Looking at a Random Card: Malfegor
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
So, Malfegor is a demon dragon. Sorry, but this feels just silly to me! A fiendish dragon can and has already been concepted as a hellkite. A flying, fire-breathing demon can just be… a demon! Well, maybe there was some compelling storyline reason. I don’t really care.
I am a strong critic of the prevalence of all-upside designs in Magic during the last years, but I also feel that a prohibitive mana cost is downside enough on a big creature. If an already expensive card needs additional restrictions to be balanced, its effect just has to be too strong (which is especially problematic with alternate ways to get a creature on the battlefield, but generally just doesn’t make for good play). Of course, sometimes additional restrictions just weaken an otherwise reasonable card – being an oldschool player, I remember well (actually, not really “well”) the time when players were expected to spend 7+ mana on creatures which would then proceed to kill them…
So where does Malfegor fit in? It certainly has a somehow prohibitive mana cost – 6 mana overall, and requiring double mana in two colors. Still, in the right deck you can expect to drop it quite reliably. I don’t think this justifies an additional downside, though, it should just influence the card’s power level. My philosophy on expensive creatures is that you should not be able to take casting them for granted (like EDH players do), but once you manage this, you should be rewarded with a strong, reliable effect – not ending the game immediately, but certainly swinging it heavily in your favor and bringing it closer to its end. I don’t believe an effect is fitting for an expensive card if it is either too unreliable, too overwhelming (the card shouldn’t just read “You win the game”) or too passive (just dragging the game out).
As a 6/6 flyer for 6 mana, Malfegor already gives you quite a lot bang for your buck (keep in mind that I’m not talking constructed here, where 6 mana is simply too much for any creature which just attacks and blocks), but due to the heavy color commitment it requires, a little extra is definitely fine. That little extra turns out to be an ambiguous bonus, though, something you need to shape your hand and manipulate the board situation for. This is just not what a 6-mana card should be about – if you find the mana to cast it, you should be able to do so without reservations (barring specific game states), trusting that it will improve your situation. Also, a 6-mana card should always be a worthy topdeck into an empty hand to make up for the possibility to clog up your starting hand.
Malfegor is a strange card, because it gives you that reliable, strong, if not exactly spectacular effect ONLY when cast from an empty hand. Otherwise, it will probably (but not at all assuredly) be a lot stronger.
I don’t like this. If you happen to have a castable big creature in your hand, you should in most cases feel compelled to cast it immediately for its creatureness, with any additional abilities just being icing on the cake. Waiting to play it – given the option – for several more rounds, while collecting less important cards in your hand and at the same time making sure to cast important cards first, and then totally blowing out your opponent in one stroke… this may sound as if you were being rewarded for patience and careful planning, but will play out in most cases just as ignoring everything else which is going on in the game for a while, then ending it in one stroke.
My gripe with this card is not mainly its overall power level, although this may well prove be too high in any not too fast limited environment – it is the way it plays. Clever use of a card should be more subtle and reap incremental rewards, not be a matter of biding your time while assembling the ultimate weapon; and an additional ability on a strong expensive creature you cast at the first available opportunity shouldn’t be that erratic and varying so strongly, even if it usually turns out to benefit you. I appreciate the flavor of the concept to force you to spend all your resources for a killing spree immediately, but as is often the case, good flavor doesn’t make for good gameplay.
I don’t believe this card really fits in any cube, and of course its constructed applications are rather narrow (they exist – the card saw some fringe play in its standard time – but it is really hard to use properly and quite unreliable, and rather unfair if it happens to work as it is supposed, which are the signs of a too swingy card). Thus, I will give it an E, upgraded to E+ for its interesting flavor (of its mechanic, not of its stupid creature types combination), but downgraded again to E for sometimes ending games too easily and with too little opportunity for an opponent to interact with it.