What’s Up with the Modern Banned List?
By now, I’m sure most of you have seen the September 20th update to the Modern banned list. There’s been a lot of talk since it went up last night, and a reasonable amount of confusion among players. Why were there so many bannings? Why were no cards unbanned? Erik Lauer’s explanation helps, but perhaps doesn’t fully explain every detail.
Not having been in the meetings where the decision was made, I can’t tell you exactly what happened – but as someone who has thought about this question a lot and worked on Overextended bannings, I can offer a lot of insight to the process. In this article, I’m going to put on my developer hat and lead you through my take on these decisions.
First up, let’s go through the six banned cards. Number one on the list? Blazing Shoal!
So many cards are innocent and cute until they’re eventually broken. Blazing Shoal is one of those cards.
One of the breakout decks from Pro Tour Philadelphia was the poison deck. The deck used Inkmoth Nexus, Blighted Agent and, in some builds, Glistener Elf, along with Blazing Shoal to deliver 10 poison counters in a single blow. A not so uncommon start might look like this:
Turn one, Inkmoth Nexus.
Turn two, land, animate Nexus, attack, Blazing Shoal removing Progenitus, you’re dead.
Now, on the surface you might think this is a fragile combo that’s hard to set up. Neither of those is true. The combo is very easy to set up thanks to transmute and an 8-pack of single mana card selection effects, and it’s difficult to dismantle because of Disrupting Shoal and Pact of Negation.
Many people have pointed out that you can build decks to beat it. If you look at the Magic Online results, the deck isn’t dominating. However, there are several things working against poison shoal.
Poison Shoal is a turn two or three combo deck. The first time it happens at the Pro Tour it’s kind of interesting and exciting, and everyone instantly goes to build the deck up and play a few games. You take some sample hands and smile as you poison them out on turn two. It’s exciting at the start, but it quickly goes downhill.
This is cool to watch happen the first time. “Oh wow, isn’t that neat!” The next time it may still feels novel. But by the time it’s been done to you four times over the course of a PTQ, you’re going to feel miserable.
Imagine this situation. It’s your first Modern PTQ. In the first round, you die on turn two and three to poison shoal. You even had the Lightning Bolt both times, and it didn’t matter.
You couldn’t do anything to make a difference. You were absolutely helpless, and no decision you made mattered. You had no chance to do anything fun, interact, or otherwise. The game was just over.
Why in the world are you going to keep playing that format?
Yes, people have pointed out that the deck can be beat. You can Ghost Quarter them, or run enough disruption, or any number of things. But at the end of the day, the deck isn’t fun to play against, removes player interaction, and causes people to not want to play Magic. If your goal is to get people to play the format and for the games to go longer so more decisions are made, Poison Shoal works steadfastly against that. It’s just not fun to have around. Is it beatable? Yes. Is it good for the format? No.
Shoal was one of the two cards I expected to get banned, and I’m very glad it was.
Let’s play a game of Magic. Only, there’s a single new rule: if you haven’t won by turn five, you lose.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well, that’s akin to what Cloudpost does to Modern.
From the moment the format was announced and Twelvepost was discovered, it set a clock on the format. You had to be able to win by turn five or disrupt Twelvepost (not an easy feat considering they just need lands) to have a chance in the format.
The result? Well, Twelvepost wins on turn five, so you better play Splinter Twin so we have a turn four combo deck. And since Splinter Twin wins on turn four, you better play Pyromancer’s Swath so you can win on turn three. And since Pyromancer’s Swath can win on turn three, you better play Poison Shoal so you can win on turn two…
Cloudpost turns the entire format into an arms race.
Normally you could count on some well constructed control decks to deal with the fragile combo problem… but not with Twelvepost around. The other side effect of Cloudpost is it’s nearly impossible to disrupt. The deck only needs locuses and Eye of Ugin (searching for Emrakul) to beat you. How does a control deck fight that?
As a control deck you can try and set something up, but lack of time is an issue and the reality is that, even if you have a plan, Cloudpost will still beat a control deck most of the time. Before the Pro Tour I had control decks that could beat every combo deck but Cloudpost. However, Cloudpost was nearly untouchable. Banning Cloudpost opens up the potential for those control decks to do well.
While the Twelvepost deck only put one copy into the top 8 of Philadelphia, it’s really only because so many people had prepared for it. Imagine an alternate universe where nobody had Twelvepost ahead of time and a team of players had walked into the tournament playing it. They would have easily mopped the floor with their opponents. The deck is so powerful that it’s only kept in check because it significantly warps the metagame around it.
Some people have argued that the format would shift to a state where the U/R combo decks would beat Cloudpost decks, making them fall out of favor, and then control decks could rise up, followed by Cloudpost returning, and so on. However, this has a few flaws.
First of all, you don’t want the format to continually be balanced by combo decks preying on each other. Combo ruling a format is unhealthy. Second, it considerably warps the format and causes it to be less fun. The pressure of decks like Cloudpost on the rest of the format prevents many players from doing things they enjoy, and players having fun should always be the goal.
One other argument people have made is to ban Emrakul instead of Cloudpost. Without Emrakul, the Twelvepost deck loses some power since it doesn’t have an uncounterable threat that more or less instantly wins the game.
I certainly agree that Emrakul is a degenerate, powerful card. It only does stupid things, and it may have to be banned at some point. However, the real problem here is Cloudpost. Cloudpost is the engine card, and you always want to kill the engine instead of the end result. There will always be dumb cards for Cloudpost to accelerate into, but there will never be another Cloudpost.
Furthermore, big fatties (like Emrakul) are popular, and it’s only a matter of time until we see another insane colorless fattie. You don’t want colorless design space to be constricted because of Cloudpost’s existence.
Cloudpost and Blazing Shoal were the two cards I was sure Wizards was going to ban. Let’s take a look at the other four.
Blazing Shoal and Cloudpost were my top two cards to ban. I was sure they were going to go. Rite of Flame was my slightly distant third.
Rite of Flame is no doubt a problem card. It’s a very strong red ritual. Playable ritual effects seldom lead to anything good happening. The days of “Aw, Ritual into Hypnotic Specter” have been replaced by, “Ritual into ritual into ritual into broken combo card, do 15 more robotic game actions, storm card, you’re dead.”
Combo decks that are too strong are generally bad for Magic. While a vocal group of players really like playing combo, a gigantic group of players does not like playing against combo. It is often non-interactive, unfun, and difficult to wrap your head around. In essence, it’s exactly the kind of deck that makes less experienced players not want to play your game.
Additionally, combo gets old fast. Like I mentioned with Poison Shoal, it’s cool the first few times it goes off. But by the time it happens the tenth time, it’s just frustrating.
Now, combo does serve an important role. I’m not saying the world of combo should be torn down and abolished. As noted, there is a group of players who really like playing combo, and it’s important that there are competitive decks to excite Johnny. Slower combo decks are just fine. However, combo can’t be the lynchpin of a format if you want that format to be successful and healthy.
The only decks that play Rite of Flame are degenerate combo decks. Banning Rite weakens that archetype in general. Therefore, banning Rite makes sense.
My hesitation to call Rite a “for sure” ban is that Splinter Twin was one of the most successful decks in Philadelphia and the deck that won the Pro Tour – and it doesn’t use a single copy of the red ritual. Wizards could either take a “let’s carefully ban a couple cards” approach or “let’s ban a lot of cards.” approach. The former hopes that the format will evolve to be fair with a couple cards gone, the latter accelerates that by wiping some of the slate clean. In the former, I don’t think Rite fits, but in the latter group, it’s an easy include.
As an aside, I am a big fan of the way Wizards is handing their Modern bans. While I highly prefer the “let’s ban lots of cards” approach, I think Wizards traditionally favors the “let’s ban a couple cards” approach, and I don’t think they would have pulled this trigger a few years ago, but this is a change in philosophy that I feel greatly benefits the format.
You don’t want to just ban cards all of the time – doing so removes consumer trust – but to help fix a new format like this I think it’s perfect. In short, Rite of Flame can’t lead to anything good for the format happening. Since nothing good comes from Rite of Flame, why not ban it? I approve of this philosophy!
Banning Ponder and Preordain sends out a message that is potentially stronger than any single card banned here. That message is clear: one mana card selection effects are a problem.
Historically, one mana card selection effects have led to bad things happening. Even cards that are significantly weaker than Ponder or Preordain have fueled combo decks in the past. Sleight of Hand, for example, was used in Dragonstorm, Owling Mine, and Magnivore, to name just a few combo decks that were playable in Standard of all formats. None of these decks were particularly good for Standard, and they frustrated players. Part of the reason why they were so good is that they had access to the cards they wanted when they wanted them.
Ponder and Preordain cause the same problem.
In general, card selection plays an important role in Magic. I’m not against having the cards exist. However, they do a lot. At a single mana, they can be overbearing. Card selection effects have side effects like:
-Fueling combo decks
-Reducing player interaction
-Making every game feel the same
-Taking up game time
-Not being obvious as good cards
-Reducing variance and continually ensuring the better player wins
At more expensive costs, these kind of effects aren’t as much of a problem. But at a single blue, it causes all of these things to happen from the very beginning of the game.
I want to touch on two of those bullets specifically because I know they will cause a lot of debate. First, I want to look at the fact that they aren’t obvious as good cards.
A big shift in Magic has been to make a lot of the good cards obviously powerful so that players can identify them and play with them. Not all cards have to be this way, but Baneslayer Angel and Vampire Nighthawk are some of the most popular cards in the past few years for a reason. It helps push players in the right direction if they fill their deck with naturally good cards.
A lot of new/casual players I’ve talked to don’t understand Preordain. “I don’t get it. The card doesn’t do anything,” they’ll tell me. Now to you or me that doesn’t make any sense, but to a less experienced player the card is so unexciting and min/max-y that they don’t get why they would ever put it in their deck over another card. You only get 60 cards, why would you want one to be a card that seems like it does nothing?
Second, I want to look at reducing variance as a problem. Now, to you or me this is nonsense. “Magic has too much variance! We want the better player to win!” I can certainly tell you that, as an experienced player, I love cards that help me always win.
The problem is that when your win percentage ratchets up to 70% because of how good you are coupled with finding the perfect cards every time, somewhere else there are players who are only winning 20% or 30% of the time because there’s less variance.
Secretly, part of Magic’s allure is that there is variance. Mana screw is important because it means anybody can win; similarly, on a higher level, not always having the cards you need is important because it means the person who gets lucky or draws a little better can win. You don’t want Magic to become a game like Versus System, where the better player always wins. Part of Magic’s path to longevity is to keep players who are worse than their opponents entrenched in the game despite the fact that they are worse than their opponents.
Now, once again, I’m not saying card selection effects have to be eliminated entirely from Magic. Being able to do your powerful things is fun. However, at one mana, they do so much to set the trajectory of the game on the very first turn, and that is a problem.
I touched earlier in the Cloudpost section about how it’s been proven in time that it’s always right to ban the enablers. There are actual cards that are the way you die (Emrakul, Pyromancer’s Swath, Splinter Twin, etc), but every single time these strategies are enabled by card selection effects. Even Stoneforge Mystic decks were partially enabled by card selection effects.
Combos are much less dangerous when they’re harder to put together, and I think what R&D is beginning to realize is that card selection effects like Ponder and Preordain are just as much of an enabler as the rituals and tutors combo decks have traditionally played. The one unifying component of all the Modern blue combo decks were four Ponder and four Preordain, and that seemed to be a wake-up call for R&D.
The message here? I think R&D has made a philosophy change against good one mana selection effects. Similar to Rite of Flame, it seems like the majority of interactions that cards like Ponder and Preordain have is leading to bad things happening. I wouldn’t expect to see many more in the future.
Where is all of this going in relation to the bannings? While I acknowledged that these cards were ubiquitous in Modern combo decks, I had argued against banning Ponder and/or Preordain because the designer side of my mind told me that it constricted design space. If you ban Ponder, that means that every single card selection effect that costs one mana which is on the level of Ponder must also be banned. (I also wanted to see if the control decks could adequately fight the combo decks with just the other pieces banned, but that’s a different argument altogether.)
However, what I missed in this whole situation is that if R&D has decided one mana card manipulation effects are a problem then there just won’t be many more, meaning that the situation where you have to ban these cards doesn’t exist. For an analogue, think about what happened to ritual effects after Dark Ritual was banned. The only non-conditional mana ritual we’ve seen since then has been Rite of Flame, and, err, well…
While some of this certainly is conjecture, if this is a change as I assume it is then I approve. Historically single mana card manipulation effects have been bad for Magic. If we move toward two mana card manipulation effects, those are harder to chain together and slower which means that the combo decks can’t be as fast. I’m excited to see what the world of card selection holds (and doesn’t hold!) in the future.
The most surprising card on the Modern banned list update is Green Sun’s Zenith.
Zenith has generated the most discussion out of any card in this go around, and for good reason. I don’t think anybody had really pegged Zenith as a problematic card. Personally, I don’t know that I would have pushed a move on Zenith so quickly, instead waiting to see what happened in the wake of all the other bannings. However, I can certainly see their logic and lead you through it.
The bottom line is that Zenith is an incredibly efficient card. Green decks have always liked Llanowar Elves. Zenith is not only that, but also the best creature in your deck at all times as the game progresses. It also means you get to play with toolbox strategies that fight all other decks.
Most green decks want to play with Zenith. As a side effect, it means there’s little reason to not play Zenith, and over time all of the green decks begin to look the same. They’re basically separated into aggro Zenith and midrange Zenith, with the former encompassing decks like Zoo and the latter encompassing decks like Jund, Melira combo, and Bant.
The ban on Zenith promotes exploration of the format. It creates a variety of green decks instead of what amounts to homogenized categorizations of Zenith decks. While, once again, I would have pushed to wait and see how the format actually looked in the trail of these bannings instead of adding a sixth card to this go around (there is certainly a legitimate concern with too many large groups of bannings removing consumer confidence in buying cards), the precedent that Legacy has set is that Zenith will take over green decks. I see no reason to believe that also wouldn’t happen to Modern.
I certainly agree with R&D’s decision that it is more interesting when there are several decks that look different instead of six different Zenith-based variants. While I don’t think the card was too powerful, I know that I am already looking to build new Modern green decks in a Zenithless world which, at the end of the day, means that the Zenith ban is already a success.
So that breaks down the various bannings. But what about the lack of unbannings?
No unbannings was the move I had been advocating, and I am glad that this is also the consensus that Wizards came to.
“What???” you may ask. “Don’t you feel cards like Umezawa’s Jitte should be unbanned?!” Read on, my friend. Read on.
There are essentially two groups of cards on the Modern banned list you can unban.
One group are cards that are very playable and would certainly be played if unbanned. Examples of cards in this category are Ancestral Vision, Bitterblossom, Stoneforge Mystic, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
The other group are cards that would likely not be played (or at least not en masse) even if they were unbanned. Examples of cards in this category are Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Umezawa’s Jitte.
Let’s start by talking about the first group of cards.
These cards are very powerful, and certainly have the potential to fit into a lot decks. The general argument for unbanning these cards is that they would help make certain archetypes playable and that they aren’t strong enough to be banned.
There are three very good arguments against those.
The first is that “not strong enough to banned” is, frankly, not nearly as relevant of an argument as you might think. If you look at the whole of Modern bannings, they were pretty clearly made to shape the format in a certain way. I mean, take a look at proof: Green Sun’s Zenith was just banned! Zenith isn’t too strong, but rather, it played a part that R&D didn’t want the format to have. Bitterblossom is likely not too strong for the format, but if it doesn’t fit the vision of the format than its relative strength is meaningless.
Second, you are talking about unbanning cards that players hate. I mean, do you really want Jace and Stoneforge to be the “fun, new, and exciting cards” that players get to try out? Those shouldn’t be your heroes. The format can find its way without them.
Players are sick of playing against those cards, and by not having them around it means they have the opportunity to play a format without them. When you’re trying to attract players to a format, this is a very good thing.
Third, there’s a gigantic sliding scale issue. Let’s say you ban six cards and unban four cards, then control begins to dominate the format. It’s very hard to identify what the actual problem is. Was it because so many cards in decks that beat control were banned, or because control was given additional tools? Cards should be unbanned when the format is stable and you can slowly and safely inject new cards in, not when the format is still taking form. Give it some time. Cards will be unbanned, but just not right now.
Now let’s talk about the second group of cards. Cards like Umezawa’s Jitte and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle are unlikely to see very much play. They probably won’t do much, so why not unban those?
Well, let me ask you this question instead: do you want to live in a world where Valakut does something?
Valakut probably wouldn’t see play, but if it did then it certainly wouldn’t be something you’d want to play against. If you notice, an ongoing theme among this article is banning cards that create a worse format and make the game less fun. If Valakut is either going to do nothing or cause problems, then why risk unbanning it at all?
No longer is power the main criteria for banning. Instead, that criteria now is being unfun. And judging from the success of all of Wizards’ recent bans, this seems like the way it should have been all along.
Maybe at some point in the future when the format is more stable it could be considered, but unbanning something like Valakut during this period is even more risky, potentially unleashing an unfun deck on a format that is still trying to find its place.
As for Jitte in particular, there are some interesting points to be made there. But first, I need to introduce you to the concept of developer cards.
Developer cards are cards made by developers to combat an issue in a format. After a lot of playtesting and/or a real world outbreak, its determine that a problem needs fixing and so a new card is slotted in to help fix the issue. Great Sable Stag, for example, is a developer card. Faeries was an issue, so the Stag was created to fight it.
Now, Stag is a card built for green decks to fight one deck. There are several cards like this that people can find, but there’s a very specific kind of developer card that’s not talked about very often: the mirror match card. A great example of this would be Vulshok Refugee.
Vulshok Refugee is very, very good in the mono red mirror. Why does it exist as a developer card? To make mono red decks weaker in case they get out of hand!
By creating the Refugee, it begs red decks to sideboard it and sideboard answers for it. the end result? Fewer sideboard slots dedicated to other decks. The Refugee lets the red decks beat up on each other while the other decks gain an advantage of not having to deal with as many sideboard cards.
While Umezawa’s Jitte is not by any means a developer card, it fills a very similar role in Modern.
Umezawa’s Jitte would likely be seen in the sideboard of beatdown decks for them to beat up on each other. Instead of having to carefully prepare for each different beatdown matchup and try and find multi-purpose answers that maybe effective against other decks, or perhaps eschewing any answers at all, you just end up sideboarding three Jittes and calling it good.
The problem is that this reduces the power of beatdown decks as all of the beatdown decks are using three sideboard slots to beat up on each other. Right now the goal of Modern is to keep several varieties of beatdown playable, and unbanning Jitte actually makes beatdown worse. With control primed for a comeback and forms of combo still out there on the loose, that’s not what the format needs right now.
And, oh yeah, Jitte also meets the new criteria for banning: being unfun.
I am very pleased R&D decided to not unban any cards. In time, yes, cards will be unbanned. But at this point, with the format in flux, it was a great decision.
That’s all I have to say on this round of Modern bannings and unbannings. Hopefully this helped clear some of the decisions up and provide you with some more to think about. If you have any comments, post below and I’d be happy to reply to you and get tangled up in debate.
Thanks for reading!