As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Summer Bloom and Splinter Twin have been banned in Modern. The banning of Summer Bloom was expected because that deck won too frequently before turn 4, but the Splinter Twin ban was surprising. In this article, I share my thoughts on this ban and on future unbans/bans from the perspective of a dedicated Affinity player.
I’d Have Preferred an Unban Over a Ban
Generally speaking, I don’t like bans unless a deck is so dominant and oppressive that it becomes necessary. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to have your deck banned after investing a lot of money, time, and effort on it—it’s like someone stole your toys. Yes, there are still Snapcaster Mage/Lightning Bolt decks—life finds a way—but they will be weaker now.
Of course, there are reasons for the ban. The B&R announcement argued that Splinter Twin was pushing certain other decks out of competition, thereby reducing diversity. I agree with some of these points, although I am not persuaded by the magnitude of their effects. Yes, Twin was popular, but not overly so, as its metagame share rarely got above 10-15%. Yes, the majority of the blue decks were Twin decks, but not all—various Delver and control decks were still around. And finally, yes, the Splinter Twin archetype was acting as the police of the format by beating most linear decks, but there were still plenty of linear decks in the top competitive tier.
To me, Splinter Twin never felt oppressive. As a turn-4 combo deck, it epitomized what Modern was all about, and I have always seen it as a fine pillar of Modern since the format’s inception. Even though the deck tended to beat Affinity, it still saddens me to see it go. It feels like losing a rival without actually achieving a fair victory.
At the same time, I believe that competitive diversity in Modern could have just as well have been increased with one or more unbans, and it’s nicer to take a set of unused toys from the rack than to steal someone’s away. I don’t even have a preference as to which card or set of cards to unban. To give a loose list, it could have been Ancestral Vision, Birthing Pod, Bloodbraid Elf, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Punishing Fire, Stoneforge Mystic, Sword of the Meek, or Umezawa’s Jitte.
Some are more dangerous than others, and I can understand that the effect of a ban is more predictable than the effect of an unban. Nevertheless, an unban would have provided the enjoyment of fun brewing while widening the set of competitive options, and a well-chosen unban (which I know is more easily said than done) need not be too risky.
In a perfect world, there would be happy Splinter Twin players and happy brewers, but that’s unfortunately not what we got.
Maybe There Shouldn’t Be a Modern Pro Tour
Let me preface this by stating two things: I personally love the Modern Pro Tour, and I don’t know how important “shaking up” the Pro Tour format is for guiding the bans. The B&R announcement focused on why Summer Bloom and Splinter Twin had a negative effect on the format without mentioning the upcoming Pro Tour. Aaron Forsythe mentioned on Twitter that the Pro Tour predicates bans, but that statement can be interpreted in various ways. Although Modern bans/unbans are always timed right before the Pro Tour, it is possible that the timing is the main connection. In other words, it is possible that the Splinter Twin ban would have occurred even if there weren’t a Pro Tour.
Regardless, I believe that Wizards may be better off by switching all Pro Tours to Standard. I personally wouldn’t be happy if that were to happen—I like the Modern format, and I really enjoy competing in a Modern Pro Tour—but I do believe this change would be better for Wizards and ultimately the game as a whole. The reason is that a Standard Pro Tour is simply more suitable for showcasing the new cards and thus for driving sales. Wizards could turn the money generated by marketing activities into great set releases in the future, which is good for us, too.
But I have a crucial condition: If the Modern Pro Tour is abolished, then the format should still be heavily spotlighted at alternative premier events. Specifically, at the Grand Prix scene, at the World Championship, at the World Magic Cup, and possibly at a new event. Modern can be the sole Constructed format at the World Championship, and Team Unified Modern is perfect for the World Magic Cup. The new event could be some premier Modern tournament around every Modern Masters release. With these changes, Modern enthusiasts would still be able to see their favorite format at premier events, and the Pro Tours are tied more appropriately and elegantly to the set releases.
We’ll see what will happen to the Pro Tour in the future, but in the meantime, I want to make one tangential point: I never felt a need for the Modern format to be shaken up. Last year’s Modern felt perfectly fine. I was playing against a diverse enough set of decks, the games were interesting, and I was enjoying the process of learning how to play Affinity better. It certainly didn’t feel like the format had gotten stale, and I didn’t desire a fresh metagame to solve. If I wasn’t able to attend the Pro Tour, then I would have enjoyed watching the coverage with or without a ban. This would be true even if the metagame was exactly the same as last year and even if Oath of the Gatewatch didn’t contain a bunch of sweet Modern-playable Eldrazi cards. Other people may feel differently, and that’s fine of course, but that’s my view on it.
Is Affinity Next on the Chopping Block?
Modern will be shaken up considerably by the Splinter Twin ban. Jund and Junk lose their prey, whereas Affinity and Tron lose a predator. The cascading effects are a bit more difficult to predict—maybe the ban of Twin will lead to a rise of solitaire-style combo decks, and maybe it will lead to a resurgence of fringe interactive strategies. I fear that it will be the former, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Several players have expressed their fear to me on social media that Affinity might be next on the chopping block. So allow me to provide my answer here: I doubt that Affinity cards will be banned in 2017, for several reasons.
First, Splinter Twin decks have been more successful over the course of Modern. The B&R announcement listed the fact that “Splinter Twin has won two of the four Modern Pro Tours” as a reason for the ban. Affinity can boast no such numbers, and is thus not as likely to see a ban.
Second, Affinity will never become completely dominant because of the strength and abundance of artifact hate cards. Twin was hard to beat even when it was on top of the format, but Affinity is typically at its best when it’s bad and at its worst when it’s good. After all, sideboards are filled with more Shatterstorms and Stony Silences to contain Affinity when the deck has a target on its head. At the Pro Tour it will be a bit of a guessing game—Affinity may be popular or it may not be, and correspondingly, the sideboard hate may be great or wasted. It’s hard to predict. But going forward, if Affinity becomes popular, then the artifact hate will be a strong safety valve that can push the deck out of the format.
Third, now that Pro Tour Top 8 matches have switched back to best-of-fives, it is unlikely that Affinity will win the Pro Tour. If you suppose that the deck wins 70% of its pre-sideboarded games and 40% of its post-sideboard games, then its match win percentage would drop from 50% in a best-of-three scenario to 42% in a best-of-five scenario. As a result, the deck will be less likely to be seen as deserving a ban.
Lastly, Affinity doesn’t supplant similar decks. The B&R announcement argued that Jeskai and Temur decks without Twin had faded in popularity over the years compared to Jeskai and Temur decks with Twin. Basically, if a U/R/(x) deck could run the Splinter Twin combo, then it almost always did so, which was reducing diversity. This is not the case for Affinity—it’s not like Ornithopter and Arcbound Ravager can finally find their place in Mono-Black Aggro if Cranial Plating is banned, and it’s not like Affinity is excluding other aggro/synergy decks from the format.
For these reasons, I doubt Affinity will be next. But what if?
Affinity would survive a Cranial Plating or Arcbound Ravager Ban
If Cranial Plating or Arcbound Ravager were banned, then I am fairly confident that the deck will stick around. These two payoff cards are powerful, but there are alternatives such as Master of Etherium, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, and Tempered Steel. The deck would be weakened, but the general strategy would remain intact.
Here is a sample list without Cranial Plating:
If the ban is Mox Opal, however, then I don’t think the deck would survive at a competitive level. Mox Opal is the best card in the Affinity deck, and its effect is too powerful and too unique to replace. Banning Mox Opal would hurt the Lantern of Insight deck as well, and I hope that doesn’t happen.
Unbanning Artifact Lands Would Not Be Safe
Another question that I received recently was whether or not unbanning Seat of the Synod and the like would be acceptable. Based on my experience in Mirrodin block, I expect that this would make the Affinity deck too strong. Here is a sample list of an Affinity deck with artifact lands:
This deck is even more vulnerable to Stony Silence and Shatterstorm, but we were losing to those cards already, and the artifact lands make it easier to turn on Mox Opal, boost Cranial Plating, feed Arcbound Ravager, and fuel the affinity mechanic. This deck feels oppressively powerful to me.
And Now—Time to Rev up the Robot Engines Again
Ban or no ban, I’m looking forward to the Modern Pro Tour. I value experience with a deck more highly than having a good metagame choice, so it’s likely that I’ll stick with Affinity. There’s always the possibility of switching if we find a sufficiently powerful Eldrazi deck or whatever, but right now I’m a favorite to stick with the deck that I enjoy the most. Look for an updated deck guide on this website after the Pro Tour!