In Defense of Elegance: Reconsidering the Modern Banned List

Jeff Cunningham returns with an insightful look at the structure of the Modern banned list, and the implications not of each individual decision but of the modes of thought that build this format. Could it be a better format, if built a different way?

In 2003, Mark Rosewater summed up Wizards’ position on banning cards from tournament play: “Don’t ban or restrict cards unless we absolutely have to.” The full premises of this position are not unpacked, but center on the importance of the perception of product integrity. Aaron Forsythe, speaking from this position a little later, elaborated two main concerns: first, that banning obviously powerful cards creates a “culture of fear” destabilizing the value of the best cards and, second, that banning less than obviously powerful cards bewilders the casual consumer. Aside from acknowledged disasters – the Combo Winter of 2000, the Affinity Summer of 2005 – the number of cards banned in Standard or Extended was never more than a handful.

By 2011, as Magic expanded and circumstances changed, this position was revised, particularly with attention to the formats that had the role of managing the increasing gap between Standard and Vintage. In introducing the Modern constructed format, which would replace Extended, Tom LaPille made the argument that the exclusion of several top-tier cards as well as less-powerful cards that enable top-tier decks facilitates wider diversity and, in this way, should not be seen as removing cards but adding to the presence of the general cardpool. The banned list is seen as a device for sculpting formats according to projected goals for the format. Now, in a format that reaches back only ten blocks, over thirty cards are banned, many of them totally innocuous to a casual observer.

Modern has not solved the problems that troubled Extended before it. People play it largely because it’s mandated. One is likelier to hear that the format’s healthy than that it’s fun, and matches and events don’t pop up spontaneously in the way that they do with Standard and Legacy. Even if Modern is currently being received with a bit more warmth than Extended was, this may be correlated to the rising tide of Magic in general. Magic has several deficiencies at the moment – the underwhelming Magic Online software, for example – which are suffered on the credit of Magic’s core mechanics, which have recently been brought to a wider audience. The format’s reception is tepid compared to what it might be. When the unpopular Extended had existed, players had gathered behind a non-rotating format as a possible alternative, “Overextended,” which was eventually taken as the outline for the Modern format. “Overextended” attempted to replace whatever it was that was so miserable about Extended with the appeal of Legacy: powerful, uncultivated diversity. Is Modern’s lukewarm success just the result of the practical difficulties involved in porting Legacy to a mainline tournament format, or is the angle of approach misguided?

The purpose of this article is to evaluate the limitations of the new approach seen in the Modern banned list and to suggest the benefits of a more middle ground. To that end, I’ll trace the origin of the shift, describe the reasoning informing the Modern format and banned list, outline the drawbacks of a long sculpted list, and then give some specific suggestions about what a new Modern banned list could look like.

1. The Emergence of Modern

Magic’s been around for over twenty years now, and has been played in tournaments for almost as long. One of the game’s essential characteristics is diverse changing play environments and the thrill of exploration and innovation. In Richard Garfield’s original vision, people were unlikely to know all the cards in existence let alone assemble and concentrate them into defined archetypes, meaning that Magic’s creative identity existed “naturally”. The success of the game, and the ensuing development of tournament play as the backbone of its economic structure, meant the expansion of a less exploratory, more systematic dimension. Players broke past the scarcity imposed by rarity, collected the best cards, and assembled them into the best decks. While something like the original experience still exists to this day in the most casual playgroups, this other dimension has taken on a life of its own as a world for more intense and committed players to graduate into, and has required Magic’s inheritors to devise new ways of preserving the desirable original experience.

So that gameplay wouldn’t become stale for established players, Wizards fostered two innovations. The first was Limited play as a way at getting back to the fun of building from a restricted pool of cards. The second was Constructed play, a set of deckbuilding limits intended to promote environmental diversity. At first, these limits were basic and universal: maximum four copies of a card per deck, minimum 40 and then 60 card decks, no Ante cards, and soon after a list of cards restricted to one copy per deck. It was only later that a further threat to Constructed creativity began to make itself felt: the weight of time.

Two trends were at work with every new release. First, the proportional displacement to the existing body of cards would be smaller than that of the previous expansion (Expansion #5 opens with a smaller slice of the pie than Expansion #1 did), and so the influence of the new cards on the existing environment would be decreased. In this way, Constructed would become increasingly static. Second, while the median influence of any given card was gradually decreasing, as new cards continued to be introduced into the card pool there were increasing opportunities for a powerful interaction to spark between two cards. In this way, Constructed would become increasingly explosive. To solve these problems, and still allow people to be able to play all of the cards they had bought, Wizards divided the Constructed limitation into two different “formats”. One format, which would be all-encompassing and so relatively static and explosive, had all cards permitted (Type 1), and the other, which would rotate at a regular schedule, would only have the two most recent years of sets permitted (Type 2). Increasingly, Type 2 assumed the role of the official tournament constructed format while Type 1 became a niche for invested veterans. Type 2 had a lower entry cost, preserved a more original feeling of exploration, and required the regular purchase of new cards. As time continued to roll on, however, with the number of sets increasing (now with releases structured around yearly “blocks” of sets) this solution wasn’t enough. After cards completed their two-year tenure in Type 2 (“Standard”) they would be swallowed into the ever-expanding ocean of Type 1 (“Vintage”). If cards became mostly irrelevant after two years, they would lose their value and the economy of the game would be compromised. Besides, with the game’s increasing popularity there was sufficient interest to justify using other sectors of the continuum to facilitate different kinds of creative exploration.

For this reason, two intermediary formats came into existence: Type 1.X and Type 1.5. Type 1.X (“Extended”) provided a second rotating format, this one allowing the most recent six years of sets. Type 1.5 (“Legacy”) provided a second non-rotating format. Legacy fostered diversity by emphasizing the role of specific card restrictions: every card that was restricted to one per deck in Vintage would be banned in Legacy. This had the function of jettisoning the core engine most Vintage decks were built around, allowing players a distinct second format that allowed them to play almost every card ever printed. Again, however, as time pressed on, the threat of stagnation, with its economic implications, persisted.

On the one hand, Legacy was becoming more popular than anticipated. It wasn’t as expensive as Vintage, but still allowed players to play many valuable and powerful cards and to make long-term investments in decks. Without the gravitational pull of the restricted list, as in Vintage, and without scrutiny by the most competitive players, who stuck to the Pro Tour-supported orthodox formats, Legacy existed in a state of never-fully-exploited raw diversity. This was formalized when Wizards officially separated the Legacy banned list from the Vintage banned list and, freely experimenting, banned several cards on more speculative grounds than they usually deemed sufficient. These cards, after all, would still be allowed in Vintage.

On the other hand, no one wanted to play Extended. The tournament players did play it, since it was imposed, but it was otherwise unpopular. The various format offerings allowed a player to seek the kind of creativity and exploration he or she liked, and the competitive players were happiest settling near the commerce provided by the beginners, in the well-populated and fast-moving urbanity of Standard, while many veterans were satisfied to settle by the ocean of Vintage or the jungle of Legacy. Extended’s “settlement” was never quite secure.

At this point, we should acknowledge an important development in game design. Shortly after the game’s first few releases and its explosion in popularity, the power ceiling of the best cards was lowered. In Garfield’s original vision, cards like Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk could exist as uniquely overpowered cards. As soon as Magic began to succeed, and as the limits for Constructed play were established, such game-warping cards could no longer be printed. Besides this first realization, which occurred quickly, there was a second, more gradual learning curve regarding power level in general. Some of the most basic examples of this are seen, over the first ten years, in the gradual improvement of creatures relative to spells and the gradual improvement of the rest of the colors relative to blue. This learning curve continued to be refined, with a couple of massive lessons around Magic’s sixth and eleventh years (Combo Winter and Affinity Summer), before reaching the current plateau. Game design in general is developed and shaped along a separate trajectory which still meets with unique challenges and shortcomings, but as regards Constructed power balancing in particular, R&D has become very competent if somewhat narrow in the safety mechanisms they use to ensure balance.

With Wizards’ better sense of balance, they were now creating cards that were able to fill roles in older formats without necessarily being overpowered, but there was still the problem of providing a stable destination for a greater number of cards rotating out of Standard. Extended was unpopular and, besides, with Extended covering only seven blocks (changed up from six) of a total of around eighteen, the problem of the middle ground no-man’s-land was once again foreseeably on the horizon. The ability to design blocks that had their own unique but balanced relevance opened up the possibility of a non-rotating format capable of housing the continual arrival of new blocks. This is the challenge of Modern.

2. Mode Modern

The Modern format attempts to bridge the gap between Legacy and Extended. The project was to synthesize the appeal of Legacy with the utility of Extended in providing relevance for rotated cards. Players had been clamoring for a non-rotating format to replace Extended for a long time, which was referred to as Overextended. It would have the dynamism of Legacy but at more sober levels of power and financial commitment. This format seemed to hold the potential of being a second major “settlement” between Standard and Vintage, one that was a more natural fit.

Modern was set as a non-rotating format, starting at the tenth year of Magic, the half-way point at the time. This was around the point Wizards’ design learning curve began to stabilize, and so the power level of the sets included would be fairly even, better allowing new sets to wedge themselves into the existing card pool. Crucially, it was also beyond the influence of the “reserve list”, a promise Wizards had made early on to not reprint rares from early sets. Working beyond the reach of this restriction would allow Wizards to keep the format from becoming overly cost-prohibitive.

The main device Wizards would use to shape the format was the banned list. Like Legacy, and unlike Extended, Modern would have a long speculative list of prohibited cards. “Don’t ban or restrict cards unless we absolutely have to” would not apply.

To give a bit of context surrounding the intentions of the Modern banned list, there are a few external factors that should be mentioned. By my account there are three main external events that have shaped Magic design and organized play so far: the mainstreaming of poker, the influence of the internet and later Magic Online, and Wizards’ increasing aptitude for marketing. The last event might seem internal, but it’s more to do with Hasbro and the business of selling the game than it is to do with gameplay as such, and is influenced by global marketing trends, especially gamification.

The second and third events listed, especially the second, are relevant to the shaping of Modern. Regarding the role of the internet and Magic Online, Aaron Forsythe wrote, “Formats are reaching their equilibrium points faster now than ever. Deck lists today are more tuned than at any point in Magic’s history. Information is travelling faster and being processed better than ever before.” And so, “our mistakes will be identified and exploited more quickly than ever.” In a world of information aggregation, formats are liable to be solved – and so become stable and resistant to exploration and creativity – faster than they were in the era in which Magic originated.

Regarding the third event, the development of the taste for marketing, it seems that any major Magic tournament format has not only to function as a foundation for the broad Magic economy – i.e., to prevent cards from disappearing into relative oblivion after two years – but must also be designed to vigorously perpetuate it. Having the format be stable – allowing players to acquire the best cards once and for all, or assemble one deck and tweak and tune it for every tournament over a period of years – is in tension with this imperative.

The banned list answers both of these challenges. A long, shifting banned list would prevent the format from ever becoming too settled.

The Modern banned list was shaped according to two tenets. First, to disallow any consistent turn-three combo decks. Second, to dissipate the best existing archetypes from Standard and Extended. These were set down so that the format would meet popular standards of health: interactive gameplay beyond the first few turns, and a novel and diverse metagame.

The intentions seem fair, and the reasoning sound. So why, today, is Modern almost as unappealing as Extended ever was? What happened to the promise of Overextended?

3. The Modern Banned List

When Modern debuted, the banned list was 21 cards long, and even then LaPille introduced the list with the note that “we may have overbanned here.” Over the past couple years, however, in staying consistent with its foundational tenets, the list has grown to 31 cards.

For reference, this is the current list, as of October, 2013.

  • Ancestral Vision
  • Ancient Den
  • Bitterblossom
  • Blazing Shoal
  • Bloodbraid Elf
  • Chrome Mox
  • Cloudpost
  • Dark Depths
  • Dread Return
  • Glimpse of Nature
  • Golgari Grave-Troll
  • Great Furnace
  • Green Sun’s Zenith
  • Hypergenesis
  • Jace, the Mind Sculptor
  • Mental Misstep
  • Ponder
  • Preordain
  • Punishing Fire
  • Rite of Flame
  • Seat of the Synod
  • Second Sunrise
  • Seething Song
  • Sensei’s Divining Top
  • Stoneforge Mystic
  • Skullclamp
  • Sword of the Meek
  • Tree of Tales
  • Umezawa’s Jitte
  • Vault of Whispers
  • Wild Nacatl
  • Members of Wizards have made the argument that this list contains the same proportion of banned cards relative to the format as a whole as Legacy does, with its 60-card list. The difference of course is that the Legacy banned list has to account for the numerous write-offs from the early years of Magic. It excludes the cards recognized to be the most broken in the game that were created in its earliest forms (Ancestral Recall, Balance, Black Lotus, Channel, Library of Alexandria, Mox Emerald, Mox Jet, Mox Pearl, Mox Ruby, Mox Sapphire, Sol Ring, Time Walk), and three problematic classes of cards that only existed in the game’s first several years – Ante cards (9), Manual Dexterity cards (2), and Subgame cards (1). About half of the list are write-offs so plain that their exclusion feels natural as a boundary of the format. Of the remaining cards, about half are such notorious mistakes (Memory Jar, Necropotence, Skullclamp, Tinker, Tolarian Academy, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Yawgmoth’s Will, etc) – almost all of them still from the first decade of Magic – that they’re also intuitive outlaws. Without these egregious mistakes only a fraction remains, and if pruned with sufficient care that fraction could be safely halved. (Did you know Black Vise is still banned in Legacy? Think about that. Vise is about one degree removed from Dingus Egg.) The Legacy banned list is so long partly because it has to account for every major mistake in Magic’s first ten years, and to a lesser extent because it was overgrown in the first place.

    The Modern banned list is of a different character. It’s the same proportionate size as the longest banned list in Magic but has to account for far fewer write-offs. Almost every ban registers not as an “absolute have-to,” as has been the precedent in Vintage, Extended, Standard, Block, and even Legacy for the most part as we see above, but as a strategic exclusion intended to sculpt the format according to certain parameters. It’s a new approach that attempts to keep a larger non-rotating format diverse and interactive in the post-internet post-Magic Online era. Legacy, after all, was never submitted to the scrutiny that comes with being a heavily supported competitive format (i.e., regular PTQs, Grand Prix, Pro Tours), and so, unlike non-rotating Legacy, there’s a legitimate concern that non-rotating Modern, as exploration ground, would become arid.

    Let’s examine this unprecedented banned list through its two tenets.

    No Consistent Turn Three Combo Decks:

    This is an ambitious goal. Zvi writes, “Modern will never be a turn-four format because that’s not how sufficiently large groups of Magic cards lend themselves to formats.”

    These are the bans that compose this aspect of the list.

    • Blazing Shoal
    • Chrome Mox
    • Dark Depths
    • Dread Return
    • Glimpse of Nature
    • Hypergenesis
    • Rite of Flame
    • Second Sunrise
    • Seething Song
    • Skullclamp

      • Ponder
      • Preordain
      • If one counts the necessity of banning Ponder and Preordain to help cement this initiative then this aspect of the list has doubled since the debut, lending support to Zvi’s claim. This is despite the amendment Erik Lauer described, after the first Modern Pro Tour, that this tenet need only apply to top tier decks.

        That said, at the current time this part of the list seems to be fulfilling its function. The consistent combo decks in the format – Scapeshift, Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, Living End – aim to kill around turn four or later.

        No Dominating or Formerly Dominating Archetypes and Strategies

        This aspect of the list accounts for the following bans:

        (I’ve left Golgari Grave-Troll, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Mental Misstep out of these two categories since they’re on the banned list for parenthetical reasons.)

        The first problem with the project of dissolving dominant decks and strategies by eliminating cards is that banning begets banning. Now, the incentive to ban the first wave of powerful cards is clear: it keeps away the boogeymen. Every couple of years, the Standard format has a dominant predator – an Affinity, Faeries, Jund, or Caw-Blade. This deck stands out as the best deck in the format, is resistant even to hostile metagames, and becomes loathed by many players for pushing out alternate strategies. The memory of that dominance is part of what Wizards wants to avoid by inviting these archetypes back into competitive play, even though a format which includes these four archetypes could well be diverse and interactive. The same point can also be made in the case of specific cards, such as Umezawa’s Jitte, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

        Once we begins down the path of power-level bans, however, we become committed to more exclusions than is initially apparent. As soon as the first wave of predators is removed from the ecosystem, others arrive who also have to be eliminated lest they dominate, and then others arrive, who are tolerable and novel at first but may in time become just as obnoxious. Whenever one or two become conspicuous predators they’ll have to be taken down, and the problem perpetuates.

        The new predators may even be resilient to targeted action. At the last Grand Prix, building on a trend of general dominance, six Jund decks made the Top 8. Players have been debating whether Deathrite Shaman should be banned (following Bloodbraid Elf), a move which would be entirely consistent with, say, the reasoning behind the Green Sun’s Zenith banning. One wonders whether removing a single card could substantially injure what appears to be the natural and resilient outcome in the absence of a diverse set of predators: aggro-control with capabilities for disruption and card advantage.

        The hope or expectation is that Wizards eventually explores the tactic of reintroducing competing threats. Regardless, if not a “culture of fear” then a culture of restlessness has been created in which the slightest irritation will start the calls for reform. This may be good or bad depending on how you look at it; it certainly lends itself to perpetual change, but it conditions players to depend on deus ex machine solutions rather than compelling them to search nooks and crannies for their own creative – and rewarding – ones.

        With these notes in mind, there are four reasons why Modern doesn’t have the same appeal as Legacy.

        i. It’s unstable:

        Legacy is not supported as a major competitive format and, as such, there’s neither a heavy incentive for competitive players to work to exploit the format nor a high density of competitive players at any given Legacy tournament. This is part of the reason Legacy remains in a state of continuous diversity. It’s rare for a deck to emerge and be so dominant that one of its keystones is called to be banned. In Modern, this isn’t the case. Dominance is closely tracked and suppressed. Take Melira Pod, for example. This deck, which has won the three Grand Prix in a row and the last Magic Online Championship Series, is liable to be cut down at any time. Legacy offers a place where you can buy one deck, learn it, and develop it over a period of years. Even in Standard, the timeline is predetermined and banning only occurs in extreme cases. Modern is volatile.

        ii. It’s unsexy:

        Modern is like giving someone a sports car and then telling them they can’t take it over thirty. Now, to be sure, if the format was too fast and powerful it would be unsuitable for regular competitive play. There has to be a balance, though, so that it doesn’t feel like the format has a curfew. “Lights out at 9PM, boys. What’s that – a Jace? Tsk tsk… you know better than that, Jeremy. You could hurt yourself.”

        The source of this attitude is an effort to keep players safe from the boogeymen. If you can’t play Jace, you don’t have to play against Jace. It’s worth remembering, though, that boogeymen are a lot less scary when they have to pick on others their own size. When it isn’t “play Jace or lose,” then Jace becomes a much more fun card to have access to in the environment. While players should expect to feel safe in Standard, deeper formats should be allowed to have some long shadows.

        iii. It’s familiar:

        As I outlined earlier, it’s important that every format fulfil a distinct function – expand a sector of Magic that offers a particular experience of creativity – otherwise it feels forced.

        The experience of Modern is too close to the experience of Standard. In both cases there’s a heavy emphasis on interaction, given shape in Modern by the banned list. It is, however, a narrow kind of interaction. Alex Borteh recently wrote a comment that struck a chord with a number of older players. He pointed out that part of the design approach over the past several years has been to make Constructed creature-centric. Powerful effects tend to be put, not on enchantments or crtifacts, but on creatures that can be easily answered by removal, and so are unreliable as build-around cards. This is in addition to the more general suppression of combo, land destruction, prison, and recursion decktypes. The result is that interaction comes to mean a narrow kind of interaction: “The truly unique cards/effects are […] overcosted for competitive play… and while the decks that are competitive use different cards, they’re basically all doing the same thing… play some creatures, kill some creatures, maybe draw some cards.”

        This kind of interaction is fine in one place, but becomes tedious and redundant when it represents the full competitive Constructed spectrum. Modern has better mana available to it than Standard, but it’s used to do the same things. While Modern does support a combo component not present in Standard, the crossover between the two remains crowded.

        iv. It’s inelegant:

        What are the limiting factors of a banned list? Why would it be preposterous for a banned list – for any format – to be 80, or 120, or 200 cards long?

        The original justifications supplied by Rosewater and Forsythe – the perception of product integrity, faith in card economy, intelligibility – which still apply to Standard especially – only partially answer the question.

        I submit that it’s important for a format to feel legitimate, real, elegant. It’s not exactly true to say that formats are created arbitrarily. Each one unfolds and delimits a different dimension of the game latent in the game’s original concept, and which has been raised to attention by the pressure of the continuing accretion of new cards onto the body of existing cards.

        When a format is micromanaged too closely and too openly, it doesn’t feel tethered to anything real. Every ban is a little “kludge”, a clumsy, conspicuous, quick fix. Too many bans breaks players’ immersion in the perception that there is anything grounding one’s efforts to master a sector of Magic. The player’s sense of participating in a fair challenge to solve the puzzle is strained; the walls become translucent and one perceives the hall of mirrors being assembled and rotated. The player experiences an increase in awareness that the stream of puzzles is never-ending – an irritating distraction from the image that constitutes the game. Even with the Legacy banned list, most of the cards can be bracketed and forgotten about; in Modern, one is always bumping one’s head up against the ceiling of the format.

        The concession to these clumsy workarounds represents a lack of faith in Magic’s enduring potential in an increasingly digital world. LaPille notes that “Digital games like real-time strategy games and first-person shooters often change behind the scenes several times after their release” but that, “because Magic is an analog game, we have to be quite deliberate in our decisions, and we are stuck with them once we’ve made them.” The game’s analog nature – its commitment to cards printed, bought, and traded in the physical world – is a deficiency that, to be corrected, requires the regular influence of a long-conspicuous banned list, a handicap that RTS and FPS games – not to mention next-gen TCGs like Hearthstone – aren’t burdened with. One wonders if the best approach is to make this concession and erode the game’s elegance rather than to seek a solution from within the game’s essential parameters and set down a claim.

        A format’s boundaries should make intuitive sense. As it stands, the Modern banned list is an eyesore and a headache.

        4. Reconsidering the Modern Banned List

        I’ll outline the specifics of what an alternate approach could look like, and then speak to the risks.

        No Consistent Turn Three Combo Decks:

        I would keep this limitation about where it’s at, but loosen the reigns just a little. Consistent turn two and turn three combo decks are what make a format feel volatile and degenerate, and so they are “absolute have-to” bans. While such explosiveness is at home in Vintage and Legacy, Modern should find a happy medium between Legacy and Standard power levels, especially since it’ll be stress-tested as a regular competitive format.

        The core write-offs are:

        Even in the most liberal incarnations of this format that I can conceive of, I can’t see a way to allow these cards.

        As one closes down a bit further, the following cards become prime candidates for banning (in order):

        Chrome Mox requires a bit of explanation. The reason given for the card’s inclusion on the existing Modern list is partly for its function as a combo enabler and partly for the threat it poses by enabling powerful starts in general. Somehow the extent of this card’s power is still not entirely appreciated, but that probably wouldn’t be true for long. This would speed up the format too much across the board and be too much of a widespread inclusion to be healthy.

        Dread Return and Second Sunrise are probably no-brainers. Rite of Flame seems a necessary exclusion to prevent ritual decks from hitting critical mass too easily. Glimpse of Nature is less obvious, considering just how little splash Beck // Call has made, but should probably go. Blazing Shoal is on the border. In the interests of “innocent until proven guilty” in an open, tougher format, it could be kept off at first.

        So, from this aspect of the Modern banned list, not too much is actually taken off:

        Preordain and Ponder are among the worst cards to have on the banned list – this goes back to the intelligibility issue that Forsythe raised at the time of the Affinity crisis: “can you imagine the weird backlash that would happen if we banned artifact lands? Most players that aren’t into the tournament scene would have no idea at all why we did this. Tree of Tales is banned?! It’s one of the the most powerful cards ever?! Are you kidding me?! While it would certainly solve the problem on the top end, it would alienate and confuse people elsewhere.” Although in that case Wizards later had to do exactly that, banning such simple and usually innocent cards should only be a last resort. Preordain and Ponder aren’t worth the cost.

        ii. No Dominating or Formerly Dominating Archetypes and Strategies

        This aspect of the list is more conceptually problematic for the reasons already outlined. While dangerous combo pieces are able to be clipped with precision, banning powerful or dominating cards and strategies in general tends to beget more banning. This leads to a bloated list, a format that feels underpowered, contrived, and artificial, and a restless audience. My solution would be to reapproach the ecosystem with a far more delicate hand.

        There are no write-offs here. One comes very close, and is the only card I’d keep banned.

        I would unban, then:

        Open the cages, let the animals out of the zoo.

        There are fifteen cards being unbanned here but in reality it’s more like two or three. The exclusion of the top tier of predators is what necessitates the exclusion of the second and third tier. Once Bitterblossom is banned Sword of the Meek becomes dangerous, and once Sword of the Meek is banned Wild Nacatl becomes dangerous, and so on.

        The top tier in this case is the already-eliminated Stoneforge Mystic, the artifact lands, and Bitterblossom.

        The hardest thing to process might be the unbanning of the artifact lands. Could a format possibly be healthy and enjoyable if fully-powered Affinity is available? Optimistically, it’s possible that the artifact lands don’t add that much to the versions of Affinity out there which have incorporated and adapted to the post-Mirrodin offerings. The artifact lands were considered a more severe exclusion than Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault at the time but, again, banning five unassuming cards should be a last resort. Not that it should come to it, but if it did, it would probably be better to just ban both Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating. Maybe Alex Majlaton too, just to be safe. LaPille makes a good case in his introduction to Modern that Ravager-less Affinity decks have success even in Legacy, but that’s not the norm and Ravager usually plays an important role. There’s no doubt the deck will be strong, but the point is to keep it checked. More than any other card in the deck, Ravager contributes to the feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to pierce the deck’s layers of resilience. Still, maybe the simplest answer is best, eliminating what most players consider to be the most straightforwardly broken card in the deck: Cranial Plating.

        Bitterblossom is a difficult case. The thought of turn one Thoughtseize, turn two Bitterblossom out of a Faerie deck is enough to make a survivor of 2008 Standard wake up in a cold sweat. Still, maybe we can come to terms with our fear. Modern is a tougher climate than Standard. Sam Black Extended Faeries port, for example, was good but not overpowered in its metagame. Creatures in the past few years have become better; Voice of Resurgence in particular would be a major annoyance. This would be the riskiest card to leave unbanned, but might be a good place to draw the line.

        iii. Outliers

        Golgari Grave-Troll is the easiest unban on the entire list. It has no reason to be banned; I classify it as an outlier because I assume it’s on the list, like Black Vise is still on the Legacy list, out of carelessness. It was originally banned as a halfway measure against Dredge; once it was found that this wasn’t enough, Wizards went all the way and banned the essential piece in Dread Return. They never, however, removed the then-redundant Golgari Grave-Troll from the list. If it was legal now in Modern it would likely see no play at all. I asked about Golgari Grave-Troll once when the list was first released and Zac Hill explained the argument for it as “in what environment is it more fun for Grave-Troll to be legal than not? When is that true?” If this corresponds to the official reasoning behind the ban, then: 1) the position is inconsistent; if every card that would be unfun if it were competitively viable (but isn’t) were banned, that would be a long list. And 2) the attitude is too frightened. It’s the same one that leads to a bloated banned list and a format that feels over-managed. The reason why an environment is more fun when an only-potentially dangerous card isn’t banned is because the specter of danger is exciting.

        By contrast, Sensei’s Divining Top and Mental Misstep are among the toughest decisions. Sensei’s Divining Top becomes powerful in tandem with Counterbalance and is time-consuming wherever it’s played. Mental Misstep holds the threat of being a ubiquitous inclusion. In both cases, my inclination would be to flag them but include them until they prove themselves sufficiently problematic. Both have the potential to provide the salutary effect of opening the metagame up beyond familiar builds of familiar decks. Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance might only fill a small part of the metagame, and could challenge other decks to adapt. Mental Misstep was actually designed to fill something like the role of Force of Will in Vintage – providing the limit which keeps any deck from being able to enact its goal too reliably – but for non-Blue decks. It was printed as an experiment that could be banned if it went wrong, which it seemed to by promoting blue decks rather than evening the field in Legacy as was its purpose. Since it did have such a brief tenure in Legacy, it might be worth extending the experiment to Modern. It was an experiment in the first place, why not experiment again? It’s even possible that Misstep’s presence might allow for the unbanning of other cards.

        I would keep, then, the following cards flagged.

        The revised banned list would look as follows:

        This list is compact and intelligible. Ten cards, with room for one or two more, but with a serious effort made to keeping the list tight and only adding cards infrequently and with restraint.

        It’s not the most radical revision that could be made – the list could be pushed to just six or seven cards – but is an aggressive attempt to keep some balance with the “absolutely have to” approach to format management. This would allow Modern to exist on its own terms, and to have its appeal better set apart from both Legacy and Standard.

        This is only a sketch – heavy playtesting would need to be done for tuning. What’s important is the change in perspective.

        There’s a danger and a disincentive. The danger is that the format settles once and then stagnates that way indefinitely. A few decks rise to dominance – and familiar decks, at that – and crowd out everything else. This is a risk, but it is far from guaranteed. First, there’s no telling how the metagame would organize itself. Even if one component of the metagame is a set of decks that had dominated Standard previously, it’s unclear how they will interact and suppress one another, be modified, and invite other decks into the gaps left open. There are many powerful cards and strategies not utilized by these decks, or to which these decks are vulnerable. There’s an appeal as well in having a format where previous champions of the metagame have a role to play. Second, a more calculated effort could be made in the development of new sets to unsettle congealing metagames.

        The disincentive is that configuring the format this way would allow players to invest in one deck and tune it over a period of years rather than have the format and decks upended more regularly. The upside of this is providing customers with a sector of participation that’s more sustainable and less demanding than others, providing its own appeal and stabilizing the broader economy by doing so.

        The question of the correct approach to the banned list hinges on the assessment of the internet’s implications for the game.

        The question of the correct approach to the banned list hinges on the assessment of the internet’s implications for the game. Does the “weird backlash” Forsythe described still exist? Are players who aren’t into the tournament scene confused when they see that Preordain and Tree of Tales are banned, or do they just Google it and read the answer in a forum? Do players flip through their binders and pore through their collections while building decks, or do they have the Magic Online tournament results open in one window and Gatherer in the other, with banned cards automatically excluded? Have old standards of elegance been outmoded? To what extent should Magic be shifted from an analog to a digital game? Magic’s trajectory manifests in things like the Modern banned list. Analyzing areas of success and failure can help us to discern the limits that the game’s inheritors would do well to acknowledge.

        Jeff Cunningham