Prior to GP Providence, I hadn't played any Constructed formats with New Phyrexia cards. My testing had been limited to Magic Online, which meant that I was living in the past. Those of you who have been following my Magic Onlinevideo series know that I tried several versions of Legacy Junk prior to the Grand Prix, but in none of those outings did I have the chance to play with or against any of the new cards. My thought at the time was that while New Phyrexia would alter many of the decks I played against because of Mental Misstep, it wouldn't do much to impact the build of my own deck.
Boy, was I wrong.
My list shifted around quite a bit prior to showing up to Providence, shifting from the Stoneforge and Green Sun's Zenith lists in my videos to a more “old school” Junk build with pretty much four of everything. The decks bouncing around on the Facebook list I was on with LSV and company were mostly various Landstill builds, including both the BUG and U/W lists that Paulo and Owen eventually played to make the Top 8. I didn't feel comfortable switching to a deck I wasn't familiar with, so I stuck with Junk, but the excitement surrounding the use of Stoneforge Mystic with Batterskull in Legacy stood out to me, so I filed it in the back of my mind as something to try.
I hadn't been particularly excited with Stoneforge in Junk before simply because it took a lot of mana over several turns before it was really threatening. Fetching a Sword of Fire and Ice or a Jitte is powerful, sure, but actually getting that Equipment on the battlefield attached to a creature is a serious investment that can be stymied by a single removal spell. Team America–style decks could just sit back and wait to kill the creature you attempted to equip in response, and even Merfolk could build up an army of multiple lords to keep their team out of reach of the Sword of Fire and Ice trigger in the time it took to actually get things online.
Batterskull changed all that. Batterskull took Stoneforge Mystic and moved her from the realm of a solid value creature into the rarified air of cards like Dark Confidant and Knight of the Reliquary—that is, cards that you have to deal with immediately or risk falling far behind. Rather than representing the threat of incremental advantage, all of a sudden Stoneforge means a Baneslayer Angel is coming down on the next turn—and even if you have removal for it, it'll be back for more soon enough!
The card singlehandedly changed the dynamic of entire matchups. Suddenly, instead of playing catch-up all game, white decks can put Merfolk decks on the defensive as early as the third turn. Merfolk actually needs three lords before they can fight against a Batterskull token profitably, and by that point, they've probably already had a good portion of their life total sucked away.
Even in matchups that are less race-oriented, Batterskull is simply absurd. When I was testing with Lukas Blohan prior to the Grand Prix, we found ourselves in a situation in which he had a Stoneforge Mystic against my Knight of the Reliquary, and he played Standstill. Back in the pre-Batterskull world, that fight wasn't even close—Knight of the Reliquary would grow to enormous size and power through whatever the U/W deck could muster. But nowadays, Stoneforge can fight just about anyone without any help, since you can just keep bouncing and replaying Batterskull as the Germ token chump-blocks and gains you huge amounts of life. Eventually Lukas drew into another Equipment and was able to go on the offensive—without ever having to actually play another spell.
Oh, and you can play it in Standard, too.
Seriously? What's the deal with Batterskull?
I just don't understand the motivation behind making a card like that. It's one thing that Jace is a defining card in Standard (and Legacy, but that's neither here nor there), since he's a major brand character and a planeswalker, which leads to fundamentally interactive games when he's involved. Batterskull, on the other hand, serves to largely cut off the combat phase for the opponent, since while it's in play, it's virtually impossible for an aggressive deck to do any profitable attacking—and not only are you not making any progress, but you're losing ground thanks to the combination of lifelink and vigilance.
I'd be more charitable if Batterskull were at least interesting, or a flavorful design, but it's neither of these things. Why does it have the return-to-hand ability? What's the deal? Batterskull is aptly named because it's a hit-you-over-the-head kind of powerful card. It's just good and good in a bunch of different ways, and the only subtleties to it are ways to make it even better than that.
I understand that WotC's R&D team works far in advance, so their metagame predictions aren't always accurate. It's my understanding that their Valakut decks in the FFL weren't very good, so their Vengevine decks were better, so their Jace decks weren't as dominant. On top of that, they never put all the pieces together to build the Caw-Blade decks that are everywhere in the real Standard format today. But even if they didn't have the total picture, how hard can it be to realize that putting a Baneslayer living weapon together with Stoneforge Mystic might be a problem?
When I worked on VS System at Upper Deck, we had a list of cards on the wall in the R&D room. That list was cards to keep in mind as development constraints—basically cards that we'd made in the past that could potentially cause problems with future cards if we weren't careful. The list was extensive and often grew with each new set. It basically included anything that allowed players to break the normal resource engine of the game or operate outside the game's normal axis of interaction—things like cheating costs, or using creatures multiple times in the same turn, etc.
Stoneforge Mystic is the sort of card that would not only be on the list but would be circled and underlined and written in bold. It's Demonic Tutor plus Aether Vial—not only does it ensure that you'll get whatever Equipment card you put into your deck, but it'll let you put it directly into play at an enormous discount. It's effectively Tinker with a one-turn delay. Because of Stoneforge Mystic, Batterskull isn't a slightly less-efficient Baneslayer Angel—it's a dramatically MORE efficient Baneslayer Angel that can't even realistically be countered or fought with removal.
Perhaps the theory was that the return to Mirrodin would herald a return to the time when players maindecked cards like Shatter and Viridian Shaman, so Batterskull was okay. But with Stoneforge Mystic in the picture, how are players even supposed to fight back with artifact removal? Pass with mana open and hope their opponent taps low enough to let them kill the Equipment? Shatter on turn 3 walks right into Spell Pierce, and cards like Viridian Corruptor and Manic Vandal can't even try to kill Batterskull until the opponent has already untapped and attacked with the Germ once—oh, and by the way, now they have mana open to bounce it if they want. Sweet.
One of the more frustrating things about Batterskull for me, personally, is the fact that it incidentally gives Stoneforge Mystic decks an easy way to deal with Phyrexian Crusader. Lots of people have asked me how I feel U/B Infect will fare in the New Phyrexia world, and every time, I tell them that I think it's pretty much defunct, almost entirely because of Batterskull. It's kind of absurd that a lifelink equipment would make an Infect deck obsolete, but it has, since pro-white has very little meaning against Caw-Blade anymore.
Honestly, I just don't get it. Maybe I'm missing something, but Batterskull just seems so obviously off-the-charts powerful in an incredibly oppressive way that I'm legitimately surprised it made it to print. I'm not typically one to cry gloom and doom, but when the same cards are showing up in top Legacy decks as in Standard, it seems like a pretty clear sign that something is amiss. I found Aaron Forsythe's quote on Twitter this weekend particularly amusing.
“Legacy is awesome because it lets you play with all the powerful cards from throughout Magic's history, like Jace and Stoneforge Mystic.”
I haven't given up on finding a way to take down the Caw-Blade menace, but Batterskull is certainly limiting my options. My round-the-world multi-format trip means I only have so much time to brew for Standard, but I'm optimistic I can make something work. Check out the GP Singapore coverage this weekend—or check back here next week—for a peek at what I've brewed up.
Until next time,