[Welcome to another round of Fact or Fiction! Todd Stevens and Ross Merriam both made the top 3 of the Modern Open last weekend, but only one of them took home an SCG Tour® trophy! Ross Merriam demands a rematch! The arena? Right here, right now. And you're picking the winner!]
1. Standard will do more than go back to the default Vehicles/Constrictor metagame now that Aetherworks Marvel is gone.
Todd Stevens: Fact. I honestly wouldn't put Mardu Vehicles or B/G Constrictor as one of my top two archetypes right away after the Aetherworks Marvel banning. Even though it's been a little quiet after winning the Pro Tour, Zombies is still an extremely solid deck and what I think will be a default deck right away. It has a good matchup against both Vehicles and Constrictor decks, although they can both certainly adjust and make their Zombies matchup better. Temur Energy is the other deck that gains a lot here, and I think the midrange Temur deck that has the ability to top out at Chandra, Flamecaller will be a big part of the metagame from day one. Overall I think Standard is finally in a good position to be a fun and exciting format again, and I don't think we will have any one or two decks dominate the metagame like we've seen over the past six months.
Ross Merriam: Fact . This is par for the course for major changes in a format at this point, so it shouldn't be a surprise. Early tournaments will of course be filled with the easy choices: Mardu, Zombies, B/G Energy, etc., but anytime you remove a pillar of the metagame the equilibrium is going to shift in ways that are unforeseen because you've lifted a significant restriction on that metagame. Midrange decks that were pushed out by the power of Aetherworks Marvel can thrive against a normalized metagame. Control decks will have to adapt as well.
Moreover, the energy shell that supported Four-Color Saheeli and now Temur Aetherworks is simply too powerful to be left behind, so there will be a different deck that runs on the same engine. Magic was, is, and forever will be a game driven by context. Bans and rotations change that context significantly, and so we have to treat them as different formats, not evolutions of the previous one.
2. Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh will make a significant Standard impact.
Todd Stevens: Fiction. I immediately wanted to say Fact, but upon further reflection I don't believe Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh will make it here. There are two different decks that Nicol Bolas could potentially slot into right away, the first being a Grixis Control deck with Torrential Gearhulks, similar to current U/R Control decks. Nicol Bolas would be quite the follow up to an end step Torrential Gearhulk, but I'm honestly not sure how necessary it is to the overarching strategy of the deck.
More likely Nicol Bolas will help usher in a Grixis midrange deck to the format, where he sits atop a curve of removal, card advantage, and other planeswalkers like Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Chandra alone can allow you to cast Nicol Bolas on turn 5, and I expect to face this powerful curve after the release of Hour of Devastation. Even so, I don't believe the impact Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh will have on Standard will be significant.
Ross Merriam: Fact. Let's do something strange and ignore the text on the card for a moment.
We're currently in a period in which the design and development teams for Magic have been purposefully pushing the cards that are relevant to the storyline in order to make competitive play more resonant from a flavor perspective and thus, more engaging for players. Many of the complaints about the format are centered around this philosophy and the resulting pushed cards like Emrakul, the Promised End and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
Nicol Bolas is a central character in the storyline of Amonkhet. Does anyone really think that its card isn't going to be specifically designed for Standard play? That should be the default position.
Now let's look at the card. Seven mana is steep but not exorbitantly so, and the power level is there. On a blank battlefield it can generate card advantage to run away with the game. It can answer opposing creatures or planeswalkers, and the threat of seven damage to the face will give control decks utilizing the card an alternate angle to finish off games that opponents will either have to respect or lose to repeatedly.
You may knock it by saying that its minus ability leaves it vulnerable and therefore isn't a great source of self-protection, but in practice its self-protection will come from its incredibly high starting loyalty. Taking the last few cards from your opponent's hand and leaving them to have to attack into an eight loyalty planeswalker is a daunting task, and will likely lead to a resurgence in flexible removal spells like To the Slaughter and Anguished Unmaking in maindecks.
This is a powerful card upon first read, and recent history says that we'd be fools to underestimate key story cards. The question here isn't will there be a home for Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, but where it will be.
3. It was correct to leave Death's Shadow decks untouched in Modern.
Todd Stevens: Fact. Now I've never been a fan of the Death's Shadow decks and think they are unbelievably good, but honestly now was not the time to touch anything in Modern. I've been vocal in the past that I would be happy if Death's Shadow left the metagame because I'm not a fan of the extremely consistent play pattern the deck has and how it beats every other deck in the format.
People point to Modern being a wide open format, and while it still is on a large scale, the metagame from #SCGCHAR last weekend had a troubling sign. With 13/66 players, approximately 20%, on day two playing Grixis Death's Shadow, as well as half of the top 8, the deck has just started to take a stranglehold on the metagame. I would not at all be surprised if that number continued to increase, and could easily see it being upwards of 30% of the posted this weekend at #GPVegas.
I do believe something will be banned from Death's Shadow later in the year, and in my opinion it should be Death's Shadow and not Street Wraith when the time comes. Tuesday's announcement was not the time, yet, and it was correct to leave the deck untouched. For now.
Ross Merriam: Fact. Since the "we need more data" emergency ban snafu of Felidar Guardian, that phrase has become somewhat of a buzzword in the Magic community. But in this case, I think the sentiment is valid. Jund Death's Shadow has quickly given way to Grixis Death's Shadow, which was one of, if not the top performing deck on the Modern Grand Prix weekend, followed up by a dominating performance in Charlotte, albeit one that ended without a trophy. But one dominant performance does not justify a ban.
In contrast, Four-Color Saheeli had weeks of demonstrated dominance and even though Mardu Vehicles rivaled it for top deck in the format, it was clear that the combo deck was the one that was constraining the metagame in an unhealthy way. Grixis Death's Shadow is built on a dangerous foundation of hyper-efficient answers and undercosted threats. It can play well on both offense and defense, which is a sure sign of danger when it comes to oppressive decks.
We should be keeping a close eye on the deck and not be afraid to pull the trigger if necessary, but for now Modern is still in a good place, and it's still incredibly popular. Especially in the wake of a rash of Standard bans eroding consumer confidence, now is the time to leave things be and see how the metagame reacts.
4. There will be seven or more different archetypes in the Grand Prix Las Vegas Legacy top 8.
Todd Stevens: Fiction. There will be six! Legacy is the pinnacle of a "play what you know" format, and it's never a surprise to see the most experienced players succeeding in the format. However, for the first time that I can remember, Legacy is in a major state of flux since the removal of Sensei's Divining Top from the format. Online results would show a dominance of Delver decks, but I also believe there are some external factors that make Delver a larger part of the online metagame than the paper one. My prediction for the top 8 of #GPVegas is: 2 Grixis Delver, 2 B/R Reanimator, 1 Sultai Delver, 1 Death and Taxes, 1 Storm, and 1 Elves.
Ross Merriam: Fiction. Legacy has always been a diverse format, and I don't think anyone would be surprised to see that many different archetypes make the elimination rounds, myself included; but if I'm making a bet, seven is just too high of a bar to clear. I expect Grixis Delver, the default best deck, to comprise a significant portion of the metagame, especially in that of the top players, who don't play Legacy often enough to develop a pet deck and are attracted to Delver's combination of efficiency, power, and Brainstorm.
If you assume two copies of that deck for the top 8, then you have to get six distinct archetypes rounding it out for this prediction to come true, and I can't see the odds being in favor of such a result.
5.There are at least two cards on the Modern banned list that you think would be safe to unban.
Todd Stevens: Fiction. There is no card that, if unbanned, would improve the health of the format. However, the one card that can truly be unbanned with no repercussions whatsoever is Blazing Shoal. With no Ponder, Preordain, or most importantly Gitaxian Probe in the format, there wouldn't be a U/R Infect deck anymore even with Blazing Shoal unbanned. Since there wouldn't be any demand for Blazing Shoal even if it was unbanned, I don't think anyone is in a hurry to unban it.
Bloodbraid Elf is a card that many believe would be safe to be unbanned, but I would be worried about what Jund Death's Shadow would look like with access to Bloodbraid Elf. It would be a large upgrade over Ranger of Eos for the deck and could keep the deck three colors. Even if Death's Shadow was banned, like I believe will happen later in the year, traditional Jund may completely dominate with Bloodbraid Elf. Since its banning Jund has received some significant upgrades with Kolaghan's Command, Blooming Marsh, Collective Brutality, Liliana, the Last Hope, and Fatal Push. Overall, I don't believe it's safe to unban Bloodbraid Elf.
Another card many people ask to have unbanned is Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I truly hope it never is as I believe it would be a disaster for the format. The price of the card would spike to unprecedented levels, the play patterns it promotes are not conducive to enjoyable gameplay, and almost all forms of midrange decks would start to perish from the metagame due to Jace, the Mind Sculptor's power level. It's that strong, and there are plenty of low cost interactive spells that would allow Jace to dominate the metagame. Games would solely be about who controls Jace, and it is absolutely not safe to unban on any metric.
Finally, the last card some people think is safe to unban is Stoneforge Mystic, and I'm not exactly sure how that would play out. It could very well be a safe card that's safe to unban, especially with both Kolaghan's Command and Fatal Push dealing with a Batterskull effectively in the early game. I could also see it being extremely powerful in Collected Company decks, so I'm just not really sure; therefore, I lean towards it staying banned. I'm not sure the metagame would be more healthy with it, and the format isn't in amazing shape without it right now anyway.
Ross Merriam: Fact. This is another question that I'm answering based on intuition and recent history. If you'd ask me which two cards they are, I couldn't tell you, but the unbannings that have occurred in Modern's history have largely been met by much fanfare and little in the way of results. Wild Nacatl and Valakut, Molten Pinnacle are staples of the format, but are not in tier one archetypes. Neither is oppressive in any sense. Golgari Grave-Troll was banned again, but that's more the exception than the rule. It's arguable that the card would've been okay in Dredge had Cathartic Reunion not been printed months later.
The rest of the lot: Ancestral Vision, Sword of the Meek, Bitterblossom, have all been largely disappointing since their return to the format, despite their strong pedigrees. The initial Modern ban list was a collection of past Standard bogeymen for a format that was sprung upon us weeks before a Pro Tour, and it was no doubt meant to be overreaching in the hopes of ensuring a healthy format. Suffice it to say that goal was not met, but the list was still excessive. I'd be surprised if there weren't at least two cards that could safely come off.