Wednesday 25 October 2017

The Decline of "Sticky" Creatures

In this article we are going to have a look at "sticky minions" which is a term from Hearthstone that refers to a creature that needs killing twice. Magic being more complicated that Hearthstone means that there are a much wider range of cards that could be considered "sticky". While these various forms will have different mechanisms at play and different synergies to exploit they do all share a couple of key elements. Sticky minions are all harder to deal with! Either they require specific removal cards or they require sinking significant resources to deal with them. They are great for maintaining a board presence or for extending with greater safety. They can often represent a big tempo swing too based on the context in which they are used. While you can get bigger tempo for your mana by using normal creatures like Baneslayer Angel, Goblin Guide and Tarmogoyf these are simply looking at tempo per mana in isolation. If you are under pressure having something that gets to block and trade twice over two turns is a huge tempo recovery. The humble Strangleroot Geist is going to be a safer defensive tool than a Goyf in a lot of situations as they cannot just Doom Blade it out of the way and carry on swinging. On the flip side if you are applying pressure and you are ahead you would far rather play a sticky minion than a normal one as mass removal will still leave you with a board. Not only does the tempo from sticky minions tend to wind up better over a number of turns than normal ones but they also tend to generate more value.
Kitchen Finks
There are three broad categories I would break down the Hearthstone term sticky minion to for Magic. Those are replacement, recursive and resilient. Replacement dorks are those which automatically put something(s) onto the battlefield when they leave it or die. The two defining features of this group are that they don't require you to do anything extra to replace themselves and they only do it once. This group includes all the persist and undying creatures and then it includes things that leave token creatures behind when they die. This group is the most comparable to the Hearthstone sticky minions overall.

Recursive dorks is a more commonly used magic term that often includes the replacement dorks but not the resilient ones. In this article I wish to be a bit more specific about recursive dorks and exclude the replacement ones from it. This leaves the creatures that are able to get themselves back to the hand or battlefield in some capacity for some cost or met condition. Many recursive dorks can repeatedly bounce back into play while others only get to do it once (embalm, eternalize etc) and so you could further break down this group. It is not all that important, the first recursion is the significant one for the most part and the cost to do so is the more defining feature. Another relevant overlap in this group is that they all have synergy with discard and self mill effects. The tempo side of this group is widely varied. Some cards are decent enough tempo plays when used normally. These tend to be the more linear cards. Some can be huge tempo plays if you manage to cheat them in with synergies. Some are more about the value or even the inevitability and are less impressive tempo regardless of how you get them into play. A more relevant extension of this group would be the cards like Misthollow Griffin and the few other cards that can be played from exile. These have many similarities but don't share all the same synergies. Mostly they are interesting from a combo perspective with Food Chain! They are few enough and uninteresting enough that we can broadly ignore these for the sake of space and time. Recursive dorks, even without the persist style cards or the from exile cards is still the largest group of the three with old cards as well as new ones filling up the ranks.

Thrun, the Last TrollThe last group is the resilient dorks. You could argue they are different enough in function to the other two groups that you shouldn't be having them under the same umbrella term. In cube I think that they do wind up fulfilling many of the same roles and providing the same kinds of advantages as the cards in the other two groups. What I consider resilient dorks to be are those that are particularly hard to remove and require very specific answers. This would include such cards as True-Name Nemesis, Aetherling, Thrun, and even things like Fleecemane Lion and Falkenrath Aristocrat. The key thing about these cards is that once they are dealt with that is it, they are entirely gone and are not coming back without some external help. The reasons they feel like they belong in this group are as follows; most of the removal you can use to remove resilient dorks is the same as the removal that most effectively answers the other two groups. All three groups tax your opponent's resources in the same kind of way. The next reason is that you get to use them in the same way. If your opponent's out to your board is a mass removal spell then you drop down the dork you have that is impervious to their kinds of mass removal. If they are ahead and rely on spot removal to clear a path then a dork that has hexproof is going to be a real chore for them. The resilient dorks are a little less flexible than the replacement or the recursive ones (those that can block at least!) in which contexts they will help you out in however they are typically a lot more brutal for your opponent when they hit the right situation.

Spectral LynxYou could argue the case for a much wider range of dorks than I am considering resilient for this essay. You could call anything with regenerate or a random protection from a colour or even card type as a resilient dork. You could even call something with very high toughness to be resilient and that wouldn't be entirely inaccurate, it would be pretty true against red players! There is very much a sliding scale and I have arbitrarily cut it off at quite a high up point. Colour protection is narrow and more of a sideboard thing or gravy on an otherwise playable card. Regenerate is increasingly rare in cube and the combination of mana costs and effects that bypass it make it fairly low impact. The main things I am considering for this group are indestructible, hexproof and shroud, cheap flicker effects and broad protection mechanisms. I am also only really looking at reasonably well statted dorks for the mana that you aim to play. Obviously Progenitus and Emrakul and Ulamog and those cards are pretty resilient but they are deck defining cards you build around. They are not things you put in your deck to improve your curve and aspects of your deck!

So until fairly recently creatures that were sticky were all pretty nuts in cube. They ruined control decks for a long time and were generically good in a huge array of archetypes. Their ability to provide both value and tempo combined with their ability to proactively punish people all helped contribute to them being a fairly defining aspect of cube. A lot of the most desirable cards were the sticky ones. This is still true to a degree but the fairer or more linear options have fallen off a lot in value of late. The bombs are still bombs but the rest are far less special now. They are all a lot more counterable or beatable than they used to be. So what has changed? Why are these types of creature not holding their value? I am not suggesting they are no longer good, I am merely saying they are not as good as they where and shouldn't necessarily be picked with the same priority.

Incendiary FlowAs with most things in magic I would say it is a combination of factors that has lead to the declining value of sticky dorks. Removal options have become deeper and wider. Threats have also become better. Five years plus ago there were only a handful of good cards that dealt well with something like a Kitchen Finks and it was also one of the more aggressive threats you could play. Now neither of those things hold true. Threats have also become even more diverse. More threatening lands exist, a far deeper range of planeswalkers are on offer. We now have vehicles, gods and the ability to steal and play loads of things from our opponent's deck too! There is also just a lot more on offer in the way of sticky dorks which rather reduces the demand on the fairer ones.

The largest contributor to the decline out of these factors feels like the power creep in the threats on offer. Tempo is increasingly more relevant in cube regardless of your archetype. Sticky minions are effectively back loaded. They only go above and beyond after they die (or would have). If you make a Kitchen Finks or a True Name Nemesis and they just entirely ignore it killing you with evasive threats and direct damage then your card has performed terribly. No one is playing a 3/2 that gains 2 life for 3 mana. It is not until they cast a Pyroclasm or something that you get any real tempo or value out of either of these two cards. While I asserted earlier that these cards were ultimately tempo that is exactly the problem. No one is trying to claim Ancestral Visions is better than Ancestral Recall. Having to wait four turns for your effect rather curtails its power. If the game is decided within that time frame then your card did nothing useful. The comparison is probably better between Search for Azcanta and a lot of sticky creatures. You do get something right away but it is typically not great until you get more than just the first part of the card. If your opponent can bypass or ignore your sticky minion then you have conceded tempo by playing the sticky minion over a front loaded alternative. Even if your opponent can just delay you getting much out of your sticky creature then they will be mitigating the effect that card has on the game.

Bloodbraid ElfFront loaded cards are more vulnerable than sticky minions but they can still offer value and they can do so without relying on their opponent to cash in. They also give the tempo right there and then when it has most value. Bloodbraid is the classic example and remains one of the premium cards for offering value and tempo simultaneously. Newer cards like Rabblemaster and Pia Nalar also act as front loaded tempo and value cards. Sure, your value is only a 1/1 token should they kill the main body but it is enough to make these cards fairly strong. While they are worse against mass removal than sticky minions this is far less of a concern than trying to maximize your tempo. There are enough non-creature threats kicking about so as to greatly reduce the value of mass removal. It is still needed but it is far less effective than you might hope. I would rather have high threat and tempo dorks in my creatures slots and have things like planeswalkers in the slots I previously may have tried to fill out more with sticky creatures.

Another element of this is simply the level of threat any given card poses. A Kitchen Finks is not all that threatening. It has no evasion, it doesn't do something every turn it stays in play nor does it represent that frightening of a clock. This makes it a whole lot easier to ignore and thus reduce the value of the persist. More dangerous cards command reactions from your opponent and quickly. If you let someone untap with a Chandra flipwalker there is a very real chance they are just going to kill you. 20 to 0 is a real possibility now too with Insult. Even cards like Thermo Alchemist represent a higher threat level in most cases than a Kitchen Finks. If I can force you to blow removal on my two drop and forgo playing what you wanted to play on your turn that is quite a big win. This is usually the case even if it is a straight one for one trade. Threats are better than answers in the cube and a lot more numerous.

Tireless TrackerTireless Tracker is another great example of a threatening threat. It both generates card advantage over time and grows in size and as such generally needs killing. The player with an unkilled Tracker in play is the heavy favourite in any longer game. Cards like these tax your opponents answers and their game plan far more than sticky dorks. They also have the advantage of winning the game quickly when compared to the sticky minions. The faster you are winning the less chance you give your opponents to turn it around. Rampaging Ferocidon is another new example. You can easily 1 for 1 it with a Doom Blade or most other average 2 CMC+ spot removal. In my old school way of thinking this makes it a bit of a risk. The thing is, when they don't kill it the card is a complete beating. It has some evasion, it disrupts and it does direct damage. It threatens in multiple ways and it does so well. It really does feel like you either need an immediate answer to it or you needed to be extremely ahead before it came down to beat it. The main thing that has changed and makes my old school risk assessment of this card off is that there are just so many high threat level cheap cards in the cube now. If you have more than your opponent has good answers for then the one that sticks will win the game. We are well past the critical mass of good stand alone threats that you don't need to try and grind out value with safer more resilient dorks.

I did state that there was more removal which was one of the reasons sticky dorks were getting worse. Then I also said that threats were better and more numerous than answers in cube which may have come across as a contradiction. Certainly red and black have gained some exile effects which help a lot against the sticky minions. White has also greatly filled its ranks with more good exile removal, including two that don't target! Yes, a Pillar of Flame is a perfect Answer to a Kitchen Finks and an Arc Trail is the perfect answer to a Pia Nalaar and yes, in theory you could have a deck with more removal than the number of threats likely to be played against you. This is overlooking when you have the Arc Trail when they have the Finks, when you have the Pillar when they have the Pia, when they have either and you have neither or indeed when you have both and they have nothing. In all those other situations you are behind or at best, doing nothing to get ahead. This is fundamentally why threats are better than removal. I'm not saying don't play removal, I am just trying to illustrate why tempo is so important in cube and why good threats are the best way to get it.

Selfless Spirit
One final but minor point is that there is also more in the way of things to protect your dorks or get them back. White has a bunch of new tools to make their things indestructible and green and black have way more in the way of recursive effects on otherwise good cards. The increased abundance of these kinds of effects further improve the value of cheap effective threat cards and reduce the value of sticky dorks.

Sticky minions are still great and still see lots of play. They are just coming down in power level to quite a nice healthy place. They don't define the goings on in the cube meta as they used to and are just nice things to supplement decks with here and there. My plan is to follow this article with three top X lists for the three various kinds of sticky minions presently in the cube, the recursive, the resilient and the replacement. That should hopefully show where those cards sit and how good they are in the present state of cube.

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