I don't want to make a habit out of writing articles like this and I hope this is my last one for a few years, but I'm worried that the direction design is going may make cards like this a trend rather than an anomaly. I'll preface this piece by saying it's not my intention to become a doomsayer by any means. In fact, despite my apprehension about Nevinyrral, Commander Legends was a triumph of a set and did almost everything right, satisfying me as a player, collector, financier and fan of the game. Am I a little worried that Sarulf, Realm Eater does a pretty good impression of Nevinyrral? A bit, but it's clear my side is losing the war on the issue of "please stop putting board wipes in the command zone." I'm making peace with that, and if I were going to talk today about Sarulf, I probably would have talked myself out of it because there's not much I'm worried about that I haven't already articulated with respect to Nevinyrral. Instead, I'm going to channel Dorothy Parker when I say "What fresh hell is this?"
The Fresh Hell in Question
Tergrid, God of Fright has me frightened. Apart from the normal things that I think are wrong with this card and what it represents, the first part we need to talk about is how people thought I would like this. I got a lot of DMs from people who were essentially congratulating me for this card showing up. Polling Twitter, I got some different results but I imagine the way I phrased the question and responses may have tipped some people off.
In the first fifty responses or so, "Most 75% card ever" was winning but "you hate it" started to take over after about two hundred. It's possible people had some other reasons for picking that response other than that they knew I would be worried about this card.
Tough, but fair, Eric. Tough, but fair.
Coolstuff's own Bruce Richard made the point that since the card was only as strong as our opponent's cards, it was likely a good fit for a 75% deck, and I think that's an excellent point. In the past, cards that were powerful and took a lot of cards from our opponents didn't seem oppressive because what we got was only as good as what they had. Bribery, Helm of Possession, Insurrection, Rise of the Dark Realms - these cards do a lot of work but they also require the opponent to have something worth taking. The principle that we can scale the power level of our plays to the power level of the opponents' decks by virtue of using their own cards against them is a founding principle of 75% deck-building and it's one I never forget to apply. Whenever I see a new card that could potentially let us use their cardboard, we as 75% deck-builders look at the card through that lens, as well as some others like "will this suck on webcam games" as that's become a new reality as well as "will this make the opponent miserable?"
I don't think Tergrid is bound to be that bad for webcam games, personally. The onus is on you to be able to represent a raft of your opponents' cards and do so legibly and clearly so the others on webcam get an accurate sense of your board state. I recommend buying 10 of the 50 packs of infinitokens. My personal method is to just own four copies of every Magic card in existence so I can use them to represent the cards, but use whichever method you're comfortable with. Taking cards from the opponent doesn't put any onus on them since the cards stolen with Tergrid were discarded or destroyed which means they were face-up, known cards. They just have to put them in a separate pile and it's up to you to represent them.
So, if Tergrid is fine on webcam, what's the problem?
I keep thinking back to Bruce Richard's tweet about how the cards you get are only as good as their deck. If I have a problem with Tergrid, aren't I undermining one of the fundamental tenets of 75% theory? If what Tergrid does is a bad thing, maybe Rise of the Dark Realms is a bad thing. Maybe even Animate Dead is a bad thing. Has Wizards printed a card that will make me reject one of my core 75% beliefs? The thing is, I never felt like this at all. In fact, Tergrid makes me think I was on the right track even more than I did before, because I think what's wrong with Tergrid reinforces what's good about 75% theory.
Tergrid is not the first commander to incentivize discard effects. In fact, it's not the first one in the last 12 months. Jumpstart gave us this naughty little disco boi and I had a fairly positive reaction to it.
I think the big difference between Tergrid and Tinybones is that Tinybones doesn't give you much of a payoff until you commit hard. Tinybones gives you a small reward if anyone discards anything at all, meaning you could potentially draw if they cycled a card or did something good on their own. Only when everyone's hands were empty could you pay a lot of mana to punish them. Tinybones was way more fair than Tergrid in the sense that the cards they discarded were lost to you unless you used a different card to get them, the opponent still had access to them meaning graveyard decks laughed at your boneboy and they could still sacrifice permanents without having to worry about you benefitting. Tinybones was a profoundly boring deck, as most people found, and after a few games where they made the table target them and didn't manage to win because they needed to find room for card draw, ramp, creatures, removal, payoff spells to benefit from the opponents discarding cards and still find room for cards that actually made the opponents discard, there was no room left for anything. Tinybones never really materialized as a problem for the format because the person that the Tinybones deck punished the most was the Tinybones player.
In the interim between Tinybones and Tergrid, a card was printed that caused a huge stir in the community.
In a lot of ways, Tergrid is a hybrid of all of the worst aspects of Tinybones with a nice heavy pinch of Opposition Agent in the mix. Sure, if your opponent cracks a fetch with Tergrid out, they still get to fetch the land out of their deck before you used their fetch yourself, but you're still punishing them for running very fair cards, and Tergrid is in the command zone. You're not going to have access to Opposition Agent every game, but you will with Tergrid unless something goes horribly wrong. Having ready access to a card that's even half of Opposition Agent and half of Tinybones turns out to be pretty toxic.
Finally, Tergrid makes symmetrical effect asymmetrical again. Tinybones players realized quickly that while cards like Bottomless Pit and Necrogen Mists seemed like no-brainers at first, even with you drawing on every end step, Bottomless Pit still punished you quite a bit. Tergrid makes Bottomless Pit even more asymmetrical than Tinybones did, giving you something better than cards - it gives you free spells. Bottomless Pit suddenly forces opponents to discard cards they wouldn't have before. Normally people discard cards that are the most expensive since they have less of an opportunity to play them in the near term, or they discard lands so that when they do draw more lands, they don't have a hand devoid of spells. Now they can't rely on either of those strategies because they're giving you a good permanent or they're giving you the lands you need to play your own spells. Making cards whose power was balanced by how it punished the whole table evenly are suddenly three-fold more powerful because the symmetry is gone and you're rewarded on top of not being punished.
Tergrid doesn't need to include payoff cards the way Tinybones decks did because Tergrid is the ultimate payoff. Now any discard effect is brutal and every pox effect is downright devastating. Death Cloud is a gigantic windfall. Barter in Blood doesn't leave you down two creatures, it leaves you up four. You don't need to draw anything apart from lands and discard and sac spells to make your whole deck work. Indeed, you don't even need to run any creatures at all because your opponents will provide them. Bribery is a fine 75% spell because while it deprives them of a creature in the future and provides you with one, you didn't do anything to affect the board apart from adding a potential blocker to it. Tergrid turns every Doom Blade into a Control Magic, a spell that costs twice as much mana for a reason. While it's true that what you get is only as good as their deck, if you make them sacrifice or discard all of their creatures, it doesn't matter if they're all Chimney Imps and Squires, if you have one Chimney Imp and no one else has any creatures, you win the game inevitably. Besides, if they have Chimney Imps in their deck, what are the odds they can stop you from crushing them? You don't even have to pivot your strategy against spell-heavy combo decks that don't run a ton of permanents for you to pilfer because it turns out those strategies are as heavily impacted by discard effects as any other deck, sometimes more-so.
Take Tinybones (a card that worried a lot of people), add a pinch of Opposition Agent (a card that worried everyone), and a dash of It That Betrays (a card that costs over two times as much mana as Tergrid) and you have a recipe for a very fundamentally punishing, unfun and oppressive commander that's going to encourage players to load up on discard and edict effects and allow them to not have to run much more than that. What you get is only as good as their deck, but it's as good as their whole deck, and when you have more of their cards than they do, it scarcely matters what the cards are.
Am I overreacting? I might be! The good thing about being concerned ahead of time is that if I am wrong, Magic doesn't suck, so I'm really hoping I'm wrong here. I hope Tergrid is as boring to play as Tinybones (or Xyris, a deck I decided not to play after merely goldfishing it and only subjected a playgroup to one time) and doesn't get played after a few games, but I have a feeling with how fun it is to play with opponents' cards (that's kind of my thing), I suspect we're in for some miserable games in the near future. Tergrid players are going to eat ice cream for dinner every night and not just ice cream, but everyone's ice cream. Eating ice cream for dinner doesn't undermine my belief that some ice cream is good, and I can only hope that players who build Tergrid decks get sick of it just as quickly.
That does it for me, everyone. Next week the entire set will be revealed, meaning I will get to do an article about all of the 75% cards in the set that I actually do like. It's one of my favorite kind of articles to write, so make sure you don't miss it. Until next time!