Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?

It has been said that Magic’s color pie rotates. If so, then why does Green always end up at the bottom? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is not that Green always gets the pie’s smallest slice. In fact, even if it’s not immediately evident, Green has recently received a larger slice of the pie than any other color. In terms of versatility, today’s Green can’t be beat. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t have much of a place in the current Standard environment…

Do you remember the era when Green was King? When Green was Meatloaf and the other colors were Peter, Paul, Mary, and some nameless tour manager? When Green was Rock and Roll to the other colors’ Elevator Music? Neither do I. Stampeding Wildebeests and Spike Feeders had their fun for a while, but never really made it to the top. U/G Madness had its time in the sun, but Green was just the Stupid partner to Blue’s Wonder. No, Green has always been like the dweeby little brother who your parents insisted you bring to rock concerts. You know, the much younger sibling who drove off all the attractive girls or boys because he made them assume you were a single parent. That’s Green: Never wanted but sometimes used.

It has been said that Magic’s color pie rotates. If so, then why does Green always end up at the bottom? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is not that Green always gets the pie’s smallest slice. In fact, even if it’s not immediately evident, Green has recently received a larger slice of the pie than any other color. In terms of versatility, today’s Green can’t be beat. Though since the loss of Desert Twister, the color has lacked the ability to destroy creatures, it possesses targeted removal for every other type of permanent. Distressing though the inability to destroy opposing creatures may be, Green’s own creatures are, at least so far as attacking and blocking goes, the most powerful in the game. What would have happened if Emperor Crocodile had been included in Alpha? Or if Silvos, Rogue Elemental and Fangren Firstborn had been around for Fires of Yavimaya?

At the same time, Mirrodin and Darksteel have given Green what look to be two staples: Troll Ascetic and Viridian Zealot. Meanwhile, 8th Edition has returned Plow Under and Creeping Mold to the fold. Green has never been better. So, why hasn’t the color gained ascendancy? What, in spite of all its promise, went wrong?

Recently, Peter Jahn Yawgmoth’s Whimsy column on flawed combos offered the following Golden Rule: "Don’t play bad cards." The logic in this statement appears irrefutable. If part of your combo is useless in itself, then you’ll have trouble whenever you draw it and not the rest of your combo. Furthermore, if this is true for instant-win combo decks, it should be doubly true for non-combo decks that actually have to go the trouble of engaging their opponents. Good decks do not contain bad cards. This is both logically unassailable and, for the moment, untrue. Standard’s most popular deck, Ravager Affinity, typically runs multiple copies of the following, apparently bad, cards: Ornithopter, Tooth of Chiss-Goria, and Welding Jar. What’s more, if one attempts to remove these cards from one’s build, even more of the deck’s choices become bad; Frogmite and Myr Enforcer are not late-game punishers. Similarly, most present Aggro decks run otherwise substandard creatures in order to abuse Skullclamp. The old logic that bad cards make bad decks no longer holds. The rules of the game have changed.

The problem is, someone over at Wizards of the Coast forgot to inform the Research and Development team in charge of creating Green. Green’s Creeping Mold, Viridian Zealot, Viridian Shaman, and even Elvish Scrapper sit comfortably at the top of the utility scale, despite the fact that utility no longer really matters. While it is hard to argue that Ornithopter is, in fact, more efficient than Creeping Mold, it is also true that Creeping Mold is literally infinitely slower than Ornithopter, and by the time a Green deck can cast its flexible sorcery, the Affinity deck has probably already ridden its unassuming, 0/2 flyer to victory. Against Arcbound Ravager, even highly efficient Oxidize just doesn’t work, and no number of snarling, blocking beasts are sufficient to stop a well-fed Disciple of the Vault.

Green’s spectacular-looking control elements have lost value in Standard. But what about its Aggro? Surely, those same beasts that fail as blockers succeed as attackers? Not in the post-Skullclamp Aggro universe. Not in the Mono-White Control’s ten-mass-removal-spells universe either. Green has great cards with good synergy for each other, but other colors have bad cards with mind-boggling synergy for each other. On its own, Green just can’t compete.

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone ever expected Mono-Green Control or Mono-Green Aggro decks to compete. After all, when one considers artifacts, none of today’s major decks run just a single color. The trouble is, today’s Green is less adept at working in conjunction with other colors than at any other time in Green’s history. Part of this, surely, stems from flavor considerations; artifacts are all the rage now, and Green tends to be enraged at artifacts rather in love with them. Additionally, though, a number of conflicting currents in Standard’s Green undercut the color’s effectiveness.

Regrettably, the public voted to include Birds of Paradise in 8th Edition instead of Llanowar Elves. Now, you’ll never find me claiming that Llanowar Elves is innately superior to Birds of Paradise. However, considering the Green mana-heavy commitments inherent in such powerful cards as Viridian Zealot, Troll Ascetic, Creeping Mold, Fangren Firstborn, Ravenous Baloth, Plow Under, and Silvos, Rogue Elemental, decks with Green in them are in need of quick attackers like Llanowar Elves more often than they’re missing harmless producers of non-Green mana like Birds of Paradise.

Even more damaging is the fact that Green’s fixing and accelerating of mana in the form of land searching has taken a huge hit. This is not to say that Green has become any worse at digging lands from decks, just that the ability has bled out into other colors. Every color has access to Solemn Simulacrum, Talismans, Aether Vial, and the ubiquitous fetchlands. Affinity decks only require two lands to operate, Mono-White Control is content with using Weathered Wayfarer to pluck out its Cloudposts, and every Aggro deck even on the verge of conception uses Skullclamp to draw cards. When Sylvan Scrying and Reap and Sow are more popular than Rampant Growth and Explosive Vegetation, it is clear that Green has gotten itself in a pickle.

At the moment, there are three major decks that include Green components. One is a Green/Artifact combo deck that abuses Skullclamp and Tangleroot. In this case, Green’s presence is unessential; Green creatures are used because they cost Green mana, not because they have any love for Skullclamp, and the deck is, despite appearances, really an artifact deck comprised primarily of Green cards.

StarCityGames has also featured a number of articles on Green/Black Cemetery. Here, Green actually works as it’s made to, with utility elves and Ravenous Baloths providing much of the deck’s punch. Nevertheless the centrality of Oversold Cemetery (and to an extent Death Cloud,) in the deck means that it too cannot be truly considered to use Green to its fullest effect.

Finally, the merits of Green/White Control have been discussed at length. [author name="Iain Telfer"]Iain Telfer[/author] recently (and correctly) pointed out that Troll Ascetic has no place G/W Control because it lacks a positive interaction with Wrath of God and the deck’s other creatures. In Troll Ascetic’s place, Telfer suggests running Pulse of the Tangle. Admittedly, Green’s is probably the best of the Pulse cycle if only because the card is not overcosted even if it doesn’t return to your hand, and it might well deserve a place even in Mono-Green decks. Surely, however, it is problematic if a Green deck can’t find a slot for what could be one of the best Green creatures ever printed in Troll Ascetic. The card is missing from G/W Control for the same reason that prevents the equally excellent Viridian Zealot from being there; Green, dependent as it is on creatures, has no great liking for mass removal spells. Even the sacrificial Ravenous Baloth is not a friend of Wrath of God, if only because paying four mana to gain four life sets no standards for efficiency.

The result of all this is that Green is caught in a double bind. On the one hand, Green now possesses some of the most flexible utility cards in Magic’s history. Unfortunately, utility in its fundamental sense has been lost. The speed of Aggro’s synergistic bad cards will usually be too much for all but the cheapest Green removal spells, to say nothing of big shakers like Molder Slug. That Green’s removal is almost all targeted rather than universal prevents it from overcoming even moderately-fast Affinity openings as White can. On the other hand, even though Green’s mid-game attackers are of unequalled efficiency, one can play a whole string of matches against Aggro decks without ever seeing a mid-game, and even when one does arise against Control, it is usually just a fleeting prelude to a cleared-board late-game, Caller of the Claw notwithstanding. Green is neither controlling enough to function as Control nor aggressive enough to work as Aggro.

A while back, before the release of Darksteel, I read a rather basic article intent on reviving Mono Green Stompy. Among the suggested cards were Birchlore Rangers, Elvish Warrior, Slith Predator, Giant Growth, and Might of Oaks. What seemed naïvely charming before Darksteel looks absurd now. Back in the old days, it might have been fun to force Slith Predators through your opponents’ defenses. Try it at the next Friday Night Magic, however, and, as likely as not, your opponents won’t have any defenses to force through, and you’ll end up with a 4/4 Slith Predator and zero life on account of Disciple of the Vault or Goblin Warchief and Patriarch’s Bidding. The dreaded color pie has emasculated Green’s weenies in favour of a faster White, so what should we think when not even Equipped White Weenie can’t make a dent in anything other than Biddingless Goblins?

It would be pleasant to think that the quality of Green’s cards will improve in coming sets. Nevertheless, as I hope I’ve shown, Green’s trouble lies not in card quality but in the relative uselessness of single card efficiency (excepting that held by White’s mass removal spells) in Magic today. There was a time (say, 2003) when Green had fine synergy, but lacked power cards. Today, you can build a Mono-Green deck that has answers to nearly everything and includes only the most flexible, solid cards in the format, and it won’t stand a chance against the gauntlet. Green might be able to do almost everything, yet (if one ignores its dominance in regards to mid-game creatures and, laughably, life gain) it can’t do anything as well as its competitors can.

In such a fast environment, Creeping Mold will always be less useful than Shatter or Echoing Ruin, Tempest of Light, or Echoing Calm, and Molten Rain out of the sideboard. A year ago, Plow Under might have been a Standard-altering card, but it’s now outraced by Patriarch’s Biddings. Troll Ascetic, Fangren Firstborn, and Silvos, Rogue Elemental are all spectacular creatures searching in vain for opponents who actually care how much damage they take before their pseudo-combos explode. And above it all, oblivious to the grief below, soars Birds of Paradise, privately content that it "combos" with Skullclamp.

So, whatever happened to Saturday night? It was already Sunday morning before any of the Green players could cast their Baloths.

Hot patootie, bless my soul,

Adam Grydehøj