The City In a Bottle Case, part I

Along those two decades and change of Magic, we’ve seen a lot of justifications for  banning and restricting magic cards. Cards have been banned and restricted for all sorts of reasons, not just their perceived excessive power but also : their non-practicability  (ante & dexterity cards), time and space constraints in organised play (Shahrazad), being competitive while expensive (Illusionary Mask), being part of an overpowered deck (Ancient Den), being a good cantrip in a Combo-heavy format (Ponder), because WotC messed up (Sword of the Ages really was one for the ages), lack of fun (Divine Intervention), slowing the game down (Zuran Orb) and more recently preemptively by assumed problematic status after the restriction of other cards (Reflector Mage). And I’m probably missing many.

I really miss learning that Juggernaut was restricted in 1.X

Despite all that, in Old School formats we have to consider yet another use for the b/r restricted list (and erratas). The reason being : that’s the only way we can do something to alter the card pool. Excepted block constructed formats (which are not seeing much play), every sanctioned constructed format will evolve through not just banning or restricting its excessively powerful cards, rulings and erratas, but thanks to rotation or at least the addition of new expansions. Some cards will rotate out of Standard formats, and when a card isn’t deemed “banable” and yet the need for some fix is felt, Wizards can print one or several cards to treat the problem in a forthcoming expansion. That way WotC can let things sort themselves out through brutal rotation or fix them by publishing new cards. Old School formats by definition cannot do that. Yet they aren’t perfect, and could do with some fixing. Not all imbalanced, unfair or problematic cards are played in the dominant decks, as I intend to show is the case for City in a Bottle.

City in a Bottle is available to everybody, and is very cheap -not referring to its price of course, but its casting cost. It also often immediately puts one or more permanents in the graveyard, making it a hoser with enter-the battlefield removal effect attached. It is, as you probably know, extremely powerful in the right context.

But what is so overpowered to deserve such cheap, efficient and incredibly powerful hosing ? Mostly creatures; Unstable Mutations, the occasional Oubliette, a broken land (Library of Alexandria being the most broken land in Old School), Bazaar of Baghdad -the “most broken land in Vintage” (as I’ve read somewhere, I’m no expert, I think that’s outdated, but whatever)- which doesn’t see as much play in 93/94, though it seems to be called to play a crucial role in the Old School 95 metagame, and City of Brass, a very important card, which, although not played by everybody, those who don’t do it at the cost of playing less broken cards, and against those who do, it isn’t really a factor since, as for LoA, both players are equally affected.

How was Arabian Nights conceived ? In a rush, with close to no playtesting. “The role of the expansion kit has evolved. When AN was drafted I had severe reservations about adding a new batch of cards to a tried formula, playtesting seemed like a nightmare and catching all the weird combos seemed impossible. The only way I agreed to do it was with a little symbol and limited run so that we wouldn’t poison the whole system if things went badly, and players could opt not to play AN cards (that is REALLY why the symbols are there – you don’t like em you can refuse to play with or against em.)” would later write Garfield. In fact even that was a concession. Initially, Garfield had envisioned something else entirely : Magic was to be a game with expansions that wouldn’t interfere with the carefully designed core set. To that effect, the expansions would have different backs, and would not mix with other sets. In Garfields’s mind, this set was to be played optionally on its own, especially considering that he didn’t have the time to balance the cards. The cards’ back was to be different (purple) so that players could easily prevent their opponent from playing such cards.

Purple Back, Purple Back

People refused the different card back and the optional character of the expansion. So Garfield made City in a Bottle. Not only that, but in fact when the first version of the tournament rules was released, cards from expansions required the referee’s prior consent ! They were de facto forbidden by default, with the head judge having the option to allow them ! Later this would become : expansions are allowed unless forbidden by the judge. Yes you read that right : for a long time, expansions could be refused by the organizers.

That’s the perspective we have to put City in a Bottle in : since the optional character of the set could not be totally enforced, Richie tried to implement it in a card. Many quibbles can be made on the interpretation of the card’s strategic impact, much less on the intent of its design : to neutralize the entire Arabian Nights expansion.

Well, here we are, and Arabian Nights cards aren’t optional. They’re in fact a crucial part of the playable creatures (and.. “stuff”). The set was made to satiate an urgent desire for new cards, and Garfield was given no time to balance things, so he didn’t really try to. All he had the time for was the aforementioned principle of optionally playing the expansions, and to create a panic button inside the expansion itself when he realized the expansion would really be an extension, and hence City in a Bottle came to be. No doubt, considering how weak creatures were in the core set, emblematic creatures like Kird Ape, Erhnam and Juzam Djinn could look suspiciously overpowered at the time.

The Boss !

But now we know better. While Old School has some of the best creature control cards ever (StP, Bolt, Wrath of God, Abyss, Moat, Control Magic, and I’m probably forgetting some), the creature are at an almost all time-low. While there’s no hope of having such powerful creature neutralization cards reprinted for Standard, the creature of these days, in fact of this past decade, make Old School ones look pathetic. And yet standard has always kept some form of competitive control decks, with control sometimes even dominating the metagame. Take a look at Plague Sliver :

Unplayable.

do you remember people playing this card ? Seeing somebody play it ? Nobody did, it is in our days not worth a second look (and it wasn’t even back then, about a decade ago, when creatures weren’t even as good as they would become later on). And yet, if you didn’t play it in a sliver deck it was pretty much a Juzam Djinn with benefits (when played versus Slivers). Hypnotic Specter got reprinted in M2010, it saw no play. A functional reprint of Sedge Troll, only with different colors implicated, was released in Planar Chaos : same fate. Loam Lion, a WG Kird Ape was printed in Worldwake, it didn’t have a huge impact, but it did see some play in Standard and both still are played in Modern zoo (not a competitive deck).

By that metric, the only old school beatdown creatures that might be playable if reprinted today would be Kird Ape and Savannah Lions, and I’m not even sure for the Lion. And yet our counter-measures are overpowered.

City in a Bottle was very badly designed, a last-minute call at the tail-end of a rushed design of a small set. Garfield’s talent still brought us some cool cards, but CiB is also the reflection of the gross overrating of creatures that was going on in those days, and the fear that ensued when it was clear that Arabian Nights had some more powerful creatures than the core set.

The point is : there’s an obvious, gigantic chasm in Old School between the weakness of the creatures and the greatness of their counter-measures. Since the balance in the Old School card pool is so scaled in the direction of control, if there were anything we had to do about it it would be about limiting anti-creature measures. But, they’re in such numbers that, collectively, they are :
1) too numerous to manage/ban/restrict without disfiguring the format
2) too iconic, for most of them.

Most of them, because City in a Bottle is pretty much a creature hoser, and it isn’t that iconic. The way Richard Garfield was inspired by the Sandman comic, and especially the Ramadan episode pictured above, the City in a Bottle card was clearly at the forefront of that inspiration, we coud then imagine that the card is iconic of Garfield’s creative process, although we’d have to exclude its effect in the game from that, since as we’ve seen that was a last-minute call. Playing the game works out differently, the iconic cards for the designers of a magic set rarely become the iconic cards for the players. While players have different means, plans and motivations between themselves, those also rarely coincide with the designer’s vision (though in recent sets, WotC put so much effort to get there, that they had to “push” the cards they wanted to be emblematic, to disastrous effects). In my real world of actually playing the card this is what actually happens : the card refers to a Magic Expansion in its text, doesn’t refer to a magical element of the game, but to a product released by the company Wizards of the Coast of the U.S.A. on planet earth. How iconic of the MtG experience is that ? Only in a commercial, derivative way. I hate that kind of card, they put me out of it -out of the involvement in the strange Magic world that I like to immerse myself in when I play Magic. To me those cards are just one of the many beginner’s mistake that WotC did back then.

Anyway let’s assume you don’t share that point of view and throw it away : even like that I consider it would be profitable to ban it. The card generally being played as a two-of in the sideboard, a restriction, I think, would only help blue, since it has access to Transmute Artifact, and blue needs absolutely no favor. To get rid of it wouldn’t just be a boon to creatures, some of them, one that doesn’t remove an iconic card like StP or The Abyss, it would also remove an injustice, an imbalance.

That injustice comes in two shape :
1) the injustice in power (the card is too cheap)
2) the injustice towards color (the card is racist)

1) Sure, Moat and The Abyss are very strong creature hosers, and they too don’t affect all of them, or all creature pack equally. But at 2 colorless, sacrifice all your AN creatures right now, and you can’t even put into play any such card while waiting for a way to remove the CiB or protect your other creatures from it, we’re on a very different level of unfairness.

2) Which cards really will be affected by the CiB ? That is, what kind of set of Arabian Nights cards could you play to warrant the use of those sideboard Cities ? Let’s examine color by color.

  • Green : Kird Ape, Argothian Pixies, Erhnam Djinn. Nothing broken about that package. It’s a good package for sure, a good green package, which could be really good if it wasn’t for CiB (Kird Ape is a green card).
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All right ! We get it, Jizz !
  • Blue : Serendibs, Efreets mostly, since it doesn’t look like you want to play too much of the Djinns, also Unstable Mutation : not very kind to blue, CiB ! Flying Men are just unplayables that see play.serendib.png
  • Black : Juzam Djinn. That’s probably it if you’re into black, unless you’re reckless and play Erg Raiders.
  • Red : your only aggressively costed creature is green, or is direct damage (Ball Lightning), so you’re sort of out of the conversation I guess.
  • White : And.. that’s it. If you play white, you’re fine, go on playing your Lions, Knights, Thunder Spirits, Serras etc. Do not fear, none of those are affected by the infamous CiB, you have some Abyss and Moat-proof creatures and you have access to disenchant on top of that. You can even play your King Suleiman maindeck, and replace it with the broken artifact afterwards. Which means that you can easily play City in a Bottle in your WW sideboard, at no cost, to Zoo’s detriment, in fact, you should, and many do.

I knew it ! City in a Bottle will do no harm to white guys ! In fact it will unfairly protect them from their better apes ! Things are clearer now : the preservation of the little white guys is the true agenda behind the legality of the racist card.

Doubling down on the racist support, in case it wasn’t clear enough.

True aggro in the most classical sense has to start with at least some hard-hitting one drops. In this format only white has the luxury to have access to one that is CiB-proof. Considering I’m advocating fixing Mishra’s Factory where it’s not, we still have to fix another cheap and super efficient -though not universal- aggro hoser : City in a Bottle. Bolts and StPs are “fair” one for ones, that is fair in terms of card count, Moat and Abysses give you some time, CiB has none of that relative “fairness”.

So if you consider playing a creature plan on a mostly red-green base, you’re screwed : City in a Bottle will ruin you unless you play suboptimal creatures like Ironclaw Orcs, Elvish Archers and Argothian Pixies (ok that one ain’t that bad). Also in those color you’ll probably end up with no good flyers and not much creatures that are unaffected by The Abyss. Well, everybody can put some Mishra’s in their deck so nothing specific to RG there, and Su-Chis would make you wonder what’s the point of playing green if we have to swap Erhnies for Su-Chis ? Whirling Dervishes can be good but aren’t that easy to operate. If you want to branch out for a relatively cheap but pounding flyer your only choice is Serendib Efreet (Hyppies and Thunder Spirits don’t hit hard enough for their cost for the kind of tempo-aggro that RUG zoo incarnates and are too demanding color-wise for a third color anyway), alas, it is Arabian Nights too. Lestrée Zoo is an archetype almost entirely annihilated by this two colorless mana hoser. Although these are not the only color(s) that are unfairly treated by the CiB, it is a very unfair state of affair for R(u)G aggro. And while you do see some results for those archetype, there’s nothing so broken in such a creature pack that deserves such a treatment. Green is to be a powerful creature color. As things stand, of course people can play those creatures, like for instance in an “Erhnam Burn’em” deck or a Lestrée Zoo variant, but to me it is just facing additional unfair competition in the decks that can afford to play City in a Bottle.  The case is important because of the card pool, and its strong inclination for broken control elements, the card making the best aggro deck almost irrelevant indirectly helps control by too much (The Deck usually doesn’t play the card itself).

Additionally, it can acts as a hoser against cool, not overpowered creatures like Sindbad, Guardian Beast or Ali from Cairo. These cards can make you work, look for synergies and combos but a single CiB would ruin such honest and inventive strategies. While this is not the main argument since casual strategies are generally unconcerned by such discussions, AN cards would have to be seriously broken in general to justify CiB. They either are and are restricted or aren’t and in fact since most of those that see play are creatures, that makes CiB even more of a problem since I think we should cherish the few playable creatures we have, considering anti-creature measures are already so great in this format.

While it is all too clear how powerful and often game-warping an active CiB in play is, the most pernicious activity it has comes behind the curtain, it happens before you play, in fact strike that, it happens by giving you incentive not to play some cards/strategies. In itself nothing wrong with that :  such are “hosers”. And they’re a necessary part of the game of course. Do not misunderstand me : I’m not whining about a hoser against a linear strategy I’d like to be able to play without the risk of facing it, I’m trying to show that this specific hoser isn’t fine at all.

For instance, someone who were to play a mostly white creature-based strategy would have a great advantage against a deck playing Apes and Erhnies (and they know it, and they do). It sure doesn’t look like a big problem, we don’t see City in a Bottle warping the format by playing a big role in all the best decks. That’s not exactly what CiB does, what it does is, beyond adding an extremely (though occasional) powerful creature hoser to an already luxurious and incredible suite of creature hosers, is making some decks not very competitive, not because they’re overpowered but because many of their creatures happen to be from the Arabian Nights expansion. What it does is restrict my incentive to build decks, unless I don’t care about competitiveness -but I do.

Banning City in a Bottle would expand the field of potentially competitive strategies, balance the format by allowing the natural aggro to take its natural place, and would go some way to make the community look less racist.
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