Modern Banlist Watch List: 2022 Edition

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And so, another mediocre-at-best year comes to a close. Here's hoping that we finally see an upswing in 2022. Or at very least more large Modern paper events, seeing how Not-GP Las Vegas was successful. Aside from lack of coverage. Wizards has repeatedly claimed that there will be paper events and something approximating the Pro Tour again, so there's hope. But in the meantime, it's time to wrap the year in customary fashion by updating the Definitive Banning Watch list. Why is it definitive? Well, this is the fourth iteration of this list, which is more consistency than any other content creator. I haven't even seen another list put out this year. A default win!

Standard Disclaimer: I am not claiming that anything actually will be banned next year. Modern is quite healthy at the moment. There's really no emergency or urgency for any action. Of course, that doesn't mean anything can't happen, either. Wizards has a habit of surprising us with both the timing and scope of their bans. And there are reasons to be concerned for the direction the metagame is heading. Who really knows what's going to happen in 2022? However, based on what is actually happening right now, there are a few cards that could be axed in the forseeable future. And a couple others that might need to go in the more distant future.

2021 Recap

2021 was an unusual year ban-wise. It contained the highest number of bans in a very long time, but in a singular event. The same number of cards were banned in 2020, but it happened over the course of a year. The Uro ban was additionally unique in that a number of cards were banned that nobody really saw coming. The only card that was banned that made the 2021 watch list was Uro. I considered both Mythic Sanctuary and Field of the Dead, but given Wizards' usual strategy of banning the known problem then waiting and watching, I thought they were safe as long as Uro remained. Clearly, I was wrong.

I wasn't actually expecting Urza, Lord High Artificer to get banned. As noted then, it would take new printings to make Urza ban-worthy, and there were none. I am genuinely surprised that Lurrus of the Dream-Den survived. The gameplay and metagame considerations from last year have been joined by a prevalence problem.

The Criteria

There's no way to know exactly what, if anything, will get banned in 2022. 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 two years, the only consistent criteria 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.

My Approach

I'll be using the Wizards-stated reasons to inform my watch list. 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
  4. There is no way of knowing how decisively Wizards wants to intervene

The last point is new for this year and it's all thanks to the February ban. Wizards has historically preferred highly targeted bans for minimal format disruption. They dropped a bomb back in February, and that may or may not signal a policy change. There's no way to know, but it must be considered.

With the disclaimers out of the way, I see three potential fracturing points in the current meta which could be banned on their own merits. There are also two cards that might break if the right card(s) are printed in 2022.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den

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

I covered the broad issues with all the bannable cards last week. Lurrus is the most widely played creature in Modern despite seeing almost no maindeck play. In fact, the limited evidence available indicates that if Lurrus could only be played maindeck it would be a solid but not widely played card. It's the companion mechanic that's an actual problem. I think that if Wizards simply declared "No companions in Constructed" there'd be no need for bannings, but that's not how Wizards operates. And errata that extreme might create more problems than it solves.

Why Lurrus Won't Be Banned

Wizards was happy with Lurrus' gameplay in 2020 and 2021. They must be, or it would have been banned already. The only thing that's changing is how frequently it comes up. And there is a lot to like about Lurrus enabling grindy gameplay for low-curve decks, especially when Wizards does want players to play longer games.

How Lurrus Could Be Banned

There is also a lot to dislike about Lurrus forcing decks to keep their curve low and how constantly recurring threats leads to boring gameplay. The percentage of decks playing Lurrus may be down from its peak, but it remains higher than any other flagship card. Players grumble about Lurrus at roughly the same rate they praise it. Eventually, a tipping point may be reached where Wizards decides that based on player satisfaction, format prevalence, and/or win percentage, enough is enough and it's time for Lurrus to go.

Likelihood: Medium

I'd be surprised if Lurrus lasts another year in Modern. It's steadily overtaking alternative decks and is the key to Hammer Time (2021's best performing deck) remaining a metagame force. At some point, either the format must move away from this same gameplay being viable or Wizards will need to intervene. There's no immediate need, but I can easily see it happening. Especially given the next card.

Omnath, Locus of Creation

Offenses: General brokenness; harms deck diversity

I think that saying "A 4-Color Pile" card is more accurate, but I require myself to take a stand. It isn't that Omnath itself is the problem. The problem is that 4-Color Blink is absorbing all the space for midrange decks and even, increasingly, control. That's not exactly the fault of Omnath, but if anything should be targeted, it's the card that's been banned in other formats. Banning Wrenn and Six or A-Teferi, Time Raveler won't hurt enough to prevent a theoretical 4-Color takeover. Omnath is at once the glue holding Blink together, the grease that makes it work, and the primary incentive for being four whole colors in the first place. City of Solitude and Akroma, Angel of Fury are much worse without Omnath around. And Omnath's abilities are just absurd on their own.

Why Omnath Won't Be Banned

It is way too early to definitively say that a problem exists. I'm nervous based on how the Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath played out. Uro homogonized all the midrange decks to be Uro decks, and towards the end they were all built around Uro, Field of the Dead, and Mystic Sanctuary. There are echoes of that in the 4-Color shell of Wrenn, Teferi, Omnath, and Prismatic Ending serving as a strong template for many decks.

However, December is the first month where any sign of convergence happened. December is always a weird month data-wise, and this could easily be an illusion or an MTGO quirk. Even if it is real, decks will naturally push towards certain directions and there's insufficient evidence that 4-Color is uniquely pushing anything out of viability. We need to wait and see. There's also the issue that Omnath has a lot of fans and playing all the good cards together is quite fun for many players.

How Omnath Could Be Banned

I could be right that Omnath decks are homogenizing Modern midrange. However, even if I am wrong, Omnath might get banned for an entirely separate reason: Wizards is just done with him. Much like with Faithless Looting, the subtext in the Uro ban was that Wizards was simply over that type of gameplay. That was why Field and Sanctuary had to go. Wizards could easily decide that Omnath is just too good everywhere and it needs to go, and/or the type of games it enables is not desirable.

Likelihood: Low to High

On its own merits, I think that 4-Color is fine and could stick around provided that it doesn't take too much metagame space, thus the low rating. However, if Wizards is looking for a major shakeup or an Uro-style intervention, Omnath wears a huge target. Big enough that there's little chance Omnath escapes, hence the high rating. It's easier to ban an already frequently-banned card than anything else. Such a ban would likely include Lurrus too for metagame balance. I could see A-Teferi, Time Raveler and possibly Wrenn and Six too, but neither has a chance on their own. Wizards would have to be looking for a hard reset of Modern. Certainly, a lot of players would be overjoyed to see the Time Raveler go.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

Offenses: homogenizes deck construction; problematic play patterns (unfun gameplay)

As I mentioned last week, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer gets a lot of praise and also blame for the direction Modern is heading. It isn't clear if said direction is good or bad nor is it clear if Ragavan is uniquely behind the changes. There's so much going on at the same time that separating the causal and corollary impacts of given cards is impossible. If the direction Modern's heading is good, nothing needs to happen. If it's bad and Ragavan actually is at fault, it needs to go.

Why Ragavan Won't Be Banned

Is the problem Ragavan, or Lurrus recurring Ragavan? The only deck that consistently plays Ragavan and not Lurrus is UR Murktide, a deck I've never heard complaints about. I do hear complaints about the Lurrus decks that are also playing Ragavan simply because they're never out of the woods. Beyond that, Ragavan is so easily answered that it seems laughable to ban the card.

How Ragavan Could Be Banned

While weaker in basically every way than Deathrite Shaman, Ragavan does put pressure on decks and the format in a similar way. Specifically, it demands: answer me quickly or the game slips away. Then there's the issue that losing to your own cards isn't fun and the fact that Ragavan shows up in weird places.

Likelihood: Low

I would not support Ragavan being banned alongside anything else. Again, it isn't clear that it's at fault for anything that's going on. I'd rather ban Lurrus and then see. If UR is the only viable home for Rags, then there's no problem. However, if he continues to spread throughout the metagame, then action will need to be taken.

Urza, Lord High Artificer/Urza's Saga

Offenses: generally broken; enables brokenness

These two are purely speculative, and as I'll be detailing below, require the right new cards to spell trouble. But the possibility is foreseeable, so I'm including them. I've gone into detail on Urza twice now, and he remains a threat for all the same reasons. He was the third power card in 2019's Snowoko decks and survived where Uro and Oko, Thief of Crowns fell thanks to support cards being banned instead.

Meanwhile, Saga provides an insane amount of value from a land. While it can be answered a number of ways, lands are generally harder to answer than any other permanent type. And an unmolested Saga will produce two 3/3 constructs and a 0 or 1 cost artifact. It is a very strong card for grinding and has shown up in a large number of decks this year.

Why Both Won't Be Banned

Neither card is actually dangerous in Modern right now. Urza barely sees play and Saga's metagame presence has been declining. There's a huge deckbuilding cost to playing colorless lands in the first place, and Saga has a time limit. Plus, in order to get the most out of Saga decks have to clear space for 0 or 1 cost artifacts they wouldn't play at all or at least maindeck under normal circumstances. As such, non-Hammer Time Saga decks have been declining for several months now. And the trend will continue to next week's metagame update. Neither card will be banned as things stand.

How Both Could Be Banned

However, there is an entire year of cards ahead which would contain the missing piece for Urza to reclaim his glory and/or break Saga. Or something could be broken by Saga. I'm specifically looking to next fall and The Brother's War. For those unfamiliar with Magic's deep lore, that was the event that launched the entire Magic story universe and the first plotline. It's a war between artificers and the marketing blurb specifically mentions giant mechs. This almost certainly means that it's an artifact set and Wizards has a history with those. All it takes is the right replacement for Mox Opal and/or Arcum's Astrolabe for Urza to dominate again. And that same card might bust Saga.

Likelihood: Very Low

Wizards will need to make a mistake for either card to become remotely banworthy. Design has taken a pounding over the past several years and appears to have learned, judging by the past year's Standard. However, anything is possible when designing around artifacts.

Wait and See

And now we wait. Modern is in a good place, so I don't expect anything to happen in the near future. However, the mind of Wizards of the Coast is a strange and mercurial thing. Who knows what it intends or what is coming which will require action? We just have to play the waiting game.

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