It may be curious to think of a banning as elegant, but that’s really how I feel about the removal of [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] from Modern. It simultaneously left a popular archetype almost entirely unchanged while opening up space for other archetypes to flourish.
Today, we’re going to take a look at just how the Bloodbraid ban achieved both those goals, which archetypes it has opened up (and why), and how you’ll want to tune those “unlocked” archetypes so they’ll actually be competitive in your next Modern tournament.
Managing the Magic metagame has a lot in common with ecological management. If you’re facing a problem—say, more top predators than prey to feed them—you have a lot of options for tackling the problem. You could just start culling (the polite word for “killing”) those top predators. Or maybe you can address what’s holding those prey populations back (maybe there’s a deforestation issue, for example).
As Josh pointed out, Modern is the first format with at least some stated goals driving its banned list—specifically, to not have decks that can consistently win before turn four. Of course, the Bloodbraid ban has nothing to do with that one.
The unstated goal for all metagame management is to maintain diversity. Since Constructed Magic is partially a game of deck building and customization, players need the ability to make meaningful deck-related choices or they’ll get frustrated and walk away from the game.
This is why the presence of a clear “best” deck can be so toxic for a format.
Jund—Not Best, but Limiting
Jund wasn’t a clear “best” deck.
Even so, it had the potential to really harm the Modern format by limiting diversity.
If you review the metagame from the last several Modern events at the PT and GP level, you’ll notice that in this archetype breakdown for decks in the Top 8:
Obviously, the top eight is not the metagame—but it definitely creates our impression of the metagame.
…and in this case, the impression is “play combo or Jund.” Outside of combo, our options in these Top 8s were mightily constricted, with just four aggro decks (all Affinity, by the way), three tempo builds (one U/R/W and two U/W), and a sad, lone representative of the control category.
Even if Jund wasn’t a clear “Why are you playing anything else?” best deck, if it was responsible for constricting the aggro and control categories so dramatically, then it was certainly limiting our play options.
It’s Safe to Tap Out Again
Today I’m making the claim that the banning of [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] is an elegant solution to this contraction of options in the Modern metagame. Specifically, removing Bloodbraid from the mix does the dual duty of keeping Jund largely intact as an archetype, while freeing the “control” category to once again exist in Modern.
(I’ll leave it to others to talk about the impact on aggro.)
So how does this work exactly? After all, Jacob Wilson and Josh Silvestri are both right—Bloodbraid is far from the best card in Jund, and the overall strength of the archetype is about the combination of cheap, powerful cards—everything that wasn’t Bloodbraid in a typical Jund list clocked in at three mana or less.
Bloodbraid on Offense
From the Jund player’s perspective, it’s pretty reasonable to swap in something like [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] for [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card].
The graphic above compares what you get for your 2RG in each case.
In a representative Jund build, [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] always nets you a 3/2 creature with haste, and then some distribution of other cards. You get another creature nearly half the time, and then decreasing shares of disruption, removal, and planeswalkers ([card]Liliana of the Veil[/card]). So that’s worth two cards much of the time, but not always. Against control decks, for example, your removal often hits a targetless board.
In contrast, Huntmaster reliably garners you a pair of 2/2 attackers, one of which can potentially cycle between dealing 2 and generating more 2/2 attackers. Huntmaster also gains 2 life, of course, but that effect isn’t as profound as it simply making a pair of 2/2 creatures for your opponent to deal with.
On the face of it, Bloodbraid is better, but not so profoundly better that the deck falls apart without it.
Defense on Bloodbraid
The true constricting power of Bloodbraid on Control decks comes from the “defender’s” point of view.
Consider how we can “solve” the problem of our Jund opponent having just cast Huntmaster.
Those are two pretty clean options. We can counter the spell in the first place, using one card to stop their one card from creating two creatures. Or we can let the Huntmaster hit and then splash the board with mass removal, leaving only an unimportant +2 life to mark its passing.
In contrast, Bloodbraid Elf in Jund was a problem with no one solution for a traditional Control deck.
It’s not just that Bloodbraid actually does cast two cards, so it can’t be countered by one counterspell. It’s also that the combinations of cards produced by a single Bloodbraid aren’t amenable to any one solution.
Did Bloodbraid cascade into antoher creature? Well, you can them both with mass removal next turn, but thanks to haste, Bloodbraid is attacking you right now.
Did Bloodbraid cascade into a planeswalker? Well, you’re going to either need two counterspells, or some combination of Instant removal and some way to deal with a planeswalker.
Bloodbraid Elf constricted Control options simply by dint of providing a variety of threats each time that required a variety of solutions – the bane of Control decks.
All the most logical replacements for Bloodbraid are much more straightforward to deal with, and suddenly Control decks will no longer find themselves dying to a four-drop after nearly (but not quite) stabilizing.
Things to Do When You’re Control
The Modern metagame will take a little while to shake out following the dual bannings of last week, but we can make some guesses about what a traditional Control deck will need to deal with.
I’ll take it as a given that anyone with an interest in playing Control knows how to crush Affinity and toss Zoo around like a rag doll. Fighting Birthing Pod probably merits its own article instead of a side mention in this one. With these ideas in mind, I’m going to round out today’s “Hey, Control works again” celebration by looking at how we deal with a few of the major Aggro, Combo, and Jund (is that a category?) contenders.
My approach to handling Infect of can be summarized as “kill early and often.”
This isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. Your traditional “control” reflexes tell you to hang back, taking some early hits so that you won’t be overwhelmed by the opponent’s reach in a later turn.
This is actually pretty bad against Infect. By holding off, you’re likely to find that your clutch removal spell is blocked by a [card]Vines of the Vastwood[/card] – and suddenly you’re poisoned to death.
The alternate approach of killing early and often means that you create opportunities to kill the opponent’s infect attackers when they’re tapped out or otherwise can’t stop you. At a very basic level, fewer turns having passed means fewer chances for the opponent to even draw those defensive spells in the first place.
Essentially, don’t try to hold out for efficiency – just kill things as soon and as often as you can.
Irritatingly enough, this deck is built to explicitly neutralize those lovely point removal spells that are so useful to rapid fire your Infect opponent’s army out of existence. Fortunately, you can just rely on your counterspells instead.
Since you’re largely going to need mass removal to deal with the Hexproof deck’s offense, your entire game plan revolves around buying time to hit that mass removal. You may need to buy time to hit serial mass removal, since those occasional totem armor auras that stick can add unwelcome durability to your opponent’s creatures.
Fortunately, you can buy yourself a lot of time using the same tools that you need to face combo decks – all those counterspells. Assume that the Hexproof opponent will land one of their eponymous one-mana attackers (because they will) and simply focus on countering every single one of those auras. Even more than trying to drop most blockers or doing something to boost your life total, countering auras will buy you tremendous amounts of time until you can hit your mass removal and your eventual trumps.
As Paulo recently reminded us, Second Sunrise (or Eggs) is a legitimate combo contender in Modern – perhaps even moreso now that Jund can’t drop a hasty attacker that may come with a bonus disruption spell.
Fortunately, Paulo’s advice for fighting the deck is dead-on as well. You should reread the whole article, but here’s the critical bit about fighting Sunrise / Eggs:
The other mistake people make is waiting to interact with you on your critical turn—they save their artifact removal for your Blooms, for example. This is usually a mistake. By the time you are ready to kill them, you can play around those cards. In my experience, you take a much heavier blow if they simply Ancient Grudge your first two Eggs, which denies you multiple cards when you need them most (i.e. when you’re starting to go off). Even killing Chromatic Star or Elsewhere Flask is sometimes problematic.
The same applies to Mana Leaking and Izzet Charming—it might be tempting to just wait until they try to combo off, but they can combo whenever they want, and they’re not going to combo if they can’t beat an Izzet Charm. Usually, it’s much better to just counter a turn two Elsewhere Flask or Chromatic Star, which hinders them without constraining your mana for every turn in the future—there’s nothing worse than having three disruption spells and only four lands, or having a Geist but not being able to play it because you have to keep mana up.
This is completely right. Just throw all your countermagic at the Sunrise deck. It’s a lot like Infect – do it early and often. With enough damage to the Sunrise game plan, you’re not just buying yourself time to get an attacker onboard – you may just so cripple their deck that they can’t reasonably recover to win the game.
Now that Jund no longer presents the hard-to-handle Bloodbraid at the top of its curve, it’s a far more reasonable opponent to deal with.
Jund succeeds on the back of high-quality, cost-effective spells. It has a host of 1-for-1s, along with a few N-for-1s. Your counter to this approach is to be a little bit slower, but to have more N-for-1s and then to trump them out with mass removal and, well, trump cards – big spells that overpower Jund’s offense and in many cases outpace its removal as well.
At least until Jund decks adapt a bit more, that’s kind of all there is to it.
Elegant Like a Subtle Cut
Altogether, the removal of Bloodbraid from the Jund equation has opened up a lot of design space for Control decks. It’s a little early for settled lists, but there’s a lot of opportunity out there for all of you deck designers and updaters to pull out your countermagic, dust off your wraths, and take a crack at the Modern metagame with some good, old-fashioned control.
So what control builds are you trying in the post-ban Modern metagame?
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