It’s ban announcement time! After a strong backlash over the lack of changes or communication last time, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) promised better on both fronts this week. Thanks to Andrew Brown and Dan Musser’s appearance on the Weekly MTG stream, we knew Pioneer and Modern would see shakeups and got to spend that wait mired in the usual predictions and debates.
Let’s start with the easy one:
This one was obvious even though it may have been a flash in the pan – the most recent Pioneer results on Magic Online saw almost zero Geology being appraised anywhere, though it’s unclear how much of this was due to everyone knowing the card was leaving Pioneer imminently and the lack of time or incentive to refine those shells any further. Even if the format has successfully adjusted to the Appraiser deck for now, that version of Pioneer doesn’t look much more healthy or open than it was before The Lost Caverns of Ixalan and the Discover combo is a long-term constraint on the format that’s always waiting for the right moment to strike again.
This single ban leaves another Discover combo in the format, but we’ll see if anyone notices that, despite winning that initial skirmish on Discover’s breakout weekend, the Quintorius Kand deck put up embarrassing results in the tournaments that followed for anyone who was hoodwinked by the elephant’s charms (including yours truly). It’s a bad look if Quintorius ends up earning a ban too, but I expect it’s likely to remain a unique and mostly harmless option in an open format.
Karn, the Great Creator was a hate figure for many of the most vocal Pioneer players and content creators despite Mono-Green Devotion’s relatively poor win rate. One uncharitable reaction to this news is that it’s no surprise that people who couldn’t win much found something to complain about – if they won more they wouldn’t have to face Karn as much!
That easy dunk misses an important development. Previous ban announcements used internal data to frame a deck’s popularity and win rate but often with flimsy reasoning that gave the impression that this data was used selectively to push the chosen narrative. This focus on play patterns and the philosophical goals of the format has its own ambiguity – nothing is more subjective than the idea of ‘fun’ – but may be a better foundation for these decisions in practice.
If the data didn’t point to Karn being a problem, why are its vibes so bad? A one-sided Stony Silence on the house is a bizarre design choice that has caused constant frustration in older formats where artifact-centric decks are a worthy pillar of the metagame. That’s less true here – there’s enough keeping Ensoul Artifact and Metalwork Colossus away before you remember Karn exists – but the flexibility of its -2 “Wish” ability made it uniquely scary for other linear decks regardless of their artifact count. If you are trying to build a combo deck around some sweet new card like Agatha’s Soul Cauldron or an old flame like Jeskai Ascendancy, you probably lack the room or the options to have enough interact to contain Mono-Green Devotion’s strongest starts and Karn threatens to show up and crush your dreams with the perfect sideboard tool even in Game 1. Axing Karn removes a structural issue that made some of the most creative decks in the format dead on arrival. Arguably most of these decks deserved it – it’s hard to tell who’s the hero and who’s the villain when Karn locks Lotus Field Combo under a Damping Sphere – but now you have to choose to care about those decks rather than hosing them by accident.
Karn joins a growing list of cards banned for the original sin of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Like Treasure Cruise, Nykthos has a proven history of mischief in Pioneer but enjoys a kind of immunity as the thrills that make it dangerous are distinct enough to shape the format’s variety and identity. Once Upon a Time was always on borrowed time, but Leyline of Abundance was a clear casualty of this early choice. I’ll shed no tears for Karn, but we should keep the actual culprit in mind here.
Can Mono-Green Devotion survive in some form? Without Karn, it loses its automatic trump card against similar decks operating in this space and becomes exactly the kind of deck it used to prey on – one that can build an impressive battlefield but can’t interact well or change the terms of engagement. If the deck takes a new form that becomes the perfect example of what its old form kept out of Pioneer, that’s a fitting end to its tale.
Any decks that were punished by Karn’s static ability get to celebrate today. Rakdos Sacrifice was one of the best decks in Pioneer before the Discover fever dream and it’s poised to retake its throne now. Greasefang, Okiba Boss is already prompting its own complaints from Karn’s biggest haters and it has received a steady stream of exciting new cards as well as a perfect gift this holiday season…
Unbanning Smuggler’s Copter only for it to become an accidental casualty of Karn would be tragic. Instead, we have the freedom to experiment with the newly unbanned Smuggler’s Copter in seemingly everything. Watching Pioneer streams since the unban went into effect on Magic Online reminded me of Modern’s first day with The One Ring, with every archetype under the sun acting out their role in that story and vying for ultimate control of the precious. Smuggler’s Copter isn’t quite as universal but any deck with enough creatures to crew it reliably should at least consider it – and that’s a very long list!
Both Rakdos Midrange and Rakdos Sacrifice have an interest in taking Copter to the skies. The adoption of Reckoner Bankbuster was a big step for Rakdos Midrange as a source of both pressure and extra cards – Smuggler’s Copter can’t match Bankbuster for raw card advantage but the immediate filtering can be more valuable in a deck that will often have a dead removal spell or Thoughtseize to throw away. Against decks like Lotus Field Combo or Enigmatic Fires that tend to prey on black midrange, a hard-hitting threat that also digs for your disruption is exactly what you need to be competitive.
Surprisingly, it’s harder to find a home for Copter in the existing creature decks in Pioneer. Most of these are already dedicated to a creature type or other subtheme and a card that doesn’t fit into that puzzle is hard to justify no matter how generally strong it is. Boros Convoke might seem like the perfect place for Copter as a deck full of small, cheap creatures with an interest in artifacts but it is already prone to draws with too many payoffs and too few enablers and Copter doesn’t play well with the Convoke creatures.
If you really care about artifacts, Copter becomes a strong card that also enhances your theme. I won’t get my hopes up about Azorius Ensoul when its old nemesis in Izzet Phoenix is still on top and the power level has risen across the board but it just lost a bitter enemy and gained a great friend in the same day – why not give it another shot?
Now much more accurately named, Gruul Vehicles is a natural home for Copter. With eight Elves and a giant stack of three-drops to ramp into, you want some solid two-drops to fill the gap in case your Elf is toppled by a light breeze or never shows up for work at all. Copter does that job perfectly and a redundant Elf later can crew Copter or be tossed out of it to make itself useful. Copter even powers up The Akroan War as you can crew it with the stolen creature to make sure it is tapped for the final chapter.
Copter is a gift from heaven for Greasefang, a Vehicle combo deck that is very keen to discard cards! Copter doesn’t enable the fastest draw as its first attack trigger on Turn 3 is too late there for Greasefang but it stitches together the average draw and instantly becomes the core of the backup plan that is so important for a deck this vulnerable to removal and graveyard hate. The tougher question is which third colour to pick up – Abzan Greasefang has been the default since Pro Tour Phyrexia thanks to green’s strong enablers and Esika’s Chariot being both a Greasefang target and midrange threat in one but Copter opens the door to Esper and Mardu Greasefang again.
Smuggler’s Copter imposes a new test for any interactive spell in Pioneer. Former staples like Bonecrusher Giant and conditional removal like Rending Volley that miss Copter are no longer sacred cows.
Amidst all this hype, the big winner may be the deck that can’t and won’t play Copter at all and was already the best deck in Pioneer. Izzet Phoenix has Fiery Impulse and Lightning Axe to shoot down Copter and can feast on the small creature decks that might be drawn to it.
After the last announcement defended the health and diversity of Modern, the preview of this announcement treated it as a common consensus that something had to be done about Rakdos Evoke.
At this point every argument for or against banning Fury has been fully exhausted – I’m glad to see this ban if only to see the back of that debate too. We knew Rakdos Evoke was being taken down – the only question was how. Grief and Fury lived up to their names and many predicted and welcomed the ban of either or both.
Fury is called out in the announcement as a point of overlap between Rakdos Evoke and Four-Colour Omnath as well as one of many cards suppressing small creatures in Modern. That trend is real but also so overdetermined that a Fury ban alone is unlikely to change anything.
Before we even knew how much terror the word ‘Fury’ could evoke, the first Modern Horizons had put the squeeze on small creatures with Wrenn and Six, Lava Dart, and Plague Engineer. Though he took some time to set up his empire in Modern, Yawgmoth can add his name to that list too – and the ‘creature deck’ that benefits most from these bans is Golgari Yawgmoth, which in turn becomes the new nightmare matchup for other creature decks!
Fury’s footprint on Modern raises some tough questions. What creature deck were you hoping to play that could weather these other storms but was shut out by Fury? Now that Fury is gone, can you really have higher hopes for Champion of the Parish or Glistener Elf?
The actual winners from the Fury ban may be decks that barely care about Fury’s damage at all! The Rakdos Evoke shell supported by Fury was a menace for combo and big mana decks that had to fight through fast pressure and discard (or both at once via Grief + Feign Death) as well as maindeck Dauthi Voidwalker and strong hosers like Blood Moon. Other cards can step up to shoot down small creatures but these effects are uniquely good at their jobs and Rakdos Evoke was the deck that brought them together under one banner.
Living End is a perfect example – the maindeck Dauthi Voidwalkers and sideboard Leyline of the Void in every Rakdos list weren’t aimed at Living End specifically but certainly made the matchup a slog. It can now return to its position as the most powerful deck in Modern until people actually put the work into hating it out. It also preys on its cascading rival in Temur Crashcade, which is gaining momentum thanks to Tishana’s Tidebinder. With Rakdos Evoke out of the picture, Living End will serve as a frustrating reminder of just how fitting Grief’s name can be.
The struggle for the Cascade crown received a curious nod in the justification for the Up the Beanstalk ban:
“Up the Beanstalk is one of Modern’s newest inclusions, subsidizing many cards in the format that cost five or more mana. However, it is rare for a player to pay anywhere close to five mana to cast the cards they are using with Up the Beanstalk. While removing Fury from the format will certainly impact the usage of Up the Beanstalk, we don’t believe that to be enough. It is remarkably difficult to interact with the two-mana enchantment profitably, as the card replaces itself immediately, with players often playing a free spell on the same turn since they get such a great return on the deal. It is particularly telling when players have concluded that cascading into Up the Beanstalk is more advantageous than the zero-mana options like Crashing Footfalls and Living End. For these reasons, Up the Beanstalk is banned in Modern.”
This framing is strange – players didn’t decide between the various Cascade decks any more than they decided between Rakdos Evoke and Azorius Hammer or any other pair of unrelated decks. The Cascade Beanstalk deck was an offshoot of classic Four-Color Omnath, which will survive in its Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings form (though this isn’t encouraging for Omnath fans given its underperformance there).
The criticism of Up the Beanstalk’s false advertising applies at a much deeper level to all of the Cascade decks in Modern! The average Living End list has twenty or more cards that can be cast for less than their sticker price between Grief / Subtlety / Endurance (and Foundation Breaker), Force of Negation / Force of Vigor, and Leyline of Sanctity / Leyline of the Void. Meanwhile, Temur Crashcade gets to play a strong fair game in the early turns with cards that cheat the Cascade restriction in this way. Cascading into Up the Beanstalk makes that contrast explicit and jarring but it’s nothing new.
Players who hope for too much from the Fury ban will feel burned when their plucky Elves deck still falls short but removing Rakdos Evoke and one of its flagship cards should allow for more of the churn and creativity that has kept Modern moving since Modern Horizons 2 – as that set’s sequel starts to appear on the horizon!