Once Upon a Time has made its inevitable exit from Modern, and we’re in a healthy place. While midrange strategies seem to be the strongest, there’s a lot of diversity at the top of the metagame. Recently printed cards are shaping the format, among them Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Urza, Lord High Artificer, and Arcum’s Astrolabe. With that shifting context, it’s worth looking at the ban list and evaluating if the cards on it still deserve to be there.

Past Modern Unbans

Past unbannings have occurred for a few reasons. The initial Modern banlist was informed by certain cards’ behavior in other formats. Bitterblossom, for example, had been a key piece of powerful Faeries decks in multiple formats. Modern was never a context where Faeries would have dominated, however, so Bitterblossom was a low-impact unbanning.

Initial banlist aside, unbannings have been used to give creative freedom back to Modern players as power creep has changed the viability of banned cards. The irrelevance of Wild Nacatl illustrates this clearly. Removed from Modern for homogenizing aggressive decks, Nactl still demands little to hit the board as a 3/3 for one mana. But it’s unplayed, as are Zoo-style aggro decks generally. Rate without value doesn’t cut it in Modern anymore. Tarmogoyf sees some play, but even as one of the best creatures ever printed, it’s falling behind.

Other unbannings have been efforts to rebalance formats. At the end of the Eldrazi dynasty, we gained access to Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek. Both cards worked best in slower decks, as there were few good options to cheat Suspend and there was no infinite combo with Sword, Foundry, and Urza yet. In an effort to leave behind an excessively aggressive metagame, these unbannings were intended to help the downtrodden—though in their time they were not very impactful.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf were released from banlist prison by power creep and an unbalanced format both. Tapping down four mana for a spell that wouldn’t immediately swing the game was unimpressive in a Modern moment where fast, proactive strategies were dominant. Neither card saw much play when came off the banlist in early 2018, even though Bloodbraid Elf had explicitly been put there five years prior to knock Jund down a peg. Midrange and control were weak in 2018 (and stayed weak until the banning of Faithless Looting), so these unbannings gave more tools to underrepresented macro archetypes.

Stoneforge Mystic came off the ban list most recently. She entered through the door by which Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis had left; and much like Sword of the Meek, was intentionally introduced to bolster underrepresented strategies. Stoneforge plays to the board, generates card advantage, and is a strong midrange Magic card overall. She was problematically strong in her Standard format, eating the banhammer then along with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and yet she’s barely found a place in current Modern.

What to Unban Next

So, if we understand appropriate unbannings to be cards that promote underrepresented strategies or are no no longer overpowered, is there anything we could re-introduce to Modern right now?

I want to talk about artifact lands. This insidious cycle was problematic from its introduction in 2003, and was an unquestionable include on the original Modern banlist. However, nine years later, the landscape is different. The artifact lands would have been egregious with Mox Opal, but the card that would currently capitalize on them the most is Arcbound Ravager.

I believe Affinity and Hardened Scales to be keys to this question. Classic Affinity wasn’t great with Opal, and it’s unplayable now with all of the midrange decks packing cheap removal and ways to massively outvalue linear aggro. Artifact lands beef up Cranial Plating and feed Arcbound Ravager; but without Opal, would they really be too much? Would they even be enough to make Affinity competitive? Being able to replace Darksteel Citadel with a colored source gives better access to cards like Galvanic Blast and Thoughtcast, but still these lands are not substitutes for the acceleration of Mox Opal.

Hardened Scales presents a different consideration. Because Scales can double counters, one more artifact can have twice the impact when fed to a Ravager and then stacked on an Inkmoth Nexus or Walking Ballista. Still, this deck has been crushed out of Modern with the loss of Opal and Once Upon a Time, so would the addition of artifact lands actually be too much? If Tree of Tales remains banned, but some others are unbanned, I could see Scales replacing their Darksteel Citadels with a sideboard splash color. It might not go further than that.

What I am not concerned about are the other artifact decks. The biggest hazard there is additional cost reduction for Emry, Lurker of the Loch. All the artifact lands would typically do with Urza is fatten construct tokens. They’re also very hard to fit into a lot of current Emry manabases. There’s reward for supporting more colors, snow mana, and Mystic Sanctuary. A single-color, non-snow, non-Island that can’t be fetched is barely better than Darksteel Citadel, which isn’t close to playable in Emry decks right now.

It’s worth remembering as well that Stony Silence, Collector Ouphe, and Karn, the Great Creator all shut down artifact lands. Without Once Upon a Time, we may see more Karn out of Amulet and Tron again, making these lands riskier than would have been years ago. You can’t really sideboard them out.

The benefit of bringing back some or all of the artifact lands would be to let Arcbound Ravager players compete again. Fast aggro keeps grindy value decks from getting too greedy, and we may need that as Modern settles and we see exactly how good these Uro decks are.

I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t be the first time an unbanned card got rebanned. Golgari Grave-Troll has done the Modern Hokey Pokey since the birth of the format. Dredge (like Affinity) has always been a dangerous mechanic, and the strength of its enablers vary contextually. Cathartic Reunion in, Grave Troll out. Mox Opal out . . . see where I’m going with this?

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