Hogaak and Looting are banned, and Stoneforge Mystic is free at last from the Modern banned list. What do these changes promise for our beloved format? And what does equipment searching have to do with fast food chains? Let's find out!
Elephant in the Room
Before even thinking about the void left by Hogaak, or the implications of the Faithless Looting ban, or whether Squadron Hawk will somehow become a playable Modern card overnight, we've got a more pressing issue to discuss. As of Stoneforge Mystic's coming into Modern, the full cycle of busted, splashable two-drops is legal in Modern for the first time. The playerbase at any given FNM tonight is likely to employ, collectively, all five creatures—surely you know a Snapcaster guy, and a Tarmogoyf guy. Soon, you'll meet Stoneforge guy.
You may even be Stoneforge guy yourself. Or Pyromancer guy. Or Confidant guy. But Modern's always been about pushing ideas to their logical limits. So, stay with me: what if you could be all the guys at once?
Some empath/old soul/introvert was bound to attempt building this juicy burger of a deck soon enough, so I went ahead and took a stab at the principle with my own french fry. Its creatures each enjoy some pedigree, but they aren't necessarily made to play together. All in a row, they boast palpable tension.
Goyf and Stoneforge are birds of a feather, perhaps; both are early plays that threaten a lot of pressure. While Tarmogoyf doesn't require investment beyond its initial casting cost, it also doesn't run away with the game like Stoneforge can against anyone looking to play fair.
And speaking of running away with the game, Dark Confidant does just that if unchecked. To its detriment, Confidant's especially fragile, biting the dust even to Gut Shot. Unlike Stoneforge, though, Confidant attacks opponents from a card-advantage angle, drowning them in the game's most tangible resource rather than in damage points. Snapcaster, too, generates value, but at one time only. Its benefit over Confidant is the immediacy of its impact. In this way, Snap and Confidant mirror Goyf and Stoneforge, respectively.
Betwixt and between lies Young Pyromancer, a card that takes over the battlefield like Confidant and Stoneforge, dies to everything like Pyromancer and Snapcaster, and pumps out both card advantage and damage in the form of bodies. Pyro diverges from the rest in that it doesn't easily slot into a midrange strategy; it requires more build-around, explaining why we haven't seen it in something like Jund, the primary home of Confidant and Goyf which would happily adopt Stoneforge and Snapcaster were they on-color. It does have some synergy with Stoneforge, as does Snapcaster, by providing extra bodies for the equipment.
All I knew going into this project was that I wanted to run 4 of each creature. The rest of the deck, then, was dedicated to bridging as many chasms as possible between those creatures so that they could fit into a cohesive shell.
Inquisition of Kozilek: Confidant and Goyf, as Jund has showcased since Modern's creation, perform exceedingly well alongside one-mana removal and targeted discard. Gently disrupting opponents and then presenting a clock of some sort has always been a winning strategy here. Stoneforge fits into this mold as well; strip the removal spell, chase with Batterskull will win a lot of Game 1s against other fair decks. The same principle applies to Young Pyromancer, as we've seen from Mardu Pyromancer(s), so long as the deck has enough cheap spells to turn the 2/1 into a must-answer creature. And discard never hurt alongside Snapcaster Mage; there's plenty of precedent for that, too. So discard was a shoe-in. I went with the set of Inquisition of Kozilek; while some Thoughtseizes could also feasibly fit, I was worried about life-loss from the manabase, and tight on space in general.
Bolt/Push/Path: There's no midrange deck without removal, and in five colors, we get the cheapest and most flexible removal around. Bolt is the clear winner here, with Push taking up the rear. A single Path makes it for Snapcaster utility.
Manamorphose: Looting may be gone, but there are other enabling cantrips in Modern. This one makes a token with Pyromancer and gives us a Snapcaster target in a pinch. More frequently, it filters our mana, helping us take less damage from early land drops but still cast whatever we've got in hand.
On to the equipment, a package I think will vary between Stoneforge decks.
Three is bound to settle as the go-to number; we don't have Brainstorm to shuffle drawn pieces back into the deck, and Modern games are faster than Legacy ones. If we expect to get value out of at least two Stoneforges in a game, I think three is the baseline.
Batterskull is a shoe-in, but there's no Umezawa's Jitte here, either. Which leaves the other two pieces somewhat up in the air. I agree with David that Sword of Fire and Ice is a great tempo-generator, but Sword of Feast and Famine may slot more seamlessly into the midrange decks that employ Stoneforge; getting an extra four-five mana each turn is a godsend for this kind of deck. And Sword of Sinew and Steel packs enough utility to surface in some lists, too.
As for non-swords, most of what exists is probably too cute. But I do think a tech we might see is simply a second copy of Batterskull. It's so far above the other equipment in terms of power that being able to recreate the initial Stoneforge effect once opponents Abrade/Trophy/Grudge (and there will be Grudge) the first Skull may be appealing.
Does this deck work? Kind of. There are definitely ways to make it much better. Trimming a color or two does wonders; adding planeswalkers also can't hurt. Even in five colors, though, there's one walker in particular that would do great here: Wrenn and Six. The issue is how congested our two-drop slot is already. But in terms of pure strategy, cutting just about any of the five creatures outright for Wrenn would likely yield better results.
Planeswalkers exist in large part to provide ongoing value over the course of a longer game. Non-walker cards that fulfill a similar purpose are also absent from this list, and again for spatial reasons; the 20-creature requirement takes up a lot of spots, and tying them together with the right mix of enablers takes up even more. As such, narrower or pricier utility cards like Unearth, Assassin's Trophy, and Kolghan's Command get benched. The lack of walkers and utility boosters give this deck a strategic void in the mid- to late-game.
Modern Implications: Quick Takes
I was surprised by this announcement, but that's because I was anticipating the banlist in the context of previous announcements. Wizards often makes decisions that are initially controversial by virtue of introducing new parameters to the banlist discussion. For instance, I figured they would ban Scrap Trawler from Ironworks Combo because in previous bannings, they've opted to weaken decks without killing them outright; that was even the (failed) intention behind the Twin banning (Kiki-Jiki was singled out in the announcement as a replacement, har har). Wizards instead banned Krark-Clan Ironworks itself, saying it didn't want this deck to exist in Modern at all.
Death of Looting
This time around, I assumed Hogaak would get the axe, but not Looting. Enablers allow multiple decks to thrive in Modern, which nurtures the format's image as a beacon of diversity; additionally, Looting didn't apparently create a "battle of sideboards" as Golgari Grave-Troll, and apparently Hogaak, did.
But Looting indeed contributed to a Modern extremely preoccupied with the graveyard, and Wizards was in the mood for a shake-up. I agree that hitting Looting and unbanning Stoneforge will likely refocus the format away from the graveyard, which may well prove refreshing. But man, will I miss the little guy. Lately, I'd been slotting Looting into everything from Counter-Cat to my revitalized TURBOGOYF deck, the shell that first sold me on Looting as a serious piece of hardware.
Of the many Modern decks that use Looting, I expect UR Phoenix and Dredge to survive the best. The former has access to slower, but decent, options such as Izzet Charm, and still maximizes Thought Scour. The latter doesn't really care about its cards in hand once it gets going, and there are plenty of other ways to put dredgers into the graveyard. With Hogaak gone, Dredge should reclaim its standing as the format's premier graveyard deck.
Mardu had just gained some oomph in Seasoned Pyromancer plus Unearth, but that combination gets much worse without Looting. I expect players dedicated to this wedge to flock to Mardu Shadow instead, which never ran Looting, rather than try to fight an onslaught of Batterskulls with such a sub-par midrange deck. Then there are the even-more-fringe strategies, like Grishoalbrand; those players can find a Lootingless analogue in Neoform.
Arrival of Stoneforge
I think Stoneforge has been fine in Modern for quite a while now. But it's far from underpowered. Midrange decks of all walks will adopt the 1/2, including updated builds of UW Control (which should split into two distinct decks) and BGx (though Wrenn and Seasoned are likely to prevent the pendulum from swinging totally Abzan). On the flip side, Jund won't be the only midrange deck without Stoneforge; Mystic will simply emerge as a powerful option among the many powerful options available in Modern. Further to Wizards' credit, the Kor does stand to shift things slightly away from the graveyard, as Stoneforge operates independently of that resource (and, conveniently, shares a color with Rest in Peace).
Battering Into the Future
Plenty of content has rolled out since the banlist announcement dropped, and I'm not sure what else needs to be said. At this point, we'll just have to see how things milk-shake out over the coming weeks!