Modern Banlist Watchlist: 2021 Edition

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Final article of the year! Good riddance, 2020. Hopefully, things start to turn around quickly and we can have the gathering part of Magic: The Gathering back again. But, this isn't about a virus or vaccine. Today, I have business that must be finished before 2021 begins. For the third year running, it's time to update my unofficial Modern Banlist Watchlist. Actually, no, it deserves an upgrade. I've kept up my list and have a solid prediction rate. It's also not just a wishlist, both of which are more than can be said of other attempts. Therefore, I'm declaring my list to be the Official Modern Banlist Watchlist! If anyone objects, they should have been putting in the work before now.

And so, it is my pleasure to welcome everyone to the Official Modern Banlist Watchlist. 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. Modern's in a pretty decent place, and Wizards doesn't have much incentive to do anything until paper comes back. Rather, this is the list of cards that I think could be banned if the stars align correctly. It will take the right tipping point to happen, which could be any combination of metagame shifts, new cards, or new decks emerging or metagame stagnation before something actually occurs.

2020 Recap

I was 3/3 for already existing cards in 2019. An auspicious start! I did worse in 2020, with only 2/3. And I missed Arcum's Astrolabe getting axed, though I argue that's a forgivable oversight. Back in December 2019, Astrolabe wasn't doing anything besides facilitating Oko, Thief of Crowns. It took both Oko and Once Upon a Time getting axed (and the Companion nerf) for Astrolabe's power to become obviously and uniquely troublesome. And I'm tempted to give myself partial credit on Urza, Lord High Artificer. Mox Opal and Astrolabe were both critical pieces of Urza decks, resulting in Urza getting nerfed severely. Getting cards around you banned is still a strong indication of a card's power and potential banability.

The Criteria

There's no way to know exactly what, if anything, will get banned in 2021. Where once it was a simple case of violating the Turn 4 rule or general brokenness, Wizards has vastly expanded its scope and now bans more actively and for more reasons. I can't know what new cards will be printed, or if a new deck will finally be discovered. Furthermore, Wizards' exact criteria for banning a card is not known. They've never specifically said anything about how they consider banning a card, and with every ban, the exact reason changes. Over the past year, the only consistent thread has been a 55% non-mirror win rate. Which may or may not be an actual red line for banning, but even if it is, only Wizards has the data to make such a determination. Thus, players can't know if a ban is coming, making it the perfect metric to cite.

As a result, any speculation about what could get banned will necessarily be guesswork. The key: to turn the guesswork into an educated guesstimate. To that end, I have gone back through the Wizards announcements to see how they've justified their bans. There's always a primary reason, but it's often (not always) couched by ancillary reasons. The most common ones with examples are:

  1. Generally broken. (Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis)
  2. Enables brokenness. (Mox Opal, Bridge from Below)
  3. Harms deck diversity. (Splinter Twin)
  4. Homogenizes deck construction. (Oko, Thief of Crowns, Deathrite Shaman)
  5. Creates problematic play patterns. Subcategorized between:
    1. Encourages repetitive gameplay/gamestates. (Once Upon a Time)
    2. Encourages unfun gameplay. (Mycosynth Lattice)
    3. Metagame-warping. (Treasure Cruise, Arcum's Astrolabe
  6. Complicates tournament logistics. (Sensei's Divining Top)
  7. Constrains/threatens future design. (Birthing Pod)
  8. Achieves a 55% non-mirror win rate. (Arcum's Astrolabe)

As the last one is impossible for me to know, I won't consider it. These are the most often cited reasons, and should not be viewed as a comprehensive list. Such a list would require an entire article... so I'll have it be one in the future!

My Approach

I'll be using the Wizards-stated reasons to inform my watchlist. However, there will necessarily be a lot of intuition and speculation. I can't know how the future will play out, nor if Wizards will actually take action. Wizards certainly could have gone after Izzet Phoenix in 2019 for several of the listed reasons, but they never specifically targeted it. The best I or anyone can do is to see what the metagame data says about the format then look for key pressure points and gameplay trends and try to intuit how things could break.

Some key things to remember:

  1. Wizards prefers to ban enablers or engines over payoffs
  2. Bans should target the actual problem, not the symptoms of the problem
  3. There is no hard threshold for what constitutes a problem

With the disclaimers out of the way, I see two potential fracturing points for the current meta and one card that threatens to break again.

Urza, Lord High Artificer

Offenses: generally broken; enables brokenness

Urza, Lord High Artificer makes this list partially as a holdover from 2020, and partially because it remains an absurd card. There are just too many lines of text on that card, and they're all things that consistently prove to be problems. Urza was integral to the Oko decks that dominated late 2019, in some ways more than Oko. Oko was a grindy value engine and the Simic Urza's best threat, but Urza is an artifact payoff, a value play, a threat, a mana engine, and a card advantage engine all in one. Cards that do too much have been the boogeymen of 2020 far more than 2019, and given Urza's potential, it's very easy to envision him being utterly broken.

Why It Won't be Banned

Urza survived 2020 thanks to everyone around him biting the bullet instead. All of Urza's best support cards are banned now, and subsequently Urza has dropped out of the metagame. I still see Whirza decks crop up from time to time, but it's nothing like 2019 or even early 2020. Without the reliable acceleration of Mox Opal, Urza decks can't keep up with the metagame. Without Oko, they can't turn all their weak artifact enablers into actual cards. Astrolabe was the most important loss, as it was not only a source of velocity, but could then become a mana source. It doesn't really matter how busted Urza is in theory if it doesn't actually do anything. Something drastic needs to change for Urza to become a player again, let alone a problem.

How It Could be Banned

That said, it won't take much for Urza to be a major powerhouse again. A shift in the meta away from Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath-type value decks could let the slower Urza engine come back. A drop in blitz-type Prowess could also do the trick. Don't forget that Urza already goes infinite with Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek, or that artifact hate is at an all-time low. Alternatively, Wizards could print some new, cheap artifact that replaces something Urza lost. Given their history, one would expect Wizards to avoid any cheap artifact that might enable Urza. However, while Wizards learns the broad strokes of its mistakes, the specifics often escape them. Artifacts, free cards, and easy mana fixing have bitten them before, and they still made Arcum's Astrolabe.

Likelihood: Low

As it stands, there is very little chance that Urza will be banned in 2021. However, I can envision a number of scenarios wherein Urza could regain its lost power, and at least a few of those push it into dangerous territory. Not something I'd expect, but something to keep an eye on.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

Offenses: harms deck diversity; creates problematic play patterns: encourages repetitive gameplay, metagame-warping

Genuine question: has any card been complained about more this year then Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath? It seems like everyone will take any opportunity to moan about the titan. Players are generally tired of Wizards pushing certain cards, particularly Simic-colored ones, after a year of heavy bans. There's also a general sense that Uro is pushing out all other midrange decks because it is too good at everything midrange wants to do. It's lifegain, ramp, and card draw, plus a recursive threat. Again, that's too much text on a single card.

Additionally, Uro is a pretty boring card. It's so much value it shows up everywhere, and not always in grindy midrange decks. This omnipresence is coupled with Uro being a pretty boring card to play with or against. Cast it once for value, then escape it for more value and to win the game. Grind, grind, grind; it just keeps going. This incentivizes a certain style of gameplan and deck that many players are getting tired of seeing. In addition, there are a lot of other annoying cards constantly following in Uro's wake that get a lot of complaints. Veil of Summer, Mystic Sanctuary, A-Teferi, Time Raveler, and Field of the Dead are all cards with their own issues, but seem to reach their greatest potential when paired with Uro. It's both an enabler and a payoff, creating a lot of irritating gameplay.

Why It Won't be Banned

Gameplay that is proving to be less than dominating. In terms of metagame share, Uro is down from its October high. And that was a huge spike after Uro decks tanked in September. There is very clear evidence that the metagame is adapting and Uro is losing its punch, the poster child being the resurgent Mono-Red Prowess decks maindecking Blood Moon. Uro decks are far more vulnerable to attack than they get credit for, and now that the metagame is catching on, Uro is losing ground. In addition, it's a graveyard creature and this is Modern, so players should be packing the graveyard hate needed to beat the card. Uro's losing its power and is highly answerable, so there's no need to ban it.

How It Could be Banned

The question is whether the environment Uro creates is healthy and desirable, even if it does lose ground. The metagame is adapting by adopting more hate pieces and churning out more combo and glass cannon decks. Modern can handle that easily, but it's not clear that's something the players or Wizards actually want to happen. Then there's the issue of whether, like Splinter Twin, Uro is keeping out other more desirable player patterns and decks.

Likelihood: Medium

There's a lot to dislike about Uro's gameplay and place in the metagame. Even without additional printings, there's a solid case for a banning on the basis of fun and metagame stagnation, but it isn't urgent. I'd be surprised to see Uro survive 2021, and equally surprised to see a ban before summer.

Mishra's Bauble/Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Offenses: homogenizes deck construction; creates problematic play patterns: encourages repetitive gameplay; constrains/threatens future design

This is a tricky one. While Uro is a lightning rod for Wizards making card advantage engines too easy, the combination of Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Mishra's Bauble is the most successful one. It's arguably more defining than Uro, is far more widespread, and has been running around longer. Go back through my metagame articles for this year and there's a constant tread: Rakdos Prowess featuring Mishra's Bauble is top-tier. And once Lurrus was printed, the decks that ran Bauble exploded, a trend which survived the companion nerf. In November's metagame update, Uro decks represented ~10.5% of the metagame. Scourge Shadow and Hammer Time always run Lurrus/Bauble and accounted for 9.4%, which doesn't include various fringe decks and variants of other tiered decks that also run the combo. Uro might endure more player ire, but the Lurrus-Bauble pairing is just as widespread as that single card!

I don't see this discussed anywhere, but Bauble plus Lurrus gives any deck the ability to grind out the late game, and most don't deserve to. Hammer Time is the latest deck to benefit from the combo. On its face, Hammer Time is a pretty inconsistent and fragile glass-cannon combo deck. It should die to a few removal spells played smartly, just like Infect. However, Lurrus ensures that Hammer Time can get back into the game, either by recurring threats or using Bauble to find missing pieces. This is a thread that was first seen in Burn. The combination is giving decks that have never enjoyed draw engines a solid engine, much like Treasure Cruise did. And it is the combination which is the problem, more than the individual cards, to the point that I'd rate this combo as a:

Likelihood: Medium

However, I can't decided which card to target. So I'll deal with each individually.

Why Bauble Won't be Banned

Prior to Lurrus, Bauble was an odd but fine card in Modern. It saw no play until 2017 when it was used as a delirium enabler in Jund Shadow, and then dropped off once Shadow started declining. In 2019 it saw a lot of play in Urza decks, where it turned on Emry, Lurker in the Loch and Mox Opal turn 1, but then did little else but become an Elk. Next, the Prowess decks picked up Bauble as free prowess triggers and cantrips. Bauble is only up for consideration because of its interaction with Lurrus as a build-your-own-cantrip creature. The problem is Lurrus, not Bauble.

How Bauble Could be Banned

However, Bauble has enabled other decks in the past, and could do so again. It's a free artifact and more importantly a cantrip, something that spelled doom for Gitaxian Probe. The risk of a zero-mana cantrip was known all the way back in Ice Age, when Urza's Bauble demanded the creation of the slow-trip ability on Bauble. Urza's still hanging around, and zero-mana cards always have a risk of helping something else get busted.

Likelihood: Low

Bauble is so innocuous a card that I can't help thinking that if there's a problem, Wizards will opt for a target more substantial. However, there's always the chance that a zero-mana cantrip is just something that shouldn't happen. Wizards appears to favor going after free spells and seeing if that's enough (based on Opal's ban), so it makes some sense for them to target Bauble rather than Lurrus. Lurrus is a creature, after all, and more vulnerable to normal answers.

Why Lurrus Won't be Banned

The companion errata severely impacted Lurrus' playability already. At its height, Lurrus was everywhere and in every deck, and not all of them included Bauble. Since the errata, Lurrus has retreated to the types of decks it was always meant to be in. Nonetheless, if there's a problem with Lurrus, it continues to be the companion ability rather than the card itself. Lurrus dies to everything, has pretty unimpressive stats for Modern, and now can be preemptively answered via, say, discard. The only reason to be concerned is the interaction with Bauble rather than the sweep of Lurrus' uses.

How Lurrus Could be Banned

Lurrus was the most busted companion by far, to the point it required the only ban in Vintage in decades. This is entirely down to its interaction with zero-mana artifacts. Granted, in Vintage and Legacy said artifacts made mana, but if there actually is a problem in Modern, it makes more sense to point the ban hammer at the card that's proven to be trouble. Repeatable effects shouldn't be free, and Lurrus being a recursion engine is too good. Additionally, given its companion deckbuilding constraints, graveyard hate isn't an answer. Lurrus goes into aggressive decks, and they never seem to have graveyard interaction outside of Lurrus, making sideboarding hate in against the combo actively bad against the gameplan. When the right answer won't work and the engine is proven to be too good, the answer is a ban.

Likelihood: Medium

I favor going after Lurrus over Bauble. Lurrus has the history on its side, and the companions were clearly mistakes. If an engine gets out of hand once, it's likely to do so again, so better to just nip it in the bud. Additionally, Wizards is working on ways to give white more card drawing, and the existence of Lurrus is likely to conflict with that goal. At minimum, it makes any >2CMC permanent a riskier card than it would otherwise be.

Wait and See

And that's my 2021 banning watch list. I want to reiterate that I don't see any bans in the immediate future, as Modern is overall in a pretty good place. However, you never know with Wizards. We just have to wait and see how the new year develops. Happy new year, Modern Nexus readers!

2 thoughts on “Modern Banlist Watchlist: 2021 Edition

  1. I think it most likely that we see a Field of the Dead ban over any of the above (except Uro–he will eat a ban eventually). That said, I have zero evidence, statistics, or anything of merit to back that claim up. It’s just pure conjecture.

    I’m not sure why Wizards has neglected the format for as long as it has. I expect it has something to do with 2020 just lacking any paper Magic. I’m also fairly certain that it is at least partially related to the litany of bans that have occurred in other formats and their reluctance to admit/address that aspects of recent card design have been remarkably problematic to say the least. Which, if you’re wearing your tin-foil hat 24/7 the way I do, is likely related to a desire on behalf of Wizards execs to have big, overly powerful, and “fun” cards ready and available for gems on their (at the time of design) new digital platform. I would LOVE to hear some leaked recordings of what really goes on behind the scenes at WOTC.

    1. Currently, Field is only a widespread problem thanks to Uro. But for Uro’s value ramp prowess, Field would only see play in Valakut decks as an alternate win condition. And wouldn’t really change how its matchups play out. Uro allows the value Field deck to exist. I’m not discounting that Field may have to go at some point, but that would only happen before Uro if A) Wizards really wants to protect Uro or B) There is something coming that supercharges Field but not Uro. Which seems a bit implausible.

      Wizards has neglected everything but Arena because Pandemic. And it isn’t clear that’s been a success. I don’t know anything about what the executives think, but Rosewater at least acknowledged how badly design’s gotten everything wrong in his last State of Design column.

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