The No Banned List Modern Open held at SCG CON shined additional light on the cards banned in Modern. Competitors did their best to make the most unfair, truly busted decks free of the typical restrictions that most sanctioned formats have. I was expecting a great deal of Eldrazi, Blazing Shoal Infect, and decks that took full advantage of the blue card draw spells that never had the chance to shine.
There were many other strategies that I didn't expect, and it was really cool to see interactive games in a format famous for linear gameplay. It may be an unpopular belief, but most of the cards banned in Modern are perfectly fine to return to a format that is resilient and hostile to broken cards of the past.
When Wizards started to unban cards, that opened the door for me to make the case for Jace, the Mind Sculptor returning. The mightiest of planeswalkers dominated Standard, yet I was confident that its potency there wouldn't translate to Modern. It did provide a spark for control decks, as expected, but wasn't the magic pill to push the archetype to a top-tier position.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor was the first step to push control into a better place in Modern. In Magic, just as in politics, we need to fight one battle at a time. Jace, the Mind Sculptor was the first victim freed from among the prisoners, but there are other control soldiers still waiting for their reprieve.
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Stoneforge Mystic, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, had its day in the sun many years ago. I have more reps with this pairing from my time playing Esper StoneBlade in Legacy than any other mage on the planet. I know what these two cards are capable of in a format that has light removal, much more powerful blue support cards, and Umezawa's Jitte.
Stoneforge Mystic started on the Banned List due to its oppressive nature in a Standard from a long time ago, but Magic has evolved since then. The format Stoneforge Mystic would be returning to would be most unfriendly, with each deck either combo-killing you or packing the most punishing removal spells. Kolaghan's Command is absolutely devastating against any deck that would dare run artifacts, and that card sees extensive play in multiple fair decks across the format.
Combo decks chuckle at the prospect of a 4/4 on Turn 3, a play that required a banning years ago. Modern decks today cast two 4/4s on Turn 1, an army of dredge creatures on Turn 3, infect creatures that evade past a lifelink ground creature, Jund lists that maindeck every possible card to stop the meek 1/2 from ever activating…and the list goes on.
My goal with this article is not to trash Stoneforge Mystic to bamboozle Wizards to unban it and then dominate the competition with StoneBlade. With that being said, it would be irresponsible not to point out the flaws of the card that I plan on championing until the decision is made to free the Sword-summoner into the Modern card pool.
With all her flaws, Stoneforge Mystic does fill a vital role that control has been missing since the format began. Modern control had two missing pieces, which resulted in a historic lack of success. The first missing piece was effective card advantage. Cards like Glimmer of Genius and Think Twice had to answer the call, which hurt my soul in ways you can't imagine. Jace, the Mind Sculptor returning home corrected that issue, allowing all of us to play one of the most punishing sources of card advantage ever printed. I never claimed that this unbanning would result in control being Tier 1, but I did say it would save us from the brink of irrelevancy.
A lot of players are naturally quick to say that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is terrible, did nothing to the Modern metagame, and is worse than recent Standard planeswalkers, but I do not believe these to be true. In a format dominated by linear combo/aggro decks, control must have the build puzzle solved. With the card advantage aspect taken care of, the last step is to increase the early-game presence.
Control's early game consists of having a counterspell on Turn 2, which becomes a full dud against Humans that led with a Cavern of Souls and/or an Aether Vile. That same counterspell sits in our hand as our opponent leads with a Turn 1 Hollow One and Bloodghast, making us question our deckbuilding. We think about where it all went wrong and hard switch to Jeskai Control to answer these early-game threats: blue disruption replaced by Lightning Bolts, Lightning Helixes, and a lucky Electrolyze.
We excitedly play a tapped Steam Vents, holding two or three of these removal spells that double as a late-game burnout. Sadly for us, our opponent played Urza's Tower Turn 1 and we are dead. Maybe our next round opponent won't have our number, but this opponent decides it's a good day to play Ad Nauseum, with the next player gearing up Storm, followed by KCI, and then ending our 0-X tournament experience with a nice Living End opponent that was hoping to find a control player for their first win.
These scenarios are taken to the extreme to paint the picture of control's struggle in Modern, but there is always a way to survive this wild metagame unscathed (without relying on drawing the correct half of your deck). The solution we are looking for is unbanning Stoneforge Mystic.
Stoneforge Mystic has all the flaws I mentioned earlier to keep her in check. Unfair creatures of the past have become the fair creatures of the present. This Equipment-fetcher is nothing more than a role-filler for control, Hatebears, B/W Eldrazi, and a few other fringe white decks. Each of these archetypes is missing key components that Stoneforge Mystic can fill. Control desperately needs an early game play that forces the opponent to spend resources on it rather than flooding the battlefield. The midrange decks require something that can be played early but is pretty darn good late.
I am not here to advocate for an increase in midrange's viability, however I do believe that each style of deck should have the tools to take down major tournaments. Let's revisit the scenarios I mentioned earlier, but with Stoneforge Mystic. Having Mystic as your two-drop can really put Humans in a pickle. They may have the timely Reflector Mage, or Kitesail Freebooter to nab Batterskull, but they may not. The same predicament falls upon our Hollow One opponent, who now must trade with a Germ token, restoring precious life points, while control can cast a Path to Exile in the same turn. There will still be counterspells in the deck, as well as removal that could be mediocre, but there are four copies of our ambitious Squire and I like the odds of getting there with a Turn 1 draw spell.
The same perks apply for our combo matchup. A 4/4 creature on Turn 3 isn't devastating for them, but it is much better than our alternatives. Giving combo decks too much time is playing with fire and control players are famous for taking their time ending the game. Batterskull is great, but Sword of Feast and Famine is a card that saw some play in Legacy StoneBlade and would be effective against some of these strategies. Ramping up our threat to a 6/6, providing hand disruption, and being able to cast multiple spells are ways to turn the tide in matchups like these.
I lump big mana decks into this category as well because of their staggeringly powerful spells. Control has a huge issue with a resolved Karn Liberated or even an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger that was successfully removed. Stoneforge Mystic Turn 2 on the play is where I want to be in this matchup. The following turn could involve Field of Ruin, or maybe a Ceremonious Rejection after sideboarding, to really put the pressure on.
Stoneforge Mystic wouldn't be in every control deck in Modern. It fits best in U/W Control because of the pressure void that exists in the early game. Jeskai Control will still meander around the Tier 2 realm, punishing aggressive decks while getting eaten alive by combo/big mana, but this unbanning would really propel U/W to the next level. I think Jace, the Mind Sculptor needs some of that heat taken off him and Stoneforge Mystic was a pro at doing just that in old Standard and Legacy. This is the build where I've been testing the Mystic:
So far in testing, the results have been very promising. Jace, the Mind Sculptor lives significantly longer in most games. Many times, before the flagship planeswalker's arrival, I had two creatures holding down the fort in preparation. This dynamic simply doesn't exist without her unbanning and inclusion. Wall of Omens has been tried but isn't where you want to hedge your bets in this volatile format. Stoneforge Mystic does a better job defending and turns on offense very quickly.
The key to U/W Control's success lies in Jace, the Mind Sculptor putting the game away with an avalanche of Brainstorms. When that line doesn't present itself, bashing in with a 4/4 lifelink isn't a shabby alternative.
I included two copies of Batterskull because of the frailty of the Germ-attached Equipment. Modern is not a safe place for Stoneforge Mystic and her armory of splendor, but we can build our shell in an appropriately defensive manner to come out ahead. Running multiple copies of Batterskull is the first step in this process, with a third Equipment card coming out of the sideboard as well.
I do not know if an Academy Ruins is warranted at this point, but it is on my list of inclusions if Jund ever rises again. Kolaghan's Command is one thing, but Ancient Grudge takes it to another level. I am content if our opponents decide to bring in multiple artifact destruction spells, because the real threat still lies in the planeswalker package.
Spell Snare, Condemn, Path to Exile, and Serum Visions all get much better with our new two-drop threat. Serum Visions allows us to find one for Turn 2, where normally it isn't a very effective Turn 1 play. Often, we have lands and spells, and a Serum Visions cast in the dark on the first turn isn't sure what to find, but that would all change with this unbanning. Spell Snare, Condemn, and Path to Exile provide us a second play the turn Batterskull arrives, which increases their stock.
The sideboard gets stronger as well, except for Stony Silence. Stony Silence isn't a great combo with Batterskull, but that is a small price to pay for such a powerful effect. The rest of the cards jump in potency. Rest in Peace punishes us less, the one-mana interaction spells are dynamite for the same reasons just discussed, and our opponents must respect our aggressive plan in post-sideboard games. Game 1 can be tough for Stoneforge Mystic, but some removal should come out for the final two. Early creatures and late-game planeswalkers can make life very difficult for our enemies.
There are quite a few cards on the Banned List that can safely come off. We learned this past weekend that Eye of Ugin can stay right where it is, and Stoneforge Mystic deserves to have a chance in the format. This unbanning would further increase the health of the format by solving the final dilemma of control.
Do I think control would be unbeatable after this? Not even close. I do believe that control would have all the necessary tools to win a Grand Prix, Top 8 a Pro Tour, or take down an Invitational. With all the flaws that make Stoneforge Mystic an underpowered Modern card, I know now after sleeving her up that she can be the role-player control has been missing since the format's inception.