There and Back Again: The Bloodbraid Elf Story

If not exactly the Queen of Jund (that’s of course Liliana), Bloodbraid Elf was certainly its High Priestess back in the times. Now that she’s been unleashed on the Modern format once again, is she going to find a home in a drastically changed meta, or will she go the way of Bitterblossom?

Time flies. It’s been 5 years since Bloodbraid Elf was first banned in Modern. It was February 1st, 2013 when the ban became effective, and Modern had existed for only one and a half years by that point. The first complete Modern year, 2012, had been a season of adapting to the changes and growing pains of a format that had undergone three different barrages of bannings between August and December 2011; by the end of it, one archetype had emerged as the clear final boss in most tournaments: Jund.

Liliana of the Veil Tarmogoyf Deathrite Shaman
Jund finance: Two of these three cards surpassed $100 in value at some point.

A direct descendant of classic BG “The Rock” builds, Modern Jund first coalesced as a midrange deck with a simple gameplan, aiming to disrupt the opponent’s hand early on with Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek, then stabilize the board with Liliana of the Veil and Abrupt Decay, get card advantage through insanely powerful utility creatures like Dark Confidant and Deathrite Shaman, and finally go for it thanks to its extremely efficient beaters, chief among them Tarmogoyf, or with direct damage from multipurpose Lightning Bolt and Blightning. Aside from Tarmo and one-mana discard, all cards in a Jund deck have indeed more than one role, often at once, like Blightning both disrupting and damaging the opponent.

Arguably, Lightning Bolt is the single most important argument that pushed Rock-like shells to branch into red, exploiting the presence of fetchlands and shocklands in the Modern pool. The other most common red cards in original recipe Jund were the mentioned Blightning and Terminate, and both were rarely included as anything more than 1- or 2-ofs. Well, except for one fierce-looking Elf lady.

What Alara Reborn’s Bloodbraid Elf had to offer to Jund was a double tempo gain: come turn 4 (turn 3 with a Deathrite Shaman), you can both immediately swing with a 3-powered attacker and draw and cast something else for free. Either of these abilities on their own wouldn’t be enough to make the cut, but together? In a deck hellbent on tactical superiority? Extremely explosive. Hence the ban, ultimately. Another effect of Bloodbraid Elf being a key player in Jund was that those lists kept lowering their mana curve, to the point that the Elf became the curve-topper, and essentially the only card that felt legitimately midrange in the maindeck. Here’s what a 2012 Jund deck looked like.

Jérémy Dezani, 1st place in Grand Prix Lyon, November 2012 

The Homecoming Queen

All in all, Jund was too dominant in 2012 and paid the price for its success by first losing Bloodbraid Elf, and then Deathrite Shaman one year later. After that, it stopped being a tier-1 deck, but it never went away. The Modern meta has considerably changed in the past 5 years, and Jund went from owning a whopping 15% of the meta in 2012, to merely 2% in 2017. But it’s still a tangible presence, especially online. Here’s what a 2017 Jund deck looked like.

cscholar, 1st place in MTGO Competitive Modern League, December 2017

You can see how essentially Goblin Rabblemaster took the place of Bloodbraid Elf (haste + additional value), while Scavenging Ooze filled in for Deathrite Shaman (graveyard hate, some degree of aggression). Not ideal replacements, of course, but strong enough cards on their own. Kolaghan’s Command is the new and improved Blightning: not exactly the same results when used for damage + disruption (going down of 1 discard and 1 damage), but it’s an instant and it’s more versatile.

Goblin Rabblemaster Scavenging Ooze Kolaghan's Command

This is clearly the most obvious home Bloodbraid Elf is finding coming back from her 5-year exile, and the only one immediately ready to give her a seat. Since the unbanning of February 12, our Berserker heroine has started to show up in Jund builds, with setups like this one by Card Weiderman, where Goblin Rabblemaster steps aside for the Elf's triumphant return.

Carl Weiderman, 1st place in Team Unified Modern – GP Sydney Practice, February 18, 2018

…and Back Again

Bloodbraid Elf’s unbanning became effective on February 19, one day after GP Lyon 2018, the same place that had seen old Jund triumph more than five years ago (it was playable on MTGO a few days before, it started showing in Leagues across a variety of decks). Is new Jund going to Top 8 a major event any time soon? Possibly, but the truth is, times have changed. Most of Jund’s old enemies are either gone (Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin), or even more nerfed than Jund was (Infect, Storm), with only Robots and UW Control/Midrange still going strong, reminding our hasty Elf of that bygone era. Fast and efficient aggro decks like Death’s Shadow, Eldrazi and Humans claimed Jund’s old spot on the food chain, and don’t seem likely to lose popularity because of a 4-mana beater, as amazing as she is.

There’s also not a lot of clear homes for Bloodbraid Elf right now. She doesn't seem particularly compatible with Ancient Stirrings from RG Eldrazi or with Collected Company, despite players experimenting with these online, to varying degrees of success. Abzan has no reason to bother splashing for her. She’s too slow for both Death’s Shadow and Elves. She was great in Jund because she would synergize with the deck’s overall goal of overwhelming the opponent through general card advantage, but all these decks work differently, in more specific ways. This leaves mostly fringe decks like Non-Collected Naya Zoo or Temur Aggro, and even there she would have to contend with cards with more precise functions like Ghor-Clan Rampager and Hazoret the Fervent in the former case, or just replace 1-ofs like Pia and Kiran Nalaar and Huntmaster of the Fells in the latter. Ponza is one existing deck that looks better with Bloodbraid Elf in it, but I’m still not sure she’ll be the card that brings it to the forefront of the meta.

Huntmaster of the Fells
How does Bloodbraid Elf compare with this in a Temur build?

So, we’re ultimately back to the current iteration of Jund, which however is solid and might improve and regain some of its past relevance. And if it does, it will certainly owe it to Bloodbraid Elf. So if you root for her to show up in the meta’s upper echelons again, you’ll probably have to root for Jund’s reemergence as well. Other than that, time, and meta analyses, will tell.

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1 Comment

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griefhound(05.11.2018 23:56)

Always fun to get some historical insight! Good read.