Hey, WOTC employees! As much as I want you to read my stuff, in the hopes you wind up hiring me to write for your sites like the Mothership and whatnot I have to ask you to not read this one because I’m talking about amateur designs and new mechanics. After the fold, we’re going to discuss The Empty Space For A Blue-Black Combat Keyword.
Combat keywords are hard to design specifically because combat is something we’ve seen Wizards do a lot of stuff with. I mean combat is one of the most important and persistent components of the game and we’ve seen a lot of combat keywords in time. Some of them sucked, like Banding, or Can Deal Its Combat Damage To The Defending Player As If It Wasn’t Blocked. Some of them were pretty good, like Prowess, and wound up forming major shifts in the game.
The trick with designing a creature combat keyword for blue and black is it needs to be a thing that isn’t already done better by either or both colours and it needs to be a good creature combat keyword – ie, a keyword that makes creature combat actually interesting.
Unblockable isn’t really a good one, because it means there’s no way to interact with the creature in combat using the existing, default combat mechanics. Flying is great, because it lets a creature interact in combat with a subtype of combat mechanics – it’s unblockable enough. The thing with evasion abilities is that they need to be meaningfully different to one another and present a variety of different mechanical personalities, and black and blue already have access to three really good, but not-regularly usable evasion words like ‘can’t be blocked if’ or ‘can’t be blocked by.’
But that’s what won’t work, what’s the actual idea?
I must repeat, this is not my idea alone – I’ve seen a few people suggest it as well. The idea is, basically infect for mill. The mechanic has been given a few names and a few specific wordings but I’m going to present it herein a single form, with a single specific wording. It’s also been worded a few different ways with some different flavours, but this time I’m going with a neutral-ish feeling of creatures that generally attack the mind, rather than any kind of theme for horror or the like.
Phrenic (If this creature would deal damage to a player, instead put that many cards from the top of that player’s library into that player’s graveyard)
If you’d like some other similar keyword-and-reminder text sets to consider:
Phrenic (If this creature would do damage to a player, instead put that many cards from the top of that player’s library into that player’s graveyard)
Infect (This creature deals damage to creatures in the form of -1/-1 counters and to players in the form of poison counters.)
Madness (cost) (If you discard this card, discard it into exile. When you do, cast it for its madness cost or put it into your graveyard.)
As you can see, it’s comparable to something like Madness or Infect, though it is a bit longer. Nothing that you’d consider a dealbreaker, but still, it shows the text isn’t a ridiculous size. It even looks okay on the card:
This mechanic fulfills most of what you want, in that it’s a flavour overlap of the two colours, and it changes how the creature relates to basic creature combat, attacking and blocking.
I like this idea because it gives those colours a reason to have creatures with lopsided power. Thing is, you have twenty life points in Magic: The Gathering, and almost all creatures and sources of damage attack that. Just like only one or two Infect creatures aren’t actually all that threatening, one or two Phrenic creatures are attacking the ‘wrong’ thing for the rest of your creatures to support. That, however, doesn’t change their impact in combat!
In limited, you start with 33 cards in your deck, which means a 1/1 evasive creature that only eats off the top of your library is, on its own, going to need to attack 16 times to kill you, and nobody else is going to help you. It’s not contributing to the task as all your other creatures are working towards. Of course, a 1/1 evasive creature will need to attack 20 times to kill your opponent, but it’s getting help!
It means that creatures that show up early with Phrenic can have really lopsided stats without them being straight-up heavy hitters; a Phrenic 4/4 is hard to block, but you can let it hit you two or even three times without feeling too worried by it. You can almost compare this to Afflict, a mechanic that, in blue, allows creatures to be harder hitting when they’re opposed and have a neat mechanical effect when they’re let through.
This means as well that creatures probably want to have slightly bigger power and toughness than you’d normally expect in the colours at the mana costs. A blue watchwolf, as it were. In Limited, you won’t have too many of these creatures showing up – same way you don’t get a whole deck full of Menace – so while they’ll be attacking an asset and being good solid bodies for combat, you’re not completely attacking the same basic resource.
These creatures are interesting, meaningful when redundant, and have a threshold of critical mass that keeps them from being overwhelming in limited. You can make enough of them across a broad enough spread of cards that in constructed, they’ll be able to build a deck with support as well.
The ability interacts with other keywords the colours have, too! Evaders all want to get through to mill, and can afford to have less toughness. Deathtouchers can maybe nibble a single card off your library at a time, but blocking them will lose you a whole creature card. Prowess even interacts with it well! If you make a high-power creature with Phrenic and Menace, it’ll represent taking out both blockers and make it harder still to chump!
First, as a replacement effect there’s a chance it’ll interact weirdly with other replacement effects. Note that Infect isn’t a replacement effect, and most people would think it is, I think, so there’s some edginess there.
Second, and this is a very minor concern, this keyword will need its reminder text restructured if there’s ever a keywording of ‘mill.’
The weird thing is I started this article sitting down to cite why this was a bad idea and wouldn’t work. Then after considering it – and considering my specific problems with it – I realised that it’s actually a pretty robust idea.
If it ever happens, I don’t want you to think ‘Talen called it.’ Because there’s no strong reason to do it: Blue and black don’t need a creature combat keyword to make things make sense, it’d just be pleasant addition to the game. Also, as Kelly Digges has made clear in the past, if they ever implement an idea that someone in the wild has had, don’t ever assume it’s connected.