Saturday, September 22, 2012

Blue Creature Keywords

On his tumblr a few months ago, Mark Rosewater mentioned a desperate need for creature keywords in blue, and over the course of many questions and answers, he revealed an increasingly stringent set of requirements for any candidate keyword:

  • It should have the potential to be evergreen, which means it must be simple, intuitive, and flavorful enough to be used in almost any context, including (and especially) in a core set. So nothing weird and impenetrable like "can block while tapped", or even cycling.
  • It should be suitable for common, so it shouldn't unduly complicate combat math, like pinging, or have complicated rules interactions like power/toughness swapping or morph.
  • It should be able to be used often enough that it makes sense to keyword it. So nothing like Scroll Thief's "curiosity" ability, which isn't used all that often.
  • It should be positive, so nothing like can't block.
  • It shouldn't simulate something blue already does, so no vigilance, and no evasion.
  • It shouldn't make blue's creatures substantially better at combat. Blue should still be the worst color for creature combat.
  • Ideally, it should pair well with black, or barring that, red.

One idea (and admittedly a fairly obvious one) is to move some version of Kamigawa's green snaketouch?
Whenever this deals (combat) damage to a creature, tap that creature and it doesn't untap during its controller's next untap step.
ability into blue. To be sure, snaketouch (let's call it "chilling" instead) is already a common blue ability on non-permanent spells, like Crippling Chill and Frost Breath, and has been printed recently on Wall of Frost (slightly modified since it's a wall with 0 power.) The only question is whether or not Wizards is willing to keyword it and start printing it on common blue creatures.


  • The effect is simple, intuitive, flavorful, and plainly already blue.
  • Many stereotypically black creatures are often said to have chilling presences, or chilling touches?
    In fact, five of the nine cards with the word "chill" in them are black.
    , so from a flavor perspective, this is right at home in black, and is perhaps a bit more compelling than the paralyzing flavor black invoked when it still had this type of effect. (See Paralyze and Dread Wight.)
  • It's a combat ability that doesn't actually make blue intrinsically better at creature combat. Rather, it allows blue to manipulate the circumstances of future combat steps.
  • Flavorfully and mechanically, chilling tends to make most sense on blue creatures that don't have flying. That is, it's great for the very subset of blue creatures Wizards is having trouble finding keywords for.


  • It seems difficult to justify the chilling keyword on creatures outside of blue or black, which might complicate one day revisiting the ability on green creatures. (Not that green ever did it before Kamigawa, or has since.)
  • With cards like Kor Hookmaster and Rust Tick, white and artifacts sometimes do something similar to chilling. The existence of chilling as a keyword would restrict such cards in the future to not using combat damage as a trigger for "tap and stay tapped". (Not that they have ever used such a trigger for that ability. Plus, quirky differences help distinguish colors where they share similar abilities, like hexproof and shroud
    Wishful thinking!

Another idea, and perhaps a more interesting one, is to explore some version of trample in blue. I know what you're thinking: I've gone off the deep end! Humor me for a bit.

With some minor tweaks to trample (left as an exercise for the reader), it's easy to create a variation that allows a creature to assign the remainder of its damage to another blocking creature, or (more powerfully, though it makes less sense) to any other creature controlled by the defending player, or even to turn it around to do something similar on defense.

Almost everyone recognizes this concept as that of splash damage, since it's used in a huge number of games across lots of genres. It seems quite reasonable to piggyback on this collective gamer knowledge by creating a blue keyword that allows damage to splash in some fashion.


  • Trample is evergreen, and despite being very wordy, is generally recognized as being intuitive and easy to understand. Splash damage is just more of the same. Instead of trampling over to players, you splash over to "nearby" creatures.
  • Because of its flavorful ties to water, splash is a thoroughly blue sounding word, so as a keyword and as a concept, it just works.
  • Despite being bluer than blue, splash seems fine for red, as well. Gamers should be fairly comfortable with the idea of fireballs, lightning, or more literally, lava, splashing.
  • Flavorfully and mechanically, splash damage tends to make the most sense on blue creatures that don't have flying. As with chilling, splash is great for the very subset of blue creatures Wizards is having trouble finding keywords for.
  • Splash damage often won't be relevant on small- and medium-sized blue creatures, so it frequently won't have a huge (or any) impact on combat decision by either player. Wait, is the fact that the ability often does nothing really a pro? In this case, I think so, because it ensures blue generally remains the worst color when creatures collide.
  • That being said, even on small creatures, splash plays very well with Giant Growth and other power boosting effects. It would enable blue to explore new territory in Limited formats, but in a way that seems fair because it largely only works well in conjunction with the other colors, and in a fairly narrow and straightforward fashion.
  • Splash is a fun and creative way to let blue "sea monsters" interact with the board, and in a way blue never really has before. And while powerful, splash still feels blue from a purely color-pie/mechanical perspective, because at worst it dissuades blocking to such an extent that the creature is effectively unblockable, which is a core (and common) blue ability. Also note that if you only allow splashing to blocking creatures, the ability is much weaker and chump blocking remains viable in most situations.


  • In Limited environments, moderate care needs to be taken to ensure splash can't pair too easily with the occasional blue flowstone?
    {Cost}: This gets +1/-1 until end of turn.
    creature, blue power enhancing auras, or power enhancing equipment.
  • Splash already has a colloquial meaning in Magic, namely to add a minor amount of a secondary (or tertiary, etc.) color to your deck. This shouldn't really be a problem, though. The words would be used in entirely different contexts, and this is simply an issue with languages in general that people are well equipped to deal with. No one is confused by the multiple meanings of "counter" in Magic, for example.
  • A vocal minority will inevitably complain about blue being given another awesome ability, despite it already being prohibitively the best color for all eternity.

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