First Look at Stoneforge

The first week of the entirely new Modern is over and nobody has any idea where we’re heading. So far all the excitement has been focused on the unbanning, and with good reason. I imagine most players are as tired as I am of the graveyard heavy format we’ve had for the past year and a half-ish. It does mean that we need to start relearning how Modern works, and that is proving quite hard.

The Initial Data

The logical place to start examining this new Modern would be with the data. There was a major SCG event over the weekend, and it included a dump of all the Day 2 decklists. This data shows a relatively lack of Stoneforge Mystic decks and no dedicated graveyard decks. On face, this suggests that the banning was completely successful in killing the old, graveyard-centric metagame. It also indicates that the unbanning hasn’t done anything yet, but that’s not surprising. It takes time to figure out how to play with new cards. Honestly, this mostly looks like a fluctuating metagame trying to sort itself out.

Perspective

At this point, I’d typically do some overview of the event, note the a priori expecatations, and then introduce the data in table form. That’s not happening this week. Simply put, its not only too early to draw any conclusions, what conclusions there are to draw aren’t very helpful. Burn, Whirza, and Tron dominated Day 2. This shouldn’t have surprised anyone; something similar has happened right after every major ban. Following Splinter Twin‘s ban, Burn, Affinity, and Tron were the decks in Modern. And remember, this happened at the start of Eldrazi Winter.

Burn, Tron, and the artifact deck of the moment always dominate the first events right after a major banning. The former two do well because they’re known, solid strategies that don’t require much, if any, tuning for the metagame, making them above average-choices facing the unknown. The artifact deck also gets a lot of play, partially since specific hate is usually down, and partially thanks to hype. These results mostly indicate that a new metagame is forming rather than anything about that meta.

Classic Complication

Additionally, the Dallas Modern Classic did as the Classic has been want to do and muddies the picture from the main event. True, there are four Burn decks in the Top 16 as well. However, that’s the only parallel with the other results. Dredge won the Classic, but I don’t see it anywhere in the Open’s Day 2. Whir of Invention was a major player in the Open and completely absent in the Classic. Therefore, other than to say that the metagame looks to be fluctuating, there’s nothing to analyze. Rather, SCG Dallas should be regarded as a starting point to see how the metagame develops from here.

Natural Home

I’m not surprised by how few Stoneforge Mystics are in the SCG data. As the card has never been in Modern before, everyone is struggling to figure out how to fit it into their decks, it being commonly believed that she slots in anywhere. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but there was one deck that Mystic very glaringly slotted into, and that’s where I’ve been playing her most so far.

Death and Taxes, David Ernenwein (Test Deck)

Creatures (27)
Thraben Inspector
Giver of Runes
Leonin Arbiter
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Stoneforge Mystic
Blade Splicer
Flickerwisp
Mirran Crusader

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Artifacts (7)
Aether Vial
Batterskull
Sword of Fire and Ice
Sword of Light and Shadow

Lands (22)
12 Plains
Tectonic Edge
Ghost Quarter
Horizon Canopy
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I took this list to Mythic Games’s (formerly Black Gold’s) 45-player Modern FNM last week and went 3-1, beating Traverse Shadow, Ad Nauseam, and Jund while losing to a Sigarda’s Aid combo deck. All in all, I was pretty satisfied with how the deck performed. However, I wouldn’t take this list to any larger event, partially since I built this deck for a local meta full of Jund, Burn, and Stoneforge mirrors; the sideboard is a bit of a mess.

Legacy Death and Taxes decks have three pieces of equipment, but Umezawa’s Jitte is still (thankfully) banned. Therefore I went with Sword of Light and Shadow, partially since I expected lots of Esper Stoneblade (knowing the player base) and because it grinds very well. This package was fine. Blocking black creatures came up a lot more than returning creatures, but I rarely needed the Swords in any of my games. Having them still felt good, especially when they drew opposing discard spells rather than my actual threats.

Leonin Arbiter doesn’t seem like he plays well with Mystic, but it works out. You don’t actually have them together all that often, and even when you do I almost always want one out much more than the other. In grindy matchups you want to get Mystic down as quickly as possible, while Arbiter is mostly a 2/2; conversely, against Tron, Mystic is very poor. Vial also helps play around the tax.

Incremental Improvements

The big question is, of course, whether Stoneforge makes DnT a real Modern deck. I won’t go that far, but it feels a lot better than it ever has before. Having a cantrip-creature more potent than Thraben Inspector is a huge boon. Stoneforge has the additional benefit in that, while it’s not much a threat by itself, the promise of an instant speed Batterskull means players kill her on sight instead of disruptive creatures. I can safely say that the deck has improved and feels very similar to the Legacy version.

The Great Stone Hope

The bigger story of Mystic is, of course, the old saw that it’s the key to a Modern control revival. At least, that’s what the advocates have claimed forever. The idea is that Stoneforge gives control a very versatile and fast clock that is well-integrated into its overall strategy, and the ensuing Modern Stoneblade decks would give control a permanent place in Modern. I have long disputed the underlying assumptions about control in Modern, so I’ve been very skeptical of this position. My experiences since the unban have not dissuaded me. There’s a lot of potential for Mystic in Modern, but the current thinking of control deck plus Mystic is unlikely to work out.

Incomplete Transfer

I can’t remember where I saw it, but right after the announcement someone somewhere joked “Stoneblade players should rejoice. Now they can go 5-4 in Modern too.” While I can’t speak to the veracity of the statement, I agree with the sentiment. Stoneblade is not that great a deck in Legacy. It has a lot of powerful cards and can be a very effective control deck. However, it’s a fairly middle of the road deck. Rather than it being a hard control deck, it’s a cross between rock midrange and tempo. It can attack from multiple angles and take any role, but it doesn’t excel at any of them. This is why when Miracles was at its height, Stoneblade couldn’t compete. Banning Sensei’s Divining Top made Stoneblade competitive again, but it’s never excelled. This makes me skeptical that Stoneblade will be any better in Modern.

While it’s easy to say that Modern’s lack of cantrips make this a no-brainier, that’s not the real problem. Simply put, Legacy Stoneblade is a mediocre control deck, but True-Name Nemesis wielding a Sword is utterly busted. I argue that Stoneblade’s strength isn’t actually that it’s a control deck with a proactive win condition or even its flexibility, but being really good at protecting True-Name. The closest creature Modern has is Geist of Saint Traft, which while a better clock is also blockable and vulnerable to Pyroclasm. Unopposed, Geist does kill faster. However, True-Name is far more likely to survive and actually get that kill.

This problem has led to all the Stoneblade decks I’ve tried or seen played so far feeling anemic if not fatally clunky. Even when I flawlessly curve Stoneforge into Geist into a Sword and equipping the Geist, I’m struggling to have that be any better than my Jeskai Tempo deck from last year. In fact, Jeskai lists have performed the best for me simply because plan of dropping Geist, clearing the way with burn and counters, and then riding him to victory works just as well now as it did back then. Stoneforge has been largely superfluous.

Tensing the Blade

Then there’s the internal tension the Stoneforge plan is creating. Again, the great hope is that going Stoneblade would allow control decks to have proactive plan that is simultaneously defensive. A 4/4 on turn three is a decent clock against unfair decks, and it being a vigilant life-linker should stifle fast aggro. From what I’ve seen and experienced, that isn’t working out.

Stoneforge Mystic is a high-maintenance card, requiring at least six deck slots. Drawing the equipment without the Mystic clogs up the hand. There’s also no guarantee that casting either Mystic or the equipment does anything. Does Tron actually care about the clock from Batterskull? Does it actually brick Humans? Or Spirits? The control deck is effectively playing a lot of individually dead cards since the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It just isn’t that much more in many cases.

The other problem is altered play patterns. The first few turns are the most vulnerable for a control deck. By playing Stoneforge, they’re agreeing to go shields-down for a 1/2 cantrip creature on turn two with the hope they can spend another two mana the next turn to get a 4/4, assuming my Squire is still in play. The germ also has to survive for ‘Skull to do anything. If that’s not the case, I’ve given my opponent a lot of tempo, which might be lethal. If my intention was to get a fast clock, then I’d have a better one on the same turn for less time investment just playing Geist. If I was looking for board control, then Wall of Omens also cantrips and I’m willing to block with it. Afterward, I can keep mana up to answer threats.

All the Stoneblade decks I’ve seen so far have been control decks fitting in Mystic, and I haven’t seen proof that works. Their wins have come not through Mystic but by being control decks. The more they resemble pre-unbanning decks, the better they’ve done. This tells me that Stoneforge may not be the control players’ hope as expected. Rather, it’s a good threat for creature and tempo decks that really embrace it outside of best case scenarios.

A Question of Counterplay

All this may suggest that Stoneforge’s unban will end up having no impact on Modern. If it’s not supercharging control, being easily slotted into every deck, or shutting down other decks, it must have always been safe for Modern. But I think that would be a hasty judgment.. There’s only been a single week of work put into the Stoneblade lists, and an optimal list could change everything. Secondly, and on that note, players lack experience with Stoneforge. This means the decks are unrefined and performing poorly, which is keeping their numbers down. On the other side, Stoneforge’s impact is also being exaggerated thanks to players playing badly against it.

My experience so far has been a lot of opponent’s misplaying and misevaluating my Stoneforge decks. Their running scared from ‘Skull, and tend to bend their thinking around that card. The most common example has been with Kolaghan’s Command. Command is a good maindeckable answer to equipment, but it has a lot of other uses. If I go for an early Mystic, even if they kill her I don’t play the equipment, they’ll refuse to cast Command so they can answer the said artifact. This ends up winning me the game.

I had one match at FNM where I had an unequipped Batterskull out, a Vial, and five lands. My Death’s Shadow opponent had drawn (and clearly telegraphed) Command with four lands. I held up three lands to represent picking up the ‘Skull while adding creatures to the board. He did nothing, waiting for the opportunity to smash the ‘Skull. It never came and I simply swamped the board and crushed him. A few rounds later, I beat Jund and the pilot noted that if he’d saved his Command he could have used to killed my Batterskull and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar many turns later. However, I pointed out that the sequence he described was only possible because he’d used the Command to clear my Blade Splicer board. I had a far easier route to victory with my tokens than without them, regardless of ‘Skull surviving.

While testing Jeskai Stoneblade, I had a Jund opponent win game 1 then sideboard in all the artifact hate for games 2-3, including Collector Ouphe and Ancient Grudge. I had played an early Mystic in both games which immediately died without cheating the Sword out. In both games I instead rode a naked Geist to victory, using my mana to clear the road rather than play the Sword. Said opponent died with both Grudges and a Command in hand and two dead Ouphes. Players are so afraid of Stoneforge they’re focusing on that piece of the deck and not the context of the deck or matchup. This knee-jerk fear is bound to subside in the coming weeks as Modernites familiarize themselves with Stoneforge.

What Goes Around

I expected this to be the case. Years ago, I started testing a Jeskai TwinBlade list to test the theoretical impact of a Stoneforge unban. I never published the results, as Twin was banned first. Instead, the enduring take away was that my opponents struggled to play correctly against the list. On paper, that TwinBlade list was really clunky. In practice, particularly against Jund, it gained huge amounts of value when opponents didn’t know which plan they should care about. Using Abrupt Decay on Stoneforge protected against ‘Skull, but left open the gate to getting comboed out. Conversely, target the combo plan too much and they’d get raced. A lot of my victories came not on the merits of my deck, but on exploiting opposing confusion and misplays. I’m having a lot of deja vu as a result.

Players think that the threat of Stoneforge represents a fundamentally different gameplan than they’re used to, and are overreacting. It really isn’t; it’s a different type of creature, but it’s still just a ground-pounding assault. It’s normally correct to treat it as nothing special and play normally. Until this is understood, misplays will inflate Stoneforge deck’s win rates at least as much as suboptimal decklists are depressing them. Thus we don’t have data on how Stoneforge really behaves in Modern, and cannot make any generalizations about its eventual place in the overall metagame or the ban’s impact.

Forging Ahead

I think that a lot of players will be disappointed that Stoneforge doesn’t fix all their decks problems. I also think that those who persevere will be greatly rewarded. And we still have yet to really see what becomes of all the Looting decks. This is a fascinating time in Modern, so keep your ear to the ground. Great changes are afoot.

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