"Announcement Date: January 9, 2017
Effective Date: January 20, 2017
Magic Online Effective Date: January 11, 2017
Emrakul, the Promised End is banned.
Smuggler's Copter is banned.
Reflector Mage is banned.
Gitaxian Probe is banned.
Golgari Grave-Troll is banned."
Instant Reaction: Standard
“Wow” is not what you all are looking for, but I have to start there. Standard shakeups like this don’t come around often, the Modern bans cement dredge and Phyrexian mana as basically the worst ideas since sliced storm, and what the hell is Reflector Mage doing on this list?
Let’s dig into some more specific immediate reactions I’m having.
Emrakul, the Promised End
This one makes sense—when there’s only one end-game you can play, things get warped. When one mistake compounds another (Aetherworks Marvel giving you an Eldrazi cast trigger like Emrakul’s compounds the problems with Emrakul’s power level generally), you have a situation that needs to be examined.
They did look at it, and I can’t fault them one bit for showing Emrakul the door. When asked to reflect upon Emrakul’s Pro Tour debut in Sydney in last year, I remember saying “This tournament was fun, I don’t know if it will stay fun for a year or two.” Part of the uncertainty in that “I don’t know” was whether other late-game decks would be able to adapt to Emrakul in a way that created balance between aggro, combo, control. There were a few tools to fight back if you really tried, but in the end (the Promised End?) those tools weren’t enough to bring balance to the format and entice players to play a different endgame than casting the 13/13 and stealing a turn.
This one jumped off the spoiler in a way that even Emrakul did not. I wrote the spoiler spotlight for this card here at ChannelFireball, and I was obviously blown away by what they were offering you in exchange for 2 generic mana. That casting cost, and this drastic action by the DCI, make the comparisons to Umezawa’s Jitte unavoidable.
When every aggro deck and many midrange decks are hoping to spend their 2 mana on something, and they all can because there’s no color requirements, we might have a problem on our hands. Smuggler’s Copter both demands an answer (for all but the most combo’ish decks) and is difficult to answer.
Could Fatal Push have been an answer in Aether Revolt that brought things back into balance? It’s interesting that the question of “what about the obvious counter in the new set?” comes into such sharp focus for both Emrakul and Copter. R&D is taking a very active role in fixing the existing problems in advance of Aether Revolt rather than seeing where the chips fall. I assume Fatal Push was one of their “escape hatches” that is intentionally cheaper than it ought to be because it answers specifically Copter at instant speed. But we will never know if this kryptonite was strong enough for that Superman. I do know that Ishkanah and Torrential Gearhulk players are going to be working overtime to figure out how to abuse this cheap removal tool. This whole adventure is one big argument against escape hatches as a design paradigm, at least when the Superman and the kryptonite are this undercosted/overpowered.
From “wow” to “huh?” this ban brings us full circle. Collected Company rotated out already, right? Reflector Mage is still a powerful card that sees play, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I suppose this has been on the watch list (a.k.a. the “oops” list) for a while now, and if we’re cleaning up the streets there’s always a danger that knocking off one bad actor just lets another shine.
The play pattern with this card is pretty damn bad. You’re punished for playing big fat creatures (though Vehicles can’t be targeted and the Gearhulks are either intentionally resilient or happen to be), and then you have to remember what they targeted in a way that isn’t visibly tracked. So this is clearly a mistake of a card at this cost/stats. I’m not sad to see it go, and that’s probably a big chunk of their motivation for aiming wide and taking it out of the format.
This might have been one of the better tools to keep your opponent off Felidar Guardian for 2 turns in a way, which brings us to…
What About the New Splinter Twin?
One of the biggest parts of this announcement was what wasn’t there. Despite what seems so powerful that it almost had to be an accident, Felidar Guardian & Saheeli Rai did not receive the preemptive ban many expected. When I saw this combo, I immediatey told my Pantheon teammates, “this isn’t Twin, but it sure seems close enough for Standard.” Aetherworks Marvel was a “how did they print this?” from Kaladesh, and here is another on the Aether Revolt spoiler. Part of the motivation to ban Emrakul is to weaken the Aetherworks Marvel combo, and it puts every Standard player on notice that Felidar Guardian + Saheeli Rai could also be a “one PT and done” combination.
I try to avoid feeling frustrated by something new that I don’t yet fully understand because I anticipate that I will feel frustrated in the future, and I advise you to do the same. The natural tendency, indeed part of the adaptation of being able to visualize unknown events, is that this anxiety and frustration is a part of life. So it’s okay to feel like this combo will suck, but don’t go overboard declaring and prognosticating what will come when we just don’t know. This set of bannings, like I said, at least should give you comfort that there is light at the end of the tunnel if things do get dark.
Nonetheless, my sympathies go out to any players who are caught needing to invest in a new deck for Standard. That's why bannings in this format are so rare, but that doesn't make it any less painful.
This card shows up in too many places and does its job too efficiently to not be on the watch list. 1 Phyrexian mana is an awfully low casting cost. Peek isn’t a dramatic effect, and opponents of this ban will focus on that fact. I’m of two minds on this one. It’s probably a net good, as this forces multiple decks to have to look elsewhere for the “56-card” effect and it weakens top players like Infect. On the other hand, I’ve never really felt like “this game is stupid” after getting Git Probed, and the 2 life, and of mulligan visibility, matter a lot in Modern. On balance, I would have left it alone but I can’t feel strongly about it in either direction.
The Dredge deck gets weakened here, not killed, and that’s a good thing. This card was recently taken off the banned list and it was done so on a trial-and-error basis. Modern Dredge became such a consistent and resilient weapon that it made players feel like they had to have a sideboard with plenty of graveyard hate in order to keep up. This is different than Affinity because ____________ (which brings me to….)
Why wasn’t Mox Opal banned too?
Affinity has fallen out of favor, and Lantern is not quite tier 1, so I guess that’s the reason. But if Dredge had to get nerfed because it consumes 3-4 sideboard slots in any non-combo deck, why isn’t Affinity getting its most obvious nerf?
Many believe the Modern format is a train going too fast toward a disaster that can’t be avoided. It seems really, really hard to manage a format this way while building up player confidence and maintaining credibility with a rational set of guidelines. I’m not even saying they’re doing a bad job, I’m just noting how hard the job is and how much I wouldn’t want it on my plate. When you ban Twin, something else annoys or kills people on turn 4. There’s anything but a shortage of non-interactive cards and unhealthy play patterns—that’s what happens with enough format-legal cards together in a single format.
Modern’s whack-a-mole banned list is now the format’s defining feature. If you enjoy the format, adjust your expectations accordingly and continue to play it. If you don’t enjoy the format, try not to get to angry with R&D’s decisions—they have a near-impossible job or an impossible job, depending on who you ask.