Bennie Smith Is 100% Right , Or: Why Clever Is Better Than Power

As long as Wizards thinks of Blue as the clever color, two things will tend to happen: One is that Blue will tend to be overpowered. Two is that Wizards misses chances to make other colors better and more fun.

I like Randy Buehler. He’s an excellent player, possibly a better writer – and when you compare the quality of recent sets to a lot of the older ones, I think you have to conclude that he and the rest of the team at Wizard are, in general, doing a great job. But judging from his recent statements, I think Randy and Wizards are about to repeat the mistakes of old regarding the various colors.

I remember when I first started playing Magic and I loved Green. How could you not? The creatures were just huge. Craw Wurm, who can deal with that? Scaled Wurm is the biggest thing in the universe. Then I found out that Green even had fatties that were (a new word for me at the time)”undercosted.” Force of Nature was like a 20/20 for cheap!

But then I, like others before and since, learned. Fatties are rarely that good. A color needs more than just big creatures to be viable…and if Green is stuck being the”creature color,” it is all too often going to suck.

Green has two problems: The first is that it gets very few good spells. When it does get a good spell, like Oath of Druids or Sylvan Library, it usually turns out to be best as a support spell for another color – usually Blue. That’s because good spells usually interact best with other good spells, rather than with creatures. Sylvan Library isn’t broken by Wild Mongrel or Blastoderm or Saproling Burst; it’s broken by shuffling effects and search and occasionally by life gain. Oath of Druids often fetches Green creatures and uses Gaea’s Blessing, but Green is still a support color, letting Blue do most of the real work.

The second problem is that, contrary to Randy’s opinion, Green’s creatures aren’t good enough. That’s right, not only are they not too good, they aren’t good enough. And the reason is that Green is limited to essentially vanilla creatures. They may look like they have abilities, but those abilities are typically limited to basic effects in the combat stage. Wizards can make them bigger or cheaper… But they almost never make them clever.

What do I mean by clever? Well, Morphling is extremely clever. Morphling can only attack and block, but he can actually do both. He’s almost impossible to kill. He flies. He hits hard and blocks hard.

In comparison, Wild Mongrel is semi-clever. He can dodge Circles and Moats and Ghastly Demise. He lets you do madness tricks. But mostly he just swings for two or three on the ground. He’s good because he’s cheap.

There are other clever creatures. Spike Weaver is one of the few Green examples. Avalanche Rider is clever. (Go Red!) Ophidian/Thieving Magpie/Finkel are clever. Tradewind Rider is clever. Temporal Adept is clever.

Blue is clever.

Randy made mention of a”pie” of abilities, and recognized that Blue has more than its share. R&D wants to correct that, and maybe they will. But I think they won’t, at least not for a while, unless they recognize an inherent bias in the way they think about the colors. Blue isn’t the color of flying, or of card drawing, or of instants, and Green isn’t the creature color.

Blue is the clever color. Green isn’t. Or, as [author name="Bennie Smith"]Bennie Smith[/author] put it,”Green already comes to the ass-kicking party with one leg, being a color imprisoned in the main phase, as SorcerySpeed.dec. Playing base green feels like playing Portal. EOT means Excellent Overrun Topdeck.”

Clever means that when the Wishes get printed, Blue’s is at instant speed… And has lots of clever targets. Clever means that Blue gets cards like Repulse and Exclude, while Green gets Aggressive Urge. Blue’s best card in Judgement lets you put three Flashback cards in your graveyard for two mana. (Sure, they may be Green cards – but the broken card is Blue.) Green’s best may be a creature enchantment that’s undercosted and if nothing goes wrong, might even give you a free elephant when the enchanted creature dies.

Just when Red lost Jokulhaups and has to pay two more for the improved version, Blue gets Upheaval. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t recognize that Upheaval is flat-out better than Jokulhaups? It’s a lot more clever to return the world to its owner’s hands (at a point where you’re best able to exploit this) than just to blow it up. Sure, Upheaval can be countered, but only if you’re clever enough to be Blue – and even then the Upheaval player can try to out-clever you with Mana Short.

Clever things often happen at instant speed and bend or break the rules. It means that Blue isn’t just the color of card drawing or countering. It means that Blue is the color of broken things. Blue is the color of creature control (Aether Burst and Repulse tend to get played in preference to any Black removal in Psychatog decks), global removal (Upheaval), permission, card drawing, and too many other good things.

As long as Wizards thinks of Blue as the clever color, two things will tend to happen. One is that Blue will tend to be overpowered. The clever mechanics are usually the best ones, so cards like Fact or Fiction are more likely to pop up than broken cards in other colors. All of the Alliances”free” spells have seen top-level constructed play, but only Force of Will consistently shows up in the majority of Extended decks. Blue may be the non-creature color – but Morphling, Tradewind Rider, and Ophidian are among the best creatures ever. Lots of other Blue spells didn’t look that amazing at first but have since proven to be extremely powerful: Gush, Donate, Intuition, Brainstorm, etc. Cleverness multiplies, so when you put a large number of spells together, the clever ones are the most likely to show that they are broken in combination with something else.

The other problem with Blue being the clever color is that Wizards misses chances to make other colors better and more fun. To make Green and Red better now, you are almost entirely restricted to upping their raw power. That leads to fast games and quick kills, rather than skill-based competition. Punisher is a neat mechanic, but it is almost anti-clever, and if it turns out to be good it will probably be because a Red deck appears that can kill on turn 4 (or on turn 5 because the opponent had to let you draw three cards or else die on turn 4).

Let’s look at Hell-Bent Raider. Wizards decided, reasonably enough, that Red (being the color of anger and rage) should tend to discard randomly. It’s a nice example of flavor guiding card design… But random discard is anything but clever. Hell Bent Raider, as a rare, could easily have been made just a bit more clever, and had his ability allow you to choose your discard.

The obvious consequence of this is that Red decks could cast Violent Eruption and Fiery Temper with their madness costs more reliably. But would this really be so bad? We used to have a spell called Lightning Bolt. It was good, even too good, but it wasn’t Ancestral Recall. Being able to cast your three-mana bolt for R every now and then isn’t going to break any formats. Violent Eruption is quite good, too, but I don’t think it would break Standard. So what do we have instead? The Raider can’t compete with the more mindless beatdown creatures out there and he isn’t clever enough to win a spot that way, so he mostly sits and waits.

Limiting quality to raw power isn’t good for Magic. It reduces those colors to single-minded strategies and doesn’t enhance the skill of the game. Look at what is supposedly making Green so powerful right now. It has a really good one-drop (that is often cast for 0), one of the best two-drops the game has ever seen, a 4/4 that often costs 2G, and a single card that can produce two Hill Giants for three and then four mana.

All of these cards are very good. None of them are clever.

Other than casting Rootwalla or Arrogant Wurm at instant speed, Green is still restricted to the attack phase.

It sounds like Wizards recognizes the problem, but may be heading in the wrong direction for a solution. Blue’s card-drawing spells becoming Sorceries is a notable example. This will certainly make things harder for Blue (Counterspell and Concentrate have a lot less synergy than Counterspell and Fact or Fiction), but I don’t think the best answer is to make Blue less clever. Instead, let’s make the other colors more clever.

Put another way, Wizards doesn’t need to make Blue share the wealth in terms of number of mechanics. It needs to make Blue share the cleverness. This can be done while keeping the other colors in theme, and doing so will make the game richer and more fun. Magic itself is a clever game – that’s why we like it. Here are a few ways that I think Wizards can up the cleverness of all of its colors.

Green isn’t just the color of creatures, it’s the color of Nature. Traditionally this has been translated as mana acceleration, large creatures and pump effects to make sure you got the point when we said large. But that interpretation is hardly necessary. Nature is about overflowing bounty, uncontrolled growth, and new life from the old. Nature can draw cards… Who produces more resources than nature? Why can’t a Nature wizard mess with his opponent’s mana? (Would Mana Short really make less sense as a Green card than as a Blue one?)

Green should have creatures that aren’t measured purely by size vs. mana costs. Jolrael’s Centaur was a good Green creatures… Untargetable and flanking, but actually overcosted from a pure beatdown perspective. Granger Guildmage let Green borrow a bit of direct damage if it allied with Red. Green’s cantrip creatures were all fine, but each one should have been costed at one mana less. A 2/2 cantrip for 2G and a 3/3 cantrip for 2GG would be fine. Green should have some Opposition-like card that let its creatures tie down the opponent’s lands. (Would a”lands-only” Opposition for Green really be so out of flavor?)

Green should also have spells that generate new life from the old. Give Green a cheap instant (G or 1G) that lets it sacrifice creatures to draw cards: How about”Evolution, 1G, Instant: Sacrifice X creatures, draw X + 1 cards”? That would be in flavor (if a bit dark), would give Green some resistance to global removal spells, and could enable a deck designed to generate tokens and then use them to draw lots of cards.

Red should have destruction abilities that give choices and provide tempo advantage, rather than just blowing things up or going to the dome. Avalanche Riders was a great card. It disrupted the opponent, although at 3R it didn’t stop someone from casting spells at all, and it presented interesting challenges. Did you sacrifice tempo for card advantage by playing echo, or did you just tack a Shock onto your Stone Rain and cast something else? Echo led to other clever possibilities through recursion.

Black is already doing pretty well in cleverness. Skeletal Scrying is a wonderful example of a clever card that is still in flavor. Paying life and cards in the graveyard for a powerful instant-speed card drawer is excellent.

White’s mechanics are, as Zvi has pointed out many times, inherently weak. Gaining life and preventing damage are amazing against certain strategies, but are on a different level than drawing cards or affecting the board. White has made up for this in part by having great weenies (which it seems Wizards is determined to reestablish) and by having a handful of really good spells, like Wrath of God, Balance, Armageddon, and Swords to Plowshares. How do we make White more clever while keeping it in flavor? First of all, make the lifegain and protection cards better. Broken lifegain might be bad for the game, defeating beatdown strategies altogether, and unless it had WWW in the cost it would be a Blue card anyway. But what about reasonable lifegain in cantrip form? Reviving Dose was a nice try… Now lower the cost to 1W and let it prevent damage or gain life. Next, let White play with God on its side. That means not just one 4cc mass removal spell, but two. God can kill all the creatures and God can blow up all the land. We’re talking about God, after all. I don’t care if it’s Armageddon or Cataclysm, but bring one of them back. Not only will that give White decks a tool they need, it will also mean that Blue decks have to think much more seriously about tapping out. Without some way to blow up the mana, both WW and G/W decks will continue to lose out to U/W and U/B. (Seriously, if I’m playing U/W or U/B and I have to tap out on turn four to cast Concentrate or Deep Analysis, do you really think I care if you cast a couple of weenies or an Ernham Djinn while I can’t counter?)

Finally, make clever gold cards. Invasion Block showed how options could be expanded if the colors are willing to share. Prophetic Bolt, Goblin Legionnaire, Probe, the Battlemages, and others showed us how colors could borrow a bit of cleverness from their neighbors. Maybe Armageddon should come back costing 2GW instead of 3W?

Let cleverness reign.


Chad Ellis

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