The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 3

This continues on from http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=18 and http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=33, which are worth reading first.

Every year, a few cards are printed that are much more powerful than they initially appear. Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, Nahiri the Harbinger – each of these cards was initially dismissed by most players, and then became a major Constructed card.

Two of the three (Cruise, Angler) I correctly identified as Constructed powerhouses early. This is because of my methodology – looking at cards through the prism of several fundamental rules of Magic. Any card that obeys all of these rules is inherently fair, and will not be in the upper echelon of Constructed cards in the larger formats.

Any card that breaks one or more of these rules must be taken seriously, even if it looks terrible. Those cards may simply be too expensive for a format, or the support for them might not yet exist, but they should remain on your radar.

The first three Fundamental Rules of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn. This was discussed in Part 1.

2) Players have reliable access to at most X+1 mana on turn X, except for turn 1, where they are limited to 1 mana. Exceeding this limit requires extreme investment of resources. This was discussed in Part 2.

3) Cards must have an impact on the gamestate commensurate with the amount of investment required to deploy them. The primary form of investment is mana, and cards with low mana costs and high forms of other investment are often dangerous.

Let’s unpack this third rule, and start with a couple of examples. First, let’s begin with a card with an absolutely massive impact on the gamestate, Worldspine Wurm, and ask a question: “Why is this card not good?”

The Wurm is extremely difficult to beat once resolved. 15 power, all with trample, is almost always a two-shot KO and often will kill in one swing. And if it does go to the graveyard, it splinters into three individually dangerous threats.

Yet the card obeys the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic. Its impact on the gamestate is massive, but completely commensurate with the investment: resolving an eleven mana spell. In fact, you can get far superior threats in today’s Standard for nine to ten mana, and all of those cards are outclassed by Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.

The investment required to cast Worldspine Wurm is surviving until you have 11 mana, which necessitates aggressive ramping, playing a lot of lands and other cards dedicated to mana generation, and also delaying or negating your opponent’s gameplan until around the 10th turn of the game.

If you can do all of that, the Wurm is merely the finishing blow that seals a game you already deserved to win.

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Let’s contrast the Wurm to a card that breaks the Third Fundamental Rule right in half.

Treasure Cruise was good but fair during its tenure in Standard, but has earned its way into the Modern and Legacy banned lists and the Vintage restricted list, and if Frontier becomes officially supported in the future, it will probably wind up banned there.

Ask yourself: What is the total cost at which this card’s effect is fair?

The correct answer is going to vary by format, but spending 3U to draw 3 cards is a strong effect in Standard and weak but passable (maybe) in Modern. Spending 2U to draw 3 cards is strong to broken in Modern, and strong in Legacy and Vintage.

Cheaper than that is ridiculous. Spending U to draw 3 cards is (almost) equivalent to a card that is a serious contender for the most powerful card legal in Vintage, A-Call.

You’ll notice I do not include the cost of exiling cards from the graveyard. This is because in a best case scenario, this cost is marginal or even completely irrelevant, and careful deck construction allows you to set up this best case scenario often.

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What does it mean to ‘invest’ in casting a spell?

Casting a spell costs mana and sometimes other resources, for example life to cast Infernal Contract.

Each turn players have a maximum amount of mana, which is discussed in the Second Fundamental Rule of Magic.

Using these resources to cast one spell precludes using them on other spells. For instance, mana invested in casting Chandra, Flamecaller cannot be used to cast Inferno Titan.

While this last point is obvious, it is important – your spells all compete for the limited amount of mana you can generate. However, spells often do not compete for other limited resources.

For example, Treasure Cruise and Infernal Contract do not compete for their non-mana resources at all.

This is why nonmana costs, or variable costs (like Delve) where something else can substitute for mana are so potentially dangerous and why you should start by evaluating these cards in a best-case scenario. You should evaluate these cards by assuming these costs are irrelevant, then determine if that assumption makes the card broken.

In the event that it does, you should try to build a deck where that assumption (that the nonmana costs can be ignored) is true.

You might fail to do so, and for some cards, such as Rise of the Eldrazi’s long-forgotten draw spell, Shared Discovery, it may not be realistic to build such a deck at all.

In such a case, you should keep the card in mind, and revisit it in the future if the right synergistic cards are printed.

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As a corollary to this rule, cards which convert one nonmana resource (such as life) into another resources (such as cards in your hand) should always be evaluated as dangerous and potentially strong.

Even the terrible-looking Skirge Familiar was a pivotal part of one of the stronger combo decks in the history of the Standard format (then called Type 2), Renounce Bargain. If this deck resolved Bargain and Familiar, it was almost guaranteed to win the game that turn.

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Finally, what gamestate impacts are commensurate with various levels of mana investment?

Imagine a 6/6 trampling creature, with no other rules text, that is mono-green.

In Limited, you’d be content to pay 4GG for this creature, and very happy with it at 3GG. In fact you’d probably be happy first picking it at 3GG.

In Standard, there have been formats where you’d pay 3GG for this effect, and others where it would not be playable at 2GG. But usually, at 2GG it would be one of the stronger cards in the format, and at 3GG it would be a fringe playable card.

In Modern, it would not be playable at 4 mana but might see play at 1GG. (Considerably stronger combat-oriented 4 drops in other colours – Siege Rhino, Phyrexian Obliterator, Abyssal Persecutor, Desecration Demon, see little or no play in the format).

In Vintage, it might see play at 2 mana.

This question is too broad to have an absolute answer. Format-specific experience is the only way to get a feel for it, especially for unusual effects like Sadistic Sacrament or Snugglecopter (may the poor banned guy Rest in Peace).

But your starting point should be to look at cards with alternate costs, and ask  the following questions:

  • Is this card’s best case scenario utterly broken?
  • If so, can I build a deck where the best case scenario is realistically achieveable?
  • If I can, how big are the sacrifices needed to do so?

This analysis was the reason I picked Treasure Cruise as worthy of banning in Legacy as soon as I saw it on the KTK spoiler. It also results in a lot of false positives (I still half-think Inverter of Truth can be made to work in Standard, but it has done a fat lot of nothing so far…), but playtesting can allow you to filter out ideas that you cannot make work.

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Standard After The Bannings – Some Cards That Might Become Playable Again

Holy banhammer.

I knew this Standard format was shit, but after a certain Sam Stoddard damage-control article, I was not aware that Wizards agreed.

Clearly they believed Sam’s article about as much as we did. Three cards have been taken out the back and shot, in the banhammer’s busiest day in Standard since the Affinity massacre.

A couple of quick thoughts about new Standard, but first an important disclaimer. On MTGO, I own a moderate number of some of the cards that this article talks up. I bought those cards because I believe the contents of this article, and I bought them a couple of hours before writing this article. However there is a potential conflict of interest you should keep in mind while reading. 

Finally I’m not covering the new Copy Cat archetype that will appear in Standard events near you. This Saheeli Rai fuelled combo deck is being talked about a lot elsewhere and has the ability to win out of nowhere. It should be on your radar but as I’ve not tested with it I don’t know if it will be a gimmick or a powerhouse.

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Bannings remove cards from a format, but can also effectively add cards to it too.

Sometimes a previously mediocre strategy becomes good in a new, less powerful field.

Other times, a strategy is pushed out of an environment because other cards invalidate its strategy entirely. When these other cards are banned, the decks hated out by the banned card can return.

Emrakul, The Promised End was an unbeatable End-game (sorry) that pushed a lot of other strong lategame cards out of Standard. There simply was no point casting a haymaker on turn 6 if it was going to be trumped on turn 7 or 8 by His Noodly Appendage.

The Emo With A Big Sword (Sorin, Grim Nemesis) was a lategame powerhouse prior to EMN. Then suddenly he dropped completely out of the competitive limelight, because he lined up terribly against Emrakul, and to a lesser extent, The Unspellable Spider (Ishkanah), who could swarm Sorin and bring him down.

Sorin still has massive starting loyalty, a +1 that grants card advantage while threatening to win the game on its own, a very strong minus ability that assassinates Planeswalkers, protects him from creatures and also keeps you on a stable life total. I expect him to make a serious competitive comeback now that one of his main nemeses is banned and the other is probably not nearly as playable.

Sorin will, however, compete against another 6 mana black card that stabilizes you, kills creatures and threatens to end the game swiftly. (Ob)Noxious Gearhulk competes with the Emo Walker, and it’s not clear which of the two will be better.

To start with I’ll be experimenting with running four of one, and taking notes on how often I’d rather have drawn the other card. After a couple of hundred matches this will provide useful information.

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Part sweeper, part gameending threat, OGW’s incarnation of Chandra was also completely pushed out of Competitive play by Emrakul. While Chandra could sometimes kill before His Noodly Appendage hit the battlefield, Emrakul’s favorite spider was extremely good against Chandra.

With Emrakul banned, and players having less incentive to play the spider as a result, I think Chandra might well be coming back.

It’s not clear to me whether it is better to use Kaladesh Chandra to ramp past 6 mana to drop a big Eldrazi, or whether it is better to top out at the Flamecaller. I’m going to start out with the latter option because I think that the available sources of actual colorless mana are probably not good enough to power many Eldrazi into Standard.

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The second card to feel the banhammer’s loving caress was of course Snugglecopter.

Snugglecopter was one of two things that kept the Vampires deck from getting anywhere in Standard.

Being able to block and eat Drana, or trade with Olivia, Snugglecopter was a 4-of in 60% of the format, and this created an extraordinarily hostile environment for a deck that wanted to attack with fliers.

Additionally, Vampires had no truly consistent removal. Fiery Temper was powerful but unreliable, and the deck had no artifact synergies to use Unlicensed Disintegration, which at 3 mana competes with the deck’s best creatures.

This has also changed with the printing of the best removal spell Standard has seen in over five years. A quick Push should prove Fatal to most potential blockers.

For this reason I’m going to be experimenting with Vampires again. Drana is an absurdly strong card in a vacuum and lines up acceptably well against Fatal Push.

I’m going to test both a BR deck with the Madness synergies, and also a BW fliers deck without tribal synergies, because I can’t let Bygones be bygone, and I still think Topplegeist is one of the strongest unplayed cards in a long time.

Both decks will need to have a plan for a sweeper that gives everything -3/-3 until end of turn, of course. Yahenni’s Expertise might keep Vampires down again.

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Sylvan Advocate, the Land Lord we all love to hate, was the most played card in Standard for a period, and a multi-archetype staple from the release of OGW right up to a couple of weeks after Kaladesh hit.

Right now, the Land Lord is largely unplayed due to how poorly it lines up with Snugglecopter in the early game.

With Snugglecopter now a wreck, Drana isn’t the only 2/3 that might be able to attack safely in the early game.

I’m not sure exactly what home or homes Advocate might find, but the card is powerful enough that it just might see play again.

Perhaps alongside its old BFF Tireless Tracker, or perhaps slowing down the opponent while Superman takes over the game. Or perhaps alongside one or both Chandras.

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The last card I want to brew with in the new Standard is Dovin Baan. I honestly don’t think he will get into the competitive spotlight, but with his greatest foe the Snugglecopter getting Baan-hammered, he is certainly more likely to survive than he used to be.

Drawing a card and gaining 2 life each turn is powerful, but only if your board is somewhat stable. If you are able to protect Baan via other means, his -1 will put you into a commanding position.

His +1 isn’t what you want to be doing with him, but it does buy you time against a single attacker.

Baan’s weakness, however, is that he competes with Gideon for deck space. Gideon is better when you are behind as he can protect you by vomiting out 2/2 blockers.

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This Seattle Banhammer Massacre has shaken the format up. For the first time in ages I am actually optimistic about Standard.

What forgotten gems do you expect to see in Standard now? Feel free to post here in the comments, or (better) on Reddit. (Because of spam I have to individually approve comments here, so Reddit flows much better).

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Why Fatal Push (AER) is the saviour Modern needed

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Aether Revolt cards. The spoiled cards are widely known to the community, but if you are someone who likes to attend a prerelease spoiler free, your browser has a “Back” button. Please use it now.

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I’ve been saying a bit lately about how Modern has not been in a good state.

Threats have been outclassing answers, and the format has been getting too fast. The much-discussed turn four rule is dead, and decks have had to try to win super-early because of how explosive aggressive decks have been.

Say hello to Fatal Push.

In Standard it will be a good card, unconditionally killing both Snugglecopter and the guy that really shouldn’t have been mythic at card parity and tempo gain, while also having the option to sometimes kill something bigger.

But in Modern – this card is incredible.

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Modern is a fast format. Lightning fast.

The better burn hands (ones with exactly 2 of the hasty one-drops) kill on turn 3. Burn is the slowest of the all-in hyperaggro decks (Infect, Affinity, Suicide Zoo, Burn).

If you are on the play and kill turn 4, your opponent gets a total of 6 mana to spend all game, to your 10 (assuming no missed land drops). If you threaten to kill turn 3, they get only 3 mana to your 6.

Fatal Push lets the player on the defensive recover some of this tempo.

This is what makes the card so much better than higher mana cost removal that does more, like Terminate.

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Let’s look at the card again.

In its default mode, it kills creatures with CMC 0, 1 and 2.

Some critical targets at these mana costs include:

A dual land that thinks it is a Serra Angel

A very big creature for 1G

Taylor Swiftspear and her BFF

A one drop that loves masochistic players that hurt themselves

A very strong card that is out of favour right now, but I’m confidant he will be back.

And every creature in the Affinity deck except for one.

That’s just the cards you are really happy to be using this on. As always, you will occasionally ‘burn’ a Fatal Push on something like a Snapcaster Mage. This isn’t the main use of the card but it will be the right play from time to time.

It’s worth noting that this kills almost every creature Lightning Bolt kills in the format even in its default mode.

Most importantly, Become Immense and Mutagenic Growth will not save the creature. It’s going away. (Apostle’s Blessing can save it, as can some other weaker cards, but every answer has an answer).

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Activate Revolt, and Fatal Push can hit almost anything.

Revolt is relatively easy to set up in Modern via fetchlands, but there are also a lot of other ways to do so, some of which may not be obvious.

I mentioned Snapcaster early. He has a very non-obvious synergy here – remember, you can ‘hold back’ on using the Flashback.

If your opponent attacks with a Tarmogoyf, a Ravager of the Fells, and a Wolf token, you can Fatal Push the Tarmogoyf, then after it resolves, cast Snapcaster Mage, announce Fatal Push as the target for the flashback trigger, and then declare Snapcaster to block the Wolf.

Combat damage happens, you take 4 damage, and Snappy and the Wolf die. You now flashback Fatal Push, and you have wiped your opponent’s strong board at card parity (two cards for two cards) and tempo gain (four mana for six mana) – an exchange you have to be happy with.

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I’ve been down on Modern for a while.

Finally we have a very powerful reactive card that seriously hurts hyperlinear aggro and potentially can bring some control strategies back to the format.

It’s time to get excited about the format again.

I’ll be brewing UB control in the new Modern, experimenting with Yahenni’s Expertise and Ancestral Vision in a control shell, using Fatal Push and possibly even Agony Warp to buy time until the big ridiculous lategame can come online.

To ensure Revolt, I will probably end up playing a fair number of single-on-colour fetchlands as well as the four blue-black ones. Testing will tell if this is a wrong or right call.

The deck may not work, but at least it feels like it has a chance, which it did not until the printing of Fatal Push.

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