Switchblade Combat: UW vs Bant Stoneblade

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In case you haven't noticed, Magic can be weird. I'm not just talking about cards or mechanics, though mutate, Goblin Game, and Raging River are certainly out there. I'm talking about how counter-intuitive the game can be. Again, not in the Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth still works under Blood Sun sense (though that absolutely qualifies). I mean how things can seem good on paper, and yet prove to be poor in practice. In theory, Neoform combo is utterly busted and should be banned. In reality, it's garbage and taking it to tournaments is a declaration that yes, you do feel lucky today.

Which is really a long-winded way of me saying that I'm still a bit mystified about my own tier list. It's not that I have doubts about the conclusions nor that I think I got it wrong. Rather, I'm really confused about which decks made it and where they stand. That Ponza, a deck that's been niche at best for years, is now Tier 1 is shocking, as is the fall of Amulet Titan. In a vacuum, Amulet is more explosively busted, which would seem to translate into a better metagame position. This is of course the very thing that makes studying the metagame worthwhile in the first place. If apparent power determined actual power, everything could be determined just by reading decklists. As we know, that's not how Magic (let alone Modern) works.

The Problem with Stoneforge

I also found it shocking that UW Stoneblade was tied for second place in Tier 2. It's not that it looks particularly out of place, but because of personal history. I have a history with Stoneforge Mystic dating back to Standard's Cawblade era. And have been frustrated to no end with UW Stonebade since Stoneforge was unbanned. The deck has never performed well for me. Which is not to say that it's ever been a bad deck, but I could never get any consistency. The deck swings wildly between snowballing domination and flailing, floundering, and ultimately drowning under its own strategic plan. My experience, backed up by watching better players try the deck, was that UW Stoneblade is a tempo deck that can't reclaim any tempo that it's lost.

A Proven Deck

I started working on Stoneforge decks right after it was unbanned, and I never really went anywhere with the deck. I built a deck, and even played it to good results in local tournaments. It did well at FNM, and I even took it to a few small cash tournaments and made money. I just never liked the deck. I went through a few iterations during the window between unbanning and Oko, Thief of Crowns making relying on big artifacts unplayable, and this was my final version:

I should note that the split of Polluted Delta and Prismatic Vista was due to a local upsurge in Blood Moon making me prioritize basics.

The deck was fine, and even now you can find very similar decks going 5-0 in Leagues or finishing well in Prelims. Shark Typhoon has been replacing Queller recently, but it's not clear if that's a good metagame decision, flavor of the week, or trading up. Of course, I am a sucker for Spell Queller, so that my just be bias. Still, the fact that players have stuck to the formula for so long indicates that it must be a strong deck. Right?

My Experience

Well, kinda. The power is and has always been there. However, it never felt good. I know how that sounds, but that was ultimately the problem that made me shy away from Stoneblade before Throne of Eldraine made me drop the deck entirely. There were games where I simply dominated. Sitting behind a Batterskull or equipped Sword and T3feri with fist-full of countermagic is a wonderful thing. But more often it felt like I was always playing from behind (regardless of how the game was actually progressing). It was always a very precarious feeling, knowing that you're only ahead because you've snagged something with Queller, and that if they kill Queller before I have T3feri for protection, I'm suddenly losing. Constant stress is not a great selling point.

And then there were the games where I actually was behind. I've experience hopeless matchups before because I've lived through Eldrazi Winter and Hogaak Summer. However, it's rare to realize that there's no way for you to catch back up in a matchup that on paper you're favored in. The only way to interact with the board in a typical Stoneblade deck is Path to Exile, blocking, and planeswalkers. And that's great against small numbers of creatures. However, in any aggro matchup, if I didn't curve out with Batterskull I just got swamped. The only way of catching back up, especially game 1, is to stall with looping Cryptic Command and Mystic Sanctuary until you can find a threat to close the game. Which is slow and fragile, and those loses were just the worst.

A Lesson from History

This is made worse for me by my own history. I played Jeskai Tempo back in late 2017-mid 2018 and I loved that deck. It was the same strategy in principle: play counters and board control, then get a threat down and ride it to victory. Geist of Saint Traft is a great threat when you have burn to clear the road, which was the key to that deck. It was so mana-efficient that it just pushed through every other deck. If it fell behind, the burn would hold the line and Snapcaster Mage cleaned up. Jace was legal by that point, but I wasn't playing it because it cut into the highly proactive gameplan. The opponent was never safe from being burned out and struggled to gain traction. Thus Jeskai still ended up playing from behind, but it could do that and still win.

In contrast, Stoneblade is only proactive if it sticks a turn-two Stoneforge Mystic. At all other times, it's reactive. Stoneblade is primarily counters, and if those don't line up correctly, it's just finished. Path-Snap-Path then start blocking is the only way to fight out from a creature swarm, a line that fares poorly against swaths of tougher beaters. Stoneblade leans heavily on Batterskull holding the ground. And it's very good at that, but that won't always work. Or opponent's will kill the 'Skull, and there goes the whole plan. The deck just struggles when its cards don't line up, which is far more likely thanks to being more reactive. Thus, I can't stand playing the deck and am surprised when it does well.

The Alternative

This is especially confusing when I think there's a better version out there. It's certainly seen more play since Stoneforge was unbanned. And I enjoy playing it more than UW. I am, of course, talking about Bant Snowblade.

In my estimation, this deck plays far better than UW Stoneblade. All of the threats can be played proactively for value, which means Bant actually advances its gameplan more often and more consistently than UW does. Ice-Fang Coatl continues to be a very solid card, and in non-aggro games can end up putting in a surprising amount of pressure. Uro being recurrable means that Bant can play more fearlessly into open blue mana than UW will, and what this means is that Bant plays more like Jeskai did. And when I'm testing with the deck, I have a lot more fun than sweating through UW.

The real bonus as far as I'm concerned is the aggro matchup. While the main interaction is still Path, Bant runs Supreme Verdict which is a literal lifesaver. Bant can get overwhelmed just like UW, though activated Ice-Fang helps considerably. The difference is that Bant has Verdict as an actual out and a means to regain a lost board. Add in Uro's lifegain and games against Prowess, Dredge, and Ponza feel infinitely better.

The final plus for Bant is in sideboarding. All the best hate is in white and shared between decks, but green gives Bant access to Veil of Summer. It's still the best anti-Jund card out there, though mass adoption of Aether Gust makes it less effective in UWx mirrors.

The Problem

Given that Prowess is storming to the top of the metagame, and in my experience Bant feels better in that matchup, it would make sense for Bant to still be tiering highly. Definitely not as high as it was with Arcum's Astrolabe, but I expected it to still be a metagame presence. However, that clearly isn't the case, as no Bant deck made the Tier list at all. Meanwhile, UW just kept racking up results. And I'm left wondering how it all happened.

The blow from losing Astrolabe was heavy, I'll admit. Ice-Fang is a removal spell far less often, and the deck can't just spend all its time cantripping anymore. Thus, there's been a small consistency hit. However, that loss can't explain the dramatic decline because the core of the deck's power (Uro and counters) is still intact. It's possible, though completely undeterminable, that players are simply walking away because the nostalgia is too great. Much like my lament for Jeskai Tempo, pre-ban Bant players see just how much better the deck used to be and the disparity between the heyday and now is too much to bear. Perhaps the popularity has fallen off despite the power hit being non-fatal. That sounds likely to me, but I'll never be able to measure it, much less prove it.

Another explanation may be deck-of-the-week syndrome. Again, Shark Typhoon is seeing a surge of play in UW, and players are always more excited to try the new thing rather than stick to old standbys. This may account for some of UW's increase, but there's nothing stopping Bant from doing it too. I don't see how or why Bant wouldn't adopt Typhoon if it's really that good when UW can. In point of fact, I don't see Bant adopting Typhoon as frequently as UW, but I don't know why that's happening and don't think it's intrinsic to either deck.

The Usual Suspect

One thing I can measure is the manabase. Bant's is far more painful than UW, and in a world full of Prowess, that may be the killer. This is not unique to this era of Bant; it was just as painful pre-Astrolabe. The thing is that Bant has to actually feel the pain more often. Astrolabe fixed mana both directly (changing one color to another) and indirectly (being a cantrip). This meant that Bant didn't have to fetch and shock as often, giving it a manabase on net as painless and stable as UW. Now that it has to be reasonable again, players must be deciding that the extra power isn't worth the life, even though I hold that Uro makes up for the life loss. Given my testing showing that Bant is as well positioned or better than UW, that pain is the only explanation I can come up with.

That's How It Is

Sometimes it's the little things that matter most. Power isn't everything in Magic, and even a tiny edge can mean everything. Despite feeling a lot worse to me both in goldfish terms and in many matchups, the greater Modern community has determined that UW Stoneblade is superior to Bant Snowblade. At least for now, well see what August's data says.

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