The Cube According to Gatherer, Part 13 – Aura You Okay, Gatherer?
I can’t help wondering if Gatherer is intentionally feeding me mechanics.
I know that’s impossible. Asking for random cards from Gatherer is an education in chaos. And since I spend a fair amount of my time finding shapes in the chaotic systems of games, I’m well aware that there are going to be times when chaos does not look like chaos at all. It looks like a guiding hand manipulating events.
We can witness this process in action. Let’s do a quick test, shall we? I’m using the coin toss generator at shodor.org to simultaneously flip one hundred coins. On the thirteenth flip, however, something weird happened. I got identical results in both sets. Specifically, I flipped four tails, then a heads, then another tails.
The chances that six coin flips in a row will produce the same results is really low. Approximately 1.5%. That’s an incredible coincidence. But only because we’re cherry picking from the data. The human mind is an excellent survival tool, and millions of years of evolution taught us that patterns are important. Patterns can help you learn, and learning helps you survive. So our mind locks onto four tails, a heads, and another tails and attempts to explain the pattern. But by doing so, it ignores the obvious reason why the pattern was created. Here’s the first 100 flips result:
And the second set of results:
It certainly would be interesting if I flipped a coin six times, then flipped it six more times and got the same results. But that would only be amazing if I somehow predicted that exact sequence of events. It would cease to be amazing if I predicted it fifty or so times until it happened to happen. The truth is that getting six identical flips in a row anywhere within two sets of 100 flips is not only unremarkable, it would be more remarkable if it didn’t happen. After all, there’s a 1.5% chance it will happen every time we flip the two coins 95 times (we can’t succeed past the 95th time, because we aren’t allowed to flip six coins past flip number 95.) I’m no mathemagician, but I think the Bernoulli Process would put our odds of success approximately at a 76% chance (Comments from actual mathemagicians are always welcome.)
So, no, there is no hand manipulating events, forcing me to flip strange patterns in coins. Nor is Gatherer doing anything more than displaying Magic cards at random. But even knowing this, it never fails to amaze me when the cards align, and patterns emerge.
Like the first half of this week’s selection, for example. Gatherer couldn’t stop pitching Auras, or cards that manipulated auras, or cards that work well with auras. Even when it sent me a card that didn’t necessarily call out auras, it found a card with the word ‘Aura’ in the card’s title…
Aura Shards feels excessive for limited. Assuming your deck includes creatures, and your opponent’s deck includes artifacts and/or enchantments, well… now they don’t. It doesn’t help that gold cards gum up cube color balance. But I could use more artifact and enchantment removal. And Aura Shards’ two color restriction means it won’t make an appearance in every completed draft. So maybe it sounds like a bad idea, but is secretly a great idea. Like a cologne that smells like fresh baked bread.
The obvious paring for Aura Shards is token generation. And the cube already includes an token insect theme. But I’m concerned about Blue. One of Blue’s themes is “Having exactly one creature more than you.” If Green and/or White goes wide with token creatures, Blue won’t win its share of fights.
So far I designed a few blue cards that played into this theme, starting when Gatherer gave me Unified Will in Log Six. But those cards drove home the idea of controlling more creatures, not necessarily the idea of ‘exactly one more creature.’ That needs to change. Blue’s version of creature dominance must look different. It’s time to reward cutting it close.
Much like a traditional boy band, there are five rivers that run through Hades in Greek Mythology. The River Styx is the breakout star with a solo career that forms the boundary between our world and the underworld. Since most people only know the celebrity Styx, and they know there’s a river in Hades that makes you forget everything you once knew with but a touch, they tend to conflate the two. But it’s the strong and silent river Lethe that provides oblivion, not Styx. A Lethemancer, therefore, is a very dangerous wizard whose spells center on making people forget.
Lethemancer is great for the team if you’re ahead on creature count, even occasionally. But he’s a dead draw if you’re behind. That’s why I gave him cycling. I also gave him the ability to bounce himself for . Paying to trade a useless creature on the table for a new card isn’t great, but at least it’s an option.
Okay, Gatherer. Show me what you got!
Academy Researchers. The Urza Block never fails to impress. Researchers, and many other overpowered cards, slipped through the cracks because they didn’t win the game on turn two. That entire year was more broke than china in a bull shop.
Admittedly, the low selection of overpowered auras in 1999 also kept this card in check. Players probably thought Researchers was a strong choice combined with Zephid’s Embrace. And yes, a 4/4 untargetable, flying creature for is strong. But if Eldrazi Conscription was in print back then, we could have packed up our binders and all quit playing Magic. We got there.
The Researchers are a good snag for the cube, since there are plenty of auras to attach. But Researchers really want a large blue aura to abuse, and the cube doesn’t feature one yet. Time for that to change, neh?
While I wanted to give Academy Researchers something great to enchant it, I didn’t want to close out the game by round four. Full of Notions plays into the theme of an aura filled deck. Instead of a massive, or dominating creature, you get a 4/4 Wizard, two Illusions, and double tutors for . If you’re on theme, a round three Researcher should result in a great game, but it’s a game your opponent can respond to. What fun is winning if your opponent concedes before they can establish the illusion of control?
What else ya got, Gatherer?
This… is starting to get silly.
Since auras need a body, and tend to end up in the graveyard, Monk Idealist is perfect for an aura deck. I have no problems with the Idealist specifically. But I am concerned about the total volume of auras in the set. Currently, there are 17. That might not seem like a big number, but there’s 21 White cards. If auras keep pushing, they’ll become their own color.
So instead of designing yet another aura, I made something that takes advantage of the high number of enchantments in set without calling auras out specifically.
Costing this is a tricky proposal. I assumed that most players would want to sacrifice a one or two cost aura. If a 3/3 with vigilance can cost , and an enchant creature for can grant +2/+2, then Tiger’s Poise is still an upgrade for . Probably.
But maybe I underdid it. Maybe this creature will always be bouncing to hand because you got no enchantments to sacrifice to it. I can think of worse things than a Spiritcraft trigger for every turn.
Arachnus Spider. Awkward. I previously designed a vanilla 5/7 for . I guess I need to change that card’s stats at some point. Also, this is the first green card in our cube to officially be anti-flying. Our anti-flying theme was mono in Red, but I knew that wasn’t going to last forever. At least this feels more like a bonus ability stapled to a big creature. The last awkward bit is the Arachnus Web part. Here, let’s add that to the box as well.
I got zero problems with Arachnus Web. It provides yet another on theme aura, and some rare green creature removal. The awkward part is that we have a mechanic named Masquerade which is supposed to work with cards that call out specific card titles, and it doesn’t work with this card. Here, let me pull Children of Men forward, the aforementioned 5/7 vanilla for .
I wrote the Masquerade mechanic to say it counts as “every creature name”. That was intentional, to prevent weird interactions like Arachnus Spider fetching Children of Men from your library and ‘enchanting’ another creature with it. My wording worked, and that’s good. It’s just… it’s annoying when a card doesn’t quite line up with the mechanics of a set. It’s like giving a box of square stoppers to a plumber.
I can’t plug up our square stopper problem, but I can at least make a Masquerade card that does work with Arachnus Spider. Maybe that can help ease the sting.
Quarry Mimic isn’t designed to work exclusively with Arachnus Spider. It’s a nice bonus, but that isn’t the point. More often than not, it will be what you find when you went looking for a land. You (usually) wouldn’t hunt for the hunter on round one by cracking a Terramorphic Expanse. But being able to transform a late game Expanse into a 2/2 body at instant speed? That’s a useful trick.
Moving along. Gatherer says I need a…
Oh, look! It’s Sedge Troll. One of the few creatures from Alpha that’s oddly balanced for our current environment. Weird.
I’m already working on an off-color activation cycle for enemy colors. But Sedge Troll infers an allied cycle, like Flinthoof Boar and friends in M13, or Sunblade Elf and friends in M15. And I like friends.
The trick is combining Sedge Troll’s ability while taking advantage of already existing mechanics in the set.
Originally, I planned to write “: ~ gains reach.” But even though reach in red is a theme of the set, it felt wrong putting reach on a green card by way of red mana. So I swapped reach for “Target creature loses flying.” But then I had a different problem. If the ability was cheap, then this one card could potentially gum up combat, preventing players from committing to attack. But losing flying would look silly if it was expensive. In the end I ramped the activation cost and combined losing flying with ‘must attack’. That’s one way to prevent a stalled board.
How are we feeling Gatherer? You up for another card?
Hah! I thought about vetoing this card for wordiness, but how can I say no to Clockwork Steed? The card is fun, and oddly playable, despite four design frowns:
- +1/+0 counters.
- A limit to the amount of counters you can add.
- An ability that can only be activated during your upkeep.
- Some odd trinket flavor about not being able to be blocked by artifact creatures, on a card that’s doing more lines than a disco groupie at Studio 54.
If you can get past all those design quirks, you can ride your very own Giddy-Up Buttercup. Yee-haw.
Clockwork makes for some fun cards. And it matches our counter theme. Is there any way we can bolster another set mechanic while we’re at it? Who cares? Let’s make something awesome and clockwork!
I’m stealing a concept from the first casual Magic set I designed. By now most of the file is garbage. It’s been a decade and a half since I made it, and expectations of what players want and what makes good design is radically different. Also, a number of good mechanics I designed were independently designed by Wizards (Inspiration and keywording Skulk, for example.)
That said, the set did two things right imho. It put such a heavy focus on tapping and untapping that Twiddle was a strong limited trick. And I really enjoyed the flavor. The story of the block centered on a world under the influence of an out of control weather spell. Consequently, the entire plane was underwater. The constant question “What would this look like if underwater?” resulted in many strange and interesting designs.
Both those ideas were fun. I don’t know… maybe I’ll redo the set soup to nuts some day. For the meantime, I’m going to wheel out the old clockwork octopus and take him for a ride. This isn’t how he was originally designed. But it’s close enough to drag a smile out of me.
For our next random card, Gatherer chose Mother of Runes. I gave it a lot of thought, but in the end I decided to veto this card.
Gatherer’s comment and rating system are still broken. But if it never broke, the next article would have been the top ten white cards according to Gatherer. And if that article existed, Mom is a strong contender for the top ten [I recently ran the numbers, but it’s hard to know for sure. An interesting quirk in Gatherer is that any card which has yet to be rated immediately becomes ‘the worst’. Mom saw three different reprints that count as ‘the worst’. But her score in Urza’s Legacy is an impressive 4.583. Meanwhile, of the current batch of theoretical ‘top ten White cards’, four are bolstered by cards that received an insufficient number of votes when the system was falling apart. A five star rating established by four voters is no way to anoint ‘the best of the best’. Given all this, Mom is likely to slot somewhere between sixth and ninth place.]
Why is Mom too good for our cube? Let’s count the things a one mana mama can do:
- She makes short work of Pacifisms and Dehydrations.
- She makes creatures you control unblockable against mono-colored decks, and a challenge to block profitably against two-three color decks.
- Alternatively, she can prevent all damage of a single color to your attacking creature post-blocks, forcing your opponent to at least double block with two different colored creatures if they want to deal damage.
- She can make one of your creatures a blocking machine.
- She’s a creature. Therefore she, herself, could be a blocking a machine.
- If you aren’t using her to hijack combat steps, then as long as she remains on the table two targeting spells will be needed to kill any creature (Since your opponent can’t afford to play the game this way, Mom tends to absorb both those kill spells.)
- Letting Mom stop the first spell from firing, then countering the second spell is both a common enough occurrence, and downright evil.
On top of everything else, Mom comes down on round one, ready to play the game before most kill spells can take advantage of her summoning sickness. Playing Mom on round one, doesn’t guarantee a win. But after playing a few games against tea toting mama, you’ll wonder if you should save everybody the time and concede before moving to round two. I love my Mom, but living with her is too frustrating. Better to kick her out of the house and get on with it.
Okay, okay. This is weird, I know. I kicked Mom out, but kept Aether Vial, another bomb which was banned in both Mirrodin Block Constructed, and Extended. And I know a number of you would like to point out that Aether Vial was an accidental casualty with the rest of the affinity combo pieces, but let’s be honest. You could cut Aether Vial out of affinity and barely notice. Many players did. It was mostly there to increase the cheap artifact count, and maybe slip an occasional Disciple of the Vault past a Mana Leak. If you ever played a Frogmite using Aether Vial, it probably came with a stern warning from your third grade teacher that recess was over.
No, Wizards banned Aether Vial because it turbo charged any fast creature deck in an environment that, post-affinity, was still dominated by Goblins. Vial ignores mana screw, overlooks colored mana requirements, increases your drop rate, shrugs at counterspells, and air drops creatures in the middle of combat. All it asks in return is that one of the one drop creatures in your hand will be delayed for a turn.
But while I know that Aether Vial is Willy Wonka and a chocolate factory bonkers, I also know that it works best in hyper efficient decks. Decks that consistently play a threat on round one, two, three, and four. In those decks, it doubles your plays.
But in a Limited environment with mana issues and one that’s loaded with tough to overcome high-cost bombs? Aether Vial should be reasonably insane. Maybe Aether Vial will encourage players to make a deck that’s a glorious rush of two-drops. That would be awesome to witness. I’d love to see Aether Vial prove me wrong. “Because it supported a new archetype that was surprisingly too powerful” is one of the most fun reasons to ban a card.
I did give Aether Vial serious scrutiny, though. If you’re interested, cube makers at mtgsalvation’s forums hashed quite a bit over this subject as well. A warning: these players are questioning whether Aether Vial is good enough, because they run powermax cubes. My cube is nowhere near their power levels. I still found their takes interesting.
As per when I pulled overpowered cards before, I don’t feel a need to make a card that intentionally combos with it, so I won’t bother. Instead, I’m filling out the Sedge Troll cycle. It doesn’t hurt to make the creature cheap, though, to casually pair with Aether Vial. I mean, I’m going to need cheap creatures either way.
This hits three themes in one: It’s a one-cost Sedge Troll that mills. Originally it hit four, since the flying trigger was based on flipping Instants and Sorceries. But that felt too random. So I asked for matching card type minigame. Feels more fun that way.
Another sixteen cards down, for a total of 155 out of 360. I’m getting close to the halfway point.
Bonus token time!
Since Clockwork Steed appeared, I thought it would be cool to print four +1/+0 tokens. They are gears ’cause clockwork. And yes, I’ll be conflicted if Endless Scream appears. Maybe the gears are why he’s screaming? Not that he’s being tortured or anything. He could be a venting Internet troll who hates steampunk.
Personally speaking, I don’t know why Wizards doesn’t print +1/+1 counter tokens. Counters and dice don’t fit as nicely in a deck box, and you would think that counter tokens would add value to the sets that include them, like poison counters did. The average serious collector would want… maybe thirty or so? Combined with different artwork per block… I don’t get it. Why hasn’t this happened yet?
Well we’re obviously not going to crack that mystery any time soon. In the meantime, click here to head to part 14, or perhaps you’d like to look through the According to Gatherer archive? Don’t mind me. I’m peace-ing out. Peace!