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The Changing Definition of Mythic Rare


We want the flavor of Mythic Rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells. They will not just be a list of each set's most powerful tournament-level cards. Mark Rosewater, The Year of Living Dangerously, June 2008 (emphasis mine). 

It's been over seven years since we entered the "Mythic era" of Magic: the Gathering with the release of Shards of Alara. Over this time the meaning of "Mythic" has changed considerably. Today we are going talk about what Mythics were intended to be, what they were in the formative years of the rarity, and what they are now. We are also going to consider the changes in the type of cards that appear at this rarity, and whether these changes are good or bad for the game. Finally, we'll discuss some reasons why the meaning of "Mythic Rare" has changed and what Mythics should look like moving forward. Let's start by breaking down the characteristics of Mythic Rares as offered to us by Mark Rosewater in 2008. 

What's a Mythic Intended to Be (and Not to Be)?

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  • Planeswalkers: This is an easy one. All planeswalkers are Mythics and all planeswalkers should be Mythics. They are important to the flavor and lore of a set. They are exciting for new players to open. They are legendary (even without the tag line), and a good number of them can rightfully be called epic. Whether we are talking Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Mythic is the correct rarity for every planeswalker. 
  • Legends: This one has changed over the years, but the idea is similar to planeswalkers. For flavor reasons, Legends are often Mythic. While we have seen an uptick of legends at Rare in recent sets, a greater percentage of Mythics are legends. It isn't particularly close.
  • Epic: What is (and is not) epic is subjective, and the easiest way to judge is, "I know it when I see it." To me, epic suggests huge, expensive spells that have huge effects on the game. Clone Legion is epic. The Great Aurora is epic. Hellkite Overlord and Godsire are epic. Where the "epic" criteria gets confusing is with lower converted mana cost cards. Fortunately, our next heading gives us a hint on how to evaluate these cards.
  • Should Not Be "A List of Tournament Playables": To me this suggests that tournament playability should not be part of the criteria of "epic-ness." Just being on the list of 50 most played cards in Standard does not make a card epic. Epic is a feeling rather than a level of playability. Most truly epic cards are not tournament playable, since tournament players value efficiency over epicness. Furthermore, the statement suggests that part of the goal of the Mythic rarity is to avoid making most Mythics tournament playable, which makes sense. It is healthier for the game if most tournament playable cards exist at Rare (or even Uncommon) and that the Mythic rarity is reserved for exciting, but not necessarily mana efficient spells. 

The Early Years

Shards of Alara was the first set of the Mythic era, and apart from planeswalkers, the Mythics are mostly unrecognizable by today's standards. Maybe one of the most interesting comparisons is the Shards of Alara "shard" legends to the Khans of Tarkir "wedge" legends. The average converted mana cost of the 10 shard-aligned Mythics in Shards of Alara was 6.4 — far outside the typical range of Standard staples. Meanwhile, the five Khans of Tarkir clan leaders have an average converted mana cost of 4.6, a much more playable mana cost backed up by the fact that two of the five leaders were legitimate Standard staples.

Shards of Alara 

While data from 2009 is a little sketchy, by looking at databases of old deck lists we can get a pretty good idea of just how playable the cards from Shards of Alara were in Standard. By my count, four of the 35 Mythics were Standard playable, and this is being generous counting Tezzeret the Seeker, which saw fringe play in weird Turbo Fog and Time Sieve builds. In fact, the only non-planeswalker Mythic that can even be considered "fringe playable" is Rafiq of the Many, which shows up in about one-tenth the number of deck lists than a true staple like Elspeth, Knight-Errant. All in all, this makes the playability rate of the Mythics from Shards block 11.4%. 

On the other hand, there is a relatively long list of Rares that saw play in Shards of Alara Standard including: Knight of the White Orchid, Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, Scute Mob, Martial Coup, Broodmate Dragon, Maelstrom Pulse, Sovereigns of the Lost Alara, Dauntless Escort, Hell's Thunder, Brilliant Ultimatum, Cruel Ultimatum, Sedraxis Specter, and Ad Nauseam. This list would make the playability rate of Rares somewhere around 11.3%  — almost exactly the same rate as Mythics.  

Planeswalkers

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Considering that, by definition, planeswalkers are Mythic Rares, they get a pass as far as the "tournament-level card" criteria. If a planeswalker is tournament playable, it will be by definition a tournament playable Mythic Rare. As such, planeswalkers automatically get a free pass. As I mentioned in the intro, even the worst of planeswalkers are deserving of a Mythic Rare slot. So what about the rest of the Mythics from the set?

Legendary

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For me, the legendary Mythics from Shards of Alara are a perfect example of what early Wizards wanted Mythics to be. They are flashy, powerful, and generally epic feeling. They are characters that are important to the story and lore of the set, and they certainly do not read like a list of tournament staples. If the goal of Mythics is to give new players a reason to open packs because they can open something epic to show off to their friends, all of these cards qualify. 

Epic

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Likewise, the non-legendary Mythics are the epitome of epic. Discounting Lich's Mirror, which is Mythic on its own right because it says "If you would lose the game, instead ...", they all cost eight-mana, making them far too expensive to be tournament staples. Yet they all have huge effects that casual and new players love. Seriously, if new players love Craw Wurm, can you imagine the look on their face when they open a Godsire? That's probably enough to hook some players on the game all by itself. 

The Rest of Shards Block

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I'm not going to break down Conflux and Alara Reborn Mythic by Mythic, but they follow Shard of Alara's example. In fact, I can't even find a single Mythic Rare for which I can create an argument against its Mythicness by Wizards's stated criteria. Probably the least Mythic of the bunch is Jenara, Asura of War, and she gets a free pass since she's a legend and part of a cycle of Shard-aligned Mythics. As we look at other sets and cards, I'll be more likely to cut Wizards some slack if a Mythic breaks the rules but is part of a cycle. While it isn't specifically mentioned by Mark Rosewater, flavor is an important consideration, and I'd rather see a Mythic break some of the rules than see a bunch of unfinished Mythic cycles. 

As such, I believe the Mythics from Shards block score a perfect 35/35. Every one is either a planeswalker, a legend, or epic-feeling, and none are utility cards or tournament staples. Better yet, every one is a card that a new player would be excited to open.

Magic 2010

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Magic 2010 brings along with it the first questionable Mythic Rare choices. However, the more I think about these cards, the more I'm willing to give them a pass. Protean Hydra is clearly not Mythic, as evidenced by the fact that it returned just one year later in Magic 2011 as a Rare. However, I'm willing to accept these type of "misses" with Mythics. It's far better to have a Mythic or two that is lacking in power than Mythics that are over-the-top constructed staples. Plus, Hydra is a popular creature type, for some reason I'll never understand. I imagine a new player would probably be happy cracking a Protean Hydra back in the summer of 2009. 

Baneslayer AngelMaster of the Wild Hunt, and Vampire Nocturnus are near-misses on the other end of the scale. Baneslayer Angel was a true tournament staple and, because of her Mythicness, commanded a massive price tag when she first saw print. However, big, flavorful Angels are also popular casual cards, and there is little doubt that Baneslayer Angel is epic. So technically she fits the criteria, although she is far more spike-centric than any Mythic from Shards block. The same is mostly true of Master of the Wild Hunt, which to me feels like a tournament-focused design. Sure, he makes tokens and is flavorful, but his home is on tournament tables as much as it is on kitchen tables. I have mixed feelings on Vampire Nocturnus, which was another Standard staple back in the day. "Lords" firmly occupy the Rare slot in almost every set, so the idea that the Vampire lord should be a Mythic is a bit jarring. While all of these cards are epic in one way or another, they walk the line of "tournament staple," which is what Wizards stated Mythics are not intended to be. While I can see justifications for all of them, I believe there is a very strong argument that this group does not fit the stated definition of Mythic Rare. 

The good news is that the rest of the Mythics from Magic 2010 clearly fit the definition, and there are at least arguments for the rest being classified as Mythics. I'll give Wizards a break and let this group slide, but the precedent set by Magic 2010 is troubling.

Zendikar Block

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Lotus Cobra is the first clear violation of the spirit of the Mythic rarity. It's the equivalent of bumping Sylvan Caryatid or Rattleclaw Mystic to Mythic, which would make players unhappy. Obviously, Lotus Cobra is a powerful mana dork, but it's still a mana dork. Remember, being a Mythic Rare has nothing to do with constructed play or power level. Mythics are intended to be epic or legendary, and Lotus Cobra is neither. Lotus Cobra being a Mythic Rare breaks every rule set forth by Wizards for Mythic Rares. 

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Obsidian Fireheart is clearly questionable. Since it's not a planeswalker or legend, the questions we need to answer is, "Do we consider Obsidian Fireheart to be epic?" The idea that you can light lands on fire and use them to burn an opponent is sort of epic, but it's a lot like a Curse of the Pierced Heart that costs seven-mana. To me, this one falls into the "not epic/not Mythic" category, but I think it's open for interpretation. The good news is the card was utterly unplayable, so it missed on the right end of the spectrum.

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All three of these cards are borderline, based on Wizards's definition of epic and legendary. Warren Instigator gets a pass because it's a double Goblin Lackey, and doubling up a Legacy staples is epic, even if the cards is fairly spike-centric. Khalni Hydra would probably be fine as a Rare, but it is the type of card new players want to open in a pack and it has a ton of Green mana symbols. Linvala, Keeper of Silence is the card from the group I have the biggest issue with. Her ability doesn't really appeal to casual players and her stats don't qualify as "epic," even attached to an Angel. She is legendary, which based on Wizards's definition is enough to qualify as a Mythic. 

Linvala, Keeper of Silence also brings to light another important consideration when judging the Mythic-ness of cards. How do we deal with troupes that exist in nearly every set? Things like "Mythic White Angel" and "Mythic Red Dragon" happen so often that, at this point, they are expected by the player base. But is filling one of these slots enough to qualify a card as Mythic? I don't think so. While it probably will become more apparent when we talk about recent sets, we have plenty of situations where a card slotted at Rare fulfills the criteria for a Mythic better than a similar card slotted at Mythic. I'm not sure "we needed a Mythic dragon" is a good excuse. Even if it is true, wouldn't it be better for both spikes and casuals if Wizards dropped Stormbreath Dragon or Avaricious Dragon to Rare and replaced them with a flashier, bigger Mythic dragons?

Regardless, Zendikdar block still did a fairly good job of keeping Mythics inline with Mark Rosewater's stated goals for the rarity. Very few were blatant spike cards and most feel Mythic in that they are epic or legendary. That said, the Mythics of Zendikar block were less Mythic than the Mythics of Shards block. 

Present Day

Now we are going to fast forward in time to look at the two most recent Magic blocks. While we could go through every block in between, this would make the article extremely long, and the stark contrast between the early days of the Mythic rarity and today is stunning. 

Battle for Zendikar Standard

Looking over the list of most played creatures in our current Standard leads to a pretty stunning revelation — Mythics are everywhere. Fifteen of the fifty most played creatures are Mythic Rares. Things are better when looking at spells, but still, four of the fifty most played cards are Mythic Rares. When you consider there are a total of 71 Mythics in Standard, the problem becomes clear. Unlike Mythics in the past, today's Mythics read like a list of tournament staples. Take a look at the percentage of each rarity that shows up in the 100 most played non-land cards in Standard. 

As you can see, there is a consistent pattern of playability between rarities. Uncommons are twice as playable as Commons, Rares are twice as playable as Uncommons, and Mythics are twice as playable as Rares. While this might seem like a fine break down, remember that when the Mythic rarity was created the stated goal is that it wouldn't be "a list of tournament playables," which is exactly what the Mythic rarity is today. 

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the playability rate of Rares from our current Standard is relatively consistent with the playability rate of Rares from Shards of Alara Standard seven years ago. The change isn't simply that Rares got less playable, because they haven't. Instead, Mythics have gotten far more playable. In fact, the average Mythic from our current Standard is 2.5 times more tournament playable than the average Mythic from Shards block.

This trend has been seen for a while. With the help of the Wayback Machine I was able to look at Standard in August 2013, just before the release of Theros and 10 of the 50 most played cards were Mythic Rares. In August 2014 it was nine, and in this past March, before the release of Dragons of Tarkir it was eight, the same as it is today. The point is, Mythic is consistently the most playable rarity in Standard by a long shot, which begs the questions, what went wrong?

The Biggest Offenders in Battle for Zendikar Standard

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On the most basic level, the problem is that many cards that would have been Rare in 2008 are Mythic today. Deathmist Raptor is a prime example. I cannot construct a coherent argument as to why Deathmist Raptor should be Mythic based on the criteria of epic, legendary, and exciting for new players to open. It's clearly a spike card, built to generate grindy card advantage on tournament tables. It isn't legendary. It's extremely far from epic as a 3/3 for three-mana with no crazy, fun, casual abilities. I couldn't imagine a new player being excited to open the card. Even the argument that "it returns from the graveyard" isn't a good one. Bloodghast and Gravecrawler are both Rares.

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Back in 2008 we had another tournament staple Green three-drop in Knight of the Reliquary, which I believe is far more "epic" than Deathmist Raptor could ever hope to be. The difference? Knight of the Reliquary was printed at Rare, because being Mythic isn't about how powerful a card is in tournament constructed. To me, the the comparison between Knight of the Reliquary and Deathmist Raptor is one of the best examples of how the Mythic rarity lost its way. And Deathmist Raptor is far from the only questionable Mythic from recent sets. 

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Fate Reforged is likely the worst set ever for the Mythic rarity. Apart from Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Temporal Trespass, and Ghastly Conscription, none of the other Mythics clearly meet the guidelines for Mythic Rares. Even worse, they miss on the spike end of the scale, which is the worst place for a Mythic to miss. I can deal with big, dumb, overcosted creatures and spells being Mythics. At least they fit the goal of being "epic." In fact, I would argue that Archangel's Light (widely held as the worst Mythic of all time) is more "Mythic" than half of the Mythics from Fate Reforged. 

Monastery Mentor being Mythic is a joke. It's an upgraded Young Pyromancer and not especially epic at first glance. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I consider Monastery Mentor to be a Deathmist Raptor / Lotus Cobra level mistake. It's obviously designed to be a tournament-staple, not an epic casual card that's exciting for new players. It's hard to justify its inclusion at Mythic, especially in a set full of tournament Mythics and unplayable Rares.

Brutal Hordechief is on par with Hellrider as far as excitement and epic-ness. Hellrider is the epitome of a tournament card. Warden of the First Tree is a 1/1 for 1, which makes the Craw Wurm crowd swoon. Soulfire Grand Master has a interesting ability (giving all your instants and sorceries lifelink is fairly epic), so I'm inclined to give it a pass, but it still looks a lot like Seeker of the Way on turn two. 

Clearly the meaning of "Mythic Rare" has changed over the past few years. We went from overcosted-but-flashy legends in Shards block to Standard staples in Khans block. This isn't even factoring in cards like Anafenza, the Foremost which technically qualify as "Mythic" thanks to the legend tag, but are undoubtedly Standard staples. The question we need to ask ourselves is why? Why have Mythics morphed into exactly the type of cards they were not intended to be? 

Answer #1. It's Our Fault

In writing this article, I realized that I tend to misevaluate Mythic Rares. I want Mythics that are powerful. Mythics that will see play in Standard. Mythics that will be worth it financially when I crack them in a pack during a booster draft. As someone who primarily plays competitive Magic, Clone Legion is a horrible card, a card I would never want to open in a pack. On the other hand, it's also the perfect Mythic. It's a huge, epic effect that new players would love to open in a pack. We can't have it both ways. We can't have huge, overcosted Mythics that are worth a bunch of money. We can't have Mythics be Standard playable and not be on the list of tournament staples. It just doesn't work that way. 

As a result, it's possible that our lust for more playable Mythic Rares has forced Wizards's hand into printing lower-cost, less epic Mythics to appease our desires. We have no one but ourselves to blame for $20 Deathmist Raptors and $70 copies of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.

Answer #2. Money Grab

Considering it takes about 1.5 boxes to open a copy of every Rare in a large set and just over three boxes to open a copy of every Mythic, it's pretty obvious that having in-demand (i.e. tournament playable) cards at Mythic rather than Rare is helpful in Wizards' goal of selling more sealed product. The very creation of the Mythic rarity devalued the Rare slot significantly by making Rares significantly less Rare than they were in the past. Putting a card like Monastery Mentor or Voice of Resurgence at Rare would drop the price significantly and lower the value of the box. While having tournament staples at Rare is a great thing for players, it's not such a great thing for Wizards' pocketbook. Having Deathmist Raptor, Monastery Mentor, Voice of Resurgence, and Lotus Cobra at Mythic makes Wizards more money. Someone, somewhere has to crack sealed product to get those cards in circulation and it takes more boosters to get Mythics than Rares. 

Based on the design of the early Mythic era sets, I really believe it was Wizards' goal to keep Standard staples away from the Mythic rarity. Somewhere along the line this changed, and instead of being a tool to get new players excited for cracking packs, the Mythic rarity has turned into a tool to get enfranchised players to spend more money if they want to play tournament Magic

Moving Forward

Obviously we cannot control what cards Wizards puts at Mythic. When it comes down to it, the choice is theirs and theirs alone. If they wanted, they could look at the Future Future League results, try to pick the 15 most playable Standard cards, and stick them all at Mythic Rare. We couldn't do a damn thing about it.

That said, something we can do is stop complaining about new cards that fit the definition of Mythic, but are not expensive or playable. This includes things like Clone Legion, Alhammarret's Archive, The Great Aurora, and big, silly dragons, angels, and beasts. These cards should be examples of what we want our Mythic Rares to be. Having our tournament staples primarily at Rare helps keep the price of Standard down by increasing the supply of these cards. In my opinion, good Rares makes opening packs even more fun, since there is a realistic chance any pack could contain a Standard staple, not just the one-in-eight packs that happen to contain a Mythic. 

Wizards needs to get back to their roots when it comes to Mythic Rares. We need to allow them to get back to their roots by not complaining about opening epic-but-not-tournament-playable Mythics. 

TLDR:

  • The stated goal of the Mythic rarity at its conception was four-fold. It included legends, epic spells and creatures, planeswalkers, and flashy, exciting cards for new players to open. 
  • Wizards stated in 2008 that the Mythic rarity was not to read like "a list of each set's most powerful, tournament-playable cards." 
  • In the first years of the Mythic era, Wizards did a great job achieving these ideals. Shards block had a 100% success rate, while Magic 2010 and the original Zendikar block were on point despite a small number of misses like Lotus Cobra
  • Over the past six years things have changed. Today Mythics are the most tournament playable rarity, with Mythics seeing twice as much play as Rares. 
  • The average Mythic printed today is 2.5 times more tournament playable than a Mythic from Shards of Alara block.
  • Back in Shards block, the average Rare was just as tournament playable as the average Mythic, and discounting planeswalkers, Rares were considerably more tournament playable than Mythics. 
  • Many cards that don't meet the criteria of "Mythic" are appearing at the rarity. Example include Deathmist Raptor and Monastery Mentor.
  • Having Mythics be a list of tournament staples drives prices of these cards to insane levels. If Deathmist Raptor, for example, was a Rare, it would be significantly cheaper.
  • There are two reasons for this change in philosophy regarding Mythics. The first possibility is that we forced Wizards to print powerful, tournament playable Mythics by complaining about non-tournament playable Mythics. Clone Legion is, by Wizards's definition, the perfect Mythic Rare, but no one (except new players) likes opening a Clone Legion in their Mythic slot.
  • The second possibility is Wizards realized they could make more money by making the powerful cards harder to find, going so far as to intentionally put tournament playables at Mythic to increase profits. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What's your take on the Mythic rarity? Why are we seeing more and more efficient, expensive Mythics every set? Would you be happy if most Mythics were like Clone Legion, and Rares were like Deathmist Raptor and Monastery Mentor? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments. You can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 


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