Welcome back to Deep Analysis! I want to apologize for my extended absence. Today, I’m going to write about something that has bothered me about Magic for some time.
This past weekend I was watching Pro Tour Dominaria until it reached the Top 4, then I started some research. How many previous standard Pro Tours have been flooded with creature based aggro decks?
- Pro Tour Dominaria – 6 Aggro decks, 1 Midrange deck, 1 Control deck
- Pro Tour Hour of Devastation – 7 Aggro decks, 1 Midrange deck
- Pro Tour Amonkhet – 3 Aggro decks, 5 Combo decks
- Pro Tour Aether Revolt – 7 Aggro decks, 1 Midrange deck
- Pro Tour Kaladesh – 3 Control decks, 3 Aggro, 1 Aggro Control, and 1 Combo deck
Wizards, I believe we have a problem. There are a lot more aggressive decks in this list than other strategies. So why is that the case?
Shift in Balance
During the first 10 years of Magic, non-creature spells and lands were far more powerful than creatures. Swords to Plowshares, Wrath of God, Balance, Counterspell, Lightning Bolt, Stone Rain, Necropotence, Dark Ritual, Yawgmoth’s Will, etc were just a few of the powerful non-creature spells printed in the early days of the game.
After the first 10 years, design and development came to the conclusion that needed to change.
During the last 10 years of Magic, creature spells are far more powerful than non-creature, non-artifact spells and lands. Creatures have been much more potent, harder to deal with on average, and have higher power / toughness to cost ratio than the cards of the past.
As such, the first 10 years saw a large number of control and combo decks succeed while the last 10 years has seen more aggro and midrange decks succeed.
I’ve enjoyed playing Magic for 22 years. I’ve played my share of strategies from all the major archetypes and crossovers. While I agree that non creatures spells were too strong in the early days, I think the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. It is obvious that R&D is able to craft both ends of the spectrum. Now its time to see if they can craft an environment with a deck of each archetype: Aggro, Control, Combo, Midrange, Ramp, Aggro-Control (Note: Combo is one that is incredible difficult to craft, so I will eschew that one from our discussion.)
How would they do that?
R&D would have to look their design philosophy. My theory is that R&D would need to raise the average power level of non-creatures spells and lower the average power level of creatures spells.
In my early days of playing Magic, Savanna Lions was a rare. This tells you a lot about what R&D thought about powerful creatures. Now it is a common.
Creatures like Benalish Marshal, Goblin Chainwhirler, Bomat Courier, Bristling Hydra, Carnage Tyrant, Steel Leaf Champion, Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Gifted Aetherborn, Jadelight Ranger, Thrashing Brontodon, The Scarab God and Ravenous Chupacabra are just some of the bodies that we face today.
Recently, Wizards has tried to raise the power level of non-creature, non-artifact spells. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Karn, Scion of Urza, Settle the Wreckage, Seal Away, and Vraska’s Contempt have certainly helped but it just isn’t enough which the creature power level continuing to increase as well.
Mass removal has been designed with a higher cost and more restrictions (Settle the Wreckage not withstanding). When creatures are better on average than they were 10 years ago and mass removal is worse on average, control decks suffer.
Now we come to the more oppressive spells; counter magic and land destruction. I’m not sure that even I can advocate to raise the power level of these spells again.
In the early days of Magic, you’d be terrorized by cards like Force of Will, Mana Drain, Counterspell, and Forbid. It was not easy playing against blue at all, nor was it very fun. I can see why they lessened the power level approach to pure control decks.
Land destruction was just as oppressive.
Resource denial strategies have been a cornerstone of many games, but it can be a negative play experience (NPE). Sinkhole cost two black mana and was a common. You could play Dark Ritual to cast it on turn 1. Most of the early land destruction spells usually cost 3 mana (Stone Rain, Ice Storm, Choking Sands, Pillage) and usually could be cast on turn 1 or 2 with Llanowar Elves, Birds of Paradise, or Dark Ritual. Eventually, R&D slowly cut back the number of land destruction spells and increase their cost. While you occasionally see a mana denial strategy in older formats, it doesn’t exist as an archetype in Standard today.
It isn’t just control decks that suffer when non-creature, non-artifact spells are worse. Take a look at ramp spells. Many years ago, Wizards R&D tried to remove many of the good 2 mana ramp spells (like Rampant Growth). It is rare that they print a 2 mana ramp spell that doesn’t have a caveat or drawback (see Thunderherd Migration and Ruin in Their Wake). Most ramp spells now spells that cost 3 or more mana. This reduces their effectiveness in many matchups, usually meaning that the archetype as a whole suffers to the point that it rarely, if ever, is played.
Even if R&D doesn’t raise the power level of some of the more oppressive spells (like counter magic and land destruction), other non-creature, non-artifact spells should be looked at.to return the game to a true balance of the major archetypes.