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Tim’s Top 20 (Flops)

Some people have expressed displeasure with my long-winded and utterly pointless introductions. As I aim to please, I’m providing these people with a “safe word” to ctrl+f for. To bypass all the drivel, the safe word this week is “expiry”.

For the record, it felt awkward to put the period outside the quotes there, but since the safe word doesn’t include said period, my clumsy execution seems preferable in order to circumvent confusion. But I’m not here to talk about grammar (not this week, anyway). Thus, we can ignore the fact the previous sentence is technically a fragment and move right onto today’s topic.

I have come to the grim realization that I can’t just talk in circles, namedrop my friends, and mock my enemies every week; you’d start to think I was formulaic. Besides, there’s a significant drop-off in the “quality” of my rants when I’m not brimming with vitriol, and I’m feeling relatively serene at the moment. Maybe that’s because it’s been weeks since anyone’s attempted a “Magic and Poker” article; maybe it’s because I just ate a giant Panera sandwich (with a side of additional bread).

For today’s article, I shall be combining two of my greatest passions: compiling a Top 20 list and reminiscing on a time when my life didn’t so closely resemble a hell-spun atrocity.

Every time a new set comes out, the gaming world is abuzz with hope. There are over-powered creatures, exciting new abilities, and crazy combo enablers just waiting to be broken. Invariably, though, people misevaluate. Sometimes faulty appraisals result in “sleeper hits,” diamonds in the rough that no one expected much of. The other outcome, of course, is the “colossal disappointment,” a dud for which expectations were high but performance was dismal. In this article, I’ll be focusing on the latter. What follows is a list of the top 20 Standard flops of the 2000s, along with the factors that contributed to their demise. For those dubious about the relevance of this exercise in today’s world–flying cars and all that–consider it an application of George Santayana’s famous quote.

How’s that for pretentious? I didn’t even remember who was responsible for that quote without looking it up!

Top 20 Standard Flops of the 2000s

20. Stormbind (Time Spiral)
It’s sad when former tournament staples don’t live up to the hype the second time around. Maybe power creep meant that spending a card up front to turn every potential draw into an overpriced Shock was no longer worthwhile in 2006. Perhaps Stormbind wasn’t even that good when it was brand new. Examining the Top 8 decks from the first Pro Tour, we see people skimping a little too much on mana when Strip Mine was legal and unrestricted; embarrassing or ill-informed card quantities (some people chose to play only 1 or 2 Land Taxes); and only one Necropotence deck. That Stormbind was acceptable in such an environment is hardly a resounding affirmation of its worth; it’s possible that it was only “good” in 1996 because of the primitive deckbuilding theory of the time.

19. Suppression Field (Ravnica)
Some people–including Mike Flores–were excited by prospects that this could pick up where Damping Matrix left off in the fight against Jitte and Meloku. Unfortunately, forcing someone spend a little more to do something is a far cry from preventing him from doing it outright. Suppression Field failed because it wasn’t worth diluting the focus of one’s own deck to create a minor annoyance for opponents. Field was simply too weak and too narrow, and Shadow of Doubt met a similar fate.

18. Shadowmage Infiltrator (Odyssey)
While Finkel was perfectly serviceable when he appeared in Time Spiral, he never had a chance in his original run because of a certain other 1UB creature. Yes, Urborg Drake really stole the spotlight from the Infiltrator, forcing him into relative obscurity. (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

As an aside, right after Odyssey was released, I was watching someone playtest a blue/black control deck with four Shadowmage Infiltrators. Because he had not yet acquired all the necessary Finkels, he was using Psychatogs as proxies. I remember commenting that the game would have been a lot easier if they were actual Psychatogs.

17. Mind Spring (Morningtide)
Evidently, Braingeyser was only restriction-worthy because of fast mana and because of what people were drawing into. I’m happy Mind Spring is back in M10, and maybe the Standard environment will be slow enough for it once Lorwyn rotates out.

16. Grid Monitor (Mirrodin)
Upon Mirrodin’s release, people were a little too enamored with memories of Steel Golem. In the time between Golem’s prominence in Necropotence and Blue control decks and Grid Monitor’s debut, abstract power had given further way to synergy as a deckbuilding consideration. As little chance as Monitor had in an environment full of Goblins and Astral Slides, it had even less in one rife with Ravagers and . . . um . . . more Ravagers.

15. Reciprocate (Champions of Kamigawa)
Since the retirement of Swords to Plowshares, people had been searching for a worthy heir. Costing the same and featuring the same ability to (theoretically) remove any creature from the game, Reciprocate became the next great white hope. The timing restriction proved fatal, however, as it prevented Reciprocate from being used offensively or if the caster was low on life. Also, it didn’t do much against the ubiquitous Arcbound Ravager, who had no problem killing in one swing. To top it all off, UrzaTron far out-powered the other control strategies, meaning there wasn’t even a deck in which to theoretically put this.

14. Twilight Shepherd (Shadowmoor)
As it turns out, 6-drop creatures must cross an unbelievably high power threshold to enter the realm of tournament viability. Twilight Shepherd’s mass-Regrowth ability was largely meaningless, as six mana is too much for aggro; control decks wouldn’t likely have much else on the board when the Shepherd died; and mid-range decks are inherently awkward. Still, you’d think a slightly larger Serra Angel that came back from the first removal spell as a regular Serra Angel would have some application, but it was not to be. The major strikes against this were the existence of Oona (herself a role player), Bitterblossom, and (again) the lack of a decent home. Another recent “dragon” that couldn’t quite hack it was Stronghold Overseer.

13. Delay (Future Sight)
I would have liked to see this get more play, but redundancy ensured its downfall. Control decks that wanted a 2-mana counter didn’t want to have to deal with a spell again in three turns, making Rune Snag the better option. While Ravnica was still legal, Remand was a better supplement to Snag than Delay; after Remand left the format, deckbuilders looked to Remove Soul.

It is a little surprising that there were no aggressive decks that could take advantage of Delay’s ability to counter any counterspell or forestall Wrath of God, but maybe this was because CounterSliver-style decks are a pipe dream in the modern age.

12. Noble Panther (Invasion)
While Noble Panther is underpowered by today’s unforgiving Standard standards, there was nothing inherently wrong with it upon its release. Like Shadowmage Infiltrator, it was eschewed in favor of more powerful options for the role it was meant to fill. Basically, there was no reason to play Noble Panthers when you could play Fires of Yavimaya; even if Noble Panther was better than Chimeric Idol, it wouldn’t have been worth junking up the Fires mana base.

11. Psionic Blast (Time Spiral)
Psionic Blast saw some play in the 2000s, but its inclusion in a given deck always seemed arbitrary. As was the case with Groundbreaker vis-a-vis Ball Lightning, Psionic Blast was simply better as Char. Burn spells play best with other burn spells, and in the modern age of mana fixing, Blue players could simply dip into another color for whatever creature removal they wanted. Only the fabled Blue aggro deck would care about Blast’s ability to go to the face; Blue control decks preferred options that were cheaper, were more reliable, and didn’t deal damage to them.

10. Talara’s Battalion (Eventide)
It’s a 4/3 trampler for two mana . . . much in the way that Eater of Days is a 9/8 flier for four mana. The first strike against it, naturally, was that it made the caster jump through hoops; its drawback forced one to overcommit to the board and made it a lousy late-game topdeck. Further assuring its status as an also-ran was its lack of resilience against cards prevalent in the Standard format at the time. Why go through the extra trouble to get a slightly-ahead-of-curve creature if it’s just going to die to Nameless Inversion, Incinerate, or Firespout?

9. Bonesplitter (Mirrodin)
Another card that was trying to play fair in unfair times. Similar (but obviously inferior) to Rancor, Bonesplitter could have provided honest aggro decks with a little oomph. Perhaps the incremental cost of repeated equips would have been too much in the end, but thanks to Goblins and Affinity, we’ll never know.

8. Mobilization (Onslaught)
This is actually in Tenth Edition too. Who knew?

A recurring theme in this list is rose-colored nostalgia, and Mobilization reminded people of Kjeldoran Outpost. As deckbuilding became more refined, the “sit back and kill at your leisure” approach dwindled, and control decks sought more proactive ways to win. Heck, maybe this was just too expensive. The only window in which [card]Mobilization[/card] could have seen play was before Scourge; after that, there was no reason to play it over Decree of Justice.

7. Serra Avenger (Time Spiral)
If memory serves, R+D had really high hopes for this. Flores’s win at States notwithstanding, Serra Avenger was too situational for aggro decks and too fragile for control decks. Aggro decks need their 2-drops to come out on turn 2; control decks need a decisive win condition, a faster clock with more than 3 toughness.

6. Voidmage Prodigy (Onslaught, Time Spiral)
Voidmage Prodigy has reasonable stats, but its support isn’t quite as reasonable. Essentially, Kai is not enough of an incentive to shoot for a Blue aggro deck instead of one in a different color. His counterspell ability is a little too unwieldy to make up for the fact that he’s just a 2/1 with no evasion. The fact that he still saw no play even after the proliferation of Wizards in Lorwyn block is a testament to his inherent weakness. In Kai’s defense, he tried to submit a constructed powerhouse.

5. Augury Adept (Shadowmoor)
The fatal flaw of Ophidians like the Adept, Cold-Eyed Selkie, Hystrodon, and Dimir Cutpurse is the same one that plagues Serra Avenger: they’re stuck between archetypes. Control decks don’t want to play them because they’re too flimsy, and the Counterspells of the modern age aren’t efficient enough to effectively protect them. Aggro decks don’t want to play them because their bodies aren’t aggressive enough for their costs. Traditionally, aggressive decks’ creatures are expendable and replaceable; it’s just not worth paying three mana for something that’s just going to die to everything that kills a 2-drop.

4. Grinning Demon (Onslaught)
With the efficiency of removal spells, what is true for 6-drops is true for 4-drops as well; they have to be spectacular to see serious tournament play. Specifically, they have to offer more than just a large body. Mistbind Clique ambushes attackers and [card]Mana Short[/card]s the opponent; [card]Chameleon Colossus[/card] can dodge [card Doom Blade]Terrors[/card], grow, and benefit tribal themes; [card]Blastoderm[/card] couldn’t be targeted at all. As is the common tale of woe, Demon’s brute strength was just outclassed by synergy in the form of Goblins, Slide, and Affinity. Actually, even its power was outclassed by that of [card]Psychatog[/card] and the last viable mono-black control decks. It may have needed to be 8/8 to have a chance.

3. Samurai of the Pale Curtain (Champions of Kamigawa)
One of the two decks people hope to reinvent with every new standalone is White Weenie. While deckbuilding was still quite primitive, WW’s mana curve was enough to see it through–plus it got to play Swords to Plowshares and Armageddon. For White Weenie to be viable, one of two things is virtually a necessity: Armageddon or two different 2-power 1-drops. I suppose Mike Patnik’s deck from 2005 Nationals fits within these criteria because of Hokori, Dust Drinker.

Samurai of the Pale Curtain in particular was supposed to provide a solid body that helped hose Affinity, but it proved all but impotent in the latter regard. It even got the shaft in Patnik’s deck, losing out to Auriok Champion, Leonin Skyhunter, and Raise the Alarm.

2. Promise of Power (Mirrodin)
The other deck people try to make with every new block is mono-Black control. “The cards are powerful,” people figure, “so why not now?” Control decks are reactionary to their environment. Black decks with powerful cards can’t exist in a vacuum; the cards need to be not merely strong in the abstract, but rather strong enough to deal with the threats of the day. The last time MBC was viable, it had Cabal Coffers; it had traditional control decks to prey on; and its control elements (Mutilate, Innocent Blood) were more powerful than the creatures they were combating.

Promise of Power didn’t have the backup strength of Odyssey block, and it had to fight against Affinity, so it was doomed from the start. It’s impossible to say if it would have been worth a damn if these conditions weren’t true, but we really have no way of knowing.

1. Erhnam Djinn (Judgment)
It was good in the past, and its 5 toughness meant it wouldn’t die to Flametongue Kavu, so what went wrong? Naturally, the same themes that have been consistent throughout this article–power creep, competition. and synergy. Erhnam Djinn was not the best creature in Judgment. It was not the best Green creature in Judgment. It wasn’t even the best Green 4-drop in Judgment. It may not have even seen play if Phantom Centaur hadn’t been printed, as Blastoderm and Jade Leech had set a standard of 5 power for four mana in green. Of course, “good stuff” decks had already gone the way of the dodo, so even if Djinn weren’t relatively underpowered, it would have been a role player at best.

It was once believed that Erhnam, Serra, and others were simply too good, but this was before power creep reared its ugly head. I’ll bet Serendib Efreet isn’t too “broken” to print nowadays . . .

How was any of this relevant to you? It wasn’t! Thanks for reading!

 

Okay, fine. I’ll make a cursory attempt to make the list more useful by saying something like, “You should keep the reasons for these cards’ failure in mind when trying to appraise new cards.” Or whatever. Here are a few examples of fool’s gold from the new set:

Djinn of Wishes
This glorified Air Elemental just has too much competition at its cost. If Serra Angel isn’t good enough, this isn’t good enough.

Time Warp
Once you start fiddling with the costs of the sacred cows of yore, they lose a bit of their luster. People didn’t really play Armageddon when it cost 6 (Boom//Bust), for instance. I know there was a color change in this instance, but I don’t think Armageddon would have seen any play at 5W either. Also, I imagine even Time Spiral would have been a dud if not for its land-untapping clause. There’s a cost for every “broken” effect that can make it no longer worthwhile.

In the case of Time Warp, there’s little need to play it when there are cards that -effectively- give you an extra turn for less than five mana. Also, what deck would it go in?

Haunting Echoes
MBC is a pipe dream. To spit on the already-flogged dead horse, cards’ value cannot be measured in a vacuum or by past performance. Cards like Tendrils of Corruption, Haunting Echoes, and Duress are all inherently powerful . . . but how do they stack up against the prevailing decks of the day? What would a theoretical MBC list do against the all-too-common (Crusade) + Spectral Procession start, or a Cloudgoat Ranger? (Hint: You won’t always have the Infest.) What about a Planeswalker? How could a sorcery-speed deck beat Faeries?

Maybe MBC could shine again when Lorwyn rotates, but I still doubt it. The deck doesn’t have synergy (unless you count Mind Shatter + Echoes); it’s just a bunch of good cards thrown together, so they’d better be spectacular. Right now is a particularly bad time for mono-Black, what with Chameleon Colossus, Stillmoon Cavalier, and Great Sable Stag running around with no Innocent Blood or Mutilate to keep them in check.

Master of the Wild Hunt
Master does several things, but it doesn’t do any of them quite well enough. Its base stats aren’t that impressive; it dies to Lightning Bolt and compares unfavorably with every viable Green 4-drop. His token-producing effect just isn’t immediate enough–with all these cards that provide tokens right away, he pales in comparison–and his “creature removal” element is unwieldy at best.

The fact that Master is “good with Chameleon Colossus“ is meaningless. Chameleon Colossus didn’t need the help. It’s like saying “good with Bitterblossom.” Everything’s good with Bitterblossom.

Feedback would be greatly appreciated, either in the forums or through email. Did I miss anything or wrongly include anything? Would you read another historic list article sometime in the future? What SHOULD I write about? Should I get a haircut?

Join me next week when I return to the insidious arena of tournament reports.

Tim Aten
Error Operator on Modo (seriously, don’t hold your breath)
[email protected]

And that’s the end of the article, folks. If all you care about is Magic content, go no further.

Why are you still reading? It’s over. This is like sitting through the credits at a movie theater and then complaining on Facebook that they’re too boring and shouldn’t have been included. Just leave the theater. I have nothing relevant left to offer you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Post-Signoff Bonus: Top 5 Rides at Cedar Point
1. Millennium Force: The tallest, fastest full-length roller coaster at the park, and an incredibly smooth ride. The Cadillac of coasters.
2. Top Thrill Dragster: Not a real coaster, but an incomparable thrill. Hence the name, I’m sure. It goes from 0 to 120 in under 4 seconds, then shoots you 400 feet in the air.
3. Skyhawk: The most underrated ride in the park, and I’d like to keep it that way. It just swings you back and forth. What’s so interesting about that? C-caw.
4. Raptor: Suspended coaster that does all sorts of crazy loops n’ stuff. Getting in the front car is worth the wait since you get to see everything, plus bugs fly into your eyes at 80 mph.
5. Power Tower: A generic drop ride, but perhaps the scariest ride in the park. You could slip out at any moment, and I heard there was a malfunction in an identical ride at a different park. Sweet view of Lake Erie.

(I reserve the right to alter this list as I go on the few rides I haven’t been on.)

Top 5 Rides to Avoid
1. Mantis: You just stood in line for 45 to 90 minutes; why would you want to stand up more?
2. The Mean Streak: Its nickname isn’t suitable to be published, but suffice it to say this is not a smooth ride.
3. Wicked Twister: This belongs on the list assuming you’re a male, which is probably a pretty safe assumption. They put a vertical bar between your legs and shoot you back and forth rapidly. Probably doesn’t take a physics major to figure this one out
4. Corkscrew: All the old rides (except for, surprisingly, the Iron Dragon) are hopelessly outclassed now. Better to go on the Force twice than Force once and Corkscrew thrice.
5. Maverick: Pretty exciting, but too jerky. If you put your head back, you’re gonna get a headache. If you don’t, the head support will bash the hell out of your neck.

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