Bans, Pioneer, Arena, and the Death of Modern

Modern is at a crossroads right now. Between changes in banlist philosophy, the arrival and surging popularity of Pioneer, and the breakout success of Magic: Arena, doomsayers are out in force and quick to declare Modern passé. Today, we’ll explore each of the supposed challenges Modern faces and measure its staying power.

Sporadic Banlists

Towards the end of the year, Wizards made an announcement that sent shockwaves through the Modern community: they resolved to stop releasing banlists on a predetermined schedule.

Going forward, we’ll no longer be making a commitment in advance to when the next B&R update will be. While we still expect changes to come in a similar pace, and will always announce changes on a Monday, we’ll be allowing some flexibility in the exact week of changes.

The article went on to discuss the benefits of Wizards allowing itself more flexibility in timing its banlists, chief among them avoiding tournaments with “unhealthy” metagames. That advantage, says the company, will translate to more players actually participating in tournaments, as nobody wants to travel to an event just to play a broken format.

Players I’ve spoken with about the change seemed more skeptical. Arguments against sporadic banlists tend to focus on the fact that players won’t know for a long while when a banlist is coming, which could have adverse effects on card pricing and render players even more unsure about which tournaments to make travel arrangements around.

Peeking Into the Shadow Realm

Which brings us to Yu-Gi-Oh!, a game that’s had sporadic banlists for over five years. Indeed, the online community is constantly raging at the structure in place: Konami willfully allows Tier 0 decks to dominate for months on end, mass-reprints the broken product, and then issues bans once players have their hands on the cheaper versions, only to usher in a new Tier 0 format fueled by whatever new expansion has just released.

The banlists, for their part, are always offered with no explanation and feature this message: “The next update after this will be no sooner than March 30, 2020” (or other arbitrary future date). So players are told for how long they can definitely play their new decks for, but not how long after that point they’ll be able to. In some cases, such as was the case a couple years ago, the banlist has taken upwards of 10 months past the listed date to be announced, out of the blue as always, after months of players complaining.

If that sounds overblown or hellish to you, Magic reader, consider how good we have things on this side. Wizards is certainly taking one step in the direction of Konami’s banlist policy. But one step will still leave us pretty far-off from Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s Tier 0 dystopia.

There’s also the fact to consider that Konami maintains their banlist policy despite online vitriol. At the end of the day, they’re not going to want to implement a structure that players hate enough to stop playing; they have the numbers, and are probably happy with the way things are going financially. By that same token, Wizards has the numbers on its side, and I’m confident whatever change they make to Magic will be done so with the aims of drawing new players and keeping old ones. I for one am grateful that a vocal internet minority does not dictate the way they do things at corporate.

Price of Success

I do expect this change to dramatically affect secondary market prices, which have always been a hot topic for Modern players.

With scheduled banlist updates, the prices of banned cards would always creep upwards near the announcement; the prices of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic, and Bloodbraid Elf saw wild rides every announcement years before they ever saw the light of day in Modern. Similarly, with an announcement on the horizon, the prices of staples played in high-tier decks would trend downwards, and players proved more hesitant to buy into popular decks like Phoenix and Hogaak around that time.

Modern prices are notoriously high and volatile for a number of reasons, scheduled banlist announcements being just one of them. But if anything, this change should alleviate some amount of pricing pressure on secondary market singles.

The Rise of Pioneer

Something a bit more concerning for Modern is the new format on the block, Pioneer. Multiple local game stores I know of have noticed a sharp decline in Modern attendance lately, coupled with a steady uptick in Pioneer interest. I attribute Pioneer’s popularity to a few factors and think it poses a threat to Modern numbers-wise, but not necessarily in the long-run.

New God Flow

Novelty gets the juices flowing. Heck, it’s what prompted the creation of Modern Nexus in the first place. There’s no feeling quite like carving out niches in a brand-new format. And while Modern continues to home countless tech innovations, the developments we’re seeing in this format can’t compare to those of a brand-new landscape.

A major factor in Pioneer’s appeal is its newness, but on the flip side of the coin, the format lacks a stable identity. As soon as it gains one, Wizards corrects the skew with a ban. That process is more or less normal at this stage, but it means too that as Pioneer ages, its novelty will wear off and be replaced with reliable format pillars. Whether those pillars are fun for players to play with remains to be seen, and will help decide the level of Pioneer’s popularity down the road.

Why Modern Sucks in 96

Besides the allure of something new, Pioneer is also buoyed by content creators hungry for new material. I’ll even admit that it can be tough to come up with Modern-related articles week after week when so much of the Magic community has its attention focused on where the action is!

Additionally, many of Magic‘s content juggernauts are also card stores, giving their writers a direct financial incentive to talk up Pioneer: old, dead stock becomes valuable overnight if a promising brew features them. Modern went through a phase like this, too, but now its time is up; cards skyrocket in price when speculators buy them out, something that mostly happens when breakthrough likelihood (or perceived interest in a given strategy) is high. The bar is already so elevated for cards and strategies to break into Modern that many have become disillusioned with new ideas here; in Pioneer, the opposite is true, and cards that haven’t moved in years are tripling in price.

Forever Little Brother

With all that said, I don’t think Pioneer is set to replace Modern, now or ever. In fact, I think once the hype dies down, the format will be living in Modern’s shadow.

The pivotal factor distinguishing Modern and Pioneer from Legacy and Vintage is the Reserved List, which prevents certain cards from ever being reprinted. In practice, the two newer formats are identical: they include all cards from a certain point on and feature their own unique banlists. In other words, they share the same niche as nonrotating, non-Reserved-List formats; Pioneer just has a smaller card pool, and as such will rapidly gain an enduring reputation as “Modern-lite.”

Even once Pioneer has established its own format identity and developed a cohesive metagame, its players are likely to see it as a stepping stone into Modern. Indeed, it’s in Wizards’ financial interest to continue pushing Modern that way. The format was once touted as a place for rotating Standard cards to continue seeing play; nowadays, the bar is too high for many of those cards to enter the picture. So they can transition first to Pioneer, which replaces Modern as a just-out-of-Standard option. And Modern, with its storied history, enormous card pool, and shared lack of a reserved list, awaits the next graduation of Standard-cum-Pioneer players into its arms.

It may well happen that eventually, Wizards sees the need for another power reboot, or a nonrotating, non-Reserved-List format with an even later cutoff date than Pioneer’s. Should that happen, I believe Modern will hang on as the older format of choice, while Pioneer fades into the background entirely as a holdover format.

Step Into the Arena

While the Level 0 is to assume Arena replaces Magic Online, each platform has its purpose going forward: the former is for Standard and limited, and the latter is for competitively playing nonrotating constructed formats. But yes, for draft and Standard formats, it does seem like Arena has supplanted Magic Online; it’s sleek, flashy, easy to use, and features plenty of quality-of-life upgrades (less queuing, easier collection management, etc.). Which begs the question: how does Arena affect Modern?

Tempting Our Faithful

Modern’s reputation as a hub of innovation and discovery attracted players keen on the idea of putting something new together and expressing themselves through deckbuilding. Now that the format is more solved, it’s harder to break through with a new strategy than it used to be, giving these players less of a home here. The fresher Pioneer format affords more such opportunities, as does draft format.

Another draw to Modern is one shared by most constructed formats: the idea that once a deck is purchased, players can use it forever. Conversely, getting into limited formats instead means coughing up $15 every tournament for a few booster packs. Not so on Arena, which lets players draft for free; plus, the “my deck is safe” mentality has all but evaporated in the wake of Modern shake-ups and bannings.

These elements provide incentive for somewhat dissatisfied or frustrated Modern players to turn towards Arena. Part of the Modern attendance dip being reported is probably attributable to Arena’s poaching of these players.

Burning Paper

Forget about the death of Modern—what about the death of paper Magic altogether? Wizards is pushing the brand in a digital direction, but I don’t find this argument so compelling. There’s no evidence that a totally digital brand is their end-game. Looking back at Yu-Gi-Oh!, Konami too went digital with their own Arena-style alt-game in Duel Links (itself hugely successful) and nonetheless sells plenty of cardboard. I’d imagine it’s better for the company’s bottom line to have its paws on as many markets as possible than to deliberately cut itself off an existing market.

Wings of Hope

Pioneer is likely coming to Arena, which makes sense for a couple key reasons: it sells more new product than Modern, and has more buzz behind it. I don’t think that paper-wise, and in the long-run, it will ever overtake Modern. But I’d brace for the format lull to continue as Pioneer finds its footing.

In my eyes, Modern remains a safe format to invest in. Some cards may drop in price, sure, but the format’s pace grinding to a halt outside of small communities, as has Legacy’s, seems extremely remote to me. Modern simply doesn’t have the logistical hurdles that Legacy does; the format was even created to avoid such pitfalls. As long as we play it, it’s here to stay!

2 thoughts on “Bans, Pioneer, Arena, and the Death of Modern

  1. Although I’ve been playing the format for years now, I’d consider myself a casual-but very committed–modern player. I attend my weekly FNM three or more times a month and have been fiercely loyal to my two decks: Merfolk and Burn. And while I’d consider myself just a “casual” player, I’d argue that players like myself are vitally important to the health of the game and, let’s be honest, 2019 was not a friendly year to guys like me.

    To us, 2019 didn’t just see some shakeups, it was a monunmental, wholescale, top to bottom, earthshakingly difficult year. There’s been plenty talk about powerleap (forget powercreep) and I know that this particular dead horse has been well beaten, but let’s be honest, Wizard’s philosophy for the sets that were released in 2019 turned many players like me off of the format (and if not for Pioneer it would have been MTG as a whole). I know people want to play with powerful cards, but too much of a “good” –or in this case “powerful”– thing can be a problem, and someone needs to be the adult in the room. For guys like me it seems like Wizards abandoned that role, and I can’t fathom why. They would’ve sold cards either way.

    They’ve printed a slew of cards that shook the format/s so violently that what has emerged is something totally different. Something that guys like me don’t seem to enjoy. I used to enjoy playing modern. But then they printed Hogaak and Urza. I used to enjoy playing modern, then they printed Karn and 3feri. I used to enjoy playing modern–then Amulet Titan, an already remarkably power deck, got a full grip of new cards and morphed into some unholy, uncontrollable monster. Wizards R&D has never been perfect at walking that line between powerful and broken, but they were at least cognicent of the line. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. I thought there was a play-test committee whose job it was to catch these things? Why is Mystic Sanctuary an Island?–I’m just a filthy casual, but even I could see that was going to be busted. Why does 3feri have 4 starting loyalty? Why does Viel of Summer draw a card? Once Upon a Time, Oko–do I even need to ask?

    I need a reason to keep opening up my deck box and playing Magic in my local game store. If I’m just going to get my teeth kicked in by busted planeswalkers, broken artifact strategies, lands I can’t interact with, etc. then I’m not going to do that. I love this game, but I did not enjoy 2019, and it’s going to be with us–eternally.

    1. I think power creep has been a part of Modern since the format was created, but we’ve only recently (IMO, since Fatal Push) approached the level of cards like Bolt and Goyf taking drastic hits in playability. I do think this change plays to Wizards’ ultimate vision for the format, which as I understand is shared by many players—all the powerful new cards you mentioned replace a “chosen few” that were played before thanks to redefining shakeup printings like Push. I actually noted in a post-Push article that the number of viable creatures in Modern had gone up significantly since the instant’s release: https://modernnexus.com/pushing-back-how-goyf-2017/

      I am getting a little sidetracked here! But I do think we’re currently at a pivotal moment for Modern. Not that Wizards has some new grand plan to phase the format out, but strategically. And yes, older players expecting more of the same are (and have been) in for a rude awakening! Hopefully, with those that end up dropping the format for something else, two new players spring up, transitioning from Standard or Pioneer or even Commander. Modern will thrive and be supported as long as there’s demand for it, unlike something like Legacy which is doomed by the Reserved List.

      Anyway, thanks for the post Dan, and may your pet decks (whatever they are?) steal some wins at this year’s FNMs!

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