The Most Significant B&R Announcement Ever

Knock Knock.
Who’s there?
Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf.
Are you kidding me?
Nope. Not a joke.

“Stunned” is the only word that accurately describes the reaction I had while reading the Modern B&R announcement.

Not happy stunned. Not unhappy stunned. Just regular stunned.

It was an emotionless gasp. An internalization that: “wow, things are going to be different moving forward and I can’t begin to see where this chain of dominos ends…”

I was aware I was witnessing history. Unbanning two cards of such magnitude is unparalleled. In fact, it may be the most significant B&R announcement I’ve ever read. The only other announcement on the same level as this was when Brainstorm was restricted in Vintage. It was a game-changer with implications so far-reaching that they wouldn’t become clear for months.

That was a small niche format—this is Modern. Also, I didn’t see this coming at all. Sure, I’ve considered it, but I never thought the DCI would pull the trigger on something like this. In case you haven’t had a chance to read it over for yourself, by all means, take a moment and check it out for yourself.

Wizards of the Coast claims that they’ve done their homework on these 4-drops and believes the time is right for a shakeup in Modern. I won’t even pretend that I can answer all of the questions we are collectively wondering about.

Are these cards going to dominate?
Will this push a bunch of decks out of the format?
Is Modern about to change in a major way?

Well, Modern is going to change and there is no doubt about that. You can’t add two absurdly powerful cards to the mix and expect it to go unnoticed. My expectation is that both of these cards will be significant players and will be in decks that compete for trophies on a consistent basis.

With all of that being said, I’m going to embrace the moment and choose to be excited rather than jump to the things that might go wrong.

Jace and Bloodbraid are back. What a time to be alive!

Seriously, Can Modern Actually Handle This?

Let’s start by pointing out that both of these cards have known abbreviations… these are cards that have seen so much play that people have an accepted shorthand for writing about them.

Ian Duke’s article “February 12, 2018 Banned and Restricted Announcement” lays out some background for the unbanning. It points out that power creep and the larger Modern card pool have led to a version of Modern that can support Jace and Bloodbraid Elf.

I can’t disagree with that. When I compare Modern now to what Extended looked like when Jace was legal it is clearly a different game experience. The same can be said for Modern in 2013 when BBE was last banned. It makes sense that powerful cards from the past might be less oppressive when introduced into formats that have gained new powerful cards. The competition is stiffer and there are more proactive and reactive answers to JTMS and BBE.

I agree with Wizard’s assessment that Modern is a different world from the ones where these cards needed to be purposefully excluded. The question then becomes: we know Jace and BBE were too much for weaker historical contexts (Extended and Previous Modern), but given a new context with stiffer competition (here and now) can these spells slot in without wrecking up the place?

The B&R Announcement claims their research shows that it can. I find it hard to believe that Wizards would make a move this bold and big if they felt it was likely to fail. I think this is doubly true right now, given that Modern is one of the more stable and popular formats and also considering the problems they’ve had with Standard over the past years.

Would you risk a golden goose on a coin flip? Me either.

Given that alone, I would be shocked if Bloodbraid Elf or Jace, the Mind Sculptor took over Modern. I’ve been critical about things I don’t like in Magic but I also try and be fair about giving praise for a job well done. The DCI has been hitting at a very high clip when it comes to unbanning or unrestricting cards not named “Gush” in non-rotating formats over a long period of time.

Jace isn’t named Gush. Bloodbraid Elf isn’t named Gush, either. I think we’re O.K.

There have been numerous cards that have come off the Banned list and those moves have been mostly fantastic. In fact, previous unbannings have not only “not backfired,” but have actively provided positive depth to formats.

Remember when we were scared of the ghosts of Faeries and Thopter Sword? It wasn’t so bad. Albeit, the ghosts of Jund and JTMS cast bigger shadows. The risk is bigger, as is the reward for getting it right.

For Wizards to hit a home run, adding these cards needs to bring more to the format than it subtracts from it. Obviously, we gain something by having a couple of great cards and adding them to decks, which is the upside. Of course, adding new powerful decks to a format can push other decks out. As long as Jace and BBE don’t push out twice as many decks as they create, I would see this unbanning as a success.

Home run = adds more than subtracts.
Base hit = don’t cull twice as much as you create.

Will every blue deck play Jace? Probably. It’s hard to argue with trying to squeeze a Jace in somewhere. Most black decks Thoughtseize. Most red decks Bolt. Most white decks Path. Most blue decks already Serum Visions.

If Jace and Bloodbraid are outstanding cards in the format, I hope people play with them. I don’t even mind if every deck that can play them does play them. As long as Modern continues to have that “players can play what they want” feel, I don’t mind if Jace and Bloodbraid are in the mix. After all, these are exactly the kinds of cards that people would want to play with.

Are we about to add some Miracles to this Modern thing?

Jace’s Brainstorm effect also puts Terminus into the mix. I loved playing Miracles in Legacy and I’m interested to see if it translates to Modern. In most cases, I think change is an overwhelmingly positive force in the gaming experience. Exploring new territory and setting to work at solving new problems—heck, even learning what the new problems might be is exciting.

I can’t help but admire the gusto of this move. It’s big, bold, and significant. As a fan of the game, I hope Wizards knocks it out of the park and Modern continues to thrive with these iconic and nostalgic cards as part of the mix.

Why Did They Do This Now?

Matt Sperling wrote a really nice piece about the unbannings that ran on Monday.

I really liked Matt’s take and I think he masterfully touched on some important points about the banning. He had two particular points that I think are really important and I want to expand on what he already wrote. The first one:

“And what if it is the case that Tron was good against Snapcaster plus Disdainful Stroke and Ceremonious Rejection precisely because the blue deck didn’t have a card like Jace in the midgame, and Thought-Knot Seer was worth the steep investment for similar reasons (and the fact that bouncing it at very low cost was difficult, not easy), and a million other little equilibria for which the Pro Tour provided no data are at risk of being disrupted? I guess it all does come back to “If it Ain’t Broke.”

Matt’s question is a good one that will be answered down the line one way or another with cold, hard data. But he’s right to raise the questions. In particular, I’m also curious “why now, if it ain’t broke?” And, “How do we know the complex Modern ecosystem can handle it?” Wizards’ process is unknowable. They have access to data and resources that I don’t even know exist. The upside is that they have all the data to make decisions.

As a lifelong fan of the game I wish they would share more of the unknowable processes and how it influences decision making. What data would you even look for to determine how new variables like Bloodbraid Elf or Jace, the Mind Sculptor might impact the Modern tournament metagame? I’m always disappointed that the fans don’t get to hear more about the specific types of data or trends from which these conclusions are drawn. Personally, I find it fascinating and wish there was a way I could better understand the criteria that are used to judge the overall health of formats and/or cards like Jace or BBE in formats

It boils down to: the DCI has been crushing it out of the park over and over again when it comes to unbannings, so let them swing away.

I also agree with Matt that the timing seems strange. He points out in the article that many players use Pro Tours as a moment to watch coverage, learn about a format, and make a decision on what deck to buy. We just had the Modern Pro Tour moment and now we are just throwing everything out the window and starting over? Why? I’d be miffed if I followed coverage, fell in love with a deck, bought it and found out seven days later that major format changes had occurred.

I went to bed last night with a Modern article idea that I was pretty excited to write about and woke up to the B&R announcement. There’s no point in even writing that article because everything has been completely changed. Now imagine instead of having an idea I didn’t want to write about, I had a deck I don’t want to play…

I don’t get it. Was the Modern Pro Tour just a training exercise to see if the format was somehow safe for Bloodbraid Elf and Jace? It raises the questions, “Why not make BBE and JTMS legal for the PT so the PT can do its job and provide the function it is designed to do by showcasing a new format?”

One possible explanation is that Wizards of the Coast wasn’t pleased with the response Modern has gotten lately or with the Pro Tour result. I’ve written a lot about how I like the diversity of Modern but there is another vocal faction of Magic players that dislike the coin flip lottery of Modern pairings. There are also people who loathe everything about Lantern Control, the deck that won the Pro Tour.

Could unbanning titans like JTMS and BBE be a way to change the discussion?

Check out this passage from Ian Duke’s “Parting Thoughts” segment of the B&R announcement:

“R&D has been happy with the evolution of the Modern metagame over the past year, and Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan made for an outstanding viewing experience for fans of the format. Unfortunately, there is a lingering perception in the community that a deck doing well at the Modern Pro Tour will result in something from that deck receiving a banning.”

It sounds like Wizards was pleased with Modern and the Pro Tour coverage. They were aware that some people hate Lantern but didn’t think Lantern winning was a problem or warranted bannings. It doesn’t feel like a knee jerk reaction to me at all.

I get the impression that unbanning Jace and BBE is something they’ve been feeling out for a long time and as much as I think it would have been cool to have the Pro Tour set the stage for the arrival of the new Jace and BBE metagame, if you think about it, it’s pretty risky…

I assume it’ll be fine because Wizards has been smart about unbannings, but when you’re playing with unknown quantities, anything can happen. Say that worst-case scenario happens and one of these two cards facilitates a broken deck. Chances are that a team would figure it out and make a mockery of the unbanning on the biggest possible stage. Remember the last Modern Pro Tour with the Eldrazi? I wouldn’t want to make a bold move and relive that kind of experience either.

I also thought it was bizarre how the B&R announcement spent time explaining how the unbannings of BBE and JTMS are not meant to balance each other out directly and then in the next paragraph explained how they balance one another out directly:

“While there is something poetic to the age-old enemies of Standard’s past both being reintroduced to Modern together, it isn’t our intent that these cards balance one another out directly. It is true that Bloodbraid Elf is effective at killing Jace, but our reasoning behind the simultaneity of their unbanning is more subtle.

If you look at the top decks of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, successful players only included a handful of card with the intent of tapping four lands to cast them. (Colorless Eldrazi and Tron being the exceptions, among other popular decks.) Jace and Bloodbraid Elf are powerful options that fill similar roles in different decks as curve-toppers in the four-mana slot. Adding attractive options at the same mana cost in different color combinations at the same time mitigates the risk that the other could pull too many decks toward it at once.”

So, the subtle part is that they both cost 4 in decks that tap four lands to cast them?

First of all, it makes a lot of sense to do both or neither. Both cards are great at holding the other one in check. Jace is great against midrange decks. Bloodbraid Elf is a midrange card that is effective at attacking Jace. They are both A+ cards that are powerful enough to give each other fits. I would be much more worried about Jace taking over the format without Bloodbraid around, and I’d be much more afraid of Bloodbraid dominating if Jace were not around.

Am I reading this wrong?

I’m reading this to mean that if they added just Jace, the Mind Sculptor to Modern, it might pull a significant percentage of the field toward blue Jace decks, if they unbanned just Bloodbraid Elf in Modern it would pull a significant percentage of the field toward R/G decks, but if they unbanned both JTMS and BBE at the same time it would pull some players to blue and some players to R/G and thus keep the metagame from straying too far one way or the other.

Seriously, how is that not balancing each other out directly?

I would have said point-blank, “Unbanning both cards at the same time makes a lot of sense since they naturally put checks and balances on each other, which makes it unlikely either option will ever become too powerful (or too played) in the metagame.” Well, whether they meant to do it or not, I think it was a smart move.

I also agree with Ian that it will be awesome to see one of the most epic battles in the history of Magic back in the spotlight.

I feel positive about all areas of the announcement, except for one:

  • The reprint of Jace in Masters 25 will provide greater availability for our player base.

“Ah, they buried the lede. We’re not just changing the weather—we’re selling umbrellas.”
-Matt Sperling

Word. Well said, Matt.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a Magic writer is that players care how much they have to spend to play the game. I’ve been lucky that I’ve always had a great group of friends to help me put decks together or borrow cards from. Card availability has rarely factored into what I can or can’t play, which is not the norm for most Magic players. I’ve started playing Warhammer 40K with my brother for fun every other week and throwing down forty bucks for a unit of troops sucks. I understand that gaming ain’t free, but damn.

As of Monday evening, I’ve checked several large online card stores and see that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is sold out virtually across the board at $150.00, which is almost double the going rate before the announcement.

$150 (or, whatever it settles at) is a lot of money to expect the average player to drop on a single to play a game. I could buy an entire Imperial Knight for that cost! Have you seen how many attacks and wounds that thing has?

$100 singles are bad for Constructed Magic because they make the game about something that shouldn’t matter—the size of your wallet.

The B&R announcement points out that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is included in Masters 25 and that will help with availability issues. I like that the Masters series helps to keep the price of individual singles from continuing to creep up forever as demand grows and supply shrinks. It sure beats watching the formats that you love and grew up with fall into near un-playability because 90% of potential players are priced out…

If this has been coming down the pipeline and card availability is an issue, why not do a Grand Prix foil JTMS to help instead of just dropping Ben Franklin into Modern and making it available in a premium reprint pack?

People love Modern because it is a flourishing and vibrant format with boundless tactical possibilities. Don’t forget that. Modern can handle these cards. I expect these cards to be in decks that compete for trophies. Don’t forget that Wizards has a great track record with unbanning cards in non-rotating formats. While I don’t like the idea of adding a $150 card to Modern, I hope that Masters 25 will give all the Jace hunters out there some relief when it comes to card availability.

Overall, I’m excited for this. How often does something like this even happen? I can’t think of anything else quite like it. Then again, they don’t make ‘em quite like Jace or Bloodbraid anymore—do they?

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