With the recent banning of "The Gaak" and Faithless Looting, and the unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic, Modern has definitely been effectively "shaken up" as both Taylor Swift and the cool kids would say. In light of this, it feels pertinent to discuss the direction that Modern is trending as a result of these changes and in lieu of the first week of Stoneforge Modern results filtering in.
So I'm going to do exactly that. I'm going to talk about Modern trends...in agriculture. Modern trends in agriculture. It is a topic that is both near and dear to my heart as someone who benefits from the fruits of agricultural labor. It's something that I think we can all agree on is important. So let's hop and skip and get to it!
Ever since Cyrus McCormick's legendary invention, the world has not been the same. But I think we can all agree that a lot of things have changed since 1831, and not all for the better!
And now that I've exhausted the one piece of knowledge I retained from my high school education, recent trends in Modern format Magic: The Gathering, anyone?
Week One Winners
Stoneforge Mystic, believe it or not, was not the big winner from the first week of results. I believe it; wholeheartedly, in fact. I would have actually been surprised it if had crushed the early events. The reason for this is threefold.
The first is that people drastically overrate Stoneforge Mystic. There are a lot of folks who have never played with the card. If you've never played Legacy or haven't been playing Magic for a decade at this point, it's pretty likely that you've never had a chance to play with Stoneforge Mystic. In that case, the only source of information you have to go off of is other people's discussion of Stoneforge Mystic. From listening to Magic players, who are prone to hyperbole, you would think that Stoneforge Mystic is this unbeatable threat that is prime to destroy the Modern format should it be loosed upon it.
The truth of the matter is that Stoneforge Mystic is far from that. It's a strong two-drop creature, on a similar power level to cards like Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf. I think Stoneforge Mystic is better than Bob (Dark Confidant), but it's totally reasonable to make a case that it's actually worse than Tarmogoyf, albeit easier to slot into a deck than Goyf. Nobody thinks that Goyf is destroying Modern.
The second reason is that people aren't building their Stoneforge Mystic decks correctly yet. That's not an indictment on Stoneforge Mystic players. It takes time to build and tune a deck properly and constant iteration over time is the tried-and-true method of fixing problems and card choices. In the meantime, people have suboptimal decks and that can be exploited.
The third reason is that people came ready for Stoneforge Mystic. This was also predictable. People wanted to play with Stoneforge Mystic the first week it was legal. I don't blame them, I would have done the same. The card is great. However, that means people who geared up to beat Stoneforge Mystic decks got rewarded for leveling all the people trying to play the card. Good beats.
So then, who were the winners?
Titanshift is the big winner from all this. Titanshift went from being a turn too slow for the format when Faithless Looting was legal (and two turns too slow for the format when Hogaak was legal) into lockstep with the speed of Modern.
Stoneforge Mystic vs. Primeval Titan is a battle as old as time—or at least as old as 2011—but it's kind of cool to see the clash between these cards once again being fought in a different format almost ten years later.
I lost a Standard PTQ finals in 2011 to my opponent drawing a Mountain to lethal me with two Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle when they were dead next turn to Celestial Colonnade, and it's cool to think that could happen again to me in Modern eight years later…
Except it couldn't. Because I would never willingly put Celestial Colonnade into my Modern deck. Who do you think I am? Do you think I'm deranged? I have some modicum of self-respect. I have morals here. Give me some credit. I have a reputation to uphold and I can't ruin all my credibility by actually thinking it would be smart to sleeve up White-Blue.
While Stoneforge vs. Primeval was close in Standard years past, I don't think the same is true in Modern. At least not yet. Primeval Titan decks were extremely well-positioned to destroy Stoneforge Mystic decks in the first week, and destroy them they did.
Titanshift won the Magic Online MCQ in the hands of JakeDurshimer and made Top 8 of both the SCG Open and the Modern Classic. Titanshift is one of those oft-maligned strategies in Modern because it's easier to pilot than other decks, but you don't get extra points for playing a difficult deck, and every deck in Modern, including this one, takes skill and sequencing. Just because Titanshift is more point-and-click than more intricate strategies does not diminish its strength.
Dylan Donegan, Collins Mullen and Zan Syed, who are all members of Team Lotus Box took Burn to a Top 8 finish at the SCG Open last weekend. Two Burn players also made Top 8 of the SCG Classic.
One interesting thing that doesn't really get talked about much in Magic is the concept of metagaming against your teammates. There's a tough spot to be in where you want a card in your sideboard but it just so happens to be great against your teammates, and it's bad form to build your deck to beat your teammates. So there is sometimes a sense of impropriety in deciding to play that card. Lotus Box identified that Burn would be good and they probably reasoned that other players and teams would come to the same conclusion. Playing Firewalker makes sense to beat those other Burn players. But it's also good against your teammates, which creates awkward incentives, since you already know a number of really good players who will be playing Burn in the event. I wonder if Lotus Box had a discussion where they agreed on how many Kor Firewalkers they were going to play in their sideboard and then all decided to play the same amount to avoid any feel-bad situations.
Burn was a low-performing deck in the past Modern format, and it makes sense when you think of cards like Faithless Looting enabling multiple Hollow Ones on turn one, or a bunch of Creeping Chills taking a Dredge player's life total above 20 or any other degenerate starts. But now that those cards are gone, the format has slowed down enough for Burn to once again match the speed of the format, much like Titanshift.
If you couple that with people not respecting Burn by having anti-Burn sideboard cards and Stoneforge Mystic playing into Burn's strategy, it makes sense why it overperformed. I would assume in the dark that Stoneforge Mystic decks would be good against Burn, but that requires them to be prepared for the matchup. Just throwing out a Stoneforge on turn two is asking to get Searing Blazed into oblivion, and why I suspect that most Stoneforge Mystic decks played right into Burn's plan. Stoneforge Mystic protected by Dispel or backed up by Inquisition of Kozilek, on the other hand, can be pretty strong vs. Burn when also paired with other cards that are good in the matchup.
With Hogaak gone, Urza might step into the role of "Best Deck in Modern." Urza is a generically powerful deck with a combo-finish engine and a midrange secondary gameplan, making it particularly difficult to hate out. I was vocal about believing that Goblin Engineer was better than Stoneforge Mystic in Urza but the verdict seems to still be out on that. Harlan Firer won the Open with a Goblin Engineer build, but the Magic Online MCQ had two Urza decks in the Top 8, and both were Stoneforge Mystic strategies.
I'm not surprised to see Urza doing well week one. A lot of people asked me if Urza would fall by the wayside once Hogaak was banned as Urza was one of the few decks that generally boasted a favorable matchup against Hogaak. I didn't believe so, because that notion was predicated on the idea that Urza existed as an anti-Hogaak deck, when the truth is more that it's just a very good deck that also happened to be able to hang with Hogaak.
Believe it or not, Dredge won the Classic the week after Faithless Looting and Hogaak were banned. Personally, I believe it. We've seen this happen numerous times in the past where a deck had a key piece banned and then people cut all their hate against that deck, and a worse but still functional version of that deck does well immediately afterward.
Dredge is still a great shell and while Faithless Looting was the best enabler, it isn't the only one. The core shell of the deck still exists, and still can do powerful things, even without Looting.
Jake Peralez won the SCG Classic with this Dredge list, which if I am not mistaken, is a list from Sodek, a Modern Dredge expert. Shriekhorn and Tome Scour attempt to take up the role of Faithless Looting in getting goodies into the yard, and Cathartic Reunion still exists to turn unplayable cards in hand into 10 power in play and two Lightning Helix to the dome in the form of Creeping Chill.
Metagaming is an important skill in Modern. Some of these decks that performed well last weekend were a result of metagaming. Players identified what other players would do and capitalized on it. The same is true moving forward.
It's possible to take the past results and predict how that is going to influence future decisions or results. Level one is taking a deck that did well that weekend and then playing it the following weekend, hoping to also do well with it, but that doesn't always pan out as savvy players are already one step ahead.
Here are my predictions for how these decks will perform moving forward and how the format will adjust.
Titanshift will continue to be good. Titanshift is just a generically powerful deck. Its success last weekend was partially the result of it being well-positioned against untuned Stoneforge Mystic decks, but it's also just good again in Modern without Faithless Looting around, period.
Titanshift is also not as easy to hate out as it seems. Blood Moon is great but can just be destroyed by Reclamation Sage found from Summoner's Pact. The same is true for Leyline of Sanctity. The cards that are lights-out against Titanshift are cards like Unmoored Ego or Ashiok, Dream Render. The problem with those hate cards is that they are incredibly narrow. In a format like Modern, it's really hard to justify putting those cards into your sideboard to beat up on one deck, because that is sacrificing valuable sideboard slots against tons of other decks.
I think Burn will be a bad choice in the immediate future and then eventually even out to just be a decent choice in the long-term future. Burn put up so many numbers last weekend that people are going to be overloading on Kor Firewalker, Timely Reinforcements, Life Goes On, Collective Brutality, Leyline of Sanctity and so forth. I'm hoping for a Gnaw to the Bone resurgence, personally. Those players are correct to respect Burn as it's a good deck and will still be heavily played, but because of that respect it likely won't do well.
Unlike Unmoored Ego or Ashiok, Dream Render, cards like Collective Brutality and Timely Reinforcements are also playable cards in other matchups, and are thus more likely to find their way into sideboards. Burn is also easier to hate in that versatile cards, like Dispel, happen to be great against it, while also just being generally good cards that will come in for multiple matchups.
Once Burn-mania dies down a bit, however, people will trim on those numbers and go back to having some respect, but not too much, for Burn. In the long term, Burn will once again be a solid tier 2 strategy in Modern that's totally reasonable to play but probably not the best deck for any given event.
I think Urza will continue to put up results. I actually don't know, offhand, what decks crush Urza. Burn and Titanshift I both believe to be solid decks against Urza, but the dials can be flipped on those matchups by respecting them in the sideboard of the Urza deck. Decks like Tron and Eldrazi Tron offer an appealing matchup against Urza by virtue of Karn the Great Creator and the nastiness that Tron can do, but I felt that even those matchups were favorable for Urza if you had room for Ceremonious Rejection, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas or other adequate anti-Tron hate. Cards like Stony Silence, Collector Ouphe and Plague Engineer are for sure great against Urza, but none of those cards beat the deck on their own.
Dredge I also think will continue to do well in the short term. I don't think people will suddenly begin to respect Dredge again just because of one win in the SCG Classic, and Dredge has been weakened enough to where it might not need to be respected nearly as much as it once was. I think people want to use those sideboard slots to combat more apparent threats like Burn, Tron, Scapeshift and Urza, and they probably aren't wrong. I suspect that it will take a weekend where Dredge has a huge breakout for people to truly respect it again, and then after that weekend it will be a bad choice until hate dies down again.
I actually believe that Stoneforge Mystic decks will dominate in the upcoming short term. I think people will become emboldened by Stoneforge not doing that well week one and overcompensate into thinking that Stoneforge is bad in Modern, when in reality it isn't bad, it's just misunderstood and not built around correctly yet.
In addition to that, people are starting to come around on how to build their Stoneforge Mystic decks better. We're seeing things like Orzhov Stoneblade decks instead of Azorius Stoneblade. I'm a firm believer that pairing Stoneforge Mystic with discard spells is the best way to approach the card, so I'm not surprised that that's where we're heading. As the format calms back down a bit and people understand how to build with Stoneforge Mystic it's going to start to do really well in Modern until people adjust again, like how Modern was shaken up by Grixis Death's Shadow a few years back.
This is what I'm talking about with Stoneforge Mystic. Stoneforge Mystic is meant to be played in a proactive shell with other creatures that you can actually equip a sword to. People are just chucking Stoneforge Mystic into their Azorius Control decks and thinking that it's somehow going to be good. That's not how Magic or deck building works. You can't just throw together a pile of cards, your deck has to be designed for a strategy and the cards have to work together to execute that strategy.
This Jeskai deck is an example of a white-blue based Stoneforge deck that actually looks good. It has cheap interaction to pair with Stoneforge Mystic. It has powerful three-drops to enable Stoneforge into three-drop, into sword + equip, or one-mana spells to set up Stoneforge into drop Batterskull + interaction. This is how you should build Stoneforge decks (actually building around the card!) instead of just throwing it into decks.
It's also possible to build a defensively minded deck around Stoneforge Mystic, but again, it involves building around the card. The key, once again, is cheap interaction. Stoneforge Mystic and Mana Leak don't pair well together but Stoneforge Mystic and Force of Negation or Spell Pierce do. Your deck has to either be designed to protect Stoneforge Mystic or it has to be designed to not care at all if they kill Stoneforge Mystic.
Ultimately, though, I don't think white-blue is the shell for Stoneforge Mystic. I'm still awaiting someone putting together a white-black Stoneforge deck that fully slaps. I think that is coming soon and when it does it will be another tier 1 deck, at least until Modern adapts again. Modern always does.