A Foray into No Banned List Modern

Few would disagree that the banned list in Modern is a net benefit to the format, facilitating its legendary diversity and ensuring games remain more or less interactive. There is, however, a certain curiosity that’s hard to shake off—just what would our beloved format look like completely freed from all its shackles? No-banned-list Modern tournaments have grown in popularity, and if they’re unlikely to usher in a new format or become the newest casual craze, they can be fun for a weekend’s lark. Last weekend I had the joy of playing in a local no-banned-list tournament. Feeling uninterested in the PPTQ grind that was starting a new season, and jonesing for some good old-fashioned broken Magic, I decided to join in on the fun and see what it was all about.

deathrite-shaman-cropped

I started with a quick google search for no-banned-list decks, intending to play some variant of UR Delver. First at the top of the list of considerations was cost, and Delver decks are often little more than a pile of commons with a few fetchlands thrown in for good measure. Sure enough, I was able to cobble together most of the list I wanted from my collection, and headed off to the store to see if I could wrangle the rest in loans from other players.

As it turned out, the tournament allowed for eight proxied cards, which made things pretty easy. I spent the remainder of my prep time chatting with another UR Delver player about his choices, and sharpieing up the final cards for my ad hoc sideboard. Here’s what I registered:

UR Delver (No Banned List), by Jason Schousboe

Creatures (12)
Young Pyromancer
Delver of Secrets
Monastery Swiftspear

Instants (18)
Thought Scour
Mental Misstep
Spell Pierce
Remand
Lightning Bolt
Mutagenic Growth

Sorceries (14)
Gitaxian Probe
Ponder
Treasure Cruise
Forked Bolt

Lands (16)
Steam Vents
Mountain
Island
Scalding Tarn
Flooded Strand
Polluted Delta
Sideboard (15)
Blood Moon
Electrickery
Smash to Smithereens
Vandalblast
Thing in the Ice
Dispel
Annul
Surgical Extraction
Izzet Charm
Jori En, Ruin Diver
Spellskite
Skullclamp
Tormod’s Crypt
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

I built my sideboard largely with the intention of trying out a million different things (and casting spells I thought were fun in what can only be described as a silly tournament). In any case, it was pretty loose, and ended up punishing me a few times.

As for the maindeck, I was largely happy but found myself wanting an additional basic Island on several occasions. For one, it would have helped in games involving Blood Moon; for another it would have provided me more painless fetch targets against aggressive decks. Moving forward I would cut the fourth Steam Vents to make room.

Round 1 – Bye

I was disappointed this round to learn that my opponent had left his deck at home inadvertently. He tried to run home and get back in time for the match, but it wasn’t to be. I’ll take a win as it comes, but my goal was really just to spend the day putting Treasure Cruises and Mental Missteps on the stack—sad times.

Round 2 – BW Eldrazi (Win)

Eye of UginMy opponent’s deck is a typical take on the old Eye of Ugin Eldrazi deck with a Stoneforge Mystic package thrown in for extra spice. He tells me he’s new to Modern, which is borne out by him having to read several cards and making some pretty clear-cut misplays. On a couple occasions he lets me Smash to Smithereens a Relic of Progenitus without sacrificing it first. He also forgets that Eye can tap for mana under Urborg, and one turn tutors for Batterskull off of Stoneforge and elects to pass with 5 mana up instead of hard-casting it.

I take this match pretty easily, but leave with the impression that the matchup is unfavorable against a more seasoned opponent.

Sideboarding

-2 Spell Pierce
-2 Mental Misstep
-2 Forked Bolt

+2 Blood Moon
+1 Thing in the Ice
+1 Jori En, Ruin Diver
+1 Skullclamp
+1 Smash to Smithereens

Jori En, Ruin DiverI may have some of the details of my exact sideboarding wrong, but this was close. I wanted to trim on Missteps since his plan was to jam giant monsters, but he did have Relic, Thoughtseize, and Path to Exile so they were still live. Blood Moon was obviously an MVP, and it did win me a game singlehandedly. Smash was for Batterskull and Relic of Progenitus, the latter which made Cruising tougher.

Skullclamp, Thing in the Ice, and Jori En were part of my “value package” to bring in against grindy decks. I never drew Thing in the Ice, but the theory was to bounce a pile of four- and five-drops. My guess is this is just too cute and better served as something else. Jori En, on the other hand, impressed on a few occasions, the sweetest being this round when I tapped out on turn three and Misstepped an EOT Path to Exile for the trigger—value!

Round 3 – Affinity (Loss)

The opponent is on about what you’d expect, with multiple artifact lands, Skullclamp, and the Atog/Disciple of the Vault combo that defines the Pauper version of the archetype. Arcbound RavagerI was debating with some friends earlier about artifact lands in Affinity, trying to contend that they’re just worse than the standard Nexuses. In any case, he seemed to make it work, and while I never saw him go off with Atog or Disciple, I will say his Ravagers were particularly troublesome and effectively never ran out of fuel.

This round I am roundly punished for my loose sideboard. My mediocre artifact hate is not enough to overcome his Ravagers and Platings, and I succumb to the robot menace. Game three I drew Annul, Smash to Smithereens, and Vandalblast, and still lose. At some point during this game I look at those cards in my hand/graveyard and realize that if they were Ancient Grudges I could not possibly lose.

Sideboarding

-3 Mental Misstep
-2 Remand
-2 Gitaxian Probe
-1 Spell Pierce

+2 Electrickery
+1 Vandalblast
+1 Annul
+1 Smash to Smithereens
+1 Izzet Charm
+1 Spellskite
+1 Thing in the Ice

Here again there’s some tension with Mental Misstep, as countering Skullclamp or an early Springleaf Drum is great but the card risks being dead. I reasoned that the remaining Spell Pierces and Izzet Charm could help defray the danger of Clamp while still giving me game against Cranial Plating.

Normally I would take out all the Probes, but with Cruise and Pyromancer in my deck they have additional value. The rest of the sideboarding is pretty standard against Affinity. As I explained above, moving forward I would just replace all the anti-artifact stuff with Grudges, and add one Breeding Pool to flash them back.

Round 4 – Jund (Win)

Ah, good old Jund. Nothing beats Jund. Before the tournament I was debating with my friend who’s more or less lifetime-committed to the archetype, and he maintains it’s still a contender even in the busted universe of no-banned-list Modern. Punishing FireHe played it at this event (we would eventually meet in the finals), but this round I faced off against someone else.

He starts by quipping that his matches were all over quickly, which leads me to keep a bad hand of multiple Spell Pierces and no threats, thinking he’s on combo. This game goes on to illustrate one of my main issues with Jund in a world of Treasure Cruise (it was similarly poorly positioned during Cruise’s original reign in 2014). In spite of my bad hand, and facing down a reasonably early Goyf and Liliana, eventually I just rip Cruise off the top and pull way ahead. If we’re being honest, “rip” isn’t even the right word—Ponder is a messed up Magic card when it comes to generating consistency. I make a copious number of Elemental tokens to embarrass Liliana of the Veil and Tarmogoyf alike and take him down.

Game two he mulls all the way to four and keeps a hand of double Grove of the Burnwillows and Punishing Fire. Turns out that’s a tad strong against my creature base. I’m cognizant of the fact that this game is Blood Moon or bust, but I have ample time to eventually cantrip into it. With him all but locked out I finish him off easily.

Liliana of the VeilSideboarding

-2 Mental Misstep
-2 Gitaxian Probe
-1 Spell Pierce
-1 Forked Bolt

+2 Blood Moon
+1 Izzet Charm
+1 Jori En, Ruin Diver
+1 Skullclamp
+1 Spellskite

Since my buddy on Jund is one of the stronger players in the room, I’ve come prepared for this matchup. I know Cruise is the best card by a long shot, so the value package comes in, sans Thing in the Ice which is too easy for them to kill. Missteps are something of a double-edged sword, since countering Bolt and Deathrite is pretty nutty, but they have a solid chance of rotting away in your hand. Similar issue with Spell Pierce vis-à-vis Liliana. It might be better to have more Missteps on the draw and more Pierces on the play, but I’m not sure.

Forked Bolt is better than normal against Jund because of Deathrite, so I left one in. Blood Moon is clearly crazy good, especially when they’re trying to Punishing-Grove you out, and the Cruises, Ponders, and post-board draw spells make it that much more likely I’ll find a copy.

Semifinals – Affinity (Win)

This opponent is the same one from round 3. His draws are much less robust this match, and between mulligans, my timely hate pieces, and his lackluster draws I take my revenge for the earlier loss.

Finals – Jund (Loss)

My friend and I are in the Top 2! Pretty sweet. Winner gets a Scalding Tarn and loser gets a Misty Rainforest, which for a $10 entry fee sounds like a pretty sick deal. Battling for the glory is the no-brainer option.

Game one he’s on the play due to seeding and casts a turn one Deathrite. The universe demonstrates its sense of humor and I draw Misstep for turn. Cool story. Turn two Liliana comes down and I’m never in it. Game two I mulligan and get run over. Either way, it’s always fun to close out a tournament with a friend, and I won’t be complaining about my $10 Misty anytime soon.

Examining the Banned List

I had an absolute blast playing this tournament, and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried out no-banned-list Modern to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised to play against an interactive deck every round, and the games were interesting and challenging. I suspect that given enough time and financial incentive, the community and MTGO hive mind would solve the format handily and plunge it into degeneracy, but in a more casual environment things were pretty balanced.

On a more serious note, testing in these hypothetical environments can give us relevant information about which cards may be safe to unban. Here are my thoughts about the banned list after playing six rounds.

  • Stoneforge MysticStoneforge Mystic & Bloodbraid Elf: Neither of these cards felt unfair when they were cast against me. Granted my deck was hardly a reasonable yardstick for “fair,” but I feel that these cards are mostly safe to unban.

Bloodbraid Elf has been discussed elsewhere, and I think the community largely agrees its banning was a mistake that could easily be rectified. As for Stoneforge it’s a slightly dicier proposition, but I feel that between artifact hate, combo kills, and Lightning Bolt she would potentially be a fine addition to the format.

  • Deathrite Shaman & Eye of Ugin: I’ve come to see these cards, along with Mox Opal, in a similar light. Fundamentally, they act as “fast mana” for their respective archetypes. What makes them distinct from things like Birds of Paradise, Simian Spirit Guide, or Search for Tomorrow is opportunity cost—each of these cards essentially take up no space in decklists.

Mox Opal and Eye of Ugin are accelerants that occupy land slots, of which a certain number are required for any deck. It’s not hard to see why this leads to degeneracy—they’re lands that Time Walk opponents. Deathrite Shaman is a stranger case. Deathrite ShamanObviously it takes up a spell slot, but it doesn’t reduce the amount of action in your deck. So where Opal and Eye upgrade a slot you’re already using for mana, Deathrite upgrades a slot dedicated to a win condition. In both cases you end up with acceleration in your deck at effectively no cost.

Eye of Ugin is easily the worst offender of these, providing a full-on Mishra’s Workshop for the appropriate deck. I don’t think this card can ever come off the banned list as long as Thought-Knot Seer &co. are a part of the format. Deathrite’s offense is less about raw power and more about ubiquity. Jeskai colors are the only ones that can’t run it, and such a flexible card becomes a must-include everywhere and pushes out strategies that don’t convert. It makes sense that Opal is the one of the three that has survived this long—like Deathrite it can only add +1 mana, and like Eye it must be included in a very specific deck. I could certainly see Opal getting banned eventually, but for now it seems okay—hopefully this little theoretical discussion helps explain why.

  • Ancient DenArtifact Lands: I’m not even convinced that Affinity wants these. I recognize that Arcbound Ravager, Atog and Disciple of the Vault are best buds with Ancient Den, et.al., but I’m not sure it’s worth cutting Blinkmoth and Inkmoth. The games I lost against Affinity looked pretty much the same as what we’re all used to in normal Modern—they put a zillion permanents on the table early on, smacked me around with the “big spells” like Ravager and Plating, and post-board slammed the terrifying Etched Champion to play around my hate. It’s been a long time since Affinity was interested in any of its namesake cards, and without Myr Enforcer and Thoughtcast I don’t see a strong reason to run more than a few artifact lands.

Where artifact lands may be problematic is in creating other combo decks, most notably Krark-Clan Ironworks. I’ll leave it to other people to speculate on the fairness of that deck, but my current thinking is that the artifact land cycle is a candidate for unbanning.

  • SkullclampSkullclamp: I had this as a one-of in my sideboard, largely for the grindy matchups like Jund and Eldrazi. I did get to “go off” with it once, but by the time I started clamping Elemental tokens I had something like 7 and the game was basically already over. Similarly, when I saw it cast in Affinity it didn’t seem unreasonable, as sacrificing tempo and board presence to draw more cards wasn’t always advantageous. That said, this is another card that could easily enable new broken combo decks, and even in Affinity it seemed highly dangerous. I suspect that Elves would break it completely in half.
  • Ponder: Unbanning Ponder (and its cousin Preordain) would be dangerous to say the least. In my Delver deck the card was profoundly overpowered, granting me a consistency that none of the non-blue decks could match. The existence of this kind of hyper-efficient selection in Legacy is one of the things that pushes down other colors.

Of course, I was playing Ponder fair. Another guy showed up to the tournament with Blazing Shoal Infect, and I shudder to think what a finely-tuned version of that would do to the top tables. To say nothing of the myriad other combos in Modern that may have been lacking an extra piece of filtering to be truly broken. Can you imagine a Goryo’s Vengeance deck fueled by Ponder and Preordain? No thank you.

  • Mental MisstepMental Misstep, Treasure Cruise: No, no, no, no, no. Don’t even think about putting your hand in that cookie jar, kids. These ones are truly the busted of the busted, and this tournament reminded me why.

I have a strong suspicion that Delver is the best archetype in no-banned-list Modern. The two other formats where Treasure Cruise has been allowed to run rampant saw UR Delver soar to the top of the standings and stay there. When you can run 4 Ancestral Recalls nobody can out-grind you. When you have 4 Mental Missteps nobody can (reliably) out-aggro you. Just how are you supposed to beat these two cards in tandem?

Jund and the other (comparatively) fair decks like Eldrazi certainly stand a chance. But resolving a draw-three against these decks is no joke, and they can’t really interact with the top of your library or the stack. And then there was the game my opponent’s turn one Deathrite Shaman on the play never hit the battlefield… If you unbanned Deathrite, Punishing FireEye of Ugin, and Treasure Cruise all at once, maybe you’d have a viable metagame—but don’t expect the hallmark diversity we’ve enjoyed in Modern over the last however many years to persist. There are very few strategies that can contend with Misstep and Cruise, and they have to do so at the same time as combating non-interactive combo. Not likely.

Testing the Limits

Next week Sheridan is back for the Wednesday slot, and I’m excited to see what he cooks up for us. In the meantime, what are your experiences testing with banned cards? Any poignant insight into the banned list or cards you think can come off safely? Let me know in the comments and we’ll see you next week.

25 thoughts on “A Foray into No Banned List Modern

    1. Twin has been one of the most consistent winners of previous Modern NBL tournaments. My hypothesis is that it is underrepresented because people just dont realize how fucking busted of a card selection too that ponder is.

  1. I would love to see Bloodbraid Elf, Stoneforge Mystic, and pooooosibly Jace unbanned in Modern (although I admit that last one’s tricky–imagine Jeskai with Nahirakul and JTSM as wincons). I really do think the format can handle BBE and SFM though, and the latter would certainly help white be more than sideboard lord.

  2. No ban list modern scares me quite a bit, kudos for diving in to the deep end and bringing us back a report.

    You mentioned that you thought blood brain elf and stoneforge mystic feel like safe unban and I have to wonder, with the wide view that modern is currently a healthy and diverse format, (something I tend to agree with, although the linear state of modern does concern me) I wonder what incentive Wizards has to go ahead with unbanning these two cards?

    Particularly, as it pertains to stoneforge mystic. In my mind, a turn 3 batter skull isn’t that terrifying, considering that decks like dredge are vomitting prized amalgams up by the dozen by turn 3 and Grizshoalbrand is going bonkers right about the same time (just two examples).

    Do you think Wizards would rather create new innovative cards that might fill the niche a card like stoneforge would fill? Or does Wizards have a vested interest in minimizing the ban list and safely unbanning cards when it deems appropriate?

    1. Hey Dan, great question. My personal opinion is that a ban list should be as small as absolutely possible while still serving the function of promoting the health of the format. This is for a couple of reasons. First, people want to play with the cards they already have. This is arguably the major draw of playing a non-rotating format. Second, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If Wizards wanted to create a new card to fill a similar niche as an old card (excluding wanting a less-powerful version in standard), they may as well give us the old card back. Just my two cents!

  3. Considering the other things currently going on in modern I don’t consider SFM such an overpowering card that some make it out to be. It’s clearly a powerful card but having a 4/4 lifelink creature on turn 3 is not worse than what you see out of aggro decks in this format that can easily swing for 10+ on turn 2/3 with a bushwhacker or a doublestriking 10/10 Death’s Shadow, etc.

    1. Prior to Twin getting banned I was gathering data for Sheridan on unbanning Stoneforge by making Twinblade decks. I found the deck terrifying. What emerged from my tests was that Stoneforge and Batterskull allowed Twin become more or less a pure combo deck and just run the maximum number of cantrips to reliably combo off while Batterskull reliably kept them alive (and sometimes just won). The real problem is that the deck was relatively straightforward to play but a nightmare to play against because you never knew just what you had to be afraid of at any point and the deck promoted poor play on the opponent’s part, which I don’t think is a format positive.

      Twin being banned makes Stoneforge a little more likely an unban, but it’s ability to put the screws to aggro makes me concerned that it would harm diversity by being an auto-include in many decks.

      1. If anything, something that let midrange/control put the screws to agro would *increase* diversity. Every top 16 Ive seen for the last couple months has been dominated by agro, sure there is midrange too, but midrange is much less represented on average

        1. The problem that I forgot to mention was that the bad decisions problem came up when I was testing against Jund and Junk. They couldn’t effectively protect themselves from both Stoneforge and the Twin combo in the early turns and frequently were forced to misplay against one half to not lose to the other. Combined with the results I got testing against Burn and Infect, the conclusion I was coming to when testing ended was that in the short term agro would be squeezed out and then the midrange decks would either be overwhelmed or be forced to warp themselves to survive, which would in turn let the most unfair decks back into the format. At the time I thought that unbanning Stoneforge would provide some temporary diversity boost followed by a long term contraction as decks are forced to become more extreme to compete with TwinBlade.

      2. I realise that SFM is a strong card and it will more than likely have an impact on the modern landscape, but I think that’s the point.

        Currently linear decks are the vast majority of the decks in Modern, aggro decks in particular. The gap that was left by twin was in part filled by Jeskai Control with Nahiri but a good part of it was taken by the decks that Twin previously held back and/or aggro decks that got new toys since.

        Something that screws with aggro, as I see it, would bring a welcome change to the format. SFM may be a little too strong to be that harbinger of change, but I don’t think it’d break modern in half either.

          1. Now you have something to write about next week! 😀 I would honestly love a piece about SFM in modern from you. You seem to have a pretty down-to-earth perspective on things.

      1. You’re right that the ‘combos’ I mentioned require several cards to do what I said, but the decks I specifically mentioned are build to get there consistently. Suicide Zoo is essentially a 48 card deck with its 12 free cantrips that easily get you to Bushwhacker is 8 damage.

        1. That last sentence got butchered. What I meant to say is that Suicide Zoo runs 12 cantrips that cost no mana which essentially turns it into a 48 card deck. Bushwhacker Zoo also runs a ton of redundancy such that it has a playset of both Burning-Tree Emissary and its namesake goblin. Those 2 combined with any 1 drop is at least 8 damage.

  4. My experience with NBL modern affinity is that nobody pushes the degeneracy of the shell far enough. This is what I run with:
    Days undoing
    Thoughtcast
    master of etherium
    Gitaxian probe
    Mox opal
    Chrome mox
    Ravager
    Plating
    Memnite
    Frogmite
    Myr enforcer
    Ornithopter
    Springleaf drum
    Seat of the synod
    Darksteel citadel

    This style of list cinsistently plays its hand turn one and clocks in with plating, master of etherium or casts days undoing on the second turn.

    1. That deck looks bah-roken. Wondering about Chrome Mox. You appear to have very few colored spells to pitch to it, and most of them are business spells I’d rather keep in hand. How has that aspect played out?

      1. 16 colored spells is a little bit light, yes, but the idea is this: you’re going to aggressively mulligan anything that doesn’t have plating/ravager/days undoing/master. Obviously, I didn’t put numbers in, but I only run with 2-3 chrome mox and a couple basics in the deck for path to exile. you generally want about 10-11 lands.

        If you have a chrome mox and a blue spell, you’re either dumping your hand and casting the blue spell and cycling away the mox (which is insane card advantage when you play 5-6 cards and your opponent probably plays land/cantrip or land/mana dork, then you both have a new 7) OR the hand has a colorless threat (plating/ravager) and you’re exiling the blue card to push out that power card on the FIRST turn instead of on the second, which pushes you a turn faster than normal affinity in regular modern.

        Certainly, you have to mulligan aggressively, but when you have a hand that plays a turn one day’s undoing on the play without ever exposing a one-drop to be mental mis-stepped, you sometimes just win by forcing your opponent to a very, VERY poor 7. Particularly against combo decks, this can be stupidly in your favor. Against midrange decks, it serves as the card advantage engine that lets you push through to finish them through the punishing fire engine or the batterskull.

  5. I am curious if they could ban mox opal and unban the artifact lands – would that net out to affinity being about the same power level?

    As you point out, whats the deck cutting for the artifact lands? Glimmervoid – and then you’re either replacing citadels or cutting manlands. With opal gone theyd be harder pressed to play rainbow sideboard cards – esp if they then trim glimmervoids for artifact lands.

    In the vein of fast mana not being ok it seems to me like opal and spirit guide have to be on a watch list. If they could five-for-one swap the lands for opal thatd be a good reason to do it. The artifact lands could also enable tezzeret and thirst for knowledge decks.

    1. Affinity would be significantly weaker without Opal, artifact lands or not. I tend to also agree with the camp that thinks the artifact lands don’t even make Affinity that much stronger (and potentially makes it worse, see Stony Silence). I’m not calling for them to be unbanned by any means, because there’s really not any reason to (unfortunately also the main reason to not unban BBE, though Wizards seems to think AV + BBE is too strong… <_<).

  6. While I agree truesure cruise is to good I honestly dont think mental misstep is as strong as it is in legacy or vintage. I’ve played some nbl online matches and it is often dead in hand. Even your sideboarding had you taking it out in some number ever match. It would help fair decks against fast linear aggro.

      1. I don’t think it could possibly invalidate aggro decks. This is the same line of logic people argued when Ancestral Vision was unbanned in regards to B/G/x decks and that has only proven to be the opposite of true.

        All mental misstep could do is stifle them in the early game. which is exactly what the format needs if we want to break the prevalence of linear aggro decks.

        what it would also do is help mitigate the value of the bolt test
        help decks combat combat thoughtseize and Iok from invalidating mulligan choices

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