Yesterday, Wizards dropped a huge bombshell on the community that a B&R update was coming down next Monday, July 13 that would be affecting four formats: Historic, Modern, Pioneer, and Pauper.
On Monday 7/13 there will be an update to the Banned & Restricted list impacting the following formats: Historic, Pioneer, Modern, and Pauper.— Magic: The Gathering (@wizards_magic) July 7, 2020
It set the internet ablaze with discussions for each different format and the different rhymes or reasons for what could be coming next week. I, like many others, have been feeling kind of down over the state of many of these formats over the last few months - especially Pauper - and I'm itching to see what might happen on Monday.
Today, I'm going to take a look into what's going on and what's likely to be banned from each of these formats come July 13th. Let's dive right in, starting with Historic.
If you ask just about anyone in the online competitive scene, you'll find that a lot of players find Historic to be far and away their favorite format at the moment. It's so prevalent, in fact, that it's being cited by a number of players as to why Pioneer seems as dead as it is (more on that in a bit). In Historic, there's a large number of fun and viable archetypes, with just about everything represented in some form or fashion. Aggro is great, Midrange is doing well, Control took a bit of a hit with Fires going away but is still strong, and there's tons of ways to go about each of these strategies.
In some ways, that just makes the fact that the B&R announcement is touching Historic a bit weird. I've loved the format in just about every capacity, so what's got people down right now? Well if you've played any best-of-one games, you might not know that Nexus of Fate/Wilderness Reclamation decks are showing up a ton. Nexus of Fate being banned in best-of-one matches means it's only been showing up in Traditional (best-of-three) matches, but it's been dominating with people citing its tremendous win rates. If anything goes, I'd wager that it'll be Nexus or Wilderness Rec. Nexus by way of a ban and Wilderness Reclamation by suspension.
There's a small number of players crossing their fingers as well for a Burning-Tree Emissary suspension or ban. This is because it's not hard to completely steamroll an opponent by playing turn one Pelt Collector into a turn two with multiple copies of BTE and either Zhur-Taa Goblin or Domri's Ambush. After that, you finish it off with a huge attack in just one or two more turns. It's explosive and a bit busted. Still, we see this in a number of other formats as well and it's never been banned in any of them, so I think it's a bit unlikely, but still within the realm of possibility.
Lastly, I've seen discussion that Winota might get moved from suspended to banned. The reason they try to avoid bans is because bans to them usually mean giving out wildcards, and they may not want to do that while Winota is still in Standard and doing just fine there. If not now, Winona will definitely get shifted to a ban at some point in the future, just because of how broken some of the interactions are with her.
If Historic was weird, Modern seemed like a surprise. Since the nerfing of companions at the beginning of June, there have been a number of players who have come out and said they're really enjoying how much better Modern has gotten. Some would even say that it's the best it's been in a while, to the point that this too is another reason people have cited in why Pioneer has been dying. In a way, that makes it a bit surprising that Wizards would take such a quick approach compared to their usual "wait and see how the format shakes out" approach.
So, this probably means unbans, right? Well, not exactly.
A lot of people have for a long while expressed their discontent with the existence of Arcum's Astrolabe in the format. The reason is that it fixes your mana perfectly for almost no investment while also drawing you a card. Prophetic Prism does much of the same thing, but one mana is exponentially better than two mana. We're seeing this a little bit now with Village Rites compared to Altar's Reap, but not quite to the same degree.
Arcum's Astrolabe has already been banned in Pauper for a number of months due to a number of even more problematic aspects to the card, such as bouncing it with Kor Skyfisher. Almost a year ago - a few months prior to that ban - I wrote at length about why it was so problematic. While I examined it largely from a Pauper perspective, I still looked at just why it's a bad card overall and that it's shown issues in Modern and Legacy as well. Overtime, it's only gotten worse, and a quick look through recent Modern events will show that 3-4 color Snow decks are rampant. This includes Control decks, Urza decks, Ramp decks, Sultai Reclamation, and more.
Similarly there's been some talk about Mystic Sanctuary. The card brought Miracles to Modern in full force for crying out loud. Why? Because you can put it onto the battlefield with a Blue fetch land. The discussion I've seen makes this one feel a lot less likely, but is still a potential card on the chopping block. Past these two cards, though, I haven't heard too much talk about what else might go.
It could just be, however, that we DO see unbans in place of bans. After all, most people seem to agree that despite these issues with Astrolabe having a potentially homogenizing effect on things and being a little too good, the format's arguably pretty healthy right now. They also haven't exactly been against unbans in the format lately either, having unbanned a large number of cards over the last few years. These include Stoneforge Mystic, Bloodbraid Elf, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor most recently. None of these are exactly breaking the format, despite being players in it at the same time. So why not add something new?
There's been a lot of talk about what could be unbanned in the first place. Splinter Twin is showing up quite a bit, as usual, but there's also been some calls for Green Sun's Zenith as well. It's not too surprising when you see cards like Chord of Calling and Finale of Devastation already making huge waves. It's arguable if Green Sun's would even be better or not for those decks given how they use Chord and Finale to win the game. Would it have a home? Definitely, and might replace some number of those cards, but I don't think it would prove so damning - even if you can get a turn one ramp into Dryad Arbor.
Other talks have surrounded unbanning one artifact land - usually Tree of Tales comes up - in order to try helping some of the artifact decks affected by the Mox Opal ban. Others still hope against hope that Birthing Pod and Faithless Looting might make a return. The one card I feel people aren't talking about so much is Bridge from Below though. It was broken in half because of Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Altar of Dementia entering the mix, but might not be quite as bad without the big ol' Gaak in the format. Perhaps it's time for the Bridge to come back?
All right now it's time to talk about the newest kid on the block: Pioneer. So, what's been going on with Pioneer? Well, the format's having a tough time lately. The last three Magic Online challenges haven't fired and that, coupled with longer queue times for leagues, has raised a lot of concern about the health of the format. We can attribute this to a couple factors:
- Paper events, many of which were scheduled to be Pioneer throughout 2020, were cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse, Wizards has commented that they are unsure we'll even see major events through 2021 at all, thus killing a lot of the coverage and momentum the format has had.
- As a result of the above, a lot of the attention has shifted to the online clients of Magic Online and more specifically MTG Arena. Most players prefer the more modern look of Arena and are playing on there. Because many people are disinterested in Standard, they've turned their attention to Historic. Not only is that format good, but it's got a number of big events coming up featuring it - including the Mythic Invitational. In a way, this has made Historic steal Pioneer's thunder, as Pioneer is not currently on Arena.
- Modern has gotten healthier, meaning that more people are playing that format whereas Pioneer was hailed at first as a way to escape how bad Modern was.
- The release of Theros Beyond Death making numerous combo decks a dominating force as well as the cataclysmic impact of companions in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths destroyed a lot of the early goodwill the format created.
- Just as well, the aggressive nature of the early bans turned a lot of players off of the format, as many of them bought into the format only to have their cards banned days later.
- Last but not least, a lot of the recent controversies that have risen over the last month or so aimed at Wizards of the Coast have caused a lot of harm to consumer confidence, with many players talking about leaving not just Pioneer but the game as a whole.
All of this is pretty much a perfect storm as to why the numbers in Pioneer have been dwindling in the last couple months. It's prompted tons of discussion and polls on Twitter and other areas about whether or not the format is even still realistically alive or if it's just dead in the water. As such, it's really no surprise to see Wizards taking action to try and set the format right again.
The big thing that most players have repeatedly expressed dismay over is the various quick combo kill decks that came about as a result of Thassa's Oracle, Underworld Breach, and Heliod, Sun-Crowned entering the format. This includes the decks of Dimir Inverter, Lotus Breach, and Mono-White Devotion. Because of how interlocked some of the pieces are and how big of an issue is, it's actually a bit harder to pin down exactly what gets hit. Here are the cards I think might be at risk this time around:
What it's going to come down to with this ban is just how hard Wizards wants to bring down the combo decks that have dominated Pioneer for the last few months. If they just want to hit Dimir Inverter, then the solution might just be to hit Inverter of Truth. If they want to hit that and Lotus Breach, then maybe they take the approach of Thassa's Oracle and possibly Dig Through Time. If they do that, however, then Jace is still a fairly reasonable win-con, if a bit easier to answer, so does that go as well? They might even just skip some of the win conditions and hit Underworld Breach (or much less likely Lotus Field). Finally, if they hit those two decks and not just Dimir Inverter, they might also want to hit the Devotion lists, and either Heliod or Walking Ballista would be reasonable selections.
As such, like I said before, it's really hard to pin down this one, and will ultimately depend on just how far Wizards wants to go here. Change is definitely coming, and it will almost certainly be from this pool of cards alone. I've heard a few people chattering about how other decks might become problematic with some of these gone - especially thanks to Uro - but there's no way WotC takes action so early. They'll take the "wait and see" approach and if something ends up being an issue in a few weeks' time, then we'll probably see further bans. For now, it's just going to hit the combos.
And now we reach what I'm sure many of my readers have wanted to see me talk about the most: Pauper. You might recall that a few months ago I wrote a one year follow-up article to my big Pauper article Shaking the Pillars. You can find that follow-up piece here. By and large most of what I laid out here hasn't changed, except for a few things. These can basically be summed up in three small aspects:
- Tron got an extra new toy in the form of Bonder's Ornament, which has only pushed the deck to be stronger than it had already been becoming in the last few months.
- Dimir Delver/Faeries came back in addition to the Izzet and Mono-Blue versions of the archetype that had been present at the time of writing the piece.
- Wonderwalls has risen up to be an actual deck in the format where it's long held the status of a meme deck.
So why are we just now seeing bans - and yes, these are almost assuredly bans - hitting our fair format of Pauper? I can think of a few reasons. For one, there has been a noted increase in Wizards listening to players directly for feedback. Gavin Verhey specifically has reached out to a few discussion areas and received feedback from numerous players that was then passed on to the relevant parties - including discussions on format health.
It really doesn't help that the format largely feels like it's still a bunch of the same decks we've been playing with for three years now and is causing things to stagnate. Because of this stagnation, we're also seeing a lot of inbred metagaming that's causing the games to become more about either going all in on racing or stopping your opponent from playing Magic. This has always been there to some degree but feels like it has gotten worse over time.
As a result of this as well, it feels like there's less diversity in the highest competitive spaces for the format - namely the Magic Online challenges. While I've heard numerous times that players feel left out because it doesn't take into account local store metas as much, Wizards is most likely to approach bans and restrictions based on the highest level of play for the format (i.e. Magic Online) where they can actually see data. They can't pull your data from your local store, so just saying "my local meta is fine" becomes purely anecdotal. We have to look at the data, and the numbers have shown Tron has a much higher win volume in the Challenges and that the various Delver decks all have a pretty wide-reaching meta share.
So then, what does that mean is likely to be banned this time around? I've got a couple thoughts on what we might expect to see go.
There's just no two ways about it: something is getting banned from Tron. It's been an overwhelmingly dominant deck for a very long time, players have complained about the deck repeatedly for a while, and its play patterns of locking out the opponent from playing Magic is enough for me to say that. This has been a loooong time coming now. So, what's likely to happen?
Players have discussed a number of cards. The problem with a lot of the Tron lists that currently exist is that they have a lot of redundant parts to them, making them hard to hit. Most people have pointed to cards like Expedition Map, the Flicker cards, Dinrova Horror, Mnemonic Wall, or even the Tron pieces themselves. Of these, I think Ephemerate might be the most likely to go. Many players wanted to see it go when Arcum's Astrolabe left the format and since then it's gone on to be a critical part of the various versions of Flicker Tron. At first, it seems worse than Ghostly Flicker since you can use Ghostly Flicker multiple times in a single turn. Ephemerate's power comes from the fact that you can cast it for very little mana and hold up other mana for Fogs, countermagic, and more.
That said, I do think Ghostly Flicker might go with it as well, though I'm also less certain about this. Ghostly Flicker may be repeatable multiple times in a turn but costs more as well. There's also something to be said about crushing one so that there's just a bit less consistency for Tron. In addition, killing Ghostly Flicker would hit other decks like Familiars harder than Ephemerate would. The problem with Ghostly Flicker, though, is that it's been consistently fueling problematic decks for years, and was paired with numerous cards currently on the banlist during its tenure in the format. As such, I do think it's a very likely candidate.
The other pieces probably wouldn't be enough to hit it down as hard as players would like it to, short of the lands themselves. Because there are other decks that have existed in the format with Tron lands that don't rely on the Flicker aspect (Fangren Tron aka Temur Tron, and Monarch Tron) I feel like they won't hit these outright. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if Tron left the format completely, but I also believe that the Flicker cards are much more likely targets.
But what about Displace? I've talked about this before, and there is a bit of difference with Displace compared to Ghostly Flicker in that Ghostly Flicker can also hit your lands and artifacts for utility. I've seen many times where Tron players flicker their lands to either gain life, gain some value (Mortuary Mire comes to mind), or else flicker an Urza's Tower to keep flickering an important creature. It's also not uncommon to flicker Prophetic Prism to draw additional cards.
While Displace still causes the issues of flickering creatures and locking players out of the game that way, it's still a bit more beatable than its current counterparts. It could very well end up being problematic going forward as well, but I think that Wizards may try to ban the cards currently in the format rather than hit this one and see how the format shakes out. It should be noted that problematic effects like this are likely one of the reasons Wizards is exploring making Phasing deciduous. This would allow for blinking strategies that don't cause triggers to activate when the creatures return to the field (or to existence in the case of phasing).
Tron isn't the only thing that might get hit, though. As mentioned previously, the various builds of Delver/Faerie lists are populating an absolutely tremendous amount of the current meta share. The reason these cards have all been put back on the map is Mystic Sanctuary, which combos alongside the cards Tragic Lesson and Deprive. This drowns the opponent in card advantage and can even lock them out of the game thanks to Ninja of the Deep Hours redrawing the Deprives as soon as you replay Mystic Sanctuary. One could argue that this combo is worse than Gush ever was (though please, no, don't put Gush back in the format - especially not with Mystic Sanctuary).
There's no doubt in my mind that once Tron bans happen, these Mystic Sanctuary decks will come to dominate the meta that much more than they already are. As such, it's likely that they also hit this card as well. I'd say this is less of a sure thing than the Tron bans, but I feel pretty strongly that Sanctuary is going to exit the format as well. No, Delver won't be it. In fact, many of these lists have dropped Delver recently in favor of going more all-in on the Faeries strategy.
Beyond that, there could always be some other problematic cards. Cycling Songs could rise more with less countermagic in the mix, Monarch could be overwhelmingly powerful and either that mechanic or Prismatic Strands could need a ban, and more. I think, though, that the format will end up looking pretty open and vastly different post-bans if both something from Tron and Mystic Sanctuary eat bans. If the Tron lands stick around and Sanctuary goes away, new Tron lists and different Delver builds will pop up, though weaker than they've been. It'll be a big change, and we'll just have to wait and see what happens as that new metagame shakes out.
Whatever happens between each of these formats, it's no doubt going to have a big impact on each one. I'm very much looking forward to seeing what happens on Monday. What do you think will happen in each of these formats?
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