Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on December 18, 2012. We’re flashing back to some of our best from the past several years every Friday, because what’s old is new again. Erik specifically have been on a tear about the shortcomings apparent in Wizards’ ability to design for EDH. Cassidy aggreed, back in 2012 no less!

 

Let’s start with a statement:

Wizards of the Coast can design great EDH cards when they try.

Let’s follow that statement with another statement:

They don’t seem to try all that often.

And following that, the benchmark example of a card designed for EDH:

I know…low-hanging fruit.  I get that.  There’s a point, though.

Let me ask this question:

Why is Command Tower a successful EDH card?

There are several levels that you can access this question at.  It’s printed at common, which puts it into the hands of even the most cash-strapped players.  It specifically only matters to EDH, as it doesn’t function at all outside of the format.  It goes in every deck.  (Well, unless your general is colorless.   And there isn’t much point to running it in a mono-colored deck, but it technically does work.

Is it the easy and cheap no-strings-attached mana fixing?  That’d probably be the most logical choice.  However, I personally think it succeeds primarily for one reason:

It came to be while WotC was specifically designing for EDH.

Let me put it another way for better perspective:

Wizards of the Coast can’t seem to design an EDH card unless they’re specifically catering to the format.

The Commander Pre-Cons that came out two years ago did a ton of stuff for the format.  It brought attention, and attention brought new players.  This is generally good.

The new players brought a general increase in singles prices due to raised demand.  This is generally bad, unless you’re in the business of selling cards.

The best thing they did, though, was show EDH players that Wizards of the Coast cared enough to make us nice things.  We saw the (rebranded) name of our format on retail boxes for the first time.  We saw boxes filled with piles of playable cards that (more or less) specifically pertained to the format.  New players got an easy ticket to entry, while older players got staples like Sol Ring and Solemn Simulacrum and Darksteel Ingot.

And we got some cards that were designed for us, which is the best part of the whole deal.

Now, some of the cards were a failed experiment in my opinion.  The ‘join forces’ mechanic, for example, is just like Christmas morning.  The young, hopeful players excitedly play the cards, trembling with anticipation as all the other players join in the celebration and pour mana into spells that fill stockings with basic lands and 1/1 soldier tokens for all.

Meanwhile, the jaded d-bags (like me) sit back and draw a bunch of free cards off of Minds Aglow and tell the kiddies there is no such thing as Santa.

The Vow cycle is close to the same thing.  Sure seems like a good idea, until you realize that the Uril player is getting way better value out of Rancor or Armadillo Cloak than he is out of Vow of Wildness.

But the sentiment is there.  Wizards really tried to get it right.  And if CommandTower is the only shining example to come form the Pre-Cons, I’d call it a success in no uncertain terms (even if they did also plant Flusterstorm and Scavenging Ooze for the Eternal players out there.)

DISCLAIMER – I understand that there’s a thing called ‘casual’ or ‘kitchen-table’ Magic.  I understand that not everything revolves around EDH in the non-competitive world.  For purposes of this article, I’m choosing to ignore these facts, partially because some of these points apply across the board to those formats, and partially because they kind of shoot holes in what I’m going to say, to be honest.

You’ve been duly warned.

Anyway, let’s now look at the flip-side of the coin.

Again, my thesis:

Wizards of the Coast typically can’t design EDH cards unless they’re designing EDH sets. 

Let’s look at some recent hits to try to explain what I’m talking about.

Seems like an obvious EDH plant, right?  No-one is drafting a ten-mana sorcery, and there’s not a constructed format out there that really wants to invest this much for this particular effect.

The problem here is two-fold; there’s a severe cost/reward imbalance in a format that is all about casual play (and thus longer games filled with swingy spells and permanents.)  Genesis Wave is in the same boat, as are cards like Omniscience and Maelstrom wanderer– nothing is too expensive to afford in EDH, and when these cards hit, they yield far too much bang for the buck.

Secondly, Primal Surge falls face-first into the “Build around me!” trap.  Has anyone else out there seen the all-permanents Primal Surge deck?

(It’s a rhetorical question.)

Now, has anyone seen Primal Surge in a deck not designed to dump the entirety of its’ contents into play on the back of a single ten-mana sorcery?

(Also a rhetorical question.)

It’s like WotC gets to the doorstep with good ideas that should make big splashes, and then they don’t really look at the format specifically to see how the card will effect things once it’s legal there, and they just drop everything and wander off to design Delver of Secrets.

What about this gem?

I don’t need to rehash any of the (copious amounts of) things I’ve already said about this card.  It’s in the archives for those of you who haven’t read it yet.  But we’re seeing another card that hits a similar formula as the Primal Surge team; big, splashy, costs a ton of mana, won’t see play in any competitive formats, does something outrageous.

It’s telling that this card got banned.  It doesn’t do a single fun thing…period.  Nearly the entire EDH player base is in agreement.  There’s not much else to say.

Again…someone thought this was the sort of card we EDH players want to see.  I kinda wish that someone had the forethought to check with us first.

How about some other recent-ish hits?

What do these two gems have in common?

(If you said, “They both ruin games.”, I’ll give you partial credit.)

Honestly, though, our trained EDH eyes likely see the problem a mile away.  Yup – there is an echo in here; big, splashy effects, exorbitant casting costs, effects that blow games wide open.  We’re being unfairly stereo-typed by the people who make the game we’re trying to play here.

Again, what’s the ratio of kicked versus un-kicked Rite of Replication instances?  What about Genesis Wave where ‘X’ equals three?

BRINGING IT TOGETHER

Honestly, I think the intentions are good.  I really do.  But the execution doesn’t seem to quite make it across the gap between inception and delivery when the cards are coming from packs of current expansions.  I can’t help to think what some of these cards would look like if they were designed for next summer’s Commander product instead of the sets they’re in currently.  I’d be willing to bet that not many would be the same.

You want to know what I think is the last EDH card to come out of a booster pack and be a good example of design that embraces the format?

That’s right.  I’m not kidding.

It’s big and splashy, packs a punch, and provides a big effect that can change the landscape of a game in a big way that also doesn’t feel terribly unbalanced.  In a pinch, it can save your tail, or it can be an offensive weapon, yet it doesn’t scream, “Build this exact thing right here!”  I’ve seen it in blue-base control decks, big creature beatdown decks, and theme decks, and it never seems out of place in any of them.

It’s simple, but it’s also elegant.  There’s a balance; it doesn’t just end the game or walk you to a singular way to do so, but it still manages to embody what the format tends to be about at the same time.

It’s clear that Wizards can design like this.  I just wish they’d do it more often for products that aren’t specific to EDH.

-Cass