Design Changes Over The Past 20 Years: A Balance Sheet, Part 2

This is a follow up to Part 1 which looks at the decline of combo (specifically fast mana and tutoring) and proactive control.

The first part focused on design changes that were largely complete by the time Mirrodin came around. Today, I’ll look at design changes that came during the naughties.

These changes may have started earlier (for instance, Counterspell was last printed about two years before Mirrodin), but I associate them personally with the early Modern era.

From Mana Drain, to Counterspell, to Cancel: The decline of Reactive Control

Reactive Control, as a deck archetype, differs from Proactive Control, in that proactive control changes the game rules to prevent its opponent from executing its gameplan at all. Reactive control instead nullifies the opponent’s gameplan.

This artwork looks spectacular, but I just cannot work out what it is supposed to represent. Constipation so powerful it causes flight?

No card exemplifies reactive control as a strategy quite like Counterspell.

Three words of game rule text can say a lot. Vindicate reads “Destroy target permanent”. Tidings reads “Draw four cards”. Simple text, powerful effects.

Counterspell goes further, using three words where one would suffice.


For a long time in Magic, two untapped Islands was taken as a sign that any spell the opponent tried to cast could be answered cleanly.

At its best, Counterspell is a tempo blowout, trading one card and two mana for the one card and six mana the opponent invested casting their Shivan Dragon.

But at its worst, Counterspell saw you leave two mana untapped and unused for three turns, after which you eventually gave in and countered a spell that wasn’t central to your opponent’s gameplan.

In this scenario you spent eight mana in total – the six that was held unused, plus the two spent to cast Counterspell – answering a three-drop.

The existence of Counterspell changed Magic fundamentally. One drops could get in under Counterspell and were stronger as a result.

But most of all, whether you had Counterspell in hand or not was hidden information. One of the first articles I wrote after setting up this site looked at how games and matches are often decided by hidden information.

High quality Counterspell effects create all sorts of mindgames and bluffs.

Skilled players would often untap, draw, fake a smile after seeing their card, and then pass the turn with two untapped Islands on the battlefield and four irrelevant lands in hand.

The opponent would often assume that anything they played would be countered, and so would play nothing, giving the bluffer time to draw either an actual answer, or an actual threat. They had no idea that the player representing Counterspell in fact drew a Disenchant that is totally dead in the present matchup.

Counterspell itself appeared in the very first Magic sets. But it wasn’t for a few months, until the release of Legends, that we would see just how absurd counterspells could get.

This card was a mistake, although it was actually a fair Magic card when (almost) reprinted with an additional two green mana added to its cost.

Mana Drain isn’t quite good enough for Vintage these days and is banned everywhere else, although I would be interested to see the effect it would have if legal in Legacy.

Where Counterspell efficiently answers a threat, Mana Drain answers the threat and punishes the opponent severely for trying to progress their gamestate.

This card is an extreme example of an oppressive reactive control card. Put yourself in the mindset of the player facing Mana Drain.

If you do not try to advance your gamestate by casting spells, you will lose.

The Mana Drain player will remain patient and do nothing. Eventually you will have to give in, allowing them an opportunity to spring the Mana Drain trap on a big spell.

If you do not, they will eventually be able to cast their own threat with multiple counterspells to back it up.

But if you do try to advance your own gamestate, the opponent Mana Drains you, then uses the extra mana to cast an overwhelming threat.

This card was rightly retired from the reprint roster. Until quite recently it was a frequent 2-3 of in Vintage, but now the ability to cleanly answer it with Flusterstorm has largely removed it from competitive play.

I would argue that Counterspell, and various alternatives of comparable or slightly lower power (Mana Leak, Forbid, Dismiss, etc) added an enormous amount of strategic complexity and interesting gameplay to Magic.

Too much of a good thing

I love beer. But too much of it will give me a nasty headache the next morning.

Just like this, the ‘Draw Go’ era of Magic took universal answers to unhealthy extremes.

In this era, it was perfectly reasonable to build a deck with 2-4 threats, about 30 hard answer cards (Counterspells and the like, plus some one-for-one removal to answer threats that you miss), and about 27 lands. This did result in a lot of quite dull games, where the first player to be proactive lost the game.

There is a critical mass of powerful reactive control cards that, once all of them are legal in a format, they begin to dominate formats.

This critical mass is far beyond anything that has existed recently in any competitive format. These days we do not even get one card of this calibre in most Standard formats. (We do have Censor at present, which is a high-quality universal answer of a sort; I am hoping this is the first of several).

Removing almost all high-quality Counterspell effects from Standard is like swearing off alcohol entirely in response to one hangover.

I believe Standard would be much better with one or even two Counterspell-calibre universal answers.

But once players can play 4 copies of each of Counterspell, Mana Leak, Forbid, Dismiss, Memory Lapse and Force Spike all at once, these cards reach a critical mass that ruins games.


Reanimation: Allowing Players To Ignore Mana Costs

Two mana, and a dead creature comes back worse than it was. Surely this card is fair.

Or is it?

Animate Dead and many, many similar cards break the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic in half.

If you can perform the necessary setup, these cards allow you access to extremely powerful effects for two mana.

Griselbrand’s “Pay 7 life: Draw 7 cards”?

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn’s “Annihilator 6”?

These abilities are potentially yours for as little as one mana and some life, courtesy of Tempest’s Reanimate. (You need to jump through additional hoops to bring back Emrakul, due to her shuffle trigger, but it is still possible).

Reanimation effects have been hit over the head with the nerfbat so hard that you can still hear their families screaming for mercy.

Unconditional reanimation with a manageable drawback cost 1-2 mana from Alpha right through to Apocalypse, and a lot of cards were printed at that power level.

There were also a large number of 2 to 3 mana cards that reanimated a creature, gave it haste, and then exiled it at end of turn.

This card was awesome in Standard. With Bottle Gnomes, it founded the core of a deck named “Disco Gnomes”. Deck names were so cool in the 1990s.

Then in the early days of Modern, we saw a few 4 mana reanimation spells with upside. Dread Return and the instant-speed Makeshift Mannequin were both fine examples.

This card is banned in Modern for very good reason. I dread any day it returns to the format.

Now, we pay 5 mana for unconditional reanimation, with Liliana, Death’s Majesty being as good as these cards get.

I believe this change in design philosophy has been a change for the better.

Unconditional reanimation at low cost imposed considerable design constraints on other cards in early Magic.

Creatures that had a high battlefield impact had to be severely weakened lest they become overpowered in conjunction with reanimation.

Force of Nature is an example of a card that had a drawback designed to hammer anyone that reanimated the card early in the game. Note that if you never pay the upkeep, it kills its controller before killing the opponent.

The other cards that needed to be carefully adjusted to allow for reanimation were mass draw effects and card filtering (draw then discard) effects.

See that clause about exiling cards you discard? The design intention was for that to hose reanimation. Of all the balance issues with this card, you picked THAT one to shut down?

Now, Magic designers are free to print creatures with ridiculous gamestate impacts (like Griselbrand) and also cards like Faithless Looting without worrying that they will enable combo-like reanimation shenanigans.

Losing the ‘fair’ uses of powerful reanimation spells has been an acceptable price to pay to open up this design space. I’m 100% behind the decision to keep reanimation effects to (generally) five mana, although I would not mind seeing this bent every now and again in Standard to test the waters.


That’s all for today. Part 3 will come when it is ready, which might be a while. I still need to cover all of the following:

  • Creature power creep
  • Tempo-positive removal
  • Ramp
  • Planeswalkers
  • The threat/answer pendulum

and with that in mind, I think there will need to be a Part 4 as well.

  • sirgog

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2 thoughts on “Design Changes Over The Past 20 Years: A Balance Sheet, Part 2”

  1. Incredible articles. I’ve read them both several times. Any idea when part 3 and 4 might be released?

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