Wizards of the Coast created Legacy in September 2004, which means the format was 7 years old when they decided to create Modern in May 2011. These years had allowed them to know what they had to look for in a new non-rotating format, if they wanted to make it at least as successful as Legacy has been. Essentially, they had to avoid the Reserved List.
The reserved list: a quick explanation
Magic: The Gathering is a game, but there is also an important economic component to it (as you’ll have doubtlessly appreciated). The fast growth of the game meant a secondary market appeared, with some people making big investments on cards. When Wizards reprinted some cards in big numbers in Chronicles and Fourth Edition, they made a lot of people angry as their investments lost their value almost overnight. They then promised not to reprint a certain list of cards that is known as the Reserved List. This was probably not the best decision, but they did have to calm down some very angry people. Now they have explicitly stated in several occasions they wish the list didn’t exist, but it does, and they intend to keep their promise. This list contains cards from sets up to Urza’s Destiny.
Has Modern been successful? GP Richmond, the biggest tournament ever in the history of Magic the Gathering constructed formats, seems to say it has. Wizards has worked hard to make it a balanced and fun format, and part of this work is to be found in the banlist. How has the banlist changed over the years? Let’s have a look at it.
There were a lot of cards banned during the creation and the first year of existence of the Modern format. During this year, Magic players came to discover what plans the DCI had for the idiosincracy of Modern: they intended to make Modern a powerful format, but wanted to avoid excessive consistency, and excessive explosiveness. This meant library manipulation and card digging would be at least partially hindered, and that too frequent turn three wins would mean card bans.
May 27, 2011
The artifact lands didn’t even get to see play in Modern, as the previous experience in Standard allowed the DCI to know what they were capable of. Chrome Mox was similarly preemptively banned, as it allowed for too much speed.
Dark Depths is part of a two-card combo that allows you to put a huge monster in the battlefield very, very fast, and was banned because Vampire Hexmage was a card with other possible uses, while Dark Depths was played because of this combo, and that’s it.
Sensei’s Divining Top made games long and allowed for consistency, which made it an auto-ban too, even though it is not nearly as game-breakingly powerful as many other cards in the list.
Skullclamp is a broken card and has been banned in almost every format.
Sword of the Meek was deemed too powerful in conjunction with Thopter Foundy, and Umezawa’s Jitte was banned for similar reasons: it was considered too powerful in conjunction with Stoneforge Mystic, a card that was also banned months later.
Finally, Golgari Grave-Troll was banned to restrict how fast Dredge decks could operate. Wizards doesn’t seem to be too fond of Dredge, in general.
August 12, 2011
Three months after the introduction of the format, Extended was replaced by Modern as the format for Pro Tour Philadelphia. The reason for this was the excessive dominance of blue-based control decks using Stoneforge Mystic, and with dominance I mean seventy per cent of the players using a variant of this deck. Bans had to be made, and given this would lead to players having to rethink their strategies, they decided to simply change the format entirely, which was also an opportunity to push Modern into greater popularity. This meant also reconsidering some cards.
Hypergenesis was banned because it could sometimes be played in turn one and tended to be played in the first three turns, which made it really difficult for the opponent to recover and which also meant turn three (or sooner) kills/scoops. Given the will to make Modern a ‘turn four’ format, it had to go.
Glimpse of Nature also allowed for faster comboing than desired, as low cost creatures and lots of mana generation made it explosive in an Elves deck, and was therefore banned.
Stoneforge Mystic was also banned because of the DCI’s fear of another format dominated by her, and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was removed from Modern’s card pool because of the possibility of uninteractive games paired with Scapeshift, even though they admitted it was not a big offender, which was proved by its later unbanning.
Bitterblossom was also banned for similar reasons: there was a history of Faeries being a dominant deck in Extended and they didn’t want this to happen again, but the decision proved to be to cautious when Bitterblossom was later unbanned and didn’t exactly destroy the metagame.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an enormously powerful card in any format and Modern could have fallen prey to blue control decks after the previous bans, and therefore the best planeswalker ever printed was banned, along with Mental Misstep (which could perfectly enter the ‘broken cards’ hall of fame) and Ancestral Visions, which made it easy to draw too many cards for the DCI’s liking, even though this was playing it safe more than anything else.
September 20, 2011
Banlist modifications became shorter and shorter after this one, luckily, meaning the DCI was already finding the sweet spot for the format. In September, Blazing Shoal was banned, making infect decks less explosive and avoiding turn two and three kills, which were perfectly possible.
Cloudpost made too much mana available too soon and made tron-like decks too fast/consistent: it had to be banned.
Green Sun’s Zenith was a too effective tutor, and made it too easy to look for anything you wanted. Too much efficiency and consistency is something frowned upon in the Modern format, and therefore GSZ was banned.
c]Rite of Flame[/c] didn’t make decks too consistent, but it did make them too explosive.
December 20, 2011
Nearing the end of the year that saw the birth of Modern, Punishing Fire was banned to avoid a two-card combination that used Grove of the Burnwillows[c] to make Punishing Fire recurrent: this combination made too many weenie and tribal decks unplayable.
[c]Wild Nacatl was banned to make aggro decks more diverse but, as the DCI themselves admitted in the moment, banning a creature that simply attacks and blocks is not usual and Nacatl saw play again two years later.
Modern looked approximately like the format we play now at the beginning of 2012, when the metagame got to a point in which it worked as the DCI wanted it to, with not too many explosive starts and a reasonable deck variety.
September 20, 2012
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was never a big problem and decks based on its combination with Scapeshift are definitely good but not too good. The unbanning of Valakut was good news, as it meant the DCI intended to make the almost thirty cards long list a bit shorter.
This year saw some new bans that extended the already long list and made players protest, as this was seen as excessive by a lot of people.
January 28, 2013
Jund was (and still is) an extremely powerful deck, and new cards made it more and more powerful. At the end of 2012 Jund dominated the metagame with an excessively strong grip, and the DCI saw in Bloodbraid Elf too much efficiency, and in the right colours. Therefore, they decided to ban it in hopes Jund would become a bit less powerful and the metagame would become more diverse. This has been one of the most discussed decisions.
Seething Song was also banned, but this was seen as more logical, as it made turn-three wins way more feasible than they should in Modern.
May 3, 2013
Second Sunrise was not banned for power reasons. Instead, it was banned for a purely practical reason: it made games too long, as Eggs (the deck in which it was played) made 15-minute long turns a very real possibility.
This year has brought changes to Modern, and has meant the definitive take off of modern as a format, surpassing everything but Standard and Limited, and becoming the most popular one in many places. Some decks specific to this format have become established, such as Splinter Twin and Melira/Kiki Pod.
February 3, 2014
Deathrite Shaman is an incredible card and made Jund a bit too good, while making some graveyard strategies just not viable. Also one could argue it is off-colour and too much for one mana, but in any case it was deemed excessive for the format and was banned.
At the same time, the DCI unbanned two cards, in what I hope will become an effort to make the banlist shorter.
Discussion is all over the place about what should be banned or unbanned. There are complaints, as expected.
Some say aggro cannot thrive in this metagame and I have to say I agree, as mid-range and combo strategies are the biggest things in modern, and those are aggro and tempo decks’ natural predators. Zoo does not work as well as it should, and it is on paper an extremely powerful aggro strategy. UR Delver should be extremely good, but it doesn’t quite show the results one would expect. Fae does not work either. Affinity is a literal beast, something that should be extremely dominant, and it is only balanced with the rest of the metagame.
Control has it difficult too. UWr decks are disappearing because of non-interactive cards like Thrun, the Last Troll.
Ponder or Preordain are good options that would make Tempo decks like UR delver more solid, but they would also help combo decks. UR delver is also somewhat held back by Lightning Bolt being everywhere, but at the same time it is an important piece for the deck, so it would be useless.
Ancestral Visions can be cascaded into, but that’s not a good game plan so it would be practically always suspended. It would not be an obnoxious card by any means, and it would help control decks, but combo decks would again be benefited, and therefore it would be useless to unban it, at least if the intention is to make the meta more balanced. If the intention is to make the banlist shorter, which is not a bad idea per se, I think AV could be unbanned.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor would not be so strong in Modern, as it would be more difficult to defend it, and would give control decks a powerful tool. Mostly the same can be said about Sword of the Meek.
There are also voices that say the problem will resolve itself over time: Modern is a format that is proprietary for Wizards and is taken into account in every new expansion. The solution might be for creatures to be more efficient so as to be able to put more pressure, or for them to hose combo strategies, or graveyard use.
My conclusion is: Combo and Midrange are rather dominant right now, and Aggro, Control and tempo have a difficult time surviving in this environment. This should be fixed, and the banlist is a good tool, in both directions, cards in, and cards out. What should be the next banlist change then?