In case you’ve missed Wizards’ almost year-long celebrations up to this point, 2023 is MTG’s 30th Anniversary. First released all the way back in 1993 with Limited Edition Alpha, MTG has come a long way since then. It may only be a matter of time before players need four decks to play a game of Commander, after all! Despite players being inundated with over 25,000 new cards and countless new mechanics, not everything about MTG has changed. For instance, a handful of evergreen MTG mechanics, for instance, have remained constant since MTG’s first-ever set was released. Many of these mechanics, such as Flying and Trample, have remained practically unchanged throughout the 30 years history of MTG. Not every MTG mechanic has been so lucky, as others have been changed or phased out entirely. Recently, one of the most iconic MTG mechanics appears to be suffering from a safe fate.
The Folley of First Strike
In recent years, MTG players have noticed that the First Strike mechanic, first released in Alpha, has been undergoing some changes. Thankfully for fans of the mechanic, it hasn’t been eradicated entirely or, for better or worse, supplemented with Last Strike. That being said, however, the mechanic has nevertheless been subject to infrequent changes that have made it worse over time. In place of the typical keyword that players are used to seeing, First Strike is becoming an activated or turn-based ability with increasing regularity. Disappointingly for First Strike fanatics, it appears these modified versions of the MTG Mechanic may become more prevalent.
Giving a peek behind the curtain at WotC, Principal Magic Designer Gavin Verhey discussed all things First Strike in a recent Good Morning Magic video. Within the video, Verhey explained that the root of these changes stems from players not using First Strike as intended. Considering that First Strike is an incredibly simple MTG mechanic, this might seem rather hard to do. MTG players, however, still managed to prioritize First Strike in ways that MTG’s designers didn’t specifically intend.
“The mechanic sounds like it would be ideal for attacking,” Verhey posited. “But, First Strike is usually stronger defensively than offensively. On the attack, your opponent can take the damage or throw whatever they choose in front of it. But on defense, a single First Strike creature can hold off a bunch of your opponent’s creatures.” Using the unassuming Youghful Knight as an example, Verhey highlighted how even this piddly 2/1 can be a potent defender. Effectively preventing any two toughness creature from attacking, First Strike’s defensive potency becomes almost problematic when multiple First Strike creatures are in play. Subsequently, Wizards decided that something needs to change.
First Strike, but Only Sometimes
Having existed for 30 years, the notion that First Strike creatures are good at blocking is hardly a new revelation. That doesn’t mean, however, that the mechanic should be immune from changes because of its pedigree. Subsequently, throughout recent years, Wizards have been testing potential First Strike fixes. One of Wizards’ preferred options to do this is to make First Strike an activated ability. As seen on Disciple of the Old Ways, this implementation retains the threat of First Strike on your turn, since your mana is untapped. After your turn, however, this threat disappears, as, typically, you won’t save your mana for a potential First Strike activation.
While this activated, First Strike provided an effective way to balance the mechanic, the crux of the issue remained clear. As Verhey explains, “First Strike is often most fun when it’s only while you’re attacking.” Subsequently, Wizards of the Coast made First Strike do just that. Creating cards such as Purraj of Urborg and Pouncing Lynx, Wizards made First Strike its most fun variant. Technically, these designs are nothing new, as Purraj of Urborg demonstrates. Since Guilds of Ravnica, however, Wizards has been accelerating their usage.
Templating the new old effect as “as long as it’s your turn, X has First Strike” may have solved a design issue. However, Verhey explained this implantation isn’t ideal. “The biggest downside is the extra text on the card. As opposed to just writing ‘First Strike’ as a keyword on the card, it takes seven more words, plus the card’s name to fill it all out.” This may seem like a small issue, however, it makes mechanically simple cards such as Duelist of Deep Faith look more confusing than they actually are.
“So, this begs the big question. Since First Strike on your turn is generally what we prefer, are we just going to change First Strike to be that?”
Is First Strike Going Away?
To cut a long story short, No, First Strike isn’t being completely replaced by First Strike on your turn effects. While Gavin Verhey stated they’d push for this is recreating Magic from the ground up, there’s too much history to make this change in the game as it stands. Subsequently, putting the speculation to bed, Verhey answered the question, “is First Strike going away?” by explicitly stating, “no. Not right now.”
“Despite its problems, First Strike isn’t going anywhere and you’ll still see it with no restrictions. Phyrexia: All Will Be One is a great example. Three rares straight up have First Strike and then the uncommon and common permanents have it only during your turn, with one trick aura that can grant it. You’ll continue to see plenty of rares, uncommons, and some commons with it. I’ll even let you in on the groundbreaking huge spoiler that March of the Machine has a common creature with regular First Strike. I know, I know. Wow.”
In closing their video, Verhey turned the question back on the community, asking fans how they’d change First Strike if given the chance, or if they would at all. Similarly to Mark Rosewater when he does the same, Verhey was quickly inundated with responses from eager players. While some players on YouTube, such as Chaosof99, concurred with Wizards’ design decisions, not everyone was enthralled by this change. Several players like PetrusCaex, for example, stated they “think First Strike is more fun when it works defensively.”
Thankfully for players like PetrusCaex and Curly Parmesan, who stated that “First Strike on defense was one of the reasons I got into the game,” as Verhey stated, the mechanic isn’t going away entirely. Instead, it’s simply being used more sparingly on common and uncommon cards in the future. This should hopefully lead to more interesting limited environments that aren’t dominated by stalemates necessitating removal. If you ask us, that is definitely a change for the better!