Pattern Recognition #223 - Untapping

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


13 January 2022


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

The Untap symbol was an interesting experiment, one that while it demonstrated had plenty of uses, it was extremely confusing to players both new and old. Or at least that's what Mark Rosewater keeps repeating, and I for one agree with him. At least I agree with him that it's in the general, but I never really had a problem with that.

So, a bit of history first. The Untap Symbol is , and was printed as something of an experiment in Shadowmoor, where a cards tapped or untapped status would matter. At least in theory. In practice, not so much.

Stepping back a bit, the history of tapping and untapping is pretty much one of the integral concepts behind the game, so much so that the little tap symbol of is a registered trademark and copyright by Wizards because of how important the concept and action is to the game.

Tapping, conceptually, is a means of limiting actions in a turn. When you tap mana, that mana source is no longer available for other uses until the beginning of your next turn. When you tap an artifact, that's its use for now, and when you tap a creature to attack, you prevent it from also being able to block your opponent's own creatures in return. Or tapping to activate an ability prevents you from attacking or blocking in turn.

As Magic is a game of resources, being able to limit the amount of times you can activate a resource in a turn is a way to help cap the power level or rather the total effect of that resource over time. These are renewable, and the cost of making them active means that they can be more powerful than passive benefits.

Now, the nature of the game means that rules are written to be broken one way or the other, and tapping was no exception. Cards that allowed other cards to untap have existed since the days of Alpha with Twiddle. However, one creature stands above all others with the sheer amount of hype and energy that came from being able to untap itself time and time again. Have you ever heard of Horseshoe Crab? Yes? No? You thought something else like Freed from the Real or Pemmin's Aura? Nah, Horseshoe Crab is where it's at.

Printed in Urza's Block, that should tell you everything you need to know about the power of the card in question. Now, while a 1/3 for is really nothing to write home about, it was the activated ability that turned this creature from chaff to busted.

You see, Horseshoe Crab was nothing much by itself. Rather, it was a combo-enabler without peer for the time. For you see, this card was printed in the same set as Hermetic Study. You put a Study onto the Horseshoe Crab, and you can deal X+1 damage divided among any number of targets at instant speed, where is the number of sources of you control.

It was slightly busted, for cards that were at Common/Uncommon. And that established Horseshoe Crab as the second most powerful creature in the set - after Storm Crow of course.

So you see here the first problem with untapping. If it's too cheap, it becomes too easy to enable creatures that tap for an effect to repeatedly utilize that effect, far beyond the scope of what was potentially intended.

So, word of advice. Never let the Crabs into the Books. They will Study their way to victory.

Moving on now, let's look at never tapping in the first place. You have to understand that for the most part, the most common time a card will be come tapped is when a source is tapped for mana. After that, however, the most common cause of tapping is combat. After all, you tap to attack, right?

Well, there's this little thing called Vigilance, a card that created a keyword for something that has, again, been in the game since Alpha. That being the state of not needing to tap to attack. I know this may not sound like a lot to you all, but to a more combat oriented color, like , it is important to optimize their resource usage, given that they need to shepherd their creatures carefully to get the most use out of them. Of course, if your creatures don't tap when they attack, you can then use their activated abilities in the post combat main phase or at instant speed, such as with Bounty Agent, or Chulane, Teller of Tales.

What, you think Chulane wasn't busted enough already? He is!

Of course, isn't the only color with Vigilance. You see, has also taken Vigilance for itself. With its heavy focus on creatures, it has gained Haste from , and in addition taken Vigilance as well. The theory being that , the color of creatures, will need to get the most out of them, on the attack or the defense. After all, if you attack with your creatures with Reach, they can't block enemy fliers, right?

And Newsflash! In the latest color pie update from Mark Rosewater, has now gained Vigilance as a Secondary ability to reflect their ability to untap creatures in a more passive manner! Which means that Serra Sphinx is now no longer an outlier, but a card that could be printed in a Core Set!

What colours were Chulane, Teller of Tales again?

The thing about tapping, that I've mentioned before, is that it is a means by which to limit the amount of actions you could take per turn. It would not surprise me at all if someone could prove that at one point, Planeswalkers would have to tap as part of the cost to activate one of their loyalty abilities.

But the act of tapping in of itself can also tell players what you're planning on doing. Tapping a creature on your turn when it can be used at instant speed can alert your opponent that you are preparing something. Multi-colored decks have their mana-bases watched like a hawk for the limiting factors in terms of what colours are used and when. A deck that has mana sources left untapped at the end of their turn is a threat that is far more serious than a deck with just sources.

In fact, Mana Production is the most serious use of tapping in the game, which makes being able to bypass or reset your limits there are one of the more dangerous things in the game. For starters, cards that don't require any actions or resources on the part of the caster - like Fierce Guardianship or The Prismatic Bridge are bad.

In fact, I know there's a Bridge player in my local FLGS. I think it's time to break out Lavinia, Azorius Renegade and punish them for it.

It's also why cards like Wilderness Reclamation and Vedalken Orrery are problematic in the formats they're not already banned in. The former can stack mana production through the roof as demonstrated in the latest Ravnica Standard where decks would run that and Expansion / Explosion, tapping out at the end of their turn multiple times to get a huge blast of mana that can't be reliably countered because they'll have their own counter(s) in hand.

Tapping is good, multi-tapping can be problematic if allowed to run rampant.

So where does that leave ? And why was it so confusing?

Well, I've thought about that a bit, and while I grok the concept because it's just a reset on the creature's action status, I think what's tripping people up is that it's an inversion of the Tap.

When you're taught to play the game, one of the core rules you are taught is that tapping a thing is activating it. Other games would call it 'Bowing' or 'Rotating', but the effect is the game. A thing that is tapped can't be used again until it untaps. And Untapping either happens at the beginning of your turn - after all, it's Untap - Upkeep - Draw; or it is something that happens as the resolution of an effect, like with Twiddle.

Where screws with people is that it's effectively an antiaction. You are undoing an action as the cost of an action itself. Duergar Mine-Captain for example, can attack, then can itself with an additional cost of to give all attacking creatures (including itself!) an additional +1/+0. And of course, untapping requires that the permanent be tapped in the first place. This goes back to what we're taught when we learn the game; that something that has been tapped has been used, and can't be unused. So using a thing to unuse it and then making it available to use again? That's just weird and it goes against our trained flow of the game.

The mechanic didn't work because it went in the wrong direction for most players, and so it is relegated to the mechanics bin of history, only to be pulled out for gimmick cards, or internally synergistic cards like Farmstead Gleaner, who benefits from the untapping more directly.

Thank you for joining me this week. I'll try to get something Kamigawan ready for your next week, but no promises. I also still take requests if there's something that's been bothering you about the game that I can take a crack at answering! Comment below.

Also, the FLGS is going to finally restart the Slow Grow Tournament in February!! I think this time I'll take is seriously. It's time to break out Teferi, Temporal Archmage.

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!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #222 - As Fan

legendofa says... #1

I realize this was kind of a throwaway side comment, but Lavinia, Azorius Renegade doesn't prevent anything from The Prismatic Bridge. Lavinia counters spells, Bridge puts permanents onto the battlefield without casting them.

In fact, if you haven't done an article about casting vs. putting onto the battlefield, that might be a good topic.

January 14, 2022 3:39 p.m.

berryjon says... #2

That's good, because as it turns out I have Lavinia v1, not Lavinia v2, so I couldn't build that deck anyway!

Seriously, Free Spells Are Bad. Why do Wizards keep thinking they can make them work?

January 14, 2022 10:08 p.m.

Something's gotta sell the precons!

No, seriously--nothing gets enfranchised EDH players more excited than a free spell, and nothing more than excitement gets them to reach for their wallets. At this point, I find it hard to blame Wizards for having made such an insanely lucrative model for a game... as sad as it makes me that a decent deck costs upwards up forty million dollars

January 14, 2022 11:18 p.m.

enpc says... #4

One other quick comment about Lavinia, your link references a deck, not the card.

One thing about the article that I think is worth mentioning is that just like tapping, untapping as an ability is affected by summoning sickness. I know this is just part of the rules, but a decent chunk of players don't know that.

I have seen the classic Grand Architect + Pili-Pala combo been put into decks without the deck owner realising that you still have to tangle with summoning sickness.

January 15, 2022 3:40 a.m.

berryjon says... #5

enpc It's a problem with TappedOut itself, in that people will name their decks after specific cards, and the way the system works is that links will default to decks before cards, unless you specify you're looking for a card. Lemme go fix that up.

January 15, 2022 9:39 a.m.

plakjekaas says... #6

I would have expected a mention of Umbral Mantle with creatures that tap for more than 3 mana. That's where I know the symbol from, that or Pili-Pala + Grand Architect for infinite mana in EDH

Containment Priest does work against the Bridge, at least when they flip creatures. The planeswalker part of that card is still a problem.

January 16, 2022 7:40 p.m.

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