Welcome to my blog #19764!
In this one, I aim to write some technical Magic The Gathering articles, focused on the limited format, and mostly about card design. This first entry will be about something else though. It will be about predictability, in terms of strategy.
One of the reasons we love magic is actually unpredictability. In 90% cases, no player can predict what will happen this turn, let alone the next one. We don’t concede until we are all the way down to 0 life or 10 poisons because we know we can pick an answer to the opposing threat(s), or get the occasion to punish a couple of bad moves from our opponent.
One the flip side, when we do have a plan to finish the game and the other side of the battlefield is all tapped out, it’s a great feeling because for once you know you’ve won the game before the other does.
The second best thing to future sight is awareness of what you know and what you don’t know. Here is a first simple list of easy concepts related to awareness of your knowledge:
- Do not give up a game. Something might happen.
- Bluff when you have room. You know you don’t have the card, the opponent doesn’t.
- Make educated guesses on what your opponent might cast; remember it’s just a guess.
- Mulligan. Opening hands can get better OR worse as you play them so you will lose 50% of games with a bad hand (not strict statistics right here but you get the idea).
What I am talking about here, since most of time we can’t predict the future, we wan’t to make moves that are not too unpredictable. We don’t want to cross fingers. We want to play cards that we can count on, and if possible not top deck something infuriating or even “meh”. So what cards are predictably good? What are the criteria to recognize them?
I’ll mention information, then choice, versatility, inevitability and finish with the gravy: immediate impact. Let’s go.
If you don’t know this already, brace yourself for a revelation: information is very valuable in Magic. And in most games, really. Especially when in magic, information about the hand tells you a *lot* about what the other is going to play. Of course they can play their cards in a different sequence, and they will draw some more of them; but in the immediate future, you know what you are up against.
This made it so Gitaxian Probe is a good card! Look at it; the card does nothing but look a the opponent’s hand then recycles its creepy self!
Who gets to make the calls? Take the example of discard, and three flavors of it.
- Target player discards a card. This means your opponent gets rid of their least desirable card.
- Target player discards a card at random. No choice; they might discard their most precious card.
- Look at target player’s hand and pick a card to have them discard. Now you are seeing their current “strategy” (not exactly true but close enough) and pick what card you fear the most, knowing your own cards.
Should be pretty obvious which is the best kind of effect: it’s all down to who is deciding what card goes bye-bye. For the first effect it’s your opponent, for the second it’s random, and for the last it’s you! On top of this, you get perfect information about your opponent’s hand.
Which card(s) will survive?
Hymn to Tourach is the example of a crazy potent effect. When you get hit by this black magic, two random cards suddenly drop dead from your hand. It’s potent in limited but you could have anything in your hand. In constructed, it could make you lose a game pretty easily.
But picking the best card in your ennemi’s hand is even more efficient. This leads to some very interesting list of cards here, where designers tried to limit the “pick a card in opponent’s hand” ability every way they could think of!
http://goo.gl/dHoZf <- that’s the list, check it out!
Toot, toot, toot.
Signal the clans.
What separated signal the clan from a crazy fetch spell to a barely fun one? Your opponent makes the call (…Of the Clans; get it?). The choice is made at random. You have to find three creatures that would help you, and you might only get the worse one.
It is not so bad, but when it fails, how would you rate a card that makes you pay 2 colored mana to get your third best creature (assuming that it’s not already in play)? Definitely not as good as a Green Sun’s Zenith.
One nasty clock
I like this guy. Who wouldn’t enjoy a big demon drop for 2 and 2 black? But I won against it a bunch of times too, so I find it great but not terrifying.
“But if I cast a 6/6 flying on turn 4 that grows each turn, killing an opponent’s creature, it’ll pay off sooner or later!”
Yes. If you cast it on turn 4. Sooner or later. Quite possibly. Then again, it could get it killed right away (we will see in the last chapter how that actually matters). It can make your opponent sacrifice one or two creatures and then kill it (which is a 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 — very great but not unheard of), or simply they could tap it by sacrificing a creature before their attack phase and go for the kill because they were dominating. Fact is they had the choice of sacrificing instead of taking a huge hit by a flying demon, and sometimes that choice is all you need to not die, or win. You could also say, as we will see further down, that desecration demon doesn’t have full inevitability.
Let’s moderate all this by mentioning that even though the effect is not instant-win power, it’s likely the nail in the coffin when you have a good board position or a removal or two.
Choice leads to an important yet simple sub-point:
Lots of cards won’t help you out of all situation. They are either defensive, offensive; some are powerful but even more niche answers to specific situations.
Cards like Selesnya Charm or Vampire Nighthawk don’t have that sort of built-in limitation. Charm can either give you a creature at instant speed, remove a big threat from the game, or give you some evasion *and* an ok power boost, which worse case scenario can even be used in defense. Nighthawk can be a good blocker, by virtue of being a 2/3 flyer with Deathtouch, and a great attacker well… By virtue of being a 2/3 flyer with Lifelink (which actually helps in really defensive positions as well).
If your card is good in many different situations, you *know* it will be good more often than a card dedicated to one strategy.
Let’s say you want to kill your opponent… Safe assumption, right? Let’s say you attack them with creatures. Since we’re focusing on limited that’s also very likely. Now the issue is once you attack, the ball is the other’s court; they can block. Unless! You have evasion.
If you have played long enough, you have found yourself in a situation where the board is fairly clogged, until somebody plays an unblockable creature and wins the game in a couple of turns. Heck, that even often works with one or multiple flyers! The known simple flavors of evasions stapled on creatures are unblockable, flying, intimidate, trample. Some more complicated version will impose more or less sophisticated conditions if you want to block them, like “can’t be blocked expect by two or more creatures”.
Outside of evasion, inevitability means you have a way to damage your opponent that is impossible or most likely hard to circumvent.
And in the best of worlds it’s something you can make happen every turn. Hired Torturer. This guy is sweet in a long game, since you know he can slowly grind life (while at the same time giving you a little bonus information).
If you have played in the Return to Ravnica block, you have witnessed how little one can do against extort. And for an Orzhov player who can manage to do 10 damages to you, all they have to do is ensure they trigger extort 10 times and there is little you can do to not lose!
Now this is a criteria that combined to inevitability, and a little versatility and choice makes a very good card into a bomb. And that’s why we are keeping it for the end, it’s not the most easy to come by, but it’s the grail full of gravy that we are all looking for.
We discussed why I consider Desecration Demon to be more of a very good card than a bomb. Bottom line you are not garantied it will have an impact right away. In fact it is pretty much is granted that it will need a couple of turn before you can really enjoy the full power of it.
Same story, different beast (more like a black monster, really): Pontiff of Blight. Is it a great card? YES. Does it change the tide of any game in your favor? Not quite. Does Pontiff of Blight work all the time in all situations? No, and that’s the potential issue there.
You need to be in a game where you have cheap-ish creatures or spells, enough mana, and turns ahead of you to start casting a draining life. That means you need to not be dead after you cast it (being a good blocker helps). Let’s be honest, you might just be draining 3 life, on the turn after playing a 2/7 for 6. Quite a few opponents can still kill you after that.
I go as far as saying: is Aetherling a bomb? YES. Is it an instant win? Nope. The subtlety there is that if you don’t die just after that, you’re in a *very* good spot. But you haven’t won either! You have a great, practically invincible blocker. Maybe next time you try and kill your opponent with it it’s just going to get targeted, thus incapacitated for the turn. Hexproof would be more inevitable than Aetherling’s “blink” effect, even though the later is still very good.
But just to make sure we’re clear, I find the card incredible. And while it’s not 100% inevitable, its power only justifies it as an A grade creature.
What about cards like Angelic Skirmisher and Spark Trooper?
Spark Trooper is not fantastic, let’s get him out of the way. In terms of immediate impact though, once it’s on the table, either your opponent has an instant speed removal and the mana untapped for it, or you’re attacking with a 6/1 trample lifelink.
What about Angelic Skirmisher? This angel comes with an ability that is actually fantastic, and has an immediate impact on the board. As with Pontiff of Blight you get the most of it if you have other creatures (though on its own it’s still a damn good creature), but unlike the zombie priest, they can right away attack with the most relevant ability.
Have better creatures than your opponent? Pick vigilance and attack! Your creatures are smaller or equivalent? First strike might help! Your opponent was racing? Too bad, lifelink will be their fall.
Ok now we’re talking. We have a 6/6 deathtouch for 6, which in itself is good in limited. Noting crazy though. So why is it a bomb? It makes two 2/2 zombies when it attacks! Yeah that’s sweet. But what if I kill it? If it gets killed, it still leaves two zombies behind him because he comes with them! So worse case scenario, you pay 6 for two 2/2, and your opponent had to use (likely premium) removal on it. That’s immediate impact for you.
What about Mizzium Mortars or cyclonic Rift?
Don’t wanna miss those fireworks!
Now there I would run.
If one of those resolves, your opponent will be in a world of pain. In fact, unless you were being completely crushed and without a creature left, you’ll likely going to be able to hit them hard (if not lethal), on top of reversing the board state.
I sounds trivial when I say “as long as it resolves”, but the same way we fight removal (making it almost impossible with hexproof or mitigating its effect with immediate impact), spells can offer some protection against counter magic:
- “Can’t be countered”. Easy one. Pretty fringe though.
- Creature abilities; those can’t be countered (shut up, Stifle). That includes bloodrush, cascade, dredge, madness or recycle, among other ones.
Scary, but actually a nice guy…
Those cards bring some inevitability to your deck. But some other spells can do the opposite, and make themselves harder to cast.
- High mana cost. Beginners will suffer from underestimating this downside.
- Additional costs. Those will hurt you sometimes because they are unreliable. Skaab Ruinator says hi.
It is worth mentioning that unless you have some self mill, you’re going to have to wait a bit before you can cast it for the first time. Later on in the game, the ruinator has evasion (nice 4 turn clock, even for 20 life), and even later, some nice inevitability has you can cast it over and again if it gets killed (though it’s a quite conditional one).
I hope you I gave you a nice picture of a few ways cards can be more reliable, and at least you can know when they are not, and not take for granted that they will work because they can under certain circumstances. Sometimes you will want to build around those downside to powerful cards; some other times you won’t overestimate powerful cards that are too conditional or fringe; and maybe some other times your opponent will drop what he thinks is a game ender bomb, and you won’t stress out and just take your time to defuse it!
I wish you to find the card that will work in all situations, giving you choice and information on the next moves, will be inevitable and have an immediate impact on the board… And when you find it give me a buzz! I have a couple ideas myself…