Welcome back to my series about the best hate cards in Magic’s history! Last week I looked at artifacts and enchantments, and we’ll dive in to auras and graveyards today.
The Best Hate Cards in Magic History
The development of the hexproof mechanic brought “putting pants” on a Bogle to the forefront. Auras Hexproof remains a mainstay of both Modern and especially Pauper.
In Pauper, Auras boasts one of the best pre-sideboard win percentages in the metagame and as a result decks rely heavily upon their sideboard for relief. Fortunately, some potent tools exist to even the playing field.
Standard Bearer is sort of a Null Rod for auras and makes an Auras deck non-functional for as long as it remains in play. A lot of play in sideboarded games is fighting over Standard Bearers and Gut Shots!
Let’s not forget the greatest Flagbearer of them all…
Spellskite was critically important, especially in the Splinter Twin era. The Horror also horrified Infect, Bogles, and even burn players! While zero power isn’t necessarily ideal for bringing the beats, it’s also safe to say that any true Infect fan has dealt 20 with a Spellskeezy.
My Graveyard Has a Graveyard
In any format where linear decks exist, a competitive deck list will typically need to address interaction with artifacts, enchantments, and cards that affect the game from the graveyard. The graveyard hasn’t always been a fixture of tournament game play–especially in the beginning–but the zone’s importance increases in value with each passing year.
In the early sets, the graveyard was largely off-limits, which was fine since there were few ways to extract value from the graveyard outside of Regrowth-style cards and spells that restocked the library against Millstone decks:
The Dark provided the first major graveyard hate card, and truth be told, Tormod’s Crypt would remain the gold standard for a long, long time.
Finally! Some answers to Nether Shadow, the fair way.
As the game evolved, the graveyard took on a greater significance in terms of synergy and as facilitator of relevant interactions.
Survival of the Fittest
The graveyard went from zero to sixty in the span of a few years and eventually new, meaningful ways of dealing with an opponent’s graveyard began to show up. Specifically, Planar Void and Phyrexian Furnace are proto-designs for the most popular forms of graveyard hate used today!
Keep in mind the graveyard decks of the day didn’t generate free creatures left and right, as they do today, and so the majority of interference run was through traditional combo disruption, such as Duress and counterspells.
Odyssey block brought a new dynamic to the game: flashback, as well as more efficient ways to draw and discard for value. However, it was Ravnica dredge mechanic that truly changed the game.
While there was more graveyard interaction printed in the period between Odyssey and Ravnica, most of it is situational and less efficient than the gold standard, Tormod’s Crypt:
It is clear in retrospect that flashback and dredge brought graveyard synergy to a level that outclassed or shut it down completely. Neither Tormod’s Crypt nor Planar Void were legal in Extended or Standard, which made dealing with emergent Dredge-A-Tog, and Gifts Loam Tog, a real challenge! Antagonists of the grave made do with what we had. I qualified for my first-ever Pro Tour by ripping a Morningtide off the top of my deck against a lethal Tog.
Guildpact introduced what I’d consider to be the modern era of graveyard hate, which is to say cards that function like a Null Rod against decks that run most of their offense through graveyard synergy.
I wonder if Leyline of the Void was specifically planned for Guildpact all along, or whether it was a direct reaction to the incredible power and impact of dredge from the previous set. It’s also significant that unlike Planar Void, Leyline is state-based (not a trigger) and only impacts the opponent’s bin and is thus a dramatic upgrade in power level. As graveyard synergy increased, so did the ways to combat it.
Leyline signifies an arms race between comboing off from the graveyard and combating the graveyard that reached a fever pitch during Time Spiral.
One step forward, two steps back:
Graveyard synergy was so insanely powerful during this time period that Dredge won even the Vintage Championship. Even in a format where deck builders could draw from the most powerful restricted spells of all time, and aided by Leyline of the Void, the graveyard’s dominance could not be stopped or denied! Even decks that didn’t directly draw resources from their graveyard began to take advantage of and gain ubiquitous value from the bone zone.
After that, the graveyard hate designs began to reflect the acknowledgement that “fair” decks needed help against the Golgari menace:
Various styles and flavor of graveyard hate have become plentiful and diverse in the modern era as there is now a solid understanding of the importance of using the graveyard as a resource in the present. Sets that return to flashback, and new graveyard mechanics such as delirium, have continued the evolution of how the graveyard can be used by different types and styles of decks.
Still, even in a world where graveyard hate is widely supported in nearly every set the balance between proactive graveyard synergy and answers wages on:
It is interesting to me that one of the primary ways the balance has been struck in recent years is done via B&R pruning rather than exploration of more powerful reactive designs. We saw a similar dynamic played out over the span of over a decade with artifacts (especially Workshops in Vintage), before WOTC finally bit the bullet and printed what I would consider to be a Super Hate card in the form of Force of Vigor.
Drawing Conclusions About the Evolution of Hate Cards
After spending a great deal of time immersed in generating these rough timelines for how various hate archetypes have developed into the neat categories we understand today, I’d like to end with a handful of observations about the past and predictions for the future.
The first is that the quality of linear threats tends to determine the necessity for equally quality answers. We see this particularly well-illustrated through the evolution of graveyard hate; for a significant portion of the game’s history the necessity for graveyard hate was virtually non-existent–until, suddenly it wasn’t!
We also see how balancing the types of linear archetypes that necessitate hate cards is a dynamic and ever-evolving relationship. The linear cards get better, the hate gets better, the linear cards get better, ban. It’s cyclical and adaptive.
It’s also clear to me there are paramount moments, in terms of releases, where certain types of linear strategies are pushed and explored. Urza block, for instance forged new trails for both graveyard and artifact usage. Odyssey, Ravnica, and Time Spiral blocks all made dramatic contributions to how the graveyard was to be utilized. Obviously, the Mirrodin sets (especially the artifact lands) changed the game.
One thing that has crossed my mind, as I’ve looked at the progression of these well-defined linear archetypes, has been to think about what defines our most recent context. While there isn’t a singular, linear “planeswalker.dek,” I believe an individual looking back at the past two years might describe the current period as the “Age of the Planeswalker.”
Powerful planeswalkers from sets immediately preceding and following War of the Spark have profoundly redefined how the game is played all the way from Vintage to Standard. It’s a fundamental change in the balance of what is powerful, what matters, and how decks interact with one another. In the same way artifact lands and dredge changed the game at various points in time, compare nonrotating format decklists from today to ones from even a few years ago and it’s clear there has been a dramatic evolution in how the game is played.
One thing writing today’s article has taught me is that significant change to the balance between strategies tends to be what dictates the necessity for more effective hate cards. Is there an efficient planeswalker Null Rod coming? Perhaps a movement toward more efficient answers and interaction? Or, maybe just another Oko? Who can say!
The banning of Veil of Summer makes even more sense to me given this insight. In a world where incredibly powerful and efficient planeswalkers dictate the terms of engagement across all formats, it makes a ton of sense that a card like Veil of Summer has been whacked.
It doesn’t make a ton of sense to have more efficient ways to protect the best cards than actually deal with them. A curious case of putting the horse before the cards.
In the next piece, I’ll be moving beyond the sideboard staple hate cards and into some spicy territory where I’ll take a look at some of the extremely interesting and outside-the-box ways to use a sideboard, with a focus on maximizing mana superiority, proactive transformational sideboarding, and some odd but amazing sideboard tech.