The other day, I participated in the following Twitter conversation:
My reply to Travis (which I’ll post in next week’s article) got me thinking. Every once in a while, something special happens to a limited format: Wizards of the Coast prints a card that really, really wants you to grab as many copies as you can. Often, these cards are self-referential (they say “a card named ___” in their text), but not always. Slither Blade, for example, is a card that might as well be self-referential even though it isn’t explicitly so, since a deck with Blades probably won’t be effective unless you acquire a bunch of them and build the rest of your deck around the fact that you have them.
Cards like these often toe the line between synergy and all-in combo if you get enough of them, and at that point they’re often super effective, not to mention fun to play. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and identify some of these cards in past limited formats, since similar strategies are bound to pop up in the future. Then next week, we’ll crunch the numbers, examine similar strategies, and analyze what it takes for these strategies to be effective.
First, let’s identify the self-referential cards that have played a role in limited over the years. The text on these cards makes the all-in strategy explicit.
Note: For brevity’s sake, we won’t discuss every card with this property, but we’ll highlight some notable historical examples. I should also mention that while I have drafted many sets from Magic’s history, I have not drafted every set, so some of the information I provide may be drawn from tangential knowledge of certain formats and cards.
A year after the first set developed for limited was released, Kindle from Tempest explored the design space of a card that explicitly gets better the more you have. While the idea was sound, Kindle was a good enough card on its own that any red deck would pick it highly, but an all-in Kindle deck wasn’t feasible.
Howling Wolf, a card that searched for copies of itself when it entered the battlefield, was first printed in Mercadian Masques. The next set, Nemesis, saw Nesting Wurm printed, a slow yet powerful win condition that reused the Howling Wolf mechanic.
Since then, variants have since been used on several cards from Onslaught such as Avarax, Aurochs Herd from Coldsnap, Squadron Hawk from Magic 2011, and Self-Assembler from Kaladesh. Each of these cards achieved various degrees of success as all-in strategies, depending on their rarities, their stats, the sizes of their respective sets, and the speed of their respective formats. When cards with this ability are printed and see play, they often thrive in a grindy deck as a resilient win condition or as a way to gain card advantage in the midgame.
Accumulated Knowledge was printed in Nemesis, a small set, where it reused the mechanical concept behind Kindle. Accumulated Knowledge may have been a more successful all-in strategy than Kindle in Limited had it not been printed in a small set. The card was nearly unplayable on its own, but arguably more powerful than Kindle when you got it in multiples. However, since it was printed in a middle of a block, you only ever got one pack to make it work.
Odyssey took the Kindle mechanic and revitalized it with one card in each color, called the “Burst” cycle, for drafters to go all-in on. It even got the rarity right by putting them at common. The results were mixed. Flame Burst suffered from the same popularity problems as Kindle, Muscle Burst suffered as an effect that most decks don’t really want more than one or two of, but Diligent Farmhand and Pardic Firecat aided their cause to amplify their effects.
As a pure life gain card, Life Burst wasn’t good enough to make the cut. Mind Burst was pretty sweet when it worked, but that only happened when you really went all in on the card, and otherwise it was a dud. Aether Burst hit that sweet spot where it was underwhelming yet reasonable on its own, but very powerful when you got to do the thing.
Coldsnap was the king of single-card decks, not only did you have Aurochs decks featuring Aurochs Herd, but you also had a rehash of the Burst cycle with new effects. These were all very potent build-arounds in Limited, with the exception of Rite of Flame, which made up for it in Constructed. Above all, you had the Ripple mechanic, which was broken if you managed to pull off chaining multiple spells together in succession. Surging Aether and Surging Dementia were the worst offenders as cards that were extremely lackluster on their own but extremely busted at a critical mass.
In fact, Coldsnap is equally reviled and revered as a format filled to the brim with cards that are broken if you get enough of them. Regardless of the set’s critical reception, this property was no accident- since Coldsnap was the first and only small set ever printed that was designed to be drafted alone, Wizards took the opportunity to experiment with commons that took advantage of their unusually high pack frequency. Whether those experiments were a success is up for debate, but Coldsnap remains an important statistical landmark in terms of hyper-linear single-card decks.
Morningtide tried something cute with Stomping Slabs, but it was doomed to fail in Limited for a few reasons. First, it was an uncommon, so it was hard to get multiples. Second, you only got one pack of Morningtide per draft, so it was really hard to get multiples. Third, it did nothing unless you had multiples, and even then you had to get lucky for its effect to work. All in all, Stomping Slabs added up to a card that was never worth it. It’s a shame that such a fun card concept had so many hurdles working against it.
Arachnus Spinner was first printed in Magic 2012, and when you opened one, you could try drafting a few webs to go with it. When you did, you could juggle them around between the graveyard and the battlefield, creating a slow, sticky, unstoppable force of spidersilk. The problem was that Arachnus Spinner was rare, so you had to be lucky to open one, and Arachnus Web was a popular removal spell, so it was hard to get multiples. When the pair was reprinted in Modern Masters 2017, both problems were solved- Arachnus Spinner was downshifted to uncommon, and Arachnus Web (not to mention green in general) was less powerful relative to the rest of the format, so it was easier to get multiples and go a little deeper on the strategy.
In Magic 2014, we got a really interesting vertical cycle: Festering Newt, Bubbling Cauldron, and Bogbrew Witch. An ideal Newt deck might have started off with a Witch early in Pack 1, followed by as many Newts as possible and perhaps a Cauldron or two. (If you managed to pair your black with red, your cauldron could serve double duty as a sacrifice outlet in the dedicated sacrifice deck from that format.) When you pulled off this brew, you ended up with a super potent, extremely grindy control deck where every Newt turned into a powerful removal spell.
Wizards played a cute gimmick where Renowned Weaponsmith would search for something different from each large set Fate Reforged was paired with. Unfortunately, both targets were pretty lackluster, and thus it wasn’t even that great to go all-in and fetch up a bunch of them with the Weaponsmith.
However, the Vial and the Bow both ended up being very marginally playable, so occasionally you’d draft a deck where you’d get play a copy of each and feel lukewarm about your chances.
While Timberpack Wolf was first printed in Magic 2015, it came of age in the cycle of self-referential commons from the following and final core set, Magic: Origins. Timberpack Wolf itself was pretty great in that set when you got a small pack of them together, especially in such an aggressive format. As for the rest of the cycle, Undead Servant made some waves in Limited as a build-around, but it was too lukewarm too often to be an all star. Faerie Miscreant has shown up more in Pauper than anywhere, but it was a hyperlinear deck that came together very infrequently but was extremely powerful when it did.
For its part, Infectious Bloodlust only saw small amounts of play, but perhaps the fault for that rests on the prevailing fear of playing auras among competitive Magic players. To round out the cycle, Cleric of the Forward Order saw a bunch of play in Limited, but nobody bothered building around it, as the format was just right for it to be good enough on its own.
Eldritch Moon introduced Galvanic Bombardment and Take Inventory to the world. These cards were printed pretty recently, so its nice that they tie us back to two of the first cards we discussed, Kindle and Accumulated Knowledge. While both cards were printed in a small set, the change from Small-Large-Large to Small-Small-Large helped their all-in strategies immensely, and while Galvanic Bombardment was too popular to get more than one or two copies of, you would sometimes see decks
There are no self-referential Limited strategies in Amonkhet, but there is one card, Gate to the Afterlife, that may point to an all-in God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck in Hour of Devastation if the conditions are just right. Hopefully, the currently unknown card is common, good enough to see play, and not so good that it’s an early pick.
Looking Back, and Looking Ahead
I like doing history articles every once in a while- they’re interesting, they remind us of Magic’s roots, and they help plant our current limited discussions in some historical context. Next week, we’ll be thinking about the context we developed in this article while we do some mathematical and strategic analysis on single-card decks. We’ll also talk about single-card strategies that aren’t explicitly self-referential, which is where cards like Slither Blade enter the equation. Stay tuned!
Follow us on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/spellsnare_
Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/spellsnare