Don’t Worry, Wizards Is Watching Modern

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The workings of Wizards of the Coast can appear paradoxical to players. On the one hand, Wizards is quite open with players about the game, especially regarding how and why they make cards and how decisions are made. These topics enjoy a level of transparency between players and company increasingly rare in corporate America. For that transparency, we should all thank Mark Rosewater profusely. At the same time, that same transparency serves to highlight the areas that Wizards refuses to share. And Wizards can be very secretive when they want to be. When those things are very important to players, the ensuing frustration can even lead to resentment.

Case in point: Last week there was a Banned and Restricted Annoucement. When Wizards announced it on their livestream, they were vague about which formats were affected. All that was said was "other formats," which many took to include Modern. When it didn't, there was an outcry big enough to convince Aaron Forsythe, Wizards' VP of Design, to take to Twitter in response. Today, we'll discuss what was said and what wasn't with the aim of figuring out the implications for Modern.

How It Started

The B&R Announcement went live at 9 AM Pacific and was a surprise. How much of that was thanks to what was in the announcement itself versus players being disappointed about their dream scenario not coming to fruition remains impossible to determine. But as the Twitter thread linked above indicates, there was much shock about "no changes" in Modern. I'm not going to get into the specifics of the bans because we've podcasted about it already. I will note that the outcry prompted Forsythe to respond thusly about an hour later:

In the subsequent discussion, it became clear that for most, such a response was all they had wanted. It was simply odd that simple statement was not included in the actual announcement, and players really wanted to know why. Which seems to have taken Aaron slightly by surprise:

Aaron raises a fair point. It is a lot harder to wring blood from a stone than a steak. However, when we're talking about a format that is the most popular on MTGO (and I'm told the most played constructed format in paper, though I've no means to confirm), enough isn't always enough. Players on Twitter clearly expect Wizards to treat Modern with greater attention.

The Implications

Given the strong backlash, the sentiments expressed in the thread, and Aaron's reaction, I expect to see some adjustments to B&R announcements in the future. A lot of players were asking for an official watchlist or statement about Modern (which I'll address separately), but I doubt that we're going to see anything so substantial. Rather, I'd expect that in future updates where Modern isn't affected, there will be something similar to Aaron's Twitter response, if only to keep the mobs at bay.

A Significant Admission

And if that was all that happened, it wouldn't be worth delving into. It's more of a news column than my usual work. And in the initial Twitter thread, Aaron had a very interesting response to a question from Saffron Olive:

Aaron was right, his tweet did set off a bit of storm. But then, Twitter is especially storm-leaning. In any case, Wizards is fully aware of the perceived problem of Lurrus of the Dream-Den, but their metrics don't paint it as a problem. Which I should note is consistent with the data I've been working with. Lurrus decks have been the best decks in Modern for months, just not in a way which is inherently damaging or dangerous. The fact that Aaron specifically calls Lurrus's impact warping is significant, as is the clarification he made next:

Intended as an explanation for why Wizards doesn't just ban everything players dislike, this quote is also very telling. Wizards is fully aware of existing discontent, and knows that not everything is perfect in every format. The perfect format almost certainly doesn't exist, but Wizards doesn't determine format health based on grumbling. That grumbling needs data backing it up for them to want to pull the trigger on a massive change.

The Follow-Up

Predictably, Twitter being Twitter and Magic players being Magic players, that didn't put the issue to bed. Discussion continued throughout the day and I'm guessing filled Aaron's inbox and DM's such that he had to end the day with further explanation of Wizard's position about Lurrus:

Obviously, saying that Lurrus was the most discussed card is significant for the reasons discussed above. However, the fact that it was the "most discussed" and not the "only discussed" card does indicate that there's a lot more potentially on the chopping block. Exactly what those cards might be he didn't say. But I choose to read this statement as hinting at the possibility that there could be a lot more going on in Modern than just Lurrus that is potentially problematic, something just Wizards, with their heaps of data, will know for sure.

More critically, his third tweet on the subject contains the first real insight into Wizards' decision-making process around bans that I can remember:

Wizards wants to let formats happen. They're not in the game of active shaping or influencing formats, or at least they don't want to be. Aaron says they want to let formats play out "to their natural conclusion" (whatever precisely that means), and only act once everything is crystal clear. And this is consistent with the timing of previous bans well after there was absolutely no dissent on something being a problem, though some of that had to do with the limited windows for bans.

The Implications

Here's my take on the above comments: Wizards will not be taking action against Lurrus just because players dislike its prevalence in Modern. They need to see something more perilous and/or immediately threatening to take action. When they do, it's likely that Lurrus won't be the only thing banned. Lurrus may have a warping effect, but R&D remains aware of the format as a whole and sees that removing just one pillar could be destabilizing or allow something else to dominate in a dangerous way. As many commentators agree, Modern is fine right now. So long as it continues to be fine, there will be no changes.

That takeaway falls in line with the findings explored on my Watchlist a few weeks ago. I'm not privy to Wizards' data nor its discussions, but it seems as though I am thinking about Modern and potential problems similarly to how they do. I said that Lurrus was the card in the most danger and that other bans would only come as a reaction to changes in the format or as a reaction to Lurrus, which Aaron seems here to corroborate.

Why No Official Watchlist?

As mentioned, there were a lot of commenters asking for Wizards to say more about Modern's health and for Wizards to issue something akin to a Watchlist. Aaron resisted this, and the main reason is in the above tweets. He's worried that such a statement would be a self-fulfilling prophecy or (perhaps even worse) a self-defeating one. Even just mentioning cards they had talked about but have no intention of banning could yield cascading impacts on player behavior.

Aaron is wise to worry. Statements made by business leaders are known to manipulate markets. Just look at what Elon Musk does to the crypto market every time he tweets about it. Should Wizard put out official statements on what is winning or what they're concerned about, players will react. It's new and significant information, of course players will act on it! It might cause them to coalesce around the best decks, or to move out of that deck and create an illusion that there's no problem. To say nothing of the financial implications:

A Legally Sound Policy

That last point is a significant one because market manipulation is illegal, and the fiscal danger of statements meant to move a market forms the basis of the insider trading and securities fraud laws. Musk's tweeting has run afoul of the SEC for that before, and his aforementioned impact on crypto is probably getting him into more trouble. It's a fine line, but there are circumstances that could get Wizards into trouble for talking too much shop.

I'm not a lawyer. Howver, I've known some, and have had professors with backgrounds in anti-trust and financial fraud, and they've agreed that it's better for any executive in any business to avoid publicly talking shop. There's no way to know how a statement will be taken, and anything might affect their market. Violating that principle risks regulatory scrutiny, which is why official statements trend so bland and generic. As such, I imagine that whenever the subject of an official watchlist comes up, Wizards' lawyers caution them to back far off. So, best to just drop the subject.

Besides, we don't need an official Watchlist. That's my job, remember?!

An Interesting Development

On a lighter note, Aaron did provide an unexpected additional insight. I confess, I didn't see this one until it was posted on Reddit, but Wizards apparently does consider unbans with every potential banning. Or at least, one very specific unban:

So, yeah, the same arguments that break out online every time unbans are discussed appear to be happening at Wizards, too. That Splinter Twin is often discussed is significant; it is the ultimate meme unban topic. As the key card from a very popular deck, it makes sense that Wizards is constantly reevaluating the decision. Which certainly moves Twin from "unlikely" to "plausible" in my unban evaluation (see what I mean about player reactions). And gives me some motivation to at least chcek if I still have Twin pieces anywhere.

Still Too Good

More significantly, Aaron appears to be taking Birthing Pod off the table for good. And I agree with his reasoning. A repeatable tutor is always going to be dangerous, and one which can combo off on turn 3 is very dangerous. The chain goes like this:

  1. T1: Mana dork
  2. T2: Cast Pod
  3. T3: Play third land, Pod the dork via the dork into Corridor Monitor, untap Pod
  4. Pod Monitor into Renegade Rallier, get back Monitor, untap Pod
  5. Pod Rallier into Restoration Angel, blink Monitor, untap Pod
  6. Pod Angel into Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, make infinite Monitors

A lot more straightforward than the older Body Double combo. However, Pod was banned for being a fair value engine, and it has also improved on that front. In addition to generally better creatures (who in this day and age runs Siege Rhino), Pod can now find Grist, the Hunger Tide, and tutoring for planeswalkers is something I'd certainly like to avoid. I've previously said that the problem with unbans is the different environments they're released into, and Wizards clearly agrees. You can't just go home.

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

Taken in total, Aaron's stream of tweets present a significant development in understanding the Modern banned list, and the format as a whole. Wizards, despite appearances, is well tuned into what's going on and is fully aware of player sentiments and desires. However, they're not going to take action unless they absolutely have to, and that is the official policy. We're unlikely to hear more until Wizards is ready to make a decision.

Consequently, I predict that Wizards is just waiting for a critical mass of data before taking action to address the Modern metagame. When they do so, Lurrus is public enemy #1. There may be additional cards accompanying Lurrus if there's hard data to back up the need. And finally, Wizards is at least thinking about unbanning a card, although on that front they're certain to be extremely cautious and appear to prefer waiting. Which is all we the players can do, for that matter.

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