There is one word that has been ill-defined through Magic’s history, and thoroughly abused in the process. What makes this remarkable is that the word is exceptionally common and in our daily parlance.

The word of which I speak is “better.”

There are many ways to start this article. So many quotes, so many chained, ostentatious opening paragraphs that feed of those quotes, all which serve to not only ridicule the quoted individual, but by inference, increase my own e-penis in mass and girth for the duration of the article by implication. There are many ways to start this article.

There are far fewer ways to start it well.

Magic has a subculture around it. It is an environment where with only four hundred thousand players, five hundred thousand of them lay claim to being the original creator of the word “Mise.” It has its shortcuts, its slang, and its myths and its legends. Many have heard of Darwin Kastle’s Best Fact Or Fiction ever (the cards every time being of different names, but always the important detail remains the same), Kai Budde Rip The Morphling topdeck, the phenomenal play of Spring Forth My Burly Protector, and more recently, Craig JonesLightning Helix, or the mythological PS: Demonfire You.

Many of the crowd are nodding along and smirking, recalling these grand old stories. This is how a culture forms — it is through the acretion of common material. We did not simply spring into being, Magic Players All, with knowledge of the rules and the events. Piece by piece, we drew together a mass of information, dispersing it imperfectly and watching how far the best pieces run. I might hazard that Who’s the Beatdown is one of the best-disseminated pieces in the culture, but that’s just looking for an easy answer — chances are, when the game was smaller and the internet louder, some other piece hit a larger portion of the population.

Along with this common dialogue of stories comes a common lexicon. A language — our language. A fine article — fine, but for its scandalous attempts to misnomer Murray — was written on this very topic, but it approached the ideal in an incorrect fashion. Specifically, one does not generate these kind of memes by making it clear — “this is the meme, and it must be kept.” Memes are a kind of spontaneously-generated verbal virus. A less polite author would at this point draw a metaphor continuing the disease angle, but I’ll spare you. One does not create a meme, the community creates a meme.

There are, I am certain, Magic players who proudly slap down their Skeletal Vampires with a deadpan “I’m Batman.” I am even certain that many of those individuals, I have met — and I am equally sure that on the other side of the planet, there is someone asking someone else, ‘Why do you call Skeletal Vampire Murray?’ – and the explanation unfolds. Such a word is poorly defined, and the infectious quality of the term is entirely based on your own experience. Those who have not played Monkey Island 3 will not make the connection, losing the humor and the affiliation and therefore, the strength of the term. Those who aren’t fans of Batman enough to recognize the humor in the deadpan “I’m Batman” will similarly eschew that same phrase, generally speaking. And finally, there are those to whom both comics and computers are new-fangled, and those individuals are likely old enough to be fans of the shambling animate corpse known to this modern world as Ozzy Osbourne.

Most often, words are used by consensus. “Sick,” for example, has many meanings depending on your area and culture — even moreso when we’re talking about spoken words in the English language, a language fraught with ambiguities and polyphony.

There is one word, however, that has not only been ill-defined through Magic’s history, but thoroughly abused in the process. What makes this remarkable is that the word is exceptionally common and in our daily parlance.

The word of which I speak is “better.”

In Which I Annoy Everyone
This discussion has been brewing, in part, for some time — an article that I always thought wasn’t worth writing, and which was primarily brought into being by the voice of the community regarding Ghost Dad. A far better theorist than myself, one Pat Chapin (barnbarnbarnbarnbarn) has already demonstrated how Ghost Dad was a good example of a common behavior in Magic. However, while Ghost Dad influenced play in an information Cascade, it also helped to bring to the surface the oh-so-commonly misused term better.

Now, it didn’t help matters that, during this period, the major pundit of Magic, Mr Flores, was busy claiming that every last one of the decks that were taken to this event, and especially those that did well, posting positions and successes higher than, well, his, sucked. Part of that involved ripping on Ghost Dad for quite some time, because, well, you know, he didn’t make it himself, and it made Osyp, piloting his brainchild, look slightly silly.

Since I didn’t get enough mileage out of Tallowisp the first time, let’s return to the little controversial two-drop.

Tallowisp is a kind of card I referred to as a Grozoth about a year ago, and what he refers to three different types of cards, implying some deck structure around himself. Let’s step aside from the obvious analyses, since they’re not only eighteen months too late, they were done to death in the intervening time since then and now. And then some hobbit with a trumped-up sense of self-importance went and, like, did well at a Pro Tour with the card. He also had the gall to be entertaining to read!

Then, as will happen when an idea comes out of the woodwork, the idea’s detractors coalesced, fully-formed and composed of cynicism and the ever-so-subtle scent of sour grapes. Criticism was leveled, time after time, at the deck, because, apparently, it ran bad cards.


Stop, please.

Let’s rewind a few weeks to before the tournament, where another deck was making the rounds. Without Steam Vents, the Best Card In Guildpact, there was this mana-deprivation deck given the incredibly cerebral title “Magnivore.” It was doing fine in the Magic Online Environment (the same Environment that gave rise to Ghost Dad), even without the dual lands to power it up. It was humming along happily with a light dusting of countermagic, and such stellar spells as Demolish and Eye of Nowhere.

Mike Flores main complaint about Ghost Dad was that it ran bad cards; his main complaint about Beach House was that it couldn’t beat Magnivore… and there was mute silence on why Magnivore wasn’t also a Bad Deck.

What was the solution? Why, run better cards! Genius!

Ironically, Mike then spent a full article talking about the genius move of putting Shining Shoal (which, apparently, was very, very easy to play around, so, you know) in Glare of Subdual, making the entire deck into an effectively different archetype and propelling at least one loyal SCG reader to the top tables. Having played both the “before” and “after” decks in this case, I can say certainly that, yes, yes indeed, they were different decks.

But Shining Shoal is… a bad card, right?

Was it? Not really. Is Pillory? No, not really either. You see, it’s complicated…

So goes the argument. Typically it boils down to people voicing such incredibly cogent arguments as “Mortify > Pillory.” They then go on to cite, well, nothing at all, to justify this claim. Terms like Strictly Better, or worse, Almost Strictly Better were bandied about, sounding somewhat like Deepak Chopra’s attempts to prove the existence of God by eating a banana. That is, full of sound and fury, and proving nothing.

In the way of forums, he who yelled loudest and last won. Mike Flores, by dint of having the biggest, bestest forum posts that we all have to pay to read, was that man, and his wisdom of Why Ghost Dad Was Bad was adopted. It was then regurgitated when Richard Feldman committed the heinous crime of putting a Tallowisp in a deck that also featured Paladin En-Vec.

And through it all, people repeated the hedge wisdom enough to convince themselves that it was fact, even though they had no grounds to do so!

A lie repeated often enough becomes fact, but this isn’t an instance of a lie being repeated. It’s an instance of a supposition being repeated so often it becomes proof. And in that regard, it was a clear and cogent reminder of how, for a group of gamers who ostensibly value intelligence*, we’re an awfully cretinous lot at times. We don’t want proof, we want the illusion of proof. And the sad fact is that we convince ourselves that our inclinations are correct, despite evidence to the contrary.

Hogs In the Hedges
Another bit of hedge wisdom that gets regurgitated, often by Rogue (French for ‘bad’) Deckbuilders, is that You Never Can Tell. The weirdest damn cards will show up in top decks, and they will often be replaced, outmoded, returned to the decklist when you realize why you needed it, counter-metagamed out of it again, and then, in a retro-throwback probably born out of laziness and then post-facto justified as a Genius Metagame Move, be in the deck as it waves its way out of Standard, everyone accepting that it was a Good Card.

Then there’s the Ferrett’s Maxim: There Are No Good Cards, Just Good Decks. The guy knows more than he lets on this one sentence, because the fact is, there are no Good Decks — there are just Good Enough Decks.

Some people approach metagaming like it’s a jigsaw puzzle. You find the corners (the most-extreme examples of decks in the archetypes) then you fill in the borders (less extreme variants right now, or hybrids along the way), then you start working towards the center. In this regard, it’s not a complicated puzzle, just a tedious one. And then a lot of people get it utterly wrong.

Leaving aside what seems to be a complete and utter inability of many people to build a decent sideboard, let alone select the cards in it per matchup appropriately, or even test sideboarded games, there is a whole new layer to this puzzle and that is time. There is no point, right now, testing for Worlds next year, because the format is going to change a lot between now and then. For that matter, at least if you believe Ravitz, there’s no real point testing Dragonstorm right now, because it’s going to be the subject of a lot of hate**. Time is the factor. As decks get older, and as tech gets more developed, things around them change… and thus we find ourselves at the core of the term better.

You see, nothing in Magic is better without something to compare it to.

The Hard Rules
There are many things in Magic that aren’t explicated on the cards themselves, and yet, so few of them have any relevance without these very cards to examine. You have a life total of twenty, you start with seven cards in the grip, you can play one land a turn, and that’s just about it (I’m sure actual judges will chip in on the manifold things I’m neglecting, but for the better part, that’s all we have so far). Now let’s check out Inspiration.

3U — Instant
Target player draws two cards.

Two cards. Four mana. Okay, neat! Now, how good is it?



Well, it depends

In Vintage? Don’t even bother. In Vintage, any and all card draw has to stack up to either Gifts Ungiven or Ancestral Recall. In Standard, it’s not even legal. But for little while there, in Mirrodin-Through-Champions Standard, Inspiration was lurking in the maindeck of mono-blue control, as a handy way of snagging a few vital cards in one of those desperate early turns where your opponent was busy tapping out to ramp up mana and toying with his Top.

The core of this issue is that all card power is relative. There are some people who say they understand this concept, then go and completely throw it out the window. A card does not have any absolute power, and a card’s relative worth is only defined by what’s around it. What’s around it in an environment (the format, the metagame), and in a more immediate sense, the individual game. Wrath of God is undeniably a power card, a card that turns entire board situations right the hell around, but watch it do very little that’s actually impressive against non-interactive combo decks.

Jitte? Jitte defined aggro matchups for two years, and yet, it had so little application versus Control decks, who would not only consistently kill the chap wielding the stick (especially after the Jitte-owner had “wasted” his third turn equipping the dog with the Jitte), but have easy ways to shut the Jitte itself down if it ever became too much of a bother. Wasn’t Jitte ridiculous? Did not the Jitte dash the hopes and dreams of many an aggro-playing, red-bearded Magician? How could it go from being so insane in one deck as to command a price that exceeded the price of buying them plain-out brand new from the store, in one matchup, to being complete junk in the next?

This is because, despite what people are telling you, there is no absolute card value. There are no Good Cards and there are no Bad Cards. There’s a large slab of cards that you probably shouldn’t bother with, but every season we have a breakout card showing us that basically every set reviewer is better off just shooting himself in the foot at the start of the article and saving himself a few thousand words. Let’s take a quick glance at history, eh?

When you review a set, you need to review the set. You need to start drawing lines between the card, and knowing the environment rather than just each card individually. Too many players took the mindset of the last environment into the next one, and it kicked them in the ass.

How many people were talking noisily about…

Seething Song?

Rite of Flame?

Skirk Prospector?

Empty the Warrens?

Pillory of the Sleepless?

Shining Shoal?

Chord of Calling?


Honor-Worn Shaku?

When they first came out?

And yet each and every last one of them had tournament success, some a large amount of it. Rite of Flame, one of the redheaded stepchildren cards from a redheaded stepchild set, was being played at the top tables at Worlds itself. I mean, Rite of Flame? You’re making it up, surely!

And yet, now we can go on to every one of them, and quietly explain exactly why it was good. It was good because of X. Because of Y. Because of Z. Because of the other cards they were interacting with. Seething Song has been Standard legal since it was printed, with the Ninth Edition printing putting Seething Song into the card pool for a fair while now, yet without Arc-Slogger or Dragonstorm, it saw no play.

No card defines itself. No card can define itself. Ancestral Recall is only the best card draw when Contract from Below isn’t legal.

I could spend pages upon pages showing you example after example of niche cards that were initially dismissed that yet found a home and play in winning decks. Fresh Recruits, I mean, c’mon, it’s a Glory Seeker for god’s sake!

Practical Work
So, what does this mean in application?

Not a hell of a lot. Like I teased Flores about, this really is just an extended forum post. This article really only says something new to those players who are bad enough to not bother reading it in the first place.

But consider, the next time you see an oddball choice in a deck list, or do a set review, or talk about cards in decks, bear in mind that you’re always talking relative, and every card has situations in which it can be bad.

Oh, and Ben Goodman was right.

Hugs and Kisses
Talen Lee
talen at dodo dot com dot au

PS. Mr Sharpe, Can You Sit Down Now?
At Worlds, white was everywhere. It was in the Top 8, muscling out Green’s slots in the Top 8, and, oh, wait, completely removing Black. Everything black wants to do, White does better right now. So, Mr Sharpe, if you’d be so kind, now that you’re wrong, could you return to the subject of the color pie without your preconceived notion that ‘EVERYONE IS DOING BETTER THAN WHITE SO NOBODY BUT ME CAN COMPLAIN’?


* See: Every Control Player Who Just Lost To Goblins Ever.
** I don’t think so, myself. Combo, especially Worlds-Winning Combo, has a habit of being flexible, and knowing when to change.