You Lika The Juice? – Fight the Power

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Thursday, December 25th – I know some of my readers get amused at how often I get up on my soapbox about various issues I have with the current state of Magic. A lot of it seems to boil down to 1) Blue is too powerful and 2) Green gets the shaft. Yeah, yeah, we’ve certainly heard that before, ho-hum, next please…

Ho ho ho!! I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas are having a merry one, filled with the love of family and friends, and the joy of gift-giving. As I write this I’m just about done with everything needed to make this another special one for the kids – not that they’re difficult, but I just procrastinate. Also, as I ran around yesterday procuring gifts for my wife, I had to wonder – where were these cut-rate sales I kept hearing was going to be the rule in the last week of shopping? Seems every thing I wanted to get her was full price. Hopefully paying through the nose will help these stores weather the rough economic times. Ah well, if she wants to take anything back at least she’ll get decent money for it, huh?

I had big plans for today’s You Lika The Juice, having scored what I consider a coup for the Elder Dragon Highlander fans out there and I thought it would make a great Christmas “gift” of sorts for those of you who like the format. Unfortunately, I think the Christmas crunch made it so that things didn’t come off according to plan, so it’s past deadline and I’ve got an editor waiting for something more than a lump of coal in his inbox. What does that mean?

Randomness, I suppose. Some things that have been on my mind that I wanted to toss out there to stir discussion.

What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved, lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
(Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy

I know some of my readers get amused at how often I get up on my soapbox about various issues I have with the current state of Magic. A lot of it seems to boil down to 1) Blue is too powerful and 2) Green gets the shaft. Yeah, yeah, we’ve certainly heard that before, ho-hum, next please…

The thing is, this is a fight that’s been going on since fans of Magic began to coalesce online as a community. While Dr. Garfield’s overall concept of Magic was brilliant, the execution had a few glaring flaws that unfortunately we’ve been living with ever since. Namely, how each color deals with time and resources in the game.

Blue has always been a master of both these critical elements. Blue continues to be the color of high-quality instants, which means that Blue spells get to play at every phase of the game. It also remains the color of card drawing, giving the color greater access to the raw currency of the game – the cards. In other words, Blue can’t help being so powerful because its themes and flavor, set all the way back when Garfield cooked up the colors and perpetuated through today, allow it to play better Magic than the other colors.

In May of this year I wrote what I consider to be a dynamite article addressing this problem, The Faerie Problem and Cleverness. In the article I had a ton of links demonstrating that folks at Wizards, time and time again, fall into the same trap that Garfield dug for the game when it came to the color Blue; in particular, check out the section on designing the Command cycle from Lorwyn. At the time I was mainly focusing on the problem with the Faerie deck dominating Standard, but considering that many of the same cards from the Faerie decks are now threatening to dominate Extended I think people who care about game balance and the health of the game should keep the points I made in the front of their mind.

This time around I want to take a look at the Ultimatum cycle and how badly unbalanced Cruel Ultimatum is when compared to the others in the cycle, especially when you consider the ones with Blue compared to the ones with Green.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there’s no article focusing on the creation of the Ultimatum cycle like there was for the Command cycle. The only real mention of how the cycle came to be I could find was a Rosewater article where he mentioned they came up with Cruel Ultimatum as a card and liked it so much they decided to make an Ultimatum cycle.

Anyone who’s played with or against Cruel Ultimatum knows just how silly the card is in terms of gaining advantage over your opponent. When the spell resolves, assuming that all the modes hit something, there is an eight card and a ten life swing in your favor. That’s just nuts! Of course, here’s the justification for the power:

1. It’s over-the-top colored mana intensive. Sure, you’d think that prior to Lorwyn, but now nobody blinks about the fact that 5-Color-Control can basically “splash” Cruel Ultimatum into its decklist.

2. It’s seven mana, so it should win the game. I can almost buy this argument, save the fact that Magic games go on long enough now that getting to seven mana is a matter of course. Sure, Kithkin or burn decks can put you on a quick clock, but there are certainly ways you can blunt their effectiveness long enough to break their back.

3. Well, it doesn’t immediately win the game… sure, it doesn’t immediately win the game, but much like when Beatrix nails Bill with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, you aren’t immediately dead but you’re pretty much dead man walking.

4. It’s a sorcery, so it can be easily countered. True, in theory… but the colors of the Ultimatum show a different story. With access to both Blue and Red, a deck with Cruel Ultimatum can pick a fight on your opponent’s turn so that he’s spent when you untap and go into your own main phase.

Let me pick at the collection of effects on this card too – namely, where’s the Red effect? Sacrifice a creature, discards three cards, Raise Dead, Drain Life for five – all very, very Black. Then we add on “draw three” for the Blue element, and sit back proud of how nicely that balances with the discard three. Again, where’s the Red? It’s not there. This card would make much more sense if it cost UUUBBBB.

Okay, so I’m not necessarily opposed to huge, splashy spells that do big things when resolved. But what really gets me is when they decide to make a cycle around this card, and the rest of the cards fail so miserably in comparison.

Take, for instance, the “Green” card in the cycle, Titanic Ultimatum. On the surface, it seems like it’s doing a lot of ridiculous things, giving all your creatures a turbo-charged Overrun effect that should pretty much win you the game if it resolves. Guess what? We’ve got Overrun available in 10th Edition, and it ain’t exactly burning up the metagame. Why? If you’re playing Green, odds are pretty slim that you’re going to get enough creatures in play where giving a creature +3/+3 and trample (or for that matter +5/+5 and first strike, lifelink, and trample) is going to flat out win you the game. Sadly, the decks that give you a reliable horde of creatures are decks with Bitterblossom, and decks with Spectral Procession and Cloudgoat Ranger. Titanic Ultimatum is a super-expensive sorcery and the odds of that resolving against a Blue deck are slim and none, especially given the Ultimatum’s colors aren’t exactly well situated to pick a fight on the Blue player’s turn.

Finally, I just noticed something about Titanic Ultimatum – where’s the Red element of the effects?

So let me ask the $50,000 question – why isn’t Titanic Ultimatum an instant? The natural answer is – well, the cycle are all sorceries. And my reply is – why? The Command cycle was all sorceries – until someone decided Blue should break the pattern and be an instant. Instead of making Titanic Ultimatum a turbo-charged Overrun, why didn’t they make it a turbo-charged Giant Growth? It’s not like we haven’t had a big splashy instant like that before – look at Vitalizing Wind! Why couldn’t they have made something like this?

Titanic Ultimatum
Until end of turn, creatures you control get +3/+3 and lifelink. All creatures and players take 3 points of damage.

I’m tempted to add on “this damage cannot be prevented,” but that might be too greedy. So with the Red we’ve got the damage dealt to creatures and players, with the White we’ve got lifelink, and with Green you get the mass Giant Growth, and it’s all tied together so that your creatures survive the carnage and the lifelink negates the damage you yourself take. And it’s all done at instant speed so there’s surprise value here, either as mass creature sweeper, direct damage of sorts or as a combat trick. Nothing is out of flavor for the colors, and yet the spell is just dripping with utility and cleverness. Why? Because it’s an instant; with this spell you can engage in all phases of the game during all turns.

What do you think? Pretty darn powerful, I’d say. Not on par with Cruel Ultimatum, but I’d say it was pretty close. I wonder if anyone in design or development even thought of going in this direction? Green has plenty of cards to cast during your own main phases; the color is chock full of quality summon spells. What Green needs more of are cards that let you engage your opponent during his turn, when he least expects it.

Let’s take a look at the other Green Ultimatums. Violent Ultimatum is pretty good; I’ve seen it cropping up in some fringe Five-Color builds. You cannot deny its utility… and yet it falls way short of Cruel Ultimatum. Violent gets you three cards for one. Cruel Ultimatum is getting you eight cards and ten life for one.

What if you made Violent Ultimatum an instant – would it see play then? Probably, and it certainly would make for a huge cause for concern with control decks to play around the card. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Then there’s the worst of the bunch, Clarion Ultimatum. You just spent your turn to copy five cards, and those copies come into play tapped. Granted, if you live long enough to untap, you’re probably in pretty good shape. Again though, let’s compare this to Cruel Ultimatum, eight cards and ten life. The card promises five cards for one, and those five cards might be good stuff (I’m thinking Mulldrifters, Ranger or Eos, Kitchen Finks), or they might be five lands if your board has been cleared. The card can range from mediocre to pretty darn good. That just doesn’t measure up to the Cruel Ultimatum standard.

Again, what if they made Clarion Ultimatum an instant? In that case, even “thawing” out five lands during your opponent’s end step is pretty darn hot! Would that have made Clarion Ultimatum more broken than Cruel Ultimatum?

The point of this exercise is that we need to stay vigilant. It’s obvious that, for all the great work Wizards of the Coast has done to make this game ever more vibrant and fun year after year, there are still institutional biases in game design that are hard to shake. The bias that really needs to be broken is the notion that Blue as the clever color, the tricky color. It’s players who should have the option to be clever and tricky, no matter what colors they prefer to play. Colors should be flavorful, and there’s plenty of balanced flavor to draw from without falling into the mindtrap of Blue = instant, Blue = card draw. So Wizards, I beg you, when you’re designing a spell that’s got Green in it, ask yourself “why not make this an instant?” And gentle readers, I beg you, keep up the good fight for pushing for cleverness throughout all the colors… and forgive an old man his soap box when he feels the need to fight the power.

Random Observation from Worlds

From the Top Extended Decklists from Worlds, does anything odd jump out at you here?

Red Burn
Alvise Gorghetto
2008 Worlds – Extended

3 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Great Furnace
11 Mountain
3 Darksteel Colossus
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Spark Elemental
3 Flames of the Blood Hand
4 Incinerate
4 Lava Spike
4 Magma Jet
4 Rift Bolt
4 Shard Volley
4 Shrapnel Blast

3 Goblin Sharpshooter
4 Martyr of Ashes
4 Pyrostatic Pillar
4 Smash to Smithereens

Darksteel Colossus? Really? First I figured it must be a typo, but then I see the same card (2 copies) in a very similar build run by Zach Hall. Both of these guys made at least 4-2 in Extended to make this list of decks. With only 18 lands and 4 Shard Volley I can’t see how they’d ever actually cast the eleven mana Darksteel Colossus. What’s going on here? It’s driving me crazy trying to figure it out, so if anyone knows please clue me in so I can get a good night’s sleep… [I do believe it’s Darksteel Citadel — Craig.]

Alright folks, y’all have a good Christmas and a safe New Year’s Eve, and I’ll see you at the top of 2009.

Take care!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com