The next banned list announcement is January 18, 2016. Today I would like to share my thoughts on what I believe should happen to Modern at that time, in hopes that this will generate discussion that helps to inform WOTC's decision concerning what to ban and unban.
In Legacy, the "unfair" combo decks are mostly held in check by Force of Will. No matter how powerful, fast, or efficient the combo, Force of Will can disrupt it as early as the first turn and at minimal cost. In Modern, the closest equivalent is Disrupting Shoal, which is much narrower and less capable of keeping the "unfair" combo decks in check.
In the absence of such a card to keep the combo decks in check, Modern must continually update its banned list to ensure fun and interactive game play. One of the stated goals of Modern is to prevent any deck from being able to reliably end the game before the fourth turn. This is a healthy goal, in my opinion, and I would add a caveat to this goal by stating that if a deck can reliably end the game before the fourth turn, it is only problematic if it cannot be easily disrupted by a variety of commonly played cards in the format.
For example, Infect can kill by turn three a reasonably high percentage of the time, but many commonly played cards can prevent them from doing so. Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile can kill any of their threats. Every deck has access to Dismember to disrupt them. Blockers stop all their attackers except Blighted Agent. Spellskite blocks half their threats while turning off all of their pump spells. Become Immense would be the main culprit if anything were to get banned, but due to the ease with which any deck can interact with and disrupt this deck, I see it as a healthy and not overpowered deck in the metagame.
Splinter Twin is another archetype that pushes the envelope slightly when it comes to being "unfair" but for different reasons. With Birds of Paradise it can kill by turn three, but nobody plays mana acceleration in Twin because there is no need for the deck to try and end the game before the fourth turn. The blue cards allow it to play disruptive elements to combat other combo decks (Remand, Dispel, Cryptic Command) while also protecting its own combo. It can also outrace many of the other combo decks since it can kill fairly reliably by the fourth turn if unhindered. The biggest strike against Twin is that it has been winning tournaments approximately as often as Birthing Pod was prior to its banning. This success rate is certainly something to monitor but, much like with Infect, I see Twin as a healthy and not overpowered deck in the metagame. Instant speed creature kill (Dismember, Path to Exile, Rending Volley, Abrupt Decay) all stop the combo, as does Spellskite, not to mention the many narrower answers such as Linvala, Keeper of Silence, Ghostly Prison, Torpor Orb, etc. One of the reasons Twin has had so much success is because it can play out as a midrange Snapcaster Mage deck that can suddenly combo kill an opponent. This makes the deck harder to Defeat in post-board games because if you bring in too many answers to their combo, they might just beat you without the combo. Either way, I see it as a healthy "best deck" to have in the format that keeps the more degenerate combo decks in check while offering real interactive game play experiences in most of its matchups.
Affinity is the second best deck in Modern behind Twin. If anything were to get banned out of Affinity, Cranial Plating would be the culprit. Or, if you wanted to nerf Affinity and Infect, then Inkmoth Nexus could be an option. I don't think any of these actions should be taken though. Affinity is a very difficult deck to beat game one as its draws are consistently explosive and require multiple removal spells and/or blockers in addition to a way to handle Cranial Plating. The Snapcaster Mage decks can usually keep up and some of the combo decks can race, but most decks rely on their sideboards to win the match. Affinty is one of the easiest decks in the format to hate out. Stony Silence wrecks half the deck, Shatterstorm and Creeping Corrosion cripple it, and combinations of less specific cards like Kolaghan's Command and Lingering Souls are often enough. Affinity is known as the deck that always wins game one, which is mostly true (though exaggerated), but is a big underdog to win through the sideboard hate in games two and three. I like having Affinity in the format and I don't think it's too powerful.
There are, however, a few decks in the format that break the turn four rule and, unlike Infect, are not easy to disrupt or interact with. The primary offender in this case is the Amulet Bloom deck. It uses Amulet of Vigor in combination with Summer Bloom and Ravnica bounce lands to generate enough mana to cast Primeval Titan or Hive Mind on the same turn. If it casts Hive Mind, it then casts a Future Sight Pact to win the game on the opponent's ensuing upkeep. If instead it casts Primeval Titan (and it has four Summoner's Pacts to find the Titan), then it will search out a Slayers' Stronghold and Boros Garrison to give the Titan haste, attack for eight, and search out two more lands, often including Tolaria West which it can then transmute for a Summoner's Pact to find a backup Primeval Titan in case the opponent answers the first one. The combo is consistent because Summoner's Pact works to find the Titan or as a combo piece to instantly win with Hive Mind. It also has access to four copies of Ancient Stirrings in addition to the usual Serum Visions to smooth out its draws.
The biggest problem with the Amulet Bloom deck is that if it draws both Amulet of Vigor and Summer Bloom in its opening hand it can "go off" on the second turn. And if it also has Simian Spirit Guide, it can go off on the first turn! And no commonly played cards in the format can stop it. Dismember doesn't stop Primeval Titan or Hive Mind and Path to Exile barely helps since they can get Tolaria West off the second Primeval Titan Trigger (to find Summoner's Pact to find another Titan). It is a much bigger offender than Infect since it is much more difficult to disrupt or to interact with profitably. Out of this deck I would ban Summer Bloom, unless a different card like Amulet of Vigor will be made problematic by a card slated to be printed in the next year that does not yet exist (in which case I would instead ban Amulet). Summer Bloom seems like the more dangerous card though. And if someone wants to continue playing the deck with only Azusa, Lost but Seeking as acceleration, then that would be perfectly fair since Azusa is slower and much easier to interact with (e.g. you can Lightning Bolt Azusa with the Amulet trigger on the stack and the player will not be able to play additional lands).
Another deck that egregiously breaks the turn four rule is Goryo's Vengeance. It casts first turn Faithless Looting, discarding Griselbrand, and then uses Goryo's Vengeance on the second turn to bring it from the graveyard to the battlefield with haste. It then draws 14 cards, reliably finding a Nourishing Shoal and either Worldspine Wurm or Borborygmos Enraged, which can be exiled to gain life to draw more cards off Griselbrand. It then pitches a few Simian Spirit Guides, casts Manamorphose to filter for black mana, and casts Goryo's Vengeance on Borborygmos Enraged so that if the combat damage is not lethal, the discarding of lands would surely be. The deck can win as early as turn one, but usually doesn't win until turn two or three. The deck is not as consistent as Amulet Bloom, Twin, or some of the other combo decks, which is the main reason its win rate in tournaments is lower than these other combo decks. Sometimes it fizzles while going off and other times it just can't find all the pieces in time. Even still, the deck breaks the turn four rule and does so in a way that makes for unfun and uninteractive games of Magic. Even a Path to Exile does little to disrupt the second turn Griselbrand because they still draw dozens of cards and set up to kill you the following turn. Out of this deck I would ban Goryo's Vengeance. Through the Breach costs five mana and is therefore much easier to interact with. Goryo's Vengeance is the card that leads to the unfair draws.
There are several other combo decks in Modern, none of which are overpowered or difficult to interact with. Scapeshift requires getting at least seven lands onto the battlefield and resolving its namesake spell. Collected Chord decks win via a three card combo consisting of creatures that all die to Lightning Bolt and Dismember, making that combo easy to interact with and break up. Ad Nauseam can sometimes win on turn three but usually not until turn four (and is designed to wait until turn four when its Lotus Bloom resolves). Ad Nauseam is also fairly easy to disrupt as it requires resolving its namesake five mana spell in addition to Angel's Grace on the same turn or Phyrexian Unlife on the turn prior. Living End is soft to graveyard hate, of which there is an abundance (Relic of Progenitus, Scavenging Ooze, Nihil Spellbomb, Rest in Peace) and also to countermagic or Ethersworn Canonist effects. U/R Storm is a little harder, but it has difficulty beating Abrupt Decay or Rest in Peace and cannot win through an Ethersworn Canonist effect. Beating Snapcaster Mage decks is also no walk in the park.
So if we start with the premise that "we don't want anyone regularly winning prior to turn four" and add the caveat "unless doing so is easily disrupted by a variety of commonly played cards in the format," then we see that the only two offenders are Summer Bloom and Goryo's Vengeance, each of which enable their respective combo deck to "go off" by the second turn an unhealthy amount of the time and, with Simian Spirit Guide, each deck can sometimes win on the first turn! Therefore my recommendation is to ban those two cards, not because either deck is too good (each wins less than Twin or Affinity) but rather because, unlike these other decks, Summer Bloom and Goryo's Vengeance lead to non-interactive games that result in a poor Magic experience.
So what should be unbanned?
The first thing we should keep in mind when deciding what to unban is to make sure we don't unban anything that will break the turn four rule and thereby introduce an unhealthy element into the format that lessens players' game play experience. For example, unbanning Blazing Shoal would not be a great idea since that would only serve to re-introduce a strategy that wins on the second turn (with Disrupting Shoal and Pact of Negation backup). If Become Immense is borderline problematic, then Blazing Shoal is well into problematic territory.
The card I would definitely unban is Sword of the Meek.
The primary combo with Sword of the Meek is with Thopter Foundry. You sacrifice an artifact to make a 1/1 flying thopter, which brings the Sword back from your graveyard equipped to the Thopter Token. You then sacrifice the sword to the foundry to make another thopter, which brings the sword back. You repeat this process for one mana, netting a thopter and one point of life each time. This deck was at its most potent in Extended in the following "Thopter Depths" deck:
In Modern the following cards from this deck are banned:
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sword of the Meek
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is oppressively good in any sort of Snapcaster Mage deck. Creature decks would not be able to compete with the card draw power generated by Jace TMS. It is rightly banned.
Chrome Mox has too many unhealthy applications as a mana accelerant for various combo decks, speeding them up a turn. It is an easy ban and should likely never come off the banned list.
Dark Depths is a combo piece alongside Vampire Hexmage (or now Thespian's Stage) that would win reliably prior to turn four. And in the absence of Wasteland (though there is Ghost Quarter), it is too difficult to reliably disrupt via commonly played cards.
In the absence of all these other cards, Sword of the Meek is not actually overpowered. It is a slow engine that will never win the game prior to turn four. Moreover at the time it was banned, there were few reliable answers to the engine in Modern. In the years since, the following commonly played cards have been printed that disrupt the engine:
Rest in Peace
These are in addition to Pithing Needle, Qasali Pridemage, and all the usual artifact hate people are already packing to combat Affinity (Ancient Grudge, Shatterstorm, etc.).
What might happen if Sword of the Meek is unbanned?
We might see something like this Blood Moon Wizard deck, but without Chrome Mox or Seat of the Synod:
Or we might see a Tezzeret Gifts Loam deck like this one, again without Chrome Mox:
We don't have the artifact lands, but Krark-Clan Ironworks can make infinite tokens and each combo piece can be found by Tezzeret, the Seeker:
So instead, maybe it would use Urza lands and look like this deck but with Sword of the Meek added in:
Or maybe it would find a home in a Tempered Steel shell similar to this one:
None of these strategies are too good, yet they may introduce a new deck or two and/or push a deck that is not quite competitive into the competitive ranks. In any case, I see no reason to keep Sword of the Meek on the banned list. Unbanning it may shake a few things up in a positive way.
What else could reasonably be unbanned?
I would NOT consider unbanning any of these:
Unhealthy mana accelerants:
Rite of Flame
Unhealthy cheap card draw/manipulation:
Dig Through Time
Glimpse of Nature
Sensei's Divining Top
Unhealthy combo enablers:
Lead to lack of variety in deck building and game play:
Green Sun's Zenith
I would CONSIDER unbanning any of these:
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sword of the Meek
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales
Vault of Whispers
The artifact lands might necessitate banning Disciple of the Vault, but trading five cards on the banned list for one card seems reasonable. They would not be overly oppressive in Affinity because they make anti-affinity hate even stronger against it (Stony Silence, Kataki, War's Wage, Creeping Corrosion, etc.) and they would add options to decks running Thirst for Knowledge, Shrapnel Blast, Krark-Clan Ironworks, etc.
Bloodbraid Elf, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Stoneforge Mystic are each very powerful cards that were oppressive at one point in Standard, just like Bitterblossom was. Bitterblossom has since come off the Modern banned list and is fine, only seeing play in B/W Tokens and U/B Fairies, two decks that are a far cry from oppressive or even Tier 1.
Bloodbraid Elf would likely only go in Jund and would be a very powerful card, but without Deathrite Shaman it is a slow top end to that deck. Jund is currently Tier 2 and played less than Abzan midrange. Bloodbraid Elf would likely swap these numbers and people would splash white for Lingering Souls and some sideboard cards. Bloodbraid Elf into Kolaghan's Command may appear too powerful because of the advantage generated from a four-mana spell, but not compared to the four-mana spells in other decks that aim to win the game on the spot (Scapeshift, Splinter Twin, Collected Company, etc.).
A similar argument can be made in support of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Yes, it generates a big advantage for four mana, but Painful Truths reliably draws three cards for three mana and sees very little play. Generating a big advantage for four mana should be expected in a format with a card pool as large as Modern. Both Jace TMS and Bloodbraid Elf are sorcery speed card advantage. I'm not saying to for sure unban either one, but I think it becomes more reasonable to do so over time as Modern's card pool grows closer to resembling that of Legacy than that of Standard. Few decks in Legacy play Jace or Bloodbraid Elf because there are so many other powerful things to do and tapping four mana at sorcery speed is a big risk. This risk is even amplified in Modern since there is no Force of Will to mitigate the risk.
Stoneforge Mystic getting Batterskull might be too good (maybe), but there are plenty of commonly played answers to a Squire with upside in Modern (Lightning Bolt, Dismember, etc.). Umezawa's Jitte and Skullclamp are already banned, so aside from Batterskull (a card that rarely sees play and usually only as a one-of that drags on Jund/Abzan mirrors an extra ten minutes), the most threatening equipment spells to search out are the Swords, which also see very little play in Modern because the mana investment-to-payoff ratio simply isn't there like it is in Standard. Stoneforge Mystic would be enough incentive to change that, but the format is littered with answers to artifacts due to the presence of Affinity (Kolaghan's Command, Abrupt Decay, Wear/Tear, Ancient Grudge, Stony Silence, Qasali Pridemage, etc.). I don't know that I would unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic together, but either one would be worthwhile to consider. The Mystic could also help make Sword of the Meek playable if that gets unbanned (as I believe it should). The bottom line is that Batterskull is the better card to ban than Stoneforge Mystic if that is the interaction we're afraid of. Stoneforge Mystic is not the culprit. Let white have its best creature back! Jitte and Clamp are already gone, so let's take away that last (questionably) overpowered target ( Batterskull) and put everyone's favorite Kor Artificer back in the format so we can search up our Trusty Machetes again! Even leaving Batterskull in doesn't seem overly oppressive since that would help keep the power levels of Affinity and Twin in check without having much impact against Infect or any of the combo decks of the format.
If I were in charge of the banned list, I would at least make the following changes:
- Ban Summer Bloom
- Ban Goryo's Vengeance
- Unban Sword of the Meek
And I would also strongly consider unbanning Stoneforge Mystic (and maybe simultaneously banning Batterskull).
What changes to Modern would you like to see and why? Here is your opportunity to let your voice be heard as I plan to share this article link with the decision makers at WotC.