Looking at a Random Card: Embersmith
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Embersmith: This is the newest card I’ve been reviewing so far, from Scars of Mirrodin. If you look at the big picture, card design has certainly improved over the years. Although I have issues with a number of decisions R&D has made to take card design into certain directions (rewarding non-interactive play being the greatest offender), in general the quality of design has gone up a lot, especially if you measure it by the average of single cards’ quality scores. Unnecessarily complicated designs are usually a thing of the past, the number of unplayables has been reduced vastly (so much so that players nowadays tend to use the term “unplayable” wrongly, referring to cards they don’t want to have in their decks), and narrow cards which only make sense in a very specific environment (called “parasitic” in R&D slang), while still existing, are carefully watched to not get out of hand numberwise (like in Kamigawa block, for example).
Embersmith stems from the (as of now, of course) most modern era of card design, where looking at the commons and uncommons of a new set tends to elicit the following reaction from me for most cards: Nice design! I can use this card for my limited pool! Afterwards it usually takes a couple of weeks then for me to realize that in many cases, while I certainly could use that card, I don’t actually need to, because it competes with several others already existing ones fulfilling an almost identical function. Still, in early Magic sets there is a large number of cards which fail to capture my interest at all, and also it seems that, the newer a card is, the more likely it proves to be able to push older competition aside on the merits of being more elegant, playing more interestingly, or possessing a more satisfying power level.
To include the cycle of smiths from Scars in my limited pool was a no-brainer. They are very useful, but not overpowered cards giving out synergetic rewards, always playable even if that synergy fails to materialize, and of low cost. The last point is important to me, because I try to build my environments in such a way that their composition roughly matches the composition of decent draft decks, combatting the overabundance of more expensive spells which sets still tend to have (and which leads, consequently, to a dearth of cheaper spells to fill out mana curves). I do this not only because I question the point in making lower cost spells scarce to teach drafters to snap them up quickly time and time again, but also because my favorite draft format, two-thirds-draft, just doesn’t leave that much room for superfluous, mediocre higher-costed spells to be left over – drafters have to make use of a large portion of the packs, which means that there is no room in those packs for cards they cannot use (okay, a little, but I also want drafters to be able to make meaningful decisions). For this reason, I need both my cubes and my limited pool in general to contain a larger number of cheaper spells than that found in Magic sets, and thus value them extra highly.
While it is an excellent limited card, I’m not sure if Embersmith ever had or will have (it’s still standard-legal for almost a year) any notable impact on constructed. I do well remember times when a card like this was almost certain to find a niche in some deck, but times have changed, and Embersmith is harmed by the power creep of later years doubly: Not only has the competition generally become harder, but the ubiquity of cards threatening to win a game all by themselves has upped the stakes for decks relying on combatting single card power with synergy. I want to make clear, though, that this isn’t the fault of the likes of Embersmith; the fault lies with power creep having gotten out of hand (although, probably, on purpose) since the induction of planeswalkers. Magic is a better game when it is about synergies and the slow accumulation of incremental advantages than about game-winning card combinations and single power cards.
Still, I cannot give the smith an A for constructed purposes, if it has not actually proven its value there, but I will honor it for being a perfect fit in a hypothetical perfect constructed environment with a B. In limited, there are a few minor points preventing it from getting an A: That it doesn’t fit in every possible environment is not one of them – it is flexible enough to be of use with few artifacts available (becoming a card valued very differently by different drafters, while always being playable, which is great), as well as with an environment chock-full of artifacts (being a very high pick there, leading drafters into Red), and serving no useful function in an almost artifact-free environment is certainly not a strike against it. It can, however, be slightly oppressive in a low-powered environment (a bit like Sparksmith was in Onslaught, although certainly not nearly as bad), and it bears two stupid creature types (humans just being too widespread and hidden on older cards, if you want to mix sets in your cubes; and artificer being of no consequence at all). Oh, and it’s a pity that it doesn’t work with artifact lands!
Overall, there’s just a little missing to get that elusive A or even A-, but Embersmith is still one of the best designs around, and I reward it with a B+.