Following Dominaria’s paradigm shift for a significant portion of Red magic, Chain Lightning has been previewed for the Battlebond supplementary set. Direct damage spells of the elements, of pain and fury flavor collectively known as Burn magic have also begun a sweeping overhaul, for which the official list of over 700 affected cards can be found here. Read on with Sqrawn for an extensive highlight of cards notably affected by the planeswalker damage redirection rule redaction, and the consequent Great Burn Errata.
This Battlebond reprint of Chain Lightning is the first to reflect the card’s updated oracle text. A card’s oracle text is the categorical information belonging to a card, catalogued by Wizards of the Coast on the official Magic site and easily referenced on the official Gatherer card database. There is no rule that a printed card must accurately reflect a card’s oracle text for tournament play, which allows for outdated text on original or otherwise favorite printings of cards to be used out of personal preference.
Awe-inspiring as the artwork above is, it doesn’t quite match up to what the card itself does. The art depicted above looks like it should be on a card with an effect like Arc Lightning or a reverse Cone of Flame – a branching damage effect that gets all your ducks in a row. The art can’t really be blamed for taking the name for granted, the flavor doesn’t really live up to the name. The Amonkhet masterpiece art better conveys the lightning being tossed back and forth between opponents. Lightning Pong.
Where the Amonkhet masterpiece doesn’t match up is the dated text. It states ‘target creature or player,’ when the spell is in fact not limited to those targets. The Battlebond reprint correctly updates the text to ‘any target,’ and the space saved has allowed the two Red mana symbols in its effect to fit neatly into the first chunk of text. A clean, fresh look for an old favorite.
Many players, myself included, like to pick up more recent printings of cards to have their most recent oracle text updates reflected. It saves time when dealing with newer players, helps ensure the least confusion possible for tournament gameplay, and it’s nice when your cards match.
Reprints of old cards like Chain Lightning in supplementary products and the Masterpiece series are especially appreciated. New art, perhaps an updated card frame or appealing set symbol, the opportunity to get foils to trick out a main or pet deck. All go well with updated wording.
More often than not, changes to wording are simply revised game terminology, highly unlikely to actually impact a card’s functionality. It is rare that a card’s oracle text changes, and exceedingly rare that any of the card’s functions are also changed from what their original printings imply. The Chain Lightning Masterpiece from Amonkhet and the new Battlebond Chain Lightning is a good example of this exceedingly rare situation. Chain Lightning is just one among hundreds of cards directly affected by the Great Burn Errata, which has created a glut of cards whose printed text does not match their oracle text.
The Great Burn Errata is a set of sweeping mass erratas in an effort to preserve the function lost by cards to the removal of the planeswalker damage redirection rule. Prior to Dominaria this used to be the rule that governed how many burn spells like Chain Lightning should interact with planeswalker cards. The shorthand for the majority of cards with functions changed or preserved by the errata is discernable through key phrases.
‘Target player’ and ‘Target opponent’ become ‘target player or planeswalker’ and ‘target opponent or planeswalker,’ as in Lava Spike or Inferno Jet.
Often termed ‘hitting the face,’ ‘hitting the dome,’ or ‘going upstairs.’ If it could hit ‘the face’ before, it can hit the face or a planeswalker just the same as before.
Most cards lacking those phrases, particularly ones whose damage effects lean toward being indirect, can loosely be thought to have their functions changed to be played as read. These cards lose interaction with planeswalker cards, and can be considered nerfed, refocused into player-centric burn. A few exceptions may come up, including even a few cards that some might be surprised to learn retain their function, or even be buffed.
It’s unfortunate for many of these cards to have their latent capabilities in the Modern format clipped. Eidolon of the Great Revel enjoyed most of the spotlight while the triggered ability was still able to damage planeswalkers, and could be considered spoiled next to other candidates for the punisher role. Harsh Mentor, Scab-Clan Berserker, Rampaging Ferocidon, Fate Unraveler, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, Burning-Tree Shaman, Harsh Mentor and Tunnel Ignus all have potential to take the spotlight depending on the metagame. For a good while Eidolon of the Great Revel has been favored for the prevalence of Storm in Modern. I personally had Ash Zealot pegged as a card that would appreciate in value in my article discussing Jace, the Mindsculptor in Modern, though I also suspected Jace wouldn’t be the monster people were making him out to be. I didn’t anticipate the MTG Arena shorthanding of burn text would not just be incorporated into the regular game, it would also come with several functionality changes. Ash Zealot could previously punish use of a Snapcaster Mage while a Jace, the Mindsculptor was active by blasting Jace in the face for 3. That’s no longer possible. Maybe the change in functionality of Ash Zealot, Eidolon of the Great Revel and co will increase Jace, the Mindsculptor’s meta share.
‘Each Player’ Quakers and ‘Caners
‘Each player’ damage effects the likes of Earthquake and Hurricane will no longer work against enemy planeswalkers. The fact they did at all really made for weird scenarios where these damage effects designed to be symmetrical would become asymmetrical since damage to yourself could not be redirected to a planeswalker you controlled. This gave every such effect the hidden mode of being a mini Char against planeswalkers. Volcanic Fallout and Cloudthresher lose sideboard viability as nigh-uncounterable cheapshots against planeswalkers hiding behind Lingering Souls tokens.
Slagstorm loses an edge over Anger of the Gods, and falls even further behind in the competition for Modern’s top 3 mana Red sweeper spell.
‘Shock to the Face’ Rider Effects
Sometimes what makes a card the best choice among alternatives in a metagame is a rider effect. A little lifegain here, a little scry there. Rider effects tend not to supply hard advantage like drawing cards or destroying additional permanents unless costed higher. Damage rider effects had often stood out from the competition because of the planeswalker damage redirection rule enabling occasional advantage by picking off planeswalkers. Now that the rule is gone and these cards are played as read, these hot alternatives to Stone Rain and Naturalize are losing deck and sideboard slots when the burn damage in and of itself is not important to the strategy. Molten Rain notably has been losing slots to the vanilla Stone Rain,
which is more valuable to Green-based land disruption decks for costing only a single Red mana. Expect to see more variety for these rider effects in the coming years.
The commonly disregarded Browbeat and Vexing Devil, known by some as punisher effects. I like to think of them as Painful Choice cards.
A layer of depth has been removed from these cards, which provided the caster with a threat against a planeswalker that would be indeterminate until resolution. That is, there was no need to declare the damage redirection would go to the planeswalker until it was accepted. The opponent had to guess if you really did want to deal damage to their planeswalker or not. The net result was that such cards could be played against planeswalkers with greater predictability for which mode would be chosen.
While these kinds of mind games feel clever to enact on an opponent, it is the opponent whose cleverness may be truly rewarded. The choice of the opponent determines the impact of the play, after all. In saying so, I could be confused for giving credence to those dismissive of these painful choice effects. Effects where the opponent is given control over something is often criticized, as if to do so is an exercise in stupidity. Such conventional wisdom often comes from a place that enjoys the stupidity of Fact or Fiction yet shies away from the challenge of Steam Augury. Cards like these are difficult to balance, and often veer toward the Steam Augury end as a course correction from the broken Fact or Fiction. Official Magic R&D recognizes there is a sweet spot where the cleverness of both players is tested, and often flirts with Painful Choice designs to find that meaningful middle ground.
While never having gotten exceedingly powerful, the messiness of the planeswalker redirection rule made balancing damage-based Painful Choice cards shakey. It’s no coincidence that such designs were pushed more into Black magic over the years, culminating in the carefully crafted life loss examples of Torment of Hailfire Sword-Point Diplomacy. With the redaction of the planeswalker damage redirection rule in Dominaria, Black magic is being streamlined with Red magic for direct damage effects as seen in Cabal Paladin, a design that would have presumably involved life loss in Black or be on a pushed Red card until now. Because designs like Browbeat and Vexing Devil can be consciously cleaner for R&D to balance, they can continue to be pushed. A lack of depth for some design space means more to be explored elsewhere.
‘Each opponent’ Face Burn
A number of Standard stars lose on this front, namely Red magic which sees the effect firmly demoted to shared common space with Black as in the aforementioned Cabal Paladin. Ramunap Ruins, Hazoret, the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance all lose traction for Modern viability by losing the capability to hit opposing planeswalkers with their ‘each opponent’ burn abilities. Skred Red lists in Modern can already be seen cutting down on Chandras, and Hazoret the Fervent sees less experimentation. Ramunap Ruins is banned in Standard, so the hope for it finding a place in a Modern Burn shell is dampened.
This indirect face burn effect used to be a way for R&D to add value to a card, at the top of what was previously a hierarchy of face burn variants. The four main variants included ‘N damage to target player,’ ‘Target player loses N life,’ and these were joined by their multi-opponent variants ‘N damage to each opponent’ and ‘each opponent loses N life.’ Until recently, the variant as seen on Hazoret the Fervent was generally considered the greatest of these.
Life loss, traditionally seen in Black magic as a way to differentiate from Red, has the advantage of being able to circumvent damage prevention. Because damage prevention is an unpopular tactic for dealing with damage as opposed to life gain, counterspelling, blinking, protection, hexproof and even target redirection effects, life loss is rarely relevant.
The exceptions in Modern tend to be circumventing effects that cheat death based on damage, like Worship and Angel’s Grace. Life loss can be thought of as the best bet for actually finishing someone off, the way –N/–N effects do for finishing off creatures. Fitting that Black magic should have the better means of ensuring death. Black magic’s tendency to avoid straightforward damage has contributed to the value of Collective Brutality and Fatal Push in Modern.
Anything that meddled with targeting a player was a bane for anyone relying on the planeswalker redirection rule. Players had to be targeted before an effect’s damage could be redirected to a planeswalker they controlled, so indirect forms of dealing damage were valued. Most of the effects in categories previously discussed found utility in this niche, and were joined by ‘N damage to each opponent’ for the straightforward face burn effects. This utility has now completely vanished from these indirect player-limited damage effects, and ‘N damage to each opponent’ falls in priority behind ‘each opponent loses N life.’ Printings from Dominaria onward with this language will tend to be preferable to their singular ‘target player’ variants. ‘N damage to target player’ variants printed before Dominaria are not to be confused, their invisible ‘or planeswalker’ text being preserved. For Pre-Dominaria printings, ‘N damage to each opponent’ loses its place at the top and generally goes right down to the bottom of choices when looked at in a vacuum.
An example of this shift in priority is seen with the waning popularity of Atarka’s Command. Atarka’s Command used to be the superior choice to Skullcrack if a deck could support the mana fixing. Skullcrack now challenges Atarka’s Command by being able to hit planeswalkers. Atarka’s Command users must now find greater use for the other modes. For some decks, the convention of Skullcrack serving as Atarka’s Command virtual 5-8 copies now sees the roles reversed. Naya Burn in Modern loses need for Atarka’s Command and Destructive Revelry, and we are seeing the deck shift into more of a Boros shell.
Skullcrack can also turn off damage prevention for the turn, which will see more value as Black magic deals damage more often and more damage prevention effects come into use.
Player-Informed Damage Effects
The last among indirect damage effects to lose their ability to interact with planeswalkers are those similar to The Rack. The Rack loses the ability to suppress a Jace, the Mindsculptor who might dig an opponent out from the pits of hellbent hand disruption known to 8rack decks. Now the deck’s namesake is surpassed by the backup Shrieking Affliction for its life loss effect, a similar reversal to the Skullcrack and Atarka’s Command situation described earlier. Other pressures favoring Shrieking Affliction include the increased viability of damage prevention as more Black magic deals in damage following Dominaria, and the value of what life loss effects can be found.
The rarely played inversion of the 8rack strategy sees its counterparts in Ebony Owl Netsuke and Fevered Visions following the trend of losing success rate, and drifting further into obscurity. Sword of War and Peace gets an honorable mention here as another indirect damage effect that loses its planeswalker suppression angle, much of that utility going to Sword of Fire and Ice and its new ‘any target’ oracle text.
The gap in complexity between Thrull Parasite from 2013 and Dark Bargain from Dominaria 2018 shows the shift in approach for Black magic. The complexity on display by Thrull Parasite encapsulates the lengths to which space had been carved out for Black magic to be distinguished from Red magic. There was an experimental bent to Black magic to try and do anything that resembled Red magic differently, to its own extreme. Black magic has in its character an endearing contrarianism that seems almost embarrassed to settle for Red magic’s unabashed normalness.
Thrull Parasite also comes from a time when Wizards of the Coast was still timid about referencing planeswalker cards outside of rare and mythic rare slots. Now that they feel planeswalkers have been sufficiently normalized, damage becomes normalized as a more uniform means of interacting with planeswalkers. Were the first printing of Thrull Parasite in Dominaria, the Extort ability would deal 1 damage to each opponent, its tap ability would deal 1 damage to target planeswalker and the activation cost would probably have Thrull Parasite deal 2 damage to its controller. Life loss effects over damage effects will increasingly become the novelty, as it probably should have been all along. I hope the novelty of extremes in Black magic remains as a spice, and that Wizards doesn’t get carried away with the normalization of damage effects.
I take issue with damage normalization going so far as to replace life payment, and I know Dark Bargain looks strange to many other enfranchised players. Flavor-wise, for the spell to deal damage to the user doesn’t ring with the concept of a bargain the way traditional life loss or life payment works. Bitter Revelation and Moonlight Bargain demonstrate the same general effect as Dark Bargain with more effective communication of their flavor concepts for the effect. For how charming the art on Dark Bargain is, it is done a disservice by the damage effect maligning with the concept. That’s not to say damage can’t fit on Black card advantage effects, it just shows hastiness on the part of official Magic R&D. It’s a shame, because Dark Bargain is otherwise an instant hit. Dark Bargain is otherwise a staple core set reprint candidate for years to come, marred as a casualty of this overzealous push for damage normalization.
No doubt the seriousness with which such oversights are taken can seem ridiculous, a substantial portion of the Magic audience cares about effective execution of a card’s concept. Design in Magic is about more than a card’s utility or gameplay effectiveness. Compelling flavor is what keeps many players from cashing in their collections to go play Poker, Chess, or any number of the games competing with Magic in today’s market. Even consistency of theme is something that can invite scrutiny to an otherwise beloved design. It’s the sort of thing that inspires praise for a series for 8’s on one card and vitriol for a single 8 out of place on another.
Beyond mishandled flavor and the poor market reception that can result, competitive gameplay is another place where Dark Bargain’s normalized damage payment design may be a step too far.
As a rule of thumb, increased interaction in a game tends to be a good thing. There are, after all, more opportunities to interact with damage than life loss or life payment.
As the redaction of the planeswalker damage redirection rule shows, removing avenues for interaction can be a healthy thing. Just as clumsy damage redirection rules added unnecessary emergent gameplay, so does damage as payment, for taking damage will always be preferable to life loss or hard life payment. We trade in the ‘N damage to each opponent’ hierarchy for a preventable payment hierarchy. Using damage to replace other forms of payment goes against the good done by redaction of the planeswalker damage redirection rule.
If damage normalization in Black magic goes as far as to substitute everyday life payment and accompanies a repeatable effect, we may cross into the dangerous territory of payment negation when continuous damage prevention like Safe Passage is involved. Angel’s Grace and Ad Nauseam in Modern already combine effectively enough to form the basis of a competitive combo deck, and that still puts the user on 0 life to die the following turn once the ‘You can’t lose the game this turn’ effect wears off. If life loss and payment for costs become damage, more resilient and oppressive combo strategies are prone to emerge. The apparent nonchalance with which Dark Bargain has been given damage to replace life payment or life loss shows the point where normalization crosses over into homogeny. For both flavor and function, to continue this precedent set by Dark Bargain would be a mistake.
A lot of good comes from removal of the planeswalker damage redirection rule when considering damage division. The sweeping revision of ‘target creature or player’ to ‘any target’ coupled with damage division means an outright buff for qualifying cards. The damage effect of Electrolyze and Forked Bolt now read:
[Electrolyze/Forked Bolt] deals 2 damage divided as you choose among one or two targets.
The main buff in question is the new utility against multiple active planeswalkers. Under the retired planeswalker damage redirection rule, if two planeswalkers were on 1 loyalty, a damage source that could divide itself among multiple target creatures and/or players like Forked Bolt was limited to only shooting a single planeswalker.
The problem was of a similar nature as encountered with Leyline of Sanctity. Again, targeting happens as a spell is cast, and the planeswalker damage redirection rule only worked afterward, as damage was assigned. This meant only one planeswalker could be targeted at a time by any effect that targeted players. Now that planeswalkers can be targeted directly, an effect like Forked Bolt can simply split between the two targets. This adds to the existing utility of cards that can divide their damage, already fine answers to Liliana of the Veil dropped into using her -2 ability alongside a Young Pyromancer or their tokens. Now multi-target burn spells can pick off two planeswalkers simultaneously, so a Forked Bolt can take out a Liliana of the Veil and Jace the Mindsculptor who are both at 1 loyalty whereas prior to Dominaria this was impossible.
Avacyn’s Judgment, Bogardan Hellkite, Conflagrate, Inferno Titan, Samut, the Tested, Fall of the Titans are all cards that gain an outright buff from the Great Burn Errata. Two cards especially gain a boost in their utility, and become more elegant designs.
Fiery Justice becomes an option for Green+White based decks that are willing to splash Red. Green and White are the colors least capable of dealing with planeswalkers, so adding what is the most splashable color for interaction with multiple planeswalkers on the battlefield is something for Green+White heavy Naya decks to keep in mind. The opponent gaining 5 life isn’t bad against Death’s Shadow either.
Comet Storm is the kind of card that makes the Great Burn Errata feel very much worthwhile. The shorter, cleaner text is the kind that has me eager to see it reprinted, and I expect Comet Storm to be a welcome filler mythic for many supplementary sets to come.
Comet Storm’s oracle text for the damage effect now simply reads:
Choose any target, then choose another target for each time this spell was kicked. Comet Storm deals X damage to each of them.
The Great Burn Errata is good news for White magic as a side effect. In keeping with rules consistency, a suite of cards which could never previously interact with damage dealt directly to planeswalkers like Magmaquake, now can. Angel of Salvation previously had to prevent damage to the planeswalker’s controller to prevent damage being redirected in the first place.
The same ‘any target’ errata that gives Bogardan Hellkite and Forked Bolt the ability to hit multiple planeswalkers at once takes Angel of Salvation’s interaction with planeswalkers from limited to much more involved. Angel of Salvation can now be dropped in against an Hour of Devastation to prevent 1 point of damage to itself, and 2 points of damage to two different planeswalkers. The angel can be used to protect an Elspeth, Knight-Errant on her climb to a mass indestructibility emblem.
In the chaos of changes to Black and Red magic, benefits come to older White magic.
Among the improved cards are Sanctum Guardian, Withstand, Dawnfluke, Benevolent Ancestor, and Bandage. Avacyn Guardian Angel surprisingly sees improvement too.
Avacyn, Guardian Angel is special among the listed cards for being printed during a time when damage prevention effects were long updated to accommodate planeswalkers. White magic like Refraction Trap and Divine Deflection included the text ‘permanent you control’ to coyly count planeswalkers much like Black magic’s Thrull Parasite or Vampire Hexmage. Because of the sweeping ‘target player’ change into ‘target player or planeswalker’ change, she’s pulled the errata equivalent of getting into a club with a fake ID. Now this Serra Angel with upside can perpetually protect a planeswalker from alpha strikes with her second activated ability. If Baneslayer Angel can see fringe play in Modern Naya Big Zoo, maybe there’s renewed hope for Avacyn to find a place.
Because planeswalkers will now be targeted directly by a lot more burn spells, the reliability of certain defensive measures improves. Rebuff the Wicked previously could not stop a Magma Jet from hitting a planeswalker, and now it can. Rebuff the Wicked in Modern moves closer to rivaling Mana Tithe for a cheap White ‘gotcha’ trick from out of the blue. Not of this World is another odd card that can counter a spell outside of Blue magic, and could show up anywhere from Eldrazi Tron to mono Green builds.
Convoluted Damage Effects
Removal of the planeswalker damage redirection rule is mostly very clean, and the Great Burn Errata adds some healthy improvements. While the nerfs are mostly clean and the buffs range from good to quirky, this section is for the effects that provoke the most confusion.
Effects that specifically deal damage to a player yet have variable damage based on game information about that player are nerfed. These effects resembling one-shot The Rack effects receive no errata and default to only hitting players.
Despite only a handful of cards being included in this subset and their effects being far from difficult to grasp, they turn out to be complicated in the game’s language when involving planeswalkers to warrant being lumped together with most other indirect damage effects.
The planeswalker damage redirection rule almost pulled its weight when it came to cards like these. Now that the rule is gone, expect future cards like these to be given careful new templating when designed to hit players and planeswalkers
Searing Blood is nerfed to not be able to hit planeswalkers, while Searing Blaze still can albeit in a convoluted way. The effects are similar, so a helpful shorthand to keep in mind for cards like these is whether they hit a player ‘cleanly,’ enough to pass the Lava Spike check. Because Searing Blood’s damage to a player is contingent on conditional reference to a creature – a creature hit by it must die in order to trigger a delayed triggered ability – it doesn’t pass the check. Searing Blaze, despite the need to target a creature at the same time as a player, does not bring about its damage to the player by requiring a condition to be met by the creature. Searing Blaze checks out, and receives the oracle text update below.
Searing Blaze deals 1 damage to target player or planeswalker and 1 damage to target creature that player or that planeswalker’s controller controls.
Landfall — If you had a land enter the battlefield under your control this turn, Searing Blaze deals 3 damage to that player or planeswalker and 3 damage to that creature instead.
That amusing block of redundancy is the phrasing for any follow-up effect that depends on damage dealt to the face, very much function over form. There will be demand for reprints of cards like these, if only for the clarity of wording and how likely they are to be confused with effects like Searing Blood. Two more widely known cards follow Searing Blaze’s new wording, and manage merciful brevity by comparison.
Masters 25 gave us a great Blightning reprint. The all-star Alara Standard card with a punchy effect that fits squarely onto two lines. For some Blightning is one of the quintessential multicolor cards. The effect is pushed, the pun works, the flavor grisly as Grixis can be. Overshadowed for some time now by Kolaghan’s Command, Blightning is one of those classic greedy goodstuff cards that still has plenty of fans. Fans grateful to see its functionality has been preserved, though the slick aesthetic of its wording has been compromised.
Blightning deals 3 damage to target player or planeswalker. That player or that planeswalker’s controller discards two cards.
The internal logic for these cards is that so long as the primary hit of damage to the player or planeswalker is clean, allowance is made for the rest of the text to be clunky. If Comet Storm showed the cleanest of the errata for X spells, Bonfire of the Damned might show the messiest.
Bonfire of the Damned deals X damage to target player or planeswalker and each creature that player or that planeswalker’s controller controls.
Clan Defiance serves as an example of the minor clutter and inconsistency set to ripple across older cards.
Clan Defiance’s first reprint in Commander 2016 came not long after the bullet point layout change following M15, in such a way that I sense an eagerness by R&D to show off its makeover.
The elegance of the refined bullet point layout for modal spells is regrettably comrpomised for Clan Defiance. Kolaghan’s Command has always jokingly been referred to as having more than 4 modes because of the damage ability allowing the option of creature or player – or planeswalker. The errata to ‘any target’ simplifies Kolaghan’s Command. Clan Defiance on the other hand owes its very design to the differentiation between possible targets. Clan Defiance will look a little odd with its last effect dealing damage to ‘target player or planeswalker’ when the first two choices allow for only one kind of target.
Planeswalker cards, the very reason for this Great Burn Errata to begin with, have less room per ability line to cram additional text. Chandra Nalaar’s first ability gains ‘or planeswalker’ while Chandra, Torch of Defiance essentially loses it. Chandra, Pyromaster might reclaim her position as the best Chandra for keeping down other planeswalkers while climbing herself, though her +1 becomes similarly worded to Searing Blaze. Chandra Nalaar’s ultimate now reads just like Bonfire of the Damned and Chandra, Torch of Defiance’s ultimate gets the ‘any target’ consolation prize. Given the crash in value for Torch of Defiance and the fact she loses the most text, (including ‘to your mana pool’ from her second +1 thanks to another Dominaria wording revision) she might turn out to be the Chandra of choice for the inevitable Chandra Spellbook product.
Planeswalker cards were first introduced in the Lorwyn set, over 10 years ago in 2007. The planeswalker damage redirection rule was conceived to allow burn spells released prior to their existence to interact with them, which amounted to more player interaction with planeswalker cards. Planeswalker cards quickly became stars of competitive Magic, and have proven themselves a lasting hit with the Magic fanbase.
The experiment that has taken over a decade is done with keeping to implied interactions and relegating references to the rare and mythic slots.
Since the change to extend the legendary supertype to include planeswalkers and the normalization of damage effects, planeswalker cards themselves have now finally become normalized in Magic.
There has been enough awareness over at official Magic R&D to anticipate a need for players to adjust to the new burn paradigm. Reminder text on cards like Fight with Fire are attempts to help normalize the revised terminology of ‘any target.’
This works well enough in Standard, unfortunately it has little impact on formats outside of it. Hundreds of cards have been errata’d to preserve functionality, while hundreds of other cards have not. New cards using the same language of older prints could have incongruent effects, and this places a knowledge burden on the playerbase. One which greatly inflates the complexity barrier of entry into the Modern and Legacy formats for newer players.
For every educational card like Fight with Fire that gets printed, there are more that breed opportunity for misinformation. For instance, the damage portion of Chandra, Bold Pyromancer’s first ability is worded the same as Chandra Nalaar in print. And this is to say little of future cards that might state only ‘creature or player’ for targets!
It’s this sort of confusion that exasperates the need for reprints, and why Chain Lightning and other popular errata’d burn cards ought to be on a shortlist for reprints in supplementary products.
Back in Chain Lightning’s home format of Legacy, other Red cards based around choices chiefly take a hit in competitive viability instead of aesthetics. The choices for Fiery Confluence and Sin Prodder, often featured in Big Red decks have been simplified. When the planeswalker damage redirection rule was in place, Fiery Confluence was actually able to emulate damage dividing effects of the present day. Finishing off both a Jace, the Mindsculptor and a Liliana of the Veil could be done by choosing the second mode multiple times and having each instance redirect to a different planeswalker. Now that this line of play is lost entirely, Fiery Confluence’s natural ability to deal damage to creatures and planeswalkers is inherited by the likes of Forked Bolt.
Though planeswalkers aren’t all that popular in Legacy, it hurts for Big Red decks to not be able to take out a Liliana of the Veil the way they used to. Fiery Confluence is a little more prone to replacement now, and it’s unlikely its price will climb back up to its current high after it gets reprinted.
Sin Prodder previously enjoyed putting similar pressure on planeswalkers as The Rack while providing the kind of card advantage in Big Red that Dark Confidant might in Black+Green Rock.
As for Chain Lightning’s main deck, Price of Progress and Sulfuric Vortex too are nerfed. It’s important to remember that just because a card is nerfed, it doesn’t become useless. The loss for Burn is not as bad as the loss for Big Red, since the choice over where the damage goes is more valuable for Big Red as the more controlling strategy. It’s easier for the Burn deck to adapt by sharpening its focus on its naturally aggressive approach. Some players might lament the inability for Price of Progress and Sulfuric Vortex to hit planeswalkers, and reminisce over the times they held back Price of Progress until they could blast an opponent’s Jace with it.
Magic R&D lead Mark Rosewater likes to recount an experience playtesting with the Kavu Titan card during which Grizzly Bears were used as proxies by the team. Mark was not told, so only played the Kavu Titan as a 1G 2/2 like a Grizzly Bear and never used its Kicker option. He went undefeated in testing games until he was informed of the card’s option, then began losing. Mark Rosewater reflected that the additional choice of a 5/5 trample for 5 presented by the Kavu Titan seduced him away from playing the creature as a 2/2 for 2 Grizzly Bear when needed for early game presence.
The removal of planeswalker interaction from many burn spells can be likened to Kavu Titans becoming Grizzly Bears. While the capability for Price of Progress and Sulfiric Vortex to hit planeswalkers made the cards better in principle, in practice it was another possibility for mishap by making the wrong choice. The obvious criticism against such design is that a card’s skill ceiling is reduced as a cost for lifting its floor, and this must therefore reflect poorly on the card or even the player using it. When talking of skill, it is often easy to forget Magic is a game of luck and knowledge in addition to skill. Whether spending a burn spell to clear a planeswalker or hit an opponent is the correct play can change based on what that opponent draws next.
The more a choice becomes a test of knowledge, the more obvious and thus less interesting that choice becomes. If it is most always correct to play Kavu Titan for 2 mana on Turn 2, that may as well be incentivized in the design. If a card is going to provide options, it may as well do so with enough nuance to create good tension between the options. Once you know to cast Kavu Titan as either 2/2 for 2 when possible or 5/5 for 5 when possible there’s not much more to it. As you build up more mana in the game, the 5/5 for 5 option becomes more obvious, incentivized because only in that state does the creature have trample. Untamed Kavu gives greater tension between the two modes by having the vigilance and trample abilities innate to the 2/2 mode. It’s more likely you may choose to cast Untamed Kavu for 2 mana as the game goes on than a 2 mana Kavu Titan.
In a Burn deck, where the strategy is focused on getting an opponent’s life down to zero, taking the option to hit a planeswalker can inadvertently cost games when the hit should have just gone to the face. Experienced Burn players are familiar with this conflict, wherein somehow it seems like always shooting at the opponent directly tends to be the better move in retrospect. This can’t be empirically true of course, and the contradiction can nag at Burn players. What they are contending with is the need to give a little allowance for luck amid the tight play. It is in this light that additional options can be a burden or a trap. Holding up burn to deal with a planeswalker can turn out as bad as holding back for a Kavu Titan’s kicker. The removal of these options by the Great Burn Errata means the hand of Red magic is forced, and the solution for aggressive Red-based decks is to simply embrace being more aggressive.
The Burn cards that have been nerfed can be seen through the lens of the Kavu experiment, where pre-Dominaria Price of Progress and its ability to hit planeswalkers can be likened to Kavu Titan. A superfluous design that for all its bonuses and the pitfalls it brings may as well just be Grizzly Bears. Price of Progress may as well just be the clean Burn spell it ought to be, and so with the Great Burn Errata it is. A strategy does not need to be loaded with complexity to be effective, the burden of complexity can compromise a strategy.
Chain Lightning through this lens can be likened to the more sophisticated design of Untamed Kavu, whose frontloaded power makes what complexity is available more meaningful. In the Legacy format, Red magic is abundant. From Sneak & Show, to Big Red, to Grixis Delver, Burn mirror match or anything running Blood Moon. Chain Lightning can add a burden of complexity onto an opponent’s gameplay by tempting them with the opportunity to pay two Red mana and copy the spell. The skill of using Chain Lightning comes from balancing aggressive use with openness for setting opponents up for painful choices. The greatest victories with a Burn deck can leave every card in an opponent’s hand feeling like a Kavu Titan.