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.
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.
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