January 8, 2016

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Release the Thopters!

Oath of the Gatewatch approaches, which means another round of banlist roulette for Modern players. Speculation for the January update has focused mainly on a ban of either Hive Mind or Summer Bloom and an unban of Stoneforge Mystic. Many feel the Amulet Bloom deck is too strong, putting up tier one results while boasting a noticeable number of turn two and turn three kills. Only Wizards of the Coast knows whether the deck has crossed the threshold of both too good and too fast, but a ban to slow down (or kill) the deck certainly seems plausible. On the other side of ban-mania, speculation of a possible Stoneforge Mystic unban was triggered by the announcement that the Kor artificer will be a Grand Prix promotional card in 2016. While both of these scenarios are conceivable, there’s another banlist change that feels long overdue but has not been discussed much this spoiler season: the un-banning of Sword of the Meek.

If you’ve only played modern-era magic you may not be familiar with this card. A boogeyman from old Extended, it has been banned in Modern since the beginning of the format. The power of the Sword has nothing to do with its Riot Gear stats, nor its synergy with self-mill and Narcomoeba; its seat on the banned list is entirely due to one very specific combo piece: Thopter Foundry.

Putting the Thopter-Sword combo together allows you to pay one mana to sacrifice the Sword to the Foundry, creating a 1/1 flying Thopter and gaining a life, which then triggers the Sword in the graveyard and returns it to play attached to the Thopter allowing you to repeat the process. Effectively, for every mana you wish to spend you get a 1/1 flyer and a life at instant speed. Unquestionably powerful, this is far from the strongest or most degenerate thing you can be doing in modern right now. Sword of the Meek can safely be un-banned for the following reasons:

It’s a slow win condition in a fast format.
Say it with me folks – Modern is a turn four format. Actual combo decks like Splinter Twin and Ad Nauseam will win on the spot as early as turn four, and most aggressive decks can easily deal twenty by then if not effectively disrupted. Thopter-Sword is not a combo that wins the game immediately – it simply helps you stabilize and then provides inevitability. That is, we’re looking at a win condition for a grindy midrange or control deck – not a new instant-win combo. Opponents will have a lot of time to draw an answer to the two artifacts, or to simply win the game before the Thopter-Sword engine comes online.

It’s not stronger than existing finishers.
As Thopter-Sword is not a fast kill, it begs the question of whether it’s actually any better than existing late-game win conditions or inevitability engines. As a pilot of probably the slowest and grindiest deck in Modern (Esper Control), I can tell you that if a control deck is effective the win condition is almost immaterial. I’ve won with Snapcaster Mage beats, Celestial Colonnade beats, massive White Sun’s Zeniths and Baneslayer Angels. I can also tell you that while a stream of 1/1 flyers that gain life is a very good inevitability engine, it’s not any better than Eye of Ugin tutoring up a chain of giant Eldrazis. Thopter-Sword will have an uphill battle in decks looking for a resilient win condition simply due to requiring two cards to do anything, and being vulnerable to this:

It folds to artifact hate.
Speaking of being a vulnerable end-game win condition, Thopter-Sword has an additional level of vulnerability due simply to being based on artifacts. Modern decks are prepared for Affinity, and just about every card that is played to beat Affinity will incidentally also disrupt the Thopter-Sword combo. Cards like Ancient Grudge, Destructive Revelry, Stony Silence, and Shatterstorm will all get rid of the Thopter Foundry and thus disrupt the combo. Even main-deck artifact hate is not that uncommon, and Thopter-Sword will be easily chopped down in the early game by cards like these:

 

It folds to graveyard hate.
As if it wasn’t enough to be slow and vulnerable to artifact hate, Thopter-Sword also requires the graveyard in order to function. Since the majority of modern decks use their graveyard for some sort of value, it is extremely common to see Rest in Peace, Surgical Extraction, and Relic of Progenitus in any competitive 75 cards. The new Eldrazi decks will cause some particular grief for Thopter-Sword as they run a full playset of relics in the main-deck alongside a couple copies of Scrabbling Claws. More commonly, any green creature deck will almost certainly be packing this Thopter-Sword answer:

It folds to other incidental hate.
While being vulnerable to both artifact and graveyard hate should put everyone’s mind at ease regarding the vulnerability of the Thopter-Sword combo, it’s worth noting that there are also incidental hate cards that will get the job done. Something like a Pithing Needle or Night of Souls’ Betrayal will stop the combo either partially or entirely, and I live to see the day where someone sandbags a Rakdos Charm and uses the damage mode to undo all the life-gain from the Thopters on the table for a surprise victory.

It will not help existing top tier decks.
Unlike Stoneforge Mystic, there isn’t an obvious or easy way to drop the Thopter-Sword combo into any existing competitive deck. The combo requires blue and either white or black to cast the Thopter Foundry, the artifacts have virtually no synergy with Snapcaster Mage or Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, and cards like Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven will almost certainly play a role in assembling the combo. To the extent Thopter-Sword is successful in Modern, it will be in a deck that is currently not part of the competitive scene, which is good for format diversity.

It could knock Burn out of tier one status.
If we’re lucky, Thopter-Sword will prove a lot better than Soul Sisters without being as oppressive as something like Splinter Twin; that is, somewhere in the upper echelons of tier two. If we assume that a life-gain-on-demand win condition is bad news for Burn decks, a successful Thopter-Sword list may be all it takes to trigger Burn falling from tier one down into tier two. This would be a good thing, as it’s something of an embarrassment that the simplest deck in the history of magic is a top four deck in its premiere format. Burn should be a decent tier two deck at best, not something regularly knocking down modern events.

So, there you have it! Will Wizards unban the Sword? Who knows. Both pieces are quite cheap right now so if you have any hope/faith that it’ll happen I’d recommend getting your playsets now.