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Casting Obvious

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Temporal Mastery
Temporal Mastery got me.

Yes, I should have known better. All the warning signs were there: high casting cost, splashy effect, plays on a famous earlier card, one of the first official Wizards spoilers to get people excited for the upcoming set. But I got sucked in. I believed, just from reading the card for the first time, that it would lead to an unequal turn distribution between players worthy of third-world kleptocracies and that it would break every format in a ten-block radius.

That’s the risk we run during spoiler season. It’s not just about getting a leg up on the competition by seeing the cards before everyone else, because let’s face it, almost none of us is really putting these new cards to work until at least the prerelease. It’s about seeing all these cards at the same time as everyone else, being the first to form a certain opinion of them, and (this part might just be me) smirking at everyone else’s wild overreactions to cards that are obviously overhyped with no good uses. But when one waits around until someone starts shrieking hysterically about a card being too good, that person might end up being good.

Spoiler season is a magical time when all parts of the community can join together to be harmoniously, joyfully wrong. The Magic Online grinders take a break from playtesting nonexistent formats to drool over a remake of their favorite cards from when they first started, and the Commander players wonder whether a new red 1-drop will immediately turn Standard on its head.1 All other hot-button issues and metagame discussion (unless it’s in the form of “How will the new set change ____”) is stopped until the new set is released. For those few weeks every four months or so, the community truly comes together.

This article won’t give you extensive playtesting data as to why Temporal Mastery isn’t good in the thirty different decks people have speculated about it going into—this isn’t about that card specifically. This is about the sleight of hand Wizards pulls by showing us something that’s so obviously broken in every combo deck ever like Pact of Negation while Tarmogoyf sits temporarily unloved in the corner, its enormous, deadly paws interlocked innocently behind its ever-changing back.

Tarmogoyf is such a well-known story of an overlooked card rising to dominance that nearly every player active when the set was released has his own story of how he totally saw—guys, I totally saw—how broken it was and no one would believe him (but I sure showed them). (My variant is seeing its potential as the centerpiece of a transformative sideboard in Standard Dredge for Regionals; I picked up a play set at $2 a copy and sold them some months later for fifteen times that.) Now, a lot of players keep an eye open for the next Tarmogoyf—anything green with high power and toughness for a low mana cost or creatures that are blatantly going to be great in aggressive strategies—which are actually cards with no chance of being that good since Wizards makes triple-positive they don’t print another card that’s absurdly good in the same way again. This is why those people miss the point entirely.

Tarmogoyf
The next Tarmogoyf isn’t going to look like Tarmogoyf or Time Walk or Necropotence or Ancestral Recall because those cards are known quantities that people pay attention to now. The next Tarmogoyf will be Carnival of Souls on a 1/1 or a more aggressively costed Chimney Imp or some slow 2-mana life-gain enchantment that competitive players see on the spoiler as DUMB CARD FOR CHILDREN AND SCRUBBOS as they scroll past it over their first Mountain Dews of the morning. Checking the list of new cards for ones that are blatant spinoffs on old classics is like betting on the Super Bowl based on last year’s teams.

For me, the most exciting part of any new game (card, board, console, PC, anything) is that phase when I feel like I’m getting the hang of the very basic rules and structure enough to understand why things are happening, but when I’m discovering new strategies and interactions at a frantic pace. It feels like a never-ending series of doors and hallways presenting an infinite-seeming potential for exploration: an area that I’ll know by heart in some period of time, but for now, all I can do is move at random, seeing whatever is in front of me for the first time. That’s the feeling I had when I picked up Pokémon for the first time in third grade, that’s how it felt to design pointlessly winding and expensive rides in Rollercoaster Tycoon, and that’s why spoiler season is so much fun.

Magic, though, no longer has the luxury of relying on what players haven’t seen for its discovery. Because (many) players are expected to look at the full spoiler of a set before they’ve even seen a pack of the real cards, the game’s discovery has to be what players haven’t noticed. This requires a few things: the big distraction that players are supposed to notice and the to-be-discovered card lurking in the background. Most of the time, this requires the former card to not be as good as it appears. And so we get Temporal Mastery.

The easiest way to describe this card is Wizards messing with us. They are the magician onstage, asking for a volunteer—that’s us—to assist them in their next act. As we giggle nervously during Wizards’s charming, onstage banter, they wave their hands around theatrically . . . and nothing happens. Then, they pat us on the shoulder in mock comfort, revealing . . . a Time Walk! We gasp in appreciation. Then, it disappears, and we are disappointed and shocked, until, as a parting gift, we’re granted a moderately useful and overall rather interesting card. None of this would work without something as grandiose and winking-at-the-audience as a Power 9 variant.

Part of the reason Temporal Mastery excited me first as something to actually play in a game of Magic, and then as an example of a hideously expensive red herring, is that the past few sets have been really disappointing from a hidden-gem standpoint due to the Blatantly Obvious Good Card turning out to be the best card in the set.

Bloodbraid Elf
That’s just no fun. If I’m reading some classic-style, trapped-in-a-house-with-the-killer mystery, if the initial suspect never stops being the main suspect and turns out to have been the killer all along, the whole thing feels like an enormous waste of time. Why go through all the work figuring things out if the initial response was the right one and for the reasons that everyone saw immediately?

Up through Avacyn Restored, my basic procedure for looking at the most-hyped card was asking myself why it sucked (because there must be some reason that it sucks, at least in some cases). Okay, so . . . how does Bloodbraid Elf suck? It’s a creature, so it must die to removal! Nope; it gets value against one-to-one removal spells. Counterspells! Nope, cascade beats those, too. Is it somehow only good in one narrow strategy? No, it’s a decent aggressive creature while also generating good value in midrange decks. Is it . . . somehow uncastable at 2rg? Well, one of the dominant decks was five-color control, and a lot of other decks wanted something at that cost, so that wasn’t it. At that point, the card left me no choice: I had to resort to playing games of Magic with it in decks. And it was really good. Every time I drew it.

What a massive letdown.

Thankfully, Lotus Cobra had the good manners to not be as immediately absurd as I thought it was, and Worldwake brought the sleeper hit of Stoneforge Mystic2, 3, then some other cards were released I think and (time-lapse photography here) we get to Innistrad block, where Snapcaster Mage is released.

Here is where I hope the camera does that dawning-realization technique (not the technical term) on your face, where it zooms and moves in opposite directions to shift the background in a moderately unsettling way. Yes, this is another response article to the debate Zac Hill started in his preview article for Cavern of Souls. While other people have focused on the potential overreaction to a previously printed card (thus adding another potential permanent issue to eternal formats in addition to Snapcaster Mage) or his argument that Mana Leak was the problem rather than Snapcaster Mage (which would be a questionable argument if Mr. Hill had made this argument; he said that Mana Leak was “almost as savage a culprit” [emphasis mine], which is quite a bit different), I was taken aback that he admitted he messed up making Snapcaster Mage.

Snapcaster Mage
Zac Hill is not dumb. He knows what’s going on with Magic, as his StarCityGames archive (on balance, the strongest collected works of any writer to talk about the game) definitively shows. He has even written specifically about the inherent (and deceptive) power of flashback as a mechanic, that it’s equivalent to making a spell a cantrip that only ever draws the flashback half of the card. The entire competitive playerbase, of which I am not the most skilled member, immediately recognized it as being incredibly good.4 I genuinely cannot come up with a plausible explanation for Snapcaster Mage being sent out the door without Mr. Hill recognizing its power. As the final Invitational card, it must have consumed more of Mr. Hill’s time in designing it and attracted more attention from other members of R&D than the average card.

However, it was printed in its current state, and Snapcaster Mage disappointed me for the same reasons Bloodbraid Elf did. I glanced at the spoiler and was immediately told in the Magical equivalent of blink and marquee HTML tags what the best card was. I didn’t have to work for that information.

This might seem minor—or even like it would make things more interesting—by saving me that tedious step of figuring out what cards to build around before I get to the games themselves. But to me, the part of the metagame5 of figuring out what cards I even want to play with is a large portion of the fun. The part of me that wants to make off-the-wall decks to show off my creativity has slowly leaked out of me, but its residue still makes me want to be competitive while not doing what everyone else is doing, and arriving at that destination (a competitive deck) on my own. If the only paths to competition are well worn by the time I make it there, there’s no discovery.

While Snapcaster was blatantly overpowered, it at least allows people to use it in different ways due to the huge variety of things that can be flashed back. Lingering Souls is way less interesting. Everyone saw it and went, “Wow, that’s a really efficient way to make creatures,” and it is. It makes creatures efficiently. That’s all it does and all it ever will do. It’s another card acknowledged (in this case, by Aaron Forsythe) as being a mistake, and once again, I’m left wondering how it left the Pit without R&D realizing how oppressively, powerfully uninteresting it is. It is the white bread of Standard.

A few hours after I write this, I’ll play in the Avacyn Restored prerelease, and I’m incredibly excited for the set. Not because I know exactly how to dominate the Limited format already or because I can accurately predict the top ten cards and what their prices will be in three months, but because I have no clue. Will miracle be a multi-format-defining mechanic, have a couple cards show up here and there, or be nearly useless? Is soulbond an efficient and powerful way to give creatures half-haste, or is it a way to overreach into being blown out by removal spells every time? I don’t know. And that’s what interests me.

I hope every future mechanic’s power level is nearly impossible to accurately predict, and I hope the best card in every future set is initially derided as unplayable.

Jesse Mason

@KillGoldfish

killingagoldfish.com

 


1 No.

2 While putting into a set cards that become good with the release of future sets is cool and all, it’s not nearly as much fun as when the pieces to make it fantastic were there all along. To go back to the detective novel analogy, this is like if the book hid the crucial piece of evidence that revealed the killer from us until the protagonist reveals it. Yes, it’s quite unexpected, but it’s also sort of cheating.

3 And yes, there’s Jace, but I’ve had some rather heated arguments about whether this was truly a sleeper hit. My feeling is that any card this heavily promoted and widely considered the marquee card of the set (and immediately splashy via its status as the first planeswalker with more than three abilities) can’t be truly overlooked. What happened was that many people considered it fantastic, and it was the most-talked-about card around the time of release, and it ended up being better than even the Erwiniest of optimists could have predicted. While that does technically make it a card that was better than expected, this is so technical and uninteresting that I can only picture this line of reasoning coming from someone pushing the glasses up his nose as he corrects me, Steve.

4 I’m even worse at card price predictions than I am at card power predictions, but I preordered a play set of Snapcasters for just over $50 total immediately when it was spoiled. It and Restoration Angel are the only cards I’ve speculated on in the last four years or so.

5 Used in the R&D, rather than competitive player, sense.

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