth behind the faith of The Wrongly Banned Things now has more import than ever, and though I am loathe to do so, I know what must now be done. Let it commence!

They Who Rose Above

Let us begin with the new. A great contest was held in the nation’s capital this weekend past, though it was not of the Modern format. Instead we must content ourselves with a sideshow. Fear not, though—the Great Feeding to come at week’s end will certainly sate your appetite for data. Though of minor note comparatively, the SCG Washington D.C. Classic Top 16 results are another piece of the puzzle, and do indicate our target’s movements.

DeckTotal
Jeskai Control3
5C Humans2
UR Breach2
Eldrazi Tron2
Infect2
Gifts Storm1
Affinity 1
Bant Counters Company1
RW Prison1
GB Tron1

The Gatekeepers of Data (Star City Games), in their great inscrutability, have classified Timothy Taylor’s deck as Jeskai Tempo. This despite it clearly being another Jeskai Geist deck, not dissimilar to Joe Jancuk’s Jeskai Control list. I defied their will and combined it with its brethren, as it rightly ought be. ‘Tis worthy of note that the Ghostly versions of Jeskai have far outshone other variants these past few weeks. While the more staunchly defensive decks are seeing success, the ability to become the aggressor is far more valuable.

Of worthy note is the deck of mere mortals that defied the Elder Horrors to win the day. Though they be weak in abstract, the whole is always greater, and powerful clocks and disruption will still slip through to victory. Ryland has far more insight on that subject, but I do note that this field appears less than favorable. Humans exists to punish Storm, as the villagers may sack Frankenstein’s castle. Control and creature combo should collapse the ground beneath their feat, yet that did not happen. A testament, perhaps, to the ceaseless fortitude of humanity.

Amassed Compilations of Accomplished Magicians

It is with this in mind that we turn our attention back to the true purpose of this endeavor. Though the vision remains clouded, clarity is finally within reach. The results of the Classic do not count as strongly as an Open or Grand Prix, but they do serve to reinforce the pattern of results we have witnessed so far. Sadly for me, the Lords of the Deep did not appear in these results. Apparently they’re only interested in the big event, not the sideshow.

DeckTotal
Gifts Storm9
Affinity9
Jeskai Control9
Infect5
Eldrazi Tron5
Grixis Death's Shadow4
Counters Company4
Humans3
Abzan2
UG Merfolk2
Mardu2
UW Control2
Ad Nauseam2
GB Tron2
UR Breach2
Titan Breach1
Jund1
Saheeli Evolution1
BW Eldrazi1
8-Rack1
Temur Aggro1
Titan Shift1
Knightfall1
GW Company1
GR Ponza1
BW Eldrazi and Taxes1
Death and Taxes1
5-Color Death's Shadow1
Bant Company1
Burn1
GR Devotion1
Mono-G Tron1
RW Prison1

I know that I pledged to begin culling the list this week, but only two new decks emerged so it seemed pointless. Doubtless, the list will not escape the delete key again next time. Sun and Moon always lurks along the fringe, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting. As I have repeatedly noted, one would expect that the Blood Moon, Herald of Non-games and keystone of prison strategies, would be putting up more results. Apparently they of the Federal District heard my call, as both the Breach decks and the prison deck wielded the Moon. Does this harken to a world of safer manabases? Highly unlikely, but the clever may yet exploit this.

Intriguingly, the resurrection of Infect has progressed. Could it be, that the declaration of Gitaxian Probe‘s exile, coupled with the advent of Fatal Push was erroneous?! No, almost certainly not, the deck is far worse now than it was. But when you keep watch for giants, it is the ants that get you. Black-based interactive decks have suffered greatly over the past year, with even that which killed them, Death’s Shadow, failing to maintain its ascendancy. Rather than a return on its own merit, I suspect that the disappearance of predators is far more to blame for the diseased menace’s return. Again, only time and data will tell.

The Telltale Trend

What is most significant is that the top three decks are the same now as they were weeks ago in Charlotte. Storm, Affinity, and Jeskai Control have maintained their lead, while contenders have risen and fallen around them. This speaks strongly to their potency, but the true test comes next week. If this trend is sustained by Regionals, then we must conclude the omens were true, and Tier One will be established.

Based on this data, it appears that interactivity is being pushed down. Jeskai remains at the top, but BGx and Grixis Death’s Shadow are falling away, and only occasionally surface in the rankings. In their place, Infect, Eldrazi, Affinity, and Storm reside. Why is an open question. Perhaps this is just a fluctuation, and the coming results will vindicate their place. I hope the opposite is not true.

The Impending Resurrection

In truth, I had intended to respond to the unfortunate rash of ignorant attacks on Modern. However, Ari Lax and others descended upon the ill-informed before I had the chance, and did excellent service. Lend your eyes to them, it is well worthwhile. I have nothing to add to their responses, so instead I will contemplate an older topic. Argument, speculation, dogma, and vitriolic emotion have always clouded discussions of the Modern Banned List. Players all have their own agendas and beliefs and seek out those who agree with them. Every time the discussion revives, the tribes return to perpetuate this stalemate. Like clockwork, it has reemerged, and requires addressing.

I have attempted to bring verifiable truth into the morass by actually testing the candidates. This is not done without considerable effort, and a touch of madness, on my part. As a result there is not time to test everything, nor do the methods allow it to be done quickly. If there exists a way to personally play 500 matches of Magic when it’s not your full time job in a month or less—which does not require sacrifice to elder gods most dark and vile—I am open to suggestions. That said, Wizards has implied that my endeavor is more important than ever, and I must recommence the Great Work immediately, lest I be overtaken by the march of time.

The Impetus

For the uninitiated, in their October Announcement, Wizards strongly implied that they will unban something following the next Pro Tour. As expected, a firestorm of speculation followed. Much has been written on this already, some articles better than others. I have attempted to tame the wild claims and banish the baseless claims to the dark corners where they belong, but I have a problem. While I have covered all the plausible candidates previously, there is one that has never merited a full investigation. Now, I fear its pull has become inexorable.

Voices from the Past

There are those, whom I can only assume are possessed by madness, who argue for such abominations as Cloudpost or Umezawa’s Jitte to return to the world. Such cards should never have been at all, and do not deserve to feel the fabric of a playmat against their card-backs again. However, there is a small group that consistently make the lists of the more sober observers. These are Stoneforge Mystic, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Bloodbraid Elf. Frequent, though less consistent, considerations are Green Sun’s Zenith, Preordain, and Splinter Twin.

Much of the discussion about the also-rans is the continued lamentation of Twin’s demise coupled with distaste over the circumstances of other bannings. In many cases, it comes down to unprecedented swap bannings, wherein the offender is released in exchange for something taking its place. I believe a better name is in order, but maintaining this Lovecraftian-Gothic tone is draining my creativity. Something that invokes A Tale of Two Cities would be appropriate. This is not how Wizards behaves, nor does it make sense in the rational world, so I will not address it here.

The discourse over the primary considerations is far more meaty. There are actual, intelligent arguments against their continued banishment. Fortunately, I have tested two-thirds of these cards and have actual data to back my claims.

As They Stand

Let me remind you of the results of my inquiries. Both Jace and Stoneforge have had the chance to make their cases, and I don’t feel either was strong. Bloodbraid has not been tested. I felt no need to do so. My time is finite and I wished to use it to answer actual questions. The effect of Jace, Stoneforge, and recently Preordain was unclear. There was knowledge to be gained and value in seeking it because the world had changed so much since their exile.

The same was not true of Bloodbraid Elf. It and Jund were always one. Yes, it did dally with other colors, but the Elf requires a deck with only good cards to truly rise. That is the entire gameplan of Jund. The outcome was certain. I would play Bloodbraid in Jund, a Tier 1 deck. Jund would get better because card advantage tacked onto free mana is very good. I proved this to some dissenters previously. The world is at last sufficiently different that there is something to gain from this inquiry.

Where I Stand

In case this is not yet crystalline, I am testing Bloodbraid Elf next. My approach won’t be surprising or novel—I’m gathering Jund lists and will slot in the Elf. I must do this now because in February it may be unleashed, and the world must know what to expect. I do not relish the thought, as I don’t expect to be surprised or even illuminated by the results. Yet, we are all bound by forces outside our control, and my quest for knowledge will not be complete without a full test.

As for the others, it is worthwhile to consider not only the demonstrable power of the cards but also the consequences. What does the format actually gain by their inclusion? A card may have nothing to offer with its power and yet be unworthy thanks to other detriments. That is why ne’er again will you durdle with Sensei’s Divining Top.

Stoneforge Mystic

The first test. The progenitor. This is the card that I strongly consider revisiting, as I don’t feel Abzan was the best home for the card. What that home is, I’m not certain, though Death and Taxes and Jeskai are strong contenders.

The Test Results: My testing did not show a consistent power boost. Stoneforge into Batterskull or a Sword is very hit-or-miss. Sometimes it is overwhelmingly powerful. Sometimes it is just a cantrip. The context, and how it’s wielded, made far more impact than anything intrinsic to the card itself.

What Would Be Gained: The primary consideration is that Stoneforge Mystic is white. White is heavily underplayed in Modern, something Wizards has lamented on several occasions. Stoneforge would provide a strong incentive to play white, which may bring more midrange diversity.

What Would Be Lost: Fair creature decks would greatly suffer. A typical aggro deck cannot force its way through Batterskull. The impulse would be to go over or under the card, which would push aggro decks—already suffering in the metagame—to the brink.

Where I Stand: I believe that Stoneforge is plausible power-wise. However, the consequences make it less clear. Perhaps allowing white to be a real color is more important than harming Burn or Zoo-style decks. Perhaps not; it is unclear.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

My second test. The most contentious. The totality of the data gave a very clear result, but the inadequacies of my method diluted the details. There is still a very clear message to be gleaned.

The Test Results: Jace’s inclusion in Jeskai Control was a significant improvement over Nahiri, the Harbinger. Every matchup was improved by Jace, an impact which increased as the matchups became more fair. His value against unfair decks was limited, but utterly devastating to Jund.

What Would Be Gained: Jace is a very strong incentive towards midrange and control. He fits in well to the strategies and matchup plans and requires no additional support. His cheap cost also makes him easy to defend.

What Would Be Lost: Non-blue midrange would suffer. Jace wins attrition games. Jund had Liliana of the Veil to counter Jace and she couldn’t do it. Lili’s impact is symmetrical, Jace’s is not. He allowed Jacekai to stay ahead of Liliana’s discard and find answers. There would be a strong disincentive to play any non-Jace midrange deck. It is likely that other fair decks would suffer as a consequence.

Where I Stand: Sing not the praises of the Mind Sculptor. Do not sacrifice all other midrange upon his alter. The consequences will not be acceptable. In any fair matchup Jace wins the game, and not quickly. Unlike other planeswalkers there is no coming back from an unanswered Jace. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion‘s tokens can be swept and the value is lost, but many turns of Brainstorming generates card advantage both real and virtual that cannot be overcome. You cannot go through him, only over or under. This would generate pressure to move towards faster combo or aggro decks, which is a return to Gitaxian Probe Modern. We are better for not living beneath his shadow.

I Gaze Into the Abyss…

I will have the Bloodbraid results ready before the Modern Pro Tour. It must be done. Hopefully next week the Regional results will be in, and the true nature of the metagame will be revealed. I’ll see you then.

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.

18 thoughts on “The Strange Case of the Metagame and the Unbannings

  1. I agree with the final part of the article. In my eyes, there are only 4 cards that are up to debate in terms of unbans. SFM, BBE, Jace and Twin. Of those 4, BBE and Twin are the only ones that i expect to be unbanned at some point in the future.

    BBE seems very safe right now, and even if it unfortunately breaks Modern, they can easily ban it again and shut our mouths about unbans for a couple of years. From a meta perspective, it incentivizes midrange players to fight Death’s Shadow and create some diversity in that archetype, by preying on DS, it could avoid Street Wraith getting banned(and the continuing chain that a ban breaks out).

    Splinter Twin will be unbanned in the future unless they take the other direction, and ban the hell out of Modern combo, especially Storm. The only problem with this card is that it will be the boogeyman of the format. If WOTC is okay with it being a 10-13% deck and warping Modern, but also checking unfair decks and Eldrazi decks, then so be it.

    SFM and Jace are tremendous cards in Legacy and are staples of it. I doubt they will unban 2 cards that will clearly define Modern, and make it lose its identity. That’s another nod to Twin, it doesn’t see play in Legacy, it’s a Modern classic, it gives Modern identity. Jace and Twin won’t be together in Modern even in the salty Twin player wildest dreams. It’s one or the other, and there’s a clear ‘safest’ choice.

    Unless the Pro Tour shows a nasty metagame(which will lead to bans rather than unbans), i think BBE is the first one to join the party again. Twin probably the next year(April 2019 or so).

    1. I have to disagree on Twin, at least for the foreseeable future. The elephant-in-the-room reason (in addition to more empirically-driven ones) that Twin got banned was that having to slow down gameplans to keep mana up for the combo was frustrating for many players, and directly went against Magic’s modern game philosophy of proactively doing the thing you want to do (even if that this is answering opponent’s threats). Whether or not a given individual agrees with that philosophy, it feels clear that this is the direction Wizards wants to go with the Modern format. Fatal Push is doing a fine job keeping aggro decks in check, and as for other linear decks, well, Humans just came around to prey on Storm.

    2. To me, Splinter Twin in Modern has a lot of parallels to Deathrite Shaman in Legacy. They both do a number of good things for the format, primarily keeping certain degenerate strategies down. They also do bad things to diversity. It was hard to justify playing a blue deck that did anything similar to Twin but wasn’t actually Twin. Shaman is so powerful that any deck that could run it does so or fights at disadvantage. The question is whether the powers that be consider the trade-off worthwhile. The answer for Twin is currently no.

      1. Yes, right now Twin is not woth the risk. Blue controlish decks are doing okay, and DS is playing a similar role of policing but in a less opressive way gameplay-wise. However, i think within a year of printings and potentially Bloodbraid Elf Junding Modern, Twin will look safe to unban, because linearity and goldifishing decks will still be a part of the format, and becoming a PT format means Pros can dicatate the outcome of the gameplay they want, and that’s not a uninteractive one(regardless of how the regular players feel about). They actively say that Modern is a “2 ships passing in the night” format and that won’t change with BBE, but it’s a start.
        Anyway, the only card left on the banlist to unban will be Twin after the potential BBE unban, because in my book SFM and Jace are super dead for Modern, because of what i mentioned above.

        Regarding DRS, i think he hurts diversity far worse than Twin in their respective formats. I don’t think DRS should be banned because of the ‘glue’ work that does in Legacy. Gitaxian Probe is a much likely candidate(if a ban were to happen).
        Twin would be a direction towards a more interactive metagame, without the need of massive bans. That’s why the PT holds so much weight, if a Top 8 looks bad diveristy-wise, bans could happen.
        I’m of the opinion that Twin being banned and ETron,Valakut and Storm being solid Tier 1 decks is a wrong basepoint for the game. If Twin is off the table, and those decks dominate Modern for another year, i think a ban of Street Wraith, Chalice of The Void and Grapeshot would do good for the format overrall.

  2. Truly, a commendable endeavor you have assumed here in your writings. Arguments for the Elvish Berserker, both for and against, ring loudly inside the borders of town halls and meeting grounds alike, and scientifically-driven data is a veritable lantern in an otherwise-inscrutable Dark Age. May your journey of discovery be enriched, and let no horrors, Elder or otherwise, impede your pilgrimage.

  3. BBE testing prediction: David finds a 1-2% difference in deck with BBE vs deck without BBE, concludes Elf should stay banned because an unban would lead to people playing ancestral vision, which would lead to people playing remand, which would lead to people playing cavern of souls, which would lead to people playing stone rain, which would lead to people playing llanowar elves, which would lead to people playing storm crow and thus the death of modern.

    Step 1: generate semi-scientific evidence.
    Step 2: make conclusion unrelated to said evidence.

      1. So if your hypothesis is sfm is too strong for modern, and your tests determine that your win rate is virtually unchanged whether you use sfm or not, then your “not maths” conclusion should be dont unban sfm because “prolly nobody will play jund no more”?

        Why bother testing at all if the test results have literally no bearing on your conclusion regarding how safe it is to unban the card.

        I mean its fine to say this is a shitty test that wont prove or disprove the hypothesis and is basically a complete waste of time, but I wouldnt expect that from the very person doing the tests.

    1. I feel this is pretty unfair. The workload involved in these tests is already ridiculously high. If you were to design to truly rigorous, complete top-down study of a specific card’s impact on a format as enormous as Modern, you would have basically just written your Ph.D. thesis. Wizards R&D members are paid full time to do nothing but project metagame pictures, and they still mess it up all the time.

      On the other hand, I have found David’s treatments of the banned cards, while flawed, to still provide illumination on the state of the banlist. Take Stoneforge Mystic. We don’t know what the format will look like with a dedicated UW control shell built from the ground up to abuse Mystic/Batterskull. But we do know what it looks like in Abzan or Midrange more generally. We know it will do little to alter unfair matchups, and will punish fair creature decks not running Mystic themselves. Those are relevant data points in the unban discussion.

  4. I was hoping to see a Twin test. We know a lot about what Twin does, but it would undoubtedly be quite different in this meta. Push hurts it a lot, Chalice is prevalent, Storm can race. Add in the fact that Twin never deserved a ban in the first place and it seems like a pretty safe unban, but it’s hard to say without testing it in this meta, which is drastically different from the last time Twin was around. Good article btw! I pretty much agree that there’s really only 4-5 realistic candidates for unbanning.

  5. I always like reading these kinds of articles, commentary on the way things are, and commentary on the way things could be makes a nice balance. I’d like to get your opinion on green sun’s zenith if possible, since most of the discussion on unbannings is usually about stoneforge, jace, twin, or preordain.

    When I think about what zenith could do for the format, mostly I think it could open up some currently unused deck space in toolbox and tempo decks. Zenith has some amount of history in RUG style decks where it can grab wild nacatl and tarmogoyf as part of a tempo shell, something we currently don’t have. It could also open up toolbox decks other than kiki-resto decks to become competetive, which would be very interesting to see in the format.

    The downside I can think of for zenith is that it slots pretty well into two existing archetypes. Infect with access to zenith gains a functional 4 additional glistener elves, and I could see that being very dangerous. The other existing deck that could use zenith is the counters company deck that is the evolution of pod decks. In order for those decks to effectively use zenith though they have to choose to lose out on either the card advantage of collected company, or the instant speed power of chord, both of which are major strengths of the deck.

    As far as I can see, Zeith opens up space within the meta without breaking any existing archetype, so I think it would be a good unban.

    1. There are two problems with Green Sun’s Zenith. The weak one is that it’s too good with Dryad Arbor, acting as a mana accelerator turn one and getting progressively better as the game goes on. Mana elves are very powerful, but are generally balanced by how bad they are after the first few turns. GSZ has no such weakness.

      The better one is it’s a more efficient Chord of Calling. Chord is more versatile, but it costs more (even with Convoke), to the point it doesn’t realistically do anything until turn three. If you drop three mana elves turns 1-2 then Chord, you can get a three drop. GSZ will get you a five, and in the sorts of decks that already abuse Chord this is too good. Tutoring is problematic in general, efficient tutoring is busted. Whatever positive impact GSZ would have on midrange decks it would be far better in creature combo, to the point of being dangerous. Maybe the day will come, but I don’t think that’s now.

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