Modern Banlist Watchlist: 2020 Edition

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The competitive year has come to a close for Modern, and now it's time to look ahead. This means it's time once more to informedly speculate on the future of Modern's banlist. It's been a wild year for the list, and while I always hope that the metagame can adapt to new decks, I don't have illusions that new bans are always possible. There is no official watchlist, so I'll be making my own speculative list... with some additional considerations.

To be perfectly clear, I'm not saying with certainty that any card on this list will be banned nor that it will happen anytime soon. This is the list of cards that I think could be banned if the stars align correctly. It will take a combination of the right pervasiveness tipping point, metagame shifts, or new decks emerging to make it happen.

Prediction Recap

I was surprised when I went back and reviewed last year's list. I was 3/3 for cards getting banned. I was even right about why Bridge from Below would get axed. I didn't know that Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis was coming, but I did call that all Bridgevine needed was a consistency boost, and it definitely got one. I'm taking full points on Bridge.

Wizards pulled the trigger on Ironworks before it could become a problem. They were worried that it would be adopted in the numbers I thought it needed before Ironworks actually had them. As it seemed like a preemptive ban for fear of reasons in my prediction, so I'm claiming partial credit.

I thought it would take an actual broken deck built around Looting to get it banned. Technically, that was true, but the announcement made it clear that Hogaak was just the final straw. Wizards wanted Modern to move away from being the graveyard format, and Looting was the reason it trended that way in the first place. So I was right about the card, wrong about the reason.

I stand by what I said about Mox Opal and Ancient Stirrings in that article. Mox is never the best card in any deck it sees play in, nor is it the problem. Stirrings decks haven't done anything meaningful this year, so there's no need for action. This list will be about new cards.

The Ban Watchlist

My criteria from last year still holds:

When considering what could or should be banned in Modern, it's important to remember Wizards' goals. They want a fun and diverse format to provide long-term value for Standard collections. As far as metagame speculation and competitive players are concerned, the important goals are diversity and speed. Wizards wants as many decks to be competitive as possible, and doesn't like non-interactive, consistent kills before turn four.

It is also important to note that Wizards tends to focus bans on enablers and engine cards rather than on payoffs. I don't think this has ever been explicitly stated, but a look through the history of bannings certainly lends credence. They also appear to prefer targeted bans against specific problem decks whenever possible, though that frequently isn't possible, as many problem cards happen to be splashed into multiple decks.

The only thing I'd add is that on the basis of the Faithless Looting ban, format ubiquity should also be considered. From that announcement:

By our data gathered from Magic Online and tabletop tournament results, over the past year the winningest Modern deck at any given point in time has usually been a Faithless Looting deck.

As new card designs are released that deal with the graveyard, discarding cards, and casting cheap spells, the power of Faithless Looting's efficient hand and graveyard manipulation continues to scale upward.

In other words, even if a card is arguably promoting deck diversity, it can't represent so much of the meta that it excludes other strategies. Looting made Modern a graveyard-centric format, and Wizards had had enough. So deck diversity isn't enough; Modern also needs strategic diversity. If a card is inhibiting that, it's potentially on the chopping block.

Urza, Lord High Artificer

The past few months have seen Urza, Lord High Artificer become the most talked about deck in Modern. Urza has an insane amount of text, and he is a mana engine dangerously close to the now banned Krark-Clan Ironworks. The deck offers numerous angles of attack, from card advantage engines to midrange beatdown to infinite combos, and can be tricky to fight. Such are hallmarks of a format-defining deck like Splinter Twin, which was banned to promote strategic diversity. Given the problems of cards that do too much while making mana, Urza can look like a mistake that needs to be expunged.

Why it Won't be Banned

Right now, Urza has won exactly GP Columbus. It is putting up decent Day 2 and Top 8 numbers, but so did Izzet Phoenix. Furthermore, Urza wasn't the best card in the GP-winning deck. With the list still in such a state of flux, it may come to pass that Urza is completely unnecessary in the Simic shell. The heart of the deck are the 0-1 CMC artifacts, and not the combos and tutoring engines that Urza uniquely supercharges. It is possible that Urza won't even be played in his namesake deck in 2020.

How it Could be Banned

On the other hand, it is possible that the Simic Urza decks are an aberration. There is considerable dissent about the right build of Urza decks, with Team Lotus Box being the primary proponents of the Simic verison. Their being SCG mainstays gives their decisions a strong influence on my data. The Simic list is very good at dodging common hate targeting Whirza lists, namely graveyard hate and Stony Silence. However, it did so by going into full grind mode and foreswearing any ability to win from nowhere. This may have been a good move in context, but once Modern moves back onto the GP circuit, it may prove poor.

Likelihood: Medium

If you'd asked me a month ago about Urza's chances, I'd have said there's no way he'd survive the year. I'm not so sure anymore given the Simic Urza lists, so I'll give him an average chance of surviving.

Oko, Thief of Crowns

Fresh off the heel of getting banned in Standard, Oko is slowing making himself known in Modern. The ability to turn threatening creatures into Elk or make an army is incredibly powerful. He's primarily been played in the Urza shell where he turns all the air into Elks, but is also cropping up everywhere. Decks with lots of small creatures like improving them; ones with bigger creatures like shrinking anything that can trade. Oko's even making a splash in Legacy. Given his history and Legacy-level power, Oko may prove too oppressive and homogenizing for Modern. Who wants to play the Elk grind round after round?

Why it Won't be Banned

Outside of Urza lists, Oko shows up in very low numbers, and typically out of the sideboard as a backup plan—not the hallmark of an oppressive card. The Urza decks are set up to maximize Oko in ways the rest of Modern isn't. Additionally, Modern has a lot of answers to cheap planeswalkers and even more decks that can just ignore him (Tron and Storm, anyone?). Oko needs a huge boost in adoption to actually threaten Modern.

How it Could be Banned

Said adoption is possible, but I think it more likely that Oko gets banned for being boring. Wizards and players like it when many different creatures of many different sizes see play. The same is true of artifacts. Oko makes them all irrelevant, which is why he was banned. Oko may or may not be too powerful for any format, but it's now a demonstrable fact that he kills fun.

Likelihood: Medium

A week ago, I would have said Oko had a low risk. However, given GP Bologna, I think the risk of Oko being too powerful and too widespread is very real.

Once Upon a Time

Here we have another Eldraine card. And one that's banned in multiple formats. Free spells can be absurdly powerful, especially when they're cantrips. Once Upon a Time is particularly egregious since it looks five cards deep. It is tempered by only being free once, but that is apparently enough. The card was initially only seen in Amulet Titan decks and speculated on for Neobrand, but it is expanding its territory.

Infect adopting Once is particularly concerning, as Gotcha! decks are frustrating to play against, and not entirely healthy format-wise. Infect threatens turn-two kills, an ability tempered by its low number of critical creatures. Gitaxian Probe was banned primarily to slow down Infect and make it less consistent. If the deck is overcoming that limitation, then the consistency tool should again be the thing to go.

Why it Won't be Banned

The Amulet decks have been a disappointment, and Infect hasn't actually done anything. If being a cantrip in a lot of decks was all it took to get banned, then Canoptek Scarab Swarm would be axed.

How it Could get Banned

Aaron Forsythe has acknowledged that Once was a mistake. Wizards wanted a card that would be the first spell in the game, and apparently ran out of time to get it right. Thus, they made a free spell. The appeal of Once being free is apparently enough to overcome the poor odds of it actually happening, and when deck consistency gets too high, then power problems arrive alongside redundant games.

Likelihood: Low

There is no evidence right now that Once is a problem. However, if it successfully boosts Infect-like decks, then it may become one. Given that it's easy to see that future, I consider Once a potential ban candidate.

The Unban Watchlist

Bans are not the only thing to watch out for. Unbans are also possible, particularly considering Stoneforge Mystic being unbanned earlier than expected: given Wizards' history, the unbanning was due in 2020. However, Wizards pulled the trigger early as an apology over the whole Hogaak affair, which indicates that the two-year gap isn't a hard rule. It is therefore reasonable to look at potential unban candidates, although I don't expect anything to actually be unbanned this time around. The metagame is still churning, and Wizards tends to unban to shake things up. There's no need right now.

To be honest, there's not much left to consider. Almost everything has demonstratively earned its place. The remainder of the original banned list are too ridiculous to consider (*cough* Chrome Mox). However, this year's events have made one surprising candidate more plausible.

Artifact Lands

When the original Modern banned list was conceived, Ravager Affinity's Standard dominance was still on Wizards' mind. Fearing a repeat of those days, the artifact lands were preemptively banned. Wizards didn't want to risk full-powered Affinity rendering Modern dead-on-arrival. They wanted to keep Arcbound Ravager quiet. Nerfing other artifact synergy decks was a bonus.

Reason to Unban

However, Wizards failed. Affinity was a powerhouse Modern deck for years. Rather than actually use the namesake mechanic and function as a synergistic aggro-combo deck, it embraced Inkmoth and Blinkmoth Nexus, becoming a power card aggro deck.

It is unlikely that Affinity would abandon this strategy if the artifact lands were unbanned. The creature-lands provide a considerable amount of resilience, and Inkmoth yields a shorter path to victory. Going back to classic Ravager Affinity allows for more combo potential and explosiveness, but it also means being more vulnerable to Stony Silence, Collector Ouphe, and Shatterstorm.

Also of note: Krark-Clan Ironworks is now banned. Ironworks was the other obvious home for the lands, and probably the more dangerous of the two. The deck proved pretty impressive with only Darksteel Citadel around. With Ironworks gone and there being no similar mana engine to really take advantage, the risk of Seat of the Synod boosting combo is severely reduced. Seat and company technically synergize with Urza, but not by much, since they already make mana.

The Risk

I've tried to find an artifact engine that can replace Ironworks and failed. However, that doesn't mean one doesn't exist, nor that Wizards won't creating another one. They may be leery of artifact sets, having been burned so many times now, but they're not going to give up. When another one comes around, if there's some artifacts-matter engine, the lands may push it towards brokenness.

Verdict: Plausible

The banning of Ironworks and the fact that Affinity could use some help being relevant in Modern again make the artifact lands more plausible to unban now than any other time in Modern's history. There's not insignificant risk involved, but for the moment, nothing on the horizon makes me too concerned.

Second Sunrise

Another victim of Ironworks, Second Sunrise was banned thanks to Eggs. Brian Kibler F6ed on camera while Eggs was trying to go off (at one point leaving the table for several minutes) and Stanislav Cifka took too long to win PT Return to Ravnica. Wizards needed to make the durdly and non-deterministic deck go away, but they didn't want to kill artifact combo. Thus, Sunrise was axed in hopes of making the combo more expensive to pull off.

Reason to Unban

With Ironworks banned, one reason that Sunrise was banned is gone. While it is possible to build a deck that continuously cracks various eggs to draw cards, that deck lacks a mana engine. Constantly cycling Terarrions, Chromatic Stars, and Golden Egg can dig through a deck to find a win condition, but without a constant source of mana, there's no way to actually build toward an end, and the risk of choking on mana is very real. The best way to gain mana I can think of is by looping Moxen, but that's already in Modern via Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Jeskai Ascendancy.

Rather, Sunrise opens the door for Aristocrats-style combo decks. Instead of artifacts it can return creatures, which should kill faster and more deterministically (thanks to Eternal Witness looping Sunrise) than the old Eggs deck. Modern has no shortage of graveyard hate to keep such a deck in check, and given how much effort Wizards has made to push Aristocrats cards recently, Sunrise's return seems like a net win.

The Risk

That being said, the gameplay of Sunrise combo may not be desirable. Constantly looping cards is fairly boring to watch, no matter how fast it is. Wizards made as much clear in their reasoning for banning Ironworks. Also, just like the artifact lands, there's a risk of another artifact deck emerging just as boring as Eggs was.

Verdict: Plausible

Similar to the artifact lands, the banning of Ironworks removes the reason to keep Sunrise banned. However, I'm unaware of any calls to do so, and there's risk of it enabling an equally torturous combo deck.

Lower Expectations

After 2019's ups and downs, I'm hoping for a less eventful 2020. Perpetual churn, new cards, and lots of banning has been very dynamic, but didn't make for great metagaming or format stability. Overall, I'm not expecting action from Wizards anytime soon, but it's probably best to keep an eye on the cards mentioned here.

2 thoughts on “Modern Banlist Watchlist: 2020 Edition

  1. Yea, the (colored) artifact lands seem at least fairly reasonable to un-ban. Looking around at most stock affinity lists, I would assume you just flat-out replace the darksteel citadels for lands that tap for colored mana, maybe cut one or two spires of industry and maybe one or two basics (if you’re feeling greedy), so you’re only really up, what, 3-4 artifacts in your land slot from before? My only concern there would be that (I feel) almost every opening hand with a Mox Opal would be able to tap it for mana on turn one, which might be too good, but that’s more of an indictment of Opal than the lands I think.

    1. That is a risk, but I don’t think it’s a unique problem of the artifact lands. In my experience against Affinity, if they played Opal turn 1, it was active. If that wasn’t the case, they really should have mulliganed. It’s more of a general problem of too many free artifacts period. The artifact lands would be a marginal improvement at best.
      It’s certainly possible that they trim basics for Seat of the Synod and Great Furnace, but I’m doubtful of dropping Citadel. Indestructible is a big deal, especially against Ancient Grudge, and it’s not like Affinity needs colored mana most of the time. I’m no Affinity expert and could be way off, but I also think the Spires can’t be cut because of sideboard cards like Thoughtseize.

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