Late Summer Thaw: Arcum’s Astrolabe Banned

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But for copyright concerns, I would have led off this article with the lyrics to "Another One Bites the Dust." I hope perfectly reasonable intellectual property law is happy with itself. There's been another B&R Announcement. This time something actually is banned in Modern. So that's nice. Even if it does moot a number of articles that I was planning. Fortunately, some of that work is relevant to the bannings, as we'll soon see.

While Modern is seeing a significant banning, the bigger story is what didn't happen: absolutely everyone was expecting a big change for Pioneer. Various combo decks are dominating the format, and players are bored. For evidence, I had been tracking match firing rates in the Tournament Practice Rooms on MTGO. Modern fired a minimum 3x more often than Pioneer, usually 5x or more. Thus, Pioneer players hoped for a big ban to open up the field. That didn't happen. Instead, Wizards unbanned Oath of Nissa to revive the green devotion decks. I've always been ambivalent towards Pioneer: On the one hand, I had a lot of Pioneer decks laying around by happenstance; on the other, I think a format of Wizards' Greatest Standard Mistakes is doomed to either collapse or be turned into Modern-lite.

However, this unban makes me care again. Not to play Pioneer, but to watch it as a researcher. There's been an argument that instead of banning cards, Wizards should prioritize unbanning cards to fix problems. Unbanning Deathrite Shaman to fix Hogaak stands out. Now, there's an opportunity to see in practice whether the argument works in theory. Or if the unban crowd should shut up.

The Banning

Arcum's Astrolabe is banned. It's exactly what I thought would happen when the announcement came out. A few hours after my article, which was discussing something relevant to the decision, went up. Just like with the companion rules change. I'm starting to think they're doing it deliberately.

Astrolabe was the logical target for a ban, having found its way into a lot of decks and being the object of many player's hatred. But I was surprised that Wizards felt the need to ban anything in Modern. My data indicated that the metagame was overall healthy. Furthermore, Snow decks in general, and Bant Snow specifically, had been hammered in the standings. It looked to me that Modern was self-correcting. Once over the surprise that Wizards felt differently, I immediately went to Astrolabe, and never felt that anything else was probable.

The Decision

However, Wizards has the totality of the data available, while I only have access to the Challenge and Preliminary results. Thus, they saw something that I couldn't, specifically win rates:

...we have seen a rise in popularity and win rate of multicolor decks using Arcum's Astrolabe, with some variants approaching 55% non-mirror match win rate.

Once again, we see 55% across the board win-rate as the critical threshold. However, it's important again to note that Snow variants weren't actually at the threshold, but merely approaching it. Given their mediocre performance in the Challenges and Preliminaries, I'm very surprised that Snow was anywhere close to that level. Snow must have really been tearing it up in the Leagues for that statistic to be true. However, that wasn't the only consideration. Wizards' primary ones were non-statistic factors and premonitions of looming problems:

While there’s nothing intrinsically bad about multicolor “good stuff” decks having a place in the metagame, their power and flexibility is usually counterbalanced by making concessions in their mana bases...

Arcum's Astrolabe makes this tradeoff come at too low of a cost...

Arcum's Astrolabe leads to other synergy by virtue of being a cheap artifact permanent, and it can be blinked or recurred for card advantage. In short, Arcum's Astrolabe adds too much to these decks for too little cost, resulting in win rates that are unhealthy and unsustainable for the metagame.

Ultimately, it wasn't Snow's win percentage that did Astrolabe in, but the environment it created. It was too efficient, had too low of an opportunity cost, and had too big an impact to be healthy. As far as Wizards was concerned, Snow was trending strongly enough towards needing a ban eventually. With players unhappy and a ban decision coming, Wizards chose to nip Snow in the bud.

My Reaction

This is a weird banning. I don't disagree that Astrolabe is too good. Mana should be a sticking point for good stuff decks, and Astrolabe facilitated some otherwise suspect manabases being highly successful. That said, it's extremely rare for a card to be pre-emptively banned. The initial list doesn't count. Mycosynth Lattice leaps to mind as the only other example. It was very un-fun, but wasn't really having an impact when it got axed. Once Upon a Time had reached fairly ridiculous saturation levels when it was axed. Faithless Looting was a known offender, as Wizards argued Mox Opal was.

With some luck, this signals that Wizards is finally willing to head off developing problems rather than wait until they've got no remaining choice. If this is the case, we may never have to suffer through a Hogaak Summer or Eldrazi Winter again. Of course, this could be entirely down to Magic play being down across the board with paper on hold and Wizards needing to reinject life into formats. I'd prefer Wizards more active than passive, but we need to wait and see if this is actually a policy change or purely circumstantial.

What it Means

I'd actually been testing Bant Snow without Astrolabe prior to the announcement. Not because I suspected a banning, but because I was trying to quantify its impact on various matchups. I took a stock Bant Snow control list, subbed out Astrolabe for Serum Visions, and started testing against various gauntlet decks to see how Astrolabe affected the matchups. I'd only done Ponza and Humans when the announcement came down, so I'll only speak to those matchups.

Losing Astrolabe will not significantly impact Snow's matchup against Ponza. As mentioned, Ponza has a good matchup against Bant Snow because of its impressive threats combined with Blood Moon effects. A turn 2 Moon is killer with or without Astrolabe. Reason being: number of fetches mattered more than what was being fetched. Regardless of whether Snow sees Astrolabe, an early Moon will stall development and constrain mana. That's all it takes. If Ponza can capitalize, it wins. Without early Moon and lots of pressure, Snow eventually pulls itself out thanks to all the basics and cantrips and comes back. Snow has too many basics to be locked out completely, so it's a question of how much time it has, which Astrolabe didn't really affect.

As for Humans, I thought that Astrolabe's mana fixing wouldn't matter much. Unless Humans is running Magus of the Moon, it can't attack Snow's mana. However, Astrolabe's fixing was very important here because Humans punishes stumbles. Snow needed more fetchable shocklands more often to hit its color requirements. Astrolabe's largest contribution was Ice-Fang Coatl; despite being a control deck, Bant has very little removal. It leans on counterspells and Coatl to cover this weakness. With Astrolabe, Coatl's a removal spell starting turn 2. Without, it's turn three at best. This extra turn moved the matchup in Humans' favor.

Snow's Future

The snow strategies, as we knew them, are dead. Bant, Sultai, or Temur midrange are not. The reason is that the Snow manabase isn't going to work without Astrolabe. I know that I said Astrolabe didn't affect the Ponza matchup, but that's because of Blood Moon. The mana base is, unsurprisingly, very well tuned for that specific matchup. However, the strains of having a basic-heavy manabase in a three-color deck, especially with such intense color requirements, definitely showed in the Humans testing. Without Astrolabe, the risk of going for just basics makes itself known. In longer games, mana problems are mitigated thanks to the cantrips and Field of Ruin. That same manabase can't achieve the same impact in a shorter game, and will need retooling. It may be drastic, or it may be limited, but it will need to happen.

Along with that retooling, Ice-Fang's stock will change. As noted, there's no way to cheat on Coatl's deathtouch anymore with Astrolabe. That will have to be earned the hard way with Snow basics, and that is a risk. Fetching three basics over shocklands was always the right call. Now, there's a risk of fetching into mana problems. A deck with Bant's intense color requirements will struggle to both cast its spells and turn on Coatl more often, meaning it can't lean as heavily on it as removal. Thus, the spell suite must be retooled as well.

That said, the UGx strategy should still be viable. The strategy of Coatl, Archmage's Charm, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, and planeswalkers is powerful enough to survive. I can't guess at the form it will take (though I suspect that Temur Uro will be discarded because that's how it usually goes), but there should still be a viable UGx midrange deck in Modern.

How's Urza?

As for the Urza decks, I'm not sure. There are still lots of one-mana artifacts that cantrip in Modern. However, none of them draw as an ETB. Urza loved Astrolabe because it sat around to be used for mana. Thus, I have doubts that the midrange value Urza decks will be successful. However, older prison-style Whirza decks should be unaffected. Astrolabe was just bulk and not critical to anything they were doing. Urza has too many lines of text to just drop out of Modern, but he's losing so many tools that he's starting to approach fair territory.

The Winners

I put aggro decks as the biggest winners of the banning. Coatl getting nerfed really is a huge deal. This is particularly true for Spirits, which should have a great matchup against Snow, or any durdly deck full of expensive cards which care about card advantage. Coatl props up UGx, and Spirits doesn't have good answers. It's particularly bad when critical Spirits with hexproof get sniped. Humans will also appreciate having Mantis Rider picked off at advantage less often.

The next winner is Jund. Jund's fallen out of the meta, and Snow was at least partially to blame (though I think Ponza's a bigger factor). Jund wants to 1-for-1 with value until opponents lack the resources needed to win. That strategy doesn't work against a deck as full of 2-for-1s like UGx. I've seen Jund knock Bant down to no cards in hand and nothing on the board while attacking with Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger and still lose to topdecked Uro. With UGx taken down a peg, Jund has a chance to reclaim some ground.

What Didn't Happen

While everyone took it as given that Astrolabe would be banned, there was additional speculation that more could be banned. Mystic Sanctuary and Uro (the two most frequently cited other targets) are really repetitive, but pretty easy to answer because PLAY GRAVEYARD HATE IN MODERN! I don't get why this is such a problem, especially with General Kudro and Scavenging Ooze available as maindeck options. Just do it already. Plus, I'm glad Sanctuary didn't get axed for entirely selfish reasons. I know three players utterly enamored of their 4-Color Snow goodstuff decks and their whining about Astrolabe and Modern doomsaying is already melting my DM inbox. I can't imagine the anguished lamentations if their other baby, Sanctuary, got hit too.

The other thing was no unbannings. This is also not unexpected; there's little left that isn't clearly absurd and/or didn't earn its place in actual Modern tournaments. That didn't stop the wild speculation, but the bar keeps rising on unbannings, so I wouldn't get my hopes up. Though I am opening up to a Splinter Twin unban. Not because I think it's fine in Modern, but because doing so will be a lose-lose for the stalwarts who won't give Twin up. Either it's still too good (as I think) and will be rebanned, breaking their hearts, or they're right and the format has moved on enough that Twin's not actually good anymore; then, they get their hearts broken that their love's gone forever. And we can all just move on. I win either way!


Another ban, another Modern shakeup. And another time to see how the metagame will start settling. I don't expect huge changes given that nothing's explicitly non-viable anymore, but I am certain that the brewer's paradise will continue for a while longer.

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