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Modern Mayhem

The long-awaited banned and restricted update is here! Many of these updates pass unnoticed, but not this one. Modern just lost two decks. Two whole decks. Amulet Bloom. Splinter Twin. Boom. I’m going to try to explore these bans, and some of the ramifications they hold for the format.

A confession first: I had been flailing around looking for a new Modern deck after the banning of my beloved Birthing Pod. I finally decided to bite the bullet and commit to Splinter Twin, spending a lot of time and money on it. Thus, I’m pretty disappointed by this update, but will try to restrain my bitterness from seeping through, though I might be humming My Heart Will Go On as I write.

Summer Bloom is banned.

Bloom

Nothing to see here, move along. Amulet Bloom could kill you on turn two or turn ten. The speed of the deck broke two of the ‘rules’ of Modern, that you should at least get to turn four before dying, as well as that decks that offer a fast linear kill should be easily disrupted. This is the difference between Bloom and Grishoalbrand, which is easy to disrupt with graveyard interaction or counter spells. Interaction is WOTC-speak for fun, and Bloom was uninteractive, killed too quickly and could overcome hate too easily. It had to go (and whilst Amulet of Vigor speeds the deck up by a turn, Summer Bloom was the really explosive piece of the puzzle).

Splinter Twin is banned.

Twin

This one floored me. For years, when people have asked what Modern deck they should play, I said they should play Twin. It’s been one of the most consistent, and best performing, decks in Modern’s history. But did it oppress the format? Wizards cite the disappearance of decks like Jeskai control as evidence that Twin had pushed whole archetypes out of the metagame, but the rise of Grixis Control, which has seen GP Top 8 success in recent times, would seem to belie this.

Furthermore, Twin itself comes in UR, Temur and Jeskai flavours. So the deck that supposedly oppressed the format had several variations, didn’t take up a huge percentage of the metagame, and coexisted alongside aggressive, combo and control decks. It also provided a check to the danger of less interactive, linear decks like Tron and Affinity.

Twin was the best deck, but it has natural predators and kept a potentially degenerate format stable. How dominant might Bloom have been without Twin? Thankfully, we did’t have to find out. However, if the format evolves to the point where something like Tron or Ad Nauseum is the format’s fun police, Modern will be the worse for it.

Twin and Bloom are pretty much dead. Both can be reconfigured to kill in a similar way, but at the cost of much of their speed and consistency. I would suspect that any new version of these will be significantly weaker than the other stock decks, even if they might be somewhat competitive. Replacing Twin with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker has promise, but at the cost of a full turn. When you rely on the combo, or at least the threat of the combo, to stop people from tapping out to do busted things, that extra turn is a big deal.

Everything else remains banned

No surprises to me here. I had many conversations with people about Stoneforge Mystic being fine in the format, but I disagreed. Any fair deck would immediately splash to play the full set – it’s just that powerful. Twin would splash for it, Abzan would make Jund vanish, Zoo and Hate Bears would need to find room for it… the format would devolve into either winning the Stoneforge mirror, or ignoring Batterskull altogether. So combo vs Stoneforge decks – not healthy.

Jace has a similar problem except with blue decks. Bloodbraid Elf is probably fine, but it doesn’t really add anything exciting to the format except for crossed fingers and mumbled prayers as Cascade resolves. Sword of the Meek would be an interesting addition to the format, especially with plenty of Affinity hate and Kolaghan’s Command in the format, but Modern isn’t crying out for a slow, inexorable win condition for control decks – we already have Keranos, God of Storms for that.

Eldrazi Temple remains unbanned

Eldrazi Temple

A couple of articles released just before the ban announcement floated this possibility. The paper metagame hasn’t caught up yet – it’s harder to acquire a new Modern deck quickly in real life – but the online metagame is infested with Eldrazi. Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple offer acceleration for colourless Eldrazi, and the recent printing of cheaper such creatures has spawned an entirely new deck.

Blight Herder and Oblivion Sower don’t seem like Modern powerhouses at first glance, but when they start appearing on turn three, they’re much scarier. The Eldrazi deck also gets to play removal, graveyard hate, discard, Ghost Quarter and Cavern of Souls – disruption suitable for every opponent. I’m not saying that the deck is powerful enough to need a ban, but given its online prevalence and the printing of Matter Reshaper, Reality Smasher and most worryingly, Thought-Knot Seer, it is liable to explode over the next few months.

ReshaperSmasherThought Knot

Aside from Burn and Affinity, most decks seem at a disadvantage to Eldrazi in our testing so far. Get on board now, but don’t expect the deck to be around forever – Wizards have decided that if there’s a clear best deck in the format (Pod, Twin), they will not be looking to tone down the power level any more – they want the deck gone.

The Format Now

I don’t think that the bans will actually shake up the format too much. Sure, two decks might die, but this represents, what, 20% of the metagame? The relative value of Ad Nauseum, Storm, Infect, Merfolk, Bogles and the like has gone up, partly in line with the value of Jund and Abzan, which goes down without Twin to prey on. Affinity and Tron are the obvious winners – popular decks that were a slight dog to Twin.

But whilst the power balance within the format alters, no deck lived or died because of one matchup. Even at its height, on average you would face Twin twice in a GP – more than any other deck maybe, but definitely not to the extent that being 60/40 against it meant your deck was unplayable.

The big change here is that discard and removal are at less of a premium – two of the decks that best punished uninteractive decks are gone (one by being interactive, the other by being faster and able to fight through most interaction). We might still want discard and counterspells to deal with Vines of Vastwood, Cranial Plating and Karn Liberated, but it’s less important without the presence of Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom. Creature removal is also less important – not killing Loxodon Smiter costs you 4 life a turn, but not dealing with Primeval Titan or Deceiver Exarch just made you dead.

But hang on – counterspells, discard and removal… that’s the interactive part of the game. Not only is an interactive deck banhammered, but the need to have your own interaction goes down. And if interaction is fun, these bannings make Modern less fun. Hey, I said I was bitter.

What does this all mean to you? If you didn’t play Bloom or Twin, you need to retune your deck slightly. Worry less about counterspells and single threats, and more about swarms and sorceries. If you did play the banned decks, you need to start from the ground up, unless you’re brave enough to play underpowered versions against a field not really expecting them. You want to make sure that you have a good matchup against Eldrazi because with Oath of the Gatewatch on the horizon, the new hotness will likely be the future hotness as well.

If you like linear decks, such as Elves, Hate Bears, Merfolk, Affinity, Tron or Zoo, with limited interaction, then now may well be a good time to go nuts. If you like spell based combo decks, then you’re probably looking at a window where few decks are equipped to deal with them. I suspect that Infect is the quiet achiever here – the less Lightning Bolts in the format, the better, and it was excellent already. And Eldrazi will, once it makes the leap into paper, start to put up some seriously scary numbers.

Conclusion

The bannings will alter the format a bit, but it’s not going to be too dramatic. Modern isn’t a format that rewards clever metagaming and slight deck tuning, so much as it rewards matchup knowledge and experience with your deck of choice. So the more time you’ve put into Twin and Bloom, the more the bans affect you, but for everyone else? Just keep testing the other matchups, add Eldrazi into your gauntlet, and cut some of those Rending Volleys and Ghost Quarters that were dedicated to now non-existent matchups.

I’m obviously disappointed. I moved all in on Twin and lost. I also think that there’s a real risk that the format is going to suffer, and that’s without even considering the questionable philosophy of removing decks entirely rather than reducing their power level. But none of that is going to change – what is important is adapting and being aware that for anyone playing one of the other fifteen decks in Modern, it’s mostly business as usual.

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