In one week from this message on March 9th, there will be a Banned & Restricted list update. Mark your calendars! As previously announced, we plan to give advanced warning of any B&R updates going forward.— Magic: The Gathering (@wizards_magic) March 2, 2020
The way Wizards bans cards has been through a lot lately. It used to be that there was a set schedule of four days each year that bans would be announced. The number increased over time as a response to how different Magic has become over the last two decades. "Broken" formats can be solved faster than ever, because once a deck becomes the most popular it is iterated upon thousands of times more in a few weeks than it was in the entire lifespan of a format 20 years ago.
Now, bans can happen any time, but Wizards will give us a heads up that something is coming down the pipeline. Thankfully, the brief period of sudden post-lunch bans are gone. What's interesting is that we don't know which format(s) will be affected. Which format will break the threshold of "ban worthy" is a question on everyone's mind. And since the bulk of Magic players don't play or pay attention to every format, it's worth checking in on each of them to see what cards are currently the most problematic.
Underworld Breach breaks Lion's Eye Diamond wide open in a way that not even Yawgmoth's Will does. With an Underworld Breach in play, cards in hand or in the graveyard are mostly identical as long as there's a way to get cards into the graveyard to fill the escape cost, and one copy is functionally a dozen copies. Legacy conveniently has Brainfreeze, a storm card that mills either player, making it both a ritual and a win condition. The cutest part is Sevinne's Reclamation, a Commander card that can return Underworld Breach from the graveyard and, if cast from there via escape, actually returns multiple cards to generate mana more quickly.
In the most recent Legacy Challenge on Magic Online, two nearly identical copies were in the finals, with another lurking in the Top 8 and more copies further down. With a card pool that's larger than almost any other format, one deck suddenly becoming the most winning deck in a matter of weeks is nearly as big of a warning sign as the Standard Mythic Championship where Oko was in 69% of decks.
For everyone out there who wants no changes to Modern and Pioneer, this is what you want to see on Monday.
So why wouldn't it happen?
Wizards has a bit of a history in Legacy of letting things play out over longer periods than reacting to the latest trends—just look at Sensei's Divining Top and Deathrite Shaman. Yes, this combo deck is broken, but storm decks are nothing new in Legacy. Cyrus Corman-Gill and people who played his lists were winning what felt like every Legacy event last year with Storm, but WotC didn't jump to ban anything. Sure, this one might be a bit stronger, or more resilient to hate, but that doesn't mean that the format can't solve it. There are tens of thousands of cards in Legacy with effectively infinite combinations, and players need time to find the ones that will beat this newest version of Storm.
Even if it is busted (and I have to believe it is, since Yawgmoth's Will is banned), I'm not convinced that Wizards will act so quickly to ban the card in Legacy. I mostly assume that they're watching it very carefully to see if things change and, if they don't, that its time will soon be up.
For as long as I can remember, Lightning Bolt was the most popular spell in Modern, because it was the primary reason players played red at all. Now, over 50% of the Modern Challenge lists published from this weekend play Once Upon a Time. What's hilarious, and a little insulting, is that the main offender from this weekend has exactly one Forest that can even cast the card for its actual mana cost.
Finding Tron pieces or Eldrazi creatures for free is enough reason to put them in a deck that can't usually even play the spell later in the game! Something tells me that when they were creating this top-down design on how every fairy tale starts, they weren't looking to make it so ubiquitous that Eldrazi Tron registered it.
Really, though, this shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone: it's already banned in both Standard and Pioneer. The card doesn't really enable strategies, since "lands" and "creatures" are definitively the two most played card types in the entire game. It just makes them more consistent, and punishes decks that can't justify playing it. None of this is particularly interesting deckbuilding.
It's a matter of "when" and not "if" Once Upon a Time's story will come to an end in Modern.
I think Arcum's Astrolabe is much less likely to see a ban on Monday, but bear with me here: I think it's just as bad for Modern as Once Upon a Time.
Take a look at this deck from the weekend, for example:
Arcum's Astrolabe does an incredible amount of lifting in the Modern decks it's in. It represents nearly free mana fixing that cycles when played, just by playing some Basic Lands. That alone would almost make the card worth playing as a one-mana cantrip that provided any upside, but it exists in the same format as fetch lands, Mystic Sanctuary and Teferi, Time Raveler.
With Teferi, it gives the deck a card draw engine from its mana fixing. If there ever isn't a more pressing target for Teferi to bounce, picking up Arcum's Astrolabe represents drawing two cards.
Mystic Sanctuary meanwhile is supposed to be incredibly demanding on the mana base. Sure, the fetch lands could always enable it pretty easily on its own, but a deck that's playing Mystic Sanctuary, Cryptic Command, Archmage's Charm and six basic Islands shouldn't also be able to easily play Supreme Verdict. And this deck is actually pretty tame—some lists get even greedier.
Astrolabe even has infrequent benefits with cards like Engineered Explosives, or against cards like Blood Moon. It works in the artifact lists, and was a four-of in the former Oko, Thief of Crowns / Urza, Lord High Artificer decks from a couple months ago. It's seeing play now in Pascal Maynard's Grinding Station combo deck. At some point, this one-mana card starts to look more silly than a good amount of the Modern ban list. Sure, Preordain is really good, but it's fundamentally just a cantrip. Arcum's Astrolabe fills multiple roles in a way Preordain never could.
We weren't done yet with Underworld Breach! The card is too easy to exploit, and it took Pioneer by storm at the Players Tour. One Tome Scour somewhere in the deck is enough to make old Lotus Field decks mathematically guaranteed to mill themselves, and now everyone shows up to Pioneer tournaments with four or more slots of graveyard hate or cards like Damping Sphere and Deafening Silence to fight it.
Sure, some weeks it may be correct to cut a few, but once everyone does that the deck is primed to take over again for a weekend. Maybe that makes the metagame a bit more interesting, but it feels so fragile if printing the right card could suddenly make the deck too powerful. Perhaps rather than waiting, Wizards wants to rip the band-aid off now and free up everyone's sideboards instead.
Dig Through Time is in a weird spot. It's restricted in Vintage, banned in Legacy and Modern and… fully allowed in Pioneer. Sure, there aren't real fetch lands in Pioneer which weakens it considerably, but cheap interaction and Fabled Passage fill the graveyard quickly enough that it can usually be cast on turn four. After that, it can be cast with mana left over to spend on the cards it got. All of this would make Dig Through Time obnoxious to play against, but not necessarily busted.
But, of course, it acts as both a way to find the Inverter of Truth combo and set up the perfect Doomsday library for it once Inverter resolves.
So why Dig Through Time over Inverter of Truth, or Thassa's Oracle? Frankly, because it's not really about those cards. Sure, this version of the combo is currently the best, but before this was Nexus of Fate. That deck lost its signature card preemptively, and Dig Through Time still found its way to the top of the format in another form. No matter what, a Dig Through Time deck is going to find its way there, likely via some two-card combo that it finds incredibly easily by looking at seven cards to find the missing one.
Realistically, it's possible that banning Dig does necessitate an Underworld Breach ban, as the deck naturally preys on Breach pretty well with disruption and then racing it to the combo. Which it can do, because it so frequently finds an Inverter with Dig.
I'd like to start off by making it clear that I don't think there will be any changes to Standard. I assume that the metagame, if a bit slow, is not in a position where Wizards wants to do anything. That said, I do think there are two cards that are so close to problematic that it wouldn't shock me to see them banned.
Bant Midrange, Jeskai Fires, Azorius Control, Esper Hero. All of them play four copies of Teferi, Time Raveler without any hesitation, because he is such a trump card to opponents' game plans. No discounted Embercleave, no reacting to a freshly played Cavalier of Flame, no stopping Dream Trawler from attacking. Teferi single-handedly necessitates the high number of Mystical Dispute we see played, despite that card's tendency to go dead in long games. It combines perfectly with Elspeth Conquers Death by Repulse-ing early creatures to slow their clock for the powerful card. If Teferi dies, Elspeth Conquers Death Revives it. If Teferi lives, it can return Elspeth Conquers Death to hand before the Saga is up to answer any future plays.
None of this makes for enjoyable play patterns.
We don't have the same sort of data for Standard as we have for other formats, because most of it gets played on Arena instead of Magic Online, and we didn't get all the winning decklists from the Mythic Point Challenge last week. All I can offer is anecdotal evidence: there was an absurd amount of Teferi, Time Raveler the last week.
Aether Gust is everywhere right now, because even Temur Clover can play it. The card is absurd against Mono-Red, because it can answer both Anax, Hardened in the Forge and Embercleave. It's an answer to resolved permanents and spells on the stack. It's an early way to remove Fervent Champion, and a later answer to Nissa, Who Shakes the World. In a pinch, it can move a Hydroid Krasis out of the way. It is (hilariously) a clean answer to Cavalier of Thorns in response to its own ability. Because it's an instant, it can even be used inside an opponent's draw step to prevent them from re-drawing the card for one more turn, a play most relevant against Nissa to limit how they can use the mana from its ability. Weirdly (and definitely rarely) it even has the ability to save your own permanents if you want. I have definitely cast Aether Gust on my own Nissa, Who Shakes the World before.
Fry, Noxious Grasp and Devout Decree are all basically just variations on Doom Blade. Yes, they're very powerful, but they're barely more than efficient one-for-one answers. Aether Gust gets to be a blue Doom Blade and Counterspell and Naturalize against green and red.
It's a little tricky to untangle Aether Gust from Teferi, Time Raveler though. Teferi invalidates aggressive decks that don't have haste, because a two-drop being bounced is practically a death knell for aggro vs. control. Haste, of course, shows up primarily in red, so that the Azorius decks play a massive amount of Aether Gusts to protect Teferi. Would the format be able to play black or green aggro if there were fewer Teferis? Maybe!
Looking at it all, if I had to pick just one place where I assume something is going to get banned, it's Modern. Once Upon a Time is overly prevalent in the format. Primeval Titan and the Tron lands just get too much more than any other deck, and banning Once is a simple way to nerf both strategies without outright killing either one.
But like everyone reading this, I'll be refreshing Twitter Monday morning to find out what actually gets banned.