The Kitchen Table #308 – The Greatest Casual Screw of All Time

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Monday, October 19th – I want to hop in our time machine and talk about an event that occurred in Magic’s history that still reverberates through the game today. The purpose of today’s article is to look back on one of the greatest changes this game ever had, and reflect on how it impacted the casual player at the time.

Hello folks, and welcome back to the column that spends every week on the casual side of life. I hope your week has been pleasant and productive (and not necessarily in that order).

I want to hop in our time machine and talk about an event that occurred in Magic’s history that still reverberates through the game today. The purpose of today’s article is to look back on one of the greatest changes this game ever had, and reflect on how it impacted the casual player at the time.

Now, understand that, despite the alluring title, this is no rant. This is not meant to be a piece where I tee off on WoTC. Almost everybody who worked for WoTC back then is no longer there, and many of the things I talk about may have been lessons already learned.

Despite the fact that today’s subject is very old news, it is important to note that it still impacts the game. Just last month there were changes in the rules that go back to this event. I talk about it in my column regularly, but I have never laid it all out and spent an article exploring it. If you are a newer player, this article should help to give you a better perspective, and if you played during this time way back when, this should help to give you a nice walk through memory lane.

Today, we are going to talk about the changes that came with the 6th Edition rules set, many years ago.

There were a lot of changes, and lot of them made sense. They removed interrupts — that was a good change. They took out the damage prevention phase/step — that was a good change.

What I want to focus on were a few changes that really impacted casual players negatively, and you are still feeling them today.

Before I begin, I want you to know that I am not the sort to person who decries all change. I embrace change. My MBTI type loves change. However, I want “good change,” not just “change.” Adding collector’s numbers to the game was a good change. Adding foils was a good change. Adding prereleases was a good change. Adding Limited tournaments was a good thing. Adding color-coded expansion symbols was a good thing. I have really shilled for WoTC in a lot of things, from Timeshifted cards to Planar Chaos and more. I do not want this to come across as simply me teeing off on ancient history. Since this does impact cards and the game today, I think a greater understanding of some issues I have noted is valuable.

Artifacts Turn Off

One of the rules changes that came about in 6th Edition was that an artifact, if tapped, ceased to function. This was not a commonly known rule, simply because it was not commonly used. However, most players at tournaments and who played a while had either seen a deck that used it, or built one themselves.

This is a very flavorful rule, you have to admit. Tapping a permanent represented it begin used. If you were able to tap down a permanent with a static ability, then it showed you had used it, so you could turn it off.

A great example of this was Winter Orb. There were a lot of decks that would play Winter Orb, and then tap it with Icy Manipulator or Relic Barrier to turn it off. In fact, one of the early dominant decks of the early days of magic was a deck called Prison. Prison used Howling Mines and Winter Orbs, and then tapped them down with Icy Manipulator and Relic Barrier so that their opponent did not get the Mine and they did not get the Orb.

That’s not the only example of course. You could find decks that would play Meekstone and big creatures, and then tap their Meekstone.

That means that every artifact with a static ability had an answer to it — it could be tapped. This is important to understand for several reasons. One of those is that Blue had a bunch of answers to artifacts. It could clone an artifact, giving you one too (Copy Artifact). It could steal an artifact (Steal Artifact). It could bounce an artifact (Boomerang). It could counter an artifact (Counterspell), Finally, it could tap one down (Twiddle). Although it can still counter/bounce artifacts like it can with other non-land permanents, the others either don’t work anymore, or don’t get played very often. Blue occasionally gets a Confiscate or a Take Possession, but not that much these days. It can’t tap and it doesn’t clone anymore. That means Blue lost a lot of its ability to handle artifacts.

Some cleverness was lost. If I attack with my Red horde supplemented by a Gauntlet of Might, you can no longer tap the Gauntlet to shrink my army. You could play Vibrating Sphere and just tap it to avoid the negative effect. (That’s probably why it was printed at all; otherwise it sucks). You could tap down Teferi’s Puzzle Box so that only others, or only you, got the benefit. You could use the good part of Storm Cauldron by playing an extra land, then tap it to turn off the bad part and tap your lands without having to send them back to your hand.

There were a lot of great cards out there you could use. There was a card printed that abused this rule, and was improperly worded. Mana Crypt. At the time, you could tap the Mana Crypt for mana during your upkeep, and then not half to flip the coin and take damage, since the flip was not an upkeep cost but an ability that triggered. That made Mana Crypt broken, and there was a long while when you could run four of them and they were broken. I know, I had four in my tournament Vintage decks. I would play Mana Vault and then just use the Mana Crypts to untap the Vault.

I had personally built a deck around Well of Knowledge. I would use it to draw extra cards during my draw step, and then tap it down so others could not.

Here is why this is a casual screw. Take a look at Winter Orb, Static Orb, and Howling Mine. These cards had all been in tournament winning decks printed at the time. Very few other artifacts that were “abused” by tapping them off were powerful enough to make it in the tournament circuit. No one is going to fall to a cute Well of Knowledge deck. No one is going to drop over to the Meekstone tap deck, or a Vibrating Sphere deck ,or even a “City in a Bottle but a I tap it so I can play my Arabian Nights cards” deck. These are not winning you tournaments, but they are fun to play.

When you take a look at Winter Orb, Static Orb or Howling, you notice something. They now read, “if this is untapped.” These major tournament cards were changed so that they would work the same way after the rules change that they worked before the rules change. If you have a Static OrbMind Games deck built you were testing for a tournament, then the release of 6th Edition and its rules changes did not hurt your deck. If you had a great deck that tapped Winter Orb or Howling Mine deck, then you didn’t have to worry. Your precious tournament cards were safe.

However, if you had one of the many other artifacts with static abilities, and a deck built around it, you were screwed. If you had built a Bubble Matrix deck where you tapped the Matrix so you could damage your enemy’s creatures, then you were screwed. The deck no longer worked. Bubble Matrix didn’t get errata. Well of Knowledge didn’t get errata. Arena of the Ancients didn’t get errata. Coat of Arms didn’t get errata. Vibrating Sphere didn’t get errata. Weakstone didn’t get errata. Kormos Bell didn’t get errata. Sunglasses of Urza did not get errata. Stone Calendar did not get errata.

Just the three tournament cards got errata. That is all that mattered. In one fell swoop Wizards of the Coast said that casual decks and players and cards simply were not as important. It said, “These cards that are used by tapping in tournament decks are the only ones worth the trouble. Causal decks are not worth the trouble. ”

Now, you’ll note that WoTC still will print cards that sort of remind you of yesteryear with this function. There were several artifacts in Mirrodin Block that had the “If it is untapped” wording on them like Farsight Mask or Blinkmoth Urn. It still obviously impacts design.

This certainly was the obvious anti-casual screw, but it was not the only thing that affected casual players everywhere.

Summon to Creature

I don’t know if you recall or not, but one of the issues brought up with the great creature type update that errata’d a ton of creatures was that casual players would not have access to all of this errata, so it would hurt them. How do you play Etched Oracle in your wizard deck against a casual player, and then try to convince her that you can tap it to Patron Wizard? How do you play Scavenging Ghoul or Cyclopean Mummy against a casual player and then say it can be Lord of the Undead or with Unholy Grotto?

That’s always the problem with major changes. Many of them are at least consistent. Take the 6th Edition changes, for example. Sure, you might have cards that say Interrupt that now act as instants, but at least you know that every single interrupt will be treated as an instant. Imagine how difficult it would be for casual players if some of the cards that said interrupt now were instants and others became sorceries. That would be hard on anyone.

This is the problem that arose with changing the card type summon to just creature. There is not a problem with it in theory, but in reality, it was operated unevenly. There were a number of cards that read that they affected summon cards, which means they would not affect artifacts creatures, just summons.

Some of these cards were reprinted or errata’d to affect non-artifact creatures, while others were changed to impact all creatures, despite their initial wording being different. The problem was that WotC was uneven with this.

You can imagine the issues that resulted. Was Remove Soul changed so that it could counter artifact creatures? It was. Was Invoke Prejudice changed so that it worked with artifact creatures? It was not (until the most recent oracle change).

Remember my comments above about how decks got destroyed in the 6th changes? Well, I had an Invoke Prejudice deck at the time. My deck was not changed one bit. On the other hand, I had a buddy with an Aether Storm deck. Aether Storm said it stopped people from playing summon spells, so he had played it with a bunch of artifact creatures. Aether Storm was changed, so his deck stopped working.

What would it have hurt to have left cards their own functionality? Take a look at Master of Arms. Prior to 6th Edition, tapped blocking creatures did not deal damage in combat. When they removed that rule, Master of Arms became much worse. When he was created, he was intended to tap creatures blocking him, and thereby prevent the damage. Now he just sucked.

So, eventually, he was errata’d. Although, if I remember it took a long while. His original functionality was restored to him, and that was the right thing to do. It is important that casual players have their original functionality of their cards retained because they don’t always read the errata and the articles that tell then oops, the rules have changed, and their deck, which once worked, no longer does.

There was no reason not to have made every artifact with a static ability have it stop working when it was tapped, just like Howling Mine and Winter Orb. There was no reason not to keep Master of Arms’s damage prevention ability on the tapping. There was no reason not to change all uses of summon to non-artifact creature.

Imagine you were a casual player with an Aether Storm deck, and you decide to show up at a tournament with Aether Storm and artifacts, only to be told your deck doesn’t work, even though it worked for months. Imagine you were a casual player with a deck built around Burning Wish and removing your library from the game, so you could Wish for a victory condition, and you showed up at a tournament yesterday and told your deck no longer works, simply because they changed the name of a zone. Imagine you showed up with a Meekstone/Icy Manipulator deck and were told it no longer worked. What about a Guardian deck with Ivory Guardians and a bunch of other guardians in the great creature type update?

I’m all for changes that make the game better. Sometimes you are going to make a change that can’t help but invalidate a few decks. For example, under pre-6th Edition rules, you only died if your life total was zero or less at the end of a phase. Thus, you could tap a City of Brass while at one life for a Black mana, Soul Feast your opponent, gain 4, and be okay. That would not work today. If you had built a deck around this rule, it would be invalidated. Similarly, if you had built a deck around mana burn, it would also be invalidated. Sometimes it can’t be helped.

However, when a rules change is done in such a way that it changes the way a class or subset of cards worked, that class or subset of cards should get errata to restore their original functionality. I believe this is true for two reasons:

1) It seems just. People have decks and cards that work a certain way, and if they can continue to work that way under new rules, then they should be changed to do so. It’s like Master of Arms. You could add language to make the tapped creature not deal damage, that language was added, and that was a good thing. Cards like Aether Storm and Vibrating Sphere should have gotten similar errata.

2) It is helpful to people who already have decks and who may not read the latest articles. If the casual audience Wizards has is as big as they say it is, then there are a ton more causal players than tournament players. Their decks should be destroyed as victims in a rules crossfire. Do what you can to keep the old cards working under the new system, in those cases where a card used an old rule (Master of Arms) or has its wording changed (Aether Storm, Living Wish).

Anyway, I want to provide you with this historical perspective, so that when a writer talks about some of the things that were lost in the 6th Edition changes, you know that they are likely to be talking about something other than triggered abilities now using the stack, instead of being unable to respond to them.

I hope that you enjoyed today’s foray into the past, and can see how the changes still have effects through today. We’ll see you next week.

Until later…

Abe Sargent

PS — It’s not the only casual screw from the 6th Edition era. For example, would you like to know why they removed banding from the game? It was because banding was too much work for an ability that was not used in tournaments.

Quoted from an official WotC document, in reference to a question about 6th Edition:

“We haven’t printed any banding cards recently because banding is confusing and isn’t used in tournament play”

So if it were confusing, but it was in tournament play, it seems to me it would be worth it.