An hour ago, Wizards released their 7/13 Banned and Restricted Announcement to an eagerly awaiting Modern community. I’d been refreshing pages for about two hours by that point, so I hope you join me in taking our collective hats off to Wizards as we applaud them for the Announcement’s decision: no changes. I’m not just happy about this because it fit my banlist prediction article from last Wednesday, although it’s great to see that our banlist analysis is on the right track. The real reason to be excited is that this announcement shows Wizards is able to rise above ban-mania, analyze the format objectively, consider the datapoints for what they are, and reach a fair decision in the face of a divided community.
In light (calm, peaceful light!) of today’s announcement, I want to touch on a few points related to this recent decision and how it should affect our format analysis going ahead. This includes a recap of why nothing needed to be banned, a reemphasis of why nothing needed to be unbanned, and a reaffirmation of why this decision is so important for Modern’s future. I’m going to focus on the banning piece because that was by far the biggest factor leading up to the 7/13 announcement.
No Bans: Guiltless Offenders
June might have been one of my favorite months for Modern coverage and gameplay, but it was one of the worst for banlist discussion. It felt like every other Modern article on most sites, and most commentary by top players, was unusually ban-centric. There was talk about banning Summer Bloom, Goryo’s Vengeance, Simian Spirit Guide, Splinter Twin, Snapcaster Mage, and what felt like every card from a top-tier deck (and almost literally every card from a top-tier combo deck). GP Charlotte was a low-point in this discussion, with SCG commentators loudly asking players about what they wanted banned from Amulet Bloom, or even what Modern banlist changes they expected for the format.
The core failure behind this discussion was a fundamental misunderstanding of both Wizards’ ban policy as a whole, and specific elements of that ban policy like the turn four rule. To be clear, I definitely don’t claim special inside knowledge of either of those things. But I do try and base my own banlist predictions around both the broader Modern metagame context, and the historical context and examples of previous ban decisions. Both of these were conspicuously absent from most banlist discussion. This is why a lot of commentators and community members were so far off-base in their calling for Bloom, Vengeance, Shoal, Twin, and other bans: they just weren’t situating their ban-mania in the broader Modern context.
Instead of discussing those different contexts on their own, I want to focus on them with respect to three different decks. These decks exemplify different Modern banlist considerations that, when misunderstood, can lead players to making inaccurate assessments of format health and card bannability. In analyzing these three case studies, hopefully we can all make more accurate and less alarmist ban assessments in the future.
- Amulet Bloom: the turn four rule and format self-regulation
I’ll be the first to admit that I was worried about Amulet Bloom back in May and early June. We had a ton of results, including some scary win-percentage statistics from MTGO, suggesting this really was the best deck in the format. Although Amulet Bloom players were defending their deck, these weren’t exactly the most objective judges of Bloom’s health in the format. By most quantitative and qualitative metrics, Amulet Bloom looked like it was going to be a monster during the June GP circuit. And then came the Blood Moon over GP Charlotte. As I wrote in my GP Charlotte retrospective, GP Charlotte (and the rest of the GPs throughout the month) showed the world that Modern is capable of some degree of self-regulation. Between tech like Moon, an increased reliance on catchalls like Cursecatcher and Spell Snare, and just improved deck/matchup knowledge, Modern players are able to police their own format. Before GP Charlotte, there was always some chance that Amulet Bloom was the format’s best deck, or that its relative novelty just made it an unexpected deck people weren’t ready for. Once the GP rolled around, it became clear it was the latter case: this deck was eminently policeable if people were prepared. This was reflected in the deck’s metagame shares, which never crept over 5% in MTGO and was well under 4% in paper. When past combo decks got banned, such as Storm, their metagame shares were much larger and were sustained for longer periods of time. The 7/13 announcement strongly suggests Wizards views Amulet the same way and prefers internal self-policing to external bans.
- Grishoalbrand: the turn four rule and top-tier decks
No sooner had the Amulet Bloom ban-mania died down than the Griselbrand and Nourishing Shoal ban-mania take its place. Following Zach Jesse’s Top 8 finish with the deck at Charlotte, the combo deck exploded onto the radar of every ban-minded Modern player. It was billed as the most broken deck in the format with strong matchups across the board, a challenging axis of interaction, and extremely frequent turn two and three wins. All of this appeared to make it an ideal candidate for banning under Wizards’ oft-misunderstood turn four rule. But there was just one problem: people had forgotten the most important part of the turn four rule, which is the “top-tier” status of the deck in question. Amulet Bloom had threatened to reach tier 1 a few times before June, but Grishoalbrand was never even close. By the end of June, the deck was still under 2% of the collective metagame, seeing the most play at GP Day 2s where it comprised only 2.8% of the field. The deck also completely flubbed out of the Modern Festival, sending no one to the Top 32 and making up just over 2% of the Preliminaries. So when the ban announcement rolled around on 7/13, no one should have been surprised that nothing from Grishoalbrand was on the chopping block: the deck was never even close to top-tier status for its limited time in Modern. Will this deck eventually get there? We need to wait and see. But the point, and the lesson learned, is that the deck was not top-tier during June and thus should never have been under consideration for a banning.
- Splinter Twin: metagame dominance and metagame shares
When there’s nothing else to talk about in Modern, I can always count on ban discussion shifting to Splinter Twin, Deceiver Exarch, and/or Snapcaster Mage. To some extent, it’s fair to voice concerns about what is probably Modern’s “best” tier 1 deck, or at least its most consistent. Birthing Pod is still fresh on our minds and Twin has some (but not all) the trappings of the Pod scenario we faced back in January 2015. But it is in the Pod example itself that the comparison, and by extension the Twin ban-talk, breaks down. When decks get banned for reducing format diversity or being too dominant, this is exclusively a metagame share argument. Pod’s metagame share had been at 10%-12% for a while, and although they crashed down to sub-5% for the first part of the Treasure Cruise era, they catapulted up to 15%-20% on the back of Siege Rhino and other metagame contexts. This was on top of an excessive number of GP wins and Top 8/16 appearances. Twin isn’t even close to that degree of prevalence. Even combining all the Twin decks into one collective group (which I’m not even convinced we can do fairly), we still see a deck that is less than 13% of the metagame. We also see a lot of differences between those Twin decks, and pretty wide variation in their performance (e.g. Twin decks aren’t even winning every event). All of this suggests it’s okay to have strong tier 1 decks in the format, or even a most-played deck. It’s just not okay if that deck reaches Pod, Delver, or Deathrite Shaman-era Jund levels. So long as Twin stays in its current metagame prevalence band, it will remain safe.
In all these assessments, the key ban factors are a) metagame prevalence and b) ban decision history. Whenever we forget both of those elements, it’s incredibly easy to misevaluate the format’s health and the safety of cards that might appear dangerous. But if we use these three examples to inform our future predictions, not to mention this banlist announcement itself, we will be much more likely to make accurate assessments and stay away from ban-mania. Metagame breakdowns, like my 6/1 – 7/1 discussion from last week, are helpful in this regard. So is an in-depth understanding of banlist dynamics, as in my analysis of the turn four rule from the most recent banlist prediction.
No Unbans: Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broken
In fairness to the Modern community, many players won’t be upset at this banlist announcement because nothing was banned. They will just be disappointed that nothing was unbanned. Common suggestions in this category include Sword of the Meek (reasonable!), Ancestral Vision (risky…), Bloodbraid Elf (insane, given Jund’s current prevalence), and Stoneforge Mystic (people who didn’t play Magic in 2011). As with the banning suggestions, the problem with the unbanning camps is one of context. When considering an unban, Wizards likely weighs two overlapping (and occasionally competing) criterion. First is the criterion most people acknowledge: the individual power level of the card. Something like Sword isn’t necessarily a fair card, but it also doesn’t feel nearly as broken as things already happening in Modern. For instance, it’s a stretch to think Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry would be significantly better than the existing Twin combos (especially with all the Kolaghan’s Command running around). But this consideration is at odds with the second consideration, which is the one most people forget: metagame context.
As Wizards has shown time and time again, unbans are unlikely in diverse and stable formats. Although the 2012 Valakut unbanning is a bit of an exception to this, (“Recent Modern tournaments have been diverse, with no deck dominating the metagame… The DCI is unbanning a card to see how that affects the format.”), this is mostly how Wizards has treated the rest of their unbans (Nacatl, Bitterblossom, Troll). Moreover, the metagame in which Valakut was unbanned was very different from our current one. We are going through a period of big changes, with Grixis Control recently rising to prominence as a legitimate top-tier control deck, cards like Collected Company still looking to find their optimal home, and a big new set just released with possible Modern implications (Day’s Undoing is big here). With no deck at more than 10% of the metagame, there’s just no good reason to unban a card right now. The metagame has enough diversity and options without adding anything else. Could Ancestral Vision benefit control decks? Maybe, but maybe those decks don’t need help. Maybe Grixis Control is able to rise to the top without any help from Vision. Indeed, maybe Vision throws the balanced format out of alignment when there’s no reason to take that risk. We are likely to see unbans in either stagnant metagames with no deck movement, or in metagames recently gutted by bans. This most recent announcement confirms our thinking on this matter, and will serve as a useful datapoint in future predictions.
The Modern Banlist and Wizards
The real winners here are not Amulet Bloom or Grishoalbrand players (and certainly not the clowns who bought out all the foil Sword of the Meeks over the weekend). The real winners are the women and men of the Modern community who rely on Wizards for fair, objective, and consistent management of their format. If nothing else, this ban announcement signals that we are all on the same page with assessing Modern’s health. I talked about this in my banlist prediction article, and it’s important to restate here after the 7/13 announcement is in the books. If Wizards had banned something today, or even unbanned something, it would signal that our understanding of the format is radically different from Wizards’. But because they did nothing, it suggests many of us are in agreement about what makes a stable format, what makes a healthy deck, and what Wizards’ responsibility is in such a situation. This should give us great confidence going forward: Wizards has proven they can remain reasonable and objective despite lots of commentary to the contrary. This is great news for players who are worried about investing in Modern for fear of bans, and worried about playing Modern for fear of instability.
I’ll be on vacation this week, so expect some significantly shorter articles on Tuesday and Wednesday before Trevor and Jordan release their longer pieces at the end of the week. How do you all feel about the banlist update? Anything you would have done differently if you were part of Wizards? How do you think this informs ban decisions going ahead? Looking forward to hearing from you in the comments and to continuing to play in our format where no banlist changes are needed.