Why Ancient Stirrings Is So Powerful
In this week's article, Hans takes a look at the green, one-mana cantrip and discusses what makes the card the powerhouse that it is. Are you interested in an in-depth analysis of the card that has everyone talking after KCI's win at GP Las Vegas? You've come to the right spot!
The dust has settled after GP Las Vegas, and Matt Nass's KCI list took the trophy home. The discussions surrounding the tournament, however, have not focused solely on KCI. Ancient Stirrings founds its way in thirteen of the top 32 decks, and with players debating whether or not the card should be legal in the format, I wanted to write a different take on subject by examining what makes the card so powerful in the first place.
The Origins of Ancient Stirrings and Context
In order to discuss Ancient Stirrings, and its power level, it's necessary to examine the card's origins and the context surrounding its printing, as well as briefly mention the lack of the Modern format at the time.
Ancient Stirrings was originally printed in Rise of the Eldrazi back in 2010, a set that introduced players to the colorless colossi that are the Eldrazi. Furthermore, the Zendikar block itself was a block that cared about lands (Worldwake had introduced the allied-color cycle of creature lands, for example, and Zendikar printed enemy-color fetch lands), another type of colorless card. Finally, players would be making a return to Mirrodin later in the year with the upcoming Scars of Mirrodin block. Given this context, Ancient Stirrings makes sense in the larger scheme of set design and why a green cantrip was given the power to dig for said colorless cards.
“Power” is another perspective that has changed since Rise was released eight years ago: Zendikar block was a block full of cards that still see play as Modern staples (fetch lands, creature lands, Goblin Guide, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Bloodghast, Dispel, Death's Shadow - the list goes on), and the Scars block that followed it was just as powerful, if not more (New Phyrexia is the set with the highest number of Modern-playable cards). When players are casting Jace, Preordain, and Ponder, Ancient Stirrings doesn't seem that potent of a cantrip.
This brings us to the last point – at the time that Ancient Stirrings was printed, Modern was not yet a format. Modern was officially recognized as a sanctioned format in 2011 and inaugurated with Pro Tour Philadelphia (which had been changed from Extended to Modern in order to accommodate the ringing in of the new format), and the best decks from Pro Tour Philadelphia involved busted strategies such as Blazing Shoal Infect, UR Twin, and Ascension Storm. Ancient Stirrings was, by and large, a small fry compared to the kind of cards taking the limelight at the top of the standings.
Changing of the Guard
Times have changed since Pro Tour Philadelphia. It's 2018, and the three decks from PT Philadelphia that I mentioned in the previous paragraph have all been powered down: Infect no longer has access to Blazing Shoal and Gitaxian Probe, UR Twin has had Splinter Twin banned, and Ascension Storm now relies on creatures and must make do without Ponder or Preordain]. When looking at the top decks of the past year, we see different flavors of “colorless” decks such as RG Eldrazi, Mono-Green Tron, KCI, and Lantern Control that all have multiple Top 8s under their belts at the highest levels of competition. Each of these decks utilize Ancient Stirrings to hit land drops, find key pieces, and in short, increase the consistency of their game plans.
Cantrips are powerful because they let the player casting it look at more cards in his or her deck and thereby enables him or her to make more decisions. The cheaper the cantrip the better, as is generally the rule when it comes to costs on cards, but the more cards a cantrip lets you look at, the better the card is at creating more decision points, as well. Ponder and Preordain both let you look at a maximum of four and three cards, respectively, but they also let you set up your future turns by letting you order the cards on top of your deck. In the case of Ancient Stirrings, what the card lacks in setting up future turns, it makes up for in the raw depth – and thus versatility – that the card provides in decks that properly utilize it.
To illustrate this point, let's examine everyone's "favorite" Modern deck, Mono-Green Tron:
Mono-Green Tron by Yuri Ramsey, GP Las Vegas 2018, 2nd place
|19Lands||27Creatures and Artifacts||14Other Spells|
|1Field of Ruin||2Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger||4Ancient Stirrings|
|4Forest||2Walking Ballista||4Sylvan Scrying|
|1Sanctum of Ugin||1World Breaker||4Karn Liberated|
|1Urza's Factory||3Wurmcoil Engine||2Ugin, the Spirit Dragon|
|4Urza's Mine||4Chromatic Sphere|
|4Urza's Power Plant||4Chromatic Star|
|4Urza's Tower||4Expedition Map|
|3Relic of Progenitus|
|1Grafdigger's Cage||1Karn, Scion of Urza||3Nature's Claim|
|2Spatial Contortion||3Thought-Knot Seer||3Thragtusk|
In this deck, Ancient Stirrings finds anything and everything – it can grab Tron lands to complete Tron, the finishers to cast with seven or more mana, Oblivion Stone and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon to clear the board, Walking Ballista and Spatial Contortion for spot removal, and even the measly Chromatic Spheres and Chromatic Stars to dig even deeper if the top five cards weren't enough. Part of the reason why Stirrings is so potent is because of the density of cards that have been printed in the past three years: Ugin, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, Thought-Knot Seer, Warping Wail, Spatial Contortion, Walking Ballista, World Breaker, and Karn, Scion of Urza are all cards that saw relatively-recent print.
Modern right at its birth didn't have access to these cards, and without them, Ancient Stirrings really was a card that forced you to make deck-building considerations due to the dearth of quality colorless cards. Without redundancy, cards like Ancient Stirrings is powerful but not as powerful as they can be, which is part of the reason why the blue, one-mana cantrips are as highly regarded as they are – having access to colors increases the pool of redundant effects. With redundancy? They're the reason decks like Tron are so consistent and high-performing.
The Future of Ancient Stirrings
Wizards of the Coast will continue to explore artifact-based planes, similar to how players visited Kaladesh in 2016, and colorless cards like Walking Ballista, Hangarback Walker, and Scrap Trawler will continue to be printed in the future. As the density of powerful, versatile, or lynch-pin colorless cards increases - whether in the form of Eldrazi, lands, or artifacts - the smaller the restriction will be for Ancient Stirrings.
Interestingly, the scaling power level of Ancient Stirrings in the future is something that Wizards has been content with in the form of a Modern staple: Snapcaster Mage. Snapcaster Mage is a card that becomes ever-more powerful the more cheaper instants and sorceries we get access to, and cards such as Kolaghan's Command and Fatal Push have proven that point. Whether Wizards sees Ancient Stirrings as a “scaling” card like Snapcaster is something that I can't answer, but for those of you that are brewing and building your decks, I hope that today's look at Ancient Stirrings might have given you motivation to try out a colorless-based deck that takes advantage of the one-mana, green cantrip. That's all for this week, and I'll see you next time!
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