Of Bridges, Stirrings and Opals: The Modern Question
So, yesterday we saw Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan culminate in a… well, thrilling is the wrong word, but it was a final, anyway. Argentinian player Luis Salvatto of Hareruya Latin came up against America’s Gerry Thompson, representing Team MetaGameGurus Sun. You can watch the full match here, if you haven’t seen it.
The Top 8 had been interesting and diverse, featuring old favourites such as Reid Duke’s Abzan list, powerful new strategies like Andrea Mengucci and Javier Dominguez’s 5-Colour Humans decks, and even a wacky and wild new brew from Ken Yukuhiro in the form of B/R Hearthstone – sorry, B/R Hollow One. People celebrated the fact that there were 7 different decks in the Top 8, and that finally, we had had a Modern Pro Tour without the format becoming entirely solved.
However, the controversial winner of the PT, the famed Lantern Control deck first brought to the table by Zac Elsik three years ago, has since sparked a huge debate amongst the playerbase. With a B&R Announcement looming next Monday 12th February, many people are calling for Wizards to look at the PT-winning prison deck as a possible ban target, while others scoff and say that Ancient Grudge is the answer, and they don’t want any changes that might tip the balance of the format awry.
So let’s take a closer look at the deck which is the subject of such fierce debate:
The deck plays out like a classic prison strategy, with several lock pieces including Lantern of Insight, Ensnaring Bridge and Witchbane Orb, and then a collection of what have been dubbed ‘millstones’ by the coverage team this weekend – Codex Shredder and Pyxis of Pandemonium. It has only two maindeck win conditions; milling the other person’s library out very slowly by controlling their draw steps, or killing them by returning Pyrite Spellbomb to the top of their own library every turn with Academy Ruins.
Now, while prison isn’t very fun to play against, it’s always been a viable strategy in Modern and one that a lot of people enjoy. Lantern Control has always been a name that floats around in the ‘meme’ section of the deck pool, played by that one guy who shows up to FNM, playing it every week and usually going 1-3. That’s the thing about Lantern, you see – while it’s a very good strategy and actually has a very high success rate if played well, it’s very difficult to learn to play it well, and even more importantly, it’s hard to actually finish your rounds on time.
Much like for the Eggs players of time gone by, the game is ‘basically won’ very early on. However, there is a minuscule chance that you could mess up, that there is a very unlikely series of draws in the opponent’s deck that could exhaust your millstones and allow them to draw something useful, or that the lock can be cracked somehow, and so people are not willing to concede. Therefore, just like Eggs, you are forced to play a very long and very slow game milling them out card by card, and if the matchup goes to three games, it’s very difficult to actually complete them all within your time limit.
This is why, although the deck is actually incredibly strong – particularly after the printing of Whir of Invention which gave it a toolbox and vastly improved one of its worst matchups, Burn – at an FNM level, it rarely sees the representation it probably deserves.
Due to this, it flew under a lot of peoples’ radar for this weekend, and most of the pros’ attitudes seemed to be ‘let’s hope to avoid it’. As it turned out, though, it couldn’t be avoided and Luis Salvatto came away as the champion, after successfully navigating the deck through a tough competition. The result was that the true strength of the deck shined on camera for everyone to see – and almost everyone couldn’t wait for it to be over.
The final was long and gruelling and difficult to watch, as poor Gerry Thompson sat for three games in a row, barely able to call what he was doing ‘playing Magic‘. Of course, as I mentioned above, there is the slimmest chance that the lock can be broken, so conceding prematurely would be madness; but the outcome was that the game was over long, long before it actually ended, and by the end even the coverage team were lamenting the time it had taken for Luis to finally win.
So now we come to the present, and there has already been a ton of discussion about whether this win means that the deck should take a hit.
I have included here some comments from people on a recent Facebook thread about the subject, to show what people are really saying and shine a spotlight on opinions other than my own. It’s interesting to see the different aspects of what people consider to be problematic about the deck:
“I don’t understand How can anyone justify lanterns existence. It’s incredibly cool, it’s fascinating, but it is completely anti magic.”
“It’s the nature of the win, not the fact that it won.”
“There is one datapoint: this one was the worst PT Final in the history. No pathos, no excitement, game 3 was over 20 minutes before it was technically over. Viewers could not wait it to finish. In a era in which wizard wants to push for the digital gaming, they will make sure this gameplan is not supported.”
“There is definitely an argument for banning cards like bridge (for their playstyle) and opal (for power level), but these are cards that are problematic in modern generally, not specifically lantern.”
The main issues that people identify are:
1. The deck is not fun to play against and doesn’t allow the other person to play Magic.
2. The deck takes too long to play out and may end up going to time too often, particularly in the hands of less skilled players.
3. It’s not fun to watch from a coverage standpoint (something Wizards has banned cards for before.)
4. The cards in the deck are the problem, not the shell itself – Stirrings, Bridge, Opal – and regardless of Lantern or not, these cards need to be hit because they are too good.
Personally, I think the most compelling argument of these four is the fourth one.
Although 1 is definitely true, it’s also true of a lot of other decks in Modern. This is not great in and of itself, but it’s a symptom of the Modern meta at the moment, and it does mean that it’s not fair to hit just one deck that doesn’t allow your opponent to play Magic, when half the format is doing the same thing.
Numbers 2 and 3 have been reasons that decks have been banned out in the past. 2 is unlikely to be too much of a problem in this situation, because Lantern is such a specialist deck that the majority of players are probably not going to be too interested in picking it up. Number 3 is a reason which is solely focused on Wizards’ ability to make money from coverage. Though this is a valid concern for the company, I think it would have to be a very seriously boring deck for them to consider banning something solely because of this.
Number 4, though, is interesting. Even before this Pro Tour, there have been outcries about the power of Ancient Stirrings in Tron and Mox Opal in Affinity. Fast mana is not something people generally like in Modern, and Opal is an incredibly powerful example of it which taps for all colours almost unconditionally in the shells that use it. Stirrings, too, is undoubtedly the best cantrip in the format in the decks it’s found in, and it’s in green instead of blue. This is enough to raise alarm bells without the success of Lantern Control. There is a high possibility that these cards were already on the ‘to-watch’ list in Wizards R&D, and that their success rate this weekend might cause a ban on one or both.
Ensnaring Bridge may also be in the conversation, but for a different reason. This card isn’t too powerful for the format and on its own it doesn’t allow anything really broken, so it’s not really on most peoples’ radar. It does successfully put a stop to about 80% of the format, though, at least in game one; and no other ‘hate’ card is this effective or this wide in its scope. However, more than anything else, for me this is a question of what kind of format Wizards wants Modern to be. Could you imagine anything like Ensnaring Bridge being printed now? It’s not conducive to playing Magic the way that the company seems to want it to be played, ie creature combat, at least judging by more recent card printings, and so it’s very possible that in an attempt to mould Modern into a more ‘current’ format, Bridge could take a hit.
So the most compelling reason for a ban is actually not that Lantern itself is too strong, but that its individual pieces are, on their own, either too powerful or not conducive to a fun format. Their bannings would, though, result in the death of the deck as a whole.
Again, I have included the opinions of others here to balance out the argument, and there are some very vehement voices in this camp, who think that Modern is great as-is, and Lantern is not strong enough to warrant changes to it.
“Just a reminder, the deck top 8d a gp and then won the subsequent one, and still isn’t a large % of the metagame. The deck is complex, expensive, and not what a lot of people want to do. It’s not going to be a large part going forward.”
“Among the reasons for banning any card usually falls under three categories, its problematic for the running of a tournament, it represents too much of the mets, or it kills turn 3 consistently. Lantern has none of these issues. It was well placed against a meta that wasn’t quite ready to see a lantern deck make it that far.”
“the deck is perfectly fair due to its high skill cap.”
“Surely Lantern is one of Magic’s most awesome decks? For all the arguments we see about building your own decks and trying to new and inventive strategies, here we have a deck that is exactly that. It’s incredibly creative, no other deck in Magic’s history does the same thing and quite frankly that is fantastic.”
So in this instance, people seem to be saying:
1. The deck doesn’t have a large meta percentage and probably won’t in the future due to its specialist strategy.
2. The deck isn’t doing anything inherently overpowered or winning too quickly, its strong performance was a result of the meta, and it can be easily countered with the right hate.
3. The deck is only as strong as the player, and most people will not be able to pilot it to consistent victories at FNM level.
4. Banning a relatively minor deck as a result of a Pro Tour win is a bad way of managing a format, and will set the wrong precedent going forward.
Reason 1 is completely viable, and I agree entirely that Lantern is never likely to have more than a 5% share of the overall meta percentage at FNM, no matter how successful it is. You have to have a specific way of enjoying the game to be able to play this deck and spend hours learning it to its full potential, and most people would prefer to find ways to beat it than to pick it up.
Reason 2 is also true, although it must be noted that in a lot of situations, the Lantern deck has the tools available to prevent your sideboard hate from mattering. That said, though, cards like Ancient Grudge, Shattering Spree and Hurkyl’s Recall exist in the format and finding even one of them can really matter, so if the Lantern player doesn’t get their lock together fast enough or is just unlucky, you can end up breaking it.
Number 3 is tied in with 1 and 2, and though it’s not really a viable reason to argue not banning it – after all, Amulet Titan was hard to play at a high level as well – it does add to the likelihood that it’s not going to be a very common deck.
Finally, reason 4 is probably the most important. Less than a month after banning 4 key cards out of Standard, does Wizards really want to be doing the same thing for Modern, showing both the consumer base and the wider audience that they are taking a very heavy-handed approach to controlling formats? I doubt this would set a good precedent for the future Modern Pro Tours we all hope will happen, and for the format as a whole, while it might – might – improve it depending on what’s banned in the short term, it may paint a much darker picture looking forward.
It’s hard to say. There are many good arguments on both sides and there are a lot of different angles to argue from, so it’s hard to even point to one specific aspect of the deck or the cards in it and say ‘this is the bit that needs fixing’. On the other hand, that final was very difficult to watch and it’s easy to see the side that says it has to go.
Personally, I don’t think Lantern is too strong. I think there are a lot of sideboard cards that can beat it, and I don’t think it’s enough of the meta to warrant a banning. However, I believe that individually, its components are very good, and perhaps Ensnaring Bridge and fast mana aren’t things that really need to be in the format as a whole.
More than anything, though, I’d like to see some unbans instead of bans on Monday. Bring back Bloodbraid Elf, bring back Splinter Twin, maybe even try bringing back Stoneforge Mystic. Let people play even more of the strategies that make Modern great, and allow for some new and interesting decks to rise and freshen the format up. The format is already very powerful, and there are things on the ban list that definitely don’t deserve to be there – so open it up even more and let people experiment!
A final and interesting fact that was also on the Facebook thread, to leave you with some food for thought.
“Fun fact: Every single deck that has made the finals of a modern pro tour has had something banned from it. (Except one: UWr control.)
2011, PT Philadelphia finals:
Counter Cats (Wild Nacatl gets banned)
Splinter Twin (Splinter Twin gets banned after a few years)
2012, PT Return to Ravnica finals:
Second Breakfast (Second Sunrise gets banned)
Jund (Bloodbraid Elf gets banned)
2014, PT Born of the Gods finals:
UWr Control (nothing banned)
Birthing Pod (Birthing Pod banned)
2015, PT Fate Reforged finals:
Amulet Bloom (Summer Bloom banned)
Splinter Twin (Splinter Twin banned)
2016, PT Oath of the Gatewatch finals:
UR Eldrazi (Eye of Ugin banned)
Colourless Eldrazi (Eye of Ugin banned)”
What do you think? Should Lantern be banned? Why, or why not? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading,