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Modern Unbannings: Release the 4-drops

2018/02/16 00:00 

    • Pierre Dagen
    • Hareruya Pros Blog

This might come as a shock to most of you, but Wizards recently decided not to ban any new cards for the time being. Despite a number of complaints about 《Lantern of Insight》 after Luis Salvatto won Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan with it, not a single card hit the bin.

Quite the opposite, actually. They unbanned two of the most mythic (actually, one mythic and one uncommon) 4-drops ever: 《Bloodbraid Elf》, and 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》, which are now legal in Modern. The rationale behind this call can be found here, and it is in my opinion worth reading before you head on social medias to criticize the choice. But I am pretty sure that what you really want to hear is my own opinion......no, just kidding. Instead of renting (actually, I am fine with both unbans), I would rather try and analyze what this means for the format going forward. Let’s go.

《Bloodbraid Elf》

Bloodbraid Elf

《Bloodbraid Elf》 was put on the Modern banlist back when Jund was thought to be too much of a dominant force - and it was. It seemed to make sense back then, but I never quite agreed with that ban, since that was back when Jund had access to 《Deathrite Shaman》, which I think was the truly overpowered card that put things over the top.

Despite being an aggressive card by design (3/2 haste have not too much business blocking), 《Bloodbraid Elf》 is the epitome of what you want in your midrange, good stuff decks: not only does it provide value, it also gets better when you play intrinsically good cards instead of situational / synergistic craps. Think 《Tarmogoyf》, 《Abrupt Decay》, or 《Liliana of the Veil》. It also makes your deck better post-sideboard, since every 《Bloodbraid Elf》 you cast acts as a pseudo-tutor for any sideboard card with a mana cost under 4. You can even engineer your deck to make sure you hit exactly what you need every time; for example, it is relatively easy to only leave creature and removal against aggressive decks to ensure that every time you cascade, you get to either block one more creature or dispatch it instantly.

Is is a dangerous unban? To some extent, yes. The main reason is that a card like this gets stronger overtime, since the overall quality of things you can cascade into is bound to go up (for example, the perspective of someone running 《Bloodbraid Elf》 into 《Kolaghan's Command》 sounds like the god of value kicking me in the nuts). It also opens up a legacy-like combo of 《Bloodbraid Elf》 + 《Ancestral Vision》 ( 《Ancestral Vision》 was not legal the first time 《Bloodbraid Elf》 was around, so we do not have much data about how good that can be). I am not too scared though: the way cascade works forces you to build your deck in a way that forbids you from playing a lot of cards, like countermagic or most spells that require a situational target, and “good stuff decks” tend to be fair by nature. Could it create a very strong midrange deck? Yes, absolutely. Could it produce a new Eldrazi winter? Definitely not.

《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

It seems like the return of Jace, Best Planeswalker Ever Printed is much scarier to most people than 《Bloodbraid Elf》’s. Which I understand: Jace had always been on the banlist, Is often listed as one of the most powerful magic cards ever, and commonly sees play in Legacy. It is also one of those cards that lets me control your draw (see what I did there? Yeah, I’ll be playing Jace, and you’ll be playing 《Bloodbraid Elf》), which is perceived as a boring way to win games. Those things I get.

Is it overpowered though? I doubt it. The immediate impact of a 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 is not that much bigger than of a 《Jace, Architect of Thought》 (a card that is far from being overpowered, we can all agree of that). It will prove much better over time, obviously, since you can use it for card advantage every turn instead of every three turn, and yes, an unchecked 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 will win the game. Like, I don’t know, every single 4-mana planeswalker ever?

The power of Jace does not rely on how powerful he is when you cast him, I think. It relies on all the bad cards that you do not have to play anymore, and the liberty it gives you when building your deck. Want to run a trillion spot removal main deck, but you cannot beat Tron when you do? Play Jace. Want to run a pure control deck, but you lose every time 《Sphinx's Revelation》 and 《Search for Azcanta》 are in your opening hand since they do nothing early on? Play Jace. You’d love to have a backup control plan for your blue-red 《Through the Breach》 deck, but you always end up with a mix of 《Lightning Bolt》s and 《Emrakul, the Aeons Torn》 in your hand? Play Jace.

As a four-mana card that can have immediate impact, and act as a draw engine, a board control tool, a lock or even a kill (or the kill) for your deck is a lot in one card, and Jace, if not overpowered in itself, basically makes almost every blue deck better. Which is, I’ll admit, a little scary with blue already being pretty good.

New options

So, now that we have that figured out, can we do anything new? The answer is a big fat yes, no discussion. 《Bloodbraid Elf》 obviously goes into Jund, but we’ll talk about that later (see: improved decks). It could also, I think, go into two other shells that are a little bit unexplored as of now.

Blood MoonTarmogoyfTireless Tracker

The first is RG moon, which is currently being built as a pure 《Blood Moon》 / Land Destruction deck. Let me be honest: it is not great. The deck is fairly bad anytime it does not resolve 《Blood Moon》, or in any match-up where 《Blood Moon》 is bad. Well, 《Bloodbraid Elf》 gives it a whole other dimension, not only by making sure you hit 《Blood Moon》 more consistently, but also because it lets you transition into a linear aggro plan post-board, where you simply cascade into 《Tarmogoyf》, 《Scavenging Ooze》 or 《Tireless Tracker》 (value!), so look into this for sure.

Ancestral VisionReflector MageKnight of the Reliquary

Option number two, if you want to be creative, is to embrace the madness and jump aboard the 《Ancestral Vision》 train. Here, you mostly want to cascade into draw three, and win from there. The thing is, you do not need to make sure you hit every time: 《Ancestral Vision》 is a very respectable card in its own right, and if you just suspend it and cascade into something else powerful, so be it. It more about playing strong cards and sometimes getting free wins than anything else. This would imply a Temur build, but I would advocate against anything overaggressive since you also want your games to drag along in order to use 《Ancestral Vision》 to its full potential when you draw it. Think 《Tarmogoyf》, 《Electrolyze》, 《Courser of Kruphix》......you might also want to try and play another colour, in which I would probably try white that lets you cascade into 《Reflector Mage》 (against aggro) or 《Meddling Mage》 (against combo). You might go even wider, and use 《Bloodbraid Elf》 as an enabler for the 《Knight of the Reliquary》 / 《Retreat to Coralhelm》 combo, since it gets both pieces and works well with each of them individually.

Fatal PushSnapcaster MageField of Ruin

《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 also opens up a number of options outside of the decks where it will simply act as a boost. I heard people discussing some Miracle builds, where you’d use Jace as an enabler for cards like 《Terminus》 or 《Entreat the Angels》. That sounds nice, but I also think it is a misunderstanding about what Jace is: that card is so powerful in its own right that you should be thinking about how you prepare for to cast Jace, not about how you win once you did. I would instead favour full-on Jace builds, full of cheap cards that make sure you get to cast him under perfect conditions. Once you do that, he will reshuffle those cards, and should be able to walk away with the game a vast majority of the time. My first try would (and will) be around blue-black control: you get to play 《Fatal Push》 and 《Inquisition of Kozilek》 alongside the full four 《Snapcaster Mage》s, which are fantastic at setting-up a turn-four 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》. Their only defect is how situational those cards are (when you face no creatures, or an empty-handed opponent), but Jace solves that problem single-handedly as long as you pack enough reshuffle effects such as 《Polluted Delta》 and 《Field of Ruin》s. As much as I love blue-white control, I would not call it a perfect fit, since 《Path to Exile》 is absolutely not the removal you want to use to set-up an early planeswalker. Jace will still be good there, no doubt, but you will not be able to engineer your whole deck around him.

Impact on existing decks

Biggest winners

All the UR non-storm decks: most blue-red decks have some elements of control, but they also pack a little bit of combo (《Through the Breach》, for example) or at the very least lack efficient ways to dispatch the bigger threats. They also tend to run the full four 《Snapcaster Mage》. For all those reasons, Jace will make those decks a ton better by giving them a much smoother kill condition, an alternative win con that is hard to deal with......and possibly a way to deal with bigger creatures if you run either countermagic or, in a lot of situations, 《Blood Moon》.

Jund: Jund is obviously the natural habitat of 《Bloodbraid elf》 (actually, 《Bloodbraid elf》 is the card that created the first competitive Jund decks). It will be an easy four-off in every Jund list, and make the deck strictly better in every match-up to the extent that Jund should be a tier 1 deck again (which is great!). Yes, it is that simple.

Blue-white control (and Jeskai, if you’re into that): Even though those two decks are quite different (I want to say: because one of them is actually good), they will welcome 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 for the same reasons. Those decks are good to great at controlling the board, but they suffer from either having mediocre, slow kills like 《Celestial Colonnade》 (which is a liability against combo decks and Tron) or devoting too many cards to actually winning the game, which makes their opening hands weaker (think 《Sphinx's Revelation》). Jace fixes all that, and even though 《Bloodbraid elf》 is a scary card to play against as the control player, I still like my chances in those match-ups.

Tron: Yup. Good old Tron. I know, none of the unbanned cards will find a home in 《Urza's Tower》. But from a metagame standpoint, those are two cards that Tron is find playing against: 《Bloodbraid Elf》 typically goes into decks that are weak to Tron, and will struggle to cascade into anything super relevant. Jace is fine, but tapping four mana in the face of a potential 《Karn Liberated》 is a losing proposition, and locking Tron’s draw is quite tough with all their draw / shuffle effects.

Biggest losers

Death's Shadow: Ok, 《Death's Shadow》 is a small loser. The deck remains relevant, and will still see play. Still, if went from being the far-and-ahead best aggro-midrange deck in Modern to “can this still compete with Jund?”. The direct match-up sounds quite bad, at least, so I’d say DS experts will not like it.

Burn: Burn is another deck that will still exist post-bannings (which is good), but should be a little worse. 《Bloodbraid Elf》 does not change things too much for Burn players, but 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 is a pretty big deal : the Fateseal effect is extremely strong in this match-up, and slamming a Jace on turn four should prove troublesome for the Burn players.

Lantern: I read a few comments about how it would be miserable playing against Jace TMS in Lantern decks, since it is yet another card that controls your draw and it plays well with 《Ensnaring Bridge》. I could not disagree more. I think that Jace is not even a good fit for Lantern, since 4 mana is too much for the main deck, and if you want to control your opponent’s draw you have cheaper way to do so. It does look like Jace TMS will be extremely effective against Lantern, single-handedly breaking the lock. 《Bloodbraid Elf》 should also be a blow against the deck, since it lets you dig for your relevant sideboard cards, which is crucial in this specific set-up. All in all, Lantern can probably survive both, but any fear of a domination would be extremely overstated.

Abzan / BG midrange: Well, what can I say. There have been ongoing discussions about the better midrange deck between BG, Abzan and Jund for a while now, and it was close. 《Bloodbraid Elf》 makes Jund strictly better, by a lot, and should make it the more proactive deck and the more resilient as well (due to the interaction with 《Kolaghan's Command》, mostly). One might argue that Abzan has 《Lingering Souls》, which is at its best in the direct match-up versus Jund, but it would take a lot of Jund in a given metagame to make Abzan worth playing again. Also, if 《Lingering Souls》 is that backbreaking, running 《Liliana, the Last Hope》 is an easy fix for Jund players, and one that just happens to make 《Bloodbraid Elf》 even stronger.

Mardu midrange: The new kid on the block might have tough times ahead. First, the competition between 《Bloodbraid Elf》 and 《Bedlam Reveler》 for best card-advantage machine should be close, with Reveler suffering for its dependency upon the graveyard and its lack of flexibility. And if 《Bloodbraid Elf》 does a better job than Reveler, then I do not see any obvious reason to play Mardu over Jund. But, even if you could make a point that Jund is not strictly better than Mardu (which it very well could be), you’d still have to find out how you plan on dealing with 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》. Mardu is not great at pressuring planeswalker, and can absolutely not beat an active 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》. Mardu players will end up in a very tough spot where they have to prove that their deck even makes sense, in a fairly hostile metagame. I am sure a lot of them will go deep to prove that it is possible, but my money is on reality on this one and I think they will fail.


That is it for this one. I will now head to GP Lyon and see if my lovely UW, Jaceless deck can win 18 more rounds before it makes room for the return of the king.

Until next time,

Pierre Dagen

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