Let me ask if this is ever happened to you. You’re playing against an opponent, maybe a friend of yours. They’re a bit more experienced at Magic, but you guys are just playing casually for fun. Then, they drop a card you haven’t seen before. It has some text. It reads like a local ordinance. “You can’t do X”, or maybe “Only Y can happen”. The rules of the game have just changed. Something fundamental about how you’ve played up to this point has been altered. “Well at least it’s for both players”, you say to yourself. Then, 18 turns later, you get you lose profoundly. And you never had a shot.
There’s something about the gap between casual play and competitive play that changes how players see these things. In my experience, more casual players see weird cards like Winter Orb or Thorn of Amethyst as an minor, yet annoying, portion of the game they’re playing. They haven’t yet come to grips with the fact that most decks put specific cards in their list for a reason.
A Case in Parity Breaking
I want to run through a specific scenario that came up a while ago, in my play group. We were testing a new format amongst ourselves, one where we knew it wasn’t solved online yet. I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in a future article. Anyway, part of the fun of this was for us to build powerful, but fairly cheap decks. We wanted to make a high power meta. We also had various levels of experience within our playgroup. Some players would grind online most nights, others liked to casually just play some weekends here and there. The goal was for everyone to be able to throw down.
In one of these sessions, we decided to actually just thrown together a four person multiplayer game. We wanted everyone to get a sense of what people had put together. One player, let’s call him Bill, built a disgusting prison deck entirely within the rules of what we said the format would have. Turn 3 he drops .
This deck slows down the game. Like a lot. The other players realize after each of their turns that this card is annoying. Their turns basically got skipped. They got to turn a bunch of lands and maybe a creature one way, then back the other a second later. Cut back to Bill, he takes away a counter from , then taps three permanents, including the itself. The other players don’t notice that they just got the short end of a really powerful stick. And why would they? They’re getting used to the game their playing, in a new format with new cards they hadn’t played against before. I know that when I was starting out, I’d kind of just ignore cards I didn’t quite understand.
I avoid telling the other players what a problem we’re in, as Bill plays a , and a Goblin Welder. He reads off what the card does, and the other players hear it but don’t quite understand it. They’re waiting for that damn to go away. The other players go through another series of stunted turns. During Bill’s upkeep, he taps two permanents, one of which is his . He plays , drawing some cards, and discarding a ...
There were many other disgusting things that went on in that game. I believe there was a loop at some point, some graveyard recursion with the . All the while, the other players were frustrated with the fact that the game was not going how they liked. They saw this as a unpleasant way to play where the rules of the game had kind of just materialized, and all parties were effected, Bill was just doing the best with these new rules. They didn’t see how broken the parity was.
If you’ve played Magic more than the people in my playgroup had at that point, you might have wanted to do what I wanted to, which was just have us all concede. You know how powerful effects like the above mentioned can be. If you still don’t quite get it, let’s focus on the order of events that occurred with . Bill played it with four counters. All other players got 4 permanents tapped down. Then at him, he gets to tap 3 (since a counter gets removed first, per his choice) and that includes his . He doesn’t care if that is tapped or not. So everyone else has now tapped 4, and he’s basically only tapped 2 legitimate permanents. He is far ahead. He’s far ahead because he built his deck to work with effects like that in mind. There wouldn’t be an interaction in there if it wasn’t to his benefit.
Examples of Symmetrical Effects
Some of the most powerful cards in the history of Magic are based around the idea that each player has to follow some rule. , , , the list goes on. There is a reason that these cards are good. You can build a deck that circumvents whatever downside might occur from one of these effects. If you’re playing , you likely have a strategy that’s built around getting it out turn one, for two mana and one charge counter, turning off all 1 cmc spells. You have no 1 cmc cards in your deck. You planned this.
Or maybe your opponent drops , but they have and other lands that make multiple mana. They won't be incumbered by newly expensive spells, while you're left in the dust, struggling. Not all symmetrical effects are based around prison, though. If you're drafting cube, specifically Vintage Cube, you might see a player cast or . Giving your opponent double their mana is a risky move indeed, but not if they never get a turn to capitalize on their new power. Or maybe the gamble that what you can do with the mana in the meantime is just better than anything that they could possibly do.
The earliest and arguably most insane example of a symmetrical effect like this has to be the . Aptly named, of course. Channel Fireball's Top 100 Cards Series had listed as the number one white card of all time. Reid Duke stated that it's a card that's powerful enough that he's willing to just throw it in a lot of decks knowing that we wouldn't cast it much. As in, he'd be alright with just having a dead card 4 out of 5 times, because the 5th time it's insane. The most obvious way in which this is not a 'balanced' card (buh dum, tss) is that there are some omissions to the cards that it makes you get rid of. Artifacts in particular are a huge one, since it's pretty easy to set it up such that you can have fewer lands than your opponent and essentially them, while you have all your mana available. Oh, and it also is basically a as well. For two mana. Seems fair. Its about as banned as a card can be for a reason.
If the some of these things are new to you, that cards your opponents play are always built to give them advantage, then hopefully next time a card like that comes down you'll rightfully be wary of its implications. Maybe you'll even start to tinker around with your own way of getting to break stuff (or more likely, breaking things the way players always have been).
Until next time, have fun breaking parity!