Parsing the Gitaxian Probe & Golgari Grave-Troll Bans

I knew they were going to take actions in Standard with the new banlist update—especially with it being moved up to this week. The pessimist in me expected that Modern would be left untouched. To be fair, I enjoyed Modern prior to this announcement, much unlike Miracles Legacy, though I’m very happy that action was taken. I think these changes will be net positive for the format.

So let’s talk about the new Modern. I’ll look at both bannings in terms of the logic that led to them, and the metagame impacts we can expect as a result. Finally, I’ll touch on the larger conclusions we can draw regarding Wizards’ approach to managing the banlist, and what it means for Modern moving forward.

Golgari Grave-Troll is Banned

I was concerned that this wasn’t going to happen, as unbanning and re-banning a card isn’t a great image. I’m very happy that they made this move anyway. The dredge mechanic is kind of neat in very high-powered formats, and very obnoxious in formats trying to promote reasonable gameplay. The management of the Modern banlist largely pushes the format towards attacking with creatures or needing to survive a fast onslaught if you want to go bigger. Dredge just kind of circumvents the rules of engagement, taxes sideboard space, and is surprisingly resilient to hate.

A lot of players would have liked to see Cathartic Reunion get the hammer, which sort of makes sense considering how much power the card lent the deck, though I believe it’s really bad form to put the medium card on the banlist. How many looting effects will we ban in the name of Dredge? Frankly, one is too many. You could make a case for Prized Amalgam as well, though ultimately what it comes down to is that a Golgari Grave-Troll deck will rarely fall in line with the play experience Modern is intended to offer. Those other cards have the potential to contribute to less oppressive strategies.

Make no mistake—you can still play Dredge in Modern. Stinkweed Imp showed up from time to time before the unbanning of Grave-Troll, and other dredgers like Golgari Thug will happily serve as scabs. The hit to consistency going down from dredge 6 to dredge 4 will be felt, however, and you can expect the deck to decline in popularity. Dredge is also a deck that mulligans frequently to find the pieces it needs to play the game, and losing its biggest dredger will make these mulligans more punishing. Personally, I’ll be removing the graveyard hate from my sideboard unless updated builds of Dredge start making waves. I’m fine taking the loss to a fringe deck, especially now that the deck is more likely to lose to itself.

Gitaxian Probe is Banned

This card was very polarizing. You can tell by the combination of cheers and complaints as response to this banning. Personally, I would contend that there is no way Mutagenic Growth is reasonable if Gitaxian Probe is not, though this ban ultimately hits many of the same decks. I was curious about Pyromancer Ascension making a comeback in the era of Fatal Push but it doesn’t look like it was meant to be, as Storm is one of the decks that is absolutely killed by this ban.

This ban doesn’t kill Infect by any stretch of the imagination. It makes it harder to build a graveyard for Become Immense, and it will force you to respect more possible options now that you won’t know to a certainty the contents of your opponent’s hand. That said, the strongest Infect players were already winning these games anyway, through analysis of the opponent’s likely holdings and careful management of risk. It’s going to be harder to recommend this deck to a newer player, though ultimately Gitaxian Probe was merely the best support card for an abstractly powerful shell. Infect will live on.

Decks like Death’s Shadow Zoo and UR Prowess feel this ban a lot more, as they cared about paying life and/or cantrips specifically. Perhaps there will still be playable versions of these decks post-ban, though I’m not optimistic about their positions. Just tossing in Serum Visions or some pump spells is a fine and easy solution for Infect, but these decks lost a much more meaningful element of their game plan.

A number of Modern decks with varied threats have been taking advantage of Mutagenic Growth. Most are hurt by the absence of Gitaxian Probe, given that these decks prominently feature Monastery Swiftspear and other prowess threats. I will say that making these decks significantly worse while leaving Infect more or less intact makes it so that Lightning Bolt will be on average better against your linear aggressive opponents. That’s a positive for players who advocate the more interactive and reactive decks.

Part of the reason that I believe Infect will stick around is that the deck does a solid job of going long against the interactive decks. Playing Grixis Delver against Infect is a match of attrition, and the fact that the creature-based combo deck doesn’t have to play the game especially aggressively is part of what makes it so powerful. That said, removing Gitaxian Probe definitely reduces the frequency that they are just able to shove and end the game quickly. In that way, this impacts the power level of Infect even though the deck isn’t going anywhere.

The Logic Behind Git Probe’s Demise

The specific wording of the justification here is worth discussing:

Gitaxian Probe increased the number of third-turn kills in a few ways, but particularly by giving perfect information (and a card) to decks that often have to make strategic decisions about going “all-in.” This hurt the ability of reactive decks to effectively bluff or for the aggressive deck to mis-sequence their turn. Ultimately, the card did too much for too little cost.

While this ends up being the biggest death knell for the barely viable Storm (which rarely even cracks Tier 3 in our metagame standings), this ban appears to be targeted more to the free information aspect than the free cantrip. In the past I personally have made the case that Preordain is definitely too good for Modern—this paragraph certainly falls more in line with the crowd that thinks spell-based combo is due for a shot in the arm. I wouldn’t read too much into this, as it doesn’t explicitly state anything suggesting that they care about the strength of spell-based combo, just that this reasoning doesn’t demonstrate that it was the target.

It also illustrates one of the less acknowledged principles of the turn four rule as applied by Wizards in banning decisions. The problem is not simply that a deck is capable of a turn-three kill, but rather that it pulls it off. Without Probe, the creature-combo decks will certainly have fewer turn-three kills on the goldfish, but realistically they are still quite possible. What’s significant here, is that Wizards cares about the outcome in games. If Grixis, Jeskai, Jund, or some other interactive deck can successfully delay the kill—whether through bluffing or punishing a mistake—that’s acceptable in Wizards’ eyes.

Metagame Predictions

The impending downswing in Dredge is most relevant with regard to sideboards, though decks that had positive game-one matchups against Dredge, such as Tron, will be hurt slightly too. Bant Eldrazi is pretty happy to remove those seven graveyard hate spells from their sideboard. Of course, the removal of Gitaxian Probe from the format hurts several of Tron’s bad matchups, so if anything I would expect Tron to get better on sum.

The combination of the removal of Gitaxian Probe from the format and the addition of Fatal Push will almost assuredly slow things down. Not to mention that when the fair decks remove the graveyard hate from their sideboards, they’ll have even more tools to punish the fastest decks in the format. Time will tell just exactly how much the format will slow down, but I wouldn’t bet on all of the fast decks being dead—there are still plenty of tools to beat down and combo-kill.

I would expect an uptick in both Jund and Abzan out of the gates. A lot of players just like Jund, and Lingering Souls is being discussed by many as a great threat in a field of Fatal Pushes. The more players pick up these decks, the happier Tron players will be. Though as I mentioned above, Infect will still be plenty powerful, and will stop Tron from taking the format over entirely.

As we all know, Modern is too diverse to make a blanket statement about what the “best deck” is, and there will definitely be ins, outs, and innovations post-banning. I believe that these bans are definitely positive for the format, even if I wouldn’t have made the exact same changes.

Understanding Wizards’ Approach

With every round of bannings and unbannings, we get a little more insight as to what will come off or be put on next. With Grave-Troll, the crime came down to requiring very narrow hate cards, being able to beat those hate cards, and being absurdly consistent all the while—making sideboards matter entirely too much. With Gitaxian Probe, the message was clear that they wanted to reduce the number of turn-three kills in the format. I expect that both Dredge and Infect will continue to be watched in whatever form they take going forward. Wizards clearly does not want Dredge to be Tier 1, and if it becomes a successful deck again I would expect Stinkweed Imp or some other element also to get the axe. With regard to the Gitaxian Probe banning, I’m sure that any lingering turn-two-to-three kills with Mutagenic Growth and Become Immense are very much on their radar.

The relevant subtext is that things don’t have to get Eldrazi bad even in the post-Modern Pro Tour environment for the ban-hammer to swing. Even though Modern is very popular right now, they are still paying attention to format health. This is excellent, and something that Legacy players can’t necessarily claim about their format. I’m excited to see where Modern goes from here, and am very optimistic about Snapcaster Mage‘s position in the beginning of the year.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan Overturf
@RyanOverdrive on Twitter

17 thoughts on “Parsing the Gitaxian Probe & Golgari Grave-Troll Bans

  1. Great article. Though as a wounded and salty Temur Delver player, I have to wonder if you’d to remain that positive towards the Gitaxian Probe ban if your particular Delver variant relied on it. Probe is obviously broken by design, sure, but I still think it’s unfair that Temur Delver, UR Delver, UR Prowess, UR Storm, Jeskai Thing-Ascension and many other low tier/fringe decks were inflicted collateral damage by this ban, when they could easily have banned more specific cards from Death’s Shadow Zoo and UG Infect if they wanted to bring those specific decks down a notch.

    Thoughts?

    1. This simply can’t be the logic that the people making these decisions rely on. It’s certainly a factor as you don’t want to alienate your player base, but you have to ban the right cards. I’m sure there are wonky and fun Golgari Grave-Troll decks, too. When Preordain and Ponder were banned, it definitely hurt Delver strategies, but I accept that they aren’t healthy for the format.

    2. This is the same thing a lot of Tron players felt when the Eye of Ugin was banned. I understand that probe is much more a part of a game plan for the decks you listed than Eye was to Tron, but It shows that WotC does not focus on the collateral damage as much as fixing the problem. They could have banned the Temple which would still have slowed the Eldrazi Decks down but they just went in for the kill with the Eye.

      Great Article Ryan!

  2. As much as I agree with banning something out of Dredge, I am concerned about the precedent set by banning a previously-unbanned card. They could very easily point to GGT and say “See? Look! This is why we can unban more things.” The fact that there were zero accompanying unbans does not inspire confidence for the future of Modern B&R announcements either.

    1. I’m not sure I understand your comment. I could either interpret this as you saying you wish they unbanned more things because they have decided they can ban them again if they’re a problem or you’re saying down the road you don’t want them to do that and that this is bad precedent. On the point of the former, I like waiting on an unban with big shakeups already happening here. If your point is the latter, I don’t see that as anything other but a slippery slope argument.

      1. Wizards has been kind of all over the place with a lot of their huge decisions this past year and it makes me worrisome about whatever they see for the future of Modern. This is compounded by their (intentionally?) vague or thin explanations. Internally, they could see this as “Unbanning Troll was a mistake” and then not unban anything else. I hope that doesn’t happen, but with Wizards’ slash and burn actions with no accompanying unbans (and extremely brief reasoning), it certainly paints that picture. I agree though; if we can interpret this as a green light to aggressively unban things, then that’s awesome. We just didn’t get any of those unbans, so it feels extremely unfulfilling and unsettling.

        I don’t necessarily disagree with the ban targets, I’m just really surprised by the lack of unbans and what that means for Modern going forward. If the precedent is now set to reban cards and they’re going to continue to let Uxx decks be terrible*, they owe us at least a release of Twin.

        *The good matchups are only marginally in their favor and the bad matchups are unbelievably bad.

    2. Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek have been very safe, though, as has Wild Nacatl. So in terms of unbans, WOTC has a pretty good record of not being proven wrong. Again, Grave Troll is key to the recent rise of dredge, but that deck was irrelevant until Prized Amalgam and Insolent Neonate came along. It was a silly shell that relied on Vengevine and Gravecrawler to try to do anything of substance. Dredge players get their toys, with a little less speed now.

      And hey, you are talking to a guy who had just bought into UR Prowess in order to have a fun tier 2 budget deck (because screw Scalding Tarn). I’m aggravated, but I just took a deep breath, remembered how often I have died to infect and other all in decks, and finally bit the proverbial bullet: I bought snapcaster mages and will play grixis delver when I get bored of U Tron

      CONTROL FOREVER!

  3. I would argue that the golgari troll unban and and ban is great image for modern because for me it showed wizards willingness to test old bans that might not be worthy any longer. Which is def a good thing. It also showed they are willing to admit when they have made a mistake, which is also a good thing. Finally it left cathartic reunion and faithless looting alive in modern, which is equally nice as they are fun cards to use.

  4. I can see how Gitaxian made T3 kills possible. but certainly if you ban Mutagenic Growth instead, 90% of t3 kills dissapear completly of the metagame right now. Why would they target gitaxian, if the approach is reducing those kills?
    (I see the point of information, but that’s what made decks like Suicide Zoo a bit less all in, and make them “think” a bit about decisionmaking).

    1. I think the key difference here is what type of deck you want to reduce the turn 3 kills against.

      If you wanted to reduce turn 3 kills against all decks then ban mutagenic growth, but Tron gains too much from this, you need infect and other mutagenic growth decks to be fast enough to keep tron in check. I see nothing wrong with infect having turn 3 kills against a deck like tron when tron plays almost no interaction.

      What Wizards is trying to do is reduce the number of turn 3 kills against fair midrange and control decks, for these decks a single path, terminate, or fatal push can kill a creature no matter how many mutagenic growths are poured on it. These decks lose to a turn 3 kill when the mutagenic growth deck can peek at your hand and know if they have enough protection to dodge all the removal spells and go all in for the kill.

  5. Good article. Again I feel sorry for the few people who die hard and continued to play Storm through all its previous banning and now for this to happen mainly because of infect and suicide zoo. Poor modern storm that deck keeps getting the shaft. Anyways my main point is I’m glad that you addressed the possible intended outcome for these bannings. What I mean is what was WOTC’s goal? If it was to kill dredge then GGT was not enough. Knock it from tier 1 to 1.5 or 2 then GGT is a good start and if dredge keeps putting up solid numbers then ban Stinky next! Same with infect if it continues to be super powerful then ban Become Immense next… I think that idea works well with how frequently they will be doing bans/un-bans now.

  6. Wizards is again disconnected from reality. Probe didnt really add to turn 3 kills in infect; 4 probe 4 b.i. builds were slower than 4 groundswell lists. Suicide zoo/bloo both benefited, but only one of those was tier. If wizards really thinks probe is the reason for a turn 3 format, they don’t have a clue how modern plays out.

    1. Remember, the turn four rule is not just about how likely it looks, it’s about pulling it off. In the banning announcement Wizards very explicitly called out Probe’s information-giving ability. And I think the upshot is we will definitely see those decks slow down (yes, including Infect).

  7. I think that Sam Stoddard’s article from last Friday probably helped w/some of the complaints of not enough discussion about the bannings on the announcement. Altho if that was the planned article, maybe they could have mentioned there would be a deeper dive into them on Friday.

    I also think that a lot of people are forgetting that there is now an additional mid-season ban and we will be getting a B&R on March 13th, 5 weeks after the PT. Amonkhet releases on 4/28, so there will be 5 weeks after the PT, then an announcement, then about 6 weeks of the new meta before the new set arrives. SCG Regionals and an Open in Indy are the more relevant Modern events for me, but there are a decent number of major Modern events before the announcement comes. Wizards will be able to see how the bannings have tweaked things as well as the addition of things like the Expertise spells and Fatal Push to the environment.

    I think that the new 8 B&R a year will really help keep us from having protracted stale formats and maybe we will see more ban list testing over the course of this next year.

    Also, Twin isn’t coming back. Give it up people. There is starting to be some pretty good variety in blue decks and if the format is slowing down a notch w/the changes and new set, we will see more variety yet as slower options become more feasible. Esper Transcendent has been putting up some numbers recently and it definitely seems like that is an archetype that can only go up w/the recent changes.

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