Once again, the Banned and Restricted update is upon us, and once again the inevitable discussion of which cards can be unbanned in the Modern format has resumed. One of the most commonly requested unbans is Stoneforge Mystic, a card that was so strong in its Standard format that it was preemptively banned at Modern’s inception. Is Stoneforge “safe” to unban, or would it’s pairing with powerful equipment like Batterskull give white decks too much of an advantage vs. aggressive decks like Burn? Looking at its past, and the possibilities for it in Modern, can give us an idea of its strength.
Even on the surface Stoneforge Mystic is a powerful card. For 1W you can tutor an equipment and have a body. If the creature survives another turn, you can try and cheat an equipment into play. However, since it has never been in Modern, we can’t look at what it was doing pre-ban to try and determine how strong it is in this particular environment, so we’re going to take a different approach…
Take a look at WotC’s explanation on Stoneforge’s banning and you’ll find quite a bit of insight into whether the card is “safe” for Modern.
“I contend that without a way to cheat it out, Batterskull is merely a good card, not a ridiculous one, which is why it wasn’t on the table for banning (though admittedly it, too, had a late development change that made it better and that I regret to a degree). The “Caw-Blade” deck was putting up insane results before the card existed, so it’s hard to blame it for the imbalance. The card that breaks the rules—Stoneforge Mystic—is the culprit, and my takeaway is that Tinker effects are unsafe and present tough constraints on all future cards. I guess that should have been more obvious at the time.”
Aaron Forsythe, Sr. Design Director WoTC, 2011
Forsythe is 100% right here. Caw-Blade was doing really stupid things before Batterskull was printed – looking at the results from PT Paris in 2011, it had a 60% winrate across nearly 400 games, and had unfavorable matchups against very few decks. What is worth noting, however, is the fact that WotC, and players in general, considered a T3 Batterskull, (which was, and still probably is, the best line with Stoneforge Mystic) ridiculous at the time.
Caw-Blade [Gerry Thompson, 2011]
1 Basilisk Collar
4 Cunning Sparkmage
3 Divine Offering
1 Inferno Titan
1 Sun Titan
Is the ability to play a 4/4 vigilance lifelinker on turn three ridiculous? In a Standard environment, I can see how it might be. However, that is not where Modern is right now. Modern is a format dominated by one mana 6/6’s, plagued by turn three 5/5s and turn three Karn Liberateds. I think the ability to have a Batterskull on turn three is no longer “ridiculous” but has fallen into the category of “merely good” once again.
I also feel like it’s worth evaluating what decks in Modern would even want to run the Stoneforge package. At minimum that package consists of five cards, but devoting six spots to it seems much more likely to me. A deck like Jeskai Geist isn’t going to be able to find room to jam in six cards, nor will decks like Counters Company.
One deck caught my eye, however, and that is UW Control.
At a glance, UW Control bears a striking resemblance to Caw-Blade, the premier Stoneforge Mystic deck. Running Serum Visions, which is almost like Preordain (if you believe hard enough), Celestial Colonnade and a powerful Planeswalker package, it seems like Stoneforge can find a natural home in UW Control lists. I’d be a tad concerned about how vulnerable this could make UW Control, however. Going turn two Stoneforge will let your opponent play a potentially more impactful card totally unopposed, and if you get hit by a turn three Thought-Knot Seer that snags the Batterskull you were hoping to land, that seems pretty brutal.
UW Control [Warren Booth, Oct 2017 from SCG: Dallas]
1 Crucible of Worlds
2 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
2 Surgical Extraction
1 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Timely Reinforcements
Besides UW Control, there is another seemingly good contender for Stoneforge’s new home in Mono-White Death and Taxes. I feel like this is a place where Stoneforge will have a more difficult time fitting in, however. With one of the most vital cards in the deck being Leonin Arbiter, which enables shenanigans with Path to Exile and Ghost Quarter but also happens to turn off Stoneforge’s tutor effect, I can’t imagine Stoneforge can be used to its full potential here. If it does, what will enable it is the deck’s use of Aether Vial, allowing you to bring in a Stoneforge Mystic at the end of your opponent’s turn and get a Batterskull right away on your next turn can be huge.
Death and Taxes [Jonathan Berg SCG Classic: Dallas, 2017]
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Phyrexian Revoker
2 Burrenton Forge-Tender
2 Rest in Peace
3 Stony Silence
1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
2 Dusk // Dawn
Finally, we need to look at the fact that Modern is a format chalk full of removal. Of the top decks, the only one with no easy answer to a turn two Stoneforge is Storm. Players are going to have to ask – how often will Stoneforge actually be able to give me a turn three Batterskull, and how often will it simply eat a removal spell like Fatal Push or Terminate? Even with its value for just entering the battlefield, removing Stoneforge effectively strands Batterskull in hand until turn five, and a turn five Batterskull in Modern isn’t remotely format warping at this point.
I really don’t see a possibility of Stoneforge Mystic breaking Modern. Even the best fit for it in Modern might not want the card, as it has significant downside in the deck’s current scheme. The Modern where Stoneforge was King is not the Modern format we have now, nor is Legacy where Stoneforge can combined with one of the bigger mistakes WotC has made, Umezawa’s Jitte. WotC’s policy regarding the Modern banned list should be one of necessity – if a card is clearly too strong for Modern, it should go. However, Stoneforge Mystic is no longer clearly too strong for Modern, and it is time for the second best Kor to return.