Hello and welcome to another week of Latest Developments. Today I am going to talk about one of the less exciting parts of Magic (on the surface), but one of the more important parts of the game: the vanilla creature.
Why Vanillas Exist
Much like the "strictly betters" I talked about last week, vanillas have been around since the beginning. There were 61 creatures below rare in Limited Edition (Alpha), and of those a full fourteen were vanillas. (There were three more if you include defenders.) Of course, in those days, the novelty of a six-mana 6/4 was pretty high, so it's kind of expected. Still, an important part of that was having creatures that could be on the battlefield and not clutter things up. When you have a lot of creatures with static abilities, the battlefield can get way too complex for most players, even very advanced players. We want there to be strategic decisions when playing Magic and building decks. We generally like games that have fewer total decisions, but wherein each of those decisions is more meaningful. Having a huge number of creatures that do things other than just attack or block tends to lead to huge stalemates, with lots of small decisions that tend to make board states incredibly messy and games pretty boring. All things being equal, we'd much rather have games with clear decisions on attacking and blocking each turn.
Now, Alpha was missing a very important piece of technology that helps out a lot today: the virtual vanilla. Creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities weren't really a major part of Magic until Visions. Before that, creatures were either vanilla, had tap abilities, or (frequently) weird and obtuse ways to decide how big they were that changed at least once a turn and were frequently tracked with counters that weren't +1/+1s. Enters-the-battlefield abilities made things much better; a card as simple as Man-o'-War could be an interesting part of the game and let you interact with your opponent in simple ways that then left you with a body that could attack or block. I can't imagine that Magic would be anywhere close to the game it is today if we somehow hadn't stumbled upon that technology.
But we're not here to talk about virtual vanillas; we're here to talk about the real thing. Vanillas exist to be simple creatures that can attack and block, and are instrumental for teaching Magic to new players. More than that, they do a great job of setting up expectations for the baseline stats you can expect for each color's creatures, and helping to teach the fundamentals of the color pie. If you look at the vanillas throughout history, you can see where each color excels. This goes all the way back to Alpha; white gets the best one-drop vanilla in Savannah Lions because it is the color of weenies. Green gets the "strongest" vanillas in raw stats with Craw Wurm. White, black, and red each get a 2/2 for three mana with Pearled Unicorn, Scathe Zombies, and Gray Ogre respectively, but green gets Grizzly Bears. While of each of those colors have since moved up to the 2/2 for two range, green has gotten better.
Vanillas do a great job of setting baseline expectations of how strong each color's creatures are. Blue and red's vanillas tend to be things like Hill Giant, Blind Phantasm, or Goblin Piker (though we have recently started giving red actual grizzly bears to help with Limited). White, black, and green are all better creature colors than red or blue, so their vanillas are stronger—and they get Hill Giant with a lot of upside, or even just Rumbling Baloth. If you were a new player and opened up six packs of Magic, you would be able to get a pretty good sense of just how powerful each color's creatures are with just the vanillas. Making that true means that as an experienced player, your knowledge of how the colors work will stand true as you experience new sets.
More than just that, vanillas are great for new players when learning deck building. It's easy to understand what to replace in your deck when you get a card that is strictly better card than a vanilla. That learning experience is very important for teaching new players how to upgrade their decks once they have learned the basics.
Vanillas in Limited
It can be fun when a set changes a few things about what you know to keep things interesting, but it's usually best if some things stay the same year after year. Vanillas are a big part of that. Rules about how strong vanillas are play a big part in crafting the identities of the colors. When we look at the strongest commons per color, green is the only color that ever gets really strong vanillas—I mean like worthy of the first few picks in pack one of a draft. Nessian Courser, Rumbling Baloth, Hollowhenge Beast, or Vorstclaw. The stereotypical green deck may not be as tricksy as the other colors, but it does a good job of just being bigger. Blue, on the other hand, gets pretty weak vanillas and it requires text on the cards to do much more work. That's not the say that when everything is put into context the blue card can't be stronger (flying goes a long way), but it's not going to compete on raw stats.
Beyond just setting expectations, vanillas go a long way in Limited toward allowing the total complexity of packs and board states to remain pretty low while still giving players enough to do that is interesting. No matter what happens, some number of cards in each Limited deck are going to be filler. In the past, those filler cards often ended up having a lot of text on them, but we've moved in recent years to having more vanillas with decent stats in sets to help people fill their decks out. Riot Devils, Alpine Grizzly, or Borderland Minotaur may not seem like they do a lot of work, but they do a good job of letting Limited decks win games without needing too much synergy. Whether you are playing a Red-Green Ramp deck, a Blue-Red Spells deck, or a Red-White Go-Wide deck, Borderland Minotaur can just be a creature with above-average stats that can fill out your curve. Better to give opportunities like that than forcing players to figure out which Hill Giant with upside they want to draft and run in their deck.
The final important thing that vanillas do a good job of is letting us create relatively weak cards that can fill out certain synergies in sets that have some kind of theme. For example, Vampire Noble and Seagraf Skaab in Shadows over Innistrad were not strong cards, but because of their creature types, they were good at getting passed around the table and allowing people who were drafting a tribe to hopefully hit critical mass. I know that people frequently dislike generally weak cards, but a big part of creating Limited cards is making sure that the weak cards have their spot in the ecosystem. It is a very useful characteristic of a card to get passed around the table but make it to the person who needs it—even if they don't necessarily want it. Personally, I would be much happier cutting a Vampire Noble from any Vampire deck I had in Shadows, but that's not always the kind of choice you get to make. Sometimes your deck works out great and everything gets passed to you, and sometimes you are really scraping by to hit 23 or even 22 playables. When that happens, getting a reasonably statted vanilla that can attack and block reasonably well can be the difference between going 1-2 and 2-1 in the draft.
Vanillas in Constructed
It's not very often that you see vanillas in Constructed, but they do pop up from time to time. The most likely place for them to show up is in tribal decks or decks that are leveraging some other aspect of the card—like the fact that it's an artifact, for example.
Vanillas that see play in Constructed, unlike in Limited, tend to have stats that are a little more generous than normal. Think Memnite, Isamaru, Hound of Konda, Elite Vanguard, Kalonian Tusker, Woolly Thoctar, and Leatherback Baloth. Patrick Sullivan once played Walking Corpse in a tribal Zombie deck, but that's an outlier.
We don't tend to aim a lot of vanillas for Constructed unless there is a purpose. Woolly Thoctar, for example, was there to push three-color decks by giving them a strong beater at a lower price than you would normally see. We could've made it a smaller creature and given it more text, but there is something nice and simple about a powerful vanilla. Sedraxis Specter or even Bant Charm needed some amount of context to be understood. Being bigger than the competition can be pretty appealing.
Now, we don't tend to have a lot of vanillas in Constructed. It's true that we haven't printed a mono-green creature with better outright stats than Kalonian Tusker without some kind of drawback, but we don't have some kind of rule about making the best stats only appearing on vanillas. It would be hard to argue that Sylvan Advocate is a weaker card than Kalonian Tusker, but there will be times where you would rather run the Tusker. Say, when green devotion is running around, or when you just don't ever expect to get to six lands. Gold cards get a bit higher stats, so you are likely to see future green-white 3/3s with upside in a similar vein to Fleecemane Lion.
A big part of making Magic work for the long haul is reigning in complexity, and keeping as much design space open as long as possible. There are a finite number of cards that can get made, and including even six or seven vanillas per set lets us create good gameplay without adding to the total number of unique card texts in the world. That may not seem like a lot, but over the years, it really adds up.
That's it for this week. Join me next week when I talk about creature curves in Magic sets.
Until next time,