April 24th came and went, and besides some misguided grumbling about Death's Shadow, most Modern players were content. Without one deck consistently surpassing 10% of the metagame, a "no changes" banlist announcement was easy to predict. But Wizards went the extra mile with this particular announcement, including a blurb about Modern despite choosing not to shake it up. The information present in that blurb and its implications deserve a closer look.
Today's article breaks down Wizards' most recent banlist announcement and considers what it means for Modern.
Analyzing the Announcement
Let's begin by looking at the announcement itself. Here's Aaron Forsythe's paragraph on Modern, in its entirety:
In Modern, Death's Shadow continues to be the best deck, but technology like Condemn is starting to emerge, and the format appears to be in a safe spot at the moment. While deck diversity is good, we're keeping an eye on color balance. If there's an easy change to the banned list that could open up more decks in the future, we will examine it when other formats have less pressing needs.
It's unprecedented for Modern players to receive banlist information in an official announcement when the format in question doesn't experience any changes. This section closely examines each juicy bit of the above blurb.
"Technology like Condemn"
The specific presence of Condemn may not have done much to stop Modern's Death's Shadow decks, which, as indicated in the announcement, do indeed still rule the format. But there's no arguing against the fact that Condemn has seen much more play over the last couple months than ever before. It's dreamy against Death's Shadow, where it removes an attacking fatty (i.e. Tarmogoyf) while shrinking (or outright killing) any Death's Shadows. Condemn currently sees play in UW Control, where it helped Greg Orange and his team take first at GP San Antonio, and as a sideboard staple in synergy-driven creature strategies like BW Eldrazi, Soul Sisters, Tokens, and GW Hatebears.
Of course, Condemn's applications pretty much stop there, leaving some to question whether Wizards truly believes the still-fringe Dissension uncommon will solve Death's Shadow Modern all by itself. But I think when Aaron refers to "technology like Condemn" (emphasis mine), he means that the format is beginning to find effective ways of attacking its best deck. Spreading Seas, Engineered Explosives, and Fatal Push have all seen play increases, too, in no small part due to their strength against Death's Shadow Jund.
"Deck Diversity Is Good"
I think this quote has a lot more meaning than it's currently getting credit for. Aaron acknowledges that Death's Shadow is the best deck, but when he goes on to say that "deck diversity is good," he essentially says the deck is safe at these representation levels. That means Wizards isn't necessarily waiting for more data with which to justify a Death's Shadow ban (as they were with Felidar Guardian)—they're okay with the current metagame share of Death's Shadow decks.
A couple of scenarios may change their mind. Death's Shadow could rise in popularity, which would lower deck diversity. Alternatively, other decks like Dredge and Affinity could climb high enough to push more decks out of Modern's lower tiers, which would also lower diversity. If neither of these things happen, though, this quote suggests to me that we don't need to worry about a Death's Shadow ban anytime soon.
Aaron goes on to acknowledge a color imbalance in Modern. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that blue and white are the format's two colors most desperately in need of some help—green sees plenty of representation between Goyf, Hierarch, Company, and Stirrings; red gets love thanks to Bolt, Anger, Moon, and Guide (either one); and black, perhaps now Modern's best color, has Shadow, Push, Thoughtseize, and Liliana (also either one, but mostly the Innistrad version).
The announcement communicates that Wizards will look for "an easy change" to the banlist that addresses this color imbalance. Luckily for Wizards, they won't have to look too hard; I can see a couple from here.
Of the blue and white cards on the banlist, the only ones that I think fulfill Wizards' color diversity goals are those that fit into fair decks, and not combo pieces. In other words, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic seem to me like the most obvious candidates for an unbanning. Combo cards don't necessarily improve color diversity, since they're frequently used with little regard for their color—think Manamorphose in Storm, Simian Spirit Guide in Ad Nauseam, or Nourishing Shoal in Grishoalbrand.
I also believe Preordain is safe for the format, but it does slot easily into combo decks. UR Storm has been on an upswing since Baral, Chief of Compliance was printed, so I doubt Wizards would start here. After all, Preordain's applications in unfair decks are more immediately obvious than its roles in fair decks.
It's also possible, at least on paper, that the preferred "easy change" is a ban, and not an unban. Removing color-defining staples from the format, though, is likely to incite a serious player fallout. Imagine the reactions if Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt, or Thoughtseize ate a ban to give blue or white some breathing room. Not only have we seen that "opening space" bans rarely have a desired effect (see Splinter Twin being banned to increase URx diversity, and ending up making reactive blue decks unplayable altogether), there are more palatable options available (like unbanning Jace or Stoneforge). Also, you know, the fallout!
This "color balance" clause also makes it seem like Death's Shadow is safe from a ban. After all, banning a piece from Death's Shadow would do very little to help with color balance. After the Probe and Grave-Troll bans, but before Death's Shadow Jund started to catch on, BGx midrange decks (Jund and Abzan) combined for an 11% metagame share. Now, Death's Shadow Jund, Abzan, and traditional Jund (which wallows in Tier 2 at 3%) all combine for a comparable 15% share.
I think Wizards is very unlikely to ban a card unique to Death's Shadow for color diversity reasons (examples include Bauble, Wraith, Traverse, and Shadow itself), since blue and white already struggled in the post-Probe-ban metagame. A Shadow-specific ban would probably reset the format to again have an 11% BGx share and few, if any, blue- or white-based interactive contenders. In fact, I think there's a case to be made for Death's Shadow's presence bolstering removal-stocked strategies like UW Control, which prey on Death's Shadow and saw practically no play before the deck took off.
"Less Pressing Needs"
Lastly, Aaron comments on the timing of such an unban, stressing that it won't occur until "other formats have less pressing needs."
This quote seems to reinforce the narrative that Wizard's doesn't care too much about Modern. In actuality, Wizards just has a lot on their plate. Like any company, it needs to properly allocate its resources to achieve its bottom line: financial growth.
Right now, that means focusing on Standard. Wizards used to pay more attention to Modern, sure. But Modern was a fledgling format at the time. Now that it's popular enough to actually cannibalize attendance records at Standard events, I don't think it would be fair of us to fault Wizards for spending extra energy on its smaller, more lucrative format.
I also think a policy of waiting best befits a diverse environment like Modern. In a format with such a deep card pool, I think it's usually wise to let things try to iron themselves out (so long as the format isn't in complete shambles in the meantime). After all, Death's Shadow itself was only recently discovered in a competitive capacity. Wizards hates bans as much as we do.
Many of us had assumed Wizards spends less time on Modern than it does on Standard and Limited, but it's still nice to hear them come out and say it explicitly every once in a while. I'm happy Aaron included this bit in the announcement; given "no changes," most Modern readers probably weren't even expecting to be acknowledged. The mention makes good on Wizards' apparent understanding that what the playerbase thinks matters, and continues their recent trend of increasing transparency and openness with players (things we were once starved for).
There are a few key points Modern players can reasonably draw from this banlist announcement:
- At its current metagame representation, Death's Shadow Jund is safe from a ban.
- Bans are only liable to happen if deck diversity suddenly plummets.
- A blue or white unban is likely if fair decks featuring the colors continue to post results similar to those they've had recently.
A larger takeaway: Wizards does care about Modern, and about its players. It was awesome of them to pair the "no changes" announcement with so much information. I hope they continue touching in with the playerbase in future banlist updates, whether changes are made or not.