The overwhelming majority of Magic-related discussion this week has, of course, centered on the surprise unbannings that were announced on Monday. There's been plenty of debate as to whether this move is in the best interests of a healthy format that currently enjoys an insane diversity in playable archetypes, and at this point that remains to be seen. There's also been plenty of people ready to rekindle their respective affaires de coeur with their favorite four-drops – and while I can't argue with anyone getting hyped about casting a walking Brainstorm factory, I'm just not seeing it with Bloodbraid Elf.
I thought Super Mario Odyssey was decent, but wasn't head over heels in love with it as many others were. This may be because I never had a Nintendo 64 (I was lucky if my parents let me use one of those games you filled with water and had to skoosh little hoops onto hooks) and therefore couldn't buy into the nostalgia of having played Super Mario 64. Similarly, as I only started playing Magic in 2012, I wasn't around for much of the peak of Bloodbraid Elf's career, and while I recognize the power level of the card, I don't think it's poised to turn Modern on its head in the same way Jace will.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but the first (and by far most important) factor at play here is that the title of this article can be sung to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. However, should you still need further convincing, there are other reasons too. Let's get to it!
In the past, classic black-green midrange decks would often top out their curve with a four-drop (or even more than one). After Bloodbraid Elf got benched in January 2013, the dominant midrange strategy at the time – good ol' Jund – adapted accordingly and began to search further afield for replacements at the four-drop slot. We saw threats like Olivia Voldaren or Huntmaster of the Fells, and as these midrange strategies evolved over time, shifting to Abzan or even straight black-green, cards like Siege Rhino and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet had their 15 minutes of fame.
Today, however, the time of the midrange four-drop is well and truly behind us. Reid Duke – the undisputed master of black-green midrange – had a hard stop at three on his curve (excepting the sideboard Damnations) as he battled to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. This decklist is emblematic of today's Modern midrange – playing tap-out threats that cost four is so five years ago.
There's a simple enough reason for today's lack of haymaker four-drops, and it's not just the printing of Fatal Push (although that comes into it). The fact of the matter is that it's much better to use turn four deploying a cheaper threat while holding up interaction than give your opponent a free turn at a stage when many decks are able to win the game on the spot.
This no-four-drop trend isn't limited to black-green based midrange, either. Death's Shadow decks of all types are loath to play threats that cost more than two – and the previous "best" version of the deck, Grixis, doesn't play any threats that cost more than one! Newer midrange competitors, such as Mardu Pyromancer, also stop the curve at two, occasionally stretching to three in small numbers. Essentially, based on how the format currently stands, there isn't room in midrange decks for sorcery-speed four-drops.
Let's look farther afield, however, to the four-drops that are played in other decks across the Modern format. Sorcery-speed four-drops that don't win the game on the spot tend not to cut the mustard in Modern outside of decks specifically engineered to exploit them. Scapeshift, Thought-Knot Seer, Cryptic Command, Collected Company – all of these cards appear in specialized decks, not the sort of general good stuff deck BBE would typically call home. When set against other commonly played four-drops, it's very clear to see that Bloodbraid Elf just doesn't compete – let's investigate a few examples.
Obviously the deck with the highest concentration of expensive cards is White-Blue Control, which will include cards such as Supreme Verdict, Cryptic Command and various planeswalkers. The key difference here, however, is that this deck is doing everything in its power to slow the game down – not something that a 3/2 haste creature is in the business of achieving.
A four-drop that often appears in much faster decks is Collected Company. Again, however, there is a key difference between the role Company plays and what BBE can bring to the table - Collected Company deploys multiple threats with meaningful selection offered to the caster. Bloodbraid Elf, on the other hand, is a middling creature plus whatever happens to be on top of your library.
Obviously both Company and BBE impose deckbuilding restrictions, and it's clear that Company's is much more stringent (Bloodbraid Elf really only asks you to play good cards that cost less than four, which most Modern decks are doing anyway). However, the instant-speed nature of Company, in addition to the fact that you can control the immediate outcome the spell offers you, puts it well above BBE in terms of utility and, arguably, power level.
Outside of cards such as these, there are precious few four-drops played in Modern – even powerhouses like Siege Rhino or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar don't make the cut these days. Other "four-drops" such as Scapeshift and Thought-Knot Seer aren't really played as "real" four-drops, and aren't really fair comparisons. It's interesting that the B&R announcement drew attention to the fact that Modern doesn't typically reward those who tap four lands to play a threat that costs four – and it's not clear that Bloodbraid Elf can change that.
If costing four is too high a bar to overcome, an obvious solution is to accelerate the deployment of a card like Bloodbraid Elf. In days of yore, BBE was played along Deathrite Shaman (and, as many pointed out at the time, died for the sins of the one-mana pseudo-planeswalker). Pairing BBE with Noble Hierarch or Birds of Paradise is a great way to have her arrive to the party nice and early – but opens up a whole host of new problems.
Firstly, current iterations of Modern midrange decks don't include mana dorks (perhaps outside of some fringe lists), as they don't fit in with the thrust of the overall grind-'em-out strategy. Birds of Paradise, on its own, isn't a powerful card – it's an enabler, and classic Rock decks require all cards to stand on their own independently. The ideal turn-one play for these decks is a discard spell, not a mana dork – and for that reason, including mana dorks just to power out a Bloodbraid Elf is undoing the cohesion of the deck's overall game plan.
Imagine cascading into a Birds of Paradise! It's bad enough having potentially blank cascades with dead removal spells, but adding cards that are actively bad cascade hits defeats the purpose of including BBE in the first place. Even something like Farseek, which would also enable a turn-three Elf, is a horrible cascade hit. It's a nasty catch-22 – tapping out on turn four is too late for BBE, but playing it any earlier makes the card meaningfully worse.
Modern is often characterized as a turn-four format, but even that may be a bit generous. Many powerful and commonly-played decks can end the game on turn three, and some can even get it done by turn two (thanks, Simian Spirit Guide). Putting a card in your deck that requires you to tap out on turn four – and not even a Splinter Twin-like card that wins on the spot – is begging for punishment.
An excellent example of the way this has influenced deck development over the past few years is with Jeskai Control. Jeskai Harbinger included Nahiri has a resilient, game-ending threat at the four-drop slot – and even she wasn't good enough against the field and got the axe. Today, Jeskai Control strategies play the instant-speed game with Cryptic Command, Sphinx's Revelation and Secure the Wastes - and most recently, Through the Breach into Emrakul. This gives a clear indication that deploying a sorcery-speed four-drop is just asking for trouble.
So many decks in the format can absolutely go to town on an opponent foolish enough to F6 through their fourth turn. Affinity will overrun you with the optimal Plating/Ravager attack, Storm will combo off unafraid and unhindered, and any deck involving Goryo's Vengeance will be counting their lucky stars to have been paired against such a greedy and foolish foe. Modern is full of decks that are poised to end games by the fourth turn, and playing a Bloodbraid Elf at that exact moment is – to be a little more diplomatic – a highly optimistic thing to do.
Finally, one of the biggest arguments in favor of Bloodbraid Elf is the timing of her return as a natural predator of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The timing of these old veterans from the "brains vs. luck" conflict joining (or re-joining) the Modern format is poetic and very neat, but it's causing people to become enormously myopic about how the cards will interact in reality. As the famous philosopher Biggie Smalls reminds us, Things Done Changed.
Instead of examining the two cards and the roles they will fill in a format as wide as Modern, players are too caught up on how things once were. The fact of the matter is that this isn't Zendikar-era Standard – Modern has a truly colossal card pool, full of other (and much better) ways to contest a Jace. If Jace makes it big, players will look for and find other (and again, much better) ways to punish an opponent who seeks to tap out on turn four to deploy him – for example, by straight-up killing them, as discussed.
The way these unbannings were paired makes it difficult not to think about the shared history of these cards, but in this instance it's highly misleading. It's very likely that Jace will have a very significant impact on Modern's development, but it's not all that likely that Bloodbraid Elf will once again be the format's savior from the big bad blue boy.
It's not a nice feeling to rain on the parades of those who are so happy to have an iconic and much-beloved card be returned to them after five years on the sidelines, but Modern has undergone some gigantic changes in the intervening time. Sadly, Bloodbraid Elf simply does not have what it takes to compete in today's fast, streamlined and sometimes brutal Modern format. I know many wizards around the world are excited to rev up those Raging Ravines, take four from their Bobs, and cascade into Kolaghan's Command – but this time around, it's just not in the cards.
- Riley Knight