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Feature Article: Big Creatures

 

Hello all,

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.

New Aggro

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.

69 thoughts on “Feature Article: Big Creatures”

  1. I haven’t read an article I truly enjoyed in a long time. This article however was brilliant.

  2. One of the best “state of the game” articles I’ve read. We want more Ben Rubin. Great insight.

  3. Great article.

    I think that another reason for the rise of creatures is the necessity of answering planeswalkers. Going a creatureless control deck often struggles to answer a deck that plays both creatures and planeswalkers.

    Also, planeswalkers *are* the modern day incremental advantage that Jayemdaye Tome used to represent.

  4. WOW. Ben Rubin thank you. Channel Fireball thank you. Great Article. Thank you so much for this.

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  6. I liked the article alot Ben, makes me nostalgic for tinker/psychatog but your points as far as the effectiveness of creatures now are spot on and I guess its time to accept that and move forward

  7. What is the solution?

    Printing worse creatures? Then the current big creatures just stick around in non-standard formats for a while and the newer worse creatures don’t even get played.

    Printing Nevy’s disk and counterspell may make creature decks not as good. However, there’s still bigger creatures in the game than there used to be, so the problem is still there. All you get then is power creep from the control cards to counter the power creep from the beatdown cards, and 20 life still seems like too few.

  8. @ Sam: I think the point was that the game is different, not that there is a problem that needs a solution.

  9. As stated over and over again, this is a fantastic article.
    I find myself talkiing to people about Cancel and how i use it sometimes. This remark is usually followed my some mocking and chuckles. I ask why is it so bad and all they say is the pretentious, “Well it’s so obvious.” which usually translates to “I don’t really know, everyone else says it’s bad so I will as well.”
    This article breaks down why slow control magic is hard to pull off with the insane low costed creature power level, and it does it better than any article I have seen. Awesome job.

  10. This was a good article, and pushing creatures was a huge mistake by R and D. I for one am tired of it. Hopefully we get some good control cards sometime this century. But with the way wizards has been doing recent sets, I doubt it.

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  12. I have to agree with Philson, I’ve found myself starting here rather than SCG for some time now. Even with Sheldon gone I’m still starting here.

    Thanks for a great site!

  13. Great article, couldn’t agree more, it’s the exact same discussion we’ve been having in my magic community

  14. City of Lights

    Land

    Tap : Add one mana of any color to your mana pool. Spend this mana only to play non-creature spells.

    When City of Lights comes into play and the only land you have in play are City of Lights, gain 10 life

    “A trip to Paris would be lovely this time of year.”
    “Yeah, I’d tap that.”

  15. My problem isn’t that creatures are good, my problem is that you have no choice but to play creatures and beat down with them if you want to play competitively. Rav/TSP had about the best Standard I’ve played in, and it’s because you had the option of playing beatdown, control, or combo, and within those archetypes (well, not so much combo), you could play a diverse group of decks. Now you’re stuck playing creatures that beat down because there’s really no good card draw or countermagic–remember Wizards, these don’t *have* to be printed on the same card–so there’s already a ton of diversity taken away. And in a creature-heavy format, the people that are going to win are the ones playing the biggest/best creatures, backed up with the best removal cards in the format.

    I can easily imagine the day when 16 removal spells become the new 16 counter spells, and people get just as whiny when their creatures automatically die as they do when they’re met with a wall of counters.

  16. @Ben, thank you for reminding how good a strategy article can be. There are some other good writers right now, particulary on this site(ochoa,stark) but othing on this level. In fact, I haven’t read anyrhing this clear or true since the days of edt and the dojo.

    I imagine that one of the reasons the content is so good is because you waited till you had something to say but I would encourage you to keep writing if only for my own selfish reasons.

    In short, thank you!!!!

    @lsv/staff- I’m an atheist but god bless you for enlisting such talented columnists. The website is great and today it got better!

  17. My only complaint about this article was that it ended too soon. 🙂

    An awesome piece of material. I’ve bookmarked this already.

  18. Philson: Welcome to a few months ago. CF has been the best site pretty much since inception. The layout is simple and easy to read and manage, the content is OUTSTANDING, and the site has direct investment and administration from one of the world’s best players, who conveniently is also a very easy-going and popular guy who has made a lot of connections in the Magic community. This helps the site to stay more consistently in touch with what’s important to the target demographic, and provides for more editorial control if needed (which with such an outstanding writing staff it probably barely is). CF has always been a great idea, with outstanding execution except for the odd occasional site hosting hiccup. It’s great to see the site getting the cred it deserves, and I hope it continues to improve.

    So, to the real reason for my comment: The article made me sad. I’m kind of nostalgic for “old Magic”.

  19. Very well written and insightful. I just had a conversation like this 2 weeks ago with friends of mine (though not as insightful as this) It seems the state of the game now may lead to better non-creature spells in the future to counteract but the peril with that is how fast do you make the game? I think a Magic duel is about perfect now, I don’t want to see it turn into a 3 turn affair all the time. My hope is Wizards has a plan as I’m sure they do but I guess we will have to wait and see. Oh and BRING BACK THE COMBAT DAMAGE STACK…

  20. GREAT GREAT GREAT article.

    I think most players would just be happy with creatures and sorceries. Its to hard to remember to play things on my opponentsa turn, and it sux when they play things on my turn to mess me up. Typical mindset of 60 percent plus magic players

  21. Weird, I can see the mobile post I made this morning on my blackberry but not when I visit the site on my desktop… anybody know whats up with that?

    PS Ben just cemented himself as one of the greatest magic theorists of all time.

  22. Great article (if that wasn’t obvious from the previous 20+ iterations of the same comment).

    Your analysis of the creature power creep was dead on. People often forget how powerful some of the creatures in Kamigawa were (I’m look at you, Meloku and Yosei) because of everyone’s favorite Legendary Broken Artifact, Umezawa’s Jitte.

    I do think, and this was mentioned briefly, that the reverse argument could be made for spells (particularly draw/counterspells). Just look from Mirridon to Lorwyn: Thirst for Knowledge -> Gifts Ungiven -> Compulsive Research/Telling Time (to some extent Remand/Repeal) -> Think Twice -> Ponder.
    and the counters over a slightly longer period: Counterspell -> Mana Leak ->Spell Snare -> Rune Snag -> Cancel/Negate/Essence Scatter.
    Cryptic Command being the glaring exception to both

    Really the creature power increase has been fine, but the subsequent weakening of control options has shifted the power a little too far. I think taking Counterspell out of Standard was one of the best decisions they could have made…but removing Mana Leak was one of the worst.

  23. Regardless of this article, Wall of Blawesomes is still one of my favorite cards ever. They need to reprint Carven Caryatid; I loved that sweet beating of a wall.

  24. I don’t like the creature power creep because options are taken away from the competitive player. There are too many auto-includes, and not enough variability in cards to make up for a power draw from an opponent in the mirror match (as an example, if my jund mirror opponent is on the play, and hits all his land drops and 4 bloodbraid elves, two into creatures and two into removal spells, even with maelstrom pulse or siege-gang commander, there’s no recovery — but there might have been when combat damage still used the stack, which is something that still tastes like i was force fed excuses.)

    Also, by referring to R+D as doing a fine job especially with magic’s longevity and recent climb in success, that doesn’t necessarily imply that kept people around. Obviously, we know that they did, but the point is that maintenance of a pool of customer numbers (not customers, per se) is inconclusive of customer base. Maybe they lost 10% of players a year and gained 10% of new players a year. Maybe it was a little different. Sure, they kept magic alive, and sure, formats were mostly healthy (but not always), but there was always an option to do something that was both viable and fun.

    Remember when you could play mono blue, mono black, mono green, mono red, mono white, two different combo decks, 3 different control decks, and a host of “rogue” decks, and they were all competitive in STANDARD? (I’m referring to Masques/Urza’s block standard, btw, but even Invasion/Masques was fun) Not only was this competitive, but also fun. You could take your own brew to a tournament, and you might actually win it!

    I just want my choices back. I still love this game, but it seems like it’s starting to go hollywood, and forget what made it great.

    PS – Counterspell doesn’t really stand a chance to get the job done. We need force spike. Dear wizards, can I have a little versatility for Christmas plz?

  25. Jeremy Mac Donald

    @Dan who said
    “…and pushing creatures was a huge mistake by R and D. I for one am tired of it. Hopefully we get some good control cards sometime this century. But with the way wizards has been doing recent sets, I doubt it.”

    I disagree. If scuttlebut is correct Magic is doing extremely well – sold out tournaments – lots of new blood etc.

    In my opinion R&D made some smart decisions in the last little while – in particular they weakened the ‘control’ decks and strengthened the creature decks. The result is that little Timmy is still going to loose the game when he plays his deck against an older more experienced player but he is going to get to play his good cards and he is going to have some fun. When control decks ruled the roost they made the game not fun for little Timmy because every time he tried to play a creature they countered it – so the whole game was all about little Timmy sitting there and not being allowed to play at all – ‘not fun’. Little Timmy can handle loosing so long as he gets to play too. Ultimately magic is about the casual players – they outnumber the stars by huge numbers and the game needs to, when push comes to shove, cater to their tastes.

  26. excellent Ben, good insight and a history lesson to boot.

    Thanks Channelfireball, continued trend of decent writers and articles is a good one.

  27. Thank you for your contribution to Magic Ben.

    I would like to propose that this form of change IS in fact a problem that needs to be fixed. My main complaint is that it makes games less interesting. Games begin to boil down to “yeah I died to aggro rush” etc. This inherently delegitimizes the game. Yes there will always be a winner and a loser, but the way you got there is rather dull.

    R&D is pushing creatures because it thinks noobs like creatures. You know what noobs like? Card interactions. It is what the game is about and really sets it apart. Noobs aren’t playing wild nacatls. Noobs are playing standard decks with Joraga Bards and Beastmaster’s Ascencion because they want to live the dream and don’t understand why it is bad.

    By pushing big creatures they are killing the dream by making even the best card interaction plans non-viable. In the end there will always be a powerful strategy and I respect you for searching for it, but not all powerful strategies equally promote the health of the game. Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, Wooly Thoctar, while powerful, is not a line of plays I will be telling my friends about.

  28. I think that there will be a shift towards more better control spells over time, but I’ve been playing Magic for fifteen years and I’ve noticed more noobs playing the game in recent year compared to three or four years ago, so at the minute I think R n D is doing the right thing.

    I think it would be fair for Counterspell to return, it isn’t the powerhouse it used to be anyway, but Blue really needs a good instant that can draw a spell, like Impulse, more than anything.

  29. Hopefully what this will lead to eventually is broader acknowledgement of the skill and complexity of playing a deck that relies on creatures.

    It’s out there – playing aggro is harder than it looks. Playing midrange creature-based control is a lot harder than it looks.

    Most people who are good enough to play in tournaments but not good enough to win them (like myself) still grossly underestimate the importance of playing a deck well, especially a creature deck, relative to the importance of a deck’s matchups or position in the metagame.

  30. Fantastic article! I’m only somewhat upset as I have been working on an article of the same nature, but I suppose this is just punishment for my slothfulness.

  31. I certinly agree that the creature push has been going on for a long time, but I also think this is very good thing. creature interaction is the core of the game, and in the old days it was pushed into the background on the back of powerful spells. If you think that creature rushes are bad, they are significantly more interactive than draw-go-counter-everything, or terrible-weenies-burn-you-out decks that dominated the formats in the old days.

    I think the real line of delination was Onslaught, specifically Ravenous Baloth. A 4/4 for 4 mana was pretty rare for a long time and the always had a drawback (Nettletooth Djinn for instance). Even Masticore had a pretty steep drawback dispite its awesomeness. To my mind, Baloth was the first 4/4 that not only didn’t have a drawback, but also a very strong ability. See Erithizon. Phelddagrif I guess would count, but the mana was tough on him and the abilities were fairly weak.

  32. One thing to remember is that one of the things that made counterspells so powerful to begin with was the pushing of utility creatures – especially ones that have (or can have) an immediate effect (e.g. CIP abilities/sac effects) because suddenly creatures didn’t just attack anymore – in some cases they did most of their damage on the way and trading removal for them after the fact set the control player behind.

    Now we have reached a point where a creature that “just attacks” and does not pack some form of utility beyond simply dealing damage is a relatively rare beast in constructed. These enhancements to creatures have changed counterspells from a temporally limited generic class of answers – they could answer anything in exchange for the drawback of having to be castable at the moment the other spell was cast – into the best possible way to answer any threat. The foutainhead of control “The Deck” in its original* form only packed 6** counterspells, 4 Mana Drain and only 2 (!!) Counterspell. Why? Among other reasons (lots of broken card draw) the counterspells were in many ways Swords to Plowshares and Disenchent 5-10 … they were what they were designed to be: a catchall that could be leveraged under the right circumstances to fight a creature if you did not have a StP or a scary poly artifact if you found yourself without a disenchant.

    So what?

    So my central point is that the relative power of counterspells are actually dictated by the power of creatures. WOTC obviously went too far in one direction back in the days of Forbidian, and only in this past year are they finally starting to touch the other bound. Members of R&D have long maintain that a gradual flux in relative power amongst control – aggro – combo is their goal … and they seem to be achieving it.

    PS – Who knows if it is true, but their are rumors of a pretty spicy counterspell over at salvation at the moment.

    * By which I mean the version that has been popularized to the extent that it has reached legendary status, not the nascent version(s) of the same deck.

  33. As everybody else has already said: Great Article! I can’t say I’m upset about the creature power creep. I think it forces the game to always stay interactive which is not always something it has been. There are obvious downsides such as losing to pretty much any deck if you have a clunky start. I vastly prefer that to needing four different hoser cards in your sideboard to hope to beat the different combo decks in the format. I think constructed magic in general is more skill testing now than it ever has been.

    The place that I am finding it the most damaging is limited formats. They print a card like Rhox War Monk or Vampire Nighthawk in the uncommon slot and it really leads to problems. It wasn’t as bad in Shards block because the mana kept the best uncommons in check. I think Zendikar sealed is hurting though. The questions keep getting harder and the answers are not keeping up.

  34. Great article.

    Also: Wizards needs to reprint counterspell. I want good control decks like 5CC, Teachings and the like back.

  35. Fantastic article. This is basically what most people vaguely felt and sensed for a long time without actually knowing how to describe it and worse, not getting any agreement over some of the changes. I love how you resist to judge the change where other control snobs could have easily derailed into the usual “this format is terrible, bring back counterspell to stop this zero-skill magic” rant. About the overall change, I like it, but I think Wizards still has to work out how to balance different archetypes because right now Jund (and Faeries before) is much above other options.

    Odyssey also featured a lot of nice creatures: Psychatog, Wild Mongrel, Phantom Centaur, Phantom Nishoba, Mystic Enforcer, Sylvan safekeeper, Nimble Mongoose, Werebear and others are creatures that wouldn’t have much trouble to hang around now.

  36. I’m generally jaded about Magic articles in general but this is insightful, informative and, unlike so many others I’ve read of late, not an ego-stroke to the author’s self or some douchey diatribe.
    This is classy, concise and bespeaks both a knowledge and a love of the game.
    Thank you.

  37. This is one of the best magic articles I have ever read. Great job, I will be showing this to all my magic playing friends!

  38. Very well thought out and written: it answers what I’ve been trying to figure out for quite awhile…why playing standard feels so incredibly different than playing other formats. Thank you

  39. Surely some of this perceived creature power-creep is due to wotc newfound desire to make 9-colour mana-bases so easy? I mean, nobody would’ve fretted too much about Doran if there was any kind of effort involved in getting him cast on turn 3, surely? It seems to me like anybody who ran him in any format was almost always going to land him on turn 3, and without paying a great deal of life. That wouldn’t always have been the case, and I think he’d’ve been tough to cast even in invasion block.

    Baneslayers and goyfs however, are just nuts. I agree with the previous poster who discussed that rav-tsp standard was awesome because you could viably run multiple different aggro, control and even combo decks (don’t forget project-x!).

  40. Very good article.

    I do agree about the life total not going as far as it used to. I think what you recognize is that it’s hard to build a format that can let each strategy be competitive – with just a 1-card slip-up you accidentally change the balance of the other 500 cards in the block.

    Also, while you don’t bring this up, it does make playing different formats feel different, as the above poster mentions. Vintage/Legacy feel different than Extended and Standard is always shifting.

  41. As a player who has been playing as long as you, I see many of the same things as you, teh way you spelled it out “CREATURES ARE GOOD NOW” should make sense to all the old players. All the nubs are don’t know we used to win with serra angel what with their baneslayers and serra sux now!

    Personally I worry a bit how far Wotc are taking it, the creature power creep is getting to the point even legacy is affected (ZOO) and when and if they bring back instant card draw and cheap counters, these cards will be even more broken than before due to the awesome win-cons control can have nowadays in cards like goyf, who can start beating on turn 3 whereas in the golden age at least control had to wait till turn 5 or so to play their threats like serra or morphling.

    Not to mention fast mana can now NEVER come back because what you can get with it is better than before…

  42. It’s great to see you writing again Ben. I agree with most of what you’ve said, esp the angle about not getting angry at wizards, but instead working within the system.

    I think one aspect that isn’t generally touched on enough with this whole ‘wow, creatures are good now’ thing is the impact of planeswalkers. They subtly encourage people to play with creatures (one of the easiest ways to kill them). There have been occasional blips in the metagame where mostly creatureless control has been good… and then 12planeswalkers.dec goes to town.

  43. Nice article Ben, very eloquently written. I agree with the comment above that ChannelFireball has the best writers of any site out there. I personally have a subscription to SCG but I find myself checking this site with much more frequency. Great job to you, LSV, and the rest of the crew (particularly like Ochoa’s limited articles).

    I’ve been playing M:tG since elementary school (I’m 26 now) and certainly miss playing Counterspell and Disk, so I agree wholeheartedly that they (or at least cards like them) should be brought back to give control a fighting chance.

    But, as you say, I also do remember the degenerate days of Academy and don’t wish for WotC to enable any sort of deck like that again. My personal favorite anecdote regarding that is a tournament I participated in during middle school, where I was playing Hacker Necro (itself not exactly fair, with 4 Yawg’s Will, etc.) and I lost to Academy after casting Persecute for 6… most other formats that would be practically an auto-win, but not in a format that WotC saw fit to bless with Time Spiral.

    The least they could do is throw control players a bone and reprint good ‘ol Counterspell…

  44. Just wanted to say before I had read this article, a few days ago, I had decided to permanently quit playing tournament in legacy. I see no reason to play legacy if the vast vast vast majority of the cards I’ve been playing with for well over a decade, frankly, kicked the bucket completely and just suck now. I considered buying some big spells this month for christmas like Sinkholes, and I will likely decide not to. I also used to give some stores in Montreal good business. They will get 0 now. It’s not their fault but they don’t have the old sealed product that I prefer. So for me it really is officially over. Permanently, and I know there is no way for WOTC to go back on what they did. Competitive magic, for me, is RIP

  45. Oh my god Mr.Rubin, I <3 you!!!

    I can’t believe you seriously think disk will come back!!!?!?!!!

    That’s fucking insane!

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  47. Just wanted to Nth the sentiment that this is a great “state of the game” article. The writing style is the “informal internet article”, but the content is great and the progression is interesting. Definitely the best Magic article I’ve read.

    More Ben Rubin FTW.

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  49. This was a very good high-level state-of-the-game discussion, and I’d like to add a few more specific details.

    Topdecks are just way too swingy. Cascade is a huge problem. Cards like Ranger of Eos are a huge problem. There’s just no point in dedicating resources to eeking out incremental advantages–the classic answers-are-cheaper-than-threats method of gaining tempo or resource advantage, for example–when everything can just be immediately negated on the turn of one card. You can’t “stabilize” at any life total.

    When Wrath of God isn’t even good against the creature decks, something’s amiss. Before we had Garruk, Bloodbraid Elf, and Sprouting Thrinax making this true, it was Spectral Procession and Cloudgoat Ranger.

    If the idealized picture of “old Magic” was a fencer’s duel, with lots of counter-thrusts and finesse, Magic today is more akin to a street brawl. Haymakers flying left and right, get knocked down and come back up swinging. Eventually someone connects with a blow that the other guy can’t get up from.

    On another note, is Counterspell even good in this format? You can’t cascade into it, and it doesn’t stop cascade. I suppose it’s good against planeswalkers, against everything else Terminate is miles better.

    Also, I have to agree with the comment about mana bases being way too good these days. I understand that if Wizards is going to print all these multicolor spells, they want us to actually be able to play with them, but mostly it just ends up exacerbating the creatures-are-better-than-answers situation, because WUG is supposed to give you a better card than GGG.

    Speaking of GGG, what does it say that when we saw the 4/5 no one really batted an eye?

    Honestly, I don’t mind Magic being all about the monsters, but what bothers me more is that constructed decks mostly feel like really really good draft decks to me, with Jund being the worst offender.

    To conclude, maybe the things brought up here have something to do with the popularity of EDH? Sure, it’s all about the big spells, but with 40 life it feels like you have time to actually do something interesting even if you stumble out of the gates.

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