“Islands are the best cards in Magic”
I learned this truth very early in my Magic career. As a beginner it makes little sense—it’s a basic land. What are you on about?
Then you learn that lands are pretty important, without land you can do none of the more interesting things. The traditional deckbuilding error made by casual players all around the world is playing about 10 lands fewer than they need to.
But why Islands? Other lands are pretty cool.
Random fact: did you know that 8 of the 29 banned cards in Modern are lands?
After you have been playing Magic for a little while and seen Standard formats rotate and evolve, you notice a trend. To start with, there are lots of aggro/mid-range decks—people are quick to evaluate the best creatures from the new set and combine them with the creatures of old. Once they have seen where everything is heading, the blue mages come out of their hiding places and make the one deck to rule them all.
My Magic memory is pretty short, but in that time I can remember the following decks that I felt dominated in their time:
Delver (UW), Caw-Blade (UW), Valakut (RG), Jund (RBG), Faries (UB)
I enlisted help to delve (no pun intended) further back in time:
Lark Combo (UWR), Pickles (UW), Dragonstorm (UR), Owling Mine (UR), Affinity (colorless but often included blue for Thoughtcast)
I am sure the list will cause arguments, and cries of, “but what about this one?” However, I think my point has been made. When asked to recall old, dominating Standard decks (in the modern era), we ended up with a list of ten—eight of which contain Islands.
Oh right, Islands.
If you look past Standard and into the Eternal formats, you will see a whole archipelago. Brainstorm is easily the best card, and unless you are doing something very specific, your list will start with four copies of it and some nice blue-producing dual lands.
Given time in a given format, it seems a deck with Islands will emerge as the strongest contender.
“Blue is the best color”
This is another fact I learned, and later accepted, as part of my Magic training. Recently I have taken to considering why.
It is because of what blue gets to do as a colour. A powerful combination of card draw/selection plus permission.
Mana Leak, Cryptic Command, and Force of Will all dominated in their time/format. While permission always allows the blue deck to keep others under their thumb, it is not where blue’s true power lies.
I have played a lot of different (non-Magic) games in my time. They taught me many universal truths in gaming. When I came to Magic I immediately recognised the value of planeswalkers in Limited, because they are essentially an extra action. This also holds true for effects like cascade. Extra actions are always good. Even if, in the case of using the Fool in Gnostica, they are random (bonus points if you have heard of Gnostica!).
The biggest universal truth I have learned about card-based games is that more cards are good! If I have more cards, I have more choices, and with more choices I will probably have better choices than my opponent. I rather like beating my opponent.
As many of you know, I was introduced to Magic by Duals of the Planeswalkers on the Xbox 360. Many of the decks in the early version are mono-colored and are very archetypal for their colour. The green deck plays big creatures while white gains life etc. Now, the blue deck is really hard to win with. It mostly contains some bad permission and tiny fliers. You basically lose to a resolved creature, as it’s better than yours and you can’t handle it.
Interestingly, I left the computerised world for the paper-based world with the impression blue sucks. What the Xbox game failed to capitalise on is that blue can buddy up with whoever it likes to make up for its shortcomings. Need a sweeper? Join white! Need spot removal? Go black and never go back! Need fast mana? Join red!
Sure, any colours can join up, but when they buddy up with blue, fixing colors and finding the right tools is easier when you are simply drawing more cards than your opponent.
Wow! I can already feel the trolls breathing down the back of my deck: “You are teaching us about BLUE?! We know what blue does! You are the worst writer ever.” I’m going somewhere with this, but without context we might not end up where I want us to.
So, blue is pretty good because of what it gets. But there is one, last, scary aspect of blue we have not yet considered.
And we have arrived at the heart of the problem. Card draw is good. When Magic was first printed no one understood this. Hence Ancestral Recall. This lesson has been learned. Now the same effect costs a lot more, e.g. Jace’s Ingenuity.
Finding the card you want is really powerful. Sometimes you have only one remaining out in your deck. Imagine if you could go get it for a bargain price of 1B or even just B. These effects are so good that they are banned (or restricted) in the eternal formats.
Tutors also had to become more expensive. Now we have the delightfully unplayable Diabolic Tutor. If you need reminding of how good tutors are, then you have forgotten WotC’s recent attempt at one. Stoneforge Mystic may have been a really restricted tutor, but give any tutor a good enough card to fetch, and it will immediately become too powerful.
Tutors are now too expensive for play, so what’s the next best thing to tutoring the specific card you want? Filtering through your deck to find the cards you want, and not draw the things you don’t.
Magic has a random element attached to it. Namely, the order of your library. Imagine if you were able to fix some part of that. Maybe if you got to rearrange the order of cards occasionally, it would really smooth out your draws. You could hit that land draw, find that answer or simply find a relevant threat.
I think that sort of effect would be pretty sweet. My goodness, what if you got a draw a card as well? I mean getting to draw a card normally costs a single mana or so (take for example Visions of Beyond), so this effect should probably be at least 1U or even 2U.
When you think of it out of context, you realise just how powerful card selection is and that, at the moment, it is somewhat undercosted.
Did you know the equivalent to Ponder in Yu-Gi-Oh cost, at its peak, $150?
I’m not writing this article as a “yeah, let’s ban Ponder” campaign. That decision has a) already been made, one way or the other and b) not going to be influenced by what is written here. Instead I hope to open some eyes as to the problem with blue. Card selection is being incorrectly costed, and this needs correcting unless we want to see more mid-season bans.
One last concern I must cover is that, traditionally, Blue had less than stellar creatures. That made up, at least in part, for it’s domination on most other fronts. Recently blue also seems to be getting very good creatures. Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage are both just amazing, and really aggressively costed. This trend needs to stop if we want a healthy, multicolored game to continue.
I am bored of blue.
I would not like to feel this inevitability at the start of every new Standard season, that we will soon be lost in an ocean dotted with small Islands that all look the same.
Making card selection a more expensive ability and controlling the power of blue’s creatures will help, but the other thing that can help is you.
With so much readily available information, the average Magic players have become lazy. We are dry sponges absorbing every article, every Top 8 decklist, every MTGO Daily Event. We also have the Pros telling us what we should be play, what is best, and what will win us that glory.
Gerry Thompson won with Delver-Blade. He and countless other famous writers wrote about how it was the best possible deck in the format, and how playing anything else is wrong. Takes a lot of guts (or not reading articles) to turn up at a tournament with anything else after hearing that. The trouble with tournaments, especially big ones, is that they don’t happen very often. Do you want to risk your list or just play the proscribed “best deck”?
I am exactly the same. I want to win. I don’t go to a tournament for any other reason. Yes, I enjoy seeing old friends and meeting new people but I go to win. For that reason I took Delver-Blade to a PTQ. I went 2-4 drop. The next day I won the WMCQ with my Unicorns.
We are living in a self-fulling prophecy in Standard right now. “Delver is the best deck.” There are multiple copies in every Top 8. Well, I’m sure if 50% of the field was anything, we’d see a lot of it in the Top 8. I’m much more interested in the other lists that get to the Top 8. They have probably played against Delver all day. It can’t exactly be a bad matchup for them. I wish I could have access to individual matchup breakdowns, but I’m not sure anyone even has that data at the moment.
If we all continue to play Delver, then Delver will continue to put in impressive numbers.
Maybe Delver is the best deck. I believe it is a powerful combination of cards that is difficult to beat. However, while Delver is all we play, nothing will change. Think about it, and consider sleeving up something different next weekend. See you next week @onionpixie.