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Sullivan’s Satchel: Format Pillars, Fireblasts, And FFFreakMTG

Patrick Sullivan opens the mailbag to answer questions on the sizing of vanilla creatures, how much he loves his Fireblasts, and more!

Fireblast, illustrated by Michael Danza

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Hello, and welcome back to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. I haven’t shaved in a month, my fingernails are painted, and I’ve gotten into the St Germain — self-imposed lockdown continues without an end in sight. To that, I say the following:

Anyone suggesting that America is ready to return to work, broadly, has either no idea what they are talking about, or they do know what they are talking about and are profoundly evil, and anyone making an appeal to the health of “the economy” without framing it in terms of how the working class lives with a modicum of safety, security, and dignity either has no idea what they’re talking about, or they do know what they are talking about and are profoundly evil.

It has been heartening to see people in the Magic community come together for charity streams and general support. It’s a weird time for a community that’s predicated in large part on massive public events. Times are stressful and sad and uncertain but I think our little corner has been way more good than bad, which hasn’t been the case always.

You know the drill, which is mailbag@starcitygames.com for your questions, or DM @basicmountain on Twitter for weird screeds, conspiracy theories, and grudges you hold against other SCG columnists. With that:

From Brad Nelson, @fffreakmtg:

What’s the biggest (Magic-related) thing you know now but didn’t when you were first starting out?

“Know” is tricky because my thoughts on the game have changed so much over the years, 25 of them now and counting, so assuming that the things I believe now are set in stone is dubious. Still, there are a few spots that really stick out where I think my perspective is both different and more useful from where it was in the past, including when I played on the Pro Tour and was just generally on the ball more.

  • You don’t have to take ideas in total or not at all. Most decklists aren’t perfect and most pick orders aren’t fully accounting for the context of individual drafts. When you see something new, it’s important to peel away the elements that seemed promising, even if the sum of the parts was lacking. This is especially important to do when you play against something new and win, since it’s so easy to discount new things when they lose.
  • Treat deck slots as discrete elements when appropriate. Ben Rubin, Magic Hall of Famer and lover of seemingly weird deck numbers, drilled this one into me when we tested together a bit about twelve years ago. The idea of “Card X is either a four-of or zero-of” isn’t intrinsically true in almost any case and is usually just wrong. It’s fine to treat random one-ofs as little pieces of equity in certain matchups, the ninth one-drop, whatever. The Magic community seems on board with this approach when it comes to sideboarding but I think maindecks are still broadly too rigorous and redundant.
  • Don’t over-metagame; people only own one deck. When you grind a ton, it’s easy to assume everyone else is doing the same thing, or if they aren’t they can’t beat you. This isn’t true, and it’s extremely rare for it to be appropriate to play something that’s good against the two best decks, but a dog everywhere else. I always see copies of Burn and Collected Company strategies in the second day of SCG Opens because people just own the one deck they own. Ignore the staple but “poorly positioned” decks at your own peril.
  • You should usually be sideboarding a lot differently based on Play/Draw. Pretty obvious, but a big leak of mine for a long time.

From Patrick Chapin, @thepchapin:

Would a 5/1 for RR be reasonable to make?

In the interest of full disclosure, this is something of an inside joke between us, hearkening back to our youthful days at Dire Wolf Digital. But there are a lot of interesting concepts to discuss out of this question (as with any question posed by The Innovator), so I want to do a dive.

These designs confound a lot of designers who have power level chops because they appear, and are, inflationary in some respects, but not clearly “out of bounds.” I think the proposed card is considerably weaker, on average, than Eidolon of the Great Revel, and it’s not clearly better (if anything, I would guess weaker) than Ember Hauler. Ember Hauler occasionally appears in Standard decks but is far from problematic. So if the card isn’t an issue in absolute terms, why would it be unreasonable to make?

Two issues arise with these designs: one, it is inflationary, and two, even if it isn’t problematic, is it jarring to present cards like this alongside the “normal” options. What could you get away with on a “vanilla” creature for 2GG? 10/10? Would that card create issues in Constructed? I would bet heavily against “yes,” but at some point you’re giving away too much of the game (that is, Magic is balanced around destructive interaction and at a certain point the numbers of vanilla creatures just don’t matter), making other cards look weird by comparison, and so on. The damage done to the presentation of dozens of cards wouldn’t be worth the splash of cashing the chips in once.

The second issue — is the card at least plausible and does it produce satisfying games? Almost certainly not. It’s really good when your opponent stumbles, when you’re on the play, or when you kill all their blockers, and is rancid if your opponent can play back at all. Ember Hauler has a much tighter range (much weaker when your opponent is doing nothing, much stronger when they’re doing stuff), and that kind of card produces much more satisfying games than the “pass/fail” test presented by a 5/1 for RR.

So, you could do it, it wouldn’t ruin competitive Magic, but it would make the game worse and the value of printing it is just to show off that you can “get away with it,” so I don’t think it is a reasonable card to print.

From P3jm0n:

Where does fireblast land on your favorite cards of all time list

Honestly I kind of hate Fireblast. Don’t get me wrong, lots of good memories, has helped subsidized some of my otherwise-unplayable decks, but I think “sacrifice some lands: you win the game” is corny. Who cares if I can’t cast spells next turn if you’re dead? I have a lot, lot, lot more fun playing with Lava Dart than Fireblast.

From @gushonupkeep:

Hey, happy your allowing dm’s of questions. I have a question about eternal formats and b&r. I don’t want to influence your answer with my opinion so I’ll just ask it. What is your opinion on cards that have “pillar of the format” status, do you think it’s healthy or unhealthy for the future of eternal formats.

There are a lot of little things that can influence these things on the margins but the root for me is:

  • Does this card subsidize something that is novel?
  • To what extent is the particular format about preserving nostalgia versus evolving over time?
  • How much money does the card cost?

By these metrics, giving passes to Mishra’s Workshop and Bazaar of Baghdad in Vintage is an easy call — they help ensure the format isn’t just a sea of blue cards from Alpha, Vintage is all about nostalgia, and they cost a grip. Something like Mutavault in Pioneer is a much weaker cast across all fronts. I wouldn’t want to see Mutavault banned right now, but I think its position as “format staple” is much more dubious than those Vintage stars. Those three cases are pretty extreme and most things fall inside of those margins, much closer to the Mutavault example than Workshop.

And last, from @StoneAgeDudeman:

Would you consider the current state of affairs (Mainly the quarantining and social distancing) to be an opportunity for MtG to test out programs for digital only play? Such as large scale digital competitive tournaments?

Definitely. I think there is some risk in sending out too strong of a signal that there is an OP pivot; people are reasonably apprehensive about the state of physical play and I think too strong a push can put more gasoline on the fire. But Arena is built well for this sort of a thing, MTGO’s Organized Play has a strong fidelity to physical Magic’s play in general, and this seems like a great opportunity to try out new tech, experiment, and see what makes sense. The audience is certainly there.

With that, stay safe, be good to each other, and keep agitating for something better. Until next week.

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