Understanding Stoneforge Mystic in Modern

Brian explores his feelings about Stoneforge Mystic and explains why its place in Modern may be more limited than players expect.

She’s back.

She went out to buy a pack of cigarettes in 2011 and her car must have broken down on the return trip or something because it took a long time for her to come home. Maybe “back” isn’t the correct term considering she’s never been around, but you get the picture. Stoneforge Mystic is finally legal in Modern after days, months, nay…years of people clamoring for WotC to “free Stoneforge” from her prison on the Modern banlist.

Let’s lay out some truth, though. Nahiri the Planeswalker is, in fact, a Zendikarian Stoneforger. Perhaps she is even depicted in the card Stoneforge Mystic. During the events of Shadows over Innistrad, Nahiri committed an unprecedented act of cruelty by imprisoning my boy Sorin Markov in a stone prison that was designed to keep Sorin in constant, excruciating pain so that he wouldn’t be mentally able to planeswalk away. Free Stoneforge? **** that! Where were the cries to free Sorin? “Free Stoneforge” falls deaf upon my ears when these stoneforgers are out here imprisoning badass walkers like S. Markov willy nilly and without consequence. I’m happy to announce that Sorin is now free, thankfully, but those were trying times!

Sorin is one of my favorite Planeswalkers—maybe even my favorite Planeswalker—for two reasons. The first is that he’s responsible for one of the best bits of flavor text of all time, Day of Judgment.

“I have seen planes leveled and all life rendered to dust. It brought no pleasure, even to a heart as dark as mine.” —Sorin Markov


The second is that Sorin actually feels like a realistic Planeswalker. The Gatewatch Planeswalkers all feel like caricatures of whatever archetype they are supposed to represent. Jace is the emotionally distant smart kid. Liliana is the mean girl with the secret heart of gold. Granted there has been a lot of development in these characters, but they definitely started out as full-on tropes. Even the baddies are similar. Nicol Bolas is pure evil. The Eldrazi are pure chaos and destruction. There isn’t much nuance there.

Sorin, however, perfectly sums up what I would expect from an extremely powerful being that has lived thousands of years. Sorin doesn’t value individual human life, but he’s not evil, he’s just on a higher level and cares more about the big picture. Imagine you were a humanoid being that was more intelligent and more powerful than regular humans with an indefinitely longer lifespan. A good example of this is Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. At some point, after enough time, you’d start to lose your connection to humanity and it would be very easy for that separation to result in you taking a mindset and approach like Sorin. After watching generation after generation of humans live, die, and make the same mistakes repeatedly, the value of life doesn’t mean quite the same thing to you as it would to a normal human.

So miss me with that Free Stoneforge nonsense. I’m on team “Free Sorin.” Regardless, both are now free so this point is moot. Moot, but made, nonetheless.

The Announcement

The August 26th Banned and Restricted Announcement made three changes to the Modern format. Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned. Faithless Looting is banned. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis is banned.

The Hogaak ban was clear and obvious. People were maindecking Leyline of the Void and copious amounts of other graveyard hate and Hogaak was still putting five copies into the Top 8 of Grand Prix events. People on social media were often debating which cards belonged as flex slots in Hogaak, arguing about how this one or that one was best to anyone who would engage with them. Which, to be fair, was nearly nobody. Simon Nielson, Grand Prix Vegas winner with Hogaak last weekend, destroyed everyone’s argument by just playing one copy of every single card that people were arguing about. He then went on to easily annihilate everyone in the Grand Prix, proving that it simply didn’t matter which cards you put into your flex slots. Your Hogaak deck was still obscenely overpowered.

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I considered Faithless Looting borderline on whether it deserved the axe. I suspected it would be banned within a year, but wasn’t sure when they’d finally pull the trigger on it. I’m slightly, but not significantly, surprised it happened now. I’ve seen arguments for and against banning this card and I honestly believe there are compelling points on both sides. I have no interest in hashing that out. With that said, the Faithless Looting ban is still very relevant to this article because I think it has a heavy impact on the playability of the last card on this list.

Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned. Finally, all ye may rejoice, for I have just now gotten to the card that my article is about after waxing unpoetically about random unrelated topics for quite some time…as one is wont to do. The Faithless Looting ban will have significant impact on Stoneforge Mystic’s playability in Modern.

One of the major arguments in favor of unbanning Stoneforge Mystic is that Modern is fast and degenerate, and a 1/2 for two mana that fetches up a Batterskull to put into play the following turn is honestly not very impressive in a format where Faithless Looting is legal. Is that better than dredging a ton of cards and putting 10 power into play on turn two? Not really. Is it better than two Arclight Phoenix attacking on turn two and your opponent still has six cards in their hand? Yeah I don’t think so. Better than two Hollow One on turn one? Nah.

But without Faithless Looting enabling these kind of powerful starts, the format starts to look like it might be a lot more interactive and a lot less degenerate than it was before. That’s exactly the kind of format that Stoneforge Mystic thrives in.

Stoneforge in Legacy

Legacy looks a lot like that kind of interactive format. While there are degenerate combo decks in Legacy, those decks usually fold over the course of a tournament to decks like Delver or three- or four-color control strategies. B/G Depths might be the best Legacy deck right now, but even that deck is not normally blazing fast, even though it has that capability.

Stoneforge Mystic is borderline unplayable in Legacy. It’s hard for me to think that a creature that can’t really thrive in Legacy, a typically interactive format where nearly every playable creature was printed in the last 12 years, is going to somehow destroy Modern. I highly doubt that Stoneforge Mystic is going to be too good.

However, not being too good for Modern doesn’t mean it will be a fun addition to the format. In a lot of ways Stoneforge Mystic promotes boring gameplay. A 4/4 lifelink, vigilance creature often creates board stalls in creature matchups, and without Umezawa’s Jitte being legal, it will be hard for either player to break those board stalls. This isn’t even factoring in that Batterskull will be the equipment-to-fetch an even higher percentage of the time without a strong secondary choice like Jitte. This kind of gameplay might be exacerbated without Faithless Looting in the format. For all my love of Esper Hero, I actually don’t enjoy midrange vs. midrange grindfests.

Ultimately, though, I don’t know how good Stoneforge will be in Modern. I have a hard time imagining it will be too good, but I also don’t think it will go straight to obscurity or near-such like Bitterblossom, Wild Nacatl and Sword of the Meek (before the printing of Urza, Lord High Artificer) did. I imagine Stoneforge Mystic will occupy a spot like Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor have found. Bloodbraid is a solid role-player in Jund and Jace is a solid role-player in W/U Control but they don’t see a lot of play elsewhere.

I’ve played a metric butt ton of Stoneforge Mystic over my career. For a long time it was one of my absolute favorite Magic cards, and I played nothing but Stoneforge for many years in Legacy, to the point that I was one of the creators of the Legacy archetype Deathblade. I stubbornly played Stoneforge Mystic in Miracles while people mocked me (until Monastery Mentor came out and replaced it). I was even brazen enough to fire up Deathblade within the last few years (I know) in a Legacy event, because I needed that SFM fix. I went 2-6-1 in nine rounds. In round nine I told my opponent I had only won one match the entire day and my opponent told me that he had won zero matches as we were shuffling up. I was thinking to myself, “What heinous deck could my opponent be on such that he actually won less than my unplayable Deathblade strategy?”

It was a Deathblade mirror. At that point I saw the writing on the wall and had to hang it up, but while you can take the Stoneforge Mystic out of Legacy you’ll never take the Stoneforge Mystic out of me. Or something like that.

Ok, fine, you can take the Stoneforge Mystic out of me. Quite easily, it seems. Regardless, I think that I have a fairly good understanding of what is needed to make Stoneforge Mystic function in a deck, and I want to share that in regard to how it might play out in Modern.

There are three basic archetypes where Stoneforge Mystic is a good card.

Archetype 1: Stoneforge + Disruption/Protection

An example of this archetype is Death and Taxes in Legacy. Stoneforge Mystic is a powerful card in that deck for a number of reasons. The first is that Aether Vial cheats on its mana cost, making the cost of searching and putting an equipment into play much more palatable. Aether Vial can also search it up during your opponent’s end step, allowing you to immediately drop the equipment on your turn if your opponent is tapped out. The second is that Mother of Runes can protect Stoneforge so it doesn’t die immediately (in which case it’s pretty mediocre). The third is that the disruption of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Rishadan Port and Wasteland can sometimes prevent your opponent from playing the game, and Stoneforge is a great threat in those games.

This archetype is less powerful in Modern as vital cards like Wasteland and Rishadan Port don’t exist. With that said, Vial/disruption decks do exist. In fact, Humans is one of Modern’s top tier strategies, but I’m fairly sure that Stoneforge Mystic does not fit into Humans. First of all, it isn’t a Human, which may sound glib, but it means that Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory will often not cast it and it doesn’t play nicely with Champion of the Parish or Thalia’s Lieutenant.

Umezawa’s Jitte being on the banned list (Why? Before SFM’s unbanning, it was a sideboard card at best!) also really hurts this kind of deck. If you’re going out of your way to play Stoneforge Mystic in an aggressive/disruptive creature-centric archetype then finding a Sword or Umezawa’s Jitte is your primary grab, with Batterskull being a secondary choice for games that turn grindy. Not having access to Jitte makes Stoneforge significantly less appealing.

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W/B (Orzhov) Eldrazi is a solid tier 2 archetype in Modern and is Modern’s most successful Death and Taxes “port” from Legacy, unless you count Humans in that category. When I look at this list, however, I ask myself where Stoneforge Mystic fits in.

Tidehollow Sculler, Flickerwisp, Eldrazi Displacer, Wasteland Strangler, Thought-Knot Seer and Path to Exile are a package deal that all have individual power and synergy with each other. This is the core value-engine of the deck. Sculler, Flickerwisp, TKS, and Path all exile cards for Wasteland Strangler to “unexile” to kill a creature. Strangler “unexiling” a card taken by Tidehollow Sculler or Flickerwisp comes with the added benefit that those cards no longer have the drawback of the exiled card coming back at some point. Flickerwisp and Eldrazi Displacer can flicker any of these creatures to reset and reuse their abilities. It’s a really powerful engine if undisrupted.

To fit the Stoneforge package into this deck, it seems like you have to cut Leonin Arbiter or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or some combination of both. The problem is that Leonin Arbiter + Ghost Quarter and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben are truly the only “disruption” elements in the entire deck. So if you cut those, then you’re just a W/B value-Vial deck. To be honest, that might still be a fine archetype, but it sounds worse to me than the current offering.

I’d rather be a deck with solid temporary disruption in Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Leonin Arbiter that culminates in a great removal/disruption/card advantage engine to take advantage of the time gained than a deck that curves value into value in a format that has notoriously not been kind to decks that just try to outgrind the opponent with value while offering nothing else.

It should also be noted that Leonin Arbiter and Stoneforge Mystic in the same deck is what we call a nonbo. In other words, it’s not a combo, because Leonin Arbiter’s shuffle ban works on both players.

I want to point out that while W/B Eldrazi is probably not a good home for Stoneforge Mystic, that doesn’t mean a good home does not exist in this space. An Aether Vial strategy playing Giver of Runes, Stoneforge Mystic and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a solid start to a shell that could very easily be playable. These decks almost always want access to Leonin Arbiter, but it’s not a requirement.

Archetype 2: Stoneforge + Interaction

I think this is historically where Stoneforge Mystic has been at its absolute best. W/U or Esper Stoneblade in Legacy are examples of this style of deck.

The idea is you play a grindy, interactive game of Magic with your opponent and you use Stoneforge Mystic as a cheap creature that you can take turn two off to slide into play. You can then activate the ability on any future turn when you have free mana. Alternatively, you can interact with your opponent until turn four or five when you have the mana to cast Stoneforge Mystic while also playing other spells on the same turn.

In the previous section, I mentioned disruption. I’m defining disruption as cards that keep your opponent off-balance or interrupt their gameplay, like Ghost Quarter-as-Wasteland with a Leonin Arbiter in play or a Thalia ruining their curve. Interaction, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily involve preventing your opponent from playing the game, but rather interacts with what they are doing. Examples include discard spells that interact with their hand, countermagic that interacts with their spells on the stack, and removal spells that interact with their permanents in play.

Stoneforge Mystic is the perfect fit for this deck as a one-card win condition that still provides value even if it bites it to removal. You can jam Stoneforge Mystic on turn two. If it doesn’t die, then you now have 5 power and the ability to reset Batterskull should the germ die later on. If it does die, then you’re still up a card. In a grindy deck like this, hardcasting Batterskull on five is a totally reasonable play, since games will often be slowed down as resources trade with each other on both sides.

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W/U Control is the first place a lot of people have looked as a home for Stoneforge Mystic. Here is an example of McWinSauce’s recent Modern Challenge-winning W/U control list. McWinSauce is a Magic Online grinder who has completely mastered the W/U Control archetype. I guess you can say all he does is McWin McWin McWin with it, but ultimately W/U Control in the last Modern format was a sub 50% deck based on its performance in big events against the field.

Shaheen Soorani has gone on record saying that Stoneforge will make U/W Control great again. Let it be known that he went on record saying the same thing about Jace, the Mind Sculptor and look where that got him. Let it also be known that I am contractually obligated to dagger Shaheen Soorani twice per month, and I am never derelict in my duty.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think W/U Control is where Stoneforge Mystic will shine. Call me a hater, but I find W/U Control to rarely be a good deck in Modern. It’s a deck many people, even top professionals, gravitate to often, but if you look at the stats it underperforms a lot of the time. In fact, it nearly always underperforms.

I don’t think Stoneforge Mystic fixes that.

W/U might be a great archetype in Legacy, but Path to Exile is no Swords to Plowshares, Opt is no Brainstorm, and Serum Visions is no Ponder. Historically, W/U Control simply has not had the card quality to compete with other decks. Trying to play cards like Logic Knot and Mana Leak in Modern is a fool’s errand. Recently, cards like Force of Negation, Narset, Parter of Veils, and Teferi, Time Raveler have all provided upgrades to this deck and Stoneforge Mystic is yet another piece to the puzzle.

There’s no question that W/U Control is objectively more powerful than it has ever been before. Will it be enough? I say no. Guess we’ll see.

I’ll say this much, I think one- and three-mana plays gain value with Stoneforge Mystic. Turn two Stoneforge into turn three activation + one-mana play is nice, as is turn two Stoneforge, turn three strong three-mana play, turn four activation.

If not W/U Control, then where? Without Force of Will, Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain and other powerhouse cards existing (or being legal), these control/midrange strategies in Modern have almost always been black decks based around the discard suite of Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek.

Jund, Abzan, B/G Rock and Mardu have been the traditional homes for this style of gameplay.

This is where I see Stoneforge Mystic being its best in Modern. Still, these decks have not been very good in recent years, and Stoneforge Mystic isn’t necessarily a significant (or any kind of) improvement over existing options like Young Pyromancer, Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze and friends.

Still, Thoughtseize into Stoneforge Mystic is as good of a curve as you can ask for, and hand disruption naturally pairs perfectly into, and coincidentally against, Stoneforge Mystic. Stripping your opponent of a removal spell so your Stoneforge can go untouched and then relying on the power of Batterskull to invalidate your opponent’s creatures is a strong line. Another strong line is to leave them with removal, strip their proactive play, and then just beat them down the line with the Batterskull found by Stoneforge. There’s no real wrong way to skin a discard-into-Stoneforge cat.

Abzan would be the de facto best home for this shell. Abzan is already an archetype that’s hungry for another strong two-drop, with excess creatures from Lingering Souls ready to suit up with Swords and Skulls. However, I’ve got more faith in Mardu in the long run.

“Wait one second, Brian. Why do you think Mar-doo-doo will be a better Stoneforge Mystic shell than the raw unbridled power of Abzan?” you might find yourself asking. And I’m glad you did. It’s the same reason Jund is better than Abzan in Modern. Efficiency. Lightning Bolt is the most bang-for-your-buck removal spell in Modern in that it’s the cheapest and most versatile option. Jund is just a way leaner version of the deck than clunky Abzan, and Modern rewards speed over raw grinding power time and time again. Jund is Bloodbraiding into Lightning Bolt while Abzan gets two more Spirits from flashing back a Lame-gering Souls. Not a fair fight.

Mardu similarly offers that speed advantage. You can build Mardu super low to the ground with a lot of cheap interaction and Young Pyromancer. Casting your spells for slightly less, on average, tends to win you more games in Modern than being bulkier but clunkier. Getting the numbers right and not getting absolutely devastated by Tron every single round will take some time, however.

Here are the Mardu and Abzan Stoneforge decks that Michael Bonde and I built for the finals of the Modern Super League earlier this week.

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Archetype 3: Stoneforge + Lightning Rods

The last home for Stoneforge Mystic is a deck that isn’t trying to dominate the opponent with quick disruption or trying to out-muscle them with great interaction. It’s a deck that is trying to win the game by presenting threat after threat that Must Be Dealt With™. Even if they kill your Stoneforge, maybe they didn’t kill your next creature and that one is gonna rickety-wreck them.

An example of this deck is W/G Maverick in Legacy. If they kill your Stoneforge Mystic and your Knight of the Reliquary goes untouched, they are probably dead.

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Gabriel Nassif is on the cutting edge of this technology in Modern. Honestly, his deck looks a bit threat-light and mana dork-heavy to me, but this is exactly the style of deck I’m talking about. If they don’t kill Stoneforge Mystic, then great. If they do kill it, then maybe Knight of the Reliquary or Courser of Kruphix will stick around for max val, which is slang for maximum value, for those not nearly as up-to-date on current-age vernacular as I am.

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Nassif’s Soulherder deck is another similar shell that could easily find room for Stoneforge Mystic. Protecting Stoneforge with Ephemerate sounds like liquid hot gasoline to me. This deck is almost the reverse of the previous deck in that this deck is full of creatures that your opponent doesn’t want to kill, but have to or you will run them over with value. In that regard, Stoneforge is definitely a worse fit, but still a card worth considering.

The natural flaw to this strategy is that if your opponent is playing a deck that doesn’t care about your creatures at all, isn’t trying to kill any of them, and can just combo-kill you or go over the top of you then your deck is going to completely suck. These decks are great at beating decks that are trying to interact with you by making it hard for them to profitably do so.

If they unban Splinter Twin, then we can see the ultimate evolution of this strategy, which is Stoneforge Mystic in a Splinter Twin deck. This deck existed in Standard at one point, and yes it was disgusting. Ponder, Preordain, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor also existed, as did Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe. It was a who’s who reunion of banned Modern cards in one Standard strategy. Fair. Balanced.

Stoneforge Mystic operates as the ultimate lightning rod to protect the Twin combo or a value way to prolong the game long enough for you to find the combo in games where it doesn’t die. There is one deck where this could possibly happen in Modern.

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Stoneforge to set up Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian or find Swords to slap onto a Ice-Fang Coatl? Ohhh yeaahhhh.

But What About Stoneforge in Urza?

Call me skeptical. Here’s my current list.

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I think Goblin Engineer will prove to be superior to Stoneforge Mystic in this strategy. Goblin Engineer is versatile. It can find Ensnaring Bridge, Pithing Needle, and a host of other artifacts. It isn’t locked into just grabbing Sword of the Meek or Batterskull. Goblin Engineer also provides lasting value if it remains on the battlefield. It protects your artifacts from removal by rebuying them and it can create value chains with cantrip artifacts like Ichor Wellspring, Chromatic Star and Arcum’s Astrolabe.

Stoneforge Mystic offers a superior Plan B to Goblin Engineer in that it dodges graveyard hate and produces a Batterskull than can Skull-crack the opponent out in games where you don’t draw the Urza, Lord High Artificer or combo half of your deck. The problem is that I just don’t see this happening very often or at all.

Stoneforge Mystic is a powerful card in other decks because they are built to utilize it. Those decks have other creatures to put Swords on, additional pressure to pair with Batterskull, or interaction to combine with it. This deck just has a Batterskull and a ton of random do-nothing artifacts. That’s not gonna do it, chief. So you play Stoneforge Mystic, hit them three times with Batterskull in one of these Plan B games, and then they stabilize and you can’t kill their blocker or offer up more pressure to finish the game because you just drew your third Mox Opal and your deck doesn’t have any removal spells.

The other reason I don’t like Stoneforge Mystic is that if you search up a Batterskull, your opponent can just kill Stoneforge. If you search up Sword of the Meek, they can just ignore it and make other plays instead. Goblin Engineer can’t be ignored because it often represents immediate value. Additionally, Goblin Engineer puts Sword of the Meek directly into the graveyard, where any Thopter Foundry can return it. That saves mana on the exchange, whereas you have to invest an extra mana into casting the Sword with Stoneforge Mystic. One mana may not seem like much, but a lot of games are won on small margins, and sometimes one extra mana means one extra turn.

I’m gonna test with Stoneforge, even though I believe it will be worse than Goblin Engineer. While I have a lot of experience with Stoneforge decks, I’m open to being proven wrong about Stoneforge, both in this deck and in general. I consider that incredibly important as a Magic player.

I’ve definitely been right about a lot of these unbans in the past. I famously got mocked (by Shaheen Soorani…that’s two, I just hit my monthly quota) for saying Cryptic Command was going to see more play than Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern control decks. I was right.

I also was adamant that unbanning Sword of the Meek was a huge mistake and that the Thopter/Sword combo would break Modern. I was hilariously wrong. It saw no play for a long time. Maybe I’ll be proven right in the long run with the printing of Urza, Lord High Artificer. Partial credit?

I’m hoping to strike gold in my predictions for Stoneforge Mystic, but more importantly, I’m just interested to see how it all plays out. I’m actually sad that my next events are all Standard, because trying out a bunch of different Stoneforge decks in Modern is exactly the kind of thing I could be down to do. I implore you to all go out and cast as many SFMs as you can, and allow me to live vicariously through you. I’ll be casting Thought Erasure and crying softly into my pillow.