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Evolution of Magic: White Ball Lightning and the keyword that did nothing


You guys enjoyed my bit on Time Vault, so here's the story of how Waylay went from a nice combat trick to a hyper-aggressive mono white finisher, to sporting the only keyword to never be printed on a card.

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The Instant Blockers

When Waylay was first printed, it was an interesting card. It was not immediately obvious what it did. You get creatures, but they die at the end of the turn. They don't have haste either, so they can't attack. Oh! It's an instant! You can play it on your opponent's turn to make surprise blockers!

Waylay was printed right before 6th edition rules change. When it was printed, there were no issues with the card. You'd play it, you'd get knights, they die at the end of turn, no problem, no loophole. Cool card overall. I wasn't playing limited at the time, but I'm guessing it caught quite a few attackers by surprise. I don't think it saw any constructed play.

The White Ball Lightning

Ball Lightning [4ED]

Then 6th edition came and changed how most of the rules worked. One of the many results of those changes was that you could now play waylay during the end of turn step and keep them into the next turn. Indeed, "at the end of the turn" triggers were checked at the start of the end of turn step, so if you played waylay right after those triggers were checked, they would not be checked again until the next end of turn.

This is how waylay came to be known as the White Ball Lightning. You'd play it at the end of your opponent's turn and then swing with 6 power of pseudo haste knights on your turn. They didn't have trample, but the 6 power was spread amongst 3 creatures so it still acted as pseudo evasion.

No Time for Subtleties!

Wizards of the Coast did not intend for the card to work that way. At the time, they weren't too subtle with power level errata. They didn't care about restoring the original functionality as much as fixing the power level. This is how, for a time, Waylay had the following text on it:

Play Waylay only during combat.

There you go! No more end of turn tricks! Whereas looking at the original Waylay, you had to think a few seconds "why would I use that" before figuring "oh! Surprise blockers!" (but the answer could also be Lord of the pit food!"), the new Waylay made it bluntly obvious what you were meant to do with it!

Giving Waylay Some Substance

In their defense, restoring Waylay's original functionality wasn't exactly easy within the rules framework of the time. So for a time, they were happy with forcing people to play it during combat. The next errata on Waylay came because of a different set of cards.

You see, there was a quick fix for Waylay, but not so much for Armor of Thorns, Parapet, and a few others. The issue with these cards wasn't the end of turn abuse — that had a pretty minimal impact powerwise — the issue was the opposite in fact: The new rules made those cards significantly worse.

Parapet [VI]

Imagine the following: You attack with a 2/2. Your opponent blocks with a 2/2. You flash in parapet to save your 2/2. Awesome, right? Except parapet disappears at the start of your end step and the 2 damage on your 2/2 only gets removed in the step after that (the cleanup step). So all you did was delay the death of your 2/2 to the end of the turn. That makes parapet pretty damn useless (at least, its flash mode).

So Wizards thought "how can we have parapet and friends last until the cleanup step?". For some reason, Wizards refused to refer to the cleanup step on cards. That's ugly! What is much neater is to create a keyword that does absolutely nothing and use that keyword to force those cards to trigger during the cleanup step without actually mentioning the cleanup step. This keyword was called substance and has never been printed on a card It was used only in errata.

When I say substance did absolutely nothing, I mean it. Look at the rule for substance at the time:

502.49. Substance

502.49a Substance is a static ability with no effect.

That's it! So how was it used? Well, I don't remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:

You may play parapet any time you could play an instant. If you do, parapet gains substance until the end of the turn. When parapet loses substance, sacrifice it.

This little text abuses the fact that "until end of turn" effects wear off during the cleanup step, at the same time as damage. Much cleaner than mentioning the cleanup step on a card, right?

And we circle back to Waylay. The other side effect of this ruling is that you can no longer abuse end of turn trick. For one, you don't normally get to play spells during the cleanup step, so that kind of makes it difficult to play Waylay after the substance trigger is checked. It is possible to get priority during the cleanup step, for instance, if something triggers (maybe because it had substance as well?), but even if you manage to get priority during the cleanup step and play waylay, this little bit of rule comes in and ruins your day:

14.3a At this point, the game checks to see if any state-based actions would be performed and/or any triggered abilities are waiting to be put onto the stack (including those that trigger “at the beginning of the next cleanup step”). If so, those state-based actions are performed, then those triggered abilities are put on the stack, then the active player gets priority. Players may cast spells and activate abilities. Once the stack is empty and all players pass in succession, another cleanup step begins.

In other words, if you get priority during the cleanup step, there's another cleanup step right after it that will get rid of Waylay. So that's how substance made its way onto Waylay, to replace the combat phase restriction.

Cleaning up the Mess

Eventually, and fortunately for everyone's sanity, Wizards realized that mentioning the cleanup step might not be as bad as making up obscure keywords that do nothing. So Waylay (as well as parapet and friends) got a much neater oracle text with a trigger at the beginning of the cleanup step.

Put three 2/2 white Knight creature tokens onto the battlefield. Exile them at the beginning of the next cleanup step.

That's it for the story of Waylay and the keyword that did nothing. Until next time!

- Filobel

Reprinted with permission from reddit.


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