February is shaping up to be an exciting month for Magic! Pro Tour Born of the Gods will be the most important tournament for months in either direction. But even before that I'm expecting two major shakeups to the game.
The first of course is the release of Born of the Gods itself. Spoilers have already started to pop up, and if Theros was any indication, this new set is sure to be challenging and exciting for both Constructed and Limited.
The second is a potential change to the Modern banned list.
Invariably, the decisions that Wizards of the Coast makes in banning and unbanning cards draw quite a lot of controversy. No one wants to see their favorite deck decimated, and Magic players rarely agree on what problems a format is facing, let alone what should be done to correct them.
My personal policy has traditionally been that there's nothing to gain from getting upset or complaining about these things; my job is simply to do the best I can with what I'm given. However, with a Pro Tour in the Modern format fast approaching, I find myself unable to play the stoic waiting game. Instead, I think nearly every day about what may or may not change with regard to the Modern Banned list. As such, I'm going to speculate on what changes I think are most likely and what the most direct consequences of each might be.
The announcement will be made on Prerelease weekend, which is January 31-February 1. For reference, here's a link to the current Modern Banned List.
What If There Are No Changes?
Right now Modern is a reasonably well-balanced format. Dozens of decks see play—at least in small numbers—and there's a healthy amount of variation even among the most-played archetypes.
Since the World Championship, Jund (for the purposes of this article, you can think of the name "Jund" as standing for all B/G/x midrange decks) seems to have established itself as the face of the format; it puts the most copies into Grand Prix Top 8s and is the deck of choice for the highest proportion of top players. That said, Jund has not won any premier events since the banning of Bloodbraid Elf. (There have been five Modern Grand Prix since then.)
In my mind, there are four tier 1 strategies in Modern right now. Jund (B/G/x) is one, and the others are Birthing Pod (Kiki Pod and Melira Pod), U/W/R (midrange or control), and Affinity.
Affinity is bit of a special case. I consider it to be an excellent deck, but the tools to keep Affinity in check are easily available to Modern players at all times. Affinity would not be able to sustain itself as more than about 15% of the field in the long run because if it was ever on track to do so people would simply start sideboard six or more hate cards to hose it. I believe that Affinity will be a constant presence in Modern, but I don't think we have to worry about it becoming absolutely dominant. I also believe it to be relatively safe from a banning.
I'm honestly not sure what is a better deck between Jund and Birthing Pod; they both have a lot of strengths and few weaknesses and are very close in power level. I consider U/W/R to be squarely in third place yet still quite close at their heels. Additionally, a big reason why these three decks have been able to stay at the top is that they all match up pretty evenly against one another. (Meaning it's hard to build Jund to have a huge advantage over either Pod or U/W/R and vice versa).
And of course these are not the only good decks available in Modern or even close to it! Modern is by no means an unbalanced or "broken" format. While I'll propose dozens of possible changes to the banned list in this article, the single most likely outcome is that nothing will change at all.
That said, it's not what I personally think will happen.
While no change at all might be more likely than any one specific change, I do believe that there will be some shakeup to the Modern format, and here's why:
Changes to the Modern banned list have been reasonably common since the format's birth, and there have been changes immediately preceding each of the recent Modern Pro Tours. While I cannot speak for Wizards or the Coast, I personally believe that they do this for two reasons.
The first is for the integrity of the tournament—to challenge the competitors. Part of the reason Pro Tours are such great events is that they closely follow the release of a new set. This means that players have to use creativity, hard work, and every tool available to them to come up with a strong deck in a limited time frame. The release of a new set is typically more than enough to revolutionize Standard or Block Constructed but might not have quite the same impact on a format as large as Modern. A new set in combination with a change to the banned list however poses quite a challenge.
The second reason is to make coverage more exciting. It's fun to watch cards and strategies that we may have never seen before, and people like to examine brand-new decks a lot more than Birthing Pod decklists that might be 73 cards the same as one from the previous Grand Prix.
Since Modern is non-rotating and since new sets only impact the format in small ways, I believe that WotC has been (and should continue) using the banned list as a tool to keep things fresh and exciting.
Do the powers that be want a Pro Tour where 35 or 40% of players play Jund? Well, it's not the worst possible outcome, but it's not the best either.
So what might they change?
Thank you, readers, for being patient through my long-winded introduction. I felt that I needed to formally define Modern's current top decks in order to make this key point:
It would be difficult to ban any single card in Modern right now.
Jund is a strategy that's inherently resilient to bannings because it doesn't revolve around any single card. If something gets banned, you can just replace it with the next-best card, and the strategy remains intact. If there's one card to ban from the deck, it's probably Deathrite Shaman—by the way, this is an idea that many others have discussed before me. Banning Deathrite would have the impact of generally weakening Jund by a small amount, but it would not destroy the archetype.
The problem of course is the delicate balance of power. One could fairly make the claim that "nuclear weapons are bad," but wouldn't it have opened up a whole new set of problems if either—but not both of—the United States or the Soviet Union had gotten rid of theirs during the Cold War?
Yes, I believe that if WotC decides to hit Jund, they will hit Birthing Pod as well. While I don't personally believe that the Birthing Pod strategy is overpowered, the card itself is pretty much bonkers. When I watched a Birthing Pod mirror match on the video coverage of Grand Prix Prague this past weekend, one player curved out more or less perfectly with creatures—one-drop, two-drop, three-drop, five-drop, etc.—while the other player added nothing to the board until a turn 3 Birthing Pod. The player with the Pod won convincingly.
Getting rid of Pod would also open up the format to a wide variety of midrange creature decks. Jund and U/W/R have a fighting chance against Pod because of their high concentration of removal and disruption, but other creature decks have virtually no chance. Zoo is fast enough to once in a while steal a game but is still a big underdog against Pod. Something like Bant or Naya Midrange would have virtually no chance. These are decks that could potentially exist in Modern if Birthing Pod was not so oppressive.
The danger of this exact banning is that U/W/R or perhaps some other blue strategy like Delver of Secrets might be left as dominant. So here's another possibility:
This would simultaneously hit the three biggest archetypes. Like Jund, blue midrange does not center on any single card, but Snapcaster Mage is their best weapon. In a format as powerful and efficient as Modern, getting a cheap two-for-one is game changing, as is gaining the unparalleled flexibility that Snapcaster Mage offers.
I consider Snapcaster Mage to be a borderline card—it would be fine to ban it or fine to leave it alone. However, another thing to consider is how a card like this interacts with the rest of the format and if there might be some greater flexibility if it wasn't around.
If the desired effect is breaking up Modern's tier 1 and opening up the possibility for innovation, banning cards seems to me both difficult and inelegant. However, I think that one or more well thought-out unbannings might generally raise the power level of the format in a small and safe way and uncover quite a bit of creative space.
The original Modern format, which was unveiled at Pro Tour Philadelphia two years ago, was too powerful. Both Ponder and Preordain were legal alongside countless powerful combo options, and it was simply too much. That level of deck manipulation combined with other powerful tools led to a lot of turn 2 kills.
However, Ponder and Preordain weren't exactly the root of the problem; the cards that they dug toward were. After all, nobody ever complained about Ponder being too good in M12 Limited! The format is in a safer place now, and it might be okay to reintroduce either Ponder or Preordain but not both at once.
Storm and most other combo decks are so far below tier 1 that even with some modest help like this there wouldn't be much danger of them becoming dominant.
These cards would help U/W/R a bit, but that deck is extremely hungry for mana in its early turns between Celestial Colonnade, Spell Snare, and Mana Leak, so adding a cantrip would also come at some cost.
It's also my opinion that a small amount of card selection would make Modern's gameplay more fun. One problem with the format is that Modern's nut draws are as powerful as Legacy's but there's no Brainstorm and Ponder to tighten the gap between a great draw and an average one. If I may be crass for a moment . . .
NOBODY LIKES YOU, SERUM VISIONS—we want Ponder back!
Ponder and Preordain are borderline cards—fine to keep them banned or fine to unban them as long as they don't have the level of support that would lead to broken decks. I wouldn't bring them both back at the same time, and it would be even safer to bring one back if Snapcaster Mage was to simultaneously be banned.
It wouldn't make much sense to undo the recent banning of Bloodbraid Elf, especially as Jund has remained a top deck. However, I don't believe that Bloodbraid Elf has an inherent power level that forces it to be on the banned list. This is a card that could be part of a large unbanning (an unbanning of approximately four or more cards) that might generally increase the power level of the format and shake things up a bit.
Green Sun's Zenith is in almost exactly the same boat as Bloodbraid Elf. It wouldn't be wise to unban it alone and give a further boost to green midrange and Birthing Pod. However, it is a fun and reasonably fair card that I believe could see the light of day again at some point.
It would be particularly interesting if Green Sun's Zenith and Bloodbraid Elf were part of the same unbanning because they would be good in similar archetypes but cannot be easily played in the same deck. This would force players to make tough choices and would cause divergence among the top archetypes. More options and more diversity makes for a healthier format.
Wild Nacatl was banned with the intention of diversifying the number of competitive creature decks possible in Modern. This is a noble goal that I firmly believe in, but I don't think it has been accomplished. Deathrite Shaman simply took Nacatl's place, and we have a host of G/B midrange decks that are rock solid and hard for more aggressive creature decks to beat.
Jund, Pod, U/W/R, and Affinity all have inherent strengths against Zoo, so I would feel safe giving Zoo a general boost even though I'll be the first to say that Nacatl would be more than just a "modest upgrade."
I'd like to see another one-drop on the level of Deathrite Shaman that would compete against it. Unbanning Nacatl is a change that could happen all on its own, but it would be even safer if it came as part of a larger unbanning that gives new tools to other strategies as well.
I believe that Bitterblossom being banned is a relic of a bygone era. Those of us who lived through the dark days of Lorwyn block still have nightmares about U/B Faeries, but I do believe its time of dominance has passed. The format has generally risen in power level, while Faeries has not gained many new tools. Decks like Jund and Zoo have inherent strengths against Faeries.
Bitterblossom is a little slow to compete with fast Deathrite Shaman draws, plus it's a lot harder than it used to be to build a deck around it now that Abrupt Decay exists and six one-mana discard spells is the norm for Jund.
If there's one single card to unban, I think it's Bitterblossom. That said, there's some part of me deep down warning me that I might be wrong, and I definitely support erring on the side of caution when it comes to a deck like Faeries. I think it would be completely safe to unban Bitterblossom if it came back alongside either Nacatl, Bloodbraid Elf, or both.
Cards That Could Be Unbanned But Probably Won't
There are a number of other cards that are close to an appropriate power level for Modern and which people frequently bring up in the discussion of unbannings. However, it's also important to think about the consequences of such cards coming back and to ask if they're in line with a more fun vision of the Modern format.
I personally believe that Ancestral Vision is too good plain and simple. I also think that having an Ancestral Vision control or midrange deck be dominant is one of the worst things that could happen to Modern. These types of decks tend to have no natural weaknesses and can sideboard to beat anything—think of a deck like Caw-Blade in Standard.
If Ancestral Vision had to be unbanned, I think that Snapcaster Mage would have to simultaneously be banned. It's not that these two cards are a good combo per se (Ancestral Vision doesn't have a mana cost and therefore cannot be flashbacked with Snapcaster Mage), but the overall power level of blue would simply be too high if it had access to both of those cards at the same time.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a little bit closer to being fair and indeed might have been fine in a format that also had Wild Nacatl and Bloodbraid Elf. However, like Bitterblossom and Ancestral Vision, it's good to err on the side of caution when giving blue decks powerful new tools. The issue is further complicated by the presence of the miracle cards Bonfire of the Damned, Terminus, and Entreat the Angels. Unbanning Jace might enable some entirely new top-tier control decks, and they would probably be unmatched in how frustrating they'd be to play against.
Again, these cards are pretty close to a fair power level for Modern. They fit with the stated goal of the format, which is to have games go past turn 3 as often as possible. However, these are simply cards that oppress creature decks and invalidate a lot of strategies. I believe that unbanning these would do more harm than good.
If there was to be (as I've named as a possibility) a general unbanning that raises the power level of the Modern format, combo cards like this would probably be fair from a metagame balance perspective but not necessarily fun from a gameplay perspective. For example, Storm never really dominated tournaments, but it did fly in the face of the "no turn 3 kills" guideline.
I personally would not object to these cards being unbanned at some point in the future, but as my goal in writing today is honest predictions, I don't think we'll see them coming back next month.
So I've named Deathrite Shaman, Birthing Pod, and Snapcaster Mage as cards that might be considered for banning. I've named Ponder / Preordain, Bloodbraid Elf, Green Sun's Zenith, Wild Nacatl, and Bitterblossom as the most likely candidates for unbanning. Beyond that there is a ton of ways that WotC might choose to mix and match these things with the goal of shaking up the format.
Let's say that I, Reid Duke, suddenly found myself in charge of the situation and had to think from the perspective of not just myself as a player but also for the overall health of the format and the game. I would choose to do a large unbanning: Ponder, Bloodbraid Elf, Green Sun's Zenith, Wild Nacatl, and Bitterblossom. I'd examine the consequences and then consider slowly unbanning a combo card or two at some later point.
I'd expect Birthing Pod to remain a tier 1 deck, especially as Green Sun's Zenith would be a powerful new tool. That said, other creature decks could now search up Gaddock Teeg, Qasali Pridemage, Deathrite Shaman, and Scavenging Ooze as ways to disrupt Pod decks.
Jund and Zoo would get general upgrades and would be strong decks but not completely dominant. They would pose two different interesting challenges to control decks and in particular would keep U/B Faeries in check.
Faeries players might be able to prey on certain types of combo decks and could no doubt compete with creature decks a long as the pilot is adept and the decklist is well tuned. That said, they wouldn't have as easy a time as they might have in the past.
Splinter Twin too would gain a nice tool in Ponder, but it would be no more dominant than it is today due to the general increase in the power level of the format. Many builds of Jund, Zoo, Delver, and Faeries would give Twin a hard time.
Finally, Green Sun's Zenith would open up a whole new world of non-Jund midrange decks. There would be Bant, Naya, Junk, and a whole host of other options. We'd see the return of an old favorite in Knight of the Reliquary. These decks could do fine in the hands of the right pilot, but none of them would be dominant.
So that's my two cents. Remember, of course, that I'm only one man; Wizards of the Coast knows a lot more than I do, and the community at large will see things that even they will miss. I'm not going to hold my breath that my exact prediction will come true, but I do believe it's a helpful exercise to consider how the format might change by mixing and matching a number of the possible changes to the banned list.
I hope and believe that Wizards of the Coast will make a good decision with regard to the Modern banned list and that Pro Tour Born of the Gods will be a great event as a result. I can't wait!