Slice & Dice: January 21st Banlist Prediction

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Another banlist announcement is just around the corner. While the last few announcements have proven unfruitful, I believe this time will be different; after all, it is January, and Wizards has a history of shaking up Modern around this time. I'm anticipating at least one unban, and wouldn't be surprised if a ban occurred as well. Today's article casts my predictions.

Unban: Stoneforge Mystic

Stoneforge Mystic epitomizes a safe unban. While I've advocated for its liberation before, now I think it's long overdue. Here are a few reasons I think Wizards will move on this card in a couple days.

An Appropriate Power Level

There is some precedent for unbanning Stoneforge Mystic on the grounds that its power level is now appropriate for Modern. This justification was used for the Bitterblossom unban in 2014:

At the time of Modern's inception, the dominance of Faeries in Standard was at the front of our minds. Therefore, we took the conservative approach of including Bitterblossom in the initial banned list. After observing the evolution of the Modern format, we feel that it is of an appropriate power level to compete with the other powerful strategies in the format.

  • It requires players to run clunky equipment cards and not open them
  • Pilots must to take two turns off from otherwise interacting with the board or the stack (assuming on-curve deployment and activation), and those turns are critical ones in the proactive Modern format
  • Opponents can strand Skull in hand by simply killing Mystic, which dies to almost every played removal spell at a parity loss

Stoneforge's power level seems lower than that of many legal Modern cards, but what of its future? At this point, its status on the list is about as laughable as Golgari Grave-Troll's was in the year before its own unbanning. Unlike the Troll, though, Mystic doesn't have any broken keywords attached, and is unlikely to become much better with later printings; not only has Wizards drastically scaled back the power level of Equipment cards, but those artifacts now compete with Vehicles when it comes to set design.

It's also true that the Kor sees play in Legacy, a format far more powerful than Modern. But that parallel, too, has its issues. For one, Stoneforge literally has a stronger effect in that format because Umezawa's Jitte is legal. Having the option of grabbing Jitte or Skull is much better than choosing between Skull or whatever unplayable Equipment pilots will be forced to run over Jitte in Modern. Second, Legacy contains cards that allow players to tap out for Mystic on turn two without letting down their shields, such as Daze and Force of Will. These cards are not legal in Modern.

Positive Effects on the Format

The least subjective "positive" effect a Stoneforge unban would have on Modern is one of diversity. Stoneforge Mystic doesn't easily slot into any existing top-tier decks; taking things a step further, none of those decks (or even lower-tier decks) even run Equipment, a card type mostly supplanted in function by planeswalkers. Besides, the type of deck that wants Mystic at all, a goodstuff-style midrange deck in white, has underperformed in Modern for months.

Stoneforge too attacks a style of deck that has been denounced by a noticable subset of the community: the aggressive aggro-combo deck. This archetype includes decks as diverse as Bridgevine, Hollow One, and Runaway Red, and all of them have trouble dealing with a resolved Batterskull. Wizards is in the business of pleasing its demographics, and has admitted that Modern is about "fun" first (diversity second; everything else third), so they may consider this factor.

Safety Valves

Could Stoneforge Mystic become a problem in Modern? My vote goes to no. We have established the card's weak power level relative to the format's top-performning strategies and the possible benefits its unban may have. But another factor that makes Stoneforge so safe is the prevalence of artifact hate in Modern.

This type of disruption is far more common here than in Legacy, appearing on mainboard staples such as Kolaghan's Command, Abrade, and Knight of Autumn as well as sideboard stalwarts like Stony Silence and Ancient Grudge. The potential tempo swings guaranteed by destroying a tutored, cheated-in artifact are huge.

Other Possible Unbans

I'd also be fine with Green Sun's Zenith and Punishing Fire coming off the banlist. Despite David's tests, the former doesn't strike me as something that would immediately slot into anything other than Elves, and I doubt it would catapult Elves to Tier 1. As for Fire, creatures are just bigger now than they used to be, and Modern is way too fast for a three-mana Aether Shockwave engine to shine. Besides, many decks now feature built-in ways to interact with this kind of combo, be it via Field of Ruin, Relic of Progenitus, or something like Surgical Extraction from the sideboard.

But the card I'd most like to have in Modern is Preordain. Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings are both top-performing enablers in Modern that escape the banlist, and I think Preordain would mostly contribute to decks that don't perform as well. Of course, the glaring exception to this argument currently is Izzet Phoenix, which would snatch up Preordain in a heartbeat and further extend its lead over other aggro-control strategies. So I can't in good conscience advocate for a Preordain unban.

Still, the cantrip makes my list of some of the safest cards on the list. I just don't think anything is as safe as Stoneforge, or even close, and would be surprised if Wizards unbanned one of them together with the Kor.

Ban: Scrap Trawler

Scrap Trawler is a mainstay in Ironworks, Modern's reigning combo deck—by many metrics, its reigning deck, period. This section discusses my feelings on the deck, the data we have on it, and why I think Trawler will get the axe over other cards.

I Came to Boogie

Disclaimer: I like a boogeyman. As a brewer, having a top deck in the format lets me explore design space that effectively attacks specific mechanics. Consider the UR Delver deck I wrote about last week: this shell annihilates Phoenix and Ironworks thanks to its inclusion, in large numbers, of Spell Pierce, Damping Sphere, and Surgical Extraction, and couldn't exist without a clearly defined upper crust of boogeymen to target.

Not all decks can adapt like the non-deck that is Delver, though, and the metagame appears to have warped around Ironworks significantly, with more decks than ever employing Stony Silence and Rest in Peace to stave it off.

Seeking Numbers

Despite that increase in heavy-duty hate, Ironworks continues to succeed, and with staggering consistency. As usual when it comes to unban predictions, the numbers are the biggest reason to act on this deck. In 2018, Ironworks posted the highest number of GP/PT Top 8s of any Modern deck, a number we know Wizards observes closely when deliberating about bans. Top 8s are not always indicative of a deck's power, but in the case of Ironworks, they seem to be: the deck has also maintained the highest match win percentage of any Modern deck given the numbers we have. These two statistics combine as they did with Splinter Twin to make the deck an obvious ban target.

Why Trawler?

The metagame is currently formed by decks in one of four camps, all of which split shares about evenly: Ignoble Hierarch decks, Faithless Looting decks, Ancient Stirrings decks, and other decks. The named cards are enablers of larger strategies, or spells that allow them to do a powerful thing easily. Much of the banlist discussion I've been exposed to over the past year has surround enablers, especially Looting and Stirrings.

These cantrips contribute to more than just whichever top-tier deck is playing them, also supporting less-represented strategies. So having them in Modern represents, at least theoretically, an increase in diversity. Looting's performance, while impressive, has paled in comparison to Stirrings's, so we can take the former off the table. And Stirrings just isn't bringing its many other decks (i.e. Gx Tron; Hardened Scales; etc.) to the same level as Ironworks. This predicament suggests that something is wrong with the rest of the cards in Ironworks, and not with Stirrings, which also finds itself in plenty of less successful strategies.

In terms of precedent, Wizards almost always prefers to ban deck-specific cards rather than splashable enablers. The main exception was the Aerial Responder/Preordain ban, which happened back in Modern's early development. During that stage, Wizards was deciding what they wanted the format to look like overall, and made a conscious decision to limit the access all blue combo decks would have to their pieces. At that point, it made more sense to ban this sort of enabler, but they have seen and been okay with Looting and Stirrings in other contexts, so I'd be surprised if they'd choose to ban one of those cards rather than just try to reset Modern to an earlier context.

And that brings us to Trawler. If Ironworks is a busted deck, why not just ban Ironworks itself? Again, we can look for precedent—Wizards does not like to forcibly remove decks from Modern. They always seek to water them down so that they can continue to compete without dominating. Successful examples of this kind of ban can be found in Dredge, Amulet, and Infect; a notoriously unsuccessful example is Splinter Twin. But no matter the result, Wizards' aims have been made abundantly clear by their banlist announcements, with the company sometimes explicitly calling out replacements for the banned cards.

Banning Ironworks removes this deck from Modern forever. Banning Trawler? I don't think so. The deck will need an overhaul, sure, but Krark-Clan Ironworks synergizes well with enough cantripping artifacts that I'm optimistic it rebuilds itself after a couple months' lull.

Opening the Can

So goes my foray into the banlist discussion. Which cards, if any, do you think will meet the wrath of the hammer? What justifications do you expect Wizards to give? Let's keep the conversation going in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Slice & Dice: January 21st Banlist Prediction

  1. splinter twin also a probability that should be mentioned above all the gsz, preordain cards.
    this article is not a full one without it.
    Kci will be banned i feel like, because trawler is an enabler for cool decks and there will be probable a similar one in the future.

  2. Why… Why aren’t they unbanning Misty at that point? Is it for financial reasons, to repeat what they did with JtMS’s unban in a supplemental set? Is it because of the members of the department in charge of the bans are burn players? Or have they just forgotten where they put the key to her cell?

  3. Jordan now the announcement came, did you find Wizards explanation of the ban as interesting and satisfying as I did?
    I feel they gave a lot of good reasoning and they also provided an insight into their process that we haven’t seen in many years.

    1. Their depth was totally unprecedented. I’m very happy with the level at which Wizards engaged the community post-ban. Even AF’s (IMO out-of-touch) tweets about Stoneforge (that it would slot right into UW/UWR, etc.) gave us more information about their ideas surrounding the card, and opened the door for those interested to continue engaging them and helping nurture their understanding of the format.

      As for my prediction: I think Trawler was a ban more in line with how Wizards has addressed problem decks in the past, but understand KCI as a ban meant to destroy the archetype forever because of its own issues. I hadn’t considered that they might want to do that, but KCI apparently crosses the line on a few different metrics for them, as does stuff like Hypergenesis.

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