Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The 2CMC Bomb
Today on Twitter Rob Martin asked “Concerned about the power lvl of the creatures at all in the new release?”.
Now, I spend time on twitter taking the piss out of WotC for the power level of their creatures like I’m getting paid to do so. That said, I’m not concerned about power creep.
When talking about creature creep, you need a frame of references. For this discussion there are two data points that interest me the most: those creatures that are banned in various formats, and the acknowledged ‘best creatures’ of all time.
There is only one creature banned in Extended – Stoneforge Mystic. The power level of this lady isn’t in her power or toughness, but in her two abilities, the first a tutor for whatever is the best equipment in that format, then drop it into play for the low, low cost of 1W. Mystic was printed in Worldwake, released at the beginning of 2010. That about a year and a half ago now.
There are only three creatures banned in Modern – Stoneforge Mystic (who I just discussed), Golgari Grave Troll, and Wild Nacatl. Golgari Grave Troll isn’t banned due to his power or toughness, but due to a number next to a keyword. Apparently, Dredge 6 is just too large an incentive not to warp the format with a powerful dredge deck. Golgari’s Grave Troll‘s power and toughness could literally be 1/1 and it would still see play due to Dredge 6. He was printed in Ranvina in 2005, almost 7 years ago. Nacatl is a little more what we expect from ‘creature power creep’, largely as she’s almost always a 3/3 on Turn 2, which is an amazingly aggressive start. WotC were worried that the only viable aggro deck in a Modern format with Nacatl live would be Naya Zoo, and therefore elected to ban it. This looks a little premature now that we have Delver of Secrets, the flying 3/2 on T2, dominating the board in Standard, Modern and Legacy.
Legacy is an interesting format when it comes to banned creatures. Tempest Efreet, Timmerian Fiends, and Jeweled Bird aside (banned due to the legality of their wording, as opposed to their power level), there are again three relevant creatures banned – Goblin Recruiter, Hermit Druid, and Worldgorger Dragon (who recently came off the EDH banned list). Goblin Recruiter and Hermit Druid suffer the same problem as Stoneforge Mystic; they have an unconditional tutor effect that warps entire decks. Hermit Druid is a monster as you can literally decline to play a basic land in your deck, dump your libary into your graveyard, and go from there. Goblin Recruiter has a similar effect and it’s easy to understand how it could be abused, even outside a goblin aggro strategy. Worldgorger Dragon is banned due to his ability, rather than his rather mundane power and toughness, with WotC deciding it would much perfer players to combo out with a 3-mana spell like Show And Tell than a 6-mana spell like Worldgorger. Hermit Druid was printed for Stronghold in 1998, Goblin Recruiter for Visions in 1997, and Worldgorger Dragon for Judgement in 2002.
So when looking at what it takes to get a creature banned, it’s clear you either need a broken tutor effect, or to be a clear combo piece (or in the case of Hermit Druid, both) to get the shaft. With Delver of Secrets pushing the line in Standard, Modern and Legacy, I wouldn’t be surprised in Wild Nacatl was unbanned in Modern – or if Delver were banned once it rotates out of Standard.
Right now, looking at the barely-there spoiler list for Return to Ravnica, there’s nothing that fits this space. Now combo pieces generally appear a little later in the maturity of a format, so if there is one, we may be seeing it, but not seeing the combo yet. However WotC tend to have a good handle on controlling combo effects (even though they missed the Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin combo for the brief period it was legal in Standard). Likewise, I think they’ve probably learnt their lesson on putting tutor effects on creatures (though maybe not, I’m looking at you, Primeval Titan), and we haven’t seen one yet amongst the Return to Ravnica spoilers yet. It seems the magic number for a broken tutor creature is 2CMC, and while Viridian Emissary saw a little play, Dawntreader didn’t, the Trinket Mage/Treasure Mage combo never made it off the Kitchen Table, Kuldoth Forgemaster has been relegated to a little Legacy play, and only Brad Nelson plays Rune-Scarred Demon in Standard. The exception has been Solemn Simulacrum, which saw a fair amount of play as a State 2 control card, but was certainly far from overpowered (and was first printed for Mirrodin in 2003). The most powerful creatures that ushered in the era of ‘battlefield magic’ – the Titans (plus Wurmcoil Engine) are all about to rotate out of Standard and their doesn’t seem to be a clear group of board-dominating 6-drops to replace them.
So if creatures aren’t getting more ‘broken’, are they at least getting stronger?
The one drop spot is interesting. I’ve talked about Wild Nacatl, but it fights for top spot in the aggro ladder with the likes of Kird Ape, Loam Lion, Delver of Secrets, Steppe Lynx, Savannah Lions and Goblin Guide. In reality, these guys all hover around the same power level. Occasionally Delver of Secrets is a disappointing 1/1. Occasionally Goblin Guide creates un-beatable card-advantage for your opponent. Occasionally Steppe Lynx is a terrible 0/1. Yes, each of these cards are supported by decks designed to mitigate this, but in general, across time, the power level has stayed the same. Whether Delver of Secrets is banned in Standard or Modern will be a significant tell to how WotC feel about the 1-drop spot (I’m guessing it won’t). RTR has given us Nivmagus Elemental, which, although strong, is actually deceptively weak due to its mana intensivity. It’s major strength is that it’s blue, and if Blue can protect this during T1/T2 to get it to be a ’1 mana’ 3/4, then we might have a new king of the 1-drops. This, however, remains to be seen, and in reality is (a) costing more than 1 mana, and (b) costing more than 1 card. This might be too much cost in the long run.
If you’ve watched the Channel Fireball Top 8 2-Drop Creatures video you get Quasali Pridemage (a 2/2 capable of becoming a 3/3), Meddling Mage (a 2/2), Lotus Cobra (a 2/1), Stoneforge Mystic (a 1/2), Wild Mongrel (2/2 that grows), Arcbound Ravager (a 1/1 that grows), Tarmogoyf (usually a 6/7), and Dark Confidant (a 2/1). Of these, it’s Tarmogoyf that’s the gold-standard for aggro drops, the 2-mana 6/7, with Wild Mongrel a close second. The rest are generally pieces of a larger puzzle. Wild Mongrel was printed for Odyssey in 2001, and Tarmogoyf for Future Sight in 2007. It might seem crazy to think about, but we haven’t had as aggressive a 2-drop in almost five years. There is some question whether Lotleth Troll (LOL TROLL) will be able to fill those shoes, but LOL TROLL requires a deck to be built around it, unlike Tarmogoyf, which can fill a roll in almost ever strategy (other than combo, you nitpicking bastards (and now I’ll get an email with a Tarmogoyf combo deck)).
The three-drop spot broadens things significantly. There’s over 1500 three drop creatures in MtG history, but even the most ‘powerful’ of them – weirdly, Phyrexian Soulgorger (Coldsnap, 2006) – never saw serious play (maybe it should have). The big vanilla creatures, Leatherback Baloth and Woolly Thoctar certainly put older vanilla cards such as Alaborn Trooper and Gorilla Warrior to shame, but even then don’t often pack as much punch as a Ball Lightning (first printed in 1994). The big non-vanilla 3-drops of late, such as Phylactery Lich and Skaab Ruinator never made it into tournament play, the benefits too often seen as ‘not worth the effort’. For super-powered three drops we must look to cards such as Psychatog (Odyssey, 2001), Knight of the Reliquary (Conflux, 2009), and Vendilion Clique (Morningtide, 2008). Vendilion Clique is really a control finisher, of the other two Psychatog is the true Beatdown King. Mike Flores might of been bashing people with Gnarled Mass, but we’ve come to expect bigger and better – Gnarled Mass now comes with Flash and Regeneration, thanks Wolfir Avenger.
The ‘big’ three drop in Return to Ravnica so far is Loxodon Smiter, a 3CMC 4/4 with only upside. I think this is a big departure from the other creatures in some ways, even through he’ll generally lose in combat to a Tarmogoyf (though admittely there is nothing the artwork that suggest the Smiter isn’t female, I’m still using “he”). This where I think the major change in WotC philosophy comes in; they are willing for players to get more out of their creatures at higher mana costs.
This is transparently apparently when you look at where the 4CMC to 6CMC slot creatures have headed over the past few years. No more Juzam Djinn (Arabian Nights, 1993) or Erhnam Djinn (Judgement, 2002), instead we have Abyssal Persecutor and the new Desecration Demon. Sure their downsides seem worse, but they are both effectively better creatures. In M10 we received the bonkers Baneslayer Angel at 5CMC, and in M11 we received the Titans at 6CMC. At 8-mana we now get clear game-winners such as Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Griselbrand.
However, as you can see, while the top of the curve continues to improve for creature’s power, toughness, and abilities, the bottom of the curve continues to dawdle along, the the major war being waged at the 3CMC slot.
I think I’m fine with this. When you take a look at the banned and restricted lists, they are filled with instants, sorceries, enchantments and artifacts. It takes a great deal for a creature to make it on those lists. WotC seem to have found a happy medium with the 1 and 2 drop slots, are currently seeking out that same space for the 3 drop creatures, and are happy to go to town with the four-mana-and-above creatures, all of which required improvement anyway. The best of the best are still creatures from 4-6 years ago and frankly we could use the competition. Sure, I hope that the power level of non-creature cards doesn’t evaporate in the mean time (and looking at the spells in Return to Ravnica, I’m fairly confident they won’t). But right now I’m not worried about creature power creep, so long as 1 and 2 drops don’t break everything.
All eyes on Nivmagus Elemental from here.