Please Keep Splinter Twin And Stoneforge Mystic Out Of Modern

Ross Merriam, ever a voice of a reason, isn’t a huge fan of the momentum these cards are getting. Here he explains why WotC should be very careful about taking these off the hook! Tread lightly, Modern!

The Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter has concluded, and with a
strong showing by both Ironworks and Izzet Phoenix, the calls to ban
Ancient Stirrings and/or Faithless Looting in Modern have earned a renewed
vigor. They are arguably the two most powerful cards in the format, with
Mox Opal as the only other serious contender to the title. Both cards give
the decks that can utilize them a level of consistency that no other single
card in the format can match, even blue, which is supposed to be the color
with the best deck manipulation.

With these cards enabling decks like Ironworks, Dredge, and various
Arclight Phoenix decks, all of which can win on the first three or four
turns of the game while maintaining the resilience needed to win longer
games through interaction and hate cards, there’s also the question of why
some cards that are on the banned list remain despite not being as
obviously degenerate. The two with the most press right now are Stoneforge
Mystic and Splinter Twin.

I discussed these two cards on a

recent episode of VS Live!

with my venerable co-hosts Todd Anderson and Brad Nelson, and it’s clear to
me from the response to that discussion and what I’ve seen since in social
media that the discourse surrounding the unban of these as well as the
potential ban of Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings is overly
simplistic and missing some key variables.

The Typical Arguments

From what I’ve seen, those in the anti-Looting/Stirrings camp are upset at
the level of non-interactive decks in Modern, leading to unsatisfying
gameplay. Decks like Ironworks and Dredge consistently kill on turn 4 when
uninterrupted, have the potential to kill on turn 3 with a good draw, and
require very specific kinds of interaction in order to stop.

On the surface, Splinter Twin looks no more degenerate than the decks that
exist in Modern today. It can’t kill on turn 3 without some form of mana
acceleration, which wasn’t utilized in stock lists when the card was legal,
but it can definitely kill on turn 4 consistently. That said, it’s much
easier to interact with since there’s plenty of commonly played removal in
maindecks that can handle Deceiver Exarch and/or Pestermite. This is a sort
of “If they [Ironworks/Dredge Players] get to have their fun, why don’t I?”

The other argument for Splinter Twin is based around the difficulty control
decks have thriving in a format with such a diverse range of threats they
need to answer. While Twin can be a combo deck, most lists functioned more
like control decks and used the combo as a finisher that could end the game
before the opponent drew out of a disadvantaged situation. After the year
we’ve had, with Jeskai Control and Azorius Control performing at a high
level for months, I find this line completely unmoving. Neither is
performing as well as they were over the summer, but that’s how Magic
works. At this point if you’re trying to get Twin unbanned to make control
viable, you just want control to be great all the time – a level of greed
which I cannot entertain.

Comparing what these cards to do with Stoneforge Mystic, the latter looks
downright silly. I’ve heard or seen a number of sarcastic comments about
how a turn 3 Batterskull is too strong, but Dredge having ten power on turn
2 is fine, as is Karn Liberated on turn 3. There’s even more effective
answers to equipment now with cards like Kolaghan’s Command and Abrade. The
fear of cards that were previously broken has been shattered by the
disappointing return of Bitterblossom, Bloodbraid Elf, and Jace, the Mind
Sculptor, and now Stoneforge Mystic is getting the same treatment.

A False Equivalence

There’s a critical element missing from these comparisons between Splinter
Twin/Stoneforge Mystic and Faithless Looting/Ancient Stirrings. The
comparison is focused on what the cards do in a vacuum and not how they
operate in the context of games of Magic in the Modern format. The
resulting blind spot completely misses the opportunity cost placed on your
decklist when you commit to playing these cards.

In order to incorporate the Splinter Twin combo into your deck, you need
about ten cards. Four copies of Deceiver Exarch, two of Pestermite, and
four of Splinter Twin. There’s typically some deck manipulation to help dig
for the pieces, but the rest of the Twin deck was typically interactive
cards: Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster Mage, Remand, etc. That’s why it
functioned as a control deck; it has the free deck space to fit a large
number of interactive cards.

Compare this to Faithless Looting, which requires you to have some sort of
value to be gained from the graveyard, but in order to use it to enable
something that kills on the first three or four turns of the game, you need
to commit way more to the shell around it. Dredge has Darkblast and
Conflagrate to interact in game 1 and struggles to sideboard in more than
four or five cards in any matchup because cutting away too much of the core
will produce an untenable fail rate. Similarly, Hollow One decks have to
play a pile of other looting effects and cards they don’t mind discarding
to them, leaving room for its four Lightning Bolts and two flex spots for

Moving on to Ancient Stirrings, you need to be playing an incredibly high
number of colorless cards to make it as powerful as it can be. There are
plenty of decks that can meet this stringent requirement, but it does limit
their ability to interact and adjust to opposing interaction. Ironworks has
some Engineered Explosives and Sai, Master Thopterist to dodge traditional
hate. Tron is much more interactive for a Stirrings deck, but it’s not
killing anyone on turn 3 or 4 either, and does virtually nothing to stop
itself from dying until the Urzatron is assembled.

All of these decks also have to play the same game after sideboarding that
they did in game 1, while Splinter Twin could move away from the combo,
either partially or entirely, and win the game with Keranos, God of Storms,
Vendilion Clique, or Jace the Mind Sculptor. Your sideboard cards could
become a liability against them, but if you didn’t have them the game might
end on turn 4. As a combo deck, Twin was notoriously difficult to play
against while the linear decks built around Faithless Looting and Ancient
Stirrings are quite straightforward, even if they are able to power through
a healthy amount of interaction.

Stoneforge Mystic is similarly low in opportunity cost. You need a couple
extra slots for the equipment, usually two to three, and in exchange you
get a very powerful, flexible, cheap threat that can find a Batterskull to
stonewall aggressive decks, a Sword of Feast and Famine to pressure combo
decks and limit their resources while allowing you to deploy your threats
and hold up interaction on their turn, or a Sword of Fire and Ice to
generate card advantage against control decks. If it dies to a removal
spell you’re up a card, and most importantly, you don’t have to spew the
equipment onto the battlefield on turn 3. You can opt to hold up
interaction or wait to see if your Jund opponent leaves up Kolaghan’s
Command mana, do something else, and watch them waste a turn.

The difference here is one of linearity. Ancient Stirrings and Faithless
Looting are on the chopping block for enabling linear decks that are
potentially too powerful and resilient. But just because Splinter Twin
isn’t any faster doesn’t mean it’s not more powerful, because it achieves
the same speed without the opportunity cost of having to commit to a linear
strategy. It’s not a turn four 4 deck, it’s a combo-control deck that can
kill you on turn 4 and you never really know if they have it or not,
barring a discard spell or similar effect.

On the surface, Splinter Twin looks no more
degenerate than the decks that exist in Modern today.

Stoneforge Mystic is all on the table, but it’s not difficult to maneuver
the game to a place where the equipment enters the battlefield safely,
especially when you get thirty other slots to build around it with
virtually no restriction beyond the presence of white mana and a few other
creatures to hold the equipment. If you compare Stoneforge Mystic as an
enabler for turn 3 Batterskull to Hollow One as a 4/4 creature for zero
mana, you’re effectively ignoring all the effort in deckbuilding that goes
into enabling Hollow One and the comparative lack of effort needed to
enable Stoneforge Mystic for Batterskull. At that point you may as well
argue for the banning of Goryo’s Vengeance because it can end the game
before turn 3.

The Verdict

“So, Ross, if you’re so smart and know everything, what should we do to
help Modern?”

Well, snarky voice in my head, if you want my opinion, Modern has been an
objectively healthy format since the banning of Gitaxian Probe and Golgari
Grave-Troll. In the last two years we’ve seen Grixis Death’s Shadow emerge
as a clear best deck while the metagame was reacting to the introduction of
Fatal Push, the emergence of Humans and Spirits as disruptive aggro/tempo
decks, and the return of blue-based control following the printing of
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. These decks exist alongside and hold their own
against the myriad of linear and, to borrow a term from Ari Lax,
decks in the format.

You’re never going to get Modern to look like Standard, and that’s a good
thing. Modern provides players who identify with a specific deck or
strategy to find a viable example of that, invest into their deck of
choice, and play it for a long time without running into the same matchups
too frequently or being so far behind the metagame they can’t consistently
compete. After the Twin ban there wasn’t much in the way of a viable
control deck, but that’s no longer the case. I may not like Jeskai Control,
but you can certainly win some matches with it, just not the

Quarterfinals of Modern Open in Baltimore.

That said, that doesn’t mean the format can’t be better, and I agree with
those that say the banned list should be as short as it possibly can be
while maintaining metagame balance, so when taking all the variables into
account, here’s what I think should happen to Modern:

Leave Splinter Twin Banned

I know a lot of you played Splinter Twin and loved it. I did too. I even
played Blue Moon this year, which is basically Splinter Twin after siding
out the combo. Letting a mediocre control deck play a turn 4 combo creates
a hybrid that is too fundamentally powerful to exist. Their lack of a clock
is one of the primary holes to exploit in a control deck, either by an
aggro deck bringing in powerful, sticky threats to cast once their early
rush is handled, or a combo deck biding its time and building up a perfect
hand to beat multiple pieces of disruption.

But just because Splinter Twin isn’t any
faster doesn’t mean it’s not more powerful, because it achieves the same
speed without the opportunity cost of having to commit to a linear

The threat of Splinter Twin makes that tactical shift a huge risk, because
the Twin player can go from three lands and two cards in hand to winning
the game in a single turn. On the other hand, if you give too much respect
to the combo by leaving up an answer, you’re wasting mana against a control
deck, giving them time to set up a card advantage engine (Search for
Azcanta anyone?) and bury you. This catch-22 is what Brad was referring to
in our

VS Live! discussion

when he said that combo-control decks break the rules of Magic.

Twin is gone. It’s not coming back. Deal with it.

Leave Faithless Looting Alone

Faithless Looting is a powerful card, and it appears in plenty of decks,
but none of them are particularly dominant. Dredge looked like it might get
there after Creeping Chill was printed, but it’s been well-handled by the
influx of graveyard hate. Izzet Phoenix has been performing well recently,
but we don’t have enough data on it yet. Hollow One is around but not even
in the top tier of the format, by whatever definition of tier you want to
use. Faithless Looting enables a wide swath of good decks; that’s what
powerful cards do.

Leave Ancient Stirrings Alone, Ban Krark-Clan Ironworks

Everything I said about Faithless Looting applies to Ancient Stirrings.
Tron and Hardened Scales are good decks to have around, and neither is
anywhere close to broken. Ironworks may have looked good during the
Invitational Top 8, but that was largely a result of the pairings breaking
its way and having two of the best pilots on the SCG Tour behind it.

But Ironworks is bad for Modern for reasons outside of its power level.
Decks with potentially long combo turns are bad for coverage, and the
various loops it has that exploit a strange and unintuitive quirk in the
rules for casting spells are even worse. Magic coverage already deals with
complexity issues keeping people away, and we don’t need to exacerbate them
with decks like Ironworks.

After Matt Nass popularized the deck earlier this year, it seemed like a
metagame reaction held it in check, but Sai, Master Thopterist gave it the
resilience to the traditional hate, like Stony Silence and Rest in Peace,
it needed to become a consistently great deck in the format. Decks like
Ironworks that pose significant issues for the reality of tournament and
coverage logistics should be held on the same leash that decks that harm
format diversity are. Ironworks makes Modern tournaments significantly
worse, and its numbers have increased in recent weeks as players are
figuring out just how powerful it is and putting in the time to learn it.

Ancient Stirrings is one of the most powerful cards in the deck, but it’s
the deck that’s the problem, not that one card. You could consider banning
Mox Opal too, but when it comes to banning away a deck because of
logistical issues, I prefer the most precise target possible.

Consider Unbanning Stoneforge Mystic

I’m amenable to Stoneforge Mystic coming back, but with Modern being in a
great place right now, I’m reticent to rock the boat. Sure, Bitterblossom
and Jace, the Mind Sculptor didn’t break anything except for Yuuta
Takahashi, but it’s a really bad outcome if Stoneforge Mystic has to be
banned again like Golgari Grave-Troll.

So you have to ask yourself, what decks would Stoneforge Mystic go into? We
have two white-based aggressive strategies in Modern, but neither Humans
nor Spirits can effectively play the card. Maybe it goes into a Selesnya
Company deck, but the first option for most people would be a Modern
Caw-Blade reboot. We have counterspells, Path to Exile, some fine cantrips,
Snapcaster Mage, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Restoration Angel could make
an appearance for added value and a flash threat to hold up with
interaction against combo.

I can’t confidently say one way or another how good Modern Caw-Blade would
be. But I do know that the idea that adding more fair midrange decks to
Modern can only be good is short-sighted. When decks like this are good
enough, the metagame homogenizes around it. We’ve seen this happen in
Standard for the last few years and it was miserable. In Modern it would be
even worse because part of the format’s appeal is getting to play against a
wide range of decks so playing your deck doesn’t become boring.

Modern was brought into existence because everyone knew that Stoneforge
Mystic was going to dominate the Extended Pro Tour. There are seven more
years of cards it has to compete against, but the fundamental reasons it’s
a powerful card, the low opportunity cost to deckbuilding and flexibility,
haven’t gone away. Ideally I’d like to see WotC have some people whose job
it is to test these hypothetical scenarios, but I doubt that’s going to
happen. A balanced Caw-Blade deck would be a nice addition to the format
and wouldn’t have that fast a clock, so I’d lean towards unbanning
Stoneforge Mystic, but it’s very close and I completely understand WotC not
wanting to take the risk.

You’re never going to get Modern to look like
Standard, and that’s a good thing.

Recognizing and evaluating opportunity cost is one of the aspects of
evaluating cards that really separates the great players from the good. It
can be very difficult to see just how hard a given card is to maximize.
It’s not intuitive and almost entirely contextual to the format in which
the card exists. Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings wouldn’t be good
in most Standard formats because the pieces to unlock their potential don’t
often exist there.

But powerful cards with a low opportunity cost are likely to be
multi-format all-stars, because they can function well surrounded by other
generically good threats and answers. Stoneforge Mystic needs some good
counterspells, removal, and planeswalkers, and those almost always exist in
every format. So the next time you’re looking at a card, whether it’s a
potential unban or a new preview card, consider not only how powerful its
effect is, but how easy/difficult it is to maximize that effect within the
context of a given format. You’ll get a much more complete picture of the
card and what to do with it.