After both Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were simultaneously unbanned, many people anticipated Jace to be the card that would immediately see abundant top-level play. While Jace is making the rounds in various blue decks, it was Bloodbraid Elf that put up the numbers at the Magic Online Championship (MOCS) this weekend – there were over three times as many copies of BBE than JTMS. It seems the people who rained on the Bloodbraid parade must sit down and gobble their way through a steaming hot bowl of their own words.
Look, I'm not here to point fingers or play the blame game. There's no need to focus on who said what, or how wrong this person or that person was. Certain people said certain things that made them look rather foolish, y'know, and that's just about all there is to it.
There's a hidden reason for the very visible overperformance of Bloodbraid Elf, however. While everyone is experimenting with updating existing archetypes with Jace or seeking out entirely new decks he enables, Bloodbraid Elf's once and future home was waiting – pipe and slippers at the ready – for her return. In other words, it has been very easy to find the right shell in which BBE can truly shine, because largely speaking, it's the same as it used to be when she was last with us.
Sure, Black-Green Rock decks have been updated with some new cards since 2013 – there are allied fetch lands, there is Fatal Push, and perhaps most significantly, there is Kolaghan's Command as another extremely efficient value engine. In broad strokes, however, Good Old Jund hasn't changed all that much, and Bloodbraid Elf is once again right at home. Essentially, the "best" BBE deck is already known, since it hasn't really stopped existing (even if it stopped being good) since BBE was banned half a decade ago.
This is a very important – and somewhat subtler – reason for the resurgence of Jund decks today. Anyone looking to exploit BBE in Jund has a massive head start on, for example, someone looking to exploit JTMS is White-Blue Control – as there is just so much more data available to the Jund player. Jund has been a deck for years and years, across Standard as well as Modern, and so there's much less experimentation needed to find the best BBE shell. If you want to get it done with BBE, Just Play Jund.
There are two pretty significant things to bear in mind when considering the future of the Modern format now that Bloodbraid Elf is running those midrange streets. The first is that this is not a settled question – Jund is by no means the best deck in the format, and there's still a fair bit of distance to cover with Jace. The second is that the unbanning of Bloodbraid Elf seems to justify the rationale R&D stated as being behind the unbans in the first place – Modern mana curves, generally speaking, are becoming top-heavier.
There's no arguing that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an absurdly powerful card. On the face of things, however, Jace doesn't seem to be living up to his reputation in Modern. While seeing plenty of play in blue decks, Jace hasn't ruined Modern, he hasn't warped or defined the format – he hasn't really done much to change things at all, really. Slower blue decks have picked him up and found room in their 75s, but the fortunes of decks like White-Blue Control and Jeskai haven't suddenly skyrocketed.
Jund was immediately propelled from zero to hero almost overnight thanks to BBE, whereas Jace hasn't done the same with blue decks. The immediate and all-too-obvious takeaway from this fact is that BBE rules and Jace sucks, but this is a rather myopic view to take of things. The fact of the matter is that we just haven't found the right deck for Jace to do his best work. Replacing Jace, Architect of Thought with Jace, the Mind Sculptor is easy; finding a new, format-crushing Jace list is not. BBE had a career to return to, as a headline act for Jund; Jace is completely new to Modern, and it may take some time yet to find the right home for him.
Or perhaps Guillaume Matignon is three steps ahead of us all, and found the solution this weekend.
This deck really is a chip off the old block, and represents the mindset deckbuilders need to take if Jace is to be properly broken into Modern. It isn't necessarily going to be three Time Warps, two Explores, and an Emrakul that are going to end up being bezzie mates with Jace – the point is that when the format-defining Jace deck emerges, it will look very different to what we're used to seeing. It will be something wild, something inventive and off-the-wall, that finally thrusts Jace into his rightful place as the king of Modern.
What will this deck look like? Right now, it's hard to say. Modern is in such a state of change at the moment that it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which kind of deck is best to move forward with. It has to be something with game against such a huge variety of powerful archetypes. Jace is also held back by the supremacy of one of blue control's natural predators, the deck my mate Henry Tsang refers to as "Vegan Tron." Why? Because like vegan food, it's mono-green and everyone hates it.
It could be something like Modern Miracles, which has gained a lot of momentum recently while still requiring a lot of work. Conversely, it could be a creature-based strategy that works well with Jace – as Matignon suspected – so as to defend the planeswalker long enough to overtake a game. Whichever direction things go, the good news for those looking to find the right Jace deck is that the format seems to be starting to slow down and offer a bit more breathing room, which brings us to the next important post-unban lesson.
In unbanning two very powerful four-drops, R&D explicitly stated that their objective in doing so was to slow down the format a little, and encourage players to include cards that are higher on the mana curve. Modern is often said to be a "turn-four format," but recently with the gameplay of deck like Storm, Five-Color Humans, and of course the dreaded turn-three Karn from Tron mean that games of Modern are often decided before turn four. In unbanning both BBE and JTMS, R&D attempted to incentivize players to include more expensive cards – and at first blush, this appears to be working.
Let's compare the Abzan deck that Reid Duke played to a Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan to the Jund deck he brought to this weekend's MOCS. Duke's Abzan list included all the typical powerhouse cards offered by Black-Green Rock, backed up by Lingering Souls and various sideboard cards, but it's abundantly clear that a central focus of this deck is the mana cost of its cards. By including cards like Nihil Spellbomb and Grim Flayer, Duke kept this list very, very low to the ground, favoring low cost over raw power.
Contrast the pre-unban Abzan list with the Jund decks we saw in Seattle over the weekend, and it's very obvious that things are shifting. Raising the curve has real consequences – gone are many of the cheap cards one might have thought were indispensable, as the deck instead refocuses on maximizing cascade triggers by including more powerful three-drops. Further, it's not only are these expensive cards eating into the one- and two-drop slots; a higher curve necessitates more lands, which is another force causing players to shave cheap cards. Duke's most recent Jund list shows us how the priorities of this tried-and-tested midrange strategy are shifting.
It's astonishing to see such a huge pivot away from what we've become used to in Black-Green Rock strategies over the last few months. Duke's list – which is generally emblematic of most of the Jund lists at the MOCS – maxes out on Lightning Bolt (perhaps as being excellent against both Jace and BBE), and believe it or not, this comes at the cost of Fatal Push! A card that was virtually an obligate four-of in black decks only weeks ago has been sidelined completely from Duke's main deck. It's quite astonishing.
Another surprising consensus amongst everyone who brought Bloodbraid Elf to Seattle was the fact that she was, without exception, played as a four-of – this held true for all seven of the Jund decks as well as the two Five-Color Zoo lists. Once again, if you consider the list of pre-unban four-drops in Modern (for which people actually paid a fair-and-square four mana), the first thing you realize is that it's not very long. Now, however, we have seemingly-automatic playsets of Bloodbraid Elf being played in tournaments with six-figure payouts.
Make no mistake, this isn't nostalgia for the glory days of Jund - this is a strong portent of things to come. R&D set out to slow down the format and strengthen the top-end of Modern decks, and they seem to have succeeded – so far, at least.
Bloodbraid Elf may have got the jump on Jace in establishing herself in today's Modern format, but this chapter has a long way to go yet. Don't count Jace out just yet, as it'll take a little more time to find the best deck in which he can really start throwing his weight around. The best thing about this whole process is that Modern's recent success as a terrific format hasn't been hamstrung by the unbans. It'll be very exciting to see how things continue to develop from here!
- Riley Knight