You Lika The Juice? – The Faerie Problem and Cleverness

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Wednesday, May 21st – In the first age of Magic, Blue was dominant for two perceived reasons: its ability to counter spells, and its ability to draw cards. These elements were considered to be “in-flavor” for Blue, when in reality this was giving one color dominion over two fundamental, basic mechanics of the game – playing cards and drawing cards.

Terrible Cookies
“I don’t particularly care for your articles in general, they tend to lack much well-reasoned strategy or “tech” and I cannot recall ever gaining any real insight into the metagame. Overall the series strikes me as more of the diary of a relatively unsuccessful Magic player who enjoys the casual aspect of the game.” — comment in the forum from last week’s article

I know my writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fine – different strokes for different folks. But this post reminded me of a funny story my wife’s family tells about her father, god rest his soul. One day her mother was looking for a package of cookies for a snack for the kids and couldn’t find them, so she asked her husband if he’d seen the cookies.

“Oh yeah, those cookies were terrible!”

“You threw them away?!”

“No, no – I ate them.”

“You ate the whole bag?”

“Yeah, it took me that long to figure out they tasted terrible. You shouldn’t buy those cookies again.”

This fellow’s synopsis of what You Lika The Juice is all about leads me to think he’s a regular reader… but if he doesn’t care for my articles, I can’t help but wonder why he keeps reading? Is it a train-wreck phenomenon? Wonder at just how bad I’m going to be this week? Why does he keep eating terrible cookies?

Anyway, I just found the comment amusing, and it brought back some fond memories regarding Dutch. You can find silver linings even in negative criticisms.

Faeries: How We Got To This Problem
The topic du jour is justifiably the Faerie deck that’s dominating Standard and seems positioned to make Pro Tour: Hollywood a snorefest unless some enterprising pros cook up some exciting unforeseen technology. Me, I’m not holding my breath – the Faerie deck is chock full of Blue spells, has card-drawing, counterspells, instant speed threats; if ever there was a stereotypical Pro Player’s wet dream of a deck, Faeries has got to be it, and I fully expect a ridiculous number of Pros to show up with the deck in tow. By the time this column goes up, I fully expect the net to have discussed how the Faerie deck works, why it’s the best deck, and how you can go about beating it. My role in the Magic community isn’t to provide top-level analysis; rather, I want to highlight that the “Faerie problem” is symptomatic of ways of thinking within Wizards R&D, and I hope we can use this moment to shine a light on it and perhaps learn something along the way.

Let’s step back a moment and ponder – weren’t we just in the middle of a Magic Renaissance, with everyone extolling the virtues of a format so healthy as to spawn and support a dozen or more top archetypes? What happened? My feeling is that Lorwyn and Morningtide (and Shadowmoor to some degree) has offered a lot of fun and obviously strong spells, enough to lure deckbuilders into trying out a wide variety of ideas. But in the long run, people most interesting in playing what wins finally saw that their path should line up with what is available in Black/Blue Faeries, and Wizards made certain decisions along the way that made this problem inevitable.

The best two-color manabase available
For State Champs last year, I did an exercise where I looked at the various color combinations and what sort of manabases would support those color combinations.

Adarkar Wastes
Boreal Shelf
Calciform Pools
Nimbus Maze
Wanderwine Hub

Dreadship Reef
Frost Marsh
River of Tears
Secluded Glen
Underground River

Auntie’s Hovel
Graven Cairns
Molten Slagheap
Sulfurous Springs
Tresserhorn Sinks

Arctic Flats
Horizon Canopy
Saltcrusted Steppe

Fungal Reaches
Grove of the Burnwillows
Highland Weald
Karplusan Forest

Gilt-Leaf Palace
Llanowar Wastes

Showing the color combinations that had more than one available “dual land” back then, it’s easy to see that Blue/White, Blue/Black, and Red/Black have the most options and, theoretically, the most stable manabase to build from. But if you look closely at the top 3, they’re not really equal. The Future Sight dual for Blue/White, Nimbus Maze, doesn’t play well with too many non-basics, so you can’t really build as robust and “wide” manabase there. Wanderwine Hub required you play Merfolk, and while the Merfolk of Lorwyn looked interesting, they didn’t exactly look strong enough to build around. For Red/Black, Goblins definitely looked tantalizing, though the Graven Cairns filterland didn’t help make sure you could have either Red or Black mana on the first turn — something I’d assume you would want to accomplish in an aggressive Goblin strategy.

Then we’ve got the Blue/Black. First, the Future Sight dual was solid, offering up a pain free Blue or Black mana if you managed your land drops correctly; most importantly, it provides Blue mana on your opponent’s turn guaranteed. The tribal land Secluded Glen requires you to play Faeries to fully turn on, and it just so happens that the Faerie tribe is incredibly good. So you’ve got 12 dual lands that can provide you with colored mana on turn 1 if you need it, and 8 of them are pain-free; that’s an incredibly robust manabase for a two-color deck.

Making the faerie tribe Blue/Black
Faeries used to be Green; starting in Alpha and running through Fifth Edition, Green had Scryb Sprites, a flying 1/1 common for a single Green mana. Then came Argothian Pixies in Antiquities, that did a pretty good Grizzly Bear imitation while also having neo-protection from artifacts (but no flying). Then Legends gave us the mana-filtering Fire Sprites that once again took to the skies. Homelands came along and gave us some Green flying Faerie boosters, including a “lord” (the Faerie Noble), Willow Priestess, and the tougher cousin to Scryb Sprite, Willow Faerie.

At some point after that, it was decided that since Glue was the color of flying (“the sky is blue!”), and Green was an enemy of Blue, then Green would not have fliers but rather ways to combat fliers. “In Magic, we’ve made a conscious choice to shift faeries from Green to Blue. This isn’t because faeries aren’t Green philosophically. It’s for two reasons. One, Green just doesn’t have much in the way of small fliers. And two, Magic has taken the traditional faerie and reshaped it into a creature that likes to trick and deceive,” (from Aaaargh! by Mark Rosewater). Green lost its faeries because the folks at Wizards made some decisions that cemented the idea that the enmity between Green and Blue would take the form of Blue’s fliers versus Green’s anti-aircraft measures. “Normally there is a great absence of flying [in Green] … because the removal of flying in Green was done more to create a contrast with Blue than it was because Green didn’t have any flavor affinity with flying. In fact, as the color that oversees the animal kingdom, Green philosophically has plenty of potential creatures that could have flying. The shift of birds and faeries out of Green wasn’t done because these creatures don’t fit Green’s philosophy. It was done to be consistent with the mechanical choices made. If Green was going to be the bad flying color then certain creatures had to be moved out of Green. They weren’t removed because they don’t make sense in Green,” (from The Great Mix-Up, Part I, by Mark Rosewater). So the traditional view of faeries as woodland Fae didn’t fit this Magic worldview. It makes me sad that someone didn’t stand up for Green’s side of the argument; if Green and Blue are enemies, why shouldn’t they be both be able to take to the skies to fight?

I can’t help but wonder how different Standard would be right now if, when populating the world of Lorwyn and choosing the associated colors with each race, if someone had decided early on that faeries should be Green (going back to faerie’s original place in Magic) and some other color. Regardless, someone should have realized when picking Blue and Black that there might be some power issues they should keep in mind. Blue and Black both tend to be at the top of the power heap in all the colors of Magic; just think of the time when Psychatog dominated the scene. Black and Blue offers counterspells, bounce, creature removal (in both colors), hand disruption, even a “Wrath” effect in Damnation. Blue and Black in Standard was already a potent combination, so layering a very powerful tribe on top of that was a bit reckless.

Making faeries “the cleverest” tribe
In the first age of Magic, Blue was dominant for two perceived reasons: its ability to counter spells, and its ability to draw cards. These elements were considered to be “in-flavor” for Blue, when in reality this was giving one color dominion over two fundamental, basic mechanics of the game – playing cards and drawing cards. To further the problem, Blue’s card drawing was often instant speed, so if your opponent didn’t play a spell you felt you needed to counter, you could instead play a card drawing spell at the end of their turn to further cement your control on game play.

Wizards took a ridiculously long time to finally address this problem; they slowed down “good” card drawing to sorcery speed (see Concentrate), and made modern counterspells much less efficient than “good ol’ Counterspell.” Even so, the ability to counter spells is just naturally very powerful even if it’s conditional or a bit more expensive, so to balance this there needs to be some downside to holding back your mana to counter a spell as opposed to doing something else during your turn. There should be an opportunity cost associated with using the powerful option of countering your opponent’s spells. In the old-style Draw-Go type of decks, there was no opportunity cost, because you could play nearly your entire game during your opponent’s turn, at whatever moment was best for your purposes. The modern Faerie decks are back to that same sort of game play; they can hold back their mana and play during your opponent’s turn, casting spells whenever is most advantageous, either to counter something with Cryptic Command or Rune Snag, tap down an attacker with Pestermite, or rob someone of their mana for the turn with Mistbind Clique. There is no opportunity cost for “holding back” mana during their turn.

This reminds me of a fantastic article that Chad Ellis wrote some years back, called Bennie Smith is 100% Right, Or: Why Clever is Better than Power. This article wasn’t fantastic simply because my name appeared in it — though I’m proud to have helped inspire him to write this. I think this article should be required reading for anyone in R&D at Wizards, something they should perhaps review on a yearly basis – the idea of “clever” cards in Magic.

“Clever things often happen at instant speed and bend or break the rules. It means that Blue isn’t just the color of card drawing or countering. It means that Blue is the color of broken things… As long as Wizards thinks of Blue as the clever color, two things will tend to happen. One is that Blue will tend to be overpowered. The clever mechanics are usually the best ones…”

Chad posits the question, would Mana Short really make less sense as a Green card than as a Blue one? Shouldn’t Green, the color with the most affinity for mana, be able to mess with an opponent’s mana? What if Mistbind Clique’s ability was instead attached to a Green creature with flash?

For many years, Jamie Wakefield and many others used to howl about how bad Green was versus how ridiculous Blue was, and that vocal outcry was eventually heeded by the aforementioned “nerfing” of counterspells and card drawing. Modern Green is certainly not at all sucking. Yet there persists the view that Blue is the clever color, and that view can’t help but lead to mistakes.

“While other colors prefer action, Blue is the thinking color. Blue wins not by force but by subtlety… Blue seeks knowledge. The library represents information (the knowledge of your library of spells). In addition, Blue plays a slow, controlling game that ekes out its advantage in subtle ways. Card drawing (and card advantage in general) play directly into this style of play… Blue believes that intellect is the ultimate trait needed to win duels. As such, Blue chooses to win by outthinking its opponents. One of its favorite ways to do this is to mess with the very magic being used against it. Why go through the bother of fighting the result of a spell if you can simply mess with the magic being used to play the spell in the first place?” (from The Great Mix-Up, Part II, by Mark Rosewater)

This is the cultural view of the color Blue at Wizards, so naturally the people who make the game are going to keep making Blue much more “clever” than the others. Chad makes an excellent point in his article that “clever” cards should be spread throughout all the colors of Magic. Lord knows modern White could use a metric truckload of them!

Let’s look at what the creative folks cooked up when describing Lorwyn’s faerie tribe:

“The faeries are whimsical, mischievous, vain, and seen as nuisances by most of the other Lorwyn races. Their pranks are usually relatively harmless but always annoying and embarrassing. They live extremely short lives, but in that time they live to the fullest, constantly looking for new tricks to ease their boredom. Though they usually use their small forms and potent sleep or illusion magic to evade enemies, they can still fight remarkably well when necessary. Faeries can also use their magic to invade and steal dreams, especially the powerful ones of giants. They claim to do this for the benefit of their queen, Oona, though the faerie reputation is such that many doubt if Oona even exists. Faeries travel in groups called cliques, and use rings set in the ground to travel cross the world in the blink of an eye.” (from Lorwyn Lore, by Rei Nakazawa)

Does this sound like the description of a metagame-dominating, powerhouse tribe? Remember, faeries were supposed to be one of three minor races in Lorwyn, along with Giants and Treefolk. See any Giant or Treefolk decks dominating the metagame? Doran doesn’t count because he’s typically the only Treefolk in the deck. So how did whimsical nuisances become dominating overlords? Making them Blue/Black and overwhelmingly clever. Think about some of the top decks right now, and play them in your head against Faeries. Which deck feels like it has more options? The other decks play out their games during their own turn, often at “sorcery speed,” while the Faerie deck can play their game during their turn (during their upkeep to draw three cards with Visions, or main phase for Bitterblossom, Sower of Temptation) or during any phase of their opponent’s turn. They can play during their opponent’s upkeep (Mistbind Clique), or during their opponent’s pre-combat main phase (Cryptic Command to counter the spell and tap down your team), or during their combat phase (Pestermite your Tarmogoyf and/or as a surprise blocker), or when they try to cast creature removal (Scion). Most decks play the majority of their game during their turn, during their main phase; Faeries is engaged in every phase of the game on both players’ turns. This is not just a nuisance; this is a recipe for dominance.

There are several reasons why Evan Erwin burn deck from the Mega Magic Weekend’s $2K had such strong game against Faeries, and one was because it could play significant spells at instant speed, during the Faerie opponent’s turn or in response to their play on your own turn.

Making the Blue Command the best
While it didn’t take too long to recognize that Profane Command is really good, and people are certainly coming around to appreciating the power of Primal Command, there is no doubt that Cryptic Command is the best of the bunch and it’s easy to see why. It’s interesting to go back and read Your Wish Is My Command, by Aaron Forsythe to see how the Command cycle came to be, and it’s particularly interesting to see the original versions of them. Check it out:

White Choose-Two
Choose two – Destroy all creatures; or destroy all lands; or destroy all artifacts and enchantments; or each player discards his or her hand.

Blue Choose-Two
Choose two – Counter target spell; or return target permanent to its owner’s hand; or tap all creatures you don’t control; or draw a card.

Black Choose-Two
Choose two – Target player loses X life; or target creature gets –X/-X; or return target creature card with converted mana cost X or less in a graveyard to play under your control; or you gain X life.

Red Choose-Two
Choose two – CARDNAME deals 2 damage to each creature and player; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to target creature or player; or destroy target land; or choose new targets for target instant or sorcery spell.

Green Choose-Two
Choose two – Put a 4/4 green Elemental creature token into play; or put four 1/1 green Elf Warrior creature tokens into play; or gain 8 life; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to each creature with flying.

Right out the box, Forsythe recognized that the Blue Command was ridiculously good, and they monkied around with it before deciding, what the heck, leave it ridiculously good (even improving the wording slightly so it would play better in team play). Deciding to include the ability to counter a spell pretty much made the card inevitably very powerful because it would necessarily have to be an instant. What if someone had instead made it a sorcery, what would the Command have been like? What impact would not having Cryptic Command have on the Faerie deck?

Looking at this original list, I again feel Chad’s words ring true. The Green and Red Choose-Two’s are clever, not least of which is because they’re instants. Being able to do two of four things at instant speed gives you a ton of options. Instead, they nerfed Red completely (“the worst of the cycle in the end, but something had to end up with that title”), and made Green, though good, sorcery speed like the vast majority of Green’s good cards.

In Closing
I don’t want this article to come across as an “I hate Blue” screed, because I don’t – there are plenty of Blue cards I love, and the color provides many fun options. What I hope to do here and in the forums is promote some awareness that the folks at Wizards still have some work to do in changing their culture, of spreading around “cleverness” to the other colors, and stop giving Blue so much of it. Mark Rosewater likes to talk about how boundaries and boxes provide opportunity to innovate and create, but they can also constrict and provide a crutch, and easy way out. Making the Blue card in the cycle instant speed is too easy and, often, lazy. For the Champion tribal cycle, what if Mistbind Clique had not had flash, but instead bounced two creatures when it came into play – would that have been out of flavor for Blue? It certainly would have made it much less of the game-breaker it is now. And to build on Chad’s suggest that Mana Short should be Green, how would things have changed if Mistbind Clique’s coming into play ability had instead been given to a Treefolk Champion with flash? Or heck, just to shake things up, what about giving it to a Kithkin Champion with flash?

Elder Dragon Highlander and Shadowmoor
Before I leave, I wanted to point out that we’re having another Elder Dragon Highlander game this Saturday up at Richmond Comix; if you’d like to play, make sure to call and register your general. After getting horrendously color-screwed last time, I’ve decided to run Kamahl, Fist of Krosa, and revel in the Mono-Green goodness of stable mana. I may not be able to pull off as many broken things, but I will be able to cast my spells!

For those of you new to the format, you can read all about it here. There is also a house rule at Richmond Comix that bans Shaharazad (for good reasons). Also, in light of Shadowmoor and all the hybrid mana, keep in mind that the current EDH rules state that off-color hybrid cards cannot be played in your deck; for instance, I could not play Kitchen Finks in my Kamahl deck because I can’t have any white spells, but I could play them in my Saffi Eriksdotter deck. There is a chance this rule will be changed though, and the EDH rules guys (and gals) will be meeting at PT: Hollywood to discuss possibilities.

Next week, I’ll go over how the EDH game went, and talk about what new Shadowmoor cards saw some play and deserve a look in the format. Have fun!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com