The Worst MtG Mechanic of All-Time…?

Somewhat recently, SaffronOlive at MTGGoldfish wrote a pretty telling article about the worst Magic mechanic of all time. It seems to have morphed into this video. Now, if you followed the timeline of Ikoria from release to reactions to overreactions to full-out nerfing errata…

…You know the article was going to put companions at the top of the worst mechanic list with a bullet. You knew it before you read the article. It was very painfully obvious. Saffron did a pretty great job summing it all up, and as history has revealed, was right about the egregious design errors that were made, and how they needed to be drastically altered. They were.

While Lurrus is still on the Vintage banned list, the only card on there for power reasons, which is a staggering statement by itself, the rest of the Companions fell in line. Nowadays, I’ve read about a handful of Yorion decks in different formats, mostly piloted by control masters and wacky pile builders, and the odd Lutri deck that somebody has managed to make work. That’s pretty much Companions as intended. Too bad for the rest, which are now mostly bulk.

The underlying reason for the Companion problems was that they essentially added an eighth card to your hand, but worse than that, it wasn’t in your hand to be vulnerable to discard effects, and worse than that, it was the same card every time, and worst of all, several of these cards provided strategic building points that accelerated to win conditions with very few demands from the surrounding cards available in most, if not all formats. Building Lurrus was easy. Mishra’s Bauble was big game. Yuck.

To be fair, I didn’t see Companions played or built with in Commander at all. The deckbuilding cost seems really high, since the format is already restricted by colour identity. Yorion and Lutri flat out don’t work, and the rest offer marginal payoffs compared to what you can already play in your 99. And if you need a specific effect, there is a combination of getting it from your Commander, card redundancy (ie, several different cards that do the same thing), and tutors.

Which brings me to the point of what I’m writing today. I make no secret about my dislike of tutors. My blog is Self-Taught Commander, and that’s a direct reference to my refusal to play with tutor cards.

I do make an exception for any card that is legal in Commander in multiples. This mostly applies to basic lands, but not entirely. Cards like Relentless Rats are also a viable tutor target for me. In theory.

In addition, I have found a few situations in games where it has been the best possible play to do something like copy an opponent’s Rune-Scarred Demon to dig for an answer to what would otherwise be my death. I’ve experienced that one exactly. I didn’t like doing it, but it was the right play.

I’ve thought about a rule I’d add to Commander if I were on the Rules Committee, and asked to tackle broken decks without banning cards. It’s this:

“If a player would search their library for any card other than a basic land, that search fails to find.”

I try to play by that rule as best I can, barring games with copied Rune-Scarred Demons, or Tempt with Discovery, or other such things. I’m even phasing out things like Wayfarer’s Bauble and Evolving Wilds from my decks.

Why? I feel like tutors are possibly the worst mechanic in all of Magic. Maybe worse than Companions. I feel like they undermine the game’s fundamental math checks on inherently broken cards. Basically, in most formats, playing more than 4 copies of card is widely considered to be too powerful/consistent to be allowed. When two really powerful cards with similar functions but different names get together, deck archetypes start to form. Because you have added significantly to your consistency. Plenty of cards are strong enough to form archetypes based on having 4 in your 60, and sometimes even 1 in your 99. Add consistency to those, and we start to get calls for bans.

Part of what makes Magic interesting and gives it immense replay value is randomization. Or the illusion thereof. Variance is fun! That’s the reason why we force ourselves to build with 60 cards, or 100, or 40, instead of the specific 10 we actually need to win the game. Or fewer. For example, in Modern, 3 Tron lands plus Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is often enough.

Let’s take a few moments to check out Modern Tron. There’s no real definitive list I could give you, because the meta changes fast, so in general, the deck that plays a mere 4 cards (Tron lands, Ugin and/or Karn Liberated) as a winning strategy plays as many copies of those cards as possible, and then fleshes out the deck with ways to find those cards, protect those cards, and incidentally grab extra value against frequent opponents. Seems like what Magic should be, right? A well executed, consistent, powerful strategy. And Tron wins. That’s why people play it, because otherwise, Tron receives constant complaints about OPness in both Modern and Pauper. There are constant calls for bannings, including many of the support pieces that increase the consistency. And it’s generally considered to be guilty of the worst offense of all: being unfun.

People hate Tron, but you have to either play it or plan to play against it in these extremely popular formats. Spoiler alert, Tron lands just got a fresh reprint in Double Masters. I’m going to argue at some point that the math of 1-2-7 in terms of mana curve will never be healthy for the game, but for now I’m highlighting the main issue with Tron: consistency. Scary consistency.

For a while in Modern, super enabler Ancient Stirrings looked like a clear target for the banhammer at any moment, but as the meta changed from week to week, the Tron base just shifted colours to whatever colour provided the best answers and grease for the wheels. Green, Blue, straight Colourless…. Even the finishers can change. Tron isn’t so much a deck, but a chassis upon which hotrods are built. While Tron got to watch several worse Modern offenders get the hammer in the meantime, like Oko and Hogaak, Tron ban talk will eventually be back again, and it will be interesting to see if banning support pieces will ever keep Tron down enough that people will be okay with it. Or if the lands themselves will have to be banned someday.

Pauper recently banned Expedition Map. And Mystic Sanctuary, which could be found with the Map. The bans were designed to increase the diversity of the format by decreasing the popularity of the Tron decks by decreasing the consistency of those decks. Let’s hope it works.

The long and the short of this Tron-speak is that even Wizards can see that diversity is a top priority for the health of their game in all formats, and minimizing consistency is a primary way to do that. That was behind the Companion retcon, and behind a banning in a player-created, non-monetized format that is so popular that the company has to officially recognize/sanction/regulate it. But they also know that Tron lands are iconic, powerful, popular, and sell packs. Tron lands may have an unspoken immunity, no matter how they break the game’s math. And Tron players can always point to how, despite their efforts at perfect consistency, sometimes you draw the wrong Trons. I’m glad I don’t play Modern.

Enter Commander. One of the big draws for Commander for me is the 100 card singleton shape of the decks. They are tall, unwieldy, tough-to-shuffle piles to be sure, especially in brand-spankin’ new sleeves, but they force a deliberate inconsistency on the builder. You get a Commander as a payoff, after all, which is like an eighth card in hand, immune to discard, and often the foundation of a powerful strategy. We know how broken that can be. That’s why we have colour identity as a deck-building restriction, and why the attempt at inconsistency with the larger deck size and singleton approach. It sure keeps Tron from being little more than a niche bonus and throwback iconography.

I say attempt and approach, because I think tutors violate the spirit of what the format is supposed to be. I also think they violate the function of it, and as more unhealthy cards and combinations of cards are printed, and more tutors are also printed to make finding them easy, the less incentive there will be to play anything but those cards.

Do you want an example? I’m not talking about the intricate glass cannon decks that can win on turns 0-3 a significant % of the time, I’m talking about an easy-to-assemble 3 card engine that will kill a table quickly and efficiently with minimal potential for disruption. It’s even easy to build any kind of fun, thematic, or nasty pile around it and just have it ready to casually win a bunch of games.

I don’t know if Core 19 gets the recognition it deserves for producing degenerate, broken cards. But damn. If Golos is your Commander, you essentially start with 2 pieces of your combo at the ready, in places where they are hard for opponents to touch at all. Your third piece is indestructible, and while in play is natively the toughest kind of permanent to interact with. While it can be a creature, it’s probably better if not. Except while in your deck, when it can be found with any of the many tutors that find creatures, or enchantments, or really any card at all.

Playing land destruction is deeply frowned upon in Commander. Field of the Dead is probably not going anywhere. Playing enchantment destruction might mean you have dead cards in hand. Playing permanent destruction is the only real answer here, and that needs to be upgraded to exile for Purphoros.

Even if you’re a dedicated Orzhov deck that runs all the exile removal, you still can’t match the Golos trio for consistency or inevitability, and you have to devote most of your deckspace to stopping a three card combo, when the Golos player can just load up on answers to your answers, blanket protection like Privileged Position, and even Pull from Eternity to address the exile of key cards. And then just make land drops until you’re dead.

That’s if you even expect a combo like that from a Golos player. Mostly I’m thinking they’re running Maze’s End, but if they can get the table tapped out, then drop Purphoros and Scapeshift…. Draw the right cards and even Golos might be superfluous to a lot of your wins.

Golos plus Field of the Dead plus Purphoros should be one of those combos that is the dream to assemble. It should be a cool thing to achieve. But it’s too easy. I find all three of these cards hard to play with on their own, because they are so incidentally powerful, that any use of them with focus and intention makes most of the rest of the cards I’m playing irrelevant. The fact that one can be in the Command Zone, can find another, and the third is easy to find by stacking tutors really sucks. If you’re only going to build one Commander deck, and you like winning, I’m sure it seems like a really attractive option. I can’t blame you. But it’s not really what the format is all about.

The individual power level of Magic cards is one thing, but the ease of getting them together to reach critical mass is an ongoing issue. Going back to SaffronOlive’s post about the worst mechanics, most if not all of those (save Companion) are exacerbated by consistency.

Look at this innocuous little card. Ponder is banned in Modern and restricted in Vintage because the consistency provided by this Core-set common is too much. In fact, I think looking at the ban lists for the various formats might help identify how bad tutors can be.

Standard. Agent of Treachery is banned because it was the optimum target of a tutor-like effect from Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast, and could be played consistently, and well below curve.

Once Upon a Time is banned because the consistency it offered to decks that wanted lands and creature action (ie. most) was overwhelming. The others have different problems. Of 6 banned cards, one is debatably because of a tutor, and another provides too much consistency. And is free.

Modern. 3 cards are direct tutors. Birthing Pod and Green Sun’s Zenith turn their bugs into features with sacrifice payoffs and cards like Dryad Arbor providing absurd bonus value. Eye of Ugin not only helped power out free Endless Ones and way under curve Thought-Knot Seers, but it tutors for also-discounted haymakers. Acting as incidental copies 2-5 of your World Breaker, Ulamog or whatever is completely insane. Playing 4 flexible tutors to turn a bunch of 1-ofs into 5-ofs is problematic math for this kind of game. Tutors are only 3 of 41 banned cards in this format, which seems less damning.

Still in Modern, we have consistency cards like Arcum’s Astrolabe, Dig Through Time, Faithless Looting, Gitaxian Probe, Once Upon a Time, Ponder, Preordain, and Sensei’s Divining Top on the banlist, and cards that skip filtration for copious card-draw with minimal cost, like Glimpse of Nature, Skullclamp, and Treasure Cruise. We can also put Golgari Grave-Troll on that list based on how it works for Dredge decks. 12 additional consistency issues. Over a third of Modern banned cards are on there because, at least in part, they reduce variance. Many of those add worse problems to boot. I could even go further and point towards the rituals on the banlist as being a consistency issue as well, but we can move on.

Vintage. Here we’re looking restricted cards only, because as stated above, Lurrus is the only card banned for power reasons. The rest want Ante, subgames, Conspiracies, and physically flipping cards about. To a casual observer, that must seem like a mind-boggling list of super-fun things to rule out of a card game. For the list, we have a whopping 7 restricted tutors, Demonic Tutor, Imperial Seal, Merchant Scroll, Mystical Tutor, Tinker, Vampiric Tutor, and Demonic Consultation (see below) including 3 with Tutor in the card’s name. 7 of 50 restrictions. 14%.

I think Demonic Tutor was a mistake, like Time Walk. Problematic effect, minimal cost. But in the early days, the impact was lessened by the low quality of the haymakers available. By the lack of combo pieces. By minimal mana fixing. It was a viable mechanic for this kind of game, but it should have been recognized and neutralized and not printed again. It was still among the very first restrictions and bannings.

Unfortunately it was also grandfathered into the colour pie as something black mages did, and we were given an endless series of either highly problematic tutors, or ones that seemed like a slap in the face to the casual player who opened them. Just like extra turn spells in blue. Tutors in some formats are mitigated by mana curvature. If you cast a 2 mana tutor on turn 2, the intention is that you’re ‘taking the turn off’ while your opponent is left to play action or hold up a counter/removal spell for what’s coming.

But tutors don’t get cast on curve. They get cast as part of storm counts, or after generating infinite or even just a whole bunch of mana. They’re not interested in fair play along normal lines of Magic. Look at Demonic Consultation. I counted that in the tutor group despite the possibility to straight out kill you with bad RNG. A card that removes 10% of your deck from the game before doing anything else shouldn’t need restriction, right? But it does. The CMC and instant speed nature of the card aren’t helping. Tutors traditionally have been super cheap to cast. Small wonder they’re a problem.

Still in Vintage, we have sideboard tutor Karn, the Great Creator, plus a huge slew of consistency cards dominating the restrictions. 27 or so of the cards provide too big of a swing in velocity, selection, card advantage, etc. (ie. consistency). More than half. Most of the rest are bonkers cheap mana like Black Lotus, Moxen, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, and Sol Ring.

Legacy bans a lot of the tutors outright, and includes Goblin Recruiter and Oath of Druids as part of the tutor family that cannot be allowed for play. Hermit Druid is kind of like the country cousin who wants to be backwards and not find the card he’s looking for. Oops, that means the whole deck’s in the graveyard. That can’t be a strategy, can it? Well roast my acorns! Even not finding can be too strong.

A quick look at Pioneer shows us some consistency cards on the banlist, but most telling is the 10 (!) tutors they banned as part of the format’s inception: the Fetch Lands. Too easy, too consistent, is the mana. The decks are thinned much too easily to multi-colour goodstuff piles, and become homogeneous monstrosities.

The interaction between fetchlands and the OG duals, the original two-basic-typed-reserved-list jewels, is one of the major reasons for their immense cost (fetches, too) and keep the bar for entry to older formats like Vintage and Legacy really high outside of Magic Online. Oh, and the fetches give you landfall on command, fill your graveyard, shuffle your deck, thin your deck, and help reduce that Death’s Shadow player’s lifepoints to a reasonable 5-7. Mystic Sanctuary showed us that they can print a completely OP fetchable Island at common without thinking it through. Regular Islands are strong enough, thanks. I feel like Pioneer might be onto something here.

In Commander the list of banned tutors is a paltry 2. Gifts Ungiven and Tinker. Both of which have a ‘restriction’ that is either a non-issue or a key factor in the card being broken. Gifts is banned because it’s too easy to assemble piles that win the game on the spot because tutoring for four cards is bananas, and going to the graveyard is no punishment in modern MtG.

Tinker, we can all agree, is a mistake.

As always with the Commander Banlist, we have to take it with a grain of salt, and look at it as a set of guideposts for the kind of cards to not play. Or something. But I personally think the best way to address what is a seemingly never-ending parade of broken cards is to limit the ways to find them.

Once again, my rule would be “If a player would search their library for any card other than a basic land, that search fails to find.” Your non-basic-land-finding tutors now cap out at shuffling your deck as their main function, which is still more powerful and synergistic than a lot of crappy cards you could play for the same CMC. Plenty of search your library cards are still strong in this way. Rampant Growth isn’t going anywhere. Even Golos is still extremely powerful, if only able to grab basics.

If I have a card in my deck that you hate to play against because it forces you to plan for it or not get to play, and that seriously disrupts your strategy and deckbuilding fun, it sucks so much more when I have a plethora of tutors to find it and play it on you every game.

Let’s say that card is Purphoros, from my above example. You hate losing to my Purphoros. You load up on removal, but I have a bunch of counterspells and stuff to stop you, and that one time you killed it, I alpha’d you the following turn with Zombie tokens. Your one hope really is that I don’t draw it. But I have options. One of the reasons I chose the Forge God for my example was because it offered multiple friendly options for searchability, as a creature, enchantment, legend, and CMC 4 spell. I did a search to see how many cards could find Purphoros in my 99.

It was an odd search. There are some really obscure and fringe options for getting things into play, to hand, or other useful places. There are about 50 cards that will put Purphoros into your hand from your deck. That includes 3 Transmute cards, and all the various tutors. There are a few that sort of get there that I didn’t count, like Signal the Clans and Library of Lat-Nam that are probably not going to work out.

Gamble was included, because in the yard is okay too.

That being said, there are 4 or 5 ways to put Purphoros into the graveyard directly, which is a great part of a Starfield of Nyx plan or to open up the reanimation angle.

Getting Purphoros directly into play from the library can be as simple as Wargate, or as convoluted as part of a Birthing Pod chain, but there are about 25 ways to do it.

Finally, there are a dozen or so ways to put Purphoros on top of your deck to be drawn ASAP.

If you hate my Purphoros, don’t you also hate the nearly 100 ways I have to find it in my deck? Many of those ways suck, or require too much sacrifice/mana/hoops whatever, but enough of those ensure that I can ruin your day with Purphoros every game. Probably by turn 4. And still save plenty of room in my 99 for answers! Did I mention that when Purphoros is out, that all my tutors will get other stuff, based on what I need to kill you, if I still do?

Purphoros is just an example. I’ve lost to him a lot, often preceded by that player drawing a card, shrugging, and saying, ‘I guess you’re all dead.’ But you probably have your cards, too. A lot of people hate Cyclonic Rift, Craterhoof Behemoth, Prossh the Skyraider, Torment of Hailfire, Laboratory Maniac and many others. There are too many to ban, and the person playing them put them in that deck for a reason. Either they have fun playing them, or feel they’re necessary to answer the power level of their meta. I don’t want to ban cards because they win games, or keep people in them.

Tutors massively increase consistency. They completely upend what is supposed to be a singleton format, designed in large part to keep the haymaker cards in check. Haymakers are fun, but the same one over and over is not. Nor is tutoring for your OP wincon a testament to skill. Unfortunately, it works.

Relying on a limited card pool, or the tempo loss of playing a tutor hardly applies. When mana curves go 1-2-7 with Tron, or you start with turn 1 Sol Ring in Commander, or double your mana on turn 4 or 5 with Wilderness Reclamation and Nissa Who Shakes the World in Standard, or even turn 3 infinite devoted druid mana in Modern, the CMC of tutors is hardly a concern for decks that need their answer or their finisher right now. And tutors are often in the thick of building those degenerate mana curves themselves. Expedition Map paid the price in Pauper. It was less than a dollar.

So are tutors worse for the game than Companions? Companions as initially designed were a problematic mechanic from the get go. Their splash was huge, and required the fix. Tutors, on the other hand, just make a lot of other problems worse, slowly expand the banlists, hold back design options, and maybe only persist because they were in Dr. Grandpa Richard’s very first colour pie, and not because they make Magic better. Both lead to boring, predictable games, except when Companions are called Commanders and have a blanket, colour-based deckbuilding restriction. And a supposedly 100-card singleton format to balance things out. Hmmmm. Maybe you should decide for yourself.

My solution is to not play tutors. I can’t tell other people what to play, especially when their eyes light up when they topdeck their tutor and go get the thing. Some people need that. Maybe right now. But please feel free to try going without. You’ll shuffle less, experience variance more, and spend more time playing interesting, unpredictable games of Magic. Thanks for reading!

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