Well, we got the new set reviews out of the way, which means it’s time for your favorite gadfly – me, isn’t it? – to swim against the tide. For those of you who don’t like controversial opinions, get out your salt shakers because you’re going to find plenty here to get outraged and indignant about.
So… Magic: the Gathering has Modern format, see. And there’s a factor at play in MTG and especially in Modern format that can only be described as The Conservative Hivemind. You can’t deny that it’s a Conservative Hivemind, because look how often you see the following cycle play out:
- * New card is printed.
- * Everybody says it sucks.
- * Pro player packs the new card into his deck, proceeds to win Top-8 at some event.
- * New card skyrockets in price.
- * Everybody says it’s fantastic!
- * It stays fantastic forever after.
- * No one is ever allowed to criticize it again. It gets cast in gold in the hallowed hall of sacred cows for all eternity.
You know what this culture needs more of? People like me, who stand up in the bleachers and yell “But that emperor is in his bare-ass nekkid birthday suit!” Even if I’m dead wrong, MTG culture needs just that one person who has the audacity to try to think originally about the game.
Again, especially in Modern format. Nobody runs card X until somebody does, and then everybody runs it. Why card X? “Because everybody runs it!” Why? “Because everybody runs it! We have to do it this way, it’s the only way there is! We are the Borg, you will be assimilated, resistance is futile.” What about this other card instead? “Because nobody runs it! Second verse, same as the first, we have always been at war with Eastasia.”
Yeah, so, one of those kinda posts.
#1: Painful Truths
I’m hesitant to lead off with this one because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the list, by virtue of how new it is. Yet ten years from now, it will have proven my point more firmly than any other card here; it’s still going to be played, and everybody will still be claiming it’s awesome.
Wizards has printed black sorcery after sorcery that draws cards in Modern, and everybody has ignored them. Ambition’s Cost, Damnable Pact, Minions’ Murmurs, Night’s Whisper, Read the Bones, and Sign in Blood to name a few. But this card somehow penetrated the Hivemind’s deflector shields and is now run in Modern.
There’s a combination of logical fallacies behind this card’s popularity: (1) Evaluating on best-case scenario – forgetting what happens if you don’t have access to all three colors when you cast it, and (2) blindly valuing raw card advantage over card quality. Card quality is what I value, and so I run Read the Bones over this when I want a mono-black sorcery that draws cards at all. And I just explained in this paragraph why Painful Truths secretly sucks, but none of you caught it because the phrase “card quality” is static white noise to you.
If I spent three mana to find one card, just one card, that had better be a good card. I’m down two life plus tempo just casting the thing. I don’t want three cards, and I don’t want a million cards, because I won’t have time to cast them all before the game is over. I want one card, a really good card, that answers the problem I have right now. Read the Bones digs four cards deep to find me that answer. Case closed.
If there were no Read the Bones, you know what I would run instead? Beseech the Queen! A three-mana sorcery that tutors out any dang card I want! “Yeah, but what about when you don’t have triple-black mana, then it costs more!” Well, now you understand the argument about best-case scenario, don’t you? Modern has become a game of linear rock-paper-scissors game one, followed by Did You Draw Your Sideboard Hate game two. No, I need that Stony Silence right now, and tutoring is rapidly looking smarter with every match.
#2: Thought Scour
Now, this is what I’m talking about. Somehow, this became a must-run four-of in every blue deck in Modern. It’s run because it’s a one-mana instant cantrip that pitches cards in the bin. And it literally does nothing to impact the board at all. It makes Tasigur, the Golden Fang cost a couple mana cheaper later if he comes out, that’s about it.
Like many cards on this list, it’s run for the sole reason that options are limited in Modern. There’s about thirteen blue one-mana instants in Modern that cantrip. Something had to fill that role, so this is what everybody uses. But for the love of Moses, when are we going to get used to the idea that running a cantrip just to have a cantrip isn’t worth the card? What about when Tasigur doesn’t come out? What about when the two cards you binned were Snapcaster Mage and a land?
Since this is usually played in Grixis, what would be wrong with Vile Rebirth, which puts a 2/2 on the field and hates your opponent’s graveyard at the same time? Is a 2/2 for one mana suddenly not good enough, Goblin Guide? And speaking of Grixis and since that includes red, what’s wrong with the billion other red instants that actually do something?
#3: Steel Overseer
Now here’s one that’s just been long overdue for a demotion. Yes, I play Affinity and love artifact-based strategies in every other format too. When I’m faced with Affinity, I’m worried about Arcbound Ravager, Etched Champion, and that damned Inkmoth Nexus that always gets me. But I’m not worried about this guy. He dies to a stiff breeze. And if he didn’t, it’s because I killed everything else and now he has nothing to do but put a sad little counter on himself next turn.
This is one of the cards in the list that are here because they are outdated. Modern has sped up since this guy got popular. There just isn’t room in today’s game for a win-more conditional on if you have Ravager and some targets out. Hangarback Walker makes its own counters. Ruins of Oran-Rief does Overseer’s job while being harder to remove – if you have land destruction against Affinity, you took out the Nexus’ already. Heck, Nature’s Panoply does the same trick.
Those are all one-shot effects, you say? Sure, now look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that the last time you dropped Overseer, it was allowed to last turn after turn, putting +1 counters on your whole team while your opponent did nothing to stop it.
#4: Mana Leak
It’s pretty obvious why this is run. Wizards hates babies and kittens and rainbows, so it will allow a 2-mana hard counterspell in Modern over Maro’s dead body. We try to scrabble for the best possible 2-mana disruption and this is one of the only answers after we’re good on Remand.
That doesn’t make it good. Mana Leak is pretty dead after turn five or so. Luckily, Modern has become the format where you barf your hand by turn three and the game’s over time on turn four. But that also makes the spells cheaper, which makes it easier to pay the 3-mana tax. At best, your opponent is caught blind by the first Mana Leak, and then only if they’re incredibly naive.
What else could we play in its place? Nothing stands out as a definitive answer – one of these days Deprive might be discovered, if we decide utility lands are worth running. Delay is a great option because how many games last until that later turn? Familiar’s Ruse is actually good if you have good ETB dudes… Come to think about it, we have dozens of definitive answers.
Now this one is just lame. Dismember made sense back in 2011, when Phyrexian Obliterator walked the Earth. In present Modern, Dismember fills that odd niche, being a color-free way to pay four life and get rid of a fattie. I’ll grant, I can see the upside… a little.
But these days, every color has more answers for removal, and fewer indestructible fatties to answer. Modern in 2016 isn’t a format of gargantuan behemoths for whom only Dismember will do; it’s a format of 1/1, 2/1, and 2/2 weenies that make paying the four life tax hurt you worse than it hurts them. The exception is Tron and Eldrazi strategies, and then Dismember is too small to hit them anyway. I needn’t list the exhaustive reams of spot removal in Modern; it’s just too big to list, which goes to show that a lot of people are jamming this card into decks without considering the options.
#6: Cryptic Command
The reason this card sucks is right there in the upper right corner: Triple U to cast. Yes, of course, this card does a heck of a lot. But does it really do enough to justify its demanding mana payment? Again, this is the fallacy of the best-case scenario: People remember the one time this spell was a blowout and forget the hundred times they couldn’t cast it because they didn’t have four mana open, three of them blue.
The argument for this card is its flexibility. Sure, a cantrip counterspell is too expensive at UUU1, but it can also be a cantrip bounce or a cantrip instant Sleep. None of the modes are worth the mana individually, but you’re paying for the flexibility. Fine, but explain why that argument doesn’t work for Mardu Charm, Abzan Charm, Jeskai Charm, Sultai Charm…
It’s crazy how tearfully attached to this card people get. I’m betting it’s the one everybody will most likely flame me for. Well, I’m glad it works out so well for you, because it’s never worked out for me and it surely hasn’t worked for my opponents. It’s too slow and there’s too many easy answers for it. And I’m speaking as a die-hard BW Tokens fan. It’s not worth the burn to the face you take every turn for it. I’ve watched shocked players play it against me and slowly wither away while I batted their harmless gnats aside. I’ll kill Intangible Virtue with my enchantment removal, thanks.
Again, years have passed since its first printing, and now there’s better ways to make a 1/1 token. The past few sets alone have given us Hangarback Walker, Secure the Wastes, Young Pyromancer, Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Hornet Nest, just for a few examples. To say nothing of Thopter Foundry thanks to the Sword of the Meek unban. One single 1/1 per turn just isn’t going to win games these days.
If I want a few tokens every now and then, I’ll pay three mana for a body that makes tokens because, by golly, it’s a body all by itself. If I want a non-creature spell that makes tokens, I want a whole bunch of tokens all at once. And if I’m paying B1 in a deck that’s slow and grindy enough through attrition that my 1/1s will eventually become a threat… why the heck aren’t I playing Pack Rat?
#8: Serum Visions
This, like Mana Leak, is another case of Wizards “Screw you!” to U and so we have to work with what we have. Obviously, blue isn’t allowed to have anything better than Serum Visions, so that’s what we’re stuck with.
Be all of that as it may, it still sucks. Ten seconds of playing in a format where Ponder or Preordain are legal will convince you of that. Serum Visions isn’t a passable substitute for Ponder, it’s millions of times worse than Ponder. Which makes me wonder why bother at all. Obviously, you need something to set up Delver of Secrets. Outside of Modern Delver, this card has no reason to exist.
#9: Dark Confidant
This is the poster child in my mind for illogical attachment to a dead card that died several sets ago. As I said at the beginning, black has more ways to draw cards now.
Bob has always sucked to me. He dies to a stiff breeze, warps your whole deck to play around him, and you have to pack removal yourself just to take him out if he gets you too far into the red zone. These two argument are a circle of logical fallacy: “Well he’s better than Phyrexian Arena because he can attack.” Yes, but HE DIES TO A STIFF BREEZE so you don’t dare attack! “Well if you kill him, that shows that he was good.” No, that shows that HE DIES TO A STIFF BREEZE.
There are simply too many other ways to draw cards now, but unfortunately Magic players suck at math. If Read the Bones is 3 mana and 2 life to see and select 2 from 4 cards, that’s just as many cards as Bob will let you see by turn 6, only you paid 2 life instead of 16, allowing you to run actual cards that do something in the deck without worrying about their CMC. “Yeah, but you tapped out turn 3 for nothing!” And with Bob, you still did nothing because remember, you don’t dare attack with him because HE DIES TO A STIFF BREEZE.
“Greatness at any cost.” – Except that you have to make your deck out of 2-drops for fear Bob’s going to kill you. Bob, like so many cards, is a relic of a bygone era when he reigned supreme because there was no other option. It’s been eleven years, over forty Modern-legal sets since Bob. We have other ways to draw cards now.
Ha ha ha! He what? He didn’t! He went there???
Yeah, went there. In fact, I’ve been here for a long time and getting impatient for the rest of you to catch up.
Of course, of course, 2 mana for a beefy beatstick like Tarmogoyf is pretty impressive. For a beatstick.
A beatstick with no abilities, that is. One that doesn’t do anything when it ETB. One that doesn’t have haste, trample, flying, lifelink, hexproof, unblockable, indestructible, or draws a card when it dies. One that also depends on the graveyard for its size.
Tarmogoyf is Vanilla in today’s meta. I don’t care if its 999/999, it’s Vanilla if it has no other abilities besides just being big. And in our Modern meta, big just doesn’t win games anymore. I can count on one hand the number of times Tarmogoyf killed me. I can count into the triple digits the number of times I Doom Bladed, Pathed, or just plain chump-blocked Tarmogoyf. What’s the biggest he’s going to get? A 4/5? Perhaps?
Again, don’t be deluded into thinking that just because it’s popular in Modern means it’s good. In other formats, Tarmogoyf doesn’t show up as much. Modern is always caught in a Galapagos ecosystem which allows a quirky set of cards to survive, but these same cards wouldn’t live a minute outside their habitat. The time has come for Tarmogoyf to take its place alongside Serra Angel, Sengir Vampire, and Steel Golem in the old beatsticks home.
You think I’m wrong about some of these? Good, I’m glad you do! Because whether I’m right doesn’t matter; what matters is that you had to stop and think about your card choices for just a second.
Why do they still show up in Top Pro decks? Inertia. Plain and simple inertia. Don’t think for a minute that pro players brew up decks by hand; they’re too busy running to catch their Vegas flight. They play trusted, tried, proven decks, which they netdeck just like the rest of you. Once in a while, one card penetrates the Hivemind and then everybody runs it.
Case in point: Wall of Omens. Playsets of this card rotted in binders ever since it got printed way back in 2010, until just six months ago as of this writing, when it suddenly exploded everywhere in Modern. If I’d gone around asking about Wall of Omens in Modern last year, 100 of you would have said it sucks. Now that I ask this year, 100 of you say it’s great. Well, the first 100 and the second 100 of you can’t both be right at the same time, can you?
The fact is, Modern sped up. Modern was already fast with Zoo and Affinity, but nobody but me thought of Wall of Omens then. Then the great Eldrazi Winter came along this last year, and this at last pushed some players to try Wall of Omens. The Eldrazi menace has been banned back to reasonable levels now, but Wall of Omens is still being run, because now all of a sudden everybody sees a cantrip blocker in white is great against all kinds of aggro. Where was this card all this time? That’s the story of one card. There’s thousands more out there, with about a thousand more entering the pool every year.
We don’t have to endure the tyranny of the Hivemind. If we wanted a solved game with the same pieces to bring to every match, we’d be playing chess. We can brew our way out of stagnation.
Collectible trading card games are intended to be a creative approach to game play, where the number of viable strategies are limited only by your imagination and skill. Go ahead, ask prickly questions and examine game theory. That’s kind of what the cards are there for.