It’s not that formats need to be banned every time something’s good, and it’s not that Pioneer and Modern are in a completely “broken” state. That said, I’d like to make the case for a pair of bans that seem inevitable to me. Maybe they’ll happen soon; maybe it’ll be a little bit; but for people interested in seeing the future, I think it’s only a matter of time.
First, the duo that enables such a fundamentally “busted” and deterministic series of interactions that they basically create a very extreme version of Dredge.
Playing with zero lands used to be difficult. Now, thanks to DFCs, it’s not really that hard to play zero if you want. Cast a Balustrade Spy or activate Undercity Informer and you can mill your entire deck, including enough graveyard cards to completely overwhelm your opponent.
So, what’s the problem?
“One-card combos” are inherently dangerous, given how much they remove variety of gameplay experience and trend towards a very deterministic and repetitive game state.
When the “big spell” needs seven to nine mana, there’s a lot more time and space for gameplay to happen before the game becomes inevitable. So, while graveyard decks can be hated on pretty hard if you really try, putting the game into an effectively “won” state for just four mana is extremely distorting.
While Oops All Spells has performed well, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it doesn’t slide into a prohibitively broken space in the near future. Even in such a future, having both Undercity Informer and Balustrade Spy legal in both formats greatly reduces the variety of gameplay and limits the possibility space for the formats.
The narrow band of potential interaction and the narrow window to utilize it before the game degenerates into a narrow path of possible game should already be sending up red flags. However, there’s another “problem” that makes me think it’s unlikely that both cards will stay legal in both formats.
This is a pretty repetitive and warping strategy to just have legal in both formats. While the actual decklists may have a lot of differences, they both just trend so quickly into the exact same game state over and over. Even if you thought this gameplay was okay to exist, why have it be important to both formats? I guess if you think it’s merely good, not great in Pioneer, and think it’s not actually good in Modern, I could see the argument to keep it. However, I think it’s actually quite strong in Pioneer and a high-tier strategy in Modern.
Most of the Pioneer lists play bigger than 60 cards, just to have a critical mass of graveyard cards for when you flip your deck.
While Yorion, Sky Nomad is a pretty logical choice for an 80-card deck, it’s not actually a very good Yorion deck. This leads to the comical number of decks around 80 cards without Yorion. The classiest deck size has got to be 79.
In Modern, there are much stronger graveyard cards:
And much better fast mana available:
The end result?
That’s the engine. That’s the part you can’t really replace and have the same deck. There are just so many graveyard cards and so many DFCs that it’d be hard to substantially limit the deck a different way. Banning either the Informer or the Spy would substantially reduce the speed at which these decks can just natural the win, though as long as at least one is legal, the archetype is still an option, still something that can be built to, thanks to the variety of tutor options.
What’s the big deal, then? Why bother banning one?
Well, first of all, making somebody have to actually go find the one card adds more variables, more costs, more interaction points. Additionally, banning one increases the effectiveness of interaction that lines up against one but not the other. My thinking that Undercity Informer makes more sense to keep legal (if you want one of these in the format) is that, by being an activated ability, there’s a variety of intuitive and satisfying formats of interaction accessible by anyone that wants them that are fast enough and still allow for an interesting game afterwards.
Maybe there are other reasons to ban Informer instead, but the important thing is to bottleneck them on ways to flip their deck.
Even if you want this kind of thing to exist, at the very least, I’d think the game would be well-served to not have it in both. Its charm comes from the novelty, and when it’s just a mainstay in multiple formats, the novelty evaporates. Which format? I don’t think that even matters as much, but I’d guess it’s a more distorting influence on Pioneer, on account of just how much weaker of interaction is available in the format (and how much slower the other combo decks tend to be).
The other pairing is a duo that has already seen some bans in various formats, but that are both still legal in Pioneer and Modern. Rather than fueling a degenerate engine, they’re merely ridiculously powerful and work well together.
Uro and Omnath are both otherworldly in raw power, but in tandem, they are a serious threat to the feel of the formats, pushing them together in a way that reduces their novelty and the amount of cards finding homes. The amount the two build on each other and take formats in such a specific direction makes me skeptical that we’ll make it a year without at least one of them getting banned in at least one of the two formats.
Omnath decks in Pioneer have basically been looking like the best of the last year’s worth of Standard bans:
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 2 Sylvan Caryatid
- 1 Kenrith, the Returned King
- 4 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
- 4 Omnath, Locus of Creation
As the format has evolved, the ramp decks have incorporated more interactive elements, which is cool and all, but how many formats really need to be about these two teaming up with Teferi, Time Raveler?
This list might have fewer banned cards, but it sure does have some powerful ways of attacking the metagame while still being fueled by incredible sources of a diverse mix of advantages.
In Modern, the bar is certainly higher for card quality, but Four-Color Ramp has no problem incorporating many of the format’s best:
What’s more, fetchlands make Omnath super-reliable, both to cast on time and to double-trigger the turn it’s cast.
Is this a different deck?
I guess. Maybe I’m just saying the experience of playing against Uro, Omnath, and Teferi can get played out, and maybe it’d be fun to be able to switch formats on a given day and be able to take a break from that experience?
Like, how far do you have go down this list before it’s clear what format this deck is for? Do you actually know before getting to the lands?
And it’s not like there’s not variety among these decks. The raw power can be used to fuel a wide array of “decks” when the main requirement is playing at least four colors.
The Standard Banned List best-of continues!
Modern has much stronger options in this regard, with Cryptic Command already most of a Time Walk, and Time Warp basically the perfect way to spend the five mana you end up with after casting Uro on Turn 3 and then Omnath into fetchland on Turn 4.
While decks like this can be sweet, wouldn’t they be more sweet if they weren’t just automatic in so many formats?
Even the Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks could use the diversity boon that would come from Uro or Omnath getting banned in at least one of the formats.
Here’s the Pioneer build of the archetype:
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 1 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
- 3 Niv-Mizzet Reborn
- 3 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
- 2 Omnath, Locus of Creation
And while there are a lot of cards in the Modern list not available to the Pioneer list, it’s not like these decks are actually “different” in a meaningful sense.
While I think banning either Uro or Omnath would be very impactful to making the strategies feel different between the two formats, I’m kind of inclined to advocate banning Uro, as it’s just so omnipresent, even among non-Omnath decks, like Temur and Sultai.
Like restricting Brainstorm in Vintage, yet allowing Legacy to be about “The Brainstorm Experience,” it doesn’t always have to be the more powerful format that has the extra card. While Uro (and Omnath and Teferi) have been quite strong in Pioneer, I could easily imagine Modern being the format that cuts the card, opening up many more options for acceleration, card advantage, and victory conditions. Either way though, it just seems surprising to think that both formats need both of these inexpensive fatties that draw cards, gain life, and ramp you. It’s not like they’re actually particularly different or anything, in function if not form.
I don’t know how soon things will come to a head, but Undercity Informer / Balustrade Spy and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath / Omnath, Locus of Creation are such strong tandems that have such defining and repetitive influences that it seems like there will eventually come a day where Pioneer and Modern will each have to make a choice, and this choice has the potential to take the formats in substantially different directions from each other.
Part of what makes Magic so awesome is just how enormous the possibility space is. The more formats are the same as each other, the less we get to explore that space.