January 4, 2017

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What's Next for the Modern Banned List?

The next banned list update will take place on January 16th, which has many players wondering what changes Wizards may have in store for Modern. Whenever a banned list update approaches its a good idea to look back to the vision of Modern that Aaron Forsythe released in April and recall the four principles that guide banned list decisions:

Modern should:

  • Have a diverse top-tier metagame featuring over a dozen archetypes
  • Not be dominated by fast, non-interactive decks (consistent kills before turn four are a red flag)
  • Be at a power level that allows some newly printed Standard cards to affect the format (we don't have other ways to introduce cards into the format, and we like it when cards or decks can transition)
  • Have as small a banned list as possible that accomplishes all the previous goals

For the January update it's possible that Wizards will look at recent top 8s by unusual decks like GW Tron, RW Prison and Slivers and conclude that Modern diversity is looking good and give us a "no changes" update. It seems more likely that Wizards will see a Modern top tier comprised of predominantly linear aggro decks (Infect, Burn, Affinity, Dredge, Death's Shadow Zoo) with only Jund and Tron as non-linear top tier decks. This does not sound like a "diverse top tier metagame featuring over a dozen archetypes", but it does sound like a format "dominated by fast, non-interactive decks". If Wizards chooses to intervene, I think the most likely scenario is one ban and one unban as follows:

1. Become Immense or Gitaxian Probe are banned

Slowing down the fast, non-interactive decks probably starts with putting any top tier deck that kills before turn four in the crosshairs. This points at Infect, and to a lesser extent Death's Shadow Zoo. While Infect has always had access to early game kills, the banning of Splinter Twin and the printing of Become Immense and Blossoming Defense have dramatically improved its consistency and competitiveness. In Modern the more competitive a deck becomes, the less tolerable it is for it to win before turn four.

How common or consistent is Infect’s turn three kill? Anytime the deck untaps on turn three with an Infect creature on the board the risk is very real that 10 poison is about to happen. Not only will the math often be there, but the threat will also commonly be unblockable and/or able to survive one targeted removal spell. If the sequence involves an uncontested turn one Noble Hierarch the probability of the kill skyrockets, as the extra mana and exalted trigger have a massive impact on effectively sequencing for 10 poison.

Of course untapping on turn three with a 1/1 creature on the battlefield is easier said than done. Cards like Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, and Thoughtseize can make short work of a sequence that relies on turn one Glistener Elf or turn two Blighted Agent. Enter Gitaxian Probe. Sometimes you just don’t have the answer, and sometimes the Infect pilot simply pays 2 life to know you don’t have the answer. While savvy Infect pilots usually slow roll their creatures and play around removal, even the most cautious players won’t pass up a turn three alpha-strike when Probe confirms there is no risk involved.

If Wizards wants to reduce the number of turn three Infect kills the direct hit would be Become Immense. This would eliminate Infect's ability to seamlessly leverage its graveyard as a resource and put it back on Groundswell, a less potent and less consistent source of damage. The drop in overall potency and consistency should translate into fewer opportunities to execute the turn three kill. The more surgical hit would be Gitaxian Probe, which would make sense if Wizards views Probe as the key enabler of Infect’s turn three kills. In this scenario Probe acts the same way Seething Song did for Storm and Summer Bloom did for Amulet Bloom - accelerating the deck’s kill rate despite not actually being the source of the kill itself.

Phyrexian Mana and Delve are two extremely powerful mechanics in Modern, so I would not be surprised to see either card gone on January 16th. Personally I would rather see Probe leave the format so that people have to pay at least a mana to get their Glasses of Urza on. A Probe ban might also hit Storm hard enough to make it safe to eventually unban Preordain and/or Seething Song.

2. Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned

Unbanning Stoneforge Mystic is the perfect compliment to a ban that targets Infect. Mystic is good against all of the linear aggro decks except Infect so the combination of both measures ensures that we don't just see Infect pilots switch to Dredge, or vice versa.

Is Mystic too good for Modern? The question we really ask here is whether or not a fast Batterskull is too good for Modern. A resolved Mystic will put the equipment in hand, and an uncontested Mystic will then cheat it into play well below cost as early as turn three (or as early as turn two with Simian Spirit Guide I suppose). Some players, myself included, feel that Stoneforge Mystic has been safe to unban for quite some time. Keep in mind "too good for Modern" doesn't mean a card that rivals Snapcaster Mage or Tarmogoyf, it means a card that brings us back to Deathrite Shaman Jund, Treasure Cruise Delver, Rhino Birthing Pod, Eye of Ugin Eldrazi, or (cringe) Splinter Twin top 8 levels of dominance. I am extremely skeptical that a 4/4 vigilance lifelink creature with some ploddingly slow self-protection on turn three (as a best case scenario) is comparable to any of these Modern nightmares. If it was, we would see a lot more ramp decks jamming Batterskulls and Lotus Cobra would probably be seeing more play. I look at Stoneforge/Batterskull more along the lines of fulfilling the lost promise of Sword of the Meek - a way to immediately stabilize versus linear aggro and then cruise to victory over a couple of turns if left unchecked.

There are other factors that also point to Stoneforge Mystic being fine for Modern. For starters Stoneforge Mystic is a fair midrange card that does not slot into any of the current top tier decks - neither those linear aggro decks Wizards would like to suppress, nor the format’s midrange poster child Jund. Second, the turn three Batterskull only happens when the opponent fails to kill a Squire, otherwise we’re talking about a two drop that tutors a five drop in a turn four format. Finally, for the card to actually crush Modern it would have to bring a tier two deck like Abzan Midrange, Jeskai Control, or Wx Hatebears not just up to tier one - but to a dominant tier one or even tier zero. That is a very tall order for a card that does not generate fast mana, provide extraordinarily efficient card selection, or combo with something else to immediately end the game.

To be sure, a Stoneforge Mystic unban would be a bold move. This is not a Bitterblossom or Sword of the Meek unban that is going to fuel some brew tier decks. We are talking about giving white a card on par with Tarmogoyf or Snapcaster Mage; something that you will consider running just about everytime you put together a deck in the colour. Mystic would almost certainly go straight to the top tier of the format, and Stoneforge decks would eat into the metagame share of Dredge, Burn, Affinity and even Jund. While some might worry that this is the path to the oppressive meta share that has the card banned in the first place, I am confident that Stoneforge Mystic would actually be a boon to archetype diversity. By squeezing out some of the linear aggro decks and upping the share of fair midrange decks Stoneforge Mystic would actually create more space for both Combo and Control decks - bringing a much better archetype balance to the top tier of Modern, which is ultimately Wizards first objective of the format.

Post Script: January 2nd Spoilers


The risk of writing banned list articles just around spoiler season is that new printings might invalidate some of the logic of the speculation. With the spoiler for Fatal Push I am less confident that Wizards will move against Infect with a ban right now. They will more likely wait to see if Fatal Push can rein in Infect, Burn, Death Shadow Zoo and Affinity. That still leaves Dredge relatively untouched, so Stoneforge Mystic could still be a logical move to hit Dredge while also contributing to a general salvo against all top tier linear decks.

Until next time, if you want to play fair white decks in Modern I’d get those Mystics and Batterskulls sooner rather than later - 2017 is likely to be her year!