Banning and unbanning cards is always a controversial subject.
Hell, Modern has been a pretty controversial format since its inception. The first Modern Pro Tour was actually a last minute emergency decision. Wizards of the Coast had just banned cards in Standard for the first time in years.
The Pro Tour had been scheduled to be four-year Extended. Unfortunately, that format was broken in half by Caw-Blade. For instance, here’s a sample deck that would have been legal if the format had not been switched:
Sure! That doesn’t seem like a problem at all!
Modern’s history is a rich debate over what should or should not be banned. One fundamental challenge that has existed since the format’s origin is this key difference between it and Legacy:
Force of Will isn’t a fair Magic card; but it is the glue that (ostensibly) holds Legacy together. Without it, Legacy would be largely just turn 1 and turn 2 kills. With it, however, there is a format beloved by many, despite the difficult barriers to entry and lack of support for the format.
The more cards in a format, the more possible interactions. Many of these interactions allow you to win the game outright, changing the game to one of racing towards a combo, or denying the opponent the same. These games can be quite interesting, and the decks frequently are. However, there is a point where many players lament the endless racing of fast combo decks. Even the aggro decks look more and more like combo decks.
Is it possible the banned list philosophy of Modern is flawed?
Alternatively, what if Modern is great as is? It’s just that there is an appetite for another format, a format much more powerful than Standard but with strategies and games much more about creatures, combat, and tactical decisions, rather than goldfishing, predicting the best sideboard cards to pack this week, and dodging the sideboard cards of others?
One relatively recently proposed new format is “Frontier”.
Frontier is a proposed alternative format using cards from Magic 2015 forward. It is not intended to replace Modern, so much as be an alternative that caters to players seeking a much more combat-driven and tactical experience.
While I think the format’s advocates have chosen a very fun line, I think it is inherently flawed. If there is to be momentum for an alternate format, such as this, it should take into consideration what has hopes of being supported by WotC someday. It is definitely possible that the format becomes so popular, WotC’s hand is forced; however, look at the lessons learned from the Reserved List.
Modern was essentially created as an alternative to Legacy with one major difference:
It doesn’t feature any cards on the Reserved List.
This makes it much more sustainable of a format for WotC to support, long term. Consequently, players expected the line for format legality to be drawn at Mercadian Masques. After all, Masques block, Invasion block, Odyssey block, Onslaught block, and Seventh Edition all contain cards that do not appear on the Reserved List.
Why then was the line drawn at Eighth Edition and Mirrodin, and not with the line drawn by players advocating for the so-called “Over-Extended” format those years ago?
The format was not created with only a single purpose. While this alternative line kept cards like Brainstorm, Counterspell, Dark Ritual, Fact or Fiction, Gush, and Rishadan Port from defining the texture of the format during its inception, they could have potentially banned them.
No, the real reason this line was drawn was giving everybody in every random game store an easy way of knowing if a card was too old or not. While this didn’t speak to the banned list, many (myself included) believe this added clarity for players in what is legal has been an important part of the success of the Modern format, proliferating in the ways that all of the various Extended formats failed to do.
The format being non-rotating is probably the most important difference compared to the various Extended formats; however, the clarity of legality is one of the important benefits of a non-rotating format. Cards are either legal or they’re not, and only change under very special circumstances.
Given that you’re reading this article, you’re already among the 90% most hardcore Magic players. In fact, there’s better than a 50/50 chance you’re among the 99% most hardcore players. Keeping track of changing formats is substantially easier for players as hardcore as you.
Not everyone is so hardcore.
While tournament players are certainly monstrously hardcore, compared to players without DCI numbers, there is still a big difference between tournament player and ultra-hardcore.
FNM is not filled exclusively with the ultra-hardcore.
You know what format the ultra-hardcore players like?
One that everyone else agrees to play, too.
Drawing the line at Mirrodin and Eighth Edition made the new format much more accessible at the grassroots level, since that was the moment the Magic card frames changed in a very loud and recognizable way.
I would love, love, love for the Post-Modern format to include Khans of Tarkir. Khans of Tarkir is one of the best designed Magic sets of all time, and the Standard formats including it were generally excellent.
Unfortunately, they also include fetchlands.
When Wizards of the Coast supports a Post-Modern format, it will be driven by a variety of practical concerns. One big one (maybe the biggest), is the legality of fetchlands.
What’s wrong with fetchlands?
It’s not that fetchlands haven’t added a lot to Magic. They’ve added a ton. However, what they have added doesn’t suddenly go away when the game’s design improves.
Necropotence has added a ton to the game, too. That doesn’t mean we want Necropotence to be legal in every format (although, there was a time when some really smart people believed exactly that). Fetchlands have added a lot, and they can continue to do so in Modern, Legacy, Vintage, and Commander.
They have also brought with them a large burden.
It can be easy to miss just how much of a tax fetchlands place on the world. After all, when you just think about the deckbuilding options they open up to you, they are obviously quite strong and make for interesting deckbuilding decisions.
However, in the actual games themselves, fetchlands make Magic a less fun and less watchable game. Shuffling is less fun than playing Magic. Cards that shuffle your deck need to increase the amount of fun by enough to make up for the time spent shuffling or otherwise, the net fun per minute is decreasing.
When you take the total amount of fun had by both players during a match and divide it by the total number of minutes spent playing the match, fetchlands substantially decrease the fun per minute, compared to lands like Underground Sea, for instance.
It can be easy to rationalize this massive expenditure by pointing to the strategies that fetchlands make possible, by way of being such incredibly powerful mana-fixers in formats with Watery Grave or Sunken Hollow. However, this is not intrinsic to the fetchlands design, so much as the power level of this particular style of interaction.
Fetchlands aren’t the only lands to synergize with shocklands; they just happen to be the best of what has been printed. Fetchlands + shocklands are also hardly the only mana-fixers that synergize well with each other.
With careful and well-thought out design, Wizards of the Coast could make however strong of mana-fixing as they believe will lead to the most fun experience.
And that may even be as strong as fetchlands + shocklands…
However, doing so without requiring players to shuffle their decks ten times a game would be an enormous increase in net fun in the world (to say nothing of how much it would improve the experience of tournament organizers and judges).
I’m not saying every card involving shuffling should be banned; although there plenty of people interested in that exact proposal. Paul Rietzl has raised the suggestion of unbanning everything, then banning every card with the word “shuffle”. He notes that you’d probably have to ban a couple more cards, but the proposal does have at least two big things going for it.
1. Relatively easy to remember banned list.
2. Players spend a lot less time shuffling.
Maybe we need to take a look at the list. Even if you were to ban Skullclamp, Hypergenesis, Blazing Shoal, Dark Depths, and Glimpse of Nature, I think we still might be far away from a healthy format.
Unbanned in No Shuffle Modern:
● Mox Opal
I don’t think this Storm deck is even close to acceptable, given the power level of the other stuff going on in the format. For instance:
They may be less abusable without fetchlands, but Gitaxian Probe and Preordain go a long way. That said, it is interesting how much some cards change without having shuffle effects to help them. For instance:
Deathrite Shaman may very well still be decent, but without fetchlands, its power is probably nothing special. Sensei’s Divining Top is substantially weaker without the ability to shuffle; though there are still ways to reset the top of your library (such as Satyr Wayfinder and Forbidden Alchemy). That said, the amount of time spent activating the card would seem to fly in the face of the format’s goals; and the combination with Counterbalance may suggest a very low tolerance for the card if it were to gain popularity.
It’s not that Bloodbraid Elf is inherently broken. It’s strong, sure; but in this context, I am more suspicious of how much cascade is functionally shuffling. Personally, I think the cascade mechanic should probably be considered shuffling. After all, how did you get those cards on the bottom of your library to arrive at a “random order”? Besides, they give incredible tutoring power in a format without tutors. Considering them shuffling not only adds Bloodbraid Elf to the banned list, it also potentially removes the need to ban Hypergenesis.
After all, is Hypergenesis actually a problem without Violent Outburst, Demonic Dread, and Ardent Plea? Maybe it gets broken with Yahenni’s Expertise or Bring to Light, but at least that sounds like a new deck, a new exploration. You could always ban it if it breaks in a new way.
Unfortunately, banning every Cascade card removes some of the elegance the format originally sought. After all, errata doesn’t help the person who is finding out if their deck is legal by looking for the word “shuffle” on their cards. Even if the banned list looked like this:
● Shuffling is banned
● Cascade is banned
● Blazing Shoal is banned
● Chrome Mox is banned
● Dark Depths is banned
● Glimpse of Nature is banned
● Mox Opal is banned
● Rite of Flame is banned
● Skullclamp is banned
I think at this point, you can’t really give the format credit for having a simple banned list policy anymore.
I believe the most probable legality line for the eventual Post-Modern format is Magic Origins.
While Khans of Tarkir is technically the last set with fetchlands (since later sets containing them use the Khans of Tarkir symbol), drawing the line in the middle of the block would be extremely confusing. Besides, just as WotC wanted Modern to avoid being merely the “The No Reserved List Format,” they will surely want to avoid the eventual Post-Modern format to being branded as “The No Fetchlands Format.”
Magic Origins is such a clean line to draw. In fact, its name is so perfect, I suspect they have aspirations of eventually naming the format “Origin” or some such. Even if they don’t use the product name in the format, it is just such a logical starting point, the Origin of the format…
If players want a Post-Modern format to catch on (adding to, not replacing Modern), I believe they would do well to consider drawing the line for legality at Magic Origins. It is definitely possible that Frontier catches on with such massive adoption and interest, that Wizards of the Coast’s hands are forced, as I previously mentioned.
However, even in such a world, I think it is very likely that Wizards of the Coast would want to ban fetchlands as part of it becoming an official format. If the format has already cultivated a massive following, the issue of where to draw the line is a smaller one. However, that is a pretty big assumption, and there is the ulterior motive of wanting to transition into a post-fetchland world.
Maybe the world isn’t ready for that.
But maybe it is! Obviously, if fetchlands get reprinted in a Standard-legal set, the clock resets; however, I am hopeful that the transition towards Masterpieces, Zendikar Expeditions, and the like is an indication of the new and sustainable model for reliable monetization of Magic sets. Fetchlands and shocklands were reprinted largely because of how reliable of money-makers they were and are. They served as a sort of “tax” on players that wanted to play competitively, and balancing the game around their existence made owning them a cost shared by hardcore players everywhere. After all, no matter how good or bad the cards in a set are, if players need the new lands in order to be able to compete, at least enough packs have to get opened for those players to have the mana-fixers they need.
However, the move towards Masterpieces and Zendikar Expeditions shifts some of that cost towards VIP players that desire ultra-elite versions of cards and cosmetic improvements. This, in turn, leads to a lower barrier to entry for would-be tournament players, since the amazing lands they need for their deck are $5 a piece, instead of $15.
If Magic Origins really is the beginning of the Post-Modern era, these are the legal sets, so far:
● Magic Origins
● Battle for Zendikar
● Oath of the Gatewatch
● Shadows over Innistrad
● Eldritch Moon
● Aether Revolt
This is just Standard with Magic Origins thrown in.
Yes, and not surprisingly, Wizards of the Coast isn’t pushing the format yet.
Remember, Modern wasn’t created when Ravnica block was released. While I don’t think Wizards of the Coast is going to wait five years to start to float the idea of Post-Modern; I do think we’ll start seeing things in two years. By then, there will be twice as many cards in Post-Modern as Standard, and hopefully a critical mass of good stuff going on to make for a sufficiently different format.
Hopefully, it won’t come to it, but it’s also possible that a few cards get banned so that the format isn’t just a Who’s Who of design mistakes. Even when a card isn’t overpowered, it can have a lasting impact on the format that helps shape the experiences. Just think how different Modern would be if Blood Moon, and the rest of Eighth Edition, had fallen on the other side of the line!
I don’t want to hate on current Standard any more than is justified; so I will just leave it with the observation that Kaladesh was an interesting spot to switch back to yearly rotations, instead of every six months. Of course, there are lots of practical concerns (such as the player accessibility discussed above). It’s just unfortunate that they chose to make this move for a set with Smuggler’s Copter and Aetherworks Marvel.
After all, who could have guessed that a format that began with 32 copies of the same card in a top 8 would turn out to receive low marks from players?
Of course, this also begs the question of why ship Smuggler’s Copter like that in the first place?
I do think, by the way, it is defensible (regardless of whether or not it’s right). Smuggler’s Copter promotes mostly good things, involves good gameplay, and guarantees that vehicles show up on in Constructed.
See, this one, I can’t get behind.
Why? Why push a Mindslaver this hard? Even if you want to make sure Emrakul is showing up, this isn’t the way. It has a pretty epic level of anti-fun in terms of just how much fun it sucks out of games where it doesn’t even show up, even games where neither player has it in their deck. The mere existence of it is enough to put a damper on the fun of the players involved.
Possible bans for this new format?
Personally, I would suggest the format without Emrakul, the Promised End and try it from there (much like how I feel about Standard). There are some powerful options you might consider for additional banning, if you were strongly interested in making for meaningfully different play experiences than current Standard:
● Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
However, once there are more sets added to the mix, I wouldn’t be surprised if banning Emrakul, the Promised End was enough to start the party. Maybe Aetherworks Marvel is too strong for its own good, but I would guess that the primary reason to ban more, in the short run, would be if players were just seeking new puzzles, new challenges. Afterall, taking a relatively unpopular Standard format and replacing Emrakul, the Promised End with Magic Origins doesn’t exactly bring the crowd out in droves.
Another option is to attempt to get Frontier ahead of the game and preemptively ban fetchlands. For players that love Khans of Tarkir, I believe this is likely to be the best solution for trying to gain traction with WotC while still sneaking Khans of Tarkir into the format. Removing the fetchlands does radically alter the landscape of the format, but not necessarily in a bad way.
It’s just a new challenge to solve.
What about Evolving Wilds?
Evolving Wilds isn’t in the same zip code of ubiquity as fetchlands. Not only is it nowhere near as powerful, there’s also a much bigger cost to stacking up tons of these (even if Terramorphic Expanse was reprinted, for instance).
What about actual Modern? While we could continue to debate the merits of possibly banning Gitaxian Probe or unbanning Bloodbraid Elf, I’m a little bit curious about a possible Alternate Modern. What if the banned list was more serious about promoting the kinds of games we want to play and not just making sure nothing is ever 20% of the field? What if the criteria for banning a card in Modern was more largely linked to the quality of the experience, when repeated ad nauseam?
The specifics aren’t as important as the general philosophy. Also, I should note that this list isn’t easily remembered like the Modern card frames or Magic Origins. Instead, it aspires to work within the framework of the current Modern format (and its rather lengthy banned list).
What would you play in Modern if the following cards were banned and you had good reason to believe there wouldn’t be major upheavals continuously?
Add to the Banned List:
● Goryo’s Vengeance
● Mox Opal
● Urza’s Mine
● Urza’s Power Plant
● Urza’s Tower
Removed from the Banned List:
It would blow my mind if this list was perfect, but you surely see what we’re going for here, right? What if there was a much harder line stance taken on decks like Infect, Affinity, Dredge, Storm, Ad Nauseam, Scapeshift, and Tron. However, busted cards for midrange strategies are supported.
If Birthing Pod and Green Sun’s Zenith are too good in combo decks but super fun in midrange decks, is it possible that we could actually just ban enough of the instant win combos to bring them back down to Earth?
You might say Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Punishing Fires and Umezawa’s Jitte step on creature decks too much, but what if they have access to Deathrite Shaman, Stoneforge Mystic, Bloodbraid Elf, and Green Sun’s Zenith?
And what if the fastest fast combos were banned out, to the point that the best ways to gain advantages or win were typically creatures and planeswalkers?
A busted card?
However, with enough fast combos removed, maybe it’s the Force of Will Modern is looking for…