Nuked From Orbit: The February ’21 Banning

Wow. There are bannings, and then there are bannings. This was definitely the latter. Wizards looked at non-Standard Constructed, saw that it was poor, and nuked it. All of it, Historic, Pioneer, Legacy, and most importantly, Modern. Vintage also saw an unbanning. Because somebody had to get thrown a bone. Monday morning, Wizards dropped the largest Modern banning since 2011. It’s also the largest single announcement since 2004, possibly the largest that didn’t involve a format being created. 15 bans across four formats with 14 unique cards with five Modern bans is an unprecedented banning. And that’s not even getting into the second power-related rules change in the past year.

For those somehow insulated from the wider community, Field of the Dead, Mystic Sanctuary, Simian Spirit Guide, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, and Tibalt’s Trickery are now banned in Modern. Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter was also functionally banned due to a change to cascade’s rules text. This announcement will have far-reaching consequences, the least of which being that there will be no metagame update for February. Over half the data is for a format that no longer exists. And the rules change doesn’t go into effect until tomorrow. We’ll all just have to wait for March’s update to show how the metagame is developing.

A Subtle Alteration

I’ll begin with the most welcome, but surprising, announcement. It was universally agreed that a change to the rules was the correct solution to the ridiculous dominance of cascade decks over the past two weeks. Being able to cascade into Valki, God of Lies but cast Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter just feels like an exploit, despite being exactly how the rules work. I agreed, but was uncertain whether Wizards had the time to decide on and test such a fix. Apparently, I needn’t have worried, as Wizards has rolled out a very subtle tweak, which I’ll highlight for emphasis:

Here is the new cascade rule:

702.84a. Cascade is a triggered ability that functions only while the spell with cascade is on the stack. “Cascade” means “When you cast this spell, exile cards from the top of your library until you exile a nonland card whose converted mana cost is less than this spell’s converted mana cost. You may cast that spell without paying its mana cost if its converted mana cost is less than this spell’s converted mana cost. Then put all cards exiled this way that weren’t cast on the bottom of your library in a random order.”

Look at the original wording on Bloodbraid Elf; now, look at this new rule. All Wizards did was add a clause. This clause adds another check for legality once the found spell is cast and disqualifies it if anything’s changed between cascade and cast. Thus a player could still cascade into Valki, and then decide they want to cast Tibalt instead (which is how MDFC’s are supposed to work), but Tibalt would just be shuffled to the bottom of their library. The tweak restores the original intent of cascade and preserves MDFC functionality, which is important since Strixhaven will have more of those. Credit to Wizards’ rules team for a simple, elegant fix to a horribly busted interaction. Rejoice; the menace dies! (Tomorrow, after the MTGO downtime.)

Broader Implications

I need to note before moving on that MDFC’s are not the only card category affected by this change. Any non-traditional modal card is affected, though this really isn’t relevant to Modern (yet, anyway). The split cards are also affected, but that’s not relevant anymore. As previously mentioned, split cards were the topic of a similar reworking to make their CMC’s make sense almost four years ago. Seeing as none have a CMC below three (as far as I could find), this was never going to be a problem anyway. What is affected, and perhaps relevantly, are Adventures.

This change isn’t limited to double-faced cards. It also changes the way cascade works with anything that has a “dominant” set of characteristics, like the Adventurer cards from Throne of Eldraine. For example, if Bloodbraid Elf causes you to exile Fae of Wishes, you may cast Fae of Wishes, but you may not cast Granted.

I don’t recall seeing this come up anywhere ever, but it was apparently a thing that could happen. And now it can’t. Sorry to whoever was brewing this deck out on the fringe. However, that corner case aside, this is as targeted a solution as it gets without just banning Valki.

Uro & Friends

With that, onto the banned cards. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath getting axed is not at all surprising. It’s been incredibly dominant for months, a major player for a year, and is simply an overpowered card. It’s no surprise that it was banned, though it happened sooner than I thought. What is surprising are the circumstances, as this is the first time I remember Wizards committing to banning a card publicly prior to the announcement. See, Wizards is hawking another set of Secret Lairs for Valentines Day. One of those sets contains Uro, and in the larger-than-fine print, Wizards mentioned that Uro was to be banned in Historic, Pioneer, and Modern. Nice of them to disclose (and dodge potential lawsuits for deceptive sales practices), but it is an unprecedented situation.

However, Uro isn’t going down quietly. Two of its best friends, Field of the Dead and Mystic Sanctuary, were also banned. Even in death, Uro just can’t stop generating extra value, can it? This was actually quite shocking. As I explained in the comments of the watchlist article, both cards were heavily tied to Uro for their power and playability. I didn’t see a way for either to be banned before Uro, and while Field particularly may have warranted a ban, it would come well after Uro. For both to go down with the flagship card warrants digging deeper.

We Lost Our Land

Wizards explanation is very telling, not just about why the lands were banned, but the philosophy of this entire announcement:

Along with Uro, we’re also addressing two land cards frequently used by ramp and control strategies that we feel are decreasing diversity of gameplay patterns: Field of the Dead and Mystic Sanctuary. Both lands create repetitive and noninteractive game states in the late game for relatively low deck-building cost. To promote more back and forth gameplay and interaction over win conditions, we’re choosing to remove them.

Unlike Field’s Standard ban, this wasn’t a power-level ban. Field and Sanctuary never represented too much of Modern’s metagame and their individual power was probably fine, though always being played alongside the clearly stifling Uro does muddy the waters. Instead, they were banned for being unfun.  And I get it. Losing to Field tokens feels bad, even though you usually only lose to Field after the game was actually lost. And the Cryptic lock is beyond obnoxious, though again you only lose to it once you’re not going to win. Both get old very quickly. However, answers to both exist, and I’d have expected Wizards to just ban Uro and then see if anything else had to be done.

Which is where you have to read the subtext. The announcement says “To promote more back and forth gameplay and interaction over win conditions, we’re choosing to remove them.” This is significant, as it signals that Wizards was not looking to remove a problem from Modern with this ban. This is a hard reset. Wizards, probably seeing a general drop in online tournament attendance, wants to shake everything up significantly. And this means completely eliminating certain decks so that the format can breathe again.

What Now?

4-Color Omnath, which has been the top placing deck in the metagame rankings since October, is gone. It lost its best enabler in Uro, and its late-game power with Field and Sanctuary. The rest of the deck is still potent, but without Uro to forgive all its structural weaknesses while greasing the wheels, I don’t think it can function. And even if it could, sans Field, there’s no built-in benefit to the high land count. Omnath, Locus of Creation is very powerful, but it can’t carry the archetype. There’s a reason it was rarely more than a 2-of compared to Uro’s locked-in four slots. There will still be multicolored control (if only because the Sultai crowd are persistent), but it will be very different looking.

The effect on the metagame is much harder to say. As the saying goes, “When the cat is away, the mice will play,” and I do expect that midrange and control options pushed out by Uro will make a comeback. However, I have to once again mention that the best overall deck of 2020 was Rakdos aggro, which remains a top deck… and one that was completely untouched by the bannings. My a priori assumption is that Scourge Shadow is the new top deck in Modern. Given recent trends, I anticipate Izzet Prowess to be right up there with Shadow. Whether an almost certainly resurgent Jund can hold them down remains to be seen, but I don’t think that Modern will simply become the Wild West. Starting Thursday, I’d be ready for a field of red decks.

Bewildered Ape

Alphabetically next, there’s the strange case of Simian Spirit Guide being banned. SSG has been so innocuous for so long that I definitely didn’t see this coming. And the explanation comes off more as Wizards being vindictive than anything:

Simian Spirit Guide is a card we’ve had our eye on for some time as an enabler that speeds up fast combo decks.

To slow down that category of combo decks as a whole and give opponents more time to set up interactive plays in the early game, Simian Spirit Guide is banned.

On the surface, this is a fine explanation. Modern’s banlist is a fast-mana graveyard, and SSG was the final reliable turn 1 source. It could have been banned purely for consistency’s sake, with the justification that Modern shouldn’t have fast mana before turn 2. That’s a point a lot of players could have gotten behind and would have finally given us some idea of Wizards vision for Modern. And it’s not like anyone ever used SSG for anything unequivocally fair.

However, that’s not how Wizards justified the ban. Wizards is wrong about SSG. Their justification for banning is that SSG enables too many fast combos. However, that’s a very recent phenomena, mostly tied to the cascade disaster. Prior to the MDFCs, the only good deck that ran SSG was Ad Nauseam, and not as an accelerant: Ad Naus needed SSG to pay for the win condition, Lightning Storm, after it had comboed off. Achieving that required six mana and the deck could only spare one SSG, primarily relying on artifact mana. Outside that, SSG only saw play in really fringe combo or prison decks. And SSG was the only reason they were slightly viable.

The Fallout

As a result, this feels like SSG was simply on the chopping block and Wizards finally had an excuse. Maybe it did deserve it from a banlist consistency or format vision perspective, but that’s not the reason Wizards gave. Despite hysteria over SSG-powered Neoform combo, there’s never been any evidence that fast combo was at all a problem for Modern, the last two weeks notwithstanding. As a result, Wizards is going to kill a lot of decks without substantially slowing anything down.

Ad Naus and Neoform as we knew them are dead. The traditional kill required a minimum of five mana on the kill turn, with a three mana investment in Phyrexian Unlife, and then three mana to cast Storm on turn four. While it’s not impossible for Ad Naus to adapt and play more artifact mana, it will make the Storm kill far harder. The alternate kill of Spoils of the Vault into Thassa’s Oracle is still intact, so perhaps the deck will rebuild around them and drop the namesake. Neoform has been driven out already, but it had no way to make mana besides SSG, so I don’t think it will survive in recognizable form.

Ironically, the deck that seems like it would be harmed most by SSG’s ban will probably benefit. SSG was a key part of Belcher, and without it, the turn 1 kill is impossible. However, the turn 2 kill is still viable, because Belcher plays all legal rituals. With Ad Naus at least temporarily gone, Belcher’s main competition is Oops, All Spells, which needed SSG more than Belcher. Without SSG, Oops kills turn three at the earliest, because it doesn’t run rituals. Oops has seen more play because its more reliable than Belcher, but now that Belcher is the speed king, its stock will rise. And this could potentially lead to a general increase in format speed.

One for the Road

The final ban was Tibalt’s Trickery. And that’s so much whatever. The card is clearly a mistake, but the deck was harmless. Consistency and power-wise, it was no different than Neoform or Belcher. And wasn’t putting up many results, though how much of that is on its own merits and how much is because Valki was busted is unanswerable. It’s not the most fun gameplay, but Modern has plenty of innocent high-variance decks. And Wizards acknowledges this fact:

While the overall win rate of the deck hasn’t shown to be problematic, we believe it contributes to non-games that make Modern less fun to play. As the goal of this update is to shake up the metagame into a more fun spot, we’re concerned that a continued metagame presence of Tibalt’s Trickery decks would work against that goal.

Trickery is getting axed out of an abundance of caution and that aforementioned desire to hard-reset Modern. It isn’t a problem, but Wizards isn’t willing to take the chance it could become one. Which, for the record, there’s little reason to think would happen, especially with SSG getting banned. Without SSG around, the turn 1 kill is extremely unlikely, requiring players to open Gemstone Caverns and Chancellor of the Tangle while being on the draw and not getting Thoughtseized or Spell Pierced. The likelihood of that coming together enough to have any metagame impact is remote, but Wizards is worried about the optics of having to ban another Tibalt card in a few months. They’re being needlessly cautious.

However, I don’t begrudge Wizards. I don’t think the ban is necessary, but nothing of value’s being lost either. Either Trickery did nothing or was busted, and maybe valuing back-and-forth gameplay over “oops, I win” is good. The first irony of it is that all it takes for Trickery to be an interesting Polymorph variant rather than bannable is to change “Counter target spell” to “Counter target spell an opponent controls.” The second, with the reasons given, is that banning Trickery probably obviates the need to ban SSG and vice versa.

A New Modern?

And with that, sometime after tomorrow’s MTGO downtime, the new Modern will start to take shape. Or possibly it will just be the old one, minus Uro. Hard to tell. We’ll all have to wait and see, and I’ll be sure to have that data for the March metagame update.

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