A First Look At Modern

Join Josh as he speculates about how the Modern format might shake out at Grand Prix Richmond next month after the most recent changes to the banned list!

In two weeks the Pro Tour returns to Valencia, Spain for the first time in about seven years. The format is Modern, and about a week later it’s all you’ll be able to read about. For now no one playing in the tournament is going to write anything too interesting about it—information is very valuable, and everyone is very hush hush. This leaves me in position to fill an interesting niche for this week. Personally, I’ve been starving for some fetch lands and dual lands, and since there isn’t an upcoming Legacy Grand Prix, Modern will have to do.

So let’s dive right in.

My wish list for Modern is pretty expansive and will probably never be fully addressed, but I hate the banned list in its current incarnation. I think that the restrictions don’t make sense on many levels, and while I think unbanning one or two particular cards would be bad, I think it would be great if they unbanned most of the list and really shook things up. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is only a scary card when you’ve banned Bloodbraid Elf and other “silly” things; when Bloodbraid Elf and Blightning and Thundermaw and whatever comes next are floating around in the format, I think Jace is simply fine.

Frankly, singling out the Jund deck and banning one piece every few months doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If they want Jund to be bad—or even just less ubiquitous—they should empower combo, which Jund is quite weak against. They have their own vision for the format, and I don’t get to make the decisions. But I would be happier with a more open format, and I don’t think I’m alone. My good friend Jeff Cunningham wrote a piece on what might happen or what things might look like with fewer restrictions, and I think it’s a very interesting and well-written thought exercise that’s certainly worth your time.

Finally, I wish I had more information about the banning process. They summarize their decisions about which cards were banned and unbanned, but they do not speak about cards they did not ban or unban. I’d like to know why Birthing Pod is still legal despite its utter dominance of the format last year, but I get no information about it. I’d love to know what else they’re considering each time.

With all of that in mind, we have had our most recent banned list update. Wild Nacatl and Bitterblossom were removed from the banned list, while Deathrite Shaman was added. The implications for the format are quite large.

First, they banned Deathrite Shaman. For me, this is an outright nonsense ban since Deathrite isn’t the issue in any way, and I do not think removing it from the format will make the format more fun for most people. Deathrite Shaman is a good card and better than the other mana acceleration in the format, but taking it out of the format restricts deckbuilding even further. In addition to the restrictions imposed on deckbuilding, removing it from the format incidentally improves Melira Pod and Snapcaster Mage as well as Gifts Ungiven and Tarmogoyf. Luckily, Scavenging Ooze is around now to take up some of the slack, which is great. But it’s a card that only some green decks in the format even want to play, and now they’re forced to.

If the reason they’re banning cards is to open up the format—increasing the options in deckbuilding—I think they’re failing with this ban. Certainly we will see more Noble Hierarchs and Birds of Paradise now, and we’ll of course see more copies of Bitterblossom and Wild Nacatl. However, players will be forced to scramble for tools to fight the Pod menace now since their stalwart Deathrite Shaman is not allowed any longer, and they will all be forced to incorporate those cards for the duration of the format as it is now. They’ve weakened the two-, three-, and four-color Jund decks of yesteryear, which in turn may strengthen decks that rely on individual cards but will also take decks like G/R Tron down a notch, which simply preyed upon Jund and thus were played.

Going forward, at least early in the format, I expect to see more of U/W Tron. The deck was particularly weak against Liliana of the Veil, which should see a decline now both due to Bitterblossom and due to a lack of “black” mana acceleration, but also because their Gifts Ungiven plan was effectively nullified by the presence of Deathrite Shaman, which is no longer an issue.

Let’s move on to Bitterblossom. The presence of Bitterblossom in the format will enable not only Faeries decks but also tokens decks, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if Bitterblossom was good in a Jund shell as well. It’s another two-drop, which makes Spell Snare (already great against Jund) better, but it isn’t a creature unlike almost all of Jund’s threats. At the Pro Tour I’m assuming Bitterblossom will mostly appear in Faeries decks. I’m also assuming it will have the following cards:

Spellstutter Sprite Thoughtseize Bitterblossom Cryptic Command Mistbind Clique Vendilion Clique Scion of Oona Sower of Temptation Mutavault Mana Leak

There are tons of U/B dual lands in the format, ranging from River of Tears and Secluded Glen to Watery Grave and Sunken Ruins, so Mutavault is a no-brainer since it’s also a Faerie. I don’t know if Snapcaster Mage will make an appearance in this deck since it’s another nice flash creature, but while the deck plays like it has a ton of instants, it doesn’t necessarily actually have that many things to Flashback.

It will probably be possible to build your Faeries deck in a way to be competitive with Pod decks. But Voice of Resurgence is troubling, and both flavors of Pod run it in multiples. Personally, given no decklists to start with, I’m interested in exploring a “stupid Kibler” Naya deck with Voice of Resurgence, Thundermaw Hellkite and Cavern of Souls, all of which seem primed to fight Faeries. We shall see who comes out on top in this fight, and I’m guessing we’ll know pretty soon.

Wild Nacatl, the last of the “new” cards, was most prominently featured in Josh Utter-Leyton’s “Counter-Cat” deck from Pro Tour Philadelphia alongside fellow banned list victim Green Sun’s Zenith:

While this deck was built a long time ago (many new sets have been released since the first Modern Pro Tour), it was also built for another metagame, so an updated version of this deck will end up looking much different if the deck is still viable. However, it is only one possible Wild Nacatl shell that I think may succeed in the early days of the format. It remains to be seen if a creature deck can succeed without the help of planeswalkers, but I think backing up pressure with counterspells, burn, and disruption (be it Bant Charm, Mana Leak, or Unified Will) is a great strategy and one that needs to be considered and explored.

Plain old aggro Naya featuring a top end of Woolly Thoctar or Knight of the Reliquary could be a thing; a high end of Thundermaw Hellkite via Knights could be great too. In particular, I’m excited to play four Qasali Pridemages alongside Voice of Resurgence and Tarmogoyf because of course it can kill Birthing Pod (and Bitterblossom) while simultaneously dealing damage the turn it comes out.

Honestly, despite all of this, I may be underrating the impact that Wild Nacatl will have on the format. The card itself is tremendous as a one-mana 3/3 you can attack for three or four (with exalted) as early as turn 2 very easily in this format, and that sort of pressure can really stymy the speed of the Birthing Pod decks, which tend to rely on using their life total (via Phyrexian mana) to accelerate themselves even further. If it’s established that a Wild Nacatl deck is the deck to beat, decks full of Kitchen Finks, Baneslayer Angels and the like may come into the limelight, which will in turn prop up decks like Tron and maybe Twin, which don’t really care about Kitchen Finks.

If Urza’s Tower is running around, then I think Tectonic Edge will become a major player in the format and Ghost Quarter will bring up the rear in a different “stupid Kibler” deck. Tectonic Edge happens to be somewhat great against Pod decks if you can contain their mana creatures with something like Damping Matrix or simply play removal spells. Kiki Pod in particular has a really poor mana base once you eliminate their creatures, and often they will struggle to cast their own spells without any help from player B.

Wild Nacatl can be played alongside these disruptive lands as well if the curve is kept low, and using Knight of the Reliquary in the way that Maverick does in Legacy—to fetch a stream of “Wasteland”—can utterly crush any of the decks that have a “shakier” mana base, such as U/W/R or an Esper Control deck that might crop up. Even killing Faeries’ Mutavaults sounds good to me!

Without doing more research, if I were playing in the upcoming Pro Tour, I think I would expect the banned list update to make a huge impact. There’s no way Faeries and Wild Nacatl aren’t all over the place, and there’s no way that Birthing Pod isn’t heavily played. Whether or not Birthing Pod is beatable remains to be seen, but I’m sure the big conglomerate teams will not play decks that simply fall over and lose to Birthing Pod.

The next tier might consist of midrange B/G decks and Urza’s Tower decks. I think there’s a real chance that Urza’s Tower decks can be built in a way that they can compete with Birthing Pod (cards like Sundering Titan are very scary for them, as are cards like Oblivion Stone). This is certainly in contrast to what I would have been worried about pre-banned list update. If I had to pick a “most impactful five cards” as they often do at the end of events, I think I’d be picking the following:

Bitterblossom Wild Nacatl Birthing Pod Knight of the Reliquary Splinter Twin

I love that they continually shake up the banned list, but I just want them to do it in a way that I approve of. I’m excited to continue discussing this and future banned list updates, so please let me know how you would have gone about shaking up Modern this time and what you might want to do next time.