What Could Change Modern?

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
3/16/2017 11:01:00 AM
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“No changes to any format.”

Monday was the most recent installment of what we've come to know as the Banned and Restricted announcement. Based on the unexpected twist of the last announcement, which saw Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage unceremoniously removed from Standard, most players expected some kind of change. We were given a different kind of surprise instead. No changes. Carry on as is.

We will likely see a plethora of articles on the topic of Standard and how the lack of changes affects, or more realistically, doesn't affect the Standard format. I'll leave that discussion to the other talented Magicians who write regularly about Magic. While no change in Standard was the big story, there are still other formats to consider.

Lately, I've seen a lot of clamoring on social media about Modern and which cards should be unbanned. I want to take a trip down alternate universe lane and look at some of the possibilities for what could have been unbanned or what we could maybe see made legal in the future.

Modern Unbans

I'll preface this by saying that no changes for Modern is perfectly legitimate. Modern is possibly the best it has ever been right now. As much fanfare has surrounded the ban on Splinter Twin, I feel like it really has opened Modern up. There are so many viable options in Modern and we see different things doing well each weekend. Death's Shadow decks may end up becoming too good eventually, but for now things seem fine. From a realistic perspective, it made sense for them to ban nothing and unban nothing in Modern. Why mess with a good thing?

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I want to take a slightly less realistic perspective and look at what could come off the ban list. I think there are several cards on the banlist that are actually balanced for Modern but were never given a chance to shine. I want to be clear that this isn't an endorsement for taking them off the banlist, just an acknowledgment that they probably wouldn't break the format if they did. Some of these cards are likely too risky to be unbanned, but my guess is that they wouldn't ruin the format even if they did find themselves liberated.

#1: Bloodbraid Elf

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This is a classic case of “you got the wrong girl.” The crime was Junding too hard and the real perpetrator was Deathrite Shaman, but Bloodbraid Elf was wrongly imprisoned instead. When Deathrite Shaman's deeds later caught up to him, they didn't reopen the case on Bloodbraid Elf to see if a not guilty verdict was warranted.

With traditional Jund barely a part of Modern right now, I don't think a Bloodbraid Elf unban would ruin the format. It would also open some interesting deckbuilding space with Bloodbraid Elf and Ancestral Vision, leading to the potential for some value Temur decks to be a real thing.

#2: Jace, the Mind Sculptor

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For a long time I was under the opinion that Jace, the Mind Sculptor was too good for Modern. Unlike many people who want to see Jace unbanned to #MakeControlGreatAgain, I don't think Jace would actually be that good in a control deck. It's certainly possible, maybe even likely that Cryptic Command is actually just better than Jace for control strategies in Modern. I also think that traditional countermagic-based control decks are simply a flawed archetype in today's era of Magic. Unbanning Jace isn't going to fix something that is fundamentally flawed. Jace will simply be better used by other decks that aren't trying to execute a reactive game plan.

Where Jace would shine the brightest is in various Noble Hierarch decks (like Knightfall), or in blue-based combo decks as a sideboard option to transition away from whatever game plan your opponent is going to side in hate against. The fear in unbanning Jace is that it becomes too good in those kinds of combo decks. Now that Splinter Twin is banned and Infect is neutered with the Gitaxian Probe ban, I don't think that fear is as big of a deal anymore. Most of those blue-based combo decks are really underperforming and I don't think having access to Jace will make them overpowered.

People are killing each other on the third turn in a Lightning Bolt format; I don't think a four-mana planeswalker that dies to Bolt is going to be too devastating. It's arguable that Liliana of the Veil is even better than Jace in Modern.

Intermission: You Never Know Unless You Try

Jace is one of the cards on this list that have simply never been legal in Modern. When they started the Modern format, they banned a lot of cards that terrorized their respective Standard formats, assuming they would also simply dominate Modern. That assumption was wrong for almost every single one of those cards that has later been unbanned.

Whenever one of these borderline cards like Jace gets discussed, I think it's crazy that people just snap off the conclusion that it's way too good for Modern, as though that is simply definitive fact. I certainly learned my lesson when I said that Sword of the Meek / Thopter Foundry was a combo that was way too good for Modern. It ended up getting unbanned and has seen almost no play in the format since then. I was on a strict diet of nothing but crow for weeks afterward.

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Let's look at some of the cards that started banned in Modern but were eventually unbanned: Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Bitterblossom, Ancestral Vision, Sword of the Meek, Golgari Grave-Troll. You can potentially count Wild Nacatl as well, since it was banned almost immediately at the onset of Modern.

Valakut and Ancestral Vision have both slotted nicely into Modern as format staples that have not been oppressive. Bitterblossom and Sword of the Meek have both become fringe cards that see occasional play but aren't an important part of the format. Wild Nacatl has been an important part of a couple of archetypes, such as Burn, Bushwhacker Zoo and even Naya Company decks. It was never dominant in any of those archetypes.

Golgari Grave-Troll is the only card that has ended up being banned again. Prior to it being banned, it was actually a healthy part of a balanced breakfast. Dredge was a perfectly reasonable deck in Modern until Cathartic Reunion gassed it up too much. Without Cathartic Reunion, Grave-Troll would probably still be legal and still be part of a tier 1.5 strategy in Modern.

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The point I'm making here is that we come into discussions holding onto a lot of assumptions about cards that were too good in years past. We assume that they will always be too good, and maybe wrongly so. So far, history has proven that our assumptions have mostly all been wrong about these cards, and maybe they will continue to be wrong as more come off the banlist over time.

#3: Punishing Fire

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The Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows combo is certainly powerful, but Modern might be too fast and too non-interactive for that kind of a combo to really shine. I can't really imagine this kind of combo being very good against decks like Death's Shadow or Bant Eldrazi. They are too fast and their creatures too big for a reusable shock to really matter. That's not to mention the number of completely non-interactive decks where this combo would do basically nothing against, like Lantern Control or Ad Nauseam. Even Delver style decks are relying on creatures like Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang to take it home, giving them a pretty easy avenue to beat Punishing Fire recursion.

This combo would certainly go after a number of small creature strategies like Elves, the various Aether Vial decks and Affinity, but I don't actually think it would take over the format.

I think Punishing Fire would be perfectly fine to unban for Modern in terms of power level. The real question to me is: “what good does this do?” Does unbanning Punishing Fire add anything to the Modern format? The answer to that is probably no. It's not really a fun card, nor does it enable strategies. It's more of just a powerful source of card advantage that hoses certain strategies while being dead cardboard against other decks. I doubt we'll see this one come off the list, because it seems so low value to unban, but I think it would be balanced in terms of power level if it did.

#4: Stoneforge Mystic

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White's identity in Modern is basically Path to Exile and sideboard cards. When your draw to playing white is so you can put Stony Silence in your sideboard, that's not exactly a stunning endorsement for the color. Stoneforge Mystic would be a good white card to give the color exactly what it needs, more identity!

Instead of being Path to Exile and sideboard cards, white's Modern identity could now become Path to Exile, a fundamentally broken two-drop and sideboard cards. That sounds like a pretty big plus to me.

In all seriousness, I think it's likely that Stoneforge Mystic would be very good in Modern. I think it's unclear that it would be too good or dominate the format. Without Umezawa's Jitte legal, Stoneforge is limited to Batterskull as really the only great piece of equipment.

Of all the options I've given so far, this is by far the scariest one. I don't think it would take much for a Stoneforge Mystic unban to be a Stoneforge Mistake. With that said, as Stoneforge has never been legal, we may never truly know if it would be a dominant force in Modern or end up like Ancestral Vision or Valakut, a solid part of the format but not an oppressive one.

#5: Ponder and Preordain

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Ponder and Preordain were banned at an early stage in Modern's history where blue-based combo decks like Storm, Splinter Twin and Infect with Blazing Shoal were top tier. The ban made perfect sense in that era. Now that these decks have all received a number of additional bans since that point and aren't dominating Modern, I could see one of these cards coming back off the list.

I think seeing a card like Preordain legal would give blue control decks a fighting chance in Modern way more than a card like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Blue decks forced into playing with Serum Visions while superior options sit on the bench makes the deck function slightly worse and also makes Snapcaster Mage slightly worse.

In the ultimate form of irony for Shaheen Soorani, maybe it is Preordain – not Jace – that control really needs to establish the icy grip on Modern.

#6: Splinter Twin

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I know I mentioned above that the Splinter Twin ban really opened Modern up. And it did. And I think it was a good thing. I just think that in terms of power level, Splinter Twin is perfectly fine in the Modern format and this is a card that we could easily see come back off the banlist in another year or so, after it has sat long enough in time out.

Would such a thing benefit Modern? If the format gets too linear, then yes. Splinter Twin is the king at picking apart other linear strategies with disruption followed by its own turn four combo. Splinter Twin's presence enables decks like Jund by preying on the natural predators for those kinds of decks. If the format ever goes off the deep end, this unbanning could bring it back from the brink.

Bonus Section: Modern Bans

I want to briefly talk about nothing getting banned in Modern. I think that is a good thing. Nothing needed to go, and I don't think we'll see anything else banned in Modern for quite a while. I've seen talk about cards like Simian Spirit Guide and Mox Opal needing to be banned. Once, I was a proponent of those cards getting the axe. Now, I'm oddly okay with them being a part of the format. None of the decks they enable are powerful, tier one strategies. Until those decks become consistent forces that dominate the format, I think it's ok if they stick around. They enable enough fringe strategies, some of which are cool or fun decks like Ad Nauseam.

In the future, however, these are the cards that are likeliest to eventually go. I also think it's possible that they have to ban a card from Death's Shadow at some point, maybe Death's Shadow itself. That seems quite a ways off, though. This is just speculation on what we may see happen at some point way down the line. For the foreseeable future, I think we're more likely to see sweet cards getting unbanned than anything else getting the axe.

Bonus Bonus Section: Miracles Has Gone On Long Enough

I am surprised that every time we go through one of these Banned and Restricted announcements that Miracles goes untouched. It has been (off and on, but mostly on) the best deck in Legacy for about three years straight, and it seems to be tightening its grip on the format even further as of late. I expect that eventually they will ban either Sensei's Divining Top or Counterbalance to break up the soft-lock combo that gives the deck its power.

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Personally, I have weird and mixed feelings about Miracles. On one hand, I will keep playing the deck until it goes and I've had a lot of success with it. On the other hand, I'm tired of playing it and want to be able to play other decks, I just can't justify that from a competitive standpoint while Miracles is still this dominant force. I also think it's insane that decks have had three years to adapt to Miracles – and they have – and yet it still remains on top. The deck is just too powerful.

I've heard people suggest that they should ban Terminus to stifle Miracles. Personally, I think that would be a mistake. I think Counterbalance, Sensei's Divining Top and Monastery Mentor would survive as a shell without Terminus in the mix. Hell, it's even possible that the shell would be better without wasting four slots on a card that gets sided out in most matchups.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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