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Breaking Through – Molding Modern

January 27th. If you are attending Pro Tour Born of the Gods next month, you probably have two dates in mind. The first is February 20th of course, as that is the day the Pro Tour begins. The second is January 27th because that is the date of the next banned and restricted list update that might very well directly influence what can and will be played at the Pro Tour.

Generally speaking, banned and restricted announcements don’t matter much to the Pro Tour because Standard and Block so rarely see bans. Modern, on the other hand, is a format that is influenced heavily by the banned and restricted list. Because the format is so big, new sets can only have so large an impact. By taking away or reintroducing some of the format’s most powerful cards, you can dramatically shift a format.

Pro Tours in general are intended to show off exciting and new formats before the masses really get involved. Pro Tours show off a full block format for example or a fresh Standard format immediately after rotation. This keeps the Pro Tour from feeling stale and it provides a nice jumping off point for people to begin exploring the format.

But again, because Modern is so large, introducing a fresh format for a Pro Tour is not as easy as releasing a new set and there is no rotation for the format. Instead, one of the knobs Wizards has here is to ban and/or unban cards. Banning is something that should generally be avoided, in general–players like playing with their cards. The inverse then is to let players play with more cards, which is what unbanning allows. All things equal then, it is easy to see that unbanning a card is greatly preferred to banning one.

If you make the jump that Wizards wants Born of the Gods to be a brand new format as we talked about earlier, and agree with the reasoning I just gave regarding unbanning versus banning, it is not the biggest leap to anticipate something being unbanned two weeks from now.

So, today I wanted to take a look at the cards that could potentially be removed from the list and look at what impact they might have on the format.

For reference, here is the current banned list in Modern. Remember that there are not restricted cards, so if a card appears on this list, it is simply not legal in the format.

CFB_GP_modern-ban-list_YouTube_1280x720

Just because we have the full Modern banned list here does not mean we should be discussing each of the cards on it though. There are some cards that are basically untouchable here. Obviously each person is going to have their own criteria for what keeps a card on the above list, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. These are my cards that I feel are not going anywhere, not now, nor in the foreseeable future:

[draft]Ancient Den
Dread Return
Glimpse of Nature
Golgari Grave-Troll
Great Furnace
Rite of Flame
Seat of the Synod
Second Sunrise
Sensei’s Divining Top
Stoneforge Mystic
Skullclamp
Tree of Tales
Vault of Whispers[/draft]

This list is much smaller, eh? And yes, there are certainly some cards that vanished between the two lists that I do not think will be unbanned, but I also think they are not completely off the table. This list is mostly looking to weed out the truly degenerate things. [ccProd]Rite of Flame[/ccProd] appears while other rituals don’t because I think it is the most powerful of the bunch and fast mana should exist in some form–slightly degenerate decks are a feature, rather than a blight.

Cards like [ccProd]Skullclamp[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Glimpse of Nature[/ccProd] are just too powerful to have around. They allow you to do things so strong that there is very little incentive to play anything else, especially if you want to compete with those two decks.

Artifact lands help enable one of the most unfair decks of all time. While there is counterplay to Affinity, it is so niche that this ends up warping the format. People end up having to dedicate a lot of deck or sideboard space to stopping Affinity that the format evolves into a very small field with very few decks having a realistic chance to win any tournament.

Other cards are just included for logistics. [ccProd]Sensei’s Divining Top[/ccProd] has been stated as being unhealthy for tournament structures for example, so don’t expect it to come off. Other cards like [ccProd]Second Sunrise[/ccProd] are so fresh on the list that I expect it to stay there for a while just to verify what the format looks like without it around.

That leaves us with a lot of wiggle room in terms of what might be removed from the list (assuming something has to go of course). Cards like [ccProd]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/ccProd] could almost certainly be taken off of the list at some point, for example, but that does not mean that they will be ushered back into the format this time around.

Unbanning cards can be a dangerous game to play. In order for a card to be unbanned, it had to have been banned at one point or another. If a card was banned, that means it is the 99.9 percentile in terms of being a threat to the format in the eyes of Wizards and threats to the format are not just let out of prison without first showing some good behavior. Granted, times change. Formats change. Maybe Jace and his brethren found religion behind those steel bars. All of that is great and lends to great reasons for cards to be set free but if even one oversight is made, if even one unbanned card goes on a rampage and needs to be banned again, that looks really bad. Unbannings being rare makes sense, but Modern has been around for 3 years now and only a single card has been unbanned. That card?

[draft]valakut, the molten pinnacle[/draft]

Its reason for being banned in the first place had to do with its power in Standard. Modern wanted to develop its own identity and there was a risk that having the most powerful Standard decks available in Modern would turn the format into just a who’s who of former Standard decks.

Once the format was ready, [ccProd]Valakut[/ccProd] was unbanned and I would say that it had the perfect amount of impact. It got people excited about exploring Valakut-based strategies. These decks entered the format as competitive, but far from the best thing going on. Today, Valakut offers a couple of different lists in Modern, expanding the range of potential decks while not warping the format around it the way that [ccProd]Stoneforge Mystic[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Glimpse of Nature[/ccProd] would.

In theory, a card could be unbanned and have a bigger impact than Valakut did while still keeping things healthy. And in theory, any card that we suspect will have even less of an impact than Valakut can pretty easily be removed from the list assuming there is no meta reason for its inclusion (such as Top). We are not here to argue what could be removed from the list though and instead want to look at what realistically has a chance of escaping for this Pro Tour. With that said, here is my short list:

[draft]bitterblossom[/draft] [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd]- While I can completely get behind why this was banned in the first place, I question whether it needs to remain there. Faeries, as a deck, would probably exist in some form once [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] was unbanned, but plenty of other decks would take advantage of the card as well.

[ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] is a really potent control card but unlike other cards on this list ([ccProd]Sword of the Meek[/ccProd]), the method for it to actually win the game is very reasonable. The counterplay to a card like this is also much higher in Modern than it ever was in Standard. I think this has a relatively low risk of ruining the format were it to be set free, but it would definitely be a statement. Remember that cards like [ccProd]Abrupt Decay[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Inquisition of Kozilek[/ccProd], along with just creatures like [ccProd]Lingering Souls[/ccProd], all give Bitterblossom a new run for its money that it never had before.

Chance of being unbanned: Medium to potentially high
[draft]chrome mox[/draft] [ccProd]Chrome Mox[/ccProd]- Chrome Mox is a reasonably well-balanced card. Giving up card advantage in exchange for fast mana is reasonable at this rate. I think that Chrome Mox could have potentially been left off of the banned list in the first place, but specifically as the format has evolved, Mox has become even less threatening.

Fast mana feeds off of other fast mana. No one is worried about [ccProd]Dark Confidant[/ccProd] coming down on turn 1 (as scary as that is). The real threats are the unfair combo decks abusing this to win on turn 3 or 4. With [ccProd]Rite of Flame[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Seething Song[/ccProd] both gone though, those decks might be justified to pick up Mox and remain healthy for the format.

In the current metagame, decks like Splinter Twin would likely take advantage of Mox best, although some number of new decks might rise up as well. I think the format could probably handle Mox in it, but the promotion of degenerate things is likely something WotC will continue to shy away from. It all depends on what they believe this will enable and what it will push out of the metagame.

Chance of being unbanned– Low to medium

[draft]green sun’s zenith[/draft] [ccProd]Green Sun’s Zenith[/ccProd]- This was banned more recently than most cards on this list. Pro Tour Philadelphia created enough inertia to get this banned due to its versatility in grabbing [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd], [ccProd]Dryad Arbor[/ccProd], and later on [ccProd]Knight of the Reliquary[/ccProd]. I don’t necessarily think it was worthy of a ban then, but if you reevaluate today, things are different.

First of all, [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] has been banned, making one of the best 1-drops to grab with this obsolete. Cards like [ccProd]Noble Hierarch[/ccProd] are still going to be good grabs but they don’t warp the format in nearly the same way. [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] is the big exception here, and unless he is banned, we almost certainly will not see Green Sun’s coming off the list. I could also see [ccProd]Dryad Arbor[/ccProd] biting the dust to allow for GSZ to come back. Basically no deck plays Dryad Arbor without GSZ, so preserving the Arbor without the Zenith has left the Arbor completely out of decks. Zenith would see play even if both Arbor and Deathrite were banned and might diversify the metagame a bit.

There is certainly some concern with decks like Melira Pod getting even better, so an eye would need to be kept on that.

Chance of being unbanned– Low
[draft]punishing fire[/draft] [ccProd]Punishing Fire[/ccProd]- This one is interesting. On the one hand, I can understand wanting to avoid repetitive game play and not to try to push out aggro decks too much, so I don’t think this would get unbanned alone. Something like [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] would probably need to go as well. That said, Punishing fire introduces an interesting incentive for some decks that don’t really exist right now.

Cards like [ccProd]Knight of the Reliquary[/ccProd] have not seen play in any tier 1 deck for quite some time. Getting some midrange decks that are not just Jund into the format would be cool. The problem, of course, is figuring out a way to make sure Jund just doesn’t get better with an unbanning, locking out other decks that the unbanning would be trying to promote.

I think this has already begun to be answered by the banning of [ccProd]Bloodbraid Elf[/ccProd]. Without Elf, Jund decks have already moved away from red as being an essential part of the deck. Most Jund decks still include red of course, but it is often just for [ccProd]Lightning Bolt[/ccProd] and then some sideboard options. Instead, cards like [ccProd]Lingering Souls[/ccProd] have become popular.

Well, if [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] becomes banned (as I discuss later), the mana fixing in Jund drops dramatically. I would suspect we would see multiple decks emerge. Jund with just [ccProd]Lightning Bolt[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Punishing Fire[/ccProd] would likely exist. Junk with [ccProd]Lingering Souls[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Voice of Resurgence[/ccProd] would probably be a thing. You would have some Junk decks playing [ccProd]Knight of the Reliquary[/ccProd] and splashing just for [ccProd]Punishing Fire[/ccProd] etc.

I think that [ccProd]Punishing Fire[/ccProd] plus Grove can be an oppressive interaction and has some big risks in existing. That said, if you look at Legacy, which has a creature pool very similar to Modern, the card exists in a relatively healthy way. Unfair decks generally don’t care about the card in that format whereas in Modern, they sometimes will (Twin, Pod), so that is certainly a factor, but I think it is possible to have a perfectly healthy Modern environment in which Fire is legal. I am not sure that is possible at the moment though.

Chance of being unbanned: Low

[draft]Sword of the Meek[/draft] [ccProd]Sword of the Meek[/ccProd]- I am not sure if this is a card people are even talking about, but I think we should be. This once again does punish aggro decks, but it does so in a relatively slow and disruptable way. For the full story, by the way, this is played with [ccProd]Thopter Foundry[/ccProd] to allow a player to pay 1 mana to gain a life and put a 1/1 flier into play. That is a combo that requires a lot of set up and has a lot of counterplay available to it.

[ccProd]Stoneforge Mystic[/ccProd] was banned, eliminating one of the best tutors for these combo pieces, which is one thing to consider. I honestly don’t know how degenerate this can really be. There are so many 2 card combos that can actually win the game in Modern that this one looks relatively soft as a result.

A control deck that won with this would actually be pretty refreshing to see in this metagame. Maybe I am overlooking something and this would somehow ruin Modern, but I am skeptical.

Chance of being unbanned– Medium (but realistically low because no one is discussing it)

[draft]Umezawa’s Jitte[/draft] [ccProd]Umezawa’s Jitte[/ccProd]- You want to make aggro and midrange decks better? Bring back Jitte. Jitte is a powerful card and some decks would certainly take advantage of it, but how much better is it than [ccProd]Sword of Feast and Famine[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Sword of Fire and Ice[/ccProd]? Jitte is strong because it takes over certain matchups, but in a format as diverse as Modern, those matchups are but a fraction of the metagame.

Standard was ruined by Jitte because every deck was a dorky aggro or midrange deck so when someone connected with a Jitte, everything changed. Try attacking with a Jitte against Storm or Splinter Twin and you will quickly realize how toned down the card is. I like the idea of Jitte in the format. It is an excellent strategic choice and makes for a really solid sideboard card. Decks would likely play 1 to 3 of these at the extreme end and the level of counterplay for an equipment is basically as high as it gets. I think this one will happen eventually, I am just not sure about right now.

Chance of being unbanned – Medium

[draft]wild nacatl[/draft] [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd]- I think this is the highest candidate to make it out of prison. Aggro decks are in a rough spot right now competing against these combo decks and big mana decks dropping things like [ccProd]Wurmcoil Engine[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Karn Liberated[/ccProd] on turn 3. [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] would provide a big incentive to return to traditional aggro strategies like Zoo that have mostly evaporated from the metagame.

Compare Nacatl to [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] and you can see why the format would be healthier if they swapped positions. [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] fits into so many more decks and combines versatility with an extremely high power level. He also mana fixes, allowing decks to cheat or reach more than they should be able to. Nacatl is very much an aggressive card and fits into a small subset of decks. Those decks might be good, but they need to compete with turn 3 wins and turn 3 Karns, so a one mana 3/3 is hardly the most degenerate thing going on.

Additionally, cards like [ccProd]Abrupt Decay[/ccProd] have seen print which provides the format with another oft-played card that directly answers Nacatl, no questions asked. I could see Nacatl being unbanned regardless of what happens to [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd], as the interaction those two cards share is nothing beyond what any normal [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] does.

But Just In Case…

I do think an unbanning is the most likely thing that will occur, but if they decide to ban something instead, there are not too many cards that would likely be considered. I would have [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] as number as I mentioned a lot above. Beyond that, it is tough to think of too many cards that would get the axe based on undesirability or power level.

If [ccProd]Birthing Pod[/ccProd] were banned, it would be unexpected, but it would make some amount of sense. More than likely though, beyond Deathrite, the only things that get considered for banning are cards that need to be moved around to make room for unbannings (such as potential [ccProd]Dryad Arbor[/ccProd] swaps).

TL;DR

Most of this (all of it) is speculation and some of these cards were included specifically because I wanted to discuss them. Realistically, these are the changes that I would classify as being plausible-

[ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] is Unbanned
[ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] is Unbanned
[ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] is Banned

I don’t think that all 3 of those things will happen, but any combination would not really surprise me. Again, I would be very surprised if nothing changes altogether, but who knows?

Regardless of what happens with these changes, I am liking Modern quite a bit right now. Theros managed to change the format just enough to make it exciting to brew. Modern naturally has a giant card pool with all sorts of undiscovered gems in it. The Pro Tour should be a good time and I am definitely looking forward to it.

But for now, like the rest of the Modern playing community, we sit and we wait.

Conley Woods

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