Category: Magic: The Gathering

Weekly, I write a column about Magic: The Gathering. Either a deck I’m playing or a mechanic I like or a lesson I learned from it. This game has been part of my life now for going on fifteen years and I’d like to share the way the game has impacted me.

MTG: Hallar Great

So, there’s this enby.

I love making commander decks. Even the ones that get stomped a fair bit. It’s kind of hard to call a commander deck good, or bad, because Commander 1v1 is such a swingy format with nonsense flying around. It’s like a slightly more splashy vintage where the early turns don’t tend to matter quite as much. You can sometimes just get infinited out by a god draw that the other deck is never planning on actually doing.

What’s more, there are usually a lot of different ways to build a commander deck – my Wasitora for example is nothing like the Wasitora’s I’ve seen online, where I made a value Jund deck and other people make a dragon tribal removal-heavy deck. I’ve been looking

Hallar, the Firefletcher is my latest passion.

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MTG: Notstalgia

Look, I know it’s Magic: The Gathering‘s 25th birthday. I know that it’s a year when the game is going to do a massive victory lap for its own persistence. I don’t mind that. I celebrate that! I love that this game has shown that its particular combination of components and concepts has underneath it all, longevity and excellence in design. I love that I can show my students this game and they can come up with whole games that just use one of the mechanics in Magic. It’s a dizzyngly deep game, and it deserves to spend some time thumping its chest.

There have been, in this year three major dips into the well of nostalgia, between Masters 25, Dominaria, and the hype of returning to a Core Set, yielding Core Set 2019 with a headline of classic Elder Dragons. Woo, 1995!

One of the all-purpose lazy content vehicles you can get out of Magic: The Gathering is the set review. I liked doing them back in the day, in part because new cards excited me but also because I had a gimmick that not many other folk I was reading did: I ignored a lot of cards. There were a lot that weren’t good enough to play with in a deck in the formats I liked.

Since doing this on my blog, however (and I have been doing it now for a bit over a year), I realised I kind of don’t want to do these set reviews in a big part because I don’t want to be too negative. I like Ixalan’s flavour, but my set reviews of it yielded a disconcolate grumpiness, a dispassionate disinterest in the cards themselves. I’ve since shifted a little bit on Ixalan – I certainly regard it more fondly than I did at the launch, and there are still cards from Ixalan I haven’t played with yet that I wanted to.

Yet here I am, looking at the now of Magic, that’s focused on the past of Magic, and remembering that I’ve been there. That wasn’t great. I wanted to leave.

It’s just awkward. Right now, a lot of Magic: The Gathering is about reverence to the past that I hold in disdain. Even my favourite set of the time, a home of some beloved cards, cards that are out of even modern for being Too Something, Onslaught block, has been shown over and over to be full of mistakes. It would make me happy to see the cards of Onslaught brought back to thrive without the pressures of Psychatog, Counterspell, Astral Slide or Goblin Warchief, and yet, those aren’t the parts of the past we remember.

Then again, they brought back Goblin Warchief from that block.

It reminds me of Time Spiral, a block about the history of Magic. A block where we were told we could see anything, see anywhere, we could get a glimpse of Magic’s future, and I hated it because it didn’t show me the future we are in now. I didn’t get to see things like Bestow, or the mindset behind the creature removal of Murder, or the new, interesting and fun ways games can be about stuff other than the draw step.

It’s weird. I love this game but the things of the past five years have shown me greater and more fervent love than anything before it.

I guess what I’m saying is Khans rule.

MTG: Pet Cards XI, Rise of the Eldrazi

After the discomfort of Zendikar, a set I never realised I disliked, I figured Rise of the Eldrazi would be suitably bothersome. After all, it had one of the worst creature combat mechanics of all time in Annihilator, it wanted to clog up the board, it filled the world with little 0/1 tokens and was hard to approach. Not to mention that it introduced us to The Eldrazi, or MTG’s response to Cthulhu, Just Please Without The Racist Baggage.

That the Eldrazi were imprisoned on a plane populated by humanoids who were chalk white is kind of funny in hindsight.

Yet despite this, when I went to get a list of pet cards from Rise I was shocked, shocked to see how many cards there were in this set that I loved. So much so that I felt like I could do a pet card from this set for each major mechanic in the set.

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MTG: Why We Cut

You ever spoken to an actual card sharp?

These days you’ll mostly only know that kind of operator as a person who does tricks. Not the people at a bar who knows a trick or two. I mean an honest to god magician, someone who actually knows how to do actual card tricks, the kind of things that you keep well and clear away from card games, because if anyone knows you can do something like that, you destroy the ability of people around you to trust what you’re doing.

I’m serious.

There is a lot of playing a game with cards that rely on a sort of shared fiction of randomness, and most of the time you’re dealing with random enough. There’s a reason people are prone to blaming ‘the shuffler’ on MTGO – quite a lot of people aren’t used to actual randomness, stochastic patterns of what can actually happen when you let a machine run the math that your wobbly human hands of meat and bone can’t quite get done elegantly.

And what damages that even more is learning just how much control someone else can have over a shuffle.

Thanks to my odd backgrounds, there’s a part of my life where I did learn The Olde School of Magicke And Illusion. Not cool stuff with pendants, witches and fishnet tights. I mean the stuff with top hats and coloured wands and fishnet tights. Part of this skill set was a lot of is thiiiis your card nonsense. I was not great at it, and having my cards confiscated multiple times for potential demonic summoning was kind of a damper on practicing. Also, nobody cared to watch as I learned and practiced. But you know one skill that’s really important to that skillset that never goes away once you learn it?

Trick shuffles.

This here is a Double Undercut. It looks like a reasonably natural shuffle. The top card of that deck is the Jack of Hearts, the card cut into the centre. This is not only doable, but this is doable with other shuffling forms. You can make more loops, put the card from the middle to the bottom to the top to the bottom to the top again, over and over again, with a great deal of confidence. You can do this with a riffle shuffle if you know how to reverse a deck. It’s really not hard once you know the techniques, the rest is just practice.

I make a big show of how I shuffle. People tend to be impressed with how I do it, because I riffle shuffle, and I do it faster than they do. I don’t tend to lecture people or show off how to do trick shuffles, because I don’t want people thinking I’m going to do it. It’s important to me to play fair, and to always play fair, and even if I’m not cheating, knowing that I can cheat – in a way other people can’t – is really distressing.

And that’s legitimtae! That’s a really real concern!

There’s another type of player who don’t like seeing you know how to cheat, and that is cheaters.

I chatted with a card sharp this weekend, at a convention. I appreciated their skill, and we talked a little. I was selling card games, he was getting paid to show off his card skills, and it was a fun little conversation. One thing we both agreed on, though, was how many people who play cards leave themselves wide open to be cheated.

You probably already know some basic tricks to protect yourself from cheating in Magic: The Gathering. Cut your opponents’ deck, every time. When you shuffle, offer your deck to be cut, every time. When they shuffle, and don’t offer to cut, interrupt them, explain what you want to do, and do it, every time, even if it annoys them.

The important thing is you make this a rule. You always do it.

If you always do it, even this very modest anti-cheating measure, you remove the ability for anyone to feel singled out. People can’t complain that you’re showing them a lack of distrust.

You set up these gates, and you make it a rule, not because everyone cheats. Barely anyone cheats. Almost nobody cheats. But when you do this, you make it clear to the players who do cheat, who can cheat, that you’re not going to give them the easy ones. You’re going to discourage them from trying.

Are you going to catch everyone with this mindset? No, not at all. Should you do it anyway? Yes. You should do it, and you should do it with your friends for the same reason you should get vaccines. It’s there to protect you and your friends, it’s about the people who make it necessary. And if you’re a streamer or playing in public with your friends? You should do it then, too – because you’re trying to spread the idea that this is a thing you should always do.

MTG: Pet Cards X, Zendikar And Worldwake

Zendikar block! One of the ‘great’ periods of Magic history, a ‘beloved’ set that featured ‘classic’ cards with a ‘challenging’ draft environment, with ‘interesting’ mechanics!

What struck me going back to Zendikar was the general antipathy I had towards it. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t draft it, or maybe it was because this was the era I saw an actual in-the-flesh Magic deck that was worth as much as a car, but maybe it’s also the period of Magic’s history where the wheels came off the Planeswalker experiment in the first big way.

I thought for a while there that Zendikar was a really great set I was misremembering, and I kind of do still like some of the things it did, with the quest mechanic and the small creatures that became bigger threats late in the game. Yet when I go back to look the set over I’m reminded by how much of the set was built around fetchlands and mistakes, and it just kills my enthusiasm for it.

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MTG: Pet Cards IX, Alara Block

Alara was our first taste of Mythic Rares. It was also our first major shakeup of the colour pie since Future Sight, a time when those ideas tested in that previous set were made to bear the burden of an entire expansion. Now, multicolour sets are a pretty cute way to shift some stuff around – you can print cards with a few mutual abilities and see if they play together interestingly, see if they work, and if they don’t really work, you can just let them go, because the other colour could be seen as doing the lifting.

Shard of Alara was also one of the first places we got a modern look at three-colour design. There were a lot of characters who were generically gold, but triple coloured cards didn’t have a strong identity so far. Alara is where we had that stuff encoded for the new, for the now.

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MTG: Mominaria

Moms are great. A lot of fuss is made about moms on their own special day, but Moms are good all the time, or should be. With that in mind, I wanted to celebrate some momness, and the different ways to appreciate and recognise them.

The release of Return To Dominaria (Again) brings with it a whole host of new moms. Let’s meet some of the moms of Dominaria, and their particular values and styles. Here are then, the Moms of Dominaria, Ranked by my entirely arbitary listing of what I think would be funny.

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MTG: Pet Cards VIII, Shadowmoor And Eventide

This block – made up of two sets, a design that we’ll see we’re going to get to see a lot more of in the coming future – was a pleasant surprise after Lorwyn. I hadn’t been so attuned to spoiler season that I knew what was coming, but once it dropped it all made a lot of sense: Lorwyn was an experimental contrast, an opposition in design to where they wanted Shadowmoor to get.

The whole set was built around a hybrid colour mechanical theme and a grim fairy tail flavour theme. While Lorwyn was about can you get value out of these cards, Shadowmoor was much more about can you even cast these cards, and then, those cards you could cast were generally pretty good. Play was still complicated – you had to manage a bunch of colours was pretty annoying – but you still didn’t have the same ‘three lords, you’re boned’ draft environment.

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MTG: Pet Cards VII, Lorwyn And Morningtide

Lorwyn is a wonderful world, and an almost wonderful set. It wasn’t a set well-designed for its high-profile purposes; the draft environment was so catastrophically complex and often so debilitatingly lopsided, where someone would wind up with three lords to your no lords and you’d lose games based on your board being overloaded.

There was a certain awkwardness to making tribal decks in Lorwyn, too! Because the environment was full of cards of a type, but the best cards of each type were pretty similar. There were only so many good soldiers, so many good kithkin. You could try and overlap on your synergies, but even then you just got these very dense decks full of Dorks that Attacked.

What’s more, the Spells – you know, those things That Make Game States interesting – were all a bit weak in Lorwyn block, attached as they were to the Clash mechanic.

I’m also sad about how Lorwyn introduced the Tribal supertype, which is an unsupported type, now. It’s sad because while the rationale for Wizards to never do it again is strong, it means that the only Changeling or Tribal cards we ever see are the ones we got. Sure, for Nameless Inversion, that’s great, a solid card, but Blades of Velis Veil just isn’t in the same league. I love little effects like that, small corner case cards that are useful to a whole variety of decks you might want something like it in later building.

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MTG: Pet Cards VI, Time Spiral Block

Why, what fortuitous timing, that we’re talking about the first Return To Dominaria, just in time for the new set, Return To Dominaria 2.

I have very unhappy memories of this block. First time I had work impinge on my writing at Starcity Games, and also the time I stopped writing for them. My departure article was seen as too bitter to publish which I honestly don’t remember clearly enough but I’ll assume was pretty justified. I had to choose between paying money for Magic, which was making me unhappy, or paying money for City of Heroes, which was making me happy. It wasn’t a hard choice, really.

Yet, I never really left. I just slowed down a lot, and stopped trying to position myself on the cusp of FNM casual. That space – of designing standard decks that were interesting and affordable and fun to play, but recognised the expense of a bigger and wider standard – was something I felt fairly underserved as more and more writers in that space moved on to either become proper grinders or burned out trying to go rogue. And Time Spiral, as I’ve mentioned, was a throwback set to a period of Magic I thought it was best we get away from.

Still, there’s always new cards. There’s always pets.

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MTG: Brawl

I don’t think of Brawl as being necessary, at all.

I don’t want to be a jerk about it, I mean, you know, any question of ‘is this necessary’ can always be met in response by a smug ‘well how necessary is any game.’ It’s Standard Commander, which feels like it would have been a simpler way to describe it, but there is the rule that Planeswalkers are valid commanders too, I guess, and that rule in big-pants Commander would have made a lot more Tezzeret-does-something-busted games.

Honestly, I feel really bad about how much of the past year of Magic has been full of me going ‘well I guess it’s okay, fine,’ since I really like the top-down decision making going on. I’m proud of what Magic is doing, I advocate for it as a teacher and a writer, I just, as a player, haven’t been excited by the cards I get to play with.

Still! Far be it from me to turn the whole thing down. I like Commander, I sometimes like Standard, and we have a whole new set full of Legendary creatures who probably can’t swim in the dank water of 1v1 Commander, so why not do something more interesting?

I design Commander decks usually seeing an interaction I want that hinges around something the format makes available (like Heartless Hidetsugu + Grafted Exoskeleton). I like playing a game of Magic where you can always rely on drawing a particular card, especially in an otherwise high-variance game. What then, would I make in standard, with Brawl?

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MTG: Return To Return To Dominaria

Dominaria is a Magic: The Gathering set about Magic: The Gathering’s history, and as someone who has been – in a small way – part of shaping that history – I have been wondering about it.

Long Ago

Back when I started playing Magic: The Gathering, Magic was standing on a pair of thresholds. First, we were in the conclusion of the first major Magic storyline that had nothing to do with The Weatherlight in years – Odyssey and Onslaught. Second, we were just about to begin the long journey from Onslaught into the undiscovered wilds of Mirrodin.

Since at the time, the Magic story was new to me, I went out and looked for it. What I found was, honestly, pretty bad. The older Weatherlight story presented Gerrard as the most generically dull Good Guy. The Weatherlight crew were, mostly, pretty boring and simple cutouts. I can’t remember a meaningful quote from any of them. Nothing about them impressed upon me, except that the story was very, very eager to present that Gerrard was important and mattered.

There is one moment in that history, in the story before Apocalypse that means anything to me:

The thing about this card that always made it echo to me, of the past of Dominaria, is that I knew Barrin because of cards like Rewind or Relearn or Catalog – cards that were blue, and thoughtful and often fairly cost effective. To see that name, a name I associated with care and consideration associated with this – and with the death of one of the most powerful-seeming places in all of Magic? It was astonishing.

But then we had the story of Chainer and Kamahl, which is a story told in the wake of the end of the Weatherlight, now far removed from the Weatherlight’s problems, and is mostly a story of boys who can’t communicate meaningfully and the women that suffer because of them. It was learning about legends and a war and the world collapsing and all of it was done in pursuit of a powerful object that tore up the world, and then… at the end, with the disappointment that was Karona and her story, we left.

The Recent Pasts

We left for Mirrodin.

Which was messed up because of Karn, a member of the Weatherlight, about whom I did not care. But it wasn’t so bad. The novels weren’t that good and I didn’t care, but at least, I reflected, we were moving away from the years-long saga of Gerrard Capashen, About Whom I Still Don’t Care.

Kamigawa happened, then Ravnica happened, and they were interesting and new and took the story in directions I wanted to see more of.

And then, finally, after years away, we finally had a Triumphant RETURN TO DOMINARIA in the form of Time Spiral block, a block of Magic so bad that it was about then I decided to stop writing about it. Up to that point I had seldom found a Magic set that was so intensely interested in smelling its own farts as Time Spiral. Nostalgia, it crowed, Nostalgia it purred, after 8th edition had made a show of being The Set That Drew From All Of Magic’s History, and the fuss of Power 9th (which was a hoax). We got Time Spiral, which wanted to bring us back to a simpler time when you could open a booster you spent money on and get a Squire, or blue got burn and –

I didn’t like Time Spiral much. I said as much at the time.

When the announcement was made that we were returning to Dominaria FOR THE SECOND TIME I wasn’t awash with the nostalgia that everyone else seemed to be. I think part of that is that the older period, the actual Weatherlight era of the Weatherlight story, was never something that resonated with me.

The Now

First things first, I know I have an emotional hype deficiency. I’m not That Guy. I don’t get frothingly eager about new sets.

I thought Ixalan looked cool going in to the spoiler season but didn’t find it interesting enough to play much of after one deeply depressing prerelease (0-3-bye). Dinosaurs are cool, Merfolk are cool, but the urge to get involved and play Standard at the time just wasn’t there. My interest in Kaladesh and Aether Revolt standard was pretty strong, as a casual player, and a Commander player, as with Innistrad – but it seems to me that I just don’t see the kind of things I like doing in sets. I hope Deeproot Champion gets a home, for example.

But Dominaria comes out tomorrow. It is burgeoning and it is fullsome and by now – when it goes up, not when I’m writing it – the whole spoiler will have come out. It will be full of references to the history of Magic, and mechanics that remind you what Magic used to be like in the era of Armageddons and Counterspell, and it will try to mulligan on many bad decisions made in the past and introduce a host of Kamigawa-level uncommon legends and it will strive to be a set to love.

I am afraid, however, at the moment, as someone who does not like Dominaria, who does not see it as his home, who does not see the urge to go back as exciting, that this set, so far, is not thrilling me. I am not excited. I am not hopeful. This set has done nothing, so far, to convince me, someone who was glad to leave, that it’s good to be back. Which is fine – it’s not meant to. And as a person with my life, I am always going to have a different view of nostalgia for its own sake.

I watch my friends point at cards and excitedly turn over their meanings or their applications. I watch people crow about new printings as if it validates their position on old cards. I see old names attached to new characters who have a chance to be interesting, I see new stories being told with old pieces that maybe, maybe this time, I will find something to care about, even through my doubts. I see the work of people I respect to reinvigorate and restore something that was always broken and never whole. I see people explaining and re-explaining those old stories to one another, so happy, so happy to be able to point to those things that mean something to them, and see them made real anew. And that makes me happy.

I still find myself, ever yearning, to reach for whatever till there is, and look to the next horizon. Because Magic always changes, and Magic is always going somewhere. To me, that is exciting.

Oh And

Hey, Modern you now have the entire Onslaught Goblins deck in you, choke on it. 😞

MTG: Pet Cards IV, Ravnica Block

Ravnica is an incredible block because it’s full of casual deckbuilding staples, and it’s the time I was actively writing for Starcity Games. When I look back on Ravnica, there’s a ton of stuff I think of as ‘great cards,’ even though they’re niche enough to need the whole deck built around them.

With that in mind, I will say the Ravnica bouncelands and signets are all-purpose good cards that casual decks can run and should always bear in mind for building. Whatever colour combination you’re in, you can make use of those ten cards, or can at least consider why not to use them. There’s also a bunch of robust utility effects at common and uncommon, with cards like Mortify, Putrefy, Watchwolf, Faith’s Fetters, Pure//Simple – just a whole lot of handy things that you can slot into decks. Not the kind of ‘pet’ cards I find myself making excuses for. So like, that kind of stuff? They’re not going on the list.

This list was hard to cut down and that’s after I set aside this special clause.

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MTG: Canadian Highlander And Combo

First things first, I do not play Canadian Highlander. I do follow the North 100 podcast, and I do have a ‘team’ I root for in the 30-player strong metagame of the area: Allison, Queen Of The Rock. She’s playing green-black value control, every time, every event, and I will back that all the way.

Nonetheless, I am a Magic Player, and with that in mind, I want to talk about a thing that successful, well-established and well-known Magic Players could be doing better.

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MTG: Pet Cards III, Kamigawa Block

Here’s a set for your pet cards, dangit. Kamigawa was rich with flavour, but it was also spending a much smaller budget of power cards, which meant that even the cards that were powerful or good were doing it in ways orthogonal to one another – you either got overdosed on unnecessary virtue (like Snakes) or effects that never really had a home (like Dosan). It’s also cycle happy which means even the cards in it that are kinda Just Okay tend to be seen as part of a cycle, so they’re less forgotten, less pet.

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MTG: The Pack Rat Problem

Wizards employees, please do not read any further. This will discuss custom card designs and while it should only feature some abstract examples, I understand you are not allowed to look at unsolicited card designs.

Custom card designs feature a host of oddball problems, weird habits that we get into and things we don’t consider because well, mostly, custom designers are lone creators without the force of design and development behind us. Hey, we’re only human and all. But we have these problems and sometimes I think it’s worthwhile considering them.

Here then, let’s consider: Does your card create a Pack Rat Problem?

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MTG: Pet Cards II: Mirrodin Block

Boy this era of Magic sucked.

The problem of Onslaught era magic was to look back upon a set full of forgettable okay cards that I learned to love, little roleplayers, niche friends – I can’t believe I forgot Wirewood Savage, for example! – but nothing that was so powerful it shook the world between Odyssey Block and Mirrodin Block. Oh sure, Goblins came from Onslaught but I didn’t really feel love for those little blighters the way I did for the cards I consider my pets.

On the other hand, Mirrodin Block is so tediously powerful. Every other card is basically an archetype, or gave rise to an archetype, or blatantly holds itself up as a design mistake. Going back and looking over Mirrodin block, I was genuinely worried that I might not be able to find a pet card from each set on the way to the good stuff in Kamigawa and later Ravnica.

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Notes: TTC – Rivals of Ixalan Nicknames

Here’s a thing I like!

The nicknames podcasts from TTC, a casual magic podcast that seems mostly to not actually be about casual magic so much but is still a good bit of Magic Content that rarely (Iconic Masters aside) spends its time making people feel bad. This episode – and the other ones like it are really cool to me because the Nickname podcasts are sort of an unintentional deep-dive into the details of what cards are doing in their art and mechanics to construct the nicknames. Sometimes it’s making references that don’t connect – like the Metal Gear Solid jokes? But often it’s otherwise examining the art in depth, or examining mechanics in the greater context of MTG history.

This is cool stuff and I like it.

MTG: Pet Cards I: Onslaught Block

Everyone deserves a pet card. It’s one of the things I like about high-variance older formats, like budget Modern or 1v1 Commander – the formats are different and odd enough you get a chance to see some card you really like shine. Plus, Magic The Gathering is a game made up of lists – deck lists and tier lists and card set lists – so I thought it’d be fun to go back and check out some older sets, and pick whichever single card from each set was, to me, my pet card, the one I want to show you and share with you. And rather than start at the start – because that’s boring – we’re going back to my beginning: Onslaught Block.

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MTG: Chainer

Chainer’s Edict defined a standard environment.

It was the tool of a bloated mono-black control deck, a simple removal spell you could use as early game disruption and ate a creature early, then ate another one later when the game was drawn out. Moreso than most other spells of its type, it funnelled the game towards its flashback costs – a two mana indiscriminate removal spell that provoked players to overextend as a countermeasure, in the same space as Mutilate, Chainers’ was the elbow-drop that you structured the rest of your removal around. Two mana was just right, and tricks like Goblin Sledder didn’t help against it – you were going to lose a creature, no matter how you cut it. Even the Savage Bastard Wild Mongrel wasn’t going to get around that removal spell, unless you got the hopeful Basking Rootwalla draw.

Chainer’s Edict was power.

Despite living through that period of Magic: The Gathering and watching as every non-Astral Slide deck I played in the period crumpling like paper in the face of a good Chainers’ draw, it never occurred to me to really check back and examine Chainer himself, the man whose orders so bent the world.

Let’s look at Chainer. Continue reading

MTG: Kaho For Ted

I have this friend, Ted. I’ve mentioned that I’m fond of Ted. One thing Ted likes doing is playing Commander. And one day, Ted, Ted mentions to me that he’d like to make a commander deck about Archivists, because he works as an archivist.

So let’s talk a little bit about Kaho.

Kaho, Minamo Historian is one of the legendary creatures from Saviors of Kamigawa. She’s a creature with almost no offensive capability, she doesn’t protect herself, and she has to untap to do anything.

Kaho kinda sucks, but she sucks interestingly.

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MTG: Standard Cards I Can’t Make Work

Standard right now is weird. I don’t mean the bannings.

What I mean is there are cards that feel like they belong in 60-card formats that I just cannot make work.

Sometimes cards are reactive and it doesn’t matter if they don’t work because they’re there to do something if someone else is doing something. Things like Authority of the Consuls, or Crafty Cutpurse, these are cards that exist to respond to things other people are doing. There’s an assortment of aggro creature swarm cards that are for more casual play and usually for limited, which is also fair. But that’s not everything going on.

Here are some cards I really wish I could make work in Standard.

Dusk // Dawn

What kind of decks want to blow up the world? Control decks! What kind of decks want to pick up a lot of creatures? Decks that lose all their creatures! These two ideas work kind of at odds with one another.

The best shell I could find for Dusk/Dawn is sort of a human enter-the-battlefield deck, with Fabricators that let you go wide to avoid a Dusk or stand tall before one to hold the ground better. Mana gets tricky for this design. Also, one of the best cards to work with it, Angel of Invention, makes all your 2-power creatures die to Dusk which is just annoying.

The other problem is it costs five. Being able to go one drop, two drop, three drop, something, wipe board to get rid of your opponent’s stuff, leave my stuff intact is kinda appealing, but in the cases that will win you the game it is also almost always the same as if you could cast a removal spell on your opponent’s blocker.

It’s a nice grindy spell for longer, slower games so controlling Commander decks will love it.

Kefnet the Mindful

A three mana 5/5 is desireable if you’re aggressive, and an indestructable blocker is desireable if you’re midrange. Kefnet would have been really good back in Ravnica Standard for mid-range decks, as a sort of Simic deck aggressor, someone who can stand in front of 3/4s and 3/3s is pretty good.

Kefnet is however, much more of a Kamigawa card. We had the Wisdom mechanic back then, and that mechanic – get seven in the hand or your creature will be bad – and I tried to make it work, but oh god it did not work.

Kefnet doesn’t give you enough early, can’t hold the ground in the early game almost by definition, and the activated ability is cute but also mana hungry. Still, a handy 3-mana enchantment that draws cards better than Treasure Trove.

Trial of Ambition

Ughhhh I wanted this to be good! I wanted this to work!

Okay, so like, card draw is this thing we venerate in Magic. Just drawing more cards is almost seen as a good thing. But what if you had a card draw spell that guaranteed you could draw Cruel Edict in a removal deck? And sometimes it can draw you two or three Cruel Edicts?

The problem is there’s no good Cartouche to line up with this Trial. I’d want one of the cheaper ones so you can have a turn that goes Cartouche-Trial or Trial-Cartouche-Trial without it being unreasonable. The cartouche best suited for a control deck is the white one, which also gives you a creature to drop it on, but you still need something to sit on the board and survive. Now don’t get me wrong there’s kinda a sick one-two punch of dropping a creature, forcing your opponent to extend more threats around it, that means you can go Trial, Cartouche, Trial back to back and that’s kinda cool?

But what kinda creature are you going to Cartouche to start with? What benefits from it? What is safe enough you don’t have to worry about it dying on the way? You could maybe go blue and hexproof up a token or two? But those permanents aren’t super reliable either!

It’s just a bit too bad. You don’t want to play Trial of Ambition in a deck that can’t rebuy it, because then it’s just Diabolic Edict which is a bit Not Good Enough but it’s really just, at best, Wildly Okay with one cartouche in a threat deck. It’s not even generally disruptive enough to support a midrange deck.

On the other hand, it is a pretty sweet card to include in a UB Cloudstone Curio deck with Reality Acid? 3BU to blow up two permanents is pretty cool.

Scrapper Champion

One of the things I like about Energy is it lets cards affect the board with a sort of pseudo-haste, which means at any given point in time, a creature’s behaviour could fuel itself, or fuel something else. With the hit Temur Energy took a few months back, most of what kinda makes this deck fade isn’t so strong any more, but I like this card as a top-end beater for an Energy deck.

Part of what keeps it from really singing though is that Green and Red aren’t bleeding aggressive things that gain energy making its Energy supply more of a burst. Rogue Refiner, for example is a good card but in the wrong colours, and while there are some nice Green cards that Just Get Energy and aren’t bad, they’re mostly overshadowed by the better cards that Temur would run. Even Aetherstorm Roc is kinda just a better version of the Champion – less explosive, but better able to control itself and able to generate more Energy after its single burst.

I think there still might be some skin there – particularly with Decoction Module and Fabrication Module – to feed into creatures like Longtusk Cub, Voltaic Brawler and the top end of the Scrapper Champion, but then you’re back looking at Bristling Hydra and Aetherstorm Roc and wondering if they’re not just better?

Deeproot Champion

I’ve played with Quirion Dryad, and I’ve played with Vinelasher Kudzu and really, if you print a 2-mana creature that can get more counters on it I’ll try it. Deeproot Champion is a sort of awkward creature in that it isn’t really strong enough to support a deck on its own but it’s also not really got any complementary threats. Prowess creatures want you to play in a big burst of spells, and don’t like it you play them off-turn, but the Champion lets you play a sort of aggro-control game.

Turn two champion, attack turn three with mana up to protect it or mess with your opponent’s plan is pretty sweet, but it’s not enough to build a deck around and it’s not like the rest of the merfolk’s tribe actually supports it in this plan. You want cantrips and free spells to really make this sing and, well, there just isn’t that support either. The best card to go with it is Opt, and the pool dries right up after that.

You can try and add to it with token threats and sort of mix up a big beef/go wide combo strategy, with cards like Queen’s Comission and Legion’s Landing, but that feels a bit weedy. If you’re trying to plant outsized threats and ride them in a ramshackle way to the finish line you probably want bigger threats for the price. If this card’s going anyplace it’s going there in modern – and you can’t really make a deck out of it in commander.

Panharmonicon

And finally, Panharmonicon. If you set it up so it does something the turn it comes down you’re sort of locked into an artifacts-matter shell, which can do some kinda neat things but they’re not quite strong enough. If you try to make it so it benefits creatures with ETB and live the dream with Cloudblazer, you’ll find you don’t really have enough creatures to support a deck that can live long enough to play Panharmonicon.

Interestingly, my first attempts at this deck used Dusk/Dawn.

We’ll see if the coming weeks bring to light some tech I haven’t heard of. Maybe not. Maybe the flush of attention to Modern will have some sort of interesting development. Either way, here’s a salute to things that Don’t Seem To Work (Yet?).

MTG: The Mimeoplasm Puzzle

I work in advance which means this article was basically written before Rivals of Ixalan stuff was being spoiled. It might wind up being bumped a few times, who knows. The important thing is, this is a kind of semi-evergreen article where it doesn’t REALLY matter if what I write about is a bit old news, because it’s about a process rather than a play. Still, it might get bumped if RIX shows me something I wanna talk about, though I’m not holding my breath so far.

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MTG: The Fake Spikes

Every day, someone learns something new. You may not know who Spike is, in the context of Magic: The Gathering. It’s hardly likely if you’re reading a blog talking about it – I mean, we’ve had a few months since Unstable launched, but still, it’s possible you missed it. Yet if you had, Wizards R&D has a term for player types that recognise how and why players engage with their game as a player. There are three (five, but seriously, we’re doing the first version of this) basic types of player:

  • Tammy/Tommy, Power Gamer
  • Janey/Johnny, Combo Player
  • Spike, Tournament Grinder

These player terms were introduced to the Magic player lexicon sometime around 1998, and in the intervening twenty years, we’ve grown very used to talking about these player archetypes as labels for one another and for ourselves. Tournament reports will routinely refer to ‘spikiness’ or ‘proper spikes’ or ‘hardcore spikes’ or so on. Players will often use ‘spikiness’ or ‘johnnyness’ as metrics of how they play or the tone they’re going to set for a play experience.

Basically, we know these characters and we’re also pretty sure we know what they mean and crucially how they relate to us. There’s an old joke that Timmy, Johnny and Spike all look down on one another for not really understanding the game but only Spike has any right to, which is funny if you’re a Spike and kinda dickish if you’re anyone else but it’s okay because Spike has so few sources of joy in her life.

What I see rarely, though, is examination of players mis-identifying.

The most recent nonsense that came up with Christine Sprankle and the card Spike, Tournament Grinder got me looking at a lot of people who professed they were Spikes, that they were in the game to compete, and who were unhappy that they were being represented by a woman character. And this got me looking at this population – not individuals, because hey, I’m only seeing a tiny window of time for people, you know? But the groupings of self-professed Spikes, who when they encountered a rule, complained about how that rule made them feel.

Isn’t that interesting?

Now, I am not an expert on these things. I am an observer. But to me, the understanding I had when it came to Spike was Spike didn’t care about changing the structure, Spike cared about the structure as a test. Spike was here to show how good she was, to test herself, to prove herself. But then we have all these people, saying they’re Spikes, who reacted, when presented with part of the game, with dissent and distrust.

Timmy wants to experience something. Timmy plays Magic because he enjoys the feeling he gets when he plays. What that feeling is will vary from Timmy to Timmy, but what all Timmies have in common is that they enjoy the visceral experience of playing.

– Mark Rosewater

There are players out there who think they’re Spikes, because they are Timmies, and the feeling they want to embrace is feeling like they’re Spikes. They get mad about their blowouts and they watch the pro tour and they love their victories and they do the things that emulate the actual tournament grind, the way to push themselves through the circular pattern of feeling like Spike. And the thing is, you can tell how Spikey these players really are because of how they react to being challenged.

Spike seeks a challenge. Spike wants to be challenged. Spike, when confronted with a challenge is going to want to engage with it. But when confronted with a challenge as simple as ‘recognise women exist,’ a lot of so-called Spikes didn’t want to engage. They didn’t want to have that idea challenged.

They just wanted to feel important.

MTG: The Chupacabra Discourse

There’s this old joke in Magic: The Gathering, and I know it’s old because it was old when I first told it, which was about ten years ago and I put it in an article. The joke runs, more or less thus:

How many Magic players does it take to change a lightbulb?

Two. One to do it, then one to tell them how they could have done it better.

This joke inevitably gets a followup from someone pointing out a better punchline, which is the most meta damn thing about the joke.

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