Sullivan’s Satchel: Paper vs MTGO vs Arena, Mutate In Commander, and Digital Tournaments

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on EDH, planeswalker rulings, digital tournament structure, and more!

Negate, illustrated by Billy Christian

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. I have to start this by giving a shoutout to so many of my colleagues and friends over at SCG for crushing the Zendikar Rising Championship, with top finishes for Autumn, Paulo, and Brad, along with the triumphant return of Cedric to premier level play. Even though this had absolutely nothing to do with me, I felt some associated pride, like a half-step better than your favorite sports team winning a game. Congratulations to one and all

I continue to go deeper into the well of becoming a Dimir Fetishist. There is something deeply satisfying about, let’s say, cutting a third Extinction Event for a second copy of Essence Scatter, and contemplating similar changes around the margins. I don’t think this represents some permanent sea change for me, but this is scratching an itch I didn’t even know I had.

With that, the drill: People, including you, can submit questions to [email protected] or in my Twitter DMs @basicmountain and perhaps have your question answered. Each week, the best question (as selected by me, predicated mostly on mood) will be selected as Question of the Week, and that person will receive $25 in SCG credit.

From Brad Nelson:

Hey Patrick, 

Hope the family is well. Question, what digital-based tournament structure would get you excited to play? If none, what would get you excited to commentate or watch?

So I don’t know the extent I’d describe this as “digital-only” but as a player I would love to play in something quick and dirty and with the option to hop right back in. Maybe double elimination, 32-person events that fire as they fill up? For me, the biggest appeal of digital tournaments is how quick and low-friction they can be and excluding stuff with really high stakes I’m not interested in playing online for a full day. Contrast this with physical tournaments, where I think part of the charm is spending a day doing something and extraneous rounds aren’t as problematic there.

As a commentator, I hate garbage time. Each round, I want to cover a match in which the winner can win the whole thing. The SCG Invitationals do a good job of optimizing for that, at the expense of sometimes nebulous seed round value and tiebreakers cropping up all over the place. There are a bunch of ways to make this happen, including being wise about match selection in a normal swiss tournament structure, but matches without major stakes is the easiest way for me to check out.

From Ryan:


In EDH, is mutate an underrated mechanic and do you believe they will expand upon this mechanic in the future? 

Thank you,


Mutate is a tough one to unpack. The mechanic is nonsense insofar as you can’t play with the cards reliably by just reading the rules text; you need to read articles and/or have someone explain to you what’s going on. On the other hand, I think the gameplay is exceptional — does a good job of “stacking up” but allowing the other player to break it up with one spell, and when you’re “going off” with mutate you’re usually getting an array of different stuff instead of all the same thing.

I think WotC has been much less likely to reprint mechanics that are a little unwieldy or hard to grok and I think Mutate’s lack of tournament pedigree is another strike, so I’d bet against it coming back at least for a very long time. But I have a soft spot for it and the gameplay exceeded my expectations, so I hope there’s a spot for it somewhere in the rotation.

From Dylan Orshefsky:

Hi Patrick!

Just have to say while I’m here that I’m a huge fan of you and Ced behind the desk; still my favorite coverage duo in the game. Now onto the question!

Continuing the conversation around Duress and Despise, why do you think that Wizards has frequently been willing to have Essence Scatter and Negate legal in Standard at the same time, but only rarely seems to have Duress and one-mana-discard-a-creature legal at the same time? Is it simply a function of pro-active vs. re-active interaction? The feelsbads of discard?


Dylan Orshefsky

I’m not the biggest fan of Essence Scatter (it’s fine, to be clear, just not something I’d want legal at all times) and I think it’s Standard legality gets toggled on and off a lot more than Negate. The primary reasons are obvious — there isn’t a satisfying range of interaction against opposing spells and as such they are abstractly and broadly problematic as the best cards in a Standard format. Creatures are worth subsidizing and they have a more satisfying range of countermeasures across all colors (including blocking with your own creatures), and so the architectural necessity to counter creatures at a good rate isn’t as compelling as it is with Negate.

Black has a ton of ways to kill creatures; Despise isn’t necessary to give it a satisfying range of answers to creatures and I think there are major systemic risk to printing two different one-mana discard spells that are “priced to move”, both in terms of play pattern and how hostile they are to synergistic strategies. Essence Scatter and Negate haven’t proven to engender the same sort of risk. People play Agonizing Demise in low numbers if they’re willing to pay a premium for broad and reliable interaction and I think that’s preferable to trying to cram in another one-mana option.

From Marc-Andre Pelletier

Is a planewalker considered as a player?

No. This is both mechanically and tonally confusing in a bunch of spots, but you and your planeswalkers are two separate things. You can block either with creatures in combat and the way damage functions is mostly analogous, but the two things aren’t the same, otherwise Hero’s Downfall and a handful of other cards would be pretty problematic.

Lastly, the Question of the Week, from Kevin Bell:

I recently watched the 2019 MOCS and 2020 MOCS followed by the Zendikar Rising Championship and was struck by how crisp, clean, and viewer-friendly the MOCSen were on MTGO as compared to the cluttered mess of the Championship on Arena, where it’s often hard to see the opponent’s hand or what lands they have on the battlefield. (I understand this may be a minority opinion and maybe I should watch on a bigger screen than my phone’s.) So I’m wondering, what’s your favorite platform, among paper, MTGO, and Arena, for: 1. Playing, 2. Spectating, and 3. Commentating?


Kevin Bell

For Playing: Paper, MTGO, Arena. For me, there’s no substitute for playing in person, and after that no substitute for playing online for $5-$10 in stakes. I’m too old to fully appreciate the bells and whistles of Arena and at this point there’s a cultural obstinance too, which I guess is the same thing as being old.

For Spectating: Paper, Arena, MTGO. No substitute for hanging on the rail cheering for your friend or quietly boo’ing someone you don’t like. MTGO is basically unwatchable; all the zones aren’t live and cards like Meddling Mage and Pithing Needle rarely show the card they have named. Arena doesn’t have the same environmental charm of paper but you can mostly follow what’s going on, so it lands in the middle.

For Commentating: Arena, Paper, MTGO. You lose some of the physical charms of paper but on Arena the action is easy to follow and the pace of play is pretty crisp. Paper rules, but tracking everything and the hidden hands makes calling a clean game challenging. MTGO is inscrutable and there were times covering the MOCS that the pace was so slow that I thought either I or the competitors were having a stroke and so it gets the lowest grade from me, in spite of how much I love the program overall.