[Welcome to another edition of Fact or Fiction! Today, Sam Black, Jim Davis, and Patrick Sullivan are here to render their verdicts on five statements about the Modern banned list. Don't forget to vote for the winner at the end!]
1. It's safe to take Stoneforge Mystic off the Modern banned list.
Sam Black: Fiction. Whenever I see this idea brought up, I dismiss it out of hand entirely. Nothing makes sense to me about the idea of printing Stoneforge Mystic. It's like a Tinker that nets you a card instead of costing a card, so I've just assumed WotC would rather put this one behind them, but let's take a closer look and consider the implications considering their goals for Modern.
I'm going to assume that the driving principle behind managing the Modern banned list is maximizing format diversity. They don't want too many people to play one deck, and they don't want to collapse several decks into one deck.
To me, the biggest problem with Stoneforge Mystic is: if it exists, why would you play a fair white deck and not play it? That's a dangerous baseline. That's why Wild Nacatl was banned, but Stoneforge is way more powerful and way more that. To clarify, I don't have an answer to why you wouldn't. It would become the white card. You run the risk of basically every fair deck splashing white to play it.
So why would you take on that risk? What goal are we working toward? Do we need more people to play white creatures? No, Humans is already the most popular deck. Are we just trying to fight that? This reminds me of the story with the increasingly dangerous predators brought in to deal with the previous ones. No thanks.
Jim Davis: Fact. I'm very surprised to be taking the "fact" side here, and six months ago I would have never considered it. However, with two of the best fair cards on the ban list (Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf) being unbanned and doing almost nothing to help the fair decks in the format, it may be time to free the most powerful Kor ever printed.
There are typically two types of cards that get banned: cards that do fundamentally broken things (Hypergenesis, Rite of Flame, Summer Bloom), and cards that are so universally powerful that they become ubiquitous (Deathrite Shaman, Stoneforge Mystic, Mental Misstep). The second class of cards don't kill people on turn 2, but they make deckbuilding extremely homogenized because they're simply better than the other available options.
Stoneforge Mystic is an extremely powerful and flexible two-drop that can basically do it all for only six or seven slots in your deck. If unbanned, Stoneforge Mystic would be likely to slot in as one of the best possible threats in fair decks. I had been worried that it would invalidate too many cards in the format, but let's be real— fair decks are really struggling right now. Bloodbraid Elf and Jace couldn't save them, but maybe Stoneforge Mystic can.
Patrick Sullivan: Fact, but unwise. "Safe" is a very narrow question that should limit the conversation to something approximating "can the metagame handle this?" and if that is the limit of the scope, I think Stoneforge Mystic could be legal. It's a fragile creature that dies to a variety of commonly-played cards and putting a Batterskull onto the battlefield on the third turn isn't appreciably more powerful than plenty of other things you can do. Without the plethora of cantrips in Legacy, having a Batterskull stranded in your hand (either because your Stoneforge died or because you naturally drew it) is a significant opportunity cost, also.
Still, I think it's likely that Stoneforge Mystic would be a feature of the format, and it's hard for me to imagine Stoneforge Mystic making Modern a more diverse or more fun place. It's another powerful, cheap, proactive play, which Modern already has plenty of. It often reduces games to a simple binary of whether the opposing player has a removal spell on the second turn. And for a card that suggests that you build a toolbox of different effects, its history suggests that it's more about getting the same short list of things repeatedly. Combine "high rate" with "low novelty/replayability" and I think it's best to leave Stoneforge on the banned list, even if I believe the format could handle it.
2. It's safe to take Green Sun's Zenith off the Modern banned list.
Sam Black: Conditional Fact. Yes, if you're willing to ban Dryad Arbor.
I imagine there are a decent number of people who think it's fine to just have both legal. I'm not one of them. It's not a perfect analogy, but split card Llanowar Elves/finisher is how you get Deathrite Shaman. The idea with Green Sun's Zenith is that you can pay an extra mana for whatever creature you want, but when you don't have to pay an extra mana for the first creature you want on turn one, and that creature gives you mana to pay for the following creatures, the card is simply too good.
Maybe we get to a format where Llanowar Elves is just a bad card, and maybe thanks to cards like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Gaddock Teeg, and Collected Company, there are too many reasons not to want a non-creature spell in that slot. But I doubt that will happen and I think you're putting too much pressure on those cards and an exact metagame—like, even if you found the right moment where it wouldn't be too bad, you risk it becoming broken again at any point.
Honestly, even without Dryad Arbor, I'm a little afraid of it in Devoted Druid combo decks, but at least I'm only really worried about it there and not also in Infect, G/W Hexproof, Primeval Titan strategies, any Tarmogoyf deck, etc etc. I don't know, I could easily come around to the idea that you'd have to be crazy to unban this regardless, but let's just say that to have the discussion you need to ban Dryad Arbor.
Jim Davis: Fact. I'm starting to feel like perhaps it's time to just go nuts and let God sort em out.
Green Sun's Zenith is banned for very similar reasons to Stoneforge Mystic. In conjunction with Dryad Arbor, Green Sun's Zenith ends up being a Llanowar Elf + Worldly Tutor split card, offering an extreme level of power for a very low cost. Any deck in the format that plays Noble Hierarch or Birds of Paradise would instantly want to play it, as well as any midrange deck that plays green.
High power level plus tutoring? Sounds awfully like Stoneforge Mystic, doesn't it? Green Sun's Zenith would put a lot more power in the hands of fair decks in the format, and with the format being so linear already, I don't see that as a bad thing. As such, Green Sun's Zenith gets the same pass as Stoneforge Mystic… for now.
Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. Modern is not short on this sort of thing, and the analogs promote a much healthier set of incentives and/or engender a much higher opportunity cost. Collected Company asks that you play with a bunch of creatures with a tight range of mana costs and usually to find a synergistic mixture of static and activated powers. Chord of Calling needs to have a lot of material on the table before it becomes a good deal. Both cards are instants, which promotes dynamic gameplay and incents finding creatures and interactions that are especially good on the opposing turn. Summoner's Pact is pretty busted at doing certain things, but typically it offers no help in getting you off the ground.
Green Sun's Zenith is powerful at allowing you to play the same game without the deckbuilding puzzle of Collected Company and Chord of Calling or the massive opportunity cost of Summoner's Pact. The rate is through the roof, which is why it shows up both in decks with a bunch of little creatures, like Elves, all the way to decks that play with exactly one large creature, like Primeval Titan strategies. Plenty of powerful decks already use the variations of "tutor for a green creature," and Green Sun's Zenith comes at a much higher risk than those designs, while promoting much less novel gameplay.
3. It's safe to take Dig Through Time off the Modern banned list.
Sam Black: Fiction. So, the thinking here is that Ancestral Vision and Jace, the Mind Sculptor both didn't push blue over the top, and that's a problem, because blue must be the best, so how could we make that happen, is that right?
Look, it's easy to fill a Modern deck with cheap interaction and fetchlands, kill and counter everything the opponent does, and then start chaining Dig Through Times. Maybe you eventually find a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria along the way to seal the deal. Why is this a play pattern we want? How do you combat it if it's too good? It certainly doesn't lead to varied or interesting game play.
And the kicker? That's kind of the best case scenario. The worst case is that this enables some absurd combo decks.
While this would succeed at making blue the best color again, it certainly goes too far.
Okay, if you had your heart set on having the conversation, we could entertain the idea of unbanning this if we ban all the fetchlands, and I'm absolutely here for that conversation, but I've been told it's a nonstarter in the past.
Jim Davis: Fiction. Like Stoneforge Mystic and Green Sun's Zenith, Dig Through Time can be played fairly, and would provide a push to some of the format's fair decks. However, Dig Through Time is even better when played unfairly, making it far more dangerous.
Dig Through Time would give even more power to blue-based combo decks, further pushing the format's linear strategies. Delve is busted and this is a serious danger zone— do not pass go, do not collect $200, and leave Dig Through Time right next to Treasure Cruise where it belongs.
Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. In Modern, it's trivial to put cards in your graveyard. Fetchlands, cantrips, and other cycling cards account for a lot of this and less prevalent cards litter the experience. It's why Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage are among the better creatures, why Deathrite Shaman is banned, and why a huge percentage of the delve cards have entered competitive decks at one time or another or have been banned themselves. I don't think it's ideal to have so much power emerge from manipulating material across game zones and then squeezing every drop of value out of the graveyard, but it is what it is.
Because the format already places heavy incentives on putting random stuff into your graveyard (which is typically a non-interactive experience), I think it's extremely important that the eventual output be something on the table. Gurmag Angler and Tasigur do this quite well; even the Dredge deck mostly puts attackers onto the battlefield at the end of the day. Dig Through Time is an entirely different experience and promotes combo decks and other angles of attack that have little interest in interacting. The rate is enough to get it banned in Legacy, the incentives are both awful and something the format is already long on, and I don't think the experience of playing against this card would be tolerable for very long. No thanks.
4. It's safe to take Punishing Fire off the Modern banned list.
Sam Black: Conditional Fact. If you ban Grove of the Burnwillows.
I feel like this answer isn't in the spirit of the question. Like, the essence of the idea of unbanning Punishing Fire is that you want that combo in Modern, because no one cares if they can play Punishing Fire without Grove. But, as an aside, I do think Grove of the Burnwillows on its own is kinda messed up, so I'd be fine with switching which one is banned.
As to the actual substance of the question, no, oppressing every small creature will not encourage format diversity or interesting game play. On top of that, adding strength to Faithless Looting doesn't really seem like a good direction for Modern. I really can't see any reason you'd want this to be legal.
Jim Davis: Fiction. It's pretty clear that Punishing Fire falls under the "ubiquitous fair card" category and not the "busted combo card" category, so if I'm willing to bend on Stoneforge Mystic and Green Sun's Zenith, why not bend on Punishing Fire? After all, it's literally just a very slow stream of Shocks in conjunction with Grove of the Burnwillows.
The problem is that Punishing Fire is extremely polarizing. Against other fair decks, it's oppressively powerful. If you're trying to cast Stoneforge Mystic, Noble Hierarch, or any other number of cheap and powerful fair creatures, beating Punishing Fire can be very difficult. However, if your deck doesn't care about these kinds of cards, Punishing Fire is embarrassingly awful.
That's just not very fun.
It's good to have elements in your format that are variable based on what types of decks are being played, but Punishing Fire goes too far. There's no Wasteland for the creature decks to combat Grove of the Burnwillows, and the other half of the format just doesn't care at all. Both scenarios are not enjoyable ones, so Punishing Fire can happily stay banned.
Patrick Sullivan: Fact. No ambiguity, no caveats, no qualifiers—I'm down for Punishing Fire to come back. Recurring removal isn't the best experience and the trigger is often a bit concealed or non-intuitive, but these are relatively light strikes given the power level of the format. If you're trying to make this hum just through Grove of the Burnwillows, Modern is flush with colorless non-basic land hate that makes that path really sketchy. If you're going deeper than that to enable Punishing Fire, that sounds like you've built something different, and are likely enabling through permanents that can be interacted with, or one-and-done spells.
I like what Punishing Fire encourages on the other side of the table, too. There are so many incentives to flood the battlefield with cheap garbage and end the game before it ever really starts, and Punishing Fire provides a reasonable backstop against those strategies, which are often among the best in Modern. Plus, Punishing Fire isn't Slaughter —it does care about characteristics of cards, and slightly slower, more durable threats often line up well against it. I'm all about encouraging more expensive cards in Modern, and Punishing Fire promotes that from both players.
5. It's safe to take Umezawa's Jitte off the Modern banned list.
Sam Black: Fiction. Look, I don't have to think any cards are safe to take off the banned list as is. They're banned for a reason. The single virtue of Umezawa's Jitte is that it encourages people to put creatures in their decks. People already play creatures in Modern. What is this doing for us?
The best reason I can think of to want it is if you want Faeries to be a good deck—Faeries is ideal for Jitte battles because Bitterblossom gives you a string of evasive creatures to equip while the rest of your deck makes it very hard for your opponent to connect with their own Jitte, and that's the problem. Too many games become entirely about being the one to connect with Jitte. I don't necessarily think this destroys format diversity as badly as the others, at least at first, but I do think it just leads to bad game play, and I'm also worried that the format collapses into just the decks that are best at competing over Jitte.
I already have trepidations about unbanning Stoneforge Mystic, and I would like to see how Stoneforge Mystic reacts to the format without Umezawa's Jitte before introducing another element. It's just good science; I want data on Stoneforge Mystic that's not skewed by anything else.
If Stoneforge Mystic stays banned, then I move over to the "fact" side here. Umezawa's Jitte is a relic from older times. Its days of completely dominating any creature-based matchup all by itself are likely behind it, and while it would still be a powerful tool in said matchups, it would also be very unimpressive in others. Unlike Punishing Fire, it's hard to play that many copies of Umezawa's Jitte; not only is it legendary but it also requires a high density of creatures to play.
Patrick Sullivan: Fact, but unwise. On rate alone, probably safe; I'm not even sure it would show up in many maindecks. Not every Modern deck is about creatures, and not every Modern deck that is cares about Jitte. It's a little bit on the slower side. Interaction of all sorts is effective against it, to varying degrees. In the abstract, there's a lot to like.
I just think this one is too miserable. Once Jitte is on a creature, vast swaths of interaction are cut out of the game, and the game typically doesn't get more fun from turn to turn. The feeling of helplessness it creates is legendary among Magic designs. The banned list is more about curating an experience than arbitrarily cutting the best .01% of cards out, and I'm struggling to imagine the experience that's improved by Umezawa's Jitte as a frequent part of the range. It can be fun to treat the banned list as a thought experiment around concepts like "too good," but I think the calculus should be more nuanced than that. I don't think it would ruin the metagame, but Jitte has the potential to significantly harm the overall experience.