Explorer’s mission is to make a format on Magic Arena as close to Pioneer as possible. Staying true to this mission, after the pestering of many MTG players, MTG Arena finally got Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. This brought to life a slightly weaker version of the Mono-Green Nykthos menace that’s been a massive part of the Pioneer format for quite a while. It seems that, especially in light of Nykthos’s introduction, many MTG players, specifically content creators, are calling for a ban on the deck in both Explorer and Pioneer. Yet, in the Pioneer format, results indicate that the strategy is in line with other top-performing lists- even performing a bit below the best decks. Why is this happening?
Mono Green Nykthos
If you’ve been playing any Pioneer trying to qualify for the competitive Regional Championship series, chances are you’ve come across this archetype more than once. It even won the Regional Championship that I personally attended. Yet, if you look at recent MTGO results, the strategy seems to pale in results to some of the other popular ones, getting outshone by UW Control, BR Midrange, Lotus Field Combo, Angels, and, arguably, Mono White Aggro. That said, the deck consistently gets results, but not at a rate where it’s an apparent plague on the format.
Unlike most Ramp decks, Mono Green Nykthos is surprisingly difficult to pilot. This is a midrange combo ramp deck that uses Karn, The Great Creator and Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner to untap Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx over and over to generate a ton of mana. With Restorative Burst and The Chain Veil, Karn can repetitively refresh Planeswalker activations, infinitely untapping Nykthos in the process, and kill the opponent through infinite The Stone Brain activations or by milling them out with Pestilant Cauldron and Restorative Burst. This, obviously, is a very crude explanation of a complicated combo.
Mono Green Nykthos also has a sort of midrange plan since many of the pieces it uses to try and hit critical mass in Devotion mana are creatures. Cards like Old-Growth Troll quickly end up paying for themselves as long as a Nykthos is in play and will ultimately net mana if Nykthos is ever untapped.
Cavalier of Thorns is a powerful creature that helps find Nykthos while contributing to its Devotion tactics. It can also dump Storm the Festival into the graveyard for the Mono-Green to continue looking for their combo pieces. The point is Mono-Green Devotion will go over the top of a lot of specific strategies and requires some nuanced tech to answer properly.
Optimization VS Polarization
If Mono-Green Nykthos isn’t the best deck in the Pioneer format, why does everyone want it banned yesterday? The above argument in the title is, for the most part, why many MTG content creators want Mono-Green Nykthos to go. Even though results indicate that the ramping menace is not the most optimal strategy in the Pioneer format, its existence puts a major strain on what strategies are viable within the formats the deck is affecting. In other words, Mono-Green Devotion does not have a lot of even matchups. It either completely annihilates an unsuspecting strategy or gets annihilated by a deck tuned to beat it.
This is not as true anymore, as there are a surprising number of matchups in the metagame that go even-ish against Green, but their strategies and decks needed significant warping to get to this point. The issue is, in these players’ words, that the strategies that we don’t see in the Pioneer format aren’t there because Mono-Green Nykthos pushes them out of the format.
Mono-Green Nykthos is a nightmare for players trying to innovate in the Pioneer space. Because of the deck’s polarizing game plan, many MTG players looking to try something new will slam into this brick wall and get sent back to the drawing board. In other words, while the deck is quite powerful, that is not the primary issue players with the strategy. The play patterns are too obnoxious, difficult to interact with, and the strategy is too polarizing.
This specific tweet does point out the awkward scenario behind banning as a result of polarization. Finding a line where an accepted amount of polarization is ok becomes difficult. The current Pioneer metagame isn’t even the most polarizing the format has ever been. For a short time, some considered Rakdos a tier zero deck, with Nykthos being its partner in crime. Basically, the argument was that any bad matchups that either deck has are invalidated by the other deck. In other card games, this is a more common example of a metagame dominated by polarization.
Fortunately, no bans were needed for the format to open up a bit, but the polarization problem with Mono Green Nykthos, in the words of these community members, continues on.
Banning Polarization (Personal Opinion)
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure whether or not Mono Green Nykthos should be banned, but I am pretty sure that banning something out of Nykthos will not solve much. The issue is that many of the top decks in the Pioneer format are just as polarizing, if not worse than Mono Green Nykthos.
Mono Green Nykthos, Lotus Field Combo, and the Selesnya Angels decks are all incredibly polarizing strategies. Nykthos decks make it difficult for any deck that can’t interact with its game plan to make any headway, promoting other decks with linear glass-cannon strategies and decks that can actually interact with the Nykthos deck in some way. Lotus Field Combo is much in the same line as Nykthos, but sideboard pieces that totally cripple the strategy make it a bit less offensive outside of top-table play. Selesnya Angels decks do a great job of hating out any creature-based strategies since the deck gains far too much life and the Angels become way too big to interact with through combat. You could argue that Mono-Green Nykthos is the reason that the metagame became like this, but if Nykthos gets banned, these decks may have a stronger stranglehold on the metagame.
Personally, I’ve managed a handful of MTGO challenges and Preliminary top eights/wins on the Lotus Field Combo deck, so I have invested a decent amount of time into the format. As someone who plays one of these polarizing archetypes, especially one that takes some investment to pilot properly, having this deck banned would, at least, force an extended break from Pioneer. At worst, I would stop playing the format altogether. Bans are finicky and can save and ruin formats all in the same by driving people away and getting rid of the things driving people away. While I would not at all mind a Nykthos or Karn ban, there are people who may walk away from the format as a result of it.
What to Take Away?
The two points I want to bring up in this last section are as such: bans are a really complicated matter since they result in a lot of player’s time becoming invalid, and banning Mono Green Nykthos for polarization reasons, whether correct or not, would likely lead to more bans towards other polarizing strategies.
Now, this could end up creating an extremely healthy format, but it could also drive the dedicated fanbase that has stuck by the format away for good. That’s the issue with banning due to polarization when there’s still a decent amount of variety at competitive levels. It becomes tough to find the line where overstepping it will cause frustrated Pioneer players to quit in droves (as a result of their decks getting banned continually). I would rather that line is found than no bans be made at all to grow the format, but finding that line is a really difficult and risky business.
In closing, the efficiency of the Nykthos banning would be as such: did the deck actually gatekeep a lot of viable archetypes that could impact the metagame? If the answer is yes, then it could be a fantastic ban. If that answer is no, the format may get even worse for these players. As a result, I genuinely hope that unbans will be the solution instead.