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Attention to Detail #40
Double-Edged Swords
by Jordan Kronick
September 29, 2006

Has the term “double-edged sword” ever really made sense to you?  I suppose it's a symptom of having European ancestors.  The term is a product of a place (Asia) where most swords had an edge on only one side, unlike European broadswords.  But enough etymology for one day.  That term means “something which is likely to come back to bite you”, basically.  There are a lot of Magic cards that fit that description very well.  Drawbacks are an important part of Magic.  If no cards had drawbacks, the game would be a dull place where your strategies were determined only by the size and speed of your spells, and never on taking advantage of an opponent who has put themselves in a perilous position.  After all, it feels good to beat someone on the strength of your own deck.  It's a whole different feeling when you beat someone who put themselves in jeopardy.  Winning those games feels less like luck and more like skill.  If you just happened to draw the right card at the right time, it feels nice.  If you saved the right card in your hand until the right moment, it feels great..  And that's why drawbacks are important.  They give you a benefit, while also exposing a weakness that your opponent can try to exploit.  The game then becomes one of trying to exploit the weaknesses your opponent has created for themselves, while trying to create more of your own.


Cards with drawbacks to offset some other benefit have been around since Alpha.  Lord of the Pit and Force of Nature are two types of cards with drawbacks.  Many people would say that these cards are very similar, but there's a big difference.  Force of Nature is slightly larger, has an upkeep which does not require expendable resources, and it's also cheaper to cast.  This is why Force of Nature will always be the better creature.  Sure, it doesn't fly and it dies to Terror.  However, the drawback of paying 4 mana to it every turn is less painful than that of sacrificing a creature.  Of course, the situation of the game can change this.  If you've got a Breeding Pit (or an Endrek Sahr) in play, then Lord of the Pit's upkeep is a simple matter and you've got a much stronger position. 


It's somewhat difficult to try to determine which of two cards is more powerful.  You can rate them for different environments, and you can imagine different situations.  But in the end, they are different creatures with different sizes, costs and upkeeps.  If that's difficult, you might imagine that comparing two cards with the same drawback would be a simple matter, but this also is deceptive.  When Time Spiral's purple-rarity cards were unveiled, a lot of people were shocked to see an old double-edged sword coming back after more than a decade – Psionic Blast.  Now, it doesn't take a genius to say that this is a very good card.  And I'm no genius, so I'll delineate exactly what's so amazing about Psi Blast;


1)   It does more damage than it costs.  Cards that do this are always worth investigating.  From the lowly Shock to the lofty Goblin Grenade, cards that do more damage than they cost are good because they allow you to (generally) remove a threat which is more expensive than your answer.  This gets complicated with alternate costs as with Goblin Grenade, but it's still generally a good thing to kill something that costs 3 with your card that costs 1.  Psionic Blast can take out some very expensive and strong creatures for the low, low price of three mana.


2)   The drawback is extremely easy to navigate.  Once upon a time, we had Lightning Bolt.  The card did three times as much damage as it cost and dealt with a lot of the most annoying creatures in existence.  It had no drawback whatsoever.  Well, we don't have Lightning Bolt anymore.  Cards that do more damage than they cost need to have drawbacks.  Of course, Psionic Blast was around at the same time as Lightning Bolt. But the fact that it has a drawback is why it was allowed to come back and Lightning Bolt was not (except in the form of Rift Bolt).  The cost of two damage is not something you should worry about much.  I've said many times that one of the most important stepping stones from moving to being a novice to a journeyman at Magic is to understand that life is a resource.  For a very simple situation, imagine that someone is attacking you with a 4/4 creature.  If you Psionic Blast this creature, you are spending 1 card and 2 life to remove one card.  The net loss is just the 2 life. However, if you don't do it, you are losing 4 life.  So you're preventing 4 damage and taking 2.  Psionic Blast is life-gain!


3)   It's blue.  Easily the most important thing about Psionic Blast is its color.  Blue does not get direct damage.  This rule was nonexistant in Alpha, where Psi Blast originally saw print alongside everyone's favorite, Prodigal Sorcerer.  It took many long years before Tim and his kin were removed and replaced with Vulshok Sorcerer and its descendents.  Blue is the best color of the five when it comes to preventing things from reaching play.  However, it has a notorious problem with removing threats once they are in play.  Not as bad as green, but pretty bad.  Blue's answers for creatures are often to bounce them (and hopefully counter them the second time) or to take control of them (something which used to be common and cheap and has now become far less common and far more expensive and conditional – see Control Magic vs. Dream Leash).  Psionic Blast gives blue an instant-speed way to deal with a lot of very strong creatures.  And you don't feel cheated on the card count like you might with a Boomerang effect.


4)   It goes to the head.  Although blue likes its newfound ability to remove creatures, it likes the ability to go to the dome even more.  Blue's strength in creatures is evasion. It gets flying creatures at a huge discount.  It gets the occasional unblockable creature worth playing.  It gets ninjas.  It gets all that good stuff.  And that's great for squeezing in a bit of damage early.  But what do you do once your opponent gets some defense. Though your Wind Drakes might do a great job of beating down early, what do you do once your opponent manages to resolve a something that can defend them and which can't be removed?  Or when they burn away all of your evasion creatures?  Psi Blast is the answer.  If you've ever beat down with blue fliers for a while only to get stuck with your opponent at a low life total but with too much defense, you know just what I mean.


That's why Psionic Blast is so good.  But I wasn't just talking about Psi Blast.  I was talking about how to compare cards with the same drawback, and about why people were so shocked (no pun intended) to see the Blast back in the first place.  The answer to this is Char.  When Char first arrived, everyone hailed it as the second coming of Psi Blast (unknowing that the true resurrection was yet to come).  Char and Psionic Blast do the same thing.  They both cost 3 mana and do 4 damage (plus 2 to you).  So how do you figure out which one is better?  If this were a Lord of the Pit and a Force of Nature, you could look at relative sizes and just what the drawbacks are.  But not so with the burn spells.  Instead, all you have to go on is color.  I've already talked about how important Psi Blast is for blue.  And you can guarantee that it's going to be a lynchpin in every blue deck for the next two years.  People who are playing blue without Psionic Blast are either crazy, poor or they have seen so far ahead in the equation that I envy them.  Is Char so important to red?  Not hardly.  If you want to burn something in red, you've got a whole lot of options.  As I mentioned before, red has a new 3-for-1-mana spell in Rift Bolt.  That does more damage per mana than Char is doing.  It's got a pretty hefty drawback to use it that way, but it does work.  What it comes down to though is that red has a lot of options for this category.  You can build your deck with exactly the right kind of burn.  If you're having problems with swarms, you can pile on the Pyroclasms and so forth.  Blue doesn't get this option.  If blue wants burn, it plays Psionic Blast.  There is no other choice.  So, while Psionic Blast and Char are equally strong, one is vastly more important.  And one will see significantly more play (and have a higher secondary value). 


So, if Psionic Blast and Char are so good, why not just play four of each?  When Psi Blast was revealed, that was the reaction of many.  After all, it's a lot of damage.  You only need to get five of your eight spells to burn your opponent out.  And that's easier than ever with blue's return to strong card drawing.  So is that viable?  I really don't think so.  This is where the double-edged sword comes into play.  If you are Charing and Blasting your opponent to death, you are doing the same thing to yourself.  As I see it, there are two times when Char or Psi Blast are very strong and one time when they are very poor.  If you are removing a threat (or an answer), both cards are exceptional.  They deal with things far more expensive than themselves with only a small drawback.  Likewise, both cards are just about a good as it gets if your opponent has 4 life or less.  The problem is when they have more than that.  If your plan is to Char and Blast your opponent to death, then the first thing you have to do is start hitting them when they are at 20 life.  So, while you're putting bigger dents in them than you are in yourself, you're not affecting the board position.  And you're opening a weakness in yourself.  This contrasts nicely with a card like Juzam Djinn (or the new Plague Sliver).  Juzam hurts you.  However, it's presence is board affecting.  It presents a threat which must be dealt with, and which can win the game by itself.  A single Char or Blast can only win the game if your opponent has 4 life – and if you have more than 2.  I've often said that the only play worse than cassting a first turn lightning bolt on your opponent is to cast one on yourself.  I don't like attempting to burn my opponents to death.  It's the kind of strategy that everyone comes up with at some point in their lives.  They see a Fireball for the first time and imagine burning their opponent for 20.  But those with experience know that it never works that way.  Even the most burn-heavy decks in the history of competitive constructed featured other sources of damage.  A shock can do 2 damage.  A grey ogre can do 20, if you give it enough time.  What this comes down to is that the 8-Char deck is just not effective enough.  I have no doubt that red/blue is going to be given a chance at the Standard environment that's approaching, but I expect it to falter soon after.  People will be excited to play with such strong burn, but that excitement leads to decks that are more cool than they are powerful. 


Drawbacks are not always so simple as they are with Char/Blast or Juzam.  Sometimes the drawback is hard to see.  For instance, Monstrous Growth vs. Giant Growth.  The cost is rarely an issue on these cards, since they are most often played in the early or mid game once you've already got a creature or two in play.  The drawback of Monstrous Growth is the speed, obviously.  Speed-based drawbacks remove options.  Monstrous Growth cannot ordinarily be used to save a creature.  All it can be used for is offense.  Versatility is why Giant Growth is the better card despite a smaller effect.  When you're trying to evaluate a card, it's important to look at all of the things that a card of that type is capable of, and then figure out how closely your card comes to 100%.  Burn is an excellent example.  Let's look at the card Strafe.  This was a Bolt-variant from Planeshift which was quite powerful, but never saw much constructed play.  It graces a lot of sideboards, but that was it.  Why could this be?  People were playing Scorching Lava over this, and that cost twice as much (or three times) for less damage.  The answer, once again, is versatility.  Burn has three basic things that it can do.  It can remove a creature which is a problem for a fairly generic reason (like a Royal Assassin or an evasion creature).  It can burn someone directly, which is good for finishing things off of course.  And it can remove a creature at an opportune moment.  This moment could be in response to a Giant Growth or some aura.  Or it could be once your opponent has comitted to a double block which is about to turn against them.  Either way, burn does these three things.  But how many of them can Strafe do?  It doesn't burn players.  And it cannot be used to remove a creature at an opportune moment (since it's a sorcery).  This leaves us with the option of removing a threat.  The printed drawback of “nonred” turns out to be far less damning than the unspoken drawback of being a sorcery and being unable to target a player.  Scorching Lava got played because, even though it cost more and did less damage, it was more versatile.  It could do way more things for the mana.  The drawback of the cost and relatively small amount of damage were overcome by the versatility of the card.  Sometimes drawbacks can be overcome by sheer power (like Juzam or Char) and sometimes drawbacks are overcome by finesse. 


The third type of card with a drawback (the other two being cards with negligible drawbacks like Char and those with truly unfortuante drawbacks like Lord of the Pit) is the card with a drawback which doesn't really exist or which is so pathetically small that it might as well not exist.  Imagine the following card:


Burny-Burny – R


Deals 3 damage to target creature or player.

You cannot play lands this turn.


Now, there are two drawbacks to this card.  First is the speed.  It's a sorcery, which limits its options.  However, it can target players, so it's not entirely without virtue.  The second drawback is that you can't play lands after you play it.  But what if you've already played a land this turn?  It doesn't do anything to you then.  And since it's a sorcery, you're always going to have had a chance to play a land before this.  A real-world example of such a card would be this:


Dauthi Slayer BB

Creature -  Dauthi Soldier


Attacks each turn if able.



Now, there are plenty of creatures on whom “Attacks each turn if able” would be a real drawback.  However, an agressively costed 2/2 with an evasion ability is not one of them.  Especially an ability like Shadow which makes it far less useful on defense.  The number of times when you don't want to attack with Dauthi Slayer every turn are extremely limited.  The drawback might as well not exist.  This is an example of a drawback which doesn't really exist.  The other kind is a drawback which is so small that it will be of no consequence.  An example of this would be Yawgmoth's Bargain.  Bargain lets you draw as mana cards as you can afford to.  It is not uncommon to draw ten or more cards as soon as you cast this spell.  The drawback is that you won't be able to draw a card for your turn.  The number of times a player has put Yawgmoth's Bargain into play and complained that they weren't able to draw one card are few and far between.  The drawback is so minimal that it is basically not taken into account when evaluating the card.  The evaluation, of course, is that Bargain is completely broken.  I hope everyone knows that by now.


I hope you've enjoyed this look at drawbacks.  The most interesting cards – and the most powerful – are all ones that have an element of risk to them.  Managing that risk is the line between winning and losing.

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