The Three Cards That Should Be Banned in Modern

Before we get to the banlist, I’m both proud and excited to announce I’ll be participating in the upcoming Pauper Premier League and am beyond stoked by the surprise announcement that WOTC has decided to give old Pinocchio Pauper ‘happily ever after’ fairytale ending it deserves by making it a real, live format! Summer is here. The weather is beautiful and there are more shakeups going on in Magic than I can even address in a single week’s worth of content, but today we’re going to look at Modern.

The Modern Format and Banlist

A Little Background Goes a Long Way

Modern was introduced as a format over eight years ago as a replacement for a format previously called Extended. The idea was to create a format in between Legacy (non-rotating, with Reserve List cards) and Standard (the last two years of printed cards). The first Modern Tournament ever was a Pro Tour in Philadelphia (I came in 11th place!) and was one of the most exciting tournaments I’ve ever played. Can you imagine qualifying for the Pro Tour and then learning it will be a brand new completely unexplored format with a giant cardpool?

CloudpostSplinter TwinBlazing ShoalRite of FlamePonder

There were tons of options and nobody really knew exactly what to expect. I worked with Matt Sperling and Ari Lax and we played the most broken card of all…

Kavu Predator

It had help:

Punishing FireNoble HierarchGreen Sun's Zenith

I distinctly remember spending the week with testing with a bunch of pros and we were glued to the computer every evening in a way I would describe as “waiting for an episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad after the previous episode had ended in a cliffhanger,” to see Magic Online decklists and analyze intel about what the heck the format was even going to look like!

Since then, Modern has rolled with the punches. It’s seen the metagame broken many times, we’ve seen beloved staples beheaded by the ban-axe, and we’ve seen the dead brought back to life via unbannings. Exciting new staples and B&R announcements are significant because they are the moments when the game changes and players and deck builders scramble to pick up the pieces.

That’s the brief long view of the format, but the Modern we play in the here and now has been dramatically defined by relatively new innovations and factors, specifically:

  • Multiple format-redefining printings over the past year
  • The London Mulligan

My Take, Your Take, and All the Takes in Between

I want to start by saying I don’t believe in “correct” opinions. My opinions are framed by my experiences, observations, and ideas the same as everyone else, and will reflect a different set of experiences. It’s a game and we all play it for different reasons, with different expectations and with different goals in mind. I think the “Best Magic” is the Magic that can be fun, enjoyable, and accessible to the most people at once–be sure to drop your take on this into the comments. Who knows, maybe my opinion (or my readers, who bring a wide range of their own experiences) will have some influence over the announcement.

My perspective is framed by a few pieces of information you should know about me.

  • I’m more interested in having an enjoyable game than winning at the professional level.
  • I believe deck building and innovation are a legitimate skill that should be recognized and rewarded in tournament play–not just in Week One, but every week! I tend to quickly get bored by stale or solved metagames and I enjoy the puzzle of seeing and interacting with new cards and strategies much more than repeating the same play patterns ad nauseum. I love trying out new or unexpected cards to creatively address various strategies and matchups.
  • I can and do play everything. Every Limited, Constructed, or community format–I’m in. There is no style of deck that isn’t in my comfort range to play. So when I give my perspective on a format, it isn’t coming from the point of view that I want to play a certain style of deck or for a specific deck to be competitive. I want lots of options and some room to tool out my deck based on the trends I observe.

When I last ranked my favorite formats back in December, I had Modern at the bottom. I liked Pauper the best, Standard second, all the Eternal formats, and then Modern. The readers disagreed with me and it was the top-voted format, narrowly edging out Standard, so I’m in the minority here.

Modern is even less enjoyable now than it was then, and the problems I had with it have only gotten worse. The format continues to narrow around fundamentally broken, linear strategies. The last time I played the format competitively, I did quite well, finishing third at GP Tampa. I didn’t test much for that event and the testing I did basically only served to confirm that Phoenix and Dredge invalidated 90% of potential options. I lost to the decks I expected to lose to and I steamrolled anybody who didn’t get the memo that there were only four ‘real choices.’ 40% of my matchups were mirrors where I ran the table because believe it or not, that is my bread and butter.

I can appreciate the subtleties of a collapsed, broken metagame and becoming a master with one of the decks. Mid-2000’s Vintage is one of my favorite formats I’ve gone deep into and that meta was basically three decks for years: TPS, Control Slaver / Gifts Combo Control, and Workshop Prison. Back then, there was so much less information available. There was one 200-person event every couple of weeks, whereas now results stream in daily. That Vintage format still provided ample opportunities for the best deck builders to show up with a ‘metagame solution’ and absolutely dominate a big event: Meandeck Oath, Meandeck Dredge, Probasco Gifts, Steel City Vault, The Riddler, Strategic Slaver, Vroman’s UbaStax, Fishalos, Lotus Cobra Control, Painter Stone, and even Goblins are all examples of decks that were wildly innovative concepts that ‘broke’ out at, and dominated, big events.

That was a ‘solved’ metagame that I enjoyed, but I certainly don’t think it was the best metagame I’ve ever seen. If that Vintage format had gotten the kind of coverage, content, and result data generation that Modern currently has, then my enjoyment of it would likely have been diminished. The biggest challenge, in my estimation, is how to keep formats feeling fresh and evolving without getting solved, or without just constantly dropping new, high-impact bombs to shake things up.

Since Tampa, things have only gotten worse, thanks in large part to this particular new, high-impact bomb that is the first of the three cards I would ban from the format were it up to me.

Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis

Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis

My impression when I first read it on the spoiler: “I guess I’ll wait to play Modern again until after they ban this.”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of printing powerful cards and how they capture the imaginations of players, but with Hogaak there is exactly one clear thing to do with it and it is better than doing anything else that can be done with all the other possible cards combined.

The numbers back it up as well. At GP Dallas, Bridgevine’s conversion rate to Day 2 was more than three times its overall metagame representation. Not only is that ridiculous, but that is also taking into consideration that everyone was gunning for it. We can spam main deck Leyline of the Voids and Rest in Peace, only to have them be relatively dead draws against the other 65% of the field. The payoff simply doesn’t outweigh the upside of just Hogaaking off on turn three every game with Altar of Dementia.

I’m qualified for the Mythic Championship in Barcelona and I haven’t started testing for it yet. If the B&R announcement comes back “no changes,” I won’t bother to test. I will play Hogaak Bridgevine and understand the mirror inside and out–my exact plan from Tampa where I played Izzet Phoenix. Not very interesting…

I will be shocked if “No Results” was the verdict, because right now the choice is clear: you can choose the machine gun, or… or… here’s a pile of twigs and some glue and you can make something better from it. Your choice.

Hogaak Bridgevine is the most broken Modern deck I have ever seen. With that said, the card I most want to see banned is this:

Faithless Looting

Faithless Looting

My biggest problem with Modern is the way this singular card impacts and restricts every single facet of the format. The difference between Faithless Looting four years ago and Faithless Looting today has everything to do with context. It has a better supporting cast than it has ever had before both in terms of redundancy of quality discard outlets and payoffs.

Enablers

Insolent NeonateCathartic ReunionStitcher's SupplierAltar of Dementia

Payoffs

Arclight PhoenixPrized AmalgamHogaak, Arisen NecropolisCreeping Chill

It’s simply too much. Bridgevine may be the most busted combination of enablers and payoffs, but there is such redundancy of payoffs that banning any single one or two of them will likely still result in Faithless Looting rising to the top of the metagame.

The key is the ratio: 1 mana to see two new cards and dump any two payoffs into the profit zone. For the draw smoothing, flexibility, and synergy it enables, it might as well be Ancestral Recall. With the London Mulligan, it’s safe to assume these decks will start most games with a Faithless Looting in hand. When you have the option to play a deck that is consistently generating “free cards” on the second turn, it is difficult to justify not playing it.

There is so much support and such an embarrassment of riches that Faithless Looting has become a problem. It’s also not a problem likely to “go away on its own,” since every new printing that involves a graveyard synergy only gives it more options. Roughly between a quarter and a third of the meta directly revolves around spamming the card because it’s that good and removing it would shake things up in a huge way. I think the results over time, including the Izzet Phoenix era, suggest Looting is simply overpowered given all the new support cards it’s gained in the past two years. Looting isn’t a new problem; it’s been slow-boiling for a while.

So what is WOTC’s vision for the format going forward? Will they “make the format safe for Looting,” or admit the card has become a problem?

The “make the world safe for Looting” plan is probably to ban Hogaak or Bridge from Below and remove the infinite combo as an option from Looting decks. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing Hogaak removed in addition to Looting because it feels obnoxious that Dredge decks can simply go infinite for the cost of a two-mana artifact. Dredge was already Tier 1 before it suddenly had access to an infinite combo and it already gets all of its threats into play for free, so does it really need an infinite combo, too?

If the DCI “makes the world safe for Looting,” by simply banning Hogaak or Bridge from Below, I would predict the metagame would simply regress to something resembling the Izzet Phoenix metagame. While not my favorite metagame in the world, it’s a safe a move unlikely to upset many people.

On the other hand, if they remove a big pillar like Faithless Looting, it makes sense to look a step ahead and consider the likely implications.

Ancient Stirrings

Ancient Stirrings

Before Hogaak, the results of the London Mulligan were taking shape, and Tron was putting up increased results online. Tron was already a Tier 1 strategy and the London Mulligan clearly benefits Tron by not only giving it more looks at finding the Tron, but also mitigates drawing redundant copies of the same Tron land. Before Bridgevine, I was almost convinced that Tron wasn’t a more busted deck than even Phoenix under the new mulligan.

I see cards like Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings as relics of a different time that in concert with new printings and new rules simply provide too much consistency to strategies that are focused and deranged. I think it would be a bad look to ban Looting and have a Mythic Championship dominated by Tron, since I wouldn’t describe it as a deck most players look forward to playing against! Tron also now has access to the Karn + Lattice combo, which is pretty absurd. I like banning Stirrings because it makes the deck so consistent and redundant. Yeah, it finds Tron, but it also finds a threat once you’ve assembled Tron. It really ensures the deck is always firing on all cylinders, which is why it’s been Tier 1 for years and years.

Overall, I would ban:

Faithless LootingAncient StirringsHogaak, Arisen Necropolis

If you like the way Modern has typically played, you may not agree with my choices. Personally, I find there is a little bit too much of running people over with deranged decks. Removing these one-mana enablers from linear decks would be a reasonable place to start in reshaping the format into something that feels more like the Magic I’ve enjoyed in the past.

It’s also worth noting that the decks I’m picking on here force players to interact on a linear axis right away, or ‘abandon all hope ye who pass through these gates.’ Not only can they end the game in three turns, but they do it in a way where in order to not die the opponent needs to interact with different aspects of the game, in this case both lands and the graveyard. These decks also have one-mana enablers and card filtering that is objectively much, much better in their deck than the ones any other strategy can field.

It wouldn’t be my choice, but I also think it is reasonable to unban a bunch of cards if Wizards chooses to ‘make the world safe’ for Faithless Looting. After all, Faithless Looting and Hogaak make at least half of the individual cards on the banned list look modest by comparison. I know it sounds insane to suggest Deathrite Shaman is a reasonable thing in Modern, but when the Dredge deck goes infinite on turn three, even crazy things start to sound reasonable.

I do think there is a high probability we will see an announcement that fundamentally shakes up the format in a profound way. It just makes sense. Hogaak.dec is a problem and I don’t see another solution. It would also make sense for Wizards to pull the trigger on such a change ahead of the Mythic Championship. I’m attending the event, and I certainly hope to recapture at least some of the excitement of the first Modern Pro Tour where players are scrambling to figure things out, develop new ideas on the fly in an unknown metagame, and get rewarded for exploring new territory. If not, I’ll play Hogaak, I’ll play Phoenix, I’ll play Tron. It won’t be the end of the world.

I get on a plane in less than three weeks to travel to Spain and I have zero clue what the format I will be playing is going to look like. If they make big changes, it could be an epic experience where players, spectators and fans will get to see the best players duking it out in a relatively unknown format where dozens of decks have regained viability. Or we can watch Hogaak mirrors. If I find somewhere with good Bombas and Gazpacho, it’s all the same to me.

That’s what I think, but what about you? No bans? Big bans? A nuanced meta tweak ban? A strategic unban? Are you shouting “Dracarys!” and burning it all down? A little from Column A and a little from Column B?

At this point, I’ll be relieved when I know which cards are legal in the format I’m going to be playing at the end of the month!

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