September 13, 2015

I, like many other humans, enjoy the occasional collapse of oppressive governing bodies. When those in charge continually create rules that demonstrate a lack of restraint and common sense in carrying out their agenda and forcing their doctrine down the public's throat, I am of the belief that it is for the greater good that their rule be overturned. Last weekend, I participated in one such uprising, and the oppressive system being overthrown was none other than the Modern banlist.

When one of the formats for a friendly tournament I was invited to participate in was announced to be no-banlist Modern, I was pumped. Not because the cards I knew I was going to end up playing in my deck were cards I actually like or enjoy playing with, but because the format seemed like an interesting test of both deckbuilding and metagaming skills. My initial inclination was to play U/R Delver with Monastery Swiftspear, Young Pyromancer, Mental Misstep, Treasure Cruise, and Skullclamp. I felt like this deck, along with Disciple/Clamp Affinity were probably the level zero best decks. The Delver deck sacrifices some raw power compared to Affinity in order to be basically impossible to hate out and for the ability to play several more interactive cards than Affinity in order to stop degenerate combo decks from carrying out their game plan, instead of only being able to race them.

Given that the no-banlist Modern portion of the tournament was only one third of the tournament, I didn't want to over-prepare or over-think it. But I had locked in Twin-Blade for the “ghosts of standards past” portion as soon as I knew the format, and cube draft isn't exactly something that is simple to prepare for without access to the full cube list and seven other players who want to help you prepare, so most of my effort for the event went into my Modern deck. As I theorycrafted with U/R Delver a bit more, I realized that I wanted a more reliable way to close the door on linear combo decks. I still wanted to play a U/R Delver shell because its power level seemed so high, but much of the time the U/R deck just sits there attacking and chaining cantrips without doing anything that stops a combo deck from just killing you. The more I thought about what decks I expected would show up and what I wanted to do to combat them, the more I was leaning toward Jeskai Delver:

Jeskai Delver by Nate Barton

4 Delver of Secrets
4 Young Pyromancer
3 Meddling Mage
1 Snapcaster Mage
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Mental Misstep
4 Spell Pierce
1 Remand
4 Treasure Cruise
2 Path to Exile
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Ponder
2 Preordain
2 Skullclamp
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Flooded Strand
2 Misty Rainforest
2 Steam Vents
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Sulfur Falls
2 Island

2 Stony Silence
2 Rest in Peace
1 Path to Exile
1 Shattering Spree
4 Gut Shot
2 Dispel
2 Blood Moon

Having white in your Delver deck gives you additional outs to combos that are difficult to interact with in Meddling Mage, Stony Silence, and Rest in Peace. I suspected that Meddling Mage+Gitaxian Probe would be very powerful in a less interactive, more combo-focused Modern format, and I was correct. Stony Silence has obvious applications against decks like Affinity, but I also thought people may try to play Eggs, and the card isn't even bad against decks like Stoneblade or Miracles if those showed up. Rest in Peace I was less sure about, especially given one of the most important spells in my deck was an eight-mana delve spell, but I thought the upside that it had against Dredge was too high to not include it in my deck. Trading Monastery Swiftspear for all this seemed worth it, and if I were to play in another no-banlist Modern event I would likely run something like this back.

But what is more interesting to me than the no-banlist Modern format itself is: what would happen if we simply rebooted Modern and started from the ground up again? Modern's first incarnation that debuted at Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2011 was already heavily regulated by a very aggressive and arbitrary banlist due to PR concerns. I believe Wizards was more concerned that the Modern format be populated by new decks that people hadn't seen before in order to garner interest in the format, and was less concerned with the actual playability of the format. I don't really blame Wizards for not wanting a full season of Thopter Depths vs Caw-Blade vs Faeries vs Affinity before they were able to decide that some or all of those decks needed to be banned out. But at the end of the day, would these decks really have been more insane than the decks that showed up to the first Modern Pro Tour anyway? I think it would have been fairly self-evident that they were not: Storm decks killed on turn one or two with some regularity, Shoal Infect was consistently killing on turn two or three with protection, Splinter Twin decks were interacting favorably with the format and killing on turn four or five, and Cloudpost decks were unreasonably good against anything that wasn't playing a combo-kill. Granted, many of these decks ended up being hurt or removed completely by bans, but the fact that cards like Jace the Mind Sculptor, Valakut, and Bitterblossom which would have been wildly unplayable in this incarnation of Modern were banned over any of the enablers for the aforementioned combo decks represents to me the fundamental problem with Wizards' approach to the Modern banlist: they don't want to let Modern develop organically.

The Modern format is too successful at this point for Wizards to really have much incentive to start over. It's unfortunate, because I don't actually think the Modern format is too far off from being great, and I love the idea of an “Overextended” format. It's just that Wizards' approach to bannings and unbannings is arbitrary and inconsistent to a point that I find extremely irritating. Storm kills on turn two? Better ban half of the cards in the deck. Goryo's Vengeance kills on turn two? Yeah, that deck is fine, we'll leave it unbanned for an entire PPTQ season, and probably forever. Birthing Pod gives players interesting and challenging deckbuilding and gameplay decisions that reward them for their skill and preparation? Better ban it. Ad Nauseam leads to games where neither players' decisions matter at all? Yeah, we can let that deck exist. Modern somehow manages to be a format where there is large diversity in the number of decks yet the metagame is still extremely stale. There are very weird and cool things decks are doing to win games, but the games themselves aren't interesting and are often just a race to execute a convoluted game plan, or a struggle to line up narrow answers to diverse threats. The “Brewer's Paradise” that Modern was meant to be is dead and gone: the deckbuilding puzzles that the format presented at its inception have been solved only to have those solutions banned out, to have the cycle repeat itself over and over until we are left with a stale metagame of high-variance, clunky, underpowered decks.

The solutions to the problems that Wizards has created by being so inconsistent when it comes to managing Modern are not simple by any stretch. Since I believe the problems that Modern faces are so complicated and any change made will have large ripple effects throughout the entire format, I don't believe the solution is something easy like the banning or unbanning of a few cards. I would be all for sending Modern back to the stone age: unban everything, see what happens, and ban accordingly and consistently. I would even be in support of extending what is Modern-legal back to Invasion block. Cards like Fact or Fiction, Psychatog, Cabal Coffers, Wild Mongrel, Pernicious Deed, and Astral Slide that aren't powerful enough for Legacy but were printed too early to be legal in Modern could hit the spotlight again and further complicate the deckbuilding puzzle that the format is supposed to be. There are just so many cool things that could be going on with a format like Modern, and Wizards looks like they don't want any part of any of them.

I hate wasted potential, and that's what Modern looks like to me in its current state. If someone who thinks Modern is a great format could enlighten me as to what its appeal is, I'm open to that discussion as well. I just can't sit by and watch while one of the better ideas for a competitive format dries up dies a slow, agonizing death while Wizards does little to nothing about it.