The Secret Lair – Cash, Cobras, and the Upper Price Limit

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Friday, September 25th – Last week I voiced some concerns over the Mythic status of a couple of the forthcoming cards from Zendikar. Then, in between me writing that article and it actually going up on this website, Mike Flores previews the most egregious offender of them all. Right on the main Magic: the Gathering site, of all places.

LOCATION: A sinister office building on the edge of a sheer black cliff. Lightning flashes in the background, illuminating the silhouette of the building. On the top floor shadowy figures meet in a large boardroom.

WOTC EXEC1: “Gentleman, while M10 has been a roaring success…”

WOTC EXEC3: “Haha, the pitiful fools. Buying the same cards again because we changed the names.”

WOTC EXEC4: “And will again with the Day of Judgment project.”

WOTC EXEC1: “…we feel we shouldn’t stop there, and should continue to push on further.”

WOTC EXEC2: “As you all know, Standard has long been a bane of the FNM program. Once players have bought the cards they need for their deck, they stop, and sales dry up. Repeated attempts to encourage stores to move over to a draft-only format have failed.”

WOTC EXEC1: “But now we believe we have the ultimate weapon to achieve our aims.”

WOTC EXEC4: “Project FetchLand?”

WOTC EXEC1: “Project FetchLand is only part of that aim. This, gentleman, is the true master stroke.”

WOTC EXEC2 reaches under the table and places a brightly colored cobra onto the table.

ALL: Collective intake of breath

COBRA: “Hissss!”

WOTC EXEC3: “My God! The stats. The ability. It’s unprecedented.”

WOTC EXEC5: “That power. It’s off the chart.”

WOTC EXEC4: “It’s mythic? Good lord! Then that would mean…”

WOTC EXEC1: “Yes gentleman. Soon, the only people able to afford to play Standard will be bankers and members of the Chelsea football team.”

WOTC EXEC3: “Then the rest will have no alternative but to draft.”

WOTC EXEC4: “Brilliant! I can hear the sounds of all those lovely booster packs being popped right now.”

WOTC EXEC2: “Yes, we anticipate all Constructed FNM’s becoming completely extinct within a few months of Zendikar’s release.”

HASBRO EXEC (sibilant whisper): “Excellent.”

COBRA: “Hissss?”

WOTC EXEC1: “Gentleman, to evil.”

ALL: “To evil!”

What a difference a rarity symbol makes…

It’s kind of ironic. Last week I voiced some concerns over the Mythic status of a couple of the forthcoming cards from Zendikar. Then, in between me writing that article and it actually going up on this website, Mike Flores previews the most egregious offender of them all. Right on the main Magic: the Gathering site, of all places.

Let’s take a look.

Lotus Cobra
Creature — Snake
Mythic Rare
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, you may add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

Good lord, what were they thinking?

Every time I think WotC has outgrown that unfortunate tendency to publicly gnaw their own feet off, they go and do something like this.

What were they thinking?

First off, let’s examine the card in isolation and I’ll freely admit it’s absolutely gorgeous. What a fantastic design. I might be wrong, but I don’t think anything there’s been anything like it before. I suspect this is one of the beneficiaries of the design space opened up by removing mana burn. At its most mundane it functions as a kind of two mana elf, appearing on turn 2 and ramping up to a four-drop on turn 3. At its most ludicrous it combos with other mana producers and fetchlands to blast out Ultimatums on turn 3 (or functions as a combo piece in its own right with cards like Fastbond, Harrow, and Scapeshift). At its worst… well it still beats for two a turn and, as unexciting as that might be, it’ll still get the job done in ten turns.

I probably don’t need to go over all the probable uses. Many many other people have done it already, including the original preview article.

I am, however, curious to see if there is a ‘Landfall — Draw a card’ card, and how much it costs to cast.

Cards like this always stir up an interesting debate. In one camp there’s always the ‘ZOMG! It’s the most awesome awesome thing ever!” crowd. They love to get all excited and can’t resist the opportunity to stir up the hype to fever pitch levels. In the other camp there’s the ‘Meh. Over-hyped.’ crowd. They just want to sound cool by deliberately going against the grain, and they love it on the occasions when they get to say, ‘told you so.’ Somewhere in the middle is the card’s actual power level, and that won’t really be known until the set actually comes out and people play enough tournaments with it.

The ZOMG crowd like to bring up the most devastating examples to justify the hype. That would be the perfect BoP/Hierarch opening into Cobra with two fetchlands popped on turn 3 to give you seven mana for an Ultimatum or something equally broken.

The Meh crowd like to bring up the ‘it just dies to Lightning Bolt’ or ‘what happens if you don’t have a third land’ arguments.

Neither position is particularly helpful in evaluating how good a card might be.

The ZOMG argument is easily blasted with a Lightning Bolt. Need that snake in play to do all your cool stuff? Oh dear, did I just break your deck by turning your pet into a charred cinder? I’m so sorry.

The Meh argument is easily dismissed as well. Dark Confidant is a 2/1. Did people not play him ‘because he dies to a Shock’…? Uh, no. They played him because if he didn’t get Shocked, well, things were likely to get bad very quickly. It’s the same for the Cobra. Sometimes you’re going to make him on turn 2 and he isn’t going to die, and then your opponent is going to be put in a world of hurt. The argument works better for Bob, as he’s just as dangerous in the mid to late game (sometimes even to yourself), but the Cobra still whacks for two in a pinch.

The best way to think of the Cobra, I think, is as a slightly more volatile Birds of Paradise. With support from the rest of your hand it’s more explosive, but there will be those awkward occasions where you don’t make the third land and all you have is a $20 Goblin Piker.

Did I already say he still beats for two?

Because it is so fragile, the decks that are going to make best use of it are ones that would appreciate the explosive upside, but don’t fall over and die if the Cobra has an untimely accident. Accelerating Baneslayer Angel out on turn 3 is an obvious example. Another might be turn 2 Cobra, followed by turn 3 fetchland, Lightning Bolt your two-drop, cast Bloodbraid Elf, cascade into Blightning, swing for five against an empty board. Highly explosive, but if the Cobra dies you still get to cast the spells a couple of turns later rather than maybe never at all if it’s something really big and ludicrous.

However, there is also a downside to the Cobra, and that’s namely having to make room for four copies of a 2/1 in your deck. A couple of years back, a 2/1 with an explosive early game ability would have been fantastic. Later in the game, it would still be an adequate beater at least. Nowadays, not so much. Creatures have gotten a lot better, and that might be the one thing that prevents the Lotus Cobra from being truly broken.

The guys I’ve spoken to on the island — and we have some seriously good players down here — don’t think the Cobra is that hot. The ability is a little bit too exotic and unreliable compared to plain old Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch. I’m more in the ‘wait and see’ camp. It was one of Mike Flores preview cards, and the cards they give him do have a tendency to end up becoming tournament mainstays.

In this case, the thrust of this article is less what the card does and more the color of that rarity symbol halfway down the right. It’s not gold, it’s red… and that means Mythic.

Oh dear.

When I first read the preview, especially after commenting on the rarity of Mindbreak Trap and Warren Instigator, my initial thought was that WotC had made a mistake of truly mythic proportions. With time for reflection I’ve scaled back from that position, but I still think it’s an example of some truly inept PR, either in putting it at that rarity in the first place or choosing the column devoted to tournament Spikes to preview it.

Rightly or wrongly, the new Mythic rarity has been a substantial sore point to a section of the Magic community. They don’t trust it, and think it’s a ruse to sneak tournament staples through at a higher rarity and thus make trying to keep up with the Standard metagame prohibitively expensive.

So what should have been a cool reveal of an interesting new card is immediately hijacked into a poo-flinging frenzy of ‘I told you so, Wizards is out to screw us’ comments.

Admittedly, just about any announcement WotC makes is greeted by a poo-flinging frenzy, but this one at least has a tiny smidgeon of justification.

The problem is, they anticipated the negative reaction back when they first announced the new rarity, and tried to alleviate it with this:

(From Mark Rosewater‘s column, “The Year of Living Changerously”, 2nd Jun 2008)

“This now leads us to the next question: How are cards split between rare and mythic rare? Or more to the point, what kind of cards are going to become mythic rares? We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells. They will not just be a list of each set’s most powerful tournament-level cards.

“We’ve also decided that there are certain things we specifically do not want to be mythic rares. The largest category is utility cards, what I’ll define as cards that fill a universal function. Some examples of this category would be cycles of dual lands and cards like Mutavault or Char. That also addresses a long-standing issue that some players have had with certain rares like dual lands. Because we’re making fewer cards per set, in the new world individual rares will be easier to acquire because each rare in a large set now appears 25% more often.”

So, having that little symbol be red instead of gold not only turns a chorus of ‘wows’ into an avalanche of flung poo, it also takes the main Magic spokesperson, a much-loved figure in the Magic community, and makes him look like a lying scumbag.

This is unfortunate, as I think Mark is a fantastic ambassador for the game. His weekly column is entertaining, and he’s not afraid to tackle issues head on. Giving his credibility a good fanging in the neck does not seem a fair trade for showing off a shiny new toy.

He’s also a little hard done by for this criticism as there’s a strong argument that Lotus Cobra could be described by either paragraph. While it doesn’t feel Mythical flavor-wise – it’s not some enormous gold-bordered legend after all – you could argue that the ability is ‘special and unique.’

Unfortunately, the most likely tournament use looks as though it’s going to be as a mana accelerant/fixer in much the same way as Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch. That to me, and many others, clearly goes in the bucket marked ‘utility,’ which gives a heckuva a lot of ammunition to the frothing moron brigade with the ‘See, we told you all along’ argument.

Messy, and not so good for the next time MaRo is tasked with explaining why a seemingly unpopular change is actually really good for us.

Let’s be realistic. The important thing to remember in all this is WotC is a company. Their chief aim is to maximise their profits, which they do through selling as many cards as possible. If you’re of a certain age and currently a student, you’re likely to think that makes them evil capitalist swine. Don’t worry. It is a phase, and you will grow out of it.

WotC aren’t running Magic as a charity for your benefit, they’re running it to make money, and if they didn’t make money, they wouldn’t exist. That’s how it goes in the real world. As it happens, their overall desires are actually closely tied into our desires. We want Magic to be fun and interesting, and it’s in their interests to make Magic fun and interesting so we’re more likely to spend our money on it rather than getting the latest Xbox game.

There is a danger of being too greedy. If Lotus Cobra turns out to be the tournament hotness it’s being hyped up to be, then putting it at Mythic rarity will drive more sales than if it was a normal rare.

However, there is a downside.

If you pile more and more tournament staples into the rare slots, you have to balance the increased sales against the amount of players you lose because they decide they simply cannot afford to keep up with the Standard format. That was my biggest worry over these ‘tournament-staple’ Mythics.

For pro players, the price of the card doesn’t really matter, which is partly why the rarity is barely discussed. If you’re competing in a tournament for $40,000, you really aren’t going to quibble about forking out for $10 or $20 cards that are absolutely essential for the archetype you’re running. Lower down at, say, your local FNM, the cost-benefit equation becomes a lot more important.

I suspect it’s a Marvel zombie type situation. If a moderate tournament player starts to find they can’t keep pace financially, they aren’t going to keep spending at the same level that keeps them always behind the curve, they’re going to go ‘screw this, I’m gonna find a different hobby’ and you potentially lose their business entirely.

It’s an interesting question. Will the extra packs sold on the back of hyping a Mythic card as a chase tournament rare be worth the number of players that quit the game in disgust because they felt they were ‘lied to’…? Or will they quit later because the card ends up justifying the hype and they can’t afford the $200 or whatever it is in order to remain competitive in Standard?

But there is an interesting aspect of economics that comes into play. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the Lotus Cobra might turn out to be. There is a finite limit to its price, which is tied into the base cost of booster packs and the quality of the other rares in the set. There is an overall upper bound to the price of all singles. Once they get above that, you get to play the Future Sight booster game. That is, you buy X boosters, crack them, sell the singles back, buy another X boosters with the proceeds while pocketing the profit Y.

In this respect, Baneslayer Angel is always going to have a slight edge in price unless M10 sales are significantly higher than Zendikar. A lot of the other rares in M10 are reprints and available elsewhere, keeping their price low. Zendikar, amongst other things, has five new fetch lands and a replacement for Wrath of God.

When I talked about this with Andre Mueller, he had a very interesting argument that the cost of keeping pace in Standard is fundamentally always going to be the same as long as the price of boosters remains constant. That, in effect, the system is completely self balancing. I don’t know if this is correct, but while a set is in print, there will be natural checks and balances to hold single card prices to certain bands.

Also, this seems an opportune moment to grab another piece of that Mark Rosewater quote, mainly because I’m feeling guilty about giving him the beatdown earlier, and also because it kind of tends to get missed off in all the poo-flinging about Mythics.

“Because we’re making fewer cards per set, in the new world individual rares will be easier to acquire because each rare in a large set now appears 25% more often.”

Remember those new fetchlands? Well, they’re going to be a damn sight easier to get hold of than the originals, I can tell you that.

Anyway, back to our scheduled rant.

As with Baneslayer Angel, the criticism of Lotus Cobra’s mythic status is more on the circumstances around it. My criticism of Baneslayer Angel is not that Mythic rarity exists, but in an attempt to make the Angel feel like it belonged there they were far too aggressive in shaving White mana symbols off the casting cost. Even the random silly abilities are actually relevant. It’s a sick joke that Halo Hunter kills all angels apart from the only one that really matters in the first place.

For Lotus Cobra, my issue is more with the ineptness of the PR. It’s bad enough that the card even exists at Mythic rarity, but to then have it previewed by the guy who specialises in previewing the tournament staples from forthcoming sets! It’s sort of like stealing your best friend’s girlfriend, taping yourself having sex with her, mailing the tape to aforementioned friend, and then broadcasting it across the whole internet just for good measure.

It was a gift to all the doubters that now feel vindicated over their cynicism. And a solid slap to knock off any that were sitting on the fence. Even supporters get that dirty, ‘oh well, I suppose I should have expected it really.’

Nom nom nom.

How are those toes tasting? Want some ketchup to go on them?

It’s always sad to see bits of a company’s soul slowly dribble away.

Anyway, that’s enough moaning about Mythic rares. Two articles is enough, especially as I still think they’re a good idea for what they were intended to do.

(Of course, as I am indeed evil, I reserve the right to go back on my word at any time.)

By next week, we should all know the full contents of what’s in Zendikar, so I’ll have a look at what interesting little tidbits I can find.

But before I forget, here’s the….

Random Silly Deck of the Week

While we’re sort of on the topic of snakes and Noble Hierarchs (I was struggling for a decent link, okay!) here’s another one my casual MTGO decks that I’ve been kicking around with.

It started out as a Spawnwrithe/Cold-Eyed Selkie deck. Normally I play with what I manage to rare grab draft, as well as picking up sets of any rare that’s cheap and looks interesting (Spawnwrithe). Noble Hierarch was one of the occasions where I splashed out a little. I don’t mind doing this for good utility rares that I know are going to be fun and will get used in a wide variety of decks. Birds of Paradise count in the same category, and fortunately being kept at normal rarity means they’re fairly easy to pick up nowadays. I’ve even picked them up in M10 drafts around fifth pick when they used to be an auto tix grab.

Dual lands is another in the good casual investment category. Even though I’m playing casual, I’d still like to be able to cast my spells in a vaguely consistent manner, so I’ll pick up the odd land here and there to make sure I’ve got a reasonable selection. You’ll probably see a lot of patchwork manabases for that reason in the decks I put up. I’m a firm believer of working out roughly what the color breakdowns should be and then grabbing whatever’s lying around to get close to it.

This deck is fun, but not as strong as it might seem on paper (strength being highly relative). The objective is fairly obvious. Turn 1 mana critter into turn 3 Spawnwrithe or Cold-Eyed Selkie. The rest of the deck is geared up to either sending them over the top (various Giant Growth effects) or clearing obstacles out the way (Unsummon). You can have some busted starts when a Spawnwrithe army sprouts up too fast for an opponent to handle. And Might of Oaks on a Cold-Eyed Selkie is obviously highly amusing indeed.

Although I had other decks I knew would use it more for the mana ability, the exalted ability of Noble Hierarch really shines here. It also makes Qasali Pridemage the most obvious source for random enchantment/artifact management. If you have them, Rafiq of the Many would be excellent in this deck. I don’t have any, and it’s a little too specialised/pricey at the moment.

I’ll be back next week to pick over interesting cards from Zendikar. Sadly no prerelease for me, unless someone would like to hijack an aid helicopter and smuggle some booster boxes across the Caribbean.

Thanks for reading.