Every three months a new set is released and people get really excited for Standard. Moderners get excited too, but not for the same reasons—each set release brings the possibility of an update to the Banned and Restricted list. Most of the time the entire article amounts to “no changes,” but every once in a while there are some updates that really shake up the format. The last big one was the banning of Eye of Ugin, which caused a big upset in its price tag as well as others. For months, Modern card prices had been suppressed if they weren’t part of the overly dominant Eldrazi menace. Then you have the run on Bloodbraid Elf that happens every three months because some Jund players believe that this is the time it will get unbanned. All in all, banned list changes, or the threat of them, can carry significant financial consequences.
It’s easy to look at a banning or unbanning after the fact and imagine how well off you would have been if you’d guessed correctly at the outcome. Why didn’t I just buy some Bitterblossoms in the lead-up to their unbanning? Why didn’t I sell off my foiled-out Pod deck when everyone knew it was oppressively powerful? And so on. In reality, managing the financial implications of owning (or speculating on) Modern cards is trickier than this. To account for the potential losses or gains that we can’t predict with precision in advance, we have to consider the concepts of risk and reward.
Speculating on Banned Cards
Speculating on banned cards is certainly the most glamorous thing to do. Buy a thousand copies of Bloodbraid Elf, it gets unbanned, and you’re a millionaire, right? Probably not. There is a lot of risk associated with the banlist, and most of the time owning a card when it’s unbanned isn’t actually better than owning already-legal staples. There are a couple of cards where I think the risk is pretty low but the reward is probably equally low. Some other cards will never be considerations to be removed from the banlist.
Let’s take a card-by-card look at what could happen if you buy banlist cards. Because people love grades, I will be grading each card in reference to each other. I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules but they will all be relative to each other. Also, keep in mind that I’m not predicting what will or will not come off the banlist. I’m merely speculating at the likelihood, and evaluating the potential value of holding these cards when and if that happens.
The five colored artifact lands have been banned since the beginning of Modern and there is really no reason for that to ever change. Risk of them coming off the banlist is very low. They’re all between $0.50 and $2 but because they’re all commons it’s really tied to the age of Mirrodin rather than demand for the cards. These are the types of cards that could easily make it into a supplemental booster set like Eternal Masters or Conspiracy. The risk of a reprint rendering them basically worthless is high. Overall, I think this is a pretty poor place to put your money.
Birthing Pod has often been described as Dark Ritual stapled to Demonic Tutor for one mana and two life. All Phyrexian mana cards are likely a mistake and this one is probably not going to come off the banlist. Unless Wizards of the Coast decides on a rotating banlist I wouldn’t put any money on Birthing Pod. It’s currently $5.50 down from a peak of $18. Due to the fact that this was in an event deck, there are a lot of copies available and an unbanning wouldn’t drive the price up enough to be worth the investment. Although the reprint risk is low and there is casual demand, I don’t think this is a card you should invest in if you only play Modern.
This card is very cheap and only printed in one set, Betrayers of Kamigawa. Although it was one of the first cards put on the banlist for Modern, I don’t think it’s destined to stay there. It functions very similar to Become Immense, which continues to flourish. I think this is a fine card to buy if you would like to play with it, but if Become Immense gets banned I would throw in the towel. The reprint risk is pretty low (weird mechanic) and since they’re only about $1.50 each right now I think they’re a reasonable investment.
Right now, the cheapest copy of Bloodbraid Elf is about $2.50. If this drops back to $1.50 again before the next Banned and Restricted Update (during the release of Aether Revolt) then it might just be free money to buy them. While I don’t think it is the most likely to come off the banlist, people seem to think it will, which causes the price to rise right before the announcement every three months. The Elf is one of the more fair cards to be on the banlist and I think those are the types of cards most likely to eventually come off.
Chrome Mox, Hypergenesis, Rite of Flame, Seething Song, Eye of Ugin, Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Summer Bloom, Dread Return
Lumping all of these cards together for a failing grade might seem like it’s a little weird but they all cheat the same way. Cards that do things for significantly less than they cost are very difficult to interact with. I think all of these cards will stay on the banlist as long as Modern exists. As such, they all receive an F grade because there is just no reason to buy them.
Cloudpost, Dark Depths
These are both lands that combo with other lands. Wizards doesn’t really want you to have to play 4 Ghost Quarter in every deck to be competitive. Cloudpost does largely the same things as Urzatron but faster. Dark Depths is a very hard-to-beat combo with Thespian’s Stage. I assume they don’t want to have to ban Vesuva or Thespian’s Stage in order to unban these cards that are fundamentally unfair. Either way I don’t see a way these make it off the banlist right now, meaning they’re a poor investment.
This card has been proven to be too good before, but maybe that could change? The powerful mana dork has just been reprinted and is at an all-time low. I wouldn’t expect another reprint for a few more years and I think it’s safe enough to come back at some time. Right now there isn’t a compelling reason to bring it back so there is still risk. Overall I think this is a medium spec if you want to buy some. They’re cheap, they should tick up slowly, and they’ll explode if unbanned.
Glimpse of Nature, Umezawa’s Jitte, Skullclamp, Mental Misstep
Two of these three cards are Legacy all-stars. The other two are banned in Legacy. All of them have one thing in common—they promote some pretty unhealthy game play. Elves is a good deck without Glimpse and creature decks don’t really work when someone has an Umezawa’s Jitte. The risk of reprints here is lower on some cards than others but I think the chance they come off the banlist is tenuous at best.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Green Sun’s Zenith, Stoneforge Mystic
These are some of the “fairest” cards on the ban list. I’m not going to defend any card as needing to come off the banlist but they all feel much closer to Wild Nacatl than Skullclamp. The original Modern banlist included all of these cards (except Green Sun’s Zenith which got added a month later) and Ancestral Vision, Bitterblossom, Golgari Grave-Troll, Sword of the Meek, and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. The quality of newer cards allows for older banned cards to come off with more ease.
I firmly believe that Jace and Stoneforge being banned had a lot to do with the fact that they were banned in Standard two months prior to the announcement of Modern. At this point I’m not sure Jace is even actually better than Nahiri. I’m not arguing he isn’t but rather that there is an argument to be made. Ultimately these cards have both been reprinted (two actually in the same set) and are played in Legacy. There’s a world I could conceive of where after the GP Promo for Stoneforge Mystic and the two additional printings of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, they could be safely unbanned without causing a rift in Modern prices. I think it’s safe to say there are more Jaces than Ancestral Visions and Vision is only $50. The short version is that I think they can and will consider unbanning these cards at some point. Both cards would react to an unbanning with steep price jumps, and neither is likely to lose much due to Legacy play.
Due to the fact that these are pretty widely played commons I don’t think there is much to be gained even if they get unbanned. Much like artifact lands, you have much more to lose than gain by buying them.
This is a card that I think has a reasonable chance of becoming unbanned but which won’t be the source of any real gains. The combo with Grove of the Burnwillows makes Grove the card that will see the most gains. The supply of Punishing Fires will greatly outpace the available Groves so you’re better off owning those than actual copies of Punishing Fire. If Grove of the Burnwillows got a Standard reprint, however, then I would consider buying Punishing Fire.
Second Sunrise, Sensei’s Divining Top
Neither of these cards are banned for power, but because of time concerns. Eggs was a slow deck to win and had a large enough failure rate to make conceding a poor choice. Sensei’s Divining Top takes a lot of time to play because of the constant card manipulation. It’s almost worse than fetchlands. These cards are also abysmal for coverage. Neither has any business coming off the banlist.
I’ll start out by saying I have some really sad foil Splinter Twins and Deceiver Exarchs in my long-term binder. I think there is a world where we get Twin back at some time. I don’t know when and can’t really expect a reprint before then. My advice is if you still own Twins, hold them. They’re not worth selling but they’re also not really worth buying.
Considering Risk in Your Modern Deck
The flip side of this is keeping an eye on cards at risk of being banned or reprinted. Obviously if you want to keep playing your favorite deck into the ground until they pry it from your cold dead hands, you might as well keep your cards. But if you have extra copies of these sitting around, or ones you don’t expect to use any time soon, it’s prudent to consider the risk of holding them.
A number of cards are on the radar for the banlist. Once again, this is not me making an argument that they should be banned but rather that they could be banned.
Simian Spirit Guide
This card functions very similarly to the banned Rite of Flame. It’s very unique and not quite as abusable in multiples but there is a lot of risk in a $5 Planar Chaos common. To reiterate, there are no decks that play Simian Spirit Guide as a fair Magic card. They’re trying to cheat on mana and execute a degenerate combo. Combo cards are at the highest risk of being banned. Many of the Spirit Guide decks (like Ad Nauseum) could become unplayable if it becomes banned—this puts additional risk on the rest of the cards in those decks.
This card, much like Chrome Mox, allows you to generate extra mana on the first turn. It’s legendary and requires metalcraft to activate but it’s still really good. Mox Opal is very expensive as it’s a mythic and it allows for some of the most unfair Affinity starts. Unlike the Spirit Guide, banning Mox Opal doesn’t make Affinity unplayable, just slower. If Wizards of the Coast deems that Modern is moving too quickly, this is a card they are likely to look at.
Yeah, I know I talked about it as a reason that Blazing Shoal could become unbanned but the same logic applies in reverse. If Blazing Shoal continues to remain banned, why is Become Immense legal? Shoal and Become Immense are both playable in Legacy and those Infect decks choose to play Become Immense. If the hoops to jump through to get Shoal working aren’t worth it, is Become Immense just better? I would pay attention to the results of Death’s Shadow Zoo and Infect to see if there may be more eyes on Become Immense. Due to the fact that it’s pretty new and cheap it’s unlikely to have a serious financial impact if banned.
This is the last bastion of unfair cards that continue to survive the banned list update. There is a non-zero risk that this card is eventually deemed too problematic to continue to exist. It will probably involve printing a combat creature better than Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Griselbrand, but with the way Magic is going that isn’t impossible. This card is similar to Through the Breach but comes with a three-mana discount. I think that is enough to set them apart.
Bringing It Full Circle
I know it’s no fun thinking about banning cards and it feels great wishing for unbannings, but at the end of the day you can mitigate a lot of risk by buying wisely. If you’re stuck deciding whether to buy Burn or Bogles then it probably doesn’t matter. But if you’re debating between Ad Nauseum and Storm, then there’s definitely some risk that your deck could become a banlist casualty. Tread carefully!
Next week I unfortunately won’t have an article ready for you, as I’ve been very busy testing for the upcoming Pro Tour. So leave me a comment on what you’d like to read the following week, and wish me luck at the PT!
Jim Casale is a well-established Magic player who has plenty of experience grinding the tournament circuit. He qualified for his first Pro Tour in 2016 and likes to talk about hockey. You can find him on Twitter @Phrost_.