I'd intended to write about the various potential builds of Zoo in Modern, but that article was somewhat preempted by a certain announcement—one of two major changes dropped on the Magic community this week. Instead, I'm going to take this opportunity to discuss those changes and their implications moving forward.
First, what is ultimately the smaller change: the Modern banned list. The addition of Wild Nacatl and Punishing Fire to the banned list came as no great surprise to me, even if I'm not sure I entirely agree with the decision. Erik Lauer had approached me at Worlds to ask my opinion about a number of matters—one of which was what, if anything, ought to be banned in Modern.
We discussed the issue both before and after the tournament. Beforehand, Erik asked me what I thought Modern would look like, and I told him that I thought it would look a lot like PT Philly, at least at the top tables—primarily Zoo and U/R combo decks, both Twin and Storm, with a smattering of Affinity and control. That prediction proved to be quite accurate, with Zoo in particular making up nearly a third of the field. After the tournament, Erik asked me if I thought the answer to opening up the Modern format was as crazy as banning Wild Nacatl.
My response then, which is still my feeling now, is that basing ban decisions off the field on day three at Worlds isn't really a great idea, given that it's the format for which players spend the least time preparing. The attitude of many players was that they didn't have much time to prepare for the format nor a great idea of the metagame, so they just defaulted to playing Zoo. I know that we briefly worked on Bant and Doran decks and dismissed them not because they didn't show promise, but because we didn't have enough time to tune them.
Even more peculiar about the banning is that Wild Nacatl decks aren't even performing particularly well on Magic Online right now. If you look through the results of the admittedly small sample size of Modern Daily Events that launch, you see a sea of control and combo decks. Even with Wild Nacatl, it seems that Zoo decks aren't performing particularly well, which makes the decision to ban the card seem somewhat strange.
The idea, I suppose, is that weakening Zoo decks can potentially open up the format to other aggressive decks like Merfolk or White Weenie that are at least theoretically better equipped to deal with combo and control strategies. While I can appreciate that logic in theory, I'm not sure how it will hold up in practice. The issue these decks have compared to Zoo isn't just that their creatures are outclassed by Wild Nacatl but rather that their decks line up poorly against Tarmogoyf backed up by the removal suite of Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and Path to Exile. Zoo decks will still exist and will still outmatch the tribal strategies; they'll just play Kird Ape and Loam Lion and such instead.
I guess my point is that banning Nacatl with the goal of increasing the diversity of aggro decks doesn't accomplish much if Zoo remains the strongest aggro deck for the "mirror" (which I suspect it might). Yes, it reduces the disparity somewhat, but the power gap comes more from Goyf and the removal suite than anything else. Lord of Atlantis and Student of Warfare care about Lightning Bolt much more than they do about Wild Nacatl.
The real culprit is the mana. Decks like Merfolk and White Weenie and even Doran—which were all cited as successes of aggro strategies in non-Nacatl formats—had as one of their strengths a consistent mana base. Merfolk and White Weenie obviously did so by being mono-colored, but Doran leaned heavily on Murmuring Bosk, powered by fetchlands (which no one else could use nearly as well). Those same fetchlands, thanks to the Ravnica duals, are what make a deck like Zoo so powerful in Modern now and not just because of how they enable Wild Nacatl. Why play a deck like Merfolk when you can play Zoo with Negate? Why play Doran when you can play Zoo with Thoughtseize? Why play White Weenie when you can play Zoo with Path and Steppe Lynx? When you can play all of the best creatures and all of the best spells at little cost, why wouldn't you?
I don't know that Nacatl needed to be banned, nor do I know if its banning will do what it's supposed to do, but I do know that this continues a banning philosophy that I find questionable that began with Green Sun's Zenith. Both GSZ and Nacatl are cards that were banned because they're good. Not because they're degenerate or unfun or oppressive in themselves, but because they're good cards and people wanted to play with them, so they were very popular. This sets a dangerous precedent, I think. Should players worry that cards they invest in are at risk of being banned even if they're not part of what's traditionally perceived as a "problem" deck? If tribal decks don't suddenly emerge and Zoo continues to be the most popular aggro deck, is Kird Ape next? Tarmogoyf? Lightning Bolt?
While I can appreciate the goal of keeping the Modern format from stagnating, I think players have come to have a certain understanding of what it takes to ban a card, and this kind of ban risks confusing and alienating players from the format before it can become established. I have seen many players say they're not interested in Modern because of the frequent and extensive bans. They don't want to invest in the format when it seems to have no stability and they have no way to know if the deck they build will still be legal by the next Modern event.
That said—I shed no tears for Punishing Fire. We had some good times, but I won't miss you. It does give me a kind of funny feeling to see two major players from my Austin deck banned in one fell swoop. I guess we did something right there after all.
The other major change that was announced this week also has echoes of Austin. While I won't go so far as to claim credit for them (even if it amuses me to do so in jest), the changes in the IPG would have gone a long way toward allowing me to escape from that tournament without controversy.
For those unfamiliar with the situation to which I am referring—in game five of my quarterfinal match of PT Austin against Evangelos Papatsarouchas (“Van”), he resolved a Hypergenesis and put an Angel of Despair into play. I had a Baneslayer Angel in my hand, which I chose not to put into play because I didn't want him to destroy it with his Angel of Despair so I could have a chance to race. After a long resolution of the Hypergenesis, including three Meddling Mages coming into play under my control for each of which I had to name cards, Van passed the turn without choosing anything to destroy with Angel of Despair. I drew a land, played Baneslayer, and ultimately won the damage race against his Progenitus thanks to the Baneslayer's lifelink plus exalted creatures. After the game, the reporter at the table asked what Angel of Despair had destroyed; I told him nothing, that Van had forgotten to use it, at which point we all looked at the card and realized its trigger was not a “may” effect. If the Angel of Despair trigger had resolved on virtually any of my permanents—as the rules required for it to do—I would have almost certainly lost that game and the match.
While I had thought the Angel's effect was a “may,” that didn't stop any number of onlookers from accusing me of cheating, saying that I must have known it was mandatory. The problem, of course, is that an unscrupulous player who did know that the effect was mandatory could let the missed trigger slide and present that same defense if he was caught. How does one tell the difference?
This situation isn't at all unique; it's merely the most high-profile example available. Players at all levels forget triggers from Falkenrath Noble, Shrine of Burning Rage, Soul Warden, and more—and sometimes their opponents “forget” them too. This created an awkward situation in which players who point out these mandatory triggers are penalized for their honesty, while those players who let them slide gain small edges here and there. Granted, if the missed trigger is noticed later, both players would receive warnings, and after a while it could be possible to identify players with a pattern of “forgetting” triggers. That assumes, however, that the missed trigger is noticed, a judge is called, and a warning is given and tracked. That's a lot of “ifs” before the dishonest player has a chance to lose that edge.
I definitely agree in principle with any rules change that aims to benefit honest players at the expense of cheaters, but I have to wonder if the implications of this decision were completely thought through.
[Editor's note: These specific changes have been redacted, but there will be a change in the rules announced in January. Matt Tabak's announcement can be found here.]
Matt Sperling wrote earlier this week about the confusion that this change can generate—particularly for inexperienced players—and I have to agree with him. How do you explain to a new player that if they forget to write down the life gain from a Kitchen Finks that they've missed their chance, but that Lightning Helix is mandatory? That you can get decked by Howling Mine, but not Glimpse of Nature or Mind Unbound? Or can you? While the list of effects that are now “optional” is laid out quite specifically, it doesn't mean it's easy to determine if something falls into it.
Traditionally, some abilities include the word ‘may' as part of their text, indicating that their effect is optional. At Competitive and Professional REL, some additional triggered abilities and enters-the-battlefield replacement effects are considered optional. The player is not required to follow the instruction when the ability resolves, and if the ability is forgotten, it will not retroactively be applied. An optional ability does one or more of the following things, and nothing else:
• Gains you life or causes an opponent to lose life.
• Puts cards from your library, graveyard, or exile zones into your hand or onto the battlefield. This includes drawing cards.
• Causes opponents to put objects from their hand or the battlefield into the library, graveyard or exile.
• Puts a permanent into play under your control or gives you control of a permanent.
• Puts +x/+x counters, or counters linked to a beneficial effect, on a permanent you control.
• Gives +x/+x or a beneficial ability to a target creature you control.
• Exiles, damages, destroys, taps, or gives -x/-x to an opponent's target permanent. If the ability could target your own permanents, it is not optional unless that ability could target an opponent.
• Gives you additional turns or phases.
• Counters a spell or conditionally counters a spell, but only when cast by an opponent
Can I choose not to draw with Mind Unbound, or does it deck me because it also puts a counter on itself as part of the same effect? What about Jin-Gitaxias? Why are these different from Glimpse of Nature? This change amounts to functional errata for thousands of cards; is that worth it so dishonest players lose a bit of their edge and honest players don't have to get frustrated when they lose to triggers they told their opponent about? And is it worth the distracting and angle shooting that those same dishonest players will employ to try to get their opponents to miss their triggers now—and legally, this time?
I'm not sure it's worth it. While I can respect the motivation behind the move, I have a feeling that this may be a solution to something that wasn't a big problem that has vast unintended consequences. Do we really want to differentiate PTQs from FNMs in what game decisions are even legal? If my opponent has a Suture Priest in play and I'm at two life with a Blade Splicer as my only possible play, in FNM I'm just dead, but at a PTQ I can play it to get a single 1/1? What about MTGO? Do we really want to separate Magic Online from real Magic even more and make the transition between MTGO and paper even harder? Maybe this isn't as big a deal as it seems, but so far I'm not convinced it's a change for the better.
But I feel like I've done more than my share of ranting about issues lately. Since my Modern Zoo lists are no good anymore, here's a sneak preview of a few decks I'm going to be talking about in the next couple weeks. These are both still in the brew stage, but they've got some sweet elements that have been performing very well for me. Don't be surprised if I show up with something like this at GP Orlando in a few weeks:
Until next time,