What Makes a Great Creature?
hile answering this question has probably been important throughout the history of competitive Magic: The Gathering, it has perhaps never been more fundamental to success than today. Whole formats are defined by their great creatures—their Stoneforge Mystics, Insectile Aberrations, Primeval Titans, and Deathrite Shamans—with creatures often the central components of even permanents-poor control strategies. So what, in fact, makes for a great creature?
Stoneforge Mystic | Art by Mike Bierek
Great creatures tend to have efficient power and toughness (or at least power).
Delver of Secrets flipping into Insectile Aberration is among the most dangerous offensive creatures of all time. One mana, 3/2 body. Check! Delver of Secrets's Legacy compatriot Nimble Mongoose is a 3/3 for only one mana; both of them being so synergistic with blue cantrip cards you might want to play anyway.
Even a big card-advantage machine like Primeval Titan—costing two more than the threshold for "should be able to win the game by itself"—is efficient on its face, a 6/6 beater for "only" six mana. Great creatures tend to have efficient power and toughness.
Great creatures often have great abilities.
Deathrite Shaman actually packs above-average ability in its one-mana body—kind of the equal and opposite of a Savannah Lions—but on top of that has not one, not two, but three relevant abilities. Deathrite Shaman is a mana engine when combined with any number of effects you might want to play anyway, from Mulch to Grisly Salvage to Verdant Catacombs, and does a great job both as a proactive mana producer and as a spanner in the works of Snapcaster Mage or Unburial Rites. It can help you race going either way!
As already mentioned, Primeval Titan doesn't just offer a very passable frame for its cost... it is a card-advantage machine! Primeval Titans in different formats have given us everything from Valakut kills to Kessig Wolf Run kills to massive mana engines (assembling Cloudposts) to ensuring survival (strapping Locus into Loci).
While no bigger than a Deathrite Shaman (despite costing twice as much) Stoneforge Mystic is a silver-bullet card-advantage machine, lacing the perfect card for a situation with all the enthusiasm of a big green "Prime Time." If you've ever been locked down by a fast Sword of Feast and Famine (or worse, Umezawa's Jitte)... or have been dive-bombed mid-combat by a Batterskull, you know that great creatures often have great abilities.
And of those abilities, some of the simplest—yet most relevant—are evasion abilities, like intimidate, flying, or trample. How scary would a Ball Lightning be if it didn't go over the top of a hapless blocker? How likely would Hero of Oxid Ridge have made the cut in Birthing Pod if it didn't help its teammates completely avoid the three annoying bodies of the opponent's Timely Reinforcements.
No, I don't know that Primeval Titan's trample was the defining ability that made it so dangerous in Standard... but the ability to go over the top of blockers certainly helped to screw up Valakut math. Delver of Secrets would probably have still been the most mana-impressive offensive blue creature of all time without the flying, but there is no denying that the flying—and on turn two quite often—has stolen innumerable additional wins for that hated little transformer.
In both of these cases—Delver of Secrets on one and Primeval Titan on six—as well as high-impact creatures from various eras (Serra Angel, Ball Lightning, Spirit of the Night, Covetous Dragon, Palinchron, Desolation Angel, Wonder, Exalted Angel, Blinkmoth Nexus, Meloku the Clouded Mirror, Angel of Despair, Mistbind Clique, Baneslayer Angel, Squadron Hawk, Blighted Agent, and dozens more), evasive creatures have contributed on basis of being hard to block.
You know what's even more productive than some evasion ability on a creature? Not paying any more for that privilege. Because successful mages choose their cards carefully, largely by how much (and what colors) they cost; and great creatures—creatures you want to play; creatures you want to invest mana and cards in—are often tough to block.
Put another way: Great creatures help you win.
So...What Helps You Win?
From the Black Summer to the long years of red's "Oops I Won" to blue's Combo Winter and beyond, every color has at one time or another had its time in the sun.
But nothing gets a fair-minded mage's blood boiling like when he or she feels blue has gotten too many toys!
Would Delver of Secrets have been as soul-wrenching if it had been black? No one seemed to care about Stoneforge Mystic when it was just getting Adventuring Gear in White Weenie. Bitterblossom was played variously in Blightning Beatdown (red) and next to Garruk Wildspeaker in Elves (green)... but those little 1/1 Faeries were never so bedeviling as when combined with Mistbind Clique.
Black is the color of commitment. It really makes you work for every Necropotence, Corrupt, or Phyrexian Obliterator.
Red is single-minded, even when efficient; it forces you to think twice, even when mindlessly swinging in. What other color could win Pro Tours with Jackal Pup when Savannah Lions has had such a less impressive career? Or Ironclaw Orcs when White Knight was available? Or Thundermaw Hellkite when... well... no complaints about Thundermaw Hellkite, I guess.
But there is nothing that gets a fair-minded mage's blood boiling like that excess of blue. Does blue get more? Maybe. Does blue win more? Sure feels like it sometimes.
Great players win more when they have access to flexibility and reach. Counter a spell or draw a card? Bounce a permanent or Fog the battlefield?
Fateseal or Brainstorm or Unsummon or...
You get the picture.
Flexibility is strength. Great players win memorable games more often when they can use every part of the buffalo; when they can figure out a way to win that isn't obvious, that their decks are capable of (even when it seems they've gone off-script). And when they can win in some implausible way? Decking a beatdown deck, making a Sphinx's Revelation a liability, borrowing the information from Jace, Architect of Thought (or Fact or Fiction or Gift's Ungiven) to turn Slaughter Games into an unerring dagger?
Great players win more when they have access to flexibility and reach.
But you know what separates "good" from "great?"
Recently, our overlords in Renton, WA, have even started to restrict Magic Online decklists to help control the flow of information. Have formats become solved too quickly? Aren't plausible decklists available elsewhere? Maybe, and sure.
But what is really sure is that two different players are not going to be able to use information equally well. In the hands of a deadly assassin, information is worth something. Bob Maher—Pro Tour Champion, Masters Champion, Grand Prix Champion, Invitational Champion (as Dark Confidant), Player of the Year, Hall of Famer, and more—once committed a card slot to the spell Telepathy. He only had one, so he might even have to find it with Enlightened Tutor! Not one do-nothing card, but two.
But did it really do "nothing" in Bob's hands? When the opponent had to play with his or her hand revealed?
Jon Finkel—coming off his first semi-retirement—locked his slot in the first Masters Draft Challenge with a Mageta the Lion on the table...on the opponent's side of the table! Yes, the opponent had access—in a Limited match—to Wrath of God every turn, but Jon casually won the match with the seemingly less powerful Wandering Eye?
Why? Because in the hands of deadly assassins, perfect information—even when it cost a card or more—gave them the chance to play perfectly.
Most recently, Dan Paskins—that master of the Fireblast and Shrapnel Blast—called Goblin Guide not a source of card advantage for the opponent, but a way to help a Red Deck plan better while getting 2 in.
Information is worth something.
Information, at its best, drives your flexibility, helps you make better decisions, and preserves your options... while at the same time cutting off your opponent's options. That is why Goblin Guide—so obviously (if superficially) a potential helper for the other side—has had such a successful career already, and across so many different formats. They might get one, but they take 2.
You know what has so many of these great traits, and can enable so many future success stories (and bad beat stories)?
Think about how much better you might be able to plan, knowing exactly what the opponent will be drawing. Will your opponent know as well? Of course... but just as with Finkel and the Wandering Eye in the face of an ostensibly more powerful creature, being blue, and being prepared, Duskmantle Seer can help you turn a seemingly "even" on-board situation to your advantage.
Just think about the race. Both of you are drawing extra, it's quite probable he or she is taking a beating from his or her side of the draws, and you have an evasive 4-power creature that is tough to block coming over the red zone every turn.
Try everything. Everything to Everyone.
It's even a Vampire!
Duskmantle Seer | Art by Kev Walker
Duskmantle Seer doesn't strike me as the type that auto-plays with Vampire Nocturnus (although I suppose they would get along, once in play together)... but it can draft on obvious and existing advantages. For instance, in a (Standard) world without Doom Blade and Go for the Throat... where the default burn spells only do 2 or 3 damage (Pillar of Flame or Searing Spear), it is awfully hard to kill with a Victim of Night.
And a Wizard!
I don't know the full Gatecrash card list but I do know that in the past we've seen Azami, Lady of Scrolls; Sage's Dousing; and Riptide Laboratory as contributors to formats (in some cases huge contributors).
Here is an obvious one: You probably want to play mostly cheap one- or two-mana spells with Duskmantle Seer, to minimize the damage on extra draws. The card drawing itself is your catch-up to not playing more expensive stuff; Duskmantle Seer is your big hitter. Your opponent might have extra cards too, but the bet is with so many cheap plays, you will be able to do more than he or she can per turn, despite similar access.
What goes really great in a philosophy of cheap one- or two-mana spells?
How about more Wizards... that also happen to be cheap spells?
Augur of Bolas and Snapcaster Mage are also Wizards.
Remember about blue setting blood boiling when it gets too many cool toys? What about fixing your mana—and putting it to other blue players—by breaking all three together with Cavern of Souls?
Is this card Everything to Everyone? We might not know for sure yet... but Duskmantle Seer might have even more text and abilities than we even see on the card itself.