January 14, 2016

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Going Rogue: A Brewer's Ban & Restricted Wish List

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it often happens anyway!

With the next Banned & Restricted list update just around the corner (Monday morning), it's high time to talk about the cards that - as a brewer - I miss the most and, perhaps more so, the cards that are really just a pain in my @$$.

Wizards states the primary goal of having a banned list is to promote a diversity of decks in each respective format. Standard is designed for specifically, and is constantly rotating, so it's extremely rare that a card warps the format so much that it needs to be reigned in.

In Eternal formats however, such as Modern and Legacy, it is sometimes hard to determine the impact that a card printed for Standard might have. This might seem strange, given that the power level of Modern and Legacy are so much higher, but there is a lot to be said for factors in the environment. For instance, Treasure Cruise is a powerful but entirely fair card in Standard right now. But once you add Serum Visions, Lightning Bolt, and especially Thought Scour to the mix, the power level skyrockets! So much so that UR Delver - a Modern deck that is normally Tier 2 at best - was immediately the best deck in the format for the brief window that Treasure Cruise remained legal for.

Right now, it could rightfully be argued that Modern is extremely healthy, with a wide variety of decks able to compete at high levels. While decks that are considered 'Tier 1' or 'Tier 2' can be counted using only your fingers and toes, there is enough versatility of effects in the format that decks in the Tier 3 or below range can still post above 40% average win rates, and perform well in major tournaments with a bit of luck and the right meta-choices. That's kind of like if the Ottawa 67's played a season in the NHL and finished ahead of professional teams (the Leafs notwithstanding).

Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement. On one hand, the Modern banned list has grown to be quite large over the years and, although a card was overpowered in 2012, it's likely that the format has corrected itself over time and it might be more balanced if freed today, opening the environment to even more choices. On the other hand, there are legal Modern cards that are so good, they are absolute staples in decks that can play them. This is typically due to their versatility. However, this versatility also means that the popular decks that play them may have answers to innovative decks already built into them which is, in some sense, anti-competitive.

It's worth noting that there are some other unstated requirements of the B&R list though, such as being one of the tools that helps define Legacy and Modern as separate formats. For example, I believe this is the key reason that Dread Return is banned, and should remain so (as much as I would love to play with it *drool*). It's the key card in Legacy Dredge and would bring that deck into Modern if unbanned, which would force opposing decks to equip cheap/free counterspells to mimic Force of Will as much as possible. The Legacy/Modern line would become more blurred.

Enough preamble though, right? I imagine half the people reading this are skipping over this due to Facebook-induced-ADD, so without further ado, let's get onto the cards that, from a brewer's perspective, make my wishlist for Monday's B&R changes in the Modern format.

Free Deathrite Shaman!

Actually, don't. That card is crazy busted, and anyone who thinks it belongs in Modern clearly has never played against it in Legacy. But now that I've got your attention, let's start with the three cards I would most like to see unbanned in Modern:

1. Sword of the Meek
This time two years ago, Wizards unbanned the best 1/1 generator ever printed in Bitterblossom, and left us to become sad as we realized it wasn't nearly as good as it once was. Well, why not up the ante a little bit and see how far 1/1s can get?

Sword of the Meek is actually at its peak when combined with Thopter Foundry, effectively giving its controller an emblem that says:

1: Gain 1 life and put a 1/1 flier into play.

While definitely strong, and a tough inevitable condition to battle through, it's susceptible to artifact destruction, graveyard hate, as well as popular sideboard cards like Night of Souls' Betrayal. The combo might create another Tier 2 or even Tier 1 deck, but the odds of it taking over in an oppressive way are slim.

The reason I want the card unbanned though, is that it's an incredibly fun effect to build with. I might be asking too much for Dread Return, but this Sword also plays beautifully with Narcomoeba and disposable threats like Gravecrawler and Bloodghast, and could equally enable a more competitive Dredge deck than what Modern currently has.

With a potential fun factor of 100, and a dominance risk near zero, Sword of the Meek is my top pick not only for a card I would like to see unbanned, but for one that should be.

2. Chrome Mox
So admittedly, Chrome Mox contributes to a much less fair strategy for my opponents to put up with, but slides into the high variance deck type that is unlikely to ever oppress tournaments. I'm a big fan of decks that can hypothetically win turn one or two, and sometimes Simian Spirit Guide just isn't enough.

Take this Heartless Summoning combo deck, for example. As is, it has a possible-but-unlikely turn two win with a starting hand of Heartless Summoning, Altar of the Brood, and two Myr Retrievers. Chrome Mox is unlikely to accelerate this to turn one (you'd need literally the perfect hand, and be on the draw - already achieved better with SSG if not for the deck not wanting red mana), but it otherwise fits the deck well, recycling unneeded pieces to help play out its surprise game.

There is also a slowly growing number of exile-related synergies, such as Misthollow Griffin, Torrent Elemental, and the brand new Hedron Alignment that are all very fun cards to get creative with. Between zone silliness and fast mana, Chrome Mox is a card I'd like to be able to play with, and although its broken potential is a bit on the high end, I think variance keeps the decks that would want it in check.

3. Green Sun's Zenith
I want to start off by saying that I understand why Green Sun's Zenith is banned. Having a single card represent Dryad Arbor, Tarmogoyf, Reclamation Sage, and everything else up to Progenitus and Woodfall Primus is not only very strong, but also promotes homogenous deck building in decks with Forests.

But let's challenge that argument. On the strength side, frankly, Modern is a very fast format, and is not overly forgiving of paying an extra mana for your threat of choice. It's a good card, but in a Collected Company world where you can get choice and efficiency, I don't think it's out of control. Meanwhile, on the diversity side, certainly there are toolbox decks where playing Green Sun's Zenith would be worth it, but decks like Jund or Abzan likely wouldn't be interested - at least not in significant quantities. And although it would add to combo decks in the same way that Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling do, unlike those examples, Green Sun's Zenith isn't able to set up a known infinite combo on its own, due to its restriction on accessing only green creatures. With these factors combined, I'm not sold on the "it would be everywhere" argument.

Meanwhile, freeing it opens up a lot of fun options. Big mana and tutors is always a good time, and once-viable decks such as Elves into Craterhoof Behemoth could once again thrive, rather than relying on Ezuri, Renegade Leader.

This isn't one I'm willing to place any bets on, or even push for very hard, but if I had to pick a reasonable third card to unban for diversity and fun, Green Sun's Zenith would be the one.

So, if there is a Santa, and he's a few weeks late, this is what I want for Christmas in January. Now on the other hand, how about the cards that are keeping creativity down?

Ban Thoughtseize!

Gotcha again! Thoughtseize may be one of the best cards in the game, but getting rid of it would necessitate getting rid of hand disruption as a concept, and I think we can all agree that this is a valuable part of the game. However, there are definitely a few cards that shut down creativity in a way that I think is not only unfair, but more importantly, unfun.

1. Blood Moon
I can't imagine I'm alone in this camp.

Now let me qualify this wish first: I don't actually believe Blood Moon should be banned. It is strategically very interesting for what it does to the format, and as someone who's been playing since '93, I appreciate how iconic it is. But good god is this card a pain in the arse when you're trying to brew up something spicy.

Let me put it in simple terms: There are 331 lands in Modern, not including the ten or so we get next week with the Oath of the Gatewatch release. Blood Moon beats 326 of them. Many of those 326 lands possess highly innovative effects that can be intensely creative additions to decks. But noooooooooo, here comes the fun police. (Seriously, Blood Moon is just barely a step up from Ensnaring Bridge and Sphere of Resistance in terms of fun factor. At least Mindslaver is funny when it takes over the game.)

It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so easy to cast, but 2R for a card that can easily shut a player out of the game? It's difficult to cost an unquantifiable effect, but I think if this was made today, it would be at least 2RR, if not 3RR. However, the format adapts. Toss a few basics in your deck and fetch accordingly, and all of a sudden it's manageable enough not to ban. Drat.

2. Abrupt Decay
When I build a silly combo deck, I am willing to accept its fragility and take the according precautions that usually amount to playing a heavy dose of counter magic. The fact that Abrupt Decay forces me to instead utilize narrow cards like Apostle's Blessing, Simic Charm, Autumn's Veil, or Display of Dominance to keep my interactions safe from main deck answers feels a little bit like I'm being forced to play Pauper in a Modern tournament.

The thing is, the card is more than good enough without its uncounterable clause. It's already a nearly guaranteed value-equal or value-positive removal spell with incredible diversity, combining two fantastic aspects of colour pie removal. Being uncounterable is just straight up too powerful. It's almost a fair card against other top-tier decks, but with the added bonus of giving its controller "Protection from Interesting Opponents", it needs to get out.

A card like Kolaghan's Command is a far more reasonable approach to this type of versatility. It's slightly over-costed for its effects, and it's less ubiquitous in its targets. (The fact that both of these are played in the same deck is just disgusting, by the way. And with disruption, no less.) Unlike Blood Moon, I actually think Abrupt Decay is too powerful for the format, and although I can't see myself getting my wish, I believe it deserves to go.

3. Scavenging Ooze
The graveyard is a sacred place for shenanigans, and disabling it ought to come at a higher cost than efficient upside on an already efficiently-costed body. I'm not upset when a deck justifies main-boarding four copies of Relic of Progenitus because at least that comes with the cost of speed-bumping the rest of your deck, and its more reliable hate mode is a one-shot deal. But when a creature is solid enough to main deck a full four of them and be happy doing so even if they only use the graveyard to grow, and not disrupt opposing tech? That, my friends, is crossing the line.

Here's a short list of ways in which Scavenging Ooze could be made fair:

  • Make it start as a 1/1
  • Cost it at 2G instead.
  • Increase the cost of its ability to 1G.
  • Limit its ability to creatures only. (Plus, flavour fail: If this thing can eat Mountains, it should be a 10/10 at least.)
  • Restrict its ability to sorcery speed

But, no. It's an X/X for X, paid over as many turns as you like, and it disables the most interesting zone in Magic at a very cheap cost. Go home Scavenging Ooze - you're drunk.

Am I going to get any of my wishes? Probably not. Sword of the Meek has a chance, and I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one happy to see Blood Moon go, but I expect a reality in which I continue to curse these cards under my breath every time I try to make the game more interesting for me. (And hypocritically praise them when I play them. Hey! Don't hate the player, hate the game.)

What about you? Which banished gem's return do you quietly pray for in your sleep? Or which card's departure would have you beaming with joy? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for joining me in this cathartic rant. I think I'll go to bed now and stop obsessing over things that will never be. Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew.