Competitive Magic was convulsed by bans once again this Monday. In a time-honoured tradition, there was no official announcement in advance, but rather a frenzy of speculation (verbal and financial) following someone noticing that the URL for the announcement page implied an update. Every format seemed ripe for renewal, with Pioneer receiving the most attention ahead of the first round of Regional Championships next month and the Legacy community pleading for someone in Renton to actually pay attention to their format.
Instead, Standard and Modern received bans.
Standard: The Meathook Massacre is banned.
There are depressingly few reasons to care about Standard most of the time, but there happen to be a lot right now. The Arena Qualifier is this weekend, with this ban not scheduled to take effect until Thursday, leaving little time for anyone to figure out this new Standard on the ladder. Standard decklists for Worlds competitors are due in a few weeks. If you thought action had to be taken before The Brothers’ War, this was the last chance to do it.
There was a consensus that something had to change but little agreement on the details. Black is more dominant in Dominaria United Standard than any colour has been in any recent Standard format. When Standard was warped around particular colours in the past, this was often because of a particular card or deck – if Temur Reclamation is effectively the only playable deck, of course the Temur colours will show up more than the unloved black or white cards. This Standard is more diverse in one sense – midrange decks in Esper, Jund, and Grixis are all performing well, but the only thing they have in common is black. You lock in the black cards and choose which colours to pair with them.
The problem here is that there’s no obvious culprit. Liliana of the Veil and The Meathook Massacre were early standouts, and together they put a tough squeeze on any potential competition, but neither is a centerpiece of the current crop of black decks for the reasons I covered a few weeks ago. Sheoldred, the Apocalypse has seen its stock rise more than any other card since spoiler season, but it still feels wholly replaceable. Beyond those, there’s not much that these black decks even have in common. Banning just one card risks changing nothing. Banning too many cards might be an overcorrection that ruins any lingering faith in Standard as a stable format. There’s no easy answer.
The Meathook Massacre makes sense if you just want to hit one card. It may be a victim of its own success in that the small creature decks that could attack the format from a new angle are forced out by its very existence, but it’s tough to test that narrative. When most black decks have an average of just two copies, is that really what’s keeping an entire macro-archetype down? You could argue that games in this format go long enough that it’s more likely that Massacre will show up at some point and the game is over when it does, but I’m doubtful.
The most immediate problem is that The Meathook Massacre was a much-needed trump to some format-defining cards that have already outstayed their welcome. Resolving Fable of the Mirror-Breaker on the play may be the best predictor of winning the game in Standard. The Meathook Massacre is one of the few cards that could clean up every part of Fable on its own while leaving something else behind. Wedding Announcement was a big reason to add white cards to your black midrange deck even in a Meathook world. What on earth can you do about it now?!
If Standard looks mostly the same on the game’s biggest stage at Worlds, this ban will look like a missed opportunity at best.
Pioneer (and thus Explorer): No changes
Once we knew a ban or unban was coming, Pioneer was the most likely target. All eyes are on the format with the first round of Regional Championships on the horizon and there are murmurs of dissatisfaction with the dominance of Rakdos Midrange and Mono-Green Devotion. Rakdos seems like the ideal model for the best deck; it’s mostly fair Magic of the sort players love when it’s not the only thing possible in a format (as is arguably true in current Standard), and it’s not clear what the right choice would even be if you wanted to ban something.
Mono-Green is more controversial, and I wouldn’t have been surprised or disappointed to see it reined in. Its presence limits what you can get away with in Pioneer, and its swingy play patterns, combined with the inherent play-draw disparity of any Llanowar Elves + Elvish Mystic deck, make it frustrating to play against repeatedly.
That said, I think it’s fine to wait for now and reevaluate in a few months. The most recent high-stakes Pioneer tournament was the Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS), where Izzet Phoenix rose from the ashes as wonder kid Nathan Steuer beat his teammate Marcio Carvalho in a mirror to decide the Pioneer portion before completing Kiran Dhokia’s 0-4 run with Mono-Green Devotion. Rakdos Midrange logged one copy and few match wins. The sky didn’t seem to be falling here.
Historic: No changes
I wish there were more to say here, but who cares about Historic these days? As a Magic writer and a highly enfranchised Magic player who competed in the last two serious Historic tournaments, I couldn’t tell you what the format looks like right now or whether a ban is necessary because Wizards of the Coast (WotC) hasn’t given me a reason to stay informed. It’s a sad fall from grace for one of the formats that could have been a unique selling point for MTG Arena.
Legacy: No changes
The Legacy format continues to display a vast difference between WotC’s perception of the format and the community’s perception. Despite official statements that Izzet Delver is only around 9% of the format with an acceptable win rate in Magic Online (MTGO) data, a look at competitive Legacy tournaments online and offline tells a very different story. The follow-up statement that recent sets have introduced ‘new, impactful cards… including Leyline Binding’ does not inspire confidence that anyone making these decisions has their finger on the pulse of the format.
That’s not just their fault, though. Many influential community figures called for the ban of Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer to cut Izzet Delver down to size during yet another period of dominance after the release of Modern Horizons 2. As I argued at the time, a look at recent history there showed why that wouldn’t work – Izzet Delver was highly successful after the big reset brought on by the February 2021 bans that removed Dreadhorde Arcanist and Oko, Thief of Crowns alongside Arcum’s Astrolabe.
The longer history of Legacy is one defined by this Delver core in some form dominating at least every other iteration of Legacy – many of the cards added to the Banned List over the past ten years are there because of the carnage they unleashed in that era’s Delver deck. The new cards are not the problem – this whack-a-mole approach to new tempo threats (the most flashy but also most replaceable aspect of the deck) doesn’t address the underlying issue.
There are no signs of this long-term view or a dynamic short-term view in the management of Legacy right now. Maybe next time…
Modern: Yorion, Sky Nomad is banned.
The banning of Yorion, Sky Nomad was the big news from Monday. Depending on whom you ask, this was long overdue, a shocking surprise, or both at once. The stated rationale for this ban offered a strange mix of clarity and confusion.
Yorion most commonly appears as a companion in Four-Color Omnath decks, which show a strong win rate and, according to our matchup data, are likely to continue to rise in popularity. In addition to game-balance concerns with the deck, we’re also factoring in the physical dexterity requirements of playing with a large deck for tabletop. We’re wary of the metagame reaching a point where players are playing the deck because of its perceived strength and win rate despite not enjoying how cumbersome it can be to operate.
While these physical dexterity issues exist to a lesser degree in other formats (like Pioneer), Modern specifically entails more shuffling and other physical card manipulation because of the deep card pool of card-selection spells, fetch lands, and so on. Cards encouraging large decks, like Battle of Wits, have existed in the past, but usually on the fringes of competitive play rather than as one of the strongest decks.
Finally, we’ve also heard from many players that the repeated triggers caused by Yorion and many of the cards surrounding it can lead to repetitive gameplay patterns and long games with lots of downtime between the other player’s actions. It’s important that the net player experience playing with the top decks is a fun one, and while we’re okay with such decks existing, it can make the format less enjoyable when these patterns are associated with one of the strongest decks over a long period of time.
This move has been on the table for a while, and more and more people are encountering the issues Yorion presents for tabletop play, so the timing makes some sense, but these issues are inherent to Yorion, and we have at least a year of paper experience to draw on there (to add to the theoretical issues with Yorion and the companion mechanic that have plagued Magic for two-and-a-half years now). It doesn’t take many games to realize that searching and shuffling a larger deck (often at least once a turn, thanks to fetchlands) is a problem for finishing games quickly. It takes one look at Yorion to note its repetitive play patterns – guaranteed access to an effect that reuses game pieces that are already present in the game – and those issues were on display in the exclusively online era of play after Yorion’s release.
The dexterity issues mentioned here are real, but – as always – the true culprits are the fetchlands. Yorion has not led to noticeably longer games in Pioneer, where the only fetchland is the occasional Fabled Passage or Field of Ruin, and caused no complaints in decks like Death & Taxes when tried there. Yorion is an issue in the Omnath decks because these are full of fetchlands, and that issue is egregious thanks to Wrenn and Six, which ensures you will fetch at least once per turn (and often encourages sequencing that leads to searching and shuffling separately each time rather than shortcutting) when it’s not picking off hapless one-toughness creatures for free.
Regardless of the merits of the Yorion ban or its rationale, what can we expect in Modern now that these decks have been cut down to size?
Four-Color Control (Yorion) enjoyers won’t let their deck go that easily, even if it’s likely to become Four-Color Control (Kaheera) now. These decks still enjoy some of the best interaction and threats in Modern and now have the ideal Wrenn and Six draws more consistently. This approach wasn’t justifiable before, as the Yorion versions had a big advantage in the pseudo-mirror, but this will become the default now.
These 60-card versions will also look more homogenous than the variants that Yorion took under its wing. Themes like the delirium package featuring Mishra’s Bauble and more to power Traverse the Ulvenwald or Unholy Heat, or the Planebound Accomplice + Vivien on the Hunt combo chain, are a great way to fill out an extra twenty slots but are tough to fit alongside the cards you know you need in the 60-card lists.
The mana will also become worse in a way that renders the deck less consistent. When we began to build Yorion decks years ago, we learned that access to fetchlands as a stand-in for any of the appropriate Triomes, shocklands, or basic lands meant that larger decks had better mana, as you could keep adding more fetchlands, meaning that you drew these specific lands less often and the hyperflexible fetchlands more often. In practice, the 80-card decks often had a roughly equivalent number of fetchlands as their 60-card counterparts, but the broader principle still applies. You want to have access to Temple Garden, but it’s sometimes an awful draw in your Expressive Iteration + Counterspell deck.
The real question mark here is Abundant Growth. This was a staple of the Yorion lists, allowing that Temple Garden to actually cast your spells while representing an additional card with your eventual Yorion. Now that space is tight, it’s not clear if there is room for Growth – but cutting it forces you to completely recalibrate your manabase.
A weaker manabase that might also lose Abundant Growth is much more exposed to Blood Moon. Izzet Midrange and Rakdos Evoke struggled against Four-Color Control in the past but can rack up more free wins with Blood Moon now. These decks also stand a much better chance of winning a drawn-out slugfest without Yorion as a guaranteed extra card that’s a threat in its own right and draws even more cards.
By contrast, the linear decks that rose up a few months ago to fight Four-Color Control have less prey to feast on and are more likely to run into the disruptive tempo and midrange matchups they struggle against.
Classic Azorius Control is ready to return in a big way if Four-Color Control drops off the map. This was a very difficult matchup, and giving yourself any hope there involved such drastic sacrifices that you lost ground in matchups that used to be good. If Azorius Control loses its natural predator and doesn’t have to stretch itself so thinly anymore, I expect it to cement itself in the top tier quickly.
Where does this leave the companion mechanic? A front-runner for Magic’s biggest design and development mistake in 30 years is reduced to a call-your-own-Colossapede in Magic’s most popular competitive format. I’d rather have this than what we had in April 2020 – but at this point, I’d rather have none of it. The charm of a ‘free’ Jegantha or Kaheera was always shallow and wore off long ago.
The odd Obosh deck may still show up as an example of what the mechanic can do right, but ultimately it stands as a cautionary tale. You can print nine Oboshes, but the one Lurrus or Yorion in the cycle will have a devastating effect on any format it’s legal in and will be the lasting legacy of your mechanic.