[CONTENT NOTE: Really let my hair down on this one. Lots of discussion of genitalia, specifically the penis, before we segue into discussing the history of “X”-cost creatures. If you want to skip that discussion, start with the PG-rated header.)

Recently, Wizards of the Coast Tweeted that the Secret Lair with Stonecoil Serpent had been advertised with incomplete art—something of corporate damage control, as if anything, that particular Serpent’s art was a little too complete. The original art, as submitted by Peruvian artist Laynes, featured a nude creature impaled on one of the Serpent’s spikes, hands raised in devil horns and doodled phallus fully displayed.

I don’t believe in categorizing humor as “juvenile” or “highbrow” or any other classism-tinged, thought-terminating terms, so I’ll just say that my personal brand of comedy is very physical, very coarse, very goofy, in a lineage that tracks from Juvenal to Jackass. To be more direct, there’s a little humor node in my brain that lights up when I see things like “goblin penis.” I’m not alone—one of the earliest dick jokes comes from the the 10th century Exeter Book, which features this riddle:

A wondrous thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
under its lord’s clothing. In front there is a hole.
It stands stiff and hard. It has a good home.
When the servant raises his own garment
up over his knee, he wants to greet
with his dangling head that well-known hole,
of equal length, which he has often filled before.

The solution to the riddle, once the audience has reached the prurient conclusion and gotten a good laugh, is then revealed to be “a key.” I’m not going to pretend that I cracked up or anything, but it does prove that the risibility of the penis has been part of our shared culture for as long as we’ve had a culture. Ancient Rome is lousy with phallic signage, mosaics, and statuary, which still is a popular tourism draw thousands of years later, and slang terms for the phallus started showing up in Mandarin during the Yuan Dynasty, if not before.

As humans, we spend a lot of time talking rude and getting nude, and I don’t think comedy should back away from that (assuming, and this is crucial, that both audience and performers know what to expect and know when to tap out). That’s the only issue with Stonecoil Serpent, as I see it: sometimes people just want to play a card game and don’t want to be confronted with a dong. Bowdlerizing a cartoon penis which has less detail than your average cave drawing seems silly to me, but I grew up on alt-comix and the early internet, and my experiences with penises has been uniformly positive, so if someone says “hey, this isn’t what I want to see in my card game,” I encourage Wizards to listen to them and not to me. The culture around Magic used to be an absolute cesspool, and it used to feature a lot of talk about Bone Flute and other garbage that I am absolutely comfortable characterizing as puerile and leaving in the past. The culture around Magic can still be pretty toxic, but it’s more of a sewer at its worst now than a cesspool—functional, deliberately designed, and engineered to carry the biggest pieces of shit out to sea.

Along with the disreputable culture it flirted with back in the dark ages of the 1990’s, Magic is no stranger to controversial art over the decades—we’ll gloss over it, as most of it is controversial for a reason, but I will note that this isn’t Magic’s first brush with the phallus. Mirage’s Ekundu Cyclops, like a lot of Robert Bliss’s art, is boldly suggestive, particularly when turned upside down. Spincrusher[mtg_card], with a little imagination, has a snicker-inducing silhouette, while [mtg_card]Armada Wurm has a tang of the Freudian to it. But Stonecoil Serpent’s original art was Magic’s first representational, depending-from-the-crotch-of-a-humanoid-form, honest-to-Elesh penis. I’ll miss the little guy, although I do appreciate why it doesn’t have to be a part of our game.


Stonecoil Serpent and Magic’s X/X for X Flirtations

But Stonecoil Serpent was still interesting when first printed back in Throne of Eldraine, back when it had more traditional, controversy-free art as one of the clearest examples of what is generally termed “power creep.” Power creep, like pornography, is pretty hard to define while being easy to identify, but it’s basically the strict obsolescence of certain cards by cards printed later in a way that’s designed to capitalize on player excitement to sell packs. The thing is, most of what you see complained about on social media as “power creep” is simply updating cards to make them actually playable. Going from Blastoderm to Evolved Spinoderm isn’t power creep, but Gnarled Mass to Kalonian Tusker is. You often see “power creep” deployed to mean “a powerful card,” but that’s something of a canard—I don’t think anyone is mourning Serpent Warrior when we have Graveyard Trespasser. Turning unplayable cards into playable versions is desirable, and Wizards has been trying with a creature that costs X for decades.

Phyrexian Marauder was Magic’s first X creature. Completely unplayable, it could scale up throughout the game, but couldn’t block and required you to pay one mana for each +1/+1 counter on it each time you wanted to attack. “Echo every turn” is a joke of an ability, and Phyrexian Marauder is simply, like so many other cards in Magic’s awkward years, an unmemorable answer to a trivia question.

Wizards tried again in Stronghold with Shifting Wall, a bit of a counterpart to Marauder. Basically an X/X for X with Defender, Shifting Wall didn’t see play, but at least made theoretical sense as a defender that could scale up over the course of the game to match your opponent’s attackers.

Then, Wizards gave up for almost 20 years. Our next X/X for X creature came in Battle for Zendikar, with Endless One. More of a curiosity, Endless One did get some buzz as a scalable threat that could convert your Eldrazi Scions into a must-block threat. It’s the simplest and cleanest iteration of this effect—no drawbacks, no trinket text, no quirks. With its printing, every deck had access to a card that could be a Grizzly Bear, Gnarled Mass, Rumbling Baloth, Hollowhenge Beast, and so forth. Now, it wasn’t enough for Constructed, but it did demonstrate that Wizards was willing to print this style of card without a drawback.

For the sake of completeness, we’ll touch on Guilds of Ravnica’s Chamber Sentry, which can potentially be an X/X for X, but only if you have access to multiple colors of mana, which defeats the purpose. Shifting Wall and Phyrexian Marauder were unique in early Magic in that they could go in any deck and could scale equal to your total mana. With its crypto-Sunburst and hard cap at a 5/5 for WUBRG, Chamber Sentry isn’t a proper follow-up to those cards.

In 2019, we took a step back with Ugin’s Aspirant[mtg_card]. An uncommon Endless One, Aspirant could be on-curve at any point in the game, with the drawback that any damage dealt to it permanently shrank it. Still not awful, as it could be a surprisingly resilient creature in a format with Proliferate effects, but it was basically a bad [mtg_card]Witherscale Wurm and a consolation prize if you couldn’t stack counters on your Planeswalkers.

Then came the gas and the Serpent. Throne of Eldraine was a supercharged set, leading to multiple bannings, toxic Standard and Modern environments, and some extremely popular cards. As aforementioned, I’m leery of the term “power creep,” but there’s no other term for what Wizards brought to the game in Eldraine. Questing Beast adds a saga’s worth of text to Rumbling Baloth with no drawback (other than being Legendary, which is seldom relevant), Brazen Borrower obscured Vendilion Clique, and Robber of the Rich[mtg_card] is a far cry from “Red doesn’t get Grizzly Bears.” Eldraine is a formative set for a lot of folks, and it was a blast to play, but it was like drinking 9% double IPAs when you’re used to domestic light beers, and we’re still living through the hangover. Stonecoil Serpent, among those absurdly high benchmarks, was pretty unassuming and remains so, but compared to its predecessors, it’s a Questing Beast-level upgrade. Endless One never saw much play, even in the Eldrazi Winter decks that maxed out on [mtg_card]Eldrazi Temple and needed colorless Eldrazi bodies, and even Stonecoil Serpent was something of an also-ran. I run it in Pioneer Delirium as a Lotus Petal that can turn into a massive threat later in the game and isn’t susceptible to Assassin’s Trophy or Abrupt Decay, but that’s like saying “I run Smuggler’s Copter so I can flash back Corpse Cobbling” or “I own a Mercedes-Benz GLC so I can take it to the car wash.” I love Stonecoil Serpent, and its presence in a new Secret Lair implies someone at Wizards also has a soft spot for the stone snake, and I don’t think it’s going to be a Proliferate target any time soon (or will it? Turn four Serpent into turn five Vraska, Betrayal’s Sting seems pretty intriguing).

If Stonecoil Serpent isn’t quite good enough to break through in Constructed Magic, it’s hard to imagine an X/X for X that can. Pushing the model any further would turn it from “curiosity” to “must-run” in creature-heavy formats, as a creature that’s good on every turn of the game breaks the critical tension of Magic as a game of random outcomes within clear sequences. Llanowar Elves is crucial on turn one and loses value with each subsequent turn; Grave Titan is a bomb on turn six and a temporary mulligan before that point. A creature that is equally valuable on turn one and turn ten—especially when its casting cost lets any deck have access to it—is the sort of thing Wizards tries very hard to avoid to minimize stagnant formats and predictable patterns of play. In a slightly different world—one where artifacts were more important in Standard, one where Proliferate was pushed just a bit more in War of the Spark—Stonecoil Serpent drew as many curses and professions of disbelief as Oko or Questing Beast. Personally, I’m glad we live in this world, where the little (or big) serpent wasn’t quite good enough, but remains tantalizingly close to playability.

Rob Bockman (he/him) is a native of South Carolina who has been playing Magic: the Gathering since Tempest block. A writer of fiction and stage plays, he loves the emergent comedy of Magic and the drama of high-level play. He’s been a Golgari player since before that had a name and is never happier than when he’s able to say “Overgrown Tomb into Thoughtseize,” no matter the format.

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