Recently, the public has been reminded that Modern exists. This has naturally reignited discussion about bannings. GP Pittsburgh featured a lot of fair, powerful decks battling for fame and glory. This was generally fun, exciting, and interesting. GP Pittsburgh also featured Amulet Bloom. This was controversial, upsetting, and bordering on taboo. Parents were covering their children’s eyes, commentators were sweating in their boots, and Twitch chat was spamming panicBasket. Major news networks were blasting opinions and misinformation under false labels of “fact”, and gas prices nearly tripled. Today, I plan on saving the world. Let’s get some things straight. Let’s talk about the bannings.
In March of 2005, two things were happening: I was about to embark on the great voyage known as High School, and Affinity was dominating Standard. Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and the artifact lands were stealing lollipops from children left and right, and Wizards knew something had to be done. Kamigawa Block was a step down from Mirrodin power-wise, as Wizards realized power creep was getting dangerously high, but this did nothing to stem the metallic tide. After the rotation of Onslaught block, Affinity’s future was secure, and Wizards pulled the trigger, obliterating the archetype in one fell swoop. Some have said that it’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.
While bannings were not uncommon before Affinity, the events of early 2005 brought with them some valuable lessons. Players now had a clear example of a completely “broken” metagame and many quit the game for good. Wizards was hit where it hurts the most (their wallets), and made sure to take drastic steps to prevent future sets from causing the same issues. The dangers were now known, the variables clear. The lesson had been learned.
Well, apparently not. In this section I will be quoting heavily from Aaron Forsythe’s B&R announcement from June 20, 2011 (also known as Judgement Day).
Caw-Blade, Ben Stark (1st, Pro Tour Paris)
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Squadron Hawk
3 Gideon Jura
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Spell Pierce
3 Mana Leak
1 Stoic Rebuttal
4 Day of Judgment
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Tectonic Edge
1 Misty Rainforest
3 Ratchet Bomb
2 Baneslayer Angel
2 Divine Offering
1 Sword of Body and Mind
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“We haven’t seen cards dominate the field like this, possibly ever. Even in the heyday of Affinity (the last deck to require such drastic measures in Standard), we weren’t seeing anything like this level of homogeneity. When you realize that both cards, besides being dominant in Standard, are top tier in Constructed formats of all sizes up to and including Legacy (and even Vintage for Jace), it becomes harder and harder to argue that the cards are anything but flat-out too powerful.”
Another quote, and then some discussion:
“I have seen many arguments flying around the Internet that nothing needs to be banned, as the format is very interactive and skill-testing right now…As for interactivity, when you lose to Jace / Stoneforge decks, you still feel like you’re playing Magic: you cast your creatures, attack and block, yet, if your opponent plays well enough, eventually fall under an avalanche of card advantage and efficient tutoring. Game play like that is a far cry from past Standard environments containing ban-worthy cards, wherein you might get decked by a Tolarian Academy–fueled Stroke of Genius on turn three, or die from 20 on turn four to a combination of Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and Cranial Plating…Those games felt more random and less satisfying, and the outcry to do something about it was loud and clear.”
Maybe I’m just a nostalgic historian, but I find these quotes EXTREMELY interesting. A lot of times, we look at an archetype, or individual card, and call it “broken” without giving any thought to context or further definition. Define “broken”! … I’ll wait.
Not so easy, right? To be “oppressive” or “ban-worthy”, we absolutely have to evaluate context. 32 copies of Goblin Guide in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour or Grand Prix means absolutely nothing if everyone plays Kor Firewalker the next week. But hold on, because right there lines are already getting blurred (right Robin Thicke?). If Goblin Guide IS so powerful that everyone has to play Kor Firewalker just to stand a chance, then a case can be made for Guide being “oppressive” and ban discussion can be had. Likewise, if a combo deck is so powerful that the only way to disrupt it is through Thoughtseize, then a case can be made for that deck to be oppressive, as it places unhealthy pressure on other decks in the format to play Thoughtseize just to compete.
We’ll talk about Amulet Bloom specifically at the end of the article, but first I wanted to give a little history of bannings in Modern, using Wizards’ own words to provide context to these events. This could easily get out of control (meaning word count) as every B&R announcement has months of tournament results, back and forth metagame shifts, and deck specific details to discuss, but we’ll just hit the main points here. If this disappoints you, let me know and I’ll start my novel.
August 2011 – Initial Modern Ban List
Banned: Ancestral Vision, Ancient Den, Bitterblossom, Chrome Mox, Dark Depths, Dread Return, Glimpse of Nature, Golgari Grave-Troll, Great Furnace, Hypergenesis, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Mental Misstep, Seat of the Synod, Sensei’s Divining Top, Skullclamp, Stoneforge Mystic, Sword of the Meek, Tree of Tales, Umezawa’s Jitte, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Vault of Whispers
“We used two criteria to guide us in choosing what cards to ban. First, we have a rule of thumb about Legacy that we don’t like consistent turn-two combination decks, but that turn-three combination decks are okay. We modified that rule for Modern by adding a turn to each side: we are going to allow turn-four combination decks, but not decks that consistently win the game on turn three.” -Tom LaPille
I highly suggest reading both articles, as Tom LaPille gives a card by card breakdown of why each card is banned, which is highly illuminating and can give us insight into Wizards view on what makes a card or archetype “ban-worthy” or not. We can LITERALLY anticipate Wizards’ position on format health by reviewing the decisions they have made in the past. It’s almost as if there’s evidence, and all we have to do is look at it…!
September 2011 – Post Pro Tour Philadelphia
Announcement Article: Explanation of September 2011 B&R Changes
“Before Pro Tour Philadelphia, the DCI’s stated guideline for the Modern format was to avoid having decks that consistently win the game on turn three. With the results of the Pro Tour in, we are tweaking that goal to not having top-tier decks that consistently win on turn three (or earlier). We also have the goal of maintaining a diverse format.” -Erik Lauer
Pro Tour Philadelphia basically featured a “best of the rest” combo field filled with all the broken cards that Wizards missed on their first pass. Infect with Blazing Shoal and 12Post were the worst offenders, but Wizards also showed they were interested in cultivating diversity by banning the best blue cantrips and green tutoring (as every blue deck “had” to play Ponder/Preordain and every green deck “had” to play Green Sun’s Zenith). The language in this announcement is very important. Erik Lauer is careful to point out that they are committed to restricting “top-tier” decks from winning on Turn 3 (or earlier) “consistently”.
I believe this decision was made for two reasons. First, they don’t want to discourage newer players from acquiring a “hot new deck” that is popping up in Modern. Making potential customers feel wary of a looming banning makes them wary of reaching into their pockets, which is something every company wants to avoid. Second, they establish a benchmark for players to (hopefully) pay attention to when new decks do break out. Were a hot new deck like, say, Grishoalbrand or Lantern Control to arise, Wizards would know citizens wouldn’t cry for immediate bannings, as it takes more than one high-profile event to make a deck “top tier”. See what I’m getting at here? Amulet Bloom taking second at one Pro Tour doesn’t by itself warrant a banning, or even ban discussion. More data is needed.
December 2011 – Post Worlds
Announcement Article: Explanation of December 2011 B&R Changes
“After looking at the results of the Magic World Championships, the DCI is keeping the goal of not having top-tier decks that frequently win on turn three (or earlier). This was not an issue with either of the newly banned cards. We also have the goal of maintaining a diverse format. While there were aggressive decks, control decks, attrition decks, and combination decks that succeeded, the diversity was not ideal. In particular, the heavy majority of all aggressive decks were “Zoo” decks. We looked at why other aggressive decks were not played, and after our analysis decided to ban two cards.” -Erik Lauer
Here we see two bannings based entirely on promoting diversity. Punishing Fire literally punished all creatures with less than three toughness, which made Wild Nacatl the universal option for decks looking to attack.
January 2013 – Post Jund Everywhere
Announcement Article: January 28, 2013 DCI Banned & Restricted List Announcement
“While the rest of the format is quite diverse, the dominance of Jund is making it less so overall. The DCI looked to ban a card. We wanted a card that top players consistently played four copies of in Jund, but ideally was less played in other top Modern decks. That would give the best chance of creating a more balanced metagame. The card that best fits our criteria is Bloodbraid Elf.”
”Looking at the results of games, turn-three wins are frequent for Storm, contrary to the DCI’s stated goals for the format. The DCI looked for a card that was very important to the turn-three wins but not one of the cards that make this deck unique. We decided Seething Song is the best choice. Even with no other mana acceleration, one can cast Seething Song on turn three and it gives a net acceleration of +2 mana. While there are other options for fast mana, none appear as efficient and reliable on turn three as Seething Song.” -Erik Lauer
2012 was relatively quiet, though a case could be made for nerfing Jund earlier. The exact events are listed in the article, but a Pro Tour and four consecutive Grand Prix passed where Jund was over-represented and winning in the finals of each. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was unbanned in October, but other than that, 2012 was all Jund, all the time. So here we see again Wizards’ commitment to cultivating a Modern format that is diverse, while also restricting Turn 3 kills. Again, the language here is important, as Wizards realizes it’s unfeasible (and pretty heavy-handed) to nerf every deck that is capable of winning on Turn 3, but there is a measurable point of both representation and consistency at which discussion can begin.
May 2013 – Post Pro Tour Return to Ravnica
–and Brian Kibler F6’ing on Camera (jump to 14:00)–
Announcement Article: May 3, 2013, DCI Banned & Restricted List Announcement
Banned: Second Sunrise
“Modern tournaments have recently been diverse, with no dominant deck. However, large tournaments have had a problem with the Eggs deck, causing rounds to take significantly longer… In a large tournament, such as a Grand Prix, when time for the round expires, players are given five additional turns to complete their game. Usually, this takes a few minutes to conclude the rest of the games. However, a player playing Eggs might have a fifteen-minute turn during the additional turns, delaying the start of the next round by ten minutes or more (beyond the next-longest match). Over the course of a day, this can mean an extra hour of waiting for everyone else in the tournament.” -Erik Lauer
Contrary to popular belief, a staple from Eggs WAS NOT banned because the deck was “unfun”, “non-interactive”, or “too powerful”. Eggs was banned for the exact reason Erik Lauer said in the above quote: rounds were taking too long, and the turnover time in between rounds was causing issues at large events. Public perception and on-camera awkward commentary surely contributed, but to a much smaller extent than most people would like to believe. This is part of the reason why Sensei’s Divining Top is banned in Modern (and some have said is at risk of being banned sometime soon in Legacy), as each Top activation could take a minute or more, which adds up over the course of the round and contributes to a large number of draws and prolonged post-time turns (looking straight at you Miracles!)
Aside: Without getting too philosophical, in this digital age of Facebook and Twitter where individuals can throw their opinions out to mass audiences as much as they’d like, we’d like to believe that our individual opinions are seen as important and interesting to others. Wizards of the Coast cares much more about issues at their events and what their Tournament Organizers have to say about event times than what 3,000 people in Twitch chat might group-think. That’s not to say that they don’t care about public perception, which is in fact most important, just that one Twitch chat mega-discussion on the weekend isn’t enough to sway Wizards’ minds like we think it is.
February 2014 – Jund is Back
Annoucement Article: February 3, 2014, DCI Banned & Restricted List Announcement
“Deathrite Shaman, however, is powerful at all stages of the game. Having a strong attrition-based deck as a large portion of the metagame makes it difficult for decks that are based on synergies between cards instead of individually powerful cards. We believe that removing Deathrite Shaman from the format will leave more room for future innovation. -Erik Lauer
I’m surprised at the language in the B&R announcement. Prior to re-reading this I was under the impression that Deathrite Shaman was banned for other reasons. Erik states that Deathrite Shaman made it too easy for attrition strategies (read: Jund in the BGR and BGRW forms) to disrupt synergy based decks. This is entirely true, but Deathrite Shaman also had other significant effects on the format. First, it allowed “fair” decks a way to consistently fight graveyard-based strategies. Decks without card filtering/tutoring (read: non-blue decks) often have difficulty finding sideboard cards quickly in post-board games, and Deathrite Shaman effectively allowed attrition decks 4+ ways to interact with decks that use the graveyard, starting on Turn 1. In conjunction with numerous discard spells, Jund was able to reliably and easily disrupt synergy-based decks.
Second, Deathrite Shaman was far and away the best mana accelerator available, which restricted diversity and forced basically every deck in those colors to include it. With this in mind, I’m wary of projecting my own opinions onto Wizards’ decisions, as we’ve been careful not to do that up to this point. My reasoning is in line with their past decisions, but I’m cognizant of the risk of taking away “evidence” of Wizards’ position when they haven’t explicitly stated so. Perhaps they didn’t feel Deathrite Shaman was detrimental to format diversity? Reading their announcement carefully definitely suggests that their main focus was reducing the power of attrition decks, Deathrite Shaman’s individual power level, and promoting synergy-based format innovation.
January 2015 – Post Modern Delver
Announcement Article: January 19, 2015, Banned and Restricted Announcement
“Sometimes, a card-drawing card can be too efficient. The decks that draw cards so efficiently push out many other decks, limiting the field to the strong decks that best use those card drawers and decks that don’t play in interactive games with those strong decks. In that case, the best option might be to ban the overly efficient card drawer.” -WoTC (shady!)
These bans were relatively straightforward; Birthing Pod had been pushing out the other creature decks in the format and winning nearly every GP, and Treasure Cruise/Dig Through Time proved that delve truly is busted and made the blue decks way too powerful. Golgari Grave-Troll’s unbanning came with some language that reinforces the idea that Wizards is interested in diversity, as long as it doesn’t lead to oppression.
What About Amulet?
So, should Amulet Bloom be banned? I can only give my opinion, and I hope I’ve given you the tools to formulate your own. Amulet Bloom definitely classifies as “non-interactive”, but I think we’ve clearly proven that this isn’t an attribute Wizards considers when evaluating bans in Modern. When Amulet Bloom wins, it doesn’t take too long to go through the motions. It takes some time to search and navigate the triggers of Primeval Titan and Amulet of Vigor, but no more so than other decks like Storm or Ad Nauseum. It is capable of Turn 3 wins, and can win on Turn 2 a surprising number of times, which throws up a strong red flag. I don’t have data on consistency of kill, and those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt as they can vary week to week and event to event based on individual deck composition and opposing hate.
So far, we haven’t seen Amulet Bloom take down a major event. It came close in the hands of Justin Cohen, falling to Splinter Twin in the finals of Pro Tour Fate Reforged, but the deck can hardly be classified as “Tier 1” on that single finish alone. Based on metagame information its representation is getting there, but I disagree about this status. Whether it’s consistency, difficulty to pilot, or some other factor, the deck has not been prevalent at the top tables, which makes any argument for banning it pretty thin.
When Amulet wins, it wins decisively, and it can feel pretty “unfair” when the Amulet player is chaining Tolaria West for Summoner’s Pact and casting Primeval Titan with a Cavern of Souls AND Pact of Negation backup, but none of that is particularly unfair. Yes, Turn 2 kills are unfair. However, given Wizards’ past positions until Amulet starts winning events consistently, or killing on Turn 2 with regularity, I don’t expect we’ll see a banning. And I don’t think it deserves one either. This coming from a player that despises losing to Amulet Bloom.
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your opinions/feedback! Let me know in the comments or on Twitter, and I’ll see you next week!
The_Architect on MTGO