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The Cost of Colorlessness


Dominaria is an amazing set and exactly what the game needed after a clunky run of Standard, from Eldritch Moon through the banning of energy last December. Despite the general awesomeness of the set and its design, one card specifically is already drawing complaints: Karn, Scion of Urza. The colorless planeswalker seems to be everywhere these days, showing up in everything from aggro to control in Standard, along with various Modern, Legacy, and even Vintage decks. 

Along with this heavy play comes an equally heavy price tag. Karn is currently about $65, which I believe makes the planeswalker the most expensive card we've had in Standard since the peak of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy insanity. Similar to Jace, which had a high price tag not just because it's a powerful card in a vacuum but because the Standard environment was conductive to making the card expensive (with fetch lands and fetchable dual lands making it easy to play Jace in just about any deck), Karn, Scion of Urza is expensive not just because it's very strong, heavily played, and colorless (making it fit into any deck) but also because of forces beyond the card's control (in this case, the fact that Dominaria is so popular that it has been selling out at local game stores, and with Magic Online redemption not yet online, the supply of the planeswalker simply isn't keeping up with the demand). 

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The good news is that the price of Karn, Scion of Urza will likely come down at least a little bit in the coming months, as more Dominaria will be printed and Magic Online redemption will start increasing supply and making it a bit easier for players to pick up their copies of Karn. The bad news is that the power of Karn, Scion of Urza is here to stay. Unlike some other powerful colorless cards like Aetherworks Marvel, which needs support for a specific mechanic (energy) to be powerful, Karn, Scion of Urza is just a generically powerful planeswalker. It's hard to imagine that the metagame could ever move in a way that makes it outright bad, especially when you consider that its colorlessness allows it to potentially show up in just about any shell imaginable.

Even when Karn is bad, it's not really bad. Of course, Karn, Scion of Urza is unlikely to save you if you are literally dead on board (although it might, if you get lucky with the +1, or perhaps a single Construct token will be enough to save the day), but beyond this floor (which is similar for most planeswalkers), Karn, Scion of Urza is almost always good, no matter what deck you happen to be playing. At its worst, you're drawing a card or two and gaining some life as the opponent attacks down the loyalty. At its best, it just wins you the game all by itself as a personal Howling Mine that eventually making some huge Construct tokens to kill your opponent. This play pattern—drawing cards and then winning the game—is something that many decks want, running the gauntlet from aggro to midrange to control, and thanks to the colorlessness of Karn, Scion of Urza, now any deck can have it. 

Design

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Design at Wizards has improved significantly over the past couple of years, from the low of Kaladesh to the high of Dominaria (which is a legitimately great set and deserves all of the praise it's getting and then some). While there are probably a bunch of reasons for this noticeable improvement, two major changes seem to be the advent of the Play Design Team bringing a lot of high-level players into the playtesting and design process and, at least to some extent, more cheap answers in Standard. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that we were losing to Rally the Ancestors and Emrakul, the Promised End because there was quite literally no way to answer the graveyard in Standard. Now, we have a ton of graveyard hate spells along with cheap, efficient removal (like Cast Down, Fatal Push, Seal Away, and Abrade) and generic safety valves like Sorcerous Spyglass. All this is to say that in general, design at Wizards has taken a huge, massive step forward in the past two years, and we are now seeing the results with a very fun Dominaria Standard format. However, Wizards still has one problem that it hasn't solved: colorless face cards.

Face Cards

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Every Magic set has certain cards that are designed to sell the set, show off the new mechanics, and push forward the story line. For a short while, these cards were often pushed to extremely high power levels to make sure that they showed up in competitive play at things like Grands Prix and Pro Tours (think Archangel Avacyn). While Wizards has in general pulled back a bit from the technique, it shouldn't and won't go away altogether—Wizards does need powerful new cards to sell sets, and we want powerful new cards in Standard.

In recent years, one type of face card specifically has gotten Wizards into trouble: colorless face cards. Karn, Scion of Urza shows that this specific problem still hasn't been solved. There is an inherent danger in pushing the power level of colorless cards (just ask Urza's block, either Mirrodin block, or more recently, Kaladesh block) because colorless cards break one of the foundational rules of Magic: you need mana of a specific color to cast your spells. 

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Take our two most recent planeswalkers as examples: Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Karn, Scion of Urza. As someone who plays a lot of Standard, I can tell you that facing down a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is way more frustrating and oppressive than facing down a Karn, Scion of Urza. However, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria has a sort of built-in safety valve, in that you need both white and blue mana in your deck to even cast it. This means a majority of decks in Standard simply can't take advantage of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, no matter how much they might want to or how good the planeswalker might be in their deck. Meanwhile, as we talked about earlier, Karn, Scion of Urza can slide into any deck of any color because of its generic mana cost. As a result, even though Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is arguably the more powerful card on the battlefield, the fact that it takes a lot more work to get it on the battlefield (with a commitment to building your deck with two specific colors of mana) means you're going to run into colorless Karn far more often than you run into multicolor Teferi. 

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Looking back over the last two years of Standard bannings, if we discount the energy mechanic as an affinity-level mistake, one of the most prevalent themes is colorless face cards. It started with Emrakul, the Promised End, the face card of Eldritch Moon, before moving onto Kaladesh, where Smuggler's Copter was the constructed-pushed Vehicle and Aetherworks Marvel was the payoff for energy. All of these cards (along with some others) are now banned in Standard. 

Pushing cards for constructed is already risky business (although 100% necessary from the perspectives of both Wizards and players—Wizards needs powerful cards to sell product, and we want powerful cards to make game play interesting), but pushing colorless cards to sell a set and show up in constructed seems to rarely end well. Because the very nature of avoiding Magic's mana system already makes colorless cards with generic mana costs more powerful than colored cards, when these cards are further pushed to see Standard play or sell a set, there's a very high likelihood that they will end up being very good or even too good. 

Now, before moving on, I should make it clear: I'm not saying that Karn, Scion of Urza should be banned or anything close to that. The card has only been in print for a month. I'm not even saying that Karn, Scion of Urza is too good (while there's a reasonable chance it is a bit too good, it's simply premature to make a definitive statement). Instead, Karn, Scion of Urza is a stepping stone for us to talk about the more meta issue of colorless face cards. Basically, even if Karn, Scion of Urza ends up being fine, history suggests that the next colorless face card might not be, since the "miss" rate on these cards is higher than for any other group of cards in Magic.

The Solution

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So, what can Wizards do to avoid printing colorless face cards that are simply too good? Here, there are a few possibilities. The simplest answer is to stop printing colorless face cards, but this isn't a very good answer. Iconic colorless cards date all the way back to Alpha and the Power Nine, which has six colorless members. We want Karn to be a part of Magic, and maybe even Emrakul again, at some point in the very distant future. Simply removing these characters from the game (or not printing them on cards) isn't a realistic solution; the game would suffer as a result. 

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The next option is to make these cards less powerful, but this isn't really an answer either. The problem here is twofold. First, as I mentioned before, both Wizards and players want powerful cards, so simply making "bad Karn" isn't an answer that satisfies anyone. Wizards could go the equipment route and make sure to miss low, to the point where every equipment since New Phyrexia has been unplayable, but do we really want our Karns to be like Captain's Hook? The answer is no, from the perspectives of both players (who would be extremely disappointed in an underpowered Karn) and Wizards (since the Captain's Hook Karn wouldn't do much for generating hype or selling the set). Second, from a more meta perspective, it's really, really hard to get the power level right on colorless cards.

While any type and color of card can be too good and unhealthy for the format, there's a lot more wiggle room with colored cards. In hindsight, The Scarab God is probably a bit too good—if Wizards was designing Hour of Devastation now, it probably would tone down the God at least a little bit (maybe making its activated ability sorcery speed). However, since The Scarab God requires both blue and black mana, even when it was clearly the best card in Standard, it only showed up in a relatively small percentage of decks. In this sense, the mana system itself covers up small mistakes.

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On the other hand, when a colorless card is too good, it feels even more oppressive because quite literally every deck can play it. Wizards wasn't trying to make Emrakul, the Promised End or Smuggler's Copter bannably good; it just wanted to make sure they were good enough to show up in Standard decks. The combination of good players and generic mana costs ended up pushing these cards over the top, to the point where they became unfun and unhealthy, and eventually were banned. Basically, the window for "good enough to show up in Standard" and "not so good that it breaks Standard" is very tiny for cards with generic mana costs, and small mistakes are amplified on colorless cards because the colored mana system isn't available to offer protection. 

So if Wizards shouldn't stop printing colorless face cards and can't always hit the right power level with colorless cards, what other options are available to avoid printing colorless cards that are simply too good? 

"Real" Colorless Mana

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Throughout the article, we've been using colorless and generic more or less interchangeably, but technically this isn't correct. If you remember back to Battle for Zendikar block, the new wave of Eldrazi made it clear that there is a difference. Technically, Karn is a colorless card but has a generic mana cost; meanwhile, a card like Thought-Knot Seer is a colorless card but has a colorless mana cost, requiring mana from something that makes colorless mana, not just mana of any color like generically costed cards.

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The goal of having different colors of mana is to ensure the metagame is diverse. Imagine Magic if every card were colorless. Each deck would simply play the best cards, which would narrow the number of playable decks significantly, since you could curve Llanowar Elves into Glint-Sleeve Siphoner into History of Benalia into Rekindling Phoenix into Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Having five colors makes it so there are many playable decks because rather than asking whether a card is the best possible card for this slot in all of Standard, you're asking if a card is the best possible card for the slot in your colors. Having "real" colorless mana costs rather than generic mana costs brings this tension and consideration into the world of colorless cards.

In Battle for Zendikar block, "real" colorless mana was used as a mechanic to give the Eldrazi a sort of tribal identity, but it can also function as a safety valve for powerful colorless cards like Karn, Scion of Urza. While Karn, Scion of Urza would still be very powerful if its mana cost were three generic and one "real" colorless, this would work to limit the number of decks that could play the card, just like how needing blue and white mana limits Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and how red mana limits Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Rather than being a staple in every type of deck in every color combination, having a "real" colorless mana cost would push Karn, Scion of Urza into a more limited range of decks (decks that can support colorless lands) or at least make it so there is a cost to playing Karn, Scion of Urza (for example, running a bunch of pain Deserts like Hashep Oasis and Shefet Dunes in your mana base). 

Now, this isn't to say that every artifact and colorless card should have a "real" colorless mana cost, but when it comes to pushing face cards to see play in constructed, requiring a bit of "real" colorless mana is the easiest way to make these cards play like other cards and to make sure that the Karns, Smuggler's Copters, and Emrakuls of the world don't dominate their Standard formats thank to their all-too-easy generic mana requirements. 

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While moving "real" colorless mana onto artifacts might be a bridge too far (although the fact that many artifacts now make "real" colorless mana thanks to the errata does make it a natural fit), a blanket rule that non-artifact colorless cards like Eldrazi, Ugin, and Karn should have colorless mana requirements could be a good start. Not only would it help in terms of game play by increasing diversity, but it would also differentiate colorless cards from artifact cards, from a flavor perspective. 

Of course, there are changes that Wizards could have made to Emrakul, Karn, and Smuggler's Copter to make them less powerful—upping mana costs, reducing loyalty, shifting around power and toughness—but this leaves us where we are today, with R&D attempting to hit a very, very tiny window when making colorless face cards. When it comes to colorless cards with generic casting costs, there simply isn't much wiggle room between "good enough to sell a set and see play in Standard" and "so good that it's breaking Standard and people are calling for bannings or otherwise grumbling on social media." Adding "real" colorless mana makes designing these cards much easier, giving colorless cards the same mana-system safety valve as other powerful cards. Rather than living in their own world where the costs associated with colored mana don't apply, the Karns, Emrakuls, and Smuggler's Copters would have at least some color-associated deck-building cost like the rest of the cards in the multiverse. This would make Wizards' job easier by providing some natural cover for small mistakes, and while adding colorless mana would technically power down a card like Karn, "real" colorless face cards would still read very powerfully during spoiler season (and still play powerfully in the decks that could support their unique mana requirements), keeping players happy and opening their wallets and purses to buy booster boxes and bundles.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think? Is using "real" colorless mana more often a good solution to the slew of broken colorless cards we've had in Standard over the past couple of years? Is it possible to balance colorless cards with generic costs in a way that they are good enough to see play in Standard but without being dominant, or is the window simply too small to hit the mark every time? What other possible solutions are there when it comes to making colorless face cards? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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