Recently Matt Sperling wrote a rebuttal to Zac Hill's preview article on Cavern of Souls. The new land is explicitly powerful against permission which framed the context for a lot of the preview article. Zac's article had some controversial statements among them:
"One of the problems is thatMana Leakis simply a much more powerful card than we would be comfortable printing under modern development rules. Similar to why the Swords are so powerful—their costs were locked in before people really understood how to price equipment—Mana Leak is a relic of a bygone era."
Sperling (among others) took exception to that remark both for the specific implications ("Mana Leak isn't too good.") and the broader ones ("You can't convince me that Titaning someone is more fun than countering a spell."). While Sperling's article was very well thought out and written I disagree with a lot of the arguments and conclusions presented.
Furthermore since I believe the other side of the argument is underrepresented among tournament level Magic players (many of whom enjoy Counterspelling their opponents into oblivion) I thought I'd weigh in with my perspective on the roles of counters fatties interactivity and a bunch of other related stuff.
When I'm not playing in Magic tournaments commentating on them trolling Kibler's Facebook or attending Clippers games I design games. I've been in the industry for a number of years the majority of which I've spent working on a trading card game with numerous similarities to Magic. As such I've given this issue a ton of thought since it's what pays my rent. This is not to project my opinion as "more correct" than Sperling's or anyone else's but this topic (and ones related to it) consume an unhealthy amount of my brain space on most days.
The trading card game that I work on (World of Warcraft TCG) has made explicit strides to become more combat and creature oriented in high-level Constructed in the last few years much in the same way Magic has. This process on our end was both inspired by the direction Wizards took Magic and our own independent conclusions about where the game should be.
As far as Wizards is concerned I feel they've done an excellent job for the most part since M10 though I've been critical of numerous things recently. I blasted Phyrexian mana and Snapcaster Mage on this website and I feel they've turned their various ban lists into something of a disaster by banning a green creature that just attacks and blocks in Modern and a Crusade for tokens in Block. On the whole I consider myself a supporter of the current regime of R&D but I hope no one would paint me as a sycophant.
What represents "too good?"
The phrase "too good" is one that's been thrown around a bunch during this whole debate. It's something that's difficult to define; for tournament players "too good" can simply mean "it's the best card you can be playing and it's not even close." Clearly Mana Leak falls short of that metric as does any other card in Standard.
Still it's important to keep in mind that throughout the course of Magic's history numerous cards were considered "staple" or "baseline" effects that we know now are not even close in terms of modern development. Dark Ritual and Counterspell were both reprinted numerous times in base sets over the years and many segments of the tournament playing community were stunned/mad to hear some of the R&D team considered those to be "too good" and finally retired them from reprinting.
After all it's not like you played four copies of Dark Ritual or Counterspell in every tournament winning deck at the time. That said I would hope we wouldn't have to argue much about those cards being excessive.
In game design speak "too good" can mean "too good for the type of card this is" and I think that's what Zac might be implying. A reasonable analog might be Stone Rain. Stone Rain would not be the most powerful card in Standard if it was reprinted. In theory it could do good work if all we cared about was the raw balance of the format. After all it could keep people off of Titans and could destroy troubling lands like Moorland Haunt.
Still the ruinous implications of a bunch of Stone Rains being cast on the regular means we should view the card in a different prism than Doom Blade or Naturalize. Mana Leak isn't quite as negative as Stone Rain in my opinion but it's in the same space of negative interaction and is certainly more powerful.
Besides it's not just about the number of Mana Leaks people are playing. It's about the other cards that don't get played because of Mana Leak. How high is the barrier in terms of power level for a four-mana card that gets played on your own main phase when the threat of Mana Leak exists? That's why all the six-drops people complain about effectively read "You often win the game if you play this on a stable board."
They need to be that good to compensate for all the times that they read "You lose the game because you cast this and your opponent had Mana Leak and blew you out with the rest of their mana" (without accounting for all the times they read "You lose because you only have five mana"). Anything beneath that wouldn't be (and hasn't been) nearly good enough for Constructed with Mana Leak floating around.
So are all counterspells bad?
Not at all. Counters are a good safety valve on certain types of effects and there's an audience that enjoys casting them. In small doses and at the appropriate power level I think they add reasonable texture to gameplay. For example I think Cancel is a fine baseline and I believe Flashfreeze Negate Essence Scatter Spell Pierce and the like do actively good work. I think that last category of counters is especially good for format health.
All of them are excellent rates when you're able to cast them and putting them into your maindeck probably means something in the format is at least a little off or at least there's a specific card you're trying to fight. They can also act as powerful but not overwhelming sideboard cards. All of this is good stuff. That said putting them into your maindeck is incurring a significant opportunity cost and there's plenty of opponents against whom drawing say your maindeck Flashfreeze would be a disaster.
Mana Leak is in a different league than those cards. Instead of being good against "creatures" or "red or green cards" or something else reasonably narrow it's powerful against "stuff that costs three or more" and especially powerful against "stuff that costs six or more." Expensive stuff already has a tough enough time making it into Constructed (because you're unable to cast them at all in a reasonable percentage of games much less assure they'll be impactful) so having your baseline tournament-level counter be so broadly good (even against cheaper stuff) seems like a mistake to me.
Sympathy for the Victim
A large part of Sperling's critique of Cavern of Souls was the card's lack of an opportunity cost and a concept of "sympathy for the victim." Sperling's argument (paraphrasing here) is that sideboard cards can be more destructive to the opponent the more narrow they become. As the opportunity cost goes up (your Chill is only good against Mono Red) so can the power level against the intended target (I cast Chill on turn 2 and my opponent concedes). There are two issues I take with this.
One Cavern of Souls does come with an opportunity cost. If you're playing it in the "honest" way you have to play a tribal deck. Not only do you have to play with a bunch of Elves or whatever it doesn't enable you to cast every single card in your deck. For example I'm tinkering around with Zombies and the presence of Cavern has absolutely made my Geth's Verdicts and Dragonskull Summits worse. It probably still belongs in some number but acting like the card is one giant freeroll is erroneous.
In the application that Sperling seems most concerned about (acting as a Boseiju for Titans in a Wolf Run Ramp deck or something along those lines) the card makes your deck worse against every opponent who doesn't have counters in their deck. If you're cutting red or green lands for Caverns you will be able to Galvanic Blast on turn 1 or Rampant Growth on turn 2 less reliably than you could before. This only does damage in your matchups against non-counter decks. Again still probably worth playing in some number but not something that's making your ramp deck better across the board.
The second more important thing is that different victims engender different levels of sympathy. Sperling sort of touches on that ("Hate cards against graveyard decks towards which Wizards seems to have little sympathy just get to be more powerful…") but doesn't complete the thought. The reason that hate towards graveyard decks should be more powerful is because it's much more difficult to interact with a graveyard deck in a traditional game of Magic.
Let's say you're tired of losing to Mono Red. You can add some creature removal some life gain some good blockers or any number of other non-explicit anti-red cards and improve your matchup. These cards also have some degree of baseline utility against nearly all of your opponents so it isn't that big of a stretch to add them to your deck.
Compare that to Dredge or Reanimator where you have to add explicitly anti-graveyard cards to fight them which are unlikely to have much utility against other opponents. Beyond that some strategies are more deserving of hate than others (because of being especially wretched non-interactive and/or counter-intuitive) which is why you see so many Grafdigger's Cages get printed but Engineered Plague (or something similar) hasn't seen the light of day in some years.
Along the spectrum of things you can be doing "Counterspell Deck" is much closer to "Dredge Deck" than "Mono Red/Zombie Beatdown Deck" both in terms of ease of interactivity on the baseline level and amount of fun in the aggregate that deck is likely to generate. The hate should reflect this.
Isn't Primeval Titan just as bad?
Short answer: no. Long answer: if there's an issue with Primeval Titan it's that it searches for lands that kill people be it Valakut Inkmoth Nexus or something similar. Those cards lead you to game states like "I had a Doom Blade for his Titan but the two lands he got just killed me the next turn" which is something I consider to be unhealthy and frustrating both as a player and as a game designer.
It's also the type of thing that can make something like Mana Leak seem like a requirement to keep it in check. However I think that's more of an argument for not printing those kinds of lands (which I believe are mistakes for a number of reasons) than it is to not (re)print Primeval. It's the most contextual of the Titans; the lands you're getting are directly tied to its power level unless you're arguing that Explosive Vegetation + 6/6 trample for six is crossing some sort of bridge.
Even living in the world we live in (Primeval Titan wins the game a large percentage of the time it resolves and the others are quite powerful as well) the Titans are still more interactive than Mana Leak. The Titans very much care about the text box of your opponent's cards and the structure of your own deck; Mana Leak cares about resolving against something more expensive than itself. Mana Leak encourages people to not care about text boxes; the Titans encourage the opposite.
This is another major crux of Sperling's piece. The argument is something like: a game designer will tell you to make things simpler and more intuitive but there's a point where this is excessive and a detriment to game play." I agree with this point but I don't think Magic is anywhere close to the threshold he's discussing.
Last year's Standard format was dominated by a creature/equipment deck featuring eight creatures and two pieces of equipment total; I'm not sure that would fit anyone's definition of "intuitive." The current Delver deck features a healthy dose of Phyrexian mana and self-milling for value which isn't exactly a recipe for the low-level guy to get what's going on. In fact the only features of the current Standard format that can be described as "intuitive" are the Titans and Huntmasters of the world that Sperling seems to take issue with.
As for Magic being "dumbed down" or whatever that argument actually infuriates me. Fortunately Chapin was able to discuss this in his article earlier this week so I don't have to waste any breath on it but the best players are still putting up excellent consistent results something that would be impossible if Magic was becoming a game of dice rolling (and before you say that this is a recent development people have been arguing the same thing for years now).
Beyond that there's this implicit "Counterspell decks are more complicated and more rewarding of solid decks than other decks" which is again absurd. Yes ramp mirrors can be stupid but I've played numerous control mirrors that roughly equated to "The first person who misses a land drop loses." The actual cards in the two decks guide the level of interaction and skill involved not the archetypes. And while we're on the topic your opponent might not be a rocket scientist when he kills you with Primeval Titan but you didn't exactly discover time travel by deciding to Mana Leak it.
On Legitimate Critiques
For a while Ben Stark (one of the best players on Earth for the record and a person I like quite a bit) has been beating the drum that the game has been dumbed down that's it's no longer as skill intensive as he remembers the game being that's it's not the same game for him. He worries about the long-term health of the game because the parts he finds fascinating are falling by the wayside (in his opinion) in lieu of a simpler main phase oriented game. I don't agree with his position but I understand that he feels that way if that makes sense.
No one can have an incorrect opinion about their own feelings. It's true no matter what the topic is regarding Magic or whatever else. Somehow there's a disconnect when it comes to "random scrub" having an opinion on what's fun and what a pro player thinks is fun that somehow your skill level gives your opinion a certain weight with your criticism. We laugh at the guy who says "No counters/discard/LD" in the Casual Room on Magic Online yet we nod our heads in agreement at the person arguing that control decks should be the most powerful and Titans are taking all the skill out of Magic.
You know what? That person is just the pro version of "no counters" guy who has an opinion about what's fun and projects that onto other people as a statement of fact. Both people are right (what's fun for them is what's fun for them) and wrong (because it's true for them doesn't mean it's true for others) for the exact same reasons and to the exact same degree.
With that said we can look at trends with sales and tournament attendance and come to the conclusion that "A lot of people tend to like creatures and combat and we should try to encourage it." No one is saying to remove counters from the game especially myself. But there's a difference between "counters should exist at a reasonable power level" and "counters should be the best cards in Constructed or close to it at all times" and too often Magic has been in the second camp.
Even with ratcheting up the power level of creatures and toning down the power of counters over the last half-decade it's still too often been correct to be on the Mana Leak side of things than the Titan side. If Cavern of Souls encourages a couple of months where that isn't the case I don't think Magic will be worse for it.
Thanks for reading and thanks to Matt Sperling for an articulate piece.