Stoneforge Mystic And Other Banned List Discussions

The No Banned List Modern format at SCG CON has raised more interesting questions than ever! Is Stoneforge Mystic fine? Are we too afraid of the past to move toward the future?

So here’s the thing…

Stoneforge Mystic should come off the Modern banned list. And while that
sentence might sound terrifying, I think most people thought Jace, the Mind
Sculptor was an even scarier card to cut loose. And look where Jace, the
Mind Sculptor is now! Not only does Jace, the Mind Sculptor see less play
in U/W Control or Jeskai Control than Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, but it
just seems the format is too fast for it to even be viable.

It’s possible that Jace, the Mind Sculptor seeing very little play is a
product of tools at your disposal. After all, not having access to
something like Force of Will or Mental Misstep means protecting yourself
while you tap out for Jace is pretty difficult. Sure, if you get to untap
with a Jace, the Mind Sculptor, you should be in good shape, but that’s
true for just about every Planeswalker ever printed. Getting two or more
activations out of a Planeswalker is what every deck playing one of those
cards dreams of. It’s where you start to gain an actual advantage from your
spell as opposed to just having it die and (usually) replacing itself.

But we’re not here to talk about Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We’re here to
talk about the health of Modern, and the implications of what unbanning a
card like Stoneforge Mystic could potentially do to the format. So, let’s
begin in earnest and discuss exactly why I think Stoneforge Mystic is more
than fine for Modern.

Easy Comparisons

One of the easiest arguments for unbanning Stoneforge Mystic is that it is
an inherently less powerful two-drop creature than either Baral, Chief of
Compliance or Goblin Electromancer. I’ve had so many people argue that
untapping with a Stoneforge Mystic is too powerful, and that landing a
Batterskull on the third turn means most fair decks won’t be able to keep
up. There might have been a time when that was true, but things change.
Modern is continually growing, and the strength of every deck grows along
with it.

I would argue that untapping with a Baral, Chief of Compliance means you
win much more often than Stoneforge Mystic. Have you ever seen a Storm deck
not combo off on the following turn once they have access to one of their
cost-reduction creatures and all their lands? And wouldn’t you rather
promote fair decks playing Stoneforge Mystic as opposed to decks like
Storm, where interaction is both difficult and rarely effective?

Killing Stoneforge Mystic takes away a lot of its inherent value, which is
reducing the cost of Batterskull. Yes, you could use Stoneforge Mystic
alongside any powerful equipment in Modern, but equipment means combat, and
artifacts tend to be vulnerable thanks to decks like Affinity, Ironworks,
and Lantern being major players. Even if you have an easy go of it against
an opposing fair deck by putting in a cheap Batterskull in the first game,
virtually every deck in the format has a way to interact with that after
sideboard. The same cannot be said for a number of combo archetypes.

Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t think banning Baral, Chief of Compliance
is a smart move. In fact, banning anything at the moment would be rather
foolish. With eight different archetypes showing up in the Top 8 of the
StarCityGames.com Season One Invitational, Modern looks to be as healthy as
ever. Aside from Krark-Clan Ironworks being relatively boring to play
against, I don’t think it’s actually all that good. As of right now, a lot
of decks that would normally prey on Ironworks have fallen out of the
metagame thanks to the high volume of Hollow One and Humans. And when decks
like Grixis Death’s Shadow are getting forced out of the format, you’re
left with relatively flat archetypes trying to play fair against it. Either
the decks have too much removal, and therefore dead cards, or they can’t
apply enough pressure because their threats are built for grinding as
opposed to speed.

Opportunity Cost

The best argument I’ve heard against unbanning Stoneforge Mystic,
especially when comparing it to Baral, Chief of Compliance, is that the
opportunity cost of putting Stoneforge Mystic in your deck only requires
about six total cards. Four copies of Stoneforge Mystic, one Batterskull,
and one other equipment of your choice is usually enough to make Stoneforge
Mystic into a real threat. When you put Baral, Chief of Compliance in your
deck, in order to kill your opponent when you untap, most of your deck
needs to be full of stuff like Pyretic Ritual, card draw, and other combo
cards. In essence, putting Stoneforge Mystic in your deck isn’t that
difficult, where getting full value out of Baral, Chief of Compliance takes
building your entire strategy around that card.

While I agree with this notion, I think that promoting fair, interactive
gameplay by putting creatures in your deck that can only win via combat
justifies the low opportunity cost. After all, what’s the opportunity cost
of Snapcaster Mage? You must play great removal spells, card draw spells,
and other blue cards that you would (likely) already play in the first
place. No one would willingly put Batterskull or Sword of Fire and Ice in
their maindeck in this format. At best, both cards should only see
sideboard play, if that.

And if you draw one of your two equipment, it isn’t like you have a ton of
ways to shuffle them back into your library. That means every additional
copy of Stoneforge Mystic you draw is going to be worse, and actually
drawing those equipment without Stoneforge Mystic means you’re drawing a
spell that doesn’t do much of anything in the current Modern format.

When you play Stoneforge Mystic in Legacy and it dies to a removal spell,
either your entire deck is full of small, white creatures, or you have
Brainstorm to turn that extra card into something more useful. Since
Brainstorm doesn’t exist in Modern, I think the fact that the latter
scenario makes Stoneforge Mystic a lot less powerful. Raw card advantage is
not something we have a ton of in Modern, and having that extra card be a
relatively unexciting card on its own makes it so that there is a real cost
to having Stoneforge Mystic in your deck. And while that cost isn’t as high
as something like Baral, Chief of Compliance, it’s certainly more of a cost
than Snapcaster Mage.

Homogenous Deckbuilding

One argument I’ve heard for keeping Stoneforge Mystic on the banned list is
that it would make too many white decks into Stoneforge Mystic decks. In
essence, you would be taking away the heart and soul of white and replacing
it with Stoneforge Mystic.

But let me ask you this: don’t you think white decks need a bit of an
upgrade? Aside from Path to Exile and/or Supreme Verdict, there aren’t
actually a lot of white cards running around in Modern. Sure, the Humans
deck has quite a few white creatures in it, but that doesn’t count. When
you get to play Noble Hierarch, Kitesail Freebooter, and Mantis Rider in
the same deck, you aren’t really a white deck.

What you will get is a bunch of fair Modern decks getting a boost
in the two-drop slot. And even if a bunch of decks decide to incorporate
Stoneforge Mystic, is that a bad thing? Is having three or four different
decks using Stoneforge Mystic actually all that bad? Virtually every blue
deck plays Snapcaster Mage, and I don’t see that one hitting the banlist
anytime soon. And if you really want to build your deck around Stoneforge
Mystic with the likes of Lingering Souls or Squadron Hawk, that seems like
some good clean Magic to me when most of the unfair decks are killing you
outside of combat.

Green Sun’s Zenith suffers from the same problems when it comes to
deckbuilding, in that most green decks would likely want one copy of Dryad
Arbor and a bunch of tutor targets that are situationally good. But would
that even be problematic? Giving green creature decks more virtual copies
of hosers like Gaddock Teeg or large monsters like Knight of the Reliquary
has rarely been the most dominant thing you can do in an Eternal-esque
format. Birthing Pod was legal for years after Green Sun’s Zenith was
banned, and it was egregiously more powerful.

But Green Sun’s Zenith is a much different animal, though it’s the easiest
comparison when talking about homogenized deckbuilding. Sometimes one card
defines an entire color, but I don’t really think that’s a problem when
that card’s main intent is playing fair. What I would love to see is some
old-fashioned Death and Taxes getting a major upgrade, or possibly a
resurgence of Caw-Blade to help control decks fight off these crazy-fast
combo decks.

The Fear

I think the biggest reason Stoneforge Mystic remains on the banned list is
because of the fear that comes along with its name. For years, Stoneforge
Mystic was a dominant force in Legacy, and it even got banned when it was
in Standard. But for a few months when it was legal in Standard, Caw-Blade
was one of the most fun decks I’d ever played. Of course, that usually
means it’s too good, but Modern is a much different animal than Standard.
We have more tools to interact, and we have more checks and cheap removal
to contain it in the earlier turns.

When Stoneforge Mystic dies, it’s effectively an Elvish Visionary where the
card you drew isn’t exactly great. While Batterskull is a fine card to cast
on the fifth turn, it doesn’t do much when every deck in the format is
trying to kill you on the fourth turn or take complete control of the game
by killing all your creatures. In both scenarios, the phrase “Stoneforge
Mystic into Batterskull” just doesn’t seem all that scary to me.

Some cards on the Modern banned list have never been legal in the format.
Others were banned shortly after the first Modern Pro Tour because they
were a bit too fast, or dominant, or promoted an unhealthy environment.
Blazing Shoal is a member of the second camp, getting banned because of how
“easy” it was to kill your opponent on the second turn. But was it actually
easy? After all, it used Muddle the Mixture to find some of its combo
pieces. How blazing fast could it be? And with the current iteration of
Infect regularly killing you on the third turn, I don’t even know that
Blazing Shoal would even be good. It would, however, play a lot like
Splinter Twin, where the opponent must hold up removal/interaction or just
die to the strength of Blazing Shoal plus an Infect creature. And perhaps
that’s just a play pattern they don’t want running around in Modern, and
I’m completely fine with that decision.

Banning cards that are part of a degenerate combo is acceptable. Banning
cards that have helped one deck (or decks) dominate the format is also
acceptable. When Eye of Ugin allows for three or more different versions of
Eldrazi to ruin things and the entire format revolves around “finding the
best Eldrazi deck for the mirror,” then something needs to be done. And
while Stoneforge Mystic could promote most white decks to adopt an
equipment strategy, it would be tough for most of them to get full retail
out of their equipment. And as a result, it would require any deck playing
Stoneforge Mystic to play more creatures to utilize that equipment,
ultimately resulting in more combat, which is a fine place for an Eternal
format to be.

Experimenting with the Banned List

I think that there’s a lot of value in experimenting with unbanning cards.
So far, they’ve unbanned Bitterblossom, Golgari Grave-Troll, Wild Nacatl,
Sword of the Meek, Bloodbraid Elf, and even Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Of
those cards, Golgari Grave-Troll was the only card that gave an unfair deck
a significant boost, as Dredge overran the format just over a year ago. And
even with Golgari Grave-Troll banned, Dredge continued being a part of
Modern, albeit a significantly weaker version.

But which of these other spells, if any, ended up being a significant
nuisance in Modern? Jace, the Mind Sculptor could still end up being a
problem. But for now, it has become “just another card.” Bloodbraid Elf is
in a similar spot, with Jund getting a bit of a boost, but still not quite
giving it the boost it needs to fight either the combo decks or linear
aggressive decks like Humans or Affinity. It is possible that we just
haven’t found the best version of the decks that could play either Jace,
the Mind Sculptor or Bloodbraid Elf, but my gut says that both are just
fine. And the fact that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is “just fine” in Modern is
a ridiculous statement.

So here’s what I’d like to see: Unban one at a time with a “parole” period.
After a three or six month period, they can decide to ban the card again.
So I’ll leave you with these thoughts on some of the less notorious cards
currently on the Modern banned list.

If every single white deck ends up playing Stoneforge Mystic, or it leads
to Caw-Blade (or similar) becoming the absolute best deck in the format,
then I’m fine being proven wrong and having it banned again. Otherwise, let
Caw-Blade loose, let Jace, the Mind Sculptor have its oldest friend back,
and let Death and Taxes be one of the best fair decks in the format.

Like Stoneforge Mystic, if every green deck becomes a Green Sun’s Zenith
deck, then kick it back on the ban list. I could see it getting pretty
dicey alongside Primeval Titan, but that’s because Primeval Titan is just
an insanely powerful card, and I don’t think that’s Green Sun’s Zenith’s
fault. I just want to tutor up Gaddock Teeg and/or Scryb Ranger.

This one might be too good, but I’m honestly surprised it was banned in the
first place. Alongside Splinter Twin, Birthing Pod was one of the better
decks in Modern once upon a time. But now they must grind through
Kolaghan’s Command, which could be rather difficult. And like Stoneforge
Mystic, if that leads people to start playing more stuff like Abrade or
Kolaghan’s Command (versatile removal spells), that’s a good thing. And
while Birthing Pod would certainly be a solid deck, you would still be
playing a creature-based strategy that’s soft to Anger of the Gods and
all-in combo decks. If unbanned now, along with a few other powerful
things, there’s a good chance that Birthing Pod would just be “another
Modern deck.”

Gimme gimme.

I think Chrome Mox could give some fair blue decks a bit more speed. It
would also encourage blue mages to adopt the old combo of Thirst for
Knowledge to recoup some lost card advantage. Of course, Chrome Mox is a
potentially dangerous addition to Storm or other “all-in” combo decks, but
the card disadvantage is a steep cost. Would I want Chrome Mox in the same
format as Stoneforge Mystic? Probably not, but there’s a reason why Chrome
Mox sees very little play in Legacy. Even though it’s a powerful effect,
the cost is pretty high, and the fact that Modern has never seen Chrome Mox
on the battlefield means it could be a potentially fine unban. And with Mox
Opal and Simian Spirit Guide legal, Chrome Mox doesn’t seem all that
disgusting. The biggest potential downside is having it be legal alongside
Chalice of the Void, which discourages positive interaction.

I always thought it was pretty dumb for Brainstorm and Ponder to be
restricted in Vintage. I mean, there’s a reason Preordain is a four-of in
most blue decks in Vintage, and it’s the same reason why most blue decks in
Modern play four copies of Serum Visions. That type of effect is desirable,
but rarely is it oppressive, and banning or restricting one variation just
means they’re going to play four copies of the next best thing. Storm is
strong enough to be a dominant force in Modern without these two cards,
which leads me to believe that these types of cards aren’t the reason why
Storm was too good in the first place. And with Splinter Twin banned, there
aren’t a lot of blue-based combos left. There’s a reason why many of the
formats combo-esque decks are running green instead and focus around the
strength of Ancient Stirrings. Just give blue their toys back!

I’m hesitant to unban Umezawa’s Jitte, and I don’t know if I would want it
legal alongside Stoneforge Mystic, but there’s a chance that it just isn’t
as good as we all remember. The problem is that Umezawa’s Jitte might
discourage people from building certain types of decks. Like Goblin
Chainwhirler in Standard, Mental Misstep before it, punishing people for
building a certain type of deck by ruining their entire strategy with a
single card is a dangerous proposition. This is certainly one card I’d want
to keep an eye on during the “parole” period, but I think there is a lot of
value to shrinking the banned list as a whole.

I just want people to play with the cards they love, and experimenting with
unbanning potentially problematic cards is important.