Pattern Recognition #200 - Alpha Boons
17 June 2021
17 June 2021
Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass, so I can take it.
I would have put a fancy 'party balloon' gif here, but I couldn't find one that didn't break TappedOut's formatting and blog post style. So you'll just have to imagine it for yourself as I celebrate the big #200!
So let's go back to where it all began, and do yet another retrospective on the Alpha Boons. Because the last time I touched on this subject was two years ago, so I think it's time for another shot. So let me clear my throat, and I'll begin again. And why not start with a classic?
In the Beginning, when Alpha was without form, and Magic was a void bereft of balance or understanding of its own place in history, there were five cards printed that were all intended to be emblematic of each fo the five colours in their own way. They did not all occur at the same rarity, for the idea of a Horizontal Cycle had occurred in print with the Moxen and the Dual Lands, but those were colourless cards. The idea of a cross-colours cycle that all acted in the same way, something that could bind the game together in twine was yet to be codified.
Or I could just be talking out my ass again. I know I've done that often enough here to recognize my own Old Fogeyness.
So, what are these cards that laid the groundwork for cards in the future? Well, they are called The Alpha Boons.
To whit, Healing Salve, Ancestral Recall, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt and Giant Growth. These five cards were most certainly NOT created equal, that's for sure. After all, Ancestral Recall is on the Reserved List, and is one of the Power Nine, the nine most powerful cards in the game. But they were made, and their effects have lasted throughout the game, for good and for ill. So I shall break them down for you.
Healing Salve. You know how people complain nowadays that gets the short end of the stick when it comes to getting new and cool toys to play with? And how we players who are loyal to white bemoan that despite years of promise, we're still playing second fiddle to everything and having our toolbox looted by other colours left, right and center? I'm looking at YOU, and !
Well, it started at the very beginning. With this card.
Healing Salve has the dubious honor of being Magic's first Modal Card, though I'm sure someone, somewhere will contest that both Red Elemental Blast and Blue Elemental Blast share that honor. Well, screw them both. I say it's Healing Salve, and this is my soapbox to stand on!
In addition to being Modal, Healing Salve was saddled with two effects that in the grand scheme of things didn't really mean much, especially as they were mutually exclusive. First, you either gained three life, or you prevented the next three damage. You know, from any source, when applied to any player or permanent. And only on this turn.
Three life for yourself, didn't have much or an impact in that day and age. Cards like Felidar Sovereign were decades away, so gaining more life had one purpose - to delay your loss. That's it. So as such, the other mode, the damage prevention, was used more often.
Protecting a vital creature was sometimes the only way you could win a game, perhaps the expected trade where you desperately blocked a Shivan Dragon with your Serra Angel to avoid losing, only to prevent the lethal damage and keep your Angel in the air to kill on the crack back only happed because you had a Healing Salve in hand to make it happen.
This is an edge case.
At its core, the damage prevention on this card, and others like it before Wizards gave up the ghost and just gave up on it entirely, is about making a different sort of trade. Instead of losing a creature on the battlefield, you lose a card in your hand instead.
Is this even a worthwhile trade though? One of 's consistent flaws has been its lack of reliable card draw to put it up in terms of cards in hand. Sure, it can draw a card to replace a card that as just cast just fine, but it's hard to do more. So the opportunity cost becomes a case of do you want to keep this card in your hand, or do you want to keep this creature on the battlefield? Which is more valuable to you?
The problem is, that there is no good solution. Not to this. The best case scenario is that you lose the Salve instead of the creature, and yet if it's damage you're worried about, what is to stop the opponent from simply piling on more damage to get the job done? Or do so much that no amount of Healing Salve will make things better?
This card was a fine example of the poor cross-colour balance of Magic in the beginning and in many ways is the same today. And that hasn't changed. What has changed however, is that Wizards has built up stuff around Lifegain to do more things as a result. Revitalize lets you draw a card, lessening the opportunity cost of this card, or Resplendent Angel and Righteous Valkyrie, two recent cards that offer lifegain and a reward for it in the same package.
Magic is a game of connections, and if a card or mechanic can't do something by itself, perhaps there is something it can lean on to achieve greater things.
Just as long as it's not Poisonous and Wither at the same time. That's a mistake.
Moving on, Ancestral Recall.
Oh dear Urza. If anyone ever tells you that Rarity is somehow a balance factor in this game, feel free to think of this card and mock them to their face. Originally, this card was supposed to be printed at Common, along with the other four cards in the cycle. However, Richard Garfield, Ph.D. was convinced to put this card into a Rare slot instead, as reducing its appearance in packs would reduce its effect on the game.
Not enough, as it turned out. Rarity is not a Balance factor. Rarity is only a factor in how complex a card is.
And a simple card like this? Well, simple effects are surprisingly powerful.
Draw 3 Cards with no caveats and at Instant speed has been repriced to be thanks to Jace's Ingenuity. This is a far cry from and in fact, that cost will get you, in the current game, Opt, or Scry 1, Draw 1. Pure Draw 3 with no drawbacks and at that speed...? Well, this card has more than earned its place in the Power Nine for being Bah-ROKEN.
I... I don't think I can do this card justice for how dangerous it is. And so many of you have probably never seen one, let alone seen one being played.
I have. Back in the 90's. I've seen this card played by people other than me, and every time, I asked myself "Why can't I get anything as cool as this?"
_Because is the darling child of Wizards, and woe betide anyone who thinks they can do better.
It's powerful, it's broken, and Wizards has fixed it in many different ways over the past two decades and change. But in the end, somewhere in the back of every player's mind is the memory of the day when a third of the Power Nine were theirs, and theirs alone.
Dark Ritual! Hey, let's talk something interesting here.
used to have Mana Acceleration, and this was their showcase card to that effect. You see, is the colour of sacrifice, even if you don't see it as often under all the stuff it's stolen from , like Lifegain. Not bitter at all, why do you ask?
Regardless, for , the idea was that you would sacrifice long-term for short term gain, and this card was one way to represent that. A Turn 1 play of Swamp into Dark Ritual which gave you the mana for Hypnotic Specter was within the realm of reason for a deck, as the cards involved were all Common or Uncommon. You didn't need to get lucky, or trade with someone to get more powerful cards to do this.
Oh, for the days when Hypnotic Specter was a top-tier card.
And the cost of this was a card in your hand. In my example above, that's three out of your initial opening hand of seven cards, and you are committing a lot to this opening run. And if something happens? A single Lightning Bolt for example? Your mad dash out of the gate could turn around on you and cut you off at the knees.
There's a reason why it was called Suicide Black in the olden days of yore. You drove hard for the win and you never looked back. Dark Ritual was an enabler for that.
However, it soon became apparent that The Ritual was too good. Too powerful. Not Power-Nine Powerful, but definitely top-tier. Going from to for the price of a single card was too good, too powerful, with too many options, especially when combined with other colours to fill in the costs of those cards.
Now, there were a couple of further attempts to refine the idea. Culling the Weak required that you sacrifice a creature, and Cabal Ritual would cost an extra , but would reward you with if you reached Threshold.
But these experiments were not to be. Sure, (and that's starting to look like a non-symbol to me) still dips its toes into mana generation, but its usually on the side, and less mana is made than spent. Liturgy of Blood, for example, refunds some of its cost as part of the resolution of the spell, which is now seen as more acceptable as you're still spending a lot of mana to get some back.
What interests me though is that this sort of generation has moved not to as you might have expected from the colour of mana generation. No, it went to instead as part of the theme of "Live Fast, Die Hard" that has grown into over the years. Seething Song for example, but this has gone all the way up to Jeska's Will and Apex of Power.
So yeah, it moved, but never really went away.
And as we are just talking about , let's talk about Lightning Bolt.
If ever there was a card that defined, nay warped formats by its existence, this was it. Lightning Bolt was the card that proved Healing Salve completely useless. Three damage was far and away far more viable and important that preventing three damage, and in fact before the Four-Of rule was put into effect - YES the game didn't start with that - decks consisting of 20 Lightning Bolts and 20 Mountains were good. And Legal.
When people talk about how a creature "Dies to Removal", they aren't talking about Doom Blade or Terror. This is the benchmark card in Removal. Nothing else compares. Creatures? Dead. Planeswalkers? Dead. Players? Turbo Dead.
In fact, Lightning Bolt is so definitive, so warping in its sheer destructive efficiency that 'Close, but not Quite' is a design goal for Wizards. Shock costs the same, but does one less damage. Lightning Strike does the same damage, but for more.
It also affected creature design. Because of the ubiquitous nature of Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves in the early game, being able to slam a Bolt into their face to set them back was seen as a good trade. Creatures would be handed 4 toughness or more just to avoid being out of 1-Bolt kill range, especially in the early game. You want to know why Yoked Ox has 4 Toughness? Because it's legacy design from when Lightning Bolt ruled the roost. And it came down two turns before Exquisite Firecraft could arrive to kill it, either being a poor trade for the player, or it would be ignored in favor of more valid targets.
The ability of to delete a creature at instant speed, and on the cheap starts and ends with Lightning Bolt. It's powerful, it's ubiquitous, and in a weird way, it's a check and balance on creatures and Planeswalkers. By making them vulnerable to the Bolt, Wizards can help balance out creatures and their power levels, especially when they have static or triggered abilities that can prove to be problematic. I mean, it didn't stop Oko, Thief of Crowns, but that's a different problem.
Lightning Bolt defined a colour, and in doing so, defined how the other colours reacted to it. Protection from Red would be more often found on creatures susceptible to the Bolt, while would look into being able to counter Instants on the cheap - though in this case, it wasn't just because of the Bolt, but in addition to the other problem cards they were expected to counter and encounter. It's good, but just a hair too good.
Which leads us to , and their Boon.
Giant Growth is, without a doubt, perfection. For a single , you give a creature +3/+3 until the end of the turn. Played with any degree of skill, this single card could mimic the effects of a Healing Salve or a Lightning Bolt - just so long as one of your creatures was involved. Which, honestly, when played as a response to either, made both cards a waste of a play.
And yet, this wasn't a busted or broken card at all. Of all the Boons, Giant Growth saw the most printings into a Standard Set. Despite it's potentially huge effect on the battlefield, it wasn't a game changer at all. And the reason for that was because it could only target a creature.
For those of you who aren't fully cognizant of this, creatures are the most easily removed card type in the game. So when you aimed to proactively hit a creature with Giant Growth, it was considered a play that could be countered by simply destroying the creature before the spell resolves. Or after if you had a Terror effect in hand.
Creatures are also what I like to refer to as a "Self-Resolving Problem". In that, in many cases, the solution to a problem creature can often be found in another creature. Especially once combat is involved, or as the game progressed, Fighting and Biting - both in .
Yet, because this card is purely Creature based, it therefore has a fundamental weakness that drives its power down from "Laughs at Lightning Helix to merely in the Golden Zone of the game.
You see, Giant Growth exists in a state were you can literally put it into any set, and it doesn't affect the overall balance of the set. Yes, it makes creatures bigger, but it's only one creature, and there are options to deal with it before, after and during.
I can't stress this enough, but Giant Growth is perfection because it has flaws. It's not perfect. There are responses to it, but it doesn't hurt anything simply by existing. Much like having Scry 1 stapled onto a card. It's there, it has an effect, but it has no 'weight' to it.
It's a card that works from the top down and from the bottom up. There's nothing wrong with it at all, and it's a card that can and should be reprinted again. Because it just works.
The Alpha Boons are something that were a product of their time, no two ways about it. They were designed with the projected ideas of Alpha in mind, and as the game advanced, they were (mostly) left by the wayside in favor of better refined designs. Not necessarily better, but more refined. Of course, the damage had been done from the get-go, and these cards set the upper and lower bounds of usefulness for years to come.
Thanks for sticking with me for so long, 200 issues and counting! Join me next week when I do some more work on my set, and from there we'll where things go.
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!
Hello, thanks for another great article, I do enjoy your series a lot! And I was surprised to learn that MtG started without the rule of four in a deck, though I am oldschool veteran, I did not know this.
June 20, 2021 5:14 a.m.
There won't be an article tomorrow (24 June 2021) as this week has been a literally broiler in terms of temperature, and it's not looking to get any better. Article next week!