The Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter has concluded, and with a strong showing by both Ironworks and Izzet Phoenix, the calls to ban Ancient Stirrings and/or Faithless Looting in Modern have earned a renewed vigor. They are arguably the two most powerful cards in the format, with Mox Opal as the only other serious contender to the title. Both cards give the decks that can utilize them a level of consistency that no other single card in the format can match, even blue, which is supposed to be the color with the best deck manipulation.
With these cards enabling decks like Ironworks, Dredge, and various Arclight Phoenix decks, all of which can win on the first three or four turns of the game while maintaining the resilience needed to win longer games through interaction and hate cards, there's also the question of why some cards that are on the banned list remain despite not being as obviously degenerate. The two with the most press right now are Stoneforge Mystic and Splinter Twin.
I discussed these two cards on a recent episode of VS Live! with my venerable co-hosts Todd Anderson and Brad Nelson, and it's clear to me from the response to that discussion and what I've seen since in social media that the discourse surrounding the unban of these as well as the potential ban of Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings is overly simplistic and missing some key variables.
The Typical Arguments
From what I've seen, those in the anti-Looting/Stirrings camp are upset at the level of non-interactive decks in Modern, leading to unsatisfying gameplay. Decks like Ironworks and Dredge consistently kill on turn 4 when uninterrupted, have the potential to kill on turn 3 with a good draw, and require very specific kinds of interaction in order to stop.
On the surface, Splinter Twin looks no more degenerate than the decks that exist in Modern today. It can't kill on turn 3 without some form of mana acceleration, which wasn't utilized in stock lists when the card was legal, but it can definitely kill on turn 4 consistently. That said, it's much easier to interact with since there's plenty of commonly played removal in maindecks that can handle Deceiver Exarch and/or Pestermite. This is a sort of "If they [Ironworks/Dredge Players] get to have their fun, why don't I?" argument.
The other argument for Splinter Twin is based around the difficulty control decks have thriving in a format with such a diverse range of threats they need to answer. While Twin can be a combo deck, most lists functioned more like control decks and used the combo as a finisher that could end the game before the opponent drew out of a disadvantaged situation. After the year we've had, with Jeskai Control and Azorius Control performing at a high level for months, I find this line completely unmoving. Neither is performing as well as they were over the summer, but that's how Magic works. At this point if you're trying to get Twin unbanned to make control viable, you just want control to be great all the time - a level of greed which I cannot entertain.
Comparing what these cards to do with Stoneforge Mystic, the latter looks downright silly. I've heard or seen a number of sarcastic comments about how a turn 3 Batterskull is too strong, but Dredge having ten power on turn 2 is fine, as is Karn Liberated on turn 3. There's even more effective answers to equipment now with cards like Kolaghan's Command and Abrade. The fear of cards that were previously broken has been shattered by the disappointing return of Bitterblossom, Bloodbraid Elf, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and now Stoneforge Mystic is getting the same treatment.
A False Equivalence
There's a critical element missing from these comparisons between Splinter Twin/Stoneforge Mystic and Faithless Looting/Ancient Stirrings. The comparison is focused on what the cards do in a vacuum and not how they operate in the context of games of Magic in the Modern format. The resulting blind spot completely misses the opportunity cost placed on your decklist when you commit to playing these cards.
In order to incorporate the Splinter Twin combo into your deck, you need about ten cards. Four copies of Deceiver Exarch, two of Pestermite, and four of Splinter Twin. There's typically some deck manipulation to help dig for the pieces, but the rest of the Twin deck was typically interactive cards: Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster Mage, Remand, etc. That's why it functioned as a control deck; it has the free deck space to fit a large number of interactive cards.
Compare this to Faithless Looting, which requires you to have some sort of value to be gained from the graveyard, but in order to use it to enable something that kills on the first three or four turns of the game, you need to commit way more to the shell around it. Dredge has Darkblast and Conflagrate to interact in game 1 and struggles to sideboard in more than four or five cards in any matchup because cutting away too much of the core will produce an untenable fail rate. Similarly, Hollow One decks have to play a pile of other looting effects and cards they don't mind discarding to them, leaving room for its four Lightning Bolts and two flex spots for interaction.
Moving on to Ancient Stirrings, you need to be playing an incredibly high number of colorless cards to make it as powerful as it can be. There are plenty of decks that can meet this stringent requirement, but it does limit their ability to interact and adjust to opposing interaction. Ironworks has some Engineered Explosives and Sai, Master Thopterist to dodge traditional hate. Tron is much more interactive for a Stirrings deck, but it's not killing anyone on turn 3 or 4 either, and does virtually nothing to stop itself from dying until the Urzatron is assembled.
All of these decks also have to play the same game after sideboarding that they did in game 1, while Splinter Twin could move away from the combo, either partially or entirely, and win the game with Keranos, God of Storms, Vendilion Clique, or Jace the Mind Sculptor. Your sideboard cards could become a liability against them, but if you didn't have them the game might end on turn 4. As a combo deck, Twin was notoriously difficult to play against while the linear decks built around Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings are quite straightforward, even if they are able to power through a healthy amount of interaction.
Stoneforge Mystic is similarly low in opportunity cost. You need a couple extra slots for the equipment, usually two to three, and in exchange you get a very powerful, flexible, cheap threat that can find a Batterskull to stonewall aggressive decks, a Sword of Feast and Famine to pressure combo decks and limit their resources while allowing you to deploy your threats and hold up interaction on their turn, or a Sword of Fire and Ice to generate card advantage against control decks. If it dies to a removal spell you're up a card, and most importantly, you don't have to spew the equipment onto the battlefield on turn 3. You can opt to hold up interaction or wait to see if your Jund opponent leaves up Kolaghan's Command mana, do something else, and watch them waste a turn.
The difference here is one of linearity. Ancient Stirrings and Faithless Looting are on the chopping block for enabling linear decks that are potentially too powerful and resilient. But just because Splinter Twin isn't any faster doesn't mean it's not more powerful, because it achieves the same speed without the opportunity cost of having to commit to a linear strategy. It's not a turn four 4 deck, it's a combo-control deck that can kill you on turn 4 and you never really know if they have it or not, barring a discard spell or similar effect.
Stoneforge Mystic is all on the table, but it's not difficult to maneuver the game to a place where the equipment enters the battlefield safely, especially when you get thirty other slots to build around it with virtually no restriction beyond the presence of white mana and a few other creatures to hold the equipment. If you compare Stoneforge Mystic as an enabler for turn 3 Batterskull to Hollow One as a 4/4 creature for zero mana, you're effectively ignoring all the effort in deckbuilding that goes into enabling Hollow One and the comparative lack of effort needed to enable Stoneforge Mystic for Batterskull. At that point you may as well argue for the banning of Goryo's Vengeance because it can end the game before turn 3.
"So, Ross, if you're so smart and know everything, what should we do to help Modern?"
Well, snarky voice in my head, if you want my opinion, Modern has been an objectively healthy format since the banning of Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll. In the last two years we've seen Grixis Death's Shadow emerge as a clear best deck while the metagame was reacting to the introduction of Fatal Push, the emergence of Humans and Spirits as disruptive aggro/tempo decks, and the return of blue-based control following the printing of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. These decks exist alongside and hold their own against the myriad of linear and, to borrow a term from Ari Lax, "midrange-linear" decks in the format.
You're never going to get Modern to look like Standard, and that's a good thing. Modern provides players who identify with a specific deck or strategy to find a viable example of that, invest into their deck of choice, and play it for a long time without running into the same matchups too frequently or being so far behind the metagame they can't consistently compete. After the Twin ban there wasn't much in the way of a viable control deck, but that's no longer the case. I may not like Jeskai Control, but you can certainly win some matches with it, just not the Quarterfinals of Modern Open in Baltimore.
That said, that doesn't mean the format can't be better, and I agree with those that say the banned list should be as short as it possibly can be while maintaining metagame balance, so when taking all the variables into account, here's what I think should happen to Modern:
Leave Splinter Twin Banned
I know a lot of you played Splinter Twin and loved it. I did too. I even played Blue Moon this year, which is basically Splinter Twin after siding out the combo. Letting a mediocre control deck play a turn 4 combo creates a hybrid that is too fundamentally powerful to exist. Their lack of a clock is one of the primary holes to exploit in a control deck, either by an aggro deck bringing in powerful, sticky threats to cast once their early rush is handled, or a combo deck biding its time and building up a perfect hand to beat multiple pieces of disruption.
The threat of Splinter Twin makes that tactical shift a huge risk, because the Twin player can go from three lands and two cards in hand to winning the game in a single turn. On the other hand, if you give too much respect to the combo by leaving up an answer, you're wasting mana against a control deck, giving them time to set up a card advantage engine (Search for Azcanta anyone?) and bury you. This catch-22 is what Brad was referring to in our VS Live! discussion when he said that combo-control decks break the rules of Magic.
Twin is gone. It's not coming back. Deal with it.
Leave Faithless Looting Alone
Faithless Looting is a powerful card, and it appears in plenty of decks, but none of them are particularly dominant. Dredge looked like it might get there after Creeping Chill was printed, but it's been well-handled by the influx of graveyard hate. Izzet Phoenix has been performing well recently, but we don't have enough data on it yet. Hollow One is around but not even in the top tier of the format, by whatever definition of tier you want to use. Faithless Looting enables a wide swath of good decks; that's what powerful cards do.
Leave Ancient Stirrings Alone, Ban Krark-Clan Ironworks
Everything I said about Faithless Looting applies to Ancient Stirrings. Tron and Hardened Scales are good decks to have around, and neither is anywhere close to broken. Ironworks may have looked good during the Invitational Top 8, but that was largely a result of the pairings breaking its way and having two of the best pilots on the SCG Tour® behind it.
But Ironworks is bad for Modern for reasons outside of its power level. Decks with potentially long combo turns are bad for coverage, and the various loops it has that exploit a strange and unintuitive quirk in the rules for casting spells are even worse. Magic coverage already deals with complexity issues keeping people away, and we don't need to exacerbate them with decks like Ironworks.
After Matt Nass popularized the deck earlier this year, it seemed like a metagame reaction held it in check, but Sai, Master Thopterist gave it the resilience to the traditional hate, like Stony Silence and Rest in Peace, it needed to become a consistently great deck in the format. Decks like Ironworks that pose significant issues for the reality of tournament and coverage logistics should be held on the same leash that decks that harm format diversity are. Ironworks makes Modern tournaments significantly worse, and its numbers have increased in recent weeks as players are figuring out just how powerful it is and putting in the time to learn it.
Ancient Stirrings is one of the most powerful cards in the deck, but it's the deck that's the problem, not that one card. You could consider banning Mox Opal too, but when it comes to banning away a deck because of logistical issues, I prefer the most precise target possible.
Consider Unbanning Stoneforge Mystic
I'm amenable to Stoneforge Mystic coming back, but with Modern being in a great place right now, I'm reticent to rock the boat. Sure, Bitterblossom and Jace, the Mind Sculptor didn't break anything except for Yuuta Takahashi, but it's a really bad outcome if Stoneforge Mystic has to be banned again like Golgari Grave-Troll.
So you have to ask yourself, what decks would Stoneforge Mystic go into? We have two white-based aggressive strategies in Modern, but neither Humans nor Spirits can effectively play the card. Maybe it goes into a Selesnya Company deck, but the first option for most people would be a Modern Caw-Blade reboot. We have counterspells, Path to Exile, some fine cantrips, Snapcaster Mage, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Restoration Angel could make an appearance for added value and a flash threat to hold up with interaction against combo.
I can't confidently say one way or another how good Modern Caw-Blade would be. But I do know that the idea that adding more fair midrange decks to Modern can only be good is short-sighted. When decks like this are good enough, the metagame homogenizes around it. We've seen this happen in Standard for the last few years and it was miserable. In Modern it would be even worse because part of the format's appeal is getting to play against a wide range of decks so playing your deck doesn't become boring.
Modern was brought into existence because everyone knew that Stoneforge Mystic was going to dominate the Extended Pro Tour. There are seven more years of cards it has to compete against, but the fundamental reasons it's a powerful card, the low opportunity cost to deckbuilding and flexibility, haven't gone away. Ideally I'd like to see WotC have some people whose job it is to test these hypothetical scenarios, but I doubt that's going to happen. A balanced Caw-Blade deck would be a nice addition to the format and wouldn't have that fast a clock, so I'd lean towards unbanning Stoneforge Mystic, but it's very close and I completely understand WotC not wanting to take the risk.
Recognizing and evaluating opportunity cost is one of the aspects of evaluating cards that really separates the great players from the good. It can be very difficult to see just how hard a given card is to maximize. It's not intuitive and almost entirely contextual to the format in which the card exists. Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings wouldn't be good in most Standard formats because the pieces to unlock their potential don't often exist there.
But powerful cards with a low opportunity cost are likely to be multi-format all-stars, because they can function well surrounded by other generically good threats and answers. Stoneforge Mystic needs some good counterspells, removal, and planeswalkers, and those almost always exist in every format. So the next time you're looking at a card, whether it's a potential unban or a new preview card, consider not only how powerful its effect is, but how easy/difficult it is to maximize that effect within the context of a given format. You'll get a much more complete picture of the card and what to do with it.