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The Modern Banlist: Is it Time to Free the Beasts?

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Last Monday, Wizards of the Coast released the last "Banned and Restricted Announcement" of 2018:

No changes.

Staying the course.

Maintaining the status quo.

In a lot of ways it makes sense. Modern is quite the enigma in that it feels very broken but also extremely balanced at the same time. There's tons of decks doing degenerate things that can end (or effectively end) the game as early as turn three, but somehow it all comes together in a perfect storm where nothing dominates for long. Every time it looks like a newish deck is going to finally take everything over and crumble the house of cards (Grixis Death's Shadow, Humans, Ironworks, etc), a month later it's not even great anymore.

This level consistent volatility combined with an extreme amount of playable strategies is what makes Modern so popular.

Do you want to constantly change decks and innovate week in and week out... you can!

Do you want to keep playing the same deck over and over again so you can learn it inside and out and adapt your sideboard each week for the changes in the metagame... you can!

There's no pressure to make you feel like you can or can't do something in Modern. Pretty much all options are valid given time and practice, and while it can feel volatile and frustrating at times there's no doubt that Modern is a riveting format to both play and watch. Literally anything can happen, leading to crazy tournament results and a new surprise every week.

When you look at the format like this, it makes sense that Wizards of the Coast wouldn't want to upset that balance. If it's not broken, why fix it? However, the last time they took action in the format it turned out very well.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Bloodbraid Elf

I'll be the first to admit that I was terrified when they announced that Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf were going to be unbanned. Much of the reason why was that I was afraid to rock the boat; Modern was diverse and healthy, why change anything? But also I remember Jace and Bloodbraid Elf being the terrors that they were, and feared they would give so much juice to the fair decks that everything would warp around them.

Good lord was I wrong.

For my pride's sake thankfully I wasn't the old one, but it turns out that Jace and Bloodbraid Elf have just become minor pieces in an already vast Modern landscape. It's not hard to make the argument that Modern is much better off with them legal, as they just add two more interesting and powerful cards to a vast format. Furthermore they help give an slight boost to fair decks, which, quite frankly, need the help.

So while much of the talk before Monday was about if Ancient Stirrings or Faithless Looting should get the axe, I'm much more interested in unbanning cards than banning more cards. Modern is healthy and diverse, but it's no secret that the format's fair decks struggle against the multitude of linear decks running amok.

Ancient Stirrings
Faithless Looting

Before we get to cards that may be safe for unbanning, a quick word on Ancient Stirrings and Faithless Looting:

Both cards are fine.

Yes they are the extremely powerful lynchpins of two of the format's most powerful strategies (artifacts/colorless cards and graveyard shenanigans respectively), however the fact that they require real deckbuilding concessions and neither card is fundamentally broken in what it does makes me okay with them.

A card like Preordain does nothing but make literally every blue deck in the format better, be it combo, control, or midrange. There's no work you need to put in, as like Brainstorm in Legacy it just immediately goes into your deck because of the consistency it provides. You can't just toss Ancient Stirrings or Faithless Looting into any deck; you have to have some plan that each card can work towards.

There may come a time where Ironworks or Arclight Phoenix get completely out of hand and something will need to be done, but we're not there yet.

Instead, how about we try...

Freeing the Beasts

The unbanning of Jace and Bloodbraid Elf opened the door to a wealth of possibilities in Modern. We've seen this before in cards like Bitterblossom, Ancestral Vision, Sword of the Meek, and so on; cards that mainly made the banlist for being terrors in their time but ultimately didn't make much of a mark when they were unbanned.

Notice how they're all fundamentally fair Magic cards.

The truth is that playing fair is a tough road in Modern. It's long been heralded that the best way to succeed in Modern is to pick the most powerful linear deck that's not currently on the radar, learn it very well, and pick the right time to play it. Power and speed is the order of the day, as when it comes to trying to interact the best defense is a good offense.

Eye of Ugin
Hypergenesis
Rite of Flame

There's no question that there are a ton of fundamentally broken cards on the Modern ban list, and that's where they should stay. Cards like Eye of Ugin, Hypergenesis, and Rite of Flame break Magic's rules too cleanly to make for good game play.

However, there are also a number of fair and mostly fair Magic cards that are banned that need to be reexamined.

With the return of two of the most feared fair cards ever printed in Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf barely making an impact and fair decks in general struggling to survive, I've got no problem freeing more of the beasts and letting the chips fall where they may. As we saw with Golgari Grave-Troll, worst case scenario there's always the safety value of just rebanning.

Splinter Twin - Keep it Caged!

Splinter Twin

Ah yes, the prior terror of the Modern format.

There's no way to sweet talk it, Splinter Twin should remain banned.

We're starting here because this is one of the most talked about cards on the Modern ban list. People (for some reason) have fond memories of beating people over and over with Splinter Twin, putting their opponents in impossible and miserable lose-lose scenarios. The deck was a favorite of better players, allowing them to play essentially fair Magic with all the format's great fair cards, while also having a turn four kill that could show up out of nowhere.

The Splinter Twin package of four copies of Splinter Twin and four copies of Deceiver Exarch was so slim and easy to add to decks that it required almost no work at all. If you want to kill someone on turn four with Krark-Clan Ironworks, you've gotta play garbage like Ichor Wellspring in your deck. Infect? Groundswell. Turn three Karn Liberated? Chromatic Sphere. Dredge? Shriekhorn. There are costs to playing combo decks, and Splinter Twin paid almost none of them.

Playing fair is great, but Splinter Twin didn't play fair. The deck had a stranglehold on Modern for a reason and deserves to stay locked up.

Stoneforge Mystic - Free the Beast!

Stoneforge Mystic

Stoneforge Mystic however, is a whole other story.

When it comes to playing fair, Stoneforge Mystic is the poster girl. Sure, one card that puts a 4/4 lifelink, vigilance creature into play (with some measure of durability) for four mana split over two turns is good, but compare that to all of the absurdity going on in Modern and it looks positively silly. There are many decks in Modern that can easily overcome a turn 3 Wurmcoil Engine out of Tron decks, so when you add in the amount of linear decks that can ignore Batterskull with the number of answers the format has (Fatal Push, Kolaghan's Command, Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, etc) I'm ready to let it ride on Stoneforge Mystic.

The true fear with Stoneforge Mystic (and many of the cards we've talked about today) is not necessarily power level but ubiquity - that Stoneforge Mystic wouldn't break the format in half or anything but would become a necessary piece for any deck playing White. When you have an element that is too good not to play, then every deck ends up homogenizing around it and they all start to look the same. Jeskai Stoneforge Control; Abzan Stoneforge Midrange; Stoneforge Affinity; Stoneforge and Taxes; and so on.

This was my fear with Jace and Bloodbraid Elf, and went completely unfounded.

Free the beast and let her rip!

Birthing Pod - Free the Beast!

Birthing Pod

This one might be a little more controversial, however I think Modern has moved pass a point where Birthing Pod is broken.

On the first activation Birthing Pod is worse than Eldritch Evolution, a card that sees almost no play in Modern. And quite frankly? Modern is so fast and brutal these days that you're not even likely to get a second activation that matters.

It was a different world in Modern when Birthing Pod was terrorizing the format, where a large percent of the format was playing slower decks that would get buried by Birthing Pod value chains. Birthing Pod is of course also used to set up combos as well, which is the scarier element of the card, but doesn't necessarily do so any better that the tools Modern currently has. Creature-based Green combo decks haven't really been good for a while, and while Birthing Pod would help it is doubtful it would break anything.

Yes, Birthing Pod can be a limiting factor in future cards that see print. Yes, Birthing Pod is a bit scary as a tool that can assemble combos while also providing value.

I'm not scared; free the best.

Dig Through Time - Keep it Caged!

Dig Through Time

With Dig Through Time being reprinted in Ultimate Masters, there was talk about it possibly being moved off of the Modern banlist.

Bad idea.

If Dig Through Time could be unbanned with some sort of errata like "this can't be played in combo decks" I'd be all for it, but the fact remains that Dig Through Time is one of the most powerful combo enablers ever printed. There's no question that Delve is a busted mechanic and Dig Through Time would be a really fun, tension-filled card for fair decks to work with, but it is much more likely it would be used for evil than good. This is more a product of the format than anything else, but there are just far too many two card combos in Modern to allow Dig Through Time free to put them together with ease.

It's clear that our thought experiment here is focused on trying to improve fair deck's share in the Modern metagame pie, and Dig Through Time does not achieve that goal.

Ancient Den
Green Sun's Zenith
Umezawa's Jitte

There are a few other cards on the banlist that deserve discussion, but the best way to handle the delicate concept of removing cards is definitely at a deliberate pace. If Wizards of the Coast were to go and unban a handful of cards at once, it would be very hard to pinpoint the metagame shifts on each specific card and properly judge if the unbanning was correct or not. Doing it one card at a time makes the most sense, except when two cards like Bloodbraid Elf and Jace form a sort of Yin and Yang effect and operate on similar axis.

Modern is great, but there's no doubt that the biggest complaint against it is that it can often feel like many matchups come down to "two ships passing in the night." Adding a few powerful fair elements back to the format could help shift the format's balance of power slightly back to interaction, while also letting us play with really awesome and fun cards that have been locked away forever.

There's also no doubt about it, having your cards unbanned feels a lot better than having them banned!