A Reality Check on my Innistrad Review for Next Level Cubes
You all probably know why it is always a good idea to have someone else proofread one of your texts, no matter how thoroughly you did proofread it yourself: You just don’t see certain errors. It’s not an issue with the eye, but with the brain: You know what SHOULD be written in a certain passage, and that is what your brain makes you see. You read what matches your expectations, not what is really there. As annoying as this is (it’s actually even more annoying in other contexts, for example when one is unable to understand another person’s point of view in a discussion, since one hears what one expects to hear, not what that person is actually saying), it is of course a very important shortcut which our brain uses here: If we were to process every piece of information our senses provide us with anew every time, we would be unable to even understand what is going on around us, and much less capable of analyzing a situation and using this information to create a complex model of reality. We just have to rely on already knowing most of what we see and hear; it is simply impossible to scrutinize everything again and again.
That is why we often make that kind of mistakes which others use to respond to with RTFM (read the fucking manual) – or, in Magic, RTFC (read the fucking card)! We did. At one time, we misunderstood or misremembered what the card did (or maybe we even encountered an erroneous version of its text first, as is often the case with unofficially spoiled cards), and this is what the card reads in our brains, which just doesn’t change when we encounter its text again, since we already KNOW what it does, and our brain fails to notice that our expectations of what it does do not match reality.
…yes, I wrote this long aside mainly to explain how I could have ended up writing the following about Gavony Township in my Innistrad casual review: “a bit weak for a land giving colorless mana in a deck which requires at least two colors. I prefer Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree.”
No, I never assumed that Gavony Township, as printed, was weak in any way; I would have seen it as actually severely overpowered immediately (for limited, at least, but I’m not sure I’m happy with that card in a constructed environment, either) – but I didn’t see it as printed – I just assumed that it gave +1/+1 to all your creatures until end of turn instead of giving out counters. I have no idea if I got that idea from an erroneous, unofficially spoiled version and failed to notice the update, or if I just read it wrong, because I couldn’t imagine that this land could be THAT powerful. I thought one would only get a Glorious Charge effect out of it, and while this is a nice effect to have on a card which takes up a land slot in your deck, even if it costs you effectively 5 mana, it is just not good enough that you would run a land giving you only colorless mana in a deck which, to make use of it, requires you to at least be double-colored, and also should be an aggressive deck (to make best use of the land’s effect), meaning that it is important to consistently hit your early drops, making good mana even more important. Vitu-Ghazi, on the other hand, helps you as well in situations where your side of the board is lacking creatures, as in stalemate situations, where it provides inevitability. That is not just overall more generally useful, but also fits better into a more controllish strategy, which in turn can better handle a more fidgety mana base and also tends to make better use of extra lands,
So, while the end result of my analysis was correct (I DO prefer Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree for my cubes), I arrived there in the wrongest way possible – but wait, that’s not all: When, at later times, I scanned over my Innistrad article to see if my opinion on any of those cards had changed, my brain played the same trick on me again, this time coming from another direction: I read the “NO” right after the card name, and I saw that I referenced Vitu-Ghazi, and thus I naturally assumed that I had commented on the brokenness of Gavony Township, and that I preferred the card from Ravnica instead, because that HAD to be what I had written, since the Township is so obviously overpowered…
All that led to me just now, when I decided to revisit my Innistrad review at the start of a small series of Dark Ascension reviews, discovering what I actually HAD written, and staring at it in horror and disgust – and then writing this lengthy explanation. I felt I had to because, honestly, the value of my analysis would really be doubtful if I went THAT wrong on a card clearly THAT powerful. I know I am prone to overlooking such things when analyzing cards for constructed (AEther Vial still being my most spectacular blunder), but I do have quite a good sense for how how cards play in limited, so I just couldn’t let this stand.
There were other errors in my initial assessment of Innistrad, though – not quite as spectacular, but more instructive, and I will use this entry to talk about them. I will not delve into all the YES/NO decisions I toppled since, because those were often made for reasons which did not involve my analysis of those cards, but decisions on the exact composition of my limited card pool and slight shifts in preferences. I will just address a few cards which I had to reevaluate since, or where I feel my initial evaluation was right, but needs more context.
(Note that, to save myself time back then, when I excluded cards for general reasons, like being double-faced or referring to humans, I usually didn’t bother to analyze them completely. For example, I didn’t mention that Angelic Overseer was broken in limited since it referred to humans, which was enough to give it a NO. When I start my Dark Ascension review, I will be more comprehensive, though.)
So here we go:
Feeling of Dread: I looked at that card a bit from the wrong angle. I was (and still am) searching for cards with off-color flashback to flesh out my pool of generic “2-colored” cards, where cards you CAN use when only playing one color, but WANT to use with access to both colors are interesting choices. Here, Feeling of Dread falls short – you would never play it without the option to flashback it – and if I just wanted a similar effect for UW decks, there are plenty to chose from in both Mono-U and Mono-W. However, I failed to realize how well this card worked in a graveyard-oriented environment where it could end up in your graveyard without being cast before. It really shines in a UW deck able to mill itself in a way which similar cards can’t, and that made me change my mind.
Mentor of the Meek: That was probably my biggest fumble aside from Gavony Township, and this time it didn’t stem from a simple misunderstanding what the card did. I want to stress that I WAS aware that the Mentor was powerful and wanted it for inclusion in my most powerful cubes, and that I did NOT intend to use it in a cube with a strong token theme (which White has in Innistrad). I saw it as the rough equivalent of Phyrexian Arena or Ohran Viper – a strong card providing card advantage, but balanced against other strong cards in such a cube, and also taking some time to fully impact a game. Well, I was wrong! Since I will never design a cube where small creatures are the exception rather than the norm (that’s as much a general philosophy as a requirement for cubes which draft and play well), the Mentor will always draw an obscene amount of cards in a short time, even if not paired with stuff like Midnight Haunting. I admit I might also have been swayed a bit because I love the concept of a “lord” for white weenies (but, then again, that card is even SPLASHABLE – what was I thinking?) Well, now that I’ve seen it in action, I removed the Mentor from my limited card pool. Going 3-for-1 routinely in a one-turn-span and from there on getting even better with the additional mana these extra cards provide is just absurdly powerful. I should have known.
Dream Twist: I wrote this card was “embarrassingly weak”, AND I STAND BY IT, even though some pros allegedly have come to firstpick it! The thing is, I was talking about next level cube environments, not about the Innistrad limited environment. Here, while I value mechanics giving a cube identity and making games being played a little differently, I will not allow a graveyard-relying theme become THAT powerful that you want to play Dream Twist because you expect it to be card advantage (which is, of course, the reason it is played). It is fine to use your graveyard as an additional resource, but it is not fine when a strategy exploiting it becomes so efficient that using a full card just to mill yourself becomes advantageous. In the end, self-mill becomes a non-interactive strategy (since filling a cube to the brim with graveyard hosers is not a good idea). You know what the one thing keeping the Spider Spawning strategy from completely dominant in Innistrad draft is? That it is potentially overdrafted (or explicitly hated, which is more or less the same thing from the view of a player forcing it). Once that deck comes together at an unprepared table, there are no reasonable in-game defenses against it. I believe it should be clear why this is not a desirable situation. That issue is even compounded in next level cubes, since these are designed for drafts at 4-player tables, and once more because the draft dynamics of two-third draft do not allow for extensive hatepicking. It comes down to this: Reaping your graveyard for profit should be the result of good synergy between your cards, not of going all-in on a non-interactive strategy. However, if graveyard-based decks are forced to play “fair”, Dream Twist just doesn’t cut it. This is much the same as with very strong, but also very specialized constructed cards which fail to make an impact in limited (e.g. Howling Mine, Dragonstorm or Hive Mind): A card can be broken in an environment which allows for brokenness, but too weak when players are forced to play fair.
Frightful Delusion: I said it plays “horribly”, but maybe I should have elaborated that this doesn’t just mean it is a weak card – it isn’t exactly strong, true, but the reason it plays so badly is that it is swingy. Form your opponent’s perspective, sometimes the only right play is to walk right into a potential Frightful Delusion, and if you have it, they’re screwed; otherwise they’re probably fine (since they gained substantial tempo advantage). From your perspective, it is a card which you seem to never have when it would be useful (or cannot afford to keep your mana open for it) and always seem to draw in the lategame, when it will usually be somewhere in between underwhelming and irrelevant. Actually, I feel the real reason this card is playable in Innistrad limited is Delver of Secrets, since it provides you with an additional instant to squeeze into your deck. In any way, it is not the kind of card I want in my cubes.
Grasp of Phantoms: Just another clarification here: I like Time Ebb, and I did realize the usefulness of the Grasp in Innistrad limited. I just don’t think that a version with an 8-mana flashback makes sense and thus prefer other flashback cards.
Invisible Stalker: I have come to hate hexproof lately, just like everyone else who has some sense, but the Stalker isn’t all to blame. It has been thrown into an environment which isn’t equipped (see what I did there?) to handle it, and more importantly, isn’t equipped to handle the ways to enhance it. Do you remember Silhana Ledgewalker in Ravnica block limited to be even remotely as annoying as the Stalker? No? I thought so. And trust me, it isn’t just the fact that the Elf could be blocked by flyers which makes the difference. Ravnica had a good mix of ways to off small enemy creatures with hexproof and to remove auras or equipments which bolstered them, while at the same time having no Butcher’s Cleaver (at least not showing up with comparable frequency). Also, that was an overall slower format, meaning that even a bolstered Ledgewalker would often become outclassed by an opponent’s high-end threat. It comes down to this: While hexproof is the only sensible way to put shroud on small creatures, you have to be extra careful that the environment can handle it and its consequences. Still, while I trust in my ability to design environments where hexproof doesn’t get out of control, I’m beginning to revise my stance on hexproof in general, because I’m not sure those cards are worth the trouble, and I’m also not sure how much value that mechanic actually adds to gameplay. More and more it seems to me just like an added challenge to cube design to preserve interaction even when a creature with hexproof is in play, without any real benefits even when you’re successful – kind of a high risk, no reward situation. There are other kinds of underwhelming creatures with good synergies when enhanced (Leonin Den-Guard, Metathran Elite), although hexproof is a nice and somewhat subtle way to reward all kinds of pump effects at once – equip it, enchant it with an aura, get counters on it, whatever, the resulting creature will be better than the sum of its parts. This is because shroud, like trample, becomes much more significant with increasing creature quality. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons a creature you are supposed to enchant or equip can not have shroud, and hexproof is just too strong. So it seems I might have to resign myself to have only shroud at my disposal, which means no small creatures featuring it (since on small creatures shroud is more of a disadvantage than an advantage). I haven’t decided yet, but it is likely that I will either remove it completely or at least make sure that it is not placed on otherwise hard to deal with or difficult to block creatures, and not make it a featured element in an environment.
Lost in the Mist: When players (including many pros) initially misjudged Innistrad as being really slow and bomb-driven (instead of quite fast, synergetic and bomb-driven, as it really is), Lost in the Mists actually saw some play, but I stand to my initial assessment: A 5-mana counter has to be as backbreaking as Desertion to be useful.
Memory’s Journey: Okay – I didn’t see the recursion with Runic Repetition, and if I had, I would’ve written it off as irrelevant. Which it would be in all of my cubes (and I wouldn’t use Runic Repetition anyway) – see Dream Twist.
Brain Weevil: This has proven useful in the right deck. The discard effect in itself is too weak, as I wrote, and the 4-mana 1/1 intimidate creature is a joke, but a sacrifice for value without mana cost works really well with morbid and related mechanics. Still, for a next level cube this is a bit too narrow. There is just no space for a card which is only useful in a deck which will only come together every few drafts, and there are much more flexible morbid-enablers in Black.
Bloodcrazed Neonate: I still don’t like this design. It’s a card which removes a decision from its controller, and its value drops a lot more than with other 2-mana-creatures in the lategame, making it kinda swingy. Also, it really punishes a bad start from an opponent too much. I was wrong about its power level, though – the faster an environment, the more useful is it, and it affects your opponent’s decisions much more than most other 2-drops, since he usually can not afford to ignore it. Because I really need a red vampire in this mana slot, I’m keeping it for now in my limited card pool, but I’m keeping my eyes open for a design I like better.
Harvest Pyre: In the end, this is still about what I noted with Dream Twist. I just didn’t envision the possibility of putting a two-digit number of cards into your graveyard fast. It’s not that I ever considered that card weak in itself, but I just don’t like the tension it provides for a small effect, especially since I am looking for open-ended cards working well with other graveyard-based mechanics like, for example, threshold. It is a card I COULD use, but for what I want it for, Corpse Lunge is a better concept, feeding off the graveyard, but not being as counterproductive as Harvest Pyre.
Nighbird’s Clutches: Essentially, see Feeling of Dread.
Creeping Renaissance: I overestimated that card a little. It is a bit more situational than I thought, also a bit more restrictive compared to Restock than I realized, and 7 mana is still as hard to reach as always. It is still a potentially extremely strong card, but when I found myself not considering it as a firstpick in my own Innistrad drafts, I took the opportunity to add it to my arsenal of green flashback cards, for the reasons I already mentioned back then.
Darkthicket Wolf: I didn’t misjudge its strength, but I underestimated how different it plays from Rootwalla. I use both now.
Gnaw to the Bone: See Dream Twist.
Gutter Grime: Another card I misread, although this time it was more sloppy of me – I didn’t realize that the tokens grew after creation (which, then again, also means that they die when the Grime leaves play). This means that its strengths and weaknesses get shuffled around a bit, and that the Grime interacts differently with different environments, but in the end it still comes down to this: It’s a complicated effect requiring some bookkeeping, and I really prefer to use more simple cards like Bestial Menace or Grizzly Fate instead.
Hollowhenge Scavenger: This is a much more boring card than I initially thought. It’s usable, but deeply unexciting. I dropped it from my pool even before Dark Ascension brought more interesting options.
Spider Spawning: Once more, see Dream Twist. I didn’t see this card’s potential as game-winner, and I don’t want a card which works that way. All my other reasons still hold.
One-Eyed Scarecrow: Although this creature has proven to be more of a sideboard card, my reasoning still holds.
Runechanter’s Pike: Another clarification here: I wasn’t talking about the power level of this card, but about the role it plays in a draft environment. In Innistrad, it lies in a convergence of self-milling, Delver of Secrets, Invisible Stalker and token-producers. That is a pretty specific environment, and you probably only use the Pike in a pretty specific archetype there. I just don’t see the Pike being a flexible enough tool for cube design. Also, as I noted with Inquisitor’s Flail, I prefer simple equipments, and this here is about bookkeeping and a large number of effects becoming combat tricks.
Gavony Township: See above.
Kessig Wolf Run: Here I stand by my choice! See, the Wolf Run deck is a staple in Standard right now, but people overlook that this deck is, at its core, a Primeval Titan deck, and without that utterly broken creature, the Wolf Run is actually rather inefficient. I concede that my comparison to Skarrg, the Rage Pits isn’t entirely fair – the Rage Pits are better in an aggressive deck (being a lot more mana-efficient), but Wolf Run makes each creature a potentially lethal threat in the lategame. (And, of course, there is infect, which I do not take into consideration, since I’ll never use that horrible mechanic). But then again – is that what I want a land to do, making each creature kind of a Fireball in the lategame? I prefer the reasonably costed combat trick which the Pits provide, and its usefulness early in the game, when Wolf Run is incredibly clumsy.
Moorland Haunt: I underestimated that card a little – it’s not “just good enough”, but rather “really strong, but not too strong” in limited. Also, again I underestimated how much self-milling a deck in Innistrad could accomplish, so the card isn’t quite as counterproductive as I initially thought.
That was it for my “reality check” on my Innistrad review! To learn from your mistakes, you have to acknowledge and analyze them. Now I can get to the business of evaluating Dark Ascension – stay tuned!