Tagged: MTG

Planar Chaos Sucks (But It Doesn’t (But We Learned Nothing From It))

Back when Planar Chaos came out I mostly said at the time that it was a fine opportunity for Wizards of the Coast to address its failings, and start setting a new hard precedent in what the game should be, citing the examples of Damnation and Prodigal Pyromancer as signs of what the game’s colours should feature. This perspective, broadly speaking is wrong because Planar Chaos wasn’t meant to be that. I was the one in the wrong, with my sensible-seeming but incorrect assumption.

As it turns out, I was not alone

It’d be pretty easy to just call Planar Chaos a series of mistakes, but it’s a mistake of a different kind to the sort that filter out of R&D. The mistakes of Urza’s Saga are failures of development and refinement, the ‘mistake’ of Fires of Yavimaya/Saproling Burst as a combo was a failure of pre-loading time, and so on. Most of the time, the failures are also pretty ludic: Players are presented with a system, and engage with that system in a way that selects for optimal play experiences. Environments become saturated with ‘best decks’ or draft formats grow stale as optimal strategies surface or combos speed up the game in general.

These are, broadly speaking, problems and mistakes that come up in the conventional tournament play of the game. But Planar Chaos is a mistake of the culture of the players, and a culture that was only going to come to head as social media and real, immediate interaction with the game developers became more of A Thing. As development of the game became more connected to the play environment and made more – reasonable! – concessions to the wider variety of players, there was a more centralised community of people who were interested in the game for its design sake. They even got an archetype name – Mel!

These are the players who, as a community, care about not what Magic will do, or does do, but about what it can do. What the rules permit, what the design space of the game could allow for, within the limitations of still being the game. Now there’s a sad illusion in the Mel group that because they care about rules, Mel players are largely dealing with objective information. This can mean Mel conversations wind up being rather about designing within parameters that R&D actually build within (which tend to be player-focused systems and rely on a lot of playtesting and human activity), they try to basically reduce human engagement with the game into math. These Mels, the ones who fall into this trap, are the lovers and fans of precedent.

Precedent in Magic: The Gathering is a dangerous thing, because we already know that it doesn’t work. We know that Alpha had bad balance. We know that Mercadian Masques wasn’t a great set. We know that Mirrodin-era standard had Problems. But yet, when you extract a card from its greater context, it’s often easy to forget that. Hey, Wizards printed Storm spells twice, we can revisit that mechanic without fear, right1.?

In this game of semi-objective reference-sniping, in the climbing of Mount Cleverest, there is one set that stands head and shoulders above all others as an example of Precedent That Is Definitely Not Precedent.

Planar Chaos was printed in 2007 as part of the insular2. Time Spiral Block. Amongst its cards was a smaller subset of cards that were ‘Planeshifted,’ cards from an alternate present of Magic: The Gathering, where cards that were once printed in one colour were re-flavoured to be printed in a different colour, if the flavour of the colour pie had been interpreted differently. This was a chance for Wizards to do some really big, splashy, impressive things, like-

yeah, that.

Now I’m not going to argue much about whether or not Damnation was right at the time. I personally see it now as a relic of when Wrath of God was the lynchpin of white power (whoah is that a phrase that feels bad) back in the day and when Day of Judgement took over and things opened up and became very different,  and therefore, Damnation is just part of Modern and it sucks that Black has this in terms of how The Game Should Go, but hey, we’ve been moving away from Regeneration and anyway. Point is, Damnation isn’t a card that led to black getting global Destroy All since then.

Planeshifted cards also included Prodigal Pyromancer, a card that was then reprinted in a core set. I personally view that now in that Prodigal Pyromancer is from an alternate past where Wizards never made the mistake of Prodigal Sorcerer. That’s not how it works, but this is the problem: Planeshifted cards didn’t have a single, fixed, sensible and coherent interpretation for what they were. What’s more, Planar Chaos also featured cards that weren’t Planeshifted, but were also meant to be from this ‘alternative present’ – like Needlepeak Spider.

Now, mostly these cards vanished under the waves because for all that Planar Chaos was full of weird cards, most of them weren’t very good. Standard at this time was having a hard time dealing with very straightforward problem represented by Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, a control card so ferociously strong that players were cutting counterspells they didn’t need any more, and a blue-base prison combo was standard legal in the form of ‘Pickles’ a deck that ran on Vesuvan Shapeshifter and Brine Elemental. Aeon Chronicler jumped into these decks and there was a land destruction deck running around, but broadly speaking, Planar Chaos didn’t do much that anyone cared about. The enduring Planar Chaos cards have been reprinted, like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.

These cards were not going to be lasting influences on constructed formats – very few sets really are. Mostly it’s individual cards that have an impact, and in Planar Chaos, most of those weird cards don’t provide that impact. For the players who care about precedent in design, though? Planar Chaos is a hand grenade, it blows apart all sorts of assumptions about what Wizards would or wouldn’t do. It’s full of too-complex cards, cards that could be printed in a colour but shouldn’t be because they don’t provide useful tools or interesting play experiences compared to the cards that already exist in that set. There are not really any breaks, but there are some bends. I mean, it’s not like Pyrohemia is as potent an effect as Pestilence in a colour that lacks lifegain, card draw and mana expansion like Cabal Coffers.

Really, the fact is we should be ignoring Planar Chaos in its entirety. Any card that’s printed only in Planar Chaos isn’t a useful example for field of reference and should instead be evaluated not as a card Wizards made but as a card Wizards might make.

1. This was such a recurrent problem in the social media space around Wizards that the name of Mark Rosewater’s scale of not coming back to the game is literally The Storm Scale.

2. Insular in this case refers not to the mechanics but the motifs and themes of the set. More than any set before it or after it, the theme of Time Spiral block is Magic: The Gathering. It’s a set so full of references to other places it’s quite dizzying to dig into them – and often they’re not actually particularly clever, they just exist.

The MTG Data… Thing

If you know about this, you know what it’s about. If you don’t, boy howdy, trust me, it could scarcely matter less.

Here’s your rough outline: Wizards of the Coast have revised one of their web features, where they released ten decklists that had gone 5-0 at a League that week. Instead, they said, they’re now going to release five decklists, and instead of letting randomness pick them out, they’re going to let a people do it. A people!

Look, on the face of it, people who are unhappy about this, I am actually on your side: In this case, you had More Data, and now you have Less Data. That sucks! That is straight-up a bummer, and if you like Data, less of them is worse than more of them!

And then, the Magic Community had to go and be.

Alright, let’s talk about the goony-as-heck reaction to this, and by inference, the rolled-in reaction to the change of Friday Night Magic because these two things just run straight into one another in the worst hecking way. So! Wizards are now giving you Less Data, which means the correct course of action is to form in large, ridiculous, conspiratorial groups on Reddit and fume at one another about how it’s impossible that Wizards of the Coast functions as a company, because they’re clearly awful and stupid and bad, and let’s throw rocks at them. You should also pen large articles that refer to this as DATA HOARDING and also, while we’re at it, refer to it as INSANITY because that’s classy, especially when the article gets to sit alongside confessional stories of how Magic: The Gathering helped the writer overcome their suicidal depression. Good look.

The use of Hoarding is a fun one too, because Hoarding, we recognise, is a Bad Thing. We know Hoarding is bad and it’s a loaded word because it implies that someone is keeping more than their share, for a foolish reason, that really should be a right to everyone. This is like how America has a Health Hoarding problem, I guess. Point is: You don’t call it Data Hoarding if you’re not trying to imply Wizards of the Coast are sitting on a giant pile of Data like dragons on coinage.

The argument is that Wizards are terrible for this, that they’re witholding the data for nefarious purpose. Now, I’ve also heard that Wizards have asked Starcity Games and MTG Goldfish to stop publishing full tournament decklists, but also done so in the context of asking people. The notion is that Wizards feel an excessive array of decklists in an environment make it too solvable, and they’d rather people write about their decks rather than let people do amateur economics to a huge pile of data points. The people who benefit from huge swathes of decklists are Pro players, people with testing environments, as well. In essence, Wizards have said People in general don’t know what to do with data, and too much data benefits people who are already in position to win.

Next thing: Wizards have also decided to stop giving away FNM Standard Promo cards, and instead replace them with foil two-sided tokens at FNMs. FNM is Friday Night Magic, basically a store initiative to get you  to play the game and bring people together to enjoy the game together. FNM has broadened massively in the past few years – it used to be Standard, or Draft – and now it’s so varied that players can wind up playing Conspiracy or Commander or old formats or Pauper of all things. They’re still going to give away the FNM standard promo cards, but only for the Standard Showdown format they release. People asked for ways to get the tokens, they provided, and they moved the standard promos.

And how do these two things hit each other?

Wizards have said they chose to do this after checking data. And that means we get to watch the highest tier of internet intelligentsia arguing that they need more data to make decisions, but also Wizards doesn’t have data necessary to make this decision. Wizards were asked – via Mark Rosewater’s blog – how much data they were basing it off, and if it could possibly be statistically significant. Wizards’ response was all FNMs since the program started. If you wanted a better demonstration of the MTG community’s amateurish assumptions about how they could handle data vs how Wizards could handle data, you could scarcely ask for more proof.

Bonus: Then people demanded Wizards release that data. Because how else could they believe Wizards of the Coast, if they didn’t provide literally years of data about FNM attendance in every location, along with all the qualitative research and questionnaires they’d done.

In all this, one thing Wizards have said is the leading thing that encourages people to be and hang around FNMs is the environment being friendly and nice. That is, it’s not the incentive to play for the special cards that draws people in, it’s something else. It’s the social environment. And imagine, just imagine, and if you’re the kind of person who gets mad about Data and invents conspiracy stories about the company it might be you don’t make the environment friendly. I’m not saying this was targeted, but I am saying if you’re the kind of dickhead who brags about sharking the most casual FNMs you can find to scoop up the FNM standard promo cards, maybe you’re not good at recognising other people’s incentive systems for wanting to avoid playing with you.

I don’t know. Honestly, I do see the problem with giving people too few data. I do see the idea that trying to dissolve the cloud of decklists for raw data scrapers is a fool’s errand because the people who scrutinise that information aren’t, generally, going to necessarily actually notice that they’re not yielding useful results with their predictive models.

The main lesson though, the one thing we can really take away, however is Being kind and friendly helps your FNM.