Reconstruct History — Temple of the False God
(Temple of the False God | Art by Brian Snoddy)
Legends of the Hidden Temple
Welcome to another installment of Reconstruct History, where we examine popularity trends of cards and archetypes over time.
Continuing on our trend of looking at lands, this week, we'll be looking at a classic of EDH: Temple of the False God.
Temple of the False God was first printed way back in Scourge (2003), and it was a neat flavor piece accompanying, you guessed it, Karona, False God. Look closely at the original art by Brian Snoddy, and you'll even see a statue of ol' Karona, False God gracing an arch into the entryway of what looks like a sort of Magic: The Gathering equivalent of the Hagia Sofia.
With that history out of the way, what about its history of seeing play? Once a staple of most EDH decks, how has it fared over the last few years? Are the whispers of it being 'too slow' or its potential to 'whiff' true enough to influence the data?
Let's dive in and find out!
Let’s start by outlining what we’re looking at:
- Metric: Rank Score (out of possible colorless cards)
- Timeframe: Two years (May 2019 – May 2021)
- Breaks: By month
As is tradition, we’ll be focusing on rank rather than the number of decks (i.e., decklists), as it helps account for fluctuations in decklists scraped in any given timeframe, and helps us compare it to other colorless cards. Remember that the lower the rank (closer to 1), the more popular a card is!
As an additional note: just like last time when we looked at Scavenger Grounds, colorless cards are a bit wonky to scrape, as nonbasic lands are often included in the rank of all colorless cards. If you head on over to Top Colorless Cards, you’ll notice they are categorized by top cards, creatures, artifacts, lands, etc., but for ranking purposes of all colorless cards, lands get thrown into the mix, including color-fixing lands (Command Tower, et al) that don’t technically sport any colored symbols in their text boxes.
Since that’s the case, I’ll present the data here both including and excluding nonland cards, side-by-side. That way, we can see where Temple of the False God falls according to all colorless cards, as well as where it falls in terms of ‘utility lands’ that can be splashed into any deck. In essence, we want to see which other utility lands are competing with Temple of the False God for popularity. Just be sure to keep a keen eye on any scale changes on the y axis! Typically it's bad form to change scales, but I also don't want to 'flatten' meaningful variations in the data because we are removing non-land cards (i.e., 'fluff').
Without further ado, here's the graphs for Temple of the False God. Be sure to check both the raw rank (i.e., all colorless cards) and adjusted rank (non-lands removed) for comparison!
Rank and adjusted rank of Temple of the False God (May 2019 - May 2021)
While the trends are virtually the same between the graphs, there are some subtle differences, especially around July 2020, where it appears Temple of the False God declined slightly in rank with a specific increase in nonland colorless cards. When those cards are removed, the decline between July and August seems a little more severe in the adjusted rank score. Overall, though, the trend is generally the same between the two, with Temple of the False God experiencing a slight decline in the last two years.
The uptick around Spring 2021 is likely due to it being reprinted in the Commander 2021 precons. While they released in April, the full lists were spoiled a bit earlier, and I think it's safe to say the uptick is likely due to the 'precon effect', where people uploading their decklists of the precons — upgraded or stock — might 'inflate' the card's popularity a bit.
It sees play in just shy of 90,000 decks, or 15% of all decks scraped by the site. That's still quite a lot, even if 85% of decks scraped by EDHREC choose not to include Temple of the False God in their lists.
Time to Reflect
Onto my favorite part: it's Time to Reflect and try to make sense of some of the trends!
There's not much to say here: Temple of the False God has been printed into the proverbial ground, seeing over 19 printings since its initial debut. Since 2012, it only briefly breached $1 for a six-month interval in 2019, but has remained around or under a dollar ever since. It's a highly accessible card, so much so that its presence can be found gracing EDH decks, LGS bulk bins, and that cardboard box labeled "misc." (or, if you're as lazy as me, not even labeled at all) in your collection alike. Its popularity likely isn't hindered by its price, but it raises the question: can price alone explain such popularity?
I don't think so, and I'll try and prove why by comparing it to another similar card. Off the bat, lands tapping for two generic mana are not all that common, which means there actually aren't many good competitors for Temple of the False God, outside of one: the big, bad, bricked burial chamber from Tempest (1997) teeming with spoopy specters, Ancient Tomb.
Where Temple of the False God's drawback is tied to the number of lands you control, Ancient Tomb gives you mana whenever you need it — but for the price of two damage. I say 'damage' rather than 'life', as technically Ancient Tomb is the source of damage, and unlike loss of life, damage can be prevented (e.g., Candle's Glow), or even magnified (e.g., Furnace of Rath). Most times, though, the going rate for Ancient Tomb is two mana for two life, which many players are happy to exchange.
So, is price a good indicator of why Temple of the False God is so popular? If it were more expensive, and cost you life, would it it see more play?
After seeing these two side-by-side, I'm not so convinced. Ancient Tomb has a hefty price tag and causes continuous damage, but people seem to be valuing it higher than Temple in the last year or so. Ancient Tomb may come with a price in both money and life points, but those are prices many may be willing to pay compared to the drawbacks of Temple of the False God.
Devotees of Temple of the False God can still be found around the internet and likely any local gaming store, but it can't be denied that the Temple's benefit is largely for decks with fewer colors in their identity. Once you start getting into three-, four-, or even five-color decks, a conditional land that at best only provides you an extra generic mana isn't likely to make the cut.
Consider that we received our first legal four-color commanders (I'm still here for anyone who wants to Rule 0 Dune-Brood Nephilim players!) in 2016, with the precons that gave us Atraxa, Praetors' Voice and her ilk alongside the first Partner commanders, like Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa and Silas Renn, Seeker Adept, which brought a massive influx and potential of expanding commander decks into four colors. Consider also that since 2016, in the last five years we've seen a 133% increase in five-color commanders compared to the 20 years prior.
Finally, consider that having access to multiple colors in Commander is both 'advantageous' and popular. Some 20% of the top 20 commanders are five-color commanders, and cumulatively, 80% of the top 20 commanders are three or more colors. There are no mono-colored commanders in the top 20. You'd have to extend the threshold to the top 50 commanders just to get four (8%) of them.
In sum, maybe Temple of the False God's ceiling of providing extra mana comes with a caveat of it being generic, in a world now populated increasingly by multi-color options. Some of its decline may well be influenced by an increasingly changing landscape of color identities compared to the days pre-2016.
False Gods, False Mana?
Just like its name implies, Temple of the False God can act as a 'false' sense of mana if it's one of your first four lands. Outside of having something like Chromatic Lantern, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, etc., Temple of the False God is functionally useless until you hit that crucial fifth land threshold.
The Command Zone gave a pretty critical review of the card back in episode #355, right around October 2020. In fact, Tomer Abramovici from the MTGGoldfish crew tackled the risk/reward analysis of Temple of the False God in the video "Is Temple of the False God A Bad Card? The Answer using MATH!" He aptly notes that while the mechanics of Temple of the False God have not changed since early years of Commander, the connotation and evaluation around it has.
He underscores that many feel the extra mana it provides is simply not worth the risk of it doing nothing if drawn in the early game. Notably, 53% of the 3.4k people polled agreed that Temple of the False God was "generally a bad card in most Commander decks." I thought it might be worth it to see if these videos had any influence on the data:
Meh, not really. Or at least, it's probably too soon to tell. The dip appears to have already begun prior to these content creation videos. However, we are a few months behind on getting some of this data scraped, so in a year or so's time I'll try and circle back around to see if the trend for Temple of the False God continues downward.
These reviews are by no means 'new'. Dig deep enough on the internet or subreddit r/EDH and you'll find people as far back as 2015 still debating the efficacy of Temple of the False God. Importantly, they all underscore the emotive evaluation around Temple of the False God.
Emotive Devotion, Statistics, and Demands of a Faster Format
What I think is at play here, and Tomer touches upon as well in the MTG Goldfish video above, is the the incredible power of anecdote, and human emotion. That really can't be underappreciated.
I'd venture that many of us have likely reaped the benefits of Temple of the False Gods without giving it much thought, but remember glaringly that one game where we drew it as our third or fourth land, but drew no more. It's easy to get burned that one time and be so soured by the pseudo-deity's place of worship that the impulse rises to cut it altogether. Heck, you may have even purged it from every deck you own, as I have, in fear of ever having to deal with that feels-bad scenario again. The power of those single experiences may, and likely are, enough to influence us to take drastic measures despite the percentage of other times where Temple of the False God does just fine.
Which does raise the question: just how successful, statistically speaking, is Temple of the False God? In the aforementioned MTG Goldfish video, Tomer, with the help of Frank Karsten, conducts some basic hypergeometric modelling to see the likelihood of 'whiffing.' I'm not going to cover all their assumptions here. Rather, I'll just focus on some of the notable findings. Using the Ruthless Regimen precon from 2020, with 36 lands, and only one means of getting an 'extra' land into play (Knight of the White Orchid), they found that:
- The probability of drawing and being able to activate Temple of the False God by turn five to be 74.7%.
- By turn six, it increases to 78.5% and by turn seven, 81.6%.
Now some may be fine with 'whiffing' 25% of the time, but others are just too scarred from being a non-factor in the early game. Karsten notes this is probably too few lands paired with lack of effects that get lands into play, and re-ran the model with 42 lands:
- The probability of drawing and being able to activate Temple on turn five rose to 85.5%, 88.2% for turn six, and 90.4% for turn seven.
While the odds are much better, the issue is, this format is generally getting a bit leaner, with increasing emphasis on early game two-mana (or less) ramp sources, reliance on two-mana mana rocks, and just frankly doing more in the early game to set up explosive trajectories for later. This butts against Temple of the False God's 'whiff' potential, as 42 lands is very high for a lot of decks these days, and while I personally think 36 is still too few, many go even leaner and rely on mana dorks or mana rocks to shirk the downsides of a lean land count.
Altogether, Temple of the False God's potential may well be a relic of a different game environment compared to today. People may not want to wait until turn five to get an extra mana. They'll just do it with a Fellwar Stone on turn two instead. Temple of the False God requires devotion in the form of emotion — to reap its benefits, you must be willing to accept the frustrating games where it provides you nothing, no matter how few. Many, myself included, have Opted out.
With an old history in Commander, I don't think there's any one factor to explain some of the data we see. I'm certainly curious to see where the data ends up in a few years' time to see if we can hone some of these discussion points further.
Now I'm curious to hear from you! What's your take?
Sound off in the comments below on why!