All That Remains: An Unban Examination

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As the year comes to an end it's time to reflect on that which has happened and that which may yet be. The former is easy enough. Thanks to the pandemic, nothing happened, and nothing continues to happen. Frustration. The latter is quite fun. And rather cathartic. So I'm going to ignore the nothing that was 2021 and focus on what might happen in 2022. I'd settle for something happening, preferably good. And in terms of Magic, that usually means what will happen in terms of banned cards. Or, in rare circumstances, an unbanning.

The last card to be unbanned in Modern was Stoneforge Mystic in August 2019. Wizards didn't explicitly say so, but everyone saw it as compensation for Hogaak Summer and all the cards that had to be banned then. However, the two subsequent years have seen the most annual bans in Magic's history, and yet nothing has come off. There are good reasons for no unbans. However, that doesn't dissuade players from speculating nor does it mean that unbans are off the table. It does mean that players need to have realistic expectations. A recent MTGO event has reignited discussion and set some unrealistic goals, and I'll be addressing that today.

The Modern Banned Gauntlet

From December 1-8, Wizards ran a special event on MTGO, the Modern Banned Gauntlet. The premise was that every player would select a preconstructed deck and then battle. Said decks were the decks that got the card banned (theoretically) and it was a battle royale of the most broken decks in Modern. The implication in the wording of the announcement was that this was Wizards looking for data on banned cards in advance of an unbanning. However, I stress that it was the implication and was not stated anywhere. Nor is there anything to corroborate it being Wizards' actual intention. However, I saw plenty of commentary online saying that, so clearly players thought of it as such.

Reality Check

Which is unfortunate because if data creation/collection was the intention, this was a terrible method. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate Wizards running this event. In fact, I think that Wizards should do another Gauntlet and more similar events because it's perfect for online play. Something like this would be prohibitive logistically (and possibly financially) in paper, but it's simple on MTGO. I do encourage any Wizards employees reading this to advocate for another Gauntlet and to push for similar events.

That said, anyone trying to use the results of the gauntlet to prove anything is wrong. Just click the link to the event and look at the decks there, really look at them. Did anyone actually think that a Bant Charm-splashing Zoo deck from 2011 would do well? Never mind hanging with 2019 Hogaak, how does a deck like that answer 2016 Eldrazi or 2015 Splinter Twin? It's just absurd to think that these decks are at all equivalent or that this was a good test of relative strength. As I led with, every deck was chosen from the time when the card was banned. They're tuned for widely disparate metagames and very different cardpools. Had Wizards allowed players to brew with the banned cards there would have been something to the event and the results it generated. But as-is, it was just a gimmick. There are no conclusions to be drawn from the Gauntlet. It was very fun, though.

Players Are Still Talking

Not that it won't stop players from talking. Fortunately, I've mostly seen players being level-headed about the Gauntlet and echoing my sentiments. It was quite a relief watching twitter reactions and seeing players discuss the decks being suboptimal and how they'd rebuild given the option. I was also surprised that the Treasure Cruise deck appeared to do so well. Wizards has not and probably never will release any data about the event, which sucks. I strongly suspect that Hogaak, Risen Necropolis was the clear winner, but without hard evidence I cannot say for certain. Nor can we use the data to extrapolate about the relative strength of any of the cards.

However, the anecdotal evidence suggests I was right. Comments and tweets indicate Hogaak performed best with Treasure Cruise aggro second and UW Eldrazi third. Twin, Pod, and Bloom Titan were pretty good but were most discussed in terms of needing a rebuild. Players were generally perplexed by Oko, Thief of Crowns being highlighted by a Ponza deck. Sunny Side Up was okay at best, if really annoying to play against. Considering that was the experience at the time, I'd say the gauntlet was a success in terms of explaining why Second Sunrise is banned.

However, I reiterate that just because players had certain experiences with the gauntlet, there's no reason to think they apply to current Modern. A lot of new and very powerful cards have entered Modern since Hogaak was banned. It's unlikely that the experience would be the same. Hogaak is still way too good, but we'd have a different experience and hate the gameplay for different reasons today than in 2019. And that's the reality that must be considered when discussing unbans.

What is Unbannable?

There was a time that discussing unbans was simple. When Wizards created Modern a lot of cards were preemptively banned. Wizards wanted a clean break from several less-than-optimal Standard and Extended metagames and so ensured that the best decks from them wouldn't define the new format. Over the years those cards have been gradually unbanned at a rate of roughly one every year, until all that's left from the original list are the absurdly unacceptable cards and all the cards that have earned a ban over Modern's lifetime. Which may explain why there's been no unbans since 2019, the longest streak in Modern's history. Which in turn suggests that Wizards doesn't think anything is unbannable anymore.

Wizards' Standards

Which is pure speculation because I don't know precisely how Wizards decides on unbans. Over the years, the general thread has simply been "We think this card is fine now." Often (but not always) it's been accompanied by a hope that the unbanned card will enable or enhance an archetype or strategy that is currently or historically struggling in Modern. As mentioned earlier, the unbans have also frequently accompanied major bannings. Golgari Grave-Troll's unban is the only one I recall Wizards explicitly saying that they were doing it then as compensation for the banning cards, but plenty of others have felt that way. All of which is quite ambiguous and leaves a lot of room for speculation on our part and discretion on Wizards' part.

The Problem

None of these observations bode well for the future of unbanning cards. We had the largest single ban since Modern's inception in February, and there were no compensatory unbans. Modern is now quite diverse, with many different strategies doing well. The only lacking strategy is combo and there's reason to think Wizards is fine with that. And given that the pace of unbans has slowed down since Grave-Troll was rebanned, there's reason to think that Wizards simply doesn't think that any cards are sufficiently fine now to take the risk. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes; Wizards really doesn't want a repeat. When Stoneforge Mystic was unbanned they were emphatic about how risky they thought it was precisely to temper expectations in Grave-Troll's wake.

However, even if that wasn't the case, I'd still expect there to be very few unbans at all going forward. Unbanning cards is a great way to shake up a stale or suffering format, and Modern definitely isn't either of those things. I've heard that Modern is replacing Standard as the most played paper format, and just look at the churn evident in my metagame updates. Unbannings are a finite resource, and Wizards isn't going to just unban something to unban something. They need to be strategic and save it for when Modern really needs it, and so long as their current design continues to push lots of cards into Modern every year, they'll never needs to unban something just to shake things up. Thus, the likelihood of unbannings has dropped.

Is Anything Unbannable?

And now to address the big question hanging over everything. Given Wizards' inclinations, Modern's reality, and the cards actually on the Banned and Restricted List, are any unbannable at all? And that is a really good question. I'm on the record thinking that the Mirrodin artifact lands (weird that I need to specify the expansion now) and Second Sunrise could be unbanned, and I still do. However, I've also added caveats that there are risks involved in doing so. They're not clean unbans, and I don't think there are any of those anymore. There may never have been any at all... wait, there was Wild Nacatl. But other than Nacatl there were good reasons to worry about every unbanned card causing problems either in early Modern or down the line. And while time and power creep have made Ancestral Visions and Bitterblossom obsolete, Valakut the Molten Pinnacle continues to be a strong card.

As such, it's important to remember that every unban is a risk vs. reward question. If the risk of overpowering a current deck is higher than the rewards of adding the card, the unban shouldn't occur. However, as Grave-Troll showed, sometimes it's not the current Modern that's the risk but the future. Sword of the Meek did nothing in Modern until Urza, Lord High Artificer was printed. Wizards knows what's actually coming down the pipe and there may well be cards in the near future which might bust a card that seems innocuous. Therefore, we need to be careful about what cards we consider.

Unban Candidates

So, given all the hedging and qualifying I've done this article, what do I think could be unbanned? Frankly, the cards I've already mentioned, Sunrise and Ancient Den's cohort. And for the same reasons I did back in 2019. I'm tempted to just relink that article again and call it a day. However, my word count is not yet acceptable so I will continue. The problem is that there really aren't cards that strike me as low-risk and reasonable reward besides the aforementioned. There are lots of low-reward cards and some that are high-risk, high-reward as far as Modern as a whole is concerned. However, I do have an argument about one, fairly unexpected banned card that could be unbanned if Wizards is feeling adventurous.

Blazing Shoal

Blazing Shoal was banned because it's a turn 2 kill with Glistener Elf and a turn 3 kill with any other infect creature. Back in 2011, the only answers were Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile. Thus, in 2011, Infect killed too early too often and had to be nerfed.

Modern has changed a lot since then, especially in the past year with the evoke elementals and Prismatic Ending. There's enough removal now that the early Infect kill would be harder to accomplish, and the format has moved in a direction that precludes filling a deck with clunky uncastable spells to pitch to Shoal. It might not be good enough anymore.

Or it may still be an unacceptably fast kill made worse because the protection for it has also gotten better. It's not just that there's more removal; Blossoming Defense, Force of Negation, and Veil of Summer exist now to stop said removal. By unbanning Shoal, Wizards would be making a bet that their removal push is sufficient to answer one of Modern's fastest kills and/or their push towards Legacy-style card efficiency ensures that players can't take the risk on the deck.

Which is part of my ulterior motive with this unban suggestion. I want to know how confident Wizards actually is about the format they've designed, and Shoal presents a distinct challenge to that status quo. With a secondary secret motive that if Shoal's gameplay isn't answerable or acceptable, why do we tolerate Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer?

Splinter Twin?

Given my history, some readers may have expected my new unban suggestion to be Splinter Twin. And it isn't. I'm open to Twin being merely okay in Modern as opposed to dominating it as happened in 2015. However, the past two years have seen Izzet decks of varying archetype sit firmly in Tier 1. It seems unwise to give them yet another option. Maybe down the line when UR needs a boost, but certainly not now.

Temper Expectations

That being said, don't expect any unbans in Modern anytime soon. It seems to me that Wizards has better reason to keep cards banned than to unban anything. However, there's no way to know and it's equally possible that the Gauntlet heralds a major change. Just don't let hope overrule reason.

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David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

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