Baghdad Bazaar: Meet the Creeper

I spend a lot of time walking around in the up-and-coming Baghdad markets these days, and I just have to ask...where do Iraqi companies come up with their English captions for their "American" clothing lines anyway? Monkeys? "The highest point is to be achieved by them; here they go..." What does that even mean? Or how about this one: "Our team have participated in numerous." No other words, no logos. And while we're on the subject, how well-translated are our own Japanese T-shirts and tattoos anyway? Are we proclaiming your faith in the timeless virtues of love and harmony, or in elevated hamsters? Perish the thought. At least all our base are still belong to us.

Now, on to the Magicks!

This article, besides making obscure references to old Rob Zombie songs, handles a topic often mentioned but rarely dealt with: Power Creep! *cue scary music*

Power Creep is the concept that (usually newer) "versions" of a particular card overshadow less-potent rivals, obscuring them into oblivion.

Here's an excellent example of some solid XR damage cards:

(Blaze, Disintegrate, Demonfire.)

The above is only a progression based on the power curve, not their chronological appearances. Blaze was actually printed after Disintegrate, "replacing" it after Fifth Edition...until Disintegrate was Timeshifted in Time Spiral. Of course, Demonfire had already been out for 5 months. (Does anyone use Blaze anymore? Outside of a 10th Edition draft, I mean?)

There are a number of similar XR cards that are difficult to fit on this scale or rate against each other, since they fare differently in different matchups:
Fireball (Alpha) This is a great choice for Limited, or in any matchup against hordes of weenie creatures.
Lava Burst (Ice Age) Better for removing creatures against a control deck.
Kaervek's Torch (Mirage) Also best when used against a control deck, since it requires the opponent to pay 2UU for any Counterspell.
Ghitu Fire (Invasion) Another solid choice for Limited, as you can play it during an opponent's combat phase. In constructed, cheap, instant-speed removal is probably a better option.

Obviously, this isn't the only example of Power Creep available. Let's look at a few more examples of evil Power Creep in different colors and permanent types:

(Squire, Courier Hawk, Benalish Cavalry.)

Squire's not an inherently bad card, like...say...Sorrow's Path. But, for creatures in the 1W range, it just has been far outclassed since its time. (Especially if the deck can support WW.) Hence the jokes.

(Cancel, Counterspell, Force of Will.)

As if Counterspell wasn't bad enough in Alpha, they had to go and print Force of will. Since then, Research and Development (R&D) has been trying to tone down the awesome power of the "free" I-don't-think-so you can play before your first land drop.

(Blackmail, Duress, Thoughtseize.)

This one should be pertinent for anyone playing Lorwyn limited. These are a few options Black has in B for opponent hand destruction. And even though Thoughtseize makes you pay 2 life on the side, it also leaves you with the most options.

(Blanchwood Armor, Moldervine Cloak, Rancor.)

Blanchwood Armor isn't a bad card...but an aura that's cheaper, gives its creature trample, and doesn't set up a 2-for-1 trade is even better. Oh, and there's that third-of-the-same-cost thing too.

Heck, there's even Power Creep when it comes to lands!

(Battlefield Forge, Sacred Foundry, Alpha's Plateau.)

I mean, seriously! A land that can produce two kinds of mana, with no drawbacks? And is easily tutorable? What were they thinking?

So: Is Power Creep a Problem?

So, who cares about this Power Creep issue, anyway? Sure, some cards are just going to be "better" than others, you might say. That's just the nature of game design. And the "real" Magic players are just going to have to suck it up or be buried by other, more devoted spenders.

Well, it seems that, oddly enough, people do care. And I'm not just talking about those doom-sayers that spawn with each new spoiler on this site. Here are a few valid concerns about Power Creep I've seen voiced over the years:

1. It makes older cards obsolete in everything but Limited/Block formats.

Which seems like a rather big waste of 14 years of design and history. Eventually, those shoeboxes of commons you use to level your bed are going to be good for little else. Experience already says they don't start fires well...

Is it safe to come out yet?

2. It shows a laziness in the game's development.

Personally, I think the scariest implication of a Power Creep problem would be laziness on the part of R&D. It would mean that they're more concerned with trumping their last block than they were with balancing the design of the entire game. And if the game devolves to little more than awaiting the next trumping bomb, it would have very scary inklings for the future of the game. Like that those doom-sayers aren't so far off after all.

3. It gets hard on the wallet.

Hey, it's no Warhammer 40k, but Magic is still a pretty expensive game. No one who's spent his hard-earned money (or hard-mooched money, in some cases) to buy a playset of Duresses is going to be pleased learning about Thoughtseize, even if it is technically "better." It doesn't just mean he has a new weapon for his deck; it also means he's out of however much time and money he spent scrounging up his original collection. (Not to mention the money he'll have to dish for his 4 new Thoughtseizes, which are currently going for $25 apiece.) This rationale was part of the reason the Vintage format was invented--players were tired of their older cards no longer being useful.

Now, if you were to believe this guy called "Mark Rosewater" (where do they come up with these names, anyway?), apparently even Research and Development tackles the issue. In this article here, where MaRo explains why Wizards makes "crap rares" (where do they come up with these excuses, anyway?), he makes the following arguments:

Quote from Mark Rosewater »

First, an unchecked power level will eventually spiral out of control and kill the game. All game designs have limits. While Magic's base design is very flexible, it does have its stress points. Push on one of these too hard and the game will collapse. (And no, I won't tell you what they are.)

Second, power creep negates the value of older cards. This makes it hard to mix the cards with earlier cards as the latest cards always have the edge. As number one of the bad rare issues is a fiscal one, it's important to note that power creep comes with an even higher cost than the occasional bad rare. In a power creep world, only the latest sets have any value because they've trumped everything that went before them. How would it feel to have every card you buy eventually become obsolete? In every format. (Well, all the ones we support anyway.)

Third, it plays havoc with design space. Let me demonstrate. Suppose you have the following card:

Seeking Wisdom
Target player draws a card.

Now in the next set, you have to make a better version. How do you do that? It's already one mana, so you have to increase the effect. Perhaps it draws two cards (and yes, I know we normally have cards that draw two or more cards be sorceries). The following set you have to make it better again. Maybe it's a cantrip. Or possibly it draws three cards. Just two sets later and already we're close to copying Ancestral Recall.

Oh, I get it. This is so Chimney Imp
doesn't suck so hard.

As you can see, Mr. Rosewater reflects some of the same concerns I mentioned. And although the point he makes is one of the weaker ones to support making crap rares, I can understand his justifications. R&D has to make sure they don't start creeping down a slippery slope. (Mmm...mixed metaphors are so much fun.) Even if that means making less-than-awesome cards.

So how exactly does R&D deal with Power Creep? I'm glad you asked.

Dealing With Power Creep:

1. Print Neutered Versions.

Fortunately, because it was addressed early on in Magic's development, Power Creep hasn't been as big of a problem as certain doom-sayers might claim. Most of the "broken" cards like Necropotence still prevalent in Eternal formats appeared near the beginning of the game (or there-abouts). They only see neutered descendents like Greed or Phyrexian Arena nowadays. Case in point: examine the six examples I gave earlier in this column; three of the "bombs" are the older versions. R&D obviously realized their mistakes. Today's "non-Eternal" formats (is that the word?) rarely see format-defining combinations...Mirrodin aside.

Unfortunately, this response is only a nice, pat answer for non-Eternal formats like Standard or Extended. For the rest of us playing in the Eternal formats, Force of Will is here to stay. Forever. (Unless they print an even more broken version, which is a terrifying although unlikely thought.)

So what does R&D do to cards that never "go away"?

Another good but subtle hoser.

2. Design cards to hose the Creepers.

This can be a little tricky to pull off, but oh-so-rewarding. Black Lotus got you down? Not with a Chalice of the Void played for free! A Yawgmoth's Will looming on the sidelines? Aren't you glad you started the game with a Leyline of the Void already in play?

Very few cards in any new set will make a definite impact on the aeon-spanning Vintage format. But that doesn't mean Wizards has forgotten. Or that they won't give us the weapons to fight the Creepers. Just as with anything else, Wizards likes keeping its Eternal formats fresh and interesting, and that means tackling their defining cards. (Just keep in mind that the "answers" might be as pricey as the original problems.)

3. Ban/Restrict the Offending Cards.

The banhammer is the most extreme response in Magic, and it has been reserved for a short list of cards. Even with the 9000+ cards currently in existence, R&D has kept the number of "too-powerful-to-play" cards to under a page-length. And even invented a format where those cards could still be used anyway. (Even if the format is still pretty degenerate.) Fortunately for the health of the game, Wizards has delegated this option to a last-resort...

4. Ignore Power Creep Entirely.

Hey, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Fortunately for us, Wizards seems to have stayed away from this last choice. They've generously split the Eternal formats into Legacy (which bans most of the trend-setting Creepers) and Vintage (which lessens their impact to only an earth-shaking rumble).

Looks familiar, but I can't place...

What about us, as players? What can we do to stop Power Creep? Sadly, as far as the sanctioned DCI scene goes, the answer is "not much." Other than write your local congressman and/or lead designer at Wizards. But apart from harrassing R&D and making death threats against Mark Rosewater's family (um...not that I've ever done such a thing...oops), we have to suck it up and buy our Demonfires. Or pray we don't run into someone who's paid the $100 for a playset of Force of Wills. The fact is, complain as we might, stronger cards are just going to fare better. (Who even remembers Invoke the Firemind as a win condition anymore?) Play with them, or expect to lose.

But that doesn't mean we can't have our own opinions. Or our own ways of dealing with Power Creep at our kitchen table. Or even some of our own success stories with sub-par cards (which I'd be interested in hearing). There have been whole formats designed to hose the most-infamous Creepers, allowing their lesser-known and cheaper rivals to shine. Perhaps you've even invented a method or two yourself to fight "the man," even if it's nothing more complicated than ganging up on the $300-deck player at your multiplayer table every night.

And with that, I'll leave an open invite to join in on our forums. I know the sort of people that frequent this site, and they're neither timid nor lacking for opinions. And I want to hear them.

Just don't forget to keep participating in numerous.


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