Drawing Conclusions: Stoneforge Musings

I’ve had my mind on the Modern banned list a lot lately—in December, I optimistically wondered at the possibility of a Preordain unban; more recently, I wrote up some general thoughts on format health. In the conclusion of that article, I offered, “Blue and white do continue to struggle relative to the other three colors, making me think now’s perhaps as good a time as any for an unban. Wizards has always waited for periods of relative stability and health […] to release cards back into Modern, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something like Stoneforge Mystic came off this time around.”

Indeed, a Stoneforge Mystic unban seems feasible for the first time ever. This article examines official statements from Wizards, the company’s past behaviors, and Modern Nexus’s own tests with Mystic to determine whether the card would be safe to release from the banned list.

A Blade Unforged

Wizards’s banned list announcements, as well as their reasoning for banning Stoneforge Mystic from Modern in the first place, provide an ideal starting point for our discussion. At the end of the day, Wizards will decide whether Stoneforge ever again sees the light of day, but we can still draw conclusions from the language and habits of the company. Scrutinizing and understanding their previous actions will help us predict the card’s fate accurately.

Stoneforge Mystic: The Crime

For starters, what did Stoneforge actually do to earn its ban? In Modern, nothing; the card was banned before it could ruin the format. Rather, Stoneforge was immediately banned from Modern as a sort of insurance. Just before Modern’s creation, the Kor Artificer gave Wizards headaches as it dominated Standard alongside Jace, the Mind Sculptor and put on a show eternal formats, too. Here’s Tom LaPille’s explanation for banning Stoneforge from Modern’s outset:

I hope that the fact this card is on the banned list isn’t a surprise to you. Stoneforge Mystic has by now made its mark on every format from Standard to Legacy, and Stoneforge-based blue control decks regularly do well in Legacy tournaments. Porting such decks into Modern was a trivial affair, and resulted in very powerful decks. We prefer to just ban this card rather than risk yet another format dominated by Stoneforge Mystic.

In 2011, Wizards was primarily concerned with ensuring Modern wasn’t simply a potpourri of existing decks from other formats, and especially from the miserably stagnant Standard they’d just diffused. They wanted the format to have a unique identity and original decks. Success in this aspiration was crucial at the format’s birth, as Modern was not yet established, and needed to offer something novel and alluring to pique the interest of players frustrated with the dreary “Standard Plus” of Extended.

Similar Offenders: Valakut, Blossom, Vision

LaPille’s theme of immediately banning recent, powerful Extended and Legacy strategies from Modern went beyond Stoneforge Mystic. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Bitterblossom, and Ancestral Vision all reserved spots on the banned list too, as well as similar blurbs featuring much of the same language. By now, each of these other cards has come off the banned list. This section dissects the texts Wizards provided with those unbans.

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Unbanned: September 20, 2012

Rationale:

Recent Modern tournaments have been diverse, with no deck dominating the metagame. Since Modern is a non-rotating format, banned cards never rotate out. The DCI is unbanning a card to see how that affects the format. We looked for cards that were on the initial banned list for Pro Tour Philadelphia. We wanted a card that would not easily slot into an existing top deck and also wanted to enable a deck with a different play pattern than the current top decks. After examining the options, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was selected as the card to unban.

Here, Wizards points to format diversity as a motivator for an unban. Modern looks especially healthy these days, meaning the time may be right for a card to come off.

They also acknowledge that the card to unban would need not to slot into a top-tier Modern deck. Since Death’s Shadow’s ascent, traditional BGx Rock decks like Abzan occupy a pitiful metagame share, and Stoneforge for the first time doesn’t easily slot into any of Modern’s top decks (Grixis Shadow, Jund Shadow, Storm, Affinity, Eldrazi Tron, Vizier Company, etc.). The card also enables new play patterns by bolstering fish decks like Death & Taxes and permission-based card advantage decks like UW Control.

Bitterblossom

Unbanned: February 3, 2014

Rationale:

At the time of Modern’s inception, the dominance of Faeries in Standard was at the front of our minds. Therefore, we took the conservative approach of including [mtg_card]Bitterblossom[/mtg_card] in the initial banned list. After observing the evolution of the Modern format, we feel that it is of an appropriate power level to compete with the other powerful strategies in the format.

Wizards concluded in this announcement that casting Bitterblossom on turn two would not put the game away. After all, many Modern decks aim to win by turn four. While Bitterblossom interacts with some of these strategies, it leaves plenty of ground uncovered. Wizards was vindicated in their assumption, and may come to a similar conclusion regarding Stoneforge Mystic.

Ancestral Vision

Unbanned: April 4, 2016

Rationale:

Ancestral Vision is a very efficient card-drawer. Historically it has been strong in decks using the cascade mechanic, which immediately casts Ancestral Vision from the deck to draw three cards. It has also been strong in blue-based decks that are playing a longer, attrition-style game. With the current banned list, including Bloodbraid Elf, the types of cascade cards usually played with Ancestral Vision are not available. While there are some control decks that would use Ancestral Vision, it is an underplayed portion of the metagame. To allow for an increase in the number of blue-based control or attrition decks, we are unbanning Ancestral Vision.

This announcement calls out lesser-played archetypes as potential motivators for an unban. The fish and control shells in which Stoneforge Mystic finds itself most at home have been under-represented in Modern for years, especially compared with midrange archetypes like BGx Rock or aggro-combo decks such as Affinity and Burn.

Wizards also mentions that the cascade creatures that make Vision great in Legacy are not legal in Modern. Similarly, the crucial Umezawa’s Jitte is banned in Modern. Stoneforge Mystic in Modern is literally a less powerful card than Stoneforge Mystic in Legacy for this reason, and significantly so; Jitte is almost always included alongside Mystic in that format.

What Stoneforge Does for Modern

Based alone on the unban justifications for Valakut, Blossom, and Vision, it already seems Stoneforge Mystic has a chance of coming off the banned list. After all, the card seems to fulfill the conditions of each of these three announcements! To recap those goals, a Stoneforge Mystic unban would:

  • Come during a period of stability and diversity.
  • Not slot cleanly into a top-tier Modern deck.
  • Perhaps enable decks with play patterns different from those of the top decks.
  • Boost still-struggling, permission-based attrition decks.
  • Produce a much weaker version of the card than is available in Legacy.

But Stoneforge Mystic does something more for Modern: it specifically addresses a problem Wizards has with the format. Here’s a quote from their April 24 banned list announcement this year:

In Modern, Death’s Shadow continues to be the best deck, but technology like Condemn is starting to emerge, and the format appears to be in a safe spot at the moment. While deck diversity is good, we’re keeping an eye on color balance. If there’s an easy change to the banned list that could open up more decks in the future, we will examine it when other formats have less pressing needs.

Black, green, and red have been Modern’s primary colors for years. Blue has needed help since the Twin ban, but is looking up now with Grixis Shadow and UR Storm (in fact, I would be against a Preordain unban now, and am relieved Wizards waited before pulling the trigger on that one). White, though, continues to struggle, often relegated to sideboard bullets or a Lingering Souls splash. Fatal Push‘s arrival only worsens the scenario by giving non-white decks a one-mana, heavy-duty removal spell.

Stoneforge Mystic may be powerful enough for players to splash for, as they do for Tarmogoyf. If it is, the “easy change” of unbanning the card could help mollify Modern’s color diversity issues. And if not, Mystic doesn’t belong on the banned list anyway.

Recalling the Nexus Stoneforge Tests

I’d be remiss not to mention the data Modern Nexus itself has procured on this subject. Our own David Ernenwein put in 600 games with a Stoneforge Mystic-featuring Abzan deck and concluded an unban to be unsafe for Modern. Here’s his recommendation:

Based on the results of my testing Stoneforge Mystic in Junk Abzan I recommend against unbanning. My results partially prove the hypothesis true, but analysis of the impact suggests that over the long term it will have the opposite effect.

While its power is manageable and it would give players more reason to play white, its impact would not be positive. It negatively impacts the viability of fair aggro decks and non-Stoneforge midrange decks, while having a negligible impact on the less fair decks. The likely outcome would be a shift to more unfair decks and the speed of the format increasing to try to ignore and invalidate Batterskull and Swords. Therefore there is no reason to unban Stoneforge Mystic.

As he elaborates in the article, David found Stoneforge to aid fair midrange decks in combating aggro decks. He also found Stoneforge’s presence to benefit unfair aggro decks that didn’t care about Batterskull, especially Infect. But Infect bit the dust with the Probe ban. Modern’s existing midrange decks, including the now-fringe Abzan, could definitely use a hand against the format’s aggressive stalwarts—which, in turn, include the Death’s Shadow menace.

Closing Statements

Four months have passed since GP Vancouver, and Death’s Shadow is still Modern’s deck-to-beat. Luckily for everyone, Shadow is a skill-intensive deck Modern players enjoy playing with and against, and prefer losing to over something linear. And while it’s the best deck around, it’s far from oppressive in terms of representation, whether or not those numbers correlate perfectly with its strength.

It seems to me that Wizards is at a crossroads. It’s likely that classical BGx Rock decks return to their former glory should Wizards decide to neuter the Shadow decks, and at that point, Stoneforge Mystic could become an issue in Abzan. But should Wizards leave Shadow alone, Stoneforge can be unbanned without fear of creating a Tier 0 powerhouse, and stands to benefit the already thriving metagame in multiple ways. Let’s hope the company’s learned its lesson from trying in vain to shape Standard with a series of brute-force bans and tries giving Modern tools rather than taking them away.

Jordan is the copy editor at Modern Nexus. He has played Magic since 2003, and Modern since its inception. A devoted theorist, he always brings tuned brews to events. Jordan favors card efficiency over raw power and specializes in disruptive aggro strategies.

10 thoughts on “Drawing Conclusions: Stoneforge Musings

  1. Of the typical cards on the table for an un-ban, Stoneforge certainly seems the safest. I know I bought my playtest a couple ban announcements back in anticipation of an un-ban, so I continue to root for it :).

    What do you think the odds of a Death’s Shadow ban are next week or in sometime this year? On one hand, I don’t see that many folks crying for a ban of DS, but the deck is definitely putting up some significant results and DS is at its heart kind of bananas, so I wouldn’t really be surprised to see a ban.

    1. I think they are pretty slim. Modern is very healthy right now, so Wizards doesn’t have any glaring problems to address. Since SFM is unlikely to slot into Shadow decks, unbanning it is a safer (in terms of player backlash) way of gently shaking the format away from those strategies. Pros and FNM-goers alike have expressed that they really like the format as-is, and that’s the metric Wizards pays closest attention to.

  2. Great article!

    One question though; how do you define fish decks? You mentioned them a few times in the context of death and taxes but the fish decks I’m used to are the vintage decks with small creatures and plenty of countermagic – with merfolk being the original fish (hence the name). I suppose Merfolk and D&T do share the property of being disruptive creature decks so maybe that’s your definition?

  3. I doubt SFM will ever be unbanned in Modern, at least, not while Batterskull is in the format. It poses the same problem for Design that Birthing Pod did: it is always one new card away from being broken. While Equipment has been weak in the past sets (mainly thanks to Vehicles occupying a very similar spot), it may not always be so.

    As for Death’s Shadow, it’s dominance is not a problem at the moment: it is dominant, yes, but it is an easily answerable card that has to be built around. In any case, if it ever became too much of a problem, there are cards that could be banned to reduce the power of the deck without killing it completely, namely Street Wraith. That card, and Mishra’s Bauble, are simply mistakes in Design: cards that are “free” (as in, no mana cost) and replace themselves, allowing decks to run 56 or even 52 cards with fringe benefits.

    I don’t think now is the time to move, but if Wizards ever saw the need to take DS down a peg, I hope it’s through Street Wraith.

    1. The “limits further design” argument has been used since the Pod ban by banned list detractors, but interestingly, not by Wizards. After all, they unbanned GGT and then printed Amalgam and Reunion. Thanks to this example in particular, is in fact precedent for unbanning cards despite their obvious, inevitable synergy with future cards.

      As for “mistakes in design,” I think it’s important to remember what Wizards actually wants to achieve with their bans: fun and format diversity. For many players (including me), part of Modern’s appeal is that it contains weirdly designed cards like Wraith, Bauble, and Simian Guide, and Wizards knows that.

      So long as these cards don’t hinder competitive diversity or violate the Turn 4 Rule, they are safe, which is why they have not banned as of yet and will not be banned this week (unless, of course, Wizards does find a card like Street Wraith to limit diversity). In any case, “bad design” is a terrible metric with which to measure possible banned list alterations, since it’s one Wizards purposefully avoids.

      1. The other problematic thing with the design argument against Stoneforge is that when Rosewater introduced Vehicles he specifically said they were looking for alternatives to equipment and were concerned about its power level. It’s while good creatures will continue to be printed and this will keep Pod banned, it is far less likely that we will see another good Stoneforge target anytime soon.

        1. I have a similar opinion on this matter. Equipment has numerous flaws built into it. Limiters on 3 axis.
          Cost (including the equip cost
          Power
          And requiring a creature (the easier card type to interact with, and this imo is the axis which vehicles breaks, since once activated they no longer need the creature)

          Additionally they’ve had a lot of time to learn about what works and what doesn’t with equipment. I think it’s very unlikely they will print another low equip cost high powered equipment.

          It’s a very very narrow card type whereas creatures are everywhere and by necessity MUST be powerful

  4. I would strongly support a stoneforge unban IF they banned batterskull.

    I don’t think many tears would be shed over the loss of batterskull. Any decor hag wants skull can easily play a dozen other recursive threats.

    Stoneforge would boost at least 3 archetypes and bring a lot of fun gameplay IF they don’t just fetch batterskull every single game and completely invalidate burn and zoo

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