Conundrum Sphinx


I am in love with Legacy. I finally completed my second Legacy deck the other week when I traded a Mox Ruby for 3 Volcanic Islands and $50 and I’m constantly looking for an excuse to play it. At first, I couldn’t figure out why I loved it—I just assumed it was because it was the only format I had ever done well in. As I started to win more Standard events; though, I figured out this wasn’t the case.

After a few weeks of contemplation, I believe I’ve discovered the cause of my obsession: Brainstorm. One of the fundamental problems with Magic is its lack of consistency. I know many readers will scoff at me for saying this after I wrote an article about not blaming variance, but I get frustrated when my opponent’s deck or my own don’t operate how they’re supposed to. Winning in this fashion isn’t rewarding to either player. This is the reason I love Brainstorm.

And when I say Brainstorm, I don’t just mean that card; I also mean all the other cards like it. Ponder, Preordain, Serum Visions, Green Sun’s Zenith, Stoneforge Mystic, Sleight of Hand—even cards like Portent give any deck they’re in a ridiculous level of consistency. Consider this—Primeval Titan decks had existed well before last Standard season. Valakut was one of the more popular decks during the pre-Caw Blade era, and people were used to losing to Primeval Titan well before Wolf Run ever became a deck.  Green Sun’s Zenith added another dimension to the strategy, allowing you to effectively play 8 copies of the marquee card, the mere opportunity cost being seven mana. Green Sun’s Zenith could also find other bullets such as Acidic Slime or Thragtusk or Thrun, giving the deck a wide range of flexibility.

Wolf Run would regularly make Top 8 appearances at major tournaments—even going as far as to win Worlds and become the deck choice for Channel Fireball for Pro Tour Dark Ascension, but it largely fell off the map when U/W Delver began to dominate. Then, Reid Duke decided to add blue to his Primeval Titan deck, putting in Ponder and a handful of other cards, removing Green Sun’s Zenith from the deck entirely. The effect was immediate—Duke won a Star City Open and Wolf Run Blue continued to have an impact on the metagame for the remainder of last Standard’s season.

So what did Ponder do for this deck? At first blush, it’s no better than Green Sun’s Zenith. Green Sun’s Zenith gives you the guarantee of finding Primeval Titan—no matter what, but Ponder is more than just a creature. It’s whatever you needed. If you didn’t have a Farseek or Rampant Growth in your hand, you could cast Ponder on turn one so on turn two you could ramp. Needed a sweeper? Ponder for that 1-of Blasphemous Act.

Wizards has recently moved away from printing cheap cantrips. I realize it’s a little early to say this—after all, Ponder was printed in M12—but it’s easy to tell based off recent bannings. Despite being in M12 and M10—two relatively recent sets—Ponder is legal in only one format: Legacy. I’ll let than sink in for a second. Even Jace: the Mindsculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are legal in two formats (Legacy and Vintage). Ponder is legal in just one.

Personally, I’m confused about why Wizards would want less consistency in their game. I understand some of the issues—Ponder and Preordain allowed combo decks to be much too consistent in Modern, so they decided to ban the enablers rather than the combo pieces themselves—but I wonder if this is an ineffective remedy. Wouldn’t it be wiser to create cards than can actually interact with the combos instead of simply slowing them down? With tools like Green Sun’s Zenith and Ponder, you could even find these new hosers even faster.

Another issue regarding these cantrips is the fact they’re all blue. Where is the other color’s card selection? Green Sun’s Zenith was an amazing step in the right direction—as was Faithless Looting—but Green Sun’s Zenith has already been banned in Modern. Why can’t we just play our cards? Why do non-blue mages have to be constantly punished?

The fact that Wizards has to routinely ban the culprits that allow decks to be consistent shows a flaw with recent card design: there are just so many good cards! If Ponder and Preordain literally allow combo decks to go off a turn sooner than they normally would, hasn’t power creep gone too far? Or is the point to create a format where powerful things can’t happen? If that’s the case, Modern’s philosophy and the current card design process are at odds; they can’t ban everything.

Moreover, as the Modern card pool expands, so do number of viable decks. It has reached a point where you must choose what strategies to prepare for, since you have to include 3 or 4 of the card you want to actually play against that deck. For example, against Infect you might want Gut Shot, so to see it reliably you have to put 4 of it in your sideboard, but then you have no room for the Negates you might want for Storm.

With consistent cantrips you can get away with playing two of a certain card in your sideboard, as you will reliably see them. I play a handful of 1-ofs in my Legacy deck since I have Brainstorm and Ponder to find them. This gives me the opportunity to properly prepare for any deck I think I am going to see in a given tournament. If I suspect there might be a couple Stoneblade players, I’ll throw in the one Ancient Grudge. Lots of Storm? Better add Flusterstorm Feb 23, 2014 –. Lots of the mirror? Dismember is probably a good idea.

Unfortunately, taking these effects out of Standard creates a difficult environment to prepare for week-by-week. At the moment, deck builders have to decide what decks theirs will be good against. It’s pretty difficult to play cards that are both good against aggro and control and midrange; there simply aren’t enough slots in your maindeck.

Popular opinion at the moment suggests Standard is very balanced. A new deck wins pretty much every week. In the past few months, we have seen a variety of strategies, ranging from mono red aggro to 5-color control.

But if players think a variety of archetypes makes a format balanced, it leads me to wonder why most players don’t think Legacy is the most congruous format of all. The Top 8s from Legacy tournaments differ wildly from week to week, yet a majority of tournament attendees think Legacy is fundamentally unfair.

This opinion suggests a balanced metagame isn’t the one with the largest deck selection. At this point, both Standard and Modern have become a format where you have to decide what decks you feel like beating that week. Stanislav Cifka had such a successful tournament at PT Seattle because no one chose to beat Eggs (though, it also helped he had a tremendous understanding of the deck). How many tournaments have you lost this season because you dedicated your deck to beating Zombies, but instead played against Bant control round after round?

I suppose figuring out what decks you expect to play against is part of the process of preparing for a tournament, but to me, this smells of an unhealthy format. With Ponder and its friends, you can choose to actively beat all decks, but then we run into situations like the past few Standard seasons where a best deck rises to the top…

Maybe a “best deck” is inevitable if Magic, as a game, becomes too consistent. Do you think there’s a solution than can get around both problems? Let me know in the comments; I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts.

Thanks for reading.

Jon Naskrent

@JonNaskrent on Twitter