A Changing Landscape

Posted in Latest Developments on September 7, 2012

By Billy Moreno

Hey everybody. I'd love to dive right into showing you today's preview card, because what better first impression could I possibly make in this column? But I feel obligated to introduce myself now, if only because it would be so much more awkward next time we see each other. I'm not saying I'm doing this for you, just that I'm doing this for us.

The Twitter (@billy_moreno) version:

billy_moreno PT LA 05 finalist; PT Honolulu 06 (11th); deck-building specialist; newest full-time developer; fan of Chandra, the Firebrand; from Austin, TX

The Facebook (bmoreno54) version:

The Instagram version:

The Spotify version:

Billy is listening to "Addicted To Love" by Florence + The Machine.

Last Time We Were Here

That wasn't too bad, was it? Those of you who at least skimmed through the above probably noticed that I dropped the name of today's card. Sorry if that got your hopes up. We're just not ready to go there yet. First, I'd like to talk about the current-most-famous humanoid elephant in Magic history and a fellow inhabitant of Ravnica. From the day Ravnica hit the streets, Loxodon Hierarch was one of the defining cards of its Standard environment and certainly the most important soldier in the Selesnyan guild.

Wait a minute, you say. Ghazi-Glare, the deck that won the 2005 World Championship, was named for two other Selesnyan cards (Glare of Subdual and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree). What gives?

Glare of Subdual
Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree

First off, let me point out that Ghazi-Glare is a good name for a deck—it's informative and alliterative. That said, Lox of Life is a pretty killer name too. Except for one thing. Lox of Life doesn't say anything about what deck you're playing because EVERYONE who played those colors had four Hierarchs. So much value on one card: 4 life, a 4/4 body, the ability to save your team from Wildfire. And all with a reasonable price tag.

Ghazi-Glare thrived at Worlds '05, in part, because no one was prepared for it. Loxodon Hierarch thrived despite everyone knowing about it. From Day One, it was an A-Lister, a bona fide blue-chipper. In a world where red decks were packing Char, Lightning Helix, and Volcanic Hammer; in a Standard where Zoo had access to Kird Ape; Savannah Lions; and Isamaru, Hound of Konda; Loxodon Hierarch stood its ground and said, "Try harder."

Loxodon Hierarch

I tried. As much as anyone, I tried. And I succeeded more often than not, but only because I respected Loxodon Hierarch so much. At Pro Tour Honolulu '06, my Zoo deck featured four main-deck Flames of the Blood Hand, a walloping burn spell that could also counter the Elephant's lifegain. I also didn't play any creatures that cost more than two mana, so I'd never be tempted to tap out and let them gain that life. Later that year, at Pro Tour Charleston, a Block Team Constructed event, I played a Boros deck touching black for the Rakdos side of Hit // Run and Pillory of the Sleepless. Neither was as brutally efficient as Flames of the Blood Hand, but I knew I needed individual cards that could deal with the huge chunk of lifegain AND the 4/4 roadblock.

Flames of the Blood Hand
Pillory of the Sleepless

Loxodon Smiter attacks from some different angles but promises to carry on the family tradition. Anyone who wants to succeed in the new Standard environment will need to respect the limits it imposes.

Also, it's a 4/4.

Loxodon Smiter is a developer special. I don't mean that we made the card from scratch to fit our needs. (The card came to us as is from Ken Nagle's design team.) But we did have needs—needs the Smiter fulfilled—and so we protected the card. Protected it from ourselves, in fact. And when it came down to it, Erik Lauer, who out of all the developers has the broadest grasp of what Standard needs at any given time, protected it from me.

If you missed the between-the-lines statement there, I just revealed that I think Loxodon Smiter is such an impactful card that I would have been more comfortable making it worse.

When we do finally get to the card I'll show you what I mean, but first let's talk about the work the development team expects it to do. Constructed Magic is a sprawling and unwieldy beast and manipulating it requires constant cunning, broad awareness, and a willingness to make choices. Any given Standard environment owes its character to the sum of the choices designers and developers made plus the factors we intentionally or unintentionally left to chance.

Obviously, there is a lot about Magic that is out of R&D's control. It's been discussed before, but it's worth rehashing—there are just too many variables for us to thoroughly consider all of them. Look at your average Planeswalker. It's got at least five numbers on it (casting cost, three abilities, and a starting loyalty). The three abilities probably have even more numbers and less visible knobs in them. And that's just when you consider the card on its own. Now toss it into a pool filled with a thousand other cards. Throw in a few million players, each with his or her own preferences that interact with, override, and otherwise skew a card's overall impact on the world. There's just too much going on to make conscious and thoroughly informed choices about it all.

Chandra, the Firebrand
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

But, as I pointed out above, we sometimes intentionally leave some things to chance. Why? Because developing for Constructed is a balancing act. In one direction, we pursue diversity—the more types of cards that are capable of winning games, the more types of decks that give players a fighting chance, the more likely each person can play the cards they want to play and feel good about doing so. And to that end, we often flatten the power level of individual cards, add friction to dominating combinations, and temper the effectiveness of cards and decks that threaten the viability of entire strategies. That's why Flame Slash ultimately didn't make the cut in Magic 2013. That's why Wolfir Silverheart doesn't have and share trample. That's why Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were finally banned in Standard last year.

In the other direction, people want immediate, visceral reactions to their cards. When cards aren't making you feel, we've failed. When you never feel invincible behind your freshly-played Baneslayer Angel, when you're never desperately terrified of that Bonfire of the Damned lurking on top of your opponent's deck, when deck building is all math, when games are all chess, when Magic is all head and no heart, we've failed. So we take risks. Calculated risks where the dream is bigger than the math, where the passion outweighs the play.

Baneslayer Angel
Bonfire of the Damned

Liliana of the Veil was just such a risk. Three-mana Planeswalkers have the potential to hit the board early and dictate the game. She attacks the hand and the board. She fills up your yard with Griselbrands and Unburial Rites. And almost a year after hitting Standard, she's been a solid but never-smothering piece of the format.

Snapcaster Mage was also a risk. From Mana Leak to Timely Reinforcements to Duress. From Innistrad to Ravnica and beyond, the flashy blue 2/1 promises more. Always more. Always what you want. R&D is careful with flashback, a powerful mechanic that roughly doubles the power of almost any card. We don't put flashback on Cruel Ultimatum or Cryptic Command. But Snapcaster does. It's a boundary-pushing card. And almost a year after hitting Standard, Snapcaster Mage has been defining the edge of the format.

But hey, these cards wouldn't be risks if we knew exactly how they were going to play out.

Fortunately, we don't just launch these risky cards out into the world and let them fall where they may. When we consciously take a risk, when there's a chance a card will be too warping and the Standard playground will turn into a hostile and unforgiving place, we also try to give y'all the tools to keep the streets safe yourselves. For instance, when Lingering Souls looked like a world-beater, we tweaked Thundermaw Hellkite to be a main-deckable trump.

Given how punishing Snapcaster Mage and Liliana can be to creature-based green decks, we wanted to give everybody a powerful tool for keeping those cards honest.

And on that note, it's my pleasure to introduce...

Loxodon Smiter

Let's look at what this beauty does to Liliana first. It doesn't have any built-in protection to her -2 ability, but that one is easy enough to work—just sacrifice one of your other creatures. But Smiter's anti-discard ability lines up so well with Liliana's +1. Not only do you get to slam Smiter onto the battlefield, it's conveniently available to attack for 4 on your next turn, which is exactly how much loyalty the black Planeswalker has after one activation.

The burly Loxodon's advantages against Snapcaster Mage decks are more oblique. I'm sure you've already noticed that this 4/4 can't be countered. Big deal, you might be thinking. Blue decks aren't traditionally concerned with midrange beaters, not when they have tempo tools like Unsummon at their disposal.

The thing is, they only have so many tempo cards and they often rely on counterspells, like the rotating Mana Leak or its replacement Essence Scatter, to keep the board clean. Snapcaster decks love to counter any random blocker on their way to casting Geist of Saint Traft onto an empty battlefield. They're even happier revealing a counterspell to flip a turn-one Delver of Secrets, confident in their ability to deal with anything that might have a chance of racing.

Now, with the chance to power out a turn-two 4/4 off an Arbor Elf or the perfectly matched Avacyn's Pilgrim, green-white mages can refuse the unfavorable terms of battle offered by smirking Snapcaster decks.

Loxodon Smiter | Art by Ryan Barger

That Doesn't Seem So Scary

Earlier in the article, I revealed that I would've liked to see this card made worse. Now that you've seen it, that desire might not make a lot of sense. Once you get past the bells and whistles that make Loxodon Smiter an anti-control sledgehammer, it's just a vanilla 4/4. And since I've already demonstrated the good and noble work the Elephant can do against some of the riskiest cards in the Standard environment, what could I possibly be worried about?

A vanilla, three-mana 4/4, it turns out.

I've played a lot of beatdown decks in my life. In fact, my first article for this website, published while I was still playing professionally, was an education in aggro Magic. And I can honestly say that the most difficult games are the ones where my opponents can curve out with effective blockers. When I play an Elite Vanguard, I don't want to see a Kird Ape. When I play a Watchwolf, I don't want to run into a Rhox War Monk. And there's nothing anywhere in Innistrad through Return to Ravnica that wants to attack into a Loxodon Smiter.

Kird Ape
Rhox War Monk

Remember everything I said about Loxodon Hierarch defining its Standard? The same applies here. Smiter's cheaper casting cost isn't an exact trade for the extra life Hierarch brings with it. But it's close. Sure, there are some games where you have the mana and topdecking a Hierarch would be the difference between life and death. But there will also be games where you miss your fourth land drop but are still able to deploy your defensive stalwart. And in most of the other games, the extra turn of defense you get out of Smiter will roughly offset the 4 life Hierarch would've provided.

Now, normally, an oversized three-drop with no other impact on the battlefield wouldn't show up in main decks often enough to really cause headaches for rushing attack decks. That's where the bells and whistles turn out to be crucial. Instead of being soft against blue and black decks, like midrange beaters usually are, Loxodon Smiter is actually a valuable asset. It's not bad against anyone. It's a thumping five-turn clock and a nigh-insurmountable defender as early as turn two. It keeps unfair cards honest and renders fair cards unimpressive.

Simply put, Smiter's presence in the format is a factor that Standard aggro decks will not be able to simply ignore and hope to avoid.

Setting the Bar High

I'd like to close out today with the best Loxodon Smiter story ever. Obviously, only a handful of people have played with the card yet, so I have a pretty huge head start in this competition. But none of my fellow FFLers have a story to match, so I'm going to hold on to this crown until one of you inevitably takes it from me...

Most of our FFL playtesting is unstructured and broadly exploratory. But today is one of our roughly monthly tournament days. One of the few times when we actually play best-of-three matches and track win-loss records. Suffice to say, the gaming stakes are as high as they ever get.

My opponent is Zac Hill, who no longer works here at Wizards. He's piloting an aggressive black-red deck that tops out at Thundermaw Hellkite. On the way up the curve, he drops a turn-three Liliana of the Veil and ticks her up. I gleefully discard a Smiter into play and eat his Planeswalker on my turn. Zac follows up with a second Liliana and makes me sacrifice my guy. Fair enough.

Thundermaw Hellkite
Liliana of the Veil

On my fourth turn, I play a land and pass with a couple of cards in hand. Move along. Nothing to see here. Zac draws on his fifth turn, looks at his one-card hand, and sighs, declining to activate Liliana. As far as he's concerned, I always have it, no matter how unlikely or off-the-wall "it" is. In this case, he thinks it is just a second Loxodon Smiter and obviously I have it. From where I'm sitting, Zac's last card can only be a game-changing Hellkite—he can't activate Liliana yet, because he needs to draw a fifth land and empty his hand.

In a match like this, I can't even bother trying to hide my giddy anticipation. Especially since Zac has no clue how badly things are going to go for him. Fortunately for me, he understands how annoyed he's going to be when everything plays out and can only dutifully go through the motions and submit to his fate.

I don't do anything of note on my fifth turn. Probably an irrelevant Farseek.

Zac draws a fifth land, hurries his Hellkite onto the battlefield and into the red zone and drops me to 13 or so. Now empty-handed, he resignedly plusses his Liliana.

"No cards?" I ask.

He fans his hands, daring me to do my worst.

I show him a card he hasn't seen played yet, an Azorius instant that isn't obviously worth playing, but in this situation, thoroughly devastating. He rolls his eyes in mock, mock frustration.

"Bounce your dragon. Ready to discard?"

His Hellkite hits the bin as my second Smiter hits the battlefield. I finish off his Liliana and make quick work of the game.

Good luck in New York, Zac. Here's to hoping your surprises are less crushing but exactly as funny when the stakes are high.

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