Happy New Year to all you Quiet Speculation readers and Modern players!
Between Oath of the Gatewatch, the upcoming January 18 banlist update, and the Modern Pro Tour shortly thereafter, 2016 promises to start out in a big way for the Modern community. Star City Games kicked January off with the exciting Cincinnati Open, an event which promises to set the tone of the format for the rest of the year.
Speaking of setting the tone, it wouldn't be a new year of Modern without a new round of bizarre speculations. I get the B/x Eldrazi staple spike, but Gaddock Teeg? Really?
Rather than do a roundup of all the strange market fluctuations over the last few days (no, Glen Elendra Archmage is not worth her current price), I want to look ahead to the rest of 2016 and where Modern is heading over the next 12 months.
What menaces might get banned? Will we see cards freed from the current banlist? Are new strategies going to storm into Modern's top tiers? I'll make three predictions today (plus a bonus one at the end!) to stake a claim on some of the biggest events we might see this year, all of which could have major implications on both Modern as a format and Modern as a market.
1. Banned: Summer Bloom
As many of you know, either from reading my articles here or on Modern Nexus, I'm very conservative with the Modern banlist. I generally dislike ban talk, try to analyze potential bannings in the context of past updates, and always consider the overall metagame statistics when making projections.
Recently, I wrote an extensive analysis of Modern's (in)famous turn four rule, in which I discussed both the rule's history and its specific criteria. Based on that article and the 2015 metagame, I predict we see one and only one card banned on January 18: Summer Bloom.
As a deck, Amulet Bloom generated endless banlist discussion during 2015. We've debated the strategy on forums, in game stores, throughout articles, and, most embarrassingly, among the coverage teams at various Grand Prix and SCG Open tournaments. But unlike much of the Modern ban mania, there have been legitimate reasons to keep the deck on our radar, and January 18 will likely be the time we see action taken against it.
Turn Four Rule Violations
If Bloom eats a ban as I predict, it will be under the turn four rule. As I discuss in that Nexus article above, this is an oft-cited, oft-misunderstood banlist parameter, one that is more complicated than the name alone suggests. There are actually a few triggers that need to be met for the turn four rule to enter effect: the deck in question must be both consistently winning before turn four and top-tier.
To understand Bloom's probable fate, we need to look back to the Seething Song ban announcement as a point of comparison.
When Song departed Modern, Storm was the second most played MTGO deck at 11-12% of that metagame. Storm also made up about 5% of the paper metagame at the time of the banning, with a single Top 8 and four 18+ point performances also under its belt. These were the numbers Wizards cited in its ban justification.
How does Amulet Bloom's tiering stack up?
On MTGO, the deck doesn't see quite as much play as old Storm. Bloom was the most played MTGO deck in November at around 9%, but otherwise hovered in the 3-5% range for much of the year. Looking at paper, however, Bloom becomes significantly more dominant.
Like Storm, Bloom has been around 3-7% in various metagame periods, bouncing up and down depending on the month. Unlike Storm, Amulet Bloom has seen extensive Top 8 and Top 16 performances.
Seething Song Storm had only one Top 8 in the post-Return to Ravnica period. Amulet Bloom? Considering only Grand Prix and Pro Tour events, the new combo strategy had three Top 8's and three more Top 16's. This is on top of three more Top 8's at SCG Opens or Invitationals (including last weekend's win at Cincinnati, just when all the Eldrazi were distracting you from Bloom).
Although ban proponents rarely refer to these numbers, such statistics conclusively show Bloom meets (even exceeds in some realms!) the top-tier parameters that felled Storm back in 2013.
That moves us to the win turn rate criterion, which we also see is a major problem for Amulet Bloom. Analyzing a series of Storm matches in my Modern Nexus article, I estimated a turn three win rate for Storm in the 17-30% range. Using a similar method for Amulet Bloom, I approximate a 20-32% turn two/three win rate, right in the same range as Storm.
Admittedly, I think these are both overestimations of the respective decks' win rates in those critical turns. Both samples were drawn from higher level players in major tournaments, so the average game is probably more in the 10-15% range. Even so, combine these quantitative datapoints with the ample qualitative evidence (everyone has a story or an experience of this deck winning too fast), and we have a perfect storm of factors establishing Bloom's violation of the turn 2-3 consistency clause.
Now that we have identified the Amulet Bloom deck as a turn four rule violator, we need to figure out what card gets hit.
As I see it, neither Amulet of Vigor nor Primeval Titan are in danger---the artifact is an irreplaceable deck cornerstone and Wizards doesn't like gutting strategies outright if they can avoid it. As for the latter, other decks use Titan fairly, and Prime Time is one of the easiest interaction points if it doesn't land on turn two.
Hive Mind and Simian Spirit Guide are other possibilities, but also not very likely. Many recent lists don't even use Guide, and Hive Mind, although powerful, is mostly a problem in the early turns. The enchantment also doesn't fit the "ban the engine" philosophy Wizards follows with combo decks.
Given this analysis, and based on past bans such as Seething Song, Rite of Flame, and Second Sunrise (the latter an example of banning pieces of a deck, even though it wasn't banned for turn four rule violation), Summer Bloom becomes the likeliest target. It's effectively a ritual and is easily the most explosive and replaceable piece of the deck. This makes it a prime target for banning to rein in the rogue Bloom strategy.
Other Ban Candidates?
Although Summer Bloom is likely to fall, no other cards should be in any danger. They either don't qualify under the turn four rule or don't have the metagame shares to justify bannings.
Cards like Nourishing Shoal, Goryo's Vengeance, and Become Immense? In the two former cases, their home deck isn't remotely top tier (less than 1% of the format since August). In the latter, Infect has bigger consistency issues than Bloom, something we should expect given its natural Bolt and removal vulnerability. Indeed, Sam Stoddard discussed these differences in his "Development Risks in Modern" article, pointing to Infect's weakness to interaction.
Fortunately, the decks that these cards call home don't occupy enough of the metagame to warrant ban consideration. When Birthing Pod and the delve spells got banned, not to mention Deathrite and Bloodbraid before that, the offending decks were in the 20%+ range. Not even Twin comes close to that, having not exceeded a collective URx share of 14% this year.
All in all, Modern is in a healthy place and there's no need for a ban outside of Summer Bloom. Wizards might go against historical precedent in banning other cards, but based on past examples, it seems like nothing else is in danger this time around.
Market Action Steps
If you're playing Bloom, I strongly encourage you to sell off the cards as soon as possible. Then stick all those same cards in your cart, ideally from a reputable dealer, and wait until the 18th. If Bloom gets banned, you'll have made a huge profit on selling the pre-ban deck versus the post-ban cards. If it stays legal, just rebuy the cards and you'll eat a small loss.
The chance that Bloom gets banned is much higher than the chance it doesn't, which makes the expected value of this approach much higher than just sitting on the cards.
As a deck, Amulet Bloom would likely survive a banning, albeit in a lower tier without the same competitive power. This in turn will make decks like BGx better, as the Jund and Abzan policemen currently struggle against the post-board ramp Plan B leveraged by the Bloom player. Investors will want to buy accordingly to account for these shifts (for instance, selling off Blood Moon copies knowing the card will lose short-term value without its main enemy).
2. Unbanned: Sword of the Meek
Just because January 18 is unlikely to see any other bans, that doesn't mean we won't see additional changes on the fateful Monday. Despite Modern's overall diversity, the format still lacks one of Magic's most time-honored archetypes: interactive, reactive, fair, blue-based control. Grixis Control and Grixis Midrange decks have pushed against this narrative, but the strategy still remains relatively absent from Modern.
By a similar token, Modern has quite a few linear, damage-based strategies occupying the format. Zoo variants, Affinity, Merfolk, and the million-and-one Burn hybrids are rampant, and although none of these decks are even close to banworthy, this kind of linear Magic isn't exactly what Wizards wants in its second most popular format.
So far, every single one of Modern's unbans has been designed to power up lower-tier decks. In fact, the announcements always include language that speaks explicitly to this objective: Valakut's unbanning speaks most directly to this, with Wizards stating, "We wanted a card that would not easily slot into an existing top deck and also wanted to enable a deck with a different play pattern than the current top decks."
As an added bonus, the Sword engine works against many of those linear decks which have characterized recent Modern events, while not outright killing them off (Punishing Fire, alternately, would likely have such an effect).
Some Sword critics are worried about the combo dominating the format as it did in old Extended. This could happen either through the combo slotting into an existing top-tier deck (Splinter Sword? Grixis Foundry Control?), beating too many aggro players, or providing too much inevitability in the control/midrange grindfests. None of these scenarios seem likely and the criticisms remind me of the same fearmongering around the Valakut and Bitterblossom unbannings.
Splinter Sword is a mess that is even more vulnerable to BGx than the current build, just as the combo itself never before had to deal with Abrupt Decay and Kolaghan's Command. As for aggro, with new sideboard options (e.g. Destructive Revelry), Plan B's (Affinity's Inkmoth Nexus), and an overall faster speed (e.g. Atarka's Command), the decks should be more than capable of coexisting with Thopter Sword.
If Valakut, Wild Nacatl, and Bitterblossom could be safely absorbed into the powerful Modern format, Sword is likely just as safe. I expect Wizards will see it the same way and give us, and the pros at the Pro Tour, a new card to play with in 2016. Or maybe two cards, but that's a topic for next week and/or the end of this article...
Market Action Steps
Anything that goes into a possible Thopter Sword deck is fair game for investment. This includes direct synergies like Thopter and Sword themselves, along with Tezzeret and foil Thirsts. Even Gifts Ungiven is fair game here!
Speculation targets also include indirect synergies, such as Supreme Verdict (if Esper becomes the Thopter deck of choice), Spellskite (a great bullet in a deck that relies on artifacts), and Snapcaster Mage (can't play blue control without it).
3. B/x Eldrazi Hits Tier 2
I feel comfortable saying Modern has never had a hype train quite like B/x Eldrazi. We had an Eye of Ugin buyout, saw foil Eldrazi creatures spike to new levels, and read more than two top reddit threads per day since January started. Some major stores pulled their stock on these cards, even the Standard-legal rares, just to avoid leaking money on these volatile staples. Add an SCG Cincinnati spotlight to the mix, and it's no wonder the deck is the hottest thing in Magic today.
Of course, the big question isn't about the deck's short-term value. It's about B/x Eldrazi's long-term Modern potential. After playing with and against the deck, seeing it in action, and crunching the metagame stats, I'm here to tell you it's the real deal. B/x Eldrazi has everything it needs to be a regular Tier 2 player in 2016.
Operating in the gray area of midrange and ramp (but closer to midrange), B/x Eldrazi backs up ahead-of-the-curve threats with removal, discard magic, and graveyard disruption. It has a similar interaction package to BGx Midrange decks, while also sharing inevitability and ramp elements with R/G Tron. This puts the deck in an excellent position against much of the format.
As many Eldrazi pilots and opponents can attest, the deck completely pantses fair Modern strategies like Abzan, Jund and Grixis. They simply can't compete with the graveyard exiling effects, powerful threats, and over-the-top finishers ramped out as early as turns four or five. Eldrazi also has great removal options against many aggro decks (particularly the B/r Eldrazi variants), not to mention random percentage points against graveyard strategies.
Although the eldritch monsters struggle against Affinity, Infect, and some of Burn's faster starts, its strong matchups in other sectors more than compensate.
Perhaps more importantly, we are only beginning to see the B/x Eldrazi renaissance in Modern, so many lists aren't yet optimized. With Eldrazi occupying around 5% of the MTGO metagame through December and looking to at least exceed that into January, there will be ample opportunity to sharpen the core 60 and push the deck into regular Tier 2 contention. We already saw a Top 16 performance at Cincinnati just a few weeks after the deck exploded onto the scene!
Market Action Steps
Remember those Eldrazi staple buyouts? Expect to see more of those as the year progresses, with price memory buoying the existing cards at around their current levels. Eye of Ugin has inched down from its $30 high last week, but the cards are still a paper Top 8 away from even more price hype.
In contrast to some of the other hype trains, B/x Eldrazi feels like the real deal and the results continue to paint it as a major Modern player. If you see its staples for cheap, pick them up immediately. If you see a temporary dip in its main cards, grab those too---any Grand Prix or Pro Tour movement will jack these cards into the financial stratosphere.
What About Stoneforge Mystic?
That's the million-dollar Modern question, and I don't have a definitive answer yet. If it weren't for that dang Grand Prix promo card, this unban wouldn't be in my top five list of probable changes. But the Grand Prix promo is very real, and I've already written extensively on what the reprint could mean.
On the one hand, the promo reprinting is very persuasive on its own, and I don't think the Mystic would be nearly as disastrous for Modern as many have foretold. On the other hand, she's Stoneforge Mystic and that's a very dangerous card. I've also tested the Twinblade deck (Splinter Twin plus Mystic) and it's pretty scary in a test environment.
Given all the evidence and as a preview of next week's article, I think the promo reprinting plus the overall metagame context is just too persuasive, so I'm leaning towards a likely Mystic unbanning. It seems a little crazy, but Modern is a crazy format, and some of the signs are too strong to ignore.
That's all for the 2016 predictions, and I'll see everyone next week for even more banlist thoughts. I'm sure we'll get a lot of questions and commentary until then, so I'll try and address some of that (especially the banlist stuff) in next week's piece. Here's hoping for some cool Oath cards over the coming week!