It’s Time Again: Banlist Options

Tilt is quite a mighty thing. Re-reading my fevered scrawlings from last week proved deeply concerning. I knew I was unwell, but I didn’t know how unwell. While I’m better now, I may need to refocus before things get worse. Therefore, it’s time to torture myself by beginning another Banlist Test.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael goes to sea to center himself when teaching gets him down. When I start to feel too sane and begin perceiving the truth behind reality (again), I dip into the insane with complicated and strenuous academic research. I’m once again prepared to exhaust myself (along with the poor souls who acquiesce to being my testing partners) in an investigation of Modern’s banned list.

I’ve done this twice before, and it has not gone well for those who advocate for a shorter list. Stoneforge Mystic and Jace were highly impactful against fair decks but ineffective against unfair decks, which does little to address the problems players have identified with Modern. Suppressing fair decks allows more unfair deck to rise, to the detriment of the format. Everyone should have expected this result. Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were very oppressive to fair decks in Standard and, reportedly, Extended. This time I’m looking to the other end of the metagame, with a new strategy for testing the banlist.

Unfinished Business

First thing’s first: I need to close a previous thread. During last week’s fugue, I noticed that Death’s Shadow is far more fragile than the old Jund decks. I postulated that this would make Surgical Extraction a maindeckable card for the first time (that I can remember) in UW Control. However, enough of my rationality remained to solicit opinions about my conclusions. As the feedback was guardedly optimistic, I thought it reasonable to actually test my idea. Not in paper, you understand. My rational mind would not allow it. I was still conscientious enough to be ashamed of myself for conceiving this idea. Public humiliation just isn’t my thing. I have a reputation to uphold. While the Paper Sack Mask of Shame is always an option, I decided to test for free online. With actual free software. I wasn’t willing to pay MODO for this crazed idea.

It was a colossal failure. I’m not going to share the decklist I tried because it was an appallingly bad idea. Surgical Extraction proved itself wholly unworthy of maindeck inclusion in my UW list. However, I could not tell whether this was a result of Extraction itself providing a marginal effect, or of the surrounding shell. UW Control cannot make full use of Extraction because it cannot actively put targets into the graveyard. The deck is purely reactive, and only has the opportunity to extract what opponents want extracted. Path to Exile‘s “upside” of exiling doesn’t help matters. All I really found is that UW cannot maindeck it profitably. The question of its actual maindeck potential was uncertain.

Question of Home?

So I changed over to an Esper list. I thought that Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize would enable Extraction enough to actually test my hypothesis. It didn’t. At least not verifiably. Having either discard spell in hand with Extraction and then hitting a card you wanted to Extract didn’t happen very often. Having Fatal Push to get Shadows into the graveyard was better, but it didn’t always matter. My win percentage only incrementally increased, which may have just been variance. I didn’t acquire enough data to give a good answer, which might be the answer by itself. Extraction may only be good in games you’d win anyway with control decks.

I cannot say that this disproves my overall theory, because I’m told the strategy actually works in Lantern decks. I’ve even received testimonials on this subject. I don’t know if they’re true or even plausible, as I’d rather chew my own head off than play Lantern. That may be the real answer though. If you have to go as far as to play Lantern Control for an idea to be good, it might not be worth it.

One last thing, and this one is just shameless bragging—I was right about the bicyclers. Sam Stoddard shared developer comments that clearly showed that they did cost these away from Modern playability. Life from the Loam is one lesson that Wizards has actually learned from.

Banlist Adjustments

Anyway, back to the plot. I asked for feedback on my the Banlist series and you responded. The main request was for me to do Preordain, followed by Dig Through Time. Conveniently, those would have been my own picks for another test. The problem is how. I still intend to test cards in the decks that got them banned. If the old offender still offends, then the card should probably remain banned. However, neither you nor I care about that part. We want to know if these cards would boost the fair blue decks. Most of the clamor about unbanning centers on this idea, and the cards I’ve tested so far are believed to boost fair decks. This was borne out by your feedback.

The thing is that unbanning a card to boost a deck can be dangerous, as Golgari Grave-Troll demonstrated. I need to proceed delicately with this test because I cannot ignore the impact that the test cards would have on unfair decks. No, it really isn’t the point of the test or what we all care about here, but it is the gatekeeper to their actual acceptability in Modern. Therefore, I need to alter my methods. I’ve already decided how to proceed, and I will lay out my plan shortly. Before I get to that, I need to address something that I will inevitably be asked about, again, and explain why I will continue not to test Bloodbraid Elf.

Because Bloodbraid Elf

Here’s how the argument for Bloodbraid goes: It’s not fair. Bloodbraid Elf wasn’t the problem, it was Deathrite Shaman. It’s powerful but fair. It died for Shaman’s sins. Bring back Bloodbraid Elf! It’s not that good anymore.

Look, I’ve heard it all. It all. You’ve made these arguments about unbanning the Elf repeatedly, and I have repeatedly answered them. Henceforth, I will respond simply with “No, because Bloodbraid Elf.” Deathrite was the real problem at the time, but Bloodbraid was never innocent. It has always been a format-defining card and frustratingly overpowered. Cascade for value has never been fun to play against or good for the game as a whole.

Wizards may have gotten the order of the bans wrong, but both cards needed to go. Elf was just better than anything else you could do, and even now it still would be. I tried it. It’s stupidly good. Return it to Modern and you make everything about Jund again. And it would be Jund. Elf gets better the more individually powerful your cards are, and Jund has always had the highest density of high-impact cards. It defines the deck. Jund is its home and one true love; all the other decks are just pretending. I know what will happen if I test the deck, you know what will happen, and there’s nothing interesting to learn. I’m not testing Bloodbraid Elf.

Bloodbraid and Shadow Together

Midrange Jund has been replaced by Death’s Shadow Jund. It has dropped to low Tier 2 status everywhere. It’s provably not as good anymore. At four mana, Elf is too expensive for DSJ to reliably support currently. It also doesn’t play well with all the discard and Mishra’s Bauble. Ergo, the Elf partisans are already pointing to this as a reason to unban the Elf. It isn’t, but they will argue it is. The best-case scenario under current conditions is that midrange Jund and DSJ coexist and split their metagame share. This would still make both Tier 1 decks. Considering that the two decks share a card pool, it’s mostly a case of different win conditions—it would be more reasonable to combine their metagame shares, pushing them well above everyone else. I would consider this a metagame warp.

More likely, players would simply alter DSJ to accommodate Bloodbraid. DSJ is Jund, just pushed to a Shadow-facilitatating extreme. Playing two spells for the price of one is good. Playing two spells for the price of one is very good. In fact, cheating on mana is busted. Why wouldn’t you play Bloodbraid in DSJ? I don’t have an answer, and neither did any Jund experts I asked. I’ve asked a wide range of current and former Jund players, including my Jund test partner, and they would all play Bloodbraid Elf in DSJ. In fact, several independently gave me the same recommendation about how to build such a deck. Both of them would cut the Traverse the Ulvenwalds and Baubles for Elf, some extra lands, and Kolaghan’s Command. Shave some discard for an extra Tarfire, and you have a less explosive, but more powerful and grindy deck.

I’ll take their word. Elf would probably be good in Shadow. Unbanning something to make the best deck better is bad for Modern. No Bloodbraid Elf. Because Bloodbraid Elf.

Adjusted Methodology

So, how do I intend to actually test the next card? First of all, I have already chosen both the possible cards and decks that I will use. As you will see, I need to get started as quickly as possible. This test is not just about the cards being “okay” for Modern. We are investigating whether or not they are “worth it.” In other words, we are looking to see if their impact on fair control decks is greater than their impact on the decks that got them banned. I have every expectation that the unfair decks will see a boost. How big I don’t know, but it will be there. That’s not a question worth investigating. Whether that impact is greater than that on other, fairer decks is.

The cards will first be tested in the decks that got them banned. This will be done like the previous tests. After that, I will repeat the tests with UW Control. I picked UW because it is a fair blue deck that is performing reasonably well in the current meta, or at least better than other versions. Yes, there may be better homes for both cards in a vacuum, but looking at the current metagame, I doubt either card will have much effect outside of UW. Grixis Control is not doing as well, and RUG Scapeshift is no longer viable. Even if either card is utterly busted, I don’t think the deck will get enough of a boost to produce a decent result. Going from unplayable to reasonable would be an interesting result, but I’m not willing to spend all my time on such a gamble.

After that, I will compare the two results. I will look not only for which deck performed better in the tests, but the size of the difference too. Similar results would indicate a general boost in power, while significantly different results would show that one deck is favored by that card. Exactly what either result means depends greatly on context. Control and test deck receiving a similar boost may indicate that a card is safe, or it could mean that it is metagame-warping. The test decks doing significantly better obviously means that unbanning is a bad idea, but a massive boost to control could indicate that it would be oppressive in a different way. A lot will depend on why the results happen.

Finally, to forewarn you, I am not gong to play 500 matches with each deck. It took four months to get the data for Jace, and I will not make you wait eight-plus months for this test. It’s just not acceptable. I will have to play more matches in total this time, and I’ve committed to that, but I don’t know yet exactly how many. I’ll see how the first test goes.

Make Your Choice

I imagine everyone has figured it out already, but I will make it explicit. You have two choices for the next banned test. They are:

  • Dig Through Time – Banned because Wizards feared that it would just replace Treasure Cruise. It will be tested in an updated UR Delver shell based on the deck that got Treasure Cruise banned.
  • Preordain – A victim of Modern’s severe brokenness at inception. Preordain was banned along with Ponder to slow down combo decks, specifically Storm and Splinter Twin. Since Twin is also banned I will use a UR Gifts Storm list.

Once again, you can exercise your voting rights to pick my next torment/project. Write in the comments of this article which card you want to see. Note that only comments to this article will be counted—I won’t be tallying votes from other social media or other articles. Discuss it as much as you like elsewhere (not like I can stop you), but if it isn’t written here, it won’t count. Voting closes next Sunday at 11:00 Pacific time. Any vote after that point will not be heard. Go.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

40 thoughts on “It’s Time Again: Banlist Options

  1. As a storm/ad naus player, i would rather have preordain; however, i think it would completely break the decks, making them far too powerful.

    I dont think dig through time would do the same; however, it might make delver decks replace shadow decks. Which has always been am archtype i wanted to try out specifically grixis delver. I cant wait to see your testing.

    In the end i want preodain unbanned.

    1. I am much more interested in Dig through Time testing however it is possible Dig Through Time is more abusive in a slower Grixis control, u/g/r Valakut, Storm or Ad nauseum than in Delver despite the pedigree of Dig Through Time / Treasure Cruise delver in modern and legacy. Grixis Delver based on the Treasure Cruise Delver but with Kolagan’s Command and Fatal Push may be better than straight U/R

      IMO its not worth testing preordain in Storm. I think there is more potential for abuse with preordain in Ad nauseum. Storm is more about a critical mass of cards and POF rather than combo pieces

      I am interested in helping you test if you are looking for opponents. I have many years experience playing modern with just about every deck

  2. I vote for Dig Through Time.

    I would vote for preordain based on my theory that any increase in the power of combo decks will be matched by a corresponding increase in the power of tempo (delver) decks which are perfect for fighting combo. Unfortunately I’m not sure your test method will work very well for preordain since it is such a versatile card. Pretty much any blue deck that isn’t merfolk will be playing 4 preordains meaning its impact on the metagame is far too complex to be captured by any reasonable testing. Also, I don’t think control is the right archetype to test preordain but rather tempo. Obviously combo, control, and tempo will all improve with preordain but I expect the effect on control to be the smallest. Tempo decks abuse the “turbo-xerox” concept to its full potential but are currently unable to do so because serum visions is the only good cantrip. With 8 cantrips delver decks would not only be more consistent but also able to abuse a lean, efficient curve with a small mana base like legacy delver decks (but probably not to the same extent).

    Dig on the other hand seems like a good candidate for this methodology as it is a great control card and it isn’t quite as versatile as preordain.

  3. Dig Through Time, all day every day. It’s a card that really never saw any significant play before being banned and was banned because of what it *MIGHT* do.

    Plus, with Storm as prevalent as it has been lately, there’s no way they will ever release Preordain.

  4. Wrong call on delver for testing dig through time. It should be rug valakut. 100%

    That’s the deck that used it while it was legal, and that’s the deck that would pick it up straight away & hit tournaments if it got unbanned.

    Delver would be an afterthought at best.

    1. That may be true. Here’s the thing: UR Delver got Treasure Cruise banned. In that announcement, Wizards cited that deck as the reason they were also banning Dig Through Time. They were worried that it would be a straight replacement and UR Delver would continue to be oppressive. My policy is to use the decks that got the card banned in the first place, so I have to go with Delver. I mentioned this in the article.

      1. If I may:

        The wizards reasoning for banning dig through time was controversial at the time, for a couple of reasons:

        1) Delver had never played the card.
        2) wizards was assuming a level of intimacy with the nuances of the deck that they have since shown is unlikely to be backed up by testing (numerous occasions they have stated that they don’t test for modern).

        We have a situation where they used an educated guess to suggest that Delver might pick up the card, based on zero data and little or no testing.

        Regardless of their written reasons, you can’t seriously consider delver as the deck “that got dig banned” because it was only hypothetical. Delver never even played dig. Dig merely got the axe for being vaguely similar to treasure cruise, and if your testing on unbanning cards is going to be worth anything at all, you need to be testing these cards primarily in shells where we know they’ll get played, ideally because they’ve seen play before. Scapeshift was tier 1 with dig, it was a good deck. It’s the most successful deck that ran the card & is the clear testing choice.

        There wasn’t a clear “deck that got Dig banned” in this situation, because wizards’ written reasons reference a deck that didn’t even play the card. I think you have to expand your testinf criteria in this instance

  5. My vote is for Preordain.
    The Storm of today is so much different than that of the past. I don’t feel like the current version of Storm could be broken by Preordain, because it relies so heavily on creatures and is therefore incredibly weak to interactive decks, not to mention getting hit by graveyard hate as well. And I don’t think Preordain would make the Pyromancer Ascension version better than the Baral version either. Making Storm better against uninteractive decks but only marginally better against interactive decks is a net plus for the metagame in my opinion.

    Ad Nauseum would be improved by Preordain more than Storm, and it would go far to improve the problem of finding the combo pieces. However, Ad Nauseum has always been a deck you can beat if you’re prepared for it, and it can lose to heavy interaction, itself, or a Surgical Extraction-esque effect, not to mention Blood Moon. Aggro decks that go under the combo might also increase, and I’m going to take the unpopular opinion and say that I actually think the current meta could use a bit more aggression right now. I doubt Preordain would break Ad Nauseum.

    As for control decks, Preordain would help them find their specific answers more easily, thought I believe the impact on control would be minimal.

    That leaves tempo style decks, which happen to be my specialty. The effect of an additional 4 cantrips would likely allow the deck to become a little more lean, cutting a land or 2 and some higher curve cards to fit in Preordain. Delver would become a much better threat than it is now. Overall, though, these benefits are unlikely to make Delver significantly better than it is now, which is basically a non-factor.

    The last deck that would be affected by the unban is Grixis Shadow. I’ve played the deck a bit, and I think this is the deck that stands to gain the most from a Preordain unban. Not only is it tier 1, but Grixis Shadow also suffers from the inability to find Shadows consistently. Preordain would do a lot to solve this.
    For these reasons, I would suggest you test Preordain in a Grixis Shadow shell, where it has the potential to make the biggest impact.

    As far as Dig Through Time goes… it’s banned in Legacy, guys. Come on.

    1. Preordain in grixis deaths shadow would indeed be interesting. A problem with testing preordain is that it just in general makes all blue decks more consistent

      Dig through time in legacy is a completely different beast with BS FOW Daze and Ponder you churn through the deck so fast and interact for free. The biggest reason IMO for the dig banning in modern was how dominant it would have made twin (Even if there is no mention of this in the BNR update)

  6. Dig Through Time is a more interesting card to test, as it does very different things compared to another 1 mana cycler. You can just insert Preordain in any deck running Serum Visions as a one for one. Done.

    Now, DTT needs setup: you have to put cards in your graveyard and it can be hated out. You can’t simply jam it in Grixis Delver or Grixis Shadow decks: they probably don’t want it over Tasigur or the Zombie Fish. It’s Control decks that want the ability to draw specific cards at instant speed, and those were the decks that played DTT in Standard. The card can lead to new decks in Modern, and that what I would want to see.

  7. Interesting to see such a wild split in the comments! I’d love to see either but am voting for Preo simply because I think it has a better chance of being considered by Wizards. Looking forward to the results regardless.

  8. I vote Preordain.

    (I agree with other Nexites that a card banned in Legacy is unlikely to be UN-banned in Modern…)

    (David: could you elaborate on why you choose UW Control over UWR Nahiri? I understand that UW is more popular atm (?), but I feel that Jeskai Nahiri has more to gain from the scry-first-draw-later due to Emrakul being in the deck, alongside digging deeper into the deck and seeing more high-impact sideboard cards which both decks share.
    Btw my highest compliments, your contribution to the format really is unparalleled!)

    1. I knew that I needed to test a fair blue deck with these cards. When I looked at the various metagame rankings across the web the highest was always UW, with various Grixis builds a distant second. I didn’t see Jeskai builds very often and always tier 3. As my policy is to use high tier decks in testing whenever possible, I went with UW.

      This has the additional benefit that Dig and Preordain are good cards in UW. While I’m sure that a Grixis list would run Preordain (most already run Serum Visions) I’m skeptical that Dig is where they want to be.

  9. I vote for Dig Through Time.

    Part of it’s personal, because Dig might be my all time favorite card. But I also think Preordain is too obviously broken. I’d love to have Preordain in Modern but of the two, I think Dig is less-obviously broken, and thus will probably be a more interesting test.

  10. Dig through time is provably broken. It’s banned in legacy and even restricted in vintage. We have all the data we need on it.

    Preordain is not banned in either.
    It’s only a weeeeee bit better than serum visions, however it’s serum visions 5-8.

    I think it’s much closer to being able to be unbanned comparative to dig, and therefor wayyyy more worth your time

  11. I like the idea for the testing. My thoughts on the two:

    Dig Throught Time- I do understand the reasoning on what decks you’ll be testing with, but DTT in Delver will be kind of cool, but seems like it’d be better in combo or control. Being a Delver player though, it’d be neat to see. Maybe DTT would be a card they could restrict in modern. But I don’t think we’ll ever see it come back.

    Preordain- Actually I think would be massive to helping the viability of Delver, and only make Storm better. It’d slot into every blue deck and be a 3/4$$ common! Boring card, but huge impact.

    Let’s see the unknown, go Preordain.

  12. I am of the opinion that the only cards that should be unbanned are stoneforege mystic and Jace the mind sculptor. But outside of those in my mind the only possibilities are seething song, Preordain, dig through time, and the artifact lands. Currently seething song would push storm over the edge with Baral and electromancer bringing the cost down to 1 Mana. Preordain is I admit the most likely of the four but I also don’t like it because it makes all combo decks that much better and I am don’t really like storm or ad nauseum, I am a bit more open to the possibility of dig through time because I have a soft spot for esper draw-go and that would slot right into the deck, dig claims my vote. The one I want to see tested the most is the artifact lands, I am of the opinion that they wouldn’t significantly help affinity yet they would open up many other deck styles that have potential.

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