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Unfun, Unfair and Punishing: Eighth Edition

This week's Budget Magic featured a deck built around Worship, a card only legal in Modern due to its printing in Eighth Edition, a set notorious for powerful hate cards and hosers. Lately, Eighth Edition has been getting a bad rap in Modern. Some people even want to see the entire set removed from the format. This outcry is mostly because Eighth Edition was the last Magic set to feature cycles of powerful hate cards and difficult to interact with semi-hosers, like Worship

Before I discuss Eighth Edition, let me preface it with my stance on unfair and unfun Magic: I support it. At least in small doses, like how I support watching certain discomforting films. It's good for us, as individuals, and good for the games as a whole. But, before I get off on another Stasis rant, let's get back to Eighth Edition

Today I want to look at three of the most egregious offenders from the set — cards that led people to call for their elimination from Modern — and explore just how good or bad these cards are. Are they really that bad, or are people just building their decks poorly, playing badly, or being salty? 

As we go along, hopefully we'll learn something about what makes a good hate card and what makes a bad hate card. As our criteria develops, we'll be able to explore other unfun, unfair, and punishing cards to see how good or bad they are for the game. Let's get started by talking about the most played hate card in Eighth Edition, and Modern as a whole, Blood Moon.

Blood Moon

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I'll grant you Blood Moon is a punishing card, maybe even an unfun card, but it is also a card necessary in the Modern format. One of the characteristics of Modern, which separates it from Legacy, is the lack of mana denial strategies. In Legacy there are tier one decks built around resolving a turn one threat (often Delver of Secrets), then using Wasteland and Stifle to keep their opponents from ever getting past two lands. Modern doesn't have a similar strategy because mana denial cards are missing from the format. In Modern, our Wasteland either gives our opponents another land (Ghost Quarter) or can't be activated until our opponents have four lands in play (Tectonic Edge). We simply cannot lock our opponents out of the game on turn one or turn two; it's just not possible. 

Blood Moon is nothing like Wasteland and Stifle. It doesn't say "your opponent cannot play spells." If you build your deck and play correctly, Blood Moon actually isn't a big deal. Sure, it can be annoying and play like Rule of Law, but it shouldn't just hard lock a player out of the game. If you are a Jund player and you decide to run seven manlands and just two basics, Blood Moon can be a hard lock. But whose fault is this? The player casting Blood Moon, or the player who decided that it was wise to run seven manlands and two basics? I firmly believe it's the latter. 

Beneath the cool art and flavor, beneath the various mechanics and cards, beneath it all, Magic is a game of resource management, a game of opportunity costs. To me this is the essence of Magic, both in gameplay and deck building. In Modern we have 8,000 cards and you can play any of them in your deck, but since you are limited to 60 cards (typically), each card you put in your deck costs you the opportunity to play another. Each land you put in your deck costs you the opportunity to play another spell, or, in the example of Jund, a different land. On a meta-level, Blood Moon reinforces that ideal and adds diversity to the format. 

You could build a deck whose mana base is 100 percent non-basic lands. You could play with a mana base built wholly from manlands. However, these decisions should cost you something. Blood Moon ensures there is a cost, at least potentially, for taking too many risks and being too greedy with your mana base. This is a good thing. 

From Wizard’s perspective, I think the main argument against cards like Blood Moon is that new players find them unfun. If your first game of Magic is losing to Blood Moon, you might be so alienated from the game that you never play again, and we need new blood in the game. In my personal experiences, this isn't necessarily true. 

The Early Days

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When I first picked up Magic, it was with an extremely casual play group. My first deck revolved around using Energy Chamber to put counters on things and Ion Storm to remove the counters to deal damage. It also played a bunch of super expensive artifact creatures. Looking back now it was horrible, but it really didn't matter. If you had an unplayable hand you could mulligan for free; plus everyone else was playing decks of similar power level. About two months into my playing days one of my friends got his hands on his old Magic collection and started playing with the group. What was he playing, you might ask? 

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So there I was playing a janky-as-hell Ion Storm combo against full-on Extended Scepter Chant. I literally had no chance of winning the game, any game, ever. I clearly remember throwing my deck across the room and stomping off. I was incredibly frustrated. I just wanted to cast Arcbound Overseer and here's this jerk not letting me cast a single spell. Did I quit Magic? No, quite the opposite. It became my life's mission to figure out a way around his seemingly unbeatable combo. 

I dug through the card collection I shared with a friend and finally realized what I needed was something that could kill an artifact at instant speed. I don't remember the specific answer I ended up with, but it was probably something like Shatter. The next time I played against Scepter Chant I still lost, but I actually got to Shatter an Isochron Scepter. It was the greatest moment in my young Magic life! Eventually, with no small amount of luck, I beat the deck. So what did my friend do? The next time he came over to play, he showed up with a deck built around the most fun Magic card of all time...

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I don't remember what the actual combo was. Somehow my friend always had an untapped Island for Stasis, and this was a whole new round of frustration. Seriously dude, I've been playing Magic for three months. I finally figured out a way to beat Scepter Chant and you show up with Stasis? More table flipping and deck throwing ensued, but did I quite Magic? No. I went back to the drawing board to figure out a way to beat Stasis. Eventually I realized I needed to play lands every turn, but not tap them for anything, and later on use the mana I stored up to destroy Stasis with enchantment removal. 

My introduction to Magic was extremely unfair and unfun. I was frustrated, sometimes downright angry. But these emotions kept me playing the game, rather than driving me away. Plus, figuring out how to beat these cards taught me a ton about how to play Magic

Ensnaring Bridge

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Here we need to talk a bit about the definition of fun. Magic has undergone a huge (and wonderful) period of growth. During this same time period, the very design of Magic has changed. Not only was the complexity of commons reduced, but the balance of power shifted away from spells to creatures. This puts Magic in a strange place. A large portion of the current player base consists of people who started playing the game in the past five years, the "creature era" of Magic. While many faces of the community are old-timers, from the "spell era" of Magic. As a result, not only does the meaning of “fun” vary, but the very meaning of “Magic” depends largely on how long you have been playing. 

So is Ensnaring Bridge unfun? I think it really comes down to how much you like creatures. If the only Magic you know (and therefore the Magic you love) involves Baneslayer Angels, Grave Titans, and Siege Rhinos bouncing off each other, Ensnaring Bridge is a nightmare. If you lived in a world of Isochron Scepter and Stasis, Ensnaring Bridge is the least of your worries. 

I will admit that unlike Blood Moon, which encourages thoughtful deck building and play patterns, Ensnaring Bridge punishes something we probably don't want to punish: playing creatures. While I'm a big spell supporter, I also understand creatures are a necessary part of the game. I don't have a problem with the fact that most decks win by combat damage. I would just like to see more of a balance between the two types. 

This observation leads us to a philosophical question, one which I like to call the Dredge question. How do we feel about cards that give a player free wins in game one? Ensnaring Bridge does this on a regular basis since a large portion of the Modern meta is looking to win via combat damage and isn't playing main deck artifact hate. Could players run main deck Ensnaring Bridge removal? Yes, but having to main deck answers to extremely narrow cards isn't typically a sign of a healthy format. 

On the other hand, playing Ensnaring Bridge does have a downside. Not only do you have to construct your deck in a way that allows you to empty your hand, but you also commit yourself to going hellbent as fast as possible. As a result, if your opponent can kill the Bridge, you’re pretty much done for. 

I like the tension and variance "free wins in game one" archetypes bring to a format, but I don't necessarily think they are healthy. I like having success with a budget deck built around Worship, ironically, simply because the format is so soft to the card. But I can definitely see the argument for Worship and Ensnaring Bridge being truly unfun and bad for the format. 

In sum, the difference between Blood Moon and Ensnaring Bridge is one punishes players for being greedy, while the other punishes players for playing Magic. I'm all for punishing players who consciously take risks to achieve a goal, like playing too many non-basics, but punishing players for building their deck correctly and playing correctly doesn't quite seem fair. Speaking of unfair:


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Choke is a great example of the wrong kind of hate card — and not just because it hates on Island. The problem with Choke is it punishes people just for playing Magic. We want people to play basic lands. Basics are what new players use, what budget players use — they are the most basic element of Magic. Players shouldn't be punished for playing basic lands. They should be encouraged to play basic lands, something Blood Moon ironically does.

Choke limits diversity. Instead of helping players learn to build or play, it basically says, "Gotchya. Sorry, you shouldn't have been playing that color." Do we really want players to not play a color simply because one "gotchya" card exists? Worse yet, unlike Ensnaring Bridge, there really isn't a cost, aside from opportunity costs, of playing Choke. It's either completely unplayable and left in the sideboard, or it is the best card in a matchup and wins the game all by itself. Not only is Choke unfun, it punishes things that should be encouraged and leads to extremely swingy matches — all negatives in my book.

There's a reason Wasteland is legal while Strip Mine is banned. Basic lands are sacred, and we shouldn't disincentivize players from putting them in their decks. Just to be clear, if Choke said Plains, Mountain, Swamp, or Forest, I would feel the same way. Hosing blue decks is fine; hosing basic lands should be off limits. 


  • Hate cards, including the powerful hosers in Eighth Edition, can be healthy or unhealthy for a format. 
  • Unhealthy hate cards discourage diversity in deck building and/or desirable play patterns. They punish players simply for playing Magic
  • Healthy hate cards encourage diversity in deck building and reward skillful play. While they may be just as punishing as unhealthy hate cards, the main difference is healthy hate cards punish players for taking a calculated risk, while unhealthy hate cards punish players for playing Magic "the right way." 
  • Blood Moon is a healthy hate card. It punishes players for building too greedy of a mana base, a calculated risk. It increases format diversity by providing a reason to not splash a fourth or fifth color in every deck. It also rewards skillful play (fetching the proper lands at the proper time). It does not punish players simply for playing Magic (you don't have to play 21 non-basics and 2 basics). 
  • Ensnaring Bridge is a borderline case. While it discourages healthy game play (attacking with creatures) and punishes players simply for playing Magic, it comes at a significant cost in deck building and play (emptying your hand). As a result, an Ensnaring Bridge player does take significant risks because if Ensnaring Bridge is destroyed, they will likely lose the game. 
  • Choke is an unhealthy hate card. It has very little downside except for the opportunity costs of putting it in your sideboard. It punishes players for playing the most fundamental card type in Magic, basic lands —  not Islands! It punishes new players and budget players who are likely to have more basic lands. It discourages diversity in play and deck building. These are the types of hate cards that should not exist in Modern, and likely shouldn’t exist at all.


That's all for today. What do you think? What makes a hate card healthy or unhealthy? What other unfair, unfun, and punishing cards are worth discussing? What do you think about the cards discussed today? Are Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, and/or Choke good for Modern? Let me know in the comments. You can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 

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