There has been an ongoing argument in the General Damage Control SlackChat for a few weeks now; this has been a sort of on-again, off-again grumble fest about “wacky” cards.  So far, I have chosen to mostly stay out of it and just watch and think – until now. 

What is a Wacky Card?

For reference, the argument has been regarding usage of cards that disrupt the ability to play a deck ‘normally’ – cards that either change the spell you’re casting or force some other kind of randomness in the play – tools that alter the predictable outcome in a way that you as the player do not control.

(Side note – I want to be clear here that while the spell ability Cascade offers a player the option to cast a semi-random spell, it is possible to engineer a deck that abuses this to trigger a specific result (see Modern Living Death or the old Extended Hypergenesis decks).

Either way, I am not including Cascade as a “wacky” ability, as it is only active on your spells as opposed to a universal action.)

I’m taking the definition of a “wacky card” as one that disrupts the whole game by making normal play impossible, while generating results with a low degree of predictability. This is not to say that these “wacky” effects cannot be engineered to be abused in an asymmetrical fashion, but simply that in a typically isolated environment, they turn a game of clever deck design and strategic play into a game of CandyLand or Chutes and Ladders.

I’m going to be blunt with you all here; I hate games where the only strategy is luck. I would rather watch paint dry while flossing my teeth with earth worms than play CandyLand or Chutes and Ladders. Even though there is an element of randomness to Magic in general, EDH by its very nature as a constructed format has a limitation on luck in the sense that you have constructed a definitive pool of resources that limit the probability of a potential outcome.

Luck only goes so far here.

I want to be clear that with my definition of a “wacky card”, I am not referring to hand disruption like Teferi’s Puzzle Box, nor am I referring to attacking a player’s mana base by disrupting their production with Naked Singularity.  I am not referring to cards that slow play or force players to make choices in how they play out their turn, such as with Fatespinner attacking available phases of a turn, or Teferi’s Realm attacking permanent types in play, or even Sands of Time forcing a difficult balance of decisions to work around a semi-Stasis game state. While these cards create a universal hazard to normal game play – and while they are very disruptive – they still allow a game of Magic to be played. A game where meaningful decisions can, and more importantly need to be made in order to progress each player’s board state and the overall game state to a conclusion.

I am therefore defining a “wacky card” as follows:

‘A card that disrupts the progression of the game state through unconstrained variance in plays that engender meaninglessness in the decision making process and in the structure of the game’

Let’s look at some “wacky cards”. This list is not a definitive list by any means; heck, the brains trust over at WotC R&D are constantly churning out new “toys” of varying calibre for us to “enjoy”, and they love to slip these in every once in a while:

[Deck title=Wacky!]
Thieves’ Auction
Wild Evocation
Psychic Battle
Confusion in the Ranks
Omen Machine
Possibility Storm
Knowledge Pool
Gate to the AEther
Grip of Chaos
Hive Mind
Warp World
Shared Fate
Eye of the Storm
Planar Chaos

Definitely not the whole list, but these fine specimens are probably the most insidiously-annoying of the bunch. As stated in isolation, these cards to some degree or another reduce the ability to make meaningful decisions or even remove that ability almost entirely.

I put it to you: are you really playing a game with other people if your deck is entirely composed of “wacky cards”, or is this just a game of Russian Roulette? The cylinder on the revolver is going to keep being spun, and the trigger being pulled until someone gets splattered over the playing field. If you love a psychopathic game of chance, then this is for you.

Why Would Someone Play with this Shit?

A damn fine question (if I say so myself). There are a few reasons that spring to mind in answer to that. In my experience observing people and behavioral patterns, most people go through a rebellious phase; that is, a phase where they rebel against a structured environment by attempting to force and revel in as much anarchy as possible – randomness for randomness’ sake. Some people take a very long time to grow out of this phase, or are only stimulated when involved in high-variance activities. Fortunately, most folks do outgrow this and move into a stage where they prefer to have their decisions actually mean something. Regression sometimes occurs when engaging in a new area of interest as a person explores the possibilities of their new world.

I’d hope by now that given my past musings you’d all have a pretty good idea about me, in that I like to play a game where my decisions are meaningful. I do not like needless variance in my games – I like to play my opponents – to play a strategy.

I also believe that “in EDH, anything is possible with the right sequence of cardboard”.

I’ve alluded earlier that these “wacky cards” in a functional vacuum are highly destructive to a meaningful game due to their symmetrical chaos. As Magic players, we know however that if we can change that equation – if we can change that from a symmetrical problem and make it asymmetrical – then the game is no longer being stagnated in meaningless chaos. Drawing on the obvious example, this is like an established Kaalia of the Vast deck dropping a turn four Armageddon after resolving the general.

I’d like to also draw your attention to a little something that our very own Sean Patchen (@Swordstoplow) wrote last year on his Mishra, Artificer Prodigy deck. This beautifully crafted creation that both Sean and Cassidy now wield as signature decks is an excellent example of shifting the symmetry balance under the otherwise hard chaos of Possibility Storm, achieved through correct manipulation of the stack in combination with Mishra. Similarly, Timesifter could be used in combination with Draco under a top deck manipulation engine, followed by Riftsweeper or Pull From Eternity to retrieve Draco from exile. Appropriate sequencing could generate a functional Time Vault/Voltaic Key lock. Yet another example could be Psychic Battle with a high-CMC card in the top three (such as Draco), with its topdeck position controlled through manipulation via Sensei’s Divining Top.

My point here is that by breaking the symmetry of these cards, you can create powerful lock conditions that prevent your opponents from advancing their game position through meaningful decisions while still allowing your own game state to develop through your prison. These asymmetrical abuses of card mechanics are no different to designing and playing around any other prison lock, be that Moat combined with Archetype of Imagination to only allow your creatures the ability to go on the offensive, Darksteel Forge and Nevinyrral’s Disk, or the ever reviled Stasis family of locks.

If you are designing a prison deck, you are designing it for yourself to be able to play around and through.  For your opponents, playing against your lock is certainly not a bouquet of roses.

Final Thoughts

Chaos and wacky cards have their space. They have their niches for being played. Whether you use the cards or not, and how you use these cards comes down to your playgroup. They come down to the social contract dynamic of your friends, and it is your responsibility as a player to get to know those people and to discuss the kind of game you want to have with them.

Unless all those people you are playing your wacky cards with follow the same school of thought (to quote Erik Tiernan) “lol random is fun, right? Te he he”,) then that game is going to turn into a miserable pile of buffalo turds in a damn hurry.

If your group loves all the chaos all the time, go for gold son!  Get in there and play the game you all love. If you are playing wacky cards for the prison build, then I hope that this dynamic is something that your group wants to play in. If you don’t like those cards, simply don’t play them and make sure your group understands your distaste as well. I personally don’t mind playing the occasional chaos game – providing I know what I am getting into. I occasionally don’t mind playing against such a prison lock, as I am known for my own prison and pillow-fort decks in my home group.

At the end of the day, whatever reason you are playing wacky cards for, I hope it aligns with your social contract.

Love and Velociraptors