Magic Academy is a great column, and several of my very good friends—even playtest partners—have been responsible for putting out Academy articles over the past couple of months. Any fundamentals articles I do aren't designed to compete with the work that Ted, Jeff, or any of the guest stars have produced, continue to produce. They all might be tournament Spikes in real life, but over here at Swimming With Sharks, we write like we are. You may have already noticed that we have been doing fundamentals articles all along. Lessons on different styles of sideboarding, how many lands to play as a baseline, when you can break the rules via cantrips, and how life gain can translate into card advantage are all intended to re-write the software of how you approach the game, as a player and as a potential deck designer, not just how you evaluate a deck in a specific metagame and select your own weapon of choice.
Today I am going to present something simple, but it is something important as you attempt to either design new decks or template existing decks—especially decks meant to be good enough to compete in Constructed tournaments in the Internet age. Say your deck wants a card to do... something. Of the many options in your color or colors, how do you choose which one?
The simplest example I can think of is the one-mana burn spell. We can even branch out into two-mana burn spells to complicate the argument somewhat, but the options on one mana are so rich within the main relevant formats and have so many conflicting incentives tugging at limited deck space, I think that Shock, Seal of Fire, and their compatriots will give us plenty of ammunition for an initial discussion.
Our story begins with Shock. Okay, our story actually begins with Lightning Bolt. An original Alpha "Boon," Lightning Bolt is more-or-less the best, most efficient, burn spell ever printed. It set the standard in both for tournament and kitchen table Magic for the first four years of the game's history.
The first Lightning Bolt replacement was Incinerate. Incinerate is great, always was, even if it didn't get the initial love it may have deserved (poor Incinerate was competing with Lightning Bolt for the adoration of millions, don't forget). We're not talking about two-mana burn spells.
Okay, okay! Let's start talking about two-mana burn spells for just a minute. Incinerate was initially printed in Ice Age, then returned in Mirage. The following block, though, gave us Kindle, which by necessity became a staple in Standard Red Decks. Kindle lost popularity very quickly, and might be the least well-regarded cheap burn spell ever to have won a Constructed Pro Tour. The reason is this card:
All things held equal, when two cards do about the same thing, it is generally preferable to choose the card that is less expensive on the mana, even when the more expensive card has a more impressive effect. Caveat: The chief window where this may have not been true was during the most recent Extended PTQs. It was actually better to play Krosan Grip than Naturalize in the abstract. Krosan Grip doesn't get countered. Additionally, as a three, Krosan Grip is less likely to fall to a "random" Counterbalance.
Shock was the first of the Lightning Bolt replacements to have been actually strictly worse than Lightning Bolt itself. Incinerate cost twice the mana but had an upside (anyone who has ever lost, say, a Spiritmonger to Incinerate knows this). Here was a card that once again cost one mana... but was really just two-thirds the strength of the original. From a standpoint of pure efficiency, Shock was favored over Kindle because it did the same thing for half the cost, plus it was more reliable in a mirror match. Our discussion essentially begins with this card.
Shock has been a cross-block staple since Stronghold. It has appeared in the last four core sets, and was even reprinted in Onslaught. This is a card that R&D wants us to consider playing, even if we don't actually play it. But why wouldn't we?
The fact of the matter is that we tend to play Shock when we don't have any other options. The kinds of decks that play Shock tend to be the most straightforward Red Decks. Green decks hate it because they have all this extra mana and it is not powerful enough for them, and decks like Boros get to dip into Lightning Helix. Even at one mana, Shock has had only spotty adoption since usurping Kindle's spot in Standard, consistently falling behind Firebolt, Lava Dart, Seal of Fire, and other, less direct, points of comparison.
This is the most interesting comparison because the same tensions that exist between these two cards can be carried over to other members of the cycle, most notably Unsummon v. Seal of Removal and Disenchant v. Seal of Cleansing (and I suppose now Naturalize v. Seal of Primordium).
My first analysis said that Shock &co. were more-or-less better than Seal of Fire &co., but this has proven to be wrong, at least as far as general rules go. First looks rarely tell the whole tale, and my conception of the cards at the time was a little flawed. It's easy to oversimplify and say that Shock = play any time and Seal of Fire = play only during your own turn, but it's not as though the Seal cycle is all sorceries. You would ostensibly choose Shock on versatility given that both cards deal the same amount of damage, but Seal of Fire is actually the more versatile card in Red Decks. For one, Seal of Fire lets you spend mana on turn one that you might not ordinarily get to spend. If you have a one drop, that's fine... There's only a marginal difference later in the game. However if you don't have a one drop, the fact that you get to put a down payment on your burn spell is a welcome use of your mana.
This doesn't necessarily translate to other members of the Seal cycle, though specific formats will give you better and worse incentives. For example, one of the top Extended decks when the Seals first arrived was Trix (Necropotence feeding the Illusions of Grandeur + Donate combination). Seal of Cleansing was a welcome solution to this deck... Trix could Duress or Force of Will a potentially lethal Disenchant before trying to go off, but if the opposing deck played down Seal of Cleansing before Trix went off, that would be much more difficult to circumvent. Conversely, in Masques Block Constructed, there were many reasons why someone would choose Disenchant over Seal of Cleansing. One strategy was to play Parallax Wave and Wave out the opponent's Mageta the Lion then play your own. Under the previous Legend rule, the opponent's Mageta would die when it returned. Disenchant was better against other white decks because you could Disenchant the Wave in response to the second Mageta, and your Lion would reign supreme! However against Rising Waters or Blue Skies, it was not so cut-and-dried. If you had a deck that would only lose if the opponent had Rising Waters down, you might want to try playing Seal of Cleansing down, which was considerably faster, as insurance. Picking a fight with Disenchant later might be a losing battle against a permission deck with mana control. The one I didn't get at all was Zvi and his Unsummons. He brought in Unsummon in his Accelerated Blue deck against Phyrexian Negator... What I never understood was why he wouldn't run Seal of Removal against the deck with Duress yet no solution for an enchantment.
Firebolt really does represent the sorcery versus instant tension explicitly, but its flashback is quite alluring, and this pushes that card over Shock essentially universally in any format where they are both legal (usually Extended). On its face, we are generally willing to compromise on the timing in order to potentially get 2 additional damage down the line.
Realistically, we build decks not just on the express best cards, but on redundancy... That's why there are decks where we play 20 burn spells of Shock and Volcanic Hammer and Lightning Helix and Char and Flames of the Blood Hand... Not all of these cards are exactly as good as each other. We want volume. When Seal of Fire first came out, I personally didn't have a lot of conflict between it and Shock in my Ponza deck; I just played four of each. In Masques block, I wanted every sort of Disenchant I could get my hands on, played four each of Disenchant and Seal of Cleansing and rolled over to a couple of Devout Witnesses! As such, we will have cards competing not just at the same mana cost for a certain number of available slots, but with similar functionality across multiple mana costs. Here are some factors to consider:
A big reason that Seal of Fire traditionally got the nod over Shock, besides the ability to put that "down payment" on a burn spell with "spare" mana is that Extended Red Decks played the long game of Cursed Scroll. While you will blow a Shock to get Cursed Scroll online, you'd really rather not do that. Similarly, my group tested Shock in Boros for most of last year, but going into Regionals, Seal of Fire became available in Standard care of Dissension. We added Seal of Fire without even testing it. Why? Seal of Fire is internally synergistic with Boros Garrison; you can play it on the first turn on the draw and not have to discard to the Garrison!
Here's where it gets fun. I listened to an interview with Kyle Sanchez at U.S. Nationals last year where he presented a Zoo deck. Kyle made what seemed like a strange choice... He cut Volcanic Hammer because it could be countered with Spell Snare, running Giant Growth as a "burn spell" instead. This is really interesting, and with Brute Force now available, red once again has the ability to deal three damage with one mana. Of course there are questions of internal synergy as well as how cards coexist in a metagame framework. If you are running Boros with Boros Swiftblade, Brute Force starts looking pretty awesome. However if you are running Soltari Priest—or, God forbid, Extended with Silver Knight as well, maybe Calciderm in either Standard or Extended—Brute Force will be a dead card a lot of the time.
The notion that a deck can somehow be "pure" or perfect is a pointless and illusory abstraction that players have held with them since the first whispers of creatureless decks in the mid-1990s. In my experience, it just isn't possible to find a perfect form of any deck. What we can do is to try to build the best deck possible, tournament to tournament, making small tweaks to optimize as our data becomes tighter and tighter, our opponents more predictable. We can choose the best cards for the job based on who we have to beat and the limitations and incentives tugging at our own strategies. Sadly, we sometimes have to compromise as we haggle with the card pool—remember—to get what we want at the lowest possible price using the smallest possible amount of space.