Goodbye, Dark Ritual?
The upcoming release of Odyssey may mark the first time in the history of Magic the Gathering that Dark Ritual is not available for Standard play. Dark Ritual is not in Invasion block or in 7th Edition, and its last Standard printing goes back to Mercadian Masques. It's hard to imagine a world without BBB for B — but in the end it has been a long time coming, and this could be one of the best things to happen for the game.
History tells us that there were originally five "three-for-one" cards in the base set: Ancestral Recall let you draw three cards for U, Giant Growth let you give a target creature +3/+3 until the end of turn for G, Healing Salve prevented the next three damage to target creature or player or gain three life for W, Lightning Bolt dealt three damage to target creature or player for R — and lastly, Dark Ritual gave you BBB for B. At first glance, Ancestral Recall clearly breaks the rule that each player draws only one card each turn. Ancestral Recall rotated out after Unlimited, as it was a card far too powerful for Standard play. Giant Growth and Healing Salve are still with us. Both served as a potential counter to Lightning Bolt. Lightning Bolt too proved to be too efficient spot removal and found a noble replacement in Shock. Ancestral was never really replaced, though Meditate (U2 skip your next turn: draw four cards) from Tempest came close, and Brainstorm (U, instant, draw three cards, then place two cards from your hand on top of your library) and Whispers of the Muse (U, Draw a card, Buyback 5, Instant) were other worthy replacements. Giant Growth and Tranquility seemed to marry with a variety of concepts and saw themselves duplicated throughout various standalones. Dark Ritual stayed the same, however. It did change its card type throughout the years, from an Interrupt to a Mana Source (which made it uncounterable — grrrr) to an Instant under 6th edition rules.
Dark Ritual may not seem SO unbalanced when you first look at it, but consider that in all fairness it should be a Green card, since Green is the colour of accelerated mana. Green did obtain a permanent Ritual of sorts in Eladamri's Vineyard (G, Enchantment; at the beginning of each player's first main phase, add GG to that player's mana pool), but it was a much more fair and balanced card in that both players could access the mana. In point of fact, Dark Ritual too often swings a game in favour of its caster, and creates too many quick kills. Consider also that it is used in combination decks (for example, Trix used Dark Rituals and Mana Vaults to get our an early Illusions of Grandeur, followed by a Donate) to simply overwhelm an opponent with speed and kill them well before they should be able to.
Even before Dr. Bush put her stamp on Extended, Dark Ritual saw plenty of use, first with Necropotence, then with a multitude of 2/2 creatures with various drawbacks that cost B to cast (usually followed by Hatred, an Instant for 3BB that let a player channel his life into a Howl from Beyond) or simply a variety of brutal hand denial cards. I remember three or so years ago testing against Extended decks and seeing my opponent go: "Swamp, Dark Ritual, Funeral Charm, Hymn to Tourach, go." Ouch. Down to four cards and potentially land hosed all in one turn.
Dark Ritual eventually got banned from Extended because it increased the speed and power level to unacceptable levels. Replacements were found in Ancient Tomb, City of Traitors, Grim Monolith, and other "two or three for one" mana producers, but none were quite as efficient as the Dark Ritual.
It is interesting to note that for a long while, Black spells seemed templated to use with Dark Ritual. Cards such as Lurking Evil, Necropotence, Doomsday, Skittering Skirge+Unholy Strength, Forced March and other notables I am surely forgetting all cry for Dark Ritual to be used to bring them into play on the first turn via Dark Ritual. This trend seems to have lessened through Invasion Block, however. Many cards featuring Black are actually splashable. Phyrexian Scuta, many of the other Phyrexian creatures, Death Grasp, Corrupt, and other cards only require B or BB to play, showing a slow but steady trend toward Black being used as a splash colour rather than requiring a heavy commitment toward the colour of death and decay.
I sincerely believe that the removal of Dark Ritual from the Standard environment can only improve the quality of game play and strategy in the game. No more will a player have to fear "Ritual, Arena", "Ritual, Duress, Duress, burn for one" or even "Ritual, Ritual, Scuta, go." Removing a measure of speed from the environment can only make the game better and increase skill and strategy. Too many game are being won or lost by whomever got an early Ritual or whomever managed to beat the clock.
People I have been talking to have been acting as if the removal of Dark Ritual from the environment signals the end of Constructed Magic for Black mages as we know it. However, a look at Extended destroys this view. Since Dark Ritual has been removed from the environment, Black has seen less play, but is still quite healthy. Trix was still played, as was Suicide Black, Recurring Nightmare, Duress, and a variety of other Black staple cards. It can be argued that the presence of several dual lands helps ease black and many other deck types. The fact is, however, that this has been a long time in happening and coming. It's time for a fresh start to the game of Magic, and the removal of BBB for B may be just what we need.