Praise be to Wizards! The 9/28 B&R Announcement went live this morning, yet again demonstrating Wizards is a competent and conservative manager for our beloved format. As in the July 2015 announcement, this is easily one of the best “No Changes” updates we could have asked for. Hopefully Wizards keeps these updates coming because I have dozens of these calm and peaceful Plains arts left in the gallery!
Trevor is off today and his video series is going to go up later in the week, so for now we’re going to take a quick look at the announcement and its implications for Modern. Of course, the Plains art above is a bit misleading: Legacy and Vintage had some big changes that are sure to reverberate throughout their metagames (hope you bought those Black Vises because the buyout is in full force). For us Modern players, however, it’s business as usual as we enjoy a diverse metagame that doesn’t currently need bans or unbans.
Nothing to Ban…
I didn’t even bother making a Modern Nexus banlist prediction last week because it seemed like such an obvious “No Changes” update. For the sake of posterity, here’s the prediction I made on the MTG Salvation forums over the weekend: “There will be no changes on Monday.” This prediction, and the resulting announcement, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Modern since July. The format is extremely healthy, there are dozens of viable decks across the archetype spectrum, and tournament attendance is very strong.
Despite these conditions, I know there will be critics of Wizards’ 9/28 announcement, both for the lack of bannings and also the lack of unbannings. To understand why these criticisms are misplaced and misguided, we need to step back and look at what cards people tend to want banned, and how those cards actually exist in Modern.
Whenever players start talking about Modern, even not related to the banlist, I expect the usual banlist suspects to show up about as regularly as I count on Donald Trump to talk about his beautiful and inexpensive wall. Everyone has seen these cards in action and seen them discussed online. Everyone also has an opinion on them, often a strongly worded one and often one with zero evidential backing:
Quite honestly, this list is actually much longer and wackier than even these cards suggest. We recently conducted a poll on MTG Salvation to see what cards the community wanted banned. I don’t know what’s more upsetting: the fact that all those cards needed to be on the list, or the fact that almost every card got some votes. If you know those four people who wanted Thoughtseize banned, give them a big hug from me and tell them it’s going to be okay.
Most ban advocates rely too heavily on personal opinions of the format, downplaying (or flatly ignoring) the metagame context. They also often ignore the historical ban precedents and the rules articulated by Wizards around those precedents. Once you consider all these factors, a “No Changes” announcement during a month like September is not just obvious, it’s actually the only reasonable and expected outcome for the format.
Just take a look at our 7/1-7/31 and 8/1-8/31 metagame updates. Do those even remotely look like metagames that need a banning? Spoiler alert: the upcoming 9/1-9/30 update is just as diverse. The same goes for all the recent tournaments and their own Day 2 metagames and T8s/T16s. GP Oklahoma City and SCG Cincinnati were both incredibly open and also incredibly interesting. Even ignoring the high-profile (and, perhaps, anomalous) Lantern Control finish, we saw a wide field of tier 1 staples (Affinity, Jund, Twin) along with lower-tier contenders (Merfolk, Infect, Scapeshift, Zoo, etc.). We also saw considerable variation within strategies, including BGx, Twin, and the Company decks.
As for the individual cards in these decks, there is simply no reason to consider any of them for banning. Turn four violators only matter insofar as their decks are top-tier. With Amulet Bloom and Grishoalbrand hovering under 4% and 1%-1.5% metagame shares respectively, you simply can’t justify banning anything from those decks. Modern players love to forget this “top-tier” stipulation, which is why I’ll keep on repeating it until it sticks. The same goes for so-called “unfun” cards like Blood Moon and Ensnaring Bridge, which either perform an important policing role in the metagame (Moon) or aren’t in enough decks to be a problem (Bridge).
Moving past the turn four rule, we have the format-dominance cards like Twin, Goyf, Eidolon of the Great Revel, or whatever other suggestion the ban maniacs fixate on for the week. Although these cards could become problems one day, it is not this day. These decks would need to occupy Pod or Delver-level shares to become a problem, and we have a long way to go before any current deck in Modern sustains 15%+ metagame prevalence.
If you, or those you are reading, aren’t considering both the metagame context and the banlist rules, then banlist discussion will be meaningless. Today’s announcement is an excellent example of those principles in action and I hope we keep them in mind for future B&R updates.
…and Nothing to Unban
Unbanning cards is a much trickier process than banning them. A ban is almost always about the metagame and historical facts (Dig Through Time was an exception to this, although today’s announcement vindicated it). This includes some combination of T8/T16 prevalence, overall format share, and the effect of a particular deck on other decks around it. There’s also a semi-mythical cutoff for decks that win “too frequently” before turn four, and even though we don’t know it, we have previous decks to draw on for evidence (UR Storm, Shoal Infect, etc.). None of these approaches are guaranteed to produce a good banning, or a good ban prediction, but they are at least grounded in existing evidence about actual metagames.
Unbannings, however, are far less certain than bans. With an unbanning, you are necessarily proposing a counterfactual to the existing metagame. Barring extensive gauntlet-style testing (which we have no reason to assume Wizards does and can also be inaccurate), you can’t know how any unban will affect the metagame. Can you make guesses based on precedent? Sure: a Bloodbraid Elf unban would probably benefit Jund and Naya decks more than anything else. Then again, can you know how those guesses will play out in the format or alongside new decks and cards that didn’t exist in the past? Not with confidence. Sometimes you have a scenario where Bitterblossom doesn’t do anything despite dominating old Extended seasons for years. Other times, you can end up with Legacy-style situations where a Entomb unban leads to a Mystical Tutor ban only a few months later.
The July and September announcements both show Wizards is taking a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to Modern. It also shows they respect the uncertainty around unbans and want to proceed cautiously. Even seemingly inconspicuous cards like Sword of the Meek could have a major effect on undoing the (perhaps tenuous) gains aggro decks have made in the last year. Ancestral Vision might not break the format, but with both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time banned/restricted in every nonrotating or eternal format, I understand Wizards’ hesitance to pull that trigger. As for Bloodbraid, just look at those Naya and Jund shares. Do these decks really need help? Does Jund, of all the decks in Modern, honestly need better cards?
I know many players and authors believe Wizards only unbans cards around the Modern Pro Tour in January. As with many things in life, I think that’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. On the one hand, Wizards has real incentive to focus major bans/unbans around a high-profile event like the Pro Tour. On the other hand, Wizards legitimately needs time to see how a format shapes out, and an annual cycle makes a lot of sense for that. If Wizards is just amassing datapoints, the Pro Tour timing is just incidental to their primary goal. Either way, the end result is the same: no unbans before January. This, coupled with all the other factors mentioned above, should have made today’s update unsurprising “No Changes” in the unbanning department.
January’s Banlist Update
I have no idea what we are going to see in that January 18 update. If I had to guess right now, it would be no bans whatsoever and either a Sword unban and/or a Vision unban. With respect to bannings, I don’t envision metagame diversity declining in the leadup to January. Even Affinity, which is currently just over 11% of the format, is likely to drop by then. The “broken” decks are also likely to stay underplayed as Modern players keep gaining experience in beating them. As for unbans, it will depend how entrenched certain archetypes remain. If we still see a metagame at 25% aggro (Burn, Affinity, Naya Company, etc.), then Sword seems like a safe and reasonable unban. Vision is trickier: I only expect Vision to come back if BGx returns to a 12%+ share and Grixis/Twin decks are lagging under 8% each.
What did you think of today’s announcement? Are there any cards you wanted to see unbanned or, dare I ask, banned in Modern? What expectations do you have looking ahead to January? You can bet I’ll be checking the comments to continue the conversation. Until then, let’s enjoy our diverse format and the exciting Modern events on the year-end horizon!
Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.