Monday, June 22, 2009

Grim Tidings #4: M-10 Rules Changes & The Effect of 5-Color

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
5-Color is an alternate format for Magic: the Gathering, consisting of a 250 card deck, with a minimum of 20 cards from each color. It maintains its own Banned & Restricted list at

This last week Wizards of the Coast released an preliminary explanation of the upcoming M10 revisions to the Magic: the Gathering game. Many long-time people have jumped on the band wagon, complaining reasons why they are disgusted with the revisions, and ranting that this might be the end of their Magic career.


A lot of people complain about a lot of things on the Internet. Its mostly hot air. The percentage of people who actually quit because the Game designers tweak a couple of rules and changed a few fantasy metaphors with terminology is small. If you examine the people who are doing most of the complaining, you’ll find a group who is wildly passionate about their hobby, and love the game that entertains them. What you have to remember though is that these people are still “wildly passionate”. Their passion is already present, and will remain despite the changes. They wouldn’t get so worked up over this if it wasn’t.

All it will take is a few weeks until the new rules are mandatory, and they will adjust. Its happened before (Sixth Edition) and it will likely happen again. Get over it. Complaining isn’t going to change anything.

That said, I do feel a bit disenfranchised as a veteran casual player by Wizard's explanation of why they proceeded with this action:

“To figure out exactly where the problems were, we got into the mind of the casual player—not the player knee-deep in regular sanctioned play or Magic Online, but rather the one who plays our game at home, at school, or at the small local shop… We went out in the field and played against such players—players who love, love, love Magic but don't have the need or desire to devote themselves to learning all the ins and outs of the rules.”

“So why is it important to make sure these players' intuition is most often correct? Aren't they content playing with their own messy version of the rules? They are—up to a point, and that point is when they leave their circles and joins the larger, more rules-compliant crowd.”

This reasoning ticks me off, to a degree. I have supported this company and game for the last 15 years, and have made every effort to be competent and familiar with the rules. It is not too much to ask new players to abide by the correct rulings. If they truly “love love love” the game, I would expect them to invest some time and actually read the rulebook. They should not be intimidated when the “larger, more rules compliant crowd” informs them that they aren’t playing the game correctly. They should be relived that the rules compliant crowd exists to tell them what they are doing is incorrect, and be happy to learn and become better players. I do not feel it is necessary to revert the game to meet their guesswork. Its insulting to the veterans, including myself, who have made the commitment to the game.

Meanwhile, the rules changes are already made, and their effect will inevitably be discovered on or before July 11, 2009. How will they effect the 5-color format?

I’ll examine them in the order as presented by Wizards, and I’ll attempt to point out examples of relevant 5-color cards that have actually been used in my experience with the format.
“1) Simultaneous Mulligans - The Fix: Mulligans will now officially be handled simultaneously. This will significantly cut down on time spent shuffling before each tournament game.”

This honestly has zero impact on the 5-color format. The 5-color format already have a unique “Big Deck” mulligan procedures, and they are far more generous than the standard Paris mulligan. Most casual 5-color players I know are so lenient that they even allow additional mulligans anyways.

Needless to say, the new Mulligan rules hardly apply to competitive 5-color, much less casual 5.

“2) Terminology Changes
2A) Battlefield
2B) Cast, Play, and Activate
2C) Exile”

Blah blah bah. Mechanically, this doesn’t really do anything to change the game. I think this actually may cause confusion to the newest of players who aren’t necessarily familiar with the previous wordings from Alara and prior. But overall, these changes are truly cosmetic.

Wizards admits a slight functional change to the Six Wishes and Ring of Ma'rûf. This certainly diminishes these cards o some degree, as they are commonly played in 5-color games. Living Wish is probably the worst effected, as Swords to Plowshares is the most ubiquitous RFG removal spell in the format, but due to other graveyard hosers such as Tormod’s Crypt or Jund Charm, all of the wishes are effected in some manner. Most 5-color players I know who use the Wishes prepare a separate Wishboard anyways, which mostly serves as a Toolbox for difficult situations.

“2D) Beginning of the End Step”

Again, this is a mostly cosmetic change that doesn’t really effect 5-color as far as I can see, although I chuckle at the example given with Rakdos Guildmage.

“It boggles the mind that if you activate this ability during the end step, after "at end of turn" triggers have already triggered, that you'd get to keep the token through nearly the entire next turn. This was called the "end-of-turn loophole," and it wasn't a problem for power reasons—it was a problem because it was ridiculously unintuitive. I think that confusion is alleviated not only by using the new template, but by adding the word "next" within it…”

So what they’re essentially saying is by adding the word “next” we can justify how unintuitive it still is. The mechanics didn’t change, so you still keep the token through the next turn, but if they are happy with this explanation, alright, so be it.

“3) Mana Pools and Mana Burn
3A) Mana Pools Emptying - The Fix: Mana pools now empty at the end of each step and phase, which means mana can no longer be floated from the upkeep to the draw step, nor from the declare attackers step to the declare blockers step of combat.”

This doesn’t specifically affect 5-color any more than it affects Magic in general. If you find yourself occasionally floating mana in your upkeep just in case you want to use for your draw, I guess you’ll have to get used to the change. Braid of Fire wasn’t a very popular 5-color card anyways. This removal should have little effect.

“3B) Mana Burn Eliminated - The Fix: Mana burn is eliminated as a game concept. Mana left unspent at the end of steps or phases will simply vanish, with no accompanying loss of life.”

Wizards claims it is” jarring” for players to learn about mana burn. I find this hard to believe, as it has always been part of the rules, and its not hidden. The introductory rules handout explains this concept well, so if a beginning player is unaware of the rule, its their own fault.

However, you can’t deny that many competitive and casual 5-color decks include a decent quantity of artifacts, and/or are packed with really juicy, expensive spells to spend the excess mana on. As a result, I suspect Mana Drain and Tolarian Academy will start to see more play in 5-color. I’ve typically chosen to not include these two cards in my decks unless the deck was heavily artifact- or counterspell-centric, but now I may have to reconsider. If there is no downside to having all of the excess mana (no burn) why wouldn’t I try to reap the benefits of tempo swing by always playing Mana Drain?

Another somewhat popular 5-color card that is slightly affected by this revision is Spectral Searchlight. Although it is not normally intended for damage, it did have some innate versatility to “ping for 1” if you were desperate, (or just wanted to be a jerk at the end of your opponent’s turn!)

There are some quirky 5-color decks out there that make use of Mirror Universe as well. The elimination of Mana burn will revert Mirror Universe to its original intent, a way to save you from dying, rather than a kill mechanism. At least there is still Necropotence available for this combo.

“In 99.9% of Magic games, of course, you'll never even notice mana burn is gone.”

Where exactly does Wizards get these stats? Please, let us be the judge of this.

“4) Token Ownership - The Fix: We are matching most players' expectation by changing the rule such that the owner of a token is, in fact, the player under whose control it entered the battlefield.”

I have to admit, in 15 years, I never really thought about this obscure rule. It never occurred to me that my opponent didn’t own the occasional token that I give to him. How could I have missed the fact those were MY Crib Swap changelings, MY Forbidden Orchard spirits, and MY Hunted Troll faeries. Well, its too late now. I feel like I missed out on years of exploitation.

Anyways, Some of these cards are used commonly in 5-color, but the exploiting cards never were. Warp World and Brand combos were never consistent enough to be used in a 250 card library. Now that they’ve fixed the ownership rule, I’m positive they never will.

“5) Combat Damage No Longer Uses the Stack - The Reality: The intricate system via which combat is currently handled creates many unintuitive gameplay moments. For starters, "the stack" is a difficult concept, even after all these years, so it is no wonder that many players go about combat without invoking it at all. Second, creatures disappearing after damage has been put on the stack leads to a ton of confusion and disbelief: How is that Mogg Fanatic killing two creatures? How did that creature kill mine but make your Nantuko Husk big enough to survive? How can you Unsummon your creature and have it still deal damage? While many of us may be used to the way things are now, it makes no sense in terms of a game metaphor and only a bit more sense as a rule.”

“The Fix: As soon as damage is assigned in the combat damage step, it is dealt. There is no time to cast spells and activate abilities in between; the last time to do so prior to damage being dealt is during the declare blockers step.”

This rule change has caused the most consternation and unrest amongst players than any other revision.

This fix may actually be more complicated, as players now need to track and manage ordering their blockers. This by itself in counter-intuitive in the combat metaphor, as in a melee, I can hardly imagine blockers lining up and taking their turns getting clobbered by a much larger attacker. I think ordering blockers may ultimately become the next point of confusion for new players to comprehend. Afterall, if they couldn’t grasp the stack, how will they manage this? I think this could have been simply fixed (for the most part) by just adding a clarification saying you cant sacrifice a creature that has been assigned lethal damage.

Regardless, what’s done is done. The biggest loss for me with this change is Mogg Fanatic. I really liked Mogg Fanatic; one because he’s red, and two because he is a 1-drop. Red has traditionally been the worst color in the format, as the card pool isn’t as deep as it is with other powerhouse colors, such as white. With the revision to the combat damage, I’m sadly going to have to find a replacement.

Sakura Tribe Elder is another 5-color staple that is going to take a hit. STE now can’t fetch a land after chump-blocking. I won’t miss him too bad though, because I’ve always advocated that Farhaven Elf is better anyways.

A long time favorite of mine is Etched Oracle. I still find myself playing with this. It’s certainly a mid-range card, but for 4 mana, you get a 4/4, that can Ancestral Recall before it dies. I suppose it will still draw three before a Wrath or Plowshare, but it is diminished slightly by not being able to sacrifice itself after a block.

There are certainly other cards that see play in 5-color that will be hurt. Morphling tricks will be a thing of the past. I guess its unintuitive to see a Shapeshifter pump up to a 5/1, putting damage on the stack, and then switch to an 0/8.

Ravenous Baloth and Fulminator Mage are other cards of note that I can think of that with some 5-color relevance.

"6) Deathtouch - The Fix: First, deathtouch is becoming a static ability. Creatures dealt damage by a source with deathtouch will be destroyed as a state-based effect at the same time lethal damage would kill them. As a side effect, multiple instances of deathtouch will no longer be cumulative.
Second, deathtouch allows a double-blocked creature to ignore the new damage assignment rules and split its damage among any number of creatures it's in combat with however its controller wants to."

I view this fix as collateral damage to eliminating the damage on stack. It probably won’t have much impact on 5-color in any event. After scanning my current and archived 5-color decklists, I could only find one related card in Ohran Viper. And technically it doesn’t even have Deathtouch!

So what does it really mean for the future 5-color? Well, for starters, Deathtouch is kind of the new trample. It is the ability that lets you circumvent the new ordered blockers, and gain card advantage in a sneaky fashion.

I may test out Quietus Spike to see how advantageous it really is. I always prefer equipment for special abilities, because eif my creature dies somehow, I will still retain the artifact for later use.

Tidehollow Strix may be another Deathtouch creature to emerge in 5-color, as it combines a very efficient casting cost with a pair of excellent abilities. Could this be my future replacement for Mogg Fanatic? Perhaps, perhaps.

“7) Lifelink - The Fix: Lifelink, like deathtouch, is turning into a static ability. If a source with lifelink deals damage, its controller gains that much life as that damage is being dealt. This brings the timing much closer to spells like Consume Spirit and Lightning Helix. As a side effect, multiple instances of lifelink are no longer cumulative.”

This is another collateral fix to changing damage on the stack. And the fact that it is static will effect 5-color. Some of the most popular cards out there for 5-color utilize Lifelink, notably: Exalted Angel, Loxodon Warhammer, and Divinity of Pride. While you certainly still gain life from these creatures, the cumulative triggers from the pre- M-10 rules will probably be missed.

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