Testing Bloodbraid Elf: An Exercise in Futility

As the year, for better or worse depending on your perspective, draws to a close, I find that I have unfinished business. Or rather, I have business I thought was finished but others disagree. Specifically, players just won’t accept that Bloodbraid Elf is not a serious consideration for unbanning. Despite addressing the issue several times, including in my article about banlist testing, the question just won’t die. I’ll be unequivocal: I believe Bloodbraid Elf should never have existed, and should not now return. At all. And I will illustrate why, first by answering the common arguments for unbanning and then showing an actual demonstration of its current power.

Now, I get why people think that BBE is okay to unban. I really do. I think they’re wrong and I have evidence to back it up, but I do understand. It sucks not being able to play with your cards. It especially sucks when you can’t play with a longtime favorite. BBE was a staple in every format since the moment it was printed. It was powerful, and that made it very popular. However, that is not a good reason to unban a card. There are arguments as to why it should be unbanned, but I think they’re weak compared to the reasons to keep it banned. Looking at initial logic behind the Bloodbraid Elf ban and the later anti-Jund ban, I find the reasoning still valid.

A Miscarriage of Justice

By far the most common argument is that Bloodbraid Elf was wrongly banned on January 28, 2013. Adherents point to Jund’s continued dominance following that date, which ended in the banning of Deathrite Shaman a year later. The argument goes that BBE was unfairly targeted in January of 2013 and paid for the sins of Shaman. With Shaman out of the picture, BBE should be uncaged for great justice.

This argument does make a certain amount of sense. Power cards are just powerful, but enablers supercharge everything. This is normally why Wizards leaves payoff cards alone and only axes the enablers. Deathrite Shaman was far too powerful an enabler to stay in Modern. Acceleration coupled with reach is good enough to be a Legacy staple. Bloodbraid, on the other hand, is a fringe card. Yes, it’s good at what it does but it costs four mana, and that is very late for a non-rotating format. Bloodbraid Elf is much less powerful on turn four than it was on three. Tron is dropping Karn on three and Infect wins by then. Bloodbraid just isn’t as impressive in comparison.

Mistimed, Not Miscarried

I will freely concede that the real problem in January 2013 was Deathrite Shaman. One-mana planeswalkers that double as accelerants are way too powerful. I thought, like other researchers, that was the reason it got the ax. Instead, it was banned for diversity. Wizards wanted to improve the diversity of synergy decks and so removed the biggest barrier to their viability. In light of that, let me ask you this: if Deathrite had been banned first, do you really think that Bloodbraid Elf wouldn’t have been banned for diversity later?

Consider this: in a world before Siege Rhino, would there have been any reason to play Junk over Jund? What about Jeskai? Did any other fair deck have any tool remotely on par with Bloodbraid Elf? No. If you wanted to play a fair deck you would have always played Jund—it was just better than every other option because Bloodbraid Elf really was that good. The Elf might not have been the real problem in 2013 (emphasis on might), but it was a real threat to diversity prior to 2015 and would have ended up banned anyway. It was never the case that BBE didn’t deserve to be banned, it just was banned earlier than it really needed to be.

Note that the existence of alternatives does not make unbanning Elf now okay. It’s still more powerful than any other option. If Siege Rhino was really comparable to Bloodbraid, Junk would actually see top tier play. Instead Jund is consistently the deck of choice (except when particular metagame circumstances favor Path to Exile). This should tell you something.

The Diversity Question

On that subject, I’ve heard it argued that Bloodbraid Elf would end up being positive for diversity because other green-red strategies could use it. Elf was not exclusive to Jund, and letting her roam freely would allow more decks to sprout.

Frankly I think this argument misses the boat entirely. Certainly Naya and Temur players could choose to put Bloodbraid in their decks, but they will still be outclassed by Jund. In every format where Bloodbraid was legal, Jund was always the best home for the card. Experience has shown that BBE works best in “a pile of good cards” decks, and Jund has always had the most good cards to support the Elf. You might get a boost, but it will never be as big as Jund’s. It’s the way it has always been, and I see no reason it wouldn’t continue to be.

I can hear the Temur players screaming now that they have a great prize for her in Ancestral Vision. This is technically true, but Wizards directly cited the lack of Elf as a specific reason why they were able to unban Vision. Assuming the logic behind this principle doesn’t change, Wizards will only let you have one or the other. And without Vision to cascade into, Bloodbraid Elf will always have a far greater impact on Jund than it will on any other deck. Since that deck is consistently Tier 1 already, all that can happen is that it gets stronger. You cannot compete.

Times Have Changed

The other argument I hear a lot is that BBE wouldn’t see that much play in Modern. Times have changed and a four-mana spell is nearly unplayable now. The speed of Infect and Death’s Shadow coupled with the improvements to Tron and Burn mean that BBE has lost a lot of her impact. The game is very likely to be over before she gets played anyway. What’s the harm in unbanning an unplayable card?

On a technical level, this argument is correct. The speed of Modern has increased since BBE got axed. Become Immense and Cathartic Reunion have supercharged “fair” aggressive strategies to the point that the format really isn’t a turn four format anymore. In that formulation, yes, a four-mana card is safe because it is too slow.

…But Not That Much

I honestly wonder if the players making this argument mean it or are being disingenuous. If BBE really isn’t good in Modern anymore, why are you so adamant about getting to play her? Might it be that she really is good and you’re trying to hide that fact? Since I can’t actually see inside your heads, I will pretend that I trust your motivations for the sake of argument.

Yes, right now Modern is much faster than 2013. However, arguing that this is the reason to unban BBE only makes sense if you think that it will stay this way. In that world, yes I think BBE is likely too slow. But it is very unlikely that Wizards wants the format to stay this fast. They cited the turn-four rule when they banned Splinter Twin, and I doubt anything has changed. I’m not willing to speculate on what will actually be banned, but I cannot image that Wizards is okay with the current speed of Modern.

When Modern slows down again, BBE is going to be played. A lot. And her power will be right back to where it was in 2013. Consider this: right now many Jund lists play Kalitas and/or Huntmaster of the Fells despite their costing four mana. Would you play Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet over BBE? Incremental advantage over immediate board presence and card advantage is not a fair fight. If Jund is willing right now to run four-mana creatures, then a better one would definitely see play. Saying that BBE would not see play is not a serious argument.

A Practical Example

I bring this up because I’ve started testing Jace, the Mind Sculptor against Jund and my designated pilot kept asking about testing Bloodbraid against Jace. This is another common argument in favor of unbanning both, because Jace was initially kept in check by BBE (mostly by cascading into Blightning). Now, I normally brush this off by asking if mutually assured destruction is an acceptable policy or if he’s fine with forcing everyone to play BBE or JTMS so they don’t lose to the other one, but he was persistent enough that I indulged him. I would play GW Tron, a known bad matchup for Jund. We’d play ten games without BBE and then he’d get to make his version of Bloodbraid Jund and we’d play another ten games to see what happened. For reference, the Tron deck:

GW Tron, by Max Olszack (2nd, SCG Atlanta Classic)

Creatures (7)
Wurmcoil Engine
World Breaker
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Spellskite

Artifacts (17)
Chromatic Star
Chromatic Sphere
Expedition Map
Oblivion Stone
Relic of Progenitus

Instants (3)
Path to Exile

Planeswalkers (6)
Karn Liberated
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Sorceries (8)
Ancient Stirrings
Sylvan Scrying

Lands (19)
Urza’s Mine
Urza’s Tower
Urza’s Power Plant
Razorverge Thicket
Brushland
Forest
Ghost Quarter
Sanctum of Ugin
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO) Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

We would not be sideboarding. In the first ten games Tron was favored, winning 6-4. The first two losses came from failing to hit Tron at all, one because I kept a hand I should have mulliganed (I leaned on the cantrips too hard). The last two were when Jund successfully stripped my hand of business and raced me with Tarmogoyfs. With our baseline established he went off to build the following Jund list:

Bloodbraid Jund, Test Deck

Creatures (13)
Dark Confidant
Bloodbraid Elf
Grim Flayer
Tarmogoyf

Instants (11)
Lightning Bolt
Terminate
Kolaghan’s Command
Abrupt Decay

Planeswalkers (4)
Liliana of the Veil

Sorceries (8)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Thoughtseize
Maelstrom Pulse

Lands (24)
Blackcleave Cliffs
Verdant Catacombs
Bloodstained Mire
Raging Ravine
Overgrown Tomb
Forest
Swamp
Blood Crypt
Stomping Ground
Twilight Mire
Wooded Foothills
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO) Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

The tables turned. Jund won decisively 7-3. Tron still won games when I hit Karn on turn three, exiled a land, and they had no pressure. But in all other cases BBE pulled Jund farther and farther ahead. In a number of games I had to use Karn to answer a Grim Flayer or Tarmogoyf instead of exiling a land—allowing my opponent the opportunity to follow up with BBE and another spell to finish Karn with some extra value. Kolaghan’s Command also proved a beating. To drive the point home, let me relay an actual test game, which is typical of the games we played.

The Game

On the Play: GW Tron

Opening Hand: Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Power Plant, Chromatic Star, Ancient Stirrings x2, Karn Liberated, World Breaker. Keep.

Jund: Keeps seven.

Turn One GW: Urza’s Power Plant, play Chromatic Star, say go.

Jund: Overgrown Tomb untapped (18), Inquisition of Kozilek taking Stirrings, go.

Turn Two GW: Draw Relic of Progenitus, crack Star for green, draw Brushland, play Ancient Stirrings finding Urza’s Mine, play Tower, go.

Jund: Play Wooded Foothills, fetch Stomping Ground (15), play Tarmogoyf (3/4), go.

Turn Three GW: Draw Chromatic Star, play Mine, play Karn, exile Tarmogoyf (3 loyalty), go.

Jund: Play Blackcleave Cliffs, Thoughtseize taking World Breaker (13), Grim Flayer (4/4), go.

Turn Four GW: Draw Expedition Map, play Star with Mine, use floating mana to crack for green, draw another Mine, play Relic with Plant, use floating mana to crack, drawing Relic. Play Mine, play Expedition Map, exile a card from Jund’s hand (Blackcleave Cliffs, 7 loyalty), go.

Jund: Play Twilight Mire, play Bloodbraid Elf, cascade hits Kolaghan’s Command (bypassing 3 lands), discard and two damage redirected to Karn (5 loyalty), discard Relic, attack with all creatures at Karn (dies). End of Turn, GW uses Tower to pay for World Breaker‘s ability, sacrificing the extra Mine.

Turn Five GW: Draw Urza’s Tower, play Brushland, play World Breaker exiling Blackcleave Cliffs (19), go.

Jund: Play Liliana of the Veil, make GW sacrifice World Breaker, attack for 7 (12), Blackcleave Cliffs, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Abrupt Decay hit the graveyard, go.

Turn Six GW: Draw Path to Exile, play Tower, say go.

Jund: Play Verdant Catacombs, fetch Forest (12), play Bloodbraid Elf, cascade past one land, hit Inquisition of Kozilek. Path to Exile Grim Flayer in response, get Swamp, uptick Liliana, attack for 6 (5), go. End of Turn GW cracks Expedition Map for another Tower.

Turn Seven GW: Draw Expedition Map, concede.

Was my draw a little poor as GW in that game? Yes, and I really should have played out the Relic instead of the Map and saved myself some damage from Flayer. The key here is that if those Bloodbraid Elfs had been any other Jund card my opponent would have had a worse draw! They cascaded past three lands in a row when they were otherwise out of gas on turn four. Playing that creature provided pressure and increased the likelihood that they would continue to draw gas! The second one got two cards that my opponent didn’t want to draw out of the way. This is the true power of Bloodbraid Elf. Even when you miss, you still gain value by improving your future draws.

After our ten game set was complete, my opponent conceded my point that BBE is too good and we got back to testing JTMS. It was driven home when he realized that Grim Flayer could set up BBE. That was when things got stupid.

Recontextualize

Let me put this another way. Ponder and Preordain are banned for enabling degeneracy. These cantrips allow you to draw only the cards you want, which reduces variance and greatly increases deck power. These cards let you look at two to three cards and draw one. If you want to cast a spell that you drew you have to pay mana for it. Bloodbraid Elf lets you look at as many lands or other Elves as are on top of your deck until you hit an eligible spell. Which you then get to cast for free.

In terms of reducing land flood this is a massive improvement over the blue cantrips. Furthermore, you get a free spell. Yes the spell won’t necessarily be good, but it doesn’t matter. By cascading to it you ensure that you don’t draw it! Never underestimate the power of improving your draw steps. Bloodbraid Elf is a powerful card because the ability to eliminate chaff from your draw step is incredibly potent. Getting a 3/2 with haste is a bonus.

So hopefully that explains why I think testing Bloodbraid Elf is largely a waste of time. I believe it’s clearly too good for Modern and should stay banned indefinitely. Incidentally, this really makes me question why we still tolerate Ancient Stirrings, but that’s a subject for another time.

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 “Testing Bloodbraid Elf: An Exercise in Futility

  1. Glad to see some sense being talked here. Bloodbraid Elf is very clearly too good for Modern, and discussing how it impacts Jund’s matchup versus Tron is brilliant. Currently, the two things keeping Jund down are Urza’s Tower and Snapcaster Mage more than anything. BBE is great against both.

  2. Fun math point: Casting Bloodbraid Elf doesn’t actually improve your draws. That bit in your article is based on your experience, not math.

    Sloppy proof:
    1.) For simplicity, let’s assume that cascade triggers on every non-land card in your deck. Let’s assume the remainder of your deck has a K:1 Land-To-Spell ratio.
    2.) When you cascade, the expected number of lands you’re going to flip to the bottom is K. (Your deck is K/(K+1) percent lands. Flipping a M%-heads coin until you hit tails yields an expected number of (1/(1+M) )- 1 heads. Plug in K/K+1 for M and you get an expected number of lands = K.)
    3.) You’re also going to lose 1 spell, ’cause you cast it from the cascade trigger.
    4.) You’ve thus subtracted K lands and 1 spell from the set of cards you could draw next, thus maintaining your K:1 Land-To-Spell ratio

    This math probably changes slightly if you’ve got a couple spells over 4 you could shuffle to the bottom also, and on what you consider “gas”, but fundamentally, cascade triggers don’t change the expected probability of drawing lands.

  3. I will say I’m a little more skeptical of BBE after this, but by no means convinced it needs to stay banned.

    I don’t like a couple of your angles – specifically the idea we shouldn’t be saying a card is not strong and can therefore be unbanned. That is literally the reason something would get unbanned. The fact Bitterblossom, AV, and Sword haven’t rocked the foundations of Modern means they did not belong on the banlist and were justified in coming off. People saying BBE is fine and should be unbanned are saying the same thing – in the spirit of a logical and small banlist it doesn’t belong there, and maybe someone will brew something up with it.

    The other argument I have some issue with is “its fine now, but in the future when Wizards makes other printings/bans/unbans it won’t be”. That is so far out in hypothetical lala land that we can’t take it seriously. You could say this about every card in the format and even when it sounds plausible its still purely speculation and not a sound rationale to make decisions around.

    Finally the Jund question is most certainly not put to rest by picking a matchup where a 4 mana 2-for-1 haste 3 power creature is at its absolute highest impact. That’s like testing stoneforge mystic vs burn and deciding “no way, makes too much of a difference in the match”. I don’t know what the avg 4-drop count in Jund is these days but I believe its been in a steady decline, especially with Dark Confidants in the deck. Bringing that count back up while also dropping kalitas has to hurt your aggro and burn matches as a result due to slower hands and more painful confidant flips and the loss of a big lifelink body. Is it a big deal if Jund can now choose to beat tron and instead lose to burn? I’d think it makes things more interesting as you actually have a choice to make there that didn’t exist before.

    1. WOTC prioritizes limited play and standard in testing new sets, and believes that time spent investigating a new set’s impact on modern or other older formats takes away from their bread and butter, draft and type 2. I mean, how do you print a new card that addresses powerful banned cards like Ponder, Seething Song, or Chrome Mox? They can’t exactly print a blue instant that costs zero and reads “counter target spell named Chrome Mox.”

      WOTC is not going to print hate cards anymore. SOI block didn’t even have any type of graveyard hate, despite the block having a graveyard subtheme with zombies and delirium.

  4. ¨Incidentally, this really makes me question why we still tolerate Ancient Stirrings, but that’s a subject for another time.¨

    THANK YOU!!!! this is the real question in modern, Im a control player and i really dont understand why i cant search for answers in my deck but Tron and Eldrazi can search for threats…

    David i beg you an article about Ancient Stirrings in modern…

  5. I think that most of the argument around Bloodbraid Elf staying banned should center around Cascade. That was clearly a mistake of a mechanic, and WotC is not fond of mistake mechanics seeing the light of day once they’ve been put down. Combine that with the fact that it can swing games by digging Jund out of desperate situations – you might not get the card that you want out of it, but you’re getting to dig for another card, and in an answer-stuffed deck like Jund, that matters a great deal – and I don’t really see it getting unbanned. WotC can always surprise us, I suppose, but I would bet against it.

  6. i dont see the point of these articles. BBE will most likely never see an uban, while jund remains at tier 1 status. more likely to see a become immense ban rather than an ubanning, which is still unlikely. the general consensus seems to be that modern is in a great place, full of diversity and is just downright fun to play. why consider throwing a card in the mix that will most definitely make an already successful archetype even? articles like these just add to the disappointment when i visit this site. for months now there has been no update to tier list, and almost every article is about some hypothetical or just downright boring. you guys should really take a look at what saffron olive is doing. consider that one person is putting out substantive content almost daily, while you guys put out 1 good article a week if that, and you’ll realize what a said state this site is in. hope you guys take this criticism to heart…

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