Looking at a Random Card: Imperiosaur
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Imperiosaur: Future Sight was supposed to be the set made from cards Wizards might print sometimes, although with a few exceptions thrown in which they would most probably never do (Steamflogger Boss being probably the best example). As it turned out, only very few of those cards came into existence so far, almost all of them in the “near future” from Future Sight. Either Wizards were pretty bad at predicting where future designs would take them, or they didn’t take the whole thing too seriously. Actually, quite a few of Future Sight mechanics read more like a satirization of existing design than like serious predictions, although this might have been due to poor development (I’m looking at you, Darksteel Garrison, you overcosted piece of indestructible crap!)
One of those mechanics where you cannot really be sure if Wizards ever contemplated using them in earnest (although, since they did double-faced cards, all bets are probably off), is the simplicity-matters mechanic featured on Imperiosaur and Muraganda Petroglyphs (ironically, the Petroglyphs are quite a complicated card!) If I remember correctly, these two cards are the only ones starring this motive, but I feel they do a got job to get their message across: Lands exist to be tapped for mana, creatures exist to attack and block, and that’s it. Now, we certainly could never expect a set containing only basic lands and simple creatures, but as a theme of Green, this might actually make sense in the right context – at least as far as flavor is concerned. Then again – isn’t it absurd that Muraganda Petroglyphs does not pump Imperiosaur? That alone should show how misguided the design of this enchantment was! Essentially, it is best when pumping tokens, which I feel is quite a serious violation of its intended flavor.
Then there’s the problem with Imperiosaur’s play value and power level. There was a time when a vanilla 5/5 for 4 mana would have been at least an interesting option, but never if it featured a serious disadvantage. I think one is prone to underestimate the restriction Imperiosaur presents: To reap the benefits of its good size-to-cost-ratio, you have to run almost exclusively basic lands (or lands which fetch them) – not just “mainly” basic lands, but nearly exclusively to an extent where you can not even treat nonbasics as lands, but consider them to lie in a spell slot! Just think of Imperiosaur as costing RRRR in a mono-red deck considering to run Mutavault, and you get an idea how prohibitive its ability actually is! And don’t forget to figure in that you can neither use mana from Llanowar Elves nor from Wild Growth, which we are conditioned to unconsciously consider when evaluating the efficiency of green creatures. It’s hard to imagine how big Imperiosaur would have to be (given that it stays almost-vanilla, which is its intention) to make deckbuilders consider warping their manabase to include it. You could reduce its mana cost instead, and it would work: Red decks always ran Ball Lightning alongside Strip Mine or Wasteland, and as a 5/5 for three mana which could not be accelerated out in the usual ways, it would be in a fine place powerwise. But there is still a pitfall: If it costs double-green, it probably still makes more sense to just run 4-mana creatures you can accelerate out, since it is unlikely that you will forego using your Elves or Growths in a mainly green deck. If it just costed one green mana, though, it would be too strong – or would you really want nearly mono-blue decks with access to a basic forest through a couple of fetchlands to cast a 5/5 for 2G?
Other ideas to make Imperiosaur work: Put it in an environment where decks playing basics exclusively are the norm anyway. But wait – what is its point then, if there is no tension between its efficiency and its disadvantage? You’d have to make sure that there are attractive non-basics in the environment, but also cards substantially rewarding you for renouncing those (not just encouraging you to use basics, but actively discouraging you from using non-basics at all). I think shaping such a constructed environment would be possible, but I’m not sure it would be a good idea to base it on the dichotomy of using non-basics or not – I fear this would lead to a vastly reduced number of valid decks, since it would be harder to combine strategic elements if those were associated with either side, and also those elements would probably not be compatible with mechanics from neighboring blocks. I don’t want to say it couldn’t be done, but there’d be a lot of fundamental issues, just to make this card (and maybe a few others working in a similar way) useful. It’s just not worth it.
Finally, you could change the mechanic while trying to preserve its flavor. Rewarding you for your basic lands (for example: 2GG, 1/1, +1/+1 for each basic land you control), once again, won’t work – for one thing, that is not really what the flavor is about, but also it would give the card just a completely different spin. You have to punish players for the use of non-basics (say, 2GG, 5/5, -1/-1 for each non-basic land you control). I’m convinced that, somewhere in this direction, there is the possibility of a well-designed card working in this context, but I feel that you need to go away too far from its intended flavor for too little gain. Imperiosaur reads deceptively elegantly, but hides a bunch of complex design issues. For another example of a creature causing issues because its ability is tied to the manabase, look at Wild Nacatl, which got just banned in Modern, in my opinion being the Fall Guy for the unholy combination of fetchlands and Ravnica dual lands. This kind of cards makes assumptions about the structure of players’ manabases, effectively imposing design restrictions which may not be apparent at first glance.
About limited: In most environments, Imperiosaur’s disadvantage is quite minor here. It is just fairly reliably a 5/5 for 2GG. I’m not sure that’s something you want. I, for one, prefer this kind of card with a more relevant disadvantage which is less dependant on a player’s draw: Jade Leech works fine for me. But what about an environment featuring an unusually large amount of non-basic lands (for whatever reason)? I guess Imperiosaur would work reasonably well there, although I fear it might become a consolation prize for players which failed to get enough of those obviously desirable non-basics, and its disadvantage would still depend heavily on players’ draws. I don’t see the point of keeping an Imperiosaur in my card pool for that eventuality anyway, because Jade Leech works fine – even better – here as well.
Conclusion: Imperiosaur isn’t relevant in constructed, which is in a large part its own fault. It is not a great card for limited pools in general (although it can be used) and not even enticing in an environment featuring a theme tied to its ability. I have to admit that this is a card I liked a lot when it came out, but it fell gradually out of my favor over the years, and the very analysis I did in this entry made me realize how many issues it actually has. While I would have liked to end up with a grade somewhere in the C area for it, since it SEEMS so elegant and interesting, it plays actually much worse and thus deserves no better than a D-.