T minus six days until banlist launch! Love it, hate it, or just want the discussion to stop, you can't deny the potential impact of the upcoming announcement.
From a metagame perspective, we are unlikely to see the kind of shakeup witnessed a year ago. The Birthing Pod and delve bans upended Modern as we knew it. Most of the ban scenarios this time around will only have a modest effect on the format's top decks, barring any crazy changes.
From a policy perspective, however, the update is a major precedent setter. It will confirm or challenge our understanding of the turn four rule. It will determine how Wizards views Tier 1 regulars like URx Twin. It will also show how Wizards unbans cards in relatively stable metagames, which could range from a limited unbanning to a major upheaval.
As someone who tries to stay in dialogue with evidence and historical examples, I expect January 18 to set the tone for many updates to come.
We've got six days until the update, but if last year is any indication, Wizards has already made their decision. Now it's time to figure out what changes they have in store.
In today's article, I'll go over a few ban and unban scenarios, and how you can position your money and cards to profit from those possibilities. A lot of speculation has already happened surrounding the impending update, but there are still underappreciated targets to pick up.
Some of this is going to be a review of my Modern predictions article from last week. I've seen enough people online who are totally off-base on their ban rationale that it's worth going over again.
To be clear, it's entirely possible Wizards doesn't follow my line of thought on bannings! That said, there is a substantial body of evidence out there which I try to stay in conversation with, something many other banlist opinions ignore. So although the 18th might not go down as predicted, I argue this is the most probable set of scenarios based on the data we have.
An Amulet Bloom Banning
Let's start with the Primeval Titan in the room: it is extremely likely something from Amulet Bloom eats a ban. Since Pro Tour Philadelphia, Wizards has consistently enforced the turn four rule, a foundational banlist criterion that is frequently mentioned and seldom understood.
As I explain in a Modern Nexus article on the turn four rule, there's more to the guideline than decks just winning too frequently before turn four. Decks must both consistently win before turn four and be top-tier. We saw this most clearly in the Seething Song banning, not to mention countless articulations of the policy on Wizards' website.
Like U/R Storm and its Epic Experiment variant, Amulet Bloom has now solidified its status as violator of the turn four rule. It is time for Wizards to act.
I'll discuss this more in a Modern Nexus article publishing tomorrow, but here's a general overview of where Bloom crosses the line.
To start, Amulet Bloom is unquestionably top-tier both by objective tiering standards and, more importantly, by the same standards used to peg U/R Storm as top-tier in 2013. When Song got axed, Storm was about 4%-5% of the paper metagame, had just over 11% of MTGO Modern, and took a single Top 8 plus four 18+ point finishes at Grand Prix Lyon and Pro Tour Return to Ravnica respectively.
Today, Bloom has fluctuated between 3% and 7% of the paper metagame all year long, although it's averaged in the 4%-5% range for the latter part of 2015. On this count, it's evenly matched with Storm. Unlike Storm, Bloom was not the second most played MTGO deck during the last months of its run, but it did secure a 6% share to take fourth place.
Those metrics alone might make Bloom somewhat less offensive than Storm, but once we factor in Grand Prix, Pro Tour, and Star City Games Open performances, Bloom emerges in a league of its own.
As compared to Storm's paltry finishes at those tournaments, Amulet Bloom took Top 8 at a Pro Tour and two Grand Prix events. That's in addition to three Grand Prix Top 16s (two at ninth place), an SCG Invitational Top 8, and another pair of Top 8s at SCG Opens. Add Bobby Fortanely's win at Cincinnati to the mix, and it's impossible to deny Bloom's top-tier status.
As for Amulet Bloom's consistency, I'll publish the full stats in my Nexus article, but for now I will say that Bloom's pre-turn-four win-rate is right in the Storm range. In a bootstrapped sample of about 30 games, I calculated a Storm turn 2-3 win-rate at around 24%-25%. Amulet Bloom, in a similar sample analyzed with similar methods, was at 22%-23%.
All this suggests Amulet Bloom qualifies on all the same banning metrics as U/R Storm, and will likely receive the same treatment next Monday.
This also ignores the mountain of qualitative and anecdotal evidence against the deck (read: an entire salt mine throughout reddit, articles, coverage streams, and game stores across the world). Those factors alone might be damning, but the quantitative data really pushes it over the edge.
Of course, that leaves us with the more pressing question: what might get banned?
Summer Bloom Banned
Based on the Seething Song example, Summer Bloom appears to be the ideal ban target. Like Song, Bloom is effectively a ritual that accelerates the deck three lands (and potentially six mana). Also like Song, Bloom is a card unique to its combo deck that can be removed without utterly destroying the strategy's core identity or engine.
We saw a similar ban aimed at 2011 U/R Storm when Rite of Flame took the DCI hammer in an effort to tone down combo strategies. Like Rite and Song, Bloom has worse replacements available in Explore, Journey of Discovery, and additional Azusa, Lost but Seeking copies. All of this suggests this is a likely ban if Wizards doesn't want to totally gut the deck.
Bloom Titan recover from a Summer Bloom ban? My guess is yes. The deck would drop down to Tier 3 and remain a fringe metagame pick, like how U/R Storm occasionally pops up at random events. It would be a worse deck but it would survive in a hamstrung form.
Amulet of Vigor Banned
Then again, maybe Wizards does want Amulet Bloom gone for good. If so, Amulet of Vigor is the card to go. This would be similar to the 2011 Blazing Shoal ban, where a card is deemed so offensive that the entire underlying strategy is yanked out of Modern. Infect critters survived Shoal's banning, but the blue-focused, countermagic-heavy Shoal variant was gone for good.
I personally don't think there's enough evidence to destroy Amulet Bloom with an artifact ban, but I also don't have all the stats Wizards has access to. Maybe the holistic MTGO picture is much worse than I've estimated. If so, Amulet is exactly what Wizards will go after to slash the deck off the face of the map.
An Amulet banning would naturally be a disaster for the deck. The effect is irreplaceable and without it, Bloom starts to feel like a worse Tron. With the loss of Titan shenanigans, I expect this ban would kill the deck completely given the current cardpool.
Unlikely Ban Scenarios
Looking to Amulet Bloom itself, few other cards stand out as possible ban targets. A Primeval Titan ban would hurt the deck, but would also destroy the Titan Scapeshift lists that have enjoyed MTGO success and a Grand Prix Top 8 run. That would also stop the Summoning Trap/Through the Breach ramp hybrids we've seen for years. Based on past examples, such a ban seems too broad and thus not very probable.
Hive Mind is another possibility. It's definitely the least interactive and most un-fun part of the deck, but it also doesn't address the core issue with Amulet Bloom, which is fast ramp. Wizards banned rituals from Storm, not Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens, so it seems more likely the deck's virtual "rituals" will take the fall.
Financial Action Steps
If you haven't sold off your Amulet Bloom staples, there's a good chance it's too late to do so. The good news is that many should hold value even after a possible ban. Azusa, Lost but Seeking is still a Commander powerhouse, and with ramp gaining Modern relevance by the week, we should see her retain stock in our format. The same goes for Primeval Titan, which remains a ramp monster.
Generally speaking, if you have an Amulet Bloom card that is in at least one other Tier 1 or Tier 2 deck (e.g. Ancient Stirrings, Serum Visions, Cavern of Souls, etc.), you'll want to hold onto copies.
If the deck does take the ban, it's time to move in on the inevitable crash. Hive Mind is unlikely to recoup value after a ban, but Summoner's Pact will be low enough to justify investment. The same goes for Gemstone Mine, which is only in the $8-$10 range but is likely to go lower after Bloom's possible demise.
The other place to pick up post-banning value is in metagame shifts. Jund gets better after Bloom dies off, although this will be tempered by rising B/x Eldrazi decks and the continued Tron presence in Tier 1. More importantly, Blood Moon starts to get a lot worse once Amulet Bloom is out of the picture. If we've learned anything from 2015 its that Moon has a very high ceiling. If the card drops in the months following January, move in quickly.
Finally, you'll want to think about where Bloom players will migrate after any bannings. Good bets include Ad Nauseam combo, which uses pacts and dig and fits elements of Bloom's playstyle, as well as B/x Eldrazi and R/G Tron. The latter two are major ramp players and Bloom mages might still want the rush of going over the top.
With the exception of Ad Nauseam, which remains a decent investment, those other ramp decks have nowhere to go but up, so anything you can snag before the migration will be worth the expense.
I'm feeling confident about my banning predictions. There's just so much evidence and not a lot of alternate interpretations of the numbers. Not so with unbans.
Wizards has been notoriously stingy and unpredictable with its unbannings. We got Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle right before a 2012 Pro Tour, and then no unbans at all to soften the Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song bans less than six months later. Wizards killed Deathrite Shaman in 2014 and gave us an awesome Wild Nacatl/Bitterblossom consolation. Then we lose format-pillar Birthing Pod and two defining sorceries, but just get lowly Golgari Grave-Troll in exchange.
This is a very conservative pattern. Wizards does not want to unban cards that can disrupt Modern's careful (some may say, tenuous) equilibrium. For instance, you don't ban Pod and then unban something wacky to take its place. You need to see what a post-Pod format looks like before you do anything else. We've also seen numerous announcements with "No Changes" during the year, although it is important to note these updates weren't before a Pro Tour.
Based on this history of conservatism, but acknowledging possible new developments, I expect we'll see two unban scenarios.
Sword of the Meek Unbanned
We've seen a 2016 packed with linear, damage-based aggro. This includes Affinity, Burn, Burn Zoo, Gruul Zoo, Naya Company, and all the Burn/Zoo hybrids I've forgotten to mention in between. Meanwhile, we saw a brief 2-3 month run by the innovative Grixis Control before even the most dedicated Grixis mages ditched their reactive Cryptic Commands for a more midrangey approach.
Given the relative failing of blue-based control and the relative success of damage-based aggro, Sword of the Meek seems like a safe unban that addresses multiple issues at once.
In addition to these metagame factors supporting a Sword unban, many of the initial reasons for Sword's banning may no longer be valid. The Thopter Foundry combo was oppressive in a world without Abrupt Decay and Kolaghan's Command, two huge safety valves against possible Sword dominance. Aggro also has far more tools against the Sword than it did in old Extended.
All of this suggests Sword is the kind of limited-ends unban that would strike back against aggro (while not crushing it) and also empower underrepresented blue-based control (while not pushing it over the top).
Stoneforge Mystic Unbanned
Whaaaat? I know what you're thinking: a Grand Prix promo announcement alone isn't enough evidence to suggest a Stoneforge Mystic unban. I've already spoken about Mystic's unban chances, but it's time to revisit her with the update right around the corner.
After seeing the format evolve over 2015 and some recent playtesting with Affinity vs. Stoneforge Abzan, I think Mystic is a safer unban than many give it credit for. To start, the kor directly powers up lagging white strategies: except for Abzan, white is not where you want to be in Modern and has never been Tier 1 throughout 2015. Mystic enhances Jeskai Midrange, Jeskai Delver, Hatebears, and Death and Taxes decks, potentially improving their Modern odds.
I also think Modern has enough police cards and strategies to handle the artificer. Between the omnipresent Lightning Bolt, combo decks that ignore Mystic, and aggro decks that can race her, Modern isn't in a bad place for accommodating her power level.
Of course, there are still some worries. Abzan remains a major player and is already surpassing Jund in the December and January period. Perhaps more worryingly, the theoretical "Twin Blade" deck might be a real monster, pushing the already powerful URx Twin strategy over the top.
Those dangers acknowledged, I still don't understand why Mystic would be our 2016 Grand Prix promo if it weren't about to get a Modern release. Could Wizards be setting a new precedent by doing so? Perhaps. Maybe they unban the Mystic this year as a way to increase stock in advance of a 2017 unbanning. But coupled with metagame factors and the surprising safety of Mystic in early tests, I don't think her reintroduction is impossible.
Unlikely Unban Scenarios
There has been a big movement towards Bloodbraid Elf's release from banlist purgatory, but I don't think we see it this time around. Jund just got both Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Kolaghan's Command this year alone. Even if Abzan gained Mystic, I expect Wizards would want to throttle the flow of powerful cards into Modern to keep a better sense as to what is gamebreaking and what is not.
I do believe Elf is fair enough for Modern and that she will eventually return to the Jund legions. I just don't think it will happen now, given the back-and-forth play between Jund and Abzan throughout the year. BGx has been a problem before and Wizards will be cautious with it in the future.
Ancestral Vision is another option that I considered almost as likely as Sword. I'm doubling down on Sword just because my own tests with URx Vision Twin brought up some concerns.
I'm uncomfortable vouching for cards I haven't tested rigorously, and I think this might reflect Wizards' own conservative approach to such a card. The same goes for many other staples like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Green Sun's Zenith.
Financial Action Steps
Test first, speculate later. Apart from its obvious synergies like Thopter Foundry, Sword opens up a range of strategies we need to investigate in order to separate the good from the bad. I've been really enjoying the combo in a Jeskai Control shell, giving a proactive Plan B to the reactive Plan A that characterizes the typical Jeskai deck.
From an investment perspective, this might not open up specific cards like Thirst for Knowledge, but it would raise the stock of any strategy staples in decks using Thopter Sword. Something like Snapcaster Mage will go nuts if a Tiago deck adopts the combo.
A Stoneforge unbanning opens up the entire world of Modern investment opportunities. Playing white? Your deck might benefit from Mystic. I'd keep an eye on Death and Taxes and Hatebears, two decks with excellent metagame positioning in a ramp and Affinity-heavy environment. Aether Vial looks pricey now, but wait and see that card's value if these two white-based decks see breakouts after a Mystic unbanning.
Changing Format Landscapes
Join me next week when I break down the financial implications of our banlist update. Whether you're looking for short-term gains or long-term value, the banlist is sure to make big waves in Modern and I'm excited to see where the chips fall on Monday.
I'll be unsurprised if Mystic stays on the list, but her unbanning would be the biggest change in Modern since the format's birth, and it would mark a crazy start to 2016.
What other banlist scenarios or questions do you have about Modern? Any other financial prospects I've missed or given insufficient credit? Let me know in the comments and I'll see you all in a week!