Cheating Opponents: How To Effectively Protect Yourself

I originally was going to call this “Fight Cheating With Cheating” but that was too clickbait-y, even for my standards. And they are pretty low.

I usually hate TL:DRs, but this is 4400 words, so I’ll put one in this time.


  • Magic players generally regard cheaters as the second worst people in the community. Worse than trade sharks that prey on unknowing new players, not as bad as card thieves.
  • The best way to catch a cheater is to learn to cheat yourself so you know what to look for. Don’t just learn the theory of cheating – actively practice in your playtest group with friends that are doing the same thing. Learn to perform the Faro Shuffle, the Zarrow Shuffle and the Push-Through Riffle Shuffle (collectively “sleight-of-hand fake shuffles”) – and learn why they work so you can spot them being used against you.
  • This goes double for judges. I believe that anyone that cannot explain in detail how sleight-of-hand fake shuffles and/or pile shuffling can be used to cheat is unfit to judge at events with Competitive or Professional rules enforcement.
  • If your opponent tries to distract you, play along with the distraction but refocus and pay additional attention to what their hands are doing.
  • If in doubt, call a judge.
  • The DCI should outright ban pile shuffling and not even tolerate its use as a card counting tool.


The inspiration for this article came about at a karaoke bar a few weeks back. Between songs, a friend of a friend was demonstrating card tricks that asked the subject to pick a card from a standard playing card deck.

The trickster then appeared to shuffle it into the deck but used sleight of hand including sleight-of-hand fake shuffles (like the Faro shuffle, also known as the ‘perfect riffle’, which you can find tutorials for online). He paired the fake shuffles alongside distractions, to position the chosen card into a specific place in the deck. Then comes the reveal – they show you the card that you had picked.

I’d seen a lot of these tricks before, and while I can’t replicate the sleight of hand needed to perform a Faro shuffle, I knew enough about ‘magic’ tricks that I could see exactly how they were all being done.

Heading home that night I saw yet another shitstorm on Reddit about cheating in Magic, and thought of the question that introduces the next section. Then this article started writing itself.

This article might provide tools to a dishonest player that helps them advance their craft. This is an unfortunate consequence of writing it. There is one piece of cheating advice that I have thought up that I am not sharing here, as wider knowledge of it would help cheaters while not helping people looking to detect them. But the other information in this article already exists online and is easy for dishonest players to find, so I don’t mind replicating it.

Hopefully this article will teach honest players the skills necessary to remove some of the dishonest players from competitive Magic, because you only usually need to catch them once or twice.


So, how does an honest player protect themselves from opponents that cheat in Magic, and what can they do to help catch cheats?


One option is to play on MTGO, where the game’s rules are enforced by the client, which is basically an omniscient judge. This stamps out cheating (almost) entirely.

I prefer MTGO myself, but I can certainly accept that a majority of readers prefer live play. So let’s assume MTGO is not an acceptable option for you.

In paper Magic, honest players make errors from time to time. These can be broken down into two types – strategic errors, where you make a legal line of play that isn’t the best line available to you, and technical errors, where you make an unintentional illegal play.

Strategic errors can’t be confused for cheating, outside of convoluted circumstances that a judge is unlikely to see in a tournament scenario.

It’s technical errors which are more often confused for cheating. It is pretty difficult to tell whether an opponent accidentally or deliberately drew six cards on their second mulligan, or fetched a Ghost Quarter with a Verdant Catacombs, or seriously screwed up the handling of a Rest In Peace trigger.

All of those are illegal plays, all could be innocent mistakes, and all could be the work of a skilled cheater.

If these infractions are unintentional, they have punishments that are at most a game loss. If they are deliberate, the correct response for a judge is to eject the offender from the tournament without prizes and to begin a process that may see the offender suspended from the DCI.


An aside.

It’s my firm belief that judges should only pull the red card – disqualification – when they are convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the person in question intentionally cheated. The consequences of fucking up and DQing a person for an innocent mistake are serious – that player and their friends will likely stop participating in tournament Magic, and if the event is hosted by a store, the store could lose multiple customers over it.

By ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, I mean what statisticians call ‘three-sigma certainty’ – in lay person terms, the judge should believe that if they saw this scenario a thousand times, an innocent mistake would explain it at most twice.

Please note that the DCI does not mandate ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, or ‘three-sigma certainty’, but instead leaves this decision to judges. I am not a judge, I am an outsider making recommendations.


Some cheating is obvious.

A player ‘mana-weaves’ their deck, then sloppily shuffles, then presents. The opponent calls a judge and explains the situation, the judge looks at the deck, sees a non-random distribution in the deck that demonstrates cheating beyond even a shadow of doubt (five-sigma or more), and sends the cheat on their way.

But catching a skilled cheater is hard.

A lot of Magic’s strategic depth lies within hidden information (I’ve written about how the Fundamental Theorem of Poker applies to Magic here). Some information in Magic is hidden from each player, and knowing information you are not supposed to have access to gives you a powerful edge.

Competent cheaters use this information, alongside sleight of hand, to gain a moderate edge, rather than trying to blatantly cheat to win outright.

In Magic’s early days, some cheaters would play unsleeved or with see-through sleeves, and would have slightly worn copies of Armageddon in their deck. Knowing you will draw Armageddon next turn results in you playing very differently, and if you are looking for sleight of hand tricks, you will not see any of them.

Competent cheaters are smooth. Often they are skilled at sowing doubt in an investigating judge’s mind. And before it even gets to that point, they are often smooth enough to talk the opponent out of calling a judge at all.

A competent cheater will act like your best friend when playing against you. They will use chatter to ingratiate themselves, and to distract you. When your guard is lowered, they will strike: not by dealing themselves an unforgettably good draw, but by stacking their deck in a manner that ensures that wherever you cut it, they have an above-average hand.


The first thing honest players should know is, if your opponent makes a technical error, call a judge.

If something seems fishy, call a judge. But even if you do not suspect foul play, call a judge.

If you actually suspect cheating, and especially if you are nervous, call a judge, then say, “Can I ask you something about a card interaction away from the table?” Judges will accommodate this, and it allows you to explain a suspicion of cheating without actually accusing your opponent of cheating to their face.

You are not being an asshole when you call a judge, and an honest opponent will not risk disqualification or ridicule.

It’s also good practice to call a judge on yourself when you make a technical error and wear any appropriate consequences. This protects the event’s integrity, ensures you learn from your mistakes, and in my experience reduces your nerves over time. It will also help you gain a reputation for personal integrity, which doesn’t help you win tournaments but may be useful in the rest of your life – especially if you are considering judging, or working in or running a card store.


Calling a judge on your opponent serves three purposes.

Firstly, it removes the opponent’s ability to sweet-talk you into accepting the present gamestate, or into accepting a solution that advantages them. For instance, in formats with no playable ‘turn 0’ effects, someone that draws six cards on the draw on their second mulligan might try to sweet talk you into accepting that “that is their five cards, plus their scry which they’ll keep on top and that will be the card they draw on their turn”. A judge call will get you a better deal than that.


Secondly, and more importantly, calling a judge provides the event’s judging team with a record of who is consistently making technical errors.

Undetected cheaters make more technical errors than the overwhelming majority of honest players. A pattern of technical errors – especially the same one – is something a judge can, should and will pay attention to.

It doesn’t prove cheating, as a nervous honest player will also make a large number of technical errors, but it does provide evidence that says “you should watch this person”. A judge can then covertly watch them at times that cheating is most likely to occur.

And third, if your opponent is dishonest, calling a judge will often intimidate them out of cheating against you. If they do still intend to cheat later, it may make them nervous, and a nervous cheater is easier to catch than a relaxed one.

Some people have ethical concerns about involving a judge over a technical error. I disagree.

If your opponent makes a strategic error (such as passing the turn forgetting to use their Planeswalker), you wouldn’t allow them a take-back to reverse that error.

Just as strategic errors have consequences, technical errors have consequences defined by the game rules and the tournament rules.

The only time there might appear to be an ethical difference between punishing an opponent’s technical error and punishing an opponent’s strategic error, is if the technical error will have consequences beyond the present match, such as your opponent being disqualified.

It hasn’t always been the case, but under today’s rules, disqualification does not occur for honest mistakes (excluding the bribery rules – which are a can of wyrms I will not open here).

You should be 100% OK with reporting technical errors to a judge, even if your opponent is a ‘nice guy’.

And beware the ‘nice guy’. Not all friendly opponents are skilled cheaters, but all skilled cheaters are very personable.


The best way for an honest player to catch a cheat is to learn how to cheat.

Many cheating methods are subtle, and a thorough knowledge of how and when cheating methods are executed and what results they produce will help you catch people that use them against you.

It’s unethical to use these methods in any tournament. But you should learn cheating techniques inside-out, teach them to your playtest groups, and incorporate them into your testing for events.

Your playtest group may be honest, but your opponents may not be, and you want to be experienced at detecting cheating while distracted by complex board states and strategic decisions.

I recommend playtesting by picking a mirror match that you might want to playtest anyway, favoring one that maximizes opportunities to cheat. Scapeshift mirror matches in Modern are perfect – there is a lot of shuffling, games can be long, and there are a lot of pivotal moments where a small edge can decide the game.

Run a playtest session of 21 matches against one opponent, where cheating is allowed, but being caught cheating results in losing the match. The overall loser of the session pays for pizza for both players (or some other small but non-trivial incentive). This will create an environment where both players will be incentivised to attempt to cheat and to be vigilant for cheating – and this vigilance will serve you well in real events.


Sleight of Hand: Pile Shuffling, Cutting and Cheating

First a rant about pile shuffling.

If you aren’t familiar with pile shuffling, here is a video of someone doing it. Please do not pay attention to what the person demonstrating the technique says as they are wrong.

Pile shuffling is not a shuffle. Much like cutting the deck at a specific point (for instance, putting the top 5 cards of the deck on the bottom), it is a deterministic method of reordering cards and counting them while pretending to shuffle.

This means you can predict, with 100% accuracy, where cards will end up after ‘shuffling’ them, and you can use pile shuffling to completely rig your deck.

The pile shuffle is useful in games that do not require complete randomization, such as Cards Against Humanity, where no player gains a competitive advantage from being able to predict or influence the order cards are drawn in but you shuffle to provide a different game experience.

It is not useful in games where rigging the deck provides a competitive advantage.

If you put a deck of cards into a specific order, then perform a pile shuffle on it repeatedly, you will return to the original configuration quickly. The exact number of times will vary with deck size and the number of piles, but for a 40 card deck dealt into 4 piles it is only 6. For a 41 card deck and 4 piles, it is only 10, and for a 60 card deck and 5 piles, I believe it is only 8 times (although I have not verified this).

For a dishonest player, this means that between rounds they can stack their 40 card deck into a configuration where any 7 consecutive cards form an above-average hand, then fake shuffle it via repeated pile shuffles, then offer it to you to cut.

As an example, a control player in Modern could set up Island – Ancestral VisionRemand – 12 random cards – Repeat. This doesn’t look suspicious even if they are deckchecked. But because AV is a card you love to draw exactly one of in your opening hand, this cheat ensures they do not draw two or more copies, but if they have it, they can suspend it turn 1 and have Remand to slow the game down.

The cheat then pile shuffles the ‘softly’ stacked deck into 4 piles 4 times, then puts the deck into their box. At the start of the match, they pile shuffle it twice more while talking, then present it. It is now in exactly the order it was designed to be in.

Many honest players pile shuffle. If you do, STOP.

Magic tournaments ban electronic communication devices. This is because, even though most people that SMS or call during a match would do so with no intention of cheating, the mobile phone is a powerful tool in the hands of a cheat, who can arrange for an accomplice masquerading as a spectator to pass hidden information to them.

The pile shuffle is similar to the mobile phone. Most people use it innocently, but it is a powerful cheating tool.

It would be a lot harder for players to cheat if pile shuffling were treated the same way as mobile phone use and not tolerated in competitive Magic.

End rant.


You can protect yourself from sleight of hand cheats by always performing riffle and/or mash shuffles on your opponent’s deck each time they present it. Always, no exceptions.

But let’s assume you want to catch cheaters, not just not fall for their tricks. There are sleight of hand tricks you should research, in order to learn the toolbox of a cheat.

There are three most important ones.

First, the Faro Shuffle referenced earlier. When executed flawlessly, it is a way to pile shuffle into two piles while looking like you are performing a thorough riffle shuffle.

When executed 16 times on a 40 card deck, or 20 times on a 41 card deck, it returns the deck to its initial configuration.

Secondly, there is the false shuffle, epitomized by the Zarrow Shuffle and the Push-Through Riffle Shuffle. These are difficult sleight of hand tricks (harder to execute, in my opinion, than the Faro). To a casual observer they look like riffle shuffles, but they do not rearrange the deck at all. The Zarrow is performed on the table, which will make it look even less suspicious.

Practice these so you know how they work and what to look for.

Third, there is the slip cut, which is demonstrated as part of the video above on the Zarrow Shuffle. This allows the top card of the deck to be subtly manipulated and allows the cheater’s fetchlands to also become Vampiric Tutors.


The last sleight of hand trick you should be aware of involves searching libraries.

A player uses an ability that allows them to search their library. While resolving it, they move a card near the top of their deck, acting like they are considering choosing it. Then they decide to pick another card instead, and perform a trick shuffle shuttling the false candidate card to the top.

There is a little known rule (400.5 in the Comprehensive Rules) prohibiting rearranging the library during a search, that most people believe exists because of this obnoxious rules nightmare and its interactions with other rules nightmares that should die in a fire.

Your opponent can ‘shortlist’ cards by holding the deck with the bottom card facing them, and pulling candidate cards slightly out of the deck while leaving them in place. Even for extremely complex decisions like a ‘value’ Gifts Ungiven, where a player might consider nine candidate cards, this is completely manageable.

Rule 400.5 exists to prevent this cheat. Enforce it. If your opponent rearranges their library mid-search, call a judge (in case the opponent has done this many times – warnings for things like this are tracked) and shuffle their deck thoroughly.


Cheating without Sleight of Hand – Weaponizing Distraction

Intentionally drawing extra cards is something I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s because it’s not usually a sleight of hand trick. It is also one of the easiest things for an opponent untrained in cheating techniques to detect, even if they are not suspicious of you.

Drawing two cards in one fluid motion is a very difficult sleight-of-hand trick to master, and it is more common for an opponent to draw a card for the turn, then perform a distraction, then try to draw their card again.

For example, a player might draw a card, then say “Can I read that card you are playing?” and point to a card you control on the battlefield. During or after the distraction, they will smoothly draw another card.

It’s my experience that people who suspect the opponent to be dishonest put too much effort into watching for this cheat, at the expense of watching for other methods.

Early in the game, when the payoff for this cheat is higher, it is much harder to get away with it, because your opponent can easily determine the number of cards that should be in your hand.

Late in the game, it is usually more advantageous to set up a perfect draw than it is to draw one extra card.

This isn’t to say that intentionally drawing extra cards will never happen to you, just that you shouldn’t expect a skilled cheater to try it. Their methods are both more subtle and higher-impact.

If you discover that your opponent has drawn too many cards, call a judge without hesitation. You may have caught a cheater red-handed and someone caught drawing extra cards ‘by accident’ more than once in a tournament will definitely be watched. If the opponent attempts to concede the game immediately at this point, do not back down from the judge call – this is a very strong indicator that the opponent was indeed cheating.

If your opponent drew extra cards by accident, or if the judge isn’t sure whether it was an honest mistake or cheating, there exist rules handling how to repair the gamestate. These rules will work in your favour as the person calling the judge.

Another non-sleight of hand approach is intentionally misrepresenting complex board states and historic, still relevant game actions.

Players might conveniently ‘forget’ that they have played a land, ‘forget’ to lose life after activating an Adarkar Wastes, ‘forget’ to have a Seachrome Coast enter the battlefield tapped when it is your fourth land, or cast Huntmaster of the Fells with three Swamps and one Stomping Ground.

Of course, all of these are also often honest mistakes.

One thing ties these cheats together – they all involve careful sequencing to avoid attention, and distracting the opponent. Playing two lands in a row draws attention. Playing a land, then casting a spell, then asking a question, then playing a second land is much more likely to be successful.

You can create less of a space for technical errors (both intentional ones, i.e. cheating, and also honest ones) by practising tight technical play – announcing phases, announcing triggers, and writing small notes on your life pad. This will set a technically tight tone for the game.

If you detect a technical error that gives your opponent an advantage, call a judge immediately, outline the facts of the situation (e.g. “It’s her turn 5. Alice played her 5th land, went into combat, asked me for the Oracle text on a card, then after combat played another land”). If you suspect foul play but you aren’t certain, ask to speak away from the table.

If you are practising these scenarios from a cheat’s perspective in playtesting, focus more on creating a distraction than on anything else. Look for plausible questions you could ask your opponent. These may or may not relate to the game state. Some examples might be:

“How many counters are on that Aether Vial?”

“What’s the Oracle text on Aether Vial?”

“That Kaladesh Inventions Aether Vial is nice, how much did it cost you?”

All of these are questions an honest player might ask, and all of them break the opponent’s concentration on the game state.

As an honest player, remember: If your opponent is trying to distract you, now is the time to pay even more attention. Glance at their eyes to see what they are paying attention to and pay attention to it yourself (defaulting to their deck if they are looking at you). If their questions are honest, they are probably looking intently at you. If they are not, they are probably looking at their deck.


I tend to make lists of rules too often on this site. So here’s four rules relating to cheating.

The First Rule Of Cheating:

Cheating is 90% social engineering, 10% sleight of hand.

You will occasionally arouse suspicion. The difference between an average cheat and a skilled cheat is being able to talk your way out of these situations.

This is why Mike Long was such a skilled cheater. He got caught, admitted nothing, and managed to stay so calm that the judges second-guessed themselves into believing they needed even more evidence.

If you rely upon sleight of hand alone and crumble when challenged, you will be caught no matter how flawlessly you can perform the Zarrow shuffle.

The Second Rule Of Cheating:

A distracted opponent is much less likely to detect or suspect cheating than an attentive opponent.

An honest opponent will often chat before and during a match- it’s something I do even when there’s a considerable amount riding on the match result.

Friendly banter can be weaponized by a skilled cheater looking to distract you, or even by an honest player looking to trick you into revealing information about what you might be playing.

Poker players are masters of the latter. If you want to see the honest use of this in action, watch videos of Daniel Negranu playing poker. If he played Magic, I expect he would be able to use banter to determine what deck the opponent was playing and whether they had a top 25% hand, a bottom 25% hand, or a typical hand. All before declaring mulligans in game 1.

His skill in this area is unmatched by any Magic players past or present, but some can mimic him to a moderate skill level.

A dishonest player will ask you questions multiple times during a match, but particularly while they are shuffling their deck or when drawing cards.

If an opponent asks you a question that you believe is not in good faith – i.e. they are not asking because they care about the answer – watch their hands like a hawk. They are probably trying to cheat.

If anything looks amiss, call a judge and ask to speak to them away from the table. Tell them that the opponent asked you a bad faith question to distract you.

The Third Rule Of Cheating:

An opponent that regards you as friendly is less likely to call a judge on you. If you want to cheat against an opponent, become their friend first.

I mentioned the ethics of calling a judge earlier.

Even if your opponent is a personal friend or playtest buddy, get into the habit of calling judges whenever appropriate. If in doubt, call one.

The Fourth Rule Of Cheating:

The more variance your deck has, the more cheating will help you. The more variance your opponent expects your deck to have, the more likely they are to dismiss your cheating as luck.

Conversely, if your opponent is playing a deck renowned for high variance, you should consider them more likely to cheat than an average player.

I haven’t touched this yet.

Some decks (cough, cough, pre-ban Amulet Bloom Combo; also Grishoalbrand) have hands that are just unbeatable that come up a couple of percent of the time.

If you are a skilled cheat, these are the best deck choices for you as your nefarious skills and lack of integrity will be heavily rewarded.


To conclude remember:

  • If in doubt, call a judge.
  • Honest players should practice sleight of hand so you understand how it works.
  • No really, call a judge.
  • Always shuffle your opponent’s deck, never just cut.



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Addressing the Modern banlist

As I return from a break from competitive Modern, it’s getting clearer that the format is broken at the moment.

MTGO adapts faster to new tech than the paper world because of how much faster it is to acquire new cards. MTGO Modern is under siege from Cathartic Dredge, and paper will soon follow.

The Dredge deck got a new toy in Prized Amalgam that was enough to push it over the top, even if it has taken a few months of tuning and the printing of Cathartic Reunion for this to become apparent.

Like the pre-banning Amulet Bloom Combo deck, Cathartic Dredge is setting up a large number of utterly overwhelming game states on turn 3 (alongside occasionally winning that turn, and very rarely winning even faster).

Like ABC, the deck is too fast to effectively hate out: either you have an answer in your first seven cards, or else you don’t get a chance to draw it in time. It’s also not possible to play as much Dredge hate as might be warranted, because Dredge isn’t the only deck with a high turn 3 win percentage in the field.


It’s getting clearer that Dredge needs to be targetted in the next B&R announcement, and I believe the card to hit is (at least) one of Prized Amalgam, Narcomoeba and/or Bloodghast.

These cards, like the already banned Dread Return, can impact the gamestate without ever being drawn and with no investment of mana.

While Golgari Grave-Troll and Stinkweed Imp seem essential to enable these three cards, there are a number of substitutes for those two cards with lower Dredge numbers that will leave the Amalgam/Narcomoeba/Bloodghast engine intact.

I want to argue to spare Bloodghast from the banhammer, however. It’s the least broken of the three self-reanimators in Dredge, and it’s also a potentially playable card in other strategies.

Likewise Cathartic Reunion. This card was the final straw that pushed Dredge over the edge, but it is a card with the potential to be played in other strategies and an interesting take on card selection that might be played in a fairer format.

An unban of Deathrite Shaman has been proposed to provide a maindeckable card to fight the Dredge menace, but that card caused other problems when it was legal. I do not support a DRS unban at this time as it runs the very real risk of replacing one oppressive best deck with another.

For the stated reasons, I want to see Amalgam and/or Narcomoeba taken out behind the chemical shed and shot with the release of Aether Revolt. The format isn’t as broken as it was during Helldrazi season, but right now it is as broken as it was during Treasure Cruise Delver’s reign of terror. Additionally the card pool may include undiscovered tech that makes Cathartic Dredge even better than it currently is – it took six to seven weeks for the best builds to be discovered during Helldrazi season.


On unbans.

There’s a common train of thought that the smaller the ban list, the better the format.

I do not subscribe to this school of thought in general.

I’m in favor of a ban list that is curated with a goal of maximum format diversity. Unbanning some cards will reduce, not increase, the pool of playable cards in the format. For an extreme example, consider an Eye of Ugin unban – such a decision would effectively remove Liliana of the Veil, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Cryptic Command from the pool of Competitive-playable Modern cards, both decreasing format diversity and interactivity.

Now (almost) no-one is seriously suggesting opening the can of wyrms you’d get by unbanning that card, but the principle still applies when considering more reasonable unbans.

Disclaimer aside, I think there are a number of cards on the banned list in Modern that should be reassessed.

Since the release of Oath of the Gatewatch, Modern has shifted decisively from a format with fundamental turn 4, to a format with a fundamental turn of 3.5.

It’s not just Dredge. Burn, Affinity, Infect and Suicide Zoo all frequently kill a goldfish on turn 3, and they keep getting new tools which make them better.

Even the increasingly likely ban of Become Immense – the card that is at the centre of more turn 3 kills than any other – will not change this trend – after all burn doesn’t play that card and any burn hand with 2 aggressive one-drops (Guide and/or Swiftspear), plus Atarka’s Command, plus two Lava Spikes, Rift Bolts and/or Lightning Bolts is a turn 3 kill.


What does a turn 3.5 format change about bannings?

When the fundamental turn of the format was 4, some cards had effects that were too dominating in games that went 4-5 or even more turns. Examples of these included Umezawa’s Jitte (which simply does too much in a 5+ turn game for a card that costs 2 payments of 2 mana), Punishing Fire and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

However, in a format where turn 3 kills are becoming more common, these cards are not oppressive, and may not even be good. JtMS in particular is probably as weak in today’s Modern format as the once banned and now largely forgotten Bitterblossom is.


I encourage Wizards to acknowledge that the turn 4 rule is dead, and that we now live in an era of Modern having fundamental turn 3.5.

This means that if you do not stumble on mana, you can count on spending 6 mana in half your games if you are on the play, and 10 mana in the other half of your games – for an average of 8.

On the draw, you can count on 3 mana in half your games, and 6 in the other half, for an average of 4½ mana.

And overall, that’s an average of 6¼ mana per game that you can rely upon living long enough to see, assuming your opponent is playing a fast strategy.

In this context, 4 mana cards – even ones that threaten to win the game outright with the appropriate setup (JtMS, Splinter Twin) are completely fine*.

The last time a high profile player suggested unbanning Umezawa’s Jitte I immediately thought “what is this person smoking, and where can I get some?”. But Modern has sped up so much since then that spending 4 mana to get 2 or even 4 activations of the Jitte is no longer more powerful than what the other decks in the format are doing; in fact it is less powerful.

So here I am, echoing their suggestion today.

* – While the combination of Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin may be trouble together because Exarch both attacks your mana and is hard to kill with maindeckable cards unless you keep up multiple mana, Exarch should have taken Twin’s bullet in the first place. The combination of Pestermite and Twin, or Krasis and Twin, or Village Bell Ringer and Twin, is IMO perfectly fine in the format and would increase both interactivity and format diversity.


Proposed ban list amendments:

Note – ‘Watchlist’ means don’t ban this card now, but keep a close eye on it and say publicly that the card is a high ban risk in the forseeable future. It’s a term Wizards used back in the Urza Block days, when Yawgmoth’s Will was constantly one step away from the banhammer but never quite felt its loving caress.

Transparency of a watchlist is key. Cards in Modern are expensive and the banning of key parts of a deck can cause the deck to fall by hundreds of dollars.

A public watchlist allows risk averse players to divest holdings in decks that have a high ban risk.

There’s no guarantee that cards not on the watchlist will not be banned, but it will be more common for cards to spend time on the watchlist first.



Well that got longer than I expected. Let’s see how much shit I just stirred up. As always, post replies, counterarguments, or the like as a reply on Reddit (preferred) or in the comments section of the website.

Note that because I get a lot of spambot attention, the website comments require me to manually approve them and this can take a while – this site is a side hobby, not a job, and I’ll be going and singing up a storm at karaoke tomorrow night rather than sitting at a computer.

  • sirgog

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Oppressive Aggro and Magic’s History – Lessons from Mirrodin Affinity

Howdy folks.

I definitely caused a shitstorm a while back with my post on the state of Modern. Since then Modern has continued to evolve.

The trend toward hyper-linear strategies – mostly aggro with elements of combo – has continued, but with one new deck: Cathartic Reunion Dredge, which is rapidly becoming the new bogeyman and is already drawing calls for a banning (as well as lots of people who regard the idea of another banning in Modern as utter heresy).

I’m not going to comment directly on the banning calls. A month away from actively playing Modern has left me unaware of nuances of the metagame and so I’m not qualified to judge format balance right now.

I would shed no tears for Cathartic Reunion if Chandra and Pia are taken out the back and shot, reuniting them with Kiran (sorry -too soon?) but this article is not arguing for that to happen.


I’m going to assert that Cathartic Reunion Dredge is a synergy based aggressive deck. Some would term it aggro-combo, others would call it outright combo.

But fundamentally I would argue it plays the same game as Bushwhacker Zoo – its goal is to deploy a critical mass of aggressive creatures extremely quickly, and to overrun the opponent before they can develop their own gameplan.

While Bushwhacker does this via Magic’s normal mechanisms for casting spells, Dredge uses other means. But its mechanism for winning is the same as other go-wide aggro strategies, and it has similar problems with a resolved Ghostly Prison, Anger of the Gods or Porphyry Nodes as Bushwhacker has. (Both decks can beat all of those cards; just pointing out that they interact with the strategies in the same way).

I draw the line between aggro and combo somewhere between Affinity (synergistic aggro) and Infect (creature-based combo). Readers are free to disagree with this division and draw the line elsewhere if you want – I hope the points made will still be useful if we disagree here.


There is an idea common among Magic players that certain strategies are more ‘oppressive’ than others. When these strategies have been good, Draw-Go, hard prison decks (including land destruction strategies) and combo decks – particularly those where the deck’s best hands win blisteringly fast – are often termed oppressive. I don’t agree with this.

Aggressive decks can be oppressive too. They are responsible for the second worst Standard of all time.

I’ve played competitive Magic for almost twenty years, and have encountered three truly oppressive formats.

The first and the worst was the Standard format utterly ruined by Tolarian Academy combo. This deck resulted in the banhammer getting a serious workout, and taught Wizards that fast artifact mana is inherently unfair.

The second to occur, and the third worst, isn’t all that relevant to this article as it was Mercadian Block Constructed with an old version of the Legend Rule.

The most recent truly oppressive format is the one we can learn from. Mirrodin-era Standard, with the Affinity monster.


The banhammer that had been working out during the Tolarian Academy era got a fresh workout with Mirrodin era Affinity.

Skullclamp was banned first, for obvious reasons.

But after players got sick of maindecking Oxidize, eight more cards – the six artifact lands, Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault, were all given a bullet in the biggest mass banning Standard has ever seen.

Cranial Plating was spared to add insult to injury – as the second best card in the Affinity shell, it was left a shadow of its former self, legal to play but basically unplayable.


The Affinity deck was a synergistic aggro deck with considerable reach. Builds varied, but the deck would vomit out a mass of threats as early as turn 1, then would either win turn 3 or 4 on the back of going all-in on one threat, or would play a more cautious game, chaining Thoughtcast or even going bigger with cards like Somber Hoverguard, before finishing the game out of nowhere with Shrapnel Blast.


Why was it oppressive?

Standard is a format that usually has fundamental turn of 5 or 6, with aggro decks often coming in at around 4.5. (The concept of the fundamental turn was first introduced in this excellent article from over 15 years ago).

Prior to Darksteel’s release, the two versions of Affinity were Broodstar affinity (a control deck that used Talismans and artifact lands to ramp into its namesake card) and AtogDisciple of the Vault aggro. These had fundamental turns of 5.5 and 4.5 respectively which made them perfectly fair decks.

Then Darksteel and Fifth Dawn completed the decks, and suddenly the ultra-tuned Ravager Affinity monster had a fundamental turn of 3.25-3.5.

This meant that if you were not playing Affinity yourself, you had to dedicate multiple cards – Oxidize and the like – just to stay alive long enough to have a chance.

Playing those cards maindeck meant that your deck was worse against all of the non-Affinity decks in the metagame. And so the correct call was to play an Affinity list tuned to beat the mirror match.


During the period where Ravager Affinity Aggro dominated Standard, tournament attendance plummeted despite better than average FNM promos (even for the time).

Wizards eventually saw the need to act and terminated the Affinity deck with extreme prejudice. Where three bannings would have saved the format (Ravager, Disciple and Cranial Plating), they instead banned eight cards to make a statement that they were serious about turning Standard around.

Since then, there has never been a need to ban additional cards to make a statement like that. This should be a testament to how oppressive Affinity was.

Modern a month ago (when I last had the time to play it seriously) wasn’t as dominated by oppressive aggro as Mirrodin era Standard was. But it was the closest we have been since.

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The Standard changes – It’s all good… until the next Jace, Telepath Unbound. Then it will be terrible.

Quickly chiming in on the change from a 5-6 set Standard to a 7-8 set Standard – but mostly from a financial perspective.

A side note – all prices are US dollars unless specified otherwise. Where I don’t have accurate USD prices (specifically for 1990s historic prices), I’ve used prices in Australian dollars and my best recollection of the exchange rate at the time.


It’s not really possible to say whether this will make the format more or less interesting. I’m optimistic, but time will tell. It will depend upon the metagame, and also the presence or absence of cards (cough, Collected Company) that single-handedly transform the environment.

Generally speaking though, Wizards have been pretty good at creating interesting synergies across blocks and I expect this will continue.

One thing needs to be said though.

Just like the recent MTGO redemption changes, this is going to make Standard more expensive for paper Magic players, and this price increase will be most prominent on the most expensive cards.

Before explaining this, I want to introduce what I term the Tarmogoyf effect, named after the first rare in Magic’s history to hit $45 during its Standard tenure.

Future Sight wasn’t well regarded at release. Tarmogoyf was the most underrated card since Umezawa’s Jitte, and many of the cards that later became Modern powerhouses weren’t seen as anything amazing at the time.

But about six weeks after the set hit the shelves, people realised the little green dude was absurdly strong. He went from bulk rare to semi-chase rare, to chase rare ($20 was typical for a chase rare at the time), then kept growing in price to an unprecedented $40-$45.

This resulted in the Tarmogoyf effect – people kept buying Future Sight boosters in the hope of opening the $40+ little green man (even though opening FUT boosters was still a negative EV lottery at the time). Future Sight sold out faster than most sets from distributors and stores loved it, because customers loved buying lottery tickets.

Wizards learned from this, and reshuffled rarities around as soon as possible after they learned from the Tarmogoyf effect. The whole Alara rarity structure was designed to ensure that the next time R&D fucked up and printed something broken, the Tarmogoyf effect would be much more pronounced. And what happened? JtMS hit $100 in its Standard tenure.

Again the Tarmogoyf effect ensured that WWK sold out everywhere in record time, despite a cracked booster not actually having all that high an expected value at the time. (The dual lands that are now high $ cards were not all that expensive at the time – the set’s value was tied up in Jace and SFM, but mostly Jace).

Wizards were not in a position to fully capitalize on the Tarmogoyf effect here as they screwed up and didn’t reprint WWK enough. But they learned. They always learn.


Jump back to recent times, before the two recent changes.

Consider Jace, Wallet Unbound, as the extreme outlier of a Standard card. There was a perfect storm of factors that made it so expensive:

  • Large set (larger than usual for a large set – JVP was 1 per 126 packs, compared to Liliana the Last Hope at 1 per 88, or Chandra, Torch of Defiance at 1 per 121)
  • Underdrafted set (ORI was only drafted alone)
  • For a period, the card was a 4-of in around 75% of decks by metagame share.
  • A low mana cost and not dead if you drew multiples.

JVP hit $90-95.

Many people ask “How did he get so high?”. I want to answer a different question – why didn’t he go higher?

After all, dealers pay about $2 per pack (it’s not exactly that and a bit over $2 for smaller stores, but let’s call this $2). 126 packs cost $252 – why would dealers accept only 40% of that sum for Jace when he was the only card in the set that was super-easy to sell?


The answer was two factors.

One – more relevant to this morning’s announcement – was that at his peak, Jace was 9-10 months from rotation. Magic players do not like spending large amounts on cards with under a year’s Standard tenure left. Players are generally bad at the economics of Magic – but they perceive that buying cards that are far from rotation is better value than buying ones close to it. So the 9-10 month factor suppressed demand somewhat – and this morning’s announcement means this will not happen for the next Jace.

Two – MTGO redemption. Paper dealers had an alternative to opening cases – they could buy complete digital sets of ORI on MTGO from MTGO dealers for about $133 (at the peak) and then pay $25 to turn them into paper sets. This method of arbitrage allowed many individual dealers to source hundreds of copies of JVP at a price that was lower than cracking cases. This would be less of an impact today due to the limited redemption window – and for Jace, his price explosion would have been too late for redemption to rain it in.



At peak, Jace was 60% of the wholesale value of a redemption set (the most efficient way to source the card). Without redemption, if the 60% remained constant, he would have had to be $150 (60% of the wholesale price of 126 boosters). The 60% assumption may be an exaggeration, but $500 a playset would have been likely even before today.

Now add in more demand because of today’s announcement and you have an even worse perfect storm.


I’ll jump in with something about a counterveiling factor that many hope will suppress prices – Masterpieces. I think the Masterpiece effect is being overstated.

I played when Urza’s Legacy hit and introduced foils, and the hype was incredible. Foils added over $1 to the expected value of a cracked booster, with bulk foil commons worth the retail price of a pack, and bulk foil rares (yep, even trash that’s worse than Champion’s Helm) were AUD35 (USD20 at the time).

The hype ended, but people kept opening foils in new sets. Foil Urza’s Legacy sets that were lovingly hand-collated at a cost of over $2000 hold nothing like that value today, and today, foils in typical sets add around 20 cents to the EV of an opened booster.

I expect Masterpieces will fade away somewhat in time, and much of their EV share will come at the expense of pack foils and low demand casual cards, rather than cards with Standard competitive demand.

The cards that lose the value in Masterpiece sets will not be the extreme chase cards (Polluted Delta, Mana Vault) but will instead be the next tier of cards (Godless Shrine, Sol Ring, Cascade Bluffs). Mediocre to bulk foil rares once held values of AUD35-50 but this lasted only five sets. The last time I was excited to open a booster and see a shit foil rare was Prophecy – even a couple of sets later, by Planeshift, the demand was just gone. I expect Masterpieces to follow the same trajectory.

I hope to be proven wrong on this point. Time will tell.


In summary: Today’s announcement will make Standard more expensive. Players will need cards from more sets, increasing the barrier to entry to the format, which everyone already realises, but additionally, the most undersupplied cards will see larger price spikes than in recent history.

If Wizards’ present policies (Masterpieces, Redemption and 21-24 month Standard tenure) had all been in place when Origins hit, I expect JVP would have smashed the $100 barrier and maybe even hit $125-150.

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MTGO’s ‘Treasure Chests’ and competitive online play

Weighing in on another controversy here.

There’s a lot of unease or even doom and gloom about the MTGO prize changes.

I’m not someone who jumps on board every MTGO change. At the time I was quite hostile to the introduction of Play Points, although MTGO later added enough PP sinks to allay my fears.

That said, I think the Treasure Chest system is actually fairly positive overall – with caveats and room for improvement.


I’m not talking about the redemption changes here, other than a three paragraph aside (skip ahead if you want to avoid a rant). While I disagree with the prevailing opinions on the Treasure Chest system, the redemption changes are a steaming pile of shit that will enrich speculative traders at the expense of Standard players.

In the short term the redemption changes will also seriously hurt the high-volume low-margin bot chain traders that (in the absence of a good in-client MTGO trade system) serve as the lubricant that makes MTGO so smooth. Dealers like MTGOtraders, Goatbots, Clan Team and Cardhoarder have the largest collections on MTGO, and so changes that reduce consumer confidence in the MTGO platform (and hence reduce the secondary market value of Event Tickets in USD) hurt them more than anyone else. If tickets fall from USD 0.98 to USD 0.92, this might cost my collection USD 200 but might cost Goatbots USD 10000 or more.

Many people think ‘I never redeem so this doesn’t affect me’, but people that played MTGO when Zendikar was the newest set know how much restrictions on redemption fuck over players that have never redeemed a set and have no plans to ever do so. Those players saw their collections lose a third of their value during the redemption freeze.

But that’s enough ranting for now.



On MTGO, any prize that is available from Constructed events can and will flood the market unless it is desirable in extremely large quantities. As an example, Theros boosters spent much of their second year in Standard valued at around 80 cents.

It wasn’t that people didn’t want Theros packs. Drafters destroyed them all the time, even after the focus moved on to KTK drafts. Theros still had some cards that were in considerable demand and after FRF launched, it had a higher EV than KTK packs.

But there had just been too many of them awarded for drafters to absorb them all.

The most common reaction to Treasure Chests is to assume the same will happen. I dispute this. The very high rarity of the most desirable cards will prevent this happening, even with a large number of Chests being paid out as prizes.


So far the only information we have on Treasure Chest contents is the announcement, plus a video of Lee Sharpe opening ten of them.

The announcement states the following:

  • Specific rares (e.g. Snapcaster) are twice as common as specific mythics (e.g. Godsire) in the ‘Modern legal rare slot’ found in some treasure chests.
  • Curated cards are in different rarity tiers and there is no information on these tiers.
  • You get an average of 1.25 of the ‘good items’ (Modern rares/mythics, bundles of PP, curated cards) per chest, with a minimum of 1, and an average 1.75 of the ‘chaff’ (Standard commons/uncommons).

In the ten opened chests, Lee gets 2 curated cards, 6 modern legal rares/mythics, and 50 PP. While this is not enough information to determine the rarity of each of those prizes, I will make the assumption that this prize pool was fairly typical, and so will assume the following distribution:

  • 50% of the ‘good items’ are Modern rares/mythics
  • 35% are 10 Play Point bundles
  • 15% are curated cards.

This distribution would make the probability of opening a specific Modern rare (for example, 8th Edition Ensnaring Bridge) at around 1 per 5000 Treasure Chests. 1 per 10000 for a specific mythic (for example, Magic 2012 Time Reversal).

There is not enough information to determine much about the rarity of individual curated cards. However, given Wizards’ past practice with PZ1 (the most similar set conceptually), it’s reasonable to estimate that the most desireable curated cards will be 5 times as rare as the non-chase ones. (For example, PZ1 True-Name Nemesis, a mythic, is about 5 times as rare as PZ1 Arcane Sanctum, an uncommon).

If this is accurate, it’s plausible that Rishadan Port is 1 per 15000 to 1 per 20000 Treasure Chests.

This won’t trash the card’s value overnight like the Lion’s Eye Diamond reprint did (that card fell from 183 tickets to 60 with a promo reprint of only 2000 copies, then down to 12 with VMA).

To get 2000 copies into circulation would require of the order of thirty million treasure chest openings. MTGO is bigger than people think, but it is not that big.

Expect a price impact that is more like the effect that Zendikar Expeditions had on the existing cards on MTGO – ultra-low supply cards like Kor Haven and Dust Bowl did fall, but even low supply cards like Horizon Canopy and Cascade Bluffs were not impacted much.


Expected Value and Variance of Treasure Chests

Most analysis of Chests has been predicated on the assumption that the chests are worth almost nothing. This is wrong.

Expected Value is a term used to describe the average results of a random event, ignoring variance. For example, roll 3 dice and add the numbers showing, and your expected value is 10.5 (even though you cannot get exactly 10.5 at all, and the probability of getting exactly 10 is 12.5%, with exactly 11 also only being 12.5%).

For example, when Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was 94 tickets, he added 0.75 tickets to the EV of opening an ORI pack, even though over 99% of ORI packs did not contain a copy of the card.

Variance can be ennumerated via a statistical term called the Standard Deviation, but I won’t go into that here other than to state that variance on Chests is very high.

The EV of a chest under my above assumptions is given by:

  • 0 value for the chaff (Standard commons/uncommons). It’s not technically 0 (you might get a Reflector Mage) but it’s close enough to be just a rounding error.
  • 1.25 ‘good items’ – that’s 0.625 Modern rares/mythics; 0.4375 bundles of 10 PP, and 0.1875 curated cards.
  • Each Modern rare or mythic has an average value of about 0.7 tickets (thanks to the guy on Reddit that determined that 0.8 tickets dealer sell price is the average at present – his post is here). This may seem hard to believe as a large majority of Modern legal rares are less than five cents. But the EV is propped up by the large number of 5+ ticket cards in the format and in particular by the 20+ ticket cards you will rarely see.
  • So the Modern rare/mythic slot contributes about 43c to the EV of a chest.
  • The PP slot contributes 44c under our assumptions.
  • Finally the curated cards can’t be estimated because we do not know their relative rarities. The mean value of a curated card ignoring their rarity weighting is about 5 tickets (thanks to BenBuzz790 on Reddit for this information), so I will estimate 2.5 tickets once we factor in rarity weighting (which may be miles off but it’s the best estimate we can do for now). That puts the curated card value also at around 45c.

So under these assumptions the EV for an opened chest is actually $1.35. The assumptions could be wrong, but I don’t see these errors tremendously changing the overall EV.

Once more the variance is high. Not as high as entering an Origins draft was back when Jace was 94 tickets, but it is still high, and it will not be rare to open 8 chests and to find the best things you got were 20 PP and an Anger of the Gods.


EV of events

Under the assumption that chests are worth 1.3 tickets, the ‘friendly’ events have the following absolute EVs at various win percentages:

50%: -10.6 PP

55%: -1.4 PP

60%: +8.15 PP

65%: +18 PP

70%: +28.4 PP


And under the further assumption that boosters are worth 10 tickets per draft set (an assumption made because of the draft entry fee changes occurring at the same time), the competitive events have the following absolute EVs:

50%: -13.5 PP

55%: +14.8 PP

60%: +46.3 PP

65%: +80 PP

Because the competitive events have better competition I will not give figures for 70%. That win rate is not sustainable.

Note that this provides a strong incentive for good players to get out of the kiddie pool and to swim with the sharks. This is definitely a good thing for MTGO’s future as it helps people who aren’t yet at an elite level play weaker opponents while getting tournament experience.



Improving the Chests

The four things I think Wizards should do with the Chests to make them more appealing are:

  • Make the damn things tradeable. Some people find a thrill in variance, others hate it. Let people make their own decision on what level of variance they will tolerate. Otherwise you will get a flood of rants from people that win 16 chests and open pure shit in them, and these people will speak louder than the people that open 3 chests and get a Port and a Liliana.
  • Publish transparent rarity information on everything in them. I helped Goatbots design the EV calculator after stopped being updated, and it is a tool that a lot of people use. Magic players like to know the odds and are usually suspicious of any situation in which they do not know the odds.
  • Consider replacing some of the PP ‘consolation prizes’ in casual leagues with fair amounts of Chests. I think everyone that enters a friendly league should get a consolation prize of a chest instead of the 10PP consolation prize you get for a 0-5 record.
  • Reduce some of the complexity in explaining what you get in them. I don’t see any need to have the 1-in-200 possibility of triple ‘prize’ packs – this should just be rolled into a better chance of getting a double prize pack.

Anyways this is pushing 2000 words now so I’ll leave it there and will respond to Reddit comments and comments on this site over time.


  • sirgog


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Kaladesh Standard – First Thoughts

I’ll preface this by saying these thoughts are theorycrafted only, not tested.

Smuggler’s Copter is arguably the strongest Kaladesh card, and it can fit into any strategy that plays small creatures.

This card will dramatically affect the power of Planeswalkers in Standard.

Almost none of the Standard Planeswalkers can defend themselves or their controllers against a flying creature that is not a creature during the Planeswalker’s controller’s turn. Nahiri is an exception.

This means that Walkers other than Nahiri are much more vulnerable in the new Standard than they used to be.

Sorry, Liliana. You had a great ten weeks in the centre of attention, but you aren’t there any more.

Ob Nixilis and Big Sorin in particular are looking a lot worse. They can still kill a crew member, but often the Coptor’s controller will just cast a new creature – almost every creature will do – and then proceed to get revenge against the Walker.

If you want to play Walkers, you will need actual flying creatures to defend them, and/or quite a bit of instant speed removal.

I also think that the mythic vehicle, Skysovereign, may see play as an occasional curve topper. This card will also mess up Walkers like there is no tomorrow.

For this reason I believe the coming Standard will be the Standard where Walkers have the least impact they have had in the past ~9 years that the card type has existed.


Interesting times.

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The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 2

This continues on from, which is 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 two 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.

The Second Rule isn’t as fundamental as the first rule.

In Vintage, it’s not true at all – you have access to various ridiculous mana artifacts from the ridiculously broken Black Lotus, Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, to the slightly less broken (but still ridiculous) original Moxen, and a lot of less powerful cards that still break this rule in half.

Vintage is balanced around the assumption that the Second Rule does not apply, and the presence of Force of Will and Mental Misstep in the format as 4-ofs serves as glue that keeps the format from totally breaking.

However, in the other formats it holds much more true.

Cards that break it – Simian Spirit Guide, Dark Ritual, Summer Bloom – are all cards that allow backbreaking lategame plays or outright game-ending plays to be made earlier in games than is the standard for the format in question.

For that reason, any card that breaks this rule – no matter how terrible it might seem if assessed in a vacuum – must be taken seriously.

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Corrollary to the First Fundamental Rule of Magic

This refers to the following article:

The Commander format allows you to take any legendary creature and make it break the First Fundamental Rule.

This is the primary reason that Commander, when played with a Spike mindset, is such a fundamentally broken and combo-dominated format. Not only does your Commander break the First Fundamental Rule by starting the game effectively in your hand, but each time it is dealt with it breaks this rule again, albeit at a lower rate.

Commander still works fine when everyone at a table goes into a game without building their decks to win. If one player wants to grind value with boardwipes and Gearhulks, while another tries to ramp toward the biggest and silliest Dragons from Magic’s history, and a third seeks to cast spells that cause battlefield chaos, Commander can still be fun.

It’s when people push at the edges – which Spikes are always looking to do – that the format breaks apart.

After all, if Prossh is your Commander, Food Chain is a one-card combo that creates infinite Storm, and infinite mana (restricted to creature spells), and infinite board presence. Any card that can tutor for Food Chain is also a one-card combo.

It would do a lot for Commander to partially restore the First Fundamental Rule by restricting players to casting their Commander from the Command Zone at most one time per turn.

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Comments on the state of Modern

Modern as a format has some issues. But in the last year they have become a lot worse.


From Wizards of the Coast’s perspective, Modern’s primary reason for existing is to provide Standard players the illusion (and historically the reality) that the expensive cards they are buying for Standard will have some future use.


This isn’t really true any more. Since print runs dramatically increased a few years back, the only truly expensive card to have its value propped up by Modern demand has been Voice of Resurgence. Powerhouses and format staples like Thoughtseize and Wooded Foothills are too common to hold serious value.


However, the illusion is there that Modern will ensure that a Standard collection doesn’t become worthless after rotation. This player confidence matters a lot for Wizards’ business model.




Modern is starting to fall apart. Recent design trends have seen proactive threats get better and better, while defensive answers become weaker. Additionally, several decks that attempt to overload on one strategy (Infect and pump spells; red hyper-aggro with burn; Zoo hyper-aggro with Death’s Shadow; the metalcraft artifact aggro deck that is colloquially known as Affinity despite playing no ‘Affinity for Artifacts’ cards) have reached a critical mass where the fundamental turn of the format is now about 3.75.


There’s also a fair number of decks that are one or two card printings away from becoming extremely good. While all-in mill (with Archive Trap, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Hedron Crab and Mind Funeral) is at best a casual deck to take to FNM right now, I firmly believe that one more high-quality mill spell being printed will push it into the upper echelons of competitive play. I was saying the same thing about Dredge a year ago.



Compare Modern to Legacy.


Modern’s best interactive cards against an unknown field are Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile – one mana answers that eliminate opposing threats at tempo gain. Lightning Bolt does so at card parity, Path to Exile at card disadvantage in the early game, and virtual card parity in the lategame (when the land is irrelevant).


These two cards are better at protecting a winning position than they are at pulling you back into a game where you are behind. There are few feelings worse than a burn player saying “Bolt your only blocker. Swing with Guide and Swiftspear. I cast Atarka’s Command choosing Lava Spike and the team buff, any responses?”


On the flip side, Legacy has a number of interactive cards that are mostly mediocre when you are winning, but are outstanding when you are behind.


Force of Will. Misdirection. Pyroblast. Flusterstorm. Swords to Plowshares. Or the criminally underplayed Pyrokinesis and Abolish.


For zero or one mana, all of these cards can turn around a gamestate where you are losing badly, and get you back into the game.


These cards are also the reason that Goblin Charbelcher is not a big force in the format despite being the deck with the highest percentage of turn 1 and 2 kills using Legacy-legal cards.




Some say that the answer to Modern’s woes is better card selection. Adding Preordain and/or Ponder back into the legal cardpool (or even more dramatically, adding strong tutors like Enlightened Tutor to the cardpool) would indeed allow players to play smaller numbers of narrow hate cards to beat the hyper-focused decks.


But here the cure is worse than the disease. Better tutoring – whether from card selection cantrips or from actual tutors – would significantly strengthen combo. And combo has a lot of powerful offensive interaction available to it – cards like Pact of Negation – that become far stronger when they can be reliably found when needed. Adding Legacy-level card filtering (or even going halfway) would create new monsters worse than the current Burn/Affinity/Suicide Zoo/Infect format.


And that’s not even touching on Force of Will, or its little brothers Daze and Mental Misstep.


Yes, FoW is the glue that holds Legacy together, but in Modern it would be much more at home in Affinity countering Hurkyl’s Recall, or in Storm protecting a Pyromancer’s Ascension. Mental Misstep and Daze would love to protect a Death’s Shadow from Path to Exile, or to protect a Blighted Agent from a Lightning Bolt.


What Modern needs, more than anything else, is strong zero and one mana defensive interaction, that is maindeckable, useful against a variety of decks, and far weaker at defending a winning position but strong when you are behind.


Some cards like this already exist, but they are not good enough. Condemn and Oust don’t get there. Porphyry Nodes, while extremely strong, is not enough on its own. Sunscour often goes 3-for-3 at a tempo gain, but requires too much of a commitment to white cards and is often uncastable.




The heroes Modern needs are reprints of two fringe-playable Legacy cards.


Pyrokinesis and Abolish.


Abolish encourages playing less fetchlands, answers every hard lock piece in Modern (Ensnaring Bridge, Worship, Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void), buys a turn against Affinity, and most importantly does so even when you are locked out of casting spells.


Pyrokinesis is everything Sunscour wishes it could be, and is fast enough to kick Affinity, burn, infect and maybe even Death’s Shadow Zoo.


Those cards would provide the tools Modern control needs to have a chance against aggro and aggro/combo decks. This then allows control to keep combo in check.


These cards are safe to print into Standard – Abolish would do nothing, and Pyrokinesis would be a good card but unlikely to seriously influence the format, just like Dispel and Negate have been.


Both were originally printed as cycles, but that doesn’t matter. Cards can be reprinted out of the context of their cycles – for precedents, see Leyline of the Void, or the most recent reprint of Liliana Vess.


I’ve wanted these cards in Modern for some time, but with the current state of the format it is more urgent than it has been before.


Wizards have five options of what to do with the Modern format, and I do not like the first four of them.


Option 1:

Restore the turn 4 rule with a wide swathe of bannings (starting with Death’s Shadow; Glistener Elf; one of Cranial Plating or Mox Opal; and one of Atarka’s Command or Monastery Swiftspear or Goblin Guide). I think most players would find this unpalatable for obvious reasons. Hell, I’m one of the players most sympathetic to using bannings to improve formats and I would find this unpalatable.

This option would probably kill off player confidence in Modern, which is a bad thing for Wizards’ bottom line.


Option 2:

Acknowledge that Modern is now a turn 3.5-3.75 format, and unban accordingly. Unban cards that are bad or not oppressive in such a format (Umezawa’s Jitte; Splinter Twin; Ponder; Preordain; Stoneforge Mystic; JtMS; BBE; Seething Song; maybe even Sensei’s Stalling Top) and just let the format rip.

This might work – but it would make it harder for new cards (such as Nahiri) to break into the format. This makes it harder for Wizards to grow the format, and risks it losing its appeal to Standard players who see some of their collection rotating.

Retaining players who lose some of their collection to rotation is critical to Wizards, and so I don’t see this working for them. Additionally I’m not sure that a faster Modern would be fun – the existing menaces going away doesn’t necessarily result in a healthy format either.


Option 3:

Reboot Modern.

Let Modern go the way of Legacy (little to no Wizards support) and introduce a new format, perhaps with cards from Innistrad and up, or RTR and up, or even M15 and up. I’ll call this hypothetical format POMO (for POstMOdern).

POMO might be a good format, and in the longer term it could serve the same role Wizards want Modern to serve. But the short-term lack of confidence from the enfranchised Modern playerbase would likely hurt Wizards badly.

I do not endorse this option. But if it is to happen, there will be warning signs – Wizards intentionally fucking up the Modern format via printing cards that warp the format, and/or via shock bannings that undermine confidence in the format. Wizards did something similar when they killed off Extended – they changed the format legality rules creating a horrible format, then announced a while later “Players don’t like Extended, we are killing it”.


Option 4:

Let Modern go as-is, with minimal or no changes. Let players abandon it.

Again, I cannot support this option. Modern is in a bad state right now, but another year of the status quo will probably wreck it.


Option 5:

Intentionally print cards into Standard that will address Modern’s weaknesses; and/or change the rules about supplementary sets and print such cards there.

This is the solution, IMO.

I pointed out Abolish and Pyrokinesis as Standard-safe cards that would have a huge positive impact on Modern.

There are other possibilities too. At the safer end, Pulverize and Cave-In. At the riskier, Misdirection, Flusterstorm or Submerge. All of those provide powerful defensive interaction at 0 to 1 mana.




Modern is not dead like Extended was. It may not even be dying, and dying isn’t a quick process anyway.


But Modern is seriously sick. It’s time to fix it.


  • sirgog

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The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 1

This is going to be a series of articles that are aimed at making you better at card evaluation.

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 Fundamental Rule of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn.

Dread Return is one of perhaps five cards on the Modern banned list that is never, ever getting back into the format, and Unburial Rites is a solid card in Modern.

This isn’t because returning a dead creature to the battlefield is too powerful an effect – Zombify and Resurrection both do the same effect for 4 mana, and Makeshift Mannequin does so at instant speed with a modest drawback.

Dread Return and Unburial Rites are so strong because a number of cards (most notably the Dredge mechanic, but also others like Gifts Ungiven and Quiet Speculation) allow you to get them into your graveyard without ever having to draw the card.

Of the two Dread Return is the stronger, not because sacrificing three creatures is a lesser cost than paying 3W (it generally is not), but because the incredibly hard-to-spell card Narcomoeba exists and has such synergy with it.

Dread Return and Narcomoeba (and Bridge from Below) are examples of cards that break this fundamental rule, by being able to have an effect on the gamestate without ever entering your hand or costing you a draw step. In Modern this interaction is so strong that it is not possible to have both Dread Return and Narcomoeba legal, nor is it possible to have Dread Return and Bridge from Below both legal. Consequentially Dread Return is banned in the format.


Some examples of other cards that break the First Rule. Notice there is a lot of Dredge here:

  • Raven’s Crime.
  • Life from the Loam
  • Demonic Tutor. DT (and other tutors) don’t break the First Rule by themselves. You must draw your tutor for it to impact the gamestate. However, it allows your other cards to break the First Rule in exchange for the mana cost and possibly other costs (such as life and/or card disadvantage) of the Tutor you use.
  • Panglacial Wurm. Notice that this card is still terrible, because in the formats where it is legal, there are not many gamestates in which paying 7 mana and a fetchland activation for a 9/5 trample creature is worth it.
  • Deathmist Raptor. This card can get into your graveyard at little to no cost, and is often better there than in your hand.
  • Soul of Innistrad. Don’t laugh – this guy is at the heart of many ‘not-good-enough-to-be-viable-but-almost-close’ combo kills in Legacy, and will undoubtedly see play if Hermit Druid is ever unbanned. All of these kills involve putting your entire library into your graveyard, then casting Ice Age forgotten enabler Songs of the Damned (possibly with the help of Recoup), then using that mana and exiling the Soul and put three creatures from your graveyard into your hand to win on the spot.

To summarise: Cards which are “live” in zones other than your hand or the battlefield should always be taken seriously, especially if they have efficient effects in those zones.


Late edit: I’ve added a little corollary to this rule in a new post,, which talks about how this rule affects the Commander format.


  • sirgog

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