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Big Decks Begone: Yorion’s Banned

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Bans used to be eminently predictable. Wizards had four announcements per year and they were scheduled well in advance. Everybody knew when B&R Day was coming. However, that rigid schedule prevented Wizards from responding to crises such as Modern's "Eldrazi Winter" in 2016. So, Wizards now ban whenever they feel the need. True bolts from the blue are rare, especially because, for technical reasons, they put up a placeholder webpage the Friday before the Monday the announcement goes live. There are players running browsing scripts looking for this page every week so that we're not taken completely by surprise. Thus, I knew a ban was incoming, but not what would be banned or in what format.

Yorion is Banned in Modern

I don't cover Standard, so I'm not going to discuss the The Meathook Massacre banning in Standard. The banning of Yorion, Sky Nomad in Modern though, is very much in my wheelhouse. Yorion getting the hammer is unexpected, though not unwelcome. As I said when Lurrus of the Dream-Den was banned, the companion mechanic is a mistake, and it should go away. The cards that have companion aren't problematic by themselves, but the mechanic is incredibly overpowered. I wish Wizards would just re-errata or ban the companion mechanic outright rather than gradually banning each card individually, but that seems to be the direction they've taken.


Wizards' Reasoning

Every banning is a new insight into Wizards' thought process, and their explanation article is particularly interesting this time. I'll be discussing the opening sentence on its own in a bit, but the second is relevant now:

However, as tabletop Modern play continues to rebound since the height of the pandemic, we've decided to enact a change that we've been considering for some time by banning Yorion, the Sky Nomad.

"Considering for some time" is the significant clause, here. When I made up my Banning Watchlist last year, I didn't include Yorion. While, again, I think the whole companion mechanic had to go, the only specific companion that caused trouble was Lurrus. This indicates that Wizards does see the entire mechanic as problematic and may have considered banning Lurrus and Yorion together. However, there's a bigger problem with Yorion:

we're also factoring in the physical dexterity requirements of playing with a large deck for tabletop. We're wary of the metagame reaching a point where players are playing the deck because of its perceived strength and win rate despite not enjoying how cumbersome it can be to operate.

While these physical dexterity issues exist to a lesser degree in other formats (like Pioneer), Modern specifically entails more shuffling and other physical card manipulation because of the deep card pool of card-selection spells, fetch lands, and so on.

This is probably the really big killer. Both the Tournament Rules and the Infraction Procedure Guide have statements on what constitutes sufficient randomization. These requirements have soft-banned Battle of Wits for years. 80-card Yorion decks are much harder to shuffle within the requirements and therefore fall afoul of this rule. It makes sense to remove the obstacle rather than have players penalized, especially with large paper events returning. Finally:

Finally, we've also heard from many players that the repeated triggers caused by Yorion and many of the cards surrounding it can lead to repetitive gameplay patterns and long games with lots of downtime between the other player's actions.

Anyone who's sat through a tournament, waiting for the Four-Color Omnath mirrors to finish feels this deeply. I'm not sorry to see that problem alleviated.

The Bottom Line

What all this ultimately means is that Yorion was not directly banned due to concerns over power level. Instead, this is a tournament logistics ban first, with poor play experience (repetitive games) as a secondary consideration. Wizards have been aware that these may be problems specific to paper play, apparently for some time, and have decided to deal with the problem before it gets worse. It's a problem we've seen in the past with this card:

As for this week's ban, I agree with these reasons from personal experience. Waiting around for Omnath mirrors to slowly grind themselves down is the worst. I also won't miss the problems with shuffling my opponent's deck. As for the power considerations, Wizard did say something interesting on that front that I'll be addressing on its own in a bit.

That Data Line

What has really gotten to me from this announcement is Wizards' cited data. It's always going to be true that Wizards has (or at least has access to) much better data than I do. They have all the data from all the matchups played on Magic: Online (MTGO) while I get ~350 decks to examine every month. Wizards know with certainty what decks are winning, and at what rate, while I can only guesstimate. However, I'm not used to my data being so wildly different from Wizards':

Modern has been in a healthy place since the last banned and restricted update, with good diversity among archetypes and even the most popular competitive decks occupying a relatively small slice of the metagame (about 5–6% each, on Magic Online).

Ummm....what? The most popular decks are only around 5% of the metagame? I've been singling out UR Murktide and frequently Hammer Time as statistical outliers since March! Yet, they're only 5%ish overall?! I'm used to having my data diverge from Wizards, that's normal. It's never happened to this extent before, though. Even with the complete data from Premier events, there shouldn't be such a wild difference between what entered the event and what won i.e. what Wizards knows vs what I see.

The only way this divergence makes sense to me is that League numbers are driving this data. There are far more League games than Premier, but we only see a tiny and curated slice of 5-0 decks. It seems that the top-performing decks don't show up in the Leagues which brings the numbers down. Which is interesting to contemplate.

Wizards' Crystal Ball

There's a further, interesting statistic Wizards mentioned:

Yorion most commonly appears as a companion in Four-Color Omnath decks, which show a strong win rate and, according to our matchup data, are likely to continue to rise in popularity.

That statement runs totally contrary to what's been happening to Omnath, Locus of Creation decks in my data. The collective Omnath decks have been on a general downward trend since June. While it hasn't been as bad for paper Omnath as MTGO, it did look like the metagame was adapting to Omnath and it wasn't much of an issue.

Wizards must have seen that despite low play numbers, Omnath decks have a strong win rate. For Wizards that means 55% or better, which again, is not something I've observed consistently. Omnath decks frequently do well in average power rankings, but not exceptionally well. Clearly, Wizards' data had them winning a lot in the Leagues.

It is also possible, given that rising in popularity clause, that Wizards is being cautious. They know what new cards are coming down the pipe and may know of something likely to break the Omnath decks. Depowering it now might save some pain down the line.

Impact on Modern

If depowering Omnath in the metagame was the intention, I'm not certain it will succeed. Many decks were able to steal wins off Four-Color when the additional variance of 20 extra cards caused Omnath to flounder. Its inconsistency was a boon to decks like Burn which kept its numbers down. Forcing Omnath to go leaner and more consistent might make it better against Burn.

Indeed, the chatter I'm hearing from people that actually play Four-Color indicates that banning Yorion isn't going to have much impact. In fact, it may make the deck better overall. Yorion was necessary for the mirror where card advantage was paramount. Yorion triggering everything again was the best way to come back from behind or to slam the door shut. It was mediocre everywhere else, and the additional cards hurt in fast matchups. Now Omnath decks can focus on beating other decks more, and it might lead to a Four-Color surge. I'll be watching.

Banning Winners

Modern wins as a whole since paper tournaments won't take as long anymore. As for specific winners, there aren't many.

Mill is a big winner here. Big decks are frustrating for Mill players and may have contributed to it falling off over the past few months. It's the equivalent of decks starting off with extra life vs Burn. Now that the incentives and rewards for being big are gone, Mill should do better. If not, it may be time to admit that Mill just isn't that good in Modern.

Besides Mill, no deck specifically benefits from Yorion being gone because no deck is fully unviable anymore. There have been 60-card Omnath decks alongside the Yorion versions this whole time, so the deck will simply adapt. Death and Taxes is in the same boat. I don't know of other decks consistently running Yorion. The format hasn't been fundamentally altered. Omnath decks may even benefit from this ban.

Banning Losers

It's equally hard to identify specific losers. Those playing Four-Color Omnath mirrors are certainly worse off since their Turn-the-Game-Around Button is banned, but other than that? It will heavily depend on how Four-Color adapts. A more consistent Omnath would spell trouble for Burn since an active Omnath is hard to beat, but it also means less support for that Omnath. It's hard to predict how it all plays out.

To A Newish Modern

The biggest takeaway for me is that October's metagame update will be smaller than normal because I have to throw out any data where Yorion's legal. This will make the stats a bit weird but will still give a decent view of how things are evolving. Now we all wait and see.

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