I ramble so here’s the TL:DR – there is a solid case for errata on this card to fix some ridiculous memory issues, and to make it work the same way in paper that it currently does on MTGO (where it ‘just works’).
This card may not look like it, but it is a rules nightmare just waiting to happen.
Library requires you to track something simple, which you do not normally track through a game of Magic – which of the cards in your hand have been drawn this turn.
The cards you have drawn this turn are not public knowledge, and this article constructs an elaborate scenario, using only cards that are at least plausible to play in competitive Legacy, to demonstrate how messy this card can get as cards in hand change zones during a turn.
A sidenote: This card works flawlessly on MTGO, where the game client serves as an omniscient judge with access to the entire history of the game. Its problems are purely a limitation of paper Magic, where no such omniscient judge exists.
In paper Magic judges have a workaround for Sylvan Library’s memory issues – a requirement to keep cards drawn ‘this turn’ physically separate in your hand from cards drawn earlier while you control the Library.
The card’s Gatherer entry lists the following ruling:
“Any cards drawn prior to Sylvan Library’s ability resolving, including in your upkeep or in response to Sylvan Library’s triggered ability, can be chosen to be put back using this effect. Sylvan Library’s controller is responsible for keeping these cards distinguishable in hand, such as by keeping them separate from cards that began the turn in hand.”
This solves most Sylvan Library issues, albeit at a price – introducing information leaks to your opponent about which cards have left your hand. However it doesn’t solve all issues with the card.
Abundance and Sylvan Library were best friends in Magic during the 1990s. Abundance puts the cards into your hand without you drawing them. Sylvan Library lets you draw three cards instead of one per turn, but then imposes a steep cost – if you actually did draw cards. (Note the difference in wording between Brainstorm – which forces you to return two cards and doesn’t care which were drawn this turn, and Sylvan).
If you control both, you get to use Abundance’s replacement ability three times per turn without drawback. Whilst generally too slow for Legacy these days, it’s not impossible to assemble these two enchantments and gain incredible value. As a side note, Abundance is also good against Leovold.
Which brings us to our hypothetical.
Alice and Beth are playing in a Legacy event.
Alice is playing a UG reactive control deck that uses Abundance/Library as a value engine. She has a hand with a lot of land in it, and controls a Misty Rainforest, two basic Islands, and a Tropical Island. Unusually for such a deck, Alice plays Stifle.
It’s Game 1 and Beth hasn’t made any plays that give its strategy away as yet. She’s actually on Cascade-Hypergenesis – a strategy that has been banned in Modern since the format’s inception due to its ability to vomit out massive amounts of creatures as early as turn 2. In Legacy it’s a fringe-competitive strategy – one that many Modern Living End fans try to make work.
Noting that Alice’s mana is all untapped, Beth passes the turn, and decides to try to fire off her ‘combo’ in Alice’s upkeep. She casts an instant with Cascade, and her Violent Outburst can only cascade into one possible card – one of the three copies of Hypergenesis she plays.
Alice can counter either the Hypergenesis itself, or the Stifle trigger. As Alice has no Stifle in hand, she casts Brainstorm.
Note that at this point, Alice neither controls a Sylvan Library, nor does she have one in hand.
Alice’s Brainstorm draws her no Stifle, but instead she hits a new Brainstorm, plus two lands – a Misty Rainforest and a Tropical Island. She puts an Island and a Tropical Island from her hand on top of her library, then activates the Misty Rainforest on her battlefield and casts the other Brainstorm.
This one gets results. She draws a Stifle, an Abundance and a Sylvan Library. She keeps all three cards, throwing back two other cards on top of her library, and fires off the Stifle targetting the Cascade trigger.
Beth is having none of this, and casts a Force of Will to counter the Stifle. Noone else has any plays, and so the Force of Will resolves, the Stifle is countered, and the Cascade trigger resolves, spins up Hypergenesis. The Hypergenesis also resolves.
Alice is in deep trouble, but at least drops a Sylvan Library and an Abundance – whilst Beth drops an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
We now move to the ugly part.
It’s Alice’s draw. She does the usual ‘Replace 3 draws with Abundance activations, then activate Sylvan’ play, which puts three cards into her hand without them ever being considered drawn.
Alice then goes to finish resolving the Library ability. She looks at her hand and has no idea whether the Tropical Island in her hand was drawn from her first Brainstorm – and thus should be counted as a ‘card drawn this turn’ by Sylvan Library, or if was instead the one she had in hand at the beginning of the turn.
Assuming Alice elects not to return any cards to her library, there is no way for a judge to determine whether Alice should lose 0, 4 or 8 life to Library late return fees. She has drawn 6 cards this turn, and has moved more than 6 cards from her hand to other zones. Depending upon which cards were shuffled away, Alice may have 0, 1 or 2 cards in her hand that are drawn this turn.
All the decisions to put cards on top of her library here were all made at a time that Alice not only did not control a Sylvan Library, but quite reasonably did not foresee that she might gain control of one before her draw step.
Sylvan Library isn’t the only card with horrible memory-related rules corner cases, but it is the worst of them precisely because the card is quite good.
This card also causes awful memory issues if cast late in a turn in which Draw 7s, cantrips and the like are being flung around – especially Draw 7s which also scramble the graveyard, like Timetwister. Fortunately the Vortex hasn’t really made it into competitive play since leaving Standard.
It’s also problematic that in order to play Sylvan Library and Brainstorm in the same deck, in paper Magic you are required to feed your opponent free information every time you cast an upkeep Brainstorm, telling them how many cards out of the new three you keep in hand, and how many you return to library. Many games this will not matter, but particularly against opponents playing Vendillion Clique, or who use Gitaxian Probe or Thoughtseize to see your hand, it is a significant information leak that can punish you.
I don’t have answers to the conundrum raised by Sylvan Library. Fortunately both Abundance and Hypergenesis are seldom played in formats where Sylvan Library is legal, and so this situation is almost relegated to the level of a hypothetical. The present workaround comes close enough to working that it is not yet a major problem.
I do think the rules around this card should be tightened up, however, and Wizards should not be afraid to issue errata that maintains the spirit of Sylvan Library without preserving its original functionality in every situation.
One option is to errata the card to
“At the beginning of your draw step, you may draw two additional cards. If you do, choose two cards in your hand drawn this step. For each of those cards, pay 4 life or put the card on top of your library.”
This would preserve the historically significant interactions (Abundance, etc) but would still allow some corner issues with draw step Vendillion Clique scenarios.
A more significant change (which would break the Abundance and Pursuit interactions) would be to change the card as follows:
“The first time you would draw a card during your draw step, instead look at the top three cards of your library, return them in any order, then choose one – draw a card; draw 2 cards and lose 4 life; or draw 3 cards and lose 8 life.”
Whilst this would be a functional change, it would be far from the most significant functional errata in recent times. But it would allow paper play to ‘catch up’ with some of the advantages MTGO offers for playing Sylvan Library.
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