Monday, 20 March 2023

Flash, Ward, Haste


Flash, ward, haste sounds a lot like "hands, face, space" - an old UK government anti covid spread mantra. It is however seemingly the advice I would give regarding threats in cube. Your Baneslayers rather than your Mulldrifter cards at least. If you are getting enough value out of the EtB effect from your play then this doesn't apply anywhere near as significantly. Sure, these things still improve a card that is mostly about the EtB, especially flash, but a top end Baneslayer like threat without one of haste, ward, or flash, is a bit of a non-starter in cube these days. Not at least without some other form of security that isn't ward, such as the recursion on The Scarab God and that sort of thing. Flash, ward, and haste all in fact help a creature with a "when this attacks" trigger to have it act much more like an EtB trigger.

Why creatures with these three keywords are so much inherently better than those without all comes down to the risk inherent in a big mana play. If you invest five mana in a Baneslayer Angel and they answer it with a standard two, or even three mana removal spell then you are significantly down in mana. Your big power play is gone and trying to deploy it put you behind. All in all, pretty devastating. Obviously big EtB effects mitigate this by providing some instant return on investment and thus reducing the blowout potential of answers. Proper 4 to 6 mana game ending threats in midrange cube however tend not to have much in the way of EtB effects. It is simply hard to design cards where both the body and the EtB effect are wanted simultaneously and still have the effects worth the mana. I want my 5 drops to be able to win me the game so if I am getting 3 or so mana worth out of the EtB trigger then my remaining couple of manas worth of dork is hardly likely to be much of a threat!

Back in the day a lot of the better threats had on death triggers that would help to protect against removal but such things are unreliable these days with vast swathes of exile quality removal in most colours. Either it needs to be a leaves play effect or it needs to be a small part of an otherwise playable card. Too much investment in an on death effect is asking for trouble. 

Protection effects have always been powerful, as have flash, and haste. There just wasn't that much of it and you had to pay a lot for it. This meant that it was not common to find these things on many sufficiently powerful top end threats. Now that we have plenty of options to chose from between lots of sufficiently playable and powerful cards we can afford to be picky. When being picky it becomes clear that cards with certain mechanics rise to the top, and so here we are discussing those most buoyant of mechanics. 

Haste is pretty clear cut. It lets the dork do what the dork is supposed to do. It does that quicker and while also being harder to stop, on at least that first hit. Haste is just than mini personal Time Walk for that dork that really helps up the tempo, value, and surprise factor. Glorybringer without haste would be powerful still but it would be a lot worse, being slow removal and giving a big opportunity to respond. I doubt it would be in the cube without that haste but with it the card is one of the very best creatures. 

Flash functions a lot like haste in that they will need instant speed interaction to stop it for that first attack and it has a good surprise factor. In tempo terms flash is worse than haste but in interactive terms it is a lot better. Flash allows you to deploy these cards very safely and it also allows you to impose the fear of open mana on the opponent. This will often make them take softer lines so that they are not devastated by your potential Settle the Wreckage or Mystic Confluence etc. The more reactive your deck is with answers and instants the better flash is relative to haste. Conversely the more aggressive and proactive your deck the more haste is the place to be. Both are great. Both add a lot to the party in terms of answering walkers or upsetting your opponent's plan for the game. They do not scale with each other very well but that is of no matter, you only need one to elevate good dorks to great ones!

Flash and haste have always been good. No shock there. Ward however is newer and the power and application of the ability was not as well understood by me. Obviously it is a perk, a kind of soft hexproof. Ward is good on any card but it does have very interesting scaling, in part because ward can come as a life cost, a mana tax, or a card cost. Each of these finds itself better suited to certain strategy and card types, and might as well be a different mechanic in terms of what it is doing for the card. On the big threats I wish to keep in play I am most into the mana tax costs, especially in decks with spell disruption. Iymrith is arguably blues best threat at present because it is so hard to shift. Sticky reliable dorks that allow you to build game plans around are great and ward is a relatively cheap way of helping your cards to be as such. Hexproof and indestructible are so powerful and tedious to play against that including them on most 4-7 mana cards comes at too much of a cost and the rest of the card is typically unimpressive or overly restrictive. Ward however costs less to deploy and leaves enough space to have a really meaty dork for the mana cost as well. Ward mimics the protective effects of hexproof or protection without costing the earth, sucking in terms of game play, and being a bit random. Ward as a mana cost ensures you are not going to get blown out in terms of tempo for making your big play and that is the main risk of those big plays. As such it makes such things a lot more accessible which is exactly what we are looking for in this kind of design space. Ward plays well in an interactive way and opens up the design space of the game. 

Ward as a life cost or card cost play into the tempo and value elements of the game. They make cards better suited to their task or more rounded. Ward as a card cost taxes value and means that if they want to get a tempo swing on you by killing your threat it is going to cost them in value. You used to want a lot of your midrange cards to have an EtB value generation effect so that you could keep up the value pressure. Card discard ward is a bit like the opposite of an EtB card draw. It gives you the same kind of security but very much from the opposite side of things. Mostly what it lets you do is have a card much more about the body than the EtB effect but with the same sort of insurance policy. Again, more design space opened and more ability to make creatures that are creatures 1st and not really just spells with a tagged on body. 

Lastly we just have the ward as a life cost. This Makes cards more threatening and punishing. It makes threats better threats. They are always doing something towards their goal unless mass removal is used on them. It is akin to haste in the way that "ward - discard a card" is akin to EtB draw a card. A life cost ward dork with haste and "ward - pay life roughly equal to its power" is a kind of super haste we have only seen before in the likes of unglued! 

Life payment ward is the least interesting of the wards as it is a bit more linear but it is none the less a fine ability to be able to tune a card with. It will add a nice dynamic to the game, naturally people will shy away from lines that pay life if they can avoid it. This kind of card is interesting because of the choices and lines imposed. This is one instance when the old adage of "giving your opponents a choice is always bad" is incorrect. The reason for that is because in this case the way we don't give our opponents a choice is with hexproof and as discussed, that is worse for the game overall. Hexproof is more powerful but power is not what we want, it is good games. Ward gives you the things you want from hexproof without making the game worse, a happy medium between protection and interactive gameplay.  

Mostly this essay is just an ode to ward and what a great new mechanic it is. I have disguised it as good advice on what you want your meatier threats to be doing but somehow instead I seem to have just harped on about how ward is getting me going. I am always just delighted when such a great new thing can be added into the game despite it being so old. Scry impressed me about 10 years in, menace impressed me whenever that showed up. All those food, clues, treasures, and the like showed up about five years ago and were a big old boost to the game and design space. Ward is just the latest of what I hope continues to be impressive innovation.   

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