Looking at a Random Card: Copperhoof Vorrac

(What am I doing here? Read here!)

Copperhoof Vorrac: Once again, a lot of creatures coming up randomly. So be it.

I never liked cards like these. When I say “like these”, I include stuff like Maraxus of Keld and any number of Prophecy cards with lines like ” if defending player controls an untapped land”. Basing creature stats on the tapped/untapped status of lands is just such a fidgety principle. Of course, since mana burn was eliminated, they also play a lot different than before, now that any player can just tap his lands for mana with no bigger consequences than possibly losing a few options.

A variant on this mechanic was used on Wake Thrasher – less fidgety, but still quite complicated, forcing to you remember what exactly you untapped at the beginning of your turn (something many players do without really thinking about it) – oh, and also quite powerful on a blue 3-mana creature!

You know, I’m all for encouraging players to play the game consciously. It is one of the defining differences between mediocre players and good players that the latter actively think about which land they drop on turn one, even though they cannot play anything with it either way, and that they manage each tapping of their lands carefully to maximize their options (real or bluffed). One of the things I can get quite upset about is if I use an ability from a permanent which has been on the battlefield for several turns, and my opponent THEN takes that card and reads it, because he doesn’t know it, and just ignored it so far. A game of Magic really suffers if its participants aren’t at all times aware of the game state.

However, that is actually a compelling argument for the game’s designers to keep board complexity manageable! Or it should be, at least. There has been a clear trend over the last years to reduce the game’s strategical depth in favor of increased board complexity. The customers don’t seem to care – in fact, the great success of multiplayer variants like EDH suggests strongly that they love it! Whenever I watch a multiplayer Magic game with five or more participants, I see strong indications that most of the players aren’t even aware of half the relevant permanents, let alone the tactical implications arising from them. To my lasting astonishment, they just don’t mind. (This is because most participants in multiplayer games are Timmies – read my improved definition of MaRos gamers’ psychographic here.)

So, I guess Timmies like Copperhoof Vorrac, especially in multiplayer games (probably as long as someone else takes the trouble to figure out how big exactly this beast is), since it seems to be doing things on his own, growing and shrinking all the time and being likely to reach stats in the high 2-digit area. (Funny – I just reminded a reader in a comment that I am not talking about multiplayer games in this series, and here comes a card where I just have to!) But what about regular duels?

Under old rules, Copperhoof Vorrac had an effect similar to those of Innistrad werewolves, punishing players who were unable to act on their turn and forced to keep their lands untapped to avoid mana burn. It also punished (and still does) players for keeping creatures back to block, and using non-tapping permanents (global enchantments, equipment). Even under new rules, a reactive deck might face a big Vorrac while keeping mana open for countermagic. But in the end, Copperhoof Vorrac is a 5-mana creature without evasion which will in many scenarios be of unexciting size even if the opponent plays normally, and in others just might induce an opponent to tap lands he might not have tapped otherwise, while sometimes rather randomly hosing an opponent with an already bad draw.

Johnnies might devise other ways to use the Vorrac: For example, let the opponent untap, wait until they get priority during upkeep, then Fling the Vorrac at their opponent’s face (he can respond to this by tapping lands, but since the Vorrac is already sacrificed as a cost, it won’t change his stats anymore). Even if that works, it’s not especially impressive in a duel, though. When all is said and done, Copperhoof Vorrac is a really unreliable big creature which MIGHT get REALLY big, but always at the discretion of your opponent, and which forces a lot of bookkeeping upon both players. All this is just a very detailed way to say “it plays horribly”.

Whenever you (as an amateur designer) design a big creature with variable stats, or (as a cube builder) decide if to include such a creature, ask yourself: Why not just use a generic big creature with fixed stats instead? There are a lot of good answers to this question, like encouraging players to manage their resources carefully, rewarding building around a theme, or introducing interesting minigames; but you should make sure that your answer actually IS good by analyzing what exactly happens when this creature is in play.

Let’s get to grading: Whatever fringe constructed value the Vorrac might have possessed once has likely be eradicated by the loss of mana burn; and even if it was fine powerwise, it still played in an annoying way. In Limited, it is essentially a more random version of Scourge of Geier Reach (like that card needed more randomness tacked on!), able to waltz over several blockers, but probably shrinking itself to death in the process. It could be used as a subtle punisher for (as an example) equipment-heavy decks in a cube, but I really cannot find anywhere enough good qualities in this design to make up for the randomness and the bookkeeping it brings. So, while the sheer number of possible interactions with a cube’s themes justifies an upgrade from E, at the same time its annoyance factor requires a downgrade, having it end up at a sharp E.

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8 Comments on “Looking at a Random Card: Copperhoof Vorrac”

  1. I do not think that overly complex board positions are negativ in itself. Chess for example is a fine game, but well it is not magic. What you want is a game which plays like the early magic you learned to love.
    I enjoy chess and similiar games, but I see that they arent recreational activities.
    So maybe you should have two cubes. One for recreational play and one if you want to have a battle of wits.

    • Ah, but board situations in chess aren’t nearly as complex as those in Magic! The abilities of chess figures, and their options to interact with each other are quite straightforward.

      Chess is complex because it has strategic depth, not because its game states are difficult to process. What I really want is to move Magic a little (back) into the direction of chess, with less on-board complexity and more strategic depth. That is also not exactly the “early” Magic I learned to love – Magic, luckily, improved a lot from its earliest incarnation, but it sadly took a wrong turn in the meanwhile.

      It is true, however, that I want Magic to return to a time when it was more about drawing out counters and less about drawing more planeswalkers.

  2. Everything you write about the card is true.
    Traditionally, it gets played by someone who will then zone out for a turn or two, before asking everyone how big his stupid Vorrac is, instead of counting on his own.

    The card is not worth the hassle and frequently outshined by Yavimaya Wurm.

    The problem with the current design strategy favouring board-position, is that it somehow all boils down to stalemates and overpowering your opponent.
    It all seems to be a competition who can throw down more planeswalkers and insane mythic creatures in consecutive turns.

    The ideal number for multiplayer is either 2-2 or 3, just saying. Teams or just two opponents keeps everyone plugged in. There’s just not enough time between turns to do unrelated things.

    Discouraging table-talk is also a very good idea, even if it makes the EDH-guys skin crawl. Multiplayer can be about making correct decisions based on board position and cards in hand.
    Most of the time it is about ganging up on player Y because he has two untapped Islands in play and “doesn’t get the spirit of the format.”

  3. But isn’t saying “They increased board complexity at the expense of strategic complexity” just another way of saying “They made creatures better”? Which is is actually a good thing, annoying stuff like the Titans notwithstanding.

    I also don’t really get the difference between on-board complexity and strategic complexity. I mean, I know what the difference is, but I don’t understand how one is supposed to be better than the other. As long as you have a resonable number of decisions to make and they all have an impact on the game – does it really matter where specifically the complexity comes from?

    Oh, and the current Standard is much more about drawing out counters then powering through planeswalkers. The current deck to beat plays 5-8 maindeck counters and zero planeswalkers. Most planeswalkers are actually bad in the current format because Mana Leak is such a popular card. Not saying that the current Standard format is healthy, but if there has ever been a “wrong turn” (probably the Jund days), that turn has long been reversed.

    • Making creatures better was a noble goal until, say, 2004. Since then they have become too strong.

      I believe (and I’m sure MaRo and Richard Garfield would both agree in the abstract) that a great game is easy to learn and hard to master. (This describes chess well.) That means, players should be aware of everything that’s going on, but interpreting what this means in strategical terms should be a challenge.

      Overly complex game states make it hard to process what’s going on. That’s a trait of a bad game.

      The current deck to beat plays cards which are meant to minimize interaction between players. I agree they’re not planeswalkers. (Then again, see the finals of GP Orlando for an epic clash between planeswalkers and titans!) The game is still right on (the wrong) track away from interaction and strategical depth towards employing unanswerable threats trumping each other. Mana Leak is something like a lone candle in the dark here, and it is so good because it is about the only thing left which punishes that strategy somehow.

    • olafkrz Says:

      Durch eine hohe board complexity reduziert man das Spiel sehr oft auf “Wer übersieht als erstes was?”. Gute Denkspiele zeichnen sich demgegenüber dadurch aus, dass jeder seinen eigenen Plan hat und der mit dem besseren Plan (bzw. idealerweise derjenige, der den gegnerischen Plan besser mit einbezieht) gewinnt.
      Eine Schach-Strategie besteht tatsächlich darin, das Brett extrem komplex zu gestalten – in der Hoffnung, das der Gegenüber irgendwann etwas übersieht. Dazu sollte man sich in Bezug auf den Gegner aber richtig einschätzen, sonst sitzt man schnell am falschen Ende des Tisches. Un das wichtigste: im Schach ist es nur EINE Strategie unter vielen.

  4. @olafkrz

    chess is more than one game. The timelimit availible per player changes the flow of the game. In a match with 15min per player, the play revolves around postioning ones pieces and gaining ground. So adding complexity is no goal of either player (if the are of a similiar skill level). But by finding as close as possible approximations to the perfect move, which you are unable to calculate in the give time, you steadily build up small edges and win as the better player.
    So very complex games should be played with a time limited, to make it a contest of approximating the correct move.

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