For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every threat prompts a commensurate response. Every answer brings about a question worthy of it. For everyone trying to create chaos, there are others pushing for order. Evil clashes against good. Violence fights an endless war against peace. Most of us are merely pawns in the game. We live our lives, simply existing through the battle raging around us. But every generation spits out a few choice characters who define the stories of their eras. There are the villains who threaten to bring an end to happiness and the heroes who rise up to oppose them.
It's when the threats scale up in size so much that they risk the destruction of civilizations, worlds, and even the entire universe that we need something truly heroic to oppose them. We need an equal and opposite reaction. We need heroes with the power to stop a world-ending force, and sometimes that presses unlikely characters from different backgrounds with different motivations to band together as a team to fulfill their destiny...bringing about temporary peace until the next cycle begins and everything is plunged once more into turmoil.
Monastery Mentor, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Snapcaster Mage are three such characters. Three unlikely heroes from different worlds, with different stories and different lives, forced together to oppose one of the greatest threats to competitive Magic we've ever seen: The Eldrazi. The spindly-legged Thought-Knot Seer and unfathomable Reality Smasher, fueled by the mysterious Eye of Ugin have threatened to destroy formats in their wake and humanity's last hope comes down to these three plucky underdogs. Together, they form The Greatwatch, a loose alliance with one singular goal, destroying as many tentacled monsters as they can get their grubby little hands on. This is their story...
That's how many cards are on the Modern Ban List. If you get rid of all of them at once, what reigns supreme? That question was proposed last weekend in the most unlikely of places. Roanoke, Virginia is home to some of the most questionable Magic players in the world...and also me, and it played host to a tournament that sought to test the limits of what we consider reasonable Magic.
I wasn't planning on playing in this event. After all, I was going to win the SCG Invitational and be crowned The Champion of that event. I wouldn't have time for tournaments like this. Unfortunately, sometimes even the most-mediocre-laid plans fall through. Not only did I not win the Invitational, I failed to even make it to the second day of competition.
That left me scrambling Friday night to put together a deck for the No Ban List Modern Open. I could have just scoured the internet and copied a deck that I found online, but I felt like this might be the only time I ever play in a tournament like this, and I wanted to just battle with the cards that I wanted to play with. I wanted to see if I could brew up something competitive, but most importantly, I just wanted something I would actually have fun playing.
In this case, those cards were Stoneforge Mystic, Treasure Cruise and Gitaxian Probe. Some of us just can't move on from our past glory days. One of my favorite decks ever was the Jeskai Stoneblade deck I played at Grand Prix New Jersey in 2014, featuring these self-same cards, and I was excited about getting the gang back together.
Was. Was is the operative word there. Enter Jarvis K. Yu stage left. Jarvis is a good friend of mine and Jarvis and Steve Nagy were staying at my house for the Invitational. Jarvis, out of both the kindness of his heart and because he thrives on beating me senseless, decided to help me test out my Stoneblade deck. Jarvis took 60 draft commons, sharpied up a random decklist he found online on the back of them and then beat my White-Blue Stoneblade deck mercilessly game after game after game until all the joy had left my eyes and I was left sitting there, head in hands, dead inside. Jarvis beat Stoneforge Mystic out of me, and it was back to the drawing board again.
It was time to turn to another favorite deck of mine. White-Blue Miracles. Miracles is a deck that I would describe as some good old-fashioned unfair and counter-balanced Magic. I did what any self-respecting person would do, I googled my last Miracles list from Legacy before they banned Sensei's Divining Top, and then I constructed a list that replicated it as closely as I could.
I ended up taking second place in the tournament with this deck. If I had known that I was going to play Eldrazi nine times in 18 rounds, I would have made a few card changes to my list and I think I could have won the tournament. Granted, everyone can make that same claim. Regardless, the deck ended up being very good, and I was carried by the raw power level of my cards.
In some regards, Miracles in No Ban List Modern is actually just better than Miracles in Legacy. For one, Wasteland isn't a card in the format, so there is no need to construct your deck with extra mana sources to anticipate losing a few lands along the way. I played only 20 lands instead of the 21 or more I would customarily play in Legacy. I also got to be a bit more greedy with my mana base, playing two copies of Field of Ruin that were phenomenal all weekend at taking care of problematic lands. Secondly, Mental Misstep is, in some ways, better than Force of Will. It's less flexible and less universally applicable, but in matchups where it is good, it's unbelievably good. It's a cheap and free Counterspell that doesn't leave you down a resource like Daze or Force of Will require.
Lastly, there is this card called Dig Through Time that is pretty freaking good. There was a period of time when Dig Through Time was legal in Legacy and I had the pleasure of playing with it in Legacy Miracles, and Dig was and continues to be a disgusting and game-breaking card. There were not many games I lost after casting Dig Through Time, although admittedly, they did exist.
This tournament was an absolute blast to play. I had a wide grin on my face in game one of round one when my opponent cast Skullclamp and I got to slam a Mental Misstep on it. I knew right then and there that I was in for a hell of an awesome event. I was very gruntled that I would get to play in this tournament. There is something truly Magical about brewing up a deck for a format that doesn't exist and having to predict what decks you think people are going to show up with and what cards you'll need to put in your deck to combat them.
I included Field of Ruin and Repeal in my deck on Todd Anderson's suggestions, as he had played some of the format before. I had this expectation that Dark Depths would be the best thing you could do and wanted cheap answers to Marit Lage. Turns out I played against Dark Depths zero times in the swiss, but both cards still ended up being really good, although I don't think I'd play more than just the one copy of Repeal. I added Detention Sphere as a Council's Judgment replacement. I had a feeling there was going to be a lot of Chalice of the Void in the room and I wanted a guaranteed way to get rid of problem cards like that. Unfortunately, you cannot Repeal a Chalice of the Void on one counter, as Repeal costs just one mana in that scenario, which made having a hard answer a necessity. Detention Sphere was amazing and a life saver in many ways.
I had no clue that Eldrazi would be as huge a part of the field as it was. I ended up playing against the Tentacled Horrors a full 50% of the matches in the event. I ended up going 6-3 against those monstrous Abominations, and in hindsight I would have made some massive changes to my deck. For one, I had eight cards that did absolutely nothing in my main deck: the four Mental Missteps and the four Counterbalances. Secondly, I could have drastically increased my win percentage against the deck by doing something as simple as splashing for Blood Moon or adding Ensnaring Bridge to my sideboard.
Live and learn.
One thing about playing the No Ban List Modern event is that it's a very good barometer for showing what cards deserve to remain on the banlist, but it doesn't do a great job of necessarily illuminating what cards can safely come off. For example, cards like Glimpse of Nature, Skullclamp, Deathrite Shaman, Gitaxian Probe, and Rite of Flame are very powerful cards that would be very risky to unban, but they didn't put up a great showing in this event because they were either outclassed by even more broken strategies or because they were held in check by Mental Misstep.
One thing I found interesting is that there is a huge hatred toward the card Mental Misstep, but in many ways Misstep was the card that allowed No Ban List Modern to function as a format. Much like how Force of Will in Legacy holds a lot of broken strategies in check, Mental Misstep also did a great job of making sure some of these powerful cards weren't able to completely dominate the event. Not only was Mental Misstep one of the "good guys" in this tournament, it was actually one of the more fun cards to play with and against. The only deck I didn't enjoy having access to Mental Misstep was Eldrazi and that was mostly just because Eldrazi was so unbelievably good that it hurt when they also got to counter my Sensei's Divining Tops and Path to Exiles.
Despite No Ban List not being a very good way to judge exactly which cards are safe to unban, I still think there was a lot of value from playing the format and a lot that can be learned from it. One thing that I found extremely interesting is that if you take the overbearing power of Eldrazi out of the equation, No Ban List Modern was actually less degenerate than regular Modern. Yes, decks were more powerful, but a lot of the powerful cards cancelled each other out. Games were actually fun, interesting and rich with decision points. I didn't get killed earlier than turn four a single time in the entire event, and most games I played lasted until turn 8-10 at the very least. Games actually felt a lot like playing Legacy, and there weren't any games in the event where I felt completely helpless to do anything against what my opponent was throwing out there.
It's possible that the format would just devolve into degeneracy if it became a real format that people were actually trying to break. Then again, who knows? Maybe it would actually be fine. Maybe the format is more resilient than I give it credit for. Based on the one event I played and the games of Magic that I enjoyed in that tournament, the No Ban List Modern format that I experienced was a better format than actual Modern. I know that is a pretty ridiculous claim to make, but the format actually did seem pretty healthy.
I could see No Ban List Modern being a real format in the future, and I could see it actually being a good format at that. Transitioning back to actual Modern, however, here are some things I learned.
Eye of Ugin
Sensei's Divining Top
Dig Through Time
These are the cards that seemed way too good when people were playing them at the event. Eye of Ugin was by far the most busted card on the banned list, as Eldrazi made up 22% of the day two metagame, yet 62.5% of the Top 8, and I even knocked out three different Eldrazi pilots in rounds 13, 14, and 15 to keep them out of Top 8. Eldrazi then went on to win the event. I would not have been surprised to see a full eight Eldrazi decks in the top eight based on what I was seeing at the top tables, and I think I got lucky to squeak by so many Eldrazi decks, as I think I had a matchup disadvantage. I actually woke up at 4:30 AM the night before the event and threw three Ceremonious Rejection in my sideboard, and if I hadn't had that middle-of-night epiphany, I would have never made it very far in the event.
Dark Depths, while only putting two pilots in the Top 8, was very much underplayed in the event and there are a lot of decks that either can't beat a turn 2-3 Marit Lage or have to get extremely lucky to do so. I cannot imagine this card being a fair part of our current Modern format.
Top, Dig, Cruise, and Probe are just fundamentally broken cards that are so much better than nearly everything else. It's not like these cards by themselves represent any broken strategies, but they are just so efficient and powerful that they stifle so many other cards. There is a reason that three of these cards are banned in Legacy, and I don't think the fourth, Gitaxian Probe, is going to survive for more than another year or two.
Glimpse of Nature
Green Sun's Zenith
Rite of Flame
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales
Vault of Whispers
None of these cards were defining cards in No Ban List Modern, but it's hard to evaluate whether they didn't make an impact because they are appropriately powered for Modern or because they simply got outclassed hard by some of the more broken cards in the format.
Take the artifact lands, for example. I played once against Affinity in the event and the artifact lands did not seem to really matter at all in the games we played. I would say an artifact-land based Affinity deck could probably end up being a decent strategy in the format, but then again, maybe not. Affinity is not a great strategy in Legacy, and decks like Eldrazi, Dark Depths, and White-Blue Counter-Top were strategies that played at a near-Legacy power level. Affinity was just outclassed.
However, that might not be true in actual Modern. While I don't think the artifact lands would improve the actual affinity deck that much – are they actually better than Inkmoth and Blinkmoth Nexus? – I could see them take a deck like KCI from being a tier one strategy to being an overpowered strategy.
Hypergenesis is another card that did nothing in the event. It didn't seem like many players were playing the strategy, but the Hypergenesis deck gets colded hard by Chalice of the Void on zero, so it's hard to imagine it ever being good in a field of Eldrazi. However, this is a deck that probably shouldn't exist in the real Modern format. While it might not even be good, it's certainly not a fun deck and doesn't promote an interesting format.
Of the cards on this list, the ones I think could potentially come off the banlist are Green Sun's Zenith, Preordain, Splinter Twin, Umezawa's Jitte, and Punishing Fire. These cards are powerful, but most of them are also cards that generally promote slower games of Magic or are capable of being interacted with. I'm not directly advocating to unban these cards, just stating that I could see them come off the ban list and be a fine part of the format.
I think the Modern format has sped up enough that Birthing Pod wouldn't necessarily be too good anymore. Birthing Pod was nowhere to be found at the No Ban List Open and it's hard to envision a Pod deck powerful enough to compete with decks like Eldrazi with Jitte or Dark Depths or Blazing Shoal Infect. Pod could probably hang with or outclass a Countertop strategy purely on a matchup advantage, but other than that, I don't think it would have many good matchups in this format.
Our current Modern format has decks like Humans and Hollow One that are fast and aggressive and disruptive, and I think Birthing Pod would be appropriately powered to be able to sometimes grind these decks out but frequently just get run over as well.
As for Stoneforge Mystic, Stoneforge just seemed downright embarrassing in No Ban List Modern and I have a hard time imagining Stoneforge Mystic having an enormous effect on Modern itself. After Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor came off the banlist and didn't ruin Modern, I think Stoneforge is a very safe unban. I felt like Stoneforge Mystic was worse than Jace, anyway, and Stoneforge Mystic has never been legal in this format so it's hard to definitively say that it would be too good. Stoneforge Mystic doesn't even have Umezawa's Jitte to search up. Various Swords are pretty weak in Modern on power level, so it's really just the Stoneforge-Batterskull interaction that would be relevant. I don't think a turn three 4/4 lifelink-vigilance creature that requires four mana of investment to deploy would be too good in a format where people are playing 5/5s on turn two and 4/4s on turn four while other decks play lots of Kolaghan's Commands.
While the No Ban List Modern event was just one event playing a non-real format, it was a great experience, and I felt like I learned a lot. In some ways it took me back 10 years to when I was a newer player and would just brew up decks and bring them to events and hope they were good against other people's decks. I missed that part of Magic. It's something I've lost along the way of grinding hours on Magic Online and trying to perfect lists weeks in advance of events. In some ways it is Magic at its purest, and I'm so happy that I got to experience that again. And I came out the other side with an improved understanding of some of the cards on the Modern banlist and how powerful they actually are. I knew Eye of Ugin was good, but I would not have guessed that it is actually one of the most powerful cards on the banlist.
I don't know if there will ever be another No Ban List Modern event for me to play, but I hope so. I'm already looking forward to it.
The Monastery Mentor and his acolytes were fighting, always fighting, but they were running out of steam. The physics-defying nature of the Dldrazi combined with their speed and numbers was becoming too much to defeat, no matter their prowess in combat. The Mentor felt something brush into his back. He quickly turned and saw a dead Eldrazi Mimic sliding past him. He had been so focused on the Reality Smashers rushing his front that he hadn't even noticed the Mimic there. If it hadn't been for Snapcaster Mage shooting it through the gut with his...well...with whatever that gun thing is, he would have been dead right there. Were his Reflexes failing him that badly?
He suffered a quick glance to his right and saw Jace dispelling Eldrazi Into the Void, but their numbers were not dwindling. No matter how powerful the Mind Sculptor was, it would only take three damage from an attacking Matter Reshaper to reduce his loyalty to zero, thus causing him to die to state-based effects. The Mentor snapped back to look ahead as more Eldrazi poured over the hills ahead and even more yet just simply materialized into being. No matter how many they had destroyed, more seemed to always present themselves. This was a losing battle. The Greatwatch were done. The monsters were winning...were going to win. As he ripped apart another Thought-Knot Seer, the Mentor resigned himself to his fate and his death.
Despite his grim conclusions, he allowed himself a small smile. He knew something these mindless creatures did not. This was only one battle, not the entire war. While the Greatwatch failed their purpose, more would follow in their place. This wasn't over, not even close. His job was done, but the universe always had a way of balancing itself.
The Mentor balanced himself as he prepared for another onslaught, one he would not survive. The tentacle horrors dismembered him limb from limb, but before the air left his lungs, he managed to spit out one last phrase…
"Phyrexian Mana was a mistake."