Channeling Frustrations With the Current State of Magic

Elaine Cao
8 min readNov 18, 2019

So this is something that I started thinking about after seeing Zvi’s article on why he doesn’t like the London Mulligan. The TLDR for that article is that its made decks so consistent that the only decks that are good are decks that have a clear vision of what their first few turns need to look like. The corollary to this is that decks that don’t have this clear vision, like archetypes that build a “critical mass” like Legacy/Modern Burn or Modern Storm, or incremental advantage control decks, are less impacted. This re-entered the conversation in the context of the recent bannings, and why I don’t think they will have as much of an impact on competitive Magic as people would like.

One of the things that I’ve always liked about Magic is the feeling that it’s more “mature” than other games. When I watch people play other games, it’s always about “well I’m going to assemble X and Y and Z and then I’m going to kill you” even if X and Y and Z are individually very bad cards. Part of what has always put competitive Magic players above more casual players, I feel, is the ability to evaluate cards in a vacuum and to recognize that some cards are just bad even if they might combine in a very powerful way. But now it doesn’t matter because if your deck is built around some powerful, non-interactive start, you just almost always have it before your opponent can reasonably disrupt it. What that is depends on what format and what deck it is: it could be a t2 Oko, t1 Emry, t3 Karn, t1 Griselbrand, t1 Chalice into t2 Warboss, t1 Bazaar, etc.

I think the biggest example of this is the shift from UB reanimator to BR reanimator. I understand that BR has been around for a while even before the mulligan, but UB used to still at least exist. And now its just always BR, even though UB has overall better card quality, simply because BR is more explosive, cutting cards like Ponder, Brainstorm, and Force of Will for cards like Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, and Unmask.

https://www.mtgtop8.com/event?e=23104&d=358741&f=LE

https://www.mtgtop8.com/event?e=6650&d=238206&f=LE

This is true in other formats as well. The resurgence of Tron and Amulet Titan in Modern is most certainly based on the fact that these decks are based around having a clear gameplan in the first few turns. Urza decks benefit heavily from this as well, with the most busted starts in the game- being able to play an Emry on turn 1 or similar. But to do this, they play objectively bad cards.

If you look at the top decks at Mythic Championship VI, you’ll see all the usual suspects in the top decks. But if you look past the Okos and the maindeck Noxious Grasps, you’ll see something else: a surprising lack of Temple of Mystery and Temple of Malady. The three color decks choose to forgo them completely, and the two color decks only play two. This seems strange, since the card is objectively powerful. But it makes sense if you look at it in the context of “this card does not help me execute my gameplan in the first couple turns”. Besides, the consistency gained by the mana fixing and scry effect simply isn’t as important anymore when you’re under no pressure to keep hands that rely on that effect.

https://www.mtgtop8.com/event?e=23628&d=363798&f=ST

We as Magic players have to fundamentally re-evaluate how cards work. Rather than evaluating cards based on a “quadrant theory”, or whatever similar model you prefer, it is now valid to prioritize an evaluation based on how this card contributes to your gameplan in the first few turns in an ideal scenario- deprioritizing the scenarios in which your deck is struggling to function, or the scenarios in which you draw the card in the late game.

It feels like not only am I losing more, as the player who is playing the control deck that doesn’t have the ability to fully take advantage of the recent shift in Magic, but I’m also losing to worse decks. I understand that the decks aren’t actually “worse” by any objective measure; they’re the decks that take advantage of the new mulligan rule the best. But my brain tells me they’re “worse decks” because my entire Magic-playing experience up until this point has told me that decks built around needing to have a flimsy combo are bad because a large portion of the time the deck just loses to itself. But that simple heuristic just isn’t true anymore, and it feels like I’m playing a fundamentally different (and worse) game, and past assumptions just don’t work anymore.

This is especially miserable in Legacy, which used to be my format of choice, because there are plenty of decks with a possible turn 1 goldfish, and now they can just have them. Newbie players always assume that Legacy is a format where people throw turn 1 kills at each other, and I’ve explained to many people about how cards like Force of Will keep those decks in check. But what am I supposed to do now, as the Force of Will player? Mulligan to five to keep a hand of force plus blue card? What if my opponent is playing a fair deck and I feel like an idiot? And, even if I know they’re a combo deck, am I supposed to mull to 5 so I can force their turn 1 kill and have three cards in hand, which may not be able to do anything, and just sit and draw/pass with my opponent for five turns? What if they have Thoughtseize or Unmask? Of course I can’t do that. I just have to keep a 6 or 7 that might just be vulnerable to an opponent killing you. And according to the Veil of Summer advocates, the bad guy in this scenario is the person casting Force of Will or a planeswalker meant to be cast on Turn 3?

This is also why it feels really dumb to be casting cantrips right now. If I’ve filled my deck with Brainstorm and Ponder, then it means I either spend the first few turns doing nothing and still having my shields down, or I have to hold the cantrips, even if I want to cast them, because my opponent is playing a deck that kills you in the first few turns. I felt like an idiot at Eternal Weekend registering not only Ponder and Brainstorm, but four Snapcasters to flash them back and continue to do nothing but accrue incremental advantage that doesn’t matter.

Hell, even the control decks have a “kill you in the first few turns” gameplan now, like any other deck in the format. The plan is to run out a 3 mana walker as force bait, then on turn 4 jam a Monastery Mentor and spell pierce the opponent’s kill spell.

I promise that it’s not that I’m inexperienced with Legacy; I just feel like its a very different format from what I remember it being a few years ago, the last time I played it seriously, and its substantially worse now partially because of this. And the same problem has pervaded other formats. You can blame Oko all you want, but Oko really wasn’t the real problem. The problem is the deck’s incredible consistency in casting t2 Oko or t3 Nissa. In Modern, Tron will always be miserable to play against, but it’s such a more powerful deck now- and the Urza decks are equally miserable to play against and are just as harmful for the environment.

How did this happen? Part of it, as has been mentioned, is the London Mulligan. But there has been a more fundamental shift in Magic design, where powerful cards have continued to be printed without corresponding answers. This is a problem that isn’t unique to just Wrenn and Oko. Legacy decks like Moon Prison and Bomberman, for example, have existed for ages, and their disruption plan has not changed in the past decade. But the decks weren’t nearly as good when their threats were Koth of the Hammer and Auriok Salvagers instead of Goblin Rabblemaster, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Karn, The Great Creator, Monastery Mentor, etc. Other powerful proactive cards like Liliana the Last Hope, Teferi Time Raveler, Narset Parter of Veils, and Thought-Knot Seer have been equally dominant at one time or another, in some cases up to the current day.

You will probably notice that many of the cards mentioned above are planeswalkers. Many have argued that the dominance of planeswalkers indicates that WotC’s development team has difficulty properly evaluating their power level. I disagree. There are many creatures that approach the same level of raw power. The problem is, once again, the lack of answers for these powerful planeswalkers. There haven’t been any cheap and efficient answers printed in the modern era, regardless of whether they answer planeswalkers or creatures. If a problematic creature exists in an eternal format, players can always reach for their Swords to Plowshares or Path to Exile. There is no corresponding card for planeswalkers, because such a card would have had to have been printed in the past several years; planeswalkers haven’t existed for as long. This has come up in Pioneer, as people have realized that the creature removal isn’t up to par with the creatures in the format; in other words, it is about in line with the planeswalkers in the format. Cards like Wild Slash, Declaration in Stone, Cast Out, and Murderous Rider really don’t seem like they should belong in an eternal format, and yet here we are.

Someday the day will come where The Elderspell is just as acceptable a maindeck card as Fatal Push. Today is not that day, and I’m not sure I want to play in an environment where that day has come.

Powerful reactive cards simply don’t exist in current Standard, meaning that if your opponent is able to draw their powerful opening- which they are more likely to be able to because of the London Mulligan- you are less likely to be able to answer it.

This is why it’s fundamentally difficult for me to enjoy Magic right now. Games have, more than ever, increasingly been about “two ships passing in the night”, and it quickly turns into a measurement of who has the fastest goldfish. Interaction and even bluffing seems to have been pushed to the side in favor of allowing players to dump their cards onto the table, and I see no reason why this trend will stop.

As an individual person, and someone who mostly plays Magic for the community and not for the game, I’ve made a conscious decision to judge more events to be able to interact with the community without having to actually play the game. But this is obviously not sustainable for everyone to do. Wizards of the Coast needs to take a long look at how they’ve been designing cards recently, and re-evaluate its stance of not printing powerful answers to equally powerful cards. It should understand that the price of having a few “non-games” where someone’s deck doesn’t function is well-worth not having the other, more common kind of “non-game”- where someone casts a Karn Liberated on turn 3 or puts a Griselbrand into play on turn 1.

I’m just some idiot with a keyboard, and WotC probably won’t listen to me. But I hope that there are many other players who feel the same way that I do, but may not have the words to express how they feel. For those players, I hope that this has allowed you to channel your frustrations into concrete feedback. Thanks for reading.

--

--

Elaine Cao

I’m a Level 2 Magic judge who plays a lot of blue cards. she/her/hers, www.twitter.com/Oritart