Hello everybody and welcome to what could be the most hostile Reading the Runes! This time around I really want to get into this whole banning thing. Yeah, tomorrow (at the time of this writing) will be the Ban and Restricted List Update and something is sure to get banned in some format or another. But to be honest, I don’t want to talk about Legacy or Modern and I really don’t care about EDH (or Commander, whatever).
I care about Standard, because people seem to be pointing fingers at the wrong thing over and over. Delver? He’s not the culprit. Ponder? If you think this is the problem then you my friends have it worse. I see no one pointing at Snapcaster Mage. At least, there are some catching on and are actively blaming the true culprits: R&D. Ironically, they are blaming them for the wrong reasons. Before I get to that I’d like to start with Delver.
Part I – Pretty Fly (for a Human Insect)
From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of all the senseless players out there, I apologize to you, Delver of Secrets.
Yes, Delver of Secrets is a phenomenal card, he is quite powerful, but only when he flips. Let’s be realistic here, how many times do you actually die to Delver in an actual game against the UW aberration? C’mon, count them. Now count how many times you’ve died to Snapcaster recurring bounce spells, Geist of Saint Thraft and Invisible Stalkers wearing Swords, or Restoration Angels restoring Snapcasters and Geists? Pretty sure that it’s about ten times more than the times you’ve lost to Delver. How much does Delver actually flip in any given game? I’ve seen players who’ve never flipped Delvers in their lifetimes (like me. Mine never flip for some reason).
This poor Human, err… Insect has been victimized by Magic players for too long. This crusade against this man has got to stop. So, what if he’s too powerful in Legacy? Standard isn’t Legacy. There are no Brainstorms to flip him, no Force of Wills to protect him, no Dazes to keep him in check. Standard has Gut Shot, which has worked perfectly for now and Tragic Slip, Pillar of Flame, Vapor Snag, and more cards that all see play in the format.
Let us perform a small experiment. Look at his Delver. Now look at your Gut Shot. Look at his Geist of Saint Thraft. Now look at your Dismember. Look at his Geist equipped with Sword of War and Peace. Now look at your Vapor Snag. Gut Shot, Dismember, and Vapor Snag are all cards that deal with Delver, but can’t really deal with Geist… Uh… Interesting.
Do I sound condescending? I damn hope so, because this crusade against Delver of Secrets is entirely off basis. Delver is a great one drop and I won’t deny it, but it’s not what makes the deck so fantastically desperate to beat. No. Could it be Ponder? The other card everyone blames?
Part II – Ponder: The oldest pun in the book.
Turn 1 Aberration, Turn 2 Ponder, Turn 3 flip Delver if it hasn’t already. Doesn’t sound so bad. A Turn 3, 3/2 is pretty much the Standard in, umm, Standard. Is it not? Oh wait, not anymore, it’s turn 3 2/2 that puts 4/4 flying Angels. Allow me to be truthful here: I’m not nearly as against Geist of Saint Thraft as I make it seem. What I’m trying to say is that Pondering into flipping Delvers is not really so scary. However, do you know what is scary? Ponder into Snapcaster Mage into Ponder into more gas and more threats. It’s not Ponder, it’s that little anomaly in the middle of those two Ponders that’s causing quite a ruckus.
If you take a time machine back to Lorwyn, you’ll notice that Ponder was barely played, if at all. Of course, you can say: “Hey, people didn’t know the power of Pondering on three cards!” You wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Now use that time machine back to M10 era. Ponder was getting played, yet not as much as today and only in some decks who wanted just a tiny bit of consistency. Let us step forward into M11, Preordain came out and it was just the bee’s knees; the bee’s wax (and other bees related goodness)! Preordain was insane! Consistency had never felt so good. Scrying was never this awesome. Really, Scry is an amazing mechanic for Blue and back when Caw-Blade was playing 3000 of these things no body cried for it to be banned.
Maybe they were two or three, but the problem in that deck was clear from the very beginning: Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. In this deck, Preordain was merely a slave to the whims of Jace and his crew of misfits. When the crew left, Preordain was still decent, but not ban-worthy, oh, of course not.
Then, ‘Ordain abandoned us and in his wake left a void only his presence could fill, yet we clung to the return of Ponder to give us the same thrills, the same butterflies that ‘Ordain would give us when we’d scry. Ponder was the obvious replacement and at the very beginning everyone hated Ponder. I mean, it’s understandable, since no one wanted him in the first place. It was M12 and players still dreaded pondering.
Then, came Snapcaster Mage and his other lovable, blue cult of miscreants to terrorize the neighborhood do-gooders. Ponder got mixed into the bunch and, well, turned rotten. Yessir, the bad crowd got to him and that nice, young kid who would help old ladies across the street started delivering wedgies instead. It’s not Ponder’s fault. Ponder ne’er did nothin’ to no one!
Maybe, just maybe, it’s Snapcaster Mage’s fault.
Part III – You Should Probably Fear This Reaper.
Maybe it is his fault. Snapcaster really has given life to many of Magic’s unwanted cards from the game’s past narratives. You remember the card called Unsummon? You probably call it Vapor Snag these days, though back when you were just a kid all we had was Unsummon. People didn’t really like it, ya’ know? You’d ask: “Why not play Unsummon so you could, at least, have some semblance of removal in that deck?” They would answer, “Why play that when I can just play Black and kill the creature permanently?” Or they’d say: “Why play that when I can play Aether Burst and have the potential to bounce more than one creature!?” “Evacuation gives me a virtual Wrath!” “Or just play Wrath!” “Moat gives me virtual card advantage!”
In fact, I remember when “virtual card advantage” was actually a thing. Virtual Card Advantage (henceforth, VCA) was a term coined to define what cards like Moat and Teferi’s Moat were doing. You know when you kill three creatures with Wrath of God that’s considered card advantage, because you killed three monsters with only one card. Thus, you are up +2 cards in card advantage terms (if my math serves correctly). Well, when you Moat three monsters, you get the same advantage, since you are “virtually” killing them… Unless of course the Disenchant appears… then you die. VCA also talks about removing all your creatures against Removal.dec so that they have 40,000 worthless removal spells in their deck. I digress.
You remember when Ponder was a last resort because there weren’t any other deck manipulators? Well, you should, because I spend a whole section reminding you about it. Remember when everyone wanted Counterspell, as Mana Leak was just a decent card. Mana Leak was ok. It was a tool used to keep some decks in check. A tool so that Blue could have SOMETHING to deal with creatures, you know because they have nothing else (this isn’t even sarcasm. Seriously, Unsummon sucks). Well, say hello to Snapcaster!
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen and play four Snapcaster Mages, that way you’ll have eight Mana Leaks, eight Ponders, eight Vapor Snags, eight Gitaxian Probes, and more!
Mana Leak was ok. Ponder was terrible. Unsummon never saw play. Now with Snapcaster Mage in the format, Ponder needs to be banned, U/x decks can’t live without Unsummon, and Mana Leak needs CAVERN OF SOULS.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Defense Grid could have hosed Restoration Angel, Snapcaster Mage, Mana Leak, and other troublesome instants? “But a do-nothing artifact is just not as good as a land that grants any color or a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben!” Exactly, and therein lies the problem. More on this in Part IV.
Delver of Secrets is just the Squadron Hawks of the gang. Geist of Saint Thraft is the Stoneforge Mystic, and Snapcaster Mage sure feels like the Jace, the Mind Sculptor of this Standard. Snapcaster Mage is the one that keeps “brainstorming,” “pondering,” whatever. He keeps Unsummoning creatures over and over making it impossible for Aggro decks to get ahead. Aggro decks can deal with one or two Vapor Snags, not three or four plus the blocker 2/1 blocker that’s ready to trade with their x/2 creatures.
I’ll repeat it one more time: Ponder is not the one providing the insane consistency of Delver decks—it’s Snapcaster Mage’s constant recursion. Thing is, that even if you ban Ponder, Thought Scour will take its place. It’s not nearly as decent as Ponder, at this point, yet it will happen and Delver decks will begin to take advantage of ‘Scour. We might see a return of Invisible Stalker and Runechanter’s Pike. If you ban Snapcaster Mage, the deck will love a lot of its power and will have to resort to playing more lands, because they can no longer go turn 1 Ponder, and then turn 3 Snapcaster/Ponder for more gas. They will have to draw their threats and lands more naturally.
Regardless, the problem is not even Snapcaster Mage, or Ponder, or Delver…
Part IV – Design Your Own Universe (I wish)
The real problem lies within R&D itself. For those who readily blamed them, I applaud you, you are spot on. Who created Snapcaster Mage? As I recall, it was R&D. In fact, Tiago Chan’s original design was a stupid land that could Last Word. I can see how powerful that would have been, good thing it didn’t give you four extra copies of each non-creature spell in your deck. Truth be told, if this land had been printed, I could totally see how Cavern of Souls would have been a good answer to counters.
Speaking of Cavern of Souls, why not reprint Defense Grid? If we go back to R&D’s explanation of ‘Souls existence, they clearly wanted to hose Mana Leak. I’m having trouble digesting that information. It has been a month or two and I still have problem with their explanation. They have a lot of terrible reasons to back up their actions; it reminds me of how they justified banning Mystical Tutor from Legacy. Who in their right mind goes into the casual portion of MTGO with a Tier 1 Legacy deck? Casual players go to the Casual room to avoid that sort of thing. They are “Casual” players for a reason.
Point is that right until Snapcaster Mage debuted in Innistrad no one needed to print a Cavern of Souls solution for Mana Leak. There was Defense Grid, however, why not print that? Because Defense Grid, aside from hosing countermagic or just instants in general, it doesn’t do anything else. It doesn’t attack or block (i.e. Gaddock Teeg, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben), or make mana (i.e. Cavern of Souls). You can make a pretty good case for Grafdigger’s Cage being a non-creature graveyard hoser. Curiously, it also doesn’t play at all.
There is a demand for answers to the format’s problems in the form of creatures or in cards that do other things besides dealing with certain strategies. This demand is a result of R&D’s decision to push creatures more and more. Sometimes they push so much that we end up with cards like Snapcaster Mage, Geist of Saint Thraft, the Titans, Delver of Secrets, Invisible Stalker, among other problem creatures the format has. There’s a push for cards that make more creatures like Lingering Souls. There’s a push for cards that interact with creatures in some or another like Planeswalkers. The reason there are few cards that deal with these guys is because they want creatures to be the main way you off Planeswalkers. There’s a reason Planeswalkers that do not protect themselves are the worst of the bunch. There’s a reason Planeswalkers that do protect themselves are used in Control decks and then go upwards the £40 margin.
I have nothing against creatures. I really don’t. They are a part of the game and like every other card, it is an essential element. However, in the same way the creatures are essential, instants, sorceries, enchantments, artifacts, and Planeswalkers (I do hate these, though) deserve the same treatment.
I was watching the Pro Tour Kobe 2006 Top 8 the other day and something Randy Bhueler said struck me. Back in Time Spiral there was a design decision to create more playable cards across the colors and sets. The more playable cards players have; the more options. It was why Time Spiral draft was loved among the players. It’s the reason Ravnica was so good. It’s the reason the Standard formats for these sets were the most successful in recent memory. There was no Jund, or Caw-Blade, or Delver. There was Owling Mine, Zoo, RG Aggro, BW Midrange, BW Aggro, Ninja.dec, and more. Then, there were Mono-Red decks, Mono-Green decks, RG decks, Martyr of Sands decks, Dragonstorm decks, Ramp decks, Turbo-Fog decks, UW Control decks, UB Control deck, UG decks, and more.
What happened to that?
The arrival of Lorwyn marked the beginning, the birth of their newfound need for more and better creatures (and Planeswalkers another mistake). It had begun… Faeries became the most feared deck for an entire year until Lorwyn rotated. Faeries dominated Extended, Modern, and even saw play in Legacy putting up good results. Afterwards Jund hit the format, which also dominated for an entire year. And is still a deck to beat in “New” Extended, and Modern. After Jund, Caw-Blade made its mark and now UW Delver. What do all these decks have in common?
They are all creature-based mistakes, with Caw-Blade having two other problems. The mistake with Faeries wasn’t even Bitterblossom. Was that the entire deck was one entire motor that worked together to generate advantages in various areas of the game. It could destroy you in combat, or destroy you in mana development, or destroy your hand, or even destroy the stack!
Jund had one huge issue: Bloodbraid Elf. What a gal. Sometimes she was a 3/2 with Haste that dealt 3 damage to you and made you discard two cards, too. Or she would bring a pal to the fight that was also a 3/3 and put three 1/1 Saproling tokens when he died! Oftentimes, she’d be a 3/2 with haste that upon arrival she could destroy any permanent of thousands if they all had the same name. At her worst, she simply came into play with a 2/2 dude with the potential to be a 4/4, made you discard a card at the price of two life, or merely deal 3 damage to a creature or player. You can’t look at me and say that Bloodbraid Elf wasn’t too good. And you know what? It is these few bad apples that spoiled the Cascade mechanic.
How many people actually played with Captured Sunlight? Bituminous Blast was an ok card had it not been in the same deck as Bloodbraid Elf. Who actually played Violent Outburst, Ardent Plea, Demonic Dread, Deny Reality, Enigma Sphynx, and Enlisted Wurm? Some of these saw play. The first three saw play in Hypergenesis. The other three made a splash or two in metagames and then disappeared completely, because they weren’t good enough. Without Bloodbraid Elf, Cascade wouldn’t have been as broken as it was. Thus, the problem was Bloodbraid Elf, not Cascade.
Let’s look at another mechanic that wasn’t so good until certain cards came out like… Mind’s Desire or Dragonstorm. Storm, in itself, is a fun mechanic. It is fantastic and rewards skill when printed on cards like Wing Shards (“I should probably attack first before playing a spell). Mind’s Desire waltzes in and suddenly Storm was a mistake? Dragonstorm makes its mark 4 years after it was first printed, and Storm is a mistake? Perhaps the mistake was printing Mind’s Desire and Dragonstorm as Storm cards. I never heard anyone complain about Temporal Fissure outside of Pauper. Storm isn’t broken when the cards you print aren’t broken. Brain Freeze was only insane because it was usually in the same deck as Mind’s Desire or in Legacy High Tide… which no one actually plays.
Is it fair that we persecute these mechanics because of a few stinky oranges? No, it’s not. R&D and players alike have done this and it is the wrong attitude to adopt when judging these abilities. And we are seeing the same with Hexproof. Albeit, Hexproof should be handled with a lot more scrutiny than the rest, since it is a mechanic that almost exclusively goes on creatures like Invisible Stalker and Geist of Saint Thraft. I’ll get to this in a minute, this is one of the mistakes with UW Delver.
Although it seems I’m going around in circles, there is point to be made, so bear with me. Onto Caw-Blade. Remember that deck? You remember when it was just Caw-Go and only Brian Kibler could put up good results with it (Not really. It almost seemed like it, though)? Caw-Go was basically a fringe deck that select members of the player base would play. By Pro Tour Paris, Caw-Blade became the deck to beat for the rest of that season until two of its important pieces were banned. What went wrong? Was it Jace, the Mind Sculptor? It did play an integral part for the deck’s insanity. Regardless, I’m not convinced. Was it Stoneforge Mystic? Getting warmer. Do note that Stoneforge Mystic saw little to no play since it had been printed in Zendikar. It was what Stoneforge was looking for.
Sword of Feast and Famine was the card that made Caw-Blade what it was. I’m not kidding. No one ever considered making Caw-Blade when Sword of Body and Mind was around. Sword of Body and Mind is the worst sword of the bunch and it wasn’t worth fetching it. Sword of Feast and Famine, was an entirely different case… Sword of Feast and Famine, Sword of War and Peace, and Batterskull, were the three equipment that pushed Stoneforge and, in turn, Caw-Blade way over the top. It’s easy to blame Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, but the deck wouldn’t have been built in the first place had it not been for these equipments. Therefore, Stoneforge Mystic was not the error. I would have liked her to keep living in the fields of Zendikar searching for Trusty Machetes and Kite Shields.
Jace, of course, was a clear slip-up from R&D; that goes without saying. In spite of the obvious fault, Jace itself is not the problem, but R&D’s constant need to push these ‘Walkers. You end up with Jace, and Liliana of the Veil, and Gideon Jura. All cards that people really hate playing against. People ate playing against counters; R&D kills off countermagic. They hate playing against land destruction; Stone Rain is dead. Yet we hate playing against Gideon Jura and Jace, and they make Liliana of the Veil.
I wish every Planeswalker was just like Nissa Revane or Sarkhan the Mad. Elspeth, Knight-Errant shouldn’t be reprinted. Planeswalkers that see fringe play is what you want in a format. Make them better and you risk them dominating a format, or cornering strategies similar to how Gideon Jura doesn’t allow Aggro to have its day in the sun. The lack of removal for these ‘Walkers are another cause for distress. Blue had Mana Leak, which I hear will leave us. Instead we get Essence Scatter and Negate… The moments when ‘Walkers hit the table while we only have Essence Scatter in hand will truly be a moment of pure satisfaction and content. Thank you, R&D (This time I’m being sarcastic)!
Finally, we have Delver decks. What the mistake here? Snapcaster Mage for one. Geist of Saint Traft for two. Restoration Angel for three. Delver of Secrets for four. And the same equipment! But we already talked about how these cards have negatively impacted Standard. On to the big picture: What do the last four decks have in common? They are all creature decks, and aside from Jund they are all Aggro-Control decks. What is Aggro-Control? They are decks based on playing and protecting creatures via counters and they thrive on the generation of Tempo by using cards like Unsummon, Remand, Man-‘o-War, and so on.
What happens when you push creatures and give them awesome Tempo tools? You end up with low-costed, high-power creatures (power can also be having sick abilities) that can generate Tempo themselves and with the help of their support spells. This is how you end up with Faeries, Caw-Blade (support spells being the equipment and Jace), Delver, and even Jund.
You keep pushing creatures and you end up with Aggro-Control decks putting the format in a stranglehold. Especially when you push creatures and mechanics that turn them into hard to kill machines like Geist of Saint Thraft, or Troll Ascetic and Spiritmonger back in their day. You push creatures and you make it hard for cards like Defense Grid to find a home. You make it hard for Control decks to have a fighting chance. Funniest thing is that, historically, Aggro-Control’s worst match-up were hyper-aggressive decks like Red Deck Wins and this deck can’t do anything because R&D printed Timely Reinforcements! Oops. I’d like to call that another mistake. It feels even worse when you realize that Snapcaster Mage can flashback Timely Reinforcements when the going gets even tougher.
I really hope you, the reader, understands that it’s easy to blame each individual card for the problems of a format when the blame should go to the creators. I do not pretend to know the ins and outs of Magic design and development, yet something needs to change. I feel like there is a need for it.
I am irritated by the idea of Color Pie restrictions, because, that way, you are restricting what colors can do, thus making it hard to balance all of them. Breaking the Color Pie is fine when you do it right, just like Ravnica and Time Spiral block. Breaking the Color Pie is fine when every color has playable cards. It’s fine when colors can go on their own once in a while.
In fact, is Nevinyrral’s Disk too strong these days? I don’t think so. It comes down on turn 4 tapped and gets online by turn 5. Is that too powerful for Mono-Colored decks to have? You don’t have to break the Color Pie in colors themselves, but take advantage of artifacts. Ratchet Bomb was a step towards the right direction. You had a good track record when designing equipment, what happened with the Swords? Was it hard to let Feast and Famine to put a +1/+1 counter? That is surely in Green’s theme?
Let’s take the time machine back to Kamigawa block. Players had to deal with Sensei’s Divining Top for an entire year and then in Legacy, Extended, and more. Top never got banned and when it did, it was only because people were taking too long to resolve Top activations in tournaments, therefore causing events to last longer than they should have. Read it again: Sensei’s Divining Top was never banned from Standard, despite how good it was. Divining Top is, perhaps, ten times stronger than Ponder in deck manipulation and you want Ponder banned? I’ll be honest, I’d love for a new version of Top to make it to Standard that way other colors can have some sort of control over their draws.
This is why the Color Pie is more detrimental to Magic design than beneficial. Colors all need to share some tools in order for them to compete with each other. It’s not fair when three colors can kill creatures and then the other two either have to “fight” or “bounce” them. Is it fair that Green tries to Prey Upon a Red creature and then Red simply finishes off the Green creature with burn? Is it fair that Bue has to Unsummon Grave Titan, when Black can Doom Blade Frost Titan? In the same vein, it’s not fair that Blue gets to Ponder, while Green gets Mulch, Black gets Diabolic Tutor, White gets… well, Due Respect? Even Red gets Faithless Looting.
In Magic: The Gathering. In this game we all love and respect. In this activity that is a hobby for some, or a job for others, that involves slinging cardboard, there is a need for change. Players need to change how they view things, R&D needs to adjust their philosophies and re-examine their evaluations for the cards they create. They should pay more attention to what the problem cards actually are and not the ones that are merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. People recognize that Mana Leak isn’t even that powerful, as it’s only a tool to keep decks like Wolf Run Ramp in check, yet R&D keeps seeing Mana Leak as the root of all evil.
It’s not. Nor Ponder. Nor Stoneforge Mystic. Nor Faeries. Think about it.
Until next time,