Looking at a Random Card: Crimson Kobolds
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Crimson Kobolds: OK, finally a card in another color, although it is a creature again. Note that if we choose to ignore the existence of Rohgahh of Kher Keep (a good choice), everything that’s true for this card is also true for Crookshank Kobolds and Kobolds of Kher Keep.
Now, what can be said about a creature which is worse than Ornithopter? The first thing coming to my mind is the surprising metamorphosis Ornithopter underwent from being so weak it was used for a joke in the old rulebooks to becoming a constructed tournament staple (and not just in standard)! How did that happen? And could it have happened to the Kobolds as well?
Generally, absolutely every card, no matter how bad otherwise, can become a scourge in constructed if it works well enough with other cards. Yes, even Sorrow’s Path: Just print another card with the ability: “Reveal your hand. If you reveal a card named Sorrow’s Path, you win the game.” See? Easy!
Of course, when you try to assess how likely it is that a seemingly useless card will someday become usable, you’ll want to restrict your thoughts to things which could reasonably happen. So let’s analyze Ornithopter a bit, even if this entry isn’t about it: Its unlikely ascension happened due to three factors: It costs no mana, it is an artifact, and it is a creature with evasion. We see that the Kobolds have one identical and one similar quality: They cost no mana, and they’re red (quite possibly in a future context as useful as being an artifact). Is this enough to hope they could ever be useful?
Now, when the 0-mana kobolds came out in Legends, that set already provided an intended way to use them in the form of tribal enhancers: Kobold Drill Sergeant, Kobold Overlord, and the only one which actually raised their power above zero, Kobold Taskmaster. You could then throw in a few Orcish Oriflamme and had the basis for a terrible deck.
Casual players found other ways to use them. I remember playing against a deck based on kobolds, Howling Mine, Concordant Crossroads and Marten Stromgald. Also, they could work in a combo deck, for example with Enduring Renewal and Goblin Bombardment (although the 0-mana creature of choice was Shield Sphere then, since the Kobolds were not only weaker in that deck, but also not legal in the format known as “type 2” back then).
There is a recurring theme here: This 0-power creature is just not worth a card, unless you build your whole deck around it to take advantage of its lowest possible cost. We’ll keep that in mind, since in limited environments a card which relies that heavily on support from specific other cards will always play badly.
However, there is a difference between requiring a whole deck built around a card and requiring to be used as part of a synergetic deck. The Marton Stromgald deck, for example, simply didn’t do anything without that legend. The Enduring Renewal / Goblin Bombardment combo was totally helpless without either of those enchantments. Even the kobold tribal deck, although already bad enough that it wasn’t a stretch to proclaim it didn’t work at all anyways, fell completely apart if you removed its Taskmasters.
Decks with Ornithopter or Memnite, on the other hand, were a lot more robust. I believe we all know how many cards from the original affinity design were banned and still left that archetype eminently playable in various format. The Tempered Steel archetype would probably not be viable if it were not allowed to play its namesake at all, but it can still put quite some pressure on if it doesn’t draw that enchantment or if it’s being removed.
There’s a line between those cards requring synergy to work, and those which require specific other cards, and it is drawn between Memnite and Ornithopter on one side and the kobolds and Phyrexian Walker on the other. The difference is actually quite easy to see: A creature needs either a power of at least 1 or an evasion ability to be worth a card in an aggressive deck (I avoid talking about Shield Sphere here, which can find use as a defensive card). Memnite can still contribute to an attack even if not enhanced at all if the board’s otherwise empty, and a Signal Pest or Contested Warzone is enough to turn it into a decent threat. Ornithopter just needs a Cranial Plating (or the more humble Bonesplitter) to bring on the beats. None of this is true for Crimson Kobolds: Without enhancers, they’re useless to your offense, and even if you enhance their power they aren’t nearly as effective as the flying Ornithopter.
Now, how do these insights relate to my evaluation of this creature? Cards requiring you to draft or build synergistic decks are great! They encourage a diverse environment and reward strategical understanding. But cards requiring a pure combo approach are bad in both limited and constructed environments, since no matter how reliable a combo works, it reduces games to the question “Can you deal with this card immediately or not?”, making everything else happening unimportant and greatly increasing the luck factor. Cards with a mana cost of zero are especially prone to this, often suffering from what I call the “Phyrexian Dreadnaught syndrome”: An extreme quality they possess makes them oscillate between useless and broken, depending on the specifics of a metagame or even the exact rulings about them. Thus I’m extra weary of free spells (even more than the designers at R&D), although I concede that costing no mana is about the only reasonable way to make creatures with certain stats interesting.
Crimson Kobolds are a design failure, the remote possibility that one day there could be a combo deck using them nonwithstanding. They’re blanks in any reasonable limited environment and suffer from Phyrexian Dreadnought syndrome in constructed. I agree they’re kinda cute flavorwise. All in all, I give them an E (they avoid an F since they’re not actually ruining the game in any way and are unlikely to do so in the future.)