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.
Alright, another month, another month of custom cards!
This month’s theme, because of the month of smooches was to make a bunch of cards with Partner. Partner is one of those mechanics where it kinda got accidentally effed up in the first round, and that has had problems that CEDH has had to deal with to this very day. I don’t wanna do that, so I’m playing it safe this time.
Partner cards should cost 3 mana at minimum. We have a couple of them that were too powerful because they’re really flexible (hi, Tymna, hi Thrasios) and they enable too much stuff (hi, Vial Smasher, hi Thrasios).
Partner cards shouldn’t be single-card engines. They should do one thing reliably. Any given partner card should have interesting interactions, but also be a reasonably handleable card.
‘Almost’ cards for Commander, cards that were good once, but aren’t good any more, can be good templates. Cards that you wouldn’t run, but you would if they were always in your opening hand.
I’m playing it safe here. Assume that for text space and power reasons, I’m being very careful about how much text they have and if I had my druthers, some of these cards would be a little bigger, a little more defensive and maybe have a keyword or two.
Also, flavour is hard. I know full well that a lot of fan-made custom card flavour text is weak. Broadly speaking, these are ‘first drafty’ flavour, and I do have ideas for how they work, but I don’t think what I’m doing and my ideas can necessarily be easily translated onto the cards. Rather than force it, I leave it off and will explain as best I can when asked.
What did Reddit have to say? Well, for most of them, not much, which makes sense. There was a hilarious bruhaha about Rinrin, because there were fears that she could, for example, cheat out a Consecrated Sphinx for only 2 mana, which means that you spent 6 mana to get a 1/1 consecrated sphinx. This also brought out the suggestion that nobody in commander uses size-based removal.
Also, some people were mad about Tatiana, because a 5 mana steal card without direct counterplay is… what? Unstoppably powerful? Over pushed for the commander environment?
Helpfully, it was pointed out to me by Enderlord that First’s wording needed some refining (and that’s addressed here, with the up to date wording).
Wide Orgo got compared to Prophet of Kruphix, which is hilarious. Untapping all your lands and giving all your permanents flash is kind of important parts of Prophet of Kruphix!
WOTC Employees: This article is entirely about about unsolicited game designs, with example cards.
I partake of custom magic design over on a subbidy reddity thing over there, and I make good designs and sometimes, they do not appreciate them because, what, like, people have different tastes or whatever. One thing I’ve been trying to do of late is just do more stuff in general rather than give up on them, with some little once-a-day tasks to keep myself from falling into 2020’s rut of ‘what did I do all day?’ I’ve been seeing if I can find a theme I like, then building around it.
Presented then are the 31 cards of January, themed around the question of adding to white.
By default I’ll always be designing cards for Commander, and with the understanding that that format is not one with a power level banning situation but rather a casual banning situation. Things on the commander banlist are usually there for access reasons or for tedium reasons: They make the game boring and repetitive.
A flexible pre-emptive countermeasure to stop enters-the-battlefield effects.
A big removal commander that can do cleanup and close the game.
A powerful removal spell with a threat attached that plays with adventure mechanics.
A utility creature for monarch decks.
A powerful board clearer that becomes cheap in the extremely late games to clear clogged boards.
A card for rebuilding from board wipes.
A build-around card to reward white’s common tack-on effect.
A common utility effect in white that enables the monarch and protects it.
Building on my idea of letting white copy things.
Further building on white ‘copying’ – letting white copy an effect it wants regularly
More monarch enabling
A staxy card that encourages players to put things on the board.
Would you play Serra Angel? What if you got TWO of them?
Early threat that becomes late game dangerous
A defensive creature that threatens planeswalkers
Abzan-style enabler for double strike strategies
A white snapcaster mage riff
A mana intensive token engine
A slow flicker for pressure or value
A saga enabling card
More monarch enabling defensive creature
A repeated removal payoff for lifegain
A reinvention of the white Myojin with Ikoria counter technology
More ‘threat early, breakthrough late’ design.
A creature that encourages taxing opponents
More white copying with a funny theme
White’s idea of fairness, either catching up or levelling the playing field
Enabling white artifact strategies.
A complex commander that allows mystery attacking.
Card draw punishment in the vein of Hullbreacher
A commander for disrupting defensive positions.
One thing I learned from the custom magic subreddit about this, though, is that people are really inclined to measuring an optimal scenario for white cards. Devotion, for example, is always treated as if it is functionally infinite, as if a multiplayer commander environment isn’t this space renowned for board wipes and proactive removal.
It’s honestly really funny: Mono-white is underpowered and weak in a multiplayer environment, but at least as far as we’re talking here with custom magic creators, it can always get access to infinite resources to do what it wants to do. Weird!
WOTC Employees: This article does not include unsolicited game designs. This article does discuss hypothetical opportunities for cards or mechanics, but no specific card designs, presented as graphical information.
Back in the day of Time Spiral-through-Shadowmoor standard, there was a deck I played in the casual room, and almost kinda thought about writing an article about, but I stopped writing for StarCityGames due to work concerns, and it never wound up happening. I think? Probably not. Ben Bleiwess would know better and I doubt he cares any way.
Here, lemme show you the three weird things that go on in this deck.
First things first, you should read this thread by Orion Black. And this other thread by them. You’ve already seen them? Good! Great! I don’t want anyone who is interested in or playing Magic: The Gathering to do so without at least some awareness of this problem, this persistent problem. I guess my main thinking here is that the least I can do is make sure Wizards has the reputation not as ‘one of the good ones’ but as ‘that one has fucked up a lot and needs to fucking address it.’
I haven’t been playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering. Just other things going on, plus any time a banning happens or a new set releases, prices on MODO get a little weird, in a way I don’t appreciate. Typically if I wait a month, all the things I want to play around with get a bit cheaper, and this few months in Magic’s history have been
The last time I was playing, I was playing, I kid you not, a budget standard Walls deck, using High Alert and Teyo, the Shieldmage. This means that I haven’t really been paying attention for two whole additions to standard, and I also missed the return of Commander – not 1v1 Commander, but Commander – to the MODO interface.
Let’s then talk about a card I’m kinda intrigued to play with in Commander, but can’t see the ways I’m going to make them work:
In the world of the custom magic designer, there are some effects you wind up seeing a lot. One of them is the recurrent attempts to recreate the Power 9, another is to try and weasel around the Reserve List, and another is the attempt to fix the problem presented by the economic disparity of the fetchlands. The solution, the amateur designer thinks, is to create another, new, just as good fetchland that’s maybe a tiny bit worse.
The question that doesn’t get asked there, is: Why wouldn’t someone run both?
The problem that follows upon that is any fetchland good enough to run is going to be run by the people who also already have fetchlands (unless you do some ridiculous stuff to ensure the lands aren’t compatible, in which case you’re making the lands bad enough that they’re not runnable).
Really, the solution to fetchlands isn’t to make fetchlands more accessible. It’s to get rid of them entirely.
Set aside my existing complaints with the way fetchlands transform environments into sludgey nothingness. Set aside my complaints that the mana fixing presented by fetchlands and duals creates an environment with different aggressive pressures. Just look at fetchlands in terms of the pragmatic constraint they put on the game at a competitive level for the time spent not playing the game.
The tournament floor rules for shuffling present the idea that a deck must be reasonably randomised. This has led to a collection of best practices for what a shuffle is, which most tournament participants learn to practice and execute. But you don’t just shuffle yourself, you have to present the deck to your opponent, who then have the opportunity to shuffle your deck again, and then present it to you for a final cut. In a tournament environment, some of these shuffles are required.
Searching your deck once a game? Not a big deal, this shuffle-shuffle-cut procedure is a break from the conventional action of the game. Searching your deck then searching your opponent’s deck then searching your deck again then searching their deck again? You’ve added literally minutes to the game for mana smoothing.
This is also why any repeated tutor cards in custom magic need to be regarded with extreme distrust. Cards like Birthing Pod and Prime Speaker Vannifar are fundamentally dangerous, but it’s almost a grace that as used, they just win the game on the spot.
Custom magic loves repeated tutors, they love engine cards, they love trying to remake cards like Survival of the Fittest, or an exploration of Transmute and these designs are fine enough to play with, but when played with, they always present the same problem you get when this game of variance strives to destroy the variance that makes it interesting: The game slows down and gets more boring.
I’ve suggested, half seriously, from time to time, that you could make an interesting Commander format if every card that says ‘shuffle’ is banned. Out of the twenty thousand odd cards that exist, this would get rid of 783 – and a lot of them aren’t great.
Sure, you lose a lot of mana ramp and fixing, but you don’t lose all of it, and suddenly you have to look at colours in terms of all the redundant sorta-good copies that singleton formats promise. It’s a way to force the players to look at cards that they were ignoring, because they could always tutor the best ones.
It’s a way to make magic about controlling attention.
Nephilim are a reference to a sort of – you know, I’m going to pull the bandaid off and just say that Nephilim are one of those pre-Bible Bible stories that gets trotted out and recycled by various people building RPG Sourcebooks ore Religious texts (but I repeat myself). There’s a chance your actual religion actually respects them as actual things that actually exist, but that’s sure not what they’re being used for these days.
Also, if you read the lore you’d know that these Nephilim aren’t the real Nephilim, they’re just magically crafted Nephilimmy things, and they’re sort of pre-god gods of Ravnica, creatures that are so transcendentally powerful and important, that they don’t even need worshippers or sacrifices – their cult calls upon them to be seen not because of their actions, but because of their existence being so fundamentally powerful and dangerous that their presence humbles people.
You know, it’s pretty rare to be able to mention tabletop games these days that overlap well with my expertise. The history of D&D and queer themes are kinda mutedly embarrassing, videogames so commonly fuck it up, and even in the wild west of board and card games, most high-production value games are struggling with the idea of including women.
In that context it can be downright surprising to look at how Magic: The Gathering, a big budget high production value game that dedicated time and resources on its primary, important platform, to promote and spotlight an important and meaningful trans character and then didn’t colossally heck that character up.
In 2015, to go with the release of the set Fate Reforged, Wizards released a story called The Truth Of Names, by James Wyatt. Completely unironically, I think this is a great story, it’s tight, it’s short, it does world building, you don’t need to know what a Mardu is, but it communicates what they are. It focuses on our protagonist of this story, Alesha, a trans woman warrior who is also the kind of person who can shank a dragon.
WOTC Employees: This article is entirely about about unsolicited game designs, with example cards.
And now, the second half of the cards I made for my own edification and fun during the month of April! These cards have had a little bit of feedback and some rewording since their original sharing on Reddit.
Who Wants It: A big mana white deck that can afford to clear the board and wants some flexible removal for mopup, or creature decks that want to punish mana rock hungry opponents for blowing up the world a lot.
Some commenters were hung up on this card being a cast trigger. Personally, I quite like it – it’s both cleaner to template, and it’s okay for white, the colour with the least stack interaction, to have some effects that get to force their way through countermagic, with tools like hexproof or bounce still perfectly valid to protect them.
As it is, Tareq is a removal spell that you want to cast as soon as there’s a good target – if two opponents have one-drops, Tareq can ick them. Tareq can score some Sol Rings, in Commander.
Is Tareq particularly potent as an aggressive threat? No, not at all. But you’re going to be able to use them to nuke things, turn after turn whenever people make the environment too hostile for a 2/1. And maybe you can make it work in a really creature-heavy strategy that wants to blow up a one-drop permanent for each opponent and then maybe hit two or three more the next time around.
Who Wants It: Valuetown creatures, again.
White doesn’t have the best selection of etb-abusing creatures but it does have a lot of small creatures, and being able to turn your small etb-y creatures into bigger etb-y creatures seems a cool deal to me. The second ability was originally going to be an Anoited Procession effect, because again, the world of commander is so commonly a place where wraths run free, but it seemed that what I really wanted was to play in white’s ability to double up on effects.
I’ve been thinking for a long time now that white should be the tertiary colour for copying, and only able to copy its own stuff. That colour at the moment is kinda green, but it seems to me that if one colour has the ability to industrialise and multiply the production of useful things, it’d be the colour that believes in interdependent hierarchy.
Who Wants It: A kind of modern tallowispy-ass deck that is its own creation.
There aren’t a lot of good ways for white to dump enchantments in the bin but if you do go out of your way to do it, you can have a lot of fun with this rakshasa-ass cat fae. You could run a deck with Faiths Fetters style effects and sacrifice the enchantments that were locking down creatures in response to effects like pyroclasm, and get this critter on to the battlefield, cheap, and then suit it up with some fat aura that you binned earlier.
I think what I like the most about this card is its place as a commander paints a different version of its place in the 99. If it’s your commander, you’re very limited in what kind of cards you can have them bouncing and bringing back, and you may have to turn to artifact sources like Urza’s Tome or Smuggler’s Copter to start doing weird things with it like Eldrazi Conscription.
Offering is weird, but it’s not mine – there’s a cycle of five Offering cards in Betrayers of Kamigawa, weird set that it was.
Who Wants It: Lifegain pillowfort decks
There are seven cantrip instants (and more when you start involving cycling) that gain you life. There are a number of cheap sources that gain you a little life. I would love, love, love to see someone force an evasion ability onto Rahab and then attack, cast three cantrip lifegain spells and kill an opponent by dealing 24 commander combat damage.
She protects herself (when you gain life) but she’s expensive so you need to extend the game to get to her. I like this card a lot.
Who Wants It: People who wished they could play infect but don’t like the aesthetic.
One of the Into the North podcasters, I want to say Linden, said that Infect wouldn’t work in CEDH even if all your enemies shared a poison counter total. I liked that idea and tried to make a commander who could give you that play pattern. I used Awe instead of Experience counters because Experience counters can be obtained in a variety of ways and I wanted this to only care about its self-contained mechanic of getting ten creatures through at least once.
The only sad part about her is that she doesn’t actually have any particular synergy or use with existing Renown creatures, since she gives it out, and Renown only can work once for each creature. Beep boop sad toot.
Who Wants It: People who are, again, nostalgic for Kamigawa and Tallowisp.
It’s a simple, straightforward engine that asks you to make an interesting choice in building your deck. In mono-white, you only have so many aura cards that are great, and they mostly do different things. Similarly, you only have so many creatures that benefit from having a lot of auras around, and they give you a clear direction to go in.
Who Wants It: Me.
I don’t know, I really like Astral Slide and I wish it was good. This version of Joei came flavour first, with the two artworks of these two similar but not the same characters that I perceived as a kind of seasonally-affected half-fae femboy. The idea of him in my mind was someone who came and brought winter with him (representing the difficulty supporting large numbers of creatures) and then when enough time and seasons happened he became aware of what he was, and began his planeswalking.
I am this close to making Joei a fanwalker and going and frothing about him on tumblr.
Joei’s meant to also allow for a white deck whose commander both gets you to the late game and then supports you once you’re there. I like the transformational element of the card and I like how it can turn into a sort of astral slide for value or sort of pseudo-ugin.
Who Wants It: Equipment voltron decks.
This scared the redditors more than it did me. Personally, I see commander as a world of boardwipes, where equipment lay on the battlefield after wrath after wrath after wrath, so the idea that this sets up your first creature to equip to cheaply making her more of a hopeful Sigarda’s Aid than anything else.
Do people just leave your commander alone over there? I’d expect this to eat bolt the second I cast an equipment, and I would expect my opponents to not cast equipment while she’s on the table.
Who Wants It: White spellslingers.
Again, I think that ‘let’s do the same thing, again, but more efficiently this time’ is a very white ability. Much in the same way I think white should get a good share of flashback spells and graveyard casting, with the idea that white can ritualise their spells.
This design also predated Lurrus’ spoiling, so don’t I look like a stupid asshole.
Who Wants It: Honestly I don’t know, someone who loves Lammasu?
This card is supposedly good at protecting your stuff. But you’d need to protect it. It turns the first wrath into a terror, which is cool, and I can’t find a lot of 6 mana even harder to destroy permanents aside from Jareth.
And Jareth is cool.
The idea started out as a card that wanted the board to be hierarchal; only the most expensive permanent you controlled each time could be destroyed or venerated – only this critter gets to pick up equipment.
It does make Razor Golem into a cheap insurance though, which is cute.
Who Wants It: White commander decks that are hurting for card advantage.
Manifest is white. Making large volumes of mid-size dorks is white. Paying for your stuff is white. Mara can’t stick around super long and she is quite fragile on her own, but when you go to pay her upkeep cost, you will have the best chance to protect her.
I note that you can attack with manifests, then when they’re blocked or risk dying, you can just huck ’em into the exile zone.
Flavour wise what I wanted to represent was these caravans of traders moving along a desert path, nomads bringing stuff to trade, under the cover of desert disguise.
Who Wants It: Non-creature hate and staxy decks.
This was a lot more appealing two weeks ago before the banning of Flash.
The point of this card was to focus your deck on whether or not your deck worked without your commander. There was a conversation about this over on Into The North, where the question was about how if your deck didn’t care about your commander then why play a commander deck at all? Why not just play a Canlander deck?
This stuck with me because in the era of Flash Hulk and then Sushi Hulk, the only thing that mattered was whether or not your deck could cast one of four core win conditions, four of which were blue (and one which required you to have green in your deck). Decks weren’t being Zur decks and Inalla decks, they were all being Flash Hulk or Sushi Hulk decks. That sucks!
This hates every creature combo component that isn’t a commander.
Who Wants It: Lesbians.
Okay okay joking aside, Sephene is not meant to be a Sappho reference despite her aura of helpless incapacitation for the love of a woman: she’s meant to be a Persephone reference, someone who shows up for seasons and then has to leave for some reason.
What can you use her for, though? What’s she good for? Well, she’s a recurrent anthem-enabling army maker that’s based on Saproling Burst. Which was a pretty good card, and she’s a lot cheaper to go for the base.
Who Wants It: Reddit
This was the most popular card in this entire set. There were people mad when she didn’t say ‘white’ because their opinion was she only would be used then for artifacts and eldrazi, which is… stupid, because people will care about different big dumb spells. But whatever.
Who Wants It: People who wish Intruder Alarm Combo was good, and it’s still not that good.
I can’t believe I had two flip card ideas. Here, have a Serra Angel that turns into Intruder Alarm. Combo outlet and solid defender that can also just be a threat on its own.
And again: if you have any ideas or inspiration based on these, let me know! I hope you find these cards fun and have some thoughts based on seeing the flavour and mechanics I had in mind for ’em.
WOTC Employees: This article is entirely about about unsolicited game designs, with example cards.
April is meant to be a month where I’m self-indulgent, and it seems one of the things I wanted to be self-indulgent about was wanting to make custom Magic: The Gathering cards to share on reddit, because what I really needed each morning was to open a post and go ‘pah, these fools don’t appreciate my genius.
I’ve spoken in the past about Magic The Gathering‘s player psychographics, characterisations that the game developers use to describe and discuss the types of players that engage with their game. These archetypes are Tammy, Jenny and Spike, and they also kinda line up with other, similar efforts to categorise gameplay choices from the work of Roger Caillois, immense racist and clown-hater.
In the conversation about player psychographics, one Matt Cavotta introduced the idea of the Vorthos, a type of player who cared about and engaged with the game because of its lore, someone for whom the fiction of the play took paramount presence. In Magic’s case, it kind of needed this distinction because there’s a whole collection of people who engage with the game for reasons that treat the game as a secondary element of the game.
And then, with Vorthos, there was one more name that Mark Rosewater introduced, bringing their player nicknames up to five: Mel.
WOTC Employees: This article talks about unsolicited game designs, though it does not show any specific example cards.
When it comes to custom magic card design, I’m something of a pain in the ass. I don’t find myself particularly adventuresome in design, and will generally look at things in terms of what space they’re opening up. The effect this has in the community is that I’m the one who’s generally going ‘maybe not this,’ and that can be a real bummer for people. Apparently, I’ve got a reputation for being unpleasable.
One of the topics that we’re – still – hammering on is White. The argument –
no, hang on, it’s a whine.
– is that white is weak and that we in the heroic custom magic mines know better than Wizards, and will produce the cards that ‘fix’ White that they’re too cowardly to print. I’m pretty regularly there to tell people why I don’t think their solutions are good (in my opinion), but I know I don’t often put my ideas out there.
There’s a lot of Magic: The Gathering that uses mechanics to express theme. Theme is really important, since being able to see card entities as creatures that relate to one another, enchantments that relate to greater rules, artifacts that have a material existence and lands that can be used or expended is a big part of how you manage the mental load of all the game parts happening at once. This is going to be a quick introduction, then we’re going to do a list, so buckle up.
Hello, Wizards of the Coast employees. This blog post is going to feature custom cards and I know you’re not allowed to look at those. So, please, go elsewhere, sorry!
Magic The Gathering? In Smooch month? is this going to be about shipping? Is this going to be about Nissa and Chandra, and the War Of the Spark: Forsaken?
Because I don’t really care about that.
I mean I don’t have the book; I don’t plan on buying the book; the book was handled so badly that Wizards of the Coast apologised for it, and there are rundowns on how the writing is bad (even setting aside the subject matter) and ways that the Nissa/Chandra romance was specifically handled, and really, you don’t need someone who hasn’t got the book, and has no interest in reading it, to go over it.
Instead, I want to talk about a shipping pair I learned about from Twitter, and has basically no basis in actual canon but I don’t care.
White in the Throne of Eldraine standard period, isn’t great! It’s not very strong and uh, also in Commander, white’s not very strong, and so the Content Creation mill has kicked in and presented the brilliant idea of White Bad. The Magic community, being the reasonable well-rounded and thoughtful group of people they are have immediately leapt face-first into a wall.
We’re not good with handling conversations that need words.
One of the places that people have decided this needs addressing is by saying that white (which is the WORST COLOUR and ALWAYS SUCKS) needs to have CARD DRAW and RAMP and COUNTERSPELLS. Now, I’ve some sympathy to the problems presented before (and I’ve written about it), but the last one bothers me, because it’s the same, simple, looping argument. It’s very catastrophised and gets to involve things like ‘Maro doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ and ‘Maro hates white,’ which… yeah. Do I bust out the statistics and the historical context to address these arguments? Sometimes – it’s just it’s work, and because it’s social media, that argument drifts away and I have to go re-make it an hour later. I want it all centralised and convenient.
Here, then is my thoughts on why we should stop designing custom white counterspells. If you’re a Wizards employee, current or former, rejoice, because I’m not going to show any custom designs here or even talk about them in depth. I’m just going to go over the idea of white getting counterspells at all.
Throne of Eldraine really has a mark on its name as being a set that led to one of the shortened banning spans. It’s really rough, because as bad as Oko is as both a character presence and the impact he had on standard, there are some cards in Throne of Eldraine I didn’t expect to like, and even missed wholesale that have crept up to be some of my favourite kinds of card.
I do like playing around with uncommon engine cards, and one of the sadder things to me about small sets or sets that do poorly is how uncommon engines often have to make do with only the cards in their set and that’s it. This isn’t engines like you see in Innistrad where we’re absolutely going to see more werewolves if we go back there, it’s the sets that failed to catch an audience. Sometimes an engine gets support outside of its block and still isn’t good enough (hi there, Earthshaker), and sometimes the engine card is great but there isn’t adequate support for it in the format (hi there, Sylvan Echoes).
And yes, I have tried making all of these work.
It’s a long path we’ve walked to get here, but well, you don’t come to my blog if you’re not willing to follow a trail of crumbs.
I don’t doubt we’ll see Eldraine again, but I suspect it’ll be a while and I suspect that while means that for now, Trail of Crumbs has to do all the work it can with what it’s got. Jund and Golgari Food has been tearing up standard for a while now, and it’s also a deck where you can make a meaningfully cheap version and don’t lose out on how the deck works. I even lashed out and bought myself some Lilianas and Vraskas and have a neat little standard two-coloured version of this deck (thank you Patrons).
I participate on the Custom Magic Subreddit, a place where amateur designers come together to make cards for Magic: The Gathering, and it is a place where, overall, people get the colour pie wrong. But that’s okay, because we’re all amateurs and we’re all having fun.
Now, if you look through my history you’ll see that largely, I am pretty negative, but I have seen cards that I liked and wanted people to see, and so, that’s what this post is about. I thought I’d get all the cards I liked in a year and put them in one master post, but uhhh, so that was a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, Reddit doesn’t archive your personal upvoting history that far (it only shows the most recent 1,000, it seems), and second, I have liked way more than ten or twenty cards this year, and third, some of the people who made those cards have deleted their accounts, which makes it really hard to properly credit them.
Hey, Wizards employees! Stop reading! This is going to start showing custom magic cards, as unsolicited designs! Thank you! I don’t want you or me getting in trouble!
I started this year pretty burned out on writing about Magic: The Gathering, what with the heavy narrative focus on the importance of Nicol Bolas, and what I saw as at least another half year defined by that story and the ongoing pressure of Teferi. I wasn’t having fun! It wasn’t cool! I found myself getting annoyed at how much work it was to pump out Magic articles that weren’t very shallow, and so, I stopped.
Now, this has not been a good year for Magic: The Gathering, overall, I don’t think. It’s probably sold fine, but it’s just been one of those years with a lot of rake-step moments. Bannings in standard, data breaches, story controversies, another new format being created and handled weirdly, continued problems with Brawl, players just being the worst and oh look, another Teferi planeswalker that we’re all going to be very glad to see rotate out and also, Throne of Eldraine bringing
But while I haven’t been writing about it that much I have been playing Magic quite a bit, and I realised there was a whole fistful of cards from this past year that I really liked and I wanted to shout out about them. Hey, if you’re a casual Magic player, these cards are worth grabbing, especially because they’re really cheap.
Well, there have been stannings in bandard again, and with it comes a new round of discourse. Discourse means arguments, arguments mean redditors mouthing off, and since I don’t like getting into arguments on reddit, I thought, hey, why don’t I have that beef here, on my blog, where nobody has the right to response, because the last thing in the world I give a damn about is arguing with Redditors who don’t appreciate my expertise.
Seriously, Reddit is extremely bad for these conversations.
Okay, so what happened today: three cards were banned, which means that they join Field of the Dead creating an environment where four cards are banned, which is a bit more than normal. The three cards are Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time and Veil of Summer. Now, personally, I’m completely fine with seeing these cards go – but I wasn’t playing standard, because of these cards, and because I didn’t want to deal with ever seeing it when I went to play standard.
Now, historically speaking, Standard is a format that doesn’t tend to get bannings. There have been long periods, like, years at a time, when there weren’t any cards banned in standard. Cards like Umezawa’s Jitte weren’t banned in standard, despite the oppressive effect they had on decks at the time. Comparatively speaking, this is also a pretty fast one – Oko was legal for only a few months. It wasn’t one of the fastest bannings, but it sure was a big one.
What this mostly reminds me of is almost a mulligan on Darksteel’s bannings. Back in 2005, when the bannings came for standard’s beast, the Ravager Affinity deck, there were two sentiments Aaron Forsythe expressed: One, that merely banning Skullclamp and hoping that would fix things hadn’t been enough, and two, that they didn’t just do the bannings to fix the environment, but to make it very clear to anyone who saw it, that the deck they hated wasn’t just weaker, but it was dead. The turn of phrase Forsythe used has stuck with me; he referred to it as Slaying the Dragon.
Did Once Upon A Time need to go? Despite people pontificating about ‘linear play focus’ and ‘the london mulligan is the problem,’ there was probably still room to allow green decks the chance to push into their decks. If Once Upon A Time showed up in another broken deck, odds are good it wouldn’t be as oppressive as Oko, after all, and it could get gone in the next round. Same with Veil of Summer; it was a great tool for stopping blue and black decks that wanted to try and interrupt a green deck. If there was no powerful green deck, or blue and black decks weren’t liable to use tools that Veil of Summer stopped, hypothetically, Veil would rotate out. It wasn’t as important to protect an Oko and all.
But instead, all three of them went, and then some folk wanted to complain about Nissa, Who Shakes The World, suggesting that to some folk, this dragon wasn’t dead enough, and there’s a noisome voice that this problem is linked to how overpowered green is. Also, there’s people talking about how ‘bannings in standard twice in a year is a sign of a broken game,’ or ‘play design need to be fired.’ I don’t countenance these much, and I’m not all that bothered by these bannings and any potential impact they may have compared to older formats.
Information has sped up. Right now, there are more people playing Magic in more interconnected ways in more tournaments than ever. Formats are going to get solved more aggressively than they used to. Tech gets discovered and tested and it’s less a question of if someone sees an interaction in the game space as when someone deduces the best way to deal with it. It’s a sad space for the rogue builder, but broadly speaking it feels to me like Magic has transcended the time and space when you could surprise the game at large even if you could outfox one day’s opponents.
This also means Wizards have access to a lot more information to make judgments. Felidar Guardian got nixed after seeing its tournament presence, for example, rather than having to try and make a called shot on something that could be fun and unimpressive or could be oppressive for three months.
Release speed have sped up. Wizards used to print more cards back in the day per year (sets were bigger), but those sets were packed full of lots of cards that you would not remember nor care about. Not even casual players are running around eager to buy up Spitting Gournas. Lots of formats were full of filler cards. Sets have gotten smaller, but they’ve also gotten more cards worth playing, across all rarities (see people complaining about commons being under-represented in tournament decks here, no I don’t care, shut up and go away).
This means there’s more chance that a single card released is going to be a problem, and that problem is just going to kinda… hang around more if wizards expect us to fix it ourselves (as above).
Wizards have more tools for fixing things. This is the big one. There have been times when standard has been sicker, but sick in a variety of different ways. Onslaught through Kamigawa mirrodin was not a fun standard to get involved in because there were four or five decks that you simply didn’t have a prayer against with anything but one of the other four or five. There was variety, but the play experience was full of fewer decisions and there was a lot more of the game contingent on whether you or they got their busted cards. Tooth and Nail and Affinity were two decks, but they were both kinda ignoring you, even if there was no single card that overwhelmed standard.
But now, Wizards are in a position to make regular changes and updates to standard to try and address things, and as they showed today, they slew a dragon. Maybe standard can be cool now – I don’t know. I’m hoping so, but we’ll have to find out.
Once upon a time, Jamie Wakefield pointed out that by not banning Masticore, Wizards effectively banned every card that wasn’t as good as Masticore; that Flametongue Kavu being as good and ubiquitous as it was made every other 4-toughness creature not worth playing, because answers to it were too efficient. People rent their clothes about the Ravenous Chupacabra, but lo and behold, that wasn’t the thing that ruined standard.
One final point is that all the people complaining about ‘overpowered green’ seem to have neatly forgotten that Oko and Hydroid Krasis aren’t just green cards. I did see the hot take that because the Krasis was expensive, it was effectively a ‘mono green card.’ I’d like to call that person out and say: you’re a ninny.
In general, while people are crying doom and gloom and insulting – literally – Wizards R&D for making the best decisions they can to address the best decisions they were able to make earlier, and where we have old men who like Ancestral Recall hollering at clouds because Planeswalkers ruin magic, I’m just happy to see that the format was addressed, and they’re talking about ways to make these announcements and responses more fluid.
Thumbs up, here’s hoping the next round of standard is a fun one.
Time to time, Frank Karsten will release lists of combos that exist or have been made possibly by new additions to an environment. In Modern Horizons, he showed two that I really like: Vesperlark and Phantasmal Image allow for infinite sacrifices and so does Saffi Eriksdotter and Renegade Rallier. He forwarded the Saffi/Rallier combo with Altar of Dementia, as a sacrifice outlet that immediately eats your opponent’s whole library.
It’s that latter one is really interesting to me because it’s in the same colours, all the cards in question are pretty aggressively costed, and they’re cheap to play with.
Hey, if you’re a Wizards of the Coast employee, you’re not in a position to read this article. There’s a custom card or two in here, and I know you’re not allowed to look a those. Don’t worry, I don’t expect it’s anything you haven’t come up with on your own.
When making my Kamigawa remake, I used the term blocknessto describe the way that a single card related to the time and place it was printed. The idea, as much as I described it, is that you can consider a card in terms of how much it belongs to the specific block and environment into which it was printed; that is, for some cards there just aren’t that many opportunities something like that card can be printed.
Now, sometimes it’s the flavour of the card, but usually blockness is tied to mechanics. You can always just re-flavour a card with different art, name, and creature types, like we saw in the the beautifully basic Kami of Ancient Law. In Kamigawa block, the Kami of Ancient law’s spirit creature type meant it interacted with other creatures and spells in the set. When Ronom Unicorn was printed slightly over a year later, it had no particular impact, and then when Keening Apparition was printed, another six years later, there was no particular relationship between the card and its environment. Wizards actually has their own take on this idea – sometimes you’ll hear a card referred to as Core-Set Ready. Core-Set ready cards are cards that can be put into a core set, sets made up of less complex cards that are designed to be approachable.
The fact is most cards don’t get reprinted – just sheer numbers work against it – and most mechanics are shallow enough that there’s only a small number of cards they can be used to make. Some set mechanics really aren’t going to have much chance to ever be seen again, so when it comes to some keyword mechanics like Mentor or Exploit or Living Weapon, the best cards of that mechanic are really the best cards we’re likely to ever see. It’s kind of a bummer, because you see a lot of those cards
When I first discussed this, I complained that the (then recent) Guilds of Ravnica mechanic for the Golgari guild was extremely lacking in blockness – that of those cards, literally all of them could be printed in basically any given set; the ability word of Undergrowth was so generic and so flexible it could have been printed anywhere. I didn’t think so little of the other mechanics in the set, mind you, and I have no idea how well these mechanics play with one another in limited.
Ravnica is a weird place. It’s weird because it’s a place that wants, as much as possible, to have continuity between three blocks and more, and hypothetically to make cards that at least supposedly can work with one another. There have been hits and misses on that front; Batallion cards and Mentor cards work just fine, and Batallion is one of those mechanics you can print without putting the keyword on it, meaning there’s a Batallion card in War Of The Spark. At the same time, lots of Golgari decks can get value out of a few Dredge cards, even if it’s just one-ofs like Dakmor Salvage.
I feel that it’s kind of hard for the Golgari to ever escape the fact that their first mechanic is mathematically one of the most powerful ever printed; of the fourteen dredge cards, about eleven of them have seen serious play. By comparison, Scavenge, the next Golgari mechanic, kinda doesn’t actually have any cards that are worth much of anything at all. Varolz, the Scar-Striped has his place in CEDH, but other than that, there’s not a single Scavenge card I have seen see play outside of oddball formats like Canlander. It wasn’t a mechanic exciting enough to see return, and it’s tied to the Golgari, and that meant there was a whole block of Golgari cards that don’t really matter much to a Golgari deck. Then we get Undergrowth, which doesn’t feel like it needed to be a keyword at all.
It’s a challenge I don’t imagine it’s fun to try and deal with. Particularly because Ravnica blocks are so tight on space, the limited environments are so bound around the challenges of synergy, of wending each set’s colour pairs so they draft well together, and making those mechanics fun and interesting without becoming a Lorwyn-style overcomplicated turbo-mess.
And the thing is, I kind of wonder if part of what’s going to haunt Ravnica, the plane, is its own success. It’s beloved, in flavour terms; it’s what finally seems to have broken the boundary between Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering in a big way, and every Ravnica set seems to bring with it a lot of energy and hype, because it is one of the most popular settings for the game.
It is a setting where each mechanic demands high blockness, but low complexity; it wants cards that can only come from Ravnica, and it wants them to have mechanics that are not confusing and alienating.
Okay, Modern is a silly place. This is not going to be about a cutting edge deck. This is the kind of deck I like to write about and play, because it’s not trying to be about playing in a specific metagame environment, about being in a tournament space. It’s a combo deck, but it looks a bit like a control deck, and it uses an interaction that’s probably too slow for standard, but also gets to do stuff I tend to enjoy – flickering permanents and making memes.
Anyway, here’s the basic gimmick.
There’s this card, Felidar Guardian. There’s this other card, Saheeli Rai. Together they form a combo that generates an infinite number of hasty artifact cats, or rather, an arbitary large number of hasty artifact cats, so you can stop when you want. It differs from a lot of combos in that the cards are actually good on their own, with Saheeli being a planeswalker that scries through your deck to find things, and the Felidar Guardian resetting a lot of possible permanents.
Now, I like Felidar Guardian decks, because I like flickering things. I like when my value creatures give me more value, and I’ve liked that since Astral Slide, a deck that isn’t actually good anywhere any more, but let’s not get bogged down in that. The thing with this combo, known as Cat Lady for a while, was that it was pretty powerful in Standard (so much so it got a sort-of emergency ban?), and my love of durdling and flickering creatures is kind of weak when compared to ‘just winning the god damn game out of nowhere.’
Also, flickering creatures with the Felidar Guardian is fine, but also not particularly impressive these days. You want stuff that’s already on the field with the Guardian around, and flickering wants to be cheap, and so it’s not good for recurring on the battlefield, and so on. Still, War of the Spark gave us a bunch of planeswalkers that tick down and you can use the Guardian to flicker a bunch of them. Funnily enough, in these colours, there are a few really good Planeswalkers for this, and they seem to all be girls.
This deck could be improved massively with the addition of Snapcaster Mage, because at its root it is a 1-2 mana spell based control deck that wants to dig through a deck and win reasonably quickly. Chandra, Acolyte of Flame is a pretty decent kinda-Snapcaster who has supplied some games with an extra few points of damage, but it’s very clear to me the difference between 3 mana and 2.
You make lands and planeswalkers, protect yourself, slow your opponent down, dig for cards, kill threats, then find Saheeli or a Guardian or whichever you don’t already have, then win the game immediately.
Is it something about Aristocrats decks that get me to come out and play? Is that what pulls me into Standard? I feel dirty, like somehow it’s just the interaction between some junk drawer creature and a junk lord and suddenly I’m just an easy get for a standard environment.
Anyway, I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering a little more, and rather than hanging around in the silly waters of Commander 1v1 (a format where I mostly goldfish), I’ve been playing Standard and Modern (and we’ll get to that), based on throwing together a reasonably cheap deck. Right now is one of the best times to get a standard deck with a good mana base together, because there’s a standard-legal Ravnica set, pulling the cost on Ravnica duals down to nearly a buck each on MTGO.
The basic anatomy of this kind of deck, known colloquially as an Aristocrats deck is threefold; you want cards that don’t mind being sacrificed (‘food’), you want things that can sacrifice cards for benefit (‘feeders’), and things that react to the interactions between the first two (‘zookeepers’). It’s a neat little ecosystem of a deck and part of what I like about it is how it makes a lot of creatures that are, at best, kinda cheap and durdly, into something your opponent has to spend their cards on, and even then, they’re not guaranteed to get ahead when that happens.
This deck is by no means what you’d call ‘good’ – the last time I did this I had Zulaport Cutthroat, and let me tell you, Cruel Celebrant is no Cutthroat. Or maybe I’m just sour about mana in general. There’s also the way that Mayhem Devil works, dealing damage wherever you like but also crucially making that damage require sacrifice. There are draws however where you get some mix like a Hunted Witness into a Priest of Forgotten Gods into Cruel Celebrant and Grim Initiate, and you blow your opponent’s board up, draw some cards and then drop another Priest of the Forgotten Gods, and then they cheer and people pick you up and lead you around the room and you’re just the best.
And those games are pretty fun, especially in the low-stakes casual standard room where you are going to face things like Treefolk Tribal and Ladies Facing Left. Still, there are plenty of times you draw a hand and you’re looking at a fistful of 1/1s and a land, or 4 mayhem devils and three lands and know you’re probably not winning with that. It doesn’t mulligan great either – you kind of need a mix of your pieces, and every card you start down loses you a piece, and a chance at a better piece.
Nonetheless, I really enjoy this deck and it’s pretty rotation proof at the moment. I don’t know what’s going to add to it in the upcoming sets, but for now, it’s a fun little unit. I need to develop it a sideboard, though, so I can play it casually in the Tournament room, rather than hang in the much more variable space of the casual room.
Do you know what this is? Magic: the Gathering fans, people who play in eternal formats, may recognise it. It’s a two-word reference to a combo of two cards that work together to let you take infinite turns, and therefore, most of the time, just automatically win the game in some way or another. It’s a powerful combo, and in the formats it’s in, it’s kinda a ‘good’ combo. It can be a total blowout – you can literally just start the game and in those formats, draw the right combination of cards that mean your opponent never ever gets a turn.
Anyway, this design is part of an idea I had where I thought about making a set of shirt or sticker logos that represent prominent two-card combos from Magic: The Gathering. What I did was ask the public if they had any ideas, and I got some… and they were pretty cool!
I hadn’t really framed the question clearly, though! I got a lot of cool combos people used in their decks, things they loved to do. There’s a neat combo with Basalt Monolith and Wake Thrasher, for example!
I didn’t get advice or suggestions for what I wanted – but it’s okay. Instead, I got to listen to my friends, who were cool and neat.
If you google the term ‘the double nickel,’ you’ll usually find something about trucker slang, from the CB radio days. It refers to 55 miles an hour, two fives next to each other. More obscurely, however, is it’s a term from Magic: The Gathering tournament scenes, based out of New York.
If you like Mike Flores’ writing, this ten year old article from Flores explains the whole thing – but it is a bit of a ‘crystal in time’ moment. It’s from back when there was really one Magic web show, called The Magic Show, back when I argued against Youtube as a platform for Magic content because it simply wasn’t a viable format for me, in Australia with cheap, poor internet. It’s also a bit rambling and full of Flores’ personal affect, which I of all people would be an asshole to complain about, but if you’re only here because of game design, and not here because you’re a massive magic nerd who cares about history of the game, let alone the specifics of the game that were history ten years ago.
The basic idea is the double nickel is you do two iterations of a five-pile shuffle, which, when dealing with a number of cards divisible by five (forty or sixty, as in Magic), you will get back to where you started. This shuffling method is a pretty reliable cheat – used by one Mike Long in a famous cheating incident involving a card called Howling Wolf. And now I’m getting bogged down in the specifics of that game.
Anyway, the thing to know about this is one of the reasons why a lot of my games use these deliberately inconvenient numbers. If you’ve ever played LFG, you might notice there are 23 character cards, so a card always winds up in the graveyard when the cards are dealt out to the players. This is also true in Senpai Notice Me, where part of the setup is to make sure that there’s a card discarded from the game, and so there’s not perfect information about what’s in it.
The double nickel also is something you can use in the setup of a game deliberately. In Pandemic there’s a set of outbreak cards that get shuffled into sub-decks, and so to in Goodcritters, to make sure that there’s an end to the game coming but you can’t be sure of how it arrives. We used this tech in Foxtail, too, to make sure that the end game could be set up without necessarily making it guaranteed.