Man, do I have a headache.
I’ve spent the last few days continuing my work on the Extended metagame. I’m not sure if my rogue stubbornness is wise, but I simply cannot find it in my heart to play blue. As you can imagine, that results in numerous situations where I exclaim to no one in particular, "Gak! I wish I had a Force!"
I think that Force of Will must be the most reassuring card to possess in Extended. Just having one in your hand (and, of course, another card – I’m not silly) has to be one of the greatest confidence boosters in the game. "I can do whatever I want; I can Force it through, after all. I can stop whatever I want. I can Force it. Nothin’ like my Force. Cast all the Pyroblasts you want, Red – mine’s free, and I might even have Thwart or Foil in here just to mess with you."
Force of Will is the most defining card of the environment, because it’s never, ever, useless. Either you play with Force (why call it blue? It’s Force, period – the fifth color of Magic), or you build a deck based upon being able to deal with Force.
That sounds a bit extreme, I think, but consider the decks out there, which for argument’s sake I’ll separate into "Force" and "non-Force."
On the Force side, you have Trix, 21, Counter Oath, Counter Survival, smatterings of Forbidian and Palinflare and Stasis, and the chance-against-anything deck, CounterSliver. Pardon me if I miss a few, but I think that’s a representative sample of decks you’re going to potentially see.
On the non-Force side, you have weenie decks. I include Stompy, Sligh, Three-Deuce, and White Weenie in that grouping. Those decks succeed by generating permanents faster than the opponent can counter them. Threatening ones. Repeatable damage. Counter the Elephant, and the Rancored Vine Dryad gets through. Stop the Incinerate, eat the Fireblast. Stop the Priests, have a Paladin for lunch with Empyreal Armor on the side.
There’s a distinct polarization occurring in Extended. At first glance, it might seem as if it’s the axis of Run Force vs. Run Weenie. However, there’s another sort of deck that we’re all familiar with (well maybe not all – I don’t know what you play, and for all I know your sole Magic experience consists of two Masques Preconstructed decks, and I’m not sure what kinds of decks those are): The mid-range decks. The disruption and control decks. How many effective mid-range decks that DON’T use blue are there?
::refuses to use "space to think" area:: (Thank you – The Ferrett, who hates the whitespace craze)
Very few. The ones I can think of off the top of my head utilize Survival of the Fittest. Whether it is Sol Malka’s excellent green/black version or Dave Jafari’s excellent green/red version, the decks are centered on a supertutor that can generate more threats than Force can handle – and more specific threats, not just "random creature." There’s a difference between summoning a few weenies and throwing Feeders out for four consecutive turns because you’re (ab)using Squee to fetch them. Survival mimics the effects of a weenie deck… on topdecking steroids. Fetch a Feeder, fetch a Lyrist, fetch a Masticore, but fetch SOMETHING to keep the pressure on until you’ve run Force decks out of counters or stabilized enough against weenie rushes to seize control.
Yeah, Survival’s tough.
If you remove Survival decks, what mid-range decks exist? Remember, we’re talking non-blue decks here. I count Iron Phoenix as one, and it is one of my favorite decks. I’m not sure why it’s not being utilized now, actually. It defends against creature decks extremely well, it defends against major loss of life, it has a great ability to sideboard both anti-counterspells and removal. (Random tech: Afraid of Anarchy destroying your permanents? If you have Tutors, throw a Thran Lens in the sideboard.)
(Hey, Mike, don’t you realize that mid-range decks are traditionally blue?)
Yes, I realize that. But what of the decks of old that relied on mid-range control of the board? Decks of the Ernhamgeddon variety, recognizing of course that deck is illegal. (Had you for a second, didn’t I?)
Discard/lockdown decks are hardly heard from nowadays. Secret Force? We all know of the deck, and it’s sort of like the kid brother we like to take to tournaments – but is it viable? Suicide Oath was very solid. Ponza is a great concept, but seems to be lacking a balance necessary to combat the Grand Triad of Force/non-Force/Survival. Wasn’t Jokulhaups a card to fear once upon a time?
I ask, however – do you plan for any of these? Do you spend hours metagaming against Stone Rain? Doubtful. Most of the time is spent thinking about how to beat Force, non-Force, or Survival.
At one point in time, these decks existed. I was an avid fan of Legion Land Loss, and have always loved Land Destruction, and think that it’s ignored now. Legion with Lyrists and Feeders might actually do some good and move itself into the mid-range control area, but it’s not there right now – or if it is, no one is talking about it or writing about it or playing it with any degree of success in tournaments.
Read down the Top 8’s and tell me how many Forces you find. They’re everywhere. Let’s just take the Grand Prix Top 8’s. Five Top 8’s. 40 decks.
My thanks to Scott for his invaluable assistance in data collation. No one makes a spreadsheet like Scott.
Sydney: 8 decks featuring Force of Will main, 6 decks with Pyro in sideboard.
Florence: 7 decks/Force of Will main, 6 decks/Pyro sideboard.
Buenos Aires: 5 decks/Force of Will main, 5 decks/Pyro sideboard, 1 deck/Pyro main.
Phoenix: 7 decks/Force of Will main, 6 decks/Pyro sideboard, 1 deck/Pyro main.
Kyoto: 6 decks/Force of Will main, 6 decks/Pyro sideboard.
Isn’t that a bit extreme? I’m not sure what happened in Buenos Aires, where a White Weenie and a Sligh made it. Kudos to Emanuel Duering and Pablo Huerta for great performances.
I may wonder aloud at the polarization (and yes, I’ve wondered throughout this article if you can polarize to three points, rather than two, so any physics majors out there, talk to me) of Extended, but I’m fully cognizant of the fact that evolution HAPPENS. There’s no argument that the Extended environment has metamorphosed into what it is because of the cards available, smart players, and the time frame of the game – the longer it goes, the smarter we ALL are, and the better decks are built (though some of my creations may argue otherwise.)
Creature – Goblin
If you control a non-standard deck, and your opponent controls an island, search your library for your most important spell. Remove it from the game.
"Look good on board."
Story of my life.
It has also evolved because of lack of diversification and imbalance, which I’ll get into later. What I wonder is this: Has Extended evolved to a point where it cannot evolve further?
Strong words, Mr. Mason. Thank you.
Ritual being banned has altered the environment greatly. While scanning old "decks to beat," I realized how prevalent it was. Entire decks would splash black just to utilize Ritual. I don’t need to go into too much detail – you know it. Every time I load up Apprentice and play random.dec against the erstwhile Mr. Forster for playtesting, there’s a 50% chance I’ll grab some deck, shuffle, and then say "Hold on – this has Rituals."
Now, really, there’s no competition for most prevalent card.
Why is Force of Will so dominant? Once again – it’s always useful. And, aside from Duress, there’s no real way to affect it. You can rid the game of overpowered enchantments with the cornucopia of removal. A blue deck with white splashed in doesn’t REALLY fear Survival. What cards are there in the game that are that powerful?
The problem is that powerful cards are often engines. They often have decks built around them; utilizing them is the purpose of the deck. Force isn’t; Force is extraneous. It’s not an engine; it’s something that causes whatever engine the Force player is using to succeed, and to stop yours, all at once.
Black: Necropotence? Possibly. Necro, however, can be gotten rid of. Old-school Necro decks that were mono-black have disappeared with the banning of Ritual. Vampiric Tutor? I don’t consider any of the Tutors as something you metagame against.
Green: Birds of Paradise are everywhere, but they don’t last too long because they’re an instant target. Survival, as mentioned, needs to get on the board and stay on the board and takes time to set up. Oath of Druids? It’s an engine. All green power cards are engines.
White: Ah, white, what have you to say? The power of Wrath of God? The power of Armageddon? Globally, this color has the ability to do what it wants. The most powerful white ability, however, is its ability to destroy the engines of the world with Disenchants and Seals o’plenty.
Let’s pause for a moment before I get to Red. Black, Green, and White. I don’t really think I need to discuss Lands or Artifacts, as I don’t think there’s anything out there that we all shudder at the concept of for either. I think the set of lands we have is solid; there are plenty of options for multicolored decks, plenty of spells to keep them in check. Not running Wasteland? Better have a good reason.
Force is always useful, and it’s both offensive and defensive, and it’s very difficult to get rid of.
And it’s free.
Sure, it costs a blue card and a life. But it’s free. What other free spells compare to it in effect? I don’t know of any black, white, or green free spells that can dominate as Force does.
There’s no such thing as:
You may remove a black card in your hand from the game and sacrifice a creature instead of paying Progeria’s mana cost.
Target player loses 5 life.
That looks some powerful, I bet. Of course, it can still be Forced. But it’s something to be reckoned with. "Five life! That’s ridiculous! Four of those and you win a game!" Consider how a Force can cause you to lose the game. I know that I have – if Force players stop an engine, if they play wisely, they’re setting up their own win condition right as they’re stopping yours. I think the worst thing about this card is having to listen to people mispronounce it on a regular basis (one of the reasons I’m glad that Respite isn’t really useful).
Contagion is useful, but… No.
Again, it’s powerful, yes. But look at what we’re doing here. We’re taking each color’s most powerful effect – just as Force of Will does for blue – and making it something truly gamebreaking.
Scars of the Veteran, it’s not.
Miracle of Life
You may remove a green card in your hand from the game and sacrifice two forests instead of paying Miracle of Life’s mana cost. Name a creature card. You may reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal the creature card named. If you do, put that creature into play and place all other cards revealed into your graveyard.
Sure beats Bounty of the Hunt.
The green one was hard to come up with, I must admit. It’s hard to determine green’s most effective mechanic, after all, but I went with creature-based. However, it’s a bit overly powerful, as I can immediately see a blue-green deck Miracl’ing in Morphlings.
The point isn’t, however, for me to invent a new set; I’m aware of my limitations as a card designer, and I don’t profess to replace R&D or have all of the answers. However, the point IS to say that there isn’t a true counterpart to Force of Will, with one notable exception.
Personally, I’m not sure why every red deck doesn’t use Fireblast in Extended. It’s the best free spell on the market aside from Force of Will. Its cost – sacrifice two mountains – is both costly AND congruent with red’s strengths. Just as blue may have to pitch a counterspell in order to cast its free one, red has to sacrifice its mountains. Both can recover, but there will be times the blue mage wishes he had that Force Spike back and the red mage wishes he had his third mountain so he could cast Ball Lightning.
Fireblast is not metagamed against, but it is a finisher, the icing on the cake.
Its other notable free spell, Cave-In, is even comparable to Thwart, blue’s second-best free spell. Again, there’s consistency in both effect and cost. But the other colors don’t seem to have that luxury.
Perhaps it’s simply that red and blue are the two best colors in Magic?
That their abilities are straightforward and not complicated and thus it’s easier to design game-breaking cards? Who knows.
Fireblast is powerful. But it can still be Forced.
These two are powerful because they duplicate game-altering effects at instant speed for free that perfectly coincides with the focus of the deck at all times. Fireblast is damage IN ADDITION to other damage. Force is a counter IN ADDITION to other counters. They’re steamrollers because they are perfectly, congruently focused.
That’s why I created the imaginary cards above. Green consistently generates creatures – so, make a card that fits into that schema. Black is death and decay and focused on making you hurt. Go for it. White is based on God effects. Then dammit, MAKE one.
William of Occam was a 13th century English philosopher and theologian. He based scientific knowledge on experience and self-evident truths, and on logical propositions resulting from those two sources. In his writings, Occam stressed the Aristotelian principle that entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary. This principle became known as Occam’s Razor, that a problem should be stated in its basic and simplest terms. In science, the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.
Extrapolate that, and you come up with the simple maxim: The simplest answer is the best.
The problem is the balance of power/polarization of Extended.
Don’t misunderstand me. Force of Will is not INHERENTLY broken. But it’s the most powerful card. When a card causes everyone to either play it because it’s so good, or to design decks built to rush past it…when you can look through eight decklists, find eight different decks, and find four things in common in every one of them, what does that tell you?
The simplest answer: Force is broken.
It’s broken not because of its abilities, but because there’s a lack of alternatives. There is nothing wrong with free counterspelling. This isn’t some rant about how "unfair" it is, or how I’m tired of losing to it (though I am.) Like in my last article, it’s about viable alternatives existing in each color in order to restore the balance of power to what it should be.
What cards would be created that could redefine the environment so that it wasn’t polarized into the Grand Triad? Who knows what R&D has planned for us – I certainly don’t, though I wish I did so I could write prognosticative articles that would astound you. Consider that R&D is obviously learning from their mistakes as far as overpowered card designs go. Masques Block and Invasion introduced some excellent cards, but are there any that you say, "Yes! I can build an Extended deck around that!" Nope. There are supplements – Urza’s Rage is, in my opinion, one of the best cards created in the last few years – but the polarization remains. With R&D likely not to produce too many hugely powerful cards in the near future (based on their recent sets, this is of course conjecture), will we see another card that will spawn an archetype? What could it be?
I think that the answer is arriving, however. I’m thinking – and hoping – that the new uncounterable spells in the last set (Mongoose, Chameleon, Rage, Obliterate) are the first step to eliminating the stagnation.
I built a deck made up of them and Scragnoth, and they actually performed well, except for one thing: They’re expensive. But I can certainly imagine that more are on the way. These uncounterables do not need to be gamebreakers. They can be balanced, they can be color-true, and they can be threats that you will have to work around.
Destroy target artifact or enchantment. Vanish can’t be countered by spells or effects.
"I am tired of seeing the writing on the wall." — Hanna, Ship’s Navigator
Or, more free spells.
You may remove a red card in your hand from the game and pay 3 life instead of paying Evaporate’s mana cost.
Counter target instant or sorcery if it is blue.
"Urza stood amidst the ravaged landscape and wept, for the price of victory was too high."
That, however, is likely a great idea in theory but one destined to contribute to more of a polarization, so at this point I’d rather avoid it until more viable spells exist.
It’s entirely possible that the change is on the horizon for Extended. What if they rotate out the Ice Age block in 2001? What if they decide to eliminate true dual lands and stick with the Karplusan Forests and Elfhame Palaces?
The way for an environment to be affected is for answers to naturally arise that a card cannot deal with. The shifts in the metagame follow the development of these strategies and preserve the balance. I don’t see any way to shift away from Force of Will without the development of more powerful color-venerating spells or the continuance of uncounterable effects.
I don’t know what’s coming up. But I know that Extended has stalled, and that as long as 33 out of 40 decks feature one card, that no matter what you argue, the creative process, the balance of the game, and the level of enjoyment and innovation is stalled.
Diversity and simplification, people. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Listen to Occam. The simplest answer is that there need to be cards that can make Force of Will useless, the hosers that exist out there for every other power card. Right now, the most effective answer to a Force of Will is another Force of Will.
That’s not right.
The simplest answer to the polarization of Extended is to integrate cards or strategies that make Force of Will useless. Are we there yet? No. Are we on our way to doing so?
I hope so.