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Breaking Point

Clear back in 1998, a set called Urza’s Saga was dropped on the world. It would wind up being the “big set” of a block full of the most powerful sets ever printed. The Urza Block, as it’s known, would end up driving players away from the game in droves with its degenerate, uninteractive, powerful cards. This would, in turn, be a contributing factor to the total revamping of R&D. Look at it this way: The design team of Urza’s Saga was Mike Elliot, Richard Garfield, Bill Rose, and Mark Rosewater. The development team was Mike Elliot, William Jockusch, Bill Rose, Mark Rosewater, Henry Stern, and Beth Moursund. That means that 75% of the design team was also 50% of the development team, and both teams had less than seven people. That kind of overlap doesn’t exactly allow for outside input.

One of the more egregiously powerful cards in Urza’s Saga was a tweak on an old restricted list standby called [card]Braingeyser[/card]:

[draft]Stroke of Genius[/draft]

[card]Stroke of Genius[/card] didn’t just provide a template for a lot of 1998 jokes about self-love, it gave every Constructed format a new end-step mana sink, and in some cases, a win-condition. In 1998, Stroke of Genius proved to be obnoxiously powerful.

Fast-forward to 2011, a time where creatures are quicker and more efficient than 1998 could’ve ever dreamed of. Games haven’t necessarily sped up, but the way they’re being won is now radically different than it was in the days of Limp Bizkit and Freddie Prinze Jr., so the powers that be decided to tweak Braingeyser—now Mind Spring—a bit further:

[draft]Blue Sun’s Zenith[/draft]

Aside from enjoying brief success as Legacy High Tide’s win condition, Blue Sun Zenith’s existence has been very under-the-radar. During its time in Standard, it was a total non-factor.

Maybe this is why R&D felt so comfortable pushing the template.

[draft]Sphinx’s Revelation[/draft]

Sphinx’s Revelation was spoiled to little fanfare, especially when weighed against some of the other cards spoiled out of Return to Ravnica. Its pre-sale price on SCG was six dollars. It now sells on that very same site for $29.99.

Having just wrapped up the spoiler season of Dragon’s Maze, I’m pleased to report that this season was exactly the same as every other since spoilers have been a thing. All this means is that people got very, very enthusiastic about cards and their evaluations. While this in and of itself isn’t bad—Mark Rosewater said himself that if you create a game that everyone likes but no one loves, it will die—99% of card evaluations tend to flush context right down the drain.

Magic does not exist in a vacuum. Tons of articles have been written on this, but in case you haven’t ever read one, here’s a quick-capsule summary of them:

[card]Sol Ring[/card] is not inherently better than [card]Sisay’s Ring[/card].

Sol Ring only seems like the superior card because of the world you’re placing it in. It is likely that that world doesn’t have a [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] on 1 in it. Granted, Sol Ring is probably the better card an overwhelming percent of the time. The talk of placing cards in “worlds” might seem a little pretentious to you. And it totally should! However, if you want to evaluate cards realistically, context is and will always be a major factor.

That’s why Stroke of Genius was a busted card and Blue Sun’s Zenith was a virtual non-entity.

Which brings us back to Sphinx’s Revelation. When it was spoiled, it was pretty easy to write it off as a multicolored Stroke of Genius variant with lifegain tacked on. Given Blue Sun’s Zenith’s performance in Standard, Sphinx’s Revelation seemed more like an Opportunity // Sacred Nectar split card. That’s a fine card, but again, context—at that point, Standard was believed to be really fast, far too fast to be setting up a Stroke of Genius.

And then Bant Control, a deck featuring a playset of Sphinx’s Revelation, started winning a bunch of tournaments.

Sphinx’s Revelation by itself isn’t good, but by pairing it with [card]Azorius Charm[/card] and [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] to stave off early beat downs, [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] to stabilize, and [card]Thragtusk[/card] to provide much-needed late-game pressure, Sphinx’s Revelation revealed itself to be an efficient way for the Bant Control player to refuel the exact two resources that get so exhausted in the early game against aggressive decks. The absence of countermagic, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of [card]Cavern of Souls[/card], exacerbated Sphinx’s Revelation’s effectiveness.

I’ll put it another way. Being on the other side of a Sphinx’s Revelation for anything greater than or equal to five feels absolutely miserable, especially if you’re playing something aggressive. You’re on your end step, and you have, like, two 2/2s in play or whatever, and your opponent’s at 7. You say go, and they rip off a Sphinx’s Revelation for four in your end step. Now they’re at 11, and, barring some act of God, will be casting Thragtusk in their next main phase. It’s an unpleasant feeling, and it’s not uncommon.

To recap, Sphinx’s Revelation is thriving because it exists in a world with the appropriate support.

[draft]Frontline Medic[/draft]

The two Gatecrash cards that invoked the most indignation were [card]Glaring Spotlight[/card] and [card]Frontline Medic[/card]. The two cards were widely seen as big, stupid, inelegant answers to the big issues in Standard at the time: Bant Hexproof and Sphinx’s Revelation. Frontline Medic’s seemingly tacked-on counterspell ability seems odd, especially when you analyze it within the context of Standard—what the hell else other than Sphinx’s Revelation would I counter with this? [card]Magmaquake[/card]? [card]Diabolic Revelation[/card]? [card]Volcanic Geyser[/card]?

Josh Silvestri touched on this a bit on Tuesday, but it’s still worth mentioning that to the untrained eye it seems like Sphinx’s Revelation is the specific target of a fair number of cards in Dragon’s Maze.

It is easy to discount these cards as nothing but narrow hate for Sphinx’s Revelation. It is especially curious that Council of the Absolute is also Azorius, just like Sphinx’s Revelation itself. Cards aren’t usually printed with the intended function of excelling in a mirror match.

These three cards, along with Frontline Medic and maybe even Skullcrack, beg the question: Is Sphinx’s Revelation a problem?

Let’s go back to us as the aggressive player, watching helplessly as a backbreaking Sphinx’s Revelation for five takes us out of a game completely. It is hard to forget about that. It is even harder to not adjust the lens through which you evaluate cards accordingly. Not that I’m not saying it’s incorrect to tweak your perceptions—it’s just a thing that happens and it’s tough to fight. Evaluating cards through a narrow lens is easy; the narrower the lens you create, the easier it is.

The harder task is to think outside the box for applications. Take the widely-derided [card]Emmara Tandris[/card], for example. Emmara Tandris would not feel out of place in Legends, and that’s not a compliment. However, there is a place where Emmara Tandris is an absolute bomb, and that is Momir Basic. Think about it:

• She’s adequate in combat; right around the top of the bell curve for the average seven-drop.
• All the creatures you control are tokens.
• She’s a seven-drop, which decreases your chances of hitting [card]Phage, the Untouchable[/card] and losing on the spot.

Which brings me to my next point—another factor in how we evaluate cards is that we all have a predilection to look at cards favorably. Again, this isn’t wrong—it’s just how we look at cards. We imagine situations in which the card would excel, and we first look to the situations we’ve lost in when trying to create these scenarios. Victories go largely unaddressed, but we always look to remedy our losses. And if you’ve ever lost to Sphinx’s Revelation (and if you’ve spent some amount of time playing Standard, you have), then you’re going to, however subconsciously, try to apply new data to the losses you’ve incurred. Again, not a bad thing—but when you’re trying to assert that multiple cards are being printed as a specific response to one card, it’s important to be unbiased in your analysis.

It’s also important to apply the same level of scrutiny to cards whose latent function is shutting down Sphinx’s Revelation. I’m talking about cards like [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], cards that challenge the speed and power-level standard in aggressive decks and are thus the natural counterpoint to cards like Sphinx’s Revelation. Cards like these come under considerably less fire from a design standpoint, because ostensibly it’s harder to create cards with a specific latent function. What we find, though, is that there is a cost to printing cards like Sphinx’s Revelation and Thragtusk; you can’t just ratchet up the power level in one archetype without creating a metagame with a low expiration date. Exceptional late-game cards necessitate exceptional aggressive cards. This seems obvious, but enough people have shown frustration about Burning-Tree Emissary’s power level that I think it warrants mentioning.

What I’m saying is that it’s easy to look at a card like Sire of Insanity through a narrow lens. The reality of these cards is that they do actually have wider applications, and they aren’t just narrow bandages. Diverse results across the board, from amateur tournaments to professional ones, indicate that Standard is healthy, and that time applied is rewarded. Hall-of-Famer Frank Karsten, known for his cerebral approach to the game, played a spell-less Naya Blitz deck sans sideboard to a Top 8 finish in the Netherlands WMCQ. I’d like to think that that doesn’t just happen on accident.

Firestarter: A while ago (I’m talking pre-Gatecrash), I suggested on Twitter that Sphinx’s Revelation should have been a sorcery costing UWX. LSV immediately responded with something to the effect of, “that would make it even better than it already is.” I trust his judgment, but he didn’t offer anything to back up his claim. Though, a 140-character limit makes that pretty tough. That said, I still disagree with him. What I’d love for you to do is ignore the two sides making the argument—a hard lock for HoF vs. a guy that’s never Day 2’d a GP—and discuss this by yourselves here. Because I’m not convinced that “UWX (Sorcery): Draw X cards, gain X life” is better than Sphinx’s Revelation, but as always, I’m not ruling out the ever-present possibility of being wrong.

See you next week.

Jon Corpora
pronounced Ca-pora
@feb31st

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