Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Taxing Argument

A Taxing Argument
By Jim Harbor

Welcome artisans. Today I’m going to do something a bit different. I’m posting a single card design and will talk about its implications for an overall format and the game as a whole. This is more “big picture” design about how the implications of one simple card can be quite impactful on design.

It would be fair to say that Spell Tax is my pitch for making taxing counterspells secondary in White, as they were before. I argue that they fit White’s slice of the color pie, that this shift is good for the health of formats, and that it helps mitigate some issues with counterspells that Wizards has.
There was a point in time when White was secondary in counterspells. Just as red is secondary in flying but limited to dragons and phoenixes, White could counter a spell only if it taxed it, or if it returned it to the library. The effect was eventually demoted to tertiary, as not enough white counterspells were made to justify its position as secondary.

Taxing counterspells already fit in within White’s slice of the color pie. White gets taxing effects all the time, such as on Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. White appreciates the idea of “answers with answers”, most clearly shown in cards like Stasis Snare. It doesn’t remove a creature unconditionally, but it can trap it within an enchantment. This is the “play fair” part of white; it can remove anything as long as there is an out. Paying the extra 2 for Spell Tax is the workaround for removing the spell, in the same way Naturalize-ing a Stasis Snare or killing a Banisher Priest is the workaround for that creature removal. The Spell Pierce effect in particular is a better fit for White than for Blue, as its steep drop-off in usefulness as the game goes on makes it best in low-to-the-ground aggressive decks. Blue sometimes dips its toes into this space in tempo decks like Modern Merfolk, but the White Weenie archetype is a more prominent deck type that this card would slot perfectly into.

Splitting counterspells between Blue and White also can aid format health. A major issue with recent Standard was control decks like Approach of the Second Sun being hated out of the format by the existence of Spell Pierce and Negate. These counterspells ironically doomed control decks, as the 4- and 7-mana haymakers you cast were easily taken down by 1- and 2-mana spells out of the sideboard. With the best decks all being Blue, it meant games two and three were very hard for control to win. The format’s good mana fixing, along with both counterspells being in the same color, meant they were easy to splash for as well. Even early in Kaladesh standard there were RG decks like Pummeler running Botanical Sanctum just to cast counterspells from the sideboard. If Negate were Blue and Spell Pierce were White, it would be harder for a deck to splash them both, and in a world where Counterspells are split between two colors, tier 1 Blue decks wouldn't be able to easily break into tier 0.5 via exclusive access to countermagic.

A common counterargument to the white counterspell is that counterspells are already one of the most disliked card types in the game (up there with land destruction) so making more of them would be a bad move. My position is that you wouldn’t make more of them, but instead, divide each set’s counterspell count between the two colors. Looking at Ixalan Block as an example, Spell Pierce and Lookout's Dispersal could have easily been colorshifted to White (the later with the tribal rider changed to Vampires or Dinosaurs of course) while the rest would stay Blue. This has the added benefit of making it harder to do the counterspell.dec Wizards tried to keep under control by splitting the cheaper counterspells with “outs” and the more expensive hard counters into different colors.

The taxing counterspell works in White, contributes to format health, and adds to color diversity among decks. I hope this card served as an example of the possibilities of stretching Magic’s design just past the corners, and I look forward to hearing feedback from the Artisans.

(Today's Guest Article comes courtesy of  Jim Harbor. If you would like to contribute a Community Spotlight article, read Write for Goblin Artisans, then send a brief pitch of your idea to zefferal on gmail.)


  1. Excellent points, Jim.

    Here's my concern. Blue-white control decks have often been very strong in constructed formats. White contributes strong removal and finishers, and blue contributes counterspells and card draw. If white gets its own counterspells, might that push it over the edge as the "I can do it all" control color? Should white lose something in exchange for gaining Spell Pierce et al?

    (Tangentially, this is what I perceive to be a major problem with red: Haste, cheap removal, and reach via burn make it a self-contained aggro package.)

    1. White can't draw. White is severely limped at card filtering/draw. Control needs it.

    2. What Tim said, whites answer suite is so deep adding taxes to that realm doesnt shift it too much. Making it the worst at card draw so it wont draw into those answers is a key response. This is also why its creatured arent the most efficient.

  2. I agree that white has the potential for taxing counterspell effects. However, I don't think it should have the same flexibility and efficiency as blue cards. White simply has too many aggressive options to take advantage of it. Also, flavor-wise, I feel like white tends to be a bit more proactive, whereas counterspells are by nature reactive.

    One possible design I could see:

    Tax Decree 1W
    When an opponent casts a noncreature spell, sacrifice Tax Decree. Counter that spell unless its controller pays 2.

    1. Ah! Yes, I in many ways I like Tax Decree more. As Jim says, white does taxing, but instant counterspells don't exactly feel like taxing because they're usually only used when they'll counter a spell completely.

    2. From an aesthetic standpoint it’s very cool, but I think it would be super unfun to play against.

    3. Yes, because there’s a massive difference between not knowing whether or not your spell will be countered and knowing it will.

      Think of an LSP playing for the first time. Their opponent plays a one drop into Tax Decree. If the LSP doesn’t play a card into it, then they’re going to take a ton of damage and sit there not playing Magic, but most LSPs won’t even understand that they COULD throw away a card to get rid of this, let alone why they’d want to. To them, this might as well be temporary double land destruction spell, which is super duper unfun.

    4. You see that becomes a seal, the reason why wotc cut down on reactive seals is that they tend to just make it so you dont play cards at all.

      A Doom Blade just kills a dude you put down but a Seal of Doom outright makes you want to hold back creatures, a pretty unfun play pattern.

      A Seal Counterspell really would just add fuel to the fire, its like a little mini taste of draw go in one card.

    5. When white plays proactive, it usually plays a more tempo oriented strategy with things like humans and allies. Tempo decks hit the ground running by quickly generating large battlefield value, and then control the mid game with reactive spells. Currently, white will use protection from color spells and blink effects as "pseudo counter spells" by trading the card in hand for the removal in stead of card in play. Adding spell pierce to the color just adds some flexibility to existing playstyles that white all ready employs.

    6. The 'noncreature' clause on Tax Decree is important here. It means you can still do things while you build up the mana to overcome it. This isn't like land destruction at all.

      You may well be right about LSPs not seeing that you can toss a spell to overcome this, Ryan, but I wouldn't assume that without playtesting. (I do suspect they'd be very reticent to do so.)

    7. I think the design concept works better like this

      1W Tax Office
      Enchantment (U)
      Noncreature spells your opponents cast, cost {2} more to cast.
      Whenever an opppnent casts a noncreature spell, sacrifice ~.

      A counterspell seal is just something I think is too punishing.

  3. There's a part of me that feels white is too flexible in the first place. But then there's a part of me that wants to reduce the amount of targeted creature removal that white has (or maybe confine it to its enchantment versions). So then there's a part of me that thinks, "Well, maybe we could shift these tax counterspells over to replace it instead of just nerfing white." But then there's a part of me that's starting to question what the difference is between blue and white if I start doing things like that.

    I have too many parts of me. It's likely because I tend to drift to blue-white a lot so I think about the relationships between the two colors quite a bit. They have very close ties, and you see it frequently enough that it feels almost a strange when it's avoided (like in the first Ixalan set). So I kind of end up worrying about each color's individual identities as they share more and more mechanics with each other.

  4. Each color has Iconic and Characteristic creature types, and I think they have Iconic and Characteristic spell abilities too.

    White - Iconic: Wrath effects
    Characteristic: Pacifism/O-Ring

    Blue - Iconic: Counterspell
    Characteristic: Card draw

    Black - iconic: discard
    Characteristic: creature removal

    Red - Iconic: Land Destruction
    Characteristic: Burn

    Green - Iconic: Giant Growth
    Characteristic: Rampant Growth

    These are abilities that are central to the color's identity and present in virtually every set. That's not to say that you couldn't occasionally have these spells branch into another color, but It would be a special exception like a White Dragon or Black Angel.

    Also, White/Green specifically don't get very many reactive answers to Instants and Sorceries, with the exception of occasionally granting creatures p̶r̶o̶t̶e̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ Indestructible/Hexproof respectively. That's a weakness like red and black have to Enchantments that I would be reluctant to remove.

    Riffing on Tax Decree:

    Tax Lean W
    Enchantment U
    Noncreature spells your opponents cast cost an additional 2
    When an opponent casts a noncreature spell, sacrifice Tax Lean.

    1. sorry to be that guy -- Tax Lien

    2. I was excited to see an analysis of noncreature iconics and characteristics by color at first—it's smart to try to analyze things from new angles like that—but I don't feel like the end result is true/meaningful, and I can't think of any better choices.

  5. Red Tape WW1
    When Red Tape enters the battlefield, you may exile target spell until Red Tape leaves the battlefield.

    At the beginning of target spell controller's upkeep, they may pay 2. If they do, sacrifice Red Tape.

    1. It only kind of works. They have to recast it once it leaves the stack.

      Instant (U)
      Exile target spell. As long as it remains exiled, it's controller may cast it for 2 plus its mana cost.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Thats more of a weird bounce effect. Blue got to play with that in RIX.

    4. Ooh, I like that!

      Impound (W/U)
      Instant (U)
      Exile target spell. As long as it remains exiled, it's controller may cast it for 2 instead of it's casting cost.

      Charging Mana cost plus 2 seems pretty brutal for just one white. Compare it to the Failure half of Failure/Comply.

      Spell Queller still feels pretty U/W

  6. While I'm not against white having taxing counterspells, I get the feeling that it won't happen for reasons that have already been stated. I think white should have something that leans a little closer towards what it already does. Thus, this counterproposal:

    Counter Stratagem
    Counter target spell unless its controller taps an untapped creature he or she controls.

    1. This card still feels pretty blue or at least UW. Tapping creatures Is split between the colors, if the card is going to be white I'd think you'd want It to be unambiguously white.

    2. If nothing else, it's a good hybrid W/U candidate. The problem is that, to me, it feels hard to make a taxing counterspell that couldn't just be blue. The only alternatives that come to mind immediately are the Browbeat and Dash Hopes variants with "do this otherwise counter that", and we know where those typically end up.

      I guess my major point is that there will be considerable overlap between white and blue when it comes to a taxing counterspell, just by definition. Most of the things you could hypothetically tax are shared between those two colors (e.g. paying mana, tapping/untapping, letting you create flying tokens...).

    3. It wasnt mentioned specifically in the OP, but whenever I've entertained more mainstream white soft counters, I've ways liked the idea that white got generic taxing spells (something like the typical 2M counter target spell unless they pay 3), maybe even the X ones, and blue would get mostly just hard counters, but only targeted, so your Essence Scatters and Negates as well as set specific stuff like Annuls. I like that this fits the color's existing philosophy quite well. Blue plays more specific answers planned to pinpoint weakness, and gets thrown off when its plans don't work, whereas white will let you have your thing but only if you pay the troll toll.

    4. I mean at lower rarities by the way, and blue would still obviously get Cancels in this world too.

    5. I touched on that in the last main paragraph. I agree for color delination if White is getting more tax counters blue would naturally get less and keep the hard stuff.

      Like how White gets Journey to Nowhere and Black gets straight "Exile Target creature"

    6. Oh, yeah, didnt mean to take that away from you. I was just giving more specific examples. I like that as well to an extent to maybe make the line a little clearer.

      My main problem, and perhaps the reason they havent made this shift more than the "unfun"ness of counterspells, is that taxing soft counters like mana leaks and spelle pierces are good in low to the ground aggressive decks that want to manipulate tempo, which was an argument for why it fits white in the OP.

      However, its also a tool to help push more aggressive blue decks, like the mentioned Merfolk. If we perfectly segregate types of counterspells like that, it means blue loses one of its tool for aggro decks, and due to the nature of the game wanting to end in a timely manner, blue is always digging for ways to help aggressive gameplans, which in general need more support than slower strategies to begin with due to the need for a critical mass of tools to consistently be the beatdown.

      If this tool for aggressive blue decks were taken away, what could blue get ro replace it? There's already been a struggle just to find combat keywords for blue, with prowess now even drawing unwanted focus in higher numbers. This would be taking a whole chunk of a mechanic that's effective in aggro decks away.

  7. ...huh. Come to think of it targeted discard can be similar to counterspells but less "gotcha". I wonder if instead white should get "When ~ ETBs, look at target player's hand. Exile a nonland card from it until ~ leaves the battlefield."

  8. Aether Snap 1W
    Instant (C)
    Counter target creature spell controlled by an opponent that attacked you this turn.

    1. Aether Snap is somehow the name of a black card already.

      New name: That's Enough Out of You

    2. I like the intent here.
      In practice, I think this feels bad when you walk into it in Limited (b/c dang, if I had just) and probably just changes when people play creatures in Standard.

  9. Here's the thing. Counterspells, by themselves, are not net fun. They need to exist within Magic for various reasons, but a counterspell by itself does not naturally encourage fun play patterns. One of the reasons they are still acceptable is that currently a player knows how to read that an opponent has a counterspell: untapped Islands. Blue's card draw has bled out into green in competitive amounts, its tempo strategies are often just variations on what white does, and outside of counterspells it doesn't have a really iconic piece of the game that it can call its own.

    Sure, fine, there are justifications for putting counterspells in other colors -- but it would still be bad for the game if there were counterspells in other colors. Being blown out by a blue counterspell can already feel bad -- imagine being blown out by a counterspell against someone with only Plains untapped. If you're playing against UW control, you pay close attention to how much blue mana is available to them on your turn. Now, it doesn't even matter, and the way they tap their mana could really mean anything and gives you no way to play around potential counterspells.

    More broadly, just because there are reasons and ways to spread mechanics around in the color pie, that doesn't mean it should happen. Colors need strong identities to perform their intended roles within the game, and the more we spread mechanics (especially iconic mechanics such as counterspells, which are essentially synonymous with blue) the more cracks we're creating in one of the big three foundations of what makes Magic great.

    I think this is an infamous example of custom Magic designers wanting to do something because they can, not because they should.

    1. I've not seen this argument for keeping counterspells in blue before, and I love it.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.


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