Today is going to be all about the most powerful card in Standard. The title probably gave a lot away, but in case it didn't and you think that I may be talking about Jace, Architect of Thought; Garruk, Caller of Beasts; Master of Waves; Gray Merchant of Asphodel; Domri Rade; or any other cards that seems like it might hold that title, I'm here to correct that grossly misguided notion.
The most powerful card by a frustratingly large margin is most assuredly Thoughtseize.
It really isn't even close.
And I can't stand it (the card, that is).
I'm not delving into the realm of hyperbole when I state that I am considering taking a two-year hiatus from competitive Standard Magic because of it, and I'm sure my future cardiologist would agree with me knowing the effects it would have on my blood pressure. However, I'm not on board here at StarCityGames.com so that I can write that I'm going to quit playing a format, so I'm here today to explain why I think the card is incredibly damaging to not only the Standard format but also to the core of the game itself.
Then for those of you who are brave enough to continue playing Standard, I'll go into some ways to mitigate the effects of Thoughtseize since if you ever plan on doing well in Standard these days you have to be prepared for "turn 1 Thoughtseize you."
Why Thoughtseize Is Bad For Magic
When Thoughtseize was first spoiled, there were grumbles and mumbles from multiple pro-level Magic players, including our very own Brian Kibler blogging about it and professing his dislike (from a game-design standpoint, not a pro-player one) for the reprinting of the card. If you haven't read that yet, go ahead and do yourself a favor.
Much of what I'm going to say he touches on in there, but my ideas actually came from grinding playtest games where turn 1 Thoughtseize happened probably far more than it should have. It got old.
I actually found his blog on the topic because I went to his Twitter page to find the tweets I remember seeing where he complained about Thoughtseize's reprinting. I remember being slightly excited at the time that such a powerful card would be more readily accessible (remember, I'm a father of four who is still catching up after paying for his mother's sudden funeral; $70 cards aren't really in my wheelhouse in terms of cards I can validate purchasing) and started considering building decks around the powerful one-mana spell.
My only experiences with it in Standard were when I first came back to the game and Tarmogoyf still roamed the Standard battlefield. I hadn't played in years at that point, and everything seemed new and novel. I didn't hate Thoughtseize because my weapon of choice in those days was the Michael Jacob style of Red Deck Wins with Demigod of Revenge and Figure of Destiny, meaning even if they took the most powerful card in my deck (Demigod) I could just get it right back!
So based on my limited experience with playing against the card competitively, I didn't fully understand the distaste. I'd played against the card in Modern and Legacy, but it was sparse and felt like not that big of a deal. In Modern I had Spell Pierce if I was playing blue (and likely didn't care much about Thoughtseize if I wasn't), and in Legacy Brainstorm invalidated the card almost completely.
Well, consider that all changed.
Here's the core problem: the card isn't enjoyable to play against. I get that I'm a competitive player and talk of fun isn't something I should ever touch on, but you have to realize that this is still a game. No matter how much of a competitive venture it becomes for us, if we don't enjoy playing, what are we really doing? I love winning, I really do; however, winning just for the sake of victory while eschewing enjoyment isn't something I'm seeking. I could go home right now and play against my stepson Chris with my Standard decks if I wanted to win just to win.
That isn't enjoyable though.
The reason Thoughtseize isn't fun is because it just isn't a card you can interact with on any level (in Standard and to a lesser extent in Modern). There isn't a damn thing you can do about "turn 1 Thoughtseize you" (henceforth referred to as TOTY in a similar vein as EOTFOFYL). You can't protect yourself from it, you can't sideboard into a better configuration to beat that, you can't counter it (unless you're playing Swan Song, are on the play, and have the turn 1 untapped blue source to play it; I've yet to see this occur), and you can't build your deck with the card in mind. Even if there were a card that you could play to counteract the negative effects that Thoughtseize has, they would just Thoughtseize it out of your hand before you could cast it.
Oh, and such a card doesn't exist anyway since what really counteracts the ability to neuter both your hand and game plan for one mana?
There's a fundamental difference between Thoughtseize and cards like Inquisition of Kozilek and Duress: the last two in that list hit a very specific type of card. You played those cards when you expected a format full of cards that cost three mana or less (Inquisition) or sideboarded them in to combat a deck full of noncreature spells (Duress). You had to put thought into playing them, and there was a real risk in playing them against the wrong decks or playing them against a hand that didn't contain the specific type of cards they were trying to hit.
That's why they weren't ubiquitous cards; you had to think before you added them.
Thoughtseize doesn't care about what the format looks like, doesn't care about the casting cost of the cards in your deck, and doesn't care about the text in the type bar of the card. All it cares about is that the card isn't a land. That's it. And unless you're playing against Dan Bock in Tokyo, there has never been a deck in Magic's history that contained no legal targets for Thoughtseize.
There's no real downside to playing Thoughtseize; yes, I know it says something about two life on the card, but in Standard there are no decks actually fast enough (and widespread enough) to truly punish someone for putting four Thoughtseizes in a deck. Even if you Thoughtseize a Fanatic of Mogis "hyperaggro" red deck, you can still take the Fanatic of Mogis and save yourself quite a bit of damage in spite of the two life you lose to your own Thoughtseize.
Therefore, I repeat, there is no real downside to running four Thoughtseizes.
And behind that I'll repeat again that there isn't a damn thing you can do about TOTY.
"Man, monoblack devotion just won the GP. What should I play against it at my next FNM?""It doesn't matter. They'll just Thoughtseize it"— Brian Kibler (@bmkibler) October 20, 2013
Here's where it really gets unfun; since you can't do anything about TOTY, you have to go into a competitive Standard tournament ready to face the consequences of that card being played against you in most of your rounds. Like I said, it's by far the most powerful thing you could be doing in Standard these days, so good players are going to play it.
When your opponent plays TOTY, there are a couple of effects that it has on that game and match. First and foremost, the most obvious effect it has is that it takes away your most dangerous card to their strategy with no chance at all for you to stop them. There really is no "good result" for you when your opponent plays TOTY; even if they let you keep what you consider to be your best card, all that means is that they have a way to deal with it that they're happy with. That means that the card they took was one they couldn't deal with and now have.
In that same vein, it also provides them with absolute perfect information. This isn't the reason to run the card, of course, but a card that people pay two life to get information sees competitive play (Gitaxian Probe). Thoughtseize allows them to disrupt that hand as well. When you're running blind while your opponent has night-vision goggles, even though you're still capable of running the race you're going to hit a couple of trees on the way while your opponent is able to deftly maneuver the obstacles in their path.
Here's what else it does: it forces you to mulligan. Not only that but it forces you to mulligan into a worse hand 100% of the time. Yes, your opponent had to spend a card and mana to do that, but if a card was printed that said "if this card is in your opening hand, you can reveal it Leyline style to force your opponent to mulligan after he/she is done resolving mulligans," it would see some play simply because of the free wins. Thoughtseize is much better though because it stacks well in multiples (early in the game), allows you to make their mulligan at least one order of magnitude worse than their current hand, and has usefulness in the late game as well. Your opponent now has the ability to not only interact with your hand but also your luck.
This touches on my next point: variance. Thoughtseize increases variance levels astronomically in the games it's played. You may be thinking, "Wait, when Thoughtseize is played, it does the same thing every time: answers the most powerful card for one mana. How is that increasing variance?"
When your opponent goes TOTY, the game doesn't end on the spot. Far from it. They still have to execute a game plan in order to reduce your life total to zero (or whatever it is they want to do to win the game). You still have to play out your subsequent turns and so do they. With one fewer card each. What are the resources you're going to rely on in order to win that game? Well, it's not that powerful card they took, that's for sure.
It's the top of your deck.
You're going to have to draw the right cards from the top of your deck in order to put up the fight needed to play against a deck that not only just took your best card but is also able to formulate a game plan based on perfect information to fight you (more on that in a bit). This is very possible, as a large portion of games in Magic are decided by the cards in your deck rather than simply the cards in your opening hand, but Thoughtseize forces the game to turn into more of a topdeck game. It turns the luck factor up to eleven, something that frustrates competitive players who prefer crafting game plans, matching wit, and besting their opponent intellectually.
Remember Bloodbraid Elf and the roulette wheel that was the cascade Standard format? It was so incredibly frustrating because there was no way to plan for whatever they hit. It was all luck, and no matter how much you grinded out incremental advantages, your opponent would just cascade into Blightning; kill your Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and take the Day of Judgment and Mind Spring from your hand, leaving you with nothing.
This is like that; the only difference is we don't have a smoking gun (cascade) to point to when all of the games turn into "did you catch cards better than I did post-TOTY?"
People complained about how you just had to jam more and more powerful cards in the Bloodbraid mirror in order to ensure that you were drawing live each turn. That's sort of like how this format will shake out to look like except, you know, there's a card that punishes you for upping your curve and playing heavy hitters. A card that can effectively neuter your ability to make it to a point in the game where that heavy hitter is still relevant or can just take that heavy hitter itself.
That card is and always will be Thoughtseize.
People have complained before about non-interactive cards; hexproof is a prime example. People would get frustrated because their opponent dropped a turn 2 Invisible Stalker into triple Ethereal Armor.
But . . .
You know what though? You could play a Liliana of the Veil the next turn and get a sweet four-for-zero. You could overload an Electrickery the turn it came into play. If you dropped a Ratchet Bomb on turn 2, you easily interacted with their deck. Bonfire of the Damned is a helluva card.
You had options, and it had to do with how you built your deck.
There are no such options with Thoughtseize.
It just makes you feel . . . violated. Helpless. Like "yeah, go ahead, do with me what you will." I play Magic to interact with and best my opponent. There's just nothing you can do to interact with TOTY.
What To Play In Standard
I suppose now's the part of the article where I give you some sound advice. While I'm going to do this, I'll admit that I haven't actually put cards to table in a couple of weeks (in a tournament, I still test) due to my distaste for the constant seizing of my thoughts. However, if push came to shove and there was a StarCityGames.com Open Series nearby, I know I'd still play in it.
The question then becomes do I beat them or join them?
(The Thoughtseizers, that is. More like Thoughtsleezers, amirite? No, no one? Back from whence I came . . . )
If you're going to join them, I say more power to you. I know Mono-Black Devotion is a super-powerful deck from the time I spent trying to see if I could hybridize the Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion decks together; the things that black brings to the table are far superior to what other colors bring. We've already talked about Thoughtseize, but I think it's unfair to talk about Thoughtseize without mentioning how having Hero's Downfall behind it makes it so that your game plan is completely irrelevant. I've always enjoyed having an active Underworld Connections, and Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a beast.
Esper Control is also one of the top decks in the format, and if I enjoyed self-flagellation, I'd play it all day and thoroughly enjoy the pain that is the mirror match.
However, I shan't be joining the Thoughtsleezers, probably to my detriment, as it is the most powerful card in the format. (Disclaimer: if you care about winning at any cost Dark Confidant style, run Thoughtseize. Seriously.) What else can we do if we're not taking our opponent's best card and dignity at the same time?
For one, we can run the deck I'd run right now if I were playing in a Standard tournament, G/W Aggro:
The reason I like this deck is that even if your opponent takes something with Thoughtseize you still have plenty of hard hitting action coming right behind it. They can take your Advent of the Wurm; you're still dropping a Loxodon Smiter on their face.
I love the way the deck's power increases with the competency of its pilot. Yeah, you can go ahead and burn that Rootborn Defenses at the end of your opponent's turn for an extra 3/3 Centaur when they're out of cards in hand for some extra damage, but when they topdeck a Supreme Verdict . . .
The deck rewards patience since you're a deck that relies on pressure, not so much pure aggression. There are times when holding on to your cards is absolutely correct because they have multiple functions. Even a card like Advent of the Wurm has multiple uses, either as a surprise blocker or big attacker. Rootborn Defenses is the card I'm mostly referring to (outside of the well-known Selesnya Charm) since its uses are almost so many that they're uncountable. The card really does do a lot, and if decks like Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Red Aggro weren't in the format, I'd play all four maindeck.
I was actually pretty impressed with Gods Willing as well because every time I had it it did something my opponent never expected. I essentially turned my Gods Willings into one-mana Dreadbores for my G/R Monsters opponent's Garruk, Caller of Beasts and saved ample creatures from removal spells.
Ajani, Caller of the Pride is a serious beating combined with the large creatures you're playing in this deck. I definitely recommend giving it a try if you haven't yet.
The only other deck I'd consider in a world of Thoughtsleeze is Mono-Red Aggro. When your opponent is willing to pay two life to take one of your cards, if all of your cards are cheap threats that deal quick damage, what benefit are they really getting?
The only thing up for consideration is the color scheme of the deck: Mono-Red, R/W, or B/R? I'm no expert on it, so my logical starting point would be the Mono-Red deck that made Top 8 in Los Angeles designed by Patrick Sullivan. I would also look into the R/W deck with which Ben Lundquist took first, but my concern is the fact that the Boros Elites in the deck need a critical mass of creatures to reach their potential, giving you a vulnerability to Thoughtseize and spot removal that aggro decks don't typically have (at least not to that degree).
Tom Ross wrote a great article last week about a new deck with a ton of one-drops that aims to completely invalidate the usefulness of Thoughtseize. I've yet to run a game with it, but if it does in fact invalidate the worst card to see time in Standard ever, I'm down.
Honestly, I'm probably not going to quit Standard, as I love Magic too much and there are enough sane people out there who refuse to join the Thoughtsleezers (meaning I won't have to face it every round). But if we play at an event and you TOTY me, don't be surprised if I don't speak a word to you for the rest of the match.
Nothing personal . . .
@mikemartinlfs on Twitter
Mikemartinlfs (at) gmail (dot) com
(If you like hearing me rant and want to read my non-Magic rants, I've started a blog titled "Think for Our Self". Check it out sometime.)