The Magic Show #241 – The Mistakes of New Phyrexia

Hello everybody and welcome to another edition of the Magic Show. This week I want to talk about Magic design and development. What makes a great format? What ruins it? What cards should exist and what is the extent of their power? All of that and more inside. Let’s go!

Hello everybody and welcome to another edition of the Magic Show. This week I want to talk about Magic design and development. This game we know and love is altered every time a new set comes out. From the Mind Sculptor to Bloodbraid Elf, it all had to hit the game at some point. Now we’re living in a Dismember and Mental Misstep world. What makes a great format? What ruins it? What cards should exist and what is the extent of their power? All of that and more inside. Let’s go!

So this week Mark Rosewater unleashed his annual State of Magic Design article. In it he detailed some triumphs, of which he’s certainly worthy, and some pitfalls, some of which we’ll talk about today.

First, let me give you some perspective. I’ve been playing Magic for about half of my life. I cracked packs of 4th Edition, Ice Age, and god help me Fallen Empires and Homelands. I remember when popular consensus had come down against Force of Will, saying it was pure Card Disadvantage, yet Balduvian Horde was the chase rare from Alliances.

I’ve personally seen the mistakes of ProsperityCadaverous Bloom combo, Affinity, Umezawa’s Jitte, Coldsnap, Tarmogoyf, Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. While I wasn’t around for cards like Time Spiral, Palinchron, Memory Jar and Tinker, I’ve seen my share of Magic screwups. I’ve also seen the game reach its absolute apex with the rich world of Ravnica, the unveiling of Planeswalkers and the incredibly fun and diverse Zendikar set. Duels of the Planeswalkers taking our game up and over all expectations. This game we love is a mixed bag. There is good with the bad.

And for me, there is no doubt that Mental Misstep and Dismember are both design mistakes AND development mistakes as they are violating rules that shouldn’t be violated while also screwing up the formats they impact most. Let me explain the development mistake first, as it’s easier to do with hard numbers.

Firstly, the Misstep. Talk about an accurately named card. The things this card has done to Legacy is shameful I tell you, just shameful. Some believe its very existence was made to hurt the Legacy format. Yes, maliciously, intentionally, and deviously, WotC created a card to destroy the format and RULE THE WORLD FOREVER!..I’m not sure I subscribe to this, as my tin foil hat doesn’t fit so well these days.

Regardless, the first thing that Misstep killed was High Tide combo. With a big, shiny bullet. It is gone and will never return in a Misstep filled metagame. But it also did some serious damage to Goblins, a long-time favorite. Now some will say that Goblins did just fine when running their own Missteps, and Jim Davis took it to second place at the Invitational earlier this year…except that was a split format with Standard, and no Goblin decks have made the Top 16 of an Open Series event since the LAST time we went to the Boston area…4 months ago. Rest in peace, Gobbos. The metagame has undoubtedly changed thanks to Misstep. That’s great, right? It’s really healthy for every deck to be running the same cards.

Last weekend? 27 in the Legacy Top 8. Even the friggin Aggro Loam deck couldn’t help but run two in the sideboard. In fact, since it’s been legal, Mental Missteps have been in the finals of every single Open Series Event. Give that a second to soak.

Now some say the answer is to just run zeroes and twos. Sure, if you ignore it, it will just go away, right? You’ll never have the need to run ones…in Magic…in the Legacy format…the most diverse format in the game.

But let’s get uncomfortable. There’s no denying that every single deck that ran blue ran the same 8 spells. Every deck with Mental Misstep has included playsets of Force of Will and Brainstorm. And while Force of Will is universally seen as a stop-gap to stupid and overpowered things, Brainstorm is quickly dismissed as “just a great spell.”

Let me keep going — remember that ‘crazy’ stat that every single Legacy finals has featured Mental Misstep since it’s printing? How about every Open Series Legacy Event finals we’ve ever ran ever has featured Brainstorm and Force of Will!

I don’t think it’s right to complain about Mental Misstep without discussing the elephant in the room. Brainstorm, and its interaction with fetchlands, gets it incredibly and uncomfortably close to Ancestral Recall. This is the one spell in Legcay in which R&D look the other way and let us play with this overpowered thing because we love it. And players LOVE Brainstorm precisely because it really is too good for a single blue mana, and it plays unfairly well with fetchlands.

Yes, it’s a skill tester. Yes, players screw it up constantly. But this isn’t about asking whether Brainstorm is good or not good, or the players who play with it make mistakes. What we’re looking at today is the question of Good Development. What makes a good format, what is too much, and what can development do about it? How much Brainstorm is too much Brainstorm?

What does R&D turning a blind eye to Brainstorm mean for the Legacy format in general? What does it mean in terms of how they’ll react to Mental Misstep in the near or long term? No one is clamoring for Brainstorm’s banning, but denial is not just a river in Egypt folks.

I mean, look at this Top 16. Littered with blue decks. NO RUG is good and all, but what pushes it over the top? Brainstorm? Misstep? Both? Misstep being “free” is one thing, but being blue is another.

Now let’s take a moment and appreciate the fact that Mental Misstep’s original design, a free Force Spike, didn’t come to fruition. I think I’d just keel right over with something that stupid in our game. They also didn’t print a pure Phyrexian mana counterspell, another near miss I’m glad didn’t happen at any amount of Phybrid mana.

But the argument that “you simply fight Misstep with Misstep” sounds like double-speak to me. It sounds like the same people saying “you simply fight Jace with Jace.” Or “you simply fight Stoneforge with Stoneforge.”

To move on here, I’ll finish with the new Modern format. Wizards immediately banned Mental Misstep before a single game of the format was ever played. A card they printed just three months ago. Wonder why they did that, and left Legacy players to fight the Missteps amongst themselves?

But you wanna talk about warping, there are few cards I’m as disappointed with as Dismember. No doubt it’s exciting at first–EVERY color now has a sick removal spell! Until you realize…EVERY color now has a sick removal spell! 🙁 So where does that leave the actual impressive removal spells like Go for the Throat? In the dust running 2nd fiddle to the Clear Best Choice.

But it’s not just the best choice for a black deck. It’s the best choice for every deck. What does this mean? This means the card might as well not be black. It’s “Char yourself, kill that thing.” It’s pervasive in ways even I couldn’t foresee. EVERY deck is running it. How much is “every”? Let’s break it down:

– 72% of every top 8 Open Series deck for every weekend it’s been legal
– Drop the three lowest Open Series Top 8s where Dismember is legal, that is, the first three weekends it was released? A whopping 86%!

Do you think those numbers are going down anytime soon? Could there really be a removal spell in Innistrad to compete with Dismember? Do we really want there to be?

Now it’s been said that Dismember isn’t ‘warping’. That it doesn’t push every six toughness creature to new heights. I mean, it’s just a coincidence that Consecrated Sphinx has doubled in price of the past six weeks or so right? And of course, the Titans say hello.

While I’ve made my case for both Misstep, which is insanely warping in Legacy, here is Dismember, which is a mistake we get to live with forever. For years, as Extended and Modern stay with us, every 5 toughness or less creature is looked down upon. You remember how awesome and impressive Phyrexian Obliterator looked he was first spoiled? Yeah, too bad Dismember makes it suck. Baneslayer Angel? Used to see actual play. Hell, used to be the hottest Mythic in the game! Now she dies to the same spell every other creature dies to…and one that is used in every deck.

But what’s the design issue? The design issue is harder to explain. Because it’s about feelings.

I FEEL that Mental Misstep and Dismember don’t need to exist in ways that I don’t feel about Birthing Pod, Phyrexian Metamorph, or even Noxious Revival, which is probably the 3rd worst offender, need to exist. These are, clearly, breaking the color pie in ways it’s never been broken. It’s crossing lines and doing things, for ‘free’, in ways Magic has never seen. And that’s NEVER lead to bad situations, right?

Gitaxian Probe is probably the most powerful effect I’d like to see on a blue Phybrid spell. It takes Peek, a well-loved and cool spell from back in the day, and let’s us see that 2 life is worth it in some situations, but not worth it in most. I feel this is good design much like Street Wraith taught us that not every deck would suddenly be 56 cards and 4 Street Wraith. Birthing Pod really feels like you’re “feeding the machine” in both life and activation costs. Phyrexian Metamorph is just brilliant, taking two great cards–Clone and Sculpting Steel–and putting them in one incredibly sexy package.

There’s no doubt that New Phyrexia has shaken up this metagame something fierce. First there was the Stoneforge Problem, but I think that simply masked the real development and beyond that design mistakes that New Phyrexia has given us.

Magic is not a perfect game, and I don’t think we expect perfect Research and Development. But I do expect us to take a good hard look at what is out there, what it does to those playing week-in and week-out, and where our game is going long-term. If and when they revisit Phyrexian Mana I hope there is no chance of Dismember 2.0; Requiring basic land types was fine and worked perfectly for cards like Snuff Out, yet so many years later perhaps R&D thought that slight restraint didn’t apply to them. Unfortunately, based on all the evidence I’ve found I believe they are most certainly wrong. The color pie means something, and they simply pushed too hard.

At the end of the day this isn’t about what I feel is correct, or what you feel is correct. But ultimately, collectively, we contribute to this game in doing just what I’m doing right now–discussing an issue, amongst friends, amongst fellow Magic players, and we’re trying to get a grip on things. Is Mental Misstep REALLY what want you want in Legacy? Is Dismember REALLY how you want Standard creature worthiness dictated?

You know my opinions, and I’m happy to hear yours. Remember: WotC is listening. Until next time Magic players, this is Evan Erwin. Tapping the cards…so you don’t have to.

– Evan “misterorange” Erwin