Tuesday 8 January 2013

Top 10 cards that make Magic a better game

Krark's ThumbMagic is a great game, it is varied, involved and most important of all, really good fun. Technically there are better games which have less luck or greater subtlety despite more simple mechanics however I find these all tend to be a lot less enjoyable. These technically excellent games feel dry and all too often end up being very linear. Randomness is not a bad thing in a game and will add new dimensions as well as an element of fun however too much will make playing it pointless and frustrating. Magic does not have too much luck however it does have a lot for both a professionally competitive game and for a top end strategy game. Those games which manage to have very little randomness or at least no imbalanced random effects while maintaining both good variation and good enjoyability are the "best" types of game. Magic does have enough randomness that it could be a better game.

The biggest flaw in Magic is the number of games that are decided by a mana screw or a flood. Best of three matches and good deck design both help reduce the imbalance that random distribution of lands can bring to the game but it is still a frustrating part of it. I have tried playing with separate decks for lands and spells from which you can chose which you draw from or search with spells, I have tried the WoW trading card method of laying any card down as a proxy land and I have tried designing my own games that try to capture the fun and style of game as Magic that use different methods of gaining resources. None where satisfactory and either ruined the balance of the cards or just made the games really dull. Eventually I came to realise that Magic is fine how it is and needs no fundamental changing of the rules or a redesigning altogether to make it a better game. It is the cards themselves that hold the key, there are types of design and certain mechanisms that go a long way to minimising both mana floods and mana screws. By including as many of these cards in my cube as possible I would find that the games that were being played were improving. This is not just about making a fun cube or even about just making good decks that won't screw you very often. This goes right to the design of cards and the balancing of the values given to certain effects within the game. If we could exert a pressure on the Magic design teams to focus a little more on cards that make Magic a better game and reduce the value ascribed to such effects that aid that end then the whole Magic experience could be seamlessly enhanced for both casual and professional play.

Card quality and draw is something that the Magic designers place a high value on. Cards like Ponder and Preordain are getting themselves banned in the newish modern format and seeing less print than before. While I agree that Divining Top needs banning in modern, if not just for power alone then certainly for the extra time it adds to games, however the one off card quality effects do not have these problems. Card quality, card utility and card draw are the best ways in magic of reducing luck based outcomes. Power of cards in Magic is a relative thing and the way the metagame evolves effectively self balances the varied power in the pools. You can say a card is too powerful for a format but it is equally true to say that all the other cards are underpowered. It would certainly change the game a little to reduce the relative value of luck reducing effects in magic but it wouldn't necessarily unbalance the game or the various metagames. There is also always a way in Magic design to compensate for one set of changes, for example if the ability to colour fix becomes too easy in a format then the meta will shift towards multicolour decks cramming in all the most powerful cards it can find. This often leads to a one dimensional format of quirky mirror matches and polarises things to the point of playing really silly cards like Omniscience and Decree of Silence (it is not always an abundance of fixing that causes these issues but it is one way it can happen). You could solve this by making the fixing less powerful or less plentiful or alternatively you could simply increase the colour demand on spells so that instead of a 2B card you have a 1BB card instead. Colour screw can still be bad luck deciding games however it is a core aspect of the game and needs to remain one of the defining aspects of deck building. It should be the aim of card design to allow players to be able to curve out very reliably but not to have the same consistency in their ability to find all the right colours. I do not think there are many formats where fixing is too good except type one and vintage and most of the limited, type two and block formats generally feel like there is too little colour fixing. I, rather obviously from my biased position, find the fixing in my cube to be about right although the recent influx of gold cards has biased things a little towards the three or more colour decks. Two colour decks cannot fill out on dual lands and must still respect high colour requirement cards however three colour decks can ignore these power mono cards and replace them with an abundance of power gold cards instead while having as good, if not better mana than the two colour decks. Beyond this small personal problem my point is that you have to go quite a long way with colour fixing before it ruins the point of the colour pie. Things that reduce colour screws are not as essential as things that reduce mana screws yet they do still enhance the game to a point and typically are found on the same cards.

I have made a list of the cards that I think do some of the most to enhance the game play in the cube by virtue of reducing luck based wins. It is impossible to really quantify how much a card makes the game better. The more powerful a card is the more it will impact games as it is seeing more play than weaker cards. Some of the cards I have chosen are hardly the most significant cube cards and see a lot less play than the staples. I have chosen these cards purely on their design and how they are effective at doing what I have been describing. I have also included all of the cards that sprang to mind from the cube that fulfil the remit of being a game improving card in an honourable mentions section. Finally I offer a list of the best set mechanics that there are in the same terms for reducing luck based outcomes.

The top 10 cards that make Magic a better game:

Kargan Dragonlord10. Kargan Dragonlord

Level up is one of my top five mechanics although it gives no card quality or draw. What it offers is a way efficiently using what mana you do get, whether that be a two land screw or an eight land flood. Level up does nothing to effect the random nature of drawing lands but it greatly dampens the severity of the extremes. Kargan himself is a fine example of a level up dork, he is a perfectly acceptable beater when you first make him and invest no further mana into him. His top level is a savagely powerful game ending threat and his middle level is a very healthy midway point between the others. This makes him useful at all three stages and only game state will dictate which is the best way to use him. His level up cost is only one which allows you to efficiently use all your mana and means that you can still win games with and 8/8 dragon off two lands if really needed. It is the way this card and this mechanic offer utility which compliments the way lands work in Magic that makes it a card that improves the game.

Chrome Mox9.   Chrome Mox

This is one of the more unusual cards on the list as it doesn't really do what I was describing in the opening sections of this article. Chrome Mox doesn't give any card draw or quality and it is hardly a utility card given that it basically only does one very specific thing. There are a few ways it improves the game of Magic although they do not really relate to the reduction of random effects. The first is that it offers a huge array of options, you can always tell when someone has a Chrome Mox in their opening hand simply because it is the only plausible reason they could be thinking for so long! Options are what make Magic good and when a simple and fair card offers so many you are onto a winner. The second reason I think it makes Magic better is that it disrupts the expected flow of the game, it mixes it up and allows situations where turn two things are happening on turn one. I mentioned earlier that some of the least luck based games can become stale and dry, cards like Chrome Mox are the antidote to this. One could argue the same merits for Black Lotus however I would content that its over powered nature both reduces the options and vastly increases pure luck based wins. The fact that Chrome Mox has such a painful drawback is what makes it both so fair and so good in terms of this article. There are lots of situations where you draw it and don't want to use it at first, perhaps you have lots of lands or only very low costing cards, the Chrome Mox will sit in your hand but instead of being dead it will be a get out of jail free card. Should you miss a critical land drop you can pitch a card and use the Mox or should you need to colour fix the Mox may be able to help out. It is this insurance style of use that helps reduce random screws deciding games however it probably doesn't outweigh the increase of random wins from when it is being used in its intended capacity, the old turn one Mox, Slith Firewalker on the play used to be so good...

Vampiric Tutor8.   Vampiric Tutor

I am not a huge fan of Vampiric Tutor but only because I don't like having to play it. In terms of design it is a wonderful card, highly fair like Chrome Mox yet far less able to make games dull and over before they really start than the Mox. It is the ultimate in card quality as it can get any card for a mere one mana and it is instant to boot. What makes it good in this capacity is its sub par usage of getting you a humble land, it never feels good but we all know just how bad the alternative is. Tutoring is very highly priced in Magic these days and this is not entirely unreasonable but it does make most of it pretty useless at aiding in a mana screw. The loss of life and card advantage allow Vampiric to reasonably just cost one which in turn allows you to keep even one land hands if they are good enough and you have Vamp to get you out of it. While being able to tutor for any card is a dangerously powerful effect we can still learn from what makes Vamp so good at improving the game. A great new mechanic could be a free way to exile the card in question to replace your next draw with a basic land, like land cycling but without getting to draw the card.

Rakdos Charm7.   Rakdos Charm

This is the current flavour of the month for the many Charm effects in magic. The way these charm style cards improve magic is nothing to do with reducing floods or screws but to do with their utility and how that allows you to improve your consistency. There are many cards that are not charms that are highly versatile and offer similar kinds of utility to that which allows Rakdos Charm to make Magic better. Some even do have card quality, card draw or direct mana fixing attached to them. Fire / Ice and Cryptic Command are examples of these and both are much better than Charm in terms of power however Command costs to much to be an aid in screws and Fire / Ice is just so off the curve in power that it outright wins more games in a dull way than it does rescue games from the clutches of a screw. The reason I have picked out Rakdos Charm is that it does two niche things while still having some more general applications. In Magic it can often be a case of do you have the right thing for my thing, yes, you win, no you lose. In Magic there are lots of cards and lots of decks and therefore many things you need to be able to handle, the larger the format the more this is the case. Agro decks are particularly vulnerable to this and can often lose to one lame card like a Moat or something. They cannot afford to play too many cards as an answer to them as they will lose consistency, nor can they often rely on card quality, draw or tutors to find the required answers. Often these games come down to whether or not you drew the Naturalize for the Moat in time or not and that is a dull game of Magic. Rakdos Charm is the perfect antidote to this kind of problem (although not the specifically the Moat one...), it can deal with a selection of troublesome things while remaining useful outside of this scope and perfectly maindeckable without fear of having dead cards or losing much consistency. There are far far better ways to kill artifacts available in red than Rakdos Charm however they mostly just kill artifacts and are therefore too risky to be played.

Sea Gate Oracle6.   Sea Gate Oracle

The Oracle is a perfect filler card, it is far from overly powerful yet I play it lots because I feel it greatly reduces the element of chance in my games. That little bit of extra draw and filtering greatly helps you enter the mid game. Three is quite a lot just for card quality and won't bail you out of savage mana screws however it is typically played in more long term decks which are far less likely to keep land light hands. In these decks it is missing the fourth land drop that is often fatal however it is rare to be throwing back three land hands and it is in finding that 4th land that Oracle shines. Having card quality and draw on a creature is also really nice as it allows you to increase the consistency of decks which rely on high creature counts such as Opposition decks. A 1/3 is a surprisingly useful body however I should like to see more smaller dorks that offer some card quality or draw for less.

Fauna Shaman5.   Fauna Shaman

When you want the effect of the Shaman then Survival of the Fittest is far far better however that requires a dedicated deck. When you just feel you are a bit clunky or a bit reliant on a few dorks then Shaman is a great smoother of such troubles. It is not the most aggressive of dorks but it is still fine for getting some beat on with and like Rakdos Charm will not overly pollute the consistency of what you are trying to do. Then on the occasions you do find yourself in need from a screw or a flood, even a slight one, you are able to limit the damage they cause by getting card quality out of the Shaman. You don't even really need to have utility dorks or silver bullets for this to be a very good card to add, simply a good curve of monsters to choose from.

Azorius Chancery4.   The Bounce Lands

Well, they are two lands, in one card which somewhat helps you not getting too mana screwed. You don't need to filter and dig for lands when you just get another one effectively free and so these are fantastic in those two land hands. They are also somewhat colour fixers although the worst in this regard in the cube - try casting a Cryptic Command for 4 with 2 bounce lands in play for less than 5. They do come with a very reasonable penalty in both tempo and vulnerability however as we are finding with Chrome Mox and Vampiric Tutor, no drawback is as bad as being mana screwed. Also like Chrome Mox they do not let you directly cut a land and count more like one and a half lands (or half a land in the case of Mox) which leads to more tunable decks and more precise builds. I like it when you can use a drawback to your advantage which is highly achievable with bounce lands, you can re-use your Teetering Peaks style lands or cycle off a Tranquil Thicket, you can turn on your Land Tax or abuse Cataclysm. I mentioned the WoW trading card game earlier and how it solves some of Magic's problems but is a bit linear and dry as a result. They also have the same problem in reverse, it is impossible to get mana or colour screwed but getting all the wrong actual cards and failing to curve is nearly as bad. The laying of any card as a land is a neat mechanic and solves screw issues although it is not for Magic. The other thing WoW TCG does to smooth resource issues is to give its quests (the land equivalent) token abilities that allow you to regain some late game value and this really helps in mana flood situations. In relative terms such cards would be very powerful in Magic as they would probably just be strictly better than basic land or barely playable. Coming into play tapped or always dealing you damage is often too much of a drawback to have on many or any of your lands and would not be worth it for a marginal effect. Something like having a 5 mana scry for 2 on a land would rarely be activated and thus rarely worth it over the basic land unless it had no drawback at which point it would see play everywhere with no reason not to. It would however improve the game and reduce the number of occasions drawing too much land decided things. This has little to do with bounce lands other than they have a slightly similar feel. Most of the WoW quests draw you a card for around the equivalent of 4 mana, bounce lands sort of draw you a land for two but you are forced to pay that cost when you make it. Most ability lands in Magic are all about the ability, often the land they are on is the nut low at producing mana if it does at all. Frequently using the lands ability renders the land unable to produce more mana. I would like to see more ability lands who are still primarily lands and really only usefully offer their effects in extreme game situations.

Lonely Sandbar3.   The Cycling Lands

The cycling lands are one of the best anti flood lands I was discussing previously that Magic has. They do come with a stiff drawback over a basic land however they need not even be made when you are flush with lands and so never really hurt you with their coming into play tapped. I tend to play these when I am land heavy and want to safely reduce my land count where as I tend to play the bounce lands when I feel I am light and need to give my land count a boost. The cycling lands not only help you avoid floods by turning lands into card draw and avoid screws by allowing you to play more lands in your deck in the first place but they help you curve out as well. You might only have three or four lands total but feel that tempo is more important and therefore cycle your land on turn one to increase your odds of getting a two drop. As with my earlier request for more lands that are good lands complete with weak late game utility I would like to see more cycling lands that are comparable to basic lands as producers but with far more onerous cycling requirements.

Faithless Looting2.   Faithless Looting

Card quality for card disadvantage at just the right cost. Careful Study was good enough to be played in decks where you could abuse the discard, Faithless Looting is good enough that you can play it in most red decks regardless. Being cheap it allows you to dig your way out of a screw with nearly as much gusto as the best blue equivalents. It also scales well into the late game where the flashback cost is less steep and you have acquired some dead cards. It is one of the best cards for both screws and floods and it is in a colour which has very little access to either draw or filter effects. As with many of the cards in this list it does cost you and in this case it is card advantage but we return to the simple point that you could have any number of cards, if they are all land or all spells you are not going to be doing much. It is more the case of whether the card disadvantage is worth the effect when you are not screwed or flooded, which the depth of filtering with a nice range of costs and the synergy of Looting with so many effects ensure is the case. Like the cycling lands it can help you curve out even if you already have a good number of lands.

Chromatic Star1.   Chromatic Star

Chromatic Star and its various comparable companions tend to be overlooked as they are never doing broken things. I think they are one of the finest examples of a card that improves magic. It is rare that they are an awful inclusion in any deck, they rarely are the reason you lose a game which cannot be said for a lot of cards such a the humble comes into play tapped lands. Unlike so many of the other cards in this list they replace themselves and frequently get cycled away without being used to help fix your colours at all. This means they are less of a risk to play than almost any other card, the worst they can be is a wasted mana and a delay in your information and even in that situation they are still helping by effectively allowing you a smaller deck. The lack of cards like this was the reason that Tolarian Academy was so hard to abuse in the MTGO cube recently. As they are artifacts there are a lot of cards they have good synergy with. When a card is inconsequential to add to your deck and needs no building around yet improves not only your mana consistency but the actual power of your other cards it is a bit of a no brainer. The fact that it is a single use card also makes it a better card design, it will not slow down games overly and it will provoke more difficult choices. So often do people greedily play the powerful card over the humble Chromatic Shape and never see their error as the heroic work of the Chromatic Shapes is so hard to even notice.

Honourable Mentions

Kor Skyfisher
Qasali Pridemage
Phyrexian Rager
Quirion Ranger
Arcane Denial
The Vivid Lands
Beast Within
Figure of Destiny
Think Twice
Lighthouse Chronologist
Student of Warfare
Izzet Charm
See Beyond

As you look over the top ten list and this selection of cards that didn't quite make it you probably notice some distinct themes. There are the cards that have a wide scope of uses or a wide range of allowable mana investments. There are those that give card quality or draw cards, there are cards that do specific things while being on reasonably costed tempo dorks and there are powerful effects tempered by drawbacks that may be used to good effect in times of need. The various cards that require you to return lands allow you to get three mana out of two lands when you are not making your normal land drops and the drawback becomes an aid while suffering the screw. Neat design gimmicks like this are what Magic wants more of. Dull, low powered cards that replace themselves allow you to pad out your deck thus increasing the consistency of getting your key cards and ensuring you have lands and stuff going on as well. There are also some mechanisms that crop up a few times and below is a list of my top five mechanisms that improve Magic. Being more general and touched on already for the most part I will briefly state why these mechanisms improve the game.

5. Evoke

Evoke is like level up but generally in reverse, it allows you to have a really strong late game card that can be used to lesser effect when in the more important and more random early stages of the game. It is not unlike many of the variable mana cost mechanisms like kicker or level up, all of which are good in the same regard however it has this elegance that the others lack that really gives it aesthetic appeal.

4. Level Up

Discussed at length in the Kargan Dragonlord section the only reason level up is better than kicker or evoke is that typically has a wider range allowing you to get going with just one or two mana and carry on being worthy investments all the way up to around ten mana. As floods and screws are the extreme ranges of Magic the range on level up best comes in to play. A Muldrifter does nothing to help your two mana screw while a Lighthouse Chronologist can win the game. Similarly on turn twelve with 9 mana open and nothing else going on the Chronologist is a pretty serious top deck and although the Muldrifter is great here too it does rather depend on what you get with it as to how much it helps.

Think Twice3. Flashback 

More of an aid against floods where the high flashback costs are much more worthwhile things to be doing (than the nothing you might well otherwise be getting upto). Turning this around though you are more likely to play cheap low power spells in a deck if they have flashback and may be used for extra value again later. This in turn means you can lower the curve of your deck without gimping the power output and will be more robust in games that you are land light. Flashback gives you more to get on with late game but by proxy will afford you the opportunity to have a stronger early game.

2. Scry

A low impact mechanic that simply helps up the consistency of your draws and has no impact on the gamestate at all. I felt scry was a little wasted, both by being a little overcosted but also for not being on any reasonable agro or cheap creatures. Magma Jet is just too weak at two mana to see cube play and would have been reasonable at one and fair at both one and sorcery speed. If Jet were slightly more powerful then it would be out there getting play and making Magic a better game. Scry is a mechanic that helps with both ends of the random issue in floods and screws. It is well designed as it tends to be a one off thus not clogging up game time. With it not effecting the board and the ability to scry for various amounts make it easy to tag on to things in a balanced manner and not make them too powerful.

1. Cycling

Cycling is simple yet highly effective at improving the game at all stages. Early game and while in danger of a screw the late game cards may be cycled in the hope of getting what you need and late game you can cycle off those cheap low impact spells to try and find big powerful cards. Cycling also allows you to play those more narrow out cards you typically try and cram on a dork or a charm without giving you dead cards or seriously hurting your consistency. Part of the beauty of cycling, like evoke, is the simplicity of the mechanism which would make it an excellent candidate to have as a more fundamental magic mechanism like flying that appears in every Magic set.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. I really like how you provide the most unique cube content out there, and you have really fresh and genuine insight. In the world of the MTG hivemind, it's nice to see an original perspective.