The banlist announcement is just around the corner, and the January 18 deadline is looming in the minds of every Modern player and writer.
We're all looking for clues about what might get released from the list and what could get the axe. We comb Twitter and articles for hints, crunch the metagame numbers, and cite personal and pro player experiences as evidence for and against certain changes.
Or we just rage against Summer Bloom and friends.
Last Friday, Wizards made an announcement that, on the surface, could have had nothing to do with the Modern banlist. It might, however, become one of the biggest announcements in recent format history. Or it might be a total red herring.
In the article, Organized Play content specialist Mike Rosenberg reported that Stoneforge Mystic would be the Grand Prix promo card of 2016. The card choice itself, the article's phrasing, and the overall history of past Grand Prix promos immediately raised questions across the Modern community.
Why did Mystic get picked for a Grand Prix season with just three Legacy events? What was Mike talking about when he asked how many Batterskulls would be played alongside Mystic by spring? Most importantly, did this promo card signal a potential unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic in January?
Today, I want to break down Stoneforge Mystic's chances of an unbanning in January. There is a lot of hype and anti-hype in the Stoneforge conversation, much of it dismissive or ignorant of the evidence. Let's see if we can get a more balanced picture.
Mystic has been banned since Modern's formation, and her legalization would have a huge impact on both her price and the Modern metagame. There's a lot riding on this.
Sadly, we don't have conclusive evidence one way or another. But given the stakes surrounding Mystic's possible unbanning, it's important that we analyze the evidence we do have in order to make smart choices, especially around spending your hard-earned dollars.
This will also let us critically contribute to the discussion on other sites (or even at your local store), ensuring everyone is considering all the facts before making big statements.
Money on the Line
Whether or not you believe the promo announcement signals a Mystic unbanning, it's still important to acknowledge the financial impact such a hypothetical unban would have. This helps us understand why players are so interested in the announcement---there's a lot on the line if the Kor is actually set free in January.
Right now, Mystic's demand stems primarily from Legacy. She's a regular in Blade lists, like Curtis Nower's Esper build that earned fifth at Star City Games' Kansas City Open in late November. Additionally, she's a been a cornerstone of the Death and Taxes archetype for years (see Robert Brewer's list from a Grand Prix Tacoma trial).
So the various Blade variants (Esper, Death, Jeskai), along with trusty D&T, are the main Legacy drivers pushing Mystic's price tag into the $20 range. A secondary factor is Commander and casual demand.
This prods us to speculate about what a Modern unbanning might do to the card's value.
Stoneforge herself came out of Worldwake, a set that didn't get opened too much and led to one of the first runaway price tags in contemporary Magic (the almighty Jace, the Mind Sculptor).
Tar Pit and Colonnade currently carry a price in the $20 range, despite seeing only fringe Modern play and holding extremely minimal stock in Legacy. Assuming Stoneforge is at least as widely-played as these manlands (an incredibly conservative assumption), her current $20 share could easily jump to $40-$50.
Between Legacy and Modern, it's reasonable to expect Stoneforge would see as much play as Snapcaster Mage, which is consistently in the $60 range. Innistrad had many more packs opened than Worldwake, so Mystic's ceiling could even be higher.
With Stoneforge only at $20 today, you stand to gain anywhere from 200% to 300% on these investments, or more! Add to this the hype surrounding unbannings (Bitterblossom spiked well over $50 when unbanned despite seeing no play), and the prospect of an overnight explosion becomes undeniable.
This price potential means you need to pay attention to the evidence for and against her unbanning; whether as player or investor, there's simply too much value on the table.
Before the recent Grand Prix promo announcement, Stoneforge would not have been my top unbanning spec for January. For me, that distinction still belongs to Sword of the Meek, a relatively innocuous card that directly disrupts the linear and aggressive plurality we see at top tables, and indirectly incentivizes pilots towards underrepresented control decks.
That said, the recent promo announcement gives us new information, which is where we need to start in assessing Mystic's chances of an unban.
1. The Legacy and Modern Context
There will be about 50 Grand Prix tournaments in 2016. Nine of those will be Modern, with only three focusing on Legacy. This includes a massive Modern weekend during May 20-22, when both Star City Games and Channel Fireball will host Modern events on opposite sides of the country.
Our upcoming February Pro Tour will also feature Modern, and much has already been made about Star City Games' decision to double down on Modern events at the expense of Legacy ones.
Given this tournament picture, it seems odd that Wizards would make their 2016 Grand Prix promo a Legacy staple rather than a Modern one. Wizards continues to double-down on Modern, with two Modern Masters releases already completed and a third undoubtedly on the way in 2017. Add in the continued Pro Tour support and we're seeing a very Modern-friendly world, not one too suited for Legacy.
Despite these context clues, it's possible Wizards is indeed throwing a bone to Legacy players in Mystic's selection. It could be a way to increase format interest, or even a means of connecting a previous Grand Prix promo (Batterskull) to a newer one. If so, Mystic's selection would have nothing to do with Modern and everything to do with Legacy.
Personally I find this unlikely, given the sheer magnitude of Modern's presence in the Grand Prix circuit compared to Legacy.
2. Grand Prix Promo History
Modern became a format in the summer and spring of 2011. Since then, every single GP promo has been legal in Modern.
The last time a Legacy-legal card got printed as the promo was Umezawa's Jitte back in 2010. This was an earlier era of Magic when Extended still meant something and Modern was a distant dream of players who hated the Reserve List.
In fairness, not all of these cards were intended for Modern. Pulse, Guide, Cobra and Titan all got selected as promos contemporaneously with their Standard seasons. These were Standard staples that incidentally saw Modern play just by virtue of overlapping set legalities.
Then again, All Is Dust, Batterskull and Griselbrand were not Standard-legal when Wizards tagged them as promo cards. They were Modern and Legacy playables but, with the semi-exception of Batterskull, weren't even top-tier staples in these formats.
Griselbrand is certainly a powerful upstart in both Legacy and Modern decks, but it's not a consistent Tier 1 winner. Batterskull sees Legacy play wherever Mystic does, but very little on the Modern side of the fence. As for the colorless sweeper, that was a Modern R/G Tron nod all the way.
Considering these past seven promos, it doesn't seem likely Wizards would suddenly print a new promo that isn't legal in either Standard or Modern. That's particularly true in a year when Legacy support is diminished from previous years.
Of course, Mystic isn't currently legal in Modern, which means the Kor promo either breaks a trend ongoing since 2011, or heralds a banlist change in January.
3. Announcement Wording
After reading the promo announcement, many players focused on the article's peculiar phrasing before turning to the contextual evidence presented above. I normally caution players from reading too much into particular word choices in Wizards' content, but in the case of Friday's article, it was hard to ignore.
Rosenberg included two curious sentences in his article, two statements that have fueled much of the Stoneforge buzz since his announcement went live.
I wonder how many promo Batterskulls we'll see next to these new promo Mystics by springtime next year...
On the one hand, Rosenberg might just be connecting this recent promo to an earlier one from a previous season. On the other hand, he could be suggesting a notable uptick in Mystic and Batterskull play over the coming months.
Such an uptick is unlikely to come from Legacy. There are zero Legacy Grand Prix events in the spring, compared to two Modern ones in March, another two in May, and the Modern Pro Tour in February. If so, it means Modern is the driving force behind a springtime increase in play.
Of course, we also might be reading too literally into the term, "springtime."
However, before we get to the year of the Equipment-fetching Kor, we have one last event to get through.
Rosenberg's second quote is odd for reasons similar to the first. With Legacy seeing significantly less support in 2016 than 2015, it feels out of place to call it the "year" of the Kor. Legacy isn't even a "format of the Kor" under the metagame status quo.
It's also uncommon for a Wizards announcement to make such statements around a promo card beyond just a release note. We didn't see Wizards calling it the year of the Batterskull or the Griselbrand in either the 2015 or 2014 promo announcements.
This could suggest there's something special about this promo, and this year, which would lead to an increase in Mystic play. That special event could be Mystic's unbanning.
I freely admit this is the most circumstantial and, potentially, speculative evidence so far. It's entirely possible Rosenberg just picked his words poorly, or deliberately kept them ambiguous to generate buzz (or maybe just to troll the poor Moderners).
As a social scientist by training, I am definitely familiar with the dangers of reading too much into these kinds of sources. I urge readers to use caution when imposing our own wishes and narratives on ambiguous material.
That said, the combination of this suspicious wording alongside clues from the format, Grand Prix promo, and metagame contexts is collectively much more persuasive than Rosenberg's rhetoric would have been on its own.
4. The Modern Metagame (Evidence For)
The overall Modern metagame is, at once, evidence both for and against a Stoneforge unbanning. We'll cover the "against" side below. For now, let's think about ways in which the current state of Modern might support a decision by Wizards to unban Mystic.
There are numerous potential metagame reasons to unban Mystic in Modern. Of those, two stand above the rest as possible drivers behind a Wizards unbanning.
The first is the abundance of linear, aggressive, damage-based decks at top Modern tables. Between Burn, Affinity, Merfolk and Zoo variants, we're looking at about 30% of the format, using October metagame numbers from Modern Nexus. Those numbers are still around 25% for November, as the upcoming Nexus update will show.
Stoneforge directly cuts into these decks, combining with Batterskull to stall the game around turns three and four if unanswered by the aggro player. It's definitely possible this is overkill for the current metagame, but it's equally possible Wizards doesn't view it that way and wants to free Stoneforge to fight against the burn.
The second most plausible metagame justification for a Mystic unban is the relative lack of white in tiered Modern decks.
Looking at November metagame data, zero of the five Tier 1 decks (Burn, Affinity, Jund, R/G Tron, Amulet Bloom, URx Twin) use white as a primary color. Although Alex Bianchi put up a commendable finish with his Jeskai Twin list, this was an anomalous finish for the historically blue-red- and Grixis-based archetype. Even Dickmann's Temur version sees more play!
Overall, white is very much absent from Tier 1 contenders, relegated to Lightning Helix in Burn, an extra +1/+1 for Nacatl, and sideboard slots scattered among other top-tier decks.
Even moving down to Tier 2 decks, we still see little white. Only Abzan (currently Tier 2 but with Tier 1 potential), Naya and Abzan Company, and Bogles use it in any real capacity. Compare that with the ten or so other decks that don't even touch the color.
Given these factors, particularly its absence at Tier 1, Wizards might try to push white by releasing Stoneforge back to the masses.
5. The Modern Metagame (Evidence Against)
Unfortunately for the pro-Mystic camp, there are also convincing reasons why Stoneforge should not be unbanned. Many of these are found in the initial reasoning for the Kor's banning back in August 2011.
Writing in "Welcome to the Modern World," one of Modern's inaugural articles, Tom LaPille explained her removal from the format before it even began. He cited Mystic's dominance (and banning) in Standard, ending with this:
We prefer to just ban this card rather than risk yet another format dominated by Stoneforge Mystic.
This fear is still alive and well today. We already saw Abzan hit a 15%-20% metagame share earlier this year, around the time of Pro Tour Fate Reforged, and Mystic's unbanning could easily push a deck like that over the top.
A goodstuff midrange deck like Abzan would certainly find room for Mystic and the requisite Batterskull and Sword (or two) to complete the package. If Abzan could hit 15%-20% without Stoneforge, things could be much worse after.
In past unbanning cases, there have been reasons to overturn the initial ban explanations. Bitterblossom got unbanned in a metagame hostile to control and tempo, and it has mostly languished in binders ever since. Wild Nacatl was banned for restricting aggro decks to Zoo, and then unbanned when it became clear that Affinity, Merfolk, and other options would still be viable alongside the cat.
Stoneforge could easily play into that narrative, especially if Abzan's early-2015 shares are any indication. This points to Mystic as a needlessly risky unban target.
Stoneforge Mystic's Overall Chances
There are other sources of evidence I did not explicitly speak to in this article. This includes suggestive tweets by Aaron Forsythe (not too promising for the Mystic crowd), as well as past conversations with Forsythe and interviews with LaPille.
Information like this speaks both to Wizards' management style for Modern, and the probabilities that various cards get unbanned. It also further complicates our understanding of Mystic and her chances in Modern.
Overall, I think there is about a 30%-70% chance that we see Mystic unbanned in Modern. I'm basing this mostly on the evidence discussed above about the Legacy/Modern context, the promo history and the wording of the article. That's enough to push her chances up from sub-5% into the 30% range.
I still think Sword of the Meek is the likelier unbanning, but who says we can't have both?
Don't buy into Stoneforge unless you have deep pockets that can take the hit. You're going to spend around $80 for one playset. If Stoneforge remains banned on January 18, the ensuing supply surge from Grand Prix promos is likely to drop her to the $10-$12 range (a similar trajectory to Griselbrand last year).
That means losing $8-$10 on every $20 you spend, for a possible 40%-50% loss. Sink too much cash into that and you might not have enough to speculate around the Oath of the Gatewatch spoiler season!
Of course, Stoneforge's upside is as good as it gets in Modern. She'd be an overnight staple and would easily double your investment if unbanned. It's up to you to weigh the unban/no-change probability in making this decision. Or just buy one playset to be on the safe side!
There's one last possibility for Mystic that I haven't seriously considered: a possible reprint in Standard without a Modern unbanning. Given the presence of Relic Seeker in Origins, however, this seems unlikely so I'm not giving it too much attention. Still something to keep in mind as a corner-case scenario if you are doing any investment.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your feedback in the comments below. Any evidence I missed or interpretations you disagreed with? Any other feedback or opinions about Mystic's chances? No matter how it shakes out, here's hoping for an exciting January announcement in a bit over a month!