Flying in the Face of Occam’s Razor – Arguments Against Banning the Clamp

The simplest answer to the Major Problem runs something like this: Wizards R&D goofed up when they printed Skullclamp. It should have never been unleashed upon the Magic public. Just simply ban it and everything goes back to the way it should be, right? Now, while most people are debating the last part of answer, I’ve been looking more closely at the first part. Namely, I’ve been questioning whether Skullclamp was actually a mistake.

One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything. — William of Occam, mediaeval philosopher

In the aftermath of Regionals, the Magic community is in a justifiable uproar. At this point it looks like over half of all people qualifying for U.S. Nationals ran Ravager Affinity decks, and nearly 75% of the qualifying decks ran Skullclamp. Having one deck be so dominant and one card be so prevalent has got to be a sign of a Major Problem (see Ted”Jim’s Albatross” Knutson’s article”Houston, We Have a Problem” for more details). Everyone who’s pointing to Skullclamp being the culprit is utilizing the sound principle of Occam’s razor.

The principle of Occam’s razor states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. It admonishes us to choose from a set of otherwise equivalent models of a given phenomenon the simplest one, letting us”shave off” more complicated or convoluted explanations.

The simplest answer to the Major Problem runs something like this: Wizards R&D goofed up when they printed Skullclamp. It should have never been unleashed upon the Magic public. Just simply ban it and everything goes back to the way it should be, right?

Now, while most people are debating the last part of answer, I’ve been looking more closely at the first part. Namely, I’ve been questioning whether Skullclamp was actually a mistake.

First, let’s put things in perspective. When’s the last time the DCI had to ban a card in Type 2? If I’m not mistaken, it was Memory Jar, which was retroactively added to the March 1st 1999 banned list of Urza block combo enablers in an effort to put a halt to the combo winter that had gripped Type Two as well as the other formats.

That’s five years of crickets chirping and not much else on the Standard side of the Banned and Restrictions announcements. Many of you may not even have been playing Magic back then. I think it’s pretty obvious that R&D has changed the way they make cards for the better since those days, and I am much more liable to trust their decisions now. They’ve earned that trust.

Which brings me back to Skullclamp, and whether or not R&D made a huge mistake letting that card go as is. I have to admit that there’s a pretty strong case for it, which by now has likely been talked to death. But one angle I haven’t seen anyone approach is what if R&D made Skullclamp amazingly good on purpose? What if they knew exactly what they were doing when they unleashed this amazingly undercosted Equipment on us?

Before you click that back button (or jump to the forums to crucify me), let me explain the thoughts that have led me here.

Drawing cards has long been considered a”Blue” ability, with some notable exceptions: Black often gets to trade life for cards, Red’s card draw is often highly unreliable, and the other colors very rarely get card drawing outside of cantrips or very narrow occasional cards. Many people have long contended that Blue’s dominance over the years has been directly tied to its ability to draw cards, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Drawing cards is obviously very simple and direct card advantage, and card advantage tends to win games. So long as card drawing is considered to be Blue’s forte, it’s going to be a power color. R&D has obviously taken note and gone to considerable lengths to curb Blue’s power, to the point of making its counterspells near unplayable. I suspect that things will change in the not too distant future and R&D will ease up on Blue’s power check. Skullclamp might even be part of the plan to boost Blue.

Skullclamp has given creature decks card drawing power they’ve never seen before. Right now, Ravager and Goblins have used Skullclamp to ascend to the top of the metagame, but there are lots of other creature-based decks out there that make use of it. Some versions of Tooth and Nail (notably the Northwest Regionals Champion’s deck) and Clerics (like the one that won the Southeast Regionals) make excellent use of the card. Elf Clamp (and likely other weenies) decks would be doing well if it weren’t for the presence of Goblin Sharpshooter. Is giving these decks the sort of card drawing ability that Skullclamp provides in and of itself a bad idea? Personally, I think it’s a little early to say for sure. I do acknowledge that the post-Darksteel Standard environment is warped and unhealthy, and could likely use some bannings to correct, but I’m not convinced that jettisoning Skullclamp would necessarily create a better environment. And I’m also intrigued by the notion that R&D wants Skullclamp in the card pool. Like I’ve said before, R&D has earned my trust, and I tend to think they knew exactly what they were doing when they sent Skullclamp to the printers.

Why would they let such an obviously undercosted and supremely powerful card out of their testing? A couple more thoughts to chew on:

First, let’s go back to talking about Blue for a minute. Say they’re finally ready to ease up on holding back Blue. What if they want to reintroduce quality card drawing and counterspells back into the environment? I don’t think it takes a rocket surgeon to realize that Blue would quickly assume dominance… in a Skullclamp-free metagame. But with Skullclamp around, creature-based decks can fight the good fight against open-board style control decks. Any creature that hits the board can be potentially turned into two more cards. Mass removal and one-for-one counterspells become less dominating. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Second, keep in mind Skullclamp makes maindeck artifact destruction almost never a bad call. If the rumors are to be believed, Fifth Dawn is supposed to ease us back into the realm of combos, and since it’s in Mirrodin block, the combos will likely revolve around artifacts. If a control deck packs artifact destruction to combat the combos, then those cards drawn against Skullclamp-less aggro are dead and could very well lose them the game (Zvi illustrates this principle in his proposal to drop Skullclamps from Goblin Bidding in the Regionals metagame, over on Brainburst). So control players would be stuck between slanting their main decks to either fight control or aggro, and if their match-ups go the wrong way, it could be a trip to the 0-2-nap zone.

In conclusion, I guess I’d like you all to maybe think twice about your calls for banning Skullclamp. There might be some very good reasons for it to go, but there might also be some very good reasons for it to stay. I imagine that Wizards of the Coast is abuzz with huddles between R&D and the DCI in the aftermath of Regionals, and it’s my hope that someone will throw open the gates soon to address the masses. To let us know whether or not Skullclamp was a goof or a well-calculated risk.

What’s that? Oh, how did I do at Regionals? Well, I went 3-3 with Ravager, and this is the version I went with:

3 Welding Jar

4 Pyrite Spellbomb

4 Disciple of the Vault

4 Skullclamp

4 Arcbound Worker

4 Arcbound Ravager

2 Myr Retriever

4 Frogmite

4 Myr Enforcer

3 Shatter

2 Shrapnel Blast

4 Thoughtcast

3 Glimmervoid

3 Darksteel Citadel

4 Vault of Whispers

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Great Furnace


4 Mana Leak

3 Oversold Cemetery

3 Dark Banishing

1 Welding Jar

1 Myr Retriever

1 Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer

1 Shatter

1 Shrapnel Blast

Obviously, Ravager turned out to be a good choice for Regionals, and I’d playtested it enough to realize it could fight the good fight and win even in the face of the hate. I felt very confident in my version, which ran Aether Vials instead of Welding Jars up to the week before Regionals, when I suddenly panicked about all the hate running around. Yes, I had”The Fear” (props to Dan Paskins for adding that term to our Magic lexicon). I also decided to not run Green because I feared mana consistency issues with four colors, and did not want to have to cut action cards for Chromatic Spheres.

My last choice was whether or not to run the Japanese/BDM tech of Seething Song + Furnace Dragon in the sideboard for the mirror matchups, but ended up worried that I’d end up drawing all Songs and no Dragons and get pissed. Yes, I’m a pessimist when it comes to my luck. I decided that the mirror match would likely be won by wars of attrition, and that Oversold Cemetery would give me an edge in that war. In retrospect that edge was too slight to be relied on and I probably should have gone with the Dragon plan.

I lost round 1 to a G/R Hate deck, built exclusively to beat Affinity with up to twenty-three artifact kill cards after board. As it was, I think I made a mistake that cost me the first game involving using one of my two Disciples to chump block when not chumping would have brought me down to two life. I had”the fear” and I was already on the defensive with a Molder Slug and Baloth breathing down my neck. Since I drew a Ravager next turn, I think I could have turned that game around. I then outran his hate game 2, so I may have actually been able to sweep this match if I’d played a little smarter. The last game he went first and drew a ton of hate, along with a quick Molder Slug/Contested Cliffs combo that I could have actually pulled away from if I could have drawn into my Banishings.

Round 2 I swept a nice, but mediocre player running Slide. Round 3 I played Zvi Affinity (four-color with Aether Vial) and beat it, pretty much coming down to draws, mine where better two out of three games (and in the last game my Oversold managed to keep me ahead when he started drawing better).

Round 4 I lost a hard-fought three-game match to MWC, who was running Damping Matrix and Mindslaver maindeck(!), along with Holy Day. Thinking back over the match, I think it came down to me being less than proficient in realizing when to mana burn myself to keep Pulse of the Fields from being too active. I’m fairly certain I had opportunities to burn here and there. He was a good player that took advantage of my ignorance to eventually win the match in the last of the five extra turns. He ended up at the top tables, and I believe he conceded to his friend to get him into the Top 8. I’ll chalk this up to my lack of playtesting, since I’m fairly certain if I’d played a few test games versus MWC with Pulse, I would have realized what I needed to do to take Pulse offline.

Round 5 I stomped a Tooth and Nail deck flat. In the second game, he Toothed out the Platinum Angel/Leonin Abunas combo; I had a Shrapnel Blast in hand and just needed to draw into my Shatter to break his lock. Since it took five turns to kill me through the air, I had enough time to draw the Shatter when I was at four and killed him; if he’d gone for two Colossi, he probably would have just killed me next turn, but I think he was a bit paranoid after I destroyed him in the first game. Again,”the Fear.”

Round 6 I got paired against a horrid three-color Ravager deck with no Blue, but instead splashed Green for Oxidize. He beat me two out of three games when he drew multiple Skullclamps in his opening hand, while my deck failed to produce them despite running Thoughtcasts. Sigh. Sometimes it’s worse to be unlucky than bad.

A bit demoralized, I dropped after that.

I had built a hybrid Tooth and Nail deck for little Kevin Anderson, an eleven-year-old kid who’s really been getting into Magic and was really excited about going to his first big tournament. It combined the Japanese Skullclamp/Wood Elf version with Zvi’s Extreme Tooth (Fireball + Colossus beatdown is the focus) and after starting 1-5 with the deck he finished up 5-5-1. I was glad to see him stick to playing the deck, even in the face of losing, and I think he obviously got better as the day progressed (though of course the quality of his opposition probably dwindled too).

This is what we built for him, and I think it’s got some promise:

4 Skullclamp

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Rampant Growth

4 Wood Elves

4 Viridian Shaman

4 Oblivion Stone

4 Solemn Simulacrum

1 Platinum Angel

1 Bosh

2 Darksteel Colossus

3 Fireball

3 Tooth and Nail

4 Wooded Foothills

7 Mountain

11 Forest

I really like adding the Skullclamp draw power to the Tooth deck, which otherwise seems enslaved to the top deck… If I’d known about working Skullclamp into Tooth and Nail, I may have ended up running this instead.

Anyway, none of the local TAG crew made Top 8, but Charlottesville good guy Andy”Gibb” Hall (one of Ted and Jim’s playmates who’s supernaturally good with aggro decks) got second place with Ravager, so I was happy to see that.

Jay and Griff played Jay’s U/B anti-Affinity”Malice” deck to mixed results (utilizing Chalice of the Void and Damping Matrix to hose Ravager specifically, but it’s also pretty good against Goblins). Jay may or may not write something up about it for Star City. Tony Vicario and Josh Adams both ran Slide to winning records, but outside of the prize breakout. I particularly enjoyed watching one late round game with Vicario sitting in a commanding position against Ted”Nordic Miser” Knutson game two, only to watch it slip away to TK’s back to back Tooth and Nail draws to end the match in a draw. John Yancy played Ravager and I think did about the same as me (50/50), but played more games. Thanks for taking the van John, and letting us all ride together. Blair ran Goblin Bidding, running my Confusion in the Ranks technology in the sideboard, which he was very happy with. He had a couple of good”Confusion” stories where he did wild stuff with them. He was in the hunt for the top 8, but then stumbled at the very end, I think ending something like 7-3.

I’ll finish up with mad props to Dream Wizards, who announced that registration was over as we crested the stairs to the lobby. We ran to the table, explaining that we’d been caught up in accident traffic (good ol’ DC-area traffic jams!), and they graciously let us in (though I imagine the $200 we represented might have helped smooth that decision). Gentle slops to Ben Bleiweiss for folding up shop so early and leaving before I had a chance to sell some cards for draft money; I understand the need (exhaustion, running out of cash), but understanding doesn’t buy booster packs, you fargin’ bastiche!