I was somewhat surprised when I saw the recent banning announcement for Modern. I had seen an array of people discussing potential banning and unbannings on Facebook and Twitter but had mostly assumed things would just stay the same. Sure, Jund had been putting up strong results over the past six months or so, but for much of that stretch it was the most popular deck in the field, and it certainly hadn't shown itself to be utterly dominant.
That said, WotC made it very clear when they announced the Modern format that they would be taking a much more liberal stance with the banned list. The first incarnation of it was a clear sign that they wanted to ensure the format was something different from just a collection of all of the decks people had hated in Standard over the years. Even if a card like Bitterblossom or Valakut might have been okay to have legal in Modern when it debuted, WotC chose to ban them for fear that their new format just became more of the same.
I had a long discussion with Patrick Sullivan before he wrote his article about the Modern bannings (which you can read here), and while I agree with the bulk of his argument, I think it's important to recognize that WotC has said from the beginning that they're going to handle Modern differently than other formats when it comes to banning cards. It's certainly true that the Modern banned list can be absolutely baffling to a new player who comes upon it. Golgari Grave-Troll is banned? Wild Nacatl? Punishing Fire? What in the world is going on? But the reality is that WotC's goal is to use the banned list to encourage diversity in the format and to fight stagnation. I may not agree with all of the cards they've chosen to ban for these reasons (Nacatl and Green Sun's Zenith in particular come to mind), but I'm sympathetic to the principle on which the decisions are made.
Whether that principle is the best direction for WotC to go with the format is certainly an open question. There's something to be said for the uncertainty that frequent bannings generates. If Pod or Splinter Twin become the best deck now that Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song are gone, should people be nervous about buying Kiki-Jikis? After all, the precedent is that they could get the axe at any moment. That's a dangerous expectation to create if you want to inspire confidence in your consumers.
For now, though, that's the world we live in, rife with uncertainty. As a player, I really like the idea of frequent bans to shake up a format, even if the game designer in me sees a road fraught with peril. Being able to tackle an ever-changing format is exactly what I like most in Magic—puzzles to solve, with hints everywhere but no solutions just yet. So where do we begin?
First of all, Jund is not dead. Bloodbraid Elf may have been the most maligned card in the deck, but it wasn't even the best of them. Much like the Bitterblossom and Valakut bans at the beginning of the Modern format, the banning of Bloodbraid Elf was mostly about voting the unpopular kid off the island. Dark Confidant, Thoughtseize, and Lightning Bolt are all probably more central cards to the effectiveness of Jund, but they don't elicit the same visceral reaction as yet another Bloodbraid Elf cascading into the perfect card. The stated reasons for banning Bloodbraid Elf was to weaken Jund without hitting a card that would impact many other decks, but the reality was to give the most hated card in the deck the axe.
Jund will survive for exactly the same reason it has been so resilient for the past six months despite having a target painted squarely on its head. Jund is a collection of powerful and versatile cards. It still has Thoughtseize, Inquisition, and Liliana for disruption; Lightning Bolt and whatever smattering of Abrupt Decays, Terminates, and whatever else for removal; Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant for cheap powerful threats; and Deathrite Shaman for doing whatever it is you want him to do because he's the best one-drop in Magic.
And Storm? Screw Storm. I've seen a lot of people commenting on the Seething Song ban as somehow not making sense because Storm hasn't been hugely prevalent in the format for a while. That has much more to do with Storm being the kind of deck people don't want to play than it not being a solid deck, however. Look at Jon Finkel's decks from the last however many Modern events—Storm, Storm, Storm. Do you think he's playing it for any reason other than that he feels it's the most powerful deck available? Frankly, Seething Song should never have been allowed to survive this long. It should have been banned back after PT Philadelphia along with Rite of Flame, Preordain, and Ponder. It's pretty much used for nothing except generating the very turn-three combo kills that WotC explicitly stated they were trying to avoid in Modern. Except for those psychos playing All-In Red, but that's collateral damage I'm willing to accept.
I've seen some people comment that Infect and Affinity are both capable of turn-three kills and wonder why nothing is being banned from those decks. The answer is that they're creature decks and thus fundamentally interactive. In order to stand up to a Storm deck's turn-three kill, you absolutely have to have some kind of specifically targeted disruption that allows you to interact with them, like discard or countermagic or a card like Thalia—and even those won't work much of the time.
Against Infect or Affinity? A simple Lightning Bolt can slow them down significantly. It isn't likely to be enough to beat them, mind you, but they're still decks that allow you to play actual Magic rather than just put a bunch of spells on the table and tell you you're dead.
So while Storm is hopefully dead (and deservedly so), Jund will still be out there in force. The loss of Bloodbraid Elf may reduce its popularity somewhat, but I can guarantee you that some people will be out there with the same deck before the ban with something like Huntmaster of the Fells swapped in for Bloodbraid.
That's the biggest impact we're going to see from the ban—Jund decks being forced to make decisions about how to bias their decks. Previously, Bloodbraid Elf was good enough against the field that you just played four of them no questions asked, but now Jund players will have to make tough decisions about how they want to fill out their curve. Do they want Huntmaster? Olivia? Do they want to go big with Thundermaw Hellkite? Or play an LD plan with Fulminator Mage—and maybe even Goblin Ruinblaster now that they don't have to worry about awkwardly cascading into it anymore?
Honestly, I wouldn't expect the PTQs coming up to look all that much different in terms of composition than the ones before the bans. There might be a slight resurgence in decks like Splinter Twin, Infect, or Nivmagus Elemental that people were scared off of because of the popularity of Jund, but I would anticipate things staying pretty much the same. If anything, I'd be more concerned with the rise in popularity of the U/W/R Geist deck by Larry Swasey that took down GP Bilbao after winning back-to-back MTGO PTQs.
This deck makes me feel rather hesitant about showing up at GP San Diego next month with my Wilt-Leaf Liege deck. The scariest thing here is the removal suite—particularly the three copies of Electrolyze. This deck has all of the tools to punish someone playing a full suite of eight mana creatures, which makes my Birds and Hierarchs a bit uneasy.
Thankfully, for some reason unknown to anyone, there's a mana creature out there that won't easily fall prey to Electrolyze—Deathrite Shaman! I'd specifically avoided playing with Deathrite Shaman in my Wilt-Leaf Liege deck because I wanted to play more utility lands and less fetches, but if the world is particularly hostile to one-toughness creatures it might be time to reconsider. I haven't had a chance to play any Modern lately, but once I do, I'll likely start testing something like this:
- 2 Aven Mindcensor
- 2 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Wilt-Leaf Liege
- 2 Gaddock Teeg
- 2 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
The likely departure of Storm from the format frees up the spots previously held by Thalia and Rule of Law for other options. Relic of Progenitus becomes a much less attractive sideboard card once we're playing our own Deathrite Shamans, so we suddenly have a whole lot of free slots. Torpor Orb is an option against both Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin, both of which I expect to be quite popular moving forward. Thrun seems like one of the better options against the U/W/R tempo decks that can also come in against Jund or against other removal heavy decks. Similarly, Kitchen Finks gives you a removal-resilient blocker for Geist that can serve double duty against Burn, as well.
It's possible that I'm overstating the trouble Electrolyze might cause for the deck, and you may be able to just go back to playing Birds and not worry about playing Deathrite Shamans. But it's also possible that the U/W/R deck is too difficult for a deck with this many expensive creatures to fight against, and I need to re-imagine my direction entirely. After all, it was initially the popularity of Jund that made me look at playing things like Baneslayer Angel and Wilt-Leaf Liege.
Maybe it's time for Doran to come back to play!
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 3 Doran, the Siege Tower
This is just a rough sketch with zero games played, but a lot of efficient creatures that don't die to Lightning Bolt alongside hand disruption seems perfectly suited to beating U/W/R. With Jund decks no longer having Bloodbraid Elf at their disposal, you're on a much more even footing when it comes to card advantage effects, and your creatures generally outclass theirs at every cost. Discard, removal, and Spellskites give you strong tools against Twin, Birthing Pod, and Infect.
This deck is somewhat similar to the one that I ultimately played at PT Return to Ravnica, where I was basically playing the Jund shell with white instead of red. I thought the decision was a reasonably close one then (thought I was admittedly on the wrong side of it), and now that Bloodbraid Elf is no longer part of the equation, things may be tilting back toward Doran and friends. I, for one, hope they are. I miss playing with my big tree buddy, and I hope I'll have a chance to do it at the next Modern Grand Prix.
That's it for this week. I'm very likely going to be taking next week off from writing or making videos because of the Pro Tour, so the next time you're probably going to hear from me is two weeks from now. Hopefully I'll be back then with a tale of victory!
Until next time,