I try to avoid making articles like this one. I’m not against criticism—just the opposite. It’s that they have a weird way of harboring a lot of unintended negativity. So let me then say that I offer this from a place of nothing but love for the game.
There’s an issue I’ve tried to stay low-key about for a while now. “Eventually,” I thought, “they’re going to change things.” But I haven’t seen anything, so I can no longer remain quiet.
What is going on with Primal?
Since at least the beginning of open beta, a year and a few months ago from today, Primal has never been particularly strong. It has been among the least used factions in tournament play, has had the least amount of success in tournament play, and outside of a few short time periods has been among the weakest and least represented factions at the top of ladder. During Set 1, The Empty Throne, the development team at least somewhat agreed that Primal might have been weak or that it’s main points of faction identity haven’t been meaningfully capitalized on. The community, in turn, took this to expect that things would likely get better soon for our blue faction.
Two expansions and two adventures have been added to the game since then and Primal is still burdened with most of the problems it had back then. Many will be quick to point out that Primal has had some success since then: it was part of the Chalice deck which seemed to rule for so long; the Elysian response as one of the best decks to beat Chalice; Feln, which has had varying degrees of success for quite some time; and Skycrag, though mostly a deck of fire cards, is part Primal and usually dominates the top of the ladder. I won’t deny this. The issue is that it is obviously still under-performing at the top levels of play as a whole and lacks strong cards compared to the rest of the factions. Within the aforementioned well-performing decks, Primal is usually a support color, usually just drawing cards. Outside of these cases, Primal cards are almost universally just worse than what other factions have to offer. In addition, Primal’s main strengths and pieces of faction identity have routinely been poorly positioned against many of the best cards and strategies in the game.
Small Bodies — It’s A Simple Matter Of Weight Ratios
The biggest problem facing almost all pushed (or at least seemingly pushed) Primal units is that most of them are just too small. Here is a short list of units with 5-cost or less that seem intended for constructed play, but instead see very little or none due to just not having a competitive enough rate: Borderlands Waykeeper, Darkveil Agent, Fearless Yeti, Whispering Wind, Yetipult, Magus of the Mist, and West-Wind Herald. Of these cards, Borderlands Waykeeper, Darkveil Agent, and Whispering Wind all really want a point of attack to better fight in combat or pressure the opponent. Fearless Yeti and Yetipult both desperately want more health—at least one point for both of them—so that they don’t die to Vara’s Favor and the ever-feeble Temple Scribes and Grenadins. Magus of the Mist would also become playable with just 1-2 more points of health. Maybe not all of these cards were pushed, but I think it’s more of a problem that when it comes to Primal cards, we often can’t tell what is and isn’t pushed since all the cards are generally so weak.
All of these cards are otherwise interesting; they’re dynamic, with cool abilities and risks. They possess many of Primal’s strengths, such as Flying and Aegis, along with many cool abilities. Making some small stat changes would make them playable—not broken or too strong, simply on par with other faction units or just good enough to brawl in combat, often still underpowered compared to other premier units. In the case of extra health points, it would make it so they aren’t vulnerable to so many types of removal. Any unit other than a 1-cost unit with one health is often unplayable almost by default due to being so vulnerable to Vara’s Favor and token-style units like Grenadins. Likewise, it’s almost never worth playing a unit over 3 cost that is vulnerable to Torch, and that is exactly the fate that Magus of the Mist deals with.
My guess is that there is a fairly deliberate choice to make these units small, much like Blue creatures in Magic: The Gathering. In Magic, Blue creatures typically have flying more often than other colors, as well as cool utility abilities. Blue also has an arsenal of powerful spells, particularly the ability to say no to anything in the game. In Eternal, Primal—Blue’s counterpart—has none of those tools or overpowered spells (probably for the better.) But, then, why does Primal still have so many poor units? In addition to being so punitive, they don’t even have a monopoly on Flying or other evasive abilities: Justice tends to do that much, much better (and often times even Shadow.) A bigger question that needs to be asked is this: if our game is going to be jammed full of powerful charge units and relic weapons at almost every point in the curve, where do utility units like Nocturnal Observer and West-Wind Herald get to exist?
A handful of other units are just held back by other small things. One card, in particular, makes me very frustrated: Yeti Furflinger.
If you ignore those three primal icons at the top, this card is great! A 3/4 for 3 is fantastic. It has Nightfall to provide an interesting bit of risk and reward, and it has a nice ultimate that lets you deal with a problematic unit like a Makto without outright killing it—a 2/2 flyer is still a problem in a lot of situations that you need to deal with. After being buffed to a 3/4, it might just be Primal’s best unit in terms of power cost and rate.
So why is it behind such a prohibitive influence cost? Other than Yetipult, no other yeti cards are behind such demanding primal costs. Is there a fear that letting this card be only 3PP would tear the metagame in half? We need tough influence costs to prevent every deck from just getting whatever it wants, but I can’t see why this card couldn’t just be 3PP. Am I missing something?
Negating Spells — Or, How To Pay Two For A Conditional Protect
In this game, Negate abilities (Counterspells, as they’re usually known) can only hit spells and in new cases, curses. I think this is great. Anyone who has played Magic: The Gathering knows that being able to counter anything changes the game in pretty dramatic ways. Negates are a key feature of Primal, with only Time being able to Negate spells (and poorly so at that). However, most the majority of spells played in this game are removal spells, meaning that giving a unit Aegis often does the majority of the work.
As such, there are very few things you want to counter that Protect can’t do better. In addition to hitting almost every major spell in the game you care about, you can use it preemptively at the end of turn before equipping a big weapon, use it to kill a False Prince or break an opposing Aegis, or even use it in response to unit abilities. Such power and versatility should perhaps cost more than Backlash or Unseal, and yet, it costs 1 less! The big advantages negate abilities have is hitting big stuff like Stand Together, Rise to the Challenge, Channel the Tempest, or Harsh Rule, but these situations are few and far between. Instead, putting negate abilities in your main deck is still too often a liability. You will wait for these spells to get played only to get beat down by units and relic weapons, where in other situations you’d at least be able to cast Protect to break an Aegis. Our currently existing negate spells could get a lot better without even needing to be changed if there were more powerful non-removal spells printed, but these seem to be heavily avoided for the most part.
Removal — All Too Conditional
Lastly, Primal’s removal is pretty average. At least, it’s average in the light of the removal that Justice, Fire, and Shadow offer. Lightning Storm, Permafrost, and Polymorph are all fairly strong in certain situations, but often are just situational enough that they seem to only belong in certain decks or in your sideboard. It puts primal decks in a bind on ladder: what do you think you’re going to find? Lightning Storm and Permafrost are very strong against certain decks but are horrible against many others—far more conditional than Annihilate and Vanquish have ever been. In general, Primal has no go-to removal spell that other factions get (barring Time, which has the obvious exception of huge units, though even Time seems to be experiencing a handful of issues right now.)
On one hand, it’s probably better that we don’t have another faction with an abundance of good removal right now given how much good removal is in the game right now. It might also be that Primal’s removal gets better when it has better units to play. On the other hand, you might think that it’s removal is so poor as a safety measure because it has access to so much card draw, and yet that has not stopped Justice from getting both the best removal and powerful card draw.
Though this may be a case of Justice just getting a little too much, the result is that Primal still has too little compared to all the other factions. I’m aware that they balance for all levels of play, but I can’t imagine that Primal is really making waves outside of Skycrag in higher levels of play. Though tournament is different from ladder, you need only look at tournament lists with Primal, where you’ll only see scattered multi-faction cards, Wisdom of the Elders, and Strategize. Even if these cards are good, is “drawing cards and nothing else” really the vision for Primal? If Justice keeps getting cards like Wanted Poster, and other factions get also continue to get reasonable card draw for their purposes, when will we ever turn to Primal?
I do not have all the answers, and I’m not going to pretend like I do. What I do know is that, beyond whatever data DWD has about the game, there seem to be underlying philosophical design issues in regards to Primal, and things are probably only going to get worse unless we get some changes.
Thank you for reading. If you choose to comment here or in the Reddit thread, please just be kind and constructive.
In an earlier version of this post, I suggested that Pat Chapin and the development team thought that Primal was lacking in identity. After carefully reading over his response, I do not think it was fair to say this, and I believe they instead suggested that it’s points of power haven’t been put in the right places or haven’t been capitalized on. I have since adjusted my statement to better reflect this.