The Reprint Trap

Tom Reeve has been contemplating a lot on an innocuous reprint lately, Griffin Sentinel. How do reprints affect your drafting, especially if you have a lot of previous Limited experience?

I’ve been lacking in inspiration recently. A series of real-life distractions have kept me from Magic, and if I’m honest, it was hard to motivate myself to draft Scars block intensively knowing that the Nationals draft format was going to be Magic 2012. And then, just when all seemed lost… Prerelease time! Unfortunately, I was only able to draft once at the Prerelease I attended, but that was still enough to get some neurons firing. And the cause of a lot of that activity was a single, innocuous card—Griffin Sentinel.

Why did it get me thinking? Why did a card that has (either as Griffin Sentinel or Skyhunter Prowler) been printed in Fifth Dawn, 9th Edition, 10th Edition, M10, and now M12 prompt any serious reflection?

Because in M12, the value of Griffin Sentinel relative to any of those sets has changed pretty significantly. And that got me thinking. We rarely think of having more experience as having a downside, but it certainly can. Certainly, the more experience you have of different draft formats and strategies, the quicker you can usually adapt to a new format. Reprints, however, can throw a spanner in the works. When you’re in the midst of absorbing hundreds of new cards as you get to grips with a format, it is so easy to slip up when you see a reprint. How tempting is it, when faced with an overload of information, to see a familiar card, release a sigh of relief, and pat yourself on the back for being old-school enough to ‘know’ how good the card is? Congratulations, you just fell into the reprint trap.

So what is the reprint trap? In a nutshell, it’s letting knowledge of a card’s performance in previous formats blind you to its true value in a new context. It’s treating that hard-earned knowledge as a shortcut, when in reality it’s sending you down a blind alley. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into, sometimes the trap comes decorated with neon signs and klaxons (see: Shatter in M10 vs. Shatter in Mirrodin or Scars of Mirrodin).

Now, there are a few different factors that can affect the value of an old card in a new format. Some examples might help to illustrate this better before I get back to that Griffin Sentinel.

An easy one to start with. It’s pack two; you’re solidly in white. You thumbed to the back of the pack, and while your rare is junk, Defiant Vanguard catches your eye. Do you slam it or barely notice it and skip straight to the commons?

Of course, this question is a bit of a cheat—there’s a critical piece of information missing that you need to have to answer that question. Which format are you drafting: triple Time Spiral or Mercadian Masques block? In Masques, Rebels was the strongest strategy by some distance, and Defiant Vanguard was arguably the best white non-rare in Nemesis, a key part of the Rebel chain, and had a relevant additional ability. In Time Spiral? It’s still good, but Rebels are thinner on the ground; the common slot includes cards like Castle Raptors and Temporal Isolation, and there are also stronger uncommons to compete with. Add to that a format with plenty of evasion, whether flying, shadow, or landwalk, and Vanguard’s second ability is deprecated against non-green decks. So, surprise—cards with strongly linear mechanics depend on the value of that mechanic.

How about another card, one whose value has shifted significantly, for multiple reasons, each time it’s been printed? Originally printed in Tempest, reprinted in Invasion, then most recently in Zendikar, Harrow is a great example of how reprints can be deployed strategically based on the mechanics of a set. Unlike, say, Evil Presence, a card that has to the best of my knowledge only ever been used as a sideboard card against Karakas in Masters Edition 3, Harrow was a great mechanical fit for both Invasion and Zendikar.

Now, the trap in this case would be seeing Harrow in Zendikar, thinking ‘color fixer,’ and skipping ahead. Yes, Harrow in Invasion was amazing at ‘fixing’ complicated and demanding mana bases. In fact, it was the kind of card that was so important that first-picking it was not only strongly advised, but could help set up the rest of your draft. Now, that aspect of the card wasn’t worth much in Zendikar. In fact, some of my better Zendikar draft decks that contained Harrow were mono-colored! Two things made Harrow interesting in Zendikar—the first is the more obvious: landfall. Suddenly, Harrow goes from being a draw-smoothing color fixer to a combat trick, and one with a huge potential upside, approaching an instant-speed Overrun in the best cases. The second thing that made Harrow interesting was the fact that, to a minor extent, land types did matter in Zendikar. Specifically, with green in triple Zendikar, a color that many people never wanted to draft, an aggressive mono-green deck could get a ton of value from Timbermaw Larva and Primal Bellow, cards which would often go seriously late. In that deck, Harrow could trigger landfall, tick up your Forest count in play, or allow you to skimp on non-Forest support for a splash, keeping your access to the splash consistent without risking a draw clogged with, say, Mountains.

So mechanical context can matter outside of strict linears—but what about something a little more abstract? Take Shock. Shock has been printed in two regular expansions (Stronghold and Onslaught) and a slew of core sets. One thing remains pretty consistent across all those formats—Shock has always been, as far as I can remember, significantly better in non-core set draft. Now, Shock is a nice removal spell. It’ll almost always kill something that costs more than itself; it’s instant; and it can always go to the face when needed. Well, almost always.

The difference, in general, is the speed of the formats in question, and in specific a quirk of Onslaught Limited. Core set draft has, historically, been the stomping ground of decks that tend towards midrange. It’s a world where every Hill hides a Giant, every Mind gets Rotted, every sushi bar stocks Giant Octopus. Shock will get your opponent’s two-drop, and it’ll hit three-drops in some colors. The four-drops it hits tend to have some built-in card advantage that makes the trade a little more balanced (Aven Fisher, Gravedigger). It isn’t likely, however, to do much about the thing that actually kills you—the Wurm, the Angel, the miscellaneous Shade.

Tempest block, on the other hand, was an aggressive format. Lots of evasion. And Shock kills every common shadow creature in the block, along with most of the common fliers. It will reliably trade with not only three-drops, but the best and most aggressive three-drops—cards like Cloud Spirit and Dauthi Marauder. Onslaught wasn’t as aggressive, but Shock traded with even more three-drops, and some of them were pretty important to be able to remove—Exalted Angel, Silent Specter, Quicksilver Dragon! The omnipresence of morphs in Limited decks gave Shock two hugely important time windows—your opponent’s third turn end phase when you were on the draw and your own main phase turn four, accompanied by a morph.

So Shock has been reprinted in M12. Given the absence of a weird confounding factor like morph, we know that we need to try to establish the speed of the format and the number of particularly aggressive and evasive creatures in order to accurately gauge Shock’s value. And early indications are good for Tog-zappers everywhere—the universal verdict on M12 draft seems to be that it’s a fast, aggressive format, with bloodthirst an important mechanic and a number of strong, cheap, one-toughness utility creatures (Gideon’s Lawkeeper, Merfolk Looter, the Mage cycle). That puts Shock’s value higher than it has been in past core sets.

It still doesn’t kill Serra Angel, but then neither does Incinerate. And you know what? The number of creatures that Incinerate kills that Shock doesn’t is actually pretty small, so how much do you care about the extra point of damage relative to the extra colorless mana? Not all that much.

It’s a similar story with the humble Glory Seeker—a surprisingly key card to one of the true aggro strategies in Onslaught (an aggressive, usually white/blue Soldier deck), Glory Seeker got a full turn’s jump on the format’s morphs, and if your opponent called and blocked turn 3, you could often blow him or her out by pumping with Piety Charm, then dropping another two-drop.

Fast-forward to Rise of the Eldrazi, and only the most truly dedicated aggro drafter would play a Glory Seeker, the 2/2 Soldier lost and afraid in a world of common 0/4s, 0/6s, and 8/8s.

So what’s the right time to pick a 2/2 Soldier for 1W? A change in format can shift that time from ‘first pick, if the pack isn’t great’ to ‘13th because someone’s more likely to play it than Haze Frog.’ Such has been the case for two-power two-drops without evasion throughout Limited history. Slow format, particularly a core set format? No thanks. Aggressive format, maybe one with some tribal interactions in the mix? Send in the bears!

So let’s get back to where we started, with Griffin Sentinel, a humble 1/3 for 2W with flying and vigilance. It’s seen print a bunch of times and rarely even been worth commenting on. In Mirrodin it was a reasonable body for holding Equipment, but it needed help to fight with virtually any of the format’s real threats. Somber Hoverguards, Myr Enforcers, Fangren Hunters, Skyreach Mantas, assorted affinity Golems—Skyhunter Prowler was trumped left and right. In core sets, it normally fell afoul of the increased value of Hill Giants and other larger monsters. So is M12 any different?

First, do the mechanics in the set suit Griffin Sentinel? Well, it’s a core set—relatively light on mechanical complexity. But much as scry returned to M11, bloodthirst has made it to the party this year, and evasion creatures interact very well with bloodthirst. Griffin Sentinel is best friends with Gorehorn Minotaur and Vampire Outcasts, and he gets along pretty well with Duskhunter Bats and Blood Ogre. So one thumbs up already.

Beyond that, we know that M12 draft is an aggro-friendly format in general. And unlike Mirrodin, where Skyhunter Prowler was helpless against all sorts of common threats, Griffin Sentinel can very effectively put the brakes on a lot of aggressive starts. Specifically, 2/1s are fast food for the Sentinel, and while Mirrodin draft had very few of relevance, M12 has a bunch. The Mages, Stormfront Pegasus, Child of Night, even vanilla 2/1s like Elite Vanguard, Goblin Piker, and Coral Merfolk are going to be played in a more aggressive format. Sentinel puts the brakes on all of them and will do so while sniping for a point turn after turn.

Sentinel isn’t even easy to block itself. M12 contains a number of great combat tricks for aggressive decks, which puts your (often tapped out) opponent in a very awkward position when you send Sentinel into a larger blocker. Mighty Leap, Stave Off, Wring Flesh, Titanic Growth, Guardian’s Pledge, Turn to Frog, maybe Slaughter Cry, assorted burn spells. Your opponent will have a lot of nightmare scenarios running through his mind when you fearlessly send in the Sentinel. Add to that a number of highly playable Auras, whether Dark Favor, Spirit Mantle, or Trollhide, maybe even a Greatsword, and there’s a lot of potential for a Griffin Sentinel to outperform its baseline stats.

I hope that I’ve left you with two main takeaway thoughts. The first is the Big Point—just because you’ve played with a card before, don’t assume you know how it fits into a new context. Pay just as much attention to it, and possibly even more—there may be a very good reason for a card to have been reprinted, and it might not be as obvious as ‘Shatter is good in Mirrodin!’ It goes without saying that picking up on undervalued cards is a great way to get an advantage in a new draft format. The second is the small point—Griffin Sentinel is a good man, dare I say a great man, in M12 draft, particularly in W/B and W/R aggressive decks. Don’t ignore him!