Looking at a Random Card: Foul Imp
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Fowl Play: No, I’m not talking about Un-cards here. Next!
Foul Imp: From “Fowl” to “Foul”? Really?
This card hails from a time when creatures had a lot more often clearly apparent disadvantages to make up for advantages or just for “being over the curve”. These creatures still exist, and actually are seeing a major resurgence right now with Innistrad, playing into its horror themes, but overall cards tend to be a lot more often “all-upside” today than in the era of Lord of Atlantis, Crusade, Erhnam Djinn and Flame Rift.
I will nickname these critters “tradeoff creatures”, and go on record saying that they are an excellent addition to Magic! Tradeoff creatures force drafters and deckbuilders to make choices and develop their game plan accordingly. By this I don’t mean that to use Erhnam Djinn, you should look for a way to cast it without forests in your deck (although that was possible and often done back in the day), but that you should not play to stay on the defense too long if you run the Djinn. Foul Imp, on the other hand, will at least in limited be probably included in any deck comfortable with its double-B mana cost – but, then again, there is probably an upper limit somewhere how many cards of this type you want to run, unless you play to be the aggressor in most games, or have reliable and efficient ways to replenish your life total. (One lesson players learned in Ninth Edition sealed was that a Phyrexian Arena, even when cast early and drawing them 7 or so extra cards, could kill them!) Even if a creature of this kind is an autoinclude if valued correctly, it still requires players to value it correctly. Understanding that life points are a resource which can profitably be exchanged for battlefield presence paves the way for a deeper understanding of the game’s strategy, and realizing that there are situations where you want to draft Foul Imp higher than, say, Cackling Imp, but also situations where it is the other way around requires a certain amount of expertise, rewarding skill. Tradeoff creatures give players an additional axis to adjust their preferences while formulating their strategy.
I haven’t mentioned the flavor of a card in a while, since nothing has come up which impressed me either way, but tradeoff creatures in general are flavorful. While mostly used to underscore the flavor of certain colors (black creatures are mischievous, red creatures are reckless, blue creatures are fragile…), they remind players, that they can be summoned (yup, that’s the old term), directed and mostly controlled, but are still separate beings, not just a manifestation of a planeswalker’s will. You want a cat? You can have a cat, but it will push down vases, leave its hairs in your bed and vomit on your carpet! You have to take the good and the bad. A creature’s disadvantages express its individuality much better than additional advantages. Thus, for flavor reasons I will always think about upgrading a tradeoff creature’s mark a bit. (That said, the original flavor text of the Imp is just stupid, not funny.)
Foul Imp resides in a spot on the power level curve where it can see constructed play if circumstances allow it (there needs to be a place in the metagame for a fast, mainly black deck reducing its own life total, and the Imp must not be outclassed by other options), but this is rather improbable today, since creatures have become so much more efficient. While I always say I don’t hold well-designed cards responsible for becoming obsoleted in today’s constructed environments, where creatures and especially planeswalkers are just too strong, Foul Imp never was really pushing it even under old standards – it could easily have been a 3/2 without breaking anything and still not be a contender in modern environments.
In limited, I have a different issue with the Imp: I don’t feel its unwieldy mana cost goes too well with its disadvantage, since that double-B is actually the greater disincentive to play it in a typical environment. As much as a like tradeoff creatures: When you include a card in your deck which requires you to have access to BB on your second turn to fully exploit its potential, you really don’t need to add such a disadvantage to it. It’s still a useful card, but I’d prefer it to either reward you more (as a 3/2) or be more generally useful (like Vampire Interloper). One thing to note, however, is that some environments may allow you to turn that disadvantage into an advantage with the right synergies (with mechanics similar to those on Death’s Shadow). Cards which get better if you have fewer life are still largely unused design space (and the issues early designs had were mostly resolved with the elimination of mana burn).
Overall, Foul Imp is an elegant card, a little underpowered in constructed, a little unwieldy in limited, but still useful and a fine execution of a tradeoff creature. All in all, I give it a C+.