The Modern hype reaches its peak the weekend before a Banned and Restricted announcement by the powers that be. That looming decision, not to mention the sweetest Modern Masters set the world has ever seen, has provided a wealth of topics for discussion amongst the Magic community. A few weeks ago, I relit the Jace, the Mind Sculptor fire on Twitter, discussing with the masses the need for his triumphant return.
Unbanning or banning any card always sparks some controversy and divides the community. People feel very passionate, one way or another, about the right for a card to exist in any of the competitive formats. There was a time where I truly believed that no cards could save Modern and that the format was doomed due to the inherent flaws from the moment of its conception. Since then, there have been multiple efforts to make Modern a fully functional, diverse, and competitive format. I think we are heading in the right direction, and I see glimmers of hope in Modern for each archetype to be fully represented, which is the key to format health.
There is no question that the format is dominated by hyper-aggressive strategies and that we organize celebratory parades in the street when one of the weaker combo decks breaches the Top 8 of a Grand Prix. If a Jund, Abzan, or Grixis midrange/control deck makes it that close to the finish line of a premier event, it almost becomes an international Modern holiday. Death's Shadow, Naya Burn, Naya Zoo, Affinity, Infect (when the Gitaxian Probe nerf is overcome), Merfolk, Death and Taxes Variants, Burn, and Eldrazi Tron are just some of the examples of what kind of world you should expect to plunge into when entering a Modern tournament. On the outskirts, looking in, we have the lethargic combo decks, which had a decent showing across the world as most of the heavy hitters were at GP Vancouver or #SCGBALT.
Dredge, Ad Nauseam, Storm, Prison (W/R and Lantern), G/B Tron, Living End, and Scapeshift are all examples of decks that try to instantly win or lock a player out of the game in the first few turns. Expect to play against decks like these every few rounds, giving you a break from lethal one- and two-drops flooding the battlefield by turn 3. This simplified breakdown of the metagame of Modern isn't a complaint, simply an observation to fuel the argument for change on March 13th.
There will be some changes to either Standard or Modern this Monday. This is not solely a gut feeling, as many of you who follow me on Twitter know. The biggest clues are the way Wizards of the Coast staff have responded to our Jace, the Mind Sculptor discussions and their response to other players regarding their effort to reduce the trauma that players would go through when changing a format a few days before a big tournament. Aaron Forsythe responded to us a few weeks ago, after the dust had settled from the heated debate, and stated that WotC staff have heard our voice and will be discussing the issue.
I fully expect Jace, the Mind Sculptor to get unbanned soon, but hopefully it is the nearest of futures for his fans worldwide. I want to discuss with you all the reasons I gave for his return to competitive Magic (outside of Legacy), other cards that should be freed, as well as make a concerted effort to alleviate some of the concerns that people have had on the other side of the fence.
The #FREEJTMS Movement: Jace Is Great!
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the boogeyman of competitive Magic. I remember the Standard where he dominated quite well, and the pain he brought opponents who watched helplessly as Brainstorms rained from the sky uncontrollably. I also remember a Standard where Bitterblossom, Squadron Hawk (after bannings), and Pack Rat made playing other strategies an irresponsible decision. There are scary cards throughout the history of competitive Magic, and that is what the initial banned list of Modern was comprised of. It made sense for WotC to start the format off with cards like Bitterblossom removed from competitive play.
That card warped Standard, a format with a handful of sets, but they did not expect this type of aggressive diversity as the format settled last year. There are many types of aggressive decks, all of which require different cards to stop, which creates a huge issue for deck builders. Anger of the Gods is an absolute house against Naya Zoo but unplayable against Death's Shadow. Kolaghan's Command can be game over against Affinity but sometimes embarrassing against Merfolk. The diversity of aggressive decks is the biggest issue that the format has currently, but there is a way to shatter this exclusive cult to pieces.
Control has historically been able to pack enough heat to disrupt aggressive strategies and play a few flimsy win conditions to turn the corner, but that leaves a huge gap for the collection of combo decks lurking around. The win percentage I've had with Grixis or Esper Control against the combo/big mana field discussed earlier is tragically low. Most games I play against these decks are so one-sided, it makes me critically examine my life choices. Snapcaster Mage and Tasigur, the Golden Fang will not carry the torch of victory against these decks that are peppered throughout any competitive tournament.
The SCG Tour® has a deep metagame that makes it impossible to dodge the eager G/B Tron opponent or that Ad Nauseam mastermind. Even though these decks don't typically perform well at the GP level, you will also see them at such events. Paper-rock-scissors Magic has its merits, but even the scissors can get lucky against the rock occasionally due to the wonderful variance of the game. Sadly, all the variance in the world will not help that rusted, corroded pair of control scissors against the incoming combo meteor in Modern today.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor would not put control ahead of the aggressive decks at all, but it would revolutionize the metagame and format. Unbanning the iconic planeswalker would provide control a “quick” win condition and a source of card advantage against the decks that have had a free ride in the matchup for far too long. Tapping out on turn 4 may not be appealing for some, so I would suspect that the reactive Grixis Control lists wouldn't play them in the maindeck at all. This would give control the multifaceted attack plan that has never existed in Modern before.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be a very weak addition to the fight against aggressive decks most of the time; however, there will be games where the control mage's resources line up perfectly against the aggressive counterpart and the final Wild Nacatl is met with the blue hero's Unsummon. Those scenarios will be far and few between, so don't worry, my aggressive friends; you'll still be able to clean our clocks even if he returns.
Ancestral Vision is a card that I have loved for a long time and the only source of true card advantage in Modern. Jace, the Mind Sculptor would provide great competition for Ancestral Vision and diversify control builds because of their vastly different roles. I have thrown together test decks with the unbanning in mind, and I've had better results without Ancestral Vision entirely. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an outstanding topdeck, whereas Ancestral Vision is "turn 1 or bust" often.
I've found myself fighting for dear life in the early turns, maximizing my use of mana for removal spells, Serum Visions for land drops, and disruption. Spells like Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Mana Leak have all been dropped from the control discussion because of their inability to operate in the mid-game. Jace, the Mind Sculptor resurrects these spells, allowing us to shuffle worthless cards away with a simple fetchland activation. The ability to Brainstorm in Modern showcases the true power of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, regardless of whether he survives the turn. This added perk will tempt some to run both card advantage spells, but at least Modern deckbuilding will be revived for control enthusiasts again.
Is Jace Great?
There are quite a few pros for Jace, the Mind Sculptor coming from its biggest fan, but we all know there are some obvious weaknesses. Modern was advertised as a turn 4 format but has settled between turns 2 and 3. A format with decks averaging wins that early, or decks that make the game unwinnable that early on, will not be afraid of a sorcery-speed four-mana Brainstorm. Every aggressive deck that I listed, and a few more that didn't make the cut, will more often laugh at our legendary planeswalker than tremble in fear. There are aggressive players salivating at the thought of a new wave of control players jamming four of these expensive planeswalkers in our control decks, expecting to save the world.
After the first few weeks of a Jace, the Mind Sculptor Modern, you would see it tossed into the sideboard of blue combo decks and Grixis Control as well as become the flagship win condition for people like me. The win percentage against combo/big mana decks will increase drastically, but still not make us a favorite. That eager G/B Tron player will still slam a turn 3 Karn Liberated against us and then follow up with an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. No planeswalker past, present, or future would save us from a fate like that.
It would give us a chance to win those games against weaker starts; help us overcome a prison lock from Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void, or a collection of silly artifacts; or even provide us enough disruption fuel to get through a few Pact of Negations defending an Ad Nauseam on the stack. Would it make control dominate Modern? Absolutely not, but the unbanning would bring balance back to the metagame. This discussion has nothing to do with making control great again and everything to do with making Modern great for the first time. Control provides an essential check on linear aggressive decks, but it can't fulfill that role when having a 20% win rate against combo/big mana variants.
The Arguments Against
There are pros and cons to all arguments. Unbanning a card would shake the format and hurt some players in the process. The biggest casualty of a Jace, the Mind Sculptor unbanning would be the deadly blow to Abzan, Jund, and reactive Grixis Control. Each of these three decks would have a very difficult time defeating decks that enlist multiple copies of the greatest planeswalker of all time.
Midrange players would adapt, playing more spells that kill planeswalkers or reserving some burn for his arrival. There are many sweet spells that have been dropped from these midrange decks, like Dreadbore and Maelstrom Pulse, which would see a resurgence in play. Even with these tools, Jund might need a little bit of a boost, so let's go ahead and unban Bloodbraid Elf. Sorry, control fans, but I must side with my Gruul colleagues on this one. There is absolutely no reason that Bloodbraid Elf should still be banned. It was easily the cleanest check on Jace, the Mind Sculptor back in the good old days. If I had a nickel for each time a Bloodbraid Elf came down, Blightning nailed me, and my planewalker was eliminated, I'd have a decent little collection of change.
Bloodbraid Elf is in the category that Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bitterblossom are in, “was broken in Standard.” That category is little by little being released into the wild as WotC understands how the game has shifted in power level. While I am being killed on turn 2 on one computer monitor by an armada of creatures and burn, I am staving off opponents of unbannings on the other. These four-mana responses are thought to be oppressive by a decent population of players, and I am confident their objection would subside once they experience the format with these cards included. We would see a repeat performance like that of the Sword of the Meek and Bitterblossom unbannings, two cards that historically enhanced blue decks. Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are more powerful than those two but would not dominate a format as quick as this one.
The secondary objection to the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the financial cost. There is no question that this would cause the planeswalker's price to skyrocket, doubling at least. For those of you who don't own any, it would be a heavy burden to buy a playset to have at your disposal. Although I understand the ridiculous rise in Modern/Legacy card prices over the years, it cannot be a basis for why cards remained banned. Using cost to regulate card legality is a recipe for disaster. Format health must trump all secondary concerns, including cost, card availability, and deck creativity. If most control decks decide to run a playset of Jace, the Mind Sculptors to attack the metagame, creating a healthy representation of all archetypes finally, it will be worth it in the end.
The cost of Jace, the Mind Sculptor would make playing control a bit pricy but would not significantly help or hurt the overall cost of getting into Modern. The decks that cost thousands to build would still cost thousands to build. Eventually, after all the initial hype settles, I predict that the resting cost would be close to what Tarmogoyf was before its third reprint. This would also incentivize WotC to create some sweet alternative art for our favorite planeswalker down the line, which is awesome in its own.
I don't think many people are on the side of the argument that wishes to keep Jace, the Mind Sculptor banned due to the price hike that would follow, but I completely understand the frustration that it would create. We cannot let finances dictate what cards should exist or not exist in competitive Magic. WotC has made it clear, through Masterpieces and Modern Masters, that they are willing to reprint cards to lower these financial burdens. Let's keep fighting for format health and let them handle the financial aspect. I would hate to be a part of a game that determined bans and unbans based on the value of the card in question.
I hope to celebrate some good news Monday, and if not, I'll look to the future of Modern. One day soon, the younger generation of Magic players will be able to sleeve up the iconic planeswalker of the game as I did many years ago.
Thank you for reading, and good luck this weekend at #SCGDFW.