The Modern Banlist Deadline

The day is coming. The Modern banlist debate is about to be put to rest. So what does Shaheen Soorani think should happen? What does he think will happen? Join the discussion here!

In a few days the Modern format will be changed forever. From time to time, the bannings weekend is uneventful, but that will not be the case this time…

Modern needs a lot of help, and fast. This doesn’t mean that the format is unpopular or that people can’t find success in it, but it has a feel like Vintage Cube on MTGO where certain decks simply obliterate others. During one of the Vintage Cube drafts, my opponent played a turn 1 Koth of the Hammer and I responded with a turn 1 Ponder. Modern has that feel, and anyone who plays it on a regular basis knows exactly what I mean. There are certain decks and starts, unlike in Legacy and Standard, that some decks just can’t beat. When I’m playing Esper Stoneblade, testing with Temur Delver or other blue competitive decks, there are opening hands and starts that have game against every deck in the format. Cards in Legacy are super-powerful and when you’re armed with Force of Will, Sword to Plowshares, and the best blue cantrips, there is no deck that just rolls you.

This reality holds true for Standard, but with the inverse. The cards in Standard are so weak by comparison that decks don’t have the capability of comboing or aggroing you regularly. The aggro decks have been pretty consistent over the years in Standard, but even the slowest decks have a robust sideboard to have game against the red menace, which provides format stability. The stability of a format is measured in three parts:

The existence of powerful aggro, midrange, and control decks.

The ability for different archetypes to win major events.

The removal of format-legal cards that prevent mutual gameplay, excessively drain time, and create unchecked early turn wins.

The first measure of a healthy format exists in Standard currently. The best deck may be Abzan Midrange, then Abzan Aggro, then Jeskai Black, maybe Esper Dragons, Atarka Red creeps up, and then back to an Abzan variant.

It keeps us on our deckbuilding toes when we don’t know what the next wave of popularity will bring in any given event. Standard has a beautiful rock, paper, scissors feel to it now and WotC has done well printing cards that have created healthy formats for many years. I may dog aggro from time to time, or all of the time, but I know it’s necessary to keep the format vibrant and balanced. I do not want a format where Monastery Swiftspear, or a card like it, isn’t around. This type of strategy creates a threat of speed that prevents formats from getting mucked down with midrange and control mirrors.

Format health is something I have always taken stock in and with Modern being the format of the future, it’s time for all of us to work together to perfect it. WotC does listen to the writers, the pros, you all commenting, tournament finishes, and their employees when repairing a damaged format. Legacy requires little upkeep because of the power level of cards. Standard is rotating regularly. These are reasons why these formats were always relatively healthy, and if they weren’t, they would fix themselves in rotation or with a short banned list.

The Modern banned list was lengthy when the format started in order to prevent the boogeymen of old Standards and Extended from coming to haunt players just getting into it. This explains the removal of Bloodbraid Elf; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Bitterblossom; five of the artifact lands; Golgari Grave-Troll; and others. A lot of these early bans had a few of us scratching our heads, but WotC decided in the end to be more safe than sorry. A few of these cards have been released back into the wild with little to no impact on the format, which gives us hope for a few more cards being freed from this list. The remaining banned cards from that original list all point toward the one strategy still in the cage of Modern, which is control. Control is completely absent from Modern besides a junky Jeskai strategy here or a worse version of Grixis without Splinter Twin there. The death of control in Modern isn’t exaggerated and it actually isn’t preached enough. How could something die that never had a chance to exist?

Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Ancestral Visions; Stoneforge Mystic; Sword of the Meek; and Mental Misstep are all cards that could revive control by themselves. In a format where Amulet Bloom can slay on turn 2, Affinity and Burn have starts that result in effectively a loss on turn 3, the best combo deck has all the tools to destroy on turn 4 consistently, and artifact hate is abundant and heavily played, do we need a Sword of the Meek ban?

The answer is absolutely not. There are other cards on the list that can easily be freed to revive control in Modern and bring some balance back to the force. The format is in an odd place now with super-powerful combo and aggressive strategies, but no room for fair Magic. I would argue that in Legacy, fair consistency is much better than explosive aggression, but I wouldn’t make that claim in Modern at the moment. Control has to have the ability to deal with threats early on and have a very powerful, cheap win condition in one or more of Stoneforge Mystic, Sword of the Meek, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor to put up a good fight.

The reason why one of those is necessary is because the old rule of draw-go doesn’t apply in Modern. If my Jeskai Control deck is in a draw-go situation with a combo deck, or stabilized against one of the aggressive Tier 1 enemies, my chances of winning should be extremely high. The cards on the other side of the table, combined with the weakness of closing strategies that are legal in Modern control decks, provide a recipe for disaster and eliminate 1/3 of the viable archetypes that come to battle.

I hope they ban a few cards, unban a few cards, and work to better the format by keeping aggressive decks as great as they are (Infect, Affinity, Burn, Merfolk, etc.), keeping combo decks consistently powerful (Splinter Twin, Living End, Ad Nauseam, Goryo’s Vengeance, etc.), and helping create a control deck that can breach into Tier 1 to tango with the other archetypes.

So what do I think needs to change?

They Gotta Go

The list of cards that have to go is much shorter than the cards that can be brought back into Modern. I’ve written piece after piece, tweet after tweet, and speech after speech about the evils of Blood Moon and how it stifles creativity in deckbuilding, prevents interactive gameplay, damages the diversity and health of the format, and is honestly just lame. This deck tech I did on U/R Delver goes into more depth, as does this article, but I want to focus for now on the rest of the changes that I hope to see to make Modern great.

Amulet of Vigor is on its way out without debate, but some think Summer Bloom is the more dangerous card. Honestly I don’t believe that the deck can win without one or the other on a consistent basis, so I don’t care which is removed. I think they will go with Amulet of Vigor to totally cripple the deck; however, I would also not be surprised if they took out Summer Bloom instead. The SCG Newsletter and SCG’s other writers have given a great deal of insight on the evils of the deck; even the winner of SCG Cincinnati weighed in on it not too long ago.

The reason why I think a deck like this is dangerous where Goryo’s Vengeance isn’t is because of how easy it is to hate out graveyard combo decks. There are too many cards out there, some even cast with Phyrexian mana, that nerf any attempt to bring a creature out of the graveyard. Decks like Goryo’s Vengeance, Living End, or even Dredgevine are tormented by countermagic and graveyard hate, which every deck has access to in one way or another. Amulet Bloom is extremely resilient to hate and can go to the long game with you without batting an eye.

Combo decks that kill on turn 2 and can easily win on turn 6 are very dangerous and damage the fabric of the format. In Legacy you have Wasteland, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, super-cheap win conditions, and two-card combos that all work in perfect harmony. It’s like every player is equipped with a rocket launcher regardless of deck choice, whereas in Modern your deck choice could result in bringing a knife to a gun fight more often than it should.

The last card on the Should Be Banned list is an odd one for those of you who haven’t played a ton of MTGO recently. Eldrazi Temple was a card created to help power out the very expensive colorless creatures of old and was a super fun card back in the day. WOTC had no idea that a few years later they would create colorless Eldrazi creatures that cost three mana. The combination of these cards has created a monster and will only get much, much worse with Oath of the Gatewatch coming out next weekend. An Eldrazi Temple on turn 1, a second one on turn 2, tapping both and playing a Thought-Knot Seer on the play. That’s a 4/4 that takes your best card and you’ve just played a Goblin Guide, or an Island with a Serum Visions, or anything that isn’t as close to good as that.

This deck consistently plays Oblivion Sowers on turn 3 with a combination of Eldrazi Temples, Eye of Ugins, and Expedition Maps to crank out the mana boosts. The deck has a ton of Ancient Tombs, essentially, and that makes it tough for any Jund, Abzan, or other midrange deck to tango. The deck is equipped with a ton of black hand disruption, natural graveyard hate, and creatures that are so efficient that even if countered they destroy you upon being cast from turns 2-6. I don’t think WotC is going to act on this deck just yet, but you’ll see what I mean if the MTGO metagame leaks into the real world.

Tron escaped my list, but it’s definitely on the cusp of removal. It fights from a ramp strategy that can be loosely fought, but a single Negate can stop a turn 3 disaster. The deck is still super-consistent and overpowered, but in a format with a few unbannings I think it can be combated.

Set These Free

These are the four cards that should be removed from the banned list at some point in the near future. There is no way that the powers that be will remove all of these at once, so I expect one or two to enter the fray on Monday. There has been a ton of speculation for Stoneforge Mystic to become legal in Modern, and that stems from the Grand Prix foil promos that have been unveiled for this year. I think Stoneforge Mystic is more powerful than any of the other cards I’d like to see unbanned to improve the format. If she is indeed freed, you’ll see an instant control shell formed around her. The Legacy win condition is super-cheap, provides a quick threat, and can easily be dispatched, which makes her the perfect win condition that is fair for all. This would be a huge boost for the format and I’m definitely keeping my fingers crossed.

I’ve explained some about why Sword of the Meek is a fine card to have in Modern, but I can see some hesitation by you all and the bosses. It does provide an easily assembled two-card combo, but without Enlightened Tutor or good cantrips, it could take a while to form. When it does come together with Thopter Foundry, it doesn’t win automatically and can be destroyed by an array of artifact hate, which makes it worse than the other two-card combos out there. It gains a lot of life, provides a control shell with a consistent win condition, and would be a suitable filler for a control strategy if Stoneforge Mystic doesn’t pan out.

Bloodbraid Elf is unfairly held on the sideline too. Bloodbraid Elf is the scariest Standard card for control and aggro mages of the past, and that fear has placed the cascading Elf to the sideline since January 2013. I think Bloodbraid Elf has a huge upside, but also has the same whiffs built in. Jund has to run a ton of removal still, and an untimely Abrupt Decay isn’t fun for anyone. Tapping four mana and getting a 3/2 haster that has a Lightning Bolt form under it isn’t exactly the greatest thing since sliced bread. That being said, there are some cascades that could be unbeatable involving Tarmogoyf or a perfect Kolaghan’s Command. I love to gamble and I’d wager that this card doesn’t break the format. I think this is the least likely card to get unbanned, but I think it would give more power to midrange and make Jund much more of a force than it is.

The most famous entity we have on our banned list is the one and only Jace, the Mind Sculptor. This is a card that everyone knew would not make it into the realm of play when Modern began, but is slowly gaining support from me and the masses. With all of the powerful strategies of Urzatron decks and their Karn Liberated, with Splinter Twin so consistently disrupting turns 1-3 and killing on 4, the graveyard attack of a multitude of combo decks, and the nasty starts an Amulet of Vigor can produce, is Jace, the Mind Sculptor going to hurt or help format health?

In my opinion, it would singlehandedly revive the control archetypes and empower already-strong blue control decks. The second part is the true tragedy, because U/R Twin doesn’t need a better planeswalker in their main deck or sideboard. I sat down with my buddy and we went through matchup by matchup where Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be boarded out and the number was staggering. It is a house against Jund/Abzan, medium against blue decks with Bolts and disruption, and stinky against the blitzing combo decks and the explosive aggressive decks.

Would the price climb to ridiculous amounts? Yes. Would the card be very tough for midrange decks to defeat from their control opponent? Yes. The only way to really balance the power of Jace, the Mind Sculptor is to give Jund Bloodbraid Elf and leave aggressive decks intact after the bannings. If that were to happen, then no one should fear the return of the flagship planeswalker that many of us miss dearly.

I can’t wait to see what happens Monday and I look forward to brewing that will ensue! What do you think should stay or go in Modern?