Over the last year I’ve been teased, accused, belittled, congratulated, or otherwise questioned about a recent trend in my deckbuilding: I’ve started playing with creatures- often. Some of you may not know anything about any of the decks I built or played ‘back in the day’, and that’s groovy- I’m not really into old trivia either. But they frequently shared a characteristic- I didn’t like attacking.
There were notable exceptions: I came in second at worlds one year with an aggressive ‘Sligh’ Red deck. I also did well with ‘Dumptruck’, which certainly attacked (although it was mostly to gain life or draw cards). But I was more often a combo or control player. I liked flexibility, drawing cards, digging in for the long haul- and pressing with all but the best creatures seemed beneath me.
Alas, I’ve been playing Magic long enough that there’s even a ‘before that’ to tell you about, like when I was playing in basements, and at sleepovers. I really used to like creatures then, even if they didn’t always help me win. You see, two of my friends, Casey McCarrel, and Daniel Clegg, both enjoyed control decks. They also enjoyed taking their time, and figuring things out to their satisfaction. And they were much better than I was. And they didn’t let me win very often. Why did I keep coming back for more? I’m not sure.
Luckily, when I was about 14, it all started to make sense. The first few creatures you play often get to hit your opponent. Those are the ones that look good. You start to believe that it’s all about the summons, and you try to pack more and more into the deck. But really, you are shooting yourself in the foot. The more creatures you play, the worse they get. The first few get some beats in, and apply pressure, but as the game goes on, the control player’s net widens. They start to cast Wrath of Gods, to play formidable blockers, or otherwise institute a gameplan that is more powerful than your summoning strategy And that’s against the control decks.
Against the really fast “play a few guys then start burning” or “play a few guys then drop Winter Orb decks, the extra creatures are also pretty awkward. Sometimes they can do some blocking, but usually these guys end up being too slow, or mismatched, or get burned out of the way. Indeed, what you really want as the game progresses (as of 1997) are non-summons. So I started playing more non-summons. And when I did play with aggressive creatures, I did so with the recognition that my spells were going to be closing the deal for me, and my guys were more like marines.
But, you see, the times have changed. They’ve changed in two very important ways. First, creatures block a lot now. Really, blocking is almost as important in Constructed as in Limited. What are the best cards against Zoo? Tarmogoyf. Baneslayer Angel. We’re not just blocking with Walls and Bottle Gnomes, anymore. And how does Jund plan to stop aggression? It often starts with Sprouting Thrinax and Putrid Leech.
See, it used to be that if you wanted to be a good creature against control decks, you had to resort to being an oddball. You could be Jackal Pup or Serendib Efreet, and damage your controller. You could be Soltari Priest, and have Shadow. You could be Jolrael’s Centaur and be untargetable. You could be Fireslinger or Orcish Artillery, and do utility work. But rarely were you built with a lot of blocking in mind. And the few who were (say, Erhnam Djinn), often met with the aggro player’s removal because there weren’t a lot of other important targets.
Nowadays, you get to be large. Really large. Most of the best aggressive creatures are so large, in fact, they aren’t allowed to have evasion. And they hit so hard that racing with similarly costed fliers or shadows is ludicrous.
So, if your creatures are big monsters, and their creatures are big monsters, you’re going to have a lot less Flanking vs. Shadow mismatches.
In addition to being useful as both defenders and attackers, creatures’ increased size means something else- 20 is starting to feel like a low total to start at.
The power curve used to be something like 1-2 for 1 mana, 2 for 2 mana, 2-3 for 3 mana, 4 for 4 mana. In such a world, 20 life could keep you afloat through quite a few hits. But that’s really not the case anymore. 1 mana plays usually hit for at least 2. Two mana plays usually hit for 3, sometimes for 4 or even 5. And once you get to 3 mana
All of this really hit home for me during a draft in New York (I’ve been referring solely to Constructed up to this point). It was March, and we were playing Alara Block booster draft, and some fellow cast a Scepter of Insight.
I had once thought this card to be good- after all, it’s Jayemdae Tome that costs only 3. Luckily, my opinion had already shifted, and I could only nod in agreement as the fellow casting Scepter was advised “that card’s not really good“. His advisor? His kind opponent: the still masterful Jon Finkel.
Even Jon doesn’t think Scepter is good? Wow.
I started to wonder why the Scepter wasn’t good. It’s fine and well to say “the format is too fast for that card”. But what about it was too fast? It wasn’t too fast for Armillary Sphere, for Rupture Spire, or Necrogenesis; all of them ‘slow’ cards. Mind’s Eye used to be good; Serum Tank was good; Temporal Aperture was good; even Barrin’s Codex and Arcane Spyglass were pretty decent. Why was their newest brother so poor?
I settled on the following set of answers: You still need to fix your mana; after all, those creatures are not always convenient for a Limited deck to cast. And as far as Necrogenesis, there’s still plenty of use for 1/1 creatures; especially as emergency chump blockers. Indeed, Armillary Sphere and Necrogenesis are both fast (or, immediate) in a way that Scepter of Insight is not. They take some of your resources initially away from casting creatures, but pretty soon after make your creature production far more effective. The Scepter is designed, instead, for the long haul; not just one investment of mana, but many. Is long term card draw in danger of being obsolete?
A New 20
My first glance around the table (yes, I was still sitting there, watching Jon’s game) was met with the common Esper Stormblade, and it was obvious: 20 life isn’t what it used to be. When an unanswered creature hits 50% harder than it used to, long term plans like Jayemdae Tome have a lot less potential; there are just so many fewer games that drift into 15-turn affairs (where the Tome might draw you 8 cards).
But, before I get into the ‘offenders’, the creatures who have most dramatically effected this sort of change in the game, I want to say something about this general type of discussion. It’s easy to criticize R+D. Their decisions have a vast array of impacts, some of them unexpected, some of them not; some of them pleasant for some people, and unpleasant for others. I’m not in the business of judging how good a job R+D is doing (although if I had to guess from Magic‘s longevity as compared to other games and former-fads, I’d say pretty good). I’m also not too worried about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ recent formats have been. I’m not proposing fixes (at least not with vehemence), and I’m not scared for the health of the game.
To my understanding, creatures began their ascension in Kamigawa.
Remember when you first saw Kodama of the North Tree? Or Isamaru, Hound of Konda? Or even Keiga, the Tide Star. I remember looking through a box of Kamigawa cards with long-ago champion Ken Ho and being astounded. I think the word that came out was something like “BIG-0!” Yeh. Anyway, we thought these huge fellas were a pretty big deal.
Isamaru was just big for his cost, yes. But Kodama and Keiga? They were not just at the edge of their size/cost range, they had very strong abilities as well.
Next came Ravnica. Watchwolf was less shocking, now that we had Isamaru to compare to. Rumbling Slum seemed sort of reasonable considering he cost 1RGG. But there were still some creatures we shook our heads at. OK, Loxodon Hierarch was built to be insane; but what about Burning Tree Shaman? Do you really get to be a 3/4 for 3, and get a real ability? Mind you, these are the sort of oafish creatures Ken and I had always disrespected: big bodies who were too slow to get work done in the early game. But the Shaman, blessed with an ability to boot, was a sign of things to come.
Time Spiral Block was next. Things felt scaled back. There were no Savannah Lion upgrades, no new Watchwolfs. But there were a few creatures that again had me scratching my head. Tarmogoyf was insane. Right, we know that. But what about Tombstalker and Mishra, Artificer Prodigy? They both felt kind of obscure (if powerful); but what felt odd to me was how big they were, for being obscure. Like, since when can you pay 2 mana, use some strange alternate cost (Delve), and end up with a 5/5 flier? And since when does a potentially gross ability (read Mishra), come on a 4-mana 4/4? Like shouldn’t he cost 3 and be a 1/2 or something? I wasn’t making ethical claims here, just reflecting on my expectations. Plague Sliver also gets an honorable mention for being larger than you might expect. We were seeing meat in odd places.
Lorwyn-Shadowmoor further surprised me. Cloudthresher? Really, you can pay 6 for an instant 7/7 reach, with a real ability and then he’s also got an evoke cost to fall back on? Or Doran, the Siege Tower: Ah, you have this guy who you can build a deck around, playing high toughness creatures who turn into brutes when he gets in play. But wait a second, he’s also a 3 mana 5/5? How about Vendilion Clique? Since when do 3-power fliers for 3 have Flash? And a sick ability? And he’s not even UWB or something strange to cast. You can just play him any one of your Blue decks (he’s also a Faerie, and a Wizard!). And Wilt-Leaf Liege? I know Green/White decks had a (deservedly) bad rep, but they sure didn’t hold back with their Liege. Maybe if there had been space on the card he would’ve ended up with Protection from Red, Blue and Black as well.
I’m not saying these creatures were broken. Creatures who mostly attack and block don’t break in the same way that Tolarian Academies and Yawgmoth’s Wills do. Elite brawlers necessitate certain types of answers, or they are matched by other competitively priced monsters; or both. They also shrink the control deck’s margin for error quite a bit.
Last, let’s look at a few from Shards, Zendikar and M10.
You might expect to see Wooly Thoctar as an example of how creatures have grown. After all, he’s about as big as they get for 3 mana. But really, he’s not exceptional for a RGW-type cost. Where you really see the ‘new’ level of creature size is in guys like Noble Hierarch and Qasali Pridemage. Even without Exalted, these are very real cards! Sure, Hierarch is worse than Birds, but if he was 1/1, or 0/2, I’d certainly consider playing him. But Exalted makes him insane. And the Pridemage? Very comparable to Kami of Ancient Law Pridemage was also blessed with Exalted! Here we see utility creatures also packing extra size.
Next, we get Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede. I have to admit that I didn’t think the ‘Pede would be as good as he is. But the cost of playing saclands really isn’t high enough to stop these two creatures from hitting mercilessly hard. And they cost 1 and 2! How do you think Wall of Blossoms or Bottle Gnomes would feel about all this? At least the Wall can block Wild Nacatl.
And what about Bloodbraid Elf and Ranger of Eos? They’re very powerful, for sure; probably more powerful than they would’ve been in older sets. But most importantly, the creatures they fetch and cascade to are also much bigger than they would’ve been in the old days. Further, they give creature strategies a very convenient road to threat-diversification. Terminate may trade well with Wooly Thoctar or Baneslayer (if you’ve got one in hand), but Bloodbraid and Ranger mean you’ll need to keep a sweeper in reserve if you want to remove them economically.
Last, perhaps the most instructive creature of all: Baneslayer Angel. Yes, she costs 5. Yes, everyone is playing ways to kill her (many of which cost 1 or 2). But all that doesn’t mean she’s not the best card in Standard. And Dominia is not a land formerly suited to 5-mana creatures.
When I call Baneslayer instructive, I’m referring to a lesson I learned, which might not be one the rest of you had to learn: having removal in your deck isn’t the same as having it in your hand. And when a creature has as immediate an impact as Baneslayer, you’re really at an impasse if you’re sitting opposite.
Of course, if your opponent has Plains in play, you’ve got to be wary. But are you really far enough ahead to save an extra Terminate for a potential Baneslayer? What if his last few cards in hand are burn, or Ranger of Eos? Can you really afford to take more Geopede hits? And what about when you are sideboarding against a potentially targetless deck? If you are just kold to Baneslayer, you’ve got to keep in removal. But what if Baneslayer didn’t come in, or if she isn’t drawn? You’ve kept in dead cards. Worse yet, your opponent might Duress or Identity Crisis you before he gives you a chance to use them. At least, you might say, Baneslayer can work for the control players too. Indeed.
All of this is a long way of saying that I think Constructed Magic has changed in a major way. Creatures are no longer just a plan. The consequences for not answering creatures have grown so much that, if you’re playing Standard or Block, creature negotiations are usually the center of the game.
Luckily, as I’ve indicated, the creatures do interact more than they used to. Walls (new and improved), and heftier ground bodies make excellent defenders; so much so that control decks can even be built around creatures: Big Naya (Extended), and Jund (Standard). The contrast between aggressor and controller has blurred more than I’m used to, but that’s OK.
So, is there a verdict on this new age of creature domination, and life-total paucity? We may see the return of Counterspell, Nevinyrrals’s Disk, and Swords to Plowshares; I think those would be fine to have back. You can also look to cards like Maelstrom Pulse, Ajani Vengeant and Cruel Ultimatum as excellent tools. But I think until more cards at the level of Disk or Counterspell come back, classic control decks will find themselves either too sluggish to beat creatures, or too one-dimensional to beat anything else. After all, someone‘s going to present threats like Mind Sludge, or Time Warp/Howling Mine, and if you’re a control deck, you can’t be caught unawares holding a bunch of Terrors.
I know I still enjoy Magic, and there are plenty of ideas and configurations to try out. That they are a little less card-type-diverse than before needn’t bother us too much. We’ve got nothing like the ubiquity of Affinity, or Academy, that haunt Magic from years past. Instead, we’ve got a world where it’s more important to think about budgeting removal, setting up lethal attacks, deciding whether to defend or take the initiative; than about drawing cards, executing combos, fighting counter wars, and accumulating pieces to a long term plan.
See you in San Diego.