In the last couple of days I had a few discussions about the state of Modern after the Pro Tour. Two subjects stood out by a mile: Does the success of Lantern warrant a banning? And is it time to unban Bloodbraid Elf?
Having bounced a bunch of arguments back and forth, I think by now I have an educated opinion on this and I’d like to share that with you.
In case you were hiding behind a rock these last couple of days, Luis Salvatto won the Modern Pro Tour playing Lantern. Does winning a Pro Tour constitute a reason to ban a strategy from Modern? You might say, “Of course not!” but if we look at the results of past Modern Pro Tours we might actually come to the conclusion that winning a Pro Tour is almost a death sentence for any Modern deck. Previous Modern Pro Tours were won by Twin, Eggs, Jeskai Control, Twin, and Eldrazi, and of these only Jeskai escaped the hammer. Actually, if you go just a little deeper you find that a full 75% of the decks that made the Top 4 of any Modern Pro Tour eventually received a banning of some card essential to the deck. 75%!
Maybe they just ban Lightning Bolt to fulfill the quota for PT Rivals of Ixalan? Jokes aside, doing well at a Modern Pro Tour seems to raise big, red flags at Wizards. So will we see a banning of some part of Lantern on Monday? I have no inside information, but I’d like to discuss if such a banning would be a good idea.
The reasons usually cited for banning Lantern (any essential card of the deck really, but henceforth I’ll just shortcut that to Lantern) are that the deck is not fun to play against and that the deck delays tournaments by taking ages to win.
On the other hand, players usually don’t complain that Lantern is too strong, but I don’t think we can take for granted that this sentiment is be based on facts, as Lantern players usually show up in very small numbers, and thus the deck usually flies under the radar. But I have heard a bunch of pros asserting that Lantern might secretly the best deck in Modern—most definitely tier 1.
The “not fun” part is of course subjective, but Prison strategies of any kind have never been favorites among players, which prompted their removal from the game earlier than any other strategy. Arguably, even the loss of great counterspells from Magic is a result of this dislike, as having every spell you cast countered leads to a perceived prison. Considering how unpopular these strategies were, keeping them from showing up as tier 1 strategies might well be considered a wise move to preserve the health of any format. I know that some players, especially pros, say that banning a card for reasons of enjoyment is a bad idea, but I have a hard time agreeing with this assessment. Sure, you don’t want to ban any card somebody complains about, but no individual card or deck should be more important than the health of a format as a whole, and when a deck drives players away from a format it is time to act. Looking at the numbers of Lantern decks in tournaments, we are not at the point where the deck drives players away in noticeable numbers, though.
There is also the point that Lantern delays tournaments. I heard that the Pro Tour refuted that argument as it was not the Lantern decks that went to extra time, but U/W/x control decks, especially the mirrors. Take a look at PV’s match vs. Levy if you don’t know what I am talking about. There were only nine Lantern decks at the Pro Tour, though, and the pilots of these nine decks were probably all highly skilled. If Lantern becomes a tier 1 deck not only in strength but also in number, then we will see much greater numbers of less skilled players piloting the deck, and heaven forbid: mirrors! This situation is comparable to Eggs at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Stan Cifka did not delay the Pro Tour, but the Grand Prix following the Pro Tour were nightmares where almost every round went into half an hour of extra time. Although it is true that Lantern decks rarely have individual turns that take 20+ minutes, a higher percentage of decks going deep into extra time will inevitably lead to a higher chance that a match with a time extension due to rules questions or deck checks will be among those and thus delay the tournament.
As a final point I would like to add that Lantern is hugely problematic because it is an unfair deck that is very hard to hate out. When Storm, Affinity, Tron, Bogles, Living End, or TitanShift is the best deck, almost every deck can adjust its sideboard and be better against the strategy. Of course, you can bring sideboard cards against Lantern just as well, but your sideboard cards are just not going to pull as much weight. When I draw Shatterstorm against Affinity at some point in the game, BOOM! they are in a world of tears. When I try to draw Shatterstorm against Lantern, they will just politely ask me to put the card into my graveyard. Even hate in your starting seven is less reliable against Lantern, as the deck packs 7 discard spells as an essential part of their strategy. That Stony Silence is horrible to play against for Lantern, but can you stick it against all that discard and a couple of Abrupt Decays that Lantern packs anyway? As a side note, it turns out that the only card that is powerful and reliable against Lantern will also beat Affinity, one of the premier antagonists of Lantern, into submission. A similar albeit weaker argument could be made for the relationship of big Tron, Stony Silence, and Lantern. Thus, individual decks preparing for Lantern might very well make the format hostile to decks that are naturally good against Lantern.
My takeaway here is that Lantern as a tier 1 strategy is completely unsustainable as players find the experience of playing against the deck miserable, and their options for combating the deck are severely limited. In the end it comes down to a question of whether Lantern has the power to be a tier 1 strategy. At Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, Lantern had a win percentage of 60.7%, which is quite good. But the players playing the deck were Luis Salvatto, Brian Braun-Duin, Piotr Glogowski, Kim Stroh, Martin Müller, Dominik Cupal, Guillaume Matignon, Joel Larsson, and Sam Black. I doubt that any other archetype came close to having pilots with this amount of proficiency in playing their decks, and taking this into account, the 60.7% is certainly not an off-the-charts win percentage.
Verdict: I think it is too early to ban any card from the Lantern deck. The deck will certainly spike in popularity in the coming weeks, but it might very well return to its natural numbers afterwards. Considering how inherently problematic the strategy is, it should have earned itself an indefinite spot on Wizards’ watch list.
There seems to be some expectation that the February 12 B&R announcement will see an unbanning for Modern, the most likely candidate being Bloodbraid Elf.
The main argument for Bloodbraid Elf’s unbanning is that it is too weak to warrant a spot on the banned list of Modern. While the Elf is certainly one of the weaker cards on the list in terms of its own power level, it’s really hard to argue this point. What does “too weak” for the banned list even mean? The other point in favor of the Elf is that it would increase deck diversity as the old Jund basically has become a no-show at this point, and surely with Bloodbraid Elf some people would not resist the temptation.
There is also the argument that unbanning Bloodbraid Elf would shorten the length of the banned list by one card. I mean, obviously, you don’t need a mathematics degree to know that this is true, but how strong is this argument really? Sure, most players hate bans and for that reason Wizards hates them too, but in spite of that I’d argue that very few are appalled by a card continuing to be on the banned list. On the average day how many tweets do you read with complaints about Mental Misstep being on the banned list? I’d wager you can’t even remember the last time you heard anybody mentioning it. Being on the banned list is not the problem. The act of banning a card is, because that leads to players losing a deck that they have invested time and money into, and maybe even have formed an emotional connection to. Doing this frustrates players and even makes them angry, but once a card has found its home among Modern’s too powerful the new status quo is quickly accepted.
Consequently, unbanning a card is a bad move if Wizards sees some risk that the card would need to be banned again. Everybody is fine with the status quo anyway. The act of unbanning does not constitute a major gain in itself and should the need for a re-banning arise this leads to a major loss in customer confidence.
Another point, which is big in favor of inertia, is the fact that Modern is in a pretty good spot right now. Naturally not everybody loves the format, but on average the tweets after the Pro Tour have been positive from players as well as viewers. The format is deep with no clear best deck, and not even a hard boundary between tier 1 and tier 2. A few players hate Modern precisely for this quality, but if that is your stance I suggest you choose a different format to play, as being wide open is near the top of the list of things players appreciate about the format, and trying to change that would destroy Modern as we know it.
Keeping this in mind, a major consideration for managing Modern’s banned list needs to be how changes will affect deck diversity. It always depends a little on how you cut up the pie, but I think the worst archetype in the current Modern metagame is control. Things don’t look so bad if you include big Tron and Lantern, but if we talk about more classic, often blue-based control decks, then the archetype is in bad shape right now. Why do I mention this? It turns out that Bloodbraid Elf is decent in various matchups, but blue control suffers by far the most as the Elf is one of the best cards ever at creating tempo and card advantage at the same time. Thus Bloodbraid Elf might drive control decks close to extinction.
On the other side, midrange decks are in a very good spot already. There are a ton of purebreds built around Tarmogoyfs and Gurmag Anglers, but there are also various other decks like Eldrazi Tron, CoCo, Bant Knightfall, or Hollow One, that can play a longer game with great threats. Unbanning a card has the best effect when it serves a purpose, either unlocking a strategy that is weak at the moment or interacting favorably with a strategy that is borderline too strong. Unbanning Bloodbraid Elf would do exactly the opposite.
Even the higher deck diversity within the Modern spectrum is not a guaranteed result. If Bloodbraid Elf turns out to be weak, it will not bring people back to Jund, which is fine, although this additional reason not to play control will still loom over the format. On the other hand, if Bloodbraid turns out to be as great as we remember her to be, then it might well reduce the number of viable midrange decks as some decks might just be very obviously inferior to Jund.
As a side note, I think the worst outcome of this banning announcement would be to ban Ancient Stirrings to hurt Lantern while unbanning Bloodbraid Elf at the same time. This way, Tron, a natural midrange predator, would be gravely hurt, and at the same time midrange would get another great tool. Welcome to midrange hell!
On the other hand, if unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor were ever up for discussion, then it would be a great idea to bring back Bloodbraid Elf at the same time. This way, control decks would probably get noticeably stronger, but at the time one of the best safety valves for Jace would also be available. This might just work. Or Jace turns out to be so strong that you must either play a Jace deck or a Bloodbraid Elf deck to be competitive, and thus deck diversity would suffer. I suppose sometimes it is best not to open Pandora’s Box…
Verdict: I think it is a mistake to unban Bloodbraid Elf at this point, although I agree with the general consensus that the card in itself is probably not too strong for Modern.