Magic Memories: Zuran Orb

Discussion in 'Single Card Strategies' started by Oversoul, Sep 13, 2017.

  1. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Looking at an old deck, it occurred to me that I used to use Zuran Orb all the time, but that I don't think I've seen it used in years. Well, the previous thread I made was about Evolutionary Leap, a card that came out relatively recently. By default, I've only seen Evolutionary Leap used in the past few years. Zuran Orb, in contrast, I have only seen used, well, a while ago. Um, I think it might have been a decade. Maybe more. And yet I used to put it in lots of decks. All the time. All the time.

    So I'm left wondering how good the card is and or was. A lot of demonstrably powerful classic cards don't make the cut in Vintage or Legacy just because no one has found a niche for them in the specific environments of those formats. As an aside, the most poignant example of this is probably Goblin Lackey, a well-known card that was once banned in Extended and later was, for years, a Legacy staple. It has all but vanished from Legacy tournament decks, and the main culprit is Deathrite Shaman, the most popular creature in the format. You see, the appeal of Goblin Lackey was that it was an extremely threatening one-drop. Opponents were under pressure to find something to deal with it right away, or else the value it would generate would get out of hand quickly. No matter how much value they might get out of a 1/1 utility creature or a cheap kill spell, they were obligated to make the trade. But the ubiquity of a 1/2 one-drop dramatically alters that dynamic. Deathrite Shaman might as well be Devoted Hero as far as Goblin Lackey is concerned, but the sort of deck that would run Devoted Hero wouldn't be a problem for the sort of deck that would run Goblin Lackey. That Deathrite Shaman fits perfectly into the gameplans of some of the most competitive decks in the format means that Goblin Lackey is weakened as a side effect. So it's not that Goblin Lackey is a weak card overall. It has a well-document history as a tournament powerhouse. But not in the current Legacy.

    Zuran Orb was certainly considered more than just a fun casual card, once upon a time. It was restricted in Vintage (and by default, banned in Type 1.5 when that format was created), restricted in Standard (back when that was a thing that the DCI updates did), banned in Block Constructed, later banned in Standard, and then finally it was banned in Extended (when the format was first created). That's a lot of action. That's the sort of thing that one sees for other early cards that were and are broken, like Strip Mine and Channel. And I've been broadly aware of this for a long time, so it's only on reflection that I think, "Yikes, that's a lot of fuss over a mere lifegain card." Was it warranted? I don't know. But I find it an interesting question to consider. What is the proper evaluation of Zuran Orb?
  2. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I blithely called Zuran Orb a "mere lifegain card." There is a bit more to it. Historically, decks that used Zuran Orb could get substantial utility from being able to kill their own lands, making the "cost" an end unto itself, with the lifegain being a bonus. I myself once had a deck that used all three of these cards...

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  3. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Zuran Orb had some things going for it historically that aren't necessarily factors anymore, not the least of which was the powerful synergy with Balance, which is now pretty much strictly a Vintage one-off. But more broadly, it's important to note that Magic gameplay looked very different back then from what it looks like today. This is a bit difficult to pin down. Changes have been accumulating for more than 20 years. There were and are some disparate ways to play the game and matchups in different formats happening in the same era might look nothing like each other. Some of the cards that were staples back either still are or they're very similar to cards that are. But the difference is there nevertheless. Attempting to describe this, to qualify all aspects of the way the game evolved, would be a monumental task. So I'll just focus, zoom in on a microcosm. Let's see...

    Zuran Orb was printed in Ice Age. What were creatures like in Ice Age? What would attackers look like? Well, this one as pretty popular...

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    That's not too bad! WotC tends to stay away from protection these days because it confuses new players, but something like this in terms of power level could be in a set today. It would be unremarkable and would probably be relegated to Limited formats, but maybe if midrange black decks had a lot of other things going their way, this would make sense in Standard.

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    Well, it's definitely on the slow side. Something with that kind of power level printed today would be considered a crap rare. Casual players would try to find ways to break it, but four mana for a vanilla creature contingent on volatile circumstances to be size-efficient? Not really that strong.

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    Well, it's a 1/1 for four mana. So this would be a very disappointing crap rare. Players would had to see something like this in a modern set.

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    Seriously, this was considered one of the better creatures in the set because it was a bit difficult to deal with. By today's standards, it's junk.

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    Ice Age had some bigger creatures too. You just had to pay seven mana for them.

    So overall, the creatures were lackluster. They weren't all pathetic, but they tended to require a lot more mana for any sort of payoff. That slows things down. Now, what about the cards that could deal with creatures? Other than blocking with your own inefficient creatures, how could you put a stop to attackers?

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    Only the best creature removal spell in the game, ever. Well, it wouldn't work on Knight of Stromgald, but still, it was extremely good at its job. Too good for Modern, apparently.

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    Also too good for Modern.

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    About as efficient as they come.

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    Also pretty much top-notch for this type of effect.

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    Not particularly impressive, but back when regeneration was more prevalent, this was pretty good.

    So, the creatures may have been less efficient, but the other spells were more efficient. Making creatures less efficient slows things down. Making ways to deal with creatures more efficient also slows things down. This lead to slower, grindier gameplay than what we're used to today. And slow, grindy matchups are where Zuran Orb excels. If an aggro deck is too fast, killing your own lands to gain some life only delays your inevitable death. But in an environment where everything is slower, being able to turn your lands into on-demand lifegain really makes an attempt by opponents to beat you down into an uphill battle. You can make the trades the favor you, grind out card advantage, let your life total get low, and have the security of knowing that with Zuran Orb, your opponent needs to do a lot of extra damage to finish you off.
  4. TomB Administrative Assistant

    Some other popular creatures I remember from back then were things like Juzam Djinn, Erhnam Djinn, Serendib Efreet, Mahamodi Djinn, Ball Lightning, Hypnotic Specter, Black/White Knight, Juggernaut, and Kird Ape. Autumn Willow and Deadly Insect came along in Homelands, and once 4th came out I personally used Mishra's Factories and Jade Statues in decks while The Abyss was popular.

    I also saw Zuran Orb as a staple in Armageddon decks, for obvious reasons...:)
  5. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Some great classic creatures in there. Although if we dip into those sets for attackers, we also get even more powerful ways for control decks to neutralize them, such as the The Abyss, which you mentioned. Notably, Erhnam Djinn played nicely with Zuran Orb, and was one of the most efficient beefy attackers back then. But the "synergy" of being able to get a 4/5 creature for four mana and then to use Armageddon to negate the drawback is so tame by today's standards that the interaction would go largely unnoticed.

    I know that at some point I used Zuran Orb and Armageddon together, but I'm a little fuzzy on the circumstances. It's a perfectly reasonable synergy, but I was a jerk and used Balance, which is even stronger. And that interaction was infamous, but I think we can all agree that in the Balance + Zorb combo, it's Balance that's the broken card.
  6. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    In what has become a typical fashion, I'll turn to the card that I keep mentioning in every thread: Necropotence. When it comes to playing Magic with Necropotence, one thing that is easily noticeable but not usually discussed is that you tend to hit every land drop. That's actually a pretty nice benefit itself, but it's not even why people use the card and tends to be seen as unremarkable. Still it's there and it can matter. Knowing the right number of times to activate Necropotence in a turn is dependent on one's exact deck composition and the decision takes experience and assessment of the board state and matchup, with some historical tournament matchups being especially unforgiving on the issue (choosing the right number is the difference between winning and losing the game). But as a general rule of thumb, in many of my old Necro decks, I was "drawing" four cards per turn, at least at first (probably a bit more, but four cards was a good sort of baseline). That's enough cards, especially if you start with a couple of lands in hand initially, to throw away extra lands and keep making a land drop every turn. This is relevant for Zuran Orb, because those land drops can become especially meaningful when you're paying life for cards. Nowhere was the utility of Zuran Orb more apparent than in the matchup between Necro decks and red decks.

    Not all Necro decks are control decks, and the ones that are tend to be fast, proactive control decks that pack potent disruption and establish card advantage early on. This can be disheartening for midrange players because while they might have a gameplan of getting their offense going against slow control decks before it's too late, Necro decks can disrupt them quickly and put pressure on them. It can also be disheartening for tempo players because the huge card advantage of Necropotence makes it tough to keep pace with them. But aggro players don't care: they're just trying to kill you. While Necropotence is a strong card, it does deplete your life total, which helps do part of the work for a red deck, especially ones with direct damage "Burn" spells. So a Necro deck could establish control of the board, generate threats, and even empty out the red player's hand, but if it takes the Necro player to a low life total in the process, a topdecked Lightning Bolt could spell defeat. Enter Zuran Orb, a zero-drop artifact that provides on-demand lifegain. Now the amount of damage that the opponent has to do to kill the Necro player isn't just "enough to take opponent's life to 0" but moves up to "enough to take opponent's life to 0" + "2 more for each land opponent drops." This has some obvious limitations, as sacrificing too many of your own lands to keep yourself alive also disrupts your capacity to cast spells, but the efficiency and modularity make it a severe hurdle for aggressive decks to overcome.

    To take advantage of Zuran Orb as a survival tool, a deck needs to be able to put up some sort of defenses that can do the real work of shutting aggressive decks down, but the Zorb can at least provide a means to close the gap in the aggro vs. control race. While I wouldn't go so far as to give the card exclusive credit for delaying the rise of Sligh decks, Stompy decks, Burn decks, Zoo, etc., it did play a role in shaping the iconic 90's Magic environment, which was much lighter on creature swarms and tended toward the use of artifacts and enchantments to control the board.
  7. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    With the other cards I've written about so far, if they were banned or restricted, I tried to analyze the decision. Well, I didn't really say much about the Dark Ritual ban, but that's a tricky one. For Survival of the Fittest, Yawgmoth's Bargain, and Fluctuator, though, I think I got to the heart of the matter. Zuran Orb, though? I do think analysis is possible, but I am stuck with this overall impression that it just doesn't matter. The action taken against the card were part of a bygone era of Magic, and the kind of bygone that is presumably going to stay bygone. It isn't like Mind Twist, where a card was clearly banned due to a mid-90's mentality and this rolled over into Legacy where the card is still banned all these years later. Zuran Orb was restricted (not banned) in both Type I and Type II, all the way back in November of 1995. In 1997 it was banned in Ice Age Block Constructed (when Block Constructed was first created) and then banned in Type II (where it had previously been restricted), and then banned in Extended, and finally (busy year) unrestricted in Type I. While that is a lot of activity, that last bit means that Zuran Orb has been unimpeded in virtually every format where it would be a legal card anyway. Ice Age rotated out of Standard an Extended forever ago, and Zorb is totally legal in Vintage and Legacy. The only remnant of meaning from this bygone activity is the Block Constructed ban, and while technically that is an official format, it's also deprecated and super weird...

    For those who don't know or don't remember, the "block" system of set releases nominally starts with Ice Age Block, but was actually fleshed out for Rath Block. What happened was that Ice Age was released in the pre-block system, having no real thematic connection to sets before it, and then the same was done for Homelands. Then Alliances was made as a loose thematic sequel to Ice Age, but without the whole "block" thing being a plan. While the next set, "Menagerie" was in the works, the block system was envisioned, but the implementation was a bit weird. The set was split in two, becoming Mirage and Visions, but then the third set in the "block" was still pretty much its own thing, designed differently and having no meaningful connection to the other two sets, but instead acting thematically as a prequel and setup to the next block, while pretty much doing its own thing mechanically. While even the next block, Tempest/Stronghold/Exodus was a bit of a structural mish-mash when it came to what sorts of things the cards were going, at least it had been planned a block from the beginning, told its own story, and really felt like a block. But in the establishment of this system of blocks of three sets, the three previous sets were ostensibly a block as well, Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight. In all this excitement, Ice Age/Homelands/Alliances was also retroactively made into a block, the "first" block, even though none of the sets had been made with blocks in mind. And so we got a "Block Constructed" out of three unrelated sets. They could just as easily have retroactively made Legends/The Dark/Fallen Empires a block, but they did not elect to do so. I know that Ice Age Block Constructed existed as a format, but I never actually saw it played and considering how obscure that the more coherent Mirage Block Constructed was, it must have been a format that saw very little play. Zuran Orb was presumably banned just because it had also been banned in Standard (same goes for Thawing Glaciers) and not because of actual tournament data. Due to the timing (the block was already "old sets" by the time that Block Constructed was established), it would have been one of the least relevant tournament formats. But to add insanity to the existing confusion, nearly a decade later Homelands was removed from the block and "Ice Age Block" was given a more thematically connected third set: Coldsnap. Some other blocks were later interrupted by core set releases (Urza's Block being the most memorable, with the first two sets being under Fifth Edition rules and getting creatures with "Summon X" on the type line, but the third set switching to "Creature — X" because Sixth Edition rules had made that change). But Ice Age is the only block to be interspersed between other Standard expansions, with Homelands between the first and second set, and like thirty other Standard expansions between the second and third set. so yeah, super weird. Ice Age Block Constructed isn't even a novelty format and never really was. Zuran Orb and Thawing Glaciers are banned, but they might as well be Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall: there aren't any Ice Age Block Constructed tournaments anyway.

    From the perspective of trying to present an analysis, this is uniquely bizarre and frustrating. Squandered Resources was also banned in Block Constructed based on its corresponding Standard ban, and that might be the closest analog, but at least there's some basis for that, some starting point. The ProsBloom decks that got Squandered Resources banned in the first place were built from Mirage Block cards, and Mirage Block consists of those same cards to this day. Zuran Orb and Thawing Glaciers are banned in a format that is essentially untested. I don't even know what Ice Age Block Constructed would look like! I'd imagine that Necro decks would greatly benefit from Soul Spike and CounterPost could presumably get mileage out of Sunscour. But this is all entirely speculative. Would Zuran Orb be too good? I don't think anyone knows!

    Was it too good in the formats that actually mattered? Well, that's a more answerable, and probably more interesting, question. Zuran Orb was seen as a powerhouse in its day. However, I'm going to stick my neck out there and take the stance that no, Zuran Orb wasn't really restriction-worthy. While it is a useful card, action was taken against it for the same reason that action was taken against Ivory Tower and Maze of Ith: it slowed games down by making you harder to kill, and the "DCI" at the time didn't like that. That line of reasoning would never pass muster today.
  8. TomB Administrative Assistant

    You didn't mention the All-Powerful Snow Covered land decks that Ice Age Block Constructed would be dominated by...;)
  9. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    With Thawing Glaciers banned, perhaps this baby could be the premier land-finder...

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    Behold, the most broken card in Ice Age Block...

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