Looking at a Random Card: Horn of Deafening
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Horn of Deafening: Here it is, the first non-creature artifact in my series!
When I first saw this card (probably on some inofficial Legends spoiler list, but shortly thereafter as a reprint in Chronicles), I immediately compared it to Icy Manipulator. To understand this, you must realize that back then, in the years 1995 and 1996, Icy Manipulator was extremely popular. It could stop practically every creature in the game from attacking (you really have to know about obscure cards like Lurker to find an exception), even if it had protection from the only color you were playing, which was immensely important back then. I also noticed how well it worked together with Wrath of God, forcing an opponent to play a second creature and guaranteeing card advantage when I Wrathed. Actually, it did a lot more, which I even knew about, but somehow I always did (and to be completely honest, still do) see Icy first and foremost as a reliable way to stop a creature from attacking (or blocking, of course). Still, everyone was aware that you could tap an opponent’s land in his upkeep with it, possibly color-screwing that player (back then, you usually didn’t err on the side of caution when building your manabase – many people actually followed the horrible mantra of 20 lands, 20 creatures and 20 spells) or just slowing him down. There was even a whole archetype revolving about mana artifacts, Winter Orb and Icy Manipulator, dubbed “Prison”, whose cruel gameplan it was to tap the only land your opponent was allowed to untap with the Icy (using artifact mana, of course). Oh, if you really needed all your mana you could instead tap your Winter Orb at the end of your opponent’s turn, shutting it down. If you ever wondered why a few cards, among them Winter Orb and Howling Mine, have such strange text, requiring them to be untapped to work: Under the original Magic rules, all non-creature artifacts were shut off when tapped (with a few obvious, but hard to define exceptions, like Basalt Monolith), and those cards were essential parts of strategies, so they gained errata (and were later reprinted with that text) to work as before. Yes, these cards were, for the most part, errataed just so Icy Manipulator could still shut them down and break their symmetry! That is how important Icy Manipulator was back then, and that is why its reprint in Ice Age (although with terrible artwork) was such a big deal back then and caused that uncommon to become one of the most expensive singles of that expansion. (BTW, what would you guess was the most expensive by a wide, wide margin? Necropotence, the incredible powerhouse? Nope – the skull started out as a crap rare. Believe it, the chase rare of that set, standing head over shoulders above all other Ice Age singles the way Jace, the Mind Sculptor dwarfed all other cards from Worldwake, albeit on a much lower level, was… Jester’s Cap!)
Now, this entry is supposed to be about Horn of Deafening, not good ol’ Icy, but seeing how much worse the Horn seems in comparison, my disappointment with it might become more understandable. So it could only shut down a creature, could not even prevent a wall from blocking, and cost 1 mana more to do so? See, when Icy was reprinted again in Mirrodin, it saw, to the best of my knowledge, no constructed play at all, but in the game’s early days, it used to be an absolute staple, and Horn of Deafening was… not. So what was that card good for at all? That is actually a good question! The concept of limited play simple didn’t exist when the Horn came out (that was still true for the Chronicles reprint), so for nearly all intents or purposes, Horn of Deafening was just a vastly inferior Icy Manipulator.
Well, but Magic is over 18 years old now, and we all know better today, don’t we? Although I never drafted on Magic Online with Masters Edition IV, my perception of the Horn has become that of a limited card, which I sometimes put in my cubes. Why just sometimes? Well, you see, although in limited it actually does something recognizably different and not completely inferior to Icy Manipulator (preventing your opponent from making trades in combat), it is still functionally similar to it and, frankly, the overall worse choice. If you read anything I’ve written about cube design, you’ll know how much I value generally available solutions to… well, about everything. Icy Manipulator is just so useful in practically every cube that Horn of Deafening only has a chance if the number of artifacts in that cube is so high that I want a second card doing something similar, meaning a really big cube or one with a lot of artifacts.
And this is why I talked so much about the Icy in this entry: Horn of Deafening is a fine limited card, but it will eternally be overshadowed by one of the best-designed cards in Magic history! Icy Manipulator isn’t too strong, it isn’t too weak and it is an incredibly flexible cube-building tool. It’s nearly perfect. Horn of Deafening is admittedly different, but it is just not different enough – whenever both cards are in a cube, players will (rightly) treat the Horn as a mostly weaker version of the Icy. In actual gameplay, the Horn will behave noticeably differently, but as to the place they occupy in the players’ mind, they’re just too similar.
So, how do I rate card which seems completely fine by itself, but is overshadowed by a single excellent design? Of course, its power level is lower than that of the Icy, but there’s nothing wrong with that – Icy Manipulator makes for a great firstpick, while Horn of Deafening is a card which some decks might want and others might not want, because it is a bit clumsy and not too useful in an aggressive strategy. Good cubes need such cards – but ideally, they will not feel like weaker versions of firstpick level cards. (BTW, you will never find me putting two cards in a cube where one is 100% superior to the other, like Hill Giant and Roc of Kher Ridges. NEVER. I don’t even keep pairs of such cards in my limited card pool!) Is this the same case as with Grizzly Bears? Those have not only been obsoleted roughly a trillion times so far, but are actually a bit below the curve for Green, and thus deserved their mediocre grade on their own merits, while the Horn seems fine by itself. But then again, there are a few other cards which are not as iconic as the Icy (and are themselves somehow overshadowed by it). Puppet Strings, for example. Or Trip Noose. Thinking about this, I realize that there is actually something wrong with the design of the card itself: In most cases, its effect is just worse than tapping a creature, and that effect is priced correctly on Icy Manipulator or Puppet Strings (on the efficient end) as well as on Trip Noose (a card of mediocre efficiency). If Horn of Deafening has an effect that is somehow similar to shutting down a creature by tapping it, but mostly worse, and it is considerably more expensive than Trip Noose, which is a good, but not spectacular card, then it IS actually a little overpriced/underpowered in itself, just like Grizzly Bears are.
The Bears got a D from me, upgraded to a D+ for reasons which don’t pertain to the Horn, but Horn of Deafening has something else going for it, namely that there actually aren’t that many designs around fulfilling its function. I said that I would only use it in a cube in conjunction with Icy Manipulator, and only under certain conditions, but then, it is actually a nice choice – in most cases, I’d rather have the Horn than another tapping artifact here for variance. I’m not really satisfied with it, but I keep it around because it is useful (other than the Bears, where there would only be nostalgic reasons to keep them), so the Horn also gets an upgrade to D+.