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Standard and Modern Bannings - What Next?

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After a pretty uneventful end of 2016 where most of us were either pretty bored or playing Holiday Cube on Magic Online, this year started with a pretty big earthquake. I believe most of you already know what this is about, but for those who didn't have an internet connection in the last couple of days: There was an ("emergency") Banned/Restricted announcement from Wizards of the Coast. The announcement had a lot of text that I will discuss in the rest of the article, but the most important part is that Emrakul, the Promised End, Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage are banned in Standard, while Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll were banned in Modern. There is little need to stress the fact that this will change both formats a great deal, but in what way, and why exactly those cards? I might have some ideas.

Emrakul, the Promised End
Versions:
Eldritch Moon (Foil)

When I first heard that there will be an off-schedule Banned/Restricted announcement from Wizards a couple of days ago, I was almost one-hundred percent sure that this was due to the new Splinter Twin-ish combo that will appear in Standard when Aether Revolt is released and they are banning one of the two pieces: either Saheeli Rai or Felidar Guardian. For those of you who do not know about this soon-to-be-Standard combo it works like this: You use Saheeli Rai's -2 ability to copy Felidar Guardian, then, when the copy enters the battlefield, its ETB trigger triggers, and you can 'blink' Saheeli, which resets her loyalty counters as well as allows you to use her -2 ability again. Rinse and repeat, you have infinite hasted 1/4 Cat Beasts. This is easily doable on turn 4 in Standard and not super easily disruptable, especially if protected with cards like Essence Flux and/or Negate. Two card 'I win' combos were always a very scary thing, even if they were far more mana inefficient and in faster formats than current Standard. Based on that experience, I believe this combo will be simply too strong for this format, especially now that all the strongest strategies have been nerfed with the bannings. I am well aware I was rooting for a real combo deck in Standard just recently, but Wizards pushed it a bit too much, and now we might be in over our heads.

Saheeli Rai
Versions:
Kaladesh (Foil)

In fact, I was so sure the early ban announcement was for this combo that I sold all Saheeli Rais I had on Magic Online while they are 'still worth something'. Turns out I was mistaken.

Why These Bans?

Well, in the official announcement, Wizards claims that the main purpose of these Standard bans is to diversify the format. While I agree that the format was very stale and had little place for innovation due to the strength of the tier 1 decks, I sincerely doubt the format will be more diverse, in fact, due to the Saheeli Twin combo that is coming as soon as the bans are effective, it just might be even less diverse.

Even if we agree with Wizards that these bans will help the diversity of the format, it is not very common for Wizards to just ban cards to make a format more fun. If look back, I'd say almost all Standard bans were enforced because some strategies were broken or too strong, so these Standard bans might even be called unprecedented.

What then is the real reason Wizards took such swift and merciless action?

If I had to place a bet, I would probably bet the real reason is the steady decline of profits in the last period for Magic the Gathering in combination with stores complaining about the decline in tournament attendance. The fact is that Magic was growing at a rapid rate the past couple of years since Hasbro took over and that growth was stunted in 2016. Did Magic hit its peak or were the unexciting sets and formats the cause of this decline, it is hard to say, but Wizards decided to go with the shock therapy. Since Wizards can't really change sets that are already in print, they couldn't really do anything crazy with Aether Revolt to revitalize the scene, so they decided to do the only thing they can to immediately 'refresh' the game - ban/unban some cards. This is very unlike Wizards, since they are usually very careful about bans, especially in Standard, since, you know, they don't want people to feel cheated out of their money when their deck gets destroyed by a ban. Frequent bans would create insecurity in the player base and people would be even more unwilling to invest in a deck or a format when they can expect the banhammer to strike any day and just annul all their efforts and investments. Wizards is well aware of this, so they were always very careful what and when to ban, and to always reassure the community that bans aren't something that they do lightly.

This time around, one might argue that each of the cards banned was 'broken' or too strong for the format, but I just feel none of the Standard cards really deserved a ban. Emrakul's case is the most solid one since the cards was legitimately very strong and game breaking, but even that wasn't nearly as strong as some strategies that passed through Standard without ever getting banned.

Smuggler's Copter
Versions:
Kaladesh (Foil)

Smuggler's Copter also has a case, simply because of the fact that it appeared in such high numbers. A very high percentage of the field was running four of those, and while they weren't particularly game-breaking or hard to deal with, their efficiency was high above what we are used to from a decent rare in Standard. Does this put them on the same level as Arcbound Ravager or Umezawa's Jitte, two-mana artifacts that got banned in Standard before? Not even close.

Last on the Standard ban list was Reflector Mage and this one has the most question marks above its head - how is it possible that while Collected Company was dominating the format (in no small part thanks to Reflector Mage) there were no bans on neither CoCo nor Mage, and now it was suddenly very important to ban the Mage? Wizards say that U/W flash was too stifling on the format and that they had to weaken it - but banning Smuggler's Copter wasn't enough? I would say that Collected Company was the far worse culprit than U/W can ever be, especial without Smuggler's Copter, but hey, they needed to shake things up quite a bit in an effort to make the format interesting again. Will these bans help or not, we will see soon enough, but what is certain is the fact that we will be seeing a completely new format in a very short while. This is rarely a bad thing; hopefully it won't be this time around either.

The Modern bans have a pretty similar story, since Modern wasn't getting more popular either, they decided to shake things up a bit and give 'fair' decks a better chance to compete. Unlike the Standard bans, I can agree that both of these Modern bans are certainly for the benefit of the format. Dredge is a menace that is just forcing people to pack a lot of graveyard hate in their sideboards and banning Golgari Grave-Troll doesn't necessarily murder the deck completely, it just makes it less consistent and thus less popular, which in turn opens up more sideboard slots and allows more space for other strategies that utilize the graveyard to become viable now that graveyard hate will be a bit more scarce. As an experienced forum moderator, I can say that banning the Troll is almost always the correct move.

Gitaxian Probe
Versions:
New Phyrexia (Foil)

Now, onto the more peculiar one - Gitaxian Probe. I guess very few people saw this coming really, but I was advocating the Probe ban for a long time now, even calling for it in some of my articles.  You might not agree with the sentiment I often brought up - that Gitaxian Probe was essentially a zero mana Thoughtseize, but you have to agree with the logic Wizards presented as the reason for banning Gitaxian Probe from Modern: "Gitaxian Probe increased the number of third-turn kills in a few ways, but particularly by giving perfect information (and a card) to decks that often have to make strategic decisions about going "all-in." " is what the official statement said, and it is hard to argue with that. Gitaxian Probe gave you all the information you needed, a card, but also an Ascension counter, storm count, prowess trigger or even free life-loss if you were on the Death's Shadow plan and all for no mana at all! I have to say that Gitaxian Probe was the card I hated to see cast against me the most, even in Limited, but especially in Modern. Some of you might not agree with the ban, but I must admit this is a dream come true for me, and I believe the right step for the Modern format.

What Will Happen Next?

Well, as far as Standard goes, my predictions are dire I'm afraid - the Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo will probably dominate Standard until the next Banned/Restricted announcement. There are tools and ways to deal with the combo so the other decks will try to utilize those and we will end up with a not very diverse metagame of combo and anti-combo (probably control) decks. There is also a probability that there will be a couple of different iterations of the combo, but we shall see in time. There are certainly other decks that might look good now, like G/w or G/b or even Junk counters/tokens, as Adam suggested in his latest article, but it is quite possible that type of deck won't be viable due to its weakness to the combo. Maybe I am overhyping it, but it certainly feels very strong.

The good news is that there is a reprint of Shock in Aether Revolt, which stops the combo dead if you deal 2 damage to Saheeli Rai in response to the ability, so that is certainly an efficient way to try to deal with it, but still, it is possible to play around that by using the +1 ability a couple of times before going for the combo. Well, only time will tell how the metagame will adapt. I really hope I am wrong and that other decks will be strong enough to keep Saheeli Jeskai in check.

What about Modern then? With Dredge crippled and Infect and Death's Shadow taking a blow, we might see a bit of a resurgence of combo decks like Ad Nauseam which had shaky matchups against all of the mentioned above. Storm might be on the radar again, but we should also see resurgence of graveyard strategies like Goryo's Vengeance decks, or even some Life from the Loam strategies now that people start packing a bit less graveyard hate. All in all, Modern just got a bit slower, which means more fair decks, which also means more Tron. This format looks rather healthy and diverse now, so it might be a good time to experiment with strategies that weren't fast enough before.

Conclusion

The numbers aren't going up and Hasbro is not happy. This might mean we will have more earthquakes coming our way sooner than we anticipate and it remains to be seen if that will be good or a bad thing. This time around, I am divided, while I don't particularly like Standard bans and feel that Saheeli should have been on that list as well, I really feel these Modern bans were complete hits that will help the format grow and will allow for more creativity.

Standard is the format Wizards are most interested in, so keep a close eye on it since banhammer will probably strike more often than we were used to, maybe even just to keep things interesting and prevent the format from getting stale too quickly.

Whatever happens, Magic is still a huge game with tons of players, and though it might not grow as quickly as it did until recently, I doubt it is going anywhere in the near future.

Good luck and have fun!

Stjepan Sučić
Stjepan Sucic

About Stjepan Sučić

Stjepan started his Magic career in 2003, and had some decent finishes over the years, including a World Magic Cup top 8, Pro Tour and Worlds top 32 finishes, and a GP top 8, with 61 pro points total.

During the summer months he is also a Magic Online grinder who you can easily find in the draft queues. Stjepan boasts a 74% win rate in his real life Magic career. When he is not playing Magic, Stjepan enjoys watching Starcraft and playing MOBA games.

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