Once Ixalan is Released, Make the Right Choice!
I was talking to a friend recently about the Ixalan card Sword-Point Diplomacy. He speculated that it might be a decent card in aggressive decks. I think it’s unplayable. Why? Because it gives the opponent the choice of what happens. Your opponent gets to choose how much life they lose, how many cards you get to keep, and even which of those cards you get to keep.
And in Magic, assuming your opponent is rational, you don’t want to give them that choice. Because they’ll make the choice that’s best for them. And what’s best for them is worst for you.
More choice for you = good. More choice for your opponent = bad.
Allow me to illustrate this further. Fact or Fiction (FoF) is one of the best card advantage spells ever printed. It was so good, it became nototious alongside its buddy Psychatog with the acronym EOTFOFYL. For those who aren’t familiar with that acronym, it stands for “end of turn Fact or Fiction, you lose”.
Compare it to Steam Augury, which saw essentially no play during its tenure in Standard. One card defined a format, the other had no impact. The difference? Aside from the red mana symbol, it’s the fact that for FoF, you get to choose which cards to put in your hand, and for Augury, your opponent does. With FoF, you get the card(s) you need the most, with Augury, you get the card(s) your opponent sees as the least threatening.
That’s the benefit of having the choice.
Other times where choice is good? Modal spells. Spells where you get to choose which mode you want when you cast them. Think Cryptic Command. Think Abzan Charm. These cards don’t always offer you the best rate for their effect. Spell Pierce costs less than Izzet Charm, as do Shock and Careful Study. But getting to have the choice of whether to cast Spell Pierce, Shock or Careful Study makes Izzet Charm a powerful card.
A quick thought experiment: with modal spells, imagine if your opponent got to choose for you! Cryptic Command would never counter a key spell, or tap your opponent’s creatures the turn they’d deal you lethal damage. Giving the choice to the opponent would make modal spells worse than if they didn’t have the different modes at all.
And this is the design space into which ‘punisher’ cards fall. Basically, they’re modal cards which give your opponents the choice.
Browbeat, Vexing Devil, and Sword-Point Diplomacy all fall into this category. With these cards, each option looks great. My opponent takes 5 or I draw 3 cards? Great value for 3 mana! I get a 4/3 or 4 damage to my opponent, all for a single mana? Wow! How could these cards possibly be bad?
By thinking of punisher cards as inverted modal spells, this becomes obvious. The opponent gets to choose which mode suits them best. It means your card never quite does exactly what you want it to in any scenario.
Sequencing your spells
A common heuristic for Magic is to play your sorcery-speed spells in the post-combat main phase rather than pre-combat. Why is this? Well, one of the reasons is that you want to deny your opponent information for as long as possible. And thus, by denying information, you deny the opponent a choice.
Imagine this scenario: your opponent has a removal spell in their hand, and you have a creature in play and a better creature in hand. If you attack before casting your creature, the opponent might use their removal spell to protect their life total. This ensures the coast is clear for your superior creature to survive.
Did you see what happened there? If you cast your creature pre-combat, your opponent could choose which one represented the bigger threat overall, and kill that one. By holding it back, you deny your opponent the choice of which creature to kill for as long as possible.
And if you’re in the other seat, you have to make the choice between keeping your life total high and waiting to try and get more information, enabling you to make a better choice in the future.
Giving yourself lots of choices gives you the best opportunity to outplay your opponent, and denying your opponent choices denies them the chance to outplay you. And the player who make the most correct choices will win the game more often than not.
So once Ixalan is released, make the right choice: don’t put Sword-Point Diplomacy in your deck.
Community Question: What would it take for you to play a “punisher card”? Please let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading,