Ironworks shouldn't be a legal Modern deck.
Listen, I know what you're thinking, "Are you serious? It isn't even oppressive. Zero copies in the Top 32 of SCG Indianapolis last weekend. What's wrong with the deck?"
Simply put: the deck is bad for tournament Magic.
What the Deck Does
For those who have missed the Ironworks deck for the last couple of months in Modern, take a look at this:
Ironworks namesake Krark-Clan Ironworks uses piles of artifacts that draw cards when they die, in conjunction with Scrap Trawler, to draw its deck. Until a few months ago, the deck would eventually cast a copy of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Banefire to kill the opponent, having generated a mass of cards and mana.
Then, Matt Nass discovered a trick that makes the deck faster and more consistent while also removing the need for the clunky finisher cards that tend to be dead until the combo turn.
Buckle up, because things are about to get rules-y.
In the basics of casting spells in Magic, we tend to just pay costs, choose targets (if necessary), and put our spell onto the stack, when it's more complicated than that. We shortcut through most of it, but putting things in the most technical terms , casting a spell has several steps, including the "paying costs" step.
During the step that a player is casting a spell, if that spell has a cost (as in, more than zero mana without any additional costs), the spell's caster may activate mana abilities in order to pay the spell's mana cost.
Stay with me. Look at Krark-Clan Ironworks:
That's a mana ability.
During the steps of casting a spell, no triggered abilities are going to be placed on the stack until the spell itself is placed onto the stack. Further, the rules allow for players to add more mana than necessary to their mana pool than is required for the spell, meaning that a player can activate any number of mana abilities during this step of casting a spell.
This means that if a player were to cast a spell, say, a Chromatic Star, they could sacrifice Myr Retriever and Scrap Trawler (in that order) to pay for the Chromatic Star. After paying costs for the Chromatic Star, the Star would be placed on the stack, and its controller then chooses how to order Myr Retriever's and Scrap Trawler's triggers on the stack, at the same time. The Scrap Trawler sees both creatures die, meaning the Scrap Trawler can return the Myr Retriever from the graveyard with the trigger requiring something that costs less than three, and the 'Trawler trigger from the Retriever returns something that costs less than one. Then, the Myr Retriever's own ability returns the Scrap Trawler.
Why is this relevant, and why does it have to be done so specifically?
Normally, when sacrificing creatures to abilities, it must be done one at a time, and the abilities would be placed onto the stack as soon as a creature died. In this same example, if the creatures weren't dying "simultaneously" (read: at a time during which no abilities can be placed on the stack), Myr Retriever wouldn't have the ability to return the Scrap Trawler from the graveyard, because its ability would have to be placed on the stack before another ability could be activated.
The extra card that the loop returns in each iteration makes it fairly academic for the Ironworks player to draw their entire deck, and with the help of a zero-mana artifact, make infinite mana, before eventually killing the opponent with a Pyrite Spellbomb.
The necessity for zero-mana artifacts led to the other recent innovation in Ironworks: maindeck copies of Engineered Explosives.
Engineered Explosives functioning as both interaction and a combo piece simultaneously is equal parts genius and problematic. The most common way to interact with combo decks that cast several spells in the same turn, frequently use their graveyard, activate several abilities, or use artifacts, are hate cards that punish players for doing so or make it impossible to do it past a certain point.
Engineered Explosives is one of the most ubiquitously played cards in Modern entirely on the back of its versatility. Fair decks tend to keep at least one copy in their sideboard as a catchall to problematic, sticky permanents they may end up playing against.
On top of that, Engineered Explosives doesn't just answer one permanent; it's a sweeper. The deck that's currently playing the "hatebears" game in Modern is Humans, and there's something important that most of its disruptive pieces have in common:
They cost two mana.
More costly hate-cards aren't safe either. With Aether Hub and Spire of Industry commonly showing up in lists and the deck playing Terrarion, Chromatic Sphere, and Chromatic Star as enablers, making all five colors of mana is a cinch.
Looking past the fact that Ironworks can use Engineered Explosives as an incredibly proactive versatile resource, as mentioned previously, it's a combo piece. It fits in the "Krark-Clan Ironworks-plus-Myr Retriever-plus-Scrap Trawler-plus-zero-mana artifact equals infinite mana" loop.
At the risk of sounding like Billy Mays... there's more! On top of being a combo piece and an absurd standalone Magic card, it also plays into the artifact synergies of the deck.
Metalcraft enabler? Yup.
Can be found by the deck's cantrip? Naturally.
Tutorable in a pinch? I'm not writing this section for nothing!
The card plays so many roles in the deck, and when taken out of a fair context, forces us to confront just how many boxes it can check when abused in the proper shell.
With Engineered Explosives' ability to answer problematic permanents, the natural conclusion one would draw is to try attacking the deck with spells. Cue that Saffron Olive tweet that I won't let die:
The recursion from Scrap Trawler being a trigger without an activation cost means that players can try to interact with part of the combo, and the Ironworks player can generally just respond for enough advantage to recur the piece that is disrupted, and keep going from there.
With such a great engine, the implied understanding of complex rules, resistance to spell-based interaction, and the best sideboard card in Modern as a maindeckable combo-piece, one would think that the deck wouldn't have trouble winning. Wrong.
Take a look at this VS Series video featuring Todd Anderson and Brad Nelson:
Todd starts comboing at 11:57, combos for four minutes just playing his cards as he draws them, and then doesn't win the game. The deck can take a long time to assemble what's effectively a combo that requires four or more cards, particularly when each action is something that can be responded to by the opponent, this can take a lot of time.
I experienced this firsthand during the first round of #SCGPhilly just a few weeks ago.
After going through multiple copies of Kambal, Consul of Allocation, a Leyline of the Void, and three hand-disruption effects, my Ironworks opponent started going off with a couple of minutes left on the clock.
Then they kept going.
Then kept going.
I eventually won on the first turn of extra turns after time in the round was called.
Eleven minutes later.
You read that correctly. One turn from my opponent took almost fifteen minutes. Admittedly, there were a handful of actions that could have been performed faster, mechanically speaking, but due to one of their Myr Retrievers being exiled from the earlier Leyline of the Void/Thoughtseize interaction, they just had to go until they could establish their loop and ended up fizzling.
Adding to the already nightmarish amount of time that the combo took, because there had been an issue with a player's sleeves in our match, we had a ten-minute time extension. These factors combined to the second round's pairings not going up for almost half an hour after time was called during the first.
This isn't acceptable in tournament Magic. Even looking past what the deck is capable of doing, having an archetype that can regularly stall hundreds of people for an extra 25% of a round's worth of time is not acceptable.
As a matter of fact, we've been down through this before. Think back to the May 3, 2013 Banned and Restricted announcement :
The reason given?
" Modern tournaments have recently been diverse, with no dominant deck. However, large tournaments have had a problem with the Eggs deck, causing rounds to take significantly longer.
The deck uses Second Sunrise and Faith's Reward to get back cards that generate mana, such as Lotus Bloom , and various artifacts that draw a card. A common choice to win the game is Pyrite Spellbomb . However, the way the player gets to the point of forcing a win might involve casting Second Sunrise so many times that the entire library is drawn, and only cards put back with Conjurer's Bauble are left. A single turn might take fifteen minutes or more.
In a large tournament, such as a Grand Prix, when time for the round expires, players are given five additional turns to complete their game. Usually, this takes a few minutes to conclude the rest of the games. However, a player playing Eggs might have a fifteen-minute turn during the additional turns, delaying the start of the next round by ten minutes or more (beyond the next-longest match). Over the course of a day, this can mean an extra hour of waiting for everyone else in the tournament."
A deck that takes a ton of time to eventually win with a Pyrite Spellbomb? Non-dominant but detrimental to the actual processes involved with running paper Magic tournaments?
That sure sounds familiar!
Even looking past the precedent set by Second Sunrise a half-decade ago and the logistical side of things, how much fun is Ironworks adding to the format? Staring at a player play every card in their deck, one card at a time, isn't fun. Having to play against a combo deck that can play Engineered Explosives to answer permanents and Silence to answer spells, with ways to cycle through its deck for both, isn't fun.
Having to play against this style of deck is exhausting and feeling hopeless in the face of it doesn't make it much better. "Stony Silence or bust" is so incredibly demoralizing.
To the "But I like playing these kinds of deck!" crowd: Believe it or not, I'm in your camp. Take a look at the first orders I ever placed on StarCityGames.com®:
I played Eggs from the time it was called "Sunny Side-Up" in Extended until it got hit by the ban hammer. Sometimes it's time to admit that there are cards that create incredibly negative play experiences for those involved, and when those strategies become too common, something's gotta give.
Blazing Shoal, for example, isn't banned because it's overpowered. Literally any deck in the format can play Gut Shot to have a soft-answer to the combo. Second Sunrise isn't banned because it's overpowered. They're banned because they create incredibly unfun situations in the context of the format.
What to Not Do
Something must go, but what? Starting at the usual suspects, let's rule a couple of things out from the get-go:
Ancient Stirrings absolutely should not be banned in Modern. Sam Black and Ryan Overturf had an adorable quarrel a couple of weeks ago on the subject, and while I side with Sam's opinion on the issue -as opposed to Ryan's take on things - Sam loses me in the details.
Where we agree is in the belief that without Ancient Stirrings, entire decks would cease to exist. Ancient Stirrings is legal while Ponder is not because of power level, but it's because there aren't replacements for Ancient Stirrings.
Amulet Titan isn't going to turn to Mishra's Bauble and Manamorphose if Ancient Stirrings vanishes. Amulet Titan is going to fall off the map because it can't reliably execute its gameplan in a timely fashion. Mono-Green Tron would completely fall off without a card in the vein of Ancient Stirrings at its disposal.
Other than Ironworks, the Ancient Stirrings decks of the format are easily metagamed against and counterable. Ironworks would still exist without Ancient Stirrings, as a result, banning Stirrings isn't a reasonable solution.
Mox Opal is likely the most powerful card in Modern, but would also severely hurt other decks if it were to be removed from the format.
On top of that, while Wizards of the Coast isn't allowed to acknowledge the secondary market, there comes a point at which it's hard for the company to completely ignore when a card retails for over $100. This isn't to say that expensive cards are unbannable, but in an Eternal format that WotC has made a commitment to preserve the legitimacy of people's investments and decks, it would hurt consumer confidence by an enormous margin if a $100+ card were to get banned and that banning were to also invalidate the strategies that it was a part of as a result.
This one is quick and easy: Engineered Explosives isn't a piece of the strategy that the deck couldn't recover from. It would weaken the deck, but it wouldn't kill it. Ironworks could play different answers if it needed maindeck interaction and could throw in some Welding Jars if it wanted a different zero-mana artifact for velocity.
The fact that Engineered Explosives traditionally operates to also keep some of the harder-to-interact-with strategies in check, like G/W Hexproof and Lantern Control, in check does a lot to make a case for its necessity in the format.
What to Do
There are two options that Wizards of the Coast can take with the deck: maiming and killing. Depending on the goal, the card to ban shifts dramatically.
If WotC were interested in hurting the deck to the point that it couldn't function in its current capacity, the card to hit is Scrap Trawler. The deck's ability to turn each artifact it draws into more mana and more cards is what has gained it the respect that it commands today.
Without Scrap Trawler providing such an enormous amount of resources to the deck, it would be forced to use the old Eggs-reminiscent Faith's Reward/Open the Vaults-engine that it played as a fringe deck around 2015:
This deck is….worse. For a lot of reasons.
When decks like Ironworks and Eggs aren't hyper-competitive, they tend to take less time in rounds due to the fact that people don't bring them to competitive tournaments as frequently. People don't tend to travel for hours, pay hundreds of dollars in travel costs and entry fees, and deal with everything else that comes with going to competitive tournaments for the sake of playing a "meme" deck.
Kill it. Kill it with fire.
What Wizards of the Coast needs to do is ban Krark-Clan Ironworks.
There isn't a fair upside to having Krark-Clan Ironworks in the format. People aren't registering Krark-Clan Ironworks in their deck in hopes of sacrificing a couple of artifacts to cast Wurmcoil Engine or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. That's the other colorless ramp deck.
Ironworks' key piece creates a handful of situations, ranging from "One player plays a ton of Magic before not winning the game enough to justify playing the deck at competitive events," all the way to "One player plays a ton of Magic in a fashion that is hard to prevent and can cause a tournament's run-time to go through the roof."
There are other ways to play linear combo decks that kill in more deterministic and faster ways. U/R Gifts Storm is very real--just ask Caleb Scherer. There are other busted Mox Opal decks. There are other absurd Ancient Stirrings decks.
I imagine that this time next week we'll be very tired of watching Ironworks as it adds additional time to Pro Tour Minneapolis. You know what's worse than one player sitting on their hands while the other player at the table tries to announce upwards of one hundred triggers in the same turn? Five players sitting at a table watching someone go through the same motions.
Krark-Clan Ironworks is taking away more from the format than it's giving, and it's high time that Wizards acknowledged it.