Looking at a Random Card: Conundrum Sphinx
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Conundrum Sphinx: That is 12 creatures versus 2 non-creatures now… Very slowly, there is actually creeping doubt into my mind that the random card feature of Gatherer is really random. But what sense would it make to weight it towards creatures? It’s a riddle wrapped in a conundrum inside an enigma!
About the Sphinx: I’m really torn here about one thing, and that is its place in the power level curve. On one hand, Air Elemental stats have not nearly been competitive in constructed for many, many years (around christmas 1996, one of the best decks in then-called “Type 2” – Big Blue – actually used Air Elemental, but that was when this format had the smallest card pool ever), and 4/4 flyers costing more than 4 mana, even if they have an additional, moderately useful ability like Serra Angel does (once removed from the base set because it was “clearly over the curve”!), just do not stand a chance anymore. On the other hand, in limited environments Air Elemental is a reasonably powerful card which I do not like to see obsoleted, and even 4/4 flyers for 4 mana have proven to not be competitive in constructed anymore!
That is a general issue of Magic design, though, due to the direction it has taken over the last years: While a card like Conundrum Sphinx would have been considered UNREAL in 1996, nowadays just being big and having evasion simply isn’t enough to pay 4 mana for – today, 4-mana cards are required to have the game spin completely out of control if not answered immediately. (I don’t think it is a coincidence that this reads like the job description for a planeswalker card!) Now, let me be clear here: I certainly do not want Magic to return to the times when even Green, the supposedly best creature color, had to seriously consider running Nettletooth Djinn if it wanted a big creature, and when Erhnam Djinn stood head over shoulders over all other creatures and was splashed in nearly every kind of deck. But I really hate the path constructed Magic has taken lastly, to the point where it consists mainly of cards which get either answered or trumped immediately or win you the game. 4-6 mana should still be a place for creatures which are just good at attacking and blocking. Serra Angel or Shivan Dragon were strong back in the day, but they didn’t immediately invalidate an opponent’s strategy in the way that Baneslayer Angel or Primeval Titan usually do.
Conundrum Sphinx is three things at the same time: First, it was a concession from WotC that 4/4 flyers for 5 mana just didn’t cut it anymore, even in Blue, which is supposed to be a lot behind in creature quality of White and a little behind of Black. Second, it was a pathetic attempt to veil this concession by giving the Sphinx a complicated and irritating, but in the end mostly irrelevant extra ability. Third, it was a failure, because the game was already beyond even the 4/4 flyer for 4 mana.
In the end, what it comes down to, is the following: A card too weak for constructed, overpowered in limited, and generally unnecessarily confusing due to an ability which is always keeping players busy, but seldom achieving anything. Ladies and Gentlemen, that is a prime example of (presumably) well-intended design gone wrong! There’s at least one upside, though: In the uncharted realms of casual stretching somewhere in between limited and constructed play (as far as power level is concerned), it CAN be fun to play, provided that the specific environment it is used in matches its power level roughly. Also, some players will actually enjoy this guessing game, although the Sphinx’s ability will certainly be maximized by its owner by making use of the likes of Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top, or at least by using a monocolored deck in a multicolored environment (guessing “Island” every time, of course).
I find it quite tricky to rate the Sphinx. Yes, it is too weak for constructed, but that is really not its fault. Yes, it is overpowered in limited, but it isn’t totally ruining games like Bloodline Keeper, for example, does. Yes, it has an unnecessary and confusing ability, but some people will actually enjoy that. It ends up getting a D, but due to completely other reasons than Gang of Elk did: It is not “boring and unnecessary, but useful” – it is interesting and intended to fulfill an important function, but it just doesn’t really fit anywhere, trying to be a solution to an issue which cannot be solved by a single card. It would get upgraded for being a nice casual card for some players, but at the same time downgraded for being unnecessarily and annoyingly complicated for others. Thus, the simple D.