Wizards really dropped a bombshell on us Monday morning. Jace, the Mind Sculptor AND Bloodbraid Elf unbanned? Oof, didn't see that one coming. I'd been outlining articles for the various cards that I could see getting banned or unbanned, but these two together were not on the list. Never even considered it. However, it happened. I'll be examining Wizards' reasoning and then providing my own take based on my history testing the cards.
For those that haven't read the announcement, you can do so here. To summarize:
- There's plenty of time before the next Modern Pro Tour to let the format adapt
- The decks Jace and Elf would fit into don't seem to be too powerful
- We are reprinting Jace, the Mind Sculptor so he will be attainable
- Sorcery-speed four-drops don't see much play outside of Eldrazi and Tron
- Neither card wins the game on the spot
- By unbanning both cards, we give multiple color combinations options for curve-toppers
As a side note, nothing was banned.
To editorialize, these seem more like excuses than justifications. Just because there's plenty of time before the next Modern Pro Tour doesn't make a decision right. It still impacts everyone playing, and will have a huge impact on the upcoming SCG events and Modern Grand Prix. Furthermore, I'm really disappointed. The four-drop arguments could be copy-pastes from any internet discussion about the cards. Open any forum or subreddit thread on unbanning Jace or Bloodbraid, you will see them there. It is possible that they genuinely believe this, but I expect more from Wizards. Their previous announcements have shown far more nuance and non-public insight compared to this one.
The Cynical Reading
If you're feeling a bit cynical about this unban, you're certainly not the only one. And I can't fault you for thinking that way. I'm not saying you're right, but I can't fault you, because the unbanning of Jace specifically and unequivocally looks like a cash grab by Wizards. He was one of two cards featured in the announcement of the Masters 25 set. Wizards even cited this fact in the announcement:
- The reprint of Jace in Masters 25 will provide greater availability for our player base.
Honestly, how else is anyone supposed to see this? Now, I'm not saying that it actually is just a move to sell packs; only the mysterious cabal that controls the banned list knows for certain. However, perception matters, and if everybody thinks this is what happened, that's all that will matter. As I'm typing this all the big sites have Jace, the Mind Sculptor listed as "out of stock" (despite having had plenty on Sunday), so the idea that money drove the decision is definitely plausible.
Don't Be Hasty
Wizards isn't necessarily being greedy and/or evil. It is equally possible and indeed equally plausible that the link goes the other way. Wizards may have decided that they were going to unban Jace at the first safe opportunity some time ago, and that opportunity just happened to coincide with the decision to reprint Jace in Masters 25. They did reprint him in Eternal Masters, so they might have wanted to release Jace for a while. 2016 saw the unbanning of Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek, and they've been slowly releasing cards from the original banned list since 2012 to test the waters. I'm speculating, but I'll bet that they didn't unban anything in 2017 because of uncertainty about Death's Shadow requiring action, and because they'd just re-banned Golgari Grave-Troll. I can't blame them being a bit gun-shy.
This suggests that Wizards has been priming the proverbial pump with reprints so that when the time was right, they could take the action they'd decided to take and the price wouldn't skyrocket. Tarmogoyf used to be ~$200, but thanks to constant reprints it's down to ~$90. If this is a long-coming move then now is the perfect time. With this third printing, the price will drop, so it will not be comparatively burdensome to acquire the mythic rare.
What About Bloodbraid?
The money-driven reading doesn't work for Bloodbraid Elf because it's an uncommon. Those don't tend to drive pack sales or the secondary market, current price spike notwithstanding. In a month or two, that spike will die down. Instead, the cynic would say that Bloodbraid is being released as a balance, both for the format and for perception. It's a bone thrown to the non-blue fair decks so they don't disappear, damping the reaction. This is not an unreasonable reading, considering Wizards says as much:
Adding attractive options at the same mana cost in different color combinations at the same time mitigates the risk that one or the other could pull too many decks toward it at once.
It seems pretty clear that the decision to unban Bloodbraid alongside Jace is motivated more by balancing a Jace unban than for the merits of Elf itself. Wizards' justification focused more on the diversification of BGx decks rather than on specific ideas about Bloodbraid, also lumping it into the "four-drops have to win the game" argument with Jace. I have a hard time refuting this cynical view as a result.
I'll take this opportunity to remind everyone that I have generated plenty of hard data about the impact of Jace and Bloodbraid in Modern. I spent all of January discussingBloodbraid Elf. I have clear results which show that both significantly improved their test decks. Both had strong the strongest impacts against fair decks and a weaker impact against combo. Aggro was a bit muddy; Jeskai with Jace did better against Affinity and Bant Eldrazi than without, but not statistically significantly. The only true aggro deck Jund with Elf faced was Affinity, and there was no change there. This strongly suggests that there was incentive to run those boosted versions over the alternative. It also suggests that they would be favored over large swaths of the greater metagame.
Of course, I never tested them against each other. There was no reason to; besides, it's scientifically invalid to test more than one variable under most circumstances. However, it has long been held that Bloodbraid and Jace counter each other. Wizards acknowledged this belief in the ban announcement, though that's not the justification they give for the simultaneous unban.
While there is something poetic to the age-old enemies of Standard's past both being reintroduced to Modern together, it isn't our intent that these cards balance one another out directly. It is true that Bloodbraid Elf is effective at killing Jace, but our reasoning behind the simultaneity of their unbanning is more subtle.
I will agree that Bloodbraid was good at killing Jace in Standard. However, Bloodbraid into Blightning was great at killing any planeswalker and control decks in general. The fact is that Jace and Bloodbraid have never had a chance to compete. Their overlap in Standard was less than a year long, and Jund was so pervasive it wasn't an even fight. Legacy doesn't count: the format is so blue heavy because Force of Will is so important against combo that Jund never had a chance.
The evidence available suggests that Bloodbraid is better than Jace because she answers the planeswalker and gains additional value. That's what happened in Standard. Whether this will be true outside of Standard is yet to be seen, but given the history of Jund being better than blue control in Modern, it is reasonable to believe that Bloodbraid will win this fight.
I think this has been coming for a long time. Jace and Bloodbraid have dedicated advocates who have been petitioning Wizards for years. Wizards does listen to feedback and has shown a desire to give the original banned list have a chance to be vindicated. After years of pressure and evidence that appeared to back up what they were hearing about the cards, they took their shot to enact a decision they'd made some time ago. I assumed it was going to happen eventually when I rebought Jace just over a year ago.
But I don't agree. I've said it before, I'll say it again: almost everything they said in the announcement could have come from a forum post. That's really disappointing and concerning given these cards' histories. It sounds like they didn't do any testing which suggests that they're just blowing smoke. If nothing else, Jace and Bloodbraid provide enormous pulls into Jund and blue control, which will negatively impact diversity and flies in the face of their justifications. Why would you play any other variation of BGx when you could have Bloodbraid? According to my testing, which showed both decks received statistically significant boosts across the board, it doesn't make any sense. Now, maybe they did do a lot of work and just aren't elaborating for whatever reason. I don't know that they're just spitballing about this unban. However, the way they presented their decision doesn't inspire confidence in me.
I strongly believe that we will see reduction in diversity in the midrange and control decks as the result of this unban. You will be playing Bloodbraid or Jace, and I believe that a "correct" shell for each will be found. That's what happened last time each was played. Whether the rest of the format can cope is hard to say. My data showed that their impact was weaker against unfair or aggressive decks. Maybe they will adapt, or it might be right to simply plan to go over or under the four-drops.
What Happens Now?
Well, I can say with certainty that Jeskai Tempo is ded. D-E-D, ded. As if Bloodbraid wasn't killer enough, there is absolutely no reason not to run Jace in Jeskai. This changes the fundamental nature of the deck, so the old system won't work. Exactly what the new deck will look like I can't say, but I'll definitely start with my test build, Jacekai. As for Jund, the early decks filtering out look like my test deck, so again I'd start there. Either way, you should assume that your local metagame will be full of players rocking the playsets of Jace and Bloodbraid they've been sitting on for years, hoping for this opportunity.
Maybe the metagame has matured to the point that the addition of Bloodbraid and Jace will be fine. Maybe this will be a disaster. It's too early to say. What I do know is that Todd Anderson said somewhere (I think it was an article comment) that if Jace was ever unbanned he would make it his mission to make Wizards regret their decision. The gauntlet has been laid down.