Every Magic card goes through a journey.
There was a time we didn't know that Kolaghan's Command was a fantastic card.
There was a time that many of us thought Narset Transcendent was an awesome planeswalker.
From preview to ubiquity is a difficult journey that most cards never complete. Some never live up to the hype, some fall flat right out of the gate, and some never make it past being a Standard role-player. The cards we remember forever, that we put into our Cubes and our Modern and Legacy decks, ascend to the highest level and become part of the canon of Magic.
These are the cards whose power level has been proven over the years, with both results and heavy play – often across different formats. You don't often need to ask someone why they are playing Lightning Bolt or Polluted Delta in their deck; the answer is obvious. When a card like this gets reprinted, it also doesn't need to be vetted like new cards do. We already know Thoughtseize is good and will continue to be good in a new Standard format.
However, the issue with a card reaching this level of ubiquity is that it ascends beyond the level of criticism. We accept it as “good” and cease to think about the card contextually. Magic is always growing and changing, as are the strategic concepts of the game. Letting an idea or concept become dogma is something that can be damaging to your game as a whole.
Today we are going to look at five cards that all fixtures of the tournament Magic canon. These are very good Magic cards, but also cards that are not as good as people perceive them to be. This sort of overvaluation can be a major detriment when building decks, either for Legacy or Modern, or even for your latest Cube draft.
Force of Will is the glue that holds Legacy together.
Without Force of Will, Legacy would be a wasteland of decks trying to turn 1 and 2 each other. Very few cards can interact turn 1 on the draw like Force of Will can, and the ones that can are often narrow sideboard cards. It's not hard to build a deck that can kill your opponent turn 1 in Legacy, but the combination of inconsistency plus a very low chance of beating Force of Will has always kept these decks in check.
However, when it comes to playing fair Magic, Force of Will is a rather underwhelming Magic card.
In most of the scenarios where Force of Will is holding Legacy together, it is countering a single card that a player is using their entire hand to cast. If a player is able to counter a Goblin Charbelcher, Infernal Tutor, or Balustrade Spy that took an entire hand to cast, the Force of Will that countered it ends up looking more like a Mind Twist than Counterspell.
Where Force of Will falters is when Magic is being played fairly.
Odd as it sounds, Force of Will would not only be a fair card to see print in most Standard formats, but it would often be only borderline playable. If you're just one-for-one countering something like a Siege Rhino or Archangel Avacyn, it's happening at a point in the game where you'd have mana to pay for a counterspell anyway while also putting you at direct card disadvantage.
This is even true in Legacy, where it is almost always correct to sideboard out your copies of Force of Will in any fair matchup where the game is going to go long. The questions that need to be asked when determining if Force of Will is going to be good are the following:
- Is my opponent trying to combo kill me on turn 1 or 2?
- Is my opponent trying to resolve a card that will create an insurmountable advantage?
- Is my opponent trying to play a card or combination of cards that will end the game immediately?
- Is my deck able to draw enough raw cards where I can make up the card disadvantage that Force of Will creates with raw material?
- Is my deck aggressive enough that I can use the tempo that Force of Will creates by being a free spell to offset the extra card I am losing?
- Is my deck trying to assemble a combo or play a card that creates an insurmountable advantage?
If none of the above is true, Force of Will is not a card you really ever want to have in your deck.
Force of Will is one of the most important cards in all of the formats it is legal in, but when it comes to raw power, it is extremely contextual. As such, it is often misunderstood both in play and in deckbuilding.
Path to Exile is one of the most heavily played removal spells in Modern and was a Standard staple for as long as it was legal. It pays homage to one of the best removal spells of all time in Swords to Plowshares and can deal with almost any creature cleanly. It also costs only one mana, which is one of the most important factors for a great removal spell.
So what is it doing on the “overrated” list?
Path to Exile is a great card, but people vastly underestimate how large the drawback is. When you cast Path to Exile, you not only create card disadvantage by giving your opponent a card, but you also accelerate them. A free Rampant Growth is a huge downside, and this makes casting Path to Exile on turn 1 or 2 a major liability against a lot of decks.
Path to Exile only costing one mana ends up being largely offset by this drawback, as the cost of playing Path to Exile is so high early in a game. This drawback was much more apparent when Path to Exile was in Standard, as Standard decks naturally have higher mana curves and more basic lands than Modern decks, but it rings true in general.
As such, Path to Exile is often better utilized by more proactive decks that are trying to push their gameplan and end the game quickly, rather than more reactive decks. Proactive decks seek to develop their own gameplan in the first few turns and then use removal spells to interact once they have a battlefield presence. But what if you need to deal with a Goblin Guide or Wild Nacatl on turn 1? Modern is mostly made up of proactive decks, so this isn't that much of an issue, but what about defensive-minded control decks?
Important note: all of the decklists in this article are taken from 5-0 Competitive League results on Magic Online. I've removed the names because I'm not here to embarrass anyone.
It seems very common for players to just put four Path to Exile into their white deck and call it a day, but if you are going to be relying on your removal spells on the early turns of a game and don't have access to things like Lightning Bolt or Fatal Push, there are better white removal options.
Condemn is seeing a little bit of a resurgence now because of how good it is against Death's Shadow, but it was already a criminally underplayed card. Perhaps this is just a product of how proactive of a format Modern is, but if you are looking for a white removal spell you can be happy playing on turn 1, Condemn is it.
When you think of Sensei's Divining Top, it's not hard to think about two things— watching all of your creatures get swept to the bottom of your deck for only one mana, or trying to figure out how you are ever going to resolve another relevant spell in the face of a Counterbalance lock. Miracles has been such a fixture of Legacy for the last few years that these images are hard to shake, but the Counterbalance / Sensei's Divining Top soft lock has been around for far longer than that.
While Sensei's Divining Top was a fixture in Standard and Block Constructed when it was legal, that was in large part due to the presence and prevalence of Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach. Both cards were among the best in the format, and the shuffle effects they provided aided Sensei's Divining Top in being closer to a repeatable Anticipate rather than a repeatable Index. The extra mana both cards would provide was also useful for the mana-hungry Top.
The issue is that Sensei's Divining Top always needs a lot of help. The bare minimum is an abundance of shuffle effects, which just gives you card selection at the cost of lots of mana and a card. When combined with Counterbalance and miracles, Sensei's Divining Top is a force to be reckoned with, but without them it is slow and underwhelming.
- 4 Baleful Strix
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Tireless Tracker
- 3 Veteran Explorer
- 1 Emrakul, the Promised End
- 1 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Both of these decks are playing multiple Sensei's Divining Tops where it just feels like they are wasting time and mana.
That's the issue with Sensei's Divining Top— when you are using it, it always feels like you're doing something. You're spending mana, looking at cards, rearranging stuff, and setting up your draw steps, but most of the time you are doing so in a manner that is not mana- or tempo-efficient enough for higher-powered formats.
Widely considered the best planeswalker of all time, Jace, the Mind Sculptor does it all— card advantage, battlefield control, and win condition wrapped in a nice four-mana package. Jace, the Mind Sculptor was banned in Standard and has always been banned in Modern.
There's no denying that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a very powerful Magic card, but the mystique has far overstepped reality. Jace is a four-mana, sorcery-speed threat that needs to be cast on a stable battlefield to do much of anything. If you are behind, Jace won't do much to save you, and there are many instances where, if you tap out for Jace on turn 4 of a game, you will just die before you ever untap with him on the battlefield.
Shaheen Soorani has been leading a crusade of late to have Jace, the Mind Sculptor unbanned in Modern, and I couldn't agree more. In a format dominated by fast combo, Lightning Bolt, and aggression, a four-mana planeswalker isn't going to have a ban-worthy impact. Just look at my old Jeskai Control deck from last year:
The whole allure of Jeskai Control with Nahiri is that you can end the game quickly and not need to actually gain full control of the game, and with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, you would lose the ability to do that. And that's not even taking into account that Jeskai Control with Nahiri has fallen out of favor because of how hard it is to both deal with the combo decks and keep Nahiri, the Harbinger safe.
1. Aether Vial
This may seem like a strange one coming from a former Legacy Goblins player, but Aether Vial was the primary inspiration for this article. Aether Vial is perhaps one of the most overplayed cards relative to how good it actually is. At this point it's almost ingrained in all Magic players: “If I build a tribal deck in a format where Aether Vial is legal, play Aether Vial!” The problem is that Aether Vial has a very specific set of deckbuilding restrictions, and “play a bunch of creatures that go well together” is only one of them.
In order to want Aether Vial in your deck, the following must be true:
- My deck has a lot of creatures, with most of them concentrated at two and three mana.
- My deck has a way to produce extra cards, so I can keep using my Aether Vials late into the game.
- My deck wants to do other things with its mana while I am deploying my creatures with Aether Vial.
Goblins is an odd deck, and one of the few decks in Magic that can put a strong checkmark on each requirement on this list.
- Goblins obviously plays tons of creatures, with the most important ones costing three and four.
- Between Goblin Matron, Goblin Ringleader (who curve perfectly together), and Gempalm Incinerator, Goblins almost always had more cards in hand than it could reasonably cast.
- With Wasteland and Rishadan Port, Goblins could use its lands to help stunt its opponent's development while still deploying threats via Aether Vial.
Let's look at some decks that do not meet the requirements.
- 1 Spellskite
- 3 Blur Sliver
- 2 Darkheart Sliver
- 3 Diffusion Sliver
- 4 Galerider Sliver
- 4 Manaweft Sliver
- 2 Necrotic Sliver
- 4 Predatory Sliver
- 4 Sedge Sliver
- 1 Sentinel Sliver
- 4 Sinew Sliver
- 4 Akoum Battlesinger
- 2 Beastcaller Savant
- 2 Expedition Envoy
- 4 Hada Freeblade
- 3 Harabaz Druid
- 3 Jwari Shapeshifter
- 4 Kabira Evangel
- 4 Kazandu Blademaster
- 2 Ondu Cleric
- 1 Oran-Rief Survivalist
- 2 Reckless Bushwhacker
Legacy Slivers and Modern Allies are both fringe-playable decks in their respective formats, and both decks play Aether Vial despite only meeting the “high volume of creatures” criterion. When Aether Vial works in these decks, it probably looks great – if you draw three lands, one single Aether Vial, and all spells, you are probably in great shape.
The issue is that, without a way to accrue more cards or use your mana on something else in a beneficial way, Aether Vial ends up just feeling like a Dark Ritual. It may help you have a good start, but if anything goes wrong, it is simply not worth the card. If you draw two (or more) copies of Aether Vial, mulligan, draw a few too many lands, or just have an awkward draw in any way, it spirals out of control very quickly because of how useless your Aether Vials end up being. You wouldn't play Dark Ritual in your black tribal beatdown deck for the same reasons you shouldn't play Aether Vial in these types of tribal decks. If you could somehow guarantee that you would only ever draw one Aether Vial and it would always be in your opening hand, it would be great, but reality doesn't work like that.
Legacy Death and Taxes and Modern Merfolk are examples of fine Aether Vial decks, although neither really produces the raw card advantage to take full advantage of the card like Goblins does.
Death and Taxes is able to fill the third criterion of mana usage like Goblins by also having Wasteland and Rishadan Port and also has equip costs to worry about. Merfolk can't draw cards on the level of Goblins, but it at least has some card draw in Silvergill Adept and Spreading Seas. Merfolk also utilizes Mutavault as a mana sink. In both decks, Aether Vial is a reasonable piece of the puzzle but not a huge draw, and it can be a liability if you are forced to mulligan or draw two or three Aether Vials.
Aether Vial is a very powerful card, but it requires a very delicate set of circumstances to be used to its full potential.
What Did I Miss?
All of today's cards are powerful, tournament-winning cards, but it's important to recognize that just because a card is “good” doesn't always mean it's the right choice or properly understood.
What cards did I miss? What cards do you think are overrated?