Finally, summer fatigue is past us (at least for me.) We can now go back to frequent content by me (with a relaxed definition of frequent.) It is amazing how the release of new magic cards can make someone want to play magic less. Do you think WotC is on this? They really should be. Or is this just a me thing?
Regardless, someone was asking questions on our discord about conspiracies and I thought it would be a good topic to focus on. (I could link you the discord, but if you do want to go there, you can find the link on the website somewhere.) Conspiracies were a long time ago, around the time that our cube was first created, and many current players have no experience with them. We got a chance to test them when they were fresh and new. Long before our cube was a modular cube. The reason we do not play with them now is not because we do not like them, but because they were to be in their own module and the module got stuck in development and never moved forward. As we have finally been catching up on module additions, we just finalized Allies, Oaths & Walkers, and Snow, with Graveaggro close behind, we are focusing on the two unmodules and the Conspiracy module to be added. This is the perfect time to do a quick overview and discuss what are some of the truths that players say about them and what are some of the heavily hyperbolized statements players say about them (and all in a relaxed conversational format, I don’t know why…)
First, let us address the biggest statement of all: Conspiracies are better than power nine or Sol Ring. Well, some are, but most are not. We have specific offenders in this category. Advantageous Proclamation, Back Up Plan, Hymn of the Wilds, Power Play, and Sovereign’s Realm. That’s it. Why these cards? Because they always net you an advantage. A conspiracy like Iterative Analysis might be extremely powerful as it adds draw a card to any spell, but few spells become more powerful than Ancestral Recall or Sol Ring when that text is added. Is Preordain better than Ancestral Recall if it draws two? Definitely not. Instant speed and an extra card are much better than Scry 2. Is Conterspell better than Sol Ring if it draws a card? Again, definitely not. I am sure there are examples of a few cards that get better with draw a card, but then players still have to get the combo and draw the cards in those games. The five aforementioned conspiracies are always in effect.
Power Play is the best aggro card ever printed. Sovereign’s Realm makes it so you never flood and always have extra options to play with. It seems like it makes you play bad cards, but you can always exile those cards for lands unless they are useful. This makes them into strictly better basic lands, like basic land split cards. Advantageous Proclamation removes the chance of a player drawing his worse three cards out of the twenty -three and increases the odds of finding combos every game. Hymn of the Wilds barely has a draw back when cubes are filled with powerful permanents and 187 creatures that act like instants and sorceries which can now be more cheaply cast. Back Up Plan’s effect can be calculated easily. If you mulligan 30% of seven card hands, with Back Up Plan, you only mulligan ~9% of the time. Not to mention it allows a choice of a stronger seven card hand every time. This is an incredibly powerful effect. We could argue about which one is the best (the first two or the last one; probably Back Up Plan) but it does not really matter. If there are the power nine, these are the absolute five. The most powerful black boarder non-ante cards ever printed. (Have you read Contract from Below? There will never be a better card.)
The main problem with the absolute five is that they do not feel as oppressive as they are when players are playing with them. They are just an emblem that say increase your win rate by 5%, 10%, or whatever it may realistically be, without ever having to draw a specific card or be able to utilize a card effectively. This significant effect caused cube designers to move away from conspiracies a long time ago. But the reality is that other conspiracies outside the absolute five can offer good gameplay if that is what you are after.
Second statement: Conspiracies are busted because you never need to draw them and they are a free include in your deck. This is false. For the absolute five, yes, this does factor into why they are busted, but for the other ones, this just simply is not true. Any hidden agenda card requires you to actually draw the card that you named with the effect being quite mediocre most of the time. Most cubes do not care if you have an Incendiary Dissent Sure, it adds a little power to a creature, but nothing significant. While the effect of it not counting as a spot in your deck does raise the pick order slightly, I would draft a dual land much earlier than an Incendiary Dissent for this exact reason and that is not a draft pattern anyone has a problem with.
With some conspiracies designers actually have to be worried that they are too weak. Conspiracies such as Incendiary Dissent can be irrelevant in most games. At that point, there is a significant amount of added complexity to a draft, for insignificant gains. I would be more worried of including the ones that are too weak than including the ones that are too strong if the absolute five have already been avoided.
Last statement (mostly because I’ve already written a lot and this was supposed to be quick; I also still need to edit the latest podcast episode which I made a reference of this article and it’s getting late:) Writing down stuff is incredibly annoying. This is the truest statement of all. If your cube requires me to write names of cards, I do not want to play. Does that mean you should avoid hidden agenda? No, it means you have to be more creative. Have a subset of cards that you can name with the hidden agenda cards that are sleeved in clear sleeves. Then, players can just grab the clear sleeved copies and place them on top of their hidden agendas when they play. Easy, elegant, and adds a design depth by forcing drafters only certain cards to combo with. This is an area of design that is infrequently this open and being able to push players in certain directions so freely is not a luxury usually seen in non-proxied cube. This is the exact solution we are working on with our upcoming conspiracy module. I do not know if it will be the solution we settle on, but I am hopeful that it will work out great.
If you are a designer that wants to try conspiracies because you were not around the time where they were common place, you definitely should. Avoid the absolute five, narrow down the left over that are still too powerful or too weak for your environment, and start testing with the rest while leveraging the hidden agenda ones for cool combos. Do not be afraid to cut them if you find they do not produce the desire you wanted. It is better to try and cut than to try and force it. And, again, do not make anyone write anything down!