It was my first word in Brad Nelson and I's "first response" Fact or Fiction article on Monday this week, and even after a few days to sit with the idea of Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor being legal again, it's still the most poignant word that comes to mind.
We are used to cards being banned in Modern, not unbanned, and even when cards do get unbanned they are usually fairly unlikely to make a serious impact because the format has passed them by - think Ancestral Vision, Thopter Foundry, Bitterblossom, Wild Nacatl, etc.
However, Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are not awkward combo pieces or relics from Standard/Extended's past. They represent perhaps two of the best four mana card advantage cards printed in a very long time, with both seeing play in Legacy at various points. Having them unbanned is both exciting and scary, as with Modern being in such a great place they introduce a huge amount of uncertainty to the format.
While there's no doubt that both cards--Jace, the Mind Sculptor, in particular--are very powerful and destined to see a lot of play, what's also of paramount importance is how their reintroduction to the format affects all of the other cards and decks around them. A metagame is often a delicate balance, and shifting that balance even a little can cause ripples throughout the entire format.
As Jace and Bloodbraid Elf enter the format, some cards get better and some get worse. Examining those winners and losers can help give us a much better idea about what the format is going to look like going forward.
You see, Bloodbraid Elf wants to be played in a deck with a lot of great three-mana spells to make sure its cascade ability is as powerful as possible, and Kolaghan's Command can return dead copies of Bloodbraid Elf from your graveyard for more cascading!
I broke Modern!
(Yes, this is very obvious.)
While Kolaghan's Command getting much better with Bloodbraid Elf available is fairly obvious, it's important to note the ripple effect more copies of Kolaghan's Command floating around does to the format.
Anyone interested in playing powerful artifacts as a way to either stop their opponent's strategy or further their own has to be put on notice. Typically artifacts are usually relatively safe in game 1s, as most decks won't be able to interact with them directly. Now with Kolaghan's Command reentering the format as a powerful maindeck option, and with Bloodbraid Elf and likely Snapcaster Mage to ensure that many are cast each game, your artifacts will not be safe.
Further complicating life for decks like Lantern Control and Affinity is how both decks line up against the type of gameplay that Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks present. Jace, the Mind Sculptor in particular is particularly devastating for Lantern Control, as threats that aren't affected by Ensnaring Bridge can be very problematic. Furthermore, the sort of grindy, removal-heavy decks that Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor usually call home are going to be able to dismantle Affinity's creatures very well, making them extremely reliant on Etched Champion to pull out wins.
Neither Lantern Control nor Affinity are happy to see this dynamic duo back in action.
With two new powerful tools, all sorts of fair decks in Modern get a major shot in the arm.
This swing of the pendulum towards the fair half of the format means that there will be an arms race for what deck can grind the hardest, and Lingering Souls has always been one of the best grindy cards available in all formats. Lingering Souls plays fantastically both with and against planeswalkers, allowing you to defend your planeswalkers while giving you easy and difficult-to-stop means to attack your opponent's planeswalkers.
Lingering Souls is immune to spot removal, trades up very easily, and helps slow the game down to give your powerful long game engines time to get online. On the surface Lingering Souls seems to play better with Jace, the Mind Sculptor in some sort of Esper deck, but I wouldn't discount some sort of four color concoction looking to play Bloodbraid Elf and Lingering Souls for maximum value. Lingering Souls plays phenomenally with Liliana of the Veil, which could allow a Jund deck to simply throw in a Godless Shrine to be able to occasionally cast the front side when necessary.
The weakness of Lingering Souls is in any non-grindy matchup, as it is far too slow to impact the battlefield or provide any sort of meaningful clock against combo decks. Combo decks like Storm, Tron, or Griselshoalbrand will laugh at you playing a sorcery speed Midnight Haunting on turn 3 while they untap and casually kill you.
This is my worry for the format- if Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf push out the middle parts of the format, that the decks will be completely polarized between all-in combo decks and full on grindfest midrange decks.
While Geist of Saint Traft is more of a maindeck card and Thrun, the Last Troll is more of a sideboard card, they both are cut from the same sort of "midrange/control trump card" mold as Lingering Souls.
While both are weak to Liliana of the Veil, they are exceptional against Jace, the Mind Sculptor and can provide solid beatdowns against Bloodbraid Elf decks to finish them off before they can cast too many copies of Kolagahn's Command. Geist of Saint Traft in particular also provides a pretty fast clock against combo decks too, making it more of a maindeck option.
For those who didn't play when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was legal in Standard, "the Jace test" is going to be an important factor for creatures going forward. If your creature can be easily bounced by Jace when it enters the battlefield without gaining you any sort of damage or advantage, it's going to be under heavy scrutiny as far as if it should be in your deck or not.
Sorry, Todd Stevens, but Knight of the Reliquary does not pass the "Jace test."
Knight of the Reliquary is a very powerful creature when it gets going, but if the format shifts into a more polarized state of removal-heavy Bloodbraid Elf/Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks fighting against super fast all in combo decks, cards like Knight of the Reliquary are going to end up on the outside looking in. Knight of the Reliquary costing three mana and not having any real effect unless you untap with it makes it major a liability if it is killed before you can untap with it, and is also often too slow to have any real effect on combo decks.
It's understandable that Todd is unhappy about Jace, the Mind Sculptor being unbanned, because his G/W Value Town deck is the exact kind of deck that Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks are going to prey on. Todd may be the mayor of value town, but Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the king of value.
Speaking of even more bad news for creature decks looking to either go very wide early or flood the battlefield with creatures while gaining incremental advantages, Terminus is now back on the menu.
A very interesting development in Legacy lately has been the emergence of Sensei's Divining Top-less Miracles, a deck that was not necessary while Sensei's Divining Top was still legal and frankly didn't seem possible. While I did mess around with the idea of playing Miracles in Modern a few years ago for my stream, it was nothing more than an amusing challenge stipulation. The cards I was required to play weren't powerful enough to make the deck a serious contender.
Enter Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
If you're looking for power, Jace will give it to you, and with Jace in the mix the deck starts to look like a very appealing version of the more Standard U/W Control deck that has been common in Modern for a while now. Saffron's deck contains many traditional elements, and Telling Time is the only real stretch accommodation for the miracle package that wouldn't likely be in the deck otherwise.
Saffron's deck is a very interesting look at what will be possible in the new Modern format.
With removal spells commonplace, Terminus perhaps a thing again, and Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor providing a never ending stream of cards, being a random creature deck is probably not something you want to be doing in our new Modern format.
By definition all Collected Company decks are random creature decks, as the restraints the card places on deckbuilding makes it so. While an end of turn Collected Company is a reasonable answer to Jace, the Mind Sculptor, at almost any other point Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf (who is basically the original Collected Company anyway) are going to do the same job but better, while avoiding the restrictions that Collected Company imposes.
Collected Company decks will also in theory struggle with fast combo, making them another casualty in the middle of the format's spectrum.
Reality Smasher is already one of the best reasons to put Eldrazi Temple into your deck in Modern, with its ability to close games quickly, attack planeswalkers out of nowhere, and make life difficult for targeted removal make it primed for a resurgence.
Reality Smasher passes the "Jace Test" with flying colors, showing that haste may become one of the most important keywords in the new Modern format. Creatures are going to have to do something immediately when they show up, or they may end up doing nothing at all. This extends to the other important haste creatures of the format, with Bloodbraid Elf joining Reality Smasher, Mantis Rider, Hazoret the Fervent, Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear, and more.
Life is going to be a lot harder for creatures in Modern, so make sure you pick ones that do something when they enter the battlefield!
Gurmag Angler lines up very poorly against Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and its immunity to Fatal Push may become less important if Path to Exile sees an uptick in play with various U/W Control decks making their way to the top of the format. Tarmogoyf does a similar job for only two mana, and if planeswalkers pick up in popularity, it won't be hard to get Tarmogoyf up to a 5/6 a majority of the time.
The more aggressive tempo decks that Gurmag Angler is usually found in also usually struggle against the more over the top midrange decks that Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf promote, further damaging its utility.
Polarizing the Format
My biggest fear is that the insane value that Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor bring to Modern will serve to fully polarize the format between very fast decks and very slow decks, murdering the middle of the spectrum. You will either need to play Jace or Bloodbraid Elf in order to keep up with the grind, or just go way under them and try to sidestep the problem. This knocks quite a few of the very fun middle-of-the-road decks in the format out of the equation.
Ben Friedman wrote a very good piece yesterday foreshadowing the possible "darkest timeline" where this is exactly the case and I am right there with him in being worried for the health of Modern overall. Jace and Bloodbraid Elf may not break the format, but they may damage and skew it in a way that is much worse than what we have right now. A card doesn't need to be unabashedly oppressive to damage a format, just ask Splinter Twin.
Only time can tell, so we will see how things shape out. For now, all we can do is welcome Jace and Bloodbraid Elf back and start brewing.