Looking at a Random Card: Jerrard of the Closed Fist
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Jerrard of the Closed Fist: So, we have a legend, from the first Magic set ever to feature legends, and quite obviously considering them its major selling point: Legends. And then we get THIS.
I think this card tells us an important lesson: That awesomeness isn’t an intrinsic quality, but relative to a given context. The legends from Legends, as underpowered, boring, badly designed and sometimes downright unplayable as they are when seen from a modern perspective, were considered cool beyond cool at the time they came out (the ridiculous scarcity of the set helped some, of course)! They were multicolored, which was a novelty and a nearly ungraspable idea at the time. They were legendary, which was another new rules concept underscoring their uniqueness (pretty heavy-handed, but it did the job). Oh, and they were reasonably big creatures mostly without other disadvantages than their mana cost – and while this might be hard to believe if you didn’t play Magic in its beginnings, that was quite unusual then!
Nowadays you wouldn’t blink at a 6/5 for 5G, and it would probably be mediocre even in limited, but in 1994 any creature bigger than a Craw Wurm which didn’t threaten to kill you during your upkeep raised eyebrows. How expectations and perception have changed! All but the most obviously broken big creatures (like, say, Primeval Titan) are greeted with a resounding “meh” from the community (it happened to Consecrated Sphinx – imagine that!) today. But back then, players would open a pack of legends, find Jerrard (in an uncommon slot even!) and their jaws would drop. True, it helped that the relevance of mana cost was a lot less understood back then (even when compared to the standards of spoiled EDH players)… Legends were considered powerful, even though they were unplayable in any halfway serious environment even then, and they were considered flavorful, even if they were just vanilla creatures with unwieldy mana costs and a creature type bringing rules baggage with it. (BTW, I love the taste of vanilla!)
Jerrard of the Closed Fist is a perfect example to illustrate coolness creep in Magic – what was exciting yesterday is standard fare today and will be boring tomorrow. It doesn’t seem there is a way for WotC to escape that spiral – that’s why we got double-faced cards in Innistrad, and that’s why we have to expect more and more ever sillier gimmicks from them in the future: Nothing gets old as fast as the new!
As a player, you have to escape that escalation by stepping back and stepping out – you know, sit by a lake, smell the air, watch the birds, sniff the roses… or just build a cube by consciously avoiding the “cool” cards, getting back to the roots of this game. If you have no longer fun saving Grizzly Bears from a Shock with a Giant Growth, then no amount of novelty will be able to reinvigorate your Magic passion, not even five-star commander flavor drafts with random planeshopping and embedded archenemy subgames. It’s one thing to spice up your sex life with the occasional kink, but when all that’s left is searching for even more extreme perversions to indulge in, combining the most unusual fetishes with the most depraved practices to still get a kick because you no longer enjoy the simple touch of another human being, you have lost the connection to the essence of the erotic experience.
Magic is no different (that is true for all passions). “Boring” is a quality which exists in your mind. When you have become so jaded that you start debating if a card like Dungeon Geists is “cubeworthy”, the issue lies with your way you play this game.
I’m not advocating a return to Magic as it was played at the time of Legends, of course – the game had a lot of serious flaws back then. However, when you find yourself at a point where you read the column of Adam Styborski in search for a “fresh” Magic variant, or if you feel like participating in a discussion with Usman the Rad about which cards are “cubeworthy”, it is high time that you throw all those fancy rares and mythics and all those double-faced cards, effects which double tokens and creatures with infect aside and get back to the roots of this game; smell the Bears, feel the Shocks, experience the Terrors. Renounce the purely passive experience of awesomenesss and actively create an exciting gaming experience, using your understanding of the game and your imagination. Do not become the Magic equivalent to the guy who can no longer jerk off unless he is wrapped up airtight in rubber, tortured by electric currents through his nipples and shat on his face by dogs. There’s nothing wrong with kink in itself, but it is problematic when it starts replacing the sensation it was supposed to enhance.
Back to the card: While, in the long run, it is more enjoyable to play with Jerrard than it is with Primeval Titan, of course to be truly enjoyable a card must give you the right amount of impact for the resources you invest in it, and to be worthy an unwieldy color commitment like Jerrard does, it should bring a little more to the board than just a big body. Bland, big mediocrity is a useful tool in a cube, but it fits better on an easy-to cast creature like Vastwood Gorger, or Streetbreaker Wurm if you want the card to be RG. If you have a slot for something powerful and flashy, something like Borborygmos might serve you well.
It is one thing to consciously use less powerful cards, but there is some kind of zone (with its border set by parameters defined by the rules of Magic) wherein cards on different power levels are enjoyable. A card can be too weak not only compared to available alternatives, but in the context of the game overall – Magic obviously wouldn’t be fun if its most efficient creatures were 1/1s for 8 mana or 20/20s for 1 mana. Jerrard is outside of this zone, just being too unwieldy for its ability to influence the game. You can use it in a cube, and you could even construct that cube in a way that it makes sense for players to base their game plans around casting this kind of legend (I guess that is what drafting Master’s Edition III was about a lot) by making big creatures desirable and scarce, but these games wouldn’t be very enjoyable.
Comparing Jerrard of the Closed Fist to other cards I have rated so far, I just stumbled over my entry for Johan. Note that I looked at that card from a different angle: As a three-colored-legend, I expected it to be something special (which a three-colored creature – hybrid shenanigans aside – always should be to avoid coolness creep). With Jerrard, I was more interested in its function to fill out a set with a multicolor theme – it was an uncommon in Legends, and seeing its stats, that was still too rare. I largely ignored the idea that, as a legend, it should have been especially interesting. Still, that is an additional design flaw: Being barely usable among a selection of unusable big creatures is a bad reason to declare a creature legendary.
At first I tended towards handing out an E+, because the usefulness of Jerrard corresponds to that of Tireless Missionaries or Terrain Generator – it doesn’t break anything, and if you really wanted, you could make it matter, but you just shouldn’t and instead find better alternatives. However, being legendary creates an incongrousness with its design – even considering that legends were brand new when it came out – that I feel the need to downgrade Jerrard to an E. Yes, they should have known better even back then…