Looking at a Random Card: Gorilla Pack
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Now that the blessing of internet access has returned to me – here we go again!
Gorilla Pack: Oh yes. The set which brought us Necropotence establishing the correct power level for creatures. Fun!
When you look at this card, keep in mind that, even back then in 1995, Green was supposed to be the top creature color. No, honestly. No kidding!
I did a quick search on magiccards.info. Up until and including Ice Age, the following creatures other than Gorilla Pack offered a power and toughness of 3 for three or less mana: Junun Efreet, Mijae Djinn, Serendib Efreet, Tetsuo Umezawa & Ydwen Efreet. Yup, that is all Red, Black and Blue. No Green here. Mijae Djinn and Ydwen Efreet came with a triple-colored mana cost and an in-built randomness which collaborated to keep these cards out of competitive play – although, to be fair, the fact that mono-red decks were simply not viable before the creation of “type 2” (the precursor of standard) had something to do with it as well. At least Mijae Djinn was available later, though, but never a consideration above Orcish Artillery (in the original design of the Sligh deck) or Ball Lightning and Viashino Sandstalker (in the more aggressive version created by team Deadguy).
Junun Efreet offered flying, but demanded a stiff upkeep which would probably have obsoleted that card even if Winter Orb hadn’t already been enemy number one for Black-based decks. Both Mijae Djinn and Junun Efreet also shared a weakness which made Tetsuo Umezawa unappealing – no, not the excessive amount of colored mana needed to cast it and put it to full use (that was the era of decks with mana bases consisting entirely of dual lands and Birds of Paradise, after all!), but the fact that it died to Lightning Bolt. Oh, and Incinerate. And, of course, practically everything got exiled by Swords to Plowshares. While it would take a while for game theory to clearly formulate why you wouldn’t want to play a 3-mana creature dying to an abundance of removal for 1 or 2 mana unless you were playing a creature rush deck designed to already have overloaded that line of defense before (a concept of which Tetsuo obviously wasn’t a part), people would rightfully not dream of playing such an expensive lightning rod even back then.
That leaves us with Serendib Efreet, protected from the Bolt by its toughness of 4, and generously bestowed with flying to boot, a staple in constructed decks from the very beginning of competitive Magic. Well, no wonder – it’s blue, after all! Which other color should have gotten the arguably most efficient beatdown creature in the game’s early days? Its fiercest competitor was Kird Ape, by the way, leading to RUG-based “Monkey, may I?” decks including both creatures which were the first execution of the aggrocontrol archetype nowadays known in the legacy community under monikers like “fish” and “threshold”. Hey, but Serendib Efreet WAS green, somehow – at least in the revised printing! That famous misprint with the artwork and corresponding green frame of Ifh-Biff Efreet remains until today the easiest available RL version of that card, preserving memories of how Green was mocked back then as the designated creature color number one which somehow always ended up with the worst creatures… By the way, the “dib” was usually cast on turn two with the help of Birds of Paradise, reminding Green of its actual role in the color pie back then: Making the casting of spells in other colors easier.
So, if you weren’t just another undercosted blue card existing because the early designers didn’t understand the relative value of this game’s resources (including Richard Garfield himself, who created Ancestral Recall as part of a common cycle of “three-for-ones” together with Lightning Bolt, Giant Growth, Dark Ritual and Healing Salve), as a creature for 3 mana, you had to expect to get burdened with excessive mana requirements if you wanted Hill Giant stats (because, you know, Hill Giant was, according to early game designers, costed juuust right!) But Green, the top creature color without top creatures (excepting just good old Erhnam Djinn, but not counting the mana acceleration of the Birds) could get a break, of course – so why not go wacky and try a 3/3 for 2G? Could that be done? Hey-ho, young gun, hold your horses! Some kind of disadvantage was in order, of course! And landhome was such a popular and well-designed ability (so much that it had already lost keyword status even before Ice Age was printed), so, just to make sure that the game will not get overrun by undercosted Gorillas, let’s give them foresthome!
(Short aside: It is not true that sarcasm doesn’t work on the internet. However, sarcasm doesn’t work with people with poor reading comprehension skills, which are plenty on the net. Just a reminder.)
You know, when Trained Armodon came out, some competitive decks actually used it. In Rath Cycle block constructed, that is. When that environment consisted exclusively of Tempest. Oh, and in a later millenium Mike Flores shocked the world by winning a PTQ with Gnarled Mass! Okay, that was a Kamigawa block constructed event, and the main role of the Mass was to wear Umezawa’s Jitte (which the format revolved to 70% around – the rest were 20% resolving broken Gifts Ungiven and 10% briefly controlling 2 legendary dragons with the same name), and also, right after that PTQ, Flores started replacing the Mass with Isao, Enlightened Bushi. But the point stands: If the stars are right, in an extremely shallow environment, a 3/3 creature for 1GG does not necessarily have to embarrass you.
Then again, Centaur Courser and Nessian Courser are cards you will probably have to look up if you don’t play limited – and they are the reincarnations of Gorilla Pack without its disadvantage! So, even in the early days of Magic, when green 2-mana creatures with constructed applications were called Elvish Archers, Argothian Pixies & Whirling Dervish, it stands to reason that weakening the Pack to a point where it would at best have been an unsatisfying maindeck inclusion in Ice Age Sealed (if anyone was brave and mad enough to actually play that horrible format) was uncalled for. Or, in other words: Back then, the work of (not yet existing) R&D sucked cannonballs, and Gorilla Pack is a prime example for that.
See, I frequently preach that Magic is more fun when played with less powerful cards. That is not a general statement, though, but applies to Magic’s current (well, ongoing) situation: Overpowered cards sell the game better. There is a sweet spot – or, more precisely, a sweet area – for the power level of cards where Magic games are the most fun. Excesses in both directions obviously lessen that fun – neither 20/20 creatures for 1 mana nor 1/1 creatures for 20 mana are in any way enjoyable to play with or against. In the game’s early days, the power level of cards varied wildly between a few utterly broken cards and a much larger number of unplayably bad cards, because the designers were, like everyone else, still unexperienced, but also because they showed an unhealthy dose of stubbornness and hubris, believing they could define the “correct” power level of cards arbitrarily, not admitting that the parameters of the game itself, as well as the context of other existing cards defined playability. Nowadays, virtually all cards are powerful enough to be at least playable in the sense of allowing for fun games when they are used with other cards of similar power level, but the strongest – and usually rarest – cards are, while not “broken” anymore in the way Black Lotus or Channel were, too powerful to allow for the most enjoyable gameplay. The reasons for this can all be subsumed as “marketing” – the average consumer wants powerful cards, or more precisely: cards so powerful that even players with no clue (like, for example, that average player) will realize immediately how powerful they are – a tall order in an age where powerhouses like Ajani Vengeant or Consecrated Sphinx were greeted with comments of “meh” and “maybe good in EDH”!
Yes, magic is more fun when played with Grizzly Bears and Hill Giant than when played with Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but the sweet area where the best gameplay is possible lies in between (much closer to the Bears and the Giant, though), and Gorilla Pack is markedly below the Bears/Giant level. Once again, let me try a catchy summary using the word “suck”: Gorilla pack sucks in any environment which doesn’t suck overall.
Things are actually even a little worse, though. Let’s pretend for a moment that we put the pack in an environment where it gets actually played. Then, it will either be a pretty weak sideboard card (against some decks I get a moderately efficient creature, woo-hoo) or – as it would’ve been in creature-poor, extremely low-powered Ice Age Sealed – a maindeck card for lack of better alternatives. In the latter case, it would actually be pretty swingy since it would, depending on the matchup, be either a medium-sized wall or a clearly above-average creature (you wouldn’t need to maindeck it if creatures in general weren’t of lower quality). But worst, when it is a medium-sized wall… it is a medium-sized wall. You know what these do in a low-powered envorinment? Right, they gum up the ground, eliminating even the smallest chance that games could be decided by tempo, making their outcome even more unfailingly dependant on bombs. This means that in those cases where Gorilla Pack isn’t too bad to be played, it worsens gameplay – or, for the third and last time, put this way: The Pack sucks even if it doesn’t suck.
The concept (not the keyword) of landhome itself, if used carefully and in the right environment, isn’t necessarily that bad. A slightly overcosted wall which can attack under certain circumstances can enhance a draft environment by being appealing to just a subset of draft strategies (namely, control-oriented ones). Two things are important to consider, though: For one thing, these walls should not too reliably get you into the lategame. To make sure this isn’t the case, one can keep their numbers low, keep the general power level of creatures high (so that the wall doesn’t outclass attackers with similar or higher mana costs), and make sure that the environment has enough removal, evasion and breakthrough cards. The other important aspect is to make sure that the pseudo-wall’s controller can upgrade it to a full creature by himself in the lategame, to make it a more appealing maindeck inclusion, to reduce the variance of its value in different matchups, and to help against games dragging on for too long. Examples for such cards are Kukemssa Serpent, Shoal Serpent, Harbor Serpent and Spire Serpent – yes, it’s serpents all around! (Note that these are examples for good mechanics, not good overall designs.)
There’s a reason they are all serpents, too: The basic idea of that concept is “let’s give that color a creature which is a little better than it should have, but make it harder to attack with it to balance it out”. That concept applies mainly to Blue (although there are a few white examples in the history of the game – see Elder Land Wurm, Exalted Dragon, Woolly Razorback or Ageless Sentinels). Red and Black usually use a similar concept which makes it harder (or flat-out impossible) to block with the creature instead. Green, on the other hand, doesn’t need that concept at all. If you paid attention, you know why: BECAUSE GREEN IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE FUCKING BEST AT CREATURES ANYWAY! It doesn’t need excuses to get efficient creatures.
That is important to keep in mind, because it not only means that a card like Gorilla Pack doesn’t need to exist, but also that it shouldn’t exist! See, if you give Blue a slighty better creature which will mostly be used to defend, you end up with a creature which Green can have anyway. A Kukemssa Serpent or Shoal Serpent might be able to gum up the ground, but that is nothing which Order of the Sacred Bell or Moss Kami cannot do also. The game will not suffer too much because of it (if the two points I mentioned a bit earlier were considered in that environment). However, if you give the best creature color an even better creature which cannot attack, you’ll end up with a heck of an efficient blocker! (Let’s call it Carnivorous Plant, okay?) You don’t want this. Omitting Carnivorous Plant from Fifth Edition due to its performance in limited was one of the very few things WotC got right with that horrible base set.
All that means that there is no saving grace for Gorilla Pack. It is not a bad execution of a reasonable design, it is an inherently flawed design which did not only result in a useless card, but even in a card which worsens gameplay. Now, admittedly the Pack does not bring down the apocalypse single-handedly, so giving it an F would be disproportionate, but the E- it gets is well deserved.