Addressing the Modern banlist

As I return from a break from competitive Modern, it’s getting clearer that the format is broken at the moment.

MTGO adapts faster to new tech than the paper world because of how much faster it is to acquire new cards. MTGO Modern is under siege from Cathartic Dredge, and paper will soon follow.

The Dredge deck got a new toy in Prized Amalgam that was enough to push it over the top, even if it has taken a few months of tuning and the printing of Cathartic Reunion for this to become apparent.

Like the pre-banning Amulet Bloom Combo deck, Cathartic Dredge is setting up a large number of utterly overwhelming game states on turn 3 (alongside occasionally winning that turn, and very rarely winning even faster).

Like ABC, the deck is too fast to effectively hate out: either you have an answer in your first seven cards, or else you don’t get a chance to draw it in time. It’s also not possible to play as much Dredge hate as might be warranted, because Dredge isn’t the only deck with a high turn 3 win percentage in the field.

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It’s getting clearer that Dredge needs to be targetted in the next B&R announcement, and I believe the card to hit is (at least) one of Prized Amalgam, Narcomoeba and/or Bloodghast.

These cards, like the already banned Dread Return, can impact the gamestate without ever being drawn and with no investment of mana.

While Golgari Grave-Troll and Stinkweed Imp seem essential to enable these three cards, there are a number of substitutes for those two cards with lower Dredge numbers that will leave the Amalgam/Narcomoeba/Bloodghast engine intact.

I want to argue to spare Bloodghast from the banhammer, however. It’s the least broken of the three self-reanimators in Dredge, and it’s also a potentially playable card in other strategies.

Likewise Cathartic Reunion. This card was the final straw that pushed Dredge over the edge, but it is a card with the potential to be played in other strategies and an interesting take on card selection that might be played in a fairer format.

An unban of Deathrite Shaman has been proposed to provide a maindeckable card to fight the Dredge menace, but that card caused other problems when it was legal. I do not support a DRS unban at this time as it runs the very real risk of replacing one oppressive best deck with another.

For the stated reasons, I want to see Amalgam and/or Narcomoeba taken out behind the chemical shed and shot with the release of Aether Revolt. The format isn’t as broken as it was during Helldrazi season, but right now it is as broken as it was during Treasure Cruise Delver’s reign of terror. Additionally the card pool may include undiscovered tech that makes Cathartic Dredge even better than it currently is – it took six to seven weeks for the best builds to be discovered during Helldrazi season.

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On unbans.

There’s a common train of thought that the smaller the ban list, the better the format.

I do not subscribe to this school of thought in general.

I’m in favor of a ban list that is curated with a goal of maximum format diversity. Unbanning some cards will reduce, not increase, the pool of playable cards in the format. For an extreme example, consider an Eye of Ugin unban – such a decision would effectively remove Liliana of the Veil, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Cryptic Command from the pool of Competitive-playable Modern cards, both decreasing format diversity and interactivity.

Now (almost) no-one is seriously suggesting opening the can of wyrms you’d get by unbanning that card, but the principle still applies when considering more reasonable unbans.

Disclaimer aside, I think there are a number of cards on the banned list in Modern that should be reassessed.

Since the release of Oath of the Gatewatch, Modern has shifted decisively from a format with fundamental turn 4, to a format with a fundamental turn of 3.5.

It’s not just Dredge. Burn, Affinity, Infect and Suicide Zoo all frequently kill a goldfish on turn 3, and they keep getting new tools which make them better.

Even the increasingly likely ban of Become Immense – the card that is at the centre of more turn 3 kills than any other – will not change this trend – after all burn doesn’t play that card and any burn hand with 2 aggressive one-drops (Guide and/or Swiftspear), plus Atarka’s Command, plus two Lava Spikes, Rift Bolts and/or Lightning Bolts is a turn 3 kill.

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What does a turn 3.5 format change about bannings?

When the fundamental turn of the format was 4, some cards had effects that were too dominating in games that went 4-5 or even more turns. Examples of these included Umezawa’s Jitte (which simply does too much in a 5+ turn game for a card that costs 2 payments of 2 mana), Punishing Fire and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

However, in a format where turn 3 kills are becoming more common, these cards are not oppressive, and may not even be good. JtMS in particular is probably as weak in today’s Modern format as the once banned and now largely forgotten Bitterblossom is.

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I encourage Wizards to acknowledge that the turn 4 rule is dead, and that we now live in an era of Modern having fundamental turn 3.5.

This means that if you do not stumble on mana, you can count on spending 6 mana in half your games if you are on the play, and 10 mana in the other half of your games – for an average of 8.

On the draw, you can count on 3 mana in half your games, and 6 in the other half, for an average of 4½ mana.

And overall, that’s an average of 6¼ mana per game that you can rely upon living long enough to see, assuming your opponent is playing a fast strategy.

In this context, 4 mana cards – even ones that threaten to win the game outright with the appropriate setup (JtMS, Splinter Twin) are completely fine*.

The last time a high profile player suggested unbanning Umezawa’s Jitte I immediately thought “what is this person smoking, and where can I get some?”. But Modern has sped up so much since then that spending 4 mana to get 2 or even 4 activations of the Jitte is no longer more powerful than what the other decks in the format are doing; in fact it is less powerful.

So here I am, echoing their suggestion today.

* – While the combination of Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin may be trouble together because Exarch both attacks your mana and is hard to kill with maindeckable cards unless you keep up multiple mana, Exarch should have taken Twin’s bullet in the first place. The combination of Pestermite and Twin, or Krasis and Twin, or Village Bell Ringer and Twin, is IMO perfectly fine in the format and would increase both interactivity and format diversity.

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Proposed ban list amendments:

Note – ‘Watchlist’ means don’t ban this card now, but keep a close eye on it and say publicly that the card is a high ban risk in the forseeable future. It’s a term Wizards used back in the Urza Block days, when Yawgmoth’s Will was constantly one step away from the banhammer but never quite felt its loving caress.

Transparency of a watchlist is key. Cards in Modern are expensive and the banning of key parts of a deck can cause the deck to fall by hundreds of dollars.

A public watchlist allows risk averse players to divest holdings in decks that have a high ban risk.

There’s no guarantee that cards not on the watchlist will not be banned, but it will be more common for cards to spend time on the watchlist first.

 

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Well that got longer than I expected. Let’s see how much shit I just stirred up. As always, post replies, counterarguments, or the like as a reply on Reddit (preferred) or in the comments section of the website.

Note that because I get a lot of spambot attention, the website comments require me to manually approve them and this can take a while – this site is a side hobby, not a job, and I’ll be going and singing up a storm at karaoke tomorrow night rather than sitting at a computer.

  • sirgog

19,776 total views, 6 views today

6 thoughts on “Addressing the Modern banlist”

    1. How often do you actually play with stoneforge mystic? It really isn’t that great when you look at the format today. Yes, it is a very powerful card – and you wil be ahead a lot of the time when they can’t answer it – but most modern decks can quite easily ignore a t2 mystic by killing you.

      You don’t have force or daze to protect it in modern, and there isa plethora of cheap removal to slow it down. When was the last time batterskull saw any play in modern? I think it was around 2 years ago. That card isn’t playable without mystic.

      I don’t think it should be unbanned, yet, as I think cards like splinter twin deserve to be removed first – and changing the ban list >1 card at a time isn’t sensible in my opinion – but mystic is completely reasonable power level wise.

  1. While you give us a good read, and i think dredge is a bit powerful. Some of the changes you propose are really overwhelming, my suggetion would be to keep narcomeba OR prized amalgam unbaned, keep bloodbraid elf, punishing fire and stoneforge mystic banned, ban deceiver exarch.

    blodbraid is just too good given value, stoneforge is opressive on the play, and the really problem of the exarch

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