Manufacturing Miracles: Be Careful What You Wish For

Written by Mike Keknee on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Legacy, Limited, Standard

Manufacturing Miracles: Be Careful What You Wish For

Mike Keknee

Mike Keknee has been playing Magic off and on since 1999. He is a grinder with some positive results, but brewing is his first love. You can follow him on Twitter @Big_Tears. You can also hear him on the @AtYourEndStep podcast hosted by MTGcast.

It’s one of the most high-profile and amazing topdecks in recorded Magic. Craig Jones and Olivier Ruel were in a heated match in Pro Tour Honololu 2006 that ended with The Lightning Helix Heard Around the World. That moment when Craig rips that Lightning Helix is intense and amazing, perhaps even miraculous!

However, that moment was real and authentic. The miracle mechanic introduced in Avacyn Restored is none of the above. The reason the lethal Lightning Helix was even possible is because two great competitors fought an arduous match. It was a close contest, and Craig played himself into position to be able to topdeck the winning card. His deck was constructed correctly, and he knew his outs. Did Craig get extremely lucky? Hell yes! But the point is not that he got lucky; it’s that he put himself in a position to win.

Flash-forward to current standard. My opponent was playing a UW control deck featuring a healthy dose of those adorable miracles, and I was playing a Naya Aggro/Pod special. We were in the Top 4, and my opponent casually played Ponder on Turn 3. I was ahead, but I knew that could be shortlived like any aggro vs. control match. What I wasn’t prepared for was his Ponder featuring these three cards in conjunction:

I did not win this game.

His deck was designed to take advantage of a mechanic that is supposed to simulate the game-winning/changing topdeck. How many times should that happen per game? (Hint: It can usually only happen once.) New mechanics will have decks built around them, which is logical and often tends to be the point of new mechanics across sets. New mechanics push new decks and archetypes to reduce the staleness of jamming hundreds of games. And it is for this reason miracle seems so poorly planned. I don’t mind losing games that were played closely and tightly, but losing games to cards like this — cards created to be overpowered with any sort of manipulation — makes those games feel just as bad as losing to mana screw or multiple mulligans.

I am not just going to recount my bad beats while playing against miracles (however tempting that may be), but rather focus on how miracles are poorly designed. Mark Rosewater was excited to preview this mechanic, and there is one main thought I want to highlight: “The key to making miracles was to pick effects that players would be excited to top deck. When their back was to the wall, players could pray for a miracle and hope something awesome happened.”

The idea was an intriguing one. Good Magic stories, especially for those who play tension-filled tournament magic, are the ones where you’re cornered and draw your only out to win. These stories are riveting, exciting, and are even more amazing when you are the one that gets to tell it. Miracles were designed to manufacture these moments, and yet somehow, I know my opponent did not exactly need a miracle on Turn 3 … let alone three.

Since the Avacyn Restored release, I have encountered very few people who enjoy playing with or against this mechanic. The casual “we love angels” crowd will scoop up all the copies of Entreat the Angels, and the inner ‘Timmy’ in every player probably laughed maniacally when they saw Revenge of the Hunted. But in game situations, the same reaction can be found when playing with Miracles: The caster apologizes for playing the miracle, and the opponent tilts harder than a pinball machine.

There is something fundamentally different about the feeling of topdecking the right card at the right time, like Craig Jones, than the feeling of topdecking a miracle. If that card was your only out, then you managed to design a card that organically feels correct only when played in that exact situation. At every other point, miracles are undercosted overpowered and frustrating cards.

On the Losing Side

This may come as a shock, but people do not enjoy losing games they thought they were going to win. DUH! I am not talking about the player who dropped his whole hand on the field on Turn 3, only to be ravaged by the inevitable Day of Judgment or Whipflare. This is the cost of playing aggro or learning the game. Miracles add a new level of frustration.

If I play against any random version of Red Deck Wins and we go back and forth during a competitive match, then when, near the end of the game, I am at 3 or less life and my opponent top decks Incinerate, “good game.” I know my opponent has a very good chance of hitting a card that will kill me. His deck is designed as such. And if I am playing Red/Green or Naya, then he knows I could hit a Huntmaster of the Fells and suddenly be out of lethal range. If he topdecks that Incinerate then he is lucky, but I will not be crushed because it had a good chance to happen. In current Standard though, my opponent could use his burn spells poorly, inevitably flood out, and still flip over a burn spell that will cause him to think he played well.

Imagine playing against one of the millions of Delver of Secrets decks floating around (they reproduce … wait for it … like flies). If I am low on life and pass the turn with a weak board, there is a good chance my opponent will hit a way to get rid of my blocker(s). Again, the deck is designed to do this. I can be upset, but not to the tilt-inducing manner that my opponent splashed red to play Bonfire of the Damned — because who wouldn’t enjoy playing a one-sided board wipe with possible player damage or Planeswalker removal for the low, low price of a single red source and X.

Yes, I hear you, variance. Yes, I hear you, it happens. Should it? What does this opponent learn about the game? What happens to the self-esteem of the player that just got bonfired into oblivion?

On the Winning Side

I feel really bad when I play miracle cards. I really do. I know many other players who have expressed similar feelings. The Avacyn Restored limited format is rampant with odd miracles that do nothing to bring about that two-outs-in-the-bottom-of-the-ninth feeling. Instead, every time I have miracled something like Revenge of the Hunted on Turns 3 to 5, I feel awful because my opponent generally exits the game mentally. Many Miracles destroy limited games because the format is so warped. Vanishment obviously doesn’t say “win target game,” but getting such a powerful play on Turn 3 can quickly make a game noncompetitive.

Others have discussed how frustrating the Avacyn Restored limited format is. There is little removal, it’s bomb filled, certain colors are much weaker than others, etc. And miracles play directly into that. No miracles were printed at common (thank goodness), but they are still warping. In a 40-card format, those miracles gain a ridiculous level of inevitability.

Do I play miracles? Definitely. These are powerful cards, and I will probably jam Bonfire of the Damned into every deck I can. But I will generally feel bad every time I see my opponent slump in their chair and lose interest in a game they were once so engaged in. That level of engagement is what keeps people coming week after week, especially for those whose skills are not very high yet. Miracles continually feel like the kind of card that makes people feel bad for playing and quit.

The Effect on Newer Players

Wizards obviously wants new players to come into the fold. Friday Night Magic drafts, standard tournaments, and prereleases are the best ways for new players to join the game. Before any release, most of the articles on the Wizards website talk about introducing new players at these events. One of the achievements for the Avacyn Restored release was introducing yourself to a new player. At my local store, we consistently get new players at these events. Many young players are brought by parents who also play, which leads to a strong community. These are the type of players that technically stood to gain from Miracles, at least if you follow Wizards’ logic.

The idea goes like this:

If a new player drafts Avacyn Restored, perhaps they will open a powerful miracle card. At some point during the tournament, they will be losing to a player with a higher skill level. When all seems lost, and the game is over … BOOM! The new player rips Entreat the Angels off the top and wins the game. Chances are that this player is now hooked. How exciting? How awesome? How come this never happens?

Instead, you see new players who are already well behind in their games getting annihilated by these cards. Or they are building their constructed and limited decks by valuing these cards incorrectly. All I have to do is throw all these cards in here and I win!

I understand new players will always make this mistake at first, but these cards really seem to be the Pied Piper of poor deck construction. These players will always play with the alternate cost in mind, which produces unplayable decks. Unfortunately, overall it seems like these cards are … sigh … a trap.

As a player learns the game, they gain the knowledge of how it operates and what to expect on each turn. Turn 1, my opponent is able to cast X cards. They gain the understanding of building and interacting within a board state. But that basic knowledge gets thrown out the window when opponents get to do something incredible powerful for a cost that feels wrong.

This is why Force of Will does not exist in Standard, right? A new player would feel terrible when, after noticing their opponent was tapped out, they still had their spell countered. Staying with the game requires these learning moments, and miracles ruin more than a few of them.

Breaking Rules

It seems like miracles never capture the intended feeling they were designed to have. When I suggest that the mechanic fails, I do not mean that they break the game. However, they do break a cardinal rule Wizards has seemed to forget recently. Powerful effects that are free or severely undercosted usually create negative results. I am sure that everyone remembers these:

One got banned in Legacy, and the other warped the color pie in several formats. Cards like Bonfire of the Damned feel very similar. With only a single red mana requirement, the card will be played in many decks that would usually be cut off (rightfully so) from this type of one-sided board wipe. The same goes for other miracles like Terminus or Devastation Tide. Wizards has spent years balancing the cost of board wipes, effects that seem they shouldn’t be spashable and castable early. While these cards have not made a huge impact on Standard yet, these are still available for another year plus. As the format changes, hopefully they aren’t given tools to take over. Imagine the next Modern season. While Ponder is banned (hurray!), dual lands and fetch lands guarantee every deck can play these spells rather easily. Some of those dual lands likely will be in Standard soon enough, making that same splash seamless. These types of effects truly make the colors less distinct, so it is frustrating and worrisome from a development standpoint.

Miracles have already seen a bit of play in various Legacy decks. They seem like an obvious inclusion in a format where you can play Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, Sylvan Library, Ponder and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. However, this does not usually fall into the basic creature war that Wizards is pushing with its newer sets. The best removal spells ever printed roam freely here. While the board sweepers are still pretty strong (Nimble Mongoose meet Terminus), the only one people worried about was Temporal Mastery. Time Walk is banned for a reason. Luckily Temporal Mastery is no Time Walk, and the format has reflected its weakness.

In a tournament where you have a chance to lose the game before you even play a land to degenerate combo decks, a possible one-off Time Walk that you have to build around just isn’t going to cut it. Removing a Temporal Mastery to Force of Will is probably your best play, and the point of Legacy is that the power level is so high already.

Wizards obviously put in the time to test the mechanic, and they attempted to think about rules applications in advance. They dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, and yet it is frustrating to see the mechanic fail to capture its intended flavor. Miracles are rage inducing when they work as intended. Instead of allowing a player to win a close game, they allow players to win from unwinnable positions. They will constantly turn even games into wildly one-sided contests, and that likely wasn’t the intention.

It should be noted miracles already have won at the highest level. Alexander Hayne won Pro Tour Avacyn Restored with a deck designed to utilize miracles to a brutal extent. He understood the inherent power of cheating ridiculous effects into play. Wizards has probably considers this a design win because their flashy mechanic won a high-profile tournament. However, this is the reason the mechanic seems to betray its intent. A deck packing lots of miracles will have a hard time creating any endgame excitement. This is not to discredit Hayne, who worked meticulously to craft a deck that could best use Miracles at any point of the game. Its the ability that seems to betray the basic concept of the cards.

Think back to Craig Jones and that amazing Lightning Helix draw. There were no instructions to tell him he just did something amazing. There was no reminder text to tell him he had just done the breathtakingly impossible. This was a great player who put himself into position to win based on the knowledge and design of his deck. I do not care if miracles are being played at the highest point of competition (which it was) or at a kitchen table. Giving players explicit instructions on how to do amazing things in the game eliminates so much of the fun of deck design and playing. We do not need manufactured miracles.

Mike Keknee
@Big_Tears on Twitter

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