The unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic (SFM) in Modern has got people talking and has been a significant contributor to the reshaping of the Modern metagame. The card is being tried out in a variety of shells, but in this article, I’m going to focus mainly on its appearance in Azorius control and touch on how it’s turned the deck into a bit more of a midrange deck. I had the opportunity to give this style of deck an outing at the European Modern Series Finals held last weekend. Unfortunately, that event didn’t go particularly well for me because my Modern Horizons draft wasn’t very successful, but when I got to play Modern I didn’t lose a single game with the deck! It’s potentially early days, but I’m quite impressed with how it performed. Instead of structuring this article around the event, I thought I could offer more value via a deck tech covering my build including card choices, match-ups, and sideboarding. Let’s jump straight in.
Making room for Stoneforge Mystic
One of the easier ways to understand the builds of this deck is to look at how existing Azorius control decks can be modified to accommodate SFM and a suitable equipment package.
What cards get replaced?
Previous builds relied a bit more on a lock-down or reactive strategy through its Planeswalkers, countermagic, and removal. It’s very clear that SFM provides the deck with more opportunities to be proactive and win through combat. This means that the following cards become the most likely candidates to remove:
- Narset, Parter of Veils: A deck that is trying to lock-down AND contest the battlefield with creatures is perhaps trying to do a bit too much. While a deck running a mix of cards would have some flexibility in its strategy, the consistency at which each game-plan can be executed will be reduced relative to a deck attempting to execute only one, and consistency is supposed to be one of this deck’s strengths! In addition, Izzet Phoenix, the main cantrip-based deck against which Narset is super-effective, is likely to die out.
- Supreme Verdict: SFM provides a strong board presence that reduces the need for a card like this or Wrath of God in the maindeck. When the deck wants to be attacking, this card will just get in the way more often than not. In addition, the equipment package can provide defensive options which can sometimes make a wrath a bit obsolete.
- Surgical Extraction: The banning of both Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Faithless Looting significantly powered down decks that abuse the graveyard via Bloodghast or Arclight Phoenix. This lowers the need for maindeck graveyard hate as a requirement for survival in the format – at least that’s the theory.
What equipment gets played?
I’m not going to list the pros and cons of every equipment ever printed, so here is a quick rundown of the main options that spring to mind.
- Batterskull: This is the main reason to play SFM as it provides the deck with the potential to make a 4/4 lifelinking threat/buffer at instant speed the turn after the 1/2 Kor is played. Now the deck has a clock or a buffer depending on whether it needs to be aggressive or defensive. If the token is removed, then SFM and Batterskull can combine their activated abilities to efficiently resume combat duties.
- Sword of Fire and Ice: This piece of equipment provides the deck with exactly the type of generic utility it wants to have: card advantage and removal. The damage output it offers is similar to that of Batterskull, so if gaining life or defending isn’t relevant, this provides an even better offensive option as it allows us to draw extra cards.
- Sword of Feast and Famine: Azorius control decks need to generate enough card advantage to deal with as many opposing threats as possible – traditionally this is achieved through being able to draw more cards. This card contributes to that plan in a slightly different way by attacking the opponent’s hand and giving us more opportunities to deploy more of our own trump cards or hold mana up for answers.
Tweaking the 75 for the expected metagame
Now we’ve established how the SFM package is to be included in the deck, consideration should be given to other modifications necessary to get the most out of the 75, especially because we’re now playing a control deck with a creature-based midrange option rather than a lock-down or hard control package. A lot of this is dependant on the expected metagame, which I’ll tackle shortly.
The main thing I want to mention is that I thought Spell Snare was going to be a good card again! A powerful two-drop has just been unbanned, so more answers to it and similar threats is intuitively something I want to include in the maindeck.
I was lucky enough to be able to consult my friend Rob Catton on card choices for the 75. He is one of the most skilled players I know to champion the archetype in Modern. We played similar (but not identical) lists last weekend and neither of us lost any matches with the deck. Rob also drafted well and won the whole EMS finals event!
Here is the list I played:
Match-ups and sideboarding
Here is the approach I adotped for the main match-ups and some suggested sideboarding options using the list above.
In this match-up, the game-plan feels a lot like playing a Delver of Secrets deck in the sense that we want to establish a clock and disrupt the opponent’s combo capabilities enough to cross the finish line. Trying to ‘control’ this deck in the traditional sense is a bit futile because they have so many cantrips to draw into more gas and a lot of cards are problematic for us if they resolve. Urza, Lord High Artificer, Whir of Invention, Goblin Engineer, and Thopter Foundry are all problematic for us. Spell Snare counters both Goblin Engineer and Thopter Foundry. Sword of Fire and Ice also shines in this match-up as it means our threats can’t be blocked by Thopters, Urza, or the Goblin.
Post-board Stony Silence is very strong – it absolutely hamstrings the deck and they have to answer it. It’s such a strong effect that we prioritise it over having the fastest possible clock, so I sideboard out a lot of the SFM package and replace it with Monastery Mentor, which can still secure victory in a couple of turns if unanswered. Surgical Extraction is a silver bullet against the Thopter/Sword combo. Celestial Purge is an answer to both Thopter Foundry and Goblin Engineer, as well as Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, which some builds will sideboard in. Vendilion Clique might seem bad in the face of infinite 1/1 Thopters, but I think it has to be accepted that all creatures are bad in that situation unless they are wielding Sword of Fire and Ice. In addition, I want as many ways as possible to stop Urza resolving. Ceremonious Rejection is a trap as it doesn’t stop the main problem cards, only their cantrips.
This matchup still feels the same way it has since Modern began. More often than not, Jund is the disruptive beat-down deck and Azorius is forced to try and stabilize and secure an inevitable win, but both decks are trying to grind for battlefield or card advantage in the process. The Azorius game-plan therefore prioritises a combination of defensive plays and card advantage to mitigate the loss of cards to discard spells in the early game. Spell Snare offers more answers to Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze, and Wrenn and Six. In addition, Jund is playing Assassin’s Trophy over Abrupt Decay as it can kill Jace, the Mind Sculptor (among other threats), making Snare slightly more effective. Sword of Feast and Famine and Batterskull are great in the matchup (but not so much Sword of Fire and Ice).
Supreme Verdict might seem like a good idea because Jund plays a lot of creatures, but I don’t think it is in practice. Their deck also plays a lot of discard and if they see it in our hand they can easily play around it. Winds of Abandon is harder to play around, as playing one creature threat at a time doesn’t work against it. I think Rest in Peace (if it’s in your 75) is another trap because Liliana of the Veil, Bloodbraid Elf, and Huntmaster of the Fells all ignore it. Monastery Mentor potentially demands multiple removal spells from our opponent and can chump block their larger creature threats easily. Celestial Purge is also a must for this matchup. Runed Halo can be answered by Assassin’s Trophy, but it can help stem the bleeding against a Tarmogoyf or save us from a Raging Ravine or Liliana ultimate after both players are topdecking.
Similar to the Whirza match-up, our deck is on the ‘Delver plan.’ Force of Negation is one of the better cards in the match-up, allowing us to stay safe while tapping out. The match-up is theoretically better than it was before thanks to the beatdown strategy offered by SFM.
Post-board the deck wants to capitalise further on our beatdown plan by adding more ways to clock the opponent and more ways to disrupt them. Unlike against Urza, I keep in the SFM package despite bringing in Stony Silence. Turning off their artifacts is often great, but it doesn’t completely hamstring them – they can play through it with some draws so keeping all possible clocks is important. Surgical Extraction is a silver bullet if a Tron land is destroyed with Field of Ruin. Expect cards like Thragtusk and Emrakul, the Promised End as additional threats and Nature’s Claim to answer our equipment and Stony Silence.
Again, a very traditional match-up where the name of the game is surviving the onslaught of damage until the opponent runs out of resources. SFM into Batterskull provides an obvious way to make their burn spells irrelevant, effectively trumping their entire deck so that the outcome of game one is reliant upon whether the opponent can remove SFM and get over the line before we can cast a Batterskull on turn five and connect in combat. Force of Negation is particularly relevant in that sense. Teferi, Time Raveler forces the opponent to play the game at sorcery speed which can also be useful.
After sideboarding, it’s expected that opponents will bring in answers to Batterskull like Smash to Smithereens, Wear // Tear or Destructive Revelry, so additional ways to gain life are essential. Timely Reinforcements is the main bullet – the tokens can even pick up stray equipment if needed.
Be prepared for a bit of a grind-fest unless one player has an uncontested SFM and the other does not. Spell Snare counters SFM, Snapcaster Mage, and Mana Leak. Vendilion Clique can now be used as a response to the opponent activating SFM in addition to everything else it usually does in Azorius mirrors. This is probably the match-up where Teferi, Time Raveler shines the most, as countermagic is not very commonly played by other decks.
For the post-board matches, we’re bringing in more disruptive or control elements and better threats. While Monastery Mentor advantage now becomes more important, Supreme Verdict is still completely dead except in the situation where you are massively losing to an opposing Mentor. My build might be a little weaker in the mirror because it doesn’t have a Disenchant in the sideboard to answer equipment.
Playing against this deck sometimes feels like playing against two different decks (at least to me it does). The risks for us lie in randomly dying to fast starts with Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher or them going over the top with mana advantage. This means the gameplan is different depending on which side of the deck they draw. Luckily, SFM and Batterskull are actually good against both, as you can clock or defend depending on the situation. Chalice of the Void on one can be absolutely crippling or irrelevant depending on what cards are drawn. It’s entirely possible that this match-up will come down to a combat race a lot of the time, as Azorius is heavily incentivised to get the game over before Eldrazi Tron assembles a mana advantage or performs a lock with Karn, the Great Creator and Mycosynth Lattice.
It may seem a bit strange to sideboard both Monastery Mentor and Supreme Verdict in, but Mentor does a good job of contesting the battlefield. It’s possible it can overwhelm the opponent if they’re not drawing very well, but in cases where it can’t, it will buy time for more powerful cards to be deployed – Supreme Verdict among them if Eldrazi need to be removed. Life can’t be used as a resource as much as you’d think against this deck because of Walking Ballista, but that’s maybe one of the things worth naming with Runed Halo.
Similar to burn, this is about ‘not dying’ and then turning the corner. The opponent has a fast disruptive clock but can’t topdeck into the last three damage as easily as Burn. SFM into Batterskull forces an immediate answer, but between Kitesail Freebooter, Reflector Mage, and Deputy of Detention, the opponent has several opportunities to do so. Game one is actually quite tough because Force of Negation does nothing other than counter an Aether Vial and it only takes one Vial and/or a Cavern of Souls to potentially turn off all other countermagic.
Like against Eldrazi Tron, Monastery Mentor helps contest the board both aggressively and defensively. Runed Halo will often name Mantis Rider to prevent the opponent from stealing a win out of nowhere, but it’s a context-dependent card and can work well against something like Kitesail Freebooter. Pithing Needle is better than Stony Silence as it can hit Aether Vial and Horizon Canopy.
With reference to my build and sideboarding:
- It could be considered a cardinal sin to only run three copies of Snapcaster Mage, especially considering I’m playing 4 Opt! I found in some games it’s actually possible to be ‘Snapcaster flooded’ now that some Instants and Sorcery spells have to come out to make room for the SFM package. I don’t think four Snapcasters is wrong, but I really wanted to try playing two copies of Vendilion Clique in the maindeck to free up sideboard space and to try out Winds of Abandon.
- Although Monastery Mentor gets sideboarded in a lot, this isn’t an indication that it needs to be in the maindeck. Consideration should be given to the fact that it’s replacing cards in various match-ups which are often going to be a 3/10 or worse in the match-up in question. Mentor is a reasonable card in most match-ups, putting it at a solid 6/10. Sideboarding is about improving the deck as a whole and is not always determined by how good the individual cards are holistically.
I think Azorius is now powered up to a level where it is in the top-tier of Modern again but not in an oppressive way like Hogaak was. I thought unbanning SFM would maybe be a mistake at first because Faithless Looting decks were powered down at the same time – but maybe it’s less of a worry than I first thought, and I think the metagame will be able to adapt to its presence. In my opinion, this deck’s sub-par match-ups among the above are Whirza Thoptersword and Humans (though both get much closer after sideboarding). My theory-based suggestion is to try out Sword of Light and Shadow or to play Jeskai Stoneblade if you are looking for ways to beat the deck (either in general or in the mirror). If you’re thinking of trying out the deck, I hope this article has been helpful.
I’m really excited by Throne of Eldraine! The flavour and mechanics seem incredibly interesting and I am enjoying the references to or twists on well-known stories in lots of the cards. Pre-release is only a couple of weeks away! In terms of competitive Magic, I am going to focus on Standard and Draft between the release of the new set and the Mythic Championship, but am not sure of my actual commitments to events at the moment as the current MCQ season is still playing itself out.
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @Chris54154, feel free to hit me up with any of your thoughts! What are you playing in Modern? Did I read the new metagame correctly, or are other decks taking over the competitive landscape?
As always, thanks for reading, good luck, and have fun in your next game!