Looking at a Random Card: Manabarbs
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Manabarbs: Gatherer has rehabilitated itself now, I guess, with the third non-creature in a row, although the distribution overall is still extremely skewed towards creatures.
Essentially, this enchantment from the original Magic set serves three different functions, one of which I do not doubt was Richard Garfield’s clear intent, and two where I’m not entirely sure.
Starting with the first: I have no doubt that Manabarbs was designed as a solution in Red to deal with Circle of Protection: Red. Somewhere in the long and tangled timeline of rules changes this didn’t quite work the way it should by allowing a player to prevent all damage from the Barbs with one activation of the Circle, if he tapped all his lands in the same “batch” – or whatever this was called back then – but the original functionality of Manabarbs has long since been restored. Well, actually that isn’t entirely true: Under pre-Classic rules, it wasn’t possible to use the Circle in advance, meaning that dropping the Barbs before combat guaranteed damage that turn, while today the opponent can response with activations of the Circle to Manabarbs being played, buying another turn of protection, so the Barbs have actually been weakened a bit.
It was like that: Red was not allowed (and still isn’t), due to color pie considerations, to deal with enchantments directly. Flashfires helped against heavily white decks, but since the Circle was an easy (and widely used) splash, it was a perfect foil to red decks. To beat it, red players had essentially three options: Splash another color (White for Disenchant, Green for Tranquility or Blue for Sleight of Mind were the most-used options), use artifacts (the best solution was probably Chaos Orb – yes, Chaos Orb! – but Nevinyrral’s Disk and Winter Orb also helped), or play Manabarbs. While the circle wasn’t totally useless with the Barbs in play, it was obviously unable to stop the bleeding from an aggressive red deck unless non-land mana was available.
It’s funny, but I just talked about the different kinds of hosers when I had a look at Guerilla Tactics! Manabarbs was one of the first safety net cards, due to the realization that the Circles were overpowered, unfair and frustrating to play against, so Garfield made sure that every color had answers to them (White and Green did it best with Disenchant and Tranquility, Blue could use Sleight of Mind, and Black was given an extremely obvious case of a color hoser tailored for helping against Circles: Gloom.) Of course, looking back from today’s perspective it would have been a much better idea not to make these terribly annoying and frustrating Circles at all, but for many years constructed metagames revolved around the inability of Red and Black to deal with them, resulting in Splashes for White mainly motivated by the desire to run Disenchant all around, as well as making Nevinyrral’s Disk even more ubiquitous than it would have been otherwise.
The second function of Manabarbs is, again, the same I already explained when discussing Rain of Tears: To punish slow, expensive decks by giving fast decks pulling ahead in lifepoints as well as with battlefield presence a weapon to end the fight fast. But a punisher card can do too good a job! Manabarbs were a major threat back then, although somehow kept in check by the widespread use of artifact mana and the omnipresence of Disenchant and Nevinyrral’s Disk. A curious thing has happened since then, though: Although the Barbs are available in standard once again, they’re a fringe card at best! To be fair, I honestly believe they’re underplayed at the moment, but there is an objective reason why this enchantment goes largely unnoticed by the competitive community today, and that reason is, once again: power creep. See, back in the day, if you spent 4 mana on the Barbs, the biggest threat you could expect your opponent to throw down was an Erhnam Djinn or Serra Angel. Compare this to the power level of creatures today, but even more to the planeswalkers you get (and whose abilities, incidentally, do not require mana costs to be activated)! It is not just that your opponent’s play, even if it costs him 4 or 5 life due to the Barbs, might just outclass your enchantment; it is not just that there are a number of non-red decks in the metagame fast enough to overrun even defenses fortified by planeswalkers (against which you are certainly in the wrong position to play Manabarbs); it is also that you have even stronger options available yourself (Hero of Oxid Ridge, Koth of the Hammer)! I still believe that Manabarbs are an underappreciated sideboard card today, but the times when red decks would automatically bring them in against control decks (or even maindeck them) and just win if they weren’t immediately dealt with (which would today mean getting countered by Mana Leak or Negate, or – less efficient – exiled via Oblivion Ring) are over. For now, at least.
The third application of Manabarbs is kinda obvious: Put them in a deck which doesn’t need to tap lands for mana much, breaking their symmetry even more than with just playing a cheaper, faster deck. Creature mana, artifact mana, stuff like Dark Ritual or Braid of Fire, or maybe just running Tinder Wall and Orcish Lumberjack: There are ways to build a deck around Manabarbs in a combo-ish approach (although most people use the term “combo” in a much stricter sense of the word).
To summarize, Manabarbs are either used as a solution to grave problems in a constructed environment, pose such a problem themselves, or are being outclassed. From the viewpoint of a metagame analyst and deckbuilder, they are a really interesting option, doing something unique and powerful with a substantial risk to yourself added, but when you look at the gameplay they foster, they simply play horribly, either ending the game right away or slowing it down to an awkward crawl. The goal of giving fast decks some kind of inevitability as a reward for focussing on the early game is noble, but designs closer to Sulfuric Vortex or Everlasting Torment are preferrable. Regarding the combo approach: Since I value interaction and meaningful decisions in gameplay, I obviously do not like any strategy which makes games come down to a single card. I respect the creativity of this design, I applaud the goal to give fast decks a weapon against slow decks, and I value symmetrical cards challenging players to break their symmetry, but I consider Manabarbs to be a failure in constructed.
In limited, they are even worse, of course, because here you really cannot expect players to be able to deal with them, and because you do not even have to run a much faster deck than your opponent to capitalize on them – just dropping them when you’re ahead will usually suffice (although that can backfire, but a bomb which sometimes backfires doesn’t make for better gameplay (nor for a convincing metapher)). Analogous to Deathgrip, which is a design very similar to Manabarbs in many respects, this card barely gets upgraded because its inclusion can be the lesser evil in some constructed environments (in other words, I’m honoring its good, but misguided intention), and since it isn’t quite as bad as Deathgrip (not hosing decks quite as randomly or completely as Deathgrip, and also being maindeckable and thus allowing for creative deckbuilding), this means it is getting an E-.