The Goals of a Fledgling Format
Modern is still widely uncharted territory. We’ve only just begun to explore the cards and interactions among the multitude of sets that are legal. Every now and then, an off-the-radar deck or card pops up that ends up being fantastic. This can be seen in the rise in popularity of Slippery Bogle in the last few months. I think that the fact that people chose to play a 1/1 attacking and blocking creature over Seething Song is a testament to just how deep we can go. Had you ever seen a physical copy of Daybreak Coronet before this? Did you think Hyena Umbra would ever see Constructed play?
With so many cards and potentially dangerous interactions in Modern, the banned list is constantly updated to keep the format healthy. The Modern banned list is the subject of much controversy because a lot of the cards on it don’t feel like they should be there. Wizards of the Coast has seemingly followed the following goals to keep Modern "friendly."
1. They don’t want combo decks to be too powerful— i.e., consistently winning before turn 4.
2. They don’t want one deck or one strategy to dominate.
3. They don’t want cards around that have been problematic in the past.
I agree with two out of three of these rules for the most part. However, the third rule is terrible, as there are a lot of cards on the Modern banned list that people absolutely love to play with and really aren’t too powerful. After all, we want to play with the cards we own!
Unlike Legacy, Modern is full of decks that just feel…boring. While Modern is definitely diverse, can you honestly say that a format is fun when basically every deck runs Lightning Bolt? Don’t get me wrong—I love a Lightning Bolt. It is a great removal spell that is pretty easy to splash and can go to the dome when you’re in a racing situation. The problem here is that Lightning Bolt is seemingly the only option for removal in Modern because there isn’t another card in the format that’s as good at the job.
Honestly, Lightning Bolt is built to be an aggressive card, but the way that Modern currently survives is by playing it as a control card, midrange card, and aggressive card. In all seriousness, Lightning Bolt is probably too good! Even Splinter Twin, a pure and straightforward combo deck, plays Lightning Bolt. To me, that just seems unreal, and it is definitely not something you would see in Legacy.
Maverick splashing for Lightning Bolt?
U/W Stoneforge splashing for Lightning Bolt?
Ok, obviously that last one is a bit of a stretch, but you get my point.
While Lightning Bolt isn’t in every Modern deck or even every red deck, I do think it leads to a lot of uninteresting games and matches when it ends up being one of the only cards that matters. Along with Snapcaster Mage, few creatures stick around for longer than a turn, and the sheer efficiency of the spell bottlenecks a lot of aggressive decks and virtually forces them out of the metagame.
In Legacy, you have a variety of decks that are all powerful and all do wildly different things that pretty much everyone who plays the format considers to be fun! There is something to be said about the intricacies of gameplay in the first few turns of the game, even if one or more players are playing some wacky combo deck. Your goal is to stall their development or disrupt their game plan long enough so that you have enough time to execute your own, but having access to the right tools in order to accomplish this is paramount.
Modern just doesn’t have the same appeal because it doesn’t have the tools that allow for the same kind of interaction. It doesn’t have the same raw power. We’re stuck playing things like Kird Ape and Putrid Leech because they keep banning everything else!
Speaking of Kird Ape…
An excerpt from Tom LaPille article on From the Vault: Exiled, where he discusses cards banned throughout Magic’s history that were reprinted in this limited edition set.
Some may be confused by the presence of Kird Ape on this list, but it was on the very first Extended banned list. The card was considered to be too powerful a creature for the format, so it was removed. Oddly, that same format also contained far sicker spells like Necropotence. It’s quite rare that a creature built only to attack and block causes serious problems, and that is why you no longer find things like Kird Ape or Tarmogoyf on our modern banned lists.
So, if I’m not mistaken, Wild Nacatl is a creature without abilities that just attacks and blocks. It has one power higher than Kird Ape, which is significant, but doesn’t win the game on its own. It also needs you to be playing lands that deal you a lot of damage in order to be at full strength, which is not insignificant. With that in mind, why was Wild Nacatl powerful enough to get banned?
Zoo is/was a completely fair deck that uses the game’s most efficient creatures to do battle and finishes up the game with cards like Tribal Flames and Lightning Bolt. In no way does this strategy seem too good or too unfair. In fact, this seems like a generic aggressive deck that probably doesn’t match up well against a control deck. And I mean a real control deck—a deck with cards that actually do something.
When the best "control" deck in a format plays Geist of Saint Traft, there has to be a problem. Do you think these decks could afford to be playing "finishers" like Geist of Saint Traft if Wild Nacatl was still around? Of course not! They would almost certainly adopt a method of winning to outclass creature decks or possibly play Boros Reckoner like the Standard versions since everyone is running Lightning Bolt as their removal spell. You know, the control decks would play actual control cards. At the moment, most aggressive decks aren’t good or fast enough to keep up with Tron, Birthing Pod, and other combo decks because they’ve banned the tools necessary to be fast and consistent enough!
The consistency issue was never a problem before because Green Sun’s Zenith for Gaddock Teeg was all the help aggro decks needed to fight unfair combo decks. GSZ was banned for reasons I can’t really fathom. The original logic behind the banning of it probably stemmed from the green-based Cloudpost decks that used Green Sun’s Zenith as both a Rampant Growth effect for Dryad Arbor and a way to fetch up Primeval Titan. It provided power and consistency, which is something I think green decks really need. With Cloudpost out of the picture, Green Sun’s Zenith shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
This is the problem with Modern: the good combo decks keep getting hit by the ban hammer, which makes them less good. I like for a few combo decks to be good as long as there are ways to interact with them. Without that balance, the fair decks (the ones that aren’t trying to kill you on turn 3-4) rule the roost. The best fair deck outclasses the rest of the fair decks because it plays the cards that interact the best with the other fair decks, ultimately creating a stale environment. When you are in a place where Bloodbraid Elf is too good, something has to change fundamentally. You can’t just ban the best fair card every time it starts to become popular.
There are a number of ways to fix this problem, but alleviating this pressure without causing a terrible cascading effect will be tricky.
Changing the Theory of Bannings
The current theory behind the banned list in Modern stems from the above list of goals for the format. WotC tries their best to keep Modern "fresh and interesting," but ultimately they end up having to ban something because it is overplayed. This was true for Wild Nacatl and Bloodbraid Elf and will probably end up happening to Deathrite Shaman in the next year or so.
I don’t think a card should be banned just because it is a four-of in the current best deck. When a card is too powerful, you need to take some time to evaluate exactly why that card is "too good." For example, Bloodbraid Elf wasn’t too good in Jund. It wasn’t too good in any of the Modern decks it was in. Thus, I don’t think it was good enough to get banned.
Deathrite Shaman definitely didn’t help Bloodbraid Elf’s case, as it is the first Birds of Paradise proxy in history that is just fine to cascade into. The acceleration offered by Deathrite Shaman as well as its other two incredibly powerful and relevant abilities is too much for a one-mana card. But the fear of banning certain new cards in Eternal formats is expected, though they had absolutely no qualms with giving Mental Misstep the axe before things got started.
Don’t get me wrong—I personally don’t think Deathrite Shaman should be banned either. It is multicolored, cheap, and does a lot of things. The fact that it fits into so many decks is a tribute to its design, and I couldn’t be happier with that.
What I’m saying is that if you’re banning a card to make a specific deck less powerful, you should make sure it is the right card! If you think a deck is too powerful, you should take out its heart. If you end up banning everything but the actual problem, it is going to pop up later and be just as overwhelming.
The alternative is to unban a card. I think it is important to look at Magic’s history before making a decision like this and to use past results to determine whether unbanning a specific card could benefit the format and make it healthy once again.
Let’s assume, just for a moment, that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is unbanned in Modern but Bloodbraid Elf remains banned. The dominance of Jace might be a bit too much for the format to handle, but I think I have the perfect solution…
If both Jace and Bloodbraid Elf were currently unbanned, which do you think would win in a fight? In the past, Bloodbraid Elf won hands down. This is because the person playing Jace was almost forced to use the +2 ability as the first activation because of the threat of Bloodbraid Elf. And if Bloodbraid Elf ever cascaded into Lightning Bolt or Blightning?
While this particular example is a little farfetched, seeing as Jace hasn’t been legal since the format’s inception, you can see how unbanning a card like Bloodbraid Elf would help keep an otherwise dominant Jace in check.
In regards to the recent banning of Seething Song, you could look at older formats like Extended to determine what cards or decks were particularly troublesome for Storm. In this case, I think that Seething Song decks were traditionally weak to Faeries and aggro-control decks in general.
Bitterblossom doesn’t exactly match up well to Seething Song, but reviving a deck like Faeries to prey on a heavy Storm metagame would go a long way toward creating balance. Bitterblossom could help Faeries and aggro-control in general become viable and ultimately help keep combo decks in check. Without Bitterblossom, Faerie-style decks aren’t nearly strong enough to compete in the current environment.
With access to the current lineup of cards in Modern, I honestly don’t think Bitterblossom would be too good. A lot of the midrange/control decks in the format have the ability to play Abrupt Decay, which would help keep the pesky enchantment in check!
While this example might be a bit more difficult to get behind, I think the theory is sound. I don’t foresee an unbanning Mental Misstep, but I think this example is great for perspective. Mental Misstep is a powerful card that definitely helps keep aggressive decks (like ones with Wild Nacatl) in check. If Wild Nacatl, a mere 3/3 do-nothing creature, is too good in a format, maybe that format needs an efficient answer that basically any deck can play. Mental Misstep only costs a card and two life, but it has diminishing returns. If the aggressive deck is curving up the chain with its casting costs, Mental Misstep loses value quickly, and drawing them after the first turn usually means they’re pretty mediocre. The two life loss is also relevant in a format with fetchlands, shocklands, and aggressive decks.
Of course, Mental Misstep is probably too good to see play in Modern. It did kind of ruin Legacy for a short while, but to be fair Modern is a completely different format. Almost every deck in Legacy is trying to be as fast as possible, so a card like Mental Misstep hits just about every relevant card there is. You really have no choice but to get hosed by Mental Misstep because there are a lot of decks that are faster than you and you have to play cheap cards to keep pace. Most decks in Modern are full of cards that cost two or more, so they wouldn’t be utterly devastated by Mental Misstep.
Legacy is full of cards that cost one mana, but Modern is a completely different story. Liliana of the Veil and Tarmogoyf are all the rage, and a four-mana creature was "too good" to keep around. It didn’t cascade into a Living Death or Balance. It sure as hell didn’t cascade into Eureka. It cascaded into other cards that were just as mediocre as Bloodbraid Elf itself. For f***’s sake, people are starting to play Blightning again. Is this really what you want for a format as open-ended as Modern can be?
Unbanning Mental Misstep is a little extreme. Here’s a more down-to-earth example:
If Path to Exile were to become incredibly overplayed and ultimately thought of as too powerful, then giving multiple archetypes the ability to play the Thopter/Sword combo would be awesome. If spot removal is the best thing any deck in the format can be playing, then punishing spot removal by having a win condition that invalidates it seems appropriate. While the Thopter/Sword combo was quite dominant in the Dark Depths Thopter (DDT) deck built by Gerry Thompson, which was complemented by Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths, the true strength of the deck was having access to both combos. Personally, I don’t think that Thopter/Sword is too powerful—especially when nearly everyone has access to multiple answers for it.
I would love to see everything come off the banned list for a single Pro Tour just to flesh out certain cards and see how good everything is. Storm decks might end up being too good, but every combo deck has a foil. The greatest thing about deckbuilding in such an open environment is trying to figure out the best possible combination of cards to keep your opponents in check. Without anything to really keep in check, people have to resort to playing cards like Olivia Voldaren because those are the best kind of threats for a midrange-based format.
To be honest, I want a deck in the format that I hate to play against, and I want to get rewarded for coming prepared. At the moment, all I can do is play a mediocre combo deck, a mediocre aggro deck, a ramp deck that finishes with Karn/Scapeshift, or a mediocre control deck. None of these options is all that enticing. Additionally, I don’t really know what cards or decks I should invest in—because if it becomes too good, then it’s just going to get banned, and my deck ends up in shambles.
Wizards may not want to unban cards like Bitterblossom or Seat of the Synod because of their sordid past, but I’ve got a revelation for you: Affinity, in its current form, wouldn’t even want more than a few artifact lands, since the eight Nexuses are incredibly powerful alongside Arcbound Ravager, Master of Etherium, and Cranial Plating. As for Faeries, it already had trouble beating hyperaggressive decks, so something like Wild Nacatl (in a dual-land powered format) would be awesome against it. As I said earlier, we also have Abrupt Decay as a widely played, versatile answer.
We can’t let fear dictate the future of Modern. Learn from the past, but don’t be strangled by it.
Using Modern Masters to Fix Everything
Modern Masters is a fantastic idea for a format as young as Modern. With so many cards being difficult to obtain, having a way to reprint them so more people have access to them is genius. I think that even though the price tag will be high, Modern Masters will be one of the bestselling Magic sets of all time. I also don’t think it will negatively affect the price value for a lot of the cards significantly. For one, Modern Masters will increase people’s desire to play Modern and allow vendors to have more cards to buy and then resell to other customers. By increasing the supply, we will also be increasing the demand. Over time, the prices will stabilize, and Tarmogoyf will still probably end up around $100.
But I think Modern Masters (and potentially Modern Masters 2 and onward) has more potential than most people are thinking of. Just look at Masters Edition: a series of sets released on Magic Online that were used to print older cards without having to print a bunch of terrible, undraftable sets. They took the "core set mentality" and used it to fix older formats on Magic Online. I think Modern Masters can do something even greater than that. If they do things right, Modern Masters will be their way to fix everything.
They can reprint any card they want and have it be legal only in Modern.
I want you to let that sink in for a second because it was something that took me a while to really figure out. Modern Masters is the first time that Wizards has had a chance to print cards for the Modern format without them being legal in Standard. The range for what cards they can reprint goes through the roof because they don’t have to worry about a card being too dominant in a certain format besides Modern. I think that Daze would be a fantastic addition to Modern, and reprinting it in Modern Masters would mean that it wouldn’t have to be in Standard alongside Delver.
I’m going to go over a few of the cards that I think should be reprinted in Modern Masters. Let’s start with a few easy ones that I think could do wonders for a variety of decks.
While Daze is a staple of Legacy, I really don’t think it would be overpowered in Modern. We don’t have access to powerful card advantage or card selection, so Daze would just be a way for us to power through with our aggressive decks. Can you imagine a Wild Nacatl backed up by a Daze? To me, that sounds fantastic—it also feels like a great way for a fair deck to interact with an unfair deck.
This is a card that just feels like it should be legal in Modern. It isn’t too powerful, punishes things like Tarmogoyf, and matches up well against Deathrite Shaman. It can hose a lot of different graveyard-based combo decks and gives green decks a reasonable creature against other aggressive decks. Being able to turn it into a 4/4 or greater as well as gain a few points of life can mean all the difference in a racing situation.
This is one I hold dear to my heart because it is such a subtly powerful card. It doesn’t really ever feel like it’s doing anything, but the fact of the matter is that it makes most of the removal spells in the format just rot in the opponent’s hand. Mother of Runes would also give new life to a variety of White Weenie strategies since one of their biggest problems is a string of spot removal backed up by Snapcaster Mage. Mother of Runes also punishes people for playing Path to Exile, as they have to use it immediately and ramp you up or they’ll lose the potential to cast it for the rest of the game.
The fact that many variants of Wrath of God exist in Modern keeps it from being overly powerful, but I think that Mother of Runes backing up Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is something that Modern needs right now and would especially need if a lot of the more powerful cards come off the banned list.
The Big Ones
The next two cards need longer explanations because reprinting them would mean a significant change for Modern. Both are powerful and have limitless possibility in the long run.
Force of Will would not only be a great card to put in Modern Masters to give it more hype, but also being able to play with it in Modern would send a signal to an entirely different demographic. Just think of the number of Legacy players that would immediately give Modern a try if they got to play with their best Legacy cards! Force of Will is just awesome at what it does, but it has a serious drawback that makes it balanced. There is a reason why people play three or four in most of the blue decks in Legacy, but there is also a very good reason why it is the card that people side out most often.
Force of Will being in Modern would make unbanning a lot of other cards a possibility. It would give control and aggro-control decks a good way to interact with their opponents in the early turns of the game while still being able to apply pressure. Force of Will would also give blue decks a reason to play card advantage cards again. While Force of Will has the potential to be dangerous as a way to protect your combos against various disruption, you do have to spend two cards to deal with just one problem. Against combo, where they are using most of their resources to pull off some absurd end game, Force of Will is devastating. In the same vein, it isn’t that good against the fair decks in the format because you can’t really afford to spend multiple cards to deal with a single threat like Tarmogoyf.
Having Force of Will in the format would mostly cause problems for combo decks, which I think would be fantastic. Wizards has always loved giving people ways to interact with combo decks because that’s exactly what they want for every game of Magic: interaction. Without a lot of ways for decks to do this, combo decks would reign supreme. Just the fear of Force of Will would probably stabilize the format into a bunch of fair decks, much like it did for Legacy a few months ago when Deathrite Shaman decks were all over the place.
Most Modern decks could play Wasteland as a way to interact with things like Cloudpost, Urza lands, and even Valakut decks, but the fact remains that any unfair deck wouldn’t want it. Alongside some pressure like Delver of Secrets or Tarmogoyf, Wasteland could singlehandedly give new life to decks that can’t compete with these strategies. It would also constrain deckbuilding in an interesting way, which is the facet I love the most. Wasteland would make people play more lands, specifically basic lands, and punish those that aren’t playing enough. While there are times where Wasteland is a "feel bad" card when the opponent doesn’t draw enough lands, the games where you actually get to play Magic against an opponent trying to beat you with Scapeshift or some nonsense makes up for it.
If Wasteland is a card that people have to consider when building their decks, they will undoubtedly make changes to make it less effective against them. This, alongside giving players the ability to interact with ramp decks, makes Wasteland one of my highest wants for Modern.
Of course, with the release or reprint of any new card to the format, the banned list would need to be reexamined. If Mental Misstep were in the same format as Wasteland and Daze, then it is conceivable that Modern would devolve in much the same way as Legacy did when Mental Misstep was released. This is not something that anyone wants, including myself. Each of my examples of how Wizards of the Coast could improve Modern is ultimately suggested in a vacuum. It is impossible to figure out hypothetically how certain changes would affect the format in actuality, and making too many changes at once could be catastrophic.
If you want to experiment with ways to improve Modern, I would use current Modern as the constant. Try one change at a time until you figure out the exact formula for fun! With too many variables acting at once, it’s impossible to gauge which factor led to victory/defeat.
While having Force of Will and Wasteland in Modern might not be the exact answer, I think it would be a fire starter. It wouldabsolutely get people interested in the format and help sell the hell out of Modern Masters as a whole. Over time, if these cards prove to be too powerful, there are always ways to make them less good. WotC has the ability to print new cards that are Modern/Legacy legal that significantly hose the effects of Wasteland or Force of Will or can just reprint old favorites like Red Elemental Blast or Teferi’s Response. Both of the original cards in the argument are fairly balanced, and they tend to benefit the fair decks that are trying to interact with unfair decks.
In the current Legacy format, Force of Will is used by both fair decks and unfair decks. It is the glue that holds the format together. The fair decks obviously use Force of Will to counter the shenanigans that the unfair decks try to pull off. But a reasonable amount of combo decks use Force of Will to protect their combo. In Modern, this could get tricky, but the best solution would be to give Modern decks more ways to interact with the Force of Will combo decks.
I think that Modern could be a great format. We’re talking about access to thousands more cards in deckbuilding, meaning that we have a lot of ways to interact with those strategies where we didn’t really before. I think that the current banned list could easily be reexamined and some great changes could be made to make the format more exciting and more fun!
Modern is enjoyable, but I actually think Standard is a better format at the moment, which is not something I could have ever said about any of the old Extended formats. It seems like every time I get invested in a good strategy or deck, something gets the axe. There is a lot of room for innovation and improvement when it comes to Modern, but I think that using Modern Masters to give new life to the format is important for making it viable in the long run.
Whether or not they choose to implement this line is their call, but I would love to see some of my old favorites get a little more use. They’ve done this in the past with things like Time Spiral Timeshifted cards and do reprint cards a reasonable amount, but this is the first time they’ve been able to reprint cards for Modern without negatively affecting any other format.
If they continue to mix things up and prove to us that Modern is a format they want to keep alive and healthy, I will have no problem investing in something that is fun to play. With Modern Masters, they have a chance to get creative, and that alone makes me excited for the future.
Thanks for reading.
strong sad on Magic Online
@strong_sad on Twitter