Hip to be Square: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
by Tom Fowler[/CENTER]

If you've been living under a rock, then you may not have heard about the sweeping rules changes coming with Magic 2010. Actually, you might have heard about them even if you've lived under a rock, since the constant arguing, flaming, and kvetching has left no stone unturned.

Since plenty of other Magic luminaries have offered their opinions on the changes, I figured it's time I join them. First, can anyone tell me how to become a Magic luminary? Instead of just talking about the changes, I'm going to talk about them in relation to cube drafting. Your mileage may vary on some of these, since not everyone plays with the same cards in their cubes, but hopefully you'll see where I'm coming from.

I'll say this up front: I don't think the sky is falling, and I don't think you should, either. Wizards of the Coast is full of people who are very smart and take their stewardship of Magic very seriously. I don't always think they're right, but I do think they've earned the benefit of the doubt. There was a lot of complaining when the Sixth Edition rules turned the game on its ear. The changes we'll be seeing are much milder. The complaining, however, has not been. I've read a lot of it, and most of it is rubbish.

And please, if you're the sort of drama queen who stamps your feet and announces for all to read that you're quitting Magic because of all these changes, then all I ask is that you give me a chance to buy your collection.

For reference, the changes can be found in this feature article by Aaron Forsythe and Mark Gottleib.

I'll cover them in order.

1. Simultaneous Mulligans

Since I'm both a player and a judge, I'm of two minds about this one.

If only the cube weren't highlander...
As a judge, I like things that make my tournaments go faster. This will absolutely speed up tournament play. If both players are going to six cards, then they do it at the same time, meaning player B isn't sitting around for two or three minutes while player A shuffles again. As a judge, I hate any block of time where nothing is happening, where the games (and my event) aren't moving forward. Now, if both players mulligan to six, that two-to-three-minute window will be saved, since they're shuffling at the same time. Players should like the fact that they potentially get extra time added to their match.

Now imagine if A goes to five cards. Player B sits there for five minutes before he makes his mulligan decision. At a PTQ, that's 10% of the time in your round gone, and absolutely nothing has happened in that time. If both players mulligan to five, even more time is gone. Oh, you're both playing control decks? Welcome to the draw bracket.

As a player, I really don't care about that. I play quickly, and I tend to play decks that are quick, also. I'd much rather turn Jackal Pup sideways and Bolt you than play cast Force of Will. Also, if I'm on the draw, I never look at my hand until my opponent has finished his mulligans (if any). If he goes to five, that gives me a perspective I'll never have when we have to decide at the same time. Admittedly, that doesn't happen much, but competitive Magic is . . . well, competitive. I'll take the advantage waiting gives me.

Well, I guess I won't once M10 hits.

For cube, this doesn't really mean much. A lot of players mulligan simultaneously in casual games, anyway. (I still don't, but YMMV.) In our cube drafts, we don't time the rounds. The basic rule is, "don't be an ass and play slowly." Social pressure takes the place of the round clock, and it works very well.

2. Terminology changes galore

There are several changes here, so let's look at them one-by-one.

2A: The in-play zone is now "the battlefield."

I'm not sold on the name, but I like the change. Realize that they couldn't call it "the field," since that's a Yu-Gi-Oh! term, and there are already enough accusations of Magic being made more into YGO. Battlefield was probably the best of an unexciting set of choices. I've heard player say that the name is silly, or even embarrassing. If you have no embarrassment issues at summoning unicorns and faeries—and since Lorwyn, I've noticed a distinct dearth of embarrassment at summoning faeries—then you shouldn't blush at "battlefield," either. I do think "enter the battlefield" is much more inelegant than "comes into play," but a hit in elegance is worth the gain in clarity, in my opinion.

"Battlefield" is also more flavorful than "in-play zone"—a statement I made to point out that I don't give a tinker's damn about flavor. If you do, great. My arguments won't be coming from that perspective, though. I will say that, if you're going to have a fantasy game, you should want to minimize the anachronistic and non-fantasy terminology you use, within reason.

2B: "Play" subcontracts out some of its many uses.

We still play lands, but now we activate abilities, and we've gone back to casting spells. "Cast" has been used colloquially since it first went away, anyway. The word "play" was severely overused in Magic, and I like the increase in clarity this change brings, too. A lot of these changes were designed with new players in mind, and cleaning up confusing terminology is something that obviously benefits those new to the game. Thumbs up.

2C: "Remove from the game" is now "exile."

Most aptly named card ever.
Path to Exile is not only a removal spell, but a harbinger of change to come. Now, it exiles a creature, providing a very real path to the exile zone. Along with this change is the acknowledgement that the removed-from-game zone didn't really contain cards that were removed from the game. A lot of other cards cared about RFG cards and interacted with them. The exile zone is no longer considered outside the game. That changes the functionality of cards like the Judgment Wishes: they won't be able to get exiled cards, since those cards are still within the game. They can still fetch cards from your collection (casual play) or sideboard (sanctioned play), of course.

2D: "At end of turn" is now "at the beginning of the end step."

This is another good terminology change. "At end of turn" wasn't really at the end of the turn, was it? You could still do a bunch of stuff after those triggers went onto the stack. Clever players knew how to manipulate those triggers, while inexperienced players learned the hard way that the term wasn't as intuitive as they thought. "At the beginning of the end step" accurately describes when things are happening, and is clearer about it at the same time.

It also removes the confusion between "at end of turn" vs. "until end of turn." I would hear this question a lot, especially from newer players. Now, "until end of turn" stands by itself.

What does all this mean for cube? Nothing special, really. We'll get used to the terminology changes like everyone else will. The Wishes losing some functionality will force you to make a decision if you have them in your cube. I don't, but if I did, I think I would still keep them in (the good ones, at least). Your sideboard is large in any Limited format, and with the mana fixing and splashing that's possible in cube, fetching a key sideboard card at the right time could be very important.

3. Mana, mana everywhere, and not a drop to float.

Two changes were made with respect to mana.

3A: Mana pools now empty at the end of each step, not at the end of each phase.

I like this change. It was very rare to float mana from your upkeep step to your draw step. Now you won't have that option. While I'm sure it's something we'll all miss once in a blue moon, that's the key: it'll be once in a blue moon.

3B: Mana burn is gone.

On the bubble as of M10.
I don't like this change. Mana burn is all about resource management. If you tap too many lands and can't use the mana, then you lose life for it. Be more careful next time. The impression I get is that WotC didn't like people using mana burn strategically, with two prominent examples being Pulse of the Fields and Pulse of the Forge. If you build a mechanic into the game, players are going to use it. Mana burn was a mechanic, and players used it. This shouldn't have been surprising. Maybe mana burn wasn't intended to be used that way, but Magic is a very deep game, and those depths can sometimes be mined for purposes not previously considered. Most multi-card combos are examples of this. Who ever thought Illusions of Grandeur would see much play? Then Donate was printed, and the idea of giving your opponent a permanent you actively didn't want was born. The decks featuring that engine won a lot of games and money. I'm sure whoever designed Illusions of Grandeur didn't intend for one player to give it to his opponent, then chortle like a bad Bond villain when the cumulative upkeep cost finally got too high. But the options were there, and it happened. The same is true of mana burning for strategic purposes.

Will I miss mana burn? Probably not, since it came up so rarely. In the article cited above, Mark Gottleib posits, "In 99.9% of Magic games, of course, you'll never even notice mana burn is gone." My response is, "then why get rid of it?" It's the principle of the thing.

How does this affect cube? I don't think 3A matters that much. The elimination of mana burn, though, forces cube builders to reconsider both Pulse of the Fields and Pulse of the Forge. I think Pulse of the Forge is still playable. Getting 4 damage for three mana as an instant is always good. Pulse of the Fields becomes less good, though. Lifegain is not a good mechanic, and a lifegain card needs to be really good to get played. Loxodon Hierarch gives you 4 life, and a 4/4 body along with it, for a reasonable price. Healing Salve, on the other hand, sucks. Pulse of the Fields is still better than Healing Salve, since you'll still be able to get it back sometimes, but you no longer have as much control over that as before. I'll have to consider whether I should keep Pulse of the Fields in my cube when I update it for M10.

Mana Drain becomes better, to the point that it now has no drawback. Mana Drain has always been powerful, but you had to be careful using it, since if you got stuck with nothing to spend that mana on, you could potentially lose the game to mana burn (I've won at least one Vintage game like this). Now, it's like Counterspell that might give you some free mana, but if you can't use it, it's no big deal. All reward, no risk.

4. The owner of a token is whoever controlled it as it entered the battlefield.

This makes sense. A few things won't work like they did before, but the gain in clarity is, again, worth that hit. If Warp World is in your cube, it becomes a lot less good, since you won't own all those nifty Forbidden Orchard tokens anymore. Alas. Also, if you play multiplayer games with your cube, this could make a difference. If I play Hunted Dragon and later die, the tokens I gave you would leave the game with me. Now, since you own them, you get to keep them. If you don't do multiplayer with your cube, and don't play corner case cards like Warp World and Brand, then this won't mean much to you.

5. Combat damage no longer uses the stack.

Aaaaaand here's the big one.

This is the rule change that has caused all the hand-wringing, ranting, raving, fake quitting, real quitting, and maybe even real quilting.

Combat damage going onto the stack was one of the 1999 rules changes. That means we've been playing this way longer than we have the old way. Players—even those who remember The Dark Days of batches, series, and damage prevention windows—are more used to the new method. Now it's all changing again, and while I'm not going to rant and rave about it, I'm not sure it's a change for the better.

The great thing about combat damage using the stack was that it didn't take any extra knowledge to understand how combat worked. You can't play Magic if you don't understand the stack. That's the reality. Once you knew the stack, combat damage was like a free bonus. Now, it uses a completely new system that's supposedly more "intuitive." I don't like the "intuitive" argument. Intuitive to whom? What is intuitive to me may not be intuitive to you, since intuition is hardly universal.

Now, new players (whom WotC is obviously trying to attract) have to learn combat damage in addition to learning the stack. I don't know if that constitutes a barrier to entry, but it does make learning the game harder. This is another strike against the "intuitive" argument: "intuitive" should not be used as a synonym for "easier."

As for the new system itself, I want to play with it a few times before I really pass judgment on it. Most of the arguments against it usually involve something like your 5/5 being blocked by three 3/3s. Sure, I'd love to be able to split the damage there instead of having to kill Blocker #1, then scoop their team with Jund Charm, but really, who blocks like that? Has anyone ever blocked like that in the history of the game? If the chief argument against the new system involves your opponent being a recent lobotomy patient, then I think something is wrong with the argument.

Some cards will get better. Some will get worse. Players will adapt to the change and learn how to capitalize on the new method strategically. I'm not buying a loss of strategic depth here. "Damage on the stack, sack my guy" is not strategic depth. It's an automatic decision that anyone who's played the game for two hours can make. There's no strategy involved there. Effective with M10 your Sakura-Tribe Elder can still trade with an attacking Savannah Lions, but you can't trade with it and get a land. You'll have to make a decision. At its best, Magic is a game of choices and decisions, and anytime a player makes a decision, he could make the wrong one. The new method gives people more chances to screw up. If anything, I think it adds strategic depth, since you have to think about things again.

While I don't yet know if this change is for the better, I don't think it means the sky is falling, that Wizards is staffed by cruel chimps hellbent on killing Magic, or anything of the sort. I think everyone should try the new combat system in a few games before passing judgment on it. If you still hate it and are still convinced that Mark Rosewater personally wants to ruin your gaming experience, then at least you tried it.

Won't someone think of the crabs!?
What does this mean for cube? Well, any creature with a sacrifice ability loses some value. Sakura-Tribe Elder is worse, as are creatures like Mogg Fanatic, Siege-Gang Commander, Ravenous Baloth, and Loxodon Hierarch. They're still playable and good, but not like they were. Chromeshell Crab, an underrated morph creature, becomes much worse, since the old "damage on the stack, unmorph my dying Crab and trade it for your giant monster, LOL" trick will no longer work. I'll be taking it out of my cube with the new rules on the books. Even activated abilities aren't as good anymore. Morphling can no longer become a 4/2 to kill a 4/4, then survive as a 1/5.

Pump spells look to become worse. Giant Growth and similar spells are inviting a two-for-one. Consequently, burn and removal become even better. You can wait for a trick like Giant Growth, and then blast the creature with Lightning Bolt or Terror. You could before, of course, but Giant Growth no longer saves a creature with damage on the stack. A removal spell now is more of a dagger than it was before. If you see them in your packs, keep this in mind; they might be worth taking a couple spots earlier than normal.

Another card that becomes worse is Crystal Shard. This has always been a high pick in my cube, since it's versatile and potentially very powerful. You can put damage on the stack, activate the Shard targeting your dying creature, decline to pay the :1mana:, and return it to your hand. Your opponent's creature still dies, but you can play yours again. That trick won't be possible anymore, and I'll have to consider whether Crystal Shard still makes the cut. Bouncing a creature when your opponent taps out is still nice, but not getting a saucy use out of the card in combat means it just might not be good enough anymore.

Better now, but good enough for your cube?
6. Deathtouch is now a static ability that gives the new damage assignment rules the finger.

Previously, deathtouch was a triggered ability. It led to potentially confusing scenarios like this one:

New Player: I'll block your Grixis Grimblade with my Troll Ascetic.
Experienced Player: OK. Damage on the stack?
NP: Sure. I'll regenerate my Troll. (he taps 1G)
EP: OK. Now deathtouch triggers. You can't pay to regenerate your Troll again, so he's dead.
NP: But I already regenerated him!
EP: That was from lethal damage. Now he has to regenerate from deathtouch.
NP: Confused

I don't know if this was the best solution, since it basically tosses those shiny new damage assignment rules out the window, but it's definitely a solution. Again, this is something I want to play with a few times before I really pass judgment on it. It's easier to grasp than the way deathtouch used to work, but that doesn't necessarily make it better. In general, though, I favor less obfuscation in the game (unless I'm playing Jyhad, obv).

What does this mean for cube? It depends how many deathtouch guys you play. I think it's worth playing more now, since this has the potential to be a powerful ability. It also brings cards like Lace with Moonglove into the conversation. Before, that was "trade this dork for your better creature and this card, and I'll draw a card." Now, it turns a double block into a blowout. Your opponent may double block because he wants to kill your man even if you have Giant Growth. Then you slam down Lace with Moonglove, kill both of his men, and draw a card. I'm not saying it'll make my cube, but it's definitely better than it used to be.

7. Lifelink is also a static ability and probably works more like it always should have.

Incidentally, this is the way it used to work.

You won't be able to blow games wide open with multiple instances of lifelink anymore. (Cards like Spirit Link, though, which don't actually grant lifelink, will still work like they used to.) However, lifelink will save you from dying, which it hasn't been able to do for quite some time. This removes another potentially confusing scenario. . . .

Experienced Player: Swing with my two 5/5s.
New Player (at 5 life): I only have one blocker, so I'll block one with my Exalted Angel.
EP: OK. Damage on the stack?
NP: Sure. I gain 4 life and—
EP: Actually, you take 5 and die.
NP: But my Angel dealt damage! I gain 4 life!
EP: That goes on the stack, but you're already dead.
NP: Confused

Again, I think things that remove obfuscation are generally good for the game. No game can succeed without an influx of new players. Giving your Rhox War Monk multiple instances of lifelink isn't as sexy as it used to be, but it's not like Rhox War Monk and Exalted Angel are becoming bad cards.

For cube, I don't see much of a change. Good cards with lifelink will still be good cards. The tradeoff for not gaining a zillion life in bizarre lifelink stacks is that you can keep yourself in the game with the ability, where you couldn't before. In other words, keep taking Exalted Angel early. And be glad you're getting that kind of piercing strategic insight for free.

All in all, cube is changing, just like every other format. Players will have to re-evaluate cards and entire strategies in light of the new rules. Some cards will be worse but still get played, others will be bad enough to get cut, and other cards will emerge better, stronger, and faster than before, just begging to be sleeved up in your cube. Personally, I'm going to enjoy looking at my cards and re-evaluating them under the Magic 2010 rules. How about you? Sound off in the forums.

[Author's note: this article was written before the Magic 2010 Prerelease, and thus before the new rules officially went into effect. Now that we're playing under the new rules, here are the fates of the cards I mentioned as being on the bubble or significantly worse:

Chromeshell Crab: OUT
Pulse of the Fields: IN
Cystal Shard: IN

I'll have an updated cube list in the next article, so look for it in two weeks after next week's Good Game.]

-Tom Fowler


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