Isn't it like music to the ears? Seriously, I can't even remember the last time a banned list update was as eagerly anticipated; nor can I remember a more celebrated one. If there was any doubt of how right these changes were, consider this: Every single time a card is added to a major format banned list, there is always some amount of disapproval. Interestingly, the amount of disapproval isn't actually relative to the dominance of the deck or card in question. The disapproval is primarily a function of how much people enjoyed playing the banned card in bad decks (not the deck for which the card got banned).
When Flash was banned, almost no one minded at all. Flash didn't even work right two months before the ban, and now that it did, its only functionality was in a turn 1/turn 2 kill deck. If you think it's the turn 2 kill nature of the deck that made it easy to accept the banning, recall the uproar over Mystical Tutor's banning in Legacy last year. Mystical Tutor was a fundamental component of multiple "turn 2" decks, such as Ad Nauseam and Entomb. (Locking the game is basically the same as winning.) Why do and did people complain about Mystical Tutor's ban?
They want to put Mystical Tutor in bad decks.
It's always the same scenario. Some banned cards are narrow and wouldn't be played at all, in their own right, but lead to broken interactions (Flash, Time Vault, Worldgorger Dragon). Some banned cards are overpowered library manipulation spells that enable whatever other broken interactions exist in the format (Vampiric Tutor, Gush, Demonic Consultation). Whenever the second kind get banned, some number of people get their socks all in a bunch because they either have decks or imagine decks that are able to function as a result of the banned enabler that don't dominate the format like the busted deck does. These people begin their arguments by saying that Ad Nauseam and Reanimator weren't actually good enough to warrant a ban, but at the end of the day, they would be happier with Tendrils and Iona being banned, rather than just Mystical.
Late last year, we saw one of the most dominate decks of all time, Full-On Survival of the Fittest. Despite the metagame breaking down into an inbred paper-rock-scissors (Combo Survival, Control Survival, and Aggro Survival) revolving totally around the card, there was still a pretty substantial and outspoken body of players who argued fervently that Survival ought not to be banned. Ban Vengevine! That way, people can still play Survival in "bad" decks. After all, Survival is a library manipulation engine of epic proportions. There is no question; it would enable dozens of strategies that would only be possible with such a busted engine. The problem with this? At the end of the day, the "dozens" of strategies tend to fall into two types of strategies:
1) Commander-Style Decks: This is to say casual decks that are not min-maxed. Just as people generally don't design their Commander decks to min-max in every way to be as spikey as possible, so too do people imagine the Survival decks that are "possible."
2) Decks Waiting to Break Again: When you ban a "combo piece" like Vengevine or Tendrils or Iona but don't touch the engine, it just breaks again. It's not the Vengevine, Tendrils, or Iona that is "winning" the game; they are just the current most efficient ways to capitalize on some broken interaction or engine. The banned list wants to be as small as possible. Banning anything other than fast mana and library manipulation/engines leads to some other slightly less good card replacing the old one.
So despite Survival being the most dominate deck since Affinity, a pretty sizable percentage of players were in uproar over its banning. In the days approaching June 20, many players speculated on what WotC would do. After all, with the new event decks containing Stoneforge Mystic, and with Jace, the Mind Sculptor being the center of the brand (not to mention the most expensive in-print card ever), many assumed that Stoneforge and Jace were untouchable.
"Jace, the Mind Sculptor will never be banned in Standard." -Every Random Dude Who Confuses Opinions with Facts
Did a lot of people think Jace was above the law? Sure, no question. Many didn't dare to have such high hopes. Still, not everyone confuses their opinion with facts. It does seem this experience is yet another great litmus test for determining the credibility of various would-be authorities. For instance, Ted Knutson was very vocally spearheading the beginning of the "Ban Jace" movement. Ted doesn't go around saying every random card should be banned. Actually, the last card he predicted would be banned was Survival of the Fittest. Hrmmm...
He deals not in what he wants, but in what will be. He isn't always right, but the key distinction is that his goal is to accurately predict the future (not to try to shape it). All too many people get so caught up in trying to steer and control formats, progress, people, markets, and society, that they delude themselves into believing that What Will Happen is in any way a function of what they Want to Happen. There is an underlying and implicit arrogance involved in those who try to force their opinions on others as fact. What about when one's opinions turn out to be correct? Well, the market has a pretty good system for determining which people are generally Right and which people are Wrong.
I say all this to help illuminate how we can be among those Right people, those people who are interested in accuracy, in The Truth. It is so easy to get sucked into the allure of proclaiming one's opinion as fact and convincing oneself that things must be a certain way (since that is the only way one understands things at the moment). Seeing the future is a skill more valuable than words can say, but it is not an unobtainable skill. If you desire Future Sight, then practice analyzing the future without investing your own ego. Observe those who make predictions about what you want to be able to predict. Look at the logic used by those who are consistently right, and ask yourself if any of it would be useful to you.
Look at the logic used by those who seem to be right/wrong completely at random. Are they right some of the time on accident? These people are particularly dangerous, as they can easily convince themselves that they understand everything involved when they happen to arrive at the right answer; yet, when their answer is wrong, they can convince themselves that they were right and that everyone else was wrong. We want to be wary of these people, for they are often the source of much confusion, yet they may have an appetite for attention that far surpasses their appetite for understanding.
What about the logic of those consistently wrong? These people can actually be quite educational teachers. After all, if they are consistently wrong, it stands to reason we can learn a lot by listening to what they say and secretly just imagining it to be a piece of evidence to the contrary. Why don't these people do the same? They can't help themselves! Even if they try to do this on an occasion, they will just delude themselves into believing that their "real" position is the opposite of what it is so as to rationalize their positions.
Okay, this turned out to be kind of a long tangent, but for those interested in learning to see the future, hopefully it is of use. Accuracy is underrated, in my humble opinion. Want to promote accuracy? Call people out on those times they proclaim some position as fact, and it turns out to be wrong. Everyone is wrong some times, so it's not like it's the end of the world. There is no reason to fear the truth, to fear being proved wrong. We would do best to remember the difference between divergent thinking and fools.
Take Michael Flores, for instance. He comes up with lots of stupid ideas. Many of these turn out brilliant. He tends to say some pretty radical things, thinking thoughts many wouldn't dare. The result? He is wrong a lot; however, he produces results. He does produce brilliance, ideas that few would have considered, if any. As a result, he is an invaluable resource, as long as you let him be what he is. His opinions have certainly proven their worth considering, however they turn out.
Not every source is so valuable. What is the source's track record? What results have they produced? Can you trust them? Are they crazy geniuses, aspiring students of the art, objective reporters, or just fools?
This tangent began after the first paragraph. You're 1500+ plus in. Think it might be time to wrap it up and get back to Jace and SFM?
Right, so Jace and Stoneforge Mystic are the exact type of cards that people historically oppose banning. Both enable so many decks. After all, Caw-Blade variants are the real problem, right? RUG, Twin, U/B, Boros, G/W, and WW are all fine, right? What about all the people who want to play all those "bad" decks? Caw-Blade doesn't win on turn 2 or anything, but you know what? People are really, really sick of it.
1) Caw-Blade was the most dominant deck in the history of Magic. No, it wasn't anywhere near as powerful as Flash, Academy, Trix, etc. However, all those decks existed in other eras, against different metagames. Neither Flash, nor Academy, nor Trix ever won as much as Caw-Blade has over these past four months. However, they did all lead to bans. No deck has dominated a major format as much as Caw-Blade in the game's eighteen-year history, and it will hopefully be a record not broken for a long time.
2) Jace costing $100 was obnoxious. Even when Tarmogoyf was $50 in Standard, you never needed them. Jace would never be banned because of its cost (no card should or will be); however we have all learned a valuable lesson. WotC wants what is best for the game. Banning Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a really, really hard pill for WotC to swallow. After all, Worldwake sold like crazy, mostly due to Jace. Gideon, Koth, Tezzeret, and Karn all helped drive sales, at least partially perpetually chasing "The Next Jace." An awful lot of people assumed that Jace was too big to be banned.
No one is above the law.
The impact of this will actually be far bigger than people realize. First, a lot of irrational behavior has resulted from people misunderstanding what Jace is and what he isn't. Jace is the best card printed since Skullclamp (hrmm, wonder where that is from...). You know what happened when Skullclamp got printed? Cards got banned.
Now that we have proof that WotC is willing to ban anything to ensure the health of a format (but certainly is not trigger-happy), I predict a little bit less craziness from the high-end mythic secondary market. Already Jace has "crashed" to $60 (as if $60 is not already an outrageous cost for a card that came out last year). Most people didn't want Jace banned because he cost $100, but they also didn't want Jace to get a free pass for that exact reason, either.
When 88% of the Day 2 Singapore metagame contains Jace, the Mind Sculptor, that is a problem. It's fine if some cards cost a lot, but it's not okay if you need those cards to compete.
3) When people start using tournaments as evidence where Caw-Blade only takes four of the Top 8 slots that Caw-Blade's reign is over, you know the format has been broken for too long. Using StarCityGames.com' deck database, I did a quick check to see just how many Top 8s Caw-Blade has actually gotten since Mirrodin Besieged was legal. From Pro Tour Paris up to today, there are 674 Standard Top 8 decks on record. Of those, 428 contain Jace, the Mind Sculptor; 340 contain Stoneforge Mystic; and 291 contain both. Keep in mind these numbers include decks before people had any idea just how good Caw-Blade was and decks before the printing of New Phyrexia. Put another way, that's:
That is absolutely outrageous. We are talking not even close to okay. This is from the Pro Tour, Grand Prix, PTQs, SCG Opens, everything. More recently, the problem has only been growing. Over the past couple of months, Caw-Blade has had 49% of the spots at major events. A major part of the problem has been that Caw-Blade is far too skill-testing for most players' tastes. Magic isn't supposed to be VS or Chess. Caw-Blade is just too hard for most players to play with or against, allowing those who can to dominate. For instance, during this same four and a half month period, there have been twelve SCG Standard Opens, producing 96 Top 8 lists. Of those, 58 have been Caw-Blade! That is over 60% at the semi-pro level! The problem only grows when we start looking at local tournaments.
4) There are so many cool cards to try and explore in both Mirrodin Besieged and New Phyrexia, plus M12 is right around the corner. Caw-Blade has been strangling tournament Magic for so long that we have not gotten to see so much of what is possible. People are excited to finally explore this new world!
Bans are always going to be very controversial, but this time, there is no mistaking, no misunderstanding. Yes, some may disagree whether Jace and Stoneforge both needed to be banned, but anyone who doesn't agree that Caw-Blade needed to go is pretty far beyond misguided. Why did WotC ban both? After all, why not just ban Stoneforge? After all, the card was merely the second-best card in the format before New Phyrexia, but with the printing of Batterskull and Sword of War and Peace, it was elevated to the top spot in the format by many metrics. Jace still saw much more play, but Stoneforge was the best card in the best deck.
WotC clearly couldn't have banned only Jace (as Caw-Blade would likely still thrive without him). Banning only Stoneforge, however, poses the huge risk that only Jace decks would succeed. Maybe there are no more Caw-Blades, but does that give free reign to Twin, U/B, RUG, and so on? If WotC is going to bite the bullet and pay the costs involved in a ban, they are going to be damn sure they do the job they set out to. It is literally the worst-case scenario to both ban a card and not change the format enough.
WotC wants people to be able to play with their cards. Jace and Stoneforge were making people not able to play with almost any of their other cards in Standard. As far as playing with Jace and Stoneforge, it isn't as if you can't play those still. After all, Jace is one of the best cards in every format he is legal in. Extended, Legacy, Vintage, we are not short on places where Jace succeeds. If Modern becomes a format, he will be awesome there.
What about Stoneforge? Well, already Stoneforge Mystic has dominated Extended, and the Stoneforge revolution is underway in Legacy, a format where she is actually merely one of the best creatures (alongside Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf). In fact, I see a future where Stoneforge Mystic changes Vintage. An analysis of the future of Vintage is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but for fun, here is the deck that I played this past weekend with Matt Sperling and David Ochoa. We, along with LSV, EFro, David Williams, Owen Turtenwald, and others continue the fine tradition of putting Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk to use—despite the current health, or lack thereof, of the Vintage tournament scene.
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 2 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 3 Gorilla Shaman
- 1 Mesmeric Fiend
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 3 Kataki, War's Wage
Stoneforge Mystic is in a class with only Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf. There is no question; she will continue to see lots of play across the board. Besides, if you want, you can still play her in Standard!
Exception: The decklist for the "War of Attrition" Event Deck will be legal in Standard if kept completely intact. That deck, which went on sale on June 10, contains two copies of Stoneforge Mystic.
Now, you don't actually have to play the physical War of Attrition Event Deck; you just need to play the exact list, if you want to play Stoneforge Mystic. In fact, what better way to begin our look at the new metagame than with the first deck that we know people will consider?
- 4 Porcelain Legionnaire
- 4 Elite Vanguard
- 2 Kor Duelist
- 4 Leonin Relic-Warder
- 4 Leonin Skyhunter
- 1 Mirran Crusader
- 1 Puresteel Paladin
- 2 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Kemba, Kha Regent
Okay, so without Sword of Feast and Famine, War and Peace, or Batterskull, the Stoneforge Mystics here aren't exactly busted, but you know darn well that a number of players are going to race to be the first player to Top 8 an event with War of Attrition. Think about it; this is the first time such an exception has been made, so why wouldn't a number of people want to be the first person to make history in this way? Imagine you are that person for a moment. Imagine the laughs, the cheers, the praise, the stories, people writing about you. This list is pretty far from optimal, but it isn't really so bad. It could win an event on a good day, and being that player is prize worth more than store credit.
Personally, I am totally in favor of the exception. This isn't some cash-grab by WotC; this is part of an effort to help players segue into the tournament scene. The Event Decks were designed to be out-of-the-box ready for tournament play. You and I may take for granted how hard it can be for new players to make the jump into tournament play, since we are already here. It can be quite daunting though, and these Event Decks provide a starting point, a stepping stone. Players at this step are particularly vulnerable, as they can often feel like they are over their heads and have no idea what is going on. Buying an Event Deck and finding out that the best cards in it are banned would likely discourage a non-zero number of players from sticking with tournament Magic. This solution, while not particularly clean, does at least alleviate this, as well as create opportunities for positive stories instead. Besides, this isn't going to seriously impact the metagame, so why not let people use the deck as it was designed to be used?
War of Attrition is a pretty straightforward White Weenie deck, with such Stoneforge targets as Bonehoard, Skinwing, Darksteel Axe, and Sword of... Vengeance. You are pretty much just going to play a game similar to Paul Rietzl's Pro Tour Amsterdam White Weenie deck, with a modest amount of removal, tricks, and pumps to overpower people on the battlefield. It is probably going to be a little soft to Valakut and Splinter Twin, making it a questionable choice for the hardcore tournament player, but you gotta admit, more than a couple people are going to run it for the times.
Now, on a more serious tip, let's look at the rest of the decks in the format, as well as what is going to be possible without Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Stoneforge Mystic. After all, this means not only was Caw-Blade banned, but 90% of the field took a hit. Where does this leave us?
Valakut is one of the few decks that does lose a key card. Combine this with its previous dominance, and we have the pacesetter out the gate. Valakut is extremely resilient and dodges many forms of interaction, often creating a very oppressive influence on aggro decks that can't beat a turn 4 Primeval Titan. While it doesn't lose a key card, it will change in make-up.
First of all, Nature's Claims are no longer maindeck cards in Valakut. Instead, we will likely see a return to cards like Pyroclasm, Slagstorm, and Lightning Bolt. Beast Within is an option, especially if Splinter Twin picks way up, but the point is that what few interactive cards Valakut has will change to meet the needs of the new format.
This is only the beginning, however. These past few months we have all grown accustomed to Valakut being back on the Summoning Trap plan, loading up with Inferno Titans to go with their Primeval Titans. This was out of necessity to combat the Mana Leaks all over the place. If you'll recall, Green Sun's Zenith was supposed to change the face of Valakut. After all, it is more consistent and more versatile, with its only weakness being countermagic. If Jace, the Mind Sculptor's ban causes the number of counterspells to crash, Green Sun's Zenith is posed to make a big comeback. What new targets does New Phyrexia offer? Is Thrun good? Avenger? Acidic Slime? Oracle? Gaea's Revenge? Lotus Cobra? Joraga Treespeaker? Birds of Paradise? It isn't clear that Green Sun's Zenith will win the fight against Summoning Trap, but even if it does, Summoning Trap is likely to appear in sideboards.
The other big factor will be Splinter Twin's influence. While Valakut appears to have a big edge over level one of the metagame, it does have a huge natural weakness to Twin. What does that mean for the archetype, when Twin is the second most hyped strategy to survive? It seems pretty clear that level one of the metagame is:
Valakut (rock) < Twin (paper) < Everything Else (scissors)
This means that at level one, anything we are brewing needs to either beat Twin (an attempt at defining scissors) or be better at beating Valakut (either win more often, or lose to everything else less often).
What will these Twin decks look like? Well, one starting point is to take the most successful previous version (that doesn't use Stoneforge), Flores's U/R Twin:
This list features four Jace, the Mind Sculptors, but those can be replaced with more card draw of other varieties. Jace Beleren, Foresee, and See Beyond are all worth considering right off top. Additionally, the format is going to be a lot more aggressive, so it's possible that some amount of Spell Pierce and Into the Roil may want to become Pyroclasms.
Another possible route to go is back to the beginning. Here is my original Pyro-Twin list, which didn't even feature Jace, the Mind Sculptor:
Does the huge increase in Valakut and disappearance of Caw-Blade, RUG, and more mean the support spells should change? For sure. Spell Pierce can immediately become Mana Leak, and it is worth considering adding Spreading Seas. In fact, we are going to be seeing a lot more Spreading Seas in the days to come, which is interesting to consider, if you are contemplating decks like Mono-Black, which could feel the splash damage from the hate.
It is far from certain what the optimal Twin list will look like, but it is almost surely quite a bit different from these starting points. Maybe Grixis Twin takes off? Maybe Birthing Pod takes up the combo, using Totem-Guide Hartebeest as a Pod target that can search up the Splinter Twin to go with the Deceiver you already searched up?
Valakut and Twin are not the only combo decks, however. Suture Sisters, using Soul's Attendant, Leonin Relic-Warder, and Phyrexian Metamorph is a lot more dangerous of a kill, now that Jace is gone and Inkmoth Nexus less popular. The infinite life combo still doesn't beat Twin, but it does beat Valakut and most aggro decks.
This format is hardly a pure combo format, however. Mono-Red and Vampires are in the interesting dilemma of escaping unscathed, but losing their niche in the metagame. They both had reasonable game against Caw-Blade, but that counts for nothing, now. Instead, they are going to have to figure out how to compete with Valakut and Twin, meaning some pretty radical redesigns. Vampires will probably have to go back to adopting discard. Demon at Death's Gate is sure to make a comeback. What removal gets played is still very up in the air, but Primeval Titan and Deceiver Exarch would appear to be the two most important creatures (followed by Vengevine).
Speaking of which, Vengevine is an interesting question mark. After all, Vengevine's weakness has traditionally been Valakut, so why would it be on the rise, now? Well, Vengevine against Valakut is a little like Cruel Ultimatum in Five-Color Control against Faeries. Yes, Faeries could just counter it, but it lets you slant your deck to be very anti-Faeries, with Cruel Ultimatum picking up the slack against everyone else.
Vengevine might be able to pull off a similar trick. If you slant your Vengevine deck to be good against Valakut and Twin, you may be able to rely on Vengevine to do the heavy lifting against non-combo decks. Still, with Jace gone (Vengevine's purpose in life) and combo on the rise (his weakness), it is certainly not level 1 or 2 of the metagame to work with him. What we ought to do, though, is be mindful of a place in the future where Vengevine helps us prey on the decks that are designed to beat what we see today.
As we said, Caw-Blade isn't the only deck to suffer this announcement. RUG is basically dead, at least in its old form. That was a deck that revolved completely around Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Without him, what are you even doing? I wouldn't be surprised if some new deck takes over that sort of space, but it needs a new core strategy. Maybe Twin? Maybe some other walkers? Maybe more fatties? Maybe Mass Polymorph? Maybe some form of Turbo-Land?
The future of U/B and U/W Control is very interesting. They do lose their best card, but they also lose their two greatest threats. Now that U/B Control only has to fight combo and aggro, it is very conceivable that they can ride the other card-advantage engines to replace Jace. Beleren, Foresee, Jace's Ingenuity, Liliana, and more can pick up the slack. Combine that with Despise, Duress, Inquisition of Kozilek, Mana Leak, Stoic Rebuttal, Black Sun's Zenith, Go for the Throat, and Into the Roil, and we are already seeing a deck coming together. Four Preordains and four Spreading Seas are a must, as are four Edges. The victory conditions of choice are probably some mix of Consecrated Sphinx, Grave Titan, and maybe even Precursor Golem. This is definitely going to be a deck to work on.
As for U/W, we lose the awesome discard and spot removal, but we gain Venser and Day of Judgment. Venser, the Sojourner is looking pretty solid in the new metagame, with lots of great targets to blink. He provides game-winning card advantage and an ultimate that can totally win on its own.
Mono-Black mages are going to finally have a chance to prove whether this really is time for the revival of the archetype. After all, Jace, the Mind Sculptor was always the card that they couldn't beat. Jace invalidated the archetype both because of the "Jace Test" (Phyrexian Obliterator) and Jace outclassing all of black's mediocre two-for-ones. You know I love a Mono-B deck, but it does seem that the combination of great creature removal and discard could be just what the doctor ordered for combating the aggro and combo decks.
What about the other Stoneforge decks? Boros, White Weenie, G/W Quest? Well, they are generally not where you want to be against Valakut, especially with their best card missing, but it is possible that now that they do not need to compete with other Mystics and Jaces that they can become even more aggressive or more disruptive. Personally, this is not where I would want to be in the metagame, right now, but now that Jace and Stoneforge are gone, I am betting that we see a very wide open and diverse mix of decks that people use to try to step up and prove that they can compete with the Twin Mountains of the format, Valakut and Splinter Twin.
With M12 just weeks away, we are going to see the beginnings of the revolution in the weeks to come, but another major shake-up in July. After all, just think about how much M10 and M11 changed Magic. Could we really imagine that M12 won't do the same? These are exciting times! After all, cards don't get banned in Standard every day. I gotta admit, watching Jace get banned feels like watching my son graduate from college. I am so proud of you, son!
One thing is for sure, this is the exact perfect time to brew! I am not sure I have ever seen the community so excited to try all the deck ideas they have been saving up for months. The format next week will be nothing like the format last week, and quite frankly, probably not all that similar to the format of next month, either.
What decks do you want to see explored first? Let me know in the forums, and I'll start with the most popular suggestions. See you Monday, when we get down to the business of tuning some of the decks from the new world of Standard!