Magic Memories: Mogg Fanatic


The Tentacled One
In the Memories thread for Hypnotic Specter, the discussion turned to some analysis of how cards can get worse over time. It's happened a lot. Broadly speaking, old cards either become weaker with age or stronger, and I suspect that the former is more common. Many classics have faded from their seeming peaks of power. And for various reasons. Sometimes a card is made weaker, then bounces back due to some other change, only to be struck down again. Time Vault is the most extreme example of that, with more elaborate rules changes and Oracle text changes altering the gameplay value of the card than anything else seen in Magic. Most developments that help or hinder a card a stickier. The majority of old cards that were weakened by a change or series of changes took a hit and never recovered.

Probably the biggest factor in the downfall of old Magic cards could be abbreviated "power creep." New stuff comes along that either does a better job than the old stuff did, or new stuff comes along that the old stuff can't effectively fight. In my example of Hypnotic Specter, it was almost entirely the latter. No new cards were coming out that replaced Hypnotic Specter. It remained the most cost-effective creature in the game for hitting the opponent with evasive damage while simultaneously forcing discards from hand. Still has that title. Instead better removal, faster game pace, more graveyard synergies, and other factors changed the landscape and changed the risk/reward analysis of running something like Hypnotic Specter. Now, "power creep" isn't really one thing. It's a mixture of myriad factors. But as a general concept, it captures most of what happens when once-strong cards seem to become weaker with time.

Sometimes, though, it's not power creep, but functional changes. The aforementioned Time Vault was, for many years, a roller-coaster of functional revisions. From 1999 to 2016, Winter Orb lost its functionality of becoming "turned off" when tapped, which killed the old Winter Orb + Icy Manipulator combo (until Eternal Masters brought it back). But most cards that got weaker due to rules changes have stayed weaker to this day. Here are some examples that are prominent in my mind...

Power Sink: With the Sixth Edition rules changes in 1999, technically all cards with "Interrupt" or "Mana Source" as a type got at least a tiny bit weaker. In some cases, the opponent being able to respond to your interrupt/instant with a regular instant could be the difference between winning and losing. Perhaps uniquely among the old interrupt spells, Power Sink really leveraged its identity as an interrupt. Opponents were stuck either paying X or not paying X, and didn't get a chance to respond with instants, nor with activated abilities that didn't specify that they were interrupt-speed or mana sources. I seem to remember that WotC published something mentioning that this was the inspiration for the "Split Second" mechanic. Against opponents running sorceries and creatures and such, Power Sink still does its job. But the card really lost its edge in 1999 and has never been quite as good since then.

Mirror Universe: Another victim of the Sixth Edition rules overhaul. In the late 90's, Mirror Universe was quietly picking up momentum in older tournament formats as a kind of combo finisher. Any spell or activated ability that could be used to pay life during one's upkeep could be used to go to 0 life, and then Mirror Universe would switch life totals. It was becoming increasingly easy to set up such a combo with a six-mana artifact, and Necropotence was already a very strong card and a life payment outlet. Eventually, power creep and other indirect developments would have checked the success of dedicated Mirror Universe decks, but I suspect that the card could have been a powerhouse well into the 00's if the rules change hadn't hobbled it. More famously, but to what I contend was a lesser degree, Infernal Contract took a hit from this same rules change, losing its potency as a main phase combo deck tool for an all-in kill.

Orcish Oriflamme: Hilariously, this card was once restricted in tournament play. It was misprinted in the Alpha version of Limited Edition, with a mana cost of 1R instead of the intended 3R. Earlier this year, Modern Horizons created a tribute to this with Goblin Oriflamme, a functional reprint of the original Alpha version. Once again, goblins prove themselves to be better than orcs. As plenty of analysts have pointed out, the 1R version is kind of a mediocre card anyway. It's not a bad card, but its use is generally relegated to casual theme decks and to Limited gameplay. There are way better things to be doing for two mana in most Constructed formats. Bumping the mana cost up by 2 pushes it from the below average part of the playability spectrum toward the utter garbage part. For part of the 90's, Oracle text wasn't really an established concept and cards were supposed to be played as read, including misprints. This meant that the Alpha version of Orcish Oriflamme really did cost 1R (and that the Alpha version of Cyclopean Tomb could not be cast at all). The adoption of standardized rules text (WotC once published something detailing when and how this important change happened but I can't find an archival copy of it at this time, although I seem to remember that it was well after the 1994 unrestriction of Orcish Oriflamme) was a major blow to Alpha copies of this card.

Power Surge: I've written about this one before. I came across a few old documents describing Candelabra of Tawnos + Power Surge as a potent combo, but I was unclear on the intended audience or usage. I built my own "Candelabrasurge" deck in the old Microprose PC game and it was a favorite of mine. I couldn't put the deck together in paper because I didn't own any copies of the Candelabra. I was never clear on how popular this combo was. My deck was entirely my own invention, but I saw the combo itself mentioned in a magazine (either Scrye or Inquest or, now that I think about it, quite possibly both). I've never seen any record of the combo making a splash on the Pro Tour or anything. Much later, some of my unrelated internet searches turned up information that Mark Justice used Power Surge in tournaments. But yeah, this card took a huge hit, as it was designed very specifically with mana burn in mind. Power Surge wasn't the only card to suffer from this change (Citadel of Pain and Eladamri's Vineyard spring to mind), but it does seem to have suffered the biggest blow.

Burning Wish: For a time, this card was restricted in Vintage. The "Wish" cycle of cards from Judgment borrowed the concept originally used on the much clunkier Ring of Ma'Ruf, grabbing cards from outside the game. Until the major rules overhaul in 2009, there was no "exile zone." Instead, cards were removed from the game. In tournament play, the ruling was that Ring of Ma'Ruf could get either a card that was in one's sideboard or a card that was in the player's maindeck and had been removed from the game. The original wording made this abundantly clear. "This can be any card you have that you're not using in your deck or that for some reason has left the game." When WotC created the exile zone, they decided that Ring of Ma'Ruf and the "Wish" cards would no longer work on cards in "exile" because it was a "game zone" even though the cards had always functioned in that way up to that point (and even though the printed text on Ring of Ma'Ruf had an extra sentence of explanation stating that this was how it was supposed to work). Burning Wish is still a pretty good card and didn't lose that much to the rules change, but it did lose something.

Out of all of the cards that became weaker due to rules changes, the one that stands out the most in my mind, the one that perhaps fell the furthest because it had been such an unmitigated success, was Mogg Fanatic.
Although it was printed under Fifth Edition rules, it wasn't long before the Sixth Edition rules changes took over, and it was then that Mogg Fanatic really began to shine.
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The Tentacled One
For reasons I'll get into, I think it's quite possible that Mogg Fanatic gained more of a boost than any other card from the "damage on the stack" portion of the Sixth Edition rules changes and also lost more than any other card from the Magic 2010 combat rules changes. But before getting into that, I want to look at the role of Mogg Fanatic as a goblin card and the history of Goblins as one of the oldest and most prominent creature types.

In the Casual Decks forum, I've been faithfully writing reports on Tribal deckbuilding implications for every new Magic set that comes out. In my anaysis, I've got over 40 different tribes rated in the two highest tiers of competitive power. And of those (and a few of the ones in the next tier down) could be the theme of a powerful casual deck and most of them have cropped up in tournament settings where there was no particular incentive to build around a creature type. I play EDH with people who build tribal EDH decks, seriously basing their decks around a creature type in a 100-card singleton format (and some of those decks are quite strong). But it wasn't always this way.

Originally, creature types were almost entirely flavor. There were only three cards that used them mechanically in any way.

At first, there wasn't enough Tribal support to make deckbuilding based on these synergies viable. In fact, creature types were more of a liability than anything else.

Casual players tried all sorts of things with creature types, but it usually wasn't worth it. The idea of "Tribal decks" was developed, but the tools just weren't there. You'd get the occasional card like Thrull Champion or Griffin Canyon, but it wasn't enough. Not yet.

When Goblin Recruiter came out in Visions, it had the issue of being an excellent goblin-finding card in an era with almost no good goblins to stack on top of one's library. The card would eventually go on to become a tournament powerhouse (albeit one with a wrongheaded ban in Legacy that continues even now). But goblins just didn't have enough good cards in 1996.

The set containing Mogg Fanatic, Tempest, was a bit of an inflection point for Tribal interests. Mogg Fanatic by itself wasn't enough to make Goblin Tribal a strong archetype, but it helped.


The Tentacled One
When Mogg Fanatic was originally introduced in 1997, the most prominent card with a Goblin Tribal synergy was probably Goblin Grenade. And for Goblin Grenade, Mogg Fanatic's ability didn't really make sense anyway. Despite this, prospective Goblin theme deckbuilders had good reason to run Mogg Fanatic. The card was flexible on its own and there just weren't that many good one-drops anyway. It could kill an X/1, it could help finish off a damaged creature, or it could target an opponent directly, all useful for red decks, and generally more useful than other contemporary goblin options like Goblin Balloon Brigade or Keeper of Kookus. The closest competition in one-drop slot at the time would have been Raging Goblin, but it actually started out in Portal and was not a tournament-legal card until the Exodus reprinting. Other excellent choices would follow over the next several years. But the options of a goblin-based deck were miserable in the 90's.

Goblins, including Mogg Fanatic, did get some help with the release of Urza's Saga in 1998. This set brought in tournament-legal Goblin Matron (the card had also been included in Portal Second Age). It also introduced Goblin Patrol and Goblin War Buggy. But most importantly, this was the advent of Goblin Lackey...

Attentive readers might point out that this was all well before the existence of the usual Lackey synergies, such as Siege-Gang Commander. Goblin Lackey would eventually become banned in Extended for cheaply and reliably powering out a lethal goblintastic board state. But in 1998, Goblin Lackey wasn't the infamous aggro-combo powerhouse that it would later become. But it was a highly effective tempo engine in an era when most opponents were soft to fast aggro decks that could gain any sort of tempo advantage. Sometimes Goblin Lackey was only cheating a Goblin Patrol or Mogg Fanatic onto the board, but that still freed up mana to be use on other spells, which meant playing that much faster than the opponent.

Even in its early days, Goblin Lackey was a kind of must-block attacker, and it often teamed up with Mogg Fanatic, which was more of a don't-care-if-you-block attacker. Opponents could choose carefully, but Mogg Fanatic could always force one more damage through on any target, no matter what else happened in combat. Even once Goblin Tribal became a proper, viable archetype, the pair were a kind of one-two punch. Most good utility creatures at the time were 1/1, so opponents who didn't bring dedicated blockers were easily overwhelmed by these goblins. Combined with red burn spells that could also target either creatures to players, Mogg Fanatic made Goblin Lackey a reasonable tempo engine even before there were very many strong goblin cards to power out.

The most successful goblin synergy in the 90's was probably not Goblin Lackey, not Goblin King, and not Goblin Grenade, but Mogg Raider.

Even before Goblin Tribal was viable, Mogg Raider was a strong card in tournaments. It could sacrifice itself and other efficient goblins to boost unblocked attackers or to kill an important blocker in combat. In these decks, Mogg Fanatic was usually sacrificed to its own ability rather than Mogg Raider's ability, but it was nice to have both options.


The Tentacled One
I mentioned that most tournament environments in late 90's were soft to fast aggro decks that could gain tempo advantage, which was why Goblin Lackey was a reasonably successful card despite a dearth of good goblins to cheat out. But the card that really shows the contrast between then and now would have to be this little guy...

Not only was this flea-infested rascal a functional card, efficient for its mana cost at the time. It was an all-out multi-format superstar. Jackal Pup saw success every constructed tournament format and bolstered the "Sligh" archetype. Before Tempest, Sligh decks had been relying on Ironclaw Orcs, which has a mana cost of 1R. So despite how tame it might seem by the standards of today, Jackal Pup gave Sligh decks an appreciable speed boost.

Some of the biggest early successes for Mogg Fanatic were decks in which it was practically a support card for Jackal Pup. Long before Goblin Tribal decks were competitive, Mogg Fanatic was attacking alongside Jackal Pup. This was similar to the role I described when Mogg Fanatic was paired with Goblin Lackey. Both one-drop creatures would attack early on while opponents were trying to build a board state. Opponents were incentivized to block Jackal Pup (because at 2 power, it would dangerously lower the defending player's life total if allowed to swing unblocked too many times). If the opponent had a 1/1 utility creature to threaten a block, Mogg Fanatic could be sacrificed to get rid of it and let Jackal Pup through. As the game progressed, more blockers would emerge, but Mogg Fanatic would always either get through unblocked or get sacrificed, doing damage anyway. Opponents were left with no good options to keep their life totals high, and Sligh decks could finish them off with Fireblast, Fireball, Cursed Scroll, etc.

Playing Sligh is all about being faster and more efficient than your opponent. Cards in these decks tend to be efficient attackers, reusable damage-dealers, sources of targeted direct damage, or cards to put opponents at a tempo disadvantage. Mogg Fanatic is a cheap creature that doubles as a cheap burn spell. So it became one of the most popular creatures to use in this kind of red aggro deck. It would serve in that role for many years, but was pretty strong right away. Mogg Fanatic was a Sligh staple in Type 1, Type 1.5, Type 2, and Type 1.X (Extended). It also seemed, from what I saw, to make it into most casual red-based decks at the time. After all, it was a common (so it was available even to us scrubs) and its ability made it just about the most efficient one-drop available to most players.


The Tentacled One
Decks roughly classed as "Sligh" were the primary tournament niche for Mogg Fanatic. And after all, that's a pretty broad category. Any deck that was "red aggressive creatures with burn spells for support and a low mana curve" fell into that category. Not all of them in the late 1990's used Mogg Fanatic, but it was popular in most formats and my superficial research on the subject seems to indicate that the card generally gained traction in the early years following its initial 1997 release.

Aside from Sligh and primitive early versions of Goblin-themed decks, Mogg Fanatic also fit nicely into a third red archetype: Burn. I had my first casual Burn deck running sometime in 1998, I think. And I can't quite remember if Mogg Fanatic was in there from the beginning. It probably was, but it also wouldn't have mattered much anyway, as my card pool and knowledge were both deficient, so I was relying on crap like Meteor Shower because it was what I had to work with at the time. Anyway, Mogg Fanatic was a Burn staple for me, and stuck around in my Burn deck for over a decade.

On a whim, I just dug up a waybackmachine archive of my first CPA front page article, which was about Burn decks. The article was bad. All of my early articles for this site were bad, although I maintain that they did eventually get better (and I'm actually still kind of proud of the Rabid Wombat article as well as some of the ones that followed). Sure enough, I mentioned Mogg Fanatic in that article. I had this to say...

One of the few creatures that fits well in burn decks, and most of the others are goblins as well. This one is the best though. It gets a creature on the board to attack, which can be useful in drawn-out games against creatureless decks or block which can save some you some damage. In the end, it’s at least one instant-speed damage also, thanks to its ability.
I mean, the article was definitely rather bad, but that description isn't too far off the mark. Mogg Fanatic was the only card in my Burn deck for a while, and for the simple reason that it was such a reliable source of player damage. Against other aggressive decks, it won me some games by chump-blocking and then shooting the opponent for 1. That 1 damage was sufficient, alongside my other spells, to get an opponent into lethal Fireblast range. Against slower, more controlling decks, Mogg Fanatic often managed to land combat damage a few times and then get another point of damage in with its ability.

The distinction between Burn and Sligh, which I alluded to in the article without properly explaining, was that Sligh tended to try to get most of its damage in with creature attacks by deploying efficient attackers and clearing early blockers from the board with burn spells, often dealing the final damage with a burn spell or two once the opponent's life total was precariously low. In contrast, Burn decks pointed those spells directly at the opponent from early on in the game, attempting to do most damage with spells and abilities, rather than combat damage. There was some overlap and in different formats a particular archetype might lean more toward combat or away from it. This was further complicated by other tools these efficient red decks would use in certain formats, such as an emphasis on land destruction and Ankh of Mishra to cosntrain the opponent's options. Or the use of Cursed Scroll as an attrition-based finisher. Or a Grim Lavamancer package to add additional pressure once blockers have walled off attacks. But generally, Mogg Fanatic was a pretty good choice for most of these approaches.

I don't think that my first CPA article is really worth a read, but it does have some amusing blast-from-the-past moments. I noted my perception of the possible unavailability of a playset of Ball Lightning, a favorite of mine back then, because the card was a rare and hadn't been printed in very many sets. But then I glossed over Wheel of Fortune because one would probably only need one or two of them anyway. Seems silly now, but in 2004 it was probably not that far off the mark for most casual players. For fun, since I've opened the archive anyway, let's go through my overall feelings for cards in casual Burn decks from February of 2004. Yea or nay?

Shock: ?
Lightning Bolt: ✓
Incinerate: ✓
Chain Lightning: ✓
Seal of Fire: ✓
Fireblast: ✓
Kaervek's Torch: X
Pyrokinesis: X
Scent of Cinder: ✓
Sonic Burst: ✓
Volcanic Hammer: X
Flare: X
Flame Jet: X
Flame Rift: ✓
Mogg Fanatic: ✓
Keldon Champion: X
Ball Lightning: ?
Fork: ✓
Wheel of Fortune: ✓
Cursed Scroll: ✓
Hammer of Bogardan: X
Final Fortune: ✓
Black Vise: X
Thunderbolt: X
Sandstone Needle: ✓
Mox Ruby: ✓

Fifteen years later, what do I think? Well, I don't think that I was too egregiously wrong. In context, I titled the article "Build a Better Burn Deck" and the idea was to show that there were a lot of options for a Burn deck, but that it was better to kill faster. Most of these were cards I'd run myself for some time, but I'd been trying to move away from slower stuff like Keldon Champion and to maximize the fourth-turn kills with more Chain Lightning and such. I guess the target audience was someone who was in the same position I'd been in myself a few years before I wrote the article. I had notes along the lines that Thunderbolt wasn't necessarily bad, but if you were already running it alongside Incinerate, it would be better to minimize the number of 2-mana-for-3-damage spells and dip more into stuff like Sonic Burst or Flame Rift.

Mogg Fanatic would eventually become obsolete in Burn decks, but I do suspect that it was kind of the best creature for the archetype at one point.


The Tentacled One
Under Fifth Edition rules, Mogg Fanatic was already one of the best red one-drop creatures. Shouldn't be too surprising since the competition was mostly just stuff like Kird Ape, Jackal Pup, Goblin Cadets, and Goblin Welder. And then the Sixth Edition rules changes introduced the stack and the infamous "combat damage on the stack." These rules changes made a lot of cards better or worse than they'd previously been, but perhaps the biggest boost was to Mogg Fanatic, already one of the better creatures anyway. Under the new rules, Mogg Fanatic could...

-Attack into an X/2 blocker and kill it if blocked.
-Block an X/2 attacker and kill it.
-Attack into two X/1 blockers and threaten to kill both if blocked.
-Block an X/1 attacker, kill it, then also kill another X/1.
-Group-block to help get lethal damage on a large creature, then ping the opponent for 1 after combat damage went on the stack.
-Attack into an X/1 and kill it in combat, still pinging the opponent for 1 after combat damage went on the stack.
-Kill a creature in combat that would otherwise regenerate by letting combat damage go on the stack and then pinging the creature to blank the regeneration shield.
-Force and opponent with only an X/1 utility creature to take 1 damage and lose the creature, regardless of whether the creature blocked or not.

...and more, all while still doing everything it had already been doing. It's tough to properly emphasize just how strong of a card Mogg Fanatic became with these changes.

The most obvious superstar to gain a boost from combat damage on the stack was probably Morphling, a creature that had only existed for about six months before the rules changed. I used Morphling a lot myself and will almost certainly start a Memories thread for the card at some point. Sixth Edition catapulted Morphling to success. It became known as the best card in a set full of excellent cards. It was nicknamed "Superman." The tactic of pumping Morphling up to be a 5/1, letting combat damage go on the stack, and then dumping mana towards shifting it into a 0/X (where X was the number sufficient to survive the damage of whatever it was fighting) was perhaps the most defining play of tournament Magic in the early 00's. But I can't really say that Morphling was the biggest loser of the Magic 2010 rules changes.

By the mid-00's, Morphling had already lost a lot of traction. The thing about "Superman" was that the card was flexible enough to be the best option to reign on the battlefield in an otherwise creature-light (or creature-free) control deck. Morphling dethroned Serra Angel as the favored threat in popular hard control strategies. For pretty much the entirety of the 90's, truly massive creatures came with untenable drawbacks, such that Morphling was a popular payload for Oath of Druids. That kind of dearth of high-end payloads for combat is long-gone. It would be unthinkable now to anyone who doesn't either remember early 00's Magic well or happen to relive it in some kind of Old School format. This being the CPA, most who read this will fall into the former category anyway. But do note that the vast majority of current Magic players do not.

Like Morphling, the other beefy creatures that were strong in the early 00's generally fell to power creep. It's not that none of them were ever good anymore, but they were increasingly relegated to niche roles if not supplanted entirely by new stuff. In contrast, while that was going on, Mogg Fanatic actually became even stronger!