Thursday, 1 August 2013

Oracle Review - Berserk, False Orders

These two fairly simple cards are linked by a common theme - a strange timing restriction. Each of them also has what I consider to be a defect in their wording, one because of a well-intentioned templating change, the other because it is trying to do something that you actually can't do in Magic. Let's have a look:

Berserk has the honor of being once restricted in Vintage. Of course so does Juggernaut. Here is the Oracle wording:
Cast Berserk only before the combat damage step.
Target creature gains trample and gets +X/+0 until end of turn, where X is its power. At the beginning of the next end step, destroy that creature if it attacked this turn.
Berserk is a card that has been updated to reflect changes in the rules. To some extent this is a good thing - we want to preserve the intent of cards - but to some extent we have to be careful of these changes.

Let's discuss the timing first. Berserk originally said you can't cast it after combat. But when it was printed there wasn't really a clear idea of when you could and couldn't use "fast effects". Instead, it was up to the intuition of players - as well as clarifications from Wizards - to figure out that the point of the restriction was that you weren't supposed to be able to use Berserk as a kill spell on a creature that attacked you earlier in the turn. If you want to use Berserk to kill your opponent's attacker, you need to double its power when it still has a chance to hit you. Of course you could Berserk away a creature with first strike after it dealt damage, but we accept that as just being tricky, not as a defect in Berserk.

Now there is a space to cast spells at the end of combat while creatures are still attacking and blocking but after they have dealt damage. If Berserk continued to say that it could only be cast before the end of combat then it could be used in exactly the way this phrase was meant to prevent.

I think this is a difficult case that walks the line between a good and a bad update. I'm not thrilled that the card has changed because the rules made part of its text obsolete, but on the other hand the change could be seen as preserving the text.

So we'll move on to the actual effect of Berserk and the replacement of "double" with +X/+0. If the difference is not apparent then I'll explain. When an effect has an X in it, the X is fixed by the time the effect has resolved. So when you Berserk your Raging Bull, after Berserk is resolved there is a continuous effect that says "This gets +2/+0" not one that says, "This gets +X/+0 where X is it's power." This makes a big difference because dependency trumps timestamps when determining which continuous effect to apply first.

What if you then Blood Lust after you Berserk? If the bull had a continuous effect that said, "Double this creature's power" then that effect would depend on the bull's power, meaning that it would be resolved after any effect that added or subtracted power, even if that second effect happened later in the turn. With the oracle wording, the bull that was berserked and then made bloodthirsty would be 8/1.  If instead Berserk said, "Double target creature's power," then the bull would be 12/1 - first the Blood Lust would be applied because Berserk depends on it, then Berserk would be applied.

So sad
Again we have to ask whether this is a good change or a bad one. In the original rules there was no concept of dependency to change the order continuous effects were applied in, and rules clarifications said that you doubled it at the time of resolution, not continuously for the rest of the turn. But should the oracle wording be true to the original rules or to the original card? Obviously lots of cards work differently now because the rules have changed. They didn't rewrite Power Surge when they took away mana burn.

I am okay with the timing restriction, but I disapprove of the updated "double power" templating being used on a card that meant it when it said double. As a result, Berserk's Oracle wording gets...

This is basically unfair
False Orders
False Orders is an easily forgotten card because it went away with Revised Edition and it just isn't that good. It's not bad either, I think it would see play in an M13 or M14 draft, but it will never see play in Vintage or Legacy, the only two formats it will ever be legal. Here's the Oracle text:
Cast False Orders only during the declare blockers step.
Remove target creature defending player controls from combat. Creatures it was blocking that had become blocked by only that creature this combat become unblocked. You may have it block an attacking creature of your choice.
That timing restriction is a bit of an odd one because it seems so purposeless. The whole point of the card is to let you reassign how a blocker is blocking, so casting it before blocking would be odd. Casting it after damage is dealt would be similarly odd.

Actually the timing restriction is a very meaningful one. It may not appear this way, but if you could cast False Orders during the declare attackers step then you could use it to allow one of your creatures to block two attackers. The rules for declaring blockers say that while you are declaring blockers you can only assign each blocker to one attacker, they make no mention of whether a creature that is already blocking can block - that really shouldn't ever happen.

Casting False Orders at the end of combat after damage is dealt may sound like an odd thing to do but there are circumstances where it would be useful. Suppose you are attacking with your Agent of Masks. You opponent has a freshly played Ramses Overdark in play but he is leery of putting it in front of your agent, figuring you've got some kind of pump spell. Instead, he chump blocks with his Spinal Villain. You could False Orders the Ramses to make it block and then use Celestial Flare, but your opponent will just sacrifice the Villain. You could False Orders, kill the Villain in combat and then Flare but Ramses will kill your agent. If you could cast False Orders after damage was dealt you could kill the villain then order Ramses to block the agent, and then Flare him away.

Whether this restriction is important for the card or not, it is clearly stated on the original card that you must play it after blockers and before combat damage, so this is the right thing to do.

Now, like with Berserk, we'll move on to the actual effect the card has. In this case, the effect is a mess. It looks okay when you read it, the blocking creature stops blocking what it was blocking, that thing becomes unblocked if nothing else is blocking it, and then you reassign the blocker. But what if your creature is blocked by two creatures and your False Orders them both? When the first one resolves, your creature had become blocked by the other creature this combat. When the second one resolves, your creature still doesn't become unblocked because it had become blocked by the first creature, even though that creature has since been removed from combat by False Orders.

Unfortunately in this case there just seems to be a hole in the Magic rules. You could change the text to say something like, "Creatures it was blocking become unblocked if all creatures blocking them have been removed from combat by cards named "False Orders" and if no other effects caused them to be blocked." but that isn't very forward compatible and it has its own set of problems.

In order to implement the card correctly there needs to be an improvement to the rules themselves that defines a term like "ceases to block." Or the card has to do the word by adding some kind of continuous effect to the creature that could be seen by other, similar effects.

I can't forgive the Oracle wording its faults merely because a proper wording may not exist, however. I am, therefore, forced to give the False Orders Oracle wording...

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