Looking at a Random Card: Skaab Goliath

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Skaab Goliath: Ah, a card from the newest set!

What was your first thought when you saw this card? Mine was: “Why these weird stats? And why is it splashable?” So, the Goliath is an oversized, multi-headed, multi-limbed zombie monstrosity. I guess it’s supposed to be weird, and that’s why it got those stats. Still, I wish I could somehow relate them to the card’s concept – wouldn’t such a stitched-up fighting machine rather tend to be very powerful, but somehow fragile instead of the other way round? The answer lies probably with the way it was intended to play: All the blue zombies in Innistrad except for Undead Alchemist have lower power than toughness, probably because that’s typical for larger blue creatures (although there are exceptions, but the Alchemist doesn’t count since its own ability makes sure it doesn’t damage the opponent but mill him, which is fine in blue). Or maybe this is to show that zombies are hard to kill? But then again, Innistrad’s black zombies are designed differently, and I also don’t feel that is the correct flavor – zombies shouldn’t be hard to put down; the problem is they rise up again and again and again…

Why do I complain about that perceived flavor disconnect when I usually talk about a card’s flavor as an afterthought at best? The answer is: Because I don’t like how those stats play, and am thus looking for a convincing flavor-based reason for their existence. I just don’t like really big creatures with such an emphasis on their toughness. Maybe this is because Autochthon Wurm was such a silly design – meant to become the biggest creature in the game then, but cut down in size because it should not be able to kill in two swings (it seems this is no longer a concern nowadays – just look at the eldrazi, or at Blightsteel Colossus which can even kill an opponent in one attack!) Skaab Goliath seems to relate a similar message: “We wanted to make it really powerful to show how big it is, but decided that it couldn’t have a higher power than 6 and thus instead increased its toughness.” I must confess that I cannot put my finger on what exactly is bugging me about this kind of stats, but it has something to do with my tenet that late-game cards should not slow the game down – cards played during the early stages of the game to get a control-oriented deck into the lategame are great, but once you get there, any substantial investment in a card should reward you with an effect geared towards bringing the game to a close.

Now, of course, Skaab Goliath does this. I mean, I wouldn’t complain if it was 6/6, and how is a trampling 6/9 worse? When a creature reaches a certain size, a higher toughness than power doesn’t mean it is a worse attacker in limited – what it loses in punching through wall-like defenders it gains in making it harder to trade with it. As a 6/9, though, it still makes for a better blocker than attacker, preventing practically everything without evasion from coming at you. I mean, sure, often it will be the only thing of comparable size on the board and you will just attack with a really hard-to-stop trampler, but there are gamestates where, while you could attack with it without risking to lose it, it will be more profitable to hold it back for blocking if you do not want to lose a damage race. To me, this doesn’t feel right. A big trampling creature shouldn’t be harder to kill than to stop. That’s what trampling is about: Making it hard to avoid damage even if you can kill the attacker. But if that attacker is nearly impossible to kill, then why would you try to block it (unless you die from that very attack otherwise)? I think that’s what I don’t like about Skaab Goliath: Its enhanced toughness actually gives it evasion in addition to trample while attacking, but at the same time incites you to keep it on defense.

I’m afraid I cannot put it more clearly. It’s not too big a strike against the card anyway, since it plays reasonably well otherwise, but expensive creatures with a significantly higher toughness than power just don’t sit well with me. Keeping a 6-mana creature on defense should always be a sign of desperation and not ever feel like the more prudent use of that card.

And then there’s its mana cost of 5U. Honestly, I just don’t get it! Why give a splashable fatty to Blue? Can you imagine running it in a mainly green deck because you realize that it is just bigger than what this color has to offer itself? I mean, I am certainly no color pie nazi. To the contrary, I strongly believe that every color should be able to interact and compete with all kinds of strategies and be given the tools to do so. But I can’t see why it should be necessary or desirable to give a big, trampling, non-flying creature to Blue which other colors can and want to splash. Splashing Blue for card draw, counterspells or flying creatures makes sense to me, but groundbound fatties are the domain of Green.

If I were to design this card, it would probably end up as a 8/7 for 4UU – making it not quite as impossible to kill with a block, making its trample ability more important, and making sure that it will be played in decks with a substantial amount of Blue in them.

That said, I like the concept of it. The Skaab mechanic is nicely executed, tying into a graveyard-matters theme in a way which isn’t threatening to spin out of control, and rewarding you for keeping your graveyard stocked while at the same time forcing you to find a balance between cards which enable the theme and those which profit from it in a way which is more restricting as with, for example, threshold, since the Skaab is actually using up a resource you need for other cards. This makes deckbuilding and especially drafting quite challenging. A downside is that you can sometimes end up with cards in your hand which you cannot play, even if you drafted and built your deck correctly. Here, threshold plays better, since you get at least some value out of your cards, even when things don’t go right. Thus, Skaabs increase the randomness of the game: Imagine an opening hand consisting of 4 Island, an Armored Skaab and 2 Stitched Drake. If you win or lose that game will likely be decided by the 4 cards the Armored Skaab will put into your graveyard. For that reason, I would use this mechanic sparingly, so that you’re not enticed to draft decks which will often put you into such situations. For example, in Innistrad, Makeshift Mauler at common, Stitched Drake at uncommon and Skaab Goliath (my design, of course!) at rare would have been enough, I feel. These creatures can spice up a graveyard-themed environment, but making them ubiquitous adds too much randomness to gameplay for my taste.

So, how to sum things up? I like the idea of that card, but I don’t think R&D got its stats right, and I don’t believe this mechanic is suitable as a major component of an environment, although a nice addition. It is, of course, a pure limited design – in constructed you are not going to pay 6 mana AND rely on fulfilling additional requirements unless you get a card for your troubles which essentially reads “win the game” (see Hive Mind as an example – having a pact or two in your hand is the additional requirement here). With the right stats and perfect flavor, I would give out a C+ here (upgraded from C for flavor), since this is a rather narrow design, but works well in the right environment. Due to its incongruous power, toughness and mana cost and the resulting flavor disconnect, it’s just a C-, though – still okay, but a bit of a missed opportunity.

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