Ideas Unbound – The Case For Creatures

The StarCityGames.com Open Series heads to Denver!
Wednesday, August 4th – When you play a creature, you are making the considerable investment of a card and mana. In return, you get an animal, mostly to attack and block. There is considerably more to Magic than attacking and blocking, so if you’re playing a card that is basically only good at generating combat-related interactions, you’re making a significant sacrifice for which you should be rewarded.

“Bloodbraid Elf. Cascade?”

“Yeah, sure, why not.”

“Blightning you, redirect it to your Jace. Attack-”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of me slamming these Obstinate Baloths onto the table. What were you saying?”

“… Go.”

“Baneslayer Angel. Attack you for eight.”

For the last several years, the power of creatures has been steadily increasing. We’ve gone from a time when Wild Mongrel was the best creature in Standard and Exalted Angel was starting to turn heads, to a world where Plated Geopede isn’t always good enough for aggressive Red decks and Baneslayer Angel is the standard to which five-mana spells are compared. Some folks have complained about how powerful Bloodbraid Elf is compared to historical four-drops. However, I feel strongly that creatures are integral to Magic; they should be powerful. And if creatures are only getting stronger now, it’s because they haven’t been good enough in Magic’s past.

When you play a creature, you are making the considerable investment of a card and mana. In return, you get an animal, mostly to attack and block. There is considerably more to Magic than attacking and blocking, so if you’re playing a card that is basically only good at generating combat-related interactions, you’re making a significant sacrifice for which you should be rewarded. Besides, if you’re playing a card that essentially only interacts in combat, the interactions it generates should be very favorable for you.

Some time ago, Stephen Menendian wrote an interesting article wherein he posited that “within the game of Magic, there are only interactions. As a corollary, there is no such thing as a ‘Magic card.'” Stephen was looking at how cards require context for their evaluation and operation, pointing out how, for example, Brainstorm didn’t see widespread Vintage play until the printing of Onslaught fetchlands because Brainstorm didn’t generate enough positive interactions in most Vintage decks until the fetchlands allowed Brainstorm to become the powerhouse it is today.

Cards are defined not by what they do, but rather by how they interact with other cards in your deck and other cards in the format. Ancestral Recall, for example, is very ‘powerful’ and is an automatic include in virtually every Blue Vintage deck because the set of interactions that you can produce with an additional three cards in your hand is so much larger than if your Ancestral had been a different card. Concentrate isn’t nearly as ‘powerful’ because Ancestral has a near-trivial cost, while Concentrate requires devoting significant resources to generate the same effect.

Stephen provides examples of the GushFastbond “package,” which consisted of Gush, Fastbond, Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm, and Ponder and was ported from deck to deck in Vintage until Gush’s restriction because those cards, when interacting with each other, allowed decks to quickly chain through their deck until they found Fastbond and multiple copies of Gush, at which point “Draw two cards, add two mana to your mana pool” could be put to use in execution of several different strategies.

Later, Zac Hill would expand this line of theory, explaining why it was so much more important to generate advantage relative to your opponent in terms of interactions rather than cards. Zac claimed that “the value of a given action can be measured by the number of favorable interactions it makes fungible relative to a theoretical maximum number of interactions of which your deck is capable, or the number of an opponent’s favorable interactions it correspondingly negates… That’s quite a mouthful, so I’ll summarize: You want the maximize the impact of what you’re doing and minimize the impact of what your opponent is doing, and you achieve that by interfacing with the opponent in favorable (to you) ways.”

In other words, you want to have an advantage in the nature of how you are interacting with your opponent. This can translate to having an advantage in Tarmogoyfs in a Zoo mirror, where most of your interaction be centered around combat and combat enablers, or, in old Isochron Scepter control decks, by putting Orim’s Chant on the Scepter, essentially preventing your opponent from interacting with you at all.

Some creatures, such as Goblin Welder and Mulldrifter, generate interactions typically associated with spells, and are not usually included in Constructed decks for the purpose of interacting with the opponent via combat. Most other creatures can only interact with the opponent via attacking and, possibly, blocking. That’s a very narrow axis of interaction; there are some decks, usually combo, where very few profitable interactions can be generated against them in combat.

Further, when played, creatures do not typically begin immediately generating profitable interactions within combat. The nature of summoning sickness means that most creatures have, essentially, suspend one in terms of interaction, unless your opponent has creatures too, and blocking can enter the picture. Zac has elaborated on this point at length here where he points out how creatures are inherent investments that generate their value over time while spells generate their value immediately. The implication is that if you use a spell to remove a creature, not only have you gotten value out of your spell, but you’ve also denied your opponent the full value of his creature.

Zac makes another point; that one-mana creatures are virtual Time Walks in a world where one-mana spells are usually used in the midgame where they allow their controllers to sequence multiple spells per turn as opposed to being an immediate answer for turn 1 threats. Frequently, when you play a one-drop, your opponent will not use their mana on turn 1, giving you significant advantage. On the other hand, while it’s true that when you play particularly efficient creatures such as Wild Nacatl that the other guy can’t ever answer it for value, you cede quite a bit for that to happen. If you have enough one-drops to always have one on turn 1, you draw them on turn 4, when the interactions it generates aren’t nearly as valuable.

So, when you play a creature, you’re playing a card that generates very few interactions beyond simple attacking and blocking, and because you have fewer cards in your hand, the set of potential interactions that you can present to your opponent is reduced. This is a significant opportunity cost. Now, your opponent will continue executing his strategy, and you’re basically down a card in terms of interacting with him. You get to attack, sure, but your opponent can also use his life total as a strategic buffer while working towards executing his plan. In doing so, he can essentially pay some amount of life to draw the card that your creature represents until he decides to answer it, or until he plays some devastating trump that doesn’t allow your creature to meaningfully interact any longer.

This isn’t to say that beatdown decks are inherently bad, or anything like that; There are formats where the interactions based around creatures are very powerful, and beatdown is very good in those formats. It is worth noting, however, that most aggressive decks are poor choices in formats where your chances of being killed on turn three by some combo deck are non-zero. It’s virtually impossible to race that kind of goldfish exclusively with creatures, which is why I’ve been such a vocal detractor of Zoo in Legacy; Wild Nacatl doesn’t really generate any favorable interactions against a Storm combo deck. In Legacy, when you play a deck without Force of Will, you are paying a tremendous opportunity cost. Combo decks are usually three to one favorites or better against non-Blue decks. I want to be compensated if I’m just giving up so many matchups, and with the exception of Dredge I don’t think the non-Force decks do so.

People always laugh at the winning decklists from tournaments in the mid-nineties, with good reason. Whirling Dervish made the finals of Worlds ’96. Sligh, a format-defining aggressive deck, fielded Goblins of the Flarg and Dwarven Lieutenant on the same squad. In the early days of Magic, your big reward for deciding to beat down instead of putting Balance or Necropotence in your deck was, um, Ernham Djinn.

Yeah, creatures got a raw deal. For years, beating down was fairly loose unless you were abusing Necropotence at the same time, and it was virtually certain that any aggressive deck would be running some pretty embarrassing creatures just to fill out the mana curve. After the Urza block debacle and Magic’s resultant overhaul, you can see some signs of Wizards trying to improve creatures… but the existence of Flametongue Kavu (which has noticeably spell-like interactions with creatures) made weenie rush decks unattractive, and pairing Fires of Yavimaya with Blastoderm and Saproling Burst was even more of a headache for beatdown decks. Wild Mongrel and Psychatog, neither of which would be particularly brutal in modern Standard, were the shortlist for ‘best creature’ in Odyssey Standard.

So yes, creatures are getting better. Creatures are central to Magic; games should revolve around them. Besides, a world where a creature just looks embarrassing when you put it beside Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Lightning Bolt or Day of Judgment wouldn’t be any fun.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com