We have chosen to change the format of the upcoming Pro Tour Philadelphia from Extended to Modern.
Why the Change?
Recently, we received feedback from some professional players who were testing the Extended format for the Pro Tour. The best deck by far, they said, was Stoneforge Mystic-based blue control, and nothing could really effectively stand against it. If that sounds familiar to you, it should. "Caw-Blade" decks dominated Standard format play to an uncomfortable degree beginning with Mirrodin Besieged, which caused us to ban Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Standard. The deck is still doing a fine imitation of its previous self in Standard without those cards, while in Legacy, Stoneforge Mystic is still teaming up with Jace, the Mind Sculptor to put people into Top 8s all over the place.
Previously, players who made claims that a format was broken were often wrong. For example, before the Time Spiral Block Constructed Pro Tour Yokohama, players claimed that white aggressive strategies were obviously best, but those decks bombed horribly at the actual event. This current feedback about Extended had the ring of truth to it, though, so we investigated the claims using Magic Online tournament data and found that they were quite true. We discovered that 70% of decks played there were blue-based Stoneforge decks, and those decks had a win percentage of 65% against any other deck. That's not a sign of a healthy format.
The popular claim that four-year Extended format is a disaster is hardly true. It has done no better or worse than previous incarnations of Extended. While it has still not been played much outside of events that are required to use it, attendance at those events was as good as before after adjusting for the location of the Pro Tour. On the other hand, Legacy has been taking off in popularity, and lots of people seem excited about Modern. A further data point is the excitement that has been demonstrated for the player-created format "Overextended," which Gavin Verhey and others have used to create a series of popular player-run events on Magic Online. Although we still prefer Modern to "Overextended"—read my previous article announcing Modern if you want to read more about why—we are very happy to see the outpouring of support for his work and to have this data point of support for a nonrotating format.
When we looked at the Extended format data from Magic Online, we decided to make a change to address the imbalance reflected there. Whether we banned cards in Extended or changed the format entirely, we knew we would be affecting the work some people had done up to this point. We chose to make the decision that has more potential upside for players overall, and decided to change the format to something that people have more desire to play and to watch being played. We are excited to see the Modern format in play at Pro Tour next month and believe that the change will give players a healthier and more fun format to play.
Pro Tour Philadelphia is not the last place you will see the Modern format this year. At this year's World Championships, the third day of competition will feature six rounds of Modern, and one of the three players on each national team will play Modern during the national team competition. Finally, there will be some number of Grand Prix next year run using Modern. By the beginning of next year, all tournament organizers will be able to run Modern events at their leisure. Modern is not intended to permanently replace any existing format. For example, we intend to run some number of Legacy-format Grand Prix in 2012.
We know that many Pro Tour players use Magic Online to practice game play, and we have seen players on Magic Online playing Modern even without official tournament support. We are pleased to announce that Modern will officially come to Magic Online as well; it will go live on August 24, 2011.
The Banned List
The banned list used at the Magic Online Community Cup this year was conservative in the sense that we put as few cards on it as possible. We have taken a more expansive approach with the banned list we are using to launch the Modern format in order to provide a good play experience using Modern at the Pro Tour.
We used two criteria to guide us in choosing what cards to ban. First, we have a rule of thumb about Legacy that we don't like consistent turn-two combination decks, but that turn-three combination decks are okay. We modified that rule for Modern by adding a turn to each side: we are going to allow turn-four combination decks, but not decks that consistently win the game on turn three. We banned enough additional cards that we think such decks no longer exist in this format. Those additional cards are as follows:
With Simian Spirit Guide and Gemstone Caverns, Hypergenesis can be accessed via a three-mana cascade spell often on turn two, and rarely on turn one. Such a Hypergenesis usually produces enormous creatures like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Progenitus, as well as hamstringing the opponent's ability to cast spells with cards like Terastodon, Angel of Despair, and Chancellor of the Annex. Alternatively, Urabrask the Hidden allows all these fresh creatures to attack immediately if Hypergenesis is cast on turn three. This clearly breaks the "turn-three kill" rule, so it had to go.
The Glimpse of Nature-fueled Elf combination deck was another consistent turn-three deck we found at the Community Cup. By using Nettle Sentinel, Heritage Druid, and Glimpse of Nature together with tons of low-cost Elves, these decks can produce enormous amounts of mana while drawing unbounded amounts of cards. Green Sun's Zenith and Summoner's Pact give the deck extra consistency as well as a strong backup card-drawing engine with Regal Force. Glimpse of Nature is the engine that gives the deck its deadly explosiveness, and it is now gone. I expect that the deck is still playable without it, but that it will no longer be a turn-three deck.
The last turn-three deck that remained was Dredge. While Golgari Grave-Troll was banned, we found that Dredge was still very capable of turn-three kills. On top of this, Dredge is not known for being fun to have around. Although games against it are often interesting, the larger game of deciding whether to dedicate enough sideboard slots to defeat it or ignore it completely and hope not to play against it is one that is not very satisfying for most tournament players. We chose to ban the most explosive graveyard card rather than leave that subgame present.
Our second criterion was that any deck that dominated a seven-year or four-year Extended format that only included Modern-legal sets had the danger of being crushingly powerful in Modern. There are also a few Legacy decks that can be easily ported into Modern that had a similar potential. If we left them all intact, those would likely be the best decks; if we left only one intact, it would probably be the single best one. Here are the cards we chose to ban because of this:
I hope that the fact this card is on the banned list isn't a surprise to you. Stoneforge Mystic has by now made its mark on every format from Standard to Legacy, and Stoneforge-based blue control decks regularly do well in Legacy tournaments. Porting such decks into Modern was a trivial affair, and resulted in very powerful decks. We prefer to just ban this card rather than risk yet another format dominated by Stoneforge Mystic.
Another strong combination deck we found in Modern was Scapeshift with Prismatic Omen and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Although Scapeshift is not a turn-three combination deck, it prospered in a field full of such decks, many of which are not at full strength in Modern due to other cards. It also shares many characteristics of the strongest combination decks in Magic's history, as it is almost entirely lands, mana acceleration, and card drawing. We felt that an unhindered Scapeshift-Valakut deck would be clearly one of the very best decks.
Players have occasionally done cool things with Scapeshift that don't involve Valakut, like building aggressive decks that use Plated Geopede and Steppe Lynx to turn Scapeshift into a pseudo-Hatred. However, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle doesn't do very many cool things on its own, and usually results in non-interactive combination kills any time it shows up. We chose to preserve the half of the combination that is more likely to produce interesting decks.
After everything I've just told you about choosing to ban, the last obvious deck that we haven't hit is Faeries, which was almost certainly the best deck in four-year Extended the last time we ran it. While Faeries does not currently have as much enmity from players as Stoneforge Mystic decks do, its historical popularity is not very high. We would rather remove it than risk a Faeries-dominated Pro Tour.
You'll notice that we haven't touched a blue card yet. When we got to this point and realized that blue was escaping unscathed, we knew we had to ban something, or a very powerful blue control deck would likely be the best thing left. We had a large number of choices, but we chose to take our cues from Legacy, as an excellent way to measure objective card power is to see what cards are played in Magic's most powerful high-level tournament format.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the obvious candidate. Jace is strong enough to be banned in Standard, is a Legacy staple, and has been in three of the four decks that made the finals of the last two Vintage championships.
Of blue cards that are legal in Modern, Mental Misstep is the most played in Legacy, and it also has one of the more damaging effects on Modern by sitting on beatdown decks that want to start on turn one. We chose to ban it rather than put that much pressure on beatdown decks.
The last Modern-legal card that has been making a huge splash in Legacy control decks is Ancestral Vision. While not every Jace, the Mind Sculptor deck in Legacy plays Ancestral Vision, a great many of them do. The combination of Ancestral Vision, Spell Snare, and other counterspells lets control decks draw cards very cheaply without getting behind early on, and that's powerful enough that we feel safer having it banned.
The final banned list is as follows:
Glimpse of Nature
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Seat of the Synod
Sensei's Divining Top
Sword of the Meek
Tree of Tales
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Vault of Whispers
I'd like to make some final notes on the banned list. First, this list is a lot longer than it was at the Community Cup. By default, Magic players tend to want to play with more cards rather than less, and react unhappily when a card they like is banned. Although it's never fun when cards are banned, this is a slightly myopic view. If one deck is so powerful that it forces multiple other interesting decks out of playability, banning something from that deck is likely to raise the number of functionally playable cards in the format, despite reducing the number of theoretically allowed cards. In Legacy, for example, the bannings of both Mystical Tutor and Survival of the Fittest increased the format's diversity by allowing slightly less powerful decks to be playable. Banning a card has obvious costs that we are loath to pay, but often makes the format more fun in the long run. Banning a card before a format is played at all minimizes those costs, and we chose to go broad early on to mitigate potential future costs.
Second, we can always unban cards in the future. In Vintage and Legacy, over time we have been continually picking away at the respective restricted and banned lists, and both are at historical lows in terms of the percentage of the card pool that is banned or restricted. As we get more information, we will change the Modern banned list over time. We may have overbanned here, and if we did, we have plenty of time to go back and fix that.
While we acknowledge that this is hardly the ideal way to kick off a format, we've been encouraged by the player base's growing desire to play a format like Modern. We would likely not have changed the Pro Tour format to Modern without many of you contacting us and asking when you will be able to play it. To the Pro Tour competitors, I know this change may affect some players' work up to this point and hope that we've given you a more fun format to play with in exchange. To the spectators, I hope you enjoy watching this more than you would have enjoyed watching the Extended event. To everyone else, I hope you enjoy Modern when you get the chance to play it.
Here's to the Modern world. I hope to see you there.
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