Magic Theory: Looking Foward To Power Creep
There’s been a bit of hubbub of later of the power creep of creatures and, to a certain extent, the nerfing of counterspells.
Those who have been playing Magic for years understand the ebb and flow of power within the game. The original sets, alpha through to revised, were, in reality, a ‘best guess’ at how the game would work. It’s known the creators never expected decks with four-ofs of any one rare; this assumption proved to be incorrect and the busted cards became known pretty quickly.
And in the beginning, the busted cards were artifacts, instants and sorceries:
* Black Lotus
* Mox Pearl
* Mox Sapphire
* Mox Jet
* Mox Ruby
* Mox Emerald
* Ancestral Recall
* Time Walk
There were literally zero creatures that could compete with the power level of these spells. Even the lesser instants and sorceries – Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, Counterspell, Sinkhole – were highly efficient. Creatures were merely the things you fit around successfully resolving your Recalls and Time Walks.
Yes, there were some lights in the shadow; certainly Savannah Lions set the benchmark for what W would buy you, Ball Lightning in 4th Ed is still a great card today, and Lord of Atlantis is the most effectively costs Lord to date, but overwhelmingly the creatures of that era would not see play today.
When did this begin to change? Erhnam Djinn in Chronicles and Juzam Djinn in Arabian Nights pushed back against Serra Angel in terms of effeciency. But the still could not compete with the power levels of Stasis, Fastbond, Balance, Demonic Tutor, and the many, many other instants, sorceries and enchantments that would steal their thunder for years.
So when did it really start to change? Probably not with the printing of Morphling in Urza’s Saga, which should be seen as a fantastic abberation in a set full of otherwise boring creatures. Probably not Goblin Welder in Urza’s Legacy, which, while powerful, is really more a tutoring sorcery than a creature. A better guess might be Urza’s Destiny, which gave us the 5/5 Phyrexian Negator for 2B and the 4/4 Masticore with a bunch of great abilities for 4.
But the rise of creatures was really precipitated by the printing of two tribes; Slivers in Tempest block and exceedingly good Goblins in Onslaught block. These two tribes allowed creatures to ‘get back in the game’, so to speak. As tribes they were powerful and synergistic. But there’s one thing they weren’t; efficient. As an army, Goblins and Slivers were hyper-powerful, but by themselves they were just as anemic as their older creature cousins. This same efficiency could be seen in Mirrodin block; by themselves the Affinity and Modular creatures were pretty pathetic (7 mana for a 4/4? no thanks!). But as a group they were unstoppable.
It wasn’t really until Ravnica that the modern standards for power/toughness efficiency in creatures was set. Ravnica, of couse, was the home of the ‘Hunted’ cycle: 1UU 4/6 unblockable creature, BB for a 7/7 trampler, 2GG for a 8/4 regenerator, 3RR for a flying, hasty 6/6. Of course, each of these creatures had considerable downsides, in that they gave your opponent permanents of their own, but they certainly set a new benchmark for power/toughness efficiency.
This new realm of efficiency was reinforced by the Gold creatures Ravnica introduced. Watchwolf became the watchword for mana efficiency, the WG 3/3 vanilla creature. Guildpact gave Giant Solifuge, a hasty, trampling, shrouded 4/1 for 2R/G R/G. Rumbling Slum was fantastic at 1RGG for a 5/5 that pinged your opponent – you sure didn’t care about it pinging yourself. And if you were prepared to lose your entire board position, then 3UU for a 8/8 flyer didn’t seem so bad at all.
Timespiral block reinforced this, bringing with it the suspend mechanic, allowing people to spend R to cast a 9/7 or 2U to cast an unblockable 6/6. Spending 1R on a Vanishing 3/3 that was guaranteed to do at least 2 damage was far more impressive than Ravnica’s 3/3 that hung around.
And then we got Future Sight, which certainly lived up to its promise, allowing us to glimpse just how efficent creatures would become. The 5/5 flyer for BB in Tombstalker; the 0 mana 1/1 flyer in Nacromoeba, the 3 5/5 in Gathan Raiders.
And then there was Tarmogoyf. The 1G (possible) 8/9 with no drawback.
With Lorwyn promised to be a creature-focus block with a strong tribal theme, the future for creatures only looked better. Oona’s Prowler was a 3/1 flyer for 1B. Mulldrifter was Divination on a 2/2 flyer. And then their were the blue faeries; Mistbind Clique, Scion of Oona, Spellstutter Sprite, Sower of Temptation, Vendilion clique. Even the aggressively costed Kithkin and Merfolk couldn’t keep up. Doran, a BGW ‘effective’ 5/5 made others look tiny, but wasn’t much use one Sowered away.
By this time huge, efficient creatures were common. A 2RR 7/7 and 8/8? Sure. No-one even played them, percieving the downside too harsh. A 1G 4/3 (Talara’s Battalion)? Not even worth bothering about when your 2/2 ‘vigilant’ Gs (Nettle Sentinel) were doing the job for you, or just helping you combo off.
So there was no need to be surprised when the next block, Alara, featured a 3/3 for G in Wild Nacatl, or a 5/4 for WGR in Wooly Thoctar. Or two 4/4 flyers for 3BRG in Broodmate Dragon. Or a 4/4 for BG in Putrid Leech. And even less surprise when a 5/5 Flying, First Striking, Lifelinking Angel for 3WW turned up in M10, or a 6/6 Flying Trampling Demon for 2BB turned up in Zendikar.
The important thing to note is; are any of these as powerful as a Black Lotus? A Time Walk? An Ancestral Recall? Even a Sinkhole? Probably not. If those cards were in Standard you’d build your deck around them in a second.
Just how good does a creature have to get before you’d run one over Time Walk? I don’t know, but it would have to be pretty close to Tarmogoyf for a single colored mana. Can we expect something like that in the future? Perhaps.
But what’s great about the power creep of creatures is that it clearly gives Wizard’s some comfort in returning some of the older, more powerful spells to us. Sure, we’ve only seen Lightning Bolt and Swords to Ploughshares to date, but how far away can Counterspell or Stone Rain be? If the only way to survive an onslaught of hyper-efficient creatures is through mana denial, spell denial, or highly efficent removal, then it’s going to get printed again.
The only question now is when – and how good will creatures be when they do?