Modern Ban Watchlist: 2023 Edition

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Farewell 2022; you've been... better? Than the last two years? Which admittedly isn't a high bar to clear, but you did have actual competitive Magic, so that's a big plus. Though, 2023 promises to have a lot more of that, as well as light at the end of a lot of tunnels. So, yeah, time to move on from the present and look to the future. And as is tradition, doing so begins with an update to the Official Modern Ban Watchlist.

Standard Disclaimer

I am not saying that anything will actually be banned in the next year. Only Wizards knows when and how Wizards makes their decisions. I have no special insight into Wizards' inner workings, just a prediction system that has worked well over the years and the publicly available data about the metagame. This list is a reflection of what I think could be banned on the basis of what is currently happening in the metagame. Proceed accordingly.

Measuring Last Year's Ban Predictions

Compared to previous years, 2022 was rather quiet on the banning front. The two highly-played companions got the ax, but that was all. I called Lurrus of the Dream-Den being banned and it was. Much sooner than I thought it would, but no complaints here. Frankly, I was more surprised Lurrus lasted until March.

I'm giving myself partial credit on Yorion, Sky Nomad's ban. I specifically called out A-Omnath, Locus of Creation as a target, but as I said last year, saying 4-Color Pile card should be banned was a more accurate prediction. I made myself take a stand and name a single card rather than a deck. I thought the power-cell of the deck would be targeted for power reasons, but Wizards decided that 80-card decks were a tournament logistics problem. I had no way to see specifically that being a problem last year, but the deck was correct.

I didn't actually expect the other three mentioned cards to be banned, as two of them required the right printing and the third was annoying but not a proven problem at the time. Wizards would need to see something I couldn't or have an ax to grind for Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer to be banned in 2022, my thinking went. My thinking has since changed.

The Criteria

There's no way to know exactly what, if anything, will get banned in 2023. 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 three years, the only consistent criteria have 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, which they don't always do anyway.

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. Warps the meta. (Treasure Cruise, Arcum's Astrolabe)
  6. Complicates tournament logistics. (Sensei's Divining Top, Yorion, Sky Nomad)
  7. Constrains or 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. 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 all thanks to the February 2021 ban. Wizards has historically preferred highly-targeted bans for minimal format disruption. They dropped a bomb last year, 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 three cards that might break if the right card(s) are printed in 2023. I'll be dealing them as separate categories.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

Offenses: homogenizes deck construction; problematic play patterns (all three subcategories)

Over the past year, I've soured strongly on the monkey. I put Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer on my list last year because it wasn't clear if the problem was Ragavan or Lurrus. As things have turned out, the answer was yes. After Lurrus was banned, Ragavan-powered UR Murktide shot to outlier status on top of the metagame and has stayed there all year. Spoiler alert for the metagame update next week: nothing's changing.

Worse, Ragavan's overall metagame share is rising. If it were just Murktide with inordinate metagame share, I could write it off as players being too enamored with Izzet colors and tempo decks. However, Rakdos Scam was also an outlier in November and is on pace to repeat in December. In Tier 2, Jeskai Breach Combo has been gradually rising for some time. That's not accounting for fringe decks or for Ragavan randomly showing up in any red deck. The only nonland card that sees more play is Lightning Bolt. Taken as a whole, Ragavan decks account for somewhere between a quarter and a third of Modern.

It's rather tragic, because as a threat, Ragavan isn't that impressive. What elevates the monkey above other red threats is the treasure-making clause. If Ragavan just stole cards and allowed players to cast them with any-color mana, I doubt there'd be a problem. However, it's proven to be more beneficial to just build treasures for later, creating repetitive, snowballing gameplay that players generally find frustrating.

Why Ragavan Won't Be Banned

Wizards has been watching this develop for about a year and a half now. They've seen everything I've described play out and have taken no action. It could be that there are cards coming that will contain or eliminate the problem. It may also be that Wizards feels that Ragavan isn't a problem, as it's a 2/1 that has to connect with a player's face to do anything, and that's easy enough to prevent that the metagame should be able to deal with the problem given time.

How Ragavan Could Be Banned

How much more time does the metagame need? If it hasn't done so already, is there really going to be something that will answer Ragavan in a way that Modern couldn't already? If something could happen and hasn't, there's a good reason, and just hoping for change is meaningless.

Wizards has all the data I use and more. It'd be extremely unusual for them to be wildly divergent enough for what is clearly a statistical problem in my set to not be so in theirs. Moreover, Magic players have known for years that threats are more potent than answers regardless of quantity. It only takes one threat to win. The data doesn't lie, and players have not negated the Ragavan threat, so at this point it's safe to assume they cannot.

Ban likelihood: medium-high

I can't fathom Ragavan making it another year. However, there's also not an inordinate amount of pressure to ban it soon. This isn't an Oko, Thief of Crowns situation. I'd expect Wizards to take a Lurrus-like approach and ax the monkey after a few more set releases.

Colossus Hammer

Offenses: generally broken (fast wins); harms deck diversity; problematic play patterns (unfun gameplay)

Since emerging in 2020, Hammer Time has been a consistent top contender in Modern and was the boogeyman deck of 2021. I thought the Lurrus ban would knock the deck out of Tier 1, but that hasn't happened.

That's not a reason to target a deck for banning. The fact that Hammer Time has been Murktide's companion in outlier status, however, is. Murktide has been an outlier for 10 months in a row. For six of those (not fully consecutively), Hammer was also an outlier. That fact plus Hammer's history put it in the crosshairs.

The question is what to actually ban. The deck is so strong thanks to the combo of Colossus Hammer and Sigarda's Aid. With the right draw the deck can win on turn 2, but more often the deck wins by stretching the opponent's resources and turning an unblocked Ornithopter into a lethal threat.

There's a strong argument that Aid should go as the enabler, but Hammer has precedent on the banlist itself. Blazing Shoal was banned for basically the same problem, and if that card is too good then Hammer is too. If that isn't the case, Shoal should be unbanned and Aid banned.

Why Hammer Won't Be Banned

The first reason Hammer may escape the banhammer is that Aid will get targeted instead. I'm treating this as a case of a deck needs targeting, and there are multiple options.

On a less hedging topic, Hammer has been progressively moving away from the fast kills as integral to the strategy. Ever since Lurrus was banned, Hammer Time has prioritized protection and grinding over being all-in on the fast combos. This is a healthier direction for the deck and leads to better gameplay. Plus, just being a good deck for a long time isn't a reason to ban a deck.

How Hammer Could Be Banned

Everything I said about Ragavan applies here. The data very clearly shows that Hammer Time takes up an inordinate amount of metagame space by itself, and I'm pretty sure it wins events more often than Murktide does. Hammer Time is almost certainly preventing any other Stoneforge Mystic strategy from existing in Modern. Whether or not another such deck is viable in the first place is irrelevant; it will definitely be worse than Hammer Time. That's not getting into non-Stoneforge decks getting pushed out because there is literally no room for anything but Ragavan decks and Hammer Time.

Ban likelihood: medium-low

Hammer is entering its third year as the premier aggro deck in Modern, and it's metagame share growth has no signs of stopping. However, the fact that it has changed itself and slowed down reduces the threat to somewhere in between low and medium.

Wrenn and Six

Offenses: homogenizes deck construction; problematic play patterns (repetitive gameplay/gamestates)

When I discussed Omnath, I mentioned that Wrenn and Six was a target as the enabler of the deck. That was true, but I didn't think that Wrenn was key enough to consider banning, especially when Omnath decks played Abundant Growth and the like. However, over the past year, Wrenn has been spreading throughout Modern and could soon become omnipresent in slower decks.

Not content to just hang around with Omnath, Wrenn is now a keystone card in Indomitable Creativity decks of most stripes, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks, the odd Zoo or Ponza deck, and even control decks. What convinced me that Wrenn was becoming a homogenizing force was Wrenn, White, and Blue. The fact that an otherwise completely stock UW Control deck can add in Wrenn and make it work very strongly indicates that any midrange or slower can and potentially should play Wrenn.

Why Wrenn Won't Be Banned

The total metagame share of all the Wrenn decks is fairly low. Even aggregating all the green Creativity variants doesn't produce a metagame share of more than 14%-20%, and that encompasses a very wide range of deck types. Wrenn isn't harming diversity nor pushing the format as a whole in an unhealthy direction. There's nothing inherently bad with players having access to unlimited land drops and perfect mana, and since slower decks have historically needed help in Modern, giving them a leg up is desirable.

How Wrenn Could Be Banned

If the above-mentioned stats aren't enough, Wrenn is a master of time wasting and repetitive gameplay. Every turn, uptick Wrenn, get back a fetchland, play it,and crack it. It leads to many situations where the game gets repetitive and worse, dragged out. Wizards has stated shuffling during the game is something they try to minimize, as it slows the game down and can be difficult for newer players to repeatedly do well. If Yorion had to go for slowing the game down and making decks hard to shuffle, then Wrenn could go for encouraging that gameplay, in addition to becoming omnipresent in slower decks.

Ban likelihood: low

Wrenn isn't putting an excessive amount of pressure on Modern, but it is building. As we get more large paper Modern events, it will become clearer whether or not Wrenn is slowing down play to an unacceptable degree or not. Simultaneously, it will become clear whether this trend of Wrenn finding its way into every slow deck will continue. Thus, sometime in late 2023, it will be obvious whether or not Wrenn is too omnipresent. Anything earlier would be Wizards being preemptive or vindictive.

That's it for the cards that could be banned given the current metagame and their own merits. However, there are also cards that could be banned if the right cards are printed. To be perfectly clear, under current metagame conditions, none of the next three cards should be banned. They need to help from Wizards to make that happen. The first one should be obvious to longtime readers.

Urza, Lord High Artificer

Risks: general brokenness; enables brokenness

I put Urza, Lord High Artificer on my list every year because he is the last really dangerous mana engine in Modern. In fact... (furious Scryfall searching)... I'm pretty sure he's the only nonland mana engine left. Mana engines should always be watched carefully, and since Urza has an infinite combo with Thopter Foundry, there is always danger. Especially with mana generated by artifacts.

However, Urza has survived where comrades Oko, Thief of Crowns and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath have fallen thanks to his best enablers being banned. Oko and Uro were great with support, but still absurd on their own. Urza has proven to be only as good as his supporting cast. Without Arcum's Astrolabe and Mox Opal, Urza just hasn't been very impressive. If he ever gets replacements better than Mox Amber and Witching Well, he could regain lost glory and be a problem.

Ban likelihood: very low

Wizards says that it has learned its lesson with cheap cantrip artifacts and artifact mana. That lesson might be the lesson I think it is, but that's nothing but paranoia and cynicism. The odds that Urza will get a direct replacement for his losses is small, but not zero. The powerstone tokens show that Wizards might not have given up on cheap mana. We need to be watchful, but there's no tangible threat.

Urza's Saga and Karn, the Great Creator

Risks: constrains or threatens future design

I've discussed the problem with Karn, the Great Creator before, but the same logic applies to Urza's Saga. As tutoring engines, there's always the risk that they'll suffer the Birthing Pod problem and have to go to unlock Wizards' ability to make cards. The Brothers' War gave both cards new tools, with A-Haywire Mite in particular seeing considerable play. There is no immediate threat here given the limitations of both cards. However, with any repeatable tutor, there is a risk of it tutoring for something broken or simply getting too versatile and universal.

Ban likelihood: very low

Wizards must make some major mistake, or make too many good targets for either of these cards, for them to be banned. However, in the long run, both could become targets simply through gradual target accumulation.

Be Vigilant

That's the Watchlist for the next year. As always, there could be new cards coming that could change the fortunes of any of these cards or even cards that aren't on the list. I have no means of knowing and my crystal ball just isn't that powerful. We must all wait and see what Wizards' Mystic Cauldron Which Decides on Bans spits out next year. On the unbanning front, nothing has changed since the last time I looked at unbans. Head on over to that article for a deeper analysis. And happy new year!

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