Stoneforge Mystic wasn't unbanned in Modern and I wasn't surprised in the least. I, along with most of the community, understand the format well enough to know it wouldn't have a negative impact. We don't make the decisions, but we definitely influence them. These types of unbannings take time and patience, so expect the Kor Artificer to return from exile in the near future. Jace, the Mind Sculptor took a year of lobbying to get noticed by the powers that be and Stoneforge Mystic should follow the same model.
Many of us were itching to get our Batterskull back into competitive play and we shouldn't easily accept defeat. I have been known to Esper Stoneblade in Legacy from time to time [CEDitor's Note: "From time to time," eh, Shaheen?], so what has changed since I abandoned the strategy? There has been a great deal of speculation toward the viability of Stoneblade in a new, Deathrite Shaman-less format. The return of Stoneforge Mystic has been shouted from the rooftops, parades have been formed, and many pros have jokingly stated "See, Stoneforge Mystic was unbanned….in Legacy!" There is some validity to that argument, but not for the reasons you have read or heard.
Stoneblade is still a weak strategy in Legacy but may be well-positioned. The banning of Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe shook the format up enough that the "fair deck throne" is currently vacant. There will be a war between extinct decks of old to determine who claims power. This is where a deck like Stoneblade really shines. Esper Stoneblade was the weapon of choice I used to dominate old Legacy, regularly defeating Temur Delver, Maverick, Death and Taxes, Elves, Goblins, U/R Delver, Burn, and Eldrazi decks. These decks will have a resurgence and Stoneforge Mystic lines up very well against each of them.
Not only were these enemy decks underdogs then, but the addition of True-Name Nemesis has pushed the matchup even more favorably. The synergy between the untouchable threat and Equipment can create some unbeatable draws against decks that lack specialized removal. This does mean the death of Lingering Souls, but I don't feel too bad about it. Lingering Souls has been dead for quite some time and not even a Deathrite Shaman ban can bring it back. True-Name Nemesis is worse against Liliana of the Veil, hand disruption, and countermagic, but better in every other scenario. With the increase of better matchups, we just solved Legacy!
I wish the Legacy puzzle was that simple, but nothing in Magic ever is.
Combo decks, particularly ones that rely on the graveyard, will increase in popularity. I hear a good amount of Entomb rumbling, but that doesn't scare this blue mage in the slightest. With the power of hand disruption, Force of Will, and the rest of the supporting crew, Esper Stoneblade has had an even matchup against Reanimator decks. Rest in Peace is still lights out and the additional disruption after sideboarding puts our combo opponents in a real bind. The pressure is still a bit lackluster, which is the key issue we have with the matchup. Eventually, opponents can build enough disruption to force through spells.
Other combo decks are even harder to defeat than Reanimator. Sneak and Show, Storm, Turbo Depths, or any other combo deck that rears its ugly head can be a real challenge, even with sideboard help. Most combo decks in Legacy will still use the graveyard to some extent, but a Rest in Peace alone may not be enough to claim victory. The decks that pack loads of blue interaction (Sneak and Show) and those that attack the hand (Storm) can win without relying on the graveyard to do so. The combo decks that attempt to steal games but lose to a Force of Will may also see increased play. I haven't been super-excited about Force of Will lately, due to the increase in fair decks, but that has now changed. Every blue deck must be able to defend itself on Turn 0 for the foreseeable future.
Game 1 against these decks will be tough to win. Sword to Plowshares is premier removal, though it feels pretty bad to draw against an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Force of Will, Counterspell, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Snapcaster Mage are all needed in the first three turns to have a fighting chance.
Moving away from Thoughtseize completely has helped shore up the creature matchups and gave very little up against combo. There aren't many matchups where a Thoughtseize over an Inquisition of Kozilek would be the difference between winning and losing. The times where it does bite you are overshadowed by the two life points saved in much closer matchups. Game 1 is so tough that hedging with Thoughtseize over Inquisition of Kozilek is simply not worth it. The solution to save the match is to pack the sideboard with cards to help transform Esper Stoneblade into Esper Control. The second Thoughtseize comes in as well as a disruption package strong enough to turn the tide to victory.
Containment Priest is a one-of but will increase in number if the creature-based combo decks increase in number. It's a great hate card and I've been a fan ever since I saw it previewed years back. The other premier hate card is Rest in Peace. I've discussed this some already, but I must defend the number in the sideboard.
Besides hitting decks that bring spells or creatures out of the graveyard, it shuts down some of the fair decks as well. Temur Delver beats down with Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf, two cards Rest in Peace denies. I bring two copies in against Temur Delver, but that doesn't explain the reason for the third. The matchups where you want the third copy are close to unwinnable without it. Dredge, if played, is a nightmare without Rest in Peace on the battlefield. The other decks that utilize the graveyard can be just as tough and each one packs an answer, requiring us to play more copies.
There is one bigger reason that pushed me to the edge of madness back in my Esper Stoneblade days.
Lands was the biggest thorn in my side for many years. It's the deck that can enact mana denial, use a recursive removal spell, and create death at an instant. The popularity of this deck should increase with the removal of Deathrite Shaman, but I don't believe it will. Although Deathrite Shaman was strong against Lands, its removal is the worst thing that could ever happen to the deck. With the one-mana threat eliminated, the worst matchups for the linear Lands decks all will increase in numbers. The combo decks I've discussed and even some of the fair decks of old all harassed Lands to the point of irrelevancy. The deck was played by a small group of loyalists but didn't have the results that it has had over the last few years of Deathrite Shaman Legacy. The third copy of Rest in Peace is for this horrific matchup.
No matter what configuration I create of Esper Stoneblade, Lands will always be a bad matchup. The playability of Lands is very questionable moving forward, but we still must have a plan to defeat Stoneforge Mystic's number one enemy. I came up with the dirtiest tech years ago in Telemin Performance to get an edge in the matchup and was able to Top 8 an additional Invitational and Open after, but Lands players have adapted.
Lands players began to play Tireless Tracker, card that made my specialized hate card become worthless. There are a few other cards, like Tsabo's Web, that can help the matchup. The issue is the amount of these narrow cards that have to be played in order to be effective. I landed on one copy of Dominate in order to steal games from this terrifying matchup. Dominate is a unique Control Magic effect, giving us the ability to nab their 20/20 on their turn. The instant speed of Dominate gives us a fighting chance to deal with their giant win condition without giving them twenty more life to play with. Esper Stoneblade will always be a dog to Lands, but locking out Life from the Loam with a little help from True-Name Nemesis may be enough to take down the match.
The rest of the sideboard is fairly self-explanatory except for my good friend Notion Thief. Notion Thief is a card that has always been a tough sell to my readers – and for good reason! – but I believe that it's too cool of a card not to game with. If anyone decides to go back to Sultai Control, hitting us with anything from their Jace, the Mind Sculptor to Ancestral Vision, I want to be prepared. It led to my few victories against the toughest matchup out there for Esper Stoneblade, so it's been very difficult for me to cut. It won't hurt my feelings if I see you all crushing without it, but I have to defend my favorite flash "getcha" card!
The maindeck is pretty close to what I've played in previous years. Esper Stoneblade's strength is its ability to provide minor disruption with a quick, life-gaining threat. I've gone with two copies of Ponder, but if Fatal Push (the fifth Sword to Plowshares) isn't needed for your local metagame, switch it to the third copy. That also applies to the one copy of Thoughtseize that acts as the fifth Inquisition of Kozilek. With the metagame still relatively unknown, I'm hesitant to cut either just yet. Three Ponders is correct and I will eventually drop one of those two spells to make room for it.
There have been a few modifications to help address the new yet old metagame. A second copy of Counterspell is something I've always wanted to add and I have finally made the move. It's one of my favorite spells of all time because it's a clean answer to everything that isn't bad against any deck. The fair matchups can be derailed by a two-mana hard answer and the combo decks hate all forms of interaction. Hand disruption on Turn 1, a Stoneforge Mystic or Counterspell on Turn 2, and a True-Name Nemesis on Turn 3 have been enough to help win against multiple different opponents.
The one Swamp in the deck has been dropped because it's pretty bad in most situations. The black splash is just for hand disruption and the one Swamp didn't make much sense for years, but I stubbornly went along with it. It has been removed for a Marsh Flats and I haven't looked back since. The remaining pieces of the deck are from the greatest hits and I wouldn't change them for the world. Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Stoneforge Mystic, True-Name Nemesis, Council's Judgment, Engineered Explosives, Brainstorm, and Snapcaster Mage all have found a home in Legacy.
The deck may not be the most powerful option, but it does punish the expected "best decks" that will begin to populate the top tables. If Lands becomes sidelined, other fair decks fight for superiority, and combo decks remain reliant on the graveyard, Esper Stoneblade is in a great position to win in Legacy once more.