“No Changes” – Reactions to the Banlist Announcement

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It is inevitable. Every time a new Banned and Restricted Announcement comes out, speculation runs rampant. Everyone has their pet cards to advocate for or against, everyone is utterly convinced they're right, and they take offense to disagreement. Every single time. It's really tiring. I've written about this problem before. I have no problem discussing possible B&R changes as long as it's informative and civil. This is usually not the case. As previously mentioned, many players refuse to abandon their pet cards regardless of arguments presented or contrary evidence. This is why Sheridan started actually testing banned cards and I've kept it going. Evidence-based discussion is good. Speculation is unhelpful.

This is especially frustrating for me because Wizards surprised everyone again by making no changes to everything but Vintage. The last time I was this blindsided by a B&R update was when Splinter Twin was banned. Not that this is a bad thing. I had resigned myself that the anti-Death's Shadow crowd were going to get their way. It appeared overwhelming—LSV and other pros were calling for it, Shadow had been on top for months, and it had good (though not spectacular) showings during the Modern GP weekend.

The available evidence was going the banning crowd's way. I figured it was inevitable but that wasn't the case, and I'm pleased it wasn't. Hopefully now we can move on and discuss the far more interesting changes that followed the B&R on Monday.

Don't Fix What Isn't Broken

It is very frustrating when Wizards only comments on the changes they make. I know why they don't explain the non-changes (time constraints and process integrity are very real things), I just wish it wasn't the case. We've gotten their thoughts on "No Changes" a few times but I'd like it to be a regular feature. It would be nice to know their reasoning for no changes, since "We think everything is fine" is very, very different from "We need more data." As such, I'm left to speculate, analyze, and extrapolate about their decision-making. Keep that in mind for the rest of this section.

The key to this decision is Wizards' information monopoly. Now, Wizards has always had an information advantage over players. They make the game and run MTGO and the DCI. They can see any and all data they want about any metagame at any time, and have said several times that's exactly what they do. And this is fine—they need that data to make the game better. It is also fine that they don't make all that data public. Trade secrets are a real thing, as is fear of data mining killing formats. Arguably, the ultimate problem with the last few Standards was they got solved too quickly. What makes it annoying is that they know better than we do if the format is actually healthy.

The controversial announcement that MTGO would only report five 5-0 decklists per day halved our data. MTGO data has always been somewhat suspect and our metagame calculations reflected this fact. However, it was still our most consistent source of raw data on the metagame. Lacking this source makes actual data analysis problematic, especially during droughts of paper events. Wizards doesn't have this problem. Therefore, they will know with certainty if there's a diversity-harming warp while we can at best make educated guesses. In other words, we only think we know. Wizards actually knows. And they made a decision in line with this knowledge.

What We Do Know

The thing is, everyone should have been able to come to the same conclusion. I know I've said that the pro-Death's Shadow-ban crowd was getting the evidence on their side to make their case, but I never thought it was that strong. The evidence of oppression just wasn't there. The metagame has been trending away from Death's Shadow and Eldrazi Tron for at least the past two months. They're still very good decks, but their metagame share have been trending downwards.

Now, some of that is definitely artificial, with Wizards preferring not to release multiple copies of the same deck in their 5-0 League postings, but you could also see this in paper events.  Eldrazi Tron closed out the finals at SCG Syracuse before failing to make Top 8 in both São Paulo or Birmingham. Grixis Death's Shadow's best high-profile result was second at SCG Richmond. Those are good results, but they're not exceptional. Yes, both show up in the Top 8s and Top 16s, but that's what you would expect from any Tier 1 deck, like Affinity. Had Shadow or Tron decks been winning events consistently, this would be a very different conversation.

What this strongly suggests is not only that Modern can handle Shadow, but that it has already done so. Back in May and June Shadow was everywhere and appeared to be unstoppable. Then along came Death and Taxes to spoil the party. Then the Shadow decks adjusted and DnT disappeared again, but in that hiccup everyone saw that the deck was very vulnerable. Strategies evolved, players learned how to adapt to the deck and its metagame share began to fall. Where once it appeared that Shadow was redefining Modern, it appears that all it's done is redefine midrange in a way that lets control back into the format. Once Bloodbraid Elf and Deathrite Shaman were gone, Jund hung around for years without causing problems. It appears that Shadow has taken over that job and created a new metagame. Therefore, nothing needed to go.

The Unbans Issue

The "Ban It!" crowd really should have seen Monday coming, and it appears based on a glance around the internet that most players did. However, the "Unban It!" crowd is once again disappointed. They shouldn't be, but they are. Again. And I'm not surprised. Unbans are not something to take lightly. I don't care how much you want to play with your pet card or how unjust its banning is(n't), there is a sizable risk to removing anything from the banned list. Wizards is not going to do anything on a whim, and if the metagame is good now, why should they shake things up? If everything is fine, don't risk breaking it.

I know that players will point to the successful unbannings of Bitterblossom and Sword of the Meek as reasons to unban more cards. I will counter that unbanning Golgari Grave-Troll was a mistake, and should have been a predictable one for Wizards. They knew what was coming in Shadows over Innistrad and Kaladesh and should have seen what they would do to Dredge (I have no proof, but I strongly believe that the unbanning was a marketing move to show off the new cards in Modern). However, that's rather dismissive. My real question is "Are you sure?"

See, at this point there are very few cards from the original, speculative banned list left. Most of the current list has had its time in Modern, and proved problematic. Of that original crew, we have obviously busted stuff like Hypergenesis and Dread Return, Legacy staples in Jace and Stoneforge Mystic, and the artifact lands. Bitterblossom was king in Standard and a prince of Extended, but Magic was a very different game in 2014 (when it was unbanned) than 2008. The same is true of Sword of the Meek. Great for its time, but now answers exist. The cards still on the list are just as potent now as they were then. Does Wizards want to take that risk? Whether or not they should is the whole purpose of my Banlist Testing series.

Regardless of personal opinion, there was no evidence that anything needed to happen in Monday's announcement. The format has adapted to the changes and appears to be thriving, meaning no bans are required. Diversity is high, Modern is more popular than ever, and there have been plenty of new decks and innovations, so there's no reason to run any risks and shake things up with an unban. Is everybody clear on that? Great! Let's move onto something much more interesting that also came out Monday.

Legendary Planeswalkers!

That was already true of Jace, the Mind Sculptor but now it applies to everyone. Ixalan will do away with the planeswalker uniqueness rule. "What is that?" most of you are asking. Something that only recently started to affect Modern, I answer. And then proceed to give a non-snarky, actually helpful answer.

Right now you can only have one planeswalker of any type under your control. Planeswalker type is the walker's first name. Most of the time this is irrelevant, especially in the older formats. Planeswalkers consistently define Standard, but most make no impression on Modern, and only JtMS and Liliana of the Veil see wide play in Legacy and beyond. As a result, you really didn't have any reason to play more than one version of a planeswalker, so this special version of the legendary rule never came up.

However, that changed recently. Liliana the Last Hope is a very powerful card and directly competes with Liliana of the Veil. They're very different cards but both at home in midrange black decks. You would expect there would be a split between them in midrange maindecks. You would (mostly) be wrong. There were a number of reasons, but a really subtle one was that you could never have both in play a the same time. This was a huge liability when you drew them both and actually wanted both. There were many feel-bads associated with using the first one for a while and then replacing it with the other. As a result, of the Veil sees the majority of mainboard play with a few the Last Hope is a sideboard card.

It has happened even more recently to Gideon. This was not a problem before because Gideon Jura and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar don't go in the same decks. Jura is very much an anti-aggro card while Ally is anti-control. It just never came up. Gideon of the Trials changed that. I will attest that it is a good control card. It is awkward to play both Jura and of the Trials in the same deck. It's not the worst to play out of the Trials and eventually replace him with Jura, but it's not optimal either. Starting with both in hand is also less than fun.

What Does It Mean?

What the upcoming change means is that planeswalkers work the same as any other legendary permanent. Ergo, same card name rather than same planeswalker type. Just like with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Thalia, Heretic Cathar, you can have both Gideon of the Trials and Gideon Jura on the battlefield together. This will be huge for control decks. When of the Trials was spoiled many players joked about Gideon tribal decks. While possible to build them, it was never going to work because you could only have one in play at a time. Now, you actually can curve Trials into Ally into Jura. Then presumably win by attacking for 15 after clearing out blockers with Jura's +2 ability. Will this actually be good? I don't know, but I do know that at the PPTQ where I played UW Control there were games I could have won if I could have had Jura and Trials on board together. This will be significant.

As for Liliana, it doesn't remove all the barriers to an eight-Lili deck, but it does remove that feel-bad part. Now you can have of the Veil on board to pressure control and combo while the Last Hope ticks up to victory. Grixis Shadow has been running one or the other, usually the Last Hope, and I don't think they want to overload on three-drops. However, it is certainly possible for more grindy matchups. It also raises the possibility of other midrange decks rising to take advantage of her power. I would not be surprised if this incentivized a return to traditional Jund and Abzan.

Back to the Grind

After a two-week break I'm going back on the PPTQ grind next week. Hopefully this will be the last article in the series, but you never know. Best of luck to the rest of you, and may you make it!

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David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

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