As I've said multiple times in the past, I'm a big supporter of the current Magic R&D team. I said so when I defended Cavern of Souls on this website a few months back, I said so during a recent brouhaha on Facebook over the Hexproof deck that did well at Grand Prix Atlantic City, and I've said it during smaller, less public conversations. R&D needs to cater to everyone who plays Magic, and sometimes that can be at odds with what the most invested tournament-level players ideally want. Working as a game developer with similar demands and communities, I can appreciate how challenging this can be, especially when you find yourself in the crosshairs of your tournament Spikes in articles, Twitter, Facebook, and wherever else. That's why I try to defend R&D publically when I get the chance.
There's one issue, though, on which I can't defend R&D. That's the Modern banned list.
When Modern was first introduced as a format, the initial banned list seemed a little arbitrary. That's understandable, as no games of the format had been played yet. Broadly speaking, the goals of the banned list appeared to be:
1. Try to reduce power from combo decks (Chrome Mox, etc.).
2. Try to reduce power from blue control (Ancestral Visions, etc.).
3. Try to remove cards that were especially ruinous and unfun during their time in Standard, even if it was unclear the card would be dominating in Modern (Bitterblossom, etc.).
This seemed like a good foundation to me, as the first two problems riddle Magic's other Eternal formats and the third problem is at odds with players wanting to play the format at first. Still, there's one card that stuck out to me at the time: Golgari Grave-Troll.
Why Grave-Troll? I can understand not wanting Dredge to be a thing, but Stinkweed Imp and others were still there with the potential to create a Dredge-style deck. Why not either ban a broader swathe of Dredge enablers or let it go and ban whatever you deem necessary if Dredge turned out to be a thing? In the first world, you don't have to worry about it all. In the second, you have context, better information, and more community support in the event you need to add to the banned list.
Instead, R&D chose a weird mixture of the two, where there was still some risk of Dredge being a deck (because Stinkweed Imp and friends were still legal) but no confirmation that Grave-Troll was a risk to format health. Still, I can understand wanting to take some power out of Dredge while keeping the initial list as short as possible, so even though Grave-Troll struck me as arbitrary, it also didn't seem like too big of a deal.
How I wish that we live in a world where Golgari Grave-Troll is our most arbitrary banning.
The first real indicator that something was amiss was the Green Sun's Zenith ban. In a format where nearly every other banning was dedicated to either:
- Preventing someone from being killed or functionally killed on the third turn or before
- Preventing someone from having a miserable flashback to a Standard deck that caused them to quit Magic.
Banning Green Sun Zenith was about neither of these things. To quote Erik Lauer:
"On turn 1, this can give the acceleration of aLlanowar Elvesby getting aDryad Arbor. On later turns, it can get a large creature or a one-of "toolbox" creature such asGaddock Teeg. While this is interesting, it is also too efficient. If one intends to build a deck that has turn 1 accelerants, Green Sun's Zenithis a great choice. If one wants to more access to utility green creatures,Green Sun's Zenithis a great choice. If one wants to more reliably get a large green creature, such as a Primeval Titan, onto the battlefield,Green Sun's Zenithis a great choice. However, this ends up with fewer different decks being played in practice, asGreen Sun's Zenithis such a good choice that there are fewer green decks that do anything else. The DCI hopes that banningGreen Sun's Zenithincreases diversity among Modern green decks."
There's quite a bit of contradiction going on here. Given that the ban was purportedly about "increasing the diversity among Modern green decks," the sentences that came previous to that strike me as odd. Erik mentions numerous decks that are about entirely different things that want to play Green Sun's Zenith for entirely different reasons as justification for banning a card to promote diversity. After all, diversity isn't about the cards that are getting played—it's about the decks. If there's only one green creature deck that gets played and GSZ is an insane enabler for it, that's a different conversation. However, the argument here appears to be that green creature decks in general want to play GSZ and because of that GSZ is worthy of a ban.
If you want to argue that the power level of GSZ is too high for Modern, that's one thing (though I would disagree). If you want to argue that GSZ is too big of a design constraint going forward, that's another thing (I would find this argument more palatable). But the argument that GSZ reduces diversity among green creature decks strikes me as dubious given that different decks can incorporate GSZ in a number of different ways and that GSZ isn't the most efficient way to handle every problem, like it's implied in the above comment. For example, if you're playing a green creature deck and you're worried about Affinity, what is the worst plan presented below?
1. Play a single Qasali Pridemage and plan on getting it with GSZ.
2. Play a bunch of Pridemages with or without GSZ.
To me, the first is by far the worst path, so the idea that GSZ puts us in a world where that's the only path for green creature decks to go doesn't strike me as true.
As annoyed as I was with the Green Sun's Zenith ban, it was nothing compared to the Wild Nacatl ban. With it, the banned list comfortably jumped into the territory of "something I can't possibly explain to a new-ish player looking to get into Modern." Lauer's explanation is too lengthy for me to post here, but here's the link if you're interested.
Lauer's argument, in short, was that Nacatl is so efficient that there's no way to build attacking decks without it, and so to increase diversity among that range of decks, Nacatl has to be banned. This is suspicious reasoning for a number of reasons.
1. It's simply not true, for starters. Cranial Plating, creature-light Lava Spike decks, Mutavault, and others provide incentives that either were played when Nacatl was legal or could easily be played with shifts in the metagame or the printing of new cards.
2. It's possible that your new "best" beatdown deck is so much better than the others that you're still in one beatdown deck world (one could argue this has actually happened with Affinity).
Because it's important for a deck like Zoo to be good because tons of players like playing decks like Zoo and because the banned list becomes absolute nonsense for a number of players once Wild Nacatl appears alongside cards like Skullclamp and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, you have to be pretty damn sure that you're going to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish with such a ban. I would argue that there's no way R&D could have been confident this was going to be the case, nor is it at all evident that a better world has been created in Nacatl's absence.
"While the rest of the format is quite diverse, the dominance of Jund is making it less so overall. The DCI looked to ban a card. We wanted a card that top players consistently played four copies of in Jund but ideally was less played in other top Modern decks. That would give the best chance of creating a more balanced metagame. The card that best fits our criteria isBloodbraid Elf. "
Again, more dangerous logic. We want to ban a card that might not be the most objectively powerful but creates the least harm to other decks. This logic could easily be applied to something like Geist of Saint Traft (if U/W/R becomes dominant) or even Wall of Roots (if certain styles of Birthing Pod decks become dominant). Should we ban Lava Spike if Burn became the best deck? After all, Lightning Bolt enables plenty of non-Burn decks, but Lava Spike really only goes there. I think this type of over-engineering is especially dangerous for the same reason as the Nacatl banning. It makes the banned list read like nonsense, and there's no promise that you're going to create the world you're looking for.
In fact, it may do just the opposite. Let's look at that first sentence again. Are we sure Jund being the best deck actually contributes to a lack of diversity? I would actually argue that it adds an appreciable amount. Since Jund is basically just a "good stuff" deck (good threats, removal, some light disruption, etc.), you can actually play whatever you want and interact with Jund. I'm not arguing that your matchup is going to be good, but it's not like your cards don't work. That's an important distinction. Can Thundermaw Hellkite be good against Jund sometimes? Sure. How about Terminate? That works. Is gaining life helpful? It is, in fact. If all these different mechanics "work" against Jund, it's much easier to justify playing whatever you want. Compare this to something like Birthing Pod, where numerous modes of interaction accomplish very little or even nothing at all.
Anyone who knows me knows I hate a Storm deck, but even the Seething Song ban left me irritated. From Lauer:
"The DCI's other primary goal for Modern is to not have top tier decks that frequently win on turn 3 (or earlier). Looking at the results of the recent tournaments, Storm is not the most played deck, but it is among the top tier of decks. Four of the players to get at least 18 points atPro Tour Return to Ravnicawere playing Storm, and Olivier Ruel had a Top 8 performance atGrand Prix Lyonplaying Storm. OnMagic Online, Storm is the second-most-frequent high-finishing deck in Modern events, at 11.42%, behind only Jund. These results indicate that, while far from dominant, Storm is a top tier deck.
Looking at the results of games, turn 3 wins are frequent for Storm, contrary to the DCI's stated goals for the format. The DCI looked for a card that was very important to the turn 3 wins but not one of the cards that make this deck unique. We decidedSeething Songis the best choice. Even with no other mana acceleration, one can castSeething Songon turn 3, and it gives a net acceleration of +2 mana. While there are other options for fast mana, none appear as efficient and reliable on turn 3 asSeething Song.
Setting aside the Magic Online numbers, which are distorted by the fact that Storm is by far the cheapest "tier 1" deck to build, let's look at the rest of the numbers. Four players finished 6-2 or better? I clicked on the link to see how many people finished 6-2 or better. According to Wizard's coverage, it was over 100 people. Less than 4% of the 6-2s were playing Storm. If there isn't an error in the coverage, it's insulting to quote that figure as actual evidence. Oliver Ruel made Top 8 of a GP? If there's a sign of a deck's oppressive nature on a format, there's no greater indicator than a single GP Top 8.
The second paragraph makes slightly more sense, but how is this new information? How did Seething Song escape the first round of Storm-related bannings? Of course Seething Song facilitates Turn 3 kills; it's an extremely powerful three-mana Ritual. Imagine this: there's a conversation going on amongst R&D during the Preordain / Ponder / Rite of Flame round of bannings. There's discussion about banning Seething Song as well. No one knows for sure what the consequences of leaving Seething Song are, so there's a lot of uncertainty in the room. Fortunately for them, I have a crystal ball, and I can tell them the future.
"If you leave Seething Song legal, the deck will be good but by no means the best deck. People will die on turn 3 some percentage of the time, but turn 4 is a lot more likely."
If that world (the world we lived in) was so unpalatable as to warrant bannings, why was Seething Song allowed to stay legal for as long as it was? Was the expectation that Seething Song would remain legal and not kill people on turn 3 sometimes? I actually think that Seething Song was about as least destructive as it could have realistically been in our previous metagame, and it still was deemed banned-worthy.
I say all of this because there's a huge cost to bannings. Players have finite resources, and Modern is an expensive format. People can't just build the new hot deck every week, so it's important for people to feel like if they shell out for something, it would take something dramatic to warrant a banning. Even for people with the resources to build multiple decks, there's only so many times someone can have their favorite toys taken away before they throw their hands up in disgust. I know Wizards knows this too because of the way they handle bannings in other formats.
Let's take a look at Standard. The last round of bannings was Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, two cards good enough to lay the foundation for one of the best Legacy decks and two cards responsible for warping the format for the better part of a year. Previous to that, you have to go to Mirrodin block, where Affinity was the absolute best deck for roughly the same duration.
Because the two most recent situations that warranted Standard bannings were so extreme and because bannings have occurred so infrequently, I can have confidence that lesser examples of metagame distortion won't require that kind of answer. Even if Naya is the best deck for a month or two or even if there's always two or three copies of it in the Top 8 of every SCG Open, I know that Wizards isn't going to ban my Huntmaster of the Fells because that's not something they do.
Legacy is also telling. Bans are infrequent, and they are consistent in the types of cards they do ban. Only Mental Misstep comes to mind as something of an outlier, and that card was so miserable that it's banning came as no surprise. One would think that Legacy would be very prone to stagnation. After all, Brainstorm, Force of Will, and Swords to Plowshares aren't going anywhere, and those cards create a huge barrier to new content, at least in theory. Plus, the decks are so expensive that people can't really build new decks, even if they were feeling so inclined.
This has been proven false, and it's not by printing better Brainstorms or Plows. Return to Ravnica introduced Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay, and while those cards aren't busted in the context of Legacy, they work on enough angles to shake the metagame up. People build BUG decks, some old decks have bad matchups against it, some new decks have good matchups against it, and the metagame shifts. Even in a format where Dark Ritual is legal, a new utility creature and removal spell do a lot to change the context of the format. And people are happy to try to build new stuff because they're confident that their The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale isn't going to get banned if it does well at the next Legacy GP.
I'm not saying that every feature of Legacy is desirable or that Modern should be looking to replicate it in every respect. But since it's so unclear if Storm and Jund were even close to actionable decks, I wonder if we could have resorted to tools other than bannings given the cumulative costs of them. Could a good Pyrostatic Pillar / Mindbreak Trap derivative have given the metagame enough tools to no longer worry about Storm, even fueled by Seething Song? Could a good four-drop (out of Abrupt Decay and Inquisition of Kozilek range) with some other utility against Jund have been enough to suppress Bloodbraid Elf and company? Solutions to these things have worked before in formats far more powerful than Modern, so there's no reason to believe they couldn't have worked here.
No matter how many bannings you have, you will always have the "best thing" or "best few things" to be doing. Sometimes it's less clear and sometimes it takes a little bit longer to discover, but it's always there. And even if you could hit your perfect equilibrium, new sets come out that throw everything out of balance again. Since that's the case, the question to ask isn't "is there a best thing?" (because of course there is), but rather "are we happy with everything that's going on?" And to me, a world where Jund is the best deck (but people play plenty of other decks too) and Storm is a thing you can be doing (but by no means the best thing) is so far away from an actionable world that I'm startled by the most recent wave of bannings, especially in light of the cumulative toll these actions have on the community.
I am extremely distressed by the seemingly flippant, arbitrary nature by which Wizards manages the Modern banned list, especially in light of the caution they clearly use in regards to the rest of their formats. People need to feel like their investment of time, energy, and money is being protected by the people who control such things. People also need to feel that bannings are only used as a last result (like in every other format), not as a way to drop a few percentage points of representation from the current top deck. If things aren't valued the way they should be, I fear Modern may lose the interest of the greater overall community, like so many other previous attempts at an Extended format.
I am Boros. Besides it being my Magic color combo of choice, I associate with a lot of the personality traits--a desire for order, discipline, and structure, tempered by an emotional (as opposed to logical) sense of right and wrong.