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Power Creep, Spectral Bears, and Alrund's Epiphany


No disrespect to beloved cards like Serra Angel and Shivan Dragon, but creatures weren't very good back in the earliest days of Magic, and doubly so compared to the power of the era's spells, which was off the charts. Look no further than Spectral Bears: a two-mana 3/3 that would remain tapped for a turn after attacking if the opponent didn't control a black permanent. From the perspective of a 2021 Magic player, Spectral Bears looks really bad. Unplayable even. But 30 years ago, Spectral Bears was a legitimate tournament-worthy threat.

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You might thinking I'm joking, but in the earliest days of the Pro Tour back in the mid-1990s, Spectral Bears regularly showed up in Top 8 lists. GW Aggro decks played it. Mono-Green Stompy decks played it. Erhnamgeddon played it. Simply costing two mana and having three power and toughness were enough to make it a very solid aggro threat, despite the huge drawback. 

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Lately, I've been thinking about power creep in Magic, mostly in the context of the dominance of Alrund's Epiphany in Standard. Alrund's Epiphany isn't a great extra-turn spell, especially compared to the best extra-turn spells from Magic's past, like Time Walk and even Time Warp. But it's still the top card in Standard and is showing up in a huge percentage of decks. Why is Alrund's Epiphany arguably too good for Standard when, a decade ago, Time Warp was being printed into Standard through core sets and not really seeing any play? To answer this question, we need to look at the evolution of Spectral Bears

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After playing a role in the earliest days of Standard, Spectral Bears passed the two-mana 3/3 baton to Albino Troll, which has the upside of regenerating but the downside that, because of echo, you have to pay its mana cost two turns in a row if you want to keep it on the battlefield, which I guess sort of makes it a four-mana 3/3. Regardless, much like its ancestor Spectral Bears, Albino Troll was a tournament-worthy card around the turn of the millennium, showing up in Stompy-style decks in Worlds 1999 and other similar tournaments. 

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A few years later, two-mana 3/3s had a huge breakthrough when the first Spectral Bears without a drawback was printed in Ravnica: Watchwolf. While it technically took two colors to cast Watchwolf (which is a sort of drawback, but you know what I'm getting at), a vanilla creature that costs two mana and has three power and toughness was a pretty huge deal back when original Ravnica first came out. It was something that Magic players had never seen before.

Is Watchwolf a great Magic card? Not really. You can attack your opponent with it six times, have your opponent draw a Doom Blade to kill it, and go on to lose the game. While it does have a solid stat line for a two-drop, and decks in Standard and even in the earliest days of the Modern format played it because just having good stats used to be enough for a card to see play in an aggressive deck. Watchwolf isn't really a card that can win you a game all by itself. It's a solid beater but nothing more.

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After Watchwolf, the next two-mana 3/3 was Wren's Run Vanquisher, which had Spectral Bears' stats and mana cost but could only really be played in an Elf tribal deck, so we're going to leave that one out of our analysis for now (although I will say it was a staple two-drop for Elves during Lorywn-era Standard). The next real breakthrough in the Spectral Bears lineage was Kalonian Tusker, which was exactly Watchwolf (a vanilla two-mana 3/3) but in mono-green, eliminating the downside of requiring two colors of mana to cast. Much like previous Spectral Bears, Kalonian Tusker was a Standard staple in green aggro decks and even saw quite a bit of Modern play in Stompy between 2014 and 2017 before fading away as the archetype gained new threats like Hexdrinker, Avatar of the Resolute and friends. 

Again, this isn't a joke: just five years ago, a vanilla two-mana 3/3 was a legitimate Magic card in multiple formats. It didn't have an enters-the-battlefield trigger. It definitely died to Doom Blade without generating any value. It couldn't win the game by itself or snowball into a huge advantage. Kalonian Tusker just attacked and blocked, with decent stats for its mana cost...err...value, and that was enough. 

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After Kalonian Tusker came Fleecemane Lion: the first Spectral Bears to come with a meaningful upside rather than having a drawback (like the early-era Spectral Bears) or being vanilla (like the middle-era Watchwolf). For five mana, you can monstrosity Fleecemane Lion into an almost impossible to kill 4/4 indestructible hexproof. Fleecemane Lion was a staple of Abzan Aggro decks during Theros Standard and also saw a reasonable amount of play in Modern aggro decks when it was first printed, although, much like Kalonian Tusker, it's since been replaced by newer, better creatures. 

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Not too long later, Wizards returned to the Spectral Bears well with Bronzehide Lion in Theros: Beyond Death, but this time, the two-mana 3/3 with upside fell flat. If you dig through tournament results from the past year or two, you'll find a handful of lists featuring Bronzehide Lion. But it was very far from a staple and arguably not even all that playable. It is worth mentioning that Bronzehide Lion lived its entire life in a Standard featuring Throne of Eldraine and Ikoria, and this two-mana 3/3, even with the upside of flipping into an enchantment when it dies, couldn't attack through a Lovestruck Beast, resolve against Rogues, or race an Emergent Ultimatum combo kill, which left it sitting on Standard's sidelines. 

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Last but certainly not least, we have our current Spectral Bears in Werewolf Pack Leader, and it's—by far—the best two-mana 3/3 ever printed. Werewolf Pack Leader is the first powerful Spectral Bears of the current era of Magic design. It's a two-mana 3/3 that isn't just a solid beater but also—thanks to its ability to draw cards when it attacks (potentially starting on Turn 3)—the first Spectral Bears that has the ability to snowball into a win more or less by itself. 

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As we talked about before, you can attack with a Watchwolf six times, deal 18 damage, have your opponent top deck a Doom Blade to kill it, stabilize, and go on to win the game at two life because Watchwolf is just a beater—a good beater for its era but still just a beater. If you attack six times with a Werewolf Pack Leader, it is almost impossible to lose the game. Really, just drawing two or three cards with Werewolf Pack Leader often generates enough card advantage to seal the deal. Unlike every past Spectral Bears, Werewolf Pack Leader is a two-mana 3/3 that you more or less need to kill on sight because if it sticks on the battlefield for any amount of time, the card advantage it generates will snowball in such a way that it will become really difficult for an opponent to keep up. 

And remember, we're talking about a random 3/3 for two. This isn't a seven-mana ramp finisher like Koma, Cosmos Serpent snowballing into a win. It's not even a five-mana midrange threat like Goldspan Dragon snowballing into a win. Werewolf Pack Leader's a Spectral Bears. A Watchwolf. A two-mana beater for aggro decks that just happens to come with the upside of winning the game by itself if it stays on the battlefield.

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And this is why Alrund's Epiphany is the best card in Standard. A single extra turn today is worth an incredible amount—way more than it was in the semi-recent past—because even our Spectral Bears generate an absurd amount of value each turn they stick on the battlefield. It's not so much that Alrund's Epiphany itself is too good for Standard; it's that Standard threats are so snowball-y and must be answered so immediately that anything that gives one player an extra turn is very likely too good for Standard in the current era of design. 

Twenty-five years ago, when literal Spectral Bears was in Standard, how much value would you get out of an extra turn? Odds are your Spectral Bears would be tapped during that turn anyway, so not all that much. Fifteen years ago, when Watchwolf was in Standard, an extra turn might give you some more damage, but that's about it. Today, in Werewolf Pack Leader Standard, an extra turn is likely giving you multiple extra cards, multiple extra mana in the forms of Treasure tokens and a land drop, and perhaps much more, like additional planeswalker activations. Taken as a whole, it's not surprising that even a medium extra-turn spell like Alrund's Epiphany is the best card in our current Standard format. Thanks to all of the snowballing threats in Standard, a single extra turn today likely generates nearly as much value as taking two extra turns would have in the past. 

So, what does all of this mean? To me, it means that Wizards simply can't print extra-turn spells into Standard anymore, regardless of how good or bad the specific card might be, because it's not really the extra-turn spell that's broken; rather, the power level of the rest of the cards in Standard have increased the amount of value each turn generates to such an extent that it's just not safe to give players extra turns anymore. Maybe a 10+ mana extra-turn spell would be fine in Standard, but considering how disliked extra-turn spells are, how miserable the play pattern of chaining them together can be, and how dominating the last two (Alrund's Epiphany and Nexus of Fate) have been, I'd rather not take the chance. 

You could also argue from the opposite perspective: that threats should be toned down and less snowbally, which in turn would make extra-turn spells safer. While less snowbally threats would likely be a positive for the game overall, it's hard to imagine Wizards watering down threats at the moment, especially since our current Standard arguably has been powered down (at least, compared to Eldraine Standard) and Alrund's Epiphany is still dominating the meta. The current era of Magic is about flashy, splashy, immediate value-generating threats, and this doesn't seem likely to change in the near future. That ship probably sailed when planeswalkers became the faces of Magic a decade ago.

We live in a world even a Spectral Bears can win the game by itself if left unchecked, and that world simply isn't safe for extra-turn spells.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.



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