I had planned to spend today's article discussing Hogaakvine: what it does, how it does it, how to play against it, and how I'd build decks given Hogaak's rise. However, that article was mooted this morning by Wizards. Instead, let's examine what's happened and where it leaves Modern.
Also, once again, nothing got unbanned. This should continue to come as no surprise since Wizards is very sparing with unbans. Nothing will happen while Modern is at all in flux. We'll have more luck with unbannings if things settle down and get more stale next year.
Effective Friday, Bridge from Below is banned in Modern. I genuinely wasn't expecting anything to get axed today. Wizards has always been in the habit of waiting-and-seeing. This approach was confirmed when they announced the London mulligan was here to stay. It's only been a month since Hogaak became legal, which isn't much time for data collection, and subsequently I didn't think Wizards had enough data to make a move.
However, I didn't have Wizards' data (mores the pity); just my own experiences and the testimonies of others. From what I'd seen, Hogaak won on turn 2 half as often as it clunked out and didn't do anything meaningful. However, according to Wizards, my experience was an uncommon one.
In the case of the Hogaak Bridgevine deck, its initial overall win rate on Magic Online was over 60%. Despite the metagame's best efforts to adapt, the deck's win rate remains higher than is healthy for long-term metagame diversity.
That is an alarming winrate, especially considering how well-known the deck's weakness to graveyard hate is. However, in context, it makes more sense.
It has only two unfavorable matchups among the other ten most played decks and a high win rate against lesser played "rogue" decks. Especially telling is its Game 1 win rate of roughly 66%, requiring most decks to sideboard heavily against it.
While that 66% win rate is very impressive, by itself, I can't imagine that it's enough. Affinity's long-term success can be attributed to a similar Game 1 statistic. Affinity of any stripe has a very strong aggressive plan that just folds in the face of sideboard hate, not unlike graveyard decks.
In context, though, it is enough to pull the trigger on Hogaak. Affinity doesn't just fold to hate. It also folds to waves of removal. Even if I don't hit my Stony Silence against Affinity, I can still play normal Magic, take care of the enablers or the payoffs, and plausibly win. Because of Bridge and the sacrifice outlets, normal removal just isn't effective against Hogaak. They'd respond to any removal spell by sacrificing the creature for value and making zombies to replace it, which fair decks have no answer for. Thus, hate was necessary, and Hogaak had answers to the hate, so the win rate didn't dip enough post-sideboard.
While I've seen considerable hysteria surrounding Hogaak on social media, I doubt it was a serious factor in Wizards' decision. Their past actions, including not banning Faithless Looting despite Izzet Phoenix's record, indicates they only consider hard data when making decisions. I actually suspect that fear over Hogaak dominating the upcoming Mythic Championship is the most pertinent reason for Wizards' decision:
While we don't intend on setting a precedent for quickly taking B&R action whenever a successful new deck breaks out, in this case, the situation clearly needed to be addressed. We're looking forward to watching the metagame continue to evolve as we approach Mythic Championship IV in Barcelona on July 26–28, and we hope you'll join us for full coverage of that event.
Nature of the Ban
In the announcement, Wizards says they considered a number of Hogaak Bridgevine cards for banning before settling on Bridge.
We discussed several possible bans that would weaken this deck while having minimal impact on the rest of the metagame: Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis; Altar of Dementia; and Bridge from Below. While cases can be made for each, we identified Bridge from Below as the card most likely to cause metagame imbalance again in the future. Because Bridge from Below doesn't cost mana or other resources to use and isn't reliant on being drawn naturally from the library, its power level is highly sensitive to the cards that synergize with it. As new card designs that have synergy with the graveyard are released over time, Bridge from Below is the most likely key card in the deck to become problematic again.
This ban was laser-targeted at Bridgevine. No other deck in Modern plays Bridge from Below, nor can they; Bridge is not a Magic card. It doesn't work like any other card in the game, since it does nothing if you cast it. It only does something in the graveyard, so only graveyard decks could ever use the card.
That's not the end of it though, as even then Bridge requires you to kill your own creatures to do anything. The only utility Bridge has ever had is as a cog in broken graveyard combo decks. A (relatively) fair aggro deck like normal Dredge has no use for Bridge. Therefore, banning Bridge makes the most sense if the goal was only to eliminate one problem deck.
As for the wider concern over graveyard decks in general, Wizards appears fine with the way things are.
Our goal is not to eliminate graveyard strategies from the Modern metagame, but rather to weaken this version of the graveyard combo archetype that has proven too powerful for other decks to reasonably adapt to. In fact, we believe that targeting Bridge from Below specifically will still allow for other strategies in this style to continue to be a part of the metagame.
I agree with Wizards' decision, but I might have gone further. I think that Wizards is just kicking the ban can down the road unless they ban Faithless Looting. It's too good at what it does.
Granted, banning Looting now doesn't make much sense. Looting isn't a critical piece of Hogaak's fast kills and is unlikely to fix the warp Hogaak appears to be causing. However, with the proliferation of graveyard strategies that Looting makes possible, I can't imagine the card will escape the ax forever. Still, until the tipping point is reached, I wouldn't ever skimp on graveyard hate.
Fall of the Necropolis
Where does that leave Hogaak Bridgevine? The short answer is: dead. Without Bridge, the combo isn't possible. Looping Hogaak requires a continuous stream of black or green creatures, and that isn't possible for current lists without Bridge. The nearest analogue I could find is Golgari Germination, which actually has to be cast and resolve like a real Magic card to do anything. This creates anti-synergy with the Stitcher's Supplier engine that was the core of the old Bridgevine deck since they cannot recklessly mill themselves to success.
If Hogaak players wish to keep playing their decks, adjustments will need to be made. The ideal curve for pre-ban decks was getting a Hogaak and two Bridges into the graveyard with Stitcher's Supplier turn one, then playing Alter of Dementia turn two and going infinite immediately. Now they'll have to cast Germination on turn 3 before they can even think about looping Hogaak for value, and can't actually go infinite without playing a second Germination turn 4.
That's worse enough that I cannot imagine it being good enough for Modern. Therefore, I don't think Hogaak combo will be viable anymore. It's easy enough to stock the graveyard for Hogaak, but the limiting factor is having creatures for convoke. Even hitting well and flooding the board with Bloodghasts and/or Vengevines turn two isn't enough to loop Hogaak enough to win via decking. At that point, Hogaak becomes a liability since attacking with the creatures rather than durding with him is a shorter route to victory.
Relocating the Necropolis
Hogaak really wants to be in a graveyard aggro deck like Bridgevine. It needs cheap creatures to convoke and a full graveyard. Thus, the natural home is Bridgeless Bridgevine. Wizards believes that such a deck is possible.
Without Bridge from Below to continually produce Zombie tokens with which to convoke, the interaction between Hogaak and Altar of Dementia should become more about stocking the graveyard for value over multiple turns rather than completing a one-turn win combo.
I disagree. Without the possibility of a combo kill, there's very little reason to bother feeding Hogaak to Altar. The deck that remains is a straight Vengevine aggro deck, intending to swarm the opponent quickly with recursive threats. There's no reason to spend a turn playing and then sacrificing Hogaak, since such a deck needs to hit well with Stitcher anyway.
Therein lies the ultimate problem with Bridgeless Bridgevine. Bridge gave these decks something meaningful to hit when they didn't get their ideal aggro curve, as the decks are filled with dinky 1/1 enablers. Bridge turned them into something actually threatening for those times Vengevine was stuck in hand or in the bottom third of their library. Lacking Bridge, the deck loses its middle ground of zombie beatdown. Now there's only the occasional explosion or otherwise anemic creatures, and I doubt that's good enough for Modern.
With that in mind, where might Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis find a new home? Dredge seems the obvious answer, but I'm not sure. The list is so tight I don't know that Hogaak can fit in.
What exactly do you cut to make room for Hogaak? Cutting creatures isn't going to work. Prized Amalgam is the point of the deck, and it needs its own enablers in Bloodghast and Narcomoeba. However, those don't really synergize with Hogaak. Amalgam enters play tapped and on end step, so it can't cast Hogaak and Narcomoeba is blue, leaving only the vampire spirits to cast him.
Looking elsewhere is also trouble. Cutting enablers like Shriekhorn is out of the question, as is cutting the dredge package; they're what make the deck work. Lands can't be cut since Dredge already runs the bare minimum. Creeping Chill is critical to giving Dredge other angles of attack, and has significantly increased the deck's success since its printing. Darkblast is the weakest card in Dredge, so maybe cutting it and having Hogaak as a one-of is acceptable.
However, does all that hoop-jumping actually benefit the deck? Hogaak is a big beefy creature, but Dredge wins via overwhelming the opponent with early damage, then closing with Chill and Conflagrate. Hogaak doesn't mesh with that plan. If Vengevine Aggro isn't good enough, and Dredge doesn't want it, I don't know what other deck is willing to feed the Necropolis.
Where Does Modern Go?
The ban being so targeted means that no other deck must adapt. In a sense, that means that Modern can revert to its pre-Horizons configuration, though I don't think it will. Too much has been added to the format between Horizons and Core 2020 for that to happen. Instead, Modern will return to a state of heavy flux as the new cards are integrated. Hogaak was warping the format, and all the testing and brewing was done with the warp in mind. Now it's back to the drawing board.
One thing I am certain of is that next week's 5-0 deck dumps will show lots of decks cutting their graveyard hate now that Hogaak is gone. Don't. Do. That. You always need graveyard hate in Modern. With Hogaak going away, normal Dredge will return in force. Don't just lose to Dredge.
Similarly, Jund got some new toys, and they utilize graveyard synergies as well. Seasoned Pyromancer and Wrenn and Six are making the cut now. The former's real value is on the front end, but Wrenn does nothing worthwhile with Rest in Peace in play.
With Bridge finally gone, Modern can finally figure out what all the new cards enable. The graveyard will still be a critical zone that successful decks must remember to interact with, but the overall format will start to look more normal. And that means more interesting decks can find their place in Magic's most diverse format.