What Should Change With The Modern Banned List

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With the entirety of Born of the Gods having been revealed, many players are feverishly proxying up cards like Bile Blight and Brimaz to test for their next big Standard event. In this fury, pro players preparing for the upcoming Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia are…waiting. Despite the full spoiler for the new set being available now online, we’re still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle to really start testing for the pro tour – the announcement of updates to the Modern Banned list. While I haven’t dug too deeply into scouring the spoiler for Modern playable cards, nothing jumps out at me just yet as likely to make a big splash in the format, and certainly nothing that will make nearly as big of an impact as whether or not cards that are central to current strategies are even legal, or if something is going to get unbanned.

The Modern banned list is a tricky topic, because it operates differently than any other banned list in Magic’s history. Formats like Standard, Legacy, and Vintage all have banned lists with pretty much the sole function of removing cards from the format that are deemed too powerful or dominant to allow. There is the occasional outlier that’s banned for logistical reasons, like Shaharazad, but generally speaking the goal of those banned lists is just to keep the bogeymen at bay.

Modern, on the other hand, was launched with an expansive banned list that included many cards simply because they had been dominant in some of these other formats. Cards like Valakut, Bitterblossom, Golgari Grave Troll, and Jace the Mind Sculptor were on the initial Modern banned list certainly in part due to their power level, but more importantly due to the fact that they were cornerstones of the most powerful and oppressive decks in other formats.The biggest goal of the initial Modern banned list was to ensure that Modern had an identity of its own and didn’t just look like a “best-of” list from the history of Standard and Extended.

Similarly, the banned list for Modern has been managed differently from the banned list of other formats since its inception. A number of cards that have been added to the Modern banned list in recent years have been justified for reasons other than raw power level – certainly, no one is going to argue that Punishing Fire is objectively too good, or that Wild Nacatl is so oppressive that no one can find any way to beat it. Rather, these cards were banned in the interests of diversity.

Diversity and change is important to the health of any format, and both of these are particularly challenging in Modern. Modern is burdened with the reality that it is a non-rotating format, which makes it naturally heavily resistant to change. The card pool spans over ten years of Magic history, which can make it difficult for the format to shift very much from the addition of a new set or even an entire block. Indeed, looking at the full spoiler for Born of the Gods, I’m hard pressed to see how much of an impact this set could really have on Modern through new cards alone.

Recently, Modern has actually succeeded at developing into a diverse format in terms of different decks. While the World Championship Modern rounds were a mess of Jund and UWR and little else, recent Grand Prix have shown everything from Splinter Twin and Tron to Living End and Affinity to have legs in the format.

But diversity isn’t the only meaningful characteristic of a successful format. Change is important. Even if there are a half dozen different viable decks in a format at any given time, that format starts to feel really stale if nothing major happens to shake things up and you just keep seeing those same decks over and over. I would be shocked if WotC did nothing to the banned list and just allowed the same Modern format that has been played out over the past six+ months to be what they showcase at the Pro Tour.

The two major tools at WotC disposal are bannings and unbannings. Unbannings are generally safer – not in terms of what they do to the format, but what they do to your consumer’s confidence in the format. While many pro players don’t worry much about the costs that come with putting together a new deck for an event, that’s not the reality that many players deal with. Banning a central card in a popular deck – like, say, Birthing Pod – could be devastating to someone who just finished spending their time and money putting their copy of the deck together for the Modern PTQ season or just to play at their local shop.

While I can certainly appreciate the use of the Modern banned list just to shake things up now and then, the implications of occasionally banning cards from the top performing decks – even if those decks are not proving to be dominant – sets a dangerous precedent for the secondary market. What would happen if Birthing Pod or Deathrite Shaman were banned? Shaman, in particular, is a dangerous place to go because it’s a rare card from a currently legal standard set. Will people shy away from trying to put together top decks in Modern because they’re afraid that cards from them might get the axe at any moment?

If I were to ban any cards in Modern, those two are where I would look. Birthing Pod’s legality is particularly hilarious to me at the same time Green Sun’s Zenith is banned, since Pod asks far less of you (“play a curve of creatures”) and can create even more repetitive game states and variance reduction than Zenith, and these were given as justifications for GSZ getting the axe.

Deathrite Shaman simply does too much for too little. It is not only a mana accelerant and mana fixer for any deck that plays either black or green plus fetchlands, but also an extremely powerful anti-graveyard tool, win condition, and source of lifegain – all for the cost of just one mana. Deathrite Shaman is among the culprits for the lack of aggressive decks in Modern. Not only does Deathrite Shaman allow decks like Jund to accelerate into powerful cards like Liliana of the Veil, but the life gain ability makes it so that aggressive decks are incredibly hard pressed to actually finish the game unless they get insurmountably ahead. Shaman has a lot to do with Modern’s push toward raw attrition strategies like Jund and infinite combos like Splinter Twin and Melira or Kiki-Pod.

That said, I don’t really expect any bannings, nor do I think either Deathrite Shaman or Birthing Pod have to go. I think they’re among the most powerful cards in the format, they’re relatively oppressive toward certain strategies, and I think Pod in particular violates many of the principles that got other cards onto the banned list, but we can certainly live with them.

That brings us to unbannings. A lot of people have suggested arguments for taking a lot of different cards off of the Modern banned list, including everything from Ancestral Visions and Bitterblossom to Sword of the Meek and Golgari Grave Troll.

While it’s possible that the world would be okay if any or even all of these cards were unbanned, it’s important to be cautious. Unbanning a card and then having a deck featuring that card immediately jump to dominance of the format is a very real danger – after all, these cards were banned for a reason in the first place.

A good thing to do when you consider unbanning any card is a little thought experiment – what is the format like if four copies of this card show up in the best and most popular deck? What kind of deck is that likely to be, and how happy are we to live in this world? When you apply that metric to cards like Golgari Grave Troll and Sword of the Meek, the answer is probably that these are likely to be horrible, minimally interactive combo decks that make the format very little fun to play.

Remember, the banned list is not a prison sentence – we don’t need to prove that this card is dangerous beyond a reasonable doubt. We just need to make a case that it could cause the format to be net less fun. Of course, different people enjoy different things, but if the growth in Magic’s popularity over the past few years tells us anything, it’s that people like the kind of things that era of Magic has promoted – like creatures and interaction and playing to the board. While some people may like a world in which players are dueling for card advantage with Ancestral Visions and just trying to kill or counter everything their opponent plays, it’s certainly not the prevalent idea of a good time – I’d argue Ancestral Visions fails this test.

One card that has gotten a lot of attention as potentially safe to unban is Bitterblossom. I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea, because Bitterblossom is at least a card that interacts on the primary axis of attacking and blocking. It would not only potentially allow for a resurgence of a tribal Faeries deck, but it would also provide a powerful tool for B/W tokens and even Jund or Junk decks looking for another cheap threat that matches up well against Liliana.

We’ve come a long way since Bitterblossom’s reign in Standard. There are a lot of new tools to fight against not just the tokens it creates, like Lingering Souls, Thundermaw Hellkite, Electrickery, or Bonfire of the Damned – but also against Bitterblossom itself, most notably Abrupt Decay. There are cards like Voice of Resurgence, Loxodon Smiter, and Aether Vial that can fight back against the draw-go play pattern of U/B Faeries. Even if the best deck in Modern has four copies of Bitterblossom, there are cards you can play to fight against it. I think it might be time to bring the blossom back.

I’d feel even safer unbanning Bitterblossom if it came back to the format as the same time as Wild Nacatl. Wild Nacatl got a raw deal in Modern. Nacatl got banned after the last old-style World Championship in 2011 in the name of increasing diversity among aggressive strategies. The argument was that Wild Nacatl provided such a high power level for an aggressive deck at such a low opportunity cost that it caused players to forgo exploring other potential options for aggressive strategies that might be more synergy based, like Merfolk or Doran and the like. Little attention was paid to the fact that Modern was on day three of a three format tournament, which has historically led to an incredibly low level of preparation and innovation for that portion of the tournament.

But that’s neither here nor there. The result of the Wild Nacatl banning was not a flourishing of Merfolk and Treefolk and Kithkin decks, but rather aggressive decks almost vanishing from the Modern metagame altogether. Wild Nacatl was never really what pushed the decks out of the metagame – it was always Lightning Bolt and Tarmogoyf.

The problem for synergy-based aggressive decs in Modern has always been the efficiency of the removal they have to compete against. How can you afford to try to assemble a collection of interlocking pieces when your opponent can so easily remove one of them and undo all of your work? And when they’re just waiting with a Tarmogoyf to block whatever is leftover, there isn’t much you can do to compete.

The one synergy based aggressive deck that has thrived in Modern – and which has done so since before the Nacatl ban, putting up a Top 8 at the very first Modern PT in Philly – is Affinity, or Robots, or whatever you want to call it. Affinity is able to succeed where Merfolk and friends have not because its best cards are inherently resistant to removal. Its most powerful “lord” effect is Cranial Plating, which it can equip to Etched Champion and just ignore all of the Lightning Bolts in the world. Even the rest of its creature base – Signal Pest, Vault Skirge, and various flying creature lands – all manage to avoid Tarmogoyf blocking on the ground.

It’s always amusing watching Modern events that are showdowns between something like Living End and Melira Pod or Splinter Twin and Tron and thinking about how hilarious it is that Wild Nacatl, of all things, is banned. Just think – if it were legal, people would be in danger of getting attacked for THREE on the second turn! Juxtapose that with some literal turn two Goryo’s Vengeance kills I’ve seen on camera lately and it’s laughable.

As for the “four in the best deck” thought experiment, Wild Nacatl passes with flying colors. Wild Nacatl is everything that is good and pure in Magic – attacking and blocking. Yes, it’s very good at what it does, but it’s hardly oppressive. Frankly, in a world of Deathrite Shamans, Scavenging Oozes, and the like, it’s entirely possible that Wild Nacatl isn’t even very good. I certainly want it to be, and I’ll certainly try to make it good if it does find its way off of the banned list, but it’s hard for me to imagine a Nacatl deck becoming dominant in Modern world we know today.

Does the existence of Wild Nacatl discourage people from attempting to build other aggressive decks? Perhaps to some extent, but the overall texture of the format is far more hostile to those decks existing than Nacatl ever was. The decks that Nacatl had supposedly suppressed have not meaningfully manifested in the years since the cat was banned, so I’d argue it is time to take her off the list. Free Wild Nacatl!

I think the most likely outcome of the Banned and Restricted List announcement is no changes. Modern is in a pretty good spot right now, with a lot of variety, though I do think it’s fairly stale. I don’t expect Born of the Gods to have a big impact on that, though admittedly I have not played a game with a single card from the new set, so I could be missing something big.

If something does change, I think the most likely thing to happen is for Wild Nacatl to be unbanned. Aggressive strategies have not been popular in Modern in recent times, and that could potentially be an interesting wrinkle to shake things up. After that, I think Bitterblossom is the most likely thing to come off. I would not expect any other cards to be unbanned.

As far as bannings, I would be the least surprised to see Birthing Pod go, simply because it’s a massive variance reducer that causes repetitive game states. I do not expect to see Deathrite Shaman banned, in large part because WotC has a tendency to target older cards with narrower applications than the real culprits (see: Bloodbraid Elf ban vs Deathrite/Thoughtseize/etc). I would be very surprised to see anything banned, but I would be really shocked if someone were banned that were not one of these two cards.

Regardless of what happens, I really wish Banned/Restricted announcements came at a more opportune time. It’s pretty frustrating that the full set list is out and it’s not even clear that it’s worth spending time playtesting for the pro tour yet, because a huge piece of information is missing until next week. I’d love to see the B&R list policy revisited to make the announcement the weekend leading up to the pre-release (when the full set is spoiled) rather than waiting until the weekend after. It’s possible that risks taking some of the wind out of the sails of the spoiler going up, but it would make the experience of players testing for the pro tour much better. There is already such limited time to test for an event that players without large teams are at a huge disadvantage, and this just exacerbates that issue.

What do you think? Should anything in Modern come off the Banned list? What, if anything, should be banned?

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