From a nostalgia standpoint, I am admittedly a bit of a grumpy old timey Magic player. I was not fan of the modern card frame when they introduced it in 8th Edition, and although I got used to the new style, to this day I still prefer the old brown-bordered artifacts over the more streamlined silver. I’ve also been resistant to other major changes over the years, including the removal of mana burn and introducing planeswalkers as a card type, and I’m continually dismayed that in R&D’s ever steady march of progress, they seem to be slowly phasing out many traditional abilities like regeneration, protection, and damage prevention that has endeared me to the game over the last two decades.
Yet as much as I chalk some of this up to my natural resistance to change and may grumble as the game evolves around me, none of these items would even make it into my top three foibles with the game of Magic.
My long-standing complaint over the creation of the Mythic rarity would probably be the safe #2 bet for such a hypothetical list, but my biggest criticism of the game actually amounts to a philosophical disagreement:
I do not believe that downside cards are inherently bad for the game. The current stewards of the game disagree with me (and others) on this point, but it has been something in discussion for a few years now.
The idea here is that a downside mechanic – something inherently negative for the player unless they do something to offset it – can still be worthwhile if that investment is made. Take Lightning Dragon‘s Echo ability, for example. Echo requires that the player pays its casting cost again during the player’s next upkeep, or sacrifice the creature. If you’re looking solely at efficiency, echo overall is hardly advantageous option.
While it’s, true that having cards with downsides isn’t always the most thrilling, that doesn’t mean that they should systematically be removed. All one has to do is look at how Echo was used in later iterations, with Keldon Champion, Bone Shredder, and Karmic Guide all seeing regular play in their time. These cards managed to take a downside mechanic and make them more palatable.
The same thing could be said of something like Cumulative Upkeep. These cards, by and large, were not very beloved, often with underwhelming abilities for the mana investment being asked of the player on the one hand, and penalties for not paying them on the other. (However, that’s also looking at them by today’s standards, with a higher power level and design focus than in 1995. Later Cumulative Upkeep cards like Coldsnap’s Herald of Leshrac show that the ability didn’t necessarily have to be 100% punitive, and many of them are quite flavorful, if sparsely utilized in decks.
Still, the notion that just because a card may have a negative impact on the player doesn’t inherently mean it’s bad for the game, even if, as market research shows, players don’t generally get that obsessed over them. You certainly don’t need hire a marketing firm to figure that players would much rather have a Terra Stomper over a Force of Nature. However, downside mechanics teach players to make calculated and valuable strategic decisions throughout the course of the game, as you have to ask yourself how long to hold on to a card. When does its effect become prohibitive?
Once particular downside mechanic that existed for many, many years was upkeep costs. Upkeep costs were used pretty regularly during a time when it was required that players actually manage their mana pools, as opposed to simply just having lots of mana out. Generally speaking, they were put on permanents more powerful than they should have been for their casting costs, but in return they required a mana investment every turn. Yet, as with many downside mechanics, upkeep costs are now largely considered both needlessly complex (because why do anything during the upkeep phase anymore?) and unfun (because math). Therefore, they have fallen out of favor.
Thus, in a spirit of defiance, this week’s pick illustrates that just because a card has a downside mechanic doesn’t mean the card is not worthwhile. And, given the coincidental significance of the posting date of this article here in the US, it is all the more fitting.
Today we have: Peacekeeper
Focus: Combat Control
Highlights: Peacekeeper is a wonderful example of a downside mechanic not eliminating a card’s inherent usefulness. For a paltry three mana, this creature puts a pause on all attacking in the game, drawing all head smashing combat to a halt. This can be particularly useful Commander games if you find yourself on the defensive – or you wish to indulge in some table politics. If one player is running all over the rest, for instance, throwing down Peacekeeper could raise your worth to other players also potentially being affected.
Of course, not everyone will want to be sidelined, and this is something to take into consideration with this card as well. As Peacekeeper is on a mission of harmony, it clearly hasn’t come to fight; this is evidenced by its fragile 1/1 frame. Because of this fact, you should be aware that in a format like Commander, this card’s peace accords may not last for very long.
The upkeep cost itself, ironically, isn’t that much of a deterrent in a format like Commander. Peacekeeper may require two mana each turn to keep around (sort of like the UN), but in the early game it can be a worthwhile investment to avoid being picked on, and in the later stages of the game two mana should be easy to come by if you seek a respite from needless fighting. Or death.
And, of course, should you be the one who wishes to end the truce, all you have to do is, well, stop paying.
Although Peacekeeper has a downside mechanic, it, like many of its kind, can still be of use in today’s era of Magic. Sure, this card could provide the effect cost-free at a much higher casting cost, but it doesn’t. Instead, it requires an upkeep cost, letting you make your own decisions on when to use it – and for how long. Peacekeeper is a hallmark illustration that just like not every all upside card is necessarily good, not every downside card is necessarily bad. Downside cards won’t make many all-star card lists, but many of them they can and should have their place within the game.
Now if we could only convince the designers that not everything we get in this game has to be spoon-fed and taste great at all times…
…but for today I’ll make my peace with them.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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Do you have a particular Commander card to suggest for us to shine a future Spotlight on? You can send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org