Design Class – See, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things Anymore

The only time you'll see this spell in the new border?

For anything to be called a standard means that people have accepted it and measure everything else that they come into contact with it. In Magic, it’s something that players constantly do; it helps us judge cards from the past and how they reflect on them in the present. If we accept that you can do 2 damage at a target for R at instant speed (Shock) is the standard for dealing damage you can compare every other Red burn spell that sees print. Let’s compare it to some of the other comparable burn spells from Lorywn to now (Zendikar):

  • Burst Lightning (Better, since you can kick it later for more damage)
  • Flame Jab (Worse, Sorcery and loss of a card in hand to repeat the ability)
  • Lightning Bolt (Better, 3>2)
  • Magma Spray (Worse, since it doesn’t hit players. Exiling a creature is only worth it once in a while)
  • Needle Drop (Worse, 1 damage, have had to been dealt damage earlier, but you get to draw a card)
  • Shard Volley (Mixed, you lose one of your lands, but it deals 3 damage)
  • Tarfire (Better, since it has the Tribal card type)

There have been some better and some worse cards than Shock, which is perfectly fine; the standard can’t be the best there is, just a good accepted value to compare. We’re not looking for the best card in relation to mana cost, but the common accepted standard. There are always going to be good cards, better cards and worst cards in for everything we can think of, it’s just part of the game. This is just a simplified view to get a yardstick of measurement (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go a complete Mike Flores on you. – MtGCP).

The most common complaint in today’s game is that Blue sucks. It doesn’t have a good counterspell (nor even its namesake) or instant speed drawing. Today’s standard for countering a spell is 1UU, but it didn’t always used to be that way. It’s been years since it saw legal play in Standard (and a year or two in Extended), but Counterspell is still card everyone thinks about for making sure your opponent didn’t cast that card they were hoping to use.

UU, Instant, Counter target spell.

That’s the standard for countering a spell in Magic. And you’ll never get it back.

Here’s the deal: every color specializes in something. Black gets killing creatures and discarding; Red gets fast mana and cheap direct damage; Green gets cheap fatties and mana acceleration; White gets, um, life gain? Blue has card drawing and countering (as well as bouncing and milling and stealing stuff and…). So, in order to play a control deck (a deck that’s not just throwing out creatures to smash face or combo-ing out), most of the time you want to play Blue since you can control what your opponent plays by countering what you don’t like.

For the longest time (and even to today) whenever there is a new counterspell people compare it to the original.

Example: Your opponent pays 2GG for a Chameleon Colossus. Seeing trouble ahead, you decide to counter it with a Counterspell. You have “gained” 2 mana by spending two mana less than your opponent (4-2=2). Seems good, right? You were able to prevent 4 of your opponent’s mana from being used by only using half that. Now, if your opponent pays 3GG for a Dramatic Entrance, you can still counter that for the same UU (obviously not the exact same card, but the same card name). This time, you’ve “gained” even more mana than before. This is a very simplistic view of this concept, it goes much deeper than this, but we won’t get to that here.

By paying UU, you could prevent anything from being cast (lands aren’t cast). Wizards decided this was too good for two reasons: 1) Almost anything that you played was going to cost more than 2 mana, so you were going to get it countered and lose mana 2) It prevented them from creating higher quality counterspells in expansion sets, so that there wouldn’t be too many good counterspells at the same time. They also decreed that anything that counters a spell with no drawbacks should have UU in the cost.

The standard had now just become the baseline.

Where do they get this “It has to cost more than UU” idea from? When they foreshadowed that it was going to be out of 8th, they claimed it was more of a thought experiment than anything else (hint: when WotC talks about something really random, it could happen. They get us used to the idea before they actually implement it). If the counterspell was going to do something else than just counter (whether it was a drawback or more advantage), it would cost differently for what it was doing. If there was a drawback (could only counter creatures), then it only needs U; if there was a benefit, then it need to be at least 1UU.

The reason for the double U mana is two-fold: First is the fact that it makes it less splashable to play in decks. With the two Blue mana, you have to have to be pretty devoted to Blue in your deck. So to actually counter something, it has to be not just a tacked on “four-of” that anyone can throw in a deck (see Cryptic Command/Vivd Lands for proof). Second is the fact that it’s more Blue flavorwise so it makes sense why a Red mage couldn’t easily cast a Blue spell (it’s a topic we’ll talk about in another post).

Here some of the pre-8th counterspells (before Counterspell was taken out of the Core Set) for comparison:

  • Arcane Denial – 1U (WotC said it was a mistake with it only being 1 U since you were given a benefit)
  • Dismiss – 2UU (You draw a card)
  • Forbid – 1UU (Counterspell with buyback, sure it was discarding two cards, but Counterspll with buyback)
  • Mana Drain – UU (The only strictly better Counterspell and since the M10 rule changes has only gotten better)
  • Prohibit – 1U (Only countered a spell less or equal to what it was kicked)
  • Remove Soul – 1U (Only countered creatures)

The base UU was there for hard counters while the U was for the conditional ones. Even before they said that this was the rule, WotC were clearly following it. But there’s been a huge difference why the philosophy has changed from UU to 1UU to be the base counterspell besides being “too good.” Can anyone guess? Bueller? Buehler?

Wizards now pushes creatures instead of spells.

Here’s how a traditional control deck used to work: You would gain card advantage by out drawing your opponent, by countering their stuff and by playing down one threat to take you to victory. With the plethora of cheap counterspells available to you, it was easy to pick and choose what you wanted. Most of the time, you were guaranteed if you go that route, you only needed one creature. Here’s a look at “The Deck” the first real tournament worthy deck (source here):

FEAR ME!

Lands
4 City of Brass
4 Island
1 Library of Alexandria
3 Plains
3 Strip Mine
4 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island

Artifacts
1 Black Lotus
2 Disrupting Scepter
1 Jayemdae Tome
1 Mirror Universe
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sol Ring

Creatures
2 Serra Angel

Enchantments
2 Moat

Instants
1 Ancestral Recall
2 Counterspell
4 Mana Drain
2 Red Elemental Blast
4 Disenchant
4 Swords to Plowshares

Sorceries
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Amnesia
1 Braingeyser
1 Timetwister
1 Time Walk
1 Recall
1 Regrowth

Two creatures? Both of them Serra Angels? That’s right, the most fearsome creature was a 4/4 vigilant flying creature. She was so powerful that they took her out of the base set for a while. And when she returned, well, she’s a good limited bomb, right? The WotC also thought Juggernaut, Kird Ape and Hypnotic Specter were “Too good” to see print again. In the early part of Magic’s history, Wizards favored spells over creatures.

This is why Counterspell was alright at two; spells, not creatures, were causing it to be that way.

As the game progressed, with more control (Necro), combo (Pros-Bloom), and aggro (Sligh), there was talk of what was the best creature in Magic. Even with the rock-paper-scissors effect (Aggro beats control, control beats combo and combo beats aggro), there was more or less a unanimous answer. For a while, it was Serra Angel. Then, Morphling came around and took over the crowd. And a few years after that, it was Psychatog. What do these three creatures have in common?

If you guessed that they were the only creatures in a control deck, congratulations!

What would usually be the best deck would be a control deck where it would counter everything, draw out and protect one creature from being killed. It’s a sound, and effect way to play Magic. Counterspells reigned supreme because they have to go against other spells while dealing with very little creatures. However, around Onslaught block (right before 8th edition) WotC decided to try an experiment: what would happen to an environment (block constructed, so it wouldn’t be too harmful) if there weren’t any good counterspells? What would happen?

Oh, the fact that the Top 8 of a Pour Tour would have a ton of creatures?

Wizard’s philosophy has changed to make creatures matter more than spells. No longer was Counterspell mostly dealing with spells, but now creatures as well. So, paying UU to block anything, including the main way people were supposed to win, was way too good. Besides the whole Affinity fiasco, decks flourished with multiple creatures. There were still counterspells, but they were weaker individually, (Mana Leak), but the whole crop of counterspells grew better (Hinder, Remand, Cryptic Command).

As the push towards creatures grew, even making older spells into creatures (See the whole Magus cycle from Time Spiral Block), the cost for counterspells also grew, making 1UU the new standard for countering a spell. While the pushing of creatures this has happened for a while (the first “187” creatures were in Visions), they really didn’t get fully pushed until, obviously, Onslaught and beyond. Creatures that are being printed are becoming better and better to where you can do a 2-for-1 with a creature. If a creature has an “enters the battlefield” ability, or a good activated/triggered ability, then not only do you get a “spell-like effect” you also get a body as well.

Here’s the kicker: creatures are interactive, they force a player to do something. While you can sit back and play Draw-Go all day, having a creature in play forces the opponent to react. This is why aggro beats control, the creatures are actively pursing the end-game while the control player is sitting there waiting to delay that. If you play a Sower of Temptation, not only do you steal their creature, you get one of your own and you can be “more interactive” (Again a simplistic view).

All of this is tied together. No longer are Wizards printing cheap counterspells to stop everything. Instead of a Swiss army knife effect that Counterspell has, it’s a more limited counterpells for cheaper that we’re seeing (ironically, Negate would’ve been pretty good pre-8th). The watering-down of counters are making it harder to build decks that only have one creature. Plus the push of “spell-like” creatures, mimics the necessity for having spells if you can get a creature along with it as well (See: Faeries from Lorwyn Block).

Players complain even though to counter a spell only costs 1 more (not 2 or 3). Is it a case of “I want what I used to have” or “This isn’t good enough to pay 3 mana on?” is still yet to be determined. But the whole shift of Magic has changed since WotC tossed out Counterspell. Legacy, which used to be combos, is now a creature heavy format. Because better creatures are being printed, Vintage now plays differently than a few years ago, though it’s still mostly a spell based format and that’s fine.

Like everything in Magic, the pendulum is constantly swinging. You get multi-color one year and mono-colored the next. I believe in due time that one day, you might have a “traditional” control deck and people will flock toward it.

Just don’t count on a certain UU spell to be printed.

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7 thoughts on “Design Class – See, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things Anymore”

  1. I just wanted to say that is really good. It’s well presented, thought-out, and edifying. I really do like your writing style as well as your points. I hope you continue to write stuff like this, because it really is interesting.

    1. Thanks, it’s been something that’s been rattling around in my head for a while. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing (I know that’s from somewhere, can’t remember currently. If not, I’ll take it).

  2. Congratulations. It sums it up real nicely. In fact the whole line of thought of “dumbing down magic” makes no sense, because combat tricks and optimal use of the new creatures actually demands more concentration and skill than sitting behind an ophidian and a forbid.

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