How The Standard And Modern Bannings Affect Control Magic

With The Meathook Massacre banned in Standard and Yorion, Sky Nomad banned in Modern, what’s a control mage to do? Shaheen Soorani shares his next steps.

The Meathook Massacre, illustrated by Chris Seaman

Bannings cards from competitive play used to be a rare occurrence. When I was initially getting heavily involved in Magic, I felt safe investing in a deck to play for the long haul. This was especially true in Legacy, where Esper Stoneblade paid the bills for many years. That level of confidence, knowing a deck was safe from administrative removal, helped create a generation of players and investors that still actively play the game today.

Bannings shake that very fabric of confidence when done irrationally, or in reaction to many mistakes that never should have been printed. The most recent bannings that took place a few days ago check both of those boxes.

Look at Me, I'm the DCI

I have been a staunch advocate of many bannings and unbannings over the years, but for the right reasons. There are cards that were obvious errors, especially from sets injected directly into Modern, that prompted immediate removal. Many would point to a card like Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis as a card that made no sense to print, and I would agree. In the same vein, I was adamant against Arcum’s Astrolabe remaining in Modern, something that looks outright frail in comparison to Hogaak. Both cards had clear negative implications on the general gameplay that makes Magic great, well before their official arrival.

The Strangeness of Standard Bans

Field of the Dead Oko, Thief of Crowns

The bannings in Modern have come steadily over the years, and many of us are numb to them now. When Standard bannings happen, the world scratches its head in confusion. Standard was the greatest competitive format for over a decade, with little need for Wizards of the Coast (WotC) to come in and forcefully remove a metagame virus.

This all changed when Field of the Dead and Oko, Thief of Crowns arrived, prompting almost a dozen bans in the format since. The calamity of poor set development, combined with the pandemic, killed off Standard for years. Even before COVID-19, many tournament organizers dropped Standard for Modern and Pioneer, a move that turned out to be brilliant. The financial implications of Standard permanently failing are dire, so I predicted earlier this year that WotC would move to resurrect it for the next Regional Championship.

The return of Standard was in full swing, with upcoming Regional Championship Qualifiers already declaring Standard as their format. Naming the next Regional Championship format Standard will continue to ignite some excitement, supported by MTG Arena gameplay. I saw these tricks well ahead of schedule; however, I did not expect a Standard ban with only five legal sets. This is an unprecedented move this early into a format, especially one that has not had professional vetting from a large-scale tournament. WotC would historically put that dirty work on the pros, having them compete in a big tournament and then deciding what had to go. Taking out a card this early on is a poor and confusing move, so it checks the irrational box I mentioned earlier.

Standard: Missing The Meathook Massacre

The Meathook Massacre

The Meathook Massacre is a very powerful card and has been a thorn in the side of aggro decks since it was released. I was a Lier, Disciple of the Drowned fan and my obsession with flashback spells prevented me from playing it in my Invitational Top 8 list from last year. If I had to do it again, it would replace some of the other sweeper elements in a heartbeat. I ended up stomping the aggro decks, Mono-Green Aggro back then, easily, so it did not come back to bite me. Aggro decks were as weak to generic sweepers then as they are now. Black-based control may be fine; however, the Standard metagame is not run by that archetype.

The top Standard decks are all midrange, dominating the competition with pure value from all colors. Esper, Grixis, Jund, and Bant are all popular three-color midrange decks that are viable in competitive play. They are joined by Rakdos and Mono-Black Midrange, each of which utilize The Meathook Massacre. When ranking these midrange monsters, those with black have a slight edge, and this banning was made to even the playing field. Removing The Meathook Massacre may incentivize a switch, while also increasing the viability of aggro decks in the format.

The thought process is comprehensible, but I believe it to be incorrect.

Sheoldred, the Apocalypse Tenacious Underdog Liliana of the Veil

All these black midrange decks lose just a small amount of pep in their step. Sheoldred, the Apocalypse is still one of the top dogs in the format. With Tenacious Underdog, they form a duo that helps make the base for any Standard deck that wants to be competitive. I still think Liliana of the Veil is underplayed, but her looming power level makes black the easy decision to play in the format. More removal will see play in The Meathook Massacre’s absence, these broken cards will still dominate, and it is the current Standard metagame. This reality is not a bad thing; people have just forgotten how Standard functions.

After a big September rotation, only a few sets remain in Standard. This makes solving it easy, and typically there will be two or three popular decks to choose from. In the pre-banning metagame, the spread is healthy, even though most are midrange. I love playing control in this format, even though it is tough to compete against the value production of creatures these days. Having The Meathook Massacre and Liliana of the Veil was a strong start for my deckbuilding journey, and it is unfortunate that WotC pulled the plug well before its time. This will lead to a weakening of black-based control against the midrange and aggro decks, while creating minimal shifts in the best decks out there.

Drag to the Bottom

I feel bad for those I convinced to play Dimir Control after the rotation. The Meathook Massacre is not cheap, and the deck may be tough to salvage on MTG Arena if Drag to the Bottom can handle the heavy lifting. I think Drag to the Bottom is a phenomenal sweeper, but The Meathook Massacre was on another level of strength. Time will tell with this downgrade. What I do know is that this ban was a mistake, a blind ban of a card based on its frequency in online play. Aggro decks will continue to struggle against the power of Standard midrange, and now black-based control may be on life support as collateral damage.

Modern: Yorion, Sky Nomad Wanders On

Yorion, Sky Nomad

The Meathook Massacre ban was a giant mistake, but Yorion, Sky Nomad needed to go. The entire Magic caucus wanted this companion gone a year ago; however, WotC dragged its feet on this for a few reasons. They did not want to completely delete the companion mechanic, even after a nerf to its cost and multiple bannings across many formats. Lurrus of the Dream-Den was the most nefarious of the bunch and has been removed from nearly everything. Yorion is another terrible card for the game of Magic, yet continued to see legal play until now.

Another reason why Yorion was not banned earlier was their obsession with specific metrics for removal. Cards must have a certain amount of play to them to get the axe most of the time, something that is difficult for Modern. Four-Color Control (Yorion) was formerly known as “money pile” due to its extreme cost. It does not take Copernicus to figure out that the cost of entry directly correlated with its lack of representation in Top 8s across the country. This is feedback that many of us have shared for a year, while it continued to be the best deck by a decent margin. This data-point fixation by WotC makes it difficult to act on obvious mistakes in formats with a high price requirement.

Extremely Slow Zombie

The companion mechanic was a mistake in development, and they should all eventually be removed from competitive play. The reasoning behind Yorion’s banning touched on some of the points I just made, but they also tossed in the mechanical difficulty of wielding an 80-card deck that finishes on time. With fetchlands and ineffective slow-play rules, Modern matches will always have issues in the time department. I appreciate their explanation for its thoroughness; however, next time I will just take “companions were a mistake” as a response.

Control is a huge winner from the Yorion ban in Modern. Even with dedicated strategy and sideboarding, Azorius Control (Kaheera) struggled to have consistent victories over decks with Yorion in them. These multicolor decks are close to dead with the ban. With that, Azorius Control (Kaheera) can scratch off a bad matchup and get back into competitive action. It is now the king of the late-game, with none of the other contenders able to out-grind their advantage. I am a huge fan of Jeskai Breach, but this banning may have pushed me back to Celestial Colonnade.

Kaheera, the Orphanguard

Beyond removing one of the worst matchups, Azorius Control (Kaheera) now commands the strongest companion remaining in Modern. Kaheera, the Orphanguard is now the champion in its class, with a three-mana cost and a free pitch to Solitude. Some naysayers will claim their Grixis Death’s Shadow companion is superior, but we all know that to be untrue. Azorius Control (Kaheera) is now the deck of choice for those who still want to reveal a hero prior to their game of Modern.

Bans happen too frequently now, and I hope that they return to their historical model. When the banning announcement was approaching, social media did not buzz with theories and requests as it does now. Each article on the WotC website would read “no changes made” under each competitive format, because of the time they dedicated to research and development of new cards before they hit the printing press. I yearn for those days, to restore the confidence of the buyer shopping for sealed product, looking for those Standard staples, and the buyer building a deck from third party vendors that sell singles. These two markets make Magic the great game it is.