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One of the more interesting things we’ve seen since the Modern unbans is just how minimal an impact Jace, the Mind Sculptor has had on the format. A lot of words were spent on how healthy it would be for the granddaddy of planeswalkers to come down from on high to show us how it’s done. There were definitely people who said that it wouldn’t have a substantial impact, but I don’t think anyone had an idea of just how small that impact would end up being.
Meanwhile, Bloodbraid Elf immediately catapulted Jund back into the spotlight, helping cement Ponza as a viable deck and making appearances in G/R Eldrazi, Scapeshift and others. Jace has almost been locked into supporting the same old U/W and Jeskai Control decks, with the one revitalization being Blue/Madcap Moon. Nothing has come along so far that really made Jace seem like a major shift to the format.
Part of what cements Jace in this supporting role instead of taking center stage can be traced back to a common theme in Magic. Creatures, and threats in general, have only gotten better since Jace’s heyday. Meanwhile, we’ve only had a handful of substantially better answers. Legacy has always had a better spread of protection, especially in the 0/1cc category. What a shock—Force of Will is good at protecting a blue card that draws more cards.
On the other hand, the consistency of blue decks has been kept exceedingly low in Modern to the point where almost every above-board cantrip for U has seen the banhammer. Having access to Preordain or Ponder again would make a substantial difference in how these decks played their early game, to say nothing of the utility a card like Brainstorm allows for. Without this safety net, it’s challenging to take advantage of Jace as a playset or as a 2-of, which tended to be its most popular numbers. With no cheap ways to curate your extra JTMS or dig heavily for them without tapping out in the midgame, you end up in a situation where every number of JTMS carries a risk.
So we have a format full of powerful, proactive threat decks and not the same suite of answers to protect them. We’re also missing the ubiquitous mana dork known as Deathrite Shaman, which limits hybrid decks and is why we end up with a lot of creature-heavy Noble Hierarch decks slotting Jace next to Collected Company instead of just building around him.
“But we knew Jace wouldn’t be that dominating in a format full of unfair decks!“
Which isn’t wrong, but this is possibly one of the fairest iterations of Modern we’ve seen. When Humans and a nerfed Eldrazi aggro deck are Top 8’ing and winning GPs while Jund is all over the place, that doesn’t exactly signify the turn 3/4 format from the past. It’s very unlikely that the format is going to get slower or become more creature-centric any time soon. So if the Jace decks aren’t dominating now, they likely won’t until something major comes along, like a Splinter Twin unban or Dig Through Time/Treasure Cruise power level cards.
It wouldn’t even be a bad thing to see a tier 1 Jace deck in the format. Jeskai Control is almost there right now, but keeps coming up just short. What we don’t want to see is a format defined by Jace’s existence and shift around Jace decks. We aren’t seeing that—good aggro decks are still doing well and Jund, the epitome of grindy “fair” Magic, is chugging along. The stratification of Modern people were worried about (including myself) just hasn’t happened.
Ultimately, I think this is one of the times the DCI read the tea leaves correctly and made a good calculated risk with the unban. Perceptions of Jace were so strongly colored by its dominating performance in Caw-Blade and strength in Legacy that it was nearly impossible to foresee what we have now.
Now we come to Bloodbraid Elf, and why it has stepped into a more prominent role from the first week of its unbanning and has continued to perform above expectation.
Bloodbraid Elf thrives in higher powered “fair” formats—formats where you aren’t punished for playing 4-mana cards that don’t immediately end the game, but still have a bunch of cheap, powerful cards. In weaker formats, BBE is merely good, but the removal 2-for-1 or 3-for-1s you can net off Kolaghan’s Command are what really bump up the power level.
Current Modern is one of the best places to see what BBE can do, since the best combo decks have all been nerfed. Meanwhile, nearly every relevant combo deck left in the format is susceptible to creature removal, which means that you can overload on that axis and rarely get punished. It also benefits decks that lack good ways of gaining card advantage while relying on a lot of 1-for-1 trades while trying to clock the opponent.
What we’re seeing is how important format context is to the success of cards, even very powerful ones. Many Modern unbans have had massive fanfare, only to die out when a few months pass and we see how our interactions with them have colored our perceptions. So the next time a power card from the past gets trotted out, think about new cards in both the context of the formats they’ll be entering, and if the metagame shifts. You may get a leg up on everyone relying on old information.