Off Topic: Analyzing Auras

Off Topic

Meyou examines how Auras fundamentally work and presents arguments for new paradigms regarding Aura design and usage.

It can be intriguing to look back at some of my old writing.
I could relay a number of my reactions, but the one I want to focus on is growth. I’ve grown as a player to appreciate certain aspects of the game that I did not before. I used to loathe Wasteland, for example. I thought it was the worst thing in the Legacy format and needed to be banned. While I am still not fond of the card, I now understand its role in the game. As I mulled over how I have come to understand this complicated game better, a thought stumbled into my head about the evolution of Auras. R&D has admittedly been trying to design better Auras. Something occurred to me at that moment. Was it possible that their approach to fixing Auras is all wrong?

The Aura Combo

If Auras are bad, why make them? For one, a large segment of the Magic populace loves them. Many of these players tend to be new players. However, there is a small niche of players who still love their Auras regardless of being bad to play. Part of the attraction is the customization of creatures. It is fun to make bigger and better creatures on the board, especially when it becomes an 11/11 monstrosity with lifelink, first strike, trample, and flying. Eventually, we learn about that pesky thing called card advantage. In the case of Auras, it is card disadvantage. Getting our Voltron hit by a simple Doom Blade sends the Aura(s) and the creature to the graveyard. It is classically referred as a two-for-one in which one spell destroys two permanents.

The revelation I had was this: at the very basic level, Auras and creatures are a two-card combo. It sounds utterly obvious, but thinking about Auras in this fashion will help pave the way for a more productive solution for fixing Auras. Before doing so, we need to dissect combos into two divisions. There are sequential combos and independent combos. Let’s start with the easiest. Independent combos can function and play independently of each other. A classic example is Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top. Either card can be played in whatever order. I can cast Counterbalance before the Top. I can play the Top then the Counterbalance. Once together, they form a powerful combination.

Now take sequential combos that must be played in a particular order. A classic example of this is Phyrexian Dreadnought and Stifle. I can’t cast Stifle before the Dreadnought. I have to play the Dreadnought first, immediately followed by the Stifle. I must have both cards in hand in order to complete my powerful combo. If we think of Auras through this prism, creatures and Auras are effectively a sequential combo. I can’t cast an Aura until I have a creature on the battlefield. Sequential combos are inherently a much more fragile combo because they can be more easily disrupted. After a player has cast a Phyrexian Dreadnought, I can counter the Stifle to two-for-one them. The same is true for Auras as an opponent can two-for-one me with creature removal.

Improving the Creature Combo

This leads to a logical conclusion. The combo is part A (creatures) and part B (Auras). Supposedly, R&D has been working on part B. I’ll talk more about part B later. I want to focus on is part A since it is the weakest link of the combo. It is also the part being largely ignored. While everybody has been focusing on making Auras better, creatures are neglected. It is true that creatures have been climbing in power over the years. However, this doesn’t mean those “better” creatures make good combo pieces with Auras. The same is true for any creature. Just because it is a creature doesn’t mean it should be included in the combo.

History has shown that the most powerful combo pieces are creatures with hexproof. Sometimes, those creatures are even quite laughable without the keyword. Slippery Bogle and Gladecover Scout are merely 1/1 creatures that are otherwise vanilla. However, those two creatures are the backbone to the Aura-based Modern deck called Bogles. For a time, Silhana Ledgewalker comboed with Moldervine Cloak in the Standard environment. For a moment, let’s look at an example where the creature is good and the Aura is bad. A fairly recent case was Geist of Saint Traft being enchanted with Spectral Flight. The blue Aura by no means wins any awards for super powerful enchantments. However, it turned Geist of Saint Traft into a nearly unblockable killing machine of eight damage a turn.

If R&D wants to make Auras relevant, they need to design better creatures. Specifically, creatures that combo with Auras. This doesn’t mean every creature needs to have hexproof. I believe there are many unexplored avenues. For example, I think the ability on Frost Titan is a prime candidate. Knight of the Holy Nimbus also comes to mind. If my opponent wants to remove this creature, they will have to pay an additional cost when targeting my Voltron creature with a Doom Blade. I also mention this since there are many opponents to the hexproof mechanic. Magic has already illustrated that there are other ways to make good combo creatures.

The paradigm that any creature will combo with an Aura has to be broken. It’s not how combos work. To put it another way, Dark Depths doesn’t combo with any land. Sure, a large amount of forests can be used to take counters off the legendary land. However, that is a bad combo. A good combo is pairing Dark Depths with Thespian's Stage. Such an example is a good combo. Combos use specific cards to get specific effects. Creatures shouldn’t be any different when creating combos with Auras.

Improving Auras

Even if creatures are fixed, this still doesn’t mean Auras will be suddenly good. Auras have many problems. The first problem is redundancy in their respective colors. In Magic, this is simply bad design. Many of those Auras give abilities to creatures that already have access to those abilities in their color. Enchanting Brimaz, King of Oreskos with Marked by Honor is fairly redundant. This fact is part of the reason why Equipment is such a great subtype. Suddenly, any color has access to abilities they never had before. Blue can get deathtouch or first strike with the right equipment, where blue Auras can't do the job. Part of this problem is many Auras stop at simply granting a keyword bonus like first strike. An improvement would to be move past keywords and create actual abilities like the ones on Bear Umbra. I play the green Aura in my Commander enchantment deck not for its totem aura or +2/+2 abilities. I play it for its ability to untap all of my lands. The same is true for Celestial Mantle. Sure, the +3/+3 is nice, but that isn’t the reason people play the card.

The other problem stems from power level. Auras are simply too weak. This is especially true if considering them as combo pieces. Players use combos because the combination of two or more given cards is powerful. Nobody uses Show and Tell to put a Grizzly Bears onto the battlefield. Many Auras are simply weaker than their creature equivalents at the same mana cost. Take Epic Proportions for instance. At six mana, I might as well just be playing any number of powerful creatures. At four mana, I could have had a Polukranos, World Eater. This isn’t even considering the cost of the creature that the Aura will be attached to. Not every combo has to be at the power level of Pestermite and Splinter Twin. However, the power level must be large enough that the risk outweighs the downside of playing a combo.

The current method to Aura improvement appears to be the addition of cantrip effects. Card drawing is a powerful effect, but this necessitates the weakening of the Aura. This can be seen on cards like Stratus Walk. I think this is the wrong direction. Tiny effects don’t win games. Eldrazi Conscription wins games. There is no cantrip effect on the card. It is simply good.

Playing Auras Like a Combo Deck

Suppose R&D incorporates a few of these suggestions and Auras become largely viable. There are still a few things to be understood or incorporated. To illustrate this, let’s look at the somewhat successful Bogles deck from Modern.

What is wrong with this list? Compare it to other combo decks. The vast majority of combo decks run tutors, cantrips, dedicated card draw, or some other way to filter through their libraries. Pod decks have Chord of Calling and Birthing Pod. Storm utilizes Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand to help find its combo pieces.

Bogles has nothing besides some card draw from Kor Spiritdancer. Without something to help find those pieces, the deck can be clunky at times. Sometimes it is stuck with no Auras for its creatures, or has no creatures for its Auras. As a true combo deck, it would be to the archetype's benefit to run cards like Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions. These cards would help the deck run more smoothly. Granted, the deck tries to alleviate these problems by running redundant combo pieces. However, this is not how traditional combo decks work. Combo runs a few of its strongest elements and tries its best to find them.

As a combo deck, splashing for blue would aid the archetype. With the reprinting of the Onslaught fetchlands, this will be very feasible. Not to mention, the addition of fetchlands will only help strengthen the mana base of the deck. The most logical addition would be the inclusion of Sleight of Hand and Serum Visions. The weakest of the Auras should be cut or at least trimmed. The addition of blue also allows the deck to run counterspells in the form of Remand or Mana Leak.

Searching For Answers to Auras

The inspiration for this article came from a simple Internet search. With the Standard rotation looming, I was sifting through the removal available in the coming format. Part of it was my surprise on the lack of removal in the latest core set. It made me suspicious that Khans of Tarkir was going to be removal heavy since R&D appeared to have held back in M15. The charm cycle in Khans supports this notion, and is a sneaky way to force players to play the wedge colors. You want removal? Well, you are going to have to play three colors to get it.

I was particularly interested because it is my belief that the available removal in a format is what dictates what archetypes will be viable. As I scanned through all the removal – even the bad – I was surprised at the sheer volume available in the game. With green acquiring the new fight mechanic, every color has access to some amount of removal. Blue even has Rapid Hybridizaiton. It was then that I noticed just how many Auras act as removal: a lot of them. Cards like Pacifism, Pin to the Earth and Domestication are considered “good” Auras. This begged the question of why? How have we arrived at this juncture? Why are Auras on my opponent’s creatures good and Auras on my creatures bad?

The problem is removal. It is powerful, it is cheap and it is everywhere. It reminds me of a recent article (Creatures in Standard - Today and Tomorrow) by Reid Duke on why creatures are bad and spells are good. In the Ravnica/Theros Standard environment, it was extremely difficult to keep a creature alive on the battlefield. If an opponent wanted to get rid of my creatures, there were many options available. This is a problem not only to Auras, but to the game.

If we want the game to be about creatures, we need to back off the removal. To be clear, removal has its place in Magic just like Wasteland does in Legacy. However, the volume and efficiency was too much during the last Standard season. It reminds me of R&D removing Counterspell from print. It was too powerful and too cheap. Too many cheap counterspells ruined the format. The same is true for removal. It may be just a blip on the radar, but the new Standard may indicate R&D is already heading down this path. This brings us back to the Aura problem. For now, it doesn’t matter how good R&D makes Auras. If we can’t keep a creature on the battlefield, how in the world can Auras ever be good? They can’t. Auras would have to be completely busted to offset the risk.

This is the reason I fully support hexproof on creatures - sparingly. I understand many players are opposed to the mechanic. I find it particularly interesting that many players don’t have a problem with protection from X, but find hexproof a horrible mechanic. Part of this problem is history. We have grown accustomed to protection and removal. We expect it. However, I disagree with history. Players shouldn’t get to do everything they want. Blue shouldn’t be able to counter everything. Black shouldn’t be able to remove enchantments. White shouldn’t get Lightning Bolts. One argument I hear repeatedly against hexproof is that it diminishes interaction in the game. Magic thrives on restrictions. It is held together by the color pie and the limitations it puts on the game. The same should hold true for removal.

Before signing off, I want to reaffirm that the argument here isn’t to slap hexproof, protection, or other removal resistance on every creature. That isn’t the game I want. I want removal to be good; it should be good. However, I believe Magic would be a better strategic game with a few more removal-resistant creatures. One axiom for draft has always been to pick removal very highly. Doom Blade was an automatic first pick. This saddens me. For a game centered on creature combat, we aren’t picking the creature first? For those wondering exactly where I stand, here is my litmus test: removal and creatures should be equal. It should be hard to make that decision. The game is more interesting when players have to weigh their choices. When picking between spells and creatures becomes automatic, that’s just bad for the game.



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