This Monday marked the first of the yearly ‘ban events’ that now define the cadence of competitive Magic. Most of us expected something to happen – it would be odd for them not to set a precedent here, and one can make a case for bans and/or unbans in many formats – but there was strong disagreement over what should happen, and none of us had any idea what would happen.
Standard: No changes.
I suddenly have an interest in Standard with the World Championships coming up in a few weeks, and I don’t like what I see so far. The last round of bans took a big swing at the dominant Rakdos Midrange shells, but without Fable of the Mirror-Breaker drawing you into red, you can pair that black core with the good blue and Dimir cards and end up with another riff on the same theme. This deck has taken over the Standard Challenges on Magic Online (MTGO) – the only game in town for Standard competition for now – and shows no sign of slowing down.
My hope is that this represents the usual inertia in unexplored formats and that Wilds of Eldraine will shake things up (though after Throne of Eldraine, I’ll be careful what I wish for…). It’s also not clear what to ban to break black’s grip on the format – Sheoldred, the Apocalypse is the most likely candidate, but if you want players to feel safe buying into Standard, it’s a big risk to ban the most popular and expensive card.
Even though I want things to change, holding off on bans makes sense for now. The big wrinkle here is that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has effectively locked themselves into no bans for the next year, barring an emergency. Suppose the World Championships is a sea of black midrange mirrors and the next set changes nothing. If you do nothing, you leave the format to rot for a year at a time when you need to restore grassroots interest in Standard. If you ban outside this annual rhythm, you negate the whole point of this schedule. My concern is less about the state of Standard right now and more about these self-imposed shackles on their ability to fix it later.
Pioneer: No changes.
There are a lot of loud voices demanding change in Pioneer – either specific bans, usually aimed at Karn, the Great Creator or Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, or complete structural reform. WotC has chosen to ignore those voices once again, and I can’t say I blame them. By many metrics, Pioneer is a healthy format – all colours and play styles appear among the top-tier decks, and there were a lot of innovative creations and metagame churn on display at the last few rounds of Regional Championships.
Despite that, I could and probably should lock in a mostly identical list of Mono-Green Devotion for my next Regional Championships in November. That stability is a sign of strength in its own right – in a non-rotating format, you want players to be able to stick with and master a deck over time – but it’s a sad omen for people annoyed that they are being forced to play the same Pioneer format over and over again.
Modern: Preordain is unbanned.
All bets were off for Modern – I saw predictions ranging from sweeping bans to sweeping unbans and everything in between. One move that nobody seemed to preordain was, well, Preordain. After blue combo decks terrorized the first Modern Pro Tour in Philadelphia, Preordain and Ponder went to broken jail for what looked like a life sentence. As every other class of card saw massive upgrades in both regular sets and Modern Horizons, the idea of freeing one or both was occasionally mooted but rarely taken seriously.
I don’t think you can unban both without making blue decks too consistent and homogenous, so you have to make a choice, and Preordain is clearly the right one. Ponder adds a lot of shuffling by itself and further incentivizes you to play more cards that shuffle your deck, compounding one of the biggest frustrations with paper play. You didn’t need more reasons to play fetchlands in Modern, and Ponder doubles down on the worst aspect of that cycle!
The official crime of Preordain and Ponder was making that first wave of blue combo decks too consistent. A lot has changed since then – all of those combo decks have suffered a massive blow, while the interactive tools in the format have improved across the board. Even if you let Blazing Shoal loose tomorrow, how strong would it be in a world with Force of Negation and Solitude?
Underworld Breach is the most likely centerpiece of blue combo these days. Both ‘fair’ Breach using a similar template to Izzet Murktide with a different finisher and combo Breach with Grinding Station saw some success recently, but have suffered with the release of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth. Preordain is better at finding your namesake combo enabler than any of the other options and is generally well-suited to decks with a lot of moving parts.
In the short term, I think Preordain is a bigger boon for fair blue decks, including one that received a jarring name-drop in this announcement.
Izzet Murktide has been the most popular deck for a majority of Modern tournaments in the two years since the release of Modern Horizons 2. It was even a good choice – perhaps the best deck! – for some of those tournaments. Even if you didn’t enjoy or respect it yourself, you had to prepare with it in mind, and that matchup was the first litmus test for any new Modern deck.
I expected Izzet Murktide to underperform at the Pro Tour, not just because of recent problems like Orcish Bowmasters, but because players at that level are more ruthless in their deck selection and better at navigating around the instant-speed interaction that makes Izzet so scary. Izzet Murktide had a poor weekend in Barcelona but has already picked up some steam again on MTGO since then.
That sounds like the usual metagame churn that you hope for in a healthy format. Is it so bad that this play pattern isn’t the default choice in Modern for two months after two years of the same? You can get your fill in other formats, whether it’s Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer or Izzet Delver in Legacy – there were points in that period when an Izzet dual land into a cantrip was the best opening in all of those formats at once. Other Modern mainstays like Mono-White Hammer also fell on hard times recently, but you don’t see Ancient Den or Umezawa’s Jitte unbanned as a nod to that.
Preordain will help these Izzet decks in a big way – you don’t have to resort to Serum Visions or Lorien Revealed to find a sorcery for Dragon’s Rage Channeler or Unholy Heat anymore, and it only takes a few games with Preordain to realize that it is in fact much better than the other options – but I’m not sure why they needed that help.
Orcish Bowmasters and The One Ring are officially on notice, but have their freedom for now. The optics of banning a card so soon after the set release are awful, and that move is “break glass in case of emergency” stuff. I remain unconvinced The One Ring can remain part of Modern in the long-term, but we are still in the short-term here, and the format deserves some time to adjust.
Given that, unbans make more sense than bans – but why stop at just Preordain? Cleaning up the banned list and releasing some exciting cards – ideally ones that don’t work well with The One Ring – would provide a welcome distraction.
Legacy: Mind’s Desire is unbanned.
Mind’s Desire is one of the most iconic combo cards of all time but has been off-limits in Legacy since its release twenty years ago. That caution made sense after a chaotic few years that actually did come close to killing Magic. Memory Jar and Yawgmoth’s Will left some deep scars.
These days, the quality of interaction and dedicated combo hate is much higher, and there are a lot of other ways to combo off if you can get past those. Your traditional Storm deck probably still wants proven winners like Ad Nauseam or recent hits like Pair o’ Dice Lost as payoffs. If a dedicated Desire deck exists, it will probably look much different from anything that currently exists.
Reid Duke has already won a Legacy Preliminary on MTGO with High Tide Combo featuring Mind’s Desire. The most plausible explanation there is that Reid Duke is really good at Magic, but I like to think some credit can go to Desire too. I don’t expect Mind’s Desire to be reliving its glory days in serious Legacy tournaments, but a lot of people will try their best – and I can’t wait to watch them!