Design Changes Over The Past 20 Years: A Balance Sheet, Part 1

Magic is always changing.

I started playing when Ice Age was a new set. Creatures were bad, and spells were good.

Juzam Djinn was out of print when I started playing and was considered the best creature ever printed, and to be broken.

It’s on the Reserve List so we haven’t seen how it might perform in today’s Standard formats, but I do not believe it would be played.

The very similar Time Spiral card Plague Sliver saw little Constructed play, and creatures have improved further since then. While not strictly better, Phyrexian Obliterator and the off-colour Polukranos, Rumbling Slum and Deadbridge Goliath all outclass Juzam.

Order of the Ebon Hand was an example of a Constructed-playable creature that wasn’t considered broken, just solid.

It was above the curve at the time, capable of killing most 3 drops in combat if you had mana to sink into it, and was immune to a certain white removal spell.

This card would not be played in Constructed today and would not even come close. The far superior Nantuko Shade did very little the last time it was Standard legal.

Swords was one of many examples of answers that were extremely powerful, far outclassing the threats. And if you thought that you’d beat Swords by casting creature over creature and overloading the opponent’s removal, you might just get blown out by

 

This combination of powerful answers and weak threats drove reactive control to be the best archetype of the era.

Aggro and combo waxed and waned, and proactive control – prison strategies – occasionally reared their heads. Some decks combined aggro and elements of proactive control, creating something akin to Death and Taxes, or to those Delver variants in Legacy that run Stifle and Wasteland to attack the opponent’s mana base.

Midrange was unplayable, and the word wasn’t even used in Magic discussion. A deck with high threat density, occasional disruption, and a high mana curve was one of the two styles of decks most commonly associated with non-competitive players. (Ramping into enormous creatures being the other).

Most control mirrors were decided by the player that could first resolve a threat that was difficult to interact with. The poster child of these decks was Kjeldoran Outpost – an uncounterable threat that created inevitability. You would stabilize, drop the Outpost, and then ride it to victory.

This card was considered so dangerous by Wizards development that they printed Wasteland to keep it in check, a decision that would impact the Legacy format from its inception until today.

That’s what Magic looked like in its first years. Let’s turn to how it has changed, starting with the first decade.

 

The First Wave: Design changes that predate Mirrodin

COMBO

The first major design philosophy change was Wizards stopping printing the best combo cards. It took a while for them to learn what these all were (and they still make mistakes to this day), but the infamous Trix deck (which I touched on in this article last December) convinced Wizards to never again print broken fast mana or broken tutors.

Dark Ritual, Mana Vault, Demonic Tutor, Necropotence, Demonic Consultation, Vampiric Tutor – by the time Onslaught was printed in 2002, powerful cards of this type were no longer printed, except for the occasional mistake.

Note that all of these broken cards were used in fair decks. Necropotence was used to fuel mono-black control decks. Vampiric Tutor was used to fetch one-ofs of highly situational answers like Disenchant or Rain of Tears, or even maindeck hosers like Perish or Boil. And blue control decks used Mana Vault to power out threats early, trying to avoid taking 25 turns to win. But these cards were all at their best in combo strategies.

I would argue that removing these cards was entirely positive for the game.

Actually broken combo decks such as the Tolarian Academy decks that dominated ‘Combo Winter’ have led to a significant exodus from competitive Magic every time they dominate formats.

Even when combo decks are beatable but are the unequivocal best deck (as is the case with today’s Copy Cat Combo decks in Standard), they generally create anti-climactic games that end in a blowout. Either you resolve the combo and win, or the combo fails and you lose, and the only moment that matters in the game is one key turn.

I’m going to call the toning down of combo a positive development in Magic design.

PROACTIVE CONTROL

The second type of card to stop being printed was proactive control cards. Most of these are today termed Prison cards, although I would also include some effects that didn’t lock up the game (like Persecute) in this category.

Winter Orb, Stasis, Persecute and Opposition (when paired with token generators) – these were all powerful cards that controlled the game by restricting the opponent’s options. Unlike traditional reactive control, these decks sought to establish control before the opponent was able to enact their gameplan.

Players that were unwilling to concede particularly loathed playing against proactive control strategies, especially Prison decks, because games devolve into ten turns of the loser going through the motions of trying to break out of the lock, until a finisher card comes along and puts them out of their misery.

Sometimes proactive control had a combo element to it as well – Humility and Orim’s Prayer were both acceptable anti-creature cards on their own, but together they formed a very hard lock against creature strategies.

Prison decks don’t really exist outside of Lantern Control in Modern now. Some elements of proactive control are found alongside aggressive elements in decks like Death and Taxes in Legacy and the more land-destruction heavy versions of Delver in Legacy (the ones that run both Stifle and Wasteland), but dedicated proactive control is a thing of the past.

Other than Lantern, the last truly good proactive control deck was No-Stick, which aimed to imprint Orim’s Chant on Isochron Scepter to blank the opponent’s main phase, and then finish the game with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir who would blank every phase other than the main phase.

This deck was competitive in the Extended format – somewhat of a precursor to Modern – around 2007, when the format’s legal sets were everything from Invasion up to the most recent release, Future Sight.

I recall a PTQ match where I was playing an aggressive deck with elements of proactive control (Destructive Flow Aggro) in this format. My opponent assembled the full No-Stick combo in a very, very long game 3, and was surprised that I was not conceding.

After they explained why they had the game in the bag more than once, my opponent tapped low on mana on their own turn to cast a card draw spell. In response I tapped four mana, and killed Teferi with the activated ability of a card they had completely forgotten existed.

With the opponent tapped low, they could not protect their Scepter unless they had a second Orim’s Chant in hand, which they did not. They chose not to Chant with their Scepter on their own turn, and so once Teferi died my Artifact Mutation made short work of the No-Stick and added two power to my board, allowing my creatures to attack for lethal the next turn.

Ten years later that remains one of the most memorable games of Magic I have ever played, despite occurring in a tournament where I threw away a 3-0 start to win the princely sum of 9 boosters.

I’ll be controversial here and state that I miss proactive control.

Proactive control decks attacked you from an axis you were unprepared for, changed the game’s texture and rules, and turned the game into a puzzle.

Could you break out of your opponent’s lock if they established it? Would the opponent expect you to try? What countermeasures might they have to stop you?

If you could not break out, how could you win before the lock slid into place?

When proactive control is very strong, and especially when it takes a while to win after establishing a lock, it can feel oppressive to play against. For this reason I think it’s positive that Wizards have stopped printing absolute top-tier proactive control cards.

However, the developers have gone too far in this direction.

The Planeswalker card type provides powerful tools for players to prevent themselves falling into locks, tools that did not exist when proactive control was last good.

No-Stick could not execute its gameplan against a resolved Liliana of the Veil, and Opposition locks would seriously struggle to defeat Jace, Architect of Thought before he ultimates and wins the game. Proactive control decks usually lack their own creatures or other answers to Walkers.

It’s not just Planeswalkers that are good at fighting proactive control either. Creature based aggressive decks are faster and require less mana to win now than they did in the past. Tapping out turn 4 for Opposition in Standard would be risky if not suicidal.

I would be interested to see what effect a solid proactive control card, or a soft-lock combo like Isochron Scepter and Orim’s Chant would have on Standard. I would be less impressed to see such a strategy become Tier 1.

I’m going to conclude by saying Wizards got this design change only partly correct.

Wasteland, Sinkhole, Winter Orb, Stifle, Strip Mine and Rishadan Port are examples of proactive control cards that were too good at locking the opponent out early, and it is good that these cards are not legal in Modern or Standard.

But there are plenty of less oppressive examples of proactive control cards like Fulminator Mage, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver (for the ultimate, which is a credible threat), and Teferi’s Moat.

I’d like to see more of these cards in current sets.

Proactive control is inherently strong against midrange, and this provides an important safety valve against any future Standard format that degenerates into midrange slugfests.

Plus, there is almost no greater feeling than being locked down by proactive control and then clawing your way into a win that you remember a decade later.

 

Coming in part 2 and (if needed) part 3: The Modern-era changes.

  • Mana Drain to Counterspell to Cancel: The decline of reactive control
  • Reanimation
  • Tempo-positive removal
  • Creature power creep
  • Planewsalkers
  • Ramp
  • Threats versus Answers
  • And possibly more.

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1 thought on “Design Changes Over The Past 20 Years: A Balance Sheet, Part 1”

  1. I would personally like to see Dark Ritual come back. I would also like to see most combos banned myself, or at least the degenerate ones like Storm. :/

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