You Can’t Go Home: The Unban Problem

Being unable to play with your cards sucks. No one will dispute this. What is also unequivocally true is that cards need to be banned. Sometimes Wizards makes mistakes while making cards, and the likes of Oko, Thief of Crowns proceed to wreck their havoc. Other times new cards interact with old ones in unexpected ways like cascade cards and Tibalt’s Trickery. And when that happens there is always collateral damage.

Said bannable cards are typically only bannable because of a single deck with a slew of perfectly fine decks surrounding them. Mox Opal was perfectly fine in Hardened Scales but was banned due to its interaction with Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Urza, Lord High Artificer. Which leaves a lot of innocent victims, resentment, and calls for unbans afterward.

The problem with that attitude is that it frequently leaves the conversation about the banned card in stasis. Players tend to only focus on what the card was doing in their deck at the time of the ban and then argue as if things will just go back to the way they were prior to the ban. It’s an understandable bias, nostalgia being what it is. However, that is a trap. And more importantly, counterproductive. The title of this article was not picked at random; once a card is banned, things will never just go back to the way they were. Modern has grown and evolved in the intervening years, said card’s home won’t be the same anymore.

Constant Card Creation

I think that it should be obvious, but I’m surprised by how often players I’ve argued with seem surprised that decks won’t “just come back” after an unban. It’s like they conveniently forget that new sets are released every quarter. Because of that, the format as a whole and individual decks are constantly evolving. Meaning that, should a card be unbanned to revive a dead deck, it wouldn’t actually revive the dead deck. It would enable a new deck that is similar to the old one, but with new cards which would certainly change the deck, and may make it completely different to the original.

Consider Wild Nacatl. It was banned in December 2011 for being too efficient. A 3/3 for one was very far above the curve at the time. Consequently, there was little incentive to play an aggro deck that wasn’t Nacatl Zoo. More importantly, Wizards was concerned about Nacatl squeezing future design space. Modern didn’t exist when Nacatl was printed, and the explanation made clear that Nacatl would not have been printed as-is had Modern existed then. Nacatl’s was a diversity and power level ban similar to Birthing Pod‘s.

When Nacatl was unbanned in February 2014, there was considerable fanfare, but not much came of it. Modern had changed so much that, while Nacatl’s stats were still solid, that was no longer enough. Seven new sets had released since the ban, and Modern was a far more combo/value-oriented format (this being the start of the Twin vs Pod format). Being just a good beatdown creature wasn’t enough anymore. Zoo and Nacatl were just as before, but Modern’s context Nacatl lived had changed too much. A straight aggro deck was too easy to disrupt or race and Nacatl remains a fringe at best card.

Also, Attitudes Adjust

The other problem is that players change. That new players will pick up Modern and old will leave should be obvious. However, even those who remain for the duration won’t be the same. Time’s passed and they’ve grown and changed as people and players. And this in turn means that the unbanned card will be viewed by an entirely new playerbase who will have to reassess the card for essentially the first time. How they actually utilize the card will be quite different.

Consider Jace, the Mind Sculptor. When he was unbanned, players took awhile to adopt him. Players wanted Jace to be good, but Modern was a very different place from Standard and Extended, where he’d previously dominated. And then, just as Jace was starting to find footing, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria arrived and shoved Jace aside. Teferi was new, powerful, and more straightforward to use, and so saw a lot more play than Jace in 2018. I remember many players that year declaring that Jace was completely outclassed by Teferi and that Jace was a joke. While in the format context that might have been true, a lot of that was simply excitement over the new card, evidenced by Jace now seeing as much or more play than Teferi.

For example, the biggest impact of banning Splinter Twin was that players no longer had to play scared. Twin didn’t police the format or require players to play interaction like we thought at the time. It was a dominant and powerful deck that overawed players and “forced” them to play around losing. Since Twin was banned, players have played increasingly fearlessly even against combo decks. You hear streamers and pro players saying “can’t stop it, can’t win if they have it, I’ll just jam” far more today than in 2015. It stands to reason that Twin may perform worse today than in 2015, regardless of new answers.

The Looting Issue

Which finally brings me this article’s inspiration. Last week, Todd Anderson advocated unbanning Faithless Looting because he misses all the decks that were killed. As far as Todd’s concerned, Looting was just caught in Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis‘s wake, and banned unfairly. He says about midway through that he wants Looting back because he wants to play with Looting. Further, the only problem with Looting was Dredge, and Todd argues that the only dredgers worth keeping around are Life from the Loam, Darkblast, and Dakmor Salvage. I have a number of issues with the specifics of his arguments, but the main problem is the attitude. As I stated above, you can’t just rewind the clock. Being nostalgic is one thing, but if you’re going to advocate for something, you can’t favor how it was over how it will be. And unbanning Looting will be a problem.

First though, everyone please stop asking for exchange bans. That’s not how Wizards operates. They don’t want to ban cards at all, and do everything they can to ensure not only that the minimum necessary bans occur but also that they won’t have to revisit the issue down the line. A card which is only okay if another otherwise inoffensive card is banned instead is not an okay card. A busted enabler is a busted enabler, and banning the payoff to save the enabler threatens that at some point in the future, they’ll have to ban again when the enabler breaks something new. A powerful card may eventually be fair, but a broken one will always be broken. And Looting was a very broken card.

Blame Mislaid

I understand wanting to play the cards and decks that you enjoy. However, that should never blind you to the reality of those cards and decks. By blaming Hogaak and Dredge, Todd is ignoring the primary reasons that Wizards cited in the ban announcement:

By our data gathered from Magic Online and tabletop tournament results, over the past year the winningest Modern deck at any given point in time has usually been a Faithless Looting deck.

Regardless of Hogaak’s recent impact, Faithless Looting would be a likely eventual addition to the banned list in the near future. In order to ensure the metagame doesn’t again revert to a Faithless Looting graveyard deck being dominant, we believe now is the correct time to make this change.

In short, Looting was banned on its own merits. As Wizards stated, Looting was living on borrowed time even before Hogaak came along. Try to think back to the end of 2018 and through to Spring 2019. Or better yet, go back and look at what was being written about during that time. Specifically, I want to remind everyone that it was Faithless Looting‘s format and everything else was just along for the ride. Arclight Phoenix decks were the winningest decks and getting all the billing, but at various times Hollow One, Dredge, and Mardu Pyromancer were doing well. Pyromancer was never a problem and I recall and can find no complaints. However, players did complain about Hollow One and Phoenix decks. A lot. Neither deck were very fun to play against and were arguably too good. And it was all being facilitated by Looting.

Given that the winningest decks were mainly Looting decks, a diversity ban was in the cards for the red sorcery. Especially since the next two years would have plenty of graveyard synergy cards which Looting would have facilitated. Hogaak was an excuse, but the bottom line is that Wizards was very clearly thinking about banning Looting anyway before Hogaak came along. Again, look at achieved articles and discussions from 2019 and earlier. Players were talking about how powerful Looting was before even Phoenix was a thing. I called out Looting as bannable in December 2018. Don’t whitewash a card’s history; had Wizards not banned Looting along with Hogaak, Looting would have still been axed down the line. But it was going to happen.

Let’s Hypothesize

Which brings me to the most annoying aspect. Looking back on a deck or an era of Modern with rose-tinted glasses is one thing. Using said goggles to ignore reality is another. Todd is like most players I’ve argued with in that he used his nostalgia to push past potential problems with unbanning their favorite card, in this case Faithless Looting. He has a section specifically about how Dragon’s Rage Channeler and Persist could be a problem with Looting, but he just pushes on and dismisses the concerns. Which is repeated later on with his community roundtable. And that’s not acceptable.

The Channeler Effect

Egregiously, Todd was very dismissive of DRC alongside Looting. He didn’t think that DRC decks would play Looting, and so there’s no problem there. He’s wrong. The DRC decks as they exist right now may not want Looting (but I’m pretty sure they do). However, those same decks would adjust themselves in a world where Looting exists to take advantage of Looting and the result is almost certainly dangerous. Consider a typical UR Thresh deck. Replace Ragavan with Arclight Phoenix and Serum Visions with Looting. How much easier does it get to always have a delirious DRC with early Murktide and some Phoenixes? Is that an acceptable deck?

However, the more likely result is to go all in on Looting and really push the envelope. Think back to the Izzet Phoenix decks of 2019 and add DRC to the mix. How much easier is it to find multiple Phoenixes and trigger them on turn 2? I don’t have a definitive answer, but a turn 1 DRC into Manamorphose, Thought Scour, and Looting makes three surveil triggers, two milled cards, and four drawn cards for a total of 9 cards deep into the library. The odds of hitting at least 1 Phoenix in the opening hand are 40%, and another 9 cards pushes it up to 75% while the odds of hitting all four go up from .007% to 0.5%. DRC is a card I could see banned on its own merits for digging too deep too quickly, and you want to help it out?

An Extreme Case

At its most extreme, things get absurd. This scenario is extremely improbable, but it does illustrate the issue with Phoenix, DRC, and Looting:

Start with turn 1 DRC into four Mishra’s Baubles. Then on turn 2 let’s chain all the Manamorphose into four Gut Shot and finish on two Lootings. That is 14 surveil triggers and 12 cards drawn. That is an opening hand, draw step, and 26 chances to see Phoenix’s, for a hypergeometric probability of seeing one Phoenix of 97%, and the probability of seeing all four is now 9.5%. In this most extreme case, the opponent has taken four damage from Shots, and will be attacked for 15 leaving them at 1.

Such spell sequences were possible before DRC. However, without the surveil triggers, the odds of hitting four Phoenixes drops to just 0.99%. The impact of one new card on the most busted Phoenix opening is very dramatic, making it about 10 times more likely. And this isn’t considering the impact of Expressive Iteration, Lava Dart, Cling to Dust, or any of the other UBR velocity cards we’ve received over the past few years.

It Gets Worse

And here’s a bigger problem. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is bringing Consider to Modern. Consider will be Opt with surveil 1 instead of scry 1. Enjoy Opt while it lasts, for there will be no reason to play it over Consider because a card in the graveyard is worth far more than one in the library. This adds another way to get Phoenix into the graveyard early. And if this is what’s being previewed in the teasers, what can we expect from the full set? Looting is a higher risk now than ever before.

Can’t Rewind the Clock

Unbanning Looting won’t take Modern back to April 2019. There have been plenty of fair Mardu decks over the past year and Young Pyromancer has only rarely been played. That deck was a product of its time, and that time is past. Mardu decks are built on being low-to-the-ground, aggressive midrange decks rather than midrange control. Hollow One, Izzet Phoenix, and other Looting decks were borderline back then and likely to be much stronger now. It sucks not getting to play with your cards. But don’t let that nostalgia blind you into making a poor decision. Faithless Looting earned its place on the banned list and it only gets more broken as time goes on. Leave it alone.

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