Welcome to 2017! Hopefully you’ve recovered enough to actually face the new year, because we have a new set and a banlist announcement on the way. It’s time once again for wild speculation and unrealistic expectations to flood the internet. Brace yourselves. We at Modern Nexus will do what we can to temper this and provide more grounded opinions and analysis.
I am not willing to speculate on what changes will be made on the 16th. I still think that Wizards is too unpredictable and unknowable for that to be worthwhile. However, I have been contemplating the banlist. Specifically I have been trying to parse why certain cards have remained banned while other, arguably more powerful, versions remain legal. I do understand why they’re not banned. A card needs to be proven problematic before Wizards will take action, and that hasn’t happened yet. That’s not the problem I’m having. The problem is that there are some legal cards that are better than banned cards. Specifically, I question why Ancient Stirrings is still legal while Preordain is banned. If the former is fine, the latter should be as well.
You could argue that this logic applies to Ponder as well. I don’t think it does, but you could argue it. Ponder is much more powerful than Preordain and I will be discussing why in a little bit. Given Wizards’s design philosophy and fear of Storm, I don’t think we can ever expect to both removed. I also don’t think that we actually want both in Modern. UR Delver is a very scary deck when it has the opportunity, and while Treasure Cruise is gone, a critical mass of cantrips do a similar job. Let’s focus on the safer option for now. For more on why Preordain is the acceptable choice, go read Jordan’s article from Friday. His reasoning is in line with mine and he makes a good argument that I will be expanding on in this article.
When Serum Visions was first released, everyone was a bit mystified. You drew a random card and then scryed. It looked weird and seemed counterintuitive. Why are we drawing first? It makes far more sense to draw a card we’d already scryed for. The thing was that Scry 2 (and in Fifth Dawn it was all Scry 2) always went below all the other card text. I recall at the time Mark Rosewater said that it was intended to be a new form of cantrip, but I can’t find the article to confirm it. It saw a little bit of play at the time, but was largely ignored except by Storm decks that needed additional cantrips. This was before Legacy really took off and we clued into the real power of cantrips outside of combo decks.
Fast-forward a few years and Wizards eventually came around to the players’ way of thinking. For M11 they “fixed” the templating and created Preordain. And it was much more powerful. It turned out that looking for a card to draw was really, really good. Especially when you do it in Caw Blade. However, the card was absolutely ubiquitous during its Standard run and saw considerable play in Extended as well. Blue decks everywhere played this card and prospered from the increased consistency and ability to dig for spells. To this day it’s a mainstay in both Vintage and Legacy.
Despite this pedigree, Preordain hasn’t had much of an impact for many years. It was banned immediately following Modern’s debut at Pro Tour Philadelphia along with Ponder. The problem was that alongside fast mana, combo decks were too fast and consistent in early Modern. Without Force of Will and Counterspell, combo was too consistent to be acceptable. The fast mana was clearly bad but the cantrips were equally guilty. The mana and time advantages were too much on combo’s side to allow them access to powerful cantrips. Splinter Twin was very good for a very long time; can you imagine how much better it would have been with additional consistency? With most of the really powerful combos gone, Jordan and I think that Preordain might be acceptable again.
Meanwhile, Preordain doesn’t see much play in Legacy in fair decks. Not because it’s bad per se, but because Ponder and Brainstorm are that much better. It’s only played in decks that want three different cantrips like Storm or Sneak and Show. This is the main reason that Ponder is not a serious unban option.
Examining Ancient Stirrings
Ancient Stirrings is a card that I suspect Wizards regrets with hindsight. When it was printed it was unremarkable and for most of its Modern life it was indisputably acceptable, but recent printings have brought that into question. When it was printed it was very limited target-wise. Now it’s the best card in a number of decks.
Stirrings was intended to help find and cast the Eldrazi titans from Rise of the Eldrazi. Very few non-artifact colorless spells existed, just a small number of inferior Eldrazi and All Is Dust. Even in Legacy it could only find lands, artifacts, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (because why play Kozilek or Ulamog?). Thus it never saw any play. There were better ways to find Emrakul like Polymorph, actual land search existed, and artifact decks never wanted to waste time playing green spells. They were either Affinity, combo decks, or Stax. It just wasn’t good enough and would have been forgotten had Wizards not gotten inexplicably bitten by the colorless bug.
Since 2010, Wizards has continuously printed more and more aggressively costed colorless spells, and as a result Stirrings has gotten increasingly powerful. It started with Karn Liberated in New Phyrexia and culminated in Battle for Zendikar block. It can now find any card type thanks to devoid. Stirrings first started seeing play in Tron, where it was still fairly weak since at the time the only real bombs were Wurmcoil Engine and Karn. However, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and World Breaker have been added into the mix, as well as the new decks Lantern Control and Bant Eldrazi. Suddenly Stirrings is seeing widespread play.
Why Do I Care?
At this point the card is ridiculous. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I claim that it says, “G: Look at the top five cards of your library. Reveal one and put it into your hand.” The closest comparison is Impulse, which cost a mana more and looked at a card less. No, instant speed doesn’t really make up the difference. And Wizards considers Impulse powerful enough that they nerfed it into Anticipate.
This gives colorless decks an extraordinary advantage over colored decks. It is no accident that the Salt Lake City RPTQ sent 16 copies of Ancient Stirrings to the Pro Tour. Cantrips are powerful because they reduce variance. Every card you draw makes it more likely that you will see another given card in your deck. The more cards you draw the more chances you have to draw what you need. Cantrips like Ponder let you look at additional cards and pick what you want to draw, which is better than just drawing them in many cases. This reduces the randomness of your draw phase and therefore the variance of the game.
Serum Visions lets you draw a random card and look at two new cards. You cannot draw a card that you saw before it was in your hand. Now, compare Ancient Stirrings to the banned Ponder. Stirrings lets you choose the best card out of five. Ponder lets you arrange the top three cards of you deck and draw one, or shuffle away three bad ones and draw a random card, for up to four “looks.” Stirrings may not set up multiple draws, but it gets you further into your deck than Ponder, which is what you often actually care about. You have to find the cards that you need right now. With Stirrings you see five cards and then your next draw is six cards deep. Smoothing out additional draws with Ponder is more like gravy.
Compare that to Preordain, which lets you look at two cards and draw one of them, or a random card, for three looks at most. Stirrings provides far more opportunities to find what you need. I ask again, why is Stirrings acceptable when Preordain is not?
Why It Matters
The problem I have is that there are a narrow band of decks that get an extremely powerful consistency tool while the rest have to settle for Serum Visions. This is giving them an unfair advantage in terms of reducing their variance relative to the rest of the format and as a result an edge over their competition. As Jordan noted, the relative consistency of most decks in Modern comes via redundancy—that is, playing many cards that do a similar thing. Think Inquisition of Kozilek plus Thoughtseize. I’ve also heard this referred to as “breaking the rule of four,” and it’s the standard method available in Modern. Certain decks are able to reduce their variance with cantrips, most notably Death’s Shadow and Ad Nauseam, or through “drawing” lots of extra cards with the dredge mechanic.
I’m not saying that consistency tools are inherently bad. Legacy is built around consistency tools and works pretty well for the most part. When everyone has access to these tools then things are relatively balanced. Vintage decks are inherently broken beyond belief, but so is every deck they play against so it isn’t that noticeable. The same is true in Legacy. Brainstorm and Ponder are so ubiquitous that the actual advantage they give to deck is muted by symmetry. As long as that is the case, then having powerful cantrips is not a problem. It’s when only some decks can play that game that things get ugly.
Which is why it’s a problem that Ancient Stirrings is a card. There is no comparable tool for other decks to match the effect. Therefore the effect of such a tool is more pronounced, and the decks with that effect have an inherent advantage over their opponents. This can shift the reality of matchups away from how they appear in theory. Tron and Eldrazi took a banning this year and have hate pointed at them—yet they still put up great numbers, in no small part by being more consistent than everyone else. At some point this needs to be addressed. Either the colorless decks need to play with the same variance as the rest of us, or the rest of the format should be raised up to meet them. This status quo cannot last.
The Long-Term Effect
Over the long term, decks that put up consistent results are the ones that linger in a format. You see individual decks spike tournaments but if they require immense amounts of skill to play or don’t respond well to targeting they fade away. This is why Jund consistently sits in Tier 1 but Ad Nauseam and Grixis rise and fall with the season. When a deck possesses both the redundancy to stand up to targeting and has the tools to smooth out its variance, we have something to worry about. Bant Eldrazi’s stock has steadily risen thanks to its powerful clock and Ancient Stirrings finding what it needs when it needs it. This does have a chilling effect and it isn’t great for deck diversity.
Back when Eye of Ugin was banned, I said that there was finally a reason to play Mono-U Tron instead of GR Tron. This turned out to be wrong because GR hits Tron so much more consistently than Mono-U. The difference is that Ancient Stirrings and Sylvan Scrying are much better than Serum Visions. As things stand, if you want to play a (mostly) fair creature deck it is really hard to argue against choosing Bant Eldrazi, because it is so powerful and can be consistently powerful thanks to Stirrings. I cannot foresee this working out well over the long term, nor do I think it healthy for a prison deck like Lantern to have such a robust digging tool at its disposal.
So my stance is that, for the long-term health of Modern, Stirrings needs to go. Unbanning Preordain would help correct the imbalance, but I’m unconvinced that it would do enough when Stirrings is so much more powerful.