To Ban or Unban?

It has been a while since I’ve contributed to the site and I’ve missed writing, missed seeing your comments, missed feeling like I’ve contributed to the community that I so enjoy being a part of.  Due to some personal commitments, I haven’t been as active a participant in the current Standard season, though I have been keeping up with weekly Magic: The Gathering news over the course of this fall.  When I have had a chance to play, I’ve been testing and brewing in Modern.  I’m sure I’m not alone in investing countless hours trying to find a hidden gem in the format.  I will say that, despite not being quite competitive enough, Bant Delver with [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], [card]Monastery Mentor[/card], and [card]Ojutai’s Command[/card] was an absolute blast to work on (hopefully we get another Modern-playable white removal spell at some point).

For the last couple of weeks, our community has been abuzz about the upcoming year’s Grand Prix promotional card selection, [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], and whether or not it’s foreshadowing some changes to the Modern banned and restricted list.  Many writers whose content I read and whose opinions I respect have weighed in on what they believe could or should be banned or unbanned.  I wanted to convey my own thoughts on what changes could or should be made and why.

To start off, let’s address the elephants in the room.  The egregious violators of the “Turn 4” decree, the combo decks that you “can’t interact with.”  Amulet Bloom and Grishoalbrand.  While it is true that both decks are difficult to interact with and each have their own forms of resilience (despite reasonable fail rates), neither are oppressive in the current Modern metagame.  They don’t REQUIRE changes in order to maintain a healthy format.  That said, both decks do play very differently than the other combo decks in Modern.  They feel as though they don’t belong, as though they should be relegated to some nonexistant purgatory, an ethereal format hovering somewhere between Modern and Legacy.  There’s a reason for that feeling, for that sickening dread that befalls you when Borborygmos starts flinging [card]Temple of Malice[/card]s at you after watching your opponent goldfish for ten minutes on his or her second turn.  There’s a reason why you shake in anger, becoming a Dragon Ball Z-esque personification of all things tilt when your opponent plays his or her THIRD (insert expletives here) [card]Primeval Titan[/card] on turn two while you’re literally crushing your Japanese foil [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] in your helpless little, white-knuckled hand.  There is a spirit to the Modern format.  There is a feel for what is and is not allowable, or acceptable, in the format.  As I said, neither of these decks have to be addressed.  But should they be addressed?  I believe they should.

So, what do we drop the almighty banhammer on?  Most writers have proposed that the cards that are most likely to be banned from Modern are [card]Summer Bloom[/card] and [card]Goryo’s Vengeance[/card].  This, in my opnion, would be a travesty.  First of all, [card]Summer Bloom[/card] is, in terms of mana acceleration, the more problematic and bigger offender than its partner-in-crime, [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card].  It’s the obvious choice to ban.  However, what [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card] fails to provide in terms of acceleration, it more than makes up for in terms of momentum.  Both of these cards work in tandem to do broken things, but once that first Titan hits the battlefield, [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card] creates a ridiculous snowball effect, allowing the pilot to grab an untapped [card]Boros Garrison[/card] and [card]Slayers’ Stronghold[/card] to do the hasty Titan thing, which allows the pilot to attack with the Titan, which the let’s the pilot search out a [card]Tolaria West[/card] and a bounce land to. . . wait for it. . . bounce said [card]Tolaria West[/card] to Transmute for. . . Blah blah blah.  A lot of shit happens when you cast [card]Primeval Titan[/card] with an [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card] out.  We can leave it at that.  The [card]Summer Bloom[/card] makes a whole series of unfair plays happen earlier, whereas [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card] allows all of these unfair plays to happen and then keep happening.  When I present this observation to other players, the most frequent argument I get is “Amulet Bloom can still [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card] into [card]Summer Bloom[/card] and win with [card]Hive Mind[/card] on turn two.”  BOOM.  EUREKA.  We found the feelings offender.  We’ve identified the One-Who-Breaks-the-Spirit-of-Modern. Now, let’s pause this Amulet Bloom conversation where we are (as an incomplete, somewhat rambling paragraph that almost went somewhere) and look at Grishoalbrand.

Grishoalbrand is so sweet about half the time you pilot it.  Nothing feels better than spending two minutes trying to figure out if you can keep an insane abomination of a hand, figuring you have a way better chance with it than mulliganing to five cards, and then spending fifteen or so minutes playing perfectly and triumphantly chucking trees at people by the end of your second turn.  The reason it feels sweet is because the deck is really sweet.  You do fail… A LOT,  but working your way through the shoaling and splicing and looting to victory feels great.  You work really hard and make a lot of decisions to win games faster than you’re supposed to be able to in Modern.  That said, your opponent has probably spent the last ten minutes wondering if her or she will get to fetch a third land.  And then if a third land means anything.  If anything means anything.

Do I even matter?  You hear that Grishoalbrand players?  Your deck causes people to have existential meltdowns during your second turn.  All joking aside, the sweetness of the deck comes from playing really cool cards that should absolutely not be banned in Modern.  [card]Goryo’s Vengeance[/card] is awesome and, in every deck OTHER than Grishoalbrand, it’s a cool tool that can generate value and does some pretty sweet things.  [card]Nourishing Shoal[/card] + [card]Worldspine Wurm[/card] + [card]Through the Breach[/card] absolutely should be a thing in Modern.  What I absolutely do not think should be a thing is [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card]. Being able to start off a [card]Desperate Ritual[/card] chain with no prior mana floating violates this “spirit of Modern” I’ve proposed.  [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card] is unique, it’s the only free, mana source-speed way to create mana in the format.  At the steep cost of a card, you don’t just bypass one turn’s worth of mana development.  You negate your opponent’s chance to interact, to play a second land to [card]Remand[/card] that [card]Through the Breach[/card], to [card]Thoughtseize[/card] that [card]Hive Mind[/card] because your opponent’s [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card] revealed two [card]Summer Bloom[/card]s.  You, Players-of-[card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card] violate what we, the Other Players of the Format Modern, know to be just, what we know to be fair (or at least acceptably unfair).

Okay, so the last couple of paragraphs were fairly hyperbolic, but what I wanted to express is that feeling of helplessness players experience when they do lose to either Amulet Bloom or Grishoalbrand.  I wanted to try to capture why it has become almost assumed that there will be a DCI intervention concerning at least one of these decks before the next Pro Tour.  What I don’t want to see happen are bannings that are only intended to handicap these decks.  I wanted to uncover why these decks work the way the do, identify the series of plays that cause these intense feel-bad moments, and find the precise culprits that truly feel like they violate the spirit of Modern.  I would be absolutely heartbroken to see [card]Goryo’s Vengeance[/card] leave the format.  Michael Majors and Jeff Hoogland both did a lot of great work with this card independently.  They both built and honed decks around [card]Goryo’s Vengeance[/card] to generate value, to gain notable advantages in advancing their game plan.  But neither of them tried to win with it on turn two.  Nobody plays [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card] without aggressively trying to narrow his or her opponents’ opportunity to play an interactive game.  It feels like a Legacy card, or at least supports the kind of strategies that are deemed appropriate for that format.  I also think that without [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card] and [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card], Titan Bloom could still be a shell that’s competitive, but would then have to interact with its opponents rather than let [card]Amulet of Vigor[/card], in conjunction with [card]Primeval Titan[/card], bury its opponent in card and tempo advantage.  [card]Summer Bloom[/card] and [card]Primeval Titan[/card] should be allowed to be played together.

Now let’s change gears to the fun stuff.  New toys! The idea of seeing some unbannings makes me feel like a six year old on Christmas Eve.  Let’s get the obvious out of the way: there are reasonable, logical objections to removing any card from the Modern banned list.  The amount of excitement and anticipation created by the announcement of the Grand Prix promo [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] has been tremendous. However, I would not fault the DCI for choosing only to add to the ban list or make no changes prior to Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch.  With all of that said, I think many of the cards on said list could be removed based on their power level and the power level of the Modern format.  I want to look at some candidates I think could be unbanned, but what I will not do is take all factors for the health of the format into account, like the chance of a card becoming ubiquitous, average game length issues, etc.

[card]Sword of the Meek[/card] – I’m just going to defer to all other articles about the upcoming ban list announcement.  The consensus seems to be that this card should be unbanned.

[card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] – I don’t believe this card is too powerful for the Modern format.  It does infringe on future equipment design space, but I think [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card] and [card]Skullclamp[/card] already ensured that Wizards R&D would give equipment a second look before getting the nod.  Turn three [card]Batterskull[/card] is good but easy to interact with.  If casting [card]Tasigur, the Golden Fang[/card] on turn two has not been oppressive, I don’t think [card]Batterskull[/card] will be.

[card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] – This card probably never should have been banned, but I understand the DCI’s hesitation at unbanning it.  Cascade is an incredibly powerful ability and borders on being inherently unfair.  With that in mind, we are still talking about a ban list for an eternal format.  We should expect almost every card that doesn’t contribute to a game-ending combo or blisteringly fast aggressive strategy to have a significant payoff.

[card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] – Jace is a really hard card to consider allowing back in the format.  He’s undeniably powerful and introduces a [card]Brainstorm[/card] effect into Modern.  Four mana is a hefty cost though, and [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] is one of the most dominant cards in the format.  Overall, he would warp the format but I don’t think he would end up dominating it.  Based on the casting cost and the overall pace of the format, I think [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] could be unbanned.

As a final note, the last card I want to briefly touch on is [card]Blood Moon[/card].  There is a very vocal portion of the Modern player base that despises this card.  I would not count myself among them (though I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the card), but their calls for a banning based on the notable percentage of noninteractive games that occur once [card]Blood Moon[/card] has resolved is at least worth noting.  [card]Blood Moon[/card] and [card]Choke[/card] are relics of a different era in Magic.  Land destruction, mana denial, and prison-strategy enablers have been phased out of R&D’s design based on the feedback of players and what they consider to be enjoyable gaming experiences.  That said, [card]Blood Moon[/card] does require that the vast majority of decks must have a broad enough sideboard to deal with it and, perhaps in the eyes of the DCI, there should be constraints on the manabases players choose to play with.

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