Why Dreadhorde Arcanist Had to Go
📅 February 21, 2021•
⏱️3 min read
I've listened to a ton of podcasts this past week, and the sentiment echoed by very good Magic players who haven't played Legacy in some time is a confusion as to why Dreadhorde Arcanist got banned, as it's a 2-mana creature that needs to untap to do anything, and it dies to every removal spell under the sun.
In my opinion, this ban was the 100% correct decision. Dreadhorde Arcanist is closer to Hermit Druid than it is to Stoneforge Mystic.
When your opponent plays Dreadhorde Arcanist, you need that removal spell ready to go, and you need your opponent to not have countermagic for that removal spell (or at least, have your own countermagic to push the removal through). If you successfully remove it before it attacks, great! You're at card parity, and probably up 1 mana in the exchange. Let's hope your opponent doesn't have a backup Dreadhorde Arcanist in their hand.
In every case where you didn't successfully remove the Dreadhorde Arcanist in that one turn window, your opponent is now able to cast a free Brainstorm or Ponder every turn and ensure that when you do find a removal spell, it isn't going to resolve. In fact, nothing you do is going to matter much, as your opponent has now successfully run away with the game in card advantage, card selection, and mana advantage. Repeatedly Forcing removal spells (made possible by Force of Negation to complement Force of Will) isn't card disadvantage since Dreadhorde Arcanist recuperates the pitched card every turn.
Saying Dreadhorde Arcanist draws you an extra card every turn is an understatement. The difference between drawing an extra card every turn and what Dreadhorde Arcanist does is the difference between Snapcaster Mage and a hypothetical 1UU flash 2/1 that says "ETB: Draw a card."
Dreadhorde Arcanist also provides a subtle mana advantage that either isn't noticed or is glossed over for some reason. Deathrite Shaman is a card rightfully on the Legacy banlist, and that is a creature that also dies to everything under the sun. Much like Deathrite Shaman, the mana advantage is only a part of why the card is so busted, but it's an important factor. In a format where mana is so optimized that Daze is a defining card, an otherwise powerful card that incidentally puts you up on mana can cross the line into "busted."
Dreadhorde Arcanist has the "limited bomb" effect of when you play it, the game now instantly revolves around it. While Legacy has a fair amount of cards like that, there is usually a cost for playing them. Show and Tell requires you to put a pile of uncastable cards in your deck, for instance. Dreadhorde Arcanist only requires you to play cards that you should be playing anyway. Going back to my initial analogy of Dreadhorde Arcanist being close to Hermit Druid (where if you untap with it, you essentially win the game) might have been unfair. Hermit Druid requires you to fill your deck with stuff like Narcomoeba, Dread Return, and some random win condition (probably Thassa's Oracle), while Dreadhorde Arcanist doesn't.
Moving away from the "fair deck vs. fair deck" dynamic, Dreadhorde Arcanist also had a warping effect on deck viability. If a combo deck couldn't win before the Dreadhorde Arcanist untapped, then it essentially couldn't win anymore. This meant that combo decks all had to be constructed in their most all-in and least interactive builds. An exception to this, that "proves the rule," was the grindy version of Doomsday that I top 8'd a Legacy Showcase Qualifier with. How did I pull off building a grindy combo deck? I played my own Dreadhorde Arcanists! Belgian Infect master Fenruscloud (Sam Dams) did the same thing with Infect, splashing red solely for Dreadhorde Arcanist.
Even if Dreadhorde Arcanist wasn't actually winning a banworthy amount of games, nothing I just outlined is generally considered good gameplay. Classically, good gameplay comes down to interesting back-and-forths where players are motivated to pick the most opportune spots to attempt to stick their high-impact threats. Dreadhorde Arcanist removed that. When jamming your 2 mana creature has the upside of winning the game if you untap, and the downside of your 2 mana creature getting answered, the scales are tipped so far into the "jam" side of the cost-benefit analysis that it's foolish to wait. Javier Dominguez wrote a great article in the middle of 2020 about how cantripping in Legacy changed. A Turn 1 Brainstorm used to be the sign of someone who didn't understand how to properly maximize the value of the card. In 2020, it just meant that the caster understood that the upside of finding Turn 2 Dreadhorde Arcanist with Force of Will backup was more important than "maximizing" the Brainstorm itself.
With Dreadhorde Arcanist out of the format, hopefully play patterns shift back to a place where the decision of whether or not to jam a spell becomes meaningful, and the right answer might sometimes be to wait. While we're only a week into the format, so far, it looks like it has.