Last week, the DCI announced a large shake-up to the Modern format by banning Splinter Twin ahead of Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. A year ago they took a similar action when they banned Birthing Pod ahead of Pro Tour Fate Reforged. Today we’ll take a look at the similarities and differences between these two bannings including the DCI rationale and the community reactions before we speculate on what 2017 might hold.

Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin

It’s hard not to get a sense of déjà vu when reading the announcements that came out almost exactly a year apart announcing the Modern bannings of Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin respectively. Here is what the DCI had to say about banning Birthing Pod on January 19th, 2015. I’ve provided emphasis on some choice phrases:

Over the past year, Birthing Pod decks have won significantly more Grand Prix than any other Modern decks and compose the largest percentage of the field. Each year, new powerful options are printed, most recently Siege Rhino. Over time, this creates a growing gap between the strength of the Pod deck and other creature decks. Pod won five of the twelve Grand Prix over the past year, including winning the last two. The high percentage of the field playing Pod suppresses decks, especially other creature decks, that have an unfavorable matchup. In the interest of supporting a diverse format, Birthing Pod is banned.

Now let’s take a look at what the DCI had to say about banning Splinter Twin on January 18th, 2015. Again, I’ve provided some emphasis:

Splinter Twin has won two of the four Modern Pro Tours. Splinter Twin reached the Top 8 of the last six Modern Grand Prix. The last Modern Grand Prix in Pittsburgh had three Splinter Twin decks in the Top 8, including Alex Bianchi’s winning deck.

Decks that are this strong can hurt diversity by pushing the decks that it defeats out of competition. They can also reduce diversity by supplanting similar decks. For instance, Shaun McLaren won Pro Tour Born of the Gods playing this Jeskai control deck. Alex Bianchi won our most recent Modern Grand Prix playing a similar deck but adding the Splinter Twin combination. Similarly, Temur Tempo used to see play at high-level events but has been supplanted by Temur Twin.

In the interest of competitive diversity, Splinter Twin is banned from Modern.

Like I said: déjà vu.

The community has a lot of speculation on what’s driving these changes. The message coming from Wizards is consistent at least. They are concerned with format diversity. Many, however, accuse Wizards of only being interested in increasing the viewership for the Modern Pro Tour, and not actually caring about the health of the format. It’s not surprising that after a few tumultuous months of PR disasters by Wizards of the Coast that the community is ready to pull out the conspiracy card.

The truth is that the Modern Pro Tour does have a huge impact on these announcements, but not the part everyone thinks they do. The Pro Tour’s impact is on when these announcements get made, not the content of the announcements. For all we know, Wizards decided months ago that Splinter Twin had to go, but why make that announcement when Battle for Zendikar comes out? A new format means more interest in the Pro Tour, both for the players competing and the fans watching at home.

Of course a little reason never stopped the community from overreacting to Modern changes. Exhibit A both in 2015 and now in 2016 is Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa who had a lot to say on the topic of Modern after Birthing Pod and Treasure Cruise were banned. At the time, da Rosa’s main concern is the prevalence of combo decks. His argument was that “We get to a point where you need sideboard hate to beat anyone, but you’re not incentivized to have it, because you’re not likely to play against any deck many times.” He also commented on Pod specifically, “The banning of Pod and Treasure Cruise exacerbated this problem tremendously, because now two of the decks that had general answers are gone. Pod could play things like Thoughtseize, and Delver could play things like Spell Pierce and Negate, which don’t require specific pairings to be effective.”

So here we are, one year later, and Damo da Rosa again has some thoughts on the changes being made to Modern. Again, his primary concern is that Modern as a format is defined by sideboard cards. He tells us, “Now Twin is gone, and the “did I draw my sideboard hate?” aspect of the format—which is my least favorite part of it—is intensified even more. I want to be able to win without drawing a specific sideboard card that KOs my opponent, I want to be able to beat sideboard cards that are played against me, and Twin was one of the decks that made both possible. . . . With all its flaws (which are many), Twin made the format healthier.”

Format Health and Diversity

So on the one hand we have Wizards of the Coast telling us, on what may be an annual basis, that a certain deck is preventing the Modern format from being as diverse as they’d like it. In response, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, along with a large population of Magic players, believe that these bannings are a mistake because they exacerbating a problem Modern has with sideboards. So what’s going on here?

In reality both Wizards and Damo da Rosa are saying the same thing. Wizards wants more diversity. That means more decks out there which you can run into at any given event, especially Grand Prix tournaments consisting of a few thousand players. Damo da Rosa doesn’t want this diversity. He believes it hinders the format because you are left with an inability to properly sideboard for all of your potential match-ups. He wants decks like Twin and Pod to exist because they allow generic disruption cards to shine like Thoughtseize and Negate. Instead we’re left with a format that will revolve around cards like Stony Silence, Ghost Quarter, and other archetype-specific solutions to play around the meta-game.

The question that is really being argued here is, “Does a diverse Modern format equate to a healthy Modern format?” It seems that Wizards argues in favor of diversity while Damo da Rosa is somewhat against this diversity. Now, I’m not being entirely fair to Damo da Rosa who points out in his most recent article that he feels the format is very diverse already and that Splinter Twin was not holding anything back as Wizards claims. However, the core of his concerns, which revolve around sideboarding issues, implies that too much diversity in the format, especially for combo decks, leads to an unhealthy format.

So which one is it?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to predict that Wizards is going to continue their crusade to create a Modern format that is both diverse and healthy. Unfortunately this may just mean that the deck they perceive to be the most problematic in achieving this goal is the problem preventing them from creating a Modern nirvana of sorts. Next year it could be Cranial Plating. The following year it could be Urza’s Tower. Unless there’s a change at the DCI towards Damo da Rosa’s line of thought, the idea that a healthy Modern is one in which players don’t have to rely on the variance of sideboards and matchups, then fans of Modern should get ready for these announcements to become an annual occurrence.

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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