Looking at a Random Card: Guerilla Tactics

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Guerilla Tactics: Not a creature! Woo-hoo!

Those of you who started playing in tournaments when I did (roughly around the time when dinosaurs walked the earth) might remember this card to be a tournament staple. Yes, that was a loooong time ago. In case it isn’t completely obvious: It was designed back then as a foil to discard strategies, especially the ubiquitous Hymn to Tourach – a feared opening back then was Swamp, Dark Ritual, Hymn to Tourach, Demonic Consultation for “Hymn to Tourach”; next turn Swamp, Hymn to Tourach; follow up with a Necropotence to replenish your hand, then play a couple of Strip Mines. Other than a lucky, timely Balance (which was restricted, but legal in standard-precursor “Type 2” then – honestly!) there were very few ways for decks to deal with this.

In the end, Guerilla Tactics wasn’t really solving this issue, although 4 “free” damage against Necropotence decks were certainly helpful, but due to the sheer disruptive power of the Hymn, Tactics were only able to tip the scales when used in Sligh decks (originally designed to combat Necropotence by maximizing damage per mana and turn), which already put a lot of pressure on their opponent’s life total fast, and even then the best draws of the Necro-deck were near unbeatable.

Now, while Hymn is certainly overpowered, the real offender at that time was Necropotence, although R&D refused to realize this for years, even promoting this card to the Fifth Edition core set! (As MaRo, who was on the team responsible for that set, confesses, he was busy at that time rallying against Desert Twister for color pie reasons… still a somehow accurate representation of his ideas about Magic design today!) Discard was being weakened systematically afterwards, with Hymn to Tourach being replaced by Stupor, which would later be replaced by Mind Rot in the core set. (Oh, and when Extended was created, Hypnotic Specter was on the banned list – together with Kird Ape and Juggernaut! – but Necropotence stayed legal in this format for more than 3 years!) For a while, Pox was the strongest discard effect available to players, and when it rotated out of all relevant formats, mass-discard just wasn’t a bogeyman anymore. True, Pox-descendants like Death Cloud and Smallpox still played or play minor roles, but the important lesson is that discard in itself just isn’t powerful enough that it needs to get hosed explicitly. (Oh, and in vintage the once banned Mind Twist, now not even restricted anymore, sees almost no play nowadays!)

For some reason, though, WotC still prints these hosers – Wilt-Leaf Liege and Obstinate Baloth being the newest examples, I believe. So, what I will talk about in this entry is why this kind of hosers is a bad idea.

I differentiate between four kinds of hosers: Safety nets, overcommitment punishers, random hosers and value cards.

Safety nets are simply blunt tools created with the intent to repair anticipated or already materialized mistakes of development. If a single card or a narrow strategy gets out of hand (or seems capable to do so) in a competitive environment, WotC will print cards to specifically combat those. This is how Tsabo’s Web and the goofy-looking Teferi’s Response were created: Rishadan Port was a problem in standard then, and response time of R&D back then was roughly a year… (Note that there was no noticeable decline in the use of Port anyway.) Current examples of safety net cards are Purify the Grave or Memory’s Journey, which are at least embedded in the same block which might cause problems with its graveyard use. What all safety net cards have in common is the following: They only get used if some issue is really pressing. They only serve a purpose when the worst has already happened. Their very existence is a sign that things aren’t or might not be the way they should. In an ideal world, this kind of cards wouldn’t be needed at all.

Overcommitment punishers, however, serve a very important role in Magic. Good decks have focus, and it is good that good decks have focus, because otherwise there would be no clearly distinguishable strategies, making Magic less exciting – different strategies mean more variance in how games play out, and create a certain amount of predictability during a game which also improves gameplay (tactical decisions are meaningless if you cannot predict their outcomes). But too much focus can become an issue – if a deck reliably always does the same thing, so that every game played against it feels the same, the game becomes boring. Also, if a strategy is too focussed on one thing, it becomes harder to interact with it, because a given deck can only dedicate so many slots to interacting with certain strategies (there are many, after all), and if decks cannot rely on being able to interact, they have to resort to a non-interactive racing/trumping strategy themselves, creating a non-interactive environment consisting of strategies focussed on doing their thing faster than the opponent.

This is where overcommitment punishers come into play. They are especially effective in dealing with overly focussed decks. Their best-known sub-category are probably creature sweepers, like Wrath of God or Pyroclasm, but there are also other mass removal spells (Shatterstorm, Back to Nature), a little more subtle ways to deal with an overabundance of permanents (Energy Flux, Ghostly Prison, Price of Progress) and even foils to strategies which aren’t permanent-based (Ethersworn Canonist, Withered Wretch). These cards are essential for healthy environments, allowing decks to deal with a variety of threats using a reasonable amount of slots, and keeping overly focussed decks in check.

Sadly, many hosers fall into the third category, random hosers. These do not just punish people for overcommitting (which they deserve), but for using a certain kind of strategy, effects, permanents, or even colors at all! This is as silly as it is annoying. Ever lost a casual game against a kiddy randomly running Karma? You’re being punished for having Swamps in your deck! That is absurd. The worst offenders here are cards which actually prevent you from doing anything. A single Gaddock Teeg shuts most of your deck down? Okay, at least it is a vulnerable creature. A Stony Silence strands all your equipment and spellbombs on the table? The Abyss won’t let you keep any creatures in play? It can get even worse! You were hit just once by a Stigma Lasher and now your whole deck based on lifegain synergies is defeated, with no way to come back? A simple land like Homeward Path, which absolutely everyone can run, negates all your control effects?

I remember well when MaRo explained why certain color hosers were better designs than others: Cards like Celestial Purge, Flashfreeze or Cryoclasm are played, and they are good, but then the game goes on. Cards like Karma or Choke, however, simply end the game unless answered really soon. Unfortunately, this wisdom is forgotten all too often by R&D (they’re especially prone to do so when designing safety net cards). Random hosers punish players for things which shouldn’t be punished at all. They make the environment more unpredictable, and the outcome of matches more random.

Finally, there’s the value cards. They’re good against certain strategies, but not to an extent which can be considered punishing. The aforementioned examples of well-designed color hosers are value cards: Flashfreeze is a way to optimize your deck when playing against Green or Red – it doesn’t deal a crippling blow or prevent your opponent from playing, it is just an efficient version of a staple effect. Value cards do not need to be sideboard material – River Boa, for example, was a great value card maindecked by Green back in the day, and many creatures with protection also fall into that camp (but those tend to cross over into random hoser territory fast – see Mirran Crusader as an example). In Limited, stuff like Hobble or Electrostatic Bolt falls into this category.

To sum it up: Value cards are okay, because they are not unfair and allow players to optimize their decks against an expected field. Overcommitment punishers are important, because they preserve interaction and punish approaches which deserve to be punished. Safety net cards are plasters for festering wounds. Random hosers are bad design, making the game more random and frustrating players using perfectly acceptable deck designs.

So, we’re finally there: Guerilla Tactics is somewhere between a value card and a random hoser. Discard isn’t popular among casual players, but it is nowhere near to being so powerful that it needs to be specifically hosed at all, so the Tactics doesn’t qualify as an overcommitment punisher. (But – if you payed attention! – it started out as a safety net card.)

In constructed, I dislike discard punishers strongly, because they make games too swingy. There’s nothing wrong with a player using Smallpox or Mind Rot level discard effects, and he doesn’t deserve to be punished that severely if an opponent just happens to have two or even three Guerilla Tactics in hand. Still, the Tactics is certainly not as bad as the likes of Sand Golem, Wilt-Leaf Cavalier and Obstinate Baloth.

In limited, a one-shot effect isn’t as bad. A single Guerilla Tactics will always function as a value card. The creatures, however, will generate too much of a tempo advantage, especially since they are clearly above average creature quality. No one deserves to catch a 5/5 Golem with his second turn Ravenous Rats! I wouldn’t use even the Tactics, though, since I do not want to negatively incentivize people with respect to playing discard – it is one of the defining strengths of Black. Also, while Guerilla Tactics is not exactly neck-breaking, its presence in an environment will create situations where a player refrains from casting his Mind Rot or Liliana’s Specter out of fear of losing his best creature. That is not a dynamic I like.

In the end, Guerilla Tactics can be an acceptable element in a constructed environment, but isn’t really needed if that environment is healthy overall, and it is a slightly undesirable element in limited environments. Also, it is by nature swingy. All in all, that translates into a grade of D-.

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