Thursday, 25 July 2013

Oracle Review - Lich and Word of Command

Magic was around before the internet had entered popular culture. There were no websites filled with the text of every card ever printed. As a result, when I began playing in 1995 the powerful rares of Alpha and Beta were just rumours. Black Lotus was worth hundreds of dollars, but why? What did it do?

While clearly the "Power Nine" occupied the spotlight in these rumours, there were other cards that were spoken of but never seen. We knew there was a card called "Lich" and we knew it was the centre of some kind of obscenely powerful strategy, but our ideas of what it might have done were pure speculation. And then there was Word of Command that we had heard allowed you to control your opponent somehow. If we'd actually seen either card our opinions of them would have been quite a bit lower.


Lich
O! Lich. One can only imagine how cool designing cards must have been back when there were no rules. Magic players are playing powerful wizards, so they should be able to turn themselves into liches. It is the ultimate expression of black magic. But what does it mean to be a lich? Naturally it means that your life is magical power instead of whatever that life total normally represents. So replace life gain with drawing cards and life loss with losing cards? We have a winner.
As Lich enters the battlefield, you lose life equal to your life total. 
You don't lose the game for having 0 or less life. 
If you would gain life, draw that many cards instead. 
Whenever you're dealt damage, sacrifice that many nontoken permanents. If you can't, you lose the game. 
When Lich is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, you lose the game.
This wording shows how they wanted to be really sure that if you weren't a lich anymore than you were dead but they didn't quite manage to get it right. In order to ensure this it sets your life to zero when it comes into play and it makes you lose outright if it leaves play. It seems like someone started the card off with an ability that usually make you die if it leaves play and someone else finished it with an ability that usually makes you die if it leaves play and they didn't actually talk to one another about edge cases covered by neither.

What's interesting about the Oracle wording is that there is a lot of ambiguity and room for templating decisions in the original card. Does "You lose all your life." mean, as it says in the Oracle wording, that you lose life equal to your life total, or does it mean that you set your life total to zero. These are actually exactly the same as far as the game is concerned, but they chose the wording they chose for some reason.

The fact that drawing cards replaces life gain while sacrificing cards only triggers on damage taken is a very true implementation of the original wording, as is the fact that you have to sacrifice nontoken permanents - that is, cards. It seems like they could have gone either way on these.

The really interesting choice is that they decided to replace destroying permanents you control with sacrificing them. We can all agree that this makes sense, but it wasn't strictly necessary. It could actually destroy permanents and prevent regeneration. Then depending on the exact wording, an indestructible permanent would either mean you never have to sacrifice cards to the Lich or that you just can't sacrifice that one card.

Finally, with three instances, Lich is the runaway winner for most uses of the phrase "lose the game" on a single card. The runner up, with two, is Phage, though technically one of hers is "loses the game."

The Lich was not a terribly challenging Oracle wording, but it does show how subtle the decisions made can be. I do like the Lich wording, but there isn't enough there to wow me. As a result I'm giving it...

Well done

Word of Command
I think this card caused a lot of confusion back in the day.  Let's look at it's Oracle wording:
Look at target opponent's hand and choose a card from it. You control that player until Word of Command finishes resolving. The player plays that card if able. While doing so, the player can activate mana abilities only if they're from lands he or she controls and only if mana they produce is spent to activate other mana abilities of lands he or she controls and/or play that card. If the chosen card is cast as a spell, you control the player while that spell is resolving.
That is quite a block of text, and it uses concepts that didn't enter the rules for many years after they started making Oracle wordings, which in turn was years after the card was actually printed.

Once again the original wording of the card is very strictly adhered to in some senses. The player can only use mana abilities from lands because the card specifically said you could use mana from the opponent's mana pool and lands. It did not say you could use mana from artifacts.

What about that bit about not being countered at the end of the original wording - why is that ignored completely and why was that clause necessary in the first place? Originally it clarified that you can't use a spell from your opponent's hand to counter Word of Command itself.

Back in the original rules there were two kinds of "fast effects": Instants and Interrupts. Just look at the original printing of Counterspell. While instants used a first-in, last-out rule just like the instants of today, interrupts resolved immediately upon being cast with no chance to respond to them - aside, that is, from their own "interrupt window."

So it was possible at the time if you use Word of Command on someone and picked Counterspell from their hand, then you could cast the Counterspell targeting the Word of Command and countering it. Obviously this would lead people to say, "But if it was countered then it never happened so I shouldn't have had to cast my counterspell." They didn't want the rules of Magic to cause anyone to explode.

Of course this clause could have a modern day equivalent, it's just that it is very unlikely that Word of Command could be countered after its effects had started resolving, and according to the current rules I don't think that would do anything anyway. While the original wording may have suggested that if you saw a hand with a counter in it you could not cast it, a modern reading of those words - even using old interrupt rules - would say nothing of the kind. As we know, you can target a spell that says, "Can't be countered" with a spell that counters it, it's just that the countering never happens. With modern timing rules if you cast a Counterspell from the hand of your opponent targeting Word of Command then nothing at all confusing would happen. As the final step of resolving Word of Command you would put Word of Command in your graveyard, and the Counterspell, upon it's own resolution, would be countered for a lack of legal targets.

There is one more nagging issue with Word of Command, though. The text on the original card says you have to choose a card they can legally play. If you didn't want to cast a particular card from their hand, but that was the only card they had the mana to pay for, you had to make them cast that card. This wording is absent, perhaps because the rules team thought there was a problem with it. I'm not sure that there is. Surely if the next line of text in the Oracle wording says that they play that card if they are able then we are able to tell which cards they are able to play and which they are not. Further, very little can change between when you choose a card and when they are forced to play it since they are consecutive lines on the same spell.

Because one element - however small - of the original card is not preserved, I feel I can only give this wording...

Not really that great

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