Looking at a Random Card: Elvish Piper
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Elvish Piper: I realize my initial flood of entries in this category has slowed down to a trickle. While there are some RL reasons why I have been blogging a lot less lately, the main reason for this is still the following: The frequency of my blogging follows my motivation to do so, and my motivation to keep up the “Looking at a random card” feature depends substantially on the feedback I get, as I already noted. I won’t give up this feature unless I get the impression it is no longer read at all (which I don’t believe will ever happen), but I will adapt my posting frequency.
Now, to the Piper: On one hand, I have come to despise that card (no, the reason for that is not the artwork from Rebecca Guay on this version, although I hate her style); on the other hand, I realize that the card itself is not to blame as much for what I will dub now the “EDH mentality” – the idea that Magic is about dropping the most impressive and spectacular cards on the battlefield in an environment where concerns of efficiency are mostly irrelevant and any kind of disruption is being frowned upon. The Piper is so popular with casual players because it allows them to do what they want to: Ignore those annoying and boring mana requirements which serve to balance the extraordinary strength of their favorite creature cards by just enabling them to put those creatures into play directly! In my early days of working in a hobby shop I never understood why Quicksilver Amulet, which I knew to be a really weak card, was always sold out (with Elvish Piper, that issue was less discernible, since its base set printings made sure we had a steady supply of them, whereas Urza’s Legacy, which until recently was the only source for those Amulets, had been severely shortprinted due to the concurrent Pokemon boom). Being a tournament player, I knew that this artifact was just not useful at all in a competitive and fair environment, and it took me quite a while to realize that many people not just didn’t know better, but consciously chose to play in unbalanced, undefined environments where efficiency just wasn’t as important as pure impact.
While Quicksilver Amulet never played a role in any constructed environment, Elvish Piper, with its long lifespan and frequent reprints might have shown up as a fringe card here and there, especially in decks where being an Elf was an advantage while at the same time having 4 mana to cast it on turn three were almost guaranteed. I’m not sure if the Piper ever was anything else but cute at best and downright weakening decks without their designers realizing it at worst, but at least in theory I can see that it might make sense to bring it in from the sideboard in the right matchups against decks which happen to be weak against it, but even in those corner cases it is still likely that the Piper, while being a good choice, is still not the best choice. Generally, in constructed 4 mana is much more a cost threshold you accelerate into rather than investing it to accelerate out even more expensive cards. There are exceptions, but the Piper has the additional strikes against it of being extremely vulnerable to removal and needing a full turn to get online. And don’t forget that being just an enabler means that you still have to hold a “real” threat in your hand, although in some gamestates just being able to bluff you do might generate some sizable advantage, at least for a while.
So, the Piper is basically a dud in constructed formats, while enhancing the imbalance of casual play. However, I found that it can actually be quite an interesting option in limited environments! For this to be true, certain conditions have to be met, but these happen to be largely the same conditions which I consciously make sure apply to my cubes in general: First of all, getting the Piper active should not be able to produce too much swingyness. If there is a chance of throwing down a Drogskol Reaver or an Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite – in midcombat even! – that is not acceptable. However, since I am very consciously capping the power level of cards for my limited card pool, this won’t happen.
But an active Piper is still very useful even if its activation will not put immediately gamewinning creatures onto the battlefield. Of course, paying just one mana for your creatures is a huge advantage, even if these creatures are just in the range of Garruk’s Champion, Giant Spider or Moss Kami, but in addition, these creature cannot be countered, and much more importantly, put on the board at any time! This does not just make attacking very awkward for an opponent, it also allows you to keep mana open for all kinds of tricks without bereaving you of the opportunity to add a creature to the battlefield. All these options bundled into one package mean that even having to invest a card and spending 4 mana upfront are not enough of a cost. There must be additional disincentives to play the Piper rooted in an environment’s nature: It has to be slow and vulnerable. Spending 4 mana just on an enabler should substantially contribute to the danger of falling behind too much, and for that the environment must allow for fast, aggressive decks and feature enough removal to punish players who rely on a fragile 4-mana creature to turn the game around for them. But once again, these are features I routinely instill into my cubes! In the end, it comes down to this: If an environment is healthy overall, Elvish Piper works fine, being a strong 4-drop giving its controller a unique kind of presence in a duel. If, on the other hand, an environment already has issues, the Piper is likely to exacerbate them.
Now how do I grade such a card? I really don’t like that it is nearly unusable in fair constructed environments, but shines in casual environments by stressing some of their worst features, so I will downgrade the Piper for that. Concerning limited environments, this isn’t a bread-and-butter card – it must be used with care, and it is not fit to build the groundwork for an interesting cube. However, it can really add some spice to it, and especially in Green it is nice to have an option for a rare 4-mana creature which is not mainly attractive because of its size. Also, Elvish Piper’s ability is quite elegant, very easy to process but at the same time influencing gameplay in a very deep and complex way. All in all, I hand out a C- here, downgraded from a C for the Piper’s unpleasant behavior in constructed/casual environments.