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Wizards Should Leave Modern Alone (But Probably Won't)


Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan was amazing. It had seven different decks in the Top 8, around 30 different decks posting winning records, strong Twitch viewership numbers, and outside of a handful of pros who really dislike Modern, near universal praise on social media. Yet, coming out of what was—by far—the best Modern Pro Tour of all time, we have calls for bannings. And not just any bannings, but bannings targeted at a deck that was played by a total of nine players (out of more than 450) at the event: Lantern Control. While it is true that Lantern Control took home the trophy at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, does this mean the deck needs to be targeted by a banning?

At the same time, Wizards mentioned back in October that it was looking at the post-Pro Tour banned-and-restricted announcement as a time to potentially unban some cards in Modern. While most people peg Bloodbraid Elf as the safest and most likely choice, the combination of an early "we're looking to unban" announcement along with Jace, the Mind Sculptor being spoiled for the upcoming Masters 25 has people discussing if Wizards might finally take the best planeswalker in Magic's history off the Modern banned list, but is it really wise to take the risk? 

The great (and horrible) thing about banned-and-restricted announcements is that there's always another one right around the corner, which means there isn't really any reason for Wizards to rush into an unban (apart from generating hype for Masters 25). So today, we're going to delve into Modern, specifically through the lens of tomorrow's banned-and-restricted announcement, and discuss why Modern is in such a great place right now that Wizards should probably just leave the format alone but why Wizards probably won't.

Modern Is at Its Best

At Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, no deck made up 10% of the metagame for the first time in the history of the Modern Pro Tour. If you look back at past Pro Tours, you'll see that in Philadelphia 2011 (the first Modern Pro Tour), the three most played decks in the format made up 20%, 17%, and 16% of the metagame. While Wizards (for some unknown reason) didn't publish metagame breakdowns for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, Jund dominated the format thanks to the release of Deathrite Shaman, to the point that the deck was targeted by not just one but two bannings over the next year. Next came Pro Tour Fate Reforged, where Abzan made up a massive 28% of the metagame, and this was followed by Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, where both Burn and Affinity started at 13% of the meta, and by the time the tournament was over, the freshly printed Eldrazi were basically the only game in town. Compare these numbers to Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan:

While we can argue over whether control is good enough or if combo is too strong, if you just look over the metagame numbers from Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, there is no debate that Modern is in the best place it has ever been coming out of a Pro Tour. It's staggeringly diverse, with control, combo, aggro, and midrange decks all having a significant presence in the metagame but without any single deck being anywhere near dominant. 

Why are cards banned in Magic? Most commonly, to improve the metagame because one deck, archetype, or card is too dominant. Basically, most bannings in Magic's history took place in an effort to make the metagame look like the metagame we currently have in Modern. We're already at the end point—a place of diversity and perfection—which means that twisting any knobs and fiddling with any dials can't really improve the format because the format is already as good as it can possibly be.

On Lantern

Coming out of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, the main conversations about bannings centered around Lantern Control. By the numbers, even suggesting Lantern Control should be banned is absurd on its face. It makes up a tiny fraction of the metagame (1.46% on the Goldfish metagame page, which is roughly the same as the 1.93% it posted at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan), coming in 20th on the list of most played decks in Modern. While it is true that the metagame numbers and percentages are not the only consideration when it comes to bannings—we've seen decks like Eggs get banned in the past, even though they weren't very popular—it's still pretty shocking to see calls for bannings coalesce around a deck that makes up less than 2% of the metagame. 

The calls for a banning targeting Lantern Control shoot right at the heart of what we want the Modern format to be about. The story of Lantern—rising from a community-built deck on the MTGSalvation forums, through the Grand Prix circuit, and finally reaching the apex of Magic with a Pro Tour win—is the type of story we'd be celebrating, if only the deck wasn't playing Ensnaring Bridge and locking people out of the game. In short, the problem with Lantern isn't so much that the deck is too good or even problematic from a tournament perspective (although this might change, if a bunch of inexperienced players pick up Lantern and take Grand Prix and SCG Open matches to time as a result) but that people simply don't like the prison-ish aspects of the Lantern deck.

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So, the question we have to ask ourselves is: do we really want to set the precedent that a deck should be banned simply because we don't like its play style? My answer is no. Here's the problem with banning decks simply because we don't like them: everyone hates a different style of deck. For me, my most hated Modern deck lists include Bogles and Infect, but I also know a lot of players who would name Bogles and Infect as their single favorite decks in the format. Is it really fair that someone else loses the opportunity to play with their favorite deck because I might have to play against a deck I don't like twice every 100 matches (the equivalent of 2% of the meta)? The answer is pretty clearly no. What makes Modern so amazing is that, unlike Standard, which typically ends up being a midrange vs. midrange battle (or in a good season, midrange vs. aggro vs. control), in Modern, there are viable decks ranging from prison, to combo, to aggro, to control, to midrange, and everything in between. Once we start chomping away at this diversity by eliminating decks that some people find unfun, Modern starts to lose the very thing that makes it such a magical and beloved format.

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Of course, this isn't to say that play patterns and fun shouldn't matter. If Lantern Control were 20% of the metagame rather than less than 2% of the metagame, the story would be very different. No one wants to play against Lantern Control every single league they play on Magic Online, or multiple times every Grand Prix or SCG Open, but the idea that we'd ban a deck that makes up 2% of the metagame simply because some people don't like prison decks is silly. Is getting locked by Lantern really any worse than getting Stormed off on Turn 3 or having 12 power of Hollow Ones attacking you on Turn 2 or having a classic Turn 3 Karn Liberated from Tron? Not really, and based on the current metagame numbers, you're significantly more likely to have to deal with a Turn 3 Karn Liberated or Storm kill than you are to be locked out of the game by Lantern Control.

On Unbannings

On stream a couple of days ago, the chat asked for a banned-and-restricted announcement prediction, and I predicted that Jace, the Mind Sculptor (and Bloodbraid Elf) would be unbanned in Modern, but I'm hoping this prediction doesn't actually come true for a few reasons. 

First and foremost, as we were just talking about, Modern is in a place of near-perfection right now, which means odds are that any changes to the format will make it worse rather than better. If Modern were simply in an okay place rather than a great place, it might be worth taking some risks with unbannings, but it's really hard to improve upon perfection. 

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Take, for example, Bloodbraid Elf. I'm very confident that Bloodbraid Elf is safe for Modern (and never should have been banned in the first place, when it was Deathrite Shaman that was the real problem). It seems mostly worse than Collected Company; plus, the power level of Modern four-mana plays is a lot higher than it was back when Bloodbraid Elf was ruling the roost with Jund (with the addition of Tireless Tracker + immediate Clue token, Thought-Knot Seer, Collected Company, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and more). However, just because Bloodbraid Elf is safe to unban doesn't mean it should be unbanned right now. Modern attendance is great, Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan broke viewership records, and the SCG Modern series seems to be thriving, which make it really hard to see the upside of unbanning Bloodbraid Elf tomorrow. 

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Even if Wizards believes it's safe to unban it and wants to unban it, why not wait until Modern needs a boost? Unbanning Bloodbraid Elf tomorrow is like a sport team cutting ticket prices when it already sells out every game and has a wait list for season tickets—you can't really do any better than "sold out," and Modern is pretty close to "sold out" right now, coming off of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. Wizards should wait for attendance to start to dwindle and then use Bloodbraid Elf as a way to sell more tickets to the Modern format.

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As for Jace, the Mind Sculptor, I've changed my mind about it ever being safe to unban. While it is still true that there are a lot of matchups where Jace, the Mind Sculptor is bad, it's really hard to imagine a scenario where Jace, the Mind Sculptor ends up being just another good card in Modern. It either end up being completely unplayable because the metagame is tilted so hard toward fast combo and aggro, or it ends up being the best card in Modern. Neither outcome is really great.

The bigger issue is what Jace, the Mind Sculptor would do to the format. First, it would push fair decks toward being Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks because Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be the best fair card in the format. This would likely reduce the diversity of midrange and control, as everyone would focus on building the best Jace deck possible. Second, Jace, the Mind Sculptor would push the unfair and aggro decks to be even faster to be able to close out the game before Jace, the Mind Sculptor could come down and take over. 

At least for me personally, the biggest draw to Modern is the diversity—the fact is that 30 different decks can post a winning record at a Pro Tour and even more can post a winning record at a Grand Prix or on Magic Online. As such, I'm wary of any banned-and-restricted changes that have the potential to reduce the diversity of the format, which is why Lantern Control (at least at this point—thins would be different if it develops into a deck that's 10% or 20% of the meta) should stay unbanned and the reason why Jace, the Mind Sculptor should stay banned. 

This being said, I do expect that when we read the banned-and-restricted announcement tomorrow morning, Jace, the Mind Sculptor will be unbanned. The fact that Wizards mentioned unbannings during the February announcement months ago and then spoiled a Jace, the Mind Sculptor reprint for Masters 25 adds up to Wizards giving it a shot in the format, at least in my tin-foil-hat mind. 

It's important to remember that Wizards' primary goal is to sell Magic cards, and with player-base growth slowing, it needs current players to spend more money to keep revenue from falling. Unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a way to guarantee that Masters 25, which like Iconic Masters will be sold in big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, will be a smashing success. As such, even if Wizards thinks there's a chance it could be dangerous in the format, giving it a try makes sense from a financial perspective. 

As such, I expect that the announcement will unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but it will come with an explanation / warning saying something to the effect of "players have been asking for Jace, the Mind Sculptor for a long time, so we're going to give it a chance in the format, but if everything goes wrong, we reserve the right to ban Jace, the Mind Sculptor again. Oh yeah, and to keep Jace, the Mind Sculptor in check, we're also unbanning his traditional nemesis Bloodbraid Elf as well." 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. The bottom line is that while I hope we get a "no changes" announcement tomorrow because Modern is arguably at the single best place in its entire six-year history, I'm doubtful this will happen. I'd be surprised if at least Bloodbraid Elf weren't unbanned, and I think the odds are in favor of Jace, the Mind Sculptor being unbanned as well. 

So, what do you think? Should Lantern (or anything else in Modern) be banned tomorrow? Should Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Bloodbraid Elf, or anything else be unbanned? What would happen to the currently amazing format if Wizards did make some unbannings? Would the format remain diverse, or would Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Bloodbraid Elf dominate the format? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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