When Wizards of the Coast released their latest Banned and Restricted announcement last week, the big headline was a lack of changes. This was entirely expected—the Standard format is brand new, and both Modern and Legacy have been pretty healthy recently. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
What wasn’t expected was the level of communication that Wizards of the Coast provided about their plans for the next couple of Banned and Restricted announcements. First, they told us straight off that they aren’t planning to ban anything before the Modern Pro Tour on January 15th. This is big, because I guarantee you that the community would have spent the weeks leading up to that announcement speculating about what it might contain. Heck, just last week I talked about how Wizards of the Coast has banned or unbanned something in Modern every winter for the past five years. Unless the format experiences a radical shift between now and then—something I’ll talk about in a little more detail later in this article—there won’t be any bannings until after the Pro Tour.
Even more interestingly, Ian Duke revealed that Wizards of the Coast was considering a Modern unban but decided to wait until after the Pro Tour before making any moves in this direction. This is huge. It doesn’t necessarily mean that any cards will be unbanned, of course, but the community already seems to have declared it a fait accompli. This means that, even if R&D decides not to unban something, there will be months of speculation and hype. Cards will be bought out, money will be made… seems like something I should address in this column, yeah?
The Life Cycle of an Unbanned Card
In February of 2014, Bitterblossom was unbanned in Modern. The card had been kicking around in the $15-$20 range for a couple of years before that, seeing consistent play in Commander but not making any waves in Vintage or Legacy. It was always a contender to be unbanned in Modern, but most people didn’t pay much attention either way.
Ten days before the Banned and Restricted announcement, Bitterblossom spiked to $35. When the announcement hit, it jumped even higher. I remember $100 price tags floating around, but I’m not sure any copies actually sold for more than $80. The price stabilized at $70 the following week before slowly starting to decline. It took about a month to hit $60, and another month and a half to hit $50. It ended up stabilizing between $40 and $50 for the rest of that year.
In January of 2015, Golgari Grave-Troll was unbanned in Modern. Unlike Bitterblossom, there was no community-wide expectation of an unbanning. I know a few speculators who had these stashed away, but there was no major spike leading up to the unbanning. The card just jumped from $2 to $10 overnight.
Much like with Bitterblossom, you had a couple of weeks to sell your copies near their high water mark. Golgari Grave-Troll was still $8 a month later before eventually settling in around $4. It didn’t spike back to $10 again until the Modern Dredge deck was discovered in May of 2016.
In April of 2016, Ancestral Vision was unbanned in Modern. This situation was similar to Bitterblossom, but with a longer lead time. The card was easy enough to find in the $8-$10 range, but it spiked to $20 in early February. It stayed there for a couple of months before jumping to $50 once it was unbanned a couple of months later. Unlike the other two cards on this list, this price was pretty stable for about a year. Ancestral Vision even ticked up toward $60 before the Iconic Masters reprint was announced this September.
There are a couple of good lessons that we can learn from these case studies:
It doesn’t matter if the unbanned card actually ends up being good in Modern. Bitterblossom and Ancestral Vision are second-tier role-players. Golgari Grave-Troll was a complete bust until Shadows over Innistrad gave it new life and it had to be banned again. In all three cases, the unbanned card saw a big spike. In all three cases there were plenty of chances to sell before the price began to erode again.
The best time to sell is (probably) the day after the Banned and Restricted announcement. Sell into hype, folks. Ancestral Vision and Golgari Grave-Troll both eventually ended up going higher than their announcement day price, but it took more than six months in both cases. I’d rather just lock in those sweet, sweet profits.
If you didn’t buy in before the announcement, you probably missed your window. This is just the inverse of the last lesson, but it’s worth repeating here. Don’t buy in after that initial spike—you’ll almost certainly regret it.
There’s money to be made even if your spec target isn’t unbanned. It’s not the windfall that most of you want, but both Bitterblossom and Ancestral Vision saw significant enough gains to warrant a look even before Wizards of the Coast made their announcement. If you read my column from a couple of weeks back about Greater Fools, you’ll recall that the “value” of a card doesn’t matter as long as you can find someone else willing to shoulder the burden at a higher rate. Heck, Bloodbraid Elf jumped from $1.50 to $5 in January of 2015 because a bunch of people thought that it would get unbanned instead of Golgari Grave-Troll. If you’d bought a bunch of copies back in October and sold into that hype, you’d have done quite well for yourself.
I’m hammering this point extra hard because this is the first time that Wizards of the Coast has given us a heads-up that they’re strongly considering an unbanning. There’s always a certain amount of hype surrounding these announcements, but I have no doubt that February of 2018 will be the biggest ever. This gives us two chances to make money: we can either wait for the Wizards of the Coast announcement and attempt to hit it big, or we can simply sell our specs into the community-generated hype in the days leading up to the announcement. And my favorite part of this last strategy is that I don’t even have to be right about guessing the card(s) that Wizards of the Coast wants to unban—I just have to figure out what the community is going to get excited about.
A Deep Dive into the List
I’m going to go through all the cards on the Modern Banned List, but I’m not going to give them all equal time. Some of these things are very clearly not coming back any time soon. For example:
Storm Enablers and Cantrips
- Ponder – $1.75
- Preordain – $2
- Rite of Flame – $2
- Seething Song – $1
- Gitaxian Probe – $2
These cards aren’t coming back in February of 2018. Look at what Opt is doing to Storm decks right now and tell me that Wizards of the Coast would even consider unbanning any of these spells. These are also all commons, so there’s not much money to be made here regardless.
Cards That Are Way Too Annoying
- Sensei’s Divining Top – $15
- Second Sunrise – $1.75
Both of these cards were banned, at least in part, because they led to some obnoxiously long turns that destroyed the pace of play at large Magic events. I can’t imagine why Wizards of the Coast would consider bringing back Second Sunrise, a card that enabled a deck that would sometimes take a twenty-minute turn, but I suppose that $1.75 is a reasonable buy-in if you’re intrigued.
Very Fast Mana
- Cloudpost – $1.50
- Eye of Ugin – $8
- Summer Bloom – $1.50
- Chrome Mox – $18
The first three cards on this list aren’t going anywhere. Wizards of the Coast is far more likely to ban Eldrazi Temple than to unban Eye of Ugin, though I suppose there’s an outside chance that they’ll do both simultaneously. Cloudpost decks would immediately dominate the format, and Summer Bloom was banned in order to kill a recent combo strategy.
Chrome Mox is a little more interesting. The card has never had a chance in Modern, and it would immediately become a $70-$80 card if it were unbanned. I can’t really imagine Wizards of the Coast wanting Modern to speed up into Turn 1 Dark Confidants and very early Blood Moons, but the risk/reward ratio in terms of finance is pretty good here.
Cards That Let You Do Powerful Things Really Cheaply Via The Graveyard
- Dig Through Time – $1.50
- Treasure Cruise – $0.25
- Golgari Grave-Troll – $3.50
- Dread Return – $1
- Punishing Fire – $1
Golgari Grave-Troll was just banned again, so it’s going to be sitting in time-out for quite a while. Treasure Cruise has proven itself to be too broken for Modern as well. I can’t imagine Wizards of the Coast wants to encourage the kind of decks that Dread Return enables, so that one’s out as well.
Punishing Fire isn’t fully off the table, but I don’t see exactly why Wizards of the Coast would want to bring this one back. Modern is a pretty diverse format right now, but the Punishing Grove combo would be a deliberate and unfun nerf to any deck running small creatures. On power level alone, though, Punishing Fire could be a borderline addition to my top ten. If you think it’s coming back, you should grab a set of Grove of the Burnwillows. That card will be $75+ if Punishing Fire returns.
I wouldn’t mind grabbing a set or two of Dig Through Time. It never really had a chance to shine in Modern, so there’s an outside shot it’ll make it off this list at some point. It’s also quite good in casual Magic, and the price is right for such a powerful effect that isn’t likely to ever be printed again. It’s probably not going to spike due to Modern unban hype, nor do I think it’ll be back this February, but it’s a solid long-term hold.
Other Cards That Aren’t Coming Back
- The Artifact Lands – $1-$2
- Dark Depths – $40
- Glimpse of Nature – $30
- Hypergenesis – $3.50
- Skullclamp – $1.50
Wizards of the Coast isn’t going to unban the artifact lands when Affinity is still a Tier 1 deck. It would push that strategy over the top and warp the format for no reason. Dark Depths and Glimpse of Nature are two of the biggest combo enablers in Legacy, and I can’t imagine Wizards of the Coast is going to risk them taking over Modern. Hypergenesis absolutely cannot exist in a format with any cascade cards. Skullclamp is a format-warping nightmare. Leave all of these cards alone.
This leaves us with ten cards that I’d like to discuss in a little more depth. Let’s count them down:
10) Blazing Shoal – $2
I don’t think Blazing Shoal is close to an unban, but I’m putting it on here because it’s a $2 card from Betrayers of Kamigawa that would spike to $25+ if it were actually set free.
I can imagine this one getting bought in anticipation under the guise of “Infect used to be good, and maybe Wizards of the Coast wants to make it good again by bringing back Blazing Shoal!” It’s not logic that I agree with, but the risk/reward profile is fantastic on this one, even though the chance of it actually paying off is fairly small.
9) Mental Misstep – $1.50
I’ve seen some people advocate for Mental Misstep since it never had a chance to destroy Modern. Sure, it warped Legacy, but that’s a format with many, many more one-drops. Misstep is pretty good against Death’s Shadow and Storm, so maybe it can help out in Modern?
I don’t hate this logic, though I’ve seen other pros argue that it would just end up enabling the very decks that it was unbanned to hurt. I’m also not sure that Wizards of the Coast wants to re-visit the embarrassing rabbit hole that was Phyrexian mana, especially via its most problematic card. Even still, the $1.50 buy-in is tantalizingly low, and this is a $15+ card if it’s unbanned. Grab a set.
8) Birthing Pod – $8
Pod would probably be the top deck in the format right now if the card were still legal, which isn’t a state that Wizards of the Coast seems eager to return to. People remember playing “fair” games with Birthing Pod, though, so it’s likely to remain a top target for fringe speculators. I bet it’ll end up in the $12 range by February—higher than it is now, but not high enough to warrant your speculation dollars. I’m staying away.
7) Umezawa’s Jitte – $25
Umezawa’s Jitte gets the #7 slot because I’m starting to see a lot of buzz surrounding an unban and it’s a $100+ card overnight if the broken sword actually does come off. The “unban Jitte” advocates claim that it’s too slow for Modern, but I wonder how many of those people have logged significant hours with this card. Remember: it was widely panned during the Betrayers of Kamigawa preorder period before completely dominating Standard in its day. I wouldn’t be surprised if unban hype drives this card above $30, but that’s not enough of a gain for me to recommend buying in. I don’t mind having a couple of copies kicking around my collection, though.
6) Deathrite Shaman – $5
Deathrite Shaman and Umezawa’s Jitte are similar cards in that people who have played a lot with them are more adamant about them staying banned while people who know them more in the abstract tend to advocate for their return to the format. I think that Deathrite Shaman is more likely to be banned in Legacy than unbanned in Modern, but $5 is a solid buy-in if you disagree. Just don’t forget that Eternal Masters put a ton of copies into circulation. I can’t imagine there will be a significant enough pre-announcement spike here to warrant your investment.
5) Green Sun’s Zenith – $6
Green Sun’s Zenith has a better shot of coming back than Deathrite Shaman, but that decision still doesn’t strike me as particularly likely. Wizards of the Coast banned Green Sun’s Zenith because it made all the green decks too similar, so the only question is whether Wizards of the Coast’s philosophy has changed. I doubt it. Financially, this card also suffers from the Eternal Masters reprint, though Mirrodin Besieged had a much smaller print run than Return to Ravnica, which gives this yet another edge over Deathrite Shaman. I’m buying a set of these, but I’d hesitate before going too deep.
4) Jace, the Mind Sculptor – $75
Chances are, you already have a strong opinion about whether or not Jace, the Mind Sculptor is safe to unban in Modern or not. There aren’t a lot of moderates on this issue, and I’m not going to even attempt to change your mind here. Needless to say, we’re looking at the most expensive card in the format if it is unbanned, and enough pros believe it’s a safe unban target for me to seriously consider it here.
The biggest problem with Jace is that it’ll set you back $300 to speculate on a set, and that price doesn’t really reflect the amount of play it sees. A lot of the price tag is due to how iconic the card is, which doesn’t give me a ton of confidence for the card’s future value. If it isn’t unbanned and it’s reprinted again in Masters 25, I bet it drops down into the $50 range. On the other hand, imagine how much better Masters 25 will sell if everyone is chasing their copies of the latest $200 Modern staple. It’s a high risk/high reward play for those of you who like that sort of thing.
3) Stoneforge Mystic – $15
We’re finally into the cards that I’m fully expecting to spike ahead of February’s Banned and Restricted announcement. Stoneforge Mystic is similar to Jace, the Mind Sculptor in that some players feel like it would completely warp the format, while others feel like it’s one of the safest cards to unban on the either list. I’ve also seen plenty of discussion about banning Batterskull alongside unbanning Stoneforge Mystic. Of course, that move only works if Wizards of the Coast is committed to never printing Batterskull-level Equipment again at any point in the future.
One of the things I like about unbanning Stoneforge is that it might actually lead to a cool new deck popping up in the format. That’s the sort of thing that Wizards of the Coast likes, so Stoneforge Mystic has to at least be on their radar. This is also a fairly low-risk buy—Stoneforge Mystic is fantastic in Commander and sees plenty of play in Legacy. And now that the Grand Prix promo is behind us, the price might finally start ticking upwards. I’m in at $15.
2) Splinter Twin – $5
Yes, please! Splinter Twin falls into a pretty sweet spot for those of us who like speculating on banned cards. The $5 buy-in is totally reasonable for a card that’s only been printed in two fairly underprinted sets (Rise of the Eldrazi and Modern Masters 2015), the community has a strong memory of playing this card in fair matches, and there is still a sense that Splinter Twin was only banned in order to shake up the format before a Pro Tour. I respect that there are some people who really, really don’t want Splinter Twin back in the format, but it has to at least be under consideration, right? Even if it doesn’t come back in 2018, Splinter Twin is going to be at least considered for an unbanning every year from now until forever. There should be plenty of opportunities to sell your spec copies for more than $5.
1) Bloodbraid Elf – $2
If you have even a passing knowledge of the Modern Banned List, you already knew that Bloodbraid Elf was going to be number one. In fact, I’d give Bloodbraid Elf a bigger shot of being unbanned than all the rest of the cards on this list put together. Deathrite Shaman was the bigger offender back when Jund was dominating, and the format has sped up considerably since Bloodbraid Elf was banned.
Financially, the problem is that Bloodbraid Elf has now been printed six times: Alara Reborn, Planechase 2012, Planechase Anthology, an FNM Promo, Commander 2016, and Eternal Masters. I can’t imagine the price spiking above $12 or $15, nor can I imagine it stabilizing anywhere above $10. That’s not a bad return for your $2, though, so you should probably grab a set or two of these now. I’m already starting to see some price movement here, so your window might be closing fast.
Bonus: Cards That Might Be Banned
I doubt there will be a card banned in Modern this time around. The format is healthy and diverse right now—why take any of those deckbuilding tools out of the players’ hands?
The one thing that gives me pause is that U/R Gifts Storm and Grixis Death’s Shadow both did well at SCG Charlotte last week. Neither deck seemed too fast or too oppressive, but it does speak to the power of Opt. Wizards of the Coast has been very aggressive in banning blue one-mana cantrips in the past, and they seem to pick up that banhammer a little bit more quickly whenever a Storm deck ends up near the top of the format.
The most likely ban target would seem to be Opt itself, though Serum Visions or Sleight of Hand could get the axe instead. They could also ban Grapeshot and force the deck to go through Empty the Warrens, which would be a pretty big nail in Storm’s coffin. I really hope that none of this happens, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. If Storm cards spike enough between now and the end of the year, I’ll be selling into the hype before the Pro Tour even begins.
Otherwise, I have to believe that there are a few other cards on Wizards of the Coast’s long-term radar. Death’s Shadow, Mox Opal, Eldrazi Temple, and the Urzatron lands all enable top-tier strategies that have at least bordered on being oppressive in the past. These strategies aren’t too good right now, but if any of them takes over between now and February—or if one of them places five or six decks into the Top 8 at the Modern Pro Tour—who knows? I wouldn’t sell my stock in any of these decks right now, but watch out if any of them begin to overpower the format.
This Week’s Trends
With the Magic world focused on back-to-back Modern events on The SCG Tour as well as Eternal Weekend, there wasn’t a lot of action going on in Standard. Hazoret the Fervent and The Scarab God continue to tick up, which makes sense, considering you’ll need one of those two if you want to play a Tier 1 deck in the format. Abzan Tokens is starting to get a little more popular as well, which has caused Anointed Procession to rise in price a little bit as well.
Meanwhile, MIA planeswalkers Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh and Gideon of the Trials lost some value this week. The card Hour of Devastation continues to drop as well—the format has a couple of control decks right now, but they’re not running red.
Bontu’s Last Reckoning picked up a little value this week, but I suspect that has more to do with its sideboard appearance in Modern 8-Rack last weekend. It’s nice to see that the overhyped Wrath has a home somewhere, and I’d grab a couple now just in case. Baral, Chief of Compliance saw a small jump too, which is unsurprising considering how well U/R Gifts Storm performed last week. Baral should be a $10+ card at some point unless Storm is completely neutered by the Wizards of the Coast banhammer.
The French version of the Wizards of the Coast site accidentally released a few images from the upcoming Duel Deck: Merfolk vs. Goblins. Reprints of note include:
No one card is a particularly big deal, but Master of Waves and Harbinger of the Tides are two cards that I had previously liked as long-term holds. Ah well.
If you’ve got a pile of Future Sight or Modern Masters 2013 bulk kicking around, it’s time to fish out your Logic Knots. The common counterspell is now seeing significant maindeck play in Modern, appearing in Jeskai Tempo as well as U/W Control. The fact that it was reprinted should keep the price in the $2-$3 range, but that’s still worth throwing in your trade binder.