Post-Banning Check-in: Yorion Edition

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As is becoming something of a tradition, it's time to look at the immediate consequences of the latest banning. I don't have much data to go off, but neither does anyone else. Which is bad news for all the 4-Color players trying to figure out how to rebuild their deck now bereft of their crutch. I assumed that it would be relatively easy since there were 60-card Omnath decks alongside the more typical 80-card ones. Turns out I was wrong, and it is proving very hard for many to trim down. In retrospect, I should have seen this coming.

The Problem

When the announcement came down, I was pleasantly surprised. I've never liked the companions and wish they'd just be gone. If Wizards decrees that we must slowly ban them rather than just giving up on the mechanic, so be it. However, I was mild on the actual impact on Modern. Very few decks were impacted, and I thought they'd be perfectly viable after a strenuous diet. A welcome, but fairly minor ban.

However, this past week has challenged that analysis. All day Monday (and throughout the week) I was reading and hearing takes agreeing with my position. However, there was an undercurrent in comment sections and elsewhere of 4-Color Omnath players asking for advice on rebuilding their decks. Early on I brushed it off, but as the week progressed the evidence started coming in that the 60-card versions weren't as good as the 80-card ones.

I didn't really think about the rumblings vs writings divide until FNM. Round 3 I am against a player who'd been rocking 80-card 4-Color Blink for months. I was expecting him to have a trimmed down A-Omnath, Locus of Creation deck. Instead, he revealed Jegantha, the Wellspring. It was Grixis Shadow.

Making the Cut

After the match, I asked him why he wasn't on Omnath after months of dedication. His answer was, bluntly, the deck was bad. He'd been working on it and had played a 60-card version earlier in the week. It didn't go well, and he hadn't been able to fix the problems. He flatly said that he intended to wait for other players to figure out how to build the deck before he tried again.

I was pretty floored by that revelation. It's completely opposite of how I thought it would work and indicates that I understood Omnath less than I thought. This meant that after FNM was over, I went back and checked the comments I'd mostly glazed over. It was the same complaint with similar conclusions. Players are struggling to actually cut down their Omnath decks to such an extent that they're setting down the deck.

Obvious in Retrospect

I feel like I should have seen this coming. I obviously didn't, but now that the problem has been pointed out it's obvious. I've even discussed the problem before. Last year, there was a brief moment when 80-Card Crashing Footfalls was getting attention. I covered the phenomenon, concluding that the math predicted it would inevitably fail. Which is what happened. However, in that article I noted that there were two good reasons to play more than 60 cards:

  1. Mana Ratios: It's easier to make a desired mana ratio work with more cards
  2. More is More: Larger decks mean more cards, which can mean more relevant cards OR drawing the wrong cards less often

Even before Yorion, Sky Nomad was printed, players had been playing big decks for those reasons, and sometimes it worked out. Yorion was an excuse and reward for doing something players always wanted to do.

I thought that said it all and didn't think about it until Leyline Binding was printed. That card had a lot of promise if it could be made cheap, and players wanted to know if it'd work out. Frank Karsten did the math to put everyone's mind at ease. However, the key was playing more fetch lands, and more specifically, the right combination of more fetch lands was the key. It was far easier to fit in the needed lands with an 80-card deck than 60.

Putting it Together

The connection that I could have made but did not was that an 80-card Yorion pile is not only more of a pile than 60-card piles, but it is also far easier to build. In fairness, I never had any reason to make that connection. I didn't anticipate a Yorion ban and felt Omnath decks were sufficiently self-explanatory I never needed to cover them. Plus, I'd said what I knew I wanted to say last November.

However, I mentioned that Death and Taxes, particularly in Legacy, plays Yorion partially to help the grind game, but mostly to fit in everything. The same is true of Modern Omnath decks, which I did sort of mention, but not explicitly. Definitely not in a way that would lead me to think that it was a major factor in the deck's success nor integral to its design.

To be clear: Yorion was actually an integral part of 4-Color Omnath, both Control, and Blink. While its explicit utility was as a late-game mirror-breaker, Yorion's main utility was making the deck easier to build by rewarding 80-card decks. Being 80-cards in turn enabled the Omnath decks to include everything they needed, particularly in their mana bases.

Understanding the Problem

There isn't going to be an easy fix for this problem. Maintaining the deck's identity without Yorion will be extremely difficult and may prove impossible. There will still be a 4-Color Omnath deck in Modern. However, the deck everyone has been accustomed to is gone. A new deck has to evolve, and that is going to take time.

The challenge for the Omnath players is how to shrink the deck without sacrificing metagame positioning or power. This is going to be difficult because it means keeping in all the critical cards while rebalancing the manabase. This is a numbers game not in Omnath's favor. Previously, Omnath decks had the advantage over anything fair, only consistently losing to Burn and combo. I doubt that can be maintained.

Size Advantage

The core of the non-combo Omnath decks were four four-of cards: Omnath itself, Wrenn and Six, A-Teferi, Time Raveler, and City of Solitude. Any number of supporting cards could be added on to support the core, including but not limited to: Prismatic Ending, Abundant Growth, A-Unholy Heat, Counterspell, Expressive Iteration, Ice-Fang Coatl, Eladamri's Call, and any other good card.

When the deck was 80-cards, it could easily fit in all 11 cards as four-of's with 36 slots left over for lands and bullets. Doing the same thing in the 60-card version would leave only 16 slots, all of which would be lands and far too few lands at that. Thus, there are very real sacrifices involved. The difficulty of making it happen means that it will be some time before it comes to fruition.

Struggling for Solutions

This is all extremely relevant for the rebuild because, as noted above, all the versions of 4-Color Omnath midrange were very strong against other fair decks across the board. Only decks that didn't care about board position gave them trouble. Consequently, given the actual shape of the metagame, 4-Color should have been more popular than it actually was. The cost of the deck seemed to be the main factor keeping players off it.

There are plenty of ways to transition from an 80-card pile to a 60-card one. Reverting to Tribal Elementals or 2019 Niv-Mizzet Reborn-style decks would be relatively easy. Transitioning and maintaining that advantage against everything fair is very hard. There just isn't enough space to have something against everything anymore.

The Mana Problem

At its most basic, the mana ratios don't work out in 60-cards as well as 80-cards. Read the above-linked Karsten article if you haven't already for why in general. As for this specific problem, consider that the average land count for a 4-Color Omnath deck, both Control and Blink, was 30. That makes a ratio of 30/80 or 37.5% land. That ratio isn't possible for 60-card decks. To reach the same 37.5% means a ratio of 22.5/60. It's impossible to have half a card in a deck, so decks aiming for that ratio must either run heavy with 23 lands or light at 22. Of course, they could opt to go even lower because 21/60=35% is the same as the 80-card low-land 28/80 ratio. So maybe that would work out.

Of course, actually deciding the ratio is the easy part. Fitting the lands into the deck is hard. An ideal curve for 4-Color is:

  1. Abundant Growth
  2. Wrenn and Six
  3. Teferi
  4. Omnath

The reason this is the ideal is the first two plays ensure that all the colors are fixed by turn 3. The problem is that Growth and Wrenn aren't guarantees and the deck often has to interact early to survive. Thus, it also had to be able to cast:

  1. Prismatic Ending/Unholy Heat
  2. Counterspell/Eladamri's Call/Ice-Fang Coatl
  3. Teferi/Endurance
  4. Omnath

This curve is much harder to swing and requires specific lands fetched in the right order. Making those drops requires having fetch lands for the first two turns at minimum. Having enough fetch lands was very easy in 80-cards because 12-16 fetch lands (the common range) are 53% of the total or less. Those same numbers would mean that a 60-card manabase would be a minimum of 52% fetch lands to 70% fetch lands. Either case puts extreme strain on the actual mana-producing lands and leaves no room for utility lands or basics. Thus, a complete redesign is required.

The Spell Problem

The core is fairly set, and deviating would completely change 4-Color's role in the metagame. Assuming that Omnath players want to keep the deck in the same niche, that's 16 spells set in stone. In a 21-land deck, that leaves 23 more spells. The deck needs interaction because it is slow but it also needs ways to find Omnath since that's the actual win condition.

In addition to the tutor Eladamri's Call, 80-card Omnath decks all ran the aforementioned Coatl and Growth as cantrips, along with Expressive Iteration as both cantrip and card advantage. If all were played as four-of's, that would only leave seven slots for interaction. Thus, cuts to the support cards are necessary.

The problem is that Coatl and Growth were arguably core cards in Yorion decks. The former was a cantrip that doubled as removal, and the latter was a cantrip plus additional fixing. Cantrips help fix mana, so Growth is doubling the effect. In a deck with extreme color requirements, that means Growth is essential and Omnath feels any loss of Coatl. The new deck would inherently run worse with fewer cantrips.

Thus, the cuts in the spell package will need to come from the removal, bullets, and flex slots. This would inherently reduce the win percentage of many matchups. By how much would depend, but there's little chance of Omnath decks maintaining their dominance of midrange matchups across the board. Some matchups will need to be sacrificed.

Reading the Crystal Ball

I can't know how exactly these problems will be solved. However, I am confident that they can and eventually will be solved. Players have a lot of money wrapped up in this deck and won't just give it up. However, acknowledging reality and figuring out what to sacrifice is going to take time. I don't expect to see 4-Color Omnath of any variety in the top tiers for October. The combo decks that play Omnath (specifically Glimpse of Tomorrow) will still be around, but I doubt midrange Omnath will be much of a thing.

Down the line, however, there could be a strong resurgence. Tailoring the deck toward the metagame could pay huge dividends. Additionally, losing Yorion will bring the cost down. That's 20 fewer cards, many of which were quite pricy. That will reduce the barrier to entry and likely mean more players willing and able to make the jump. Obviously, we have to wait and see, but in theory, banning Yorion might make Omnath a Tier 1 strategy again.

Change is Difficult

The masses of 4-Color Omnath players face difficult decisions. Their deck no longer has the space for everything and they'll have to make cuts. It might be that they have to make drastic changes. It's impossible to say what those changes might be at this stage. However, these are decisions that once solved, should pay out and see the deck return to Modern relevance. For better or worse.

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