I want to preface this post by saying that I think that Wizards has been doing an incredible job recently with Magic design and development. The past two blocks have been awesome and have showcased a great sense of what makes for a fun gameplay, while retaining interesting and flavorful design. Since Return to Ravnica was released, we haven’t really seen any single deck stand out as truly dominant for an extended period of time. Sure, there have been format mainstays, like Jund, but no deck has remained at the top of the heap forever like Delver or Caw-Blade did.
A big part of this has been the changing way that Wizards has designed reactive cards. Where once there was Go for the Throat, Dismember, and Mana Leak, now we have Tragic Slip, Victim of Night, and Essence Scatter. Moving from having powerful universal reactive cards available to more narrow ones means that savvy deckbuilders can look at what kind of removal and countermagic is played in the most popular decks and react accordingly. If everyone is playing red removal and wrath effects, Falkenrath Aristocrat is a great threat – not so much if people are playing with Tragic Slip. If everyone is playing Essence Scatters, you can lean on powerful non-creature effects like Domri Rade and Chandra, Pyromaster.
In a world of Mana Leaks, however, this just isn’t true. Mana Leak is good against spells that cost two mana or more. If you look at the decks that thrived toward the end of Delver’s reign in Standard, they were primarily decks that had a ton of aggressive one mana creatures like Zombies or decks that were playing four copies of Cavern of Souls, like Naya Pod (amusingly, Zombies fell into both of these categories). That’s not nearly as interesting a kind of counterplay as against different kinds of removal. You can’t change up your threats except to make them all the same type and play Cavern, or make them all cost as little mana as possible.
I had the same feeling when Lifebane Zombie came out. If you are playing a green or white creature deck, there is no interesting counterplay to Lifebane Zombie. If you have a creature in your hand, it will take it, and you’re not getting it back. You can’t choose to play a different green or white creature that matches up better against it, except – amusingly enough – playing all incredibly cheap creatures and hoping to completely empty your hand of them by the time your opponent can play Lifebane Zombie, which is hardly a reasonable strategy against a three casting cost creature.
Thoughtseize made me feel the same way except magnified tenfold. Thoughtseize is an incredibly powerful card, and it’s also an incredibly unfun card in much the same way Mana Leak is. If the best deck is one with Thoughtseize, there’s nothing you can really do to improve your matchup against them, because they can always just Thoughtseize it out of your hand. Thoughtseize is perhaps the true biggest offender as to why Modern Jund has been so consistently powerful, because there’s virtually nothing you can even sideboard in against them that can’t just be ripped out of your hand for one mana and two life.
I see people arguing that it needed to be reprinted because it’s so expensive and it’s a Modern staple. That’s fine – reprint it in Modern Masters. I’m sure the reason they didn’t do so is financially motivated. I can imagine someone in a room arguing that they shouldn’t reprint all of the most in demand Modern cards in that set and instead sprinkle them around in Standard legal sets to help drive sales of those. I can respect that decision – I’m a game designer, and I understand that it’s important to drive sales. But Thoughtseize is perhaps the worst possible card to reprint, because it’s so universally disruptive to anything anyone wants to do.
With a card like Duress, you have a specific purpose for playing it. You probably want to break up your opponent’s combo, or take their key planeswalker or removal spell. When you play Duress and it works how you had planned, you feel clever, because you put that card in your deck for a reason. Do you ever feel clever for choosing to play Thoughtseize? Congrats, you figured out your opponent’s deck was going to contain non-land cards they might want to cast at some point. You’re like some kind of prophet!
I’d rather have something like Dark Confidant in Standard – that could actually lead to fun games and interesting deck building decisions and compelling game play. He’d fit right in with the flavor of Theros, too, and as long as the format isn’t like Modern where you can play so much cheap utility – you know, like Thoughtseize – his ability isn’t nearly as powerful and is actually a legitimate risk.
I’m not looking forward to living with Thoughtseize for the next two years. All it does is make Magic less fun. And just when I thought Wizards was doing so well, too…
(I was going to talk about my other design criques of Theros here as well, but my Thoughtseize rant got long enough that I’ll save them for another post)