REVISED: Why I *HAD* No Confidence in Aaron Forsythe, Sam Stoddard and Mark Rosewater

Update 27-Apr-2017:

People learn from mistakes, and doing so is not easy.

Following the emergency ban, I’m going to renounce the conclusions of this article and say that my confidence in these people is restored.

There’s been lots of debate on Reddit as to how relevant MaRo is to development, as obviously it’s not his core role at WotC. I generally associate him with development decisions because of his public comments on the matter. Perhaps I’m wrong, and in that case, Mark, I apologize.

 

Six more weeks, and it is another awful B&R update.

The Legacy and Vintage changes have been contentious online, but are at least reasonable. I may not have made the exact same changes if I were in charge of R&D, but all of them are defensible decisions drawn from analysis of real data. Miracles and Mentor were both between Tier 1 and Tier 0, and both were crowding out other deck options.

Neither needed a ban/restrict, but both were in the range where a ban/restrict was perfectly justifiable.

I make no complaints about either decision.

Likewise Modern’s ‘no changes’. It’s not in line with my personal wishlist, but it was a perfectly reasonable decision and one I do not fault.

Sorry, Sensei’s Stalling Top. I won’t mourn you much.

It is the Standard ‘no changes’ entry that demonstrate a staggering degree of incompetence from Wizards/Hasbro management.

Standard is in crisis, to a degree not seen since the days where an oppressive aggro deck, Arcbound Ravager Affinity, was so dominant that eight cards were banned in one day.

Local stores that used to rely upon Standard sales to survive are dropping support for the format entirely. Mine (a fairly small store) no longer runs any Standard events, has dramatically lowered buylist prices on Standard cards, and where they used to open six cases of each new set for singles they presently plan to open at most two of Amonkhet.

Fortunately for the staff and the owner, my LGS’s Commander playerbase has grown and so the store is able to survive.

Everywhere I ask, players that used to love Standard are giving up on the format.

The format has become completely solved. Either you play Saheeli Combo, or you play Mardu Vehicles, or you lose.

There is no room to innovate, no room to explore, and no room for Amonkhet to impact the format except by improving CopyCat’s manabase and giving it anti-artifact hate. Manglehorn changes nothing as CopyCat is already used to killing Thalia, and both die to the same cards.

The format is less diverse than the mess of Affinity Standard, less diverse than Caw-Blade Standard, and less diverse than Legacy was when Treasure Cruise Delver was Tier 0.

Six weeks ago, a simple ban on Fellidar Guardian along with a ‘Oops, we screwed up’ article would have solved the format’s problems. There would have been complaining, and some individuals might have quit Standard over seeing their deck being banned out, but stores would not be abandoning the format.

That would be a minor mistake and a forgivable one. Just like the printing of Skullclamp was a mistake quickly rectified and forgiven.

But doubling down on March’s bad decision today leading to 13 unnecessary weeks of a lame duck format?

That is not a minor mistake.

If Wizards want to win me back to playing Standard again, they need to demonstrate an ability to change. They need to make more serious amends than just making the right decision next time.

The decision makers responsible for this decision need to be demoted to ensure that this debacle does not happen again, and once competent people replace them, it is time for damage control.

Until the next banned list, Standard GPs should have their format changed to a functional format.

Limited is one option, but I suggest alternate banlist Standard, with a four card banlist:

  • Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
  • Emrakul, the Promised End
  • Snugglecopter
  • Fellidar Guardian.

This format might not be perfect, but it will allow Amonkhet cards to shine, and will not be solved from Day 1 until Day 49.

Wizards/Hasbro will then need to aggressively win people back to Standard by burning some reprint equity on extremely high quality promo cards (such as an FNM Mishra’s Bauble, a full-art Path to Exile, Fatal Push or Lightning Bolt, or a repeat of the Expedition prize packs).

And this damage control will need to be done fast, before stores that are reliant upon Standard card sales pay for Wizards’/Hasbro incompetence, and card store employees that rely upon Magic for an income wind up on the scrapheap because of the incompetence of some managers at Wizards/Hasbro.

Rightly or wrongly, the public faces of R&D and the B&R list are Mark Rosewater, Sam Stoddard and Aaron Forsythe.

They may not be the decision makers responsible for this decision, and many online believe Rosewater has no part in it. (If that is true, Mark, and you read this, I am sorry).

If one or more of them aren’t responsible, this is the right time for them to disown the decision and distance themselves from it, and to salvage credibility within the playerbase.

But if they are responsible for this decision, they should return to what they are good at – card design for Limited environments – and find competent people to replace them in controlling decisions about competitive play. Those replacements should look into damage control – including allowing stores to sanction events with locally-set banlists, and/or emergency bans.

Wizards/Hasbro and lots of local game stores rely upon Standard to create interest in new cards, because for them, Standard is where the big money is. Standard sells sealed packs, and chasing the singles demanded by competitive play both drives stores to open cases of product, and provides resale value for drafters.

I’m one of many players Standard has now lost.

I’m open to being won back to Standard, but Wizards need to first demonstrate that they are competent at making an interesting format.

I do not see that happening as long as Mark Rosewater, Sam Stoddard and Aaron Forsythe run the show. While they retain my respect as card designers, I have lost confidence in their ability to manage Magic organised play.

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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 Juzam 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 art is just spectacular, and the lack of a foil version of this is a crime even worse than the massacre depicted on the card.

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 has impacted Legacy long, long after the Dude Ranch has been forgotten.

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 as well as in combo.

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.

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 (usually 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 came along to put 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.

Not a spell, not an attack: Channel is an activated ability.

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 forgettable tournament where I threw away a 3-0 start and won 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. Opposition locks would seriously struggle to defeat Jace, Architect of Thought before he ultimates and wins the game.

And 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 (note: this was written before Fellidar Guardian was put in a bag and drowned) 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.

There is almost no greater feeling than being locked down by proactive control, only to claw 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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Response to Amonkhet Invocations

I am willing to reserve judgement on these until I see the finished product in my hands. I expect they will look stunning.

And even if they are not my thing, art is in the eye of the beholder. Someone else will probably like them. I don’t connect with the artistic style of Terese Nielsen or Rebecca Guay, but huge swathes of the playerbase regard them as the finest artists ever to do Magic cards, and I can respect that.

But please Wizards.

Never mess with card name or mana cost readability again.

I think a very good test to run any unusual borders past is the following: “If it were an alteration, would it be legal in a tournament?” This excellent article addresses this.

Note that the mana cost and name cannot be obscured or covered.

The mana cost on these is faded and the ‘artistic’ font choice for the type line and card name are hard enough to read when face up and not foiled. The power and toughness boxes look indistinct too, at least as bad as the 4th edition layout (which was improved at the time of Mirage because P&T needed to be bold).

I will be interested to see how often a player with both Force of Will and Counterbalance Invocations in their hand in Legacy will reveal the wrong one by accident because they look so similar.

The same may happen in Vintage with Mana Drain and Force of Will if Mana Drain is in the set (this is not known at this time, but it is exactly the sort of card that Wizards would include to sell packs).

I’m fine with Wizards experimenting with designs. They should take risks and try oddball designs, especially with products like the Masterpieces. I won’t like all of them but someone will.

But readability should never be sacrificed.

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Response to the B&R announcement: Can it be April 24 already?

The ‘don’t ban ANYTHING’ brigade got their way.

Barring unforseen tech breaking out, we will have a 100% solved metagame for Standard over the next six weeks. Six more weeks for those that own Crazy Cat Lady Combo and/or Mardu Vehicles to dominate every FNM and PTQQ, and for those that do not own the decks to not bother showing up.

After that, we will get the bans that should have happened today. Gideon and the cat will be taken out the back and shot, Reflector Mage might (or might not) be rehabilitated, and we will have had six shit weeks for nothing.

Someone might prove me wrong and innovate something impressive and new that shakes the format up. I hope so.

But that someone will not be me. I’ll just wait out the next six weeks, watch from the sidelines, and instead of spending money on Magic’s main format I’ll spend it on other things.

Wizards will get some of that money (MM3) but not all of it- some of my discretionary budget will end up being spent at the local karaoke bar, instead of at the LGS or on MTGO.

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It’s a pity because once you look beyond the format warping cards, this Standard actually has a number of diverse buried strategies that could be interesting to explore.

Tamiyo is one of the most unique Planeswalkers ever designed. She’s also completely unplayable in Standard – the decision not to exclude Fellidar Sovereign from competitive play has de facto excluded Tamiyo.

Electrostatic Pummeler can sometimes suck to lose to, but at least you see it coming. This card and its deck have a fairly unique creature-based all-in playstyle not seen in Standard since the Heroic mechanic rotated out, and unlike its Modern and Legacy variants (Infect), it’s never been an oppressive deck.

It’s not my personal favorite type of deck to play with, but it is a deck I love playing against.

Again, thanks to the decision to not ban Fellidar Sovereign in competitive play, Electrostatic Pummeler has also been removed from the competitive landscape.

Brisela is legal in Standard for about 30 more weeks. It’s a shame that for the next six she is guaranteed not to be playable. Gisela is solid on her own, and without Gideon dominating every other white ‘fair’ strategy, I think the Twisted Sisters might at least have had Tier 2 potential.

But again, from the perspective of a competitive player, the decision to keep Gideon in the format removes the Twisted Sisters from it.

_______________________________

Can it be April 24 already?

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The Crisis of Standard – Thoughts and Questions

I’m posting this before the B&R announcement, because that decision has been made already and nothing I say will be able to influence it. Set design has painted WotC into a corner and they really don’t have any good choices for this B&R update anyway.

Whatever they do, Standard will continue to be mediocre, and a lot of players will be upset. We are mostly stuck with hoping that Amonkhet fixes the format, but more likely waiting until BFZ rotates out.

Anecdotal evidence points to Standard tournament turnup only slightly increasing since the release of one of the most impressive sets of the last five years (AER) and the bannings of two cards that were warping the format (and a third that was already very good and that Wizards argues would have filled the vacuum).

I want to discuss how Standard got into this situation.

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Present Standard is a 2.5 deck format.

You have two Tier 1 decks. Mardu Vehicles (Mardu) combines a fast clock, anti-Planeswalker pressure, and a solid removal suite. On average it goldfishes on turn 4.5.

Copy Cat Combo (CCC) plays for lategame power, combining traditional control elements and an over-the-top big finisher play (the combo) that outright wins the game. In this sense it has filled into the role that BG Delirium played prior to the banning of Emrakul.

There was a BG midrange counter synergy deck that was well positioned in the metagame early on after AER launched, until CCC adapted to beat it. The adaptations made to CCC actually made the deck stronger overall against the entire field.

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These three decks contain a number of cards that are just better than everything else in Standard.

Heart of Kiran

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Scrapheap Scrounger

Torrential Gearhulk

Saheeli Rai (Note: Not good on its own, but extremely good in its deck)

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I’m going to compare these to the best six cards (as I remember them) from a different Standard era. Kamigawa-Ravnica-9th Standard was a very well regarded Standard environment at the time. You’ll notice something different about the list.

Umezawa’s Jitte

Birds of Paradise

Dark Confidant

Remand

Wrath of God

Lightning Helix

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All of the best cards in today’s Standard are hard to answer threats. The best cards from Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth Standard were a mixture of utility (BOP), threats (Jitte, Bob) and control elements (Remand, Wrath).

Why are we seeing more pushed threats and less answers?

I’m going to argue that the root cause lies with the Alara rarity reshuffle.

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Prior to Alara, we didn’t have anything similar to modern rares or mythics. Instead every pack had a card that was about half way in between the two modern higher rarities. (For example, in 480 packs of KLD you can expect about 4 Saheeli and 8 Scrounger. In 480 packs of RAV you would expect 6 Birds of Paradise).

The rare slot included utility cards (like dual lands), resilient threats such as the (at the time very strong) Kodama of the North Tree, zany build-around me cards that were mostly terrible with the occasional exception, and almost all legends.

Post Alara these cards have been split between rare and mythic rare, with the cards with the larger boardstate impact mostly promoted to mythic, and the utility cards (like dual lands and answer cards) and early game plays demoted in rarity to ‘new rare’.

With five notable exceptions I can name (Lotus Cobra, Mindbreak Trap, Voice of Resurgence, Grim Flayer and Mox Opal – there may be more), utility cards and low-impact plays have not been at mythic but have been at rare.

Instead the mythic rarity has been dominated by threats. Planeswalkers, powerful legends (and some terrible but flashy ones too), and cards with hard-to-manage drawbacks like Inverter of Truth.

This has created a financial incentive for Wizards to reshape Standard to showcase the best mythics.

To do that, they have made it harder to answer these higher rarity threats.

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Returning to Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth era, there were plenty of cards – including at low rarity – that answered the best threats of the day and answered them well.

Remand, Hinder and Mana Leak provided temporary or permanent answers to the format’s best threats.

Mortify and Putrefy efficiently answered individual big threats. Lightning Helix hyperefficiently answered small ones.

You could even pack enough removal to kill everything your opponent tried to equip a Jitte to, and kill them before that mongrel equipment generated them any value.

Finally Wrath of God answered swarms.

It wasn’t all kittens and rainbows then – you did need playsets of a number of utility rares (Birds of Paradise, shocklands, 9E painlands) to be competitive, and those cards were rarer than they would be today. But Standard overall was much healthier.

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Contrast to today.

Yes, there are reasonably good cards that answer some of the big threats.

Unlicensed Disintegration kills the Cat Lady and her cat if you control an artifact, and at least saves you from the combo otherwise. But it is useless against the Scrounger or Gideon.

Fatal Push gets Heart of Kiran, but misses everything else.

Almost nothing answers the Scrounger.

And there are no catch-all maindeckable answers like Putrefy or Mana Leak.

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This lack of answers creates an environment where the big splashy mythics can indeed become must-have 4-ofs, which has not really been the case in much of Standard’s recent years.

In that sense it’s a short term bonanza for Wizards.

After SOI everyone needed 4 Avacyn to be competitive.

Then the meta shifted with EMN and you needed 4 Liliana and 4 Emrakul.

Then Kaladesh hits and you need the new Chandra (even if you then decide she was a mistake to buy it’s too late).

Then it’s AER and Heart of Kiran, and new life is found for Saheeli.

But it’s a short term bonanza only.

Standard is Wizards’ #1 cash cow. The present mess is the worst state Standard has been in since Arcbound Ravager was legal. And it’s been a resilient mess, with each Standard since BFZ released varying on a scale from mediocre to awful.

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So what’s the solution?

We need cards like Wrath of God, Mana Leak and Putrefy (or the more recent Hero’s Downfall) that provide maindeckable answers that can answer a variety of diverse threats. These need not be the very best cards in the format, but they should be in the top ten.

In the short term, though, the banning decision has already been made and an official article will have been written (but not posted) by the time I post this. There’s really no good options.

Wizards could also pull something unprecedented, go outside of standard policy, and do something unexpected to Standard via something like restricting a card or even adding a card to the format. The last real ‘out of left field’ B&R announcement was the Stoneforge Mystic banning (this card is banned, unless played as exactly the Event Deck list). I don’t expect this and I don’t see any great solutions to the present mess even if we don’t stick in the bounds of present policy.

For what it’s worth (not much, as I neither make the decision nor have influence over the people that do), I’d ban the cat, unban Reflector Mage, and monitor the format closely, hoping to see an interesting balance of UW tempo (possibly splashing), Mardu Vehicles and the various GB strategies that the Crazy Cat Lady is preventing now.

But whatever is done, many players’ pet decks will not be competitive in a week’s time. Either irreplaceable pieces of their deck will be banned rendering it unplayable, or the decision not to ban cards will engineer a metagame where their deck cannot compete.

The longer term issue is that answers need to get better.

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Here I want to pose two questions to readers.

Firstly, assuming that we are stuck with the Alara rarity system into the future (which I do not see changing despite my dislike of it), and assuming we are stuck with Wizards wanting some subset of mythics to be played as 4-ofs, how would you feel about more utility cards at mythic? Assume there is to be no change in the proportion of cards at each rarity that sees serious competitive play.

For example, how would you react if this card were spoiled in Amonkhet at mythic (sorry about the terrible name):

Nicol Bolas’ Variant on Doom Blade

UB

Instant

Destroy target non-black creature or non-black Planeswalker.

If the target dies this turn and you control a Bolas Planeswalker, you may return the target to the battlefield under your control.

 

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Secondly, presently in large sets, 121 packs contain (on average) 1 copy of each of 15 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 53 rares.

How would you feel about a set size reshuffle, so that instead 121 packs contained 1 of each of 25 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 48 rares? Or perhaps 31 and 2×45?

Note that your odds of opening a specific card would not change. You would open a mythic more often, but have no more (or no less) chance to get the one you specifically want. Similarly you’d be less likely to see a gold symbol, but you’d have the same chance to open a Concealed Courtyard.

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Let me know your thoughts either in the comments or on Reddit.

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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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Legacy – Ash Barrens should be on your competitive radar

The card Ash Barrens became legal recently in Legacy and is seeing absolutely no competitive play. It does not appear in mtggoldfish.com’s top 50 lands in Legacy.

This card should be on your radar as a competitive player.

If you run a three colour deck, Ash Barrens is inferior to fetchlands if your opponent isn’t punishing nonbasics (Wasteland, Back to Basics).

But it is far superior if your opponent is attacking nonbasics – something that is done a lot in Legacy, or if you yourself run Back to Basics.

It has all of the synergies with Brainstorm that fetches do, but is even better at the end of an opponent’s turn, where you do not need to have already played the fetchland. You can even cycle a Barrens you drew with the Brainstorm – something you could not do with a Misty Rainforest.

You can also Brainstorm with your last mana at opponent’s EoT, then in your upkeep, Ash Barrens to shuffle before your draw for the turn.

This isn’t to say Ash Barrens should be in every Legacy deck, far from it. But it should be a card you seriously consider when designing your manabase.

If you are three colours, either play this card, or know why you have elected to not play it.

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Disclaimer: I own a couple dozen copies of Ash Barrens on MTGO. These were purchased shortly before posting this article. Both my purchases and my decision to post this article were informed by my belief that this card is undervalued. I will personally benefit if this card increases sharply in price (although even if it quadruples in price, we are only talking $40 or so).

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Memorable combo deck names from Magic’s past – The Breakfast Decks

Something light hearted.

Magic deck names are starting to get more systematic than they used to be, which has its positives and its negatives.

Back in Theros/KTK days, if you heard that Jeskai Heroic won a tournament, you immediately knew it was a URW deck based around the Heroic mechanic. And so would someone who understood Magic but had never followed tournaments before.

Back when Time Spiral was recently released, there was a different URW deck that did the rounds. It was named “The Star Sprangled Banner”. This name was a reference to the national anthem of the United States of America – a country with a red, white and blue flag.

If you didn’t figure out that reference, the name told you nothing about what the deck was trying to do, or how. The name was less functional, but once you knew what it meant, it was unique and cool.

For a look down memory lane, here’s some of the sillier names from Magic’s early history.

 

Fruity Pebbles

Named after a breakfast cereal, this deck used Goblin Bombardment to throw Pebbles (0 mana creatures) at the opponent until they were dead.

This might seem like a bit of a non-bo as you need 20 Pebbles to kill someone, but that was what Enduring Renewal was for.

If you could assemble the three piece combo of one Pebble, plus Goblin Bombardment, plus Enduring Renewal, you would win the game on the spot in most boardstates.

Ironically this deck would have been even better named if it was called Fruit Loops – which is the name of the closest equivalent cereal here in Australia.

This deck would start a long tradition in the Extended format (somewhat of a precursor to today’s Modern format) of naming combo decks after breakfast cereals.

The deck would otherwise be long forgotten, as it was never very good.

 

Cocoa Pebbles

In every country in the world, Fruity Pebbles get loaded up with sugar and cocoa, and sold as a chocolate flavour.

What do you get if you add cocoa (black) and sugar (good tasty stuff that energizes you but shortens your lifespan) to Fruity Pebbles in Magic?

You get a much stronger deck, that uses Necropotence as a supremely efficient way to find the three piece combo, along with ridiculously overpowered tutors.

Unfortunately for the Pebbles decks, it’s a little tough to manage 2WW, 1R and BBB costs in one deck, especially before fetchlands have been printed. Revised dual lands and the few available rainbow lands weren’t enough to make the deck tick.

 

Trix

Trix is probably second only to Tolarian Academy Combo in its impact on Magic’s various banned and restricted lists, and is possibly the most influential deck of all time on Magic’s future design.

Trix started with the two-card knockout combo of Illusions of Grandeur and Donate. The combo requires 4 mana one turn and 5 on the next, or 7 all at once, to cast Illusions and dump in on the opponent, at which point you sit on your extra 20 life until your opponent cannot pay for Illusions’ upkeep and dies. Or, you could accelerate the process by removing Illusions yourself.

This combo was initially trialled as a way for a control deck to win. Instead of keeping the board clear until you could use a Morphling, Palinchron or new star Masticore to win, 1999 saw a few players experiment with winning out of nowhere with the unwanted gift.

Those early Illusions decks were terrible, but somewhere, a genius had a different idea, one that would revolutionise Magic. They build an all-in combo deck that sought to make 7 mana very early, and to cast Illusions and then Donate it as early as the second turn.

This deck became Trix, because naming decks after breakfast cereals was an established tradition, and this deck was full of tricks.

Borrowing tech from the quite mediocre Cocoa Pebbles deck, it ran Dark Ritual, Demonic Consultation and Necropotence. And borrowing tech from the Tolarian Academy decks that six months earlier had terrorised Standard, Extended and Vintage until they felt the banhammer’s loving caress, Trix ran all of the broken artifact mana.

Mana Vault, Lotus Petal, Voltaic Key, Grim Monolith – all of these artifacts could generate more mana than they cost to cast and could do so the turn you cast them.

Running those cards left enough room for Brainstorm and Portent as card selection, and Force of Will (and other cards – more permission or discard) as a way to protect your combo.

Trix was an utter monster.

It was the reason that Wizards have stopped printing fast mana and good tutors.

The following cards were among the casualties – suffering either a banning, or an end to reprints, largely as a result of this deck’s dominance:

 

  • Demonic Consultation
  • Necropotence
  • Dark Ritual
  • Mana Vault
  • Grim Monolith
  • Voltaic Key (later rehabilitated in Magic 2011, once it no longer had anything to combo with)
  • Vampiric Tutor and other weaker tutors
  • Other similar combo cards that Trix didn’t (usually) use, like Doomsday and Meditate and (over a longer timeframe) Infernal Contract. Basically any early game play that made you much more likely to be able to combo win the next turn.
  • In short – fast mana, cheap card selection, and cheap mass card draw with drawbacks all got largely removed from the game thanks to Trix.

 

Full English Breakfast

Long before “meme” was a word widely being used, memes were a thing in Magic. Whether it be using the word “Mise” to refer to luck, or just using silly deck names, Magic has always had memes.

By this point, naming combo decks after cereals has become a meme, and so when someone decided to make a combo deck around the (absurd) interaction of Volrath’s Shapeshifter and Survival of the Fittest, they decided to go a little silly with the names.

Full English Breakfast was tough to pilot. The deck sought to cast Survival first, then drop a Volrath’s Shapeshifter with GG or GGG open (depending upon what was in hand).

The first Survival activation dug for Flowstone Hellion, a card no-one ever thought had Constructed potential. The Hellion was promptly discarded to use Survival again, which then gave the Shapeshifter haste.

At this point the Shapeshifter/Hellion was declared as an attacker, and then its activated ability used ten times without passing priority. In response to these ten activations, you would activate Survival one last time, discarding Phyrexian Dreadnought, also known affectionately as Fido (Phy-d0)…

Once the stack resolved, your confused opponent was being smacked over the head by a just-summoned but no longer hasty 22/2 trample creature. Ouch.

 

Cephalid Breakfast

There comes a time in every meme’s life when it jumps the shark. (Warning – that’s a TV Tropes link. Definitely not safe for work, not because of lewd/violent content, but because TV Tropes is one of the most distracting sites on the whole internet. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)

Cephalid Breakfast was the moment the breakfast cereal names jumped the shark.

Cephalid Illusionist was a weird card. Self-mill was still seen at this point as a drawback by most players, and so the triggered ability seemed like a downside to the playerbase at large.

How wrong we were.

Once your whole library is in your graveyard, it’s pretty trivial to win the game. Laboratory Maniac hadn’t been printed, but Songs of the Damned had, and if you had that card in your hand it was easy enough to find a way to win.

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As an aside: I think that Songs of the Damned is the most fundamentally broken card legal in Legacy that is flying under the radar right now. (Disclaimer: I own many, many dozens of copies of the card.)

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All you needed was a way to target the Illusionist repeatedly and you could vomit your entire library into your graveyard.

Enter Nomads en-Kor, and the whole en-Kor mechanic from Stronghold.

Under 5th edition rules (the rules when Stronghold was printed), damage redirection abilities like these were only legal to play during damage prevention windows.

However, the Sixth Edition rules changed that. Now, the ability can be activated any time targetting any creature you control, whether there is damage pointed at the Nomads or not.

Once you succeed in dumping your library into your graveyard there are any number of ways to win. Even though the ones we would use today had not been printed yet, Haunting Misery got the job done, and if it was in your graveyard, you had Reclaim to go and get it.

This made for an interesting deck.

And who hasn’t wanted to eat a Cephalid for breakfast?

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I’m skipping over Eggs and Sunny Side Up, because they were not from the same era. So that’s all for today.

What silly names for today’s best competitive decks can you come up with? Reply either here, or on the thread at Reddit.

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