It is time to dive into the Modern banned list. At the time of this writing there are thirty-four cards banned in Modern. My personal favorite among them is Green Sun’s Zenith. Today we will begin our examination of the card and its potential in the Modern format. This article will cover the reasoning behind the ban, how it fares in Legacy, and how it stacks up when compared to the currently legal alternatives in Modern.
Why it is Banned
While it was not on the initial ban list, it ate the hammer in the round of bannings that immediately followed the first Modern Pro Tour. The largest contributing factor to Green Sun’s Zenith being illegal in Modern is Dryad Arbor. In a vacuum GSZ represents any green creature in your deck. The cost of this incredible versatility is one additional mana; note that it also makes restrictive costs such a GW just become 2G. This is a pretty powerful effect but Dryad Arbor really pushes it over the top by allowing it to represent Llanowar Elves at all times.
So GSZ functionally is a modal spell where the first bullet point is Llanowar Elves and the rest of the bullet points are the various Green creatures in your deck with the caveat that it costs X more to cast where X is the creatures converted mana cost. In summation, it is banned for being mana acceleration on Turn 1 and a powerful consistency tool at all other points of the game. In the eyes of many, GSZ will remained banned for the same reason that Birthing Pod must: it limits WotC’s ability to print powerful creatures in the future. We are not closing the book on it though. Modern is home to many powerful spells and we must examine this particular one from many angles.
What it does in Legacy
Knight of the Reliquary Decks
The largest subset of Legacy decks that play GSZ are decks focused on Knight of the Reliquary. In the current Modern format it does not see significant play, the lands are much less powerful, but in the past we have seen it in value decks and even in combos with Retreat to Coralhelm. The Legacy archetypes built around it are Four-Color Loam and Maverick. Loam is a slow controlling deck with prison elements that only runs a couple copies of GSZ. The cards to play it in Modern are not legal so it is not particularly relevant. However, Maverick is quite similar to the Value Town decks that saw some play in 2017. In either format, they are GW Aggro decks that aim to hit multiple land drops each turn and destroy the opponent’s lands in the process. It is possible that Modern Value Town could make a comeback if it were able to cut Collected Company for GSZ and find exactly what they were looking for every time.
Arguably, no deck in Legacy utilizes GSZ as effectively as Elves. By default it is a Mono-Green creature deck so GSZ finds every creature in the deck; though they do splash other colors for non-creature sideboard hate. The deck lost some power with the Deathrite Shaman ban but it is still viable. As it stands, Modern Elves is a viable Tier 3 archetype with the current popular build being Golgari for Shaman of the Pack. The key difference between these decks is that the Legacy build is a combo deck and the Modern deck is an aggro deck. Legacy Elves aims to use Glimpse of Nature and Elf-based combos to generate absurd amounts of mana, draw a preposterous number of cards, and cast Craterhoof Behemoth to get in for a ludicrous amount of damage. GSZ provides consistency to the deck so that it can assemble the combos out of nowhere. Even with GSZ legal, most of these combo pieces are not Modern legal so Modern Elves would likely remain an aggro deck. This would be a significant shot in the arm for Elf decks in Modern.
Chord of Calling
The closest alternative to GSZ that is currently Modern legal is Chord of Calling. They are both Green spells with an X cost that allow you to search your library for a creature and put it directly onto the battlefield. Mana cost aside, Chord is strictly better than GSZ. It is an Instant rather than a Sorcery and is able to dig up any creature regardless of color. GSZ takes a serious advantage on the mana efficiency side though. The difference between GGG and G is quite significant; though, Chord does have Convoke to help out.
The aforementioned Modern Elves deck would be more than happy to cut Chord for GSZ. The creatures that they tutor are Green and their myriad mana dorks effectively grant Convoke to GSZ; though Chord takes advantage if they are summoning sick. They also gain surprisingly little out of flashing their Elves into play so GSZ being a Sorcery is fine. It is possible that they would emulate the Legacy Glimpse builds with either Beck//Call or Beast Whisperer and become a combo deck but I am not optimistic about it due to missing pieces. In either build the switch to GSZ would be a slam dunk for the current Modern Elf decks.
However, the more recently successful Abzan Company decks are focused on combining Devoted Druid and Vizier of Remedies to generate infinite mana. Chord, being an instant, allows these decks to find Devoted Druid on the opponent’s endstep so that they may untap and win on the spot. More importantly, Chord is capable of finding Vizier of Remedies; a White card than GSZ misses out on. GSZ would just be a worse Chord in these decks. As a result, these decks would stick with Chord if GSZ were unbanned; they would not cut Company for it either. Though in a GSZ Modern I do think that Elves would be superior to these decks.
Another Modern-legal counterpart to GSZ is Summoner’s Pact. Each of them are restricted to only Green creatures but they differ significantly from there. Pact is absolutely free but does not put the creature onto the battlefield; you must cast it at full cost. You must then be prepared to pay four mana for the privilege at your next upkeep. Pact allows you to play the spell on-curve but over the course of the two turns it will be the creature’s cost plus four while GSZ is the creature’s cost plus one all at once. At the time of this writing it is used exclusively in Primeval Titan decks such as Amulet Titan and Titanshift. There is not much of a chance that these decks would cut Pact for GSZ. Titan is the best choice because it will help them to pay off the Pact; though Azusa can do this too.
Amulet Titan in particular relies heavily on Pact. They want to play a bounceland three times in a single turn to generate six mana and cast the Titan; a Pact can put the Titan into their hand for free. With GSZ they would need seven so they would usually be set back a full turn. A common play for them is to transmute Tolaria West into a Pact and then use that Pact for a Titan. If they expect a Titan to be removed, they often use the ETB ability to find a bounceland and a Tolaria West so that they can return it to hand to set up the aforementioned line. None of this is possible with GSZ because of its converted mana cost. You could argue that this deck would supplement Pact with GSZ, which is possible but hard to make room for, but it would not be a replacement.
Titanshift on the other hand is much less focused on Pact and typically only runs two copies. However, I do think it would benefit from a swap to GSZ. The deck is built to reach seven or eight lands to lethally Scapeshift the opponent. Titan comes down on six lands to ramp them up and net some Valakut triggers along the way. A Pact can get the Titan into play on curve but GSZ sets you back a turn. A common line in this deck is to reach six lands, tap two of them for Sakura-Tribe Elder, sacrifice it for a seventh land, and then use your remaining four untapped lands for Scapeshift. Pact can fill in for Elder in this line by tutoring it for free but GSZ cannot. However, GSZ into Dryad Arbor is more efficient than Pact into Elder, at one mana rather than two, and the end result is the same; a seventh land is available for Scapeshift. Ramping the deck on Turn 1 while also being able to inexpensively grab the seventh land in the late game or play out a Titan is a very tempting proposition. GSZ will not be strictly better than Pact in this deck but it does appear to be an improvement.
To truly understand a banned card we must examine why it was banned, the role it plays in other formats, and how it compares to cards that are legal in the format. With all of these aspects studied and adequately understood we can proceed. We have written this article quite a bit ahead of time so that I could begin brewing and testing Green Sun’s Zenith decks in Modern. In the meantime we would like to hear what you think about GSZ in our discussion group. Or if you would like to take a swing at writing content for the site you can contact us directly here. I will be back tomorrow to present the best creatures to use with GSZ and the decks we initially tested. Until then my friends.