Ban Ancient Stirrings? Let’s Unban Cards Instead!

Todd Anderson thinks the calls to ban Ancient Stirrings are laughable…in fact, he thinks the solution is quite the opposite! Check out the cards he’d be willing to release from Modern Jail!

Before reading this, I highly recommend Ross Merriam’s take on Ancient Stirrings. It is a well-written defense of the card, and many of my points will lack context if you don’t read the original text.

This week, I’ll be tackling the hot topic of Ancient Stirrings in Modern. Many argue that Modern is in a much healthier place than it was a year ago (or ever, in some cases). I disagree. Modern is a hellscape. It is a place where good ideas go to die. It is a hostile, tumultuous format featuring some of the most degenerate decks I’ve ever seen. And this is all largely due to the banning of Splinter Twin.

Let me start at the beginning.

Splinter Twin was the best control deck in Modern in the sense that it helped to stifle some of the more busted combo decks. Being a combo deck in and of itself was a problem, but it was a problem I was fine having around. The lesser of two evils, if you will. For the most part, a two-card combo that kills on the fourth turn is not outside the realm of reasonable in Modern. And when you combine that with the fact that both sides of the combo (creature, Splinter Twin) are easy to interact with, you start to see that it was never that big of a deal. In fact, I don’t know many people who thought that it was deserving of a ban.

In a lot of ways, Splinter Twin is what held everything together. Like Force of Will in Legacy, Splinter Twin was the card that made it scary for other combo decks to really slip their foot in the door. Of course, other combo decks could still beat Splinter Twin, but consistency and interaction coupled with the knockout punch of the Splinter Twin combo made it dangerous to play any deck that had a bad Splinter Twin matchup. At no point, to my knowledge, did Splinter Twin put up insane numbers. It was just another deck in the format, and was a pretty big underdog to decks with a lot of interaction (Jund, Abzan, etc.).

But now that the boogeyman is gone, everything’s gone to hell. That’s why we’re seeing all these big mana decks taking over the format. Scapeshift and Tron were never much of a problem when Splinter Twin was around. Graveyard decks like Dredge didn’t start showing up in large numbers until we lost Splinter Twin.

But I digress.

Splinter Twin is not the topic of the day. I just wanted to give a little background as to why the format looks like it does. And, if people with any power over the Modern format read this, I want them to know that the easy way to solve the problem is to unban Splinter Twin. But let’s move on.

Out of Place

The short answer: I agree with Ross. It shouldn’t be banned.

The long answer:

The reason I’m here today is not to talk about Ancient Stirrings and whether or not it deserves to be banned, but instead to discuss the potential to unban cards. Ponder and Preordain were banned because they allowed blue-based combo decks to be too consistent. The response to this banning was for those same decks to adopt worse versions of the same effect: Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. And that was acceptable. Those combo decks did become less efficient, but how much damage did banning those cards actually do?

Over time, a lot of cards that go into blue-based combo decks have gotten the axe. Not only did Ponder and Preordain get hammered, but we also lost:

And yet, here we are.

Now, storm is a mechanic that I despise, but if we just banned Grapeshot or Past in Flames, I’m confident that another win condition would take up the mantle. This is yet another example of exactly what’s wrong with Modern: banning one thing just isn’t enough. There are too many powerful interactions between cards printed over the last decade and change. And since Modern never rotates, those problems will either be left alone or eventually banned.

But Storm isn’t the only blue deck they were trying to slow down. Splinter Twin won the first Modern Pro Tour, and they figured they needed to knock both Storm and Splinter Twin down a peg. That was the original reason for banning those two cards: to reduce the consistency of early wins. But the problem is that banning Ponder and Preordain didn’t actually fix anything.

While most players kept playing Splinter Twin and Storm with the knockoff cantrips, others took a different approach and instead started to move away from blue. When the best options for smoothing out your draws or making your deck more consistent get banned, it’s very easy to see the appeal of something like Ancient Stirrings. That’s why we’ve seen it become an adopted staple of many Modern archetypes.

When you take away consistency, the only other option is speed. And if it’s a race you want, Modern is more than willing to give you one. I’ve killed and been killed on the second turn more times than I’d thought possible. I’ve lost on the third turn through multiple pieces of interaction. I’ve lost on the fourth turn when I thought I had the game locked up. It’s Modern. Stuff gets weird sometimes.

So if there are decks that exist that can kill you on the second turn, what’s wrong with Ponder and Preordain helping you find your combo on the fourth turn? I was never casting Ponder or Preordain to find a second-turn kill. If anything, I was trying to find my second land drop. And with all the storm cards (and Blazing Shoal) banned, I think Ponder and Preordain would do a lot in helping blue decks make a comeback in the format.

Out of Time

Modern is all about time management. Some decks give you a very small window of time to set things up. If you take too long to assemble some combo or fail to draw your interaction, most Modern decks are designed to pounce. And while Ponder and Preordain can help you find those missing pieces a little bit faster, you still have to waste time casting them in the first place. There’s a real cost to playing too many cards like Ponder and Preordain in your Modern deck. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve died with a Serum Visions rotting in my hand.

While Grixis Death’s Shadow is one of my favorite decks to pilot in Modern, I understand that cards like Thought Scour and Serum Visions (and now Opt) come at a steep price. I’ve played many games with the deck that saw me digging for a threat in the early turns, only to die before I actually found one. But if those card-draw spells were something else (like more discard/removal/threats), I might not have had that problem. Spending mana in the early turns to add zero relevant permanents to the battlefield is like digging yourself a hole. You need the spells you find to be powerful enough to justify the time and mana spent early on.

I think this is also one of the major underlying reasons why people think Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be a reasonable Modern card. It does cost four mana, after all. And since so many decks in Modern can kill you after you tap out, or even kill you before you cast it, a card like Jace, the Mind Sculptor should be more than fair, right?

Well, no, but that’s a fine example of time management. The problem with arguing for Jace, the Mind Sculptor specifically is that it should cost at least one more mana to cast for what you get out of it. Cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor break the mold when it comes to cost effectiveness, but their sentiment is ultimately justified. Why should a card that costs four mana and doesn’t immediately end the game be banned when you’re regularly dying (or effectively dying) on the third turn?

At its core, Magic is all about figuring out how to spend your time in the most efficient manner possible to end the game in your favor. Decks can be built in various ways to reflect that, and other decks can punish you for how you choose to spend your time. Think of a prison deck (Lantern Control, specifically) using up the entire 50-minute round to beat the opponent, where burn tries to do the exact opposite. And when a card meets the requirement of having a bigger effect than the time spent casting it, you’ve found a card that will likely make the cut.

Cards like Ponder and Preordain will regularly be good enough to justify their presence in a deck, but playing too many of those kinds of cards will have diminishing returns. In Legacy, decks like Sneak and Show load up on them because they’re trying to assemble a two-card combo as quickly as possible. Once they’ve found their combo, they go for it and hope it’s good enough to win the game. In Modern, you don’t have access to all that many two-card combos that will end the game on the spot. Splinter Twin was the closest comparison, but you still had to wait a turn to set things up.

In Modern, I could see the number of deck-smoothing effects diminish rapidly due to the nature of the format. It is difficult to incorporate a large number of cards like Ponder or Preordain when you also need to include interaction and win conditions. There is only so much space you can dedicate to cards like Ponder and Preordain before you deck becomes all fluff and no actual stuff. I call this “spinning your wheels.” It feels like you’re actually doing something, but you’re just spending mana to effectively do nothing other than make your hand better and develop your land drops.

What I do like about cards like Ponder and Preordain is that they allow you to play fewer lands, which means you’ll flood out less. This is one reason why Brainstorm, while a dominant card in Legacy, is very unlikely to be banned. Brainstorm generally promotes interaction, extends games, and allows for players to continue playing Magic even when they’ve drawn a few too many lands. And since mana screw and mana flood are two of the more annoying aspects of Magic, anything that allows you to mitigate should be encouraged.

Out of My Mind

While this article isn’t a direct rebuttal about Ancient Stirrings, I think it is more important to look at the bigger picture when it comes to Modern. Right now, big mana decks are all the rage, but that will change in a week or three. Ancient Stirrings shouldn’t be banned, but I also believe that the Modern banned list could use some experimentation. Banning cards is dangerous and can ruin the investment that players have made in the game. However, unbanning a card for a three-month trial period shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

Think of the banned list as a jail. These cards were offenders at some point in their lifespan, and likely deserve to be there. But I’m convinced that many of them didn’t get their fair shake and deserve a shot at parole. And, if they become repeat offenders, dominating the format or ruining people’s play experience, then put them back in jail.

I’ll leave you with my short list of cards I think could be unbanned, and explanations as to why:

You read the article, right?

The original reason for banning this was that it made green decks uniform. Right now, I think there are enough green decks that wouldn’t even bother considering this as an addition. I do like the versatility, but I also agree that it could be one of the more dangerous unbans.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Got put away for Deathrite Shaman’s crimes.

Mox Opal and Simian Spirit Guide are legal. (Probably too good, but I don’t care.)

Street Wraith and Mishra’s Bauble are legal.

Urza’s Tower and friends are legal.

I could write an entire article about this one. Mostly, I think Batterskull might make it a little too good, but it is fine otherwise.

Close unbans (but not that close):

Come at me.