Looking at a Random Card: Riptide Survivor
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Riptide Survivor: (The non-creatures will come. They will. We just need to have faith.) This is a creature with the morph ability, and thus, to discuss its merits, I will have to mostly talk about that ability.
I’m a bit torn about morph. For one thing, I love utility creatures, and I love creatures giving you additional value if you’re patient, and especially if they encourage you to create situations where you can maximize that extra value. This is, incidentally, the true reason why the loss of combat damage going on the stack hurt the game so much: It was not just about weakening a large number of existing cards with perfectly reasonable power level to the point where they became unappealing for casual and even limited. It was certainly never at all about taking advantage of beginning players not understanding how the stack works (as WotC propaganda made many people believe). It was about the loss of an incentive to create situations where you would be able to take full advantage of a creature’s double usage. The threat of being able to garner card advantage with Sakura-Tribe Elder influenced both players’ decisions strongly. Nowadays, it is essentially the decision of one player if he prefers to deal combat damage or search for a land (not too hard a decision most of the times).
Creatures with morph still allow for this kind of play, luring you into waiting for a time to maximize their value which might never come, rewarding players with the strategic understanding to know when a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, and when it pays off to be patient. They also enable the use of metaskills like bluffing and reading an opponent. Furthermore, they often can adapt to the stage of the game by getting more powerful in the lategame, when mana to turn them up becomes available, presenting their caster with yet another choice to make (spend more mana overall and at two times, but have a mystery creature in play early, or only pay their normal mana cost, but later?) Finally, they help alleviating the issue of a shaky manabase, meaning that drafters can postpone the decision which colors to draft just a little longer (leading to more fundamental decisions), since there are a few more playables around for everyone in an environment featuring morph.
On the flipside, you can’t just put a handful of creatures with morph into an environment (well, you CAN, but obviously this defeats their purpose) – they need a critical mass to work the way they’re supposed to. (You can get away with fewer morph creatures if you restrict them to fewer colors, though.) Also, while bluffing and reading an opponent makes the game more interesting, creatures with morph tend to force you to guess what kind of effect they might have without giving you enough information, and then often punish you harshly for a wrong guess. That doesn’t make for good gameplay and can be frustrating. My biggest concern, however, is a more subtle effect they have on an environment: They foster slow, yet tempo-oriented environments (just like Onslaught block limited), where a player who gets behind has a really hard time to catch up. The reason for this is that the effective mana curve of spells and abilities in such an environment inevitably bulges at three mana. In Onslaught block, that issue was magnified because there were, additionally, many creatures without morph costing three mana, as well as spells and even morph costs. Such an environment plays unpleasantly tenaciously, often effectively reducing gameplay to alternately do one thing per turn, typically affecting the board in similar manners. (This led to Glory Seeker becoming a surprisingly early pick back then.)
The last issue can be alleviated, however, by consciously avoiding mana costs of three with your other spells and abilities in the environment (meaning to put in many which cost one or two, and a few which cost more but have satisfyingly stronger effects). (Trust me, an environment where your starting hand will typically be 2 Island, a Phantom Warrior, a Divination and three creatures with morph will NOT be much fun to play in!) The first issue, of course, just means that you have to consciously decide to include morph in your cube, and to design that cube in a way that it works well. The second, however, is a little annoying, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. Oh, I just realize I forgot to mention another issue: The logistics of proving that you were actually allowed to play a card facedown, and of keeping different facedown cards identifiable at all times are also some minor inconvenience, but in contrast to the double-faced-cards, one can live with this. Still, morph always feels to me a little as if a really satisfactory solution how to implement it wasn’t quite found and the search for it given up due to time constraints.
In the end it comes down to this: Creatures with morph are an interesting and largely unique tool for a cube-builder. So what about Riptide Survivor specifically? Well, it possesses a very desirable effect in limited. Of the two broad categories of creatures with morph, it does not fall into the one where the facedown creature later transforms into something more powerful, but into the one which has a one-shot spell effect tacked onto a mediocre creature. That actually takes away a little from the advantages of morph, because in Blue most interesting creatures featuring that mechanic fall into that camp, making it a little easier for an opponent to decide how to deal with your facedown creatures if you’re running islands. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the Survivor itself, just that it would play better if Blue had a few more creatures becoming noticeably bigger when turned up.
That concern aside, Riptide Survivor fulfills its intended function admirably. Together with Fathon Seer, it provides card draw tied to the morph mechanic in Blue (just as you’d expect), with both creatures playing reasonably differently. It also adds a little tension, because Players of Blue tend to keep reactive spells in their hands, but to take full advantage of the Survivor, you want to empty your hand. Also, it features the very useful wizard creature type, as well as the less useful (as I already explained a number of times, due to its widespread and often hidden existence in earlier sets) human type.
For constructed purposes, however, it is just too unwieldy, like the vast majority of creatures with morph. Also, in constructed, even if you use such a creature, its mystery will usually not manifest, since there is such a small number of creatures with morph people will actually play, and since the exact nature of a facedown creature will most of the time not even change the way you’re going to interact with it there.
When I add everything up, I get to an overall grade of C for this card – fine, but not great and (due to morph’s features in general) a little unwieldy in limited; not cutting the mustard, but at least not causing any problems in constructed.