Catching Up on Cavern of Souls

Hey everybody!

Sorry if I am a bit late to the game on this topic but I was busy all weekend doing this:

… So I hope y’all liked the ceiling-shattering commentary at SCGLive; so, point being, “I was busy.”

The card in question is Cavern of Souls:

Cavern of Souls

But what is interesting-interesting (or at least the subject of this here blog post) is Zac Hill’s preview article for it at the Mother Ship. And while it might seem a bit apropos in reaction to an article entitled “Gonna Hate” I want to make sure you know I hold Zac in pretty high regard. He made sure to jam a PT Top 8 before taking his gig in R&D, he has a super awesome educational background, and while the most mainstream-mainstream thing I’ve ever written for is a Cosmopolitan article entitled “Stupid Things Guys Do for Fashion” mighty Zac is a contributor to HuffPo (/jelly!).

… But I still disagree with lots of the stuff he wrote in the Cavern of Souls preview.

By the by, unlike certain other commentators (like heartthrob game designer Brian Kibler) I don’t really care about the “… can’t be countered” bit on Cavern of Souls feeling tacked-on. I come from a place of fundamental disagreement with the presuppositions that drove a perceived need around the card.

Here is a summary of the points I am going to hit with this post:

  • [R&D] messed up with Snapcaster Mage.
  • Mana Leak was almost as savage a culprit as good ol’ Tiago himself // Mana Leak is simply a much more powerful card than [R&D] would be comfortable printing under modern development rules.
  • [R&D] would never print Signets nowadays.
  • … creatures were too weak for most of Magic’s history

[R&D] messed up with Snapcaster Mage

Personally, as a fan of the game as well as ONE OF THE TOP 10 DECK DESIGNERS OF ALL TIME * my basic belief is that there is always a best card. Sometimes that best card — say in a Tier Two metagame — is a card like Loxodon Hierarch, Remand, or Skred. Loxodon Hierarch — which my team (which included PT Champions like Osyp Lebedowicz, Jon Finkel, and Steve OMS; plus off-team consultant Patrick Chapin) considered the runaway best card in Ravnica Block — was not even played by the winning squad at PT Charleston; I guess their own Top 10 deck designer Saito disagreed. Loxodon Hierarch and Remand — two cards from Ravnica — were at different points considered the best card in Standard… I didn’t even play Remand when I won States with This Girl and no one on any of our Charleston teams played it in Block. When I declared Skred to be the best card in Standard… I was right.

… Yet many players thought this was ludicrous (and probably believably so).

PT Champion Chris Lachmann eventually agreed… on the way to his X-0 performance at Worlds with G/R Snow ramp.

But these are the Best Cards of a Tier Two metagame.

What is the best card in modern Legacy? Force of Will? Brainstorm? Narcomoeba? I don’t know either.

There is always a best card, even in relatively flat metagames.

Today’s Standard is not a flat metagame. This is a metagame of battleships, haymakers, and star destroyers.

… And Snapcaster Mage isn’t even the best card in it.

I have Snapcaster Mage as probably the #2 card in Standard (after Delver of Secrets). I saw a recent rundown of the format’s best cards on ChannelFireball… that did not include Snapcaster Mage at all. (LOL)

Ultimately, I don’t think the presence of a best card is indicative of a mistake. I don’t mind the Titans. I think it’s cool that we have cards like Primeval Titan that have enabled so many interesting land combinations from Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; to Kessig Wolf-Run; to motherlovin’ Glimmervoid or Cloudpost. How is that a bad thing? How can it be anything but awesome to build scenarios where Copper Myr is the right choice for a particular style of deck?

By the way, I don’t think it was the Titans that killed beloved Baneslayer Angel, rather it really was Mana Leak.


Mana Leak was almost as savage a culprit as good ol’ Tiago himself // Mana Leak is simply a much more powerful card than [R&D] would be comfortable printing under modern development rules.

Zac’s assertions seem to be twofold:

  1. Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage are both issues; Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage together are greater than the sum of their problematic parts.
  2. Mana Leak is overpowered.

The points are related; I will deal with them separately and together.

Again, I don’t think that the existence of Snapcaster Mage is a big problem. I would actually rather have a card like Snapcaster Mage be the best than lots of other possible kinds of cards; again, even flat Tier Two formats have best cards (and finding out which they are — and at times ignoring them — is part of the charm of Tier Two metagames).

Here’s the problem: If Snapcaster Mage is indeed bringing down creatures with his card advantageous snappiness… Removing Mana Leak isn’t necessarily a very good solution.

Check out the above deck list from master format crusher and Sponsors Invite topdecker Caleb Durward.

Caleb’s stated goal? To make Snapcaster Mage the best Bloodbraid Elf ever; to dominate creature decks. His number of Mana Leaks? Two.


I thought Mana Leaks were keeping creatures down?

I learned a lot from Caleb’s deck list and from talking to him during that Top 8 weekend (the last time I was in the SCGLive booth incidentally). I ran with some of his ideas elsewhere, and paid attention to the efforts of other mighty mages like Brian Kibler, Ben Stark, and Gerry Thompson.

And you know what?

Mana Leak is not what you want if you want to keep creatures down.

Caw-Blade went from a U/W control deck to a u/W board control deck when facing beatdown. Why? Because having Mana Leak as your first line of defense when you are the control is awful when you are going second. I think Zac’s assertion that “[s]pells can only be interacted with for the moment they are on the stack, whereas creatures can be interacted with at sorcery speed” is almost willfully reductive. Creatures are about equally dangerous to spells if and when your defense is a Counterspell; and are more dangerous in general (in that case) as fast creatures have much more offensive impact than fast spells. I can’t even think of comparably costed “spell” threats that put the fear into me like Geist of Saint Traft or the one-two punch of Stromkirk Noble into Stormblood Berserker. Shock you, Incinerate you? Yeah… Maybe if I’ve already been hammered by, you know, Stromkirk Noble into Stormblood Berserker!

If you want to talk about the impact of Mana Leak against creatures… Sure, Mana Leak may be flexible, but it is at its best against something like a Primeval Titan… but in reality you can stand in Karn Liberated or some other comparably costed “I win” Stage Three slaughterhouse. A large Stage Three-enabling creature is really no different than a Cruel Ultimatum. Are you really scared of the 6/6 body, or is is the implication of an on-board Valakut kill or the inevitability of the Inkmoth Nexus offense that is frightening?

Isn’t this kind of obvious?

Mana Leak is good against expensive stuff, whether that is creature, Planeswalker, or sorcery.

Now similarly, if Mana Leak is so overpowered… Why is it getting cut so often?

Jon Finkel played two at PTDKA.

Gerry Thompson is cutting them.

In his B/U Control… Caleb Durward never even had four.

This is a card that is consistently out-paced in popularity by any number of other cards. In the Delver mirror (where Snapcaster Mage is one of your core breakers)… you side Mana Leak out!

The evidence just doesn’t support the idea that Mana Leak is overpowered. Mana Leak is a minority four-of (and was maybe a two-of or three-of in Caw-Blade last year, remember). It sees very little play outside Standard, whereas Standard-legal cards like Delver of Secrets, Ponder, and Lingering Souls are mopping up huge Legacy events. If we are looking to point the finger at someone, I really don’t know that it is Leak.

[R&D] would never print Signets nowadays.

I just found this odd because in terms of a mana fixing kind of card, to me there is an enormous gulf between, say, Boros Signet and Arid Mesa.

… creatures were too weak for most of Magic’s history

I actually think this is ludicrous.

The creatures people are willing to play have always been good, good enough. I mean maybe we boost the power level of chase Mythics (which did not exist way back when), but the creatures we were and continue to be willing to play have changed almost not at all over the eighteen years I have been playing Magic.

Today, we continue to see Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves in decks across all formats.

Kird Ape was available in Revised (my first set); and many players would be happy to play that in Standard today.

Black Knight and White Knight variants — whether we want them to be called Hand of Cruelty or Silver Knight — have been highly playable and important contributors to every format where they have been legal. Legends of the Pro Tour from PV to Bob Maher, Jr. have used these cards to command some of their most memorable tournament performances.

Lord of Atlantis continues to be an archetype driver in a wide format like Legacy!

I would agree that both the top of the creature mountain is higher and the average creature is better than it was eighteen years ago; however, successful tournament players do not select from the average part of the card pool. We select — and ideally have always selected from — the best cards. And I really don’t think there was ever a time when the best cards in this area were so substandard that we couldn’t find enough options to build successful strategies around them.

By the way: I think the fact that one of the most important archetypes ever was built on the back of Ironclaw Orcs is awesome.


Zac’s article (and please remember all my stuff above about respecting Zac… Part of what I love about living in a non-totalitarian environment is that reasonable people can disagree) was brought to me by my broadcast partner and blue-o-phile Joey Pasco.

Joey’s concern with the attitude that I have been combatting in this blog post (rather than any objection to Cavern of Souls) was that “R&D wanted to kill permission-based control” (which is Joey’s favorite).

I take another position.

The ONLY reason any of us loves Magic in any kind of a lasting sense is that it is a dynamic, ever-changing, game. My favorite format all time is probably Masques Block Constructed. I was at my absolute best during Masques Block, and always felt I was two steps ahead of every other deck designer in the world. I consistently put up results, both personally and through bullets and strategic partners.

… And if I had been forced to play nothing but Masques Block Constructed for the ensuing 12 years, I would have quit a long time ago.

Magic is wonderful because sometimes we have permission based control and other times we have tapout control. Sometimes we have a Red Deck with terrible creatures and high quality burn, and other times we have a streamlined Goblins shell that takes a Fujita or Paskins to improve upon… and yet they can! Which is awesome! We have formats where The Rock is the best deck, and we have longer stretches of sanity. We have formats defined by singular challenges of Bitterblossom or Survival of the Fittest, which reward great play for long stretches… and allow the best gap designers to build even more exciting decks that can only be uncovered via the fires of seemingly oppressive strife. We would have had no Cruel Control or Blightning Beatdown if not for Faeries, no Exarch Twin without the pall of Caw-Blade.

There is one constant when it comes to the long-term enjoyment of Magic: The Gathering; and that is change.

blah, Blah, BLAH… Cavern of Souls 🙂


* The 10 Best Deckbuilders of All Time: Herberholz and Flores 🙂

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#1 MTGBattlefield on 04.24.12 at 5:54 am

Catching Up on Cavern of Souls…

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#2 First Pass on Champion of the Parish — Five With Flores on 04.30.12 at 9:55 pm

[…] Cavern of Souls […]

#3 Why change is good « The Exploration on 05.02.12 at 7:46 am

[…] I read a blog post on Mike Flores blog, where he wrote about Cavern of Souls and the accompanying article by Wizards where they explained their design decisions regarding […]

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