Thursday, 10 October 2013

Oracle Review - Mishra's War Machine

I don't get actively angry about old card wordings very often - by which I mean I probably do it as much as the rest of the human population put together - but we've got one today that is downright insane.

Mishra's War Machine
Let's get right to it:
Banding (Any creatures with banding, and up to one without, can attack in a band. Bands are blocked as a group. If any creatures with banding you control are blocking or being blocked by a creature, you divide that creature's combat damage, not its controller, among any of the creatures it's being blocked by or is blocking.)
At the beginning of your upkeep, Mishra's War Machine deals 3 damage to you unless you discard a card. If Mishra's War Machine deals damage to you this way, tap it.
Hello, Banding reminder text!

"If"?  If it deals damage in this way then tap it?  Are they serious?

This is a situation where a later printing is overwriting an earlier printing. Mishra's War Machine was inexplicably reprinted in Revised and Fourth Edition and this "if" nonsense was added. Now I know I admitted in an earlier review that more recent printings take precedence over older wordings, so there is a sense in which this is the right wording for the card. But I just can't condone it.

Remember Mana Vault? In that case they didn't use the most recent wording because that wording was flawed. The wording was flawed in part because it was just flawed - and I believe it was errata'd at the time - but the errata did not make it match the current oracle wording. They didn't errata it from an activated ability to untap to a triggered one.

Things are different now
So why go back to the earlier wording in the case of Mana Vault? The answer is fairly clear. The wording of the fifth edition printing was done the way it was because they were trying to work with the rules and the direction that they had at the time. If I have my dates right, power level errata were all the rage at the time, and it was sixth edition that brought in rules that we would recognize as the rules of Magic. Fifth edition rules were still mired in Interrupts and Mana Sources.

I can't tell you exactly why Mana Vault got its fifth edition wording, but I can tell you exactly why Mishra's War Machine got it's Revised and subsequent Fourth Edition wording.

My Personal Struggle With the Early Rules of Magic
I started playing Magic the summer of 1994. The Dark came out and for some reason it was crazy expensive in my town. I bought a few packs and got an Inferno and a Maze of Ith.

My play group instituted a house rule that if your mazed a Thicket Basilisk it wouldn't kill things over my objections. I was the first one to really build a deck instead of just playing with all cards of two colours plus all artifacts. Those really were the days. I could understand their objection that the maze was intended to remove the creature from combat. From a flavour perspective I get it - if the basilisk is lost in a maze then it's petrifying gaze isn't going to affect anything. Even still, in flavour draft I'd give this one to the basilisk. If the block already happened then its victim already saw its eyes before it was whisked away into the extra-dimensional pulsating-sphere maze.

What really ground my gears, though, was that in The Duelist magazine, our point of contact with Wizards in those pre-internet days, there was a rules question about using Maze of Ith on Serra Angel. To my amazement, the rules team - that is, Tom Wylie - said that you could not use the maze on an angel because it was already untapped.

Tapped = Full?
This floored me. It made no sense. If the maze was only supposed to target untapped creatures then it should have said, "target untapped creature" the way the Royal Assassin said, "target tapped creature." The ruling was based on their general rule that you can't tap something that is tapped and you can't untap something that is untapped. Well, of course you can't, but it seemed to me that if you couldn't do something then you just didn't do it. That didn't negate that the card said to do something else. After all, if you cast a Fireball on two creatures and then one of them gained Protection from Red, the fact that you couldn't damage that one didn't stop the Fireball from damaging the other. Surely, if your Demonic Hordes was tapped for some reason you still needed to pay {BBB} to avoid losing a land!

Well, no, you did not. For a while if your Demonic Hordes was tapped you did not have to lose a land, because you couldn't tap it so you stopped the ability cold, the rules team decided.

Of course I convinced my friends that you could use the maze on the Serra regardless of what the company who made the game thought. I used various examples to show that their ruling made no sense. The basilisk thing continued for a while, but really just until other people started making decks and realized that you could deal with stuff like that.

Just because something was the rules doesn't mean it was right. Like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. before me, the tide of history was on my side. The rules eventually came to reflect my understanding of it.

Back to the War Machine
If the fifth edition Mishra's War Machine used the Antiquities wording, it would not have attempted to do 3 damage to you if it was already tapped. Of course the way they changed it had a different problem. If you prevented the damage then it would not become tapped. Either way they were altering the card - something they worried about less back then - but I guess they figured that the "if it does" wording was less confusing since their entire idea about how tapping worked was confusing to a lot of people - being totally wrong and all.

So as you can see, the Revised wording of Mishra's War Machine came out of a defect in the rules. They were trying to work around Tom Wylie's insistence about how tapping worked, and so they had to compromise the card. Well, those rules got fixed, and there is no reason to keep a bad wording that was the product of Magic's dark age.

This wording stings me, not just because I feel it is a product of bad rules, but because it was a product of what for me was the original sin of bad rules. My memories of the tapping rules are generally those of triumph, but this wording is still there, a final vestige of those rules, clinging to the great rump of Magic: the Gathering. We have nearly completed our second decade of this mistake, I wish I could say that I had hopes that we would not see a third.

Also, my lord this card is bad.

The worst of the worst (except for Chaos Orb, the actual worst)

Last week I said I'd have two antiquities artifacts this week. I'm conscious that this review is already quite long and that I might go on a very long rant about the next card too, so I'm going to leave this review here. The other card was Tawnos's Coffin, so feel free to speculate in the comments about what I'm going to say about that one.


  1. Wasn't it Tom Wylie who instituted the "Between Turns Phase" that resulted in the Wall of Boom deck?

    Anyways, when you're a public figure it is entirely just for the public to decide that you are a demented hobgoblin living in the basement of an office building.

  2. I do believe that Tom Wylie came up with the mysterious space between turns for Time Vault to untap. Do a google search on "tom wylie magic" and you'll find the following in a sheet about the designers of Temest:

    "Tom never thinks the cards are too complex. He understands them." -Mike Elliott

  3. Thank you. I came across this functional errata in scryfall and was wondering about the reasons. This is a cogent explanation.