Mystical Teachings – Rumor Mill Musings

Scars has been out for a bit now, and we've had a chance to play with these cards we've been reading rumors about for weeks before release. The Rumor Mill can be a very exciting place for everyone, but I've seen certain patterns that have been going on for years now that make a lot of people upset. For a long time, I didn't really understand all sides to the arguing that goes on in the Rumor Mill, and I still don't understand it entirely, but I'm writing this to talk a bit about being able to think about card spoilers better. A lot of players don't really get the theory of a lot of competitive Magic, and even writers who do get it don't seem to talk about it that much. As I've been playing longer and with more players, a lot of theory has become more clear to me, and to really see the big picture in terms of how spoilers fit together, it helps to understand why cards are designed the way they are and how players should think about cards better. In this article I will talk about a lot of the tropes that people fall into when discussing new cards, how these show that people don't get the big picture in terms of the game, and what people should put more consideration into when seeing rumors.

"Dies to Removal"

We've all seen this argument before. Yes, everyone accepts that creatures die to removal. There have probably been hundreds of pages of discussion on just this very thing every rumor season. The fact is, nothing in Magic is completely unanswerable. This doesn't mean that things are bad because they die to removal, nor does it mean cards are necessarily good because they are resistant to removal. People really need to understand that whether or not a card dies easily to removal usually isn't the biggest part to what makes a card good.

Do we really play this guy?
Here's the thing. I did actually talk a bit on the MTGS forums about the card Putrefax. There has been a pretty wide range of feelings expressed towards this card. It does serve a purpose as a Ball Lightning for poison decks, which is nice, however it is fairly fragile to removal for a 5-drop. That said, there's a lot that people are missing on both sides of the argument. There has been a lot of arguing going on about this card dying to Lightning Bolt, as anyone would expect, and hopefully I can get everyone past that simple line of thinking. Now, let's take an actual game example into consideration.

Pretend that you're playing a G/B poison deck and the opponent is playing any sort of blue deck with access to Jace, the Mind Sculptor and some form of instant speed removal. In the first few turns of the game you both played creatures, you killed a blocker and swung in, and they killed your attacker on a later turn. On turn four you play Hand of the Praetors. They respond with Jace, bouncing your Hand. At this point, they have no blockers, a Jace with two counters, and somewhere between one and three poison counters already. You have nothing on board, but Hand and Putrefax in your hand, and land to play either.

Clearly, playing Hand accomplishes very little here. They could either Brainstorm with Jace and remove it, or just bounce it again, and they gain tons of tempo while you've effectively done nothing. Here you play Putrefax and either kill Jace or swing at them, it's not that relevant in my example. Wait... back up a second. There's a lot more to this situation than you're probably thinking about.

Your opponent playing the Jace speaks volumes. Unfortunately, it can send some very mixed messages, depending on how good of a player your opponent is. First of all, if your opponent isn't thinking about Putrefax, whether they don't have experience against the deck or just aren't thinking ahead at all, we can't really tell whether they're scared of the card or not. This doesn't give us much information. If your opponent is on top of his game, then playing the Jace meant that they understood the possibility of a Putrefax coming into play the next turn, and either had no better option or didn't feel it was that big of a deal.

As players, we want to just jump to thinking they don't have a better option, but this is usually wrong. Let's think about it. If Jace had been their best out to two creatures possibly swinging in the next turn, and they had played that little action in the rest of the game, why did they keep that hand? Why would a deck that relies on getting to the endgame keep a hand that can't keep that many creatures off the board? Another possibility is they think you will kill the Jace with Putrefax. That would trade 1 for 1 their 4-drop with your 5-drop, and going into late game they'd have taken very little damage.

Lots of value here
Does your deck have too few ways to get through damage out of nowhere? That would give a good reason for them to not care about you trading a card for five poison counters. You'd be left with no board to a Jace if you attack them. They survive almost unscathed to turn five if you take out Jace. Either way is actually a very advantageous situation for the control deck. The fact is, against good players, whether or not removal is needed will always be gauged against the proper matchup and what situation a player wants to be in. Herein lies the problem with the "dies to removal" argument as an argument at all. What will really determine the power of the card is whether or not the card creates situations where players can't play around it.

Jace, TMS is very hard to play around effectively because, once active, it helps draw the controller into more answers for their answers, and will protect itself unlike Jace Beleren. Primeval Titan is very hard to play around because if you save your counters for it, they can still slowly kill you while you hold mana up, and if you don't counter it, Valakut goes off. Ball Lightning is hard to play around because it comes down on turn three where it's hard to hold removal without really hurting your own board development and takes off a third of your opponent's life total when it swings.

While I don't subscribe entirely to Mike Flores's Grand Unified Theory, there is a major overarching idea that I think needs to be discussed. A card is good because it produces value. Everything produces value, and whoever gets the most value wins. This value may come in the form of blanking your opponent's removal (virtual card advantage), from generating a lot of damage quickly (philosophy of fire), from just getting more cards than your opponent (traditional card advantage), whatever. It is easy to see how a creature like Oona, Queen of the Fae creates tons of value when you untap with it. What people don't really understand is when an opponent kills your 5- or 6-mana creature with a 2-mana Mana Leak or Doom Blade, you lose value. The "power" of a card should be based on how much value a card provides on its own, as well as how much you lose for getting the card answered.

You have to average out the cases to determine how much value a card provides for a deck, and most people only see either the upside or the downside. Sphinx of Jwar Isle was played because it almost never lost any value, but eventually lost favor because it just didn't create that much value compared to other finishers. Baneslayer Angel provides so much value when it does stick that it balances out all the times it dies instantly. Most people will look at card advantage as a golden Standard, and it's a good Standard, but not perfect. For example, Kozilek provides the most card advantage of the Eldrazi giants, but is generally the weakest because he's the easiest to answer, and as a finisher paying ten mana to draw four cards isn't all that great.

Your opponent casting Jace is probably trying to maximize his value by forcing you to play Putrefax. Maybe he thinks that Putrefax actually loses you value in that position because you have no board? Or he just has a bad hand, which probably means he probably should have mulliganed. Or, the last case, it means that the card is just so good that there was no way for the opponent to play around it. We know this probably isn't true because a control deck should have enough removal to deal with both a turn four drop and a turn five drop. When you take every single card and think about it in this way, in every single relevant deck archetype in the format, then you can paint a picture of how often each of these situations come up. The balance of card values actually tells you how good a card is, but requires a lot more consideration than most people give.

Bad Spikes

One of the pillars of Magic is the existence of various player psychographics. These psychographics determine what cards people will like and how people actually play the game. Spikes "play to win," and a cornerstone of the Spike psychographic is enjoying cards that are more powerful. However, these psychographics don't really determine play skill. This is a point Mark Rosewater has made repeatedly, but it really needs to be reinforced. Let's think about what the psychographic means: Spikes want powerful cards and Spikes want to win. Cards that appeal to Spikes don't have to be skill testing at all. I've seen numerous people call cards bad because they're not good for Standard Constructed decks. The fact is, Standard Constructed isn't all of Magic and it's not the most skill intensive format, but that said, being able to win in Standard with a card is very tangible and appeals to a lot of Spikes.

Think about it. Standard is where a lot of newer players get started. It's usually less interactive than older formats in terms of what kinds of cards you have to play around, since there's less cards in the format. Given a particular deck and a new player, Standard will usually be the easiest format to win in.

20 dollars as of the time of this writing
There are Spikes who aren't actually good at Magic. Just like there are Timmies and Johnies who aren't good at actual tight play, there are Spikes who are bad players. Also, there are Spikes who are very bad at being able to tell whether a card is good or not and for what reasons. Card evaluation includes seeing the purpose of cards in sets, and most Spikes don't really understand what purposes various cards serve in sets. The worst part is: it's these Spikes that ceaselessly complain about every little thing, and drive up the prices in the secondary market then complain about it. These Spikes are the players who drive up the presale prices of planeswalkers to $50 when even after seeing a ton of Standard play, $50 being the general limit for how much a card will be worth. It takes a Jace to go past $50, and in a set with two other very powerful planeswalkers, it makes no sense for Venser to be worth that much. Even if he starts seeing tons of play, there will be a short period of time where he will start going up in price where players can buy the card and sell later for more. It is these Spikes who will buy boxes of a set just for themselves, open them for three cards, yell at the internet when they don't open them, and throw away hundreds of cards that could have been useful for drafting or for a casual player.

Of course everyone reading this who calls themselves a Spike will probably say "yeah all those people are idiots but that's not me." Well, maybe it is you. It could be you. If you consider yourself "better" than casual players, then it probably is you. If you crack boxes just to try to get three cards and you're not a shop, it probably is you. If your criticisms of cards are that they're bad cards, Wizards is ruining everything, and not that the design decisions behind them are not well designed, then it's probably you. If you're the kind of person who will ask questions like "why would I pay 14 mana for a 6/6 Trampling Beastbreaker of Bala Ged and why the hell can't I level up at instant speed it would make these cards so much more useful," it's definitely you. Most Spikes think because they like "better" cards than their peers, they are better players and people. This is definitely not true, and most people can't really think about the design process behind cards to say how cards are "just garbage" and they "ruin the game." This pushes me towards my next point:

The Limited Aspect

Rock solid Limited card
I had a realization a few years ago. Most people complaining about various aspects of new sets don't draft! The moment I saw Sky Ruin Drake I thought it was a great card for Limited. The first few comments I saw about it called it a "waste of a good art and name." A waste? This card is a staple in Zendikar Limited! I asked myself, "Is Limited really this defunct of a format?" As someone who only plays almost nothing but Limited, it hurts to see people care this little about the format. Take a look at Darkslick Drake in Scars, and again people complain about how the card's name and art was wasted on a bad card. This card is really good in draft! In fact, if this card were common blue might have been the best color in Scars Limited. Even worse, it seems like the typical reaction to anything someone perceives as a "bad card" is that it's "probably good in Limited." People don't realize this, but Limited is actually quite hard to design for. Even those who draft don't really realize this aspect a lot of the time.

For example, we can take a look at the white commons in M11. Is Ajani's Mantra good in Limited? It's essentially unplayable, but I've definitely seen people saying "it's probably playable in Limited" when talking about the card. Then there's the other end of the spectrum. "Why is Tireless Missionaries so bad? Couldn't they have made it a 3/4 or something?" Sure, the card is quite weak. Should they have made it better? What if it flew? Would white be too good if this card was better? Very few people call these cards garbage and actually think about things like that.

Every card is designed for a reason. By now, Wizards has worked out a formula for how many commons and uncommon of a type need to be in a color to support a certain archetype to a certain extent in the Limited format. The commons in a set are in a finely tuned power distribution to create an effect that works in a certain way. Limited is an extremely important format to a lot of players, and to ignore it or not care about it does the designers a great disservice. You have to consider that about two thirds of every set is entirely made for the Limited environment, and sure, those cards might not see play in a constructed deck, but the designers had to work just as hard to design those cards well. It takes as much effort to design a Koth as it does a card like Null Champion.

Every Card is for Someone

Remember [tower">+[of]&set=[%22Mirrodin%22]"]this cycle?
Yeah, I know. This concept has been expressed by Mark Rosewater many times. People still don't seem to get it, though. Take a card like Tower of Calamities. The tower cycle was left unfinished in the original Mirrodin block, just like the Swords cycle. They are inherently interesting in their design: a cycle of colorless cards that give you big repeatable in-color effects for a ton of mana. They're finishing a cycle! Do we really need to trash this card, which has some use in a certain Limited archetype and elegantly finishes a flavorful cycle? I absolutely don't understand the hate for this card, because it fits into the world of Mirrodin so incredibly well. A friend I knew in high school was a huge Vorthos, loved flavorful cards like this and would love the Tower.

The arguments are all circular and just don't make sense. Casual/interesting rares are "waste of a rare/mythic slot." Strong rares like Primeval Titan means "Wizards is killing the game with power creep." Apparently, almost all commons and uncommon are just "Limited fodder" and not useful at all. Sure, every card is bad. There has never been a good card in the history of Magic, the game is just a terrible cash grab, no one plays this game and this next set is going to cause the death of the game. Oh, and every set is complete garbage except for five cards, why does Wizards still print so much garbage? Heard these comments before?

Every set is designed in a certain way on purpose. The game is very intentionally designed, and when designed well people don't notice. There is a level of organization within "there need to be bad rares, there needs to be enough commons of certain types, there needs to be rares for each psychographic, cards should be good at all rarities," and so on. However, outside of these borders and within the theme of a set, designers are free to make things however they want. Every card was designed by someone who wanted the card to be the way it is. Sometimes, the card doesn't need to be "that bad" even in context of Limited, but they still serve a purpose. Hornet Sting is there to be a generic one-mana-1-damage instant, even though Mark Rosewater and a bunch of other people hate the color pie bleed. Mindless Null exists to provide a certain archetype of poor-quality generic black body while still reflecting flavor interactions in the block. Bazaar Trader is there to be an interesting Johnny card. Liege of the Tangle is meant to be a fatty Timmies can enjoy.

Wizards could have easily made these cards "better" or not printed them at all. However, they have very good reasons to design them the way they ended up. Absolutely nothing is made good or bad just because a monkey threw darts at a wall and it ended up that way. Sometimes I get the impression people would be happiest if Wizards just quit entirely and stopped making cards at all, if every card is such a disaster.

Even within Spike cards these bad opinions are formed. To many the new Scars dual lands are "worse than M10 duals in every single way." Sure, after turn four they're bad, but that's completely missing the intention of the lands: they're meant to fuel aggro decks. Before you make judgments on cards, you should take time to ask yourselves, "What is this card made for?" For most cards, you can probably find the answer pretty easily. Sometimes there are mistakes, and there are always reasons these mistakes were made, but it's unreasonable to just call cards bad.

None of us are perfect. We will all be judgmental towards cards, people, and all kinds of things at some point, and spoiler season is one of the worst times for this. However, with reason we can all just sit back, relax, and think more about cards before we unthinkingly say stupid things about them. Remember, rather than taking shortcuts for judging cards, really consider the costs and benefits of it in both the best scenarios as well as the worst scenarios. Remember, just because you only want to see "competitive cards" doesn't mean you're a better person or player than those who prefer casual play. Remember, if you don't think about a card's application for Limited when it's a common or uncommon and just call it garbage, then you probably shouldn't be calling yourself the best player ever. And remember, every card is made for someone, even if it's just the designers' own enjoyment, so we should all just relax and see what each new set contributes to the game as a whole. Magic is a great game, and it's great because so many brilliant people are at the head of it. It supports a huge competitive base while maintaining tons of casual players, and almost everyone can relate to certain cards and archetypes in certain ways. Remember these things, and the next time you see a spoiler, hopefully you'll enjoy the game a little more.


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