Vanilla Creatures in Legacy: Past, Present, Potential
- Robert Swiecki
Magic at its core is about attacking and blocking with creatures. It used to be that these creatures didn't have three triggered abilities and two activated abilities each. Text boxes didn't overflow with words. Sometimes they didn't even have any rules text at all. Where are the vanilla creatures?
Flashback: Opponent taps their Plains, plays Isamaru, Hound of Konda, and passes. Sweat runs down your forehead. You use your sleeve as a towel and wipe away your fear of playing against White Weenie.
Flashforward: Opponent plays Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, escapes it, generates tons of value, land drops, and life, pressures the board state, and passes. You smirk, tap three mana, and put Griselbrand into play.
These two scenarios could have easily played out more than ten years apart. Isamaru, much like almost all of its other vanilla friends, died a long time ago. But what is the current impact of vanilla creatures on Legacy and is their comeback possible?
What Is a Vanilla Creature?
First, we have to define what a vanilla creature really is. People, including the designers of Magic, commonly use this label for creatures that have no abilities whatsoever, except the ability to attack and to block. These creatures consist of a mana cost, values for power and toughness, and nothing else. Savannah Lions is the prime example, whereas it's already debatable if Isamaru, Hound of Konda, with its drawback hidden in the type line, meets the strictest possible definition.
Among the first 92 creatures printed in Alpha, only fifteen are such vanilla creatures. So it's nothing new and not a feature of modern times that sets are filled with more interesting specimens. The need for variety alone dictates as much. The possible combinations of casting costs and combat stats find a natural limit within the bounds of the game, and no one wants Wizards to print a ton of cards that are essentially the same but bear different names, or the 22nd reprint of Grizzly Bears.
Then there's a another category, what I'd like to call quasi-vanilla creatures. They have no triggered or activated abilities either, no global effect, neither evasion nor protection. Their job again is to attack and to block, plain and simple. However, they benefit from cost reduction and changes in power/toughness. Examples include Hooting Mandrills, Tarmogoyf, and Cryptic Serpent.
The Current State
At the moment, there exists no vanilla creature that plays any part in competitive Legacy. And that itself is an interesting development. Back in 2004 when Isamaru, Hound of Konda first saw print, it was a pretty popular creature. It played a role in Kamigawa's storyline and was received by the community with open arms. One could say that it was one of the better selling points of the set, aside from Sensei's Divining Top and Lava Spike. In fact, Wizards thought that running a full playset of this mighty hound might propel White Weenie to new heights, thus they made it legendary as a downside.
On the other hand, the current metagame features a bunch of quasi-vanilla creatures. Goyfs and delve creatures such as Gurmag Angler show up regularly in aggressive tempo decks like Delver or Death's Shadow. If we stretch the definition to include all creatures that see play because of their cost-to-power ratio, we might as well count the Shadow and Delver of Secrets / Insectile Aberration themselves, too.
What if …
Now let us think about strictly vanilla creatures again and consider what would happen if Wizards were to print a ridiculously underpriced beater. How big and cheap would it have to be? What impact would a 3/3 for one green mana have on the format? Would a 2/4 for one white mana be better and is there a world where a red 4/2 would see play? (Now I really want to take Vexing Devil for a spin in some deck again.)
These are simple questions that demand complex answers. Which deck would want to play a new vanilla creature, and how would a certain creature type make a strategy better or maybe even playable for the first time? Let us look at the possible cards under one premise though: being easy to remove from the battlefield is not a relevant factor. I mean, it certainly is, but that vulnerability is just a fact built into the very card type. Some of the most dominant creatures in their eras were at the same time the most fragile things on earth; see Goblin Lackey, Delver of Secrets, and Birds of Paradise. So, everything dies to some removal and all creatures work under different conditions.
The first archetype that comes to mind is tempo. In its purest form, the archetype wants to outpace the opponent during the first few turns and pressure their mana base by cutting off resources making Daze a hard counter. What kind of card could be a threat to Angler, Mandrills, and Tarmogoyf in Delver? First, it would have to cost one mana. Would a vanilla 3/3 in blue see play here? I think so, yes. Delver's evasion is quite significant, but a 3/3 that does not need to transform and doesn't demand a well-timed cantrip from time to time is too good to pass on. Any evasive effect would make this card completely broken, while almost any drawback would probably make it unplayable.
I would argue that a 2/4 and a 4/2 would also see play in tempo. On the other hand, I cannot see other decks wanting to pick up such a creature even with a relevant type like Elf, Goblin, or Eldrazi because the pool of impactful creatures outweighs sheer combat stats by a ton. The playability of any reasonable vanilla two-drop is similarly doubtful, since Death's Shadow and the delve creatures offer a way better rate than a 4/4 for two. Watchwolf, Leatherback Baloth, and Woolly Thoctar have never found a home in Legacy either, and they might be considered the best strictly vanilla creatures to date. There could have been a world where Leatherback Baloth would have pushed into Legacy in a green stompy shell, but unfortunately its mana cost of three green mana destroyed all its hopes; Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors play the determining role here.
So the outlook is grim for vanilla creatures in Legacy. I highly doubt that Wizards will print a huge enough specimen anytime soon. Perhaps it is easier to keep the power creep in check by using more and more, and more powerful, abilities on smaller creatures than having to deal with games skewed by combat stats. Then again, an innocuous-looking card like Dreadhorde Arcanist proved too much.
What do you think would be a playable vanilla creature in Legacy right now? I am curious to see your opinion. Do you want to meet Tarmogoyf's descendant at some point? How would you feel about a simple 3/3 for one mana, maybe as part of some booster release that bypasses Standard and Modern? And which decks would profit from such a creature?
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.