Editor’s Note: Legit MTG is participating in Rakdos theme week alongside Daily MTG and other websites in the Magic community. Look for articles about the red-black guild to join our regular features. And don’t worry. The other Return to Ravnica guilds will get equal treatment in upcoming weeks.
Magic is a fun game. It”s unlikely you”d be reading this if you disagreed. So by default when we”re playing it, it fulfills a hedonist”s pleasure-seeking goals. But what if that”s not the default case? We”ve all experienced games of Magic or whole tournaments that were a net negative or put us on tilt. Different formats amplify or mitigate the ways Magic makes us angry or frustrated, and the words on the cards matter in creating that experience. Identifying where the frustration comes from can help us understand which cards in our cube create it, and control their impact.
A Time To Grief
Almost all the mechanics Wizards of the Coast R&D downplays in new sets are either too complex for their post-Shards of Alara outlook, or they”re “griefer” mechanics that punish the opponent too intensely if their mana costs are too competitive. Stone Rain and Armageddon are plenty simple, but they”ve grown to understand the danger of things like land destruction. Forbid, Capsize, Trinisphere, Wasteland, Tangle Wire and Hymn to Tourach are other classic examples, and new formats like EDH uncover related, equally destructive cards like Braids, Cabal Minion and Erayo, Soratami Ascendant. Griefing comes down to rendering the opponent impotent so either they can”t do anything, or nothing they do matters.
But in the past few Magic expansions I”ve noticed an unusual growth in cards that aren”t traditional griefing but have been met by a lot of frustration from players: Invisible Stalker with Butcher”s Cleaver in Innistrad Limited and Thragtusk, Sphinx”s Revelation (and to a lesser extent, Cavern of Souls) in Return to Ravnica Standard. None of these directly destroys or inhibits the opponent”s cards. I think of them instead as “uphill battle” cards that render conventional answers irrelevant most of the time. To the extent they make the opponent feel helpless, though, they”re a piece of the frustration puzzle.
The common thread of all these effects is how they close off the paths the opponent might use to win. The prevalence of these cards as a viable strategy is mostly answered by specific preparation, with narrow answers (Loxodon Smiter and Wilt-Leaf Liege against Modern Jund discard; Tsabo”s Web against Rishadan Port; quitting Vintage against pre-restriction Trinistax) or deck construction (playing fewer colors or more lands since mana denial renders manabases less reliable). Players can also opt-in to a similar strategy, i.e., can”t-beat-“em-join-“em. Limited formats naturally reduce the availability of the answers by requiring you to see them in the draft and pick them above something that advances a plan.
These solutions, even when available, create their own problem. The game revolves more around the worst things your opponent is likely to do to you than the totally sweet things you want to do to them. It shackles the top end of the exciting cards that are playable. Spells above four mana were once exceptionally rare in Standard because, in addition to Ken Nagle fat-creature power creep, playing more lands into an Armageddon was risking catastrophe unless you had counterspells. And when the griefer player”s worst happens, but your countermeasures miss a step, you lose and feel like you had no chance to fight back.
A major piece of being a long-term Magic player is accepting variance, especially unreliable mana draws. Mark Rosewater is right that the mana system has big macro-scale benefits for the game, but it”s a downer when mana variance takes over in a game between veteran players. Even the winner often feels shortchanged. Viable griefing, especially land destruction and random discard, increases the number of games that play this way —that”s the whole point of playing those cards and the reason they become drastically less potent costing just one additional mana.
When I”m identifying cards to cut from or add to my cube, I don”t actually measure the extent of their griefer impact quantitatively. But I do consider the density and power level of any casino online effect that falls in the category. For instance, I want there to be answers in the cube for a few relevant nonbasic lands like Nephalia Drownyard, but the hate has to be incidental, since a standalone Stone Rain will only be good if it mana-screws someone (or if certain people have Vindicate in perfect correlation with when it kills a Forest and I need to pay echo on Cradle Guard). I always have a handful of cards like Creeping Mold around, but I have learned not to include Pillage, Fissure and Aftershock at the same time. Adding a card like Mist Raven makes me cut Silent Departure so an opponent isn”t stuck casting the same spell five times in a row.
One question tells me how bad it feels to play against a card: How much of the opponent”s effort does this undo? Roughly, any one-to-one griefer transaction feels okay in isolation. It”s rarely tilting to face one Duress or Unsummon or even Stone Rain. It”s when those effects reach a critical mass, or the transaction affects multiple targets, that it rapidly becomes problematic.
In the past I included Agonizing Memories in the one card-advantageous discard slot of my cube, not least because the Weatherlight art is one of my favorites. I had analogized it to Mind Rot, a perpetually fair card. I cut Agonizing Memories once I compared it to Plow Under, one of the least fun cards of all time. Top-of-library removal like Repel sometimes feels worse than Murder, when the target is a strong card and re-deploying it feels like a victory (if Raise Dead would have been a good topdeck, to put it another way). It feels like a blowout, on the other hand, when the draw step is needed more urgently to dig to the relevant cards in the deck. Putting more than one card on top is often more crippling and feels worse than when Jace, the Mind Sculptor”s fateseal ability leaves the known dud on top.
There are plenty of players, and I suspect a great many cube designers, who don”t mind griefing at far higher levels than either my cube or modern Magic expansions allow. This is just part of Magic to them, and it leads to cool decks and exciting situations. I don”t disagree that griefer strategies can be cool and even fun. My first run-in was in high school against a senior named Yisong, who had a deck that combined Stormbind, Ensnaring Bridge and Null Brooch to prevent all attacks and counter noncreature spells while eroding your life total. It was one of the defining moments in my understanding of Magic”s possibilities, and I own a version of the deck to this day. More recently, I”ve met Stasis and Turbofog enthusiasts, one of whose questions about Shaharazad recursion loops might have been behind its EDH banning.
As cute as it is to discover decks like that, though, the most important metric of cube success has to be whether everyone had fun and would want to repeat the experience. The player who got dismantled by Sinkhole/Hymn to Tourach, or who drafted a ramp deck then got paired against Winter Orb/Ankh of Mishra/Zo-Zu the Punisher — those players walk away thinking they didn”t have fun, and they don”t want to cube draft again. Minimizing that reaction should be a goal we all share.
Underplayed Rakdos Cards
Standard disclaimer: These cards are obscure partly because they’re less powerful than the ones you’re already using.
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