Pattern Recognition #281 - Order Matters
11 May 2023
11 May 2023
Good day everyone! My name is berryjon, and I welcome you all to Pattern Recognition, TappedOut's longest running article series. I am something of an Old Fogey and a definite Smart Ass, and I have been around the block quite a few times. My experience is quite broad and deep, and so I use this series to try and bring some of that to you. Be it deck design, card construction, mechanics or in-universe characters and the history of the game. Or whatever happens to catch my attention each week. Which happens far more often than I care to admit. Please, feel free to talk about my subject matter in the comments at the bottom of the page, add suggestions or just plain correct me.
And so with my rote introduction out of the way - and I really should mix that up one of these days, it's time to deal with the rule in the game that most of you break without knowing, and in breaking, nothing actually happens because for 99.99% of the time, it doesn't matter.
In fact, when I have to tell people that Rule 404.2 exists, most of them don't even consider the hows and the whys of it, and they've never even seen a card that cares, so they just shrug and casually break that rule. So today, I'm going to try to explain why that rule is still on the books, and how it could work, and why, honestly, it doesn't matter.
So to begin with, the Graveyard is one of the six 'Zones' in the game, where cards can reside. The others include the Hand, the library, the battlefield, so on and so forth. However, unique among all these zones is that the Graveyard is always considered to be public. That is, the contents of each person's graveyard is always revealed and any player may examine the contents of any graveyard. You can't do that with players hands - information which is only shown to the player holding it, or the Library - where the whole point of shuffling is to randomize the cards there in. Or in Exile where cards can be face up and public knowledge, or face down and not.
This was done at the start of the game for a couple of reasons. First was that it was a visual shorthand to differentiate the library and the Graveyard. The former was face down, while the former was face up. This retained the secrecy of the order of the library while at the same time allowing all players to review the plays in the game previous by tracking what was in the graveyard, and when - relatively speaking of course. We don't track when cards went into the graveyard, just the order in which they do. Which actually made sense in a way if you could recur spells at instant speed and recast them while the Stack was still active, but that's not what I'm talking about today.
The thing is, there are 23 cards in the game that interact with the order of cards in the Graveyard. This is more cards than most mechanics get, so it's not like this was a one-and-done deal. But all of these cards are old, with the last one that actually interacted with rule 404.2 would be Volrath's Shapeshifter, from Stronghold, and later reprinted in Vintage Masters. This is pre-2000 card design, just to give you an idea of how long ago this idea was dropped.
Just as a side note, the later Search for Survivors cares about shuffling the graveyard in order to randomize the choice the opponent makes, but that is a little outside what I'm looking at here. Instead, let's look at a couple of examples, so you can see how this was supposed to work. First and foremost, the one that I've had the longest and have used just to remind this people exists is...
This artifact (so it can go in any deck), allows the player to put the topmost card of their graveyard into their library at the very bottom. This has allowed me to recover a card that I just had lost and put it back into my deck in order to re-fetch or tutor for it later, and in more extreme and unique cases, has allowed me to survive getting milled out by someone who got too cocky with their numbers. Yes, it costs per activation, but that's OK. Sadly, does not interact with Training Grounds because it's not a creature.
Anyhow, the part I wanted to point out is that the vast majority of these cards cared about the top of your Graveyard, as that was the most visible card in the stack of cards, the one that you could mentally keep track of the most. And the card type can actually matter, when you decide to drop Bosium Strip (and please let that work, the 'o' with the two dots makes me nervous), a card which basically gives the top Instant or Sorcery in your Graveyard Flashback with the cost equal to its mana value, just with more words and more hoops to jump through.
I also wondered what a Bösium Strip was, and looked it up, and it's not a real thing. It's a Magic version of a Möbius strip, from when all the developers did was take a real thing and mix up the letters. The more you know!
Anyway, this checking of the top card of your graveyard is still something we see today. and both like to look at the top and see if they can cast that spell now, with things like Future Sight or Augur of Autumn. In a way, that is just an extension of this same thing, where you are looking at a small slice of a resource to see if you can use it, and if you do, then something else may become available to you.
But there were also cards that looked at card types in a more abstract manner. Ashen Ghoul and Nether Shadow both went into my Syr Konrad, the Grim Commander deck beacuse they could recur themselves when other creatures die, or rather, when enough of them do that they can trigger or activate their ability. Which of course leads into another rule about the Graveyard - whenever multiple cards are put into a graveyard at the same time, their controler orders them however they choose, so if my Nether Shadow dies to my Damnation, then I can make sure my other creatures go into the graveyard above it to allow it to come back on the next upkeep.
However, for all this, the mechanic never really caught on. For a lot of people, for a good chunk of the game, the Graveyard was the end state of a card, with only a few exception. Using the Graveyard as a resource like this, pulling cards out, either to Exile or to other zones..?
Well, raise your hands if you remember Delve? Yeah, thought so.
So the first problem was one of awareness. Keeping track of your graveyard order started out easy, but became more and more difficult as the game went one. Include things like Bone Dancer, which reaches to the top creature of an opponents graveyard to pluck it out of their grasp, and into yours. Or Phyrexian Furnace which burns out the bottom of a Graveyard.
Look, I never said these were good cards, just this was the mechanic at the time.
Awareness leads to complications in knowing what is where, and memory issues. Memory for the player, not the game.
And to hear things from twenty years ago, it wasn't fun. Utilizing the top of your graveyard wasn't seen as something you should be doing, another point of data that you needed to keep track of. And so few cards - even back then - actually cared. So why care?
In the end, the mechanic, such as it was, was depreciated from the game. No new cards would use it, and the rules would quietly linger, forgotten and unused. After all, it wouldn't affect Standard, and it really wasn't a thing in Legacy or Vintage or Extended, so why not?
Except that it's still a legitimate rule that applies to all formats. Wizards can't just say "this game state rule only applies to these formats" - I mean, they could, but that would be complexity I don't think they want.
So this is where Rule 0 conversations, especially in Commander, where these cards are most likely to be played, are important. Reminding people - politely - that "Hey, I have cards in my deck that care about Graveyard order, can we all not break Rule 404.2 for this game?" would be a viable request. Then when your opponents have no idea what you're talking about, show them a card, and watch as they are enlightened.
No actual lights involved.
Honestly though, I think the game is mature enough that utilizing the top of the graveyard may be a 'safe' thing to do. We absolutely cast cards from the 'yard, and from Exile. And from the top of the library, from the Command zone, and if you're even feeling daring, from your hand. So why not one more piece of public information? If this is something that everyone knows you can cast because it's revealed, why not?
But I see why Wizards doesn't want to touch this. It's just complications, and the use of the Graveyard as a resource has shifted well away from it being a variation of the top of the deck. And I'm OK with that.
Just remember to NEVER SHUFFLE OR ARRANGE YOUR GRAVEYARD unless your play-group/pod/tournament allows it. And don't assume, because it could bite you in the ass.
But it probably won't.
Join me next time when I talk about something. What, I don't know yet. Another project has bitten my brain and is refusing to let go, but I'm still committed to this.
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!
Wizards can and did say "this game state rule only applies to these formats". In Modern and newer formats you can reorder freely:
MTR 3.15 - In formats involving only cards from Urza’s Saga and later, players may change the order of their graveyard at any time. A player may not change the order of an opponent’s graveyard.