For several years now, Ancient Stirrings has been on the unofficial Modern watchlist, the cards players and R&D members regularly discuss the possibility of banning. After the breakout performances of Krark-Clan Ironworks combo by Matt Nass and Matt Nass , the heat picked up on Ancient Stirrings and many players thought we'd finally seen the end of it.
One might argue that calmer heads prevailed and Ancient Stirrings lived to see another season, or, one such as Ryan Overturf might argue that a mistake was made and Modern is worse for it until the next announcement when R&D can right their wrongs.
I'm one of the players who regularly calls attention to Ancient Stirrings as a card that would be reasonable to ban from Modern at any point--to my mind, the only cards in Modern that are possibly more powerful are Mox Opal, Inkmoth Nexus, the Urza lands, the fetchlands, Thoughtseize, and Lightning Bolt. The effect is more powerful than Ponder, which is banned, so it's strange that Ancient Stirrings is legal.
To understand why this is the case, you must understand the purpose of the Modern banned list. This is no small feat, as I think the purpose has kind of shifted over time. As originally imagined/advertised, Modern was supposed to be the format you could retire old Standard decks to with a few updates so that your cards would still have a home. I haven't seen a lot of Siege Rhino/Den Protector decks since Khans of Tarkir left Standard and at this point, Modern is way too powerful to just retire a Standard deck into, but it's an extremely popular format in its own right. One could argue, as WotC does, that a lot of that popularity is a direct result of the diversity the field that format has managed to settle into, with a bare minimum of 30+ tier one or tier two decks.
It's extremely important for a non-rotating format that it maintain that level of diversity, because if there are only five different decks, it's too easy to have played every possible combination in the first year enough that you're not that interested in playing them more the next year. Some players have basically played Affinity since the format's inception, and they can still have fun because their games are always different because their opponent always tries to attack them in different ways.
As a concession to this, not all matchups are interesting. When you have this many decks that play widely varied gameplans, sometimes they just don't interact in meaningful or interesting ways. Sometimes you get paired against whatever the nightmare matchup for your deck happens to be, and you basically just can't compete, but that's fine because you can just play another game.
Pro players feel the cost of this the most, because that one match where they just couldn't compete might be one where they were playing for hundreds or thousands of dollars. The more casual a player is, the more they can just take a loss and move on to the next game which will be more interesting.
Modern is ultimately a format designed for the more casual players who want to play Magic once a week or once a month and can't keep up with a rotating Standard format where they'll only get to use their deck a handful of times before they need to get all new cards. This means sometimes it can be right to let a deck exist even if it's not as fun to play against as an average deck because playing against it every now and then is more interesting than never playing against it. Maybe playing against Ironworks isn't very fun, but your first match against Ironworks is probably more interesting than your tenth match against Humans.
I'm going somewhere with this…
I hate tutor effects in Magic. I own a powered Cube, but there are no tutoring effects in the Cube. I like varied game play and I don't like that tutors let you just cast the same cards every game.
Ancient Stirrings is a horrible offender here. Amulet, Lantern, and Ironworks are all decks that are accurately named for a single artifact in them, and they all got to exist because Ancient Stirrings makes it so easy to find the artifact those decks are built around. In general, I think Magic is less interesting if you can build your deck assuming there's a certain card you'll always have (sorry, Commander). I'm willing to concede that Stirrings decks collectively are less fun to play against than non-Stirrings decks.
Despite that, Modern as a whole is probably more fun to play when you sometimes play against Stirrings decks because of the value of format diversity.
However, the argument goes beyond that.
Ancient Stirrings is a card that's only busted if you build your deck around it. If it only finds lands, it's a very weak card. When evaluating the strength of card like that, you must look at them in context. For example, Mox Opal is, on paper, in a way of thinking, three times harder to use than Mox Amber (more realistically, the point is just that either card is only as good as the best shell that exists for it).
In practice, I think Mox Opal is the strongest card in Modern and Mox Amber may or may not be playable. If a few more cycles of great one and two mana legendary creatures existed, maybe Mox Amber would need to be banned. The question of whether Ancient Stirrings needs to be banned, therefore, kind of reduces to whether any or all the decks that use it best are too powerful.
Before I get to that, I want to point out that in the interest of maintaining diversity, which is essentially to say, "in line with the prime directive of Modern," it is best if the most powerful cards are linear cards. When the best cards are good in anything, like Lightning Bolt and Thoughtseize, they don't lend any identity to the decks they're in, and the format is too likely to collapse into everyone playing a pile of all the best cards (Jund). When there are a lot of strong linear payoffs that pull in different directions, there are tradeoffs to playing each of the best cards, so you must choose which "best card" to use, as you can't play with all of them.
Moreover, linear decks tend to be more exploitable. The clearer and defined your deck's game plan is and the more cards in it share some element, the easier it is for opponents to attack that deck by countering that strategy or attacking that class of card. If all the most powerful decks are decks like Dredge and Affinity, then they're all capable of becoming victims of their own success to where they're played enough that people play enough sideboard cards to reliably beat them, so whenever they're the deck to beat, they just get beaten and something else takes their place, keeping the format fresh.
On the surface, you might think, as Ryan will argue, that it's a problem if Ironworks is the best deck because it plays repetitive, "non-interactive" games and allow the player playing the deck to use most of the clock and potentially play long turns that extend their match well beyond the time allowed for a match. As it happens, I think most of those points are misconceptions.
Yes, the deck is extremely consistent and repetitive. It does essentially the same thing every game, and yes, that's kind of lame, but very far from new or banworthy. See Tron, Storm, Dredge, or Infect. They all have enough redundancy that they're basically going to present the same outline every game.
While one can compare Ironworks to Eggs, which was banned for tournament logistics, the reality is that the two combos are very different on that end because Ironworks involves a deterministic loop, where Eggs just gets to a point where it has a lower and lower probability of fizzling, but because it needs to keep drawing new cards to execute its combo, it takes a long time to reach the point where the game is 100% over.
Ironworks is still not as widely understood as it will be, but it simply doesn't take that much time to get to a point where a player can demonstrate a Myr Retriever loop that will end the game. It takes far too much time on Magic Online, because you can't automate the loop, but in paper, going off really isn't that horrible.
As to the extent to which you're playing an interactive game of Magic, creature removal, artifact removal, graveyard removal, counterspells, discard, mana denial, and basically any other form of disruption are all impactful against Ironworks, but they have counterplay to all of them. The text of opposing cards matter, there are tons of permanents Ironworks will have to acknowledge and find ways to interact with, but the deck plays cards that let them do that. I'd argue that as far as combo decks go, Ironworks is on the far extreme of the interactive side or the interactive/non-interactive divide.
Ultimately, my point is that if Ironworks needs to be banned, it should be for power alone, not for fun or tournament logistics reasons, as even though it has cosmetic similarities to Eggs, the real issues aren't actually present in sufficient quantities to warrant action.Is the deck good enough to warrant a ban on power level alone? Maybe, but certainly not at this point based on precedent about when action is taken in Modern.
With decks like Amulet and Splinter Twin, we needed months of consistent dominant performances. The same player winning two GPs and then taking up maybe one slot per top 8 in the next few events is enough to call it a tier one deck, but nowhere close to enough to justify action.
Even if action were justified, is Ancient Stirrings really the right card to ban?
If you ban Ancient Stirrings, you incidentally remove Amulet, Lantern, Mono-Green Tron, and probably R/G or Bant Eldrazi from the format as well. You can make the case that that's desirable, but it's a difficult case to make in the face of an understanding of the prime directive being diversity.
If Ironworks is the problem, you could ban Ironworks itself. This is a blunt solution that 100% wipes out the deck, but it's on the table.
The other option is to ban Mox Opal. This would almost certainly also kill Lantern and Affinity. Again, a hard sell, but fewer decks than Ancient Stirrings. More importantly, I'd argue that Mox Opal is the real problem card.
As powerful as Ancient Stirrings is, at the end of the day, it's worse than if you'd just gotten luckier and drawn the card you wanted in the first place. No one's nut draw includes Ancient Stirrings. With Mox Opal, you get to effortlessly break a fundamental rule of Magic. If Mox Opal is in your deck, all your nut draws involve Mox Opal.
As much as I don't like super powerful card selection, if we got to the point where something had to go, I'd personally prefer to see it be Mox Opal.
Ultimately, I think we're still a long way from that point.
To recap, the basic argument against banning Ancient Stirrings:
- A diverse Modern is a healthy Modern
- Linear decks perpetuate diversity
- Linear decks force you to build around your most powerful cards, making it impossible to play all the best cards in a single deck.
- Linear decks are exploitable, meaning they're easier to target and beat when they're expected in large numbers.
- Ancient Stirrings is a powerful linear card that allows several very different archetypes to exist, meaning it's one of the single hardest working cards to maximize diversity.
- While it's over the top powerful, it's only as good as the decks it creates, and none of them are too good.
- If any were too good, it's not clear that it would be the best card in them to ban.