Throughout Magic history, UW has been a definitive control archetype. I remember playing against UW Landstill when I first got into Legacy. Later, the [card thopter foundry]Thopter[/card] [card sword of the meek]Sword[/card] deck rose to prominence. As Green Sun’s Zenith decks and Stoneblade became more popular, Thopter Sword faded away with nothing to fill the hole.
This ushered in a long period during which Legacy lacked a dedicated control deck, and some thought control was dead. Many lamented power creep regarding creatures. How was true control to make a comeback if the threats kept improving but the answers stayed the same?
The answer came—in Terminus. In Standard, it’s just a fair sweeper. The lack of easy enablers like Sensei’s Divining Top and Brainstorm kept it from becoming a dominating force. Like Bonfire of the Damned, the card is erratic, and poor in the opener. In Legacy, however, Terminus brought about the resurgence of Counterbalance-based draw go. Somehow, Wizards managed to print a card that wasn’t too good for Standard, but could also give older formats the new and improved wrath effect it apparently needed.
Miracles still has competition for your Tundras, however, in Stoneblade. The core of the two decks is the same pile of sweet blue and white spells, but Stoneblade relies on hitting with equipment. As such, it’s the more proactive of the two decks, though it lacks the tools of Countertop and Terminus.
This article will look at how both decks interact with the metagame and contrast the two, to help you decide which you should sleeve up for your next event.
Part I, Stoneblade
Stoneblade, By Bernie Wen
Much like some Star Wars fans denounce the new films, many don’t see Stoneblade as a true control deck. That’s because there are only three and it isn’t.
Stoneblade has gone through a series of changes. I remember when it didn’t splash black, and people had quad-Wasteland and Mishra’s Factory in the deck. To compensate for the bad mana, some switched to inferior cards, like Mana Leak over Counterspell.
These days, the lists are finely tuned, though most masters of the archetype add their own touches. Matt Hoey favors Dust Bowl over Wastelands. Ben Friedman Top 8′d an Invitational with triple-Terminus in the board. Here, Bernie Wen chose to sideboard Lingering Souls, the card that helped Tom Martell win GP Indy in a field of UW mirrors and RUG.
1: It’s the best Stoneforge Mystic deck in the format.
Because it runs so few creatures, Stoneblade actually appreciates Stoneforge Mystic‘s Squire-sized body. To compare, an aggro deck doesn’t have much use for a 1/2. For two mana, [card tarmogoyf]you can get a 5/6[/card]. For three, a [card knight of the reliquary]10/10 with utility[/card]. As such, those decks would prefer to draw the equipment naturally. If you’re still unconvinced, consider a Maverick mirror where both decks have a Noble Hierarch, a 3/3 Knight of the Reliquary, and three lands. For your turn, you draw a Stoneforge Mystic. “Excellent!” You think to yourself. “This can find me an Umezawa’s Jitte!” But the turn spent tutoring gives your opponent time to find an answer, and as the game drags on the lowly Stoneforge ends up irrelevant. Had it started as a copy of Umezawa’s Jitte, however, it would’ve won the game on the spot.
Now imagine you’re playing UW against the same board presence. A naturally drawn Umezawa’s Jitte isn’t very good without creatures to equip it to. A Stoneforge Mystic, however, is both. It’s up to the rest of the deck—the pile of efficient spells—to answer troubles like Qasali Pridemage and opposing equipment, or to buy time to get a hit in. After the first hit, the equipment makes the next one easier. And easier.
2: Attacking on multiple fronts.
But dorks with swords is only half of the Stoneblade equation. The deck also features [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card], and it’s the multiple angles of attack that give it enough play for capable mages to do well with it. If you’re facing a deck that doesn’t care about combat, it will care about Jace. If the deck across from you can shrug off a planeswalker, it’s likely weak to Batterskull. Also, your opponent will have to keep hands without knowing if you’re going to rush a Batterskull into play or jam Jace on four (or both). Since they’re very different threats, they require different answers. A Zoo deck, on the other hand, will always lead with a creature on turn one and another on turn two, and any opponent knows to keep a hand with removal.
1: Drawing the wrong half of your deck, or having the right half answered.
I’m aware of the advantage hitting with a Sword or a Jitte gives you. My main problem is that usually either the Jace or the equipment side of the deck is weak, depending on the matchup. Against Merfolk, Jace is an awkward draw. Against a Pernicious Deed deck, equipment is embarrassing.
If a deck can properly board to beat the half of Stoneblade that it’s weak against, say Red Elemental Blasts for Jace or Ancient Grudge for Batterskull, it can create some very difficult matches. Bernie hedges against that with his sideboard Lingering Souls, but while I think that’s correct, it’s not enough of a solution to get me to play the archetype.
2: Lacks the strengths of real control (inevitability) and aggro (threat density)
Despite some calling Stoneblade a control deck, it doesn’t have much in the way of inevitability. Against Goblins, for example, you can’t wait long without risk of being buried under a pile of Goblin Ringleaders. Meanwhile, you can’t afford to keep an opener that loses to Aether Vial or Goblin Lackey. In this matchup, you aren’t advantaged in the early game or the late game. Much of the time, Stoneblade has to claw a path to victory in the mid game.
Part II, Miracles
Miracles, by Justin Adams
Miracles has been moving closer and closer to a stock list. These days, everyone seems to be on a 3-1 split between Terminus and Supreme Verdict, a miser Detention Sphere in the main deck, and the red splash for Red Elemental Blast in the board. They all seem to feature one to two Snapcaster Mages and a single Vendilion Clique in the main deck.
Sometimes they run Baneslayer Angel in the board. While being able to switch to a more proactive plan is nice, especially when the opponent is boarding out removal, Baneslayer Angel itself is best used for racing creature decks, which is where Terminus is supposed to shine. If Maverick and such are good matchups due to the new miracle sweeper, why board in a different threat before playing the fourth Terminus?
I might be missing something, but Geist of Saint Traft seems like a better sideboard option for this deck. It’s much stronger against other Jace decks, where it can help you actually finish a match in time, and it’s a fine way to apply pressure to combo decks as well. The creature decks, as I mentioned earlier, probably don’t need the sideboard slots. Perhaps Baneslayer Angel is a way to buy time in the midgame against Stoneblade, which Geist can’t really do.
1: Countertop is sweet.
I’ve already talked a lot about Terminus and how that gives the deck some miraculous powers against creature decks. The other tool that sets it apart is Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top. With that two-card combination, Miracles has inevitability over combo decks, which is impressive given how many slots it dedicates to beating aggro.
The other aspect of Countertop is that, while it isn’t amazing against aggro at first, it does lock them out of the game post-Terminus, and serves as protection for the two win conditions of the deck, ([card jace the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] and [card entreat the angels]Entreat[/card]).
2: Renders spot removal dead.
Aside from a premature Entreat the Angels, spot removal is almost completely dead against this deck. That makes up for occasionally drawing multiple Counterbalances or extra miracles when you don’t need them.
1: Entreat is a bad win condition.
I’ve seen many an Entreat the Angels lose. Sometimes the card gets fired off too early, and the opponent handles it with a few removal spells. Sometimes the 4/4s get answered with an Engineered Explosives or a Maelstrom Pulse. Even when it puts a seemingly overwhelming amount of power onto the board, the opponent still has a full turn to find an answer or the win.
The main reason to run the card is that it eats up very few deck slots, which is ideal for a control finisher. It also flips for three on Counterbalance, which is relevant. These considerations make it a better call than Thopter Sword. Still, Academy Ruins gave Thopter combo some resiliency, which Entreat lacks.
The other side of having few bodies means that you don’t have guys to protect Jace or pressure opposing Jaces. The only real answer, besides permission, is a planeswalker of your own. This is why Red Elemental Blast in the sideboard has been almost universally adopted.
2: Your deck is slow.
If you can top effectively (see here), you can avoid most unintentional draws. Unfortunately, you’re not the only one playing the game. Against a deliberate opponent, it might be truly impossible to finish a match in time, simply due to the number of turns it takes to finish a game.
While I enjoy decks that take a while, squeezing the life out of their prey like a boa constrictor, I don’t enjoy having to call a judge to watch for slow play. Part of the benefit of playing a blisteringly fast deck, like ‘Folk or Affinity, is that you get to avoid that whole situation. The slower your deck is, the more often you’ll go to time, and this deck is one of the slowest.
Part III, UW vs UW
Of the two decks, I find Stoneblade more punishing of mistakes. I’m not saying you can misplay with Miracles willy-nilly, of course. Like all Magic, you’re much more likely to win if you play well, and the mere presence of Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Force of Will will make it difficult for some to pilot.
The difference is that the minute mistakes with Stoneblade kill you instantly. This is a deck with zero margin for error. You can walk the tightrope a long time, but everyone slips up sometime, and when you do with this deck there’s no safety net to catch you. In Miracles, the decisions are harder, but when you muck things up you can always sack into a Terminus, or an Entreat, or you can blind flip your Counterbalance or some other seemingly improbable thing.
This isn’t possible with Stoneblade. You don’t have main deck sweepers, so that removal spell had better hit the right creature. Your clock isn’t as fast as RUG’s, and you lack the Countertop lock that Miracles enjoys, so your countermagic has to do more.
Then, even after you’ve perfectly tuned your list and achieved incredibly tight play, you still have a slew of bad matchups to pairings-dance around. This is not an archetype for the mentally slovenly or the unlucky.
Why, given the pros and cons, would people willingly choose to play Stoneblade? Perhaps they enjoy that feeling of being on the edge, of knowing exactly why they won the game. Perhaps they enjoy the way the games play out, and the decisions are intuitive to them based on their play history. I can’t say for sure, because I can’t find a good reason to play the deck.
Part IV, A Second Opinion
Since I’m clearly biased, I interviewed Matt Hoey to get another perspective. Hoey has an Open win with the deck, as well as several other Top 8s, including Legacy Champs. More than that, I’ve played him several times, and I’ve seen his competence first-hand.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the deck?
I don’t believe there is a particularly misunderstood aspect of the deck. Its a pretty straightforward deck and everyone who plays it or against it knows what it’s attempting to do. I guess the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that they think it’s a dedicated control deck, more akin to Countertop, rather than a fairly mid-rangeish deck. Stoneblade follows a similar theoretical path to Jund. You’re trading cards in order to advance the gamestate, but also attacking their life as a resource, not just their cards. You’re attempting to use efficient (mana efficient and card-value efficient) cards to press the fact that you are killing them and limiting their options simultaneously. This leads perfectly into the second question as I feel that is the greatest strength of the deck.
What are its greatest strengths/weaknesses?
When you’re playing against combo and other control decks, you’re able to efficiently trade cards with them and tax their resources while placing a reasonable clock (especially post board since all your [card stoneforge mystic]Stoneforges[/card] turn into recurring discard with [card sword of feast and famine]Feast and Famine[/card]). And when you’re playing against aggressive decks like Goblins, Maverick, Merfolk, etc, you’re able to not only battle them with disruption, [card swords to plowshares]Swordsing[/card] their guys and countering their spells at a one-for-one value, but also mitigating their clock while simultaneously presenting your own and/or killing their creatures due to the equipment.
The weakness of the deck arises from the fact that there are some cards in your deck which are just inherently more powerful than others. Without a [card stoneforge mystic]Stoneforge[/card] (or [card vendilion clique]Clique[/card]) it is almost always difficult to end a game at a reasonable pace, and that is why opening hand ranges more important in this deck than others. I cannot tell you how many countless times I have kept Stoneforge, one land, five reasonable spells, especially on the draw, as running the gambit of shuffling and not hitting another mystic early can be a disaster.
What’s the biggest mistake you see novices making with the deck?
This aforementioned example is the biggest thing I see novices do wrong. They are too loose on their mulligans, willing to ship these one land hands just because they are one landers. I believe this is something that plagues this deck and other control/combo pilots. They misevaluate their opening hand ranges, causing them to lose more often than not. The other thing I see people incorrectly do is jam Stoneforge on turn two when they can easily hold open Spell Pierce, Counterspell, or Brainstorm and then resolve Stoneforge in the next one or two turns with a piece of countermagic backing it up.
Finally, why do you prefer Stoneblade to UW Miracles?
Generally, I think being the dedicated control deck in Legacy is significantly worse than being proactive and actively attempting to kill your opponent. They’re both very strong decks but I feel like actively attacking their resources from both angles is better than just attacking their cards.
There you have it. Both Hoey and myself are two opinionated individuals who, having reached differing conclusions, still admit that the other archetype is strong. Clearly, the only way to truly settle this is in a rap-off, which will now play out in my head. For those readers who aren’t privy to my mental chatter, here’s the text version:
Epic Deck Battles of History!
For a deck that wants to attack regularly
You have a lower threat density than Norway’s military
You’re washed up, passé, out of good plays
Testing’s shown you have bad matchups for days
I’d list your virtues, but I’d be a liar
So have fun durdling around casting Squire
I’ll be Hallowed Burying whole armies raw
For a single white, off a Sensei’s draw
Those rhymes were pitiful and tragic
And your games are too boring to be called Magic
Winning all your matches 1-0-1
Is a piss-poor, tedious excuse for fun
I’d rather send a Clique flying in for three
Bringing all the haters down to their knees
If you think my matchups falter or slip
You’re blinder than your CB flips
Note: there is no “who’s next,” and you don’t decide it. I’m just having fun.