Go back to a time when the entire multiverse of MTG was new to you. Can you remember the trembling excitement of opening a booster? Can you remember the first time you saw a Combo deck do its incredibly broken thing? Can you remember peering at cardlists in Scrye or Inquest, knowing that you had no clue what any of the cards did, but just letting the names roll off your tongue? Swords To Plowshares (very Shakespearian), The Rack (oooohh), Hammer Of Bogardan (I bet that one’s good). Can you remember your first win, the first time you made Top 8 of a PTQ, the first time you got a Competitor badge for the Pro Tour? Given that we’re just talking about some cards, the emotional highs these moments and others generate for us is pretty amazing. Magic is full of wonder, if you know where to look, and even for the grizzled veterans who have played for over a decade, the first day of the Magic year – the October large set Prerelease Saturday – is as close to Christmas as Magic gets. For one day only, the only opinion that matters is yours. For one day only, nobody really knows what’s going to be great. For one day only, you can play Spellbook in Sealed with the possibility that somebody other than the cleaning lady may not laugh at you. For one day only, you may get passed seven Incinerates in draft, because who likes removal?
Yes, we’re heading for the most exciting week of the year, and for me at least that means we’re heading for the most wondrous piece of “abracadabra” Magic in the calendar too, and that’s the interaction between a Magic writer and the spoiler list. Back in 1997, waiting for Zvi Mowshowitz or Mike Flores to write their card-by-card analysis of the new set was almost as exciting as the wait for the cards themselves. It was clear that these guys knew what was going on, and if I wanted to be good, they were required reading. But how the hell did they get to sound so authoritative about three hundred cards that they’d never played with, and most probably hadn’t even seen or touched in real life? How is it possible to say with certainty “this is clearly a fast format”…? How do they work out that “this is a guaranteed Block staple”…? Where does the knowledge come from in order for them to recommend “get four now while they’re cheap”…?
Right now, I’m sitting amidst the splendors of “Cheeky Chimps,” a delightful play area for small people frequented by my daughter. I mention this only because I am moderately certain that this is the only article in StarCityGames.com history that has been penned from the aforementioned locale. In the background, apart from small children laughing, crying, and squealing repeatedly, a speaker high above me is banging out some form of popular rhythm beat combo, probably going by the name of Britney Spears. I absolutely guarantee that I am listening to this music in a way quite different to anyone else in the building. Sure, lots of people are hearing it, and a few people may even be listening to it. Amongst other things, I’m considering the frequency cut applied to the vocals in order to achieve the “telephone voice” effect (cut at around 115-200Hz should you wish to recreate this in your own home studio). I’m analysing the chord structure, and one “directory” above that, the structure of the song as a whole (verse two is only half a verse, so as to get back to the hook more quickly). I’m listening to the piano, and wondering which reverb machine they used, and which microphone. I’m going through my mental list of Los Angeles bass guitar session players, and seeing if I can work out which one is on the track. Now there could theoretically be someone who’s listening to this muzak in the same way I am, and if there is, I’d like to meet them.
Spoiler analysts read spoilers like I listen to music.
Their depth and breadth of knowledge is something to behold, and it’s this that allows them to make such sweeping statements, secure in the knowledge that they’re going to be right most of the time. This week, I’m going to tell you many of the ways that these guys will come to understand their Lorwyn spoiler next weekend, and give you the tools to do the same.
To get the ball rolling, let’s start with some general observations, the first of which is the most important thing to consider when ingesting any kind of information – what purpose does the information serve? To put it another way, what are you hoping to glean from the information? Presumably, what’s good and what isn’t, but in what context? It’s possible to consider any given card from at least a dozen different points of view, and trust me when I say this list is hardly exhaustive:
Elder Dragon Highlander
101 Casual Formats
Here’s a few quick pointers. For the DCI Sanctioned formats – Sealed up to Vintage – you should generally be thinking that the older the format, the higher the power level. This doesn’t always hold true of course, but it is the correct way to read the Spoiler.
Sealed – Look for efficient creatures. Ideally, they’re either hard to kill or have abilities (including meat and potatoes stuff like power and toughness) that make your opponents regard them as a threat. Cards with multiple colors in their casting cost are obviously harder to cast, as are spells with double, or even triple, mana requirements i.e. 2BBB or 3GG. Almost any form of removal is going to be good in Sealed, and this includes cards that don’t always fall directly into that category (Pacifism doesn’t do much against Horseshoe Crab with Hermetic Study on it, but against a Craw Wurm that guy is toast).
Paying attention to rare cards is a good idea, since they’re most often rare because Wizards don’t want four of them in every game. Drawbacks to spells are going to be hard to get around in Sealed play. Cards that are dependant on certain conditions to be good should be treated with extreme caution, since your ability to satisfy those conditions is often severely curtailed in a Sealed pool. A good example of this would be a card that said “when X comes into play, remove 5 creature cards from your graveyard or sacrifice it.” I don’t know about you, but I plan on winning most of my Sealed games long before I have five dead guys clogging up the bin. Perhaps the best advice I can give when looking at a Spoiler for Sealed goodness is to look for cards that don’t do what their color should be doing. God, that’s an inelegant sentence, but here’s an example of what I mean – when you find White, Blue, or Green removal spells, you should value them more highly than their Red or Black counterparts. In other words, Assassinate costs 2B and is a pretty unexciting, but it’s a more than serviceable removal spell. If my Lorwyn spoiler showed me a card that did the same thing for 3UU as a common, I’d be pretty excited.
Booster Draft – When you’re looking at cards for Draft, this is one of the few times you should really consider the rarity of the cards you’re looking at. Nothing marks out a new player more than seeing a discussion on Magic Online where they’re arguing that R/B is clearly the best color combination because Damnation and Bogardan Hellkite are such a beating. No, Drafting is all about the commons, and you shouldn’t even begin this kind of analysis until you’ve read through the spoiler at least two or three times. By then, you may have an idea of which cards you think are inherently powerful, and you can start to add up the tallies for each color, or, as seems more likely in Lorwyn’s case, each tribe. We already know that there are going to be any number of tribal-dependant interactions. One good way of approaching this sort of problem is to borrow an idea from the game of Bridge. When you play that game, you know not only your own cards but those of your partner. Deducing where a particularly nasty card lies between your two unseen opponent’s hands is one of the biggest aspects of the game. Sometimes it’s possible to deduce the answer from their previous plays, but sometimes you literally cannot tell. In those situations, ask yourself where you want the card to be, and play as if it’s there. If it is, you win. If it isn’t, you would have lost anyway. The Magic corollary to this is to ask yourself, “okay, I have this card. What would make it good?”
Here’s a prime example. Daybreak Coronet. It makes a creature bigger the more Auras it has on it. Okay, so the answer to the question is “more Auras please.” At that point you can go searching through the spoiler, looking for good Auras. It will surprise approximately none of you that this time next week what you’ll actually be searching for are synergistic Elves, Kithkin, Treefolk, Merrow, Goblins and the like. In fact, synergistic is a pretty crucial word for Draft analysis all round. The days of taking the “best” card each time and then cramming them into a deck have all but gone. The only reason those days existed at all is because enough players didn’t understand the correct valuing of cards in the abstract that you could simply “outpower” them. Now, in part thanks to spoiler analysts, anyone who wants to know what’s good in the abstract can get that information. Therefore, when reading the Spoiler for Draft information, think synergy all the time. How do these two cards reinforce each other? Does this creature plus this Aura = I win? You get the idea.
Block Constructed – Many people choose wallpaper or paint for their bedroom walls, which means that few tile, and futile is trying to predict Block Constructed from a Lorwyn spoiler. Three hundred cards sounds like a lot, but when you’re trying to put Constructed decks together, it’s a tiny tiny pool of cards. Realistically, you’re going to cram together all the best cards from each of the tribal crews, then mash them together. Two days after Lorwyn becomes legal on Magic Online, you’re going to discover which two are the best, and that, my friends, is all she wrote about Lorwyn Block until Morningtide appears early next year to make a proper Format. The only sensible reason for considering a Lorwyn spoiler in terms of Block Constructed is if you’re a resolute trader type, who wants to take a punt on certain Rares in the belief that something down the line is going to make them Block essentials, although quite frankly, if you can predict that kind of thing accurately, you ought to be doing the lottery, not Lorwyn.
Standard – To me, this is where your broad focus should be when casting your eye over the Lorwyn goodies. It doesn’t matter whether or not you play Standard, although quite why you wouldn’t want the unadulterated pleasure of Friday Night Magic is beyond me. Thinking of cards in terms of Standard makes sense for many reasons. Most importantly, Standard sits bang in the middle of the Sanctioned formats. It’s an ideal vantage point from which to survey the possible uses of the cards. When thinking of Standard, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking we’re talking about Standard right now. Although it’s true that Time Spiral Block Constructed doesn’t have access to the cards from 10th Edition, it’s also true that you can make a pretty short list of cards from X that are Standard staples. Therefore, TSP Block is the card pool you should be thinking of, since Ravnica and all its wonders are destined for Extended come November. If a card doesn’t seem to quite make it for Standard, it’s a good idea to ask yourself which card in the current format would be keeping it out of a deck. For example, there’s a good bet that Lorwyn has some kind of mass removal. Let’s suppose it’s this:
Wrath of Lorwyn
Destroy all creatures. They can’t be regenerated.
There are only three possible reasons to play with this card in the November Standard coming up. First, as Wraths nine-thru-twelve in a B/W deck. Second, as Wraths five-thru-eight in a mono-White deck, and third, because you don’t own any Wrath Of God. Only the most spurious arguments can be put forth to place Wrath of Lorwyn ahead of Wrath of God. In a format where Wrath of God isn’t available, Wrath of Lorwyn shines, i.e. Block Constructed. Therefore, it’s important to evaluate what’s going to be missing from a format as much as what’s going to be available. If you want further proof, if Wizards reprint Wild Mongrel in Lorwyn, many people would still place it behind Tarmogoyf in their two-drop options. For those of you with rapidly-rising blood pressure, I do not believe this to be a likely scenario.
Extended – In general, you don’t need to think about Extended at all. The reason for this is that cards will automatically suggest themselves, usually with the words “holy wow” attached to them, or something similar. Any time that you write down an exclamation mark next to a spell, because it’s so monstrously powerful, that’s the time to consider whether it might make the jump from Standard to Extended. Remember that the power level for Extended is really high. Although the possibility exists in any new set of a card that will demand its own archetype, mostly you’ll be looking to replace specific cards in specific decks. It’s therefore a good idea to make yourself a list of what’s in Extended right now. It might look something like this:
Superb one-drops: Isamaru, Mogg Fanatic, Grim Lavamancer, Savannah Lions
Two-drops: Watchwolf, Tarmogoyf, Meddling Mage
Three-drops: Psychatog, Troll Ascetic
Higher: Loxodon Hierarch, Ravenous Baloth
Acceleration: Rite of Flame, Seething Song, Cabal Ritual, Lotus Bloom, Tron lands
Lands: Ravnica duals, Onslaught Fetchlands, Tron.
Counters: Counterspell, Spell Snare, Remand
Discard: Duress, Cabal Therapy, Stupor
Mass removal: Wrath, Damnation, Engineered Explosives, Pernicious Deed
Artifact/Enchantment removal: Ancient Grudge, Krosan Grip
This is just a very basic list, but it’s a good starting point. When reading the Lorwyn spoiler, these are the standards to which you should compare your shiny new cards. If the new cards are strictly worse than the ones on this list, you’re going to have to come up with some extremely good reasons for playing them, whether that means outstanding synergy or some metagame-warping necessity.
Legacy and Vintage – That’s right Eternal fans, I’m lumping your Formats together because, like everybody else, I hate both them and you. That, of course, isn’t actually true. What is true is that reading your Lorwyn spoiler has similar lessons for both Eternal formats. Everything I’ve said about Extended applies even more firmly to Legacy and Vintage, but with one proviso. It’s true to say that in every Constructed format there are “role players,” cards which may not be inherently powerful, but which feature in some decks due to the specific nature of the metagame (or cardpool that drives that metagame). To give a recent example, nobody could seriously suggest that Pull From Eternity is a powerful card in itself. It has an extremely narrow application, with no possible use in plenty of individual duels. Yet, all three of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Mark Herberholz, and Gabriel Nassif (and what a team that would be for a Constructed Pro Tour) decided that Pull was important enough to feature in Pro Tour: Yokohama. In Eternal formats, there are plenty of cards around that fulfil a niche function, and there’s every chance you’ll find some in Lorwyn. If a card sounds incredibly narrow (“counter target spell with converted mana cost 0”) you might want to start thinking Eternal.
101 Casual Formats – For Prismatic, finding decent mana-fixing is good times. For Elder Dragon Highlander, see what multi-colored Legends are in Lorwyn. And for almost every other multiplayer Format yet devised, search earnestly for the words “each” and “all,” as in the phrases “each player sacrifices a creature” or “gain 2 life for all Elves in play.” If you really don’t care about Sanctioned Magic, you can make an absolute killing during the early days of Lorwyn, simply by doing your homework on the spoiler. For every Pro who bought 4 Tarmogoyf on eBay for $5 (for all four) there is the sad sack who sold them. Don’t let that be you. Learn to recognise your Extirpate from your elbow, and you’ll be able to trade for all the kitchen table cards you need.
So now we have some idea of what we’re looking for as we go through the Spoiler. But where should we start? Welcome to…
The Problems of a Linear Existence
It isn’t only in Deep Space Nine that there’s a problem with doing things one at a time. When it comes to spoilers, whatever way you slice it you can only be reading about one card at a time, and that makes contextualizing extremely difficult. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s the first card of a mythical set:
I’m hoping that we’re all in agreement that this card would be an utter beating, and considerably off the charts. Here’s the second card:
All creatures cost 7 extra to play. If you have SuperHose in your deck, you may reveal it before the game, and put it into play. SuperHose cannot be targeted and is indestructible.
Card number one is rendered effectively useless by card number two. Assuming players actually use SuperHose, SuperWeenie will never get cast for less than 7W. Thankfully, R&D don’t make things quite so obvious as this example, but our initial problem when reading the spoiler remains the same – we have to examine each card with only as much information as we have accumulated up to that point. Especially in an environment that we already know is going to be heavily tribal-flavored, working out just how useful assorted cards are in a vacuum is going to be of less use than some past sets. For this reason, the first thing you should do is not start at the beginning of the spoiler with the White cards. You shouldn’t start with colored cards at all. Instead, you should start with the lands.
Reading Your Spoiler — Lands
In Ravnica Block, we were given the luxury of a full set of dual lands. In terms of flavor, this made sense, as there were ten guilds, all of which would logically have their own source of Magic power, or mana. From a design point of view, this also made sense, as it not only encouraged each individual pair of colors for deckbuilding (i.e. R/W for Boros, U/W for Azorius etc) but allowed players to take full advantage of all the golden goodness (plenty of Sealed players ended up with five-color “good stuff” decks). We already know enough about Lorwyn to see that each of the tribes that are so key to the set belong in more than one color. Taking Goblins, they’re based across Red and Black. Chances are that any Goblin Block Constructed deck is going to want Goblins from both these colors. That’s why the lands are so vital to understanding what’s possible in a new environment. Suppose every tribe had a land like this:
Goblin Breeding Ground
T: add 1 to your mana pool.
T: add R or B to your mana pool. Goblin Breeding Ground deals 1 damage to you.
Okay, so it’s a source of both Red and Black mana, ideal for powering out our Goblin army. But over a few turns, you could take a bunch of damage. Still, if everyone’s having to play with cards like that, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Ideally though, you want maximum versatility for minimum pain. If you’ve read Devin Low’s column this week, you know that Wizards have solved this particular conundrum, with what are essentially tribal dual lands. More on these next week, when we put our Spoiler-reading skills to practical use with the real thing. Meantime, try to evaluate the full range of lands available, and see how many hoops you’re going to have to jump through to get your three-color tribal monstrosity off the ground.
Next, since you’re at the back of the spoiler already, take a look at…
Artifacts – In recent times, one of the best set of articles outside these four walls at StarCityGames.com was The Great Designer Search over at the Mothership. A lot of people I know from the “anyone can do this, they employ monkeys in R&D” brigade were suitably chastened as they couldn’t even get near passing the initial test from Mark Rosewater, let alone deal with the astonishing mental gymnastics required of them over the ensuing weeks. Had I been running the Great Designer Search, I’d have made things a lot less complex, and a lot, lot harder. I’d have just had the poor bastards make artifacts. Artifacts are nastily difficult to position correctly. First up, they have to be Things – boxes, gloves, bags, hats, weapons – and that rules out a bunch of stuff that is the very fabric of the game. Then we have the casting cost problem, which on the face of it you can’t win. With colored spells, you can make the spell cost double mana (2BB) or push it into golden territory (1UB) in order to narrow the spell’s use or indeed usefulness. These restrictions aren’t available for designing artifacts, so you’re left with the blunt instrument of generic mana costing. Undercost the artifact, and every man, woman, and dog will play with it. This is especially true with cards that multiple decks want, whether it be mana acceleration (Lotus Bloom, Chrome Mox) or mass removal (Oblivion Stone, Nevinyrral’s Disk). On the other hand, if you play safe and overcost an artifact, it never sees the light of day. (Be honest. Raise your hand in the air if you have ever seen a Mizzium Transreliquat outside of a trade binder). Your task then, when it comes to reading the artifact section, is try to determine (a) whether there are obvious candidates for every deck under the sun, (b) whether any artifact creatures are sufficiently better than their colored brethren to justify their inclusion, given their inherent weakness of dying to, wait for it, artifact removal, and (c) whether any of the “what the hell does this do again?” artifacts are likely to have a deck built around them anytime soon.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to get to the meat of the spoiler, the five colors. The most important thing to remember when dealing with the five colors is that they each have different benchmarks for what you can expect. A couple of obvious examples to illustrate this key point: for four mana, White is more likely to give you a 2/4 ground guy or a 2/2 flyer, whereas Black would get you a 4/2 ground-pounder. 1R might get you an Incinerate, which well and truly puts little guys in the bin, whereas 1W is more likely to bring you Pacifism. For Constructed deckbuilding you have full access to all the goodies of the color pie, but when evaluating individual cards, you should try to consider them within their own color. When a card shows up where it doesn’t “belong” for a bargain basement price, you have a winner. Here’s some of the benchmarks in each color:
2/2 ground guys for 1W or WW, probably with a useful ability.
Two-power guy for W, probably with a drawback.
2/2 flyer for 3W or 2WW.
Rubbish effects with “draw a card” tacked on.
3/3 flyers for five.
4/4 flyer for six.
Some incredibly powerful game-winning flyer for pots of mana (think Akroma, Angel of Wrath).
Some form of targeted removal, usually pretty narrow (Condemn is one of the best in recent times).
1/1 for two with nice ability (Merfolk Looter).
2/1 flyers for 1U, some kind of drawback.
2/2 flyers for four, with useful abilities (Aven Fisher, or 1/3 Thieving Magpie)
3/3 flyers for five, or for good times, 4/4 flyers for five with no ability (Air Elemental)
Countermagic – the more you pay, the more certain that it will be a “hard” counterspell, i.e. no get-out clauses for opponents. At one, expect super-narrow (Spell Snare), and at two think of counters that aren’t always counters (Mana Leak, Remove Soul). Three mana is the benchmark for an actual spell that counters come what may (Cancel), and if you’re paying four, it better have something good tacked on (Rewind, Dismal Failure).
Card draw – tacked on to multiple creatures, either as combat dealers or occasionally as a tap ability (this latter is seriously good news, and is almost always rare, i.e. Arcanis the Omnipotent). Straight up card drawing spells at all costs and varieties, including nearly-blank one mana (Peek), up through genuine card advantage (Compulsive Research) to Completely Restock My Hand And Win The Game, which should cost no less than five (Tidings). Also assorted library manipulation, frequently rubbish (Sage Owl, Sage Of Epityr and co.)
Decent removal. This used to be at the 2-3 mana range, but is increasingly in the 3-4 range nowadays. Lorwyn may roll this back somewhat, since in any multicolor environment the difficulty of casting B/x spells allows some shaving off the mana costs (think Terminate for BR).
Mass removal – you’re not getting another Damnation for a while, which (let’s face it) you weren’t supposed to have in the first place. Hideous Laughter and Mutilate type effects are likely, which is good for dealing with Protection from Black monsters.
1/1 flyers for two.
2/2 flyers for two or three, with an authentic drawback.
2/4 or 4/2 for four, with a mixed bag of abilities, often dedicated to a particular theme, i.e. madness.
3/3 ground guy for five.
Occasional massive flying Legend.
Discard – probably situational at two mana, broader at three mana. Anything that consistently works at one mana that doesn’t involve 17 people other than you deciding what gets discarded should seriously interest you.
Graveyard recursion – probably at four mana attached to a body if going back to hand, or if going direct to play probably has a drawback. Three mana or less straight to play is good times.
Graveyard disruption – Extirpate is as good as it gets, so you’re probably looking to see if there’s anything to replace Cranial Extraction.
Card draw – Usually linked to life loss, expect approximately one life per card.
The world’s worst monsters at every cost above one.
2/1 for one with a big drawback.
2/2 for two.
3/2 for four, perhaps with haste or first strike.
3/3 for four.
1/2 flyers for three – yes, I know that’s rubbish.
Big finisher dragon at 6+ mana, 5/5 minimum flyer, unlikely to be as good as Bogardan Hellkite. If it’s close, be very interested.
Targeted removal –
1 mana for 2 damage, ideally to creature or player
2 mana for 2 damage with some kind of bonus (Sudden Shock)
2 mana for 3 damage is seriously good (Incinerate, who knew?)
3 mana for 3 damage is more likely, as Incinerate doesn’t come around that often.
Some kind of X spell, preferably with something more exciting tacked on (Blaze rarely saw play except in lesser formats)
Mass removal – rarely taking out flyers, some kind of Earthquake effect, likely to involve multiple Red mana.
Very occasional card draw (Goblin Lore)
Mana fixing 1/1s for one. Since there’s no half a mana cost in Magic, if your 1/1s give you acceleration or fixing, that’s good (Boreal Druid, Llanowar Elves) and if it costs two, that’s bad. Mana fixing spells usually cost around three (Harrow, Kodama’s Reach).
2/1s for two, with vaguely useful ability.
2/2s for two, probably useful ability, i.e. regeneration. Elvish Warrior was ahead of the curve.
3/3s for three. You may not see one this time, as Nessian Courser is already in that “slot.”
4/4s for four, with abilities, often slow.
5/5s for four, allegedly major drawback you may be able to ignore.
Any number of 5/5s and 6/6s costing anywhere from 5 to 7. The key to all these guys is the word “trample.” Without trample, they’re probably rubbish.
Targeted enchantment and artifact removal — one mana is amazing, two is about right, three needs to have something else attached (Krosan Grip is Naturalize for 2 plus Split Second for 1).
Mass removal for flyers – maybe an X spell.
Pump spells – once it costs more than one, you want it to be all singing, all dancing, all winning. Anywhere between +2+2 and +4+4 is the one-mana benchmark, with Might Of Old Krosa beating Giant Growth in exchange for Sorcery speed.
So that’s a guide to the individual colors. Now let’s move on to some things that you should consider when looking at any card.
Take it to extremes – what would a card do for you if left completely unchecked? Consider a card like Skirk Ridge Exhumer. Assuming that nothing else of note happens, you’ll get an army of 1/1 Festering Goblins, in exchange for a bunch of discards that will, presumably, be mostly unwanted lands. Is an army of “free” 1/1s a good thing? Taken in isolation, it is. Yes, there are other more powerful things in the game, but an army is still an army. However, you should temper your enthusiasm with the next question…
How long does the effect take? – Magic is not a game of unlimited time, either because your opponent is beating you quicker than you’re doing your thing, or because they’re busy searching for answers to your plan. “The quicker, the better” is the general rule. The Skirk Ridge Exhumer plan outlined above will take you until approximately Christmas to execute, and as such is ideally suited to Pre-Constructed theme decks, where removal and power cards are at a minimum, and so-called “engines,” no matter how sluggish and clunky, can shine.
Think of multiples – although you’re allowed four copies of a card for your Constructed deck, unless you’re expecting to tutor for them in some way, you’re unlikely to see more than two in play at once. This rule is particularly important to remember when dealing with small monsters – weenies – as they are generally unimpressive sitting alone in the middle of a Sealed matchup. Turn 7 2/1s for one mana aren’t likely to get the job done. However, 2/1 Savannah Lions turn 1, followed up by a pair of 2/1s on turn 2 is about as beatdown as it gets. So, if you’re trying to evaluate the possible strength of a small monster, imagine two in your opening hand, plus appropriate backup.
Narrow cards should be powerful cards – Whenever you sacrifice versatility, it’s crucial that you gain power. The more specific a card’s effect, the closer it should resemble a laser-beam, focusing in on the precise thing you need to do to put your opponent in a world of hurt. Alternatively, see if these narrow cards have an “escape route.” For example, how about the ability to cycle the card away when you don’t want to see it…?
Listen to R&D -This should not be confused with advice to make you hip and trendy, which is of course Listen to R&B. If you read articles regularly, you’ll know that there’s plenty of information coming out of Wizard Towers in Seattle, whether it’s from Mark Rosewater or Devin Low. I believe it’s very beneficial to try and get inside the minds of R&D, as if you can the rewards can be great. First, you can start to predict what directions things are going with future sets, allowing you to plan ahead, especially in terms of cycles of cards – which individual cards from Lorwyn are part of cycles that will be completed during the coming year? How honest is Devin being when he says they’re eager to make weenies a beating? (I’m paraphrasing.) Aside from this actual information, it’s sometimes helpful to imagine a conversation inside R&D. Suppose there’s an artifact in Lorwyn that you evaluate as just incredible. Let’s see if this conversation is likely to have taken place in R&D:
“So, they liked Tarmogoyf, wait ’til they get a load of this guy. He’s going to go in every single deck that features creatures at all, and it utterly resets the benchmark for what creatures in the game do.”
“Wow, at a stroke we’ll make 98% of cards irrelevant. Carnage.”
Mark Rosewater — “Good job.”
The probability is that this conversation never took place, and if it didn’t, maybe you should look closely at exactly what the card does again. I’m not suggesting that R&D are infallible, but it’s definitely in your interest to think “what were they thinking?” rather than “what were they thinking?!?!?”
Treat reprints with caution – when your favorite 1970’s rock band reforms, it’s usually a disappointment. Sure, you get all the nostalgia, but sadly that’s usually not enough. If you want nostalgia for 70’s rock, go and read Craig’s webcomic [I didn’t put him up to that, I swear! — Craig]. As for Magic, it’s absolutely littered with reprinted cards that don’t cut the mustard. Poster boys for this are Erhnam Djinn and Serra Angel, both of which returned to be abysmal. Just because a card was good, doesn’t mean it is good. Life moves on, technology moves on, and so does the expected price for a finisher. As with all this free advice, balance is important. If they reprint Counterspell in Lorwyn, you have my personal assurance that it will be a bit good. But they won’t.
Symmetrical cards need breaking – any time you play with symmetrical cards in Limited play, you’re asking for trouble. Okay, Wrath of God is fine, but stay with me here. Examples of symmetrical cards are Howling Mine, Innocent Blood, and Sulfuric Vortex – they affect both players, theoretically equally. Since you have the downside of spending an entire card to cast them in the first place, they better be doing something good. In Limited, it’s extremely hard to create the circumstances that make these cards asymmetrical, i.e. they affect your opponent to their detriment. As soon as you see a symmetrical card, ask yourself what you would need to do to break that symmetry. In the case of Howling Mine, you need to make your opponent drawing cards be a bad thing, which happens most often when you’re going to deck them with some kind of Millstone deck. For Innocent Blood, simply not having any monsters in play breaks the symmetry. And for Sulfuric Vortex, playing an aggressive deck means the Vortex will kill your opponent before it kills you. The broader the circumstances in which you can break the symmetry, the more likely the card will be useful. Howling Mine only belongs in a very specific one-trick pony deck, whereas Sulfuric Vortex is likely to see plenty of play in any number of aggro deck sideboards in Valencia for the Extended Pro Tour.
Huh? – Finally, you should keep a separate list of any cards that you look at that make you say “huh?” If you don’t “get” a card, it’s possible that it’s the sort of thing that needs an entire deck building around it. A couple that spring to mind are Martyr Of Sands and Searing Meditation, both of which happen to relate to lifegain, although not everything on this list will be like that by any means. Cards like this are often best left to the experts, as they are generally very carefully designed to be good in extremely limited circumstances, and it’s no coincidence that it took someone like Gabriel Nassif to make Martyr such an absolute kicking at Worlds. Searing Meditation meanwhile is about to leave Standard, unashamedly unbroken and likely to remain that way.
So there you have it. I’m not suggesting that you’ll know more about Lorwyn than a Zvi or a Mike or a Zac or a Frank. I am suggesting that using these techniques I’ve outlined this week you’ll be able to at least see why some of these guys are so hyped about some cards and so turned off by others. So do me, and yourself, a favor, and when the Lorwyn spoiler comes out at the weekend, try and analyze it on your own before turning to the experts. If you do, one day “the experts” could be you.
Next week, in a piece of delightful synergy, we’ll be using these very same techniques on the real thing. Yep, it’s Lorwyn revealed, here at Removed from Game.
Thanks for reading,