Monday, April 26, 2021

The Usual Suspects: The Tapper

Welcome to a new installment in my series, The Usual Suspects. For those who haven't seen the first edition, in The Usual Suspects I take a deep dive into a card archetype that has seen repeated designs across Magic's history and analyze its purpose, its variants, and what makes it good (or bad). This week: One of the most archetypal white effects, the tapper – a creature that can tap itself to tap one of your opponent's creatures.

One of white's hallmarks is its broad range of narrow removal spells. In most sets, it has a Pacifism variant, a Smite the Monstrous variant, and a Gideon's Reproach variant; rarely, it'll have an Oblivion Ring or expensive but unconditional exile spell at common. While tappers have a long history, starting to the extent of my knowledge with Master Decoy in Tempest, they aren't nearly as common as some of their siblings, appearing about once or twice a year.

What makes this interesting is that the tapper, on its face, looks like an excellent effect, both for white and for the game as a whole. There's a lot of different ways to play with and against a tapper, giving both players more autonomy than a "fire-and-forget" removal spell. There's also tons of ways to tweak and balance tappers, many of which are actually pretty flavorful (like Avacynian Priest), and they act as both removal spell and small creature for the more aggressive white decks. They even play into white's love of symmetric removal, since you're tapping one of your creatures to tap an opponent's creature. So why are they approached with such caution?

I believe that there are two reasons that tappers aren't seen as often as other white removal effects. The first is for play design/balance and the second is a bit more of a "meta" reason that has to do with perceptions of the game as a whole.

Tapping on Heaven's Door

Like counterspells and direct damage, tappers have a "half-a-mana" problem, in this case centered on 1.5 mana. This is where an effect would be perfectly balanced at a "half" mana value, and is too strong or too weak in either direction – ie, how Counterspell is too strong and Cancel is too weak. However, unlike those other two effects, this problem is much more obvious with tappers because you're essentially paying the mana cost every turn as a tax. A tapper that costs 1 mana (generic or white, it doesn't matter that much) to tap any creature unconditionally is too strong, tapping your opponent's strongest creature every turn for minimal cost until the game ends or the tapper is removed. There's a reason we haven't seen a 1-mana tapper in a premiere set since Akroan Mastiff in Journey Into Nyx.

On the other hand, costing even 2 mana to tap a creature makes the creature a bit too weak. The marginal tempo advantage you get from locking down your opponent's big creature is far outweighed by the fact that you're playing 2 lands behind for the rest of the game; add that to the fact that you're taking up an early turn to play a creature with terrible stats and a clunky ability and you get a series of creatures that could be better substituted for a basic land in all but the most desperate Limited decks.

There are some modern tappers that target based on some specific subset of creatures, which can then have the cost of activation get pushed because the targets are narrower. Tappers from early 2010s sets, like Ephara's Warden and Kor Line-Slinger, frequently targeted creatures with power 3 or less. I imagine they were phased out because it entirely defeated the point of tappers – their primary use is to remove an opponent's defensive threat in time for your small creatures to sneak through enough damage. More recent tappers have been a bit more creative, ranging from the almost unrestricted Law-Rune Enforcer (which had to be white's premium removal in War of the Spark, as Pacifism effects wouldn't work in an environment with Amass), to Custodi Peacekeeper, which made you play chicken with all of the other drafters at the table to see how good it was actually going to be. (It and Garbage Fire are some of my favorite cards from Conspiracy: Take the Crown.)

One recent innovation is tappers that have a cheap tap effect (or good stats), but that require you to jump through some kind of hoop before you can actually use it. Because that hoop can basically be anything, you have a lot of room to fit the card into the greater needs of the set. Zhalfirin Decoy from Modern Horizons wanted to be played in the G/W "creaturefall" deck, for example, while Celestial Enforcer was best in a deck with a lot of flyers, probably W/U. This is exciting territory, as it allows players to be happy with the tap effect they get while not making it so universally strong that picking it from a pack would be trivial. I would be interested in seeing tappers that activate off of an effect that's hard to achieve but also hard to remove, like threshold.

That said, the balance complications of tappers are but one reason they aren't seeing as universal a placement in sets as Pacifism or Smite the Weak effects; the other has to do with how it reveals ugly truths about the game's rules structure as a whole.

Pay No Attention to the Rules Behind the Curtain!

Magic design is a lot like Disneyland design in that a lot of care is taken so that the end user doesn't know that there's a sweaty employee in a headless Mickey Mouse costume chugging a sports drink on the other side of that decorative wall. To be a little less fancy about it, Magic is built on an enormous creaking tower of situational rules because it has to account for the thousands of cards that have been created in its lifetime. 

One of the trickiest rules is how the combat phase actually works. Most new and non-enfranchised players view combat as "I tap and attack with my creatures" all in one chunk, when in reality there's a weird "beginning of combat" phase where you can do things like crew vehicles and, yes, tap your opponent's creatures before they attack. Without knowing that this phase exists, players are likely to miss the timing and eat damage they can't afford to eat. Losing because you didn't know the rules correctly is probably the worst feeling you can have in Magic, perhaps behind your friend inviting you to play EDH for the first time and then pulling out a high-powered stax deck.

Even once players get the hang of the beginning of combat step, the fact that you now have to formally acknowledge this transition every game you play, Magic starts to shift from a casual game about wizards fighting each other into essentially a small-claims court between magical paralegals, where merely playing the game is contingent on memorizing complex and sometimes niche rules in order to wring the greatest advantage out of it. In some ways, this is an inevitable effect of becoming more enfranchised in a complex game, but by putting cards like vehicles and tappers in sets at some number, it means larger numbers of players now have to deal with this.

This isn't to say that more rules-reliant cards shouldn't be made, and in fact one of the great things about tappers is how challenging they are to maximize. Do you want to tap a creature on your turn to push through damage, or wait for their turn and try to stabilize by locking down their flyer? When do you go all-in for the double tap? What creature should you prioritize? Tappers' complexity enables their profound creativity – but because of this complexity, they aren't appropriate for every set.


In some sense, tappers are a bridge between the old days of cool effects that might be too complex or unintuitive to work practically and the modern day, where we have a greater understanding of player needs but broad appeal and economic burden can make sets and individual cards predictable. I hope that the hoop-jumping "tap if X" effects end up paying off, because I think it opens up a lot of space for this archetype that doesn't rely on your opponent having a specific deck type.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jeremy, thanks for the post!

    I definitely agree on the rules engine transparency being a strike against tappers. "Beginning of combat" is a silly thing to have to pay attention to, especially in digital. Planning ahead with racing math for the double-tap turn is a big chunk of strategic complexity.

    I can't speak much to the 1.5 mana issue- that's more Set Design's area- though I would think that we have some good knobs to balance that with MV and P/T. I played a fair bit of IKO draft and felt like Checkpoint Officer landed in a decent spot. (Pretty contextual since IKO limited was wild, and tapping down a mutate stack doesn't stop them from popping off with it.)

    A few thoughts to add:

    One reason some of us are down on common tappers is that they often slow down the game by stopping attacks. It also reduces the opponent's excitement of playing a 6/6 if all it means is that their 4/4 gets out of jail.

    One advantage of "fire and forget" removal is that it requires discrete decisions rather than repeated decisions, and there's some good lenticular complexity in correctly lining up your removal spells with your opponent's threats. Tappers don't require you to commit to a particular target.

    Another consideration is density of mana sinks. For example, ZNR has so much smoothing between MDFC lands, kicker, and landfall, that there's just not a bunch of spare mana to go around for repeatable activations. (That, and Makindi Ox is just a cooler and more unique design.)