Symmetric Effects

Posted in Level One on September 1, 2014

By Reid Duke

Over the span of the last nineteen years, since he was five years old, Reid has been a player, a deck builder, a collector, and a lover of the Magic world. Today, he’s a full-time professional Magic player and writer.

In the gaming world and in Magic, gaining an advantage means gaining an edge relative to your opponent. Last week, we discussed card advantage. How you can make plays—either by earning more cards or by destroying opposing cards—that will lead to getting ahead of your opponent in resources.

A game of Magic is a struggle to set yourself apart from, and ahead of, your opponent. With that in mind, there exists an entire category of cards which seem, at first glance, nearly impossible to use effectively. These are cards that feature symmetric effects. A symmetric effect impacts both players the same way, so it's difficult to glean an advantage from one under ordinary circumstances.

Nevertheless, some of the most powerful cards in Magic feature symmetric effects—including the preview card I have at the end of the article. If you have the creativity and the vision to find a use for them, you can wield weapons other players cannot. A proper understanding of symmetric effects will give you an advantage in both deck building and gameplay.

Making Better Use of a Symmetric Effect Than Your Opponent Can

The secret is that no event can ever really impact two people in exactly the same way, because no two people ever exist under exactly the same conditions. The summer sun feels less oppressive to me when I'm standing in the shade of a tree than it does to my friend six feet away, in the open. What about the effects of a brutal winter on an ill-equipped, invading army, compared to the effects of the same winter on the locals, who have the clothing, the shelter, and the know-how to cope with it? The key is to put yourself in a position to take better advantage of a symmetric effect than your opponent can.

Dictate of Karametra makes lands—all lands—produce additional mana. If you play Dictate of Karametra, you're going to provide your opponent with extra mana; there's no way around it.

What you can do, however, is to make sure you make better use of the extra mana than your opponent. If you've decided: first, to put Dictate of Karametra in your deck and, second, to cast it in this particular game, then it should mean that you're going to untap on your turn and spend a lot of mana to do something very powerful. Perhaps you're going to cast Genesis Hydra for X=10; maybe you're going to monstrous Polukranos, World Eater for enough to wipe out all of your opponent's creatures. It doesn't matter exactly what it is, so long as it's substantially more powerful than whatever your opponent is going to do.

And that may not be as difficult as you think. After all, you're the one who put Dictate of Karametra in your deck, not your opponent. You're the one who planned your strategy around it, not your opponent. It might be likely that your opponent is playing a very basic creature deck, with not much to do with this extra mana. In this case, you can make much better use of the Dictate than he or she can. The impact of the symmetric effect was, in reality, not very symmetric at all!

Eidolon of the Great Revel is a powerful card that can very much change the dynamic of a game. Over the course of a long game, it's not surprising if the Eidolon deals 6 or 8 damage to both players! But there's no need to panic.

Well, that's not entirely true; someone ought to be panicking, but hopefully not you. The thing to do, when you play Eidolon of the Great Revel, is to make sure that you're pressuring your opponent's life total more aggressively than he or she is pressuring yours. It's fine if your own Eidolon causes you to end the game at 12 life instead of 20; so long as your opponent winds up at 0, it won't matter in the slightest.

In both of these examples, we've found a way to take advantage of a symmetric effect by employing a strategy that makes effective use of the effect.

Dodging a Symmetric Effect

Fifteen years ago there was all this to-do about this thing called Y2K. When January 1, 2000, rolled around, dates in computers around the world would change from '99 to '00. Could they distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900? Would computer systems start failing? Would businesses lose money? Would banks fail? Would missiles go off? Would volcanoes erupt and aliens invade? Nobody knew exactly what would happen, but everybody was in a state of panic. I never worried, though.

Why? Because I was ten years old! I had no investments to depreciate, no job to get fired from, and no money to lose! I was pretty sure I'd still be able to climb my favorite tree in my backyard no matter what was going on with all those crazy computers.

Sometimes, you can take advantage of a symmetric effect by, quite simply, having nothing to lose!

For example, it's perfectly legal to cast Renounce the Guilds when you have no multicolored permanents on the battlefield. What happens is that your opponent sacrifices a multicolored permanent and you simply go about your business. You can make good use of Renounce the Guilds by putting it in a mono-white deck, or in any other deck that happens to not play with very many multicolored permanents.

Similarly, Whispering Madness forces both players to discard his or her hand and draw new cards. Fortunately, however, you get to choose when you cast it! If the situation calls for it, you can simply make sure to play out the rest of your hand and make Whispering Madness the final card you cast. This way, you discard nothing, and draw cards equal to however many your opponent was still holding.

Creating the Best Window for a Symmetric Effect

The key to the Whispering Madness example is the fact that you, as the player with the symmetric effect, have control of your own spell. You choose when, and even if, you cast it. Given that symmetric effects are often powerful and game changing, this flexibility is extremely valuable. Take, for instance, this card:

Gaze of Granite has a tremendously powerful effect. If you spend enough mana, it "blows up the world." To dodge this effect would be quite difficult. After all, nearly every deck plays with noncreature permanents. However, the fact that you get to be in control of such a powerful weapon makes it a very appealing card.

The simplest factor at play here, and yet one of the most important ones, is that you don't have to cast it unless you want to! If it just so happens that you're winning on the board, you have the option to press that advantage and forget that Gaze of Granite even exists. So long as you're in control of it, a symmetric effect need never hurt you.

Let's say, however, that you're not winning on the board, and that it's becoming clear that you're going to have to cast Gaze of Granite as your "get out of jail free card" to reset the game. Well, once that becomes clear, you can simply start saving creatures in your hand to cast after Gaze of Granite cleans things up. This way, you're likely to wind up killing more of your opponent's creatures and fewer of yours (card advantage!), and you're in a position to recover faster than your opponent after the Gaze of Granite. In short, you can put yourself in a commanding position in the game.

You control the symmetric effect, so you have the greater ability to plan your strategy around it.

Using a Symmetric Effect to Lock Things Up Once You're Ahead

Sire of Insanity is an example of a card that you're likely to cast if, and only if, you're winning on the board. If you're ahead, your opponent will discard his or her hand and lose any hope of clawing back into the game. However, if you're behind, casting Sire of Insanity will effectively "freeze" the game state, making it very difficult for you to turn things around.

Remember, symmetric effects impact players differently depending on their starting conditions. When you're winning, or when you have no cards in your hand anyway, having both players discard their hands is a blessing! When you're losing and need your spells to fight back into the game, having both players discard their hands is a disaster. Let's look at another example:

When Ember Swallower becomes monstrous, both players sacrifice three lands. Again, this is an effect that the player with more and better creatures (the player ahead on the board) is going to love, and the player with fewer or weaker creatures (the player behind on the board) is going to hate. After all, it's very hard to come back when you no longer have enough mana to cast your spells!

A great thing about both Sire of Insanity and Ember Swallower is that they're giant creatures and contribute greatly to "being ahead on the board" in and of themselves. After all, when you're in the process of making your Ember Swallower monstrous, it's very likely that you're about to have the most powerful creature on the battlefield, and that the symmetric effect of each player losing three lands will benefit you in a huge way.

Once you understand symmetric effects, they become some of the best tools you have at your disposal as a player. You can build your deck to make the best possible use of them. You can plan your strategy around them. You can cast them when they benefit you and save them when they don't. All of these factors combine to make them a huge driving force in Magic.

Symmetry in Khans of Tarkir

With that background on symmetric effects, I'm thrilled to share with you an exclusive preview card from Khans of Tarkir!

You can tell from the first three words that this is going to be a big one. "Destroy all creatures" is a game-breaking effect that can be worth playing at virtually any mana cost. As it happens, End Hostilities is efficiently costed at only five mana, and even has another important ability to boot: "and all permanents attached to creatures." This means Equipment, Auras with bestow, and other Auras attached to creatures (these would normally die along with the creatures, but it could come up that they're still destroyed if the creature is indestructible or gets regenerated). Talk about blowing up the world!

End Hostilities has the potential to provide card advantage; it answers your opponent's best cards; and it provides you with a safe, clean board state as soon as you hit five mana—perfect for any deck powerful enough to win in the late game.

From the perspective of Sealed Deck or Booster Draft, this card is going to be a bomb! I don't know much about Khans of Tarkir yet, but every card similar to End Hostilities that's ever been printed has been a Limited powerhouse. Look for it on Prerelease weekend.

From the perspective of Standard, End Hostilities has the potential to be a format-defining card. The very-popular Supreme Verdict will be rotating out of the format and leaving a hole that needs to be filled. End Hostilities has the potential to do so with flying colors.

It has two important advantages over Supreme Verdict. First, it doesn't require blue mana, so it could be played in a mono-white deck, or in a multicolor deck that doesn't involve blue—say RWB (the colors of the Mardu Horde) or WBG (the colors of the Abzan Houses). Even in a deck that does happen to be WU, End Hostilities is still easier on your mana and more reliable to cast.

Second, End Hostilities destroys permanents attached to creatures. This is particularly important with the bestow creatures of Theros block. I can't count the number of times that I've needed Supreme Verdict to get me out of trouble, only to find that a bestowed Boon Satyr comes into play and finishes me off. Never again!

To see where we might be able to use End Hostilities, let's review some of the ways to best use symmetric effects.

Making Better Use of the Effect of End Hostilities Than Your Opponent Can

If you've decided to put End Hostilities in your deck, and you know it, then you can plan your strategy around it. You can be prepared to play a slightly longer game, since End Hostilities will put a stop to any early creature rush. You can build your deck to recover quickly and dominate the game starting around turn six.

End Hostilities | Art by Jason Rainville

Dodging the Effect of End Hostilities

You don't have to play a creatureless deck in order to make End Hostilities a great card, but you might want to play a slightly lower number of them. You won't want to put too many creatures onto the table in the first four turns of the game since you'd simply wind up destroying your own cards along with your opponent's. However, if you wanted to aim for a turn-five End Hostilities and follow it up with a powerful six-mana creature, that sounds like a winning strategy to me!

Creating the Best Window for End Hostilities

You're in control of End Hostilities, and that flexibility means everything. If you have creatures in play, you can continue attacking and simply save End Hostilities in case things take a turn for the worse. You can cast it right away on turn five or wait patiently for your opponent to play out more creatures. It's all up to you as the controller of the spell!

Locking Up the Game With End Hostilities

In previous examples, I referred to the player ahead on the board as the player with more and better creatures. However, there are plenty of other ways to be ahead in the game. It might mean having one or more Planeswalkers in play. It might mean having a powerful artifact or enchantment. Or, it might simply mean having a bunch of lands in play and a deck that's very powerful in the late game. In any of these cases, End Hostilities can serve to lock up the game for you.

While End Hostilities is clearly a tremendously powerful card, it sometimes takes some creativity to make the best possible use of symmetric effects. I, for one, am excited to try all the ways I can think of to make End Hostilities work for me. I hope you'll give it a try as well!

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