Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Torrent of Fire (Scourge, 2003)

Another mediocre card: neither good nor bad, useful in some circumstances but useless in many others. Although the rules text may seem complicated, what the card does isn't that hard to suss: whatever the highest converted mana cost is of all the creatures you control, you can do that much damage to any other creature or player. (Converted mana cost is the total cost of the spell - if a spell [such as this] requires two red mana and three uncolored, then the spell has a converted mana cost [CMC] of five.) In most circumstances, a variable damage spell for five CMC that you might not even be able to use is a pretty poor card. But it's not hard to imagine circumstances where you would want to use this card - a dedicated big-creature ramp deck, the kind of thing where you could be certain of having huge creatures on the table throughout the game. I'd be surprised if this card wasn't a big favorite on Commander tables.

But let's talk dragons.

Although Magic has made a policy of working to avoid a number of "traditional" (i.e., Tolkienesque) fantasy tropes, there are a few unavoidable constants which remain firmly ensconced in the game despite the general lack of pointy-hatted wizards along with many other familiar D&D character types. Dragons are perhaps the most sacrosanct creatures in the game. They've been around since the very beginning and have appeared in almost every set since in one form or another. Wizards does a great deal of market research on every aspect of the game, including the popularity of specific creatures and creature types. They always maintain that dragons are the most popular creatures in the game, so much so that they simply have to be present, even in sets where dragons might otherwise seem out of place. For instance, 2011's Innistrad block was devoted to the horror genre in general with an emphasis on gothic horror of the northern European type. You would not expect to see many giant dragons in this world, and yet dragons there were, for the very simple reason that there must be dragons in every set. (Best quote from the Gatherer comments: "My favorite part of Dracula is when they had to fight the giant dragon.") Players expect to see them, and a certain type of player would be very upset by a lack of marquee dragons in a major set.

Scourge was a good set for dragon fans. Onslaught block had a large creature theme - the middle set of the block was Legions, still one of the games more polarizing sets, composed entirely of creatures. Scourge continued the emphasis on creatures began in Onslaught and Legions, and introduced a a dragon sub-theme as well. That means both that more dragons were printed and that more cards were made to support dragons mechanically and thematically. This is a good example of that. Even if you didn't see a picture of a dragon blasting a little guy to oblivion with a blast of fire, what the card actually does is extremely dragon-y. Imagine a giant dragon - the kind of creature who is usually very expensive, with a large CMC - spraying an opponent with deadly fire. That's this card. All of which adds up to a card that, while not great by most measures, still serves a definite purpose in terms of supporting the specific mechanical needs of its block (that is, supporting creature-heavy strategies built around summoning large monsters), and does a good job of evoking the flavor of facing down a giant fire-breathing death lizard.

Torrent of Fire reminds of Eye Gouge, one of the more interesting designs to come out of the most recent set, Born of the Gods. If you look at that card, it seems to have a pretty limited use - after all, Gatherer tells us that there are only seventeen cyclopses in the entire game. But since Born of the Gods is part of Theros block - a block devoted to Greek myth - cyclops do play a larger role than usual. Four of Magic's cyclopses have been printed in Theros block, with one or two presumably waiting in the wings for this Spring's Journey Into Nyx set. Additionally, last year's Return to Ravnica block featured three cyclopses as well, so there was undoubtedly an awareness that this relatively obscure creature type would be playing a larger than usual role in the current Standard environment. (Reminder: Standard format features the past two years' worth of sets and cycles out every fall. It's by far the most popular Constructed format, partly because the barrier to entry is so much lower than formats dominated by older, rarer, and more expensive cards.)

Cards like Torrent of Fire are a testament to the fact that even the weakest or most limited Magic card is still the end product of a great deal of thought and work. It might suck most of the time, but it still serves a definite purpose.

1 comment :

RedArrogantKnight said...

Torrent of Fire is also notable for being a strong pick in Onslaught Block Limited formats. Limited has an interesting relationship with high-casting-cost removal, with the general question being "is this finally so expensive I won't use it?"

In this case, we have a situational 5cc removal spell, and it was very playable. Particularly when you keep in mind that it can sometimes finish a game with ~7 to the head.