For those few of you that didn't read Mark Rosewater's “Discard Tricks” on Monday, please do so now. I'll be referring to points he made frequently. Also, take a look at this Gatherer search on the word “discards” in Standard. I'll be talking about cards on that list quite a bit.
It's For Spike
Discard, at its heart, is just plain mean. Many casual players flat-out hate it. Clever players—“Johnnies”—can rarely do anything interesting involving it (Auriok Salvagers + Necrogen Spellbomb aside). In general, discard has a specific mean goal of proactively preventing your opponent from getting to use his cards (unlike the equally fun countermagic, which reactively prevents your opponent from getting to use his cards).
What I'm saying is that discard is most enjoyed by Spike. And by “enjoyed” I mean "accepted and utilized." Spikes don't tend to actually enjoy anything.
When we make cards that are specifically for Spike, we have to cost them in such a way as to be relevant for constructed. Whenever we come up with a cool new idea for a discard spell (such as Cabal Therapy or Blackmail), we want to see it played, which means it has to be cheap. The previously mentioned cards both cost B, as does their powerful ancestor Duress. Distress barely cuts the mustard at BB. Nezumi Shortfang is one of the few tournament-relevant flippers at the rock-bottom price of 1B.
Good discard spells (especially the “choice” and “blind” varieties that Mark talked about) need to cost less than whatever the cost of the average key threat in the environment is to work. Duress and Cabal Therapy are about as cheap as spells can be, and they still often fall short; many games are lost in Extended when the opponent plays an Aether Vial on turn 1 before Duress can steal it. In Kamigawa block, threats tend to be a little pricier, so Distress can get the job done. Cranial Extraction also often fills the role of Cabal Therapy; at four mana it can still be often be played prior to the point where key threats like Kokusho, Meloku, or the dreaded “Trampling Tree” can be deployed.
In my opinion, it is this efficiency in tournaments that causes most of the negative reaction to the mechanic in casual circles. Duress hits you often before you can do anything. Hymn to Tourach, the fabled random shredder of hands, was also so undercosted that it could effectively end the game by stealing a player's second and third land. A Hypnotic Specter fueled by Dark Ritual could also start wrecking shop before an opponent could play a single spell.
On the flip side, He Who Hungers doesn't ruffle many feathers. Pulse of the Dross is eminently forgettable. Fill with Fright is good in limited, but is rarely anyone's weapon of choice, even in the most laid-back casual settings.
Discard is stuck in a weird place. If a discard card is good—like Duress, Hymn, or Cabal Therapy (which I don't particularly enjoy, regardless of how much fun Mark claims it is… the card is a dream-wrecker)—then it ends up being really frustrating to a large portion of the audience. If it isn't fast enough to be really effective—like
The Theme – Good or Bad?
Like counterspells and land destruction, discard doesn't win the game by itself. While it's possible to just toss any decent threat—like Sengir Vampire or Kokusho—into a discard deck, I'd like to talk about the “theme discard” cards that Mark mentioned R&D considering to be “scary.”
Just as land destruction decks have typically had “theme” win conditions available to them (Ankh of Mishra, Dingus Egg, Zo-Zu the Punisher), so have discard decks. The poster child for such cards is one Mike Flores mentioned at the end of his article—The Rack.
The Rack is an iconic Magic card at this point in its existence because of how well it does its job. Too well, in fact. At one mana, The Rack can hit the table quickly and start dealing damage early. As with most things in Magic, it is power level that partially taints people's opinions of an entire swath of cards.
R&D has gotten better at making “theme” cards for discard since the days of The Rack. Megrim is a casual staple that occasionally pokes its head into tournament-level decks. Geth's Grimoire and Skullcage are good enough at what they do to be included in the latest batch of Gottlieb concoctions, but not so good as to inspire a generation of malicious discard decks at every local tournament. Nezumi Shortfang's alter-ego Stabwhisker is the most aggressive of the bunch, but the tension of losing the “Scepter” ability once transformed, as well as Stabwhisker's legendary status, make the card acceptable without giving up much power.
The thing that I like about theme discard cards at the level we've been making them is that they lend a real sense of purpose to the discard spells around them that may not have made the grade in high-level constructed. Necrogen Mists, Abyssal Specter, and Wrench Mind are all decent additions to decks sporting one of the “themed” win conditions.
Looking at the “themed” cards we've been making versus the “utility” discard we've printed recently makes me think that the scarier of the two is actually the utility. One utility discard spell can often do what two or three standard themed ones could not—steal the key card that prevents your opponent's deck from working. Once you steal the correct card, it often isn't worth wasting energy on making your opponent discard more—just get down to the business of winning the game.
Where does R&D stand on the top-of-the line utility, like Duress? We recognize its power and know that it is a necessary measure in fast formats like the current Extended. We don't want it in Standard all the time. One, its presence cuts down on our ability to try similar but less brutal cards like Distress and Blackmail. Two, when Duress is in an environment, there's pressure against complicated combo-style decks that rely on certain cards to win. We like to see such decks from time to time. Is Duress gone for good? No. Is it the best utility we'll make? Probably.
Finally, I'd like to touch on the rule Mark mentioned about discard almost always being a sorcery. This is one rule that we've been trying to break where we can lately. Necrogen Spellbomb allows instant-speed discard, as does Nezumi Shortfang. Myojin of Night's Reach, although costly, can be activated at any time. My favorite? Ravenous Rats in Soul Foundry.
Randy Buehler has long stated that Magic is more interesting when there are more things to do on your opponent's turn and/or in response to his actions. I tend to agree, and some small amount of discard that can be used on an opponent's turn but does not lend itself to easy recursive “draw-locks” early in the game is good for Magic.
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