Assessing the Consequences: What Happens If Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned?

I ramble so here’s the TL:DR: if SFM becomes legal in Modern, expect a rock/paper/scissor meta with Combo>Tron>Control>Combo. This is bad.

<end TL:DR>

These two cards are best friends forever.

If I had a kitten for every person that suggested SFM be unbanned in Modern, I could serve kitten stew to every player at every GP this year.


Please, don’t go Unruly Mob on me. I don’t actually have any delicious kittens…

Stoneforge Mystic spent half of its Standard tenure as a bad rare with potential. Every set has a few cards that are inherently powerful but often never find a home in the format because the right supporting cast does not exist.

SFM then became solid (but far from broken) when she learned to use Swords.

In Mirrodin Besieged Standard, the Mystic tutored up either of these Swords to fit the situation, allowed you to drop the Sword at end of turn, and then provided a small body to wield it if you had no other board presence. This was a big payoff for three installments of 2 mana, but nothing the format could not handle.

Then Batterskull happened.

Alongside her new BFF, SFM became so dominant in Standard that she had to be banned. Instead of three installments of 2 mana, SFM and Batterskull only required you pay two installments, and the payoff was immediate.

Two easy payments of two mana to beat aggressive decks? Where have we seen THAT before?

The ability for the Germ to block an attacker, gaining you life immediately, then to counterattack with vigilance gaining you even more life, meant that aggressive decks in Standard could not defeat SFM without a removal spell.

The recursion effect of Batterskull and the ability to just play its weaker mode (equipping it) ensured that midrange decks could not go over the top of the SFM/Batterskull combination either – just as creature decks usually could not go over the top of Umezawa’s Jitte.

If you had an outstanding removal spell like Go For The Throat or Vapor Snag, you were still miles behind. Usually it was correct to remove the Mystic herself, other times to kill the Germ – but you still needed to kill one of them.

SFM became both a 2 mana creature requiring an immediate answer, and also a source of card advantage. This is a powerful package.

Cards need to present a powerful threat to be even considered in Modern – this is, after all, a format where a Loxodon Smiter, a 4/4 with two big upsides for 1GW, is widely considered unplayable.

But I’ll argue that SFM does too much.


What impact would SFM/Batterskull have on Modern?

Firstly, I’ll preface this by saying I could very well be wrong. This is the insight of one person, not an all-seeing mastermind with a time machine. I posted an article last week on how B&R changes could be meaningfully tested and I have performed no such analysis.

No one person can.

I want you to start by putting yourself in the shoes of a pilot running an aggressive deck against an opponent playing SFM/Batterskull. Your opponent went first and played a Hallowed Fountain tapped, and you’ve opened with a high-quality one-drop for your deck (Nactyl, Monastery Swiftspear, or Flameblade Adept if you like your aggro with a side of combo).

Your opponent’s second turn sees them cast SFM and search up Batterskull.

If Batterskull hits the board and survives a turn cycle, your opponent can expect to gain 8 life, and you can expect to lose the game.

Consequentially, you must now spend at least one – maybe two – of your mana on your second turn killing the SFM.

This means you cannot meaningfully advance your own game plan by casting an Eidolon of the Great Revel, or a Goblin Lore, or whatever else your deck is intended to do. Your opponent has presented a threat on turn 2 that you must answer before they untap, or lose the game.

Costs two mana. Wins the game on turn 4 with the right support cast. Doesn’t help you find the support cast. Still causes a minority of players to want something from Storm banned.

Provides a must-kill threat for 2 mana, but when it dies, it hasn’t drawn you a free high impact card. And sometimes, you have the all-ramp, no action hand and the Cobra does nothing.

Sometimes, you will have the right answer on turn 2, the SFM will die, and you will still win the game on turn 4.

What will happen most often is that you will spend enough mana answering this must-kill two-drop, that you lose the aggressive initiative. Your clock slows from turn 4 to turn 5, and that simply isn’t fast enough.

If legal, the SFM-Batterskull duo will serve to push ‘honest’ aggressive decks out of Modern.

Remember, this isn’t a two-card combo like Baral and Gifts Ungiven. This is a one-card combo, because you only need to draw one piece.

Infect and Affinity can still beat an opponent that has absurd ground blockers and gains lots of life, but in SFM world, Burn, Aggro Humans and Zoo are gone.

And do you know which deck is just waiting for aggressive decks to die out?

May I talk to you a moment about Our Lord and Saviour, Karn Liberated?

My bold prediction is that if Stoneforge Mystic is made legal in Modern, the metagame will be pushed in a very negative direction. We will see a metagame where combo beats Tron, Tron beats control, control beats combo, and aggro is nowhere to be seen because it loses to all three.

I’m not a person that thinks aggro-dominated metagames are healthy – in fact I’ve written an article looking at how aggressive decks can be as oppressive to play against as combo or prison decks. The worst ever year in the Standard format’s history was dominated by an aggressive deck.

However, I do not want the aggressive archetype removed from Modern. Legacy is a healthy format with (almost) no viable aggressive decks (burn is Tier 3 and makes up about 1.2% of tournament successes according to MTGGoldfish, and it is the only aggressive deck putting up any results at all in the format). However, unlike Modern, Legacy has multiple Tier 1 or Tier 2 tempo decks as well as multiple Tier 2 aggro/prison hybrids like Eldrazi. Modern has much less of a tempo presence.

Unbanning SFM poses a very real risk of eliminating aggro entirely.

As a final point some have argued in favor of unbanning SFM and banning Batterskull.

This would, to my mind, achieve little change in the format. However it sets a fairly troublesome precedent of artificial rotations via bannings that I’d rather not unleash. Players will be forever asking things like “Will Liliana of the Veil be banned so that Deathrite Shaman can have another chance?”.

I’d rather B&R action be saved for when there are problems with the format, or for when the format has increased in power so much that former problems cease to exist.

For example, it is my belief (and I could be wrong…) that Jace the Mind Sculptor wouldn’t cause problems any more. He’d be the best all-around 4 mana threat in the format if legal, and with fetch/shock manabases Jace could be played in decks of any colour combinations. Even Jund or Abzan could run him if they wanted.

But he would not eclipse all other 4 mana threats the way he would have prior to the printing of Kalitas, Hazoret and Nahiri.

If this assessment is correct (and it may not be), Jace is an example of a card that was once too powerful for the format, but no longer is. SFM, on the other hand, sends the format into directions I do not want to see it go.

  • sirgog

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Reassessing the Modern Banlist – A Data-Driven Proposal

The Modern banlist contains a number of the worst mistakes in Magic history – cards like Skullclamp, Treasure Cruise and Mental Misstep. Each of these cards is banned in Legacy for its raw power level.

Skullclamp is my personal pick for the most absurd Limited card ever printed – beating Umezawa’s Jitte, Pack Rat, Sol Ring, Parallax Wave, Vedalken Shackles, Attrition and Citadel Siege. Unlike the last two cards, it’s absurd in Constructed too, often drawing 6 cards or more and totally taking over games for just one mana.

The list also contains cards that seem perfectly reasonable at first glance, but that enable combos that are too fast or too consistent to be legal in the format.

Summer Bloom, Hypergenesis, Blazing Shoal, Eye of Ugin, Golgari Grave-Troll – each of these cards is innocuous on its own, and none of them save the last were good during their Standard tenures.

But each of them enables combos that are too powerful for the format. They either lead to overwhelming board states – sometimes even outright kills – on turn 2 too often for the format to handle, or alternately they allow fairly consistent turn 3 kills. From day 1 of Modern until today, every time a combo deck has hit a 2% turn 2 win rate or a 20% turn 3 win rate, the banhammer has always come for it.

Hypergenesis was outright bad in Standard and at the time a bulk rare, but with the Cascade cards introduced in Alara Reborn, it lets you vomit out an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn on turn 2 around 11% of the time – in a format with fundamental turn 4. This becomes as high as 25% of the time if you are willing to settle for ‘lesser’ threats like Griselbrand or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre.

The list also contains a number of cards that are deemed simply too strong for the format, cards that dominate games in which they are used and that simply cost less mana than their effect should.

Deathrite Shaman, Bloodbraid Elf, Stoneforge Mystic, Umezawa’s Jitte, Jace the Mind Sculptor, Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, and the artifact lands – these cards all allow counterplay and sometimes are poor draws, but each of them have, at some point in the format’s history, earned the banhammer’s caress through being too powerful.

Some of these bans I agree with, others I do not. But I’m not going to make the case for my opinion on which cards should remain on the banlist and which should earn a reprieve. I could easily be wrong, and even if I am not you have no compelling reason to agree with me. Instead, I have a proposal for how to methodically test the waters as to which (if any) cards would improve the format if they were unbanned.

But first let’s look at some history.


The Golgari Grave Troll incident

This card breaks my first fundamental rule of Magic: cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn.

An aside.

GGT was unbanned a couple of years ago. It found its way back onto the banlist after Shadows over Innistrad and Kaladesh provided the last pieces for a broken deck based around the Dredge mechanic.

If you aren’t familiar with the Modern dredge deck, it used GGT and Stinkweed Imp alongside card filtering spells (Cathartic Reunion, Faithless Looting) to fill its graveyard, and to then vomit out Bloodghasts and Prized Amalgams from the graveyard without ever drawing them, much less spending mana on them.

It was an aggro-combo hybrid, much like the Affinity decks still legal in the format – but much stronger than Affinity has ever been.

Everyone knew GGT was dangerous both before its unbanning, and in the period that it was legal. Stinkweed Imp was already legal, and allowing decks to play a larger critical mass of high dredge number cards posed a risk.

WotC went ahead and made the perfectly reasonable decision to unban the Troll at a point where Amalgam and Reunion did not exist. Then, they made the perfectly reasonable decision, when the card proved itself too good for Modern, to ban it again. (I advocated for banning Amalgam and Narcomoeba instead at the time, but the result would have been the same in either case – Modern Dredge as a deck would have been removed almost entirely from competititve play).

The experience of GGT’s unbanning and rebanning sent shockwaves through the Magic secondary market, however. Both GGT and its supporting cast became extremely expensive for a time, then cratered in price again after the rebanning. A number of competitive players lost money as a result, and this soured the waters against ‘risky’ unbannings.

The end result of the unban/reban was that we got data stating conclusively that GGT was not safe to be in Modern alongside Amalgam et al, but the cost for this data was high.

There is a better way.

Isolation Testing on MTGO

Magic Online has a thriving Modern community, with thousands of players entering competitive leagues.

For those unfamiliar with MTGO’s leagues, competitive leagues run on demand, allow players to play 5 rounds, cost $12 to enter, and award prizes as follows:

5-0: 16 Treasure Chest, 180 play points (current secondary market value $57.36)

4-1: 8 Treasure Chest, 180 play points ($37.68)

3-2: 1 Treasure Chest, 120 play points ($14.46)

2-3 or worse: No prizes.

Play points are 10c coupons used toward paying for future events (for instance 120 of them can be used to enter the Competitive League) and are unable to be traded, treasure chests are ‘lucky dip’ bags of cards from Magic’s history and at the time of writing can be sold to dealers for $2.46, although this is a price that fluctuates and is typically around $2.20. 

MTGO’s competitive leagues provide an enormous incentive to ‘break’ formats.

As an extreme example, imagine a hypothetical unbeatable deck – each time you enter a league, you play your 5 matches, then get rewarded with $45 in ‘profit’ for your time. You then enter the league again, and you can build the deck on multiple accounts and enter more than one event at once.

If your deck remained unbeatable (except when you play against your own alternate accounts), and you play fast, within a day you would have made thousands of dollars. Within a week, you’d have made more than a GP winner, and within a month, you’d likely make more than a PT winner.

This dynamic – caused by the ability to immediately enter a new tournament with prizes each time you finish one, makes MTGO exceptionally good for deck innovators. In paper, if you innovate and build a format-breaking deck you may only get to enter 4 tournaments with prizes in any given week – online, you can enter four leagues in an hour and a half.

While no deck is completely undefeatable, sometimes formats are broken and a deck exists that has a 70% or even 80% win rate against the field. The various aggressive Eldrazi strategies at Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch are an example, particularly the Eldrazi Skyspawner versions.

If you discover such a deck and pilot it on MTGO, you will very quickly win a lot of prizes. You will also attract attention – MTGO publicly reports decklists of a minority of players that reach 5-0 finishes, and also publishes the screen names of players that perform well on a consistent basis. If you achieve 5 5-0 results in a single league, your screen name will attract attention and people will attempt to find what deck(s) you play. Get 15 trophies (5-0 results) and even if your list is not published, people will pay attention when you are paired against streamers and will quickly determine the deck you are playing.

This means that if a player breaks a format, MTGO will adapt to them very fast. Some will build the new deck, others will play an established deck but will attempt to answer the new deck with sideboard tech. The metagame moves far faster than in paper – which is ideal for my proposed experiment.

The Modified Banlist League Proposal

I propose that an MTGO Competitive league be set up with an alternate banlist, after the February 12th B&R announcement comes into effect. This would run at the same time as the ‘real’ Modern Competitive and Friendly leagues.

This league would run for 6 weeks, use the usual MTGO competitive league prize model, and would contain the then current Modern banlist with the following exceptions:

– Bloodbraid Elf is unbanned

– Jace, the Mind Sculptor is unbanned

– Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned

– Punishing Fire is unbanned

– Mox Opal is banned. (This will make more sense when you read the next line – I believe Opal is likely to be banned in the next 18 months in any case)

– The five ‘artifact lands’ – Ancient Den; Seat of the Synod; Vault of Whispers; Great Forge and Tree of Tales – are unbanned.

There has been a lot of testing done by individuals as to whether various permutations of these cards would be safe in Modern. But individuals aren’t as good at innovating as the Modern community in general. Individuals, no matter how talented they are as deck builders, miss ideas. It was correct to play Eldrazi Skyspawner at PT:OGW, but this card was only played by about a dozen participants – the rest never thought of it.

On top of this individuals cannot generate statistically significant amounts of data. This proposal would generate hard data, and would track how the metagame changes over time.

It would also test something that can’t be determined by a small playgroup testing alone. Standard prior to the Emrakul banning was in a strange space where the format was fairy balanced, with no tier 0 decks and more than one tier 1 deck, but the format was widely considered not to be fun. It’s entirely possible that unbanning some of these cards might lead Modern in a direction like that, and no single playgroup will have enough data to truly protect against this.

But a whole league – tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of matches played by people who have a material incentive in winning – this can and will provide very serious stress testing. It would not just be league results providing data, but also league attendance – if three different JtMS decks are widely accepted to be the only Tier 1 decks and the number of people playing the league falls off sharply by week 4, this would provide compelling evidence that JtMS is not safe to unban.

I expect that MTGO could reasonably easily be set up to put four phantom copies of each ‘experimentally unbanned’ card into each player’s account for the duration of the league, too. If this is possible it lowers the barrier for deck brewers looking to experiment with these cards.

If some of these cards turn out very quickly to be proven to be mistakes, they could be ‘banned’ midway through the league. If Seat of the Synod eats a ban on the third day of the league, players that have already enrolled in the league with Seat of the Synod in their deck would be able to complete their five matches using the card, but noone could enter the league again using it.


I believe JtMS and BBE are safe to remove from the Modern banlist, that the artifact lands might be, and that no other cards are. I could very well be wrong and am very open to eating these words.

Assuming you disagree with my thoughts on the ban list, we could argue this point for hours and, in all likeliehood, neither of us will shift. Or worse, I could be wrong but convince you of my opinion, or vice versa. In any case this arguing without serious testing is about as useful as nailing a cat to your door. (Disclaimer: This isn’t useful. Please kids, don’t nail a cat to your door).

The DCI lacks the resources to do this testing, and recent Standard environments show that WotC aren’t doing a great job of it either (RIP Felidar Guardian… how you got to print is beyond me…).

But Magic Online provides the solution. All that we need is for WotC to use it.

Additionally if this league were to be a success, I think there is room to repeat the experiment in Legacy..

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