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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Magic, and the Fundamental Theorem of Poker

Ask experienced Spikes what the most skill-intensive card to play with or against in the history of Magic is, and you will usually get an instant that costs 3U as the answer.

Many will name Fact or Fiction.

Others will name Gifts Ungiven.

I agree with the Fact or Fiction people, but that argument is not what this article is about. This article is about applying poker theory to Magic.

Notice something about these cards? Both are extremely powerful, having long and proven histories in Standard, Modern or Extended, and even in Vintage once. Both are high impact cards and resolving one can decide the result of the game.

Both require high-stakes decisions to be made with incomplete information, and both have extremely high skill ceilings.

The results of the decision are sometimes immediately obvious – a player with a lethal spell on the stack splits a Flusterstorm against four non-counterspells, and the Fact or Fiction caster takes the 4 cards and then casts Mana Drain from their hand. Congratulations, you just got played.

But other times it does not become obvious who made the correct decisions until other decisions have been made, several turns down the track.


On the flip side, ask a less experienced player the same question, and they will usually name a Planeswalker. Planeswalkers also require high-stakes decisions to be made by both players, but because the hidden information aspect is less important to the card, the newer player can see more of the decision.

Games are won and lost on decisions to -3 or +1 Jace, Telepath Unbound, or whether to attack the Walker or the controller, but the players involved usually know if their decision was right or not quickly. This means they can identify the crucial moments of the game more accurately, and so more often associate them with the Planeswalker.


The highest skill ceilings on cards seem to come from those that require players to act on hidden information.

Compared to top players of other games, Magic players are terrible at doing this.

In Magic, hidden information is never totally hidden. It’s hinted at by decisions both players make. This should influence both how you play against acknowledged skill tester cards like Gifts, but also against cards that have nothing openly to do with hidden information.

As an experiment, play mirror match games against an opponent who plays with their hand revealed, and watch how often you win. If you normally split games with this opponent, it is reasonable to expect a 70-30 or better win record.


Poker players have a rule called “The Fundamental Theorem of Poker”.

I’ll quote it verbatim.

“Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”

This is every bit as true in Magic as it is in poker.



Hidden information doesn’t just matter when the Spike conventional wisdom says it does – during the resolution of spells like Gifts Ungiven.

You should treat every card you play as a skilltester card, and always look for unexpected opportunities to puzzle together clues to hidden information, and to use them.

If your Modern opponent is visibly unhappy with their 6 card hand on the draw, but then undergoes a significant release of tension upon their Scry 1, that should tell you something. Maybe it’s time to do something really unusual, like ‘Scalding Tarn, mainphase crack for Island, Thought Scour you’.

That’s not the reason Thought Scour was in your deck – you play it to fuel your own Delve spells so you can deploy a threat like Tasigur for almost nothing. But your goal should be to play as close as possible to how you would play if you could see all hidden information your opponent has, or previously had, access to. And you have strong reason to believe that your opponent’s top card completes an otherwise incomplete hand.

Just as in poker, you want to be looking for hints your opponent drops about hidden information all the time, not just during big decisions.

You will never completely achieve this goal, but you can work toward it.

  • sirgog

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Introducing MTGBrainstorm

Hello all!


This site is being published to post strategic insights related to the Magic: The Gathering® trading card game.


Unlike larger sites that try to keep up with every minor metagame shift, it is my intention to post infrequent but more timeless articles. I work full time in a job with nothing to do with Magic, and this is a side project for me.


I started playing Magic in 1995, and shifted from a paper player to an MTGO player between 2005 and 2010. I now solely play online, but do follow paper news and events.


I’m a Spike at heart, but a Spike that feels the urge to innovate and that is willing to try off-the-wall strategies to try to make them work. I’d rather lose and improve from the loss than win and stagnate, and I’m at my happiest when winning with something the opponent never sees coming.


  • sirgog



This concludes the first article. Obligatory legal crap (sorry, important reading) follows.


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