Why are Extra Turns a Problem for Magic: The Gathering?
A glimpse into the recent balancing issues with the world's most popular TCG.
I read an interesting article about the original playtest version of one of Magic's most iconic cards from the original Alpha set.
It's hard to imagine that this card would eventually become one of the Power Nine, and arguably one of the most powerful effects you can take. Yep, this card would eventually become Time Walk, the first extra turn spell in Magic's history.
More recently, I wrote a piece about Magic's recent design problems, and how they've been affecting the game over the last few years. While I don't mention it specifically in that article, one of the more problematic cards in the current Standard rotation (aka the most recent few sets released) just to happens to also be an extra turn spell.
While the card isn't nearly as powerful as its ancestor, it's clearly not the first time Magic has printed a problematic extra turn spell.
What Makes an Extra Turn so Good?
Just like in any turn-based game, players are usually having the most fun on their own turn. Their turn is the time where they shine and get to do all the cool flashy stuff. When you introduce extra turn effects to a game you're stealing that time to shine away from other players.
Not a lot of turn-based games have extra turn effects. Monopoly allows it to a certain degree when a player rolls doubles too many times in a row. Games like Final Fantasy have spells that allow player turns to come up more often, but usually not sequentially.
Taking extra turns in Magic not only takes away that fun from another player, but it also grants a bigger advantage to the player taking the extra turn. They get another card to draw, they get another chance to cast spells, and so on.
The Issue With Alrund's Epiphany
Why is this card so good? It costs a lot of mana, and it exiles itself so you can't cast it over and over. What's the big deal then?
Well, the reason is there just aren't a lot of cards that can deal with it. The current pool of cards in Standard don't provide adequate solutions to deal with Alrund's Epiphany before it's too late.
The color pie for Magic determines what each color can and can't do. This is a really cool design principle behind Magic's process, and it's been a guiding piece for most of the game's life.
White-based decks can be aggressive and potentially kill an opponent before they can cast more than one, but this isn't guaranteed.
Blue-based decks can run countermagic to stop big spells like this.
Black-based decks can't always make the opponent discard the card, because of the Foretell keyword allowing them to cast it from a special zone.
Red-based decks have no way to get around it aside from "being faster", just like White.
Green-based decks have nothing to do except hope they can "be faster", like Red and White.
Now, this isn't always the case every time. However, with the current pool of cards available to players, this is the current predicament. Most colors have no way to interact with big, flashy game-ending spells.
Instead, players are casting several copies of Alrund's Epiphany in sequential turns, paired with heavy-hitting creatures or even an animated mainland. This means that a game that could have been one or two turns away from victory is suddenly gone, as your opponent takes three turns in a row with a 7/7 and some number of bird tokens.
Extra Turn Spells Have Been Constant Problems.
This isn't the first time Wizards of the Coast has ended up with some problematic extra turn spells, and not even within the last few years.
A few years ago, another extra turn spell hit Standard: Nexus of Fate. Not only could this spell be cast at any time, but it would also go back into your deck as it resolved, so you could possibly cast it again. There was also plenty of cards that would allow players to reach that magic number of mana to cast Nexus of Fate quickly, with the biggest offenders being Wilderness Reclamation and Wild Growth.
What could go wrong?
Well, for starters it got banned in early 2019 for Magic's Best-of-One format, because of the inability to interact with the card. In November of the same year, it would get immediately banned in the newest digital-only format for Magic, also known as Historic.
Not a month would go by before Nexus of fate would get banned again in one of Magic's other new formats, Pioneer. It was also re-banned when the Historic format added a Best-of-Three mode.
In more recent times, the release of Strixhaven and its "Mystical Archive" would add a bunch of new and reprinted cards to both Standard and Historic. One of those cards that would only be Historic legal is Time Warp, a reprinted extra turn effect.
A deck would soon arise that would allow players to cast Time Warp over and over and over again, with cards that could allow you to cast it for free from your library or graveyard. It became such a problem in Historic that five of the top eight decks in the Strixhaven Championship would be focused around this interaction. Every deck in the top four semifinals would be the same deck as well.
It was soon banned in Historic less than a week after the tournament took place.
Big Flashy Game Enders
Magic is a game where most of the ways to end a game are through permanents (aka things that stick on the board for multiple turns, like creatures and enchantments), or at least it has been for the last 30ish years.
Sam Stoddard, one of the designers of Magic, wrote a piece on how they intentionally add these "finishers" to sets to help with balance issues, and give players different options. He even mentions how Planeswalkers have pushed out creature-based finishers in recent years, just due to how impactful they are.
He highlights the next set's new Blue finisher, a powerful creature that's hard to remove directly and offers a lot of power if it stays on the field. He even suggests several cards that were currently playable that would be able to deal with said finisher.
But in the last few sets, players haven't been given any tools to interact with this. Discard effects don't work, there are no targeted card hate pieces like Surgical Extraction to remove them from an opponent's deck. The only card that comes to mind is Curse of Silence, which really doesn't stop the spell from being cast, it just makes it cost more.
The Vast Power Difference Between Extra Turn Cards
I do want to say that I don't want to rain on anybody's parade and ban all extra turn effects. On the contrary, I find some of them to be pretty balanced when in the right shell.
However, there's a pretty big disparity in how balanced some of these extra turn spells are, with most of them being either unplayable or completely broken. It comes down to how many times you can cast them that becomes the real issue. Taking one extra turn is nowhere near a backbreaking as three extra turns.
Time Warp is a pretty "fair" extra turn card. It has a decent mana value, its sorcery speed, and doesn't do anything extra. It's so vanilla they remade it with a horse, and then printed it with a different name. This will be our baseline for any other extra turn spell.
The newest extra turn effect is Alchemist's Gambit, which comes with a clause that we see pretty often in the cheaper "unplayable" cards. The reason why these cards are "unplayable" is that you can't chain them over and over. You just lose the game at the end of that next turn. There are five of these kinds of effects, all in Red's color pie.
Expropriate, aside from being a mouthful of a card, is "fair". I put fair in quotes because, well, it's still usually a game-ending spell. It costs a lot, and regardless of how the votes are done you're most likely getting at least one extra turn or several in a multiplayer game.
Part the Waterveil saw some fringe competitive play in its day, and it's probably the most interesting of the "fair" extra turn spells. Sure, if you pay extra it can give you a big beater, but otherwise, it can't be looped over and over because of its exile clause.
If you look at all the extra turn effects ever printed in Magic's history, you'll see the list is not very long. And out of that list, only a handful of those cards were ever problematic. Usually, they're paired with big downsides that make them pretty difficult to add to a competitive deck.
It's no secret that Wizards has had some balance issues in the last few years. And it's never going to be a perfectly balanced game. There's no way to catch every edge case in every format, especially with the volume of new cards released every year. However, it's become a clear issue that extra turns in most games aren't a fun mechanic. Especially so when it comes to competitive games.
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