When it comes to Modern, I'm always up for a surprise. I penned an article last week declaring the death of midrange as a Tier 1 strategy in an aggro-combo metagame. But it seems the meta has already corrected itself: last weekend's GP Portland Top 8 featured a finals between Grixis Death's Shadow and BG Rock, with each deck representing one of Modern's definitive midrange pillars. The two Izzet Phoenix strategies to crack the Top 8 each ran 3 Crackling Drake, making them as midrange-leaning as possible. And UB Faeries also secured a spot, yielding a Top 8 over 50% midrange, parameters depending.
That my article premise was proven faulty so quickly has a couple of significant upsides. More personally, it signals that Colorless Eldrazi Stompy will be exceptionally well-positioned in the coming weeks, as midrange continues to ascend before being usurped by Tron and other predators of the archetype. Second, it speaks volumes to Modern's ability to self-regulate, and to the format's current health.
With great health comes great potential for unbans, and I think Wizards may consider finally freeing some of the more controversial cards on the list this coming year. Today, I'll reveal my unban wishlist for 2019, and also consider some of the more divisive cards I think may have a chance in Modern.
These are the three cards I'd like to see released in 2019.
1. Stoneforge Mystic
First up is a card I don't want to play with so much as play against. Most Modern players seem to agree that Stoneforge Mystic is of an appropriate power level for Modern, and I count myself among them. I didn't play Standard when Caw-Blade was legal, but I think it's safe to say Modern now is much stronger than Standard was then. Since I'm comfortable facing down turn-one Hollow Ones and turn-two Thought-Knot Seers, I'm just not that scared of a turn-three Batterskull.
Stoneforge best slots into goodstuff-oriented fish decks, of which we have very few in Modern; our fish decks lean more heavily toward tempo than midrange, with Spirits and Humans the primary exemplars. Neither of those decks can easily accommodate Stoneforge, whose uncommon creature types complicate integration with a tribal strategy. That leaves lower-tier fish decks like Death & Taxes and Hatebears.
While both of those strategies do play white, I've heard diehards of each express mixed feelings about the Kor Artificer. On the one hand, it injects some raw grinding power into the strategy. But these decks tend to focus on disrupting opponents with tax effects or generating value via more dedicated and synergistic means; Stoneforge does neither of these things.
All that's left is control, which in its current forms either prefers the multi-purpose applications of reach (Jeskai) or is prevented from running such creatures thanks to tension with Terminus (UW). Jeskai is the likelier home for Stoneforge of the two, as the deck has already looked to Spell Queller and Geist of Saint Traft this year as alternate win conditions. As Stoneforge attacks from a different angle than those creatures, I imagine it would merely diversify the wedge's possible threat suite.
My prediction is that Stoneforge would mostly create or revitalize nonexistent decks like Zoo, Abzan Rock, and Stoneblade, which translates as a net win for Modern diversity. I doubt any of these strategies would break into the top tier, but they would at least have their matchups improved with the introduction of such a decent card.
I have argued for a Preordain unban before—as a solution to a broken metagame. With Golgari Grave-Troll and Gitaxian Probe legal, the format was much faster and linear than usual. Wizards ended up banning the offenders instead.
Modern has again sped up, and I again don't think Wizards will ban the enablers (arguably, Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings); the cards are not violating format rules or causing diversity issues, nor are they instigating a "battle of sideboards," the rationale for banning Grave-Troll. Both of those cards, however, are cantrips, and ones which grant their respective decks unparalleled one-mana selection. Opt is also a cantrip, and has supplanted Serum Visions in a variety of archetypes ranging from control to Delver variants.
I think adding Preordain to the card pool would further cut into Serum's shares, but that card is still the most played cantrip in Modern, and would probably continue to see play on its own merits; Preordain is a better Sleight of Hand, not Serum Visions (although it is indeed stronger than the Fifth Dawn scryer).
Our testing indicates that Preordain does not significantly power up combo decks, which is what it was banned for in the first place. Of course, Storm and other combo decks might still play it. But I think the largest effect Preordain would have in Modern is granting additional consistency to blue aggro-control decks. The riskiest thing about this unban is its potential effect on Arclight Phoenix strategies, which I'll concede could prove problematic with a critical mass of high-impact blue cantrips; we'll have to see how the metagame shakes out after those decks begin to lose favor.
3. Green Sun's Zenith
While David's data reveals that Elves, the test deck, significantly improved with Zenith in the picture, it cannot predict whether that deck would be strong enough to secure a top-tier position in Modern, or how other decks would adapt to its presence. As things stand, Elves is not a consistently performing deck (although one copy did make it into the Portland Top 8). I don't think even giving it a significant buff would usher in Tier-0 format. Modern can self-regulate!
Wizards originally banned Zenith because it homogenized green decks, but I don't think it would do that anymore. Collected Company, Chord of Calling, and Eldritch Evolution are all played in some capacity in Modern, frequently alongside some removal spells and a heavy set of creatures. The three cards are never played together. Zenith would add a fourth option in this style of deck, giving them the ability to toolbox. But it's not necessarily better in any of them than Company, Chord, or Evolution. I believe Zenith would further diversify green creature-combo decks.
While Chord and Evolution mostly just fit into these kinds of decks, Zenith could also work in a midrange or aggressive shell, as does Collected Company. Personally, I would be stoked to try it in GRx Moon.
Those Who Must Not Be Named
There's some stigma surrounding the more overtly powerful cards on the banlist. Some cards are well at home there, and those fall into four categories:
- Cards that violate the Turn 4 Rule (Blazing Shoal, Chrome Mox, Rite of Flame, Seething Song, Dark Depths, Hypergenesis, Glimpse of Nature)
- Cards that break existing strategies (Cloudpost, Dread Return, Golgari Grave-Troll, Summer Bloom, Eye of Ugin)
- Cards that lead to time issues (Sensei's Divining Top, Second Sunrise)
- Cards that are plain busted (Umezawa's Jitte, Deathrite Shaman, Treasure Cruise, Gitaxian Probe, Mental Misstep, Ponder, Skullclamp)
Is your pet banned card missing from the above lists? Read on to see why I think their time in Modern may be approaching.
1. Artifact Lands
With Affinity largely supplanted by the color-intensive Hardened Scales, Ironworks standing to gain zero turns of speed, and Stony Silence already a hugely popular sideboard card, I'm not sure the artifact lands are that dangerous anymore. I would like to see them come off to test the waters. Who knows? They might even enable some durdly Trinket Mage packages, or at the very least more cool Mox Opal decks! Modern is full of artifact support that's too color-intensive to work alongside the largely colorless manabases imposed by Darksteel Citadel (*ahem* Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas), and I'd like to see those cards be given fair trial.
2. Punishing Fire
Punishing Fire was banned for keeping creature decks out of the format. So was Wild Nacatl, which not coincidentally resisted Fire while still costing one mana. Nacatl has been freed, and I'm not so sure Fire still has a place on the list.
While the card lines up well against cards like Noble Hierarch (Modern's most-played creature), it doesn't line up so well against most creature decks. Attacking strategies have gotten around Bolt and Push with cost-reduced fatties like Gurmag Angler, Bedlam Reveler, and Hollow One; creature-combo decks fade disruption with Chord of Calling and Postmortem Lunge. And of course, Fire does very little against decks without creatures.
Fire's biggest weakness is how slow it is. Two mana to conditionally remove a creature is extremely steep in Modern. It also hurts that the card has no proper home; Tron has abandoned red, and the only remaining Grove of the Burnwillows decks are RG Eldrazi (itself a lower-tier strategy) and Ironworks. I doubt either of these decks would be very interested in Punishing-Grove, as they are both quite proactive.
Jund has proven itself a solid contender in this metagame, and could potentially wield the combo. But I think doing so exacerbates the deck's worst quality: it's difficult to find the right answers at the right time. Opening Fire against a creature-light opponent means one less card with which to actually fight what that opponent is doing. There's also the question of speed; many existing creature decks will swiftly punish Jund for opening interaction this medium.
3. Dig Through Time
Dig Through Time was never really given its spotlight in Modern, being vastly outshone by Treasure Cruise while legal. The card saw more use in Legacy Miracles decks. I think that format, which both has stronger delve enablers and is more card-advantage driven than Modern, can make better use of Dig. It's possible that the card doesn't do much in this format. I know I would hate to be on a reactive deck with Digs in hand against a blazing-fast start from one of Modern's many aggro-combo strategies. And what decks would play it? UW Control, which is now falling out of favor?
The main danger with Dig is not the combo decks that might play it (the only ones are Tier-4-and-below strategies we needn't worry about), but the aggro-combo decks, as with Treasure Cruise and Gitaxian Probe. But Dig's color-intensive mana cost makes it better-suited to aggro-control shells like Delver, which could also use a hand in the format. These decks all use the graveyard in some way (often with delve creatures like Gurmag Angler), and would then need to make some sacrifices to run Dig. I'm interested in seeing those developments occur.
4. Birthing Pod
This inclusion represents a shift in how I look at the banlist. I once argued against the odds of Jace, the Mind Sculptor coming off the banlist for the reason that it messes with future design: the bar for Modern-playable blue walkers is significantly raised with Jace in the format. Wizards has shown that this predicament is not so important to them, meaning they are happy to unban cards for the reason that they are at an appropriate power level for Modern.
One argument against Birthing Pod was that it limited future card design: Wizards will always print pushed creatures, and each of those creatures makes the Pod deck better. But plenty of cards "limit future design" in one way or another. I now think it's best to ban problem cards when they become problems, as they did with Pod. So what about when Pod isn't a problem anymore?
I can envision a time when Modern's powerful spells (Fatal Push, Lightning Bolt, etc.) and synergies (the new crop of velocity-fueled aggro-combo decks, etc.) trump whatever Birthing Pod has to offer. After all, the card sees virtually no play in Legacy, where the power level has outgrown this type of effect. That format has even more powerful creatures than Modern, something that will never change!
5. Splinter Twin
Of these options, I think Twin is the least safe for Modern. There's a solid precedent for the deck being oppressive, especially over long stretches of time, and Modern is unarguably more diverse now than it ever was with Twin in the picture. But like Pod, Twin does nothing in Legacy, and as Modern's power level rises, I can see it being considered for an unban; after all, it doesn't break any format rules on its own.
That said, I wouldn't count on Twin being freed in the new year, as the threat of Twin re-homogenizing blue-based midrange, combo, and control still looms.
Checking It Twice
Do you agree with my assessment? Which cards would you like to see released from the Modern banlist? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.