Looking at a Random Card: Night Soil
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Night Soil: Ah, Fallen Empires… What a bad time to start buying Magic!
Fallen Empires was the most overprinted Magic set ever, because it was printed according to retailers’ preorders, which were incredibly overblown for the following reason: With the previous sets, print runs just couldn’t keep up with demand (Legends was worst, but it was still true for The Dark), leading to allocations from Wizards to each retailer amounting to just a fraction of their pre-orders. Naturally, retailers reacted by placing ever larger pre-orders to get a little more product! But when they actually got that much, the aftermath of this production planning disaster hurt the product Magic in every aspect: Small retailers, who sat on literally hundreds of display boxes they would not be able to sell anytime soon, were forced out of business. Prices plummeted. Collectability of Fallen Empires cards became a joke. That Fallen Empires was, overall, a horribly designed/developed expansion, boasting the weakest set of rares ever (only Homelands may be a contender) without even a single value card standing out, the few really powerful cards from the set being common (and among the moderately powerful cards only the sacrifice lands even uncommon) aggravated this issue even more. Wizards was forced to buy back a significant amount of the set, hurting the young company’s growth (which had been explosive so far). The schedule for the release of new sets slowed down considerably. Probably, the dropping of singles prices from Fallen Empires was even partly responsible for the outcry from retailers when Chronicles came out, leading to maybe the greatest self-admitted mistake Wizards ever made, the creation of the reserved list. Even the newly introduced “Type 2” format (the precursor of standard) would be warped later, reintroducing cards from Fallen Empires for a while, very probably because of complaints of retailers who, two years after the set’s release, STILL had vast quantities of boosters from this expansion in stock.
Fallen Empires cards were everywhere, especially the commons, and it was much easier to collect playsets of each illustration (all commons had three or four different ones) than playsets of commons from that expansion’s precursor, The Dark. You really could get sick at the sight of Fallen Empires back then, and the often campy art could only make it worse!
These are the associations I have when I look at Night Soil. Another grave mistake from R&D made it stand out even among those heaps of unwanted commons: It didn’t belong at common, since it was the kind of card you never wanted multiples of (in addition to being a card you would rarely want at all – although, other than with Tidal Flats or Elven Fortress, it could happen). Having 16 copies of Hymn to Tourach wasn’t that bad (even though you probably didn’t have 4 decks which would run that doble-black spell), 12 copies of Icatian Javelineers were fine, and even 12 copies of Homarid didn’t seem as unreasonable (since this was at least a creature, albeit a terrible one), – but 12 copies of Night Soil? What were you supposed to do with that?
While Night Soil does something generally useful, it doesn’t even do it especially well. Using it on your own graveyard is, of course, very inefficient (unless your deck is especially good at filling its graveyard with creatures, in which case you will probably have much better things to do with that resource). Using it against an opponent might actually impede some strategies (while giving you a small bonus), but even here the Soil is extremely limited: Since it can only remove creatures, it didn’t get the cards players back then would most likely want to recur (ususally stuff like Balance, Time Walk or Wheel of Fortune), and even if removing creatures was relevant, one was hampered by the need to have two targets, which reanimator-style decks at the time often wouldn’t provide even by accident, and otherwise they could often easily play around the Soil. Also, it was unwieldy with its cost of GG plus an additional activation cost – if you REALLY wanted to mess with your opponeent’s graveyard (and why else would you play this card?), why not just use Tormod’s Crypt instead?
There are actually a few good answers to this last question: In 1997, Weatherlight came out, which enabled mass-reanimator-style decks via Buried Alive as well as very creature-heavy decks based on Ertai’s Familiar and Necratog. Later, Odyssey would bring threshold-based decks, and Ravnica would introduce dredge to the world. Against these styles of decks, Night Soil is actually helpful, since they provide an abundance of targets, are vulnerable to graveyard removal even if they are allowed to keep a creature card, and fill their graveyard constantly or repeatedly, so that the Soil’s reusability shines. Still, its lack of efficiency prevents it from seeing much (if any at all) competitive play in those formats it’s legal in, and Relic of Progenitus as an even maindeckable option for any kind of deck provides stiff competition. I believe there is only one habitat left where Night Soil makes sense: Multiplayer games. Here, you can expect to create a good number of tokens cheaply, and you will at the same time disrupt a few popular gameplans. But with the printing of Scavenger Ooze in the Commander set, a very fierce competitor has arisen here, too.
In summary, Night Soil is just a badly executed design. For one thing , it should never have been a common. Then, it is unnecessarily restrictive. It also could well be more powerful without breaking anything, although that is not its worst flaw. For constructed purposes, it can be described with “Well… in some environments it has its uses, but can’t we find something better?” In limited, it plays much more interestingly, however! Of course, a special environment where it is useful is required (Innistrad Limited would qualify easily). But there it is a card which is sometimes correct to maindeck and sometimes not, and which can influence play in a subtle way (incentivizing opponents to keep the number of creatures in their graveyard uneven), but also forcing interesting strategic decisions (do I make a token now, or do I prefer to wait if I find a better use for those creatures in my graveyard later?) While I don’t think the little subgame with the even/uneven number makes up for the unwieldiness of the card, it still helps making Night Soil a little more attractive for cubes.
After 17 years, the time has come to make peace with Fallen Empires. I will cast aside the burden of tainted memories with this set, and I will overlook the bad or misguided (in the case of Drew Tucker, who is a great artist, but just didn’t paint the illustraton of a Magic card here) art, which is also made up partly by good flavor. I will honor the card’s good intentions for constructed purposes with a D+, and its original play value in limited, measured against its narrow use and slight unwieldiness with a C, aggregating these grades into an overall C-.