Modern Banlist Update (9/28): No Changes

Praise be to Wizards! The 9/28 B&R Announcement went live this morning, yet again demonstrating Wizards is a competent and conservative manager for our beloved format. As in the July 2015 announcement, this is easily one of the best “No Changes” updates we could have asked for. Hopefully Wizards keeps these updates coming because I have dozens of these calm and peaceful Plains arts left in the gallery!

Plains Art MTG

Trevor is off today and his video series is going to go up later in the week, so for now we’re going to take a quick look at the announcement and its implications for Modern. Of course, the Plains art above is a bit misleading: Legacy and Vintage had some big changes that are sure to reverberate throughout their metagames (hope you bought those Black Vises because the buyout is in full force). For us Modern players, however, it’s business as usual as we enjoy a diverse metagame that doesn’t currently need bans or unbans.

Nothing to Ban…

I didn’t even bother making a Modern Nexus banlist prediction last week because it seemed like such an obvious “No Changes” update. For the sake of posterity, here’s the prediction I made on the MTG Salvation forums over the weekend: “There will be no changes on Monday.” This prediction, and the resulting announcement, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Modern since July. The format is extremely healthy, there are dozens of viable decks across the archetype spectrum, and tournament attendance is very strong.

Despite these conditions, I know there will be critics of Wizards’ 9/28 announcement, both for the lack of bannings and also the lack of unbannings. To understand why these criticisms are misplaced and misguided, we need to step back and look at what cards people tend to want banned, and how those cards actually exist in Modern.

Whenever players start talking about Modern, even not related to the banlist, I expect the usual banlist suspects to show up about as regularly as I count on Donald Trump to talk about his beautiful and inexpensive wall. Everyone has seen these cards in action and seen them discussed online. Everyone also has an opinion on them, often a strongly worded one and often one with zero evidential backing:

bloomAmulet of Vigor / Summer Bloom
Griselbrand / Goryo’s Vengeance
Simian Spirit Guide
All of 8th and 9th Edition
Ensnaring Bridge (a newby but a goodie)
Splinter Twin

Quite honestly, this list is actually much longer and wackier than even these cards suggest. We recently conducted a poll on MTG Salvation to see what cards the community wanted banned. I don’t know what’s more upsetting: the fact that all those cards needed to be on the list, or the fact that almost every card got some votes. If you know those four people who wanted Thoughtseize banned, give them a big hug from me and tell them it’s going to be okay.

Most ban advocates rely too heavily on personal opinions of the format, downplaying (or flatly ignoring) the metagame context. They also often ignore the historical ban precedents and the rules articulated by Wizards around those precedents. Once you consider all these factors, a “No Changes” announcement during a month like September is not just obvious, it’s actually the only reasonable and expected outcome for the format.

Ensnaring BridgeJust take a look at our 7/1-7/31 and 8/1-8/31 metagame updates. Do those even remotely look like metagames that need a banning? Spoiler alert: the upcoming 9/1-9/30 update is just as diverse. The same goes for all the recent tournaments and their own Day 2 metagames and T8s/T16s. GP Oklahoma City and SCG Cincinnati were both incredibly open and also incredibly interesting. Even ignoring the high-profile (and, perhaps, anomalous) Lantern Control finish, we saw a wide field of tier 1 staples (Affinity, Jund, Twin) along with lower-tier contenders (Merfolk, Infect, Scapeshift, Zoo, etc.). We also saw considerable variation within strategies, including BGx, Twin, and the Company decks.

As for the individual cards in these decks, there is simply no reason to consider any of them for banning. Turn four violators only matter insofar as their decks are top-tier. With Amulet Bloom and Grishoalbrand hovering under 4% and 1%-1.5% metagame shares respectively, you simply can’t justify banning anything from those decks. Modern players love to forget this “top-tier” stipulation, which is why I’ll keep on repeating it until it sticks. The same goes for so-called “unfun” cards like Blood Moon and Ensnaring Bridge, which either perform an important policing role in the metagame (Moon) or aren’t in enough decks to be a problem (Bridge).

Moving past the turn four rule, we have the format-dominance cards like Twin, Goyf, Eidolon of the Great Revel, or whatever other suggestion the ban maniacs fixate on for the week. Although these cards could become problems one day, it is not this day. These decks would need to occupy Pod or Delver-level shares to become a problem, and we have a long way to go before any current deck in Modern sustains 15%+ metagame prevalence.

If you, or those you are reading, aren’t considering both the metagame context and the banlist rules, then banlist discussion will be meaningless. Today’s announcement is an excellent example of those principles in action and I hope we keep them in mind for future B&R updates.

…and Nothing to Unban

Unbanning cards is a much trickier process than banning them. A ban is almost always about the metagame and historical facts (Dig Through Time was an exception to this, although today’s announcement vindicated it). This includes some combination of T8/T16 prevalence, overall format share, and the effect of a particular deck on other decks around it. There’s also a semi-mythical cutoff for decks that win “too frequently” before turn four, and even though we don’t know it, we have previous decks to draw on for evidence (UR Storm, Shoal Infect, etc.). None of these approaches are guaranteed to produce a good banning, or a good ban prediction, but they are at least grounded in existing evidence about actual metagames.

BbeUnbannings, however, are far less certain than bans. With an unbanning, you are necessarily proposing a counterfactual to the existing metagame. Barring extensive gauntlet-style testing (which we have no reason to assume Wizards does and can also be inaccurate), you can’t know how any unban will affect the metagame. Can you make guesses based on precedent? Sure: a Bloodbraid Elf unban would probably benefit Jund and Naya decks more than anything else. Then again, can you know how those guesses will play out in the format or alongside new decks and cards that didn’t exist in the past? Not with confidence. Sometimes you have a scenario where Bitterblossom doesn’t do anything despite dominating old Extended seasons for years. Other times, you can end up with Legacy-style situations where a Entomb unban leads to a Mystical Tutor ban only a few months later.

Ancestral VisionThe July and September announcements both show Wizards is taking a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to Modern. It also shows they respect the uncertainty around unbans and want to proceed cautiously. Even seemingly inconspicuous cards like Sword of the Meek could have a major effect on undoing the (perhaps tenuous) gains aggro decks have made in the last year. Ancestral Vision might not break the format, but with both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time banned/restricted in every nonrotating or eternal format, I understand Wizards’ hesitance to pull that trigger. As for Bloodbraid, just look at those Naya and Jund shares. Do these decks really need help? Does Jund, of all the decks in Modern, honestly need better cards?

I know many players and authors believe Wizards only unbans cards around the Modern Pro Tour in January. As with many things in life, I think that’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. On the one hand, Wizards has real incentive to focus major bans/unbans around a high-profile event like the Pro Tour. On the other hand, Wizards legitimately needs time to see how a format shapes out, and an annual cycle makes a lot of sense for that. If Wizards is just amassing datapoints, the Pro Tour timing is just incidental to their primary goal. Either way, the end result is the same: no unbans before January. This, coupled with all the other factors mentioned above, should have made today’s update unsurprising “No Changes” in the unbanning department.

January’s Banlist Update

swordI have no idea what we are going to see in that January 18 update. If I had to guess right now, it would be no bans whatsoever and either a Sword unban and/or a Vision unban. With respect to bannings, I don’t envision metagame diversity declining in the leadup to January. Even Affinity, which is currently just over 11% of the format, is likely to drop by then. The “broken” decks are also likely to stay underplayed as Modern players keep gaining experience in beating them. As for unbans, it will depend how entrenched certain archetypes remain. If we still see a metagame at 25% aggro (Burn, Affinity, Naya Company, etc.), then Sword seems like a safe and reasonable unban. Vision is trickier: I only expect Vision to come back if BGx returns to a 12%+ share and Grixis/Twin decks are lagging under 8% each.

What did you think of today’s announcement? Are there any cards you wanted to see unbanned or, dare I ask, banned in Modern? What expectations do you have looking ahead to January? You can bet I’ll be checking the comments to continue the conversation. Until then, let’s enjoy our diverse format and the exciting Modern events on the year-end horizon!

23 thoughts on “Modern Banlist Update (9/28): No Changes

  1. Mostly agree with your points.

    I do have one comment on the mtgsalvation poll: it asked “what do you WANT to see unbanned” not “what do you THINK will be unbanned”. Personally, I want (eventual) unbans on visions, sword, jace, bloodbraid elf, top, and preordain. Do I want all (or even more than one) of these at the same time? absolutely not, with the exception of jace/BBE that I think make a fine unban pair. Did I expect to see any unbans at all this announcement? No, not at all, because like you I’m an analytical guy (math degree in structures and algebraic systems). Do I expect (and will be very much disappointed in the lack of) an unban in the January announcement? Yes, and probably on either sword of the meek or visions, depending very much on the metagame during late October, November, and early December.

    1. I agree with that interpretation. I try not to extrapolate too much from the poll precisely because users can interpret it in different ways. But it’s a great general gauge of the Modern community’s feelings towards certain cards. Coupled with all the other stuff we’ve heard in articles, forums, and our own local scenes, it’s also a pretty good indicator of how wildly some people’s banlist views differ from others.

  2. Recently I searched to find out why exactly Sword of The Meek is banned at all and stumbled across some thopter combo deck. While I can agree that in earliest years of modern it could cause some problems, right now that combo doesn’t seem like a big problem, not like it’s completely uninteractive and unfun one.

    1. One issue is that it might make aggro decks significantly worse in Modern by providing an early stabilizer those decks can’t handle. It might also slot into Grixis decks or other UBx control builds, pushing those decks over other options. Although I’m not too worried about those dangers, I still respect they exist and appreciate Wizards’ conservatism in unbanning Swords.

  3. That poll is glorious – someone there actually wanted Glistener Elf banned. Glistener Elf! That’s amazing.

    On a more serious note, though, I can definitely understand why WotC decided not to unban anything, but I really would have liked to have seen Sword of the Meek. I don’t particularly like playing the type of deck it fits into (Tezzerator/Esper Control), but I think it would be a fun addition to the meta overall.

    1. I think we’ll all be happy for January when we see a Sword unban (or maybe even a Vision unban). Not sure if it would fit into the fringe decks people think it would, but its presence would be a neat addition to the format.

  4. “If you know those four people who wanted Thoughtseize banned, give them a big hug from me and tell them it’s going to be okay.”

    I chuckled, but the four unfortunate dudes who want Thoughtseize banned aren’t necessarily idiots. There’s so much confusion about Modern’s banlist precisely because Wizards has never been clear and transparent with the playerbase about it. Sheridan, you’ve taken a good look at the facts and have a really solid idea of the direction Wizards wants to take with Modern, something reflected in your constantly accurate banlist predictions. I’m just not sure it’s fair to pick on those who haven’t done so, for whatever reason – they lack time, they haven’t thought to do it themselves, or they don’t possess the analytical gifts you do.

    Add to that the banmania every LGS falls prey too, and it becomes easy for “the little guy,” who plays Modern once a week with a five-month-old Burn deck, to feel sore after losing to Nourishing Shoal, a card he’s never even seen before, on turn two. All he knows about the banlist is that his friend’s foil Pod deck got nuked seemingly out of the blue.

    I’m assuming your goal with these articles is to educate those players. After all, you’ve explored the issues at hand, and have done the work necessary to truly understand the banlist. I don’t think the most productive way to share that knowledge includes poking fun at those less Modern-inclined, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to us that someone out there wants Thoughtseize or Ensnaring Bridge banned.

    It’s funny to us (yes, to me too) that someone wants the hammer dropped on Glistener Elf, but it’s also indicative of a serious problem with the community that Modern Nexus has the tools to address respectfully.

    1. I think this is a (very) low degree of “pick[ing] on” as far as articles can go, and it’s supported with ample explanations about better ways to look at the banlist. Given all the frameworks introduced in this article, and those discussed elsewhere, I think we are definitely moving towards our goal of educating the community and helping them to understand these complicated issues. Little jokes like these add much more than they detract, especially given how impersonal and inoffensive they are, and especially when considering all the information around them.

  5. Rather than trying to upend the format with unbanning cards for the sake of an interesting pro tour, I’d personally be more interested in seeing what they can produce of new cards. I realise having the card enter the Modern card pool through Standard creates limits and that it may even take more time than the few week between spoiler season to Pro Tour to realise what’s a good card, but personally I feel much better about Jund/Grixis rising on the back of new cards like Tasigur and Kolaghan’s Command than old/new archetypes rising from the ashes on the back of an unbanned cad.

    1. I also think there is more space for format improvement in printings than in unbannings. Or even reprintings! It’s unclear how much Wizards does this in practice, so I can’t count too much on it. On the one hand, we see clear Modern tributes like Goblin Piledriver. On the other hand, Goblin Piledriver isn’t eve doing anything right now, and we know Wizards doesn’t do testing for Modern. So we’ll have to see where the new sets take us!

  6. Good article Sheridan.

    I feel a lot of the modern mtg community doesn’t think considerably before they type on reddit/mtgsalvation. If you look at what they want:

    a) each new set to contribute to the non-rotating format (looking at the complaints regarding Origins and BFZ); and
    b) bans and unbans at the drop of a hat; AND
    c) the one deck they can afford to remain competitive forever. The suggested bans are always for someone else’s deck.

    It’s like they hate money and the possibility of their deck being impacted, and want a format defined by power creep and wildly changing metagames. But then without any warning turn around when the metagame does change and post a million “I just bought into pod waa waa” threads.

    I am glad that the community’s collective opinion (hopefully) isnt taken into account when deciding the ban and unban changes each quarter.

    The modern metagame appears to be currently evolving with a mass of competitive decks. I think the next few months will see the contenders solidify and the pretenders drop off. We’re still seeing Kolaghan’s Command work its way through the format.

    It is possible this process may be finished by January in time for the meta to be shaken up a little. Even if they didnt change anything in time for the pro tour, seeing the pro teams and deck choices would be amazingly interesting, especially when they would have knowledge and time to sit down and really try to crack the format.

  7. “As for Bloodbraid, just look at those Naya and Jund shares. Do these decks really need help? Does Jund, of all the decks in Modern, honestly need better cards?”

    Jund potentially gets better cards with every set, though I suppose your argument could be on wizards’ minds. The deck is doing fine, why change any of it?

    The common argument I hear about BBE is that they banned the wrong card. Deathrite Shaman did WAY too much for too little cost (“1-mana Planeswalker”). BBE is a 2:1, though that is commensurate with its 4 CMC. Still, DRS was relatively new at that time and Jund was already dominant, so I can’t say I blame wizards for banning old shenanigans while letting people brew. Their ends seemed to have justified the means.

    The current Jund deck has picked up several mainstays since 2013 in Huntmaster, Olivia, Scooze, Tasigur, and Kolaghan’s Comand, so BBE would have a lot of competition for slots were it to be unbanned. This brings us full-circle to the previous point: nothing is broken, so let it be.

    1. Huntmaster and Olivia are only played in the absence of a better 4drop. Both Huntmaster and Olivia were around at the time BBE was banned, but neither was played exactly because a better 4drop, BBE, was legal. I’d be surprised if anyone ran either if BBE would re-enter the format.

  8. I’m just generally interested in the unbanning of Sword. Hoping to not start any flame wars, but anyone who feels one way or the other let me know why in reply. I’m inclined to call it safe because it is not infinite and is vulnerable to artifact and grave hate. At the same time, Affinity falls to Stony Silence because they lack interaction. Hypothetically it’ll be harder to stick against a Control deck. It also doesn’t require much from the deck it slots into either; you just need blue and black/white. So I’m iffy on it. What do you think?

  9. Hi Sheridan, I am an active poster on mtg salvation as well, may I know your username there that I may look out for your post as well?
    Glad that there is no changes. I don’t see a need to change things as it is now as there isn’t any oppressing deck at the moment.

  10. I’d be surprised if we see any unbans come January, though Sword is probably the safest one given how Modern has developed. Wizards is usually very reluctant to unban anything in any format (look at how long it’s taken Black Vise to be free in Legacy) and Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek was quite oppressive in Extended, though the hate for that combo has gotten much better and sees regular play for other decks.

    I was actually a little surprised, given how vocal R&D is about not making prison cards anymore, that we didn’t see an Ensnaring Bridge ban. I really thought that given Wizards’ dislike of Prison that Lantern could be like Eggs and get banned before it really started to be a problem (though the problem with Eggs was mostly time related). Still, if Lantern keeps doing well I would not be surprised if Bridge leaves us in January.

  11. I’m glad there were no changes. The meta right now seems very healthy. I’ve been playing modern exclusively since Khans was released, and the meta has gone through a pretty cool change from then until now. There are a ton of decks good enough to win any given match, and no completely dominant decks.

    What I don’t understand is the assumption a lot of people have that WOTC will feel compelled to shake it up for the pro tour. I’m not sure why they would feel the need to be so proactive when it seems like they’ve hit the sweet spot. If their fear is a pro tour top 8 dominated by one deck, wouldn’t that be more likely with a mis-step on a ban or unbanning than by letting this meta just play out? Then they’ll have a bullet to use when they actually need to reshape the format because of imbalances. I think they should leave it alone.

    However, if they do I want it to be sword of the meek. Mostly because I’d love to play with it with Tezzeret Agent of Bolas. But without thinking about it extensively, that seems pretty risky and could potentially blank all the aggro decks that don’t kill extremely fast.

    Love the site by the way, you have the best modern focused content I’ve found on the web. Hope you all can keep it up!

    1. “What I don’t understand is the assumption a lot of people have that WOTC will feel compelled to shake it up for the pro tour. I’m not sure why they would feel the need to be so proactive”

      Because literally every Pro said that was the reason for the Pod ban.

      Which means come January and the meta has stabilised then the anticipation is that Wizards will want to see different decks in the top 8 (and not Grixis Control/Twin) putting pressure on a ban from those decks. Not that I expect that to happen this time – but that’s the thinking.

      To be honest, I’m not overly excited by this current meta – it’s just too fluid. Settling down with a deck is becoming more and more difficult as meta shifts can completely throw your deck under the bus. While sideboard cards are narrow and there are few ways to increase consistency.

      Something between now and TC Delver/Pod era is what’s needed.

      1. “Because literally every Pro said that was the reason for the Pod ban.”

        I recall the reason being that Melira Pod had a very long history of format dominance (or at least overrepresentation), and WOTC argued restricted their flexibility to continue to create strong creatures.

        Even if a “shake up” was the reason, I still think that the format is plenty “shaken up” and there is not a default “pro choice” like melira pod represented at the time. Splinter twin and Grixis control do not seem to me to be in that space right now, but maybe I’m wrong.


        1. Oops, that anonymous comment right above is from me. Pseudonymous me, not anonymous me….

          One final thought, I think its getting better but at the time of the pod ban, the majority of pros who would say anything about modern did not seem to be playing the format much, and were frustrated about the fact your sideboard isn’t large enough to play hate for every deck you might face. Perhaps you’d like to drift towards a bit more certainty about what you’ll face as well, but personally I like to be able to shift around my decks to try to find what will be good in the given meta. But I’m luckier than most in that I have access to multiple modern decks..

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