Monday, February 15, 2021

The Usual Suspects: The Green 4/4 for 4

Welcome to the beginning of what I expect will be a recurring segment on Goblin Artisans. In The Usual Suspects, I will analyze a card archetype common across multiple sets, exploring its history, variants, and value to the game. This week's suspect: The ruler of stats for the cost, the green 4/4 for 4.

The power level of an X/X for X is not flat. General knowledge (including the GDS3 multiple-choice test) states that a 1/1 for 1 is pathetic, a 2/2 for 2 is mediocre, a 3/3 for 3 and a 5/5 for 5 are acceptable, and a 4/4 for 4 is about as strong as a vanilla creature can get. Why is this?

Part of it has to do with the 4-mana spell's occupancy in Limited formats. You're much less likely to 2-3-4 curve in Limited than in Constructed, and even if you do, your 2 and 3 mana drops are probably going to be uninspiring. 4 mana is where you begin to stabilize your board or begin picking apart your opponent's. So a strong creature, even a vanilla one, will be the most reliably meaningful at this mana cost.

Creature sizing at common also plays a role. A 4/4 can one-sidedly destroy the vast majority of 2- or 3-drops it tangles with in combat because those creatures almost all have power and toughness less than 4. The few exceptions are 3-mana 4/2 beaters like Orazca Frillback, which are basically only useful in this situation, and defensive creatures with 0 power and high toughness, of which only one, Thriving Turtle, has been playable in any Limited format. The jump from 3 to 4 mana, in this way, is more significant than any other jump in the game.

With the general importance of a 4/4 for 4 in mind, let's look at it in the context of Magic history.

Green's Training Montage

The green 4/4 for 4 represents a step in the larger project of making green a more fun color in Limited. It's not that green hasn't been strong in Limited before this project started in the early 2010s; it's more that, as the most proactive color of the five, it's difficult for green to respond to opponents' plays in an equitable way, making it less fun to play. Additionally, in the earlier days of Magic where creatures weren't as efficient, it would be more likely that a green player would end up in a situation where their big green creatures wouldn't be able to beat an opponent because they would get run over by faster, more aggressive cards or out-valued by stronger removal.

The biggest step taken towards putting green on the same level as the other colors in Limited is fight, which has largely been successful. With the exception of hyperefficient cards like Epic Confrontation, fight spells are still some of the weakest removal available in the game, since they're situational and can get blown out easily at instant speed – however, they represent a huge step in green's ability to be reactive, not just proactive. Compare even the weakest fight effect to the highly conditional Lure effects that green had to use pre-Innistrad to take out a key threat.

However, fight spells are no good unless you can have a reasonable guarantee that you'll be able to pick off one of your opponent's meaningful creatures without losing one of yours in the process. Some fight spells will help you out with this, like the reliable Hunt the Weak, but in general green relying entirely on creatures to be able to establish board control means it has to have some appropriately sized creatures to be able to handle the job.

Of course, green getting better creatures is part of the "rising tide" effect of creatures getting better in general. However, other colors' creatures have benefitted in different ways – blue getting cheaper fliers, white getting synergy and +1/+1 counters – and green is the beneficiary of 100% pure beef more than the others. The 4/4 for 4 is the finest beef available and, along with the Terrain Elementals of Magic, a bellwether of Magic's increased weight towards creatures and board presence.

Card-By-Card Analysis

The earliest common green 4/4 for 4 is Rumbling Baloth. It's the most conservative of all of them, being a vanilla creature for a mana cost that requires you to be relatively heavy on Forests, but is still a reasonable card in most formats by virtue of just physically outclassing everything on the board if you play it on turn 4. To quote Boulderfist Ogre from Hearthstone, "Me have good stats for the cost." It remains the only X/X for X vanilla creature that retains relevance in a game where the power of creatures has been ratcheting upwards for years.

Later cards were given increasingly stronger abilities, but generally stayed at a 2GG mana cost. This means that you can't just splash for them – if you want access to green's superior creature sizing, you have to commit. The one exception is Bloom Hulk at 3G; Bloom Hulk's ability rewards you for playing it later in the game when you have more things with counters on the battlefield, so it doesn't matter if it's theoretically possible to play it on turn 4 with a green splash.

Many newer green 4/4s for 4, like Voracious Typhon and the aforementioned Bloom Hulk, have late-game utility, but none of them have earlier-game utility. This is because Limited formats are slow enough that you can generally be expected to play a 4-drop – you don't need to worry about getting bowled over before you reach 4 lands like might happen in more aggro-heavy Constructed formats – and also are more likely to flood out at a board stall, creating opportunities for your midrange card to suddenly become a 7/7 beater. An interesting exception is Throne of Eldraine's Fierce Witchstalker, which trades in its late-game value for being an absolute nightmare on turn 4. This may be because green had plenty of late-game cards because of its oversized share of the adventure mechanic, which naturally set you up to play expensive creatures as cheap spells on an earlier turn.


Even something as innocuous as a vanilla 4/4 can have a surprising amount of history and gameplay value if you look deep enough. Archetype analysis like this can help uncover these things and also help us become better game and Magic designers by working backwards and finding the rationale for their inclusion. I'm excited to continue this series in the future, looking at other archetypes that have defined modern Magic sets and drawing new lessons from them.

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