Pattern Recognition #167 - Kicker
10 September 2020
10 September 2020
Hello everyone! Welcome back to Pattern Recognition! This is TappedOut.net's longest running article series. In it, I aim to bring to you each week a new article about some piece of Magic, be it a card, a mechanic, a deck, or something more fundamental or abstract. I am something of an Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass, so I sometimes talk out my ass. Feel free to dissent or just plain old correct me! I also have a Patreon if you feel like helping out.
And welcome back everyone! Today, I will be looking at yet another returning mechanic here in Zendikar Rising, one that was certain that I had covered before, but now can't find. Oh well. So, let's talk Kicker!
Kicker was a mechanic first introduced in the Invasion block, and has returned to Standard rotation with Time Spiral block, the original Zendikar block (but not Oath of the Gatewatch because we can't have nice things), Dominaria, not-standard legal, but a part of the set with Modern Horizons, and finally back again with Zendikar Rising. Of course, it's also showed up as a supplementary mechanic in a couple of Commander products, but it's not a highlighted thing.
Kicker is a mechanic that affects how you pay for a spell. Normally, when you pay for a spell, you simply pay, in mana, the listed cost in the upper right corner of the spell. In addition, the card's text box might have an additional cost that isn't mana in order to achieve the casting of the spell. Such as with Cathartic Reunion, a card that requires that when you cast it, you also discard two cards in order to have the effect of drawing three cards. You can't avoid discarding two cards, you can't get away with discarding one card or three. Four is too many, and five is right out.
Not sorry at all.
Anyway, Kicker shows up in the text of a card, and allow me to hold my breath here because ugh, but here's Jace, Mirror Mage.
Jace, Mirror Mage
Now, by default, you can cast Jace, Mirror Mage for his cost of and just get the card as printed. However, if you were to pay the Kicker cost, in this case in addition to the normal cost, thus casting the spell for , you would get the Kicker effect for the spell. In this case, you would make a token copy of Jace and that copy would be slightly altered due to the rules involved.
Kicker is an additional cost that is paid for at the time of the casting of the spell, but does not change the spell's converted casting cost when in the hand or on the stack. Thus, I cannot counter Jace, Mirror Mage with a rightfully Disdainful Stroke as his converted casting cost is still even though with the Kicker cost, he costs . This is important when you consider kicker costs that aren't mana based, such as with Arctic Merfolk, from Planeshift. This creature had a kicker cost of returning a creature you controlled to its owners hand. If you did so, Arctic Merfolk came into pay with a +1/+1 counter on it. Or Bog Down, from the same set, where paying the kicker cost of sacrificing two lands, you could force the opponent to not discard two cards, but three.
But Kicker didn't end there. With the Worldwake set, Wizards created Multikicker, a version of kicker that allowed for multiple uses. You see, Kicker was a single use thing, or rather it was quite binary. Either you had it or you didn't. Mutlikicker, however, allowed you pay the Kicker cost multiple times for additional effects. Everflowing Chalice for example, produces more mana the more mana you pump into it when you cast it. For , you get a card that produces . For , you get and so on and so forth. Spell Contortion lets you draw more cards as you kick it more and more and so forth.
Thus, Kicker is a means to pay more to get more out of a card, and from that, I can draw two conclusions.
The first is that Kicker is a good mechanic when properly costed. A Kicker ability that costs way too much for the effect, like say, Falling Timber, is a bad use of the effect. Whereas Kavu Titan is a good example as you can get a 5/5 with Trample for witch is still pretty reasonable. A good cost for a Kicker makes paying the Kicker more reasonable, and this is a factor that Wizards has gotten a lot better at doing over the past nearly twenty years. The Kickers that I am seeing in Zendikar Rising are actually pretty good in terms of cost and effect, with larger effects having a commensurate cost. Though I'm still not sure just how much better Maddening Cacophony is when compared to Traumatize. Probably much better.
From there, you have to understand that Kicker represents two distinct castings of a card, and you can look at both versions of the card through several lenses. The one I like to use is to portray Kicker cards in a Limited format. For Limited, if you draw a Kicker spell early, you can cast it for a reduced effect, but later in the game, when you have more mana, you're not paying for a cheap spell that you might feel bad about. You can then afford more mana on the same card for a larger effect.
In this way, I can show players with the same card what to expect from your early plays and from your later plays. In addition, alternate Kicker costs can help ease players into the concept of paying life or sacrificing permanents or other such alternate casting costs, costs that aren't just written in the upper-right corner of the cards. And that there are options that you can have with cards.
The other conclusion I like to point out from the existence of Kicker is that it is the codification of every mechanic before and after that is an optional and additional cost. Kicker, as a mechanic, can be unpacked into saying "Kicker (a Cost). If you pay (Cost) when playing this card, do this extra thing."
Now, look at a mechanic that was printed before Kicker - Buyback. First introduced in Tempest, this mechanic allows you to pay an additional cost when you cast the spell, and if you do, when the spell resolves, put it back in its owners hand as it resolves. As for example, on a card that really needs to get reprinted, Capsize. And when you look at the wording and templating of the two mechanics, you can see that Buyback can be written as a Kicker cost without really changing anything. If instead of having Buyback, you had Capsize written as:
Kicker . If this spell was kicked, return it to its owners hand as it resolves.
Then nothing about the card would change. It would still be an amazing card, though more expensive than Boomerang without the
And looking through the list of mechanics, the ones that I found that could be re-written as Kicker effects include Conspire, Devour, Entwine, Excalate, Exploit, Overload, and Replicate as a variant of Multikicker. All these abilities could be re-written as a Kicker with specific clauses and conditions, and while I understand the need for context specific keywords to help keep a set designs a bit more cohesive, every time I see a card that says "As an additional cost, you may...", I think to myself, "This is a Kicker ability. Why isn't is a Kicker ability?
Well, too much Kicker is most definitely not a good thing. It's a mechanic that works the more generalized it is, rather than being shoehorned into any set that needs or gets a specific mechanic that allows or encourages extra costs. Exploit worked as that of Clan Silumgar's mechanic under Dragonlord Silumgar in order to represent the constant self-feeding that the Clan underwent, the weak fed to the strong.
Hell, from that set, just as I'm doing research, Dragonlord's Perogative could be written as having a Kicker cost of "Reveal a Dragon card from your hand. If this Spell was kicked, it cannot be countered." Which is a legitimate Kicker ability, though the cost is very thoroughly tied to the Dragons of Tarkir set.
Kicker is a very good mechanic. It scales well in all formats, and provides options and incentive for playing them as a sort of 'dual mode card' without actually being a dual-faced or modal card. But again, this variability means that Kicker in of itself tends to lack any sort of core identity that makes it easier to understand or associate with any given color or faction. It's associated with Dominaria thanks to the Invasion block, and its prodigious use on cards where the Kicker cost was a different color than the actual spell itself, like Orim's Thunder. And it's associated with Zendikar because ... actually, I have no idea why, and my research just indicates that it was there. And it worked. People loved it! So much so that it's lack in Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch was something that people - or at least me - missed.
I don't mind it. Like Landfall, it's a brilliantly designed mechanic that just works as long as you put more than a moment's thought into making sure that what you get out is balanced with what you put in. And the best part about it, for an Old Fogey like myself, is that when I play in the Zendikar Prerelease next week, these are two mechanics that I already know and grok, so the only thing left to look into is how to play with this "Party" mechanic.
I mean, it's not like Dungeon Master was printed 4 years ago, was it?
So, join me next week when I try to unpack the life and times of Nahiri and her journey to outright villain in Magic. Because she's been on this trajectory for a long time now, and some of you might not know where she started, or why she's doing the things she's doing.
Until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!
Some educated guesses about kicker:
I think making kicker as generic of a named mechanic as possible was both a really good and really bad idea. Good because it can theoretically show up whenever, bad because it doesn't suggest anything evocative about the card itself. Kicker is just "sometimes the spell is better," whereas devour suggests eating creatures, entwine suggests two different effects coming together, etc. That means that the designers, who want to make cards that are exciting, opt to make new mechanics instead of using kicker. As a result, kicker mainly showed up in callback sets like Dominaria and Time Spiral, and only showed up in Zendikar because it was a bottom-up design that needed a mechanic that could go on a bunch of different cards with no unifying theme.