Category: Magic: The Gathering

Weekly, I write a column about Magic: The Gathering. Either a deck I’m playing or a mechanic I like or a lesson I learned from it. This game has been part of my life now for going on fifteen years and I’d like to share the way the game has impacted me.

MTG: Return To Return To Dominaria

Dominaria is a Magic: The Gathering set about Magic: The Gathering’s history, and as someone who has been – in a small way – part of shaping that history – I have been wondering about it.

Long Ago

Back when I started playing Magic: The Gathering, Magic was standing on a pair of thresholds. First, we were in the conclusion of the first major Magic storyline that had nothing to do with The Weatherlight in years – Odyssey and Onslaught. Second, we were just about to begin the long journey from Onslaught into the undiscovered wilds of Mirrodin.

Since at the time, the Magic story was new to me, I went out and looked for it. What I found was, honestly, pretty bad. The older Weatherlight story presented Gerrard as the most generically dull Good Guy. The Weatherlight crew were, mostly, pretty boring and simple cutouts. I can’t remember a meaningful quote from any of them. Nothing about them impressed upon me, except that the story was very, very eager to present that Gerrard was important and mattered.

There is one moment in that history, in the story before Apocalypse that means anything to me:

The thing about this card that always made it echo to me, of the past of Dominaria, is that I knew Barrin because of cards like Rewind or Relearn or Catalog – cards that were blue, and thoughtful and often fairly cost effective. To see that name, a name I associated with care and consideration associated with this – and with the death of one of the most powerful-seeming places in all of Magic? It was astonishing.

But then we had the story of Chainer and Kamahl, which is a story told in the wake of the end of the Weatherlight, now far removed from the Weatherlight’s problems, and is mostly a story of boys who can’t communicate meaningfully and the women that suffer because of them. It was learning about legends and a war and the world collapsing and all of it was done in pursuit of a powerful object that tore up the world, and then… at the end, with the disappointment that was Karona and her story, we left.

The Recent Pasts

We left for Mirrodin.

Which was messed up because of Karn, a member of the Weatherlight, about whom I did not care. But it wasn’t so bad. The novels weren’t that good and I didn’t care, but at least, I reflected, we were moving away from the years-long saga of Gerrard Capashen, About Whom I Still Don’t Care.

Kamigawa happened, then Ravnica happened, and they were interesting and new and took the story in directions I wanted to see more of.

And then, finally, after years away, we finally had a Triumphant RETURN TO DOMINARIA in the form of Time Spiral block, a block of Magic so bad that it was about then I decided to stop writing about it. Up to that point I had seldom found a Magic set that was so intensely interested in smelling its own farts as Time Spiral. Nostalgia, it crowed, Nostalgia it purred, after 8th edition had made a show of being The Set That Drew From All Of Magic’s History, and the fuss of Power 9th (which was a hoax). We got Time Spiral, which wanted to bring us back to a simpler time when you could open a booster you spent money on and get a Squire, or blue got burn and –

I didn’t like Time Spiral much. I said as much at the time.

When the announcement was made that we were returning to Dominaria FOR THE SECOND TIME I wasn’t awash with the nostalgia that everyone else seemed to be. I think part of that is that the older period, the actual Weatherlight era of the Weatherlight story, was never something that resonated with me.

The Now

First things first, I know I have an emotional hype deficiency. I’m not That Guy. I don’t get frothingly eager about new sets.

I thought Ixalan looked cool going in to the spoiler season but didn’t find it interesting enough to play much of after one deeply depressing prerelease (0-3-bye). Dinosaurs are cool, Merfolk are cool, but the urge to get involved and play Standard at the time just wasn’t there. My interest in Kaladesh and Aether Revolt standard was pretty strong, as a casual player, and a Commander player, as with Innistrad – but it seems to me that I just don’t see the kind of things I like doing in sets. I hope Deeproot Champion gets a home, for example.

But Dominaria comes out tomorrow. It is burgeoning and it is fullsome and by now – when it goes up, not when I’m writing it – the whole spoiler will have come out. It will be full of references to the history of Magic, and mechanics that remind you what Magic used to be like in the era of Armageddons and Counterspell, and it will try to mulligan on many bad decisions made in the past and introduce a host of Kamigawa-level uncommon legends and it will strive to be a set to love.

I am afraid, however, at the moment, as someone who does not like Dominaria, who does not see it as his home, who does not see the urge to go back as exciting, that this set, so far, is not thrilling me. I am not excited. I am not hopeful. This set has done nothing, so far, to convince me, someone who was glad to leave, that it’s good to be back. Which is fine – it’s not meant to. And as a person with my life, I am always going to have a different view of nostalgia for its own sake.

I watch my friends point at cards and excitedly turn over their meanings or their applications. I watch people crow about new printings as if it validates their position on old cards. I see old names attached to new characters who have a chance to be interesting, I see new stories being told with old pieces that maybe, maybe this time, I will find something to care about, even through my doubts. I see the work of people I respect to reinvigorate and restore something that was always broken and never whole. I see people explaining and re-explaining those old stories to one another, so happy, so happy to be able to point to those things that mean something to them, and see them made real anew. And that makes me happy.

I still find myself, ever yearning, to reach for whatever till there is, and look to the next horizon. Because Magic always changes, and Magic is always going somewhere. To me, that is exciting.

Oh And

Hey, Modern you now have the entire Onslaught Goblins deck in you, choke on it. 😞

MTG: Pet Cards IV, Ravnica Block

Ravnica is an incredible block because it’s full of casual deckbuilding staples, and it’s the time I was actively writing for Starcity Games. When I look back on Ravnica, there’s a ton of stuff I think of as ‘great cards,’ even though they’re niche enough to need the whole deck built around them.

With that in mind, I will say the Ravnica bouncelands and signets are all-purpose good cards that casual decks can run and should always bear in mind for building. Whatever colour combination you’re in, you can make use of those ten cards, or can at least consider why not to use them. There’s also a bunch of robust utility effects at common and uncommon, with cards like Mortify, Putrefy, Watchwolf, Faith’s Fetters, Pure//Simple – just a whole lot of handy things that you can slot into decks. Not the kind of ‘pet’ cards I find myself making excuses for. So like, that kind of stuff? They’re not going on the list.

This list was hard to cut down and that’s after I set aside this special clause.

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MTG: Canadian Highlander And Combo

First things first, I do not play Canadian Highlander. I do follow the North 100 podcast, and I do have a ‘team’ I root for in the 30-player strong metagame of the area: Allison, Queen Of The Rock. She’s playing green-black value control, every time, every event, and I will back that all the way.

Nonetheless, I am a Magic Player, and with that in mind, I want to talk about a thing that successful, well-established and well-known Magic Players could be doing better.

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MTG: Pet Cards III, Kamigawa Block

Here’s a set for your pet cards, dangit. Kamigawa was rich with flavour, but it was also spending a much smaller budget of power cards, which meant that even the cards that were powerful or good were doing it in ways orthogonal to one another – you either got overdosed on unnecessary virtue (like Snakes) or effects that never really had a home (like Dosan). It’s also cycle happy which means even the cards in it that are kinda Just Okay tend to be seen as part of a cycle, so they’re less forgotten, less pet.

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MTG: The Pack Rat Problem

Wizards employees, please do not read any further. This will discuss custom card designs and while it should only feature some abstract examples, I understand you are not allowed to look at unsolicited card designs.

Custom card designs feature a host of oddball problems, weird habits that we get into and things we don’t consider because well, mostly, custom designers are lone creators without the force of design and development behind us. Hey, we’re only human and all. But we have these problems and sometimes I think it’s worthwhile considering them.

Here then, let’s consider: Does your card create a Pack Rat Problem?

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MTG: Pet Cards II: Mirrodin Block

Boy this era of Magic sucked.

The problem of Onslaught era magic was to look back upon a set full of forgettable okay cards that I learned to love, little roleplayers, niche friends – I can’t believe I forgot Wirewood Savage, for example! – but nothing that was so powerful it shook the world between Odyssey Block and Mirrodin Block. Oh sure, Goblins came from Onslaught but I didn’t really feel love for those little blighters the way I did for the cards I consider my pets.

On the other hand, Mirrodin Block is so tediously powerful. Every other card is basically an archetype, or gave rise to an archetype, or blatantly holds itself up as a design mistake. Going back and looking over Mirrodin block, I was genuinely worried that I might not be able to find a pet card from each set on the way to the good stuff in Kamigawa and later Ravnica.

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Notes: TTC – Rivals of Ixalan Nicknames

Here’s a thing I like!

The nicknames podcasts from TTC, a casual magic podcast that seems mostly to not actually be about casual magic so much but is still a good bit of Magic Content that rarely (Iconic Masters aside) spends its time making people feel bad. This episode – and the other ones like it are really cool to me because the Nickname podcasts are sort of an unintentional deep-dive into the details of what cards are doing in their art and mechanics to construct the nicknames. Sometimes it’s making references that don’t connect – like the Metal Gear Solid jokes? But often it’s otherwise examining the art in depth, or examining mechanics in the greater context of MTG history.

This is cool stuff and I like it.

MTG: Pet Cards I: Onslaught Block

Everyone deserves a pet card. It’s one of the things I like about high-variance older formats, like budget Modern or 1v1 Commander – the formats are different and odd enough you get a chance to see some card you really like shine. Plus, Magic The Gathering is a game made up of lists – deck lists and tier lists and card set lists – so I thought it’d be fun to go back and check out some older sets, and pick whichever single card from each set was, to me, my pet card, the one I want to show you and share with you. And rather than start at the start – because that’s boring – we’re going back to my beginning: Onslaught Block.

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MTG: Chainer

Chainer’s Edict defined a standard environment.

It was the tool of a bloated mono-black control deck, a simple removal spell you could use as early game disruption and ate a creature early, then ate another one later when the game was drawn out. Moreso than most other spells of its type, it funnelled the game towards its flashback costs – a two mana indiscriminate removal spell that provoked players to overextend as a countermeasure, in the same space as Mutilate, Chainers’ was the elbow-drop that you structured the rest of your removal around. Two mana was just right, and tricks like Goblin Sledder didn’t help against it – you were going to lose a creature, no matter how you cut it. Even the Savage Bastard Wild Mongrel wasn’t going to get around that removal spell, unless you got the hopeful Basking Rootwalla draw.

Chainer’s Edict was power.

Despite living through that period of Magic: The Gathering and watching as every non-Astral Slide deck I played in the period crumpling like paper in the face of a good Chainers’ draw, it never occurred to me to really check back and examine Chainer himself, the man whose orders so bent the world.

Let’s look at Chainer. Continue reading

MTG: Kaho For Ted

I have this friend, Ted. I’ve mentioned that I’m fond of Ted. One thing Ted likes doing is playing Commander. And one day, Ted, Ted mentions to me that he’d like to make a commander deck about Archivists, because he works as an archivist.

So let’s talk a little bit about Kaho.

Kaho, Minamo Historian is one of the legendary creatures from Saviors of Kamigawa. She’s a creature with almost no offensive capability, she doesn’t protect herself, and she has to untap to do anything.

Kaho kinda sucks, but she sucks interestingly.

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MTG: Standard Cards I Can’t Make Work

Standard right now is weird. I don’t mean the bannings.

What I mean is there are cards that feel like they belong in 60-card formats that I just cannot make work.

Sometimes cards are reactive and it doesn’t matter if they don’t work because they’re there to do something if someone else is doing something. Things like Authority of the Consuls, or Crafty Cutpurse, these are cards that exist to respond to things other people are doing. There’s an assortment of aggro creature swarm cards that are for more casual play and usually for limited, which is also fair. But that’s not everything going on.

Here are some cards I really wish I could make work in Standard.

Dusk // Dawn

What kind of decks want to blow up the world? Control decks! What kind of decks want to pick up a lot of creatures? Decks that lose all their creatures! These two ideas work kind of at odds with one another.

The best shell I could find for Dusk/Dawn is sort of a human enter-the-battlefield deck, with Fabricators that let you go wide to avoid a Dusk or stand tall before one to hold the ground better. Mana gets tricky for this design. Also, one of the best cards to work with it, Angel of Invention, makes all your 2-power creatures die to Dusk which is just annoying.

The other problem is it costs five. Being able to go one drop, two drop, three drop, something, wipe board to get rid of your opponent’s stuff, leave my stuff intact is kinda appealing, but in the cases that will win you the game it is also almost always the same as if you could cast a removal spell on your opponent’s blocker.

It’s a nice grindy spell for longer, slower games so controlling Commander decks will love it.

Kefnet the Mindful

A three mana 5/5 is desireable if you’re aggressive, and an indestructable blocker is desireable if you’re midrange. Kefnet would have been really good back in Ravnica Standard for mid-range decks, as a sort of Simic deck aggressor, someone who can stand in front of 3/4s and 3/3s is pretty good.

Kefnet is however, much more of a Kamigawa card. We had the Wisdom mechanic back then, and that mechanic – get seven in the hand or your creature will be bad – and I tried to make it work, but oh god it did not work.

Kefnet doesn’t give you enough early, can’t hold the ground in the early game almost by definition, and the activated ability is cute but also mana hungry. Still, a handy 3-mana enchantment that draws cards better than Treasure Trove.

Trial of Ambition

Ughhhh I wanted this to be good! I wanted this to work!

Okay, so like, card draw is this thing we venerate in Magic. Just drawing more cards is almost seen as a good thing. But what if you had a card draw spell that guaranteed you could draw Cruel Edict in a removal deck? And sometimes it can draw you two or three Cruel Edicts?

The problem is there’s no good Cartouche to line up with this Trial. I’d want one of the cheaper ones so you can have a turn that goes Cartouche-Trial or Trial-Cartouche-Trial without it being unreasonable. The cartouche best suited for a control deck is the white one, which also gives you a creature to drop it on, but you still need something to sit on the board and survive. Now don’t get me wrong there’s kinda a sick one-two punch of dropping a creature, forcing your opponent to extend more threats around it, that means you can go Trial, Cartouche, Trial back to back and that’s kinda cool?

But what kinda creature are you going to Cartouche to start with? What benefits from it? What is safe enough you don’t have to worry about it dying on the way? You could maybe go blue and hexproof up a token or two? But those permanents aren’t super reliable either!

It’s just a bit too bad. You don’t want to play Trial of Ambition in a deck that can’t rebuy it, because then it’s just Diabolic Edict which is a bit Not Good Enough but it’s really just, at best, Wildly Okay with one cartouche in a threat deck. It’s not even generally disruptive enough to support a midrange deck.

On the other hand, it is a pretty sweet card to include in a UB Cloudstone Curio deck with Reality Acid? 3BU to blow up two permanents is pretty cool.

Scrapper Champion

One of the things I like about Energy is it lets cards affect the board with a sort of pseudo-haste, which means at any given point in time, a creature’s behaviour could fuel itself, or fuel something else. With the hit Temur Energy took a few months back, most of what kinda makes this deck fade isn’t so strong any more, but I like this card as a top-end beater for an Energy deck.

Part of what keeps it from really singing though is that Green and Red aren’t bleeding aggressive things that gain energy making its Energy supply more of a burst. Rogue Refiner, for example is a good card but in the wrong colours, and while there are some nice Green cards that Just Get Energy and aren’t bad, they’re mostly overshadowed by the better cards that Temur would run. Even Aetherstorm Roc is kinda just a better version of the Champion – less explosive, but better able to control itself and able to generate more Energy after its single burst.

I think there still might be some skin there – particularly with Decoction Module and Fabrication Module – to feed into creatures like Longtusk Cub, Voltaic Brawler and the top end of the Scrapper Champion, but then you’re back looking at Bristling Hydra and Aetherstorm Roc and wondering if they’re not just better?

Deeproot Champion

I’ve played with Quirion Dryad, and I’ve played with Vinelasher Kudzu and really, if you print a 2-mana creature that can get more counters on it I’ll try it. Deeproot Champion is a sort of awkward creature in that it isn’t really strong enough to support a deck on its own but it’s also not really got any complementary threats. Prowess creatures want you to play in a big burst of spells, and don’t like it you play them off-turn, but the Champion lets you play a sort of aggro-control game.

Turn two champion, attack turn three with mana up to protect it or mess with your opponent’s plan is pretty sweet, but it’s not enough to build a deck around and it’s not like the rest of the merfolk’s tribe actually supports it in this plan. You want cantrips and free spells to really make this sing and, well, there just isn’t that support either. The best card to go with it is Opt, and the pool dries right up after that.

You can try and add to it with token threats and sort of mix up a big beef/go wide combo strategy, with cards like Queen’s Comission and Legion’s Landing, but that feels a bit weedy. If you’re trying to plant outsized threats and ride them in a ramshackle way to the finish line you probably want bigger threats for the price. If this card’s going anyplace it’s going there in modern – and you can’t really make a deck out of it in commander.

Panharmonicon

And finally, Panharmonicon. If you set it up so it does something the turn it comes down you’re sort of locked into an artifacts-matter shell, which can do some kinda neat things but they’re not quite strong enough. If you try to make it so it benefits creatures with ETB and live the dream with Cloudblazer, you’ll find you don’t really have enough creatures to support a deck that can live long enough to play Panharmonicon.

Interestingly, my first attempts at this deck used Dusk/Dawn.

We’ll see if the coming weeks bring to light some tech I haven’t heard of. Maybe not. Maybe the flush of attention to Modern will have some sort of interesting development. Either way, here’s a salute to things that Don’t Seem To Work (Yet?).

MTG: The Mimeoplasm Puzzle

I work in advance which means this article was basically written before Rivals of Ixalan stuff was being spoiled. It might wind up being bumped a few times, who knows. The important thing is, this is a kind of semi-evergreen article where it doesn’t REALLY matter if what I write about is a bit old news, because it’s about a process rather than a play. Still, it might get bumped if RIX shows me something I wanna talk about, though I’m not holding my breath so far.

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MTG: The Fake Spikes

Every day, someone learns something new. You may not know who Spike is, in the context of Magic: The Gathering. It’s hardly likely if you’re reading a blog talking about it – I mean, we’ve had a few months since Unstable launched, but still, it’s possible you missed it. Yet if you had, Wizards R&D has a term for player types that recognise how and why players engage with their game as a player. There are three (five, but seriously, we’re doing the first version of this) basic types of player:

  • Tammy/Tommy, Power Gamer
  • Janey/Johnny, Combo Player
  • Spike, Tournament Grinder

These player terms were introduced to the Magic player lexicon sometime around 1998, and in the intervening twenty years, we’ve grown very used to talking about these player archetypes as labels for one another and for ourselves. Tournament reports will routinely refer to ‘spikiness’ or ‘proper spikes’ or ‘hardcore spikes’ or so on. Players will often use ‘spikiness’ or ‘johnnyness’ as metrics of how they play or the tone they’re going to set for a play experience.

Basically, we know these characters and we’re also pretty sure we know what they mean and crucially how they relate to us. There’s an old joke that Timmy, Johnny and Spike all look down on one another for not really understanding the game but only Spike has any right to, which is funny if you’re a Spike and kinda dickish if you’re anyone else but it’s okay because Spike has so few sources of joy in her life.

What I see rarely, though, is examination of players mis-identifying.

The most recent nonsense that came up with Christine Sprankle and the card Spike, Tournament Grinder got me looking at a lot of people who professed they were Spikes, that they were in the game to compete, and who were unhappy that they were being represented by a woman character. And this got me looking at this population – not individuals, because hey, I’m only seeing a tiny window of time for people, you know? But the groupings of self-professed Spikes, who when they encountered a rule, complained about how that rule made them feel.

Isn’t that interesting?

Now, I am not an expert on these things. I am an observer. But to me, the understanding I had when it came to Spike was Spike didn’t care about changing the structure, Spike cared about the structure as a test. Spike was here to show how good she was, to test herself, to prove herself. But then we have all these people, saying they’re Spikes, who reacted, when presented with part of the game, with dissent and distrust.

Timmy wants to experience something. Timmy plays Magic because he enjoys the feeling he gets when he plays. What that feeling is will vary from Timmy to Timmy, but what all Timmies have in common is that they enjoy the visceral experience of playing.

– Mark Rosewater

There are players out there who think they’re Spikes, because they are Timmies, and the feeling they want to embrace is feeling like they’re Spikes. They get mad about their blowouts and they watch the pro tour and they love their victories and they do the things that emulate the actual tournament grind, the way to push themselves through the circular pattern of feeling like Spike. And the thing is, you can tell how Spikey these players really are because of how they react to being challenged.

Spike seeks a challenge. Spike wants to be challenged. Spike, when confronted with a challenge is going to want to engage with it. But when confronted with a challenge as simple as ‘recognise women exist,’ a lot of so-called Spikes didn’t want to engage. They didn’t want to have that idea challenged.

They just wanted to feel important.

MTG: The Chupacabra Discourse

There’s this old joke in Magic: The Gathering, and I know it’s old because it was old when I first told it, which was about ten years ago and I put it in an article. The joke runs, more or less thus:

How many Magic players does it take to change a lightbulb?

Two. One to do it, then one to tell them how they could have done it better.

This joke inevitably gets a followup from someone pointing out a better punchline, which is the most meta damn thing about the joke.

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MTG: Rivals of Ixalan ‘Review’

I try to work in advance when it comes to blog posts. I like making sure that I have a backlog and that gives me some flexibility to slot more current ideas up in ahead, and make sure to the blog doesn’t just repeat the same type of content endlessly. Sometimes it’ll be a short little snippet of a deck I’m enjoying, sometimes a long slow process of building one whole deck, and so on.

Still if there’s ever a kind of free content in MTG it’s the set review. A giant pile of things to look at, and the things in that set you’re expected to have an opinion on. I remember back in the day set reviews used to be both comprehensive and awful, and also tended to weave back and forth between trying to consider cards for multiple different formats, without any clear signalling. We were awful at it.

My plan with Rivals of Ixalan, then, was to use the set as a set review video fodder. Just make a very rudimentary video showing what I thought of each card and having some fun with that. I thought I’d surely get a bunch of cards out of that set that way, and maybe then I’ll learn how to make a good video out of that.

And y’know what?

I just don’t.

The thing that’s most remarkable to me about Rivals of Ixalan is how modest it feels. I know there are some cards I want to play with – Tendershoot Dryad is exactly the kind of card I love to muck around with, for example – but  was there a whole video’s worth of content? I recorded my thoughts on every single card in the set I had anything to say about, and with an introduction, it all wound up at about nine minutes.

I’m not trying to run the set down. I am sure when I get to play with the cards and put them into decks and learn about them, I’ll have a lot more fun with them and know what they’re good for. Maybe I’ll play more Standard this time and find fun decks there rather than keep going back to the Commander 1v1 format for my kicks. I do kind of wonder how much a set review has value any more – even other set reviews I’ve watched have failed to inspire the same spark. There haven’t been moments of ‘oo, I hadn’t considered that.’ Everyone has more or less the same things to say, the same comparisons to make.

I like the Forerunners. I like the Ravenous Chupacabra (and I have words about that Opinion That’s Being Widely Repeated). I really like Tetzimoc (who won’t work in Commander the way I want), and the Thrashing Brontodon is a rare card that slots into my Death Cloud Rock, dead as it is.

But that’s pretty much all I got to say about the set. Or rather, the main thing I have to say about the set is that I don’t have much to say about the set compared to just having an interest in some individual cards.

Flip It Or Rip It: Breaking The Taboo

Last year’s disgusting abuse of Christine Sprankle did throw up one interesting topic of conversation: The folk game Flip It Or Rip It.

The actual process of play is a bit ambiguous to me – there are a few variants of the play form, but the basic central mechanic is that players choose whether to quit the game and keep their cards, or rip up a card and keep proceeding through the deck of cards. It’s often compared to Russian Roulette with Cardboard. The game doesn’t have a lot of play to it – there isn’t much strategy beyond deciding if you want to keep going and what that, individually, means to you.

Magic players seem pretty split on this game. Some engage with it, and don’t seem to comment much on internet forums, and some don’t, and think the first group are monstrous. Not only do they find the process monstrous, but they cite it as a moral failure, and compare it to a variety of related failings – comparing it to overwhelming wealth and privilege, blaming it for raising prices in the secondary market, and comparing it to drunk driving of all things.

I’m not here to advocate for it, but I’d like to present an alternate take, a take that maybe kinda gets lost:

Magic cards are things.

I can understand if you want your cards to be safe and sanctified and cared for. I can understand if you want to make sure that your cards, in your possession, are extremely well kept. That’s okay. But the cards, themselves, are not $50 bills. They are not gold or stock or precious gems. They are things, objects, and part of their thing-ness is that they can be destroyed, that they have the meaning to which we attach them.

And, the big reason why I talk about this… when you start to remember these are things, you remember that they’re things you can play with.

Magic is a rules-based game with a truly dizzying amount of complexity. It’s about fine inches and a rules structure that is absolutely massive. It’s a really, really interesting game, but that game is a game you can play with Magic cards. Know how I got started making card games?

I started making card games by taking Magic: The Gathering cards and modding them. By writing on them with a pen. By defacing them, by rendering them valueless. It was a way to make proxies, a way that was fluid and flexible and fast. Some cards got thrown in the recycling. Some cards got cut into tokens. And this was the dark magic of that sanctity: It stopped me viewing Magic Cards as cards, as pragmatic objects that can be used for things. It made them into Magic Cards, cards that were… well, magic.

And that magic kept me from seeing that the boundary between what I can do and what Magic does was a lot thinner than I thought.

And that creativity started with a quiet act of destruction.

MTG: Jund Vomit Part 4

Ho nelly has this been a project! My desire to make a robust Jund deck for 1v1 commander, and to keep my individual articles about it reasonably sized has resulted in this beefy deck building process, but I hope it’s been interesting and useful to follow along. Now we just need to resolve one of the fundamental problems in my 1v1 Commander deck…

Step 5: That Whole Commander Thing

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the commander is literally not core to the way this deck works. There’s no commander in Jund who enters the battlefield and reanimates anything; there’s no commander who dumps a chunk of your library in your graveyard; there’s no commander who fits our theme. Which means our commander wants to be a card that we always want to draw and have a purpose.

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MTG: Jund Vomit Part 3

Last week, we went through the process of dissecting an archetype like Jund, and then went to work on the 8×8 theory. We decided what our 8 piles would be, and this week, I’m going to go over those 8 piles, what’s in them, and the commander who will be in charge of them! Continue reading

MTG: Jund Vomit Part 1

MTGO recently – like, around August – decided to decouple themselves from the EDH Council for online play, based on players primarily focusing on 1v1 commander on MTGO. I’ve not been very interested in Standard right now – not sure why, I think it’s the loss of Eldritch Moon and the failure of Ixalan to excite me for constructed – so instead I’ve been playing Commander 1v1.

The two things about Commander 1v1 that appeal to me the most are that it’s a high-variance format, and its card pool is well, kinda-vintage. It’s wide enough that I can play with some old favourites that had already left Standard by the time I saw them, but the investment to get involved isn’t like getting into canlander, legacy or vintage. Continue reading

Watching Culture Change in MTG

Years ago now I wrote an article about Magic: The Gathering and its representation of women. Please don’t go looking for that article; it’s not very good and even if I do make points I still stand by to this day I also sling around some really inappropriate ableist and whorephobic language which was both totally unnecessary at the time and cringeworthy now. I’ll summarise the points of the article here:

  • Tity armour is bad
  • Most of the big, tough and badass things are boys
  • Most of the dirt and junk things are girls

This was not a hard and fast rule by any measure (I mean c’mon, it features the words ‘most.’)

At the time of writing this article I was a StarcityGames Featured writer for the free side of the site, back when the site had a forum of its own, a forum that got pretty weird as I related to it. It was a weird place because on the one hand, I was a featured writer paid for his words, and on the other hand, I had an actual banned topic list of people I shouldn’t talk to or talk about, and I understood, some other featured writers had even more restrictive rules on how they could post on the forums.

This was totally reasonable, by the way: I was at my best a condescending snot and at worst a volatile dickheel on those forums, even as I was, without really articulating it, trying to argue for accessibility and communality while being a total dick about it. Even if I wasn’t a dick, the suggestion ‘don’t talk in a way that looks insulting about one of our other featured writers’ is pretty obvious. I still remember, though, the way that the forums reacted to this article.

I saw three basic takes:

  • This isn’t a problem
  • Women don’t play Magic so it’s not a problem
  • You’re a dude, why do you care?

What makes this even more interesting, in hindsight is that while the forums were negative about this, that article was being referenced by other featured writers. The culture of the game as we spoke about it was negative and hostile to the idea of examining this feminism issue. I remembered at one point, when someone asked me why do you care, you’re a dude, why I didn’t ask a woman if she wanted to write the article, with the statistical examination and the breakdown of the characters and whatnot…

And at the time I was struck to realise I could not name a single SCG woman writer.

I’m not bringing this up to point at SCG by the way. The top level people at SCG I’ve dealt with, by all accounts are genuinely good people. I have seen Pete Hoefling be in a lot of situations an Unnecessarily Good Guy. Ben Bleiweiss, as both a forum moderator and a dealer, has basically got conspiracy theory websites written about him and not one of them ever lines up with the guy who I remember putting me in my place in some extremely awkward situations, being very harsh but also very fair. My editors, Ted Knutson and Craig Stevenson, were both by all accounts stand-up people.

(I’m pretty sure Ted thinks I’m still a total joke of a human, but you do what you do).

That was where our culture was: The second biggest MTG site, and I, with the tools of the website’s inner workings at my disposal, could not find or name a single woman writer of the game. The writers for SCG were international but somehow precariously all very similar.

Fast forward ten years. I stopped reading StarCityGames years ago. Not any mark against them, but a shift to video in some production fronts when my country still didn’t have good internet infrastructure and the increased demands of MTGO kinda edged me out of the game for quite some time. I went back to MTGO as our internet improved, I started using Youtube all the time, and eventually, eventually, found myself looking at all the things that had changed while I was out.

I actually agonised over this paragraph because pointing out and naming names kind of spirals off into just this ridiculous list of people like I’m trying to brag about All The Girls And Enbies And Queer People In Magic I’m Fan Of, and that feels gauche. But I’ll give you this as an example of where we are now: I tune in weekly to watch someone’s mom play Magic. That would have been a punchline once.

As I get to the end of this article it’s hard to frame the conclusion, because I don’t want to say ‘well, we started including girls, go us!’ or ‘thank you, strange and wild unicorn girls, for coming to the culture and sharing your wisdom.’ I certainly don’t want to start patting everyone on the back for Not Doing The Obviously Bad Thing Any More. At the same time, the voices in the game – both making it, producing content for it, and being part of the play experiences – are more, more diverse, and better.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m just really, really happy that things have gotten a bit better.

And we can make it better still.


This was written a few weeks ago, back before one of the Youtube Poop-Boy squad and his assorted jerkhole dinguses coordinated and sustained harrassment of Christine Sprankle leading to her leaving Magic and the community.

These people are reactionary jerks. They are not to be given countenance or power. They are absolutely to be dismissed and ignored and spurned from the scene. And if you find yourself saying ‘hey, well now, let’s not be too hasty,’ then you might find you are too close to those people to be someone I trust to make good decisions for the community.

My central point remains: The hobby is growing in its presence of women. The directives controlling the voice of what the game is about are seeking to enable and include women and nonbinary people. This space has gotten better and it can keep getting better. The awful parts of our community are lashing out louder and harder in their efforts to control it – and they should be driven out.


Also, being against the harrassment and abuse of Christine Sprankle doesn’t mean I think she’s blameless for things she said in the past regarding Alesha, Who Smiles At Death. But now is not the time, nor is now the time to tell people who are trying to make good happen and give people hope that there’s no point in doing so.

A Knight of the Black Rose

I have, as of the writing of this, played two small drafts of Conspiracy: Take The Crown, with four people drafting 4 boosters each, a format that is very forgiving to newer drafters… and I lost. I lost all of our games, and in some cases, I lost them spectacularly. But the thing I took away from every part of it was the joy of how these games and cards felt to play, and most amazingly, Monarch.

I love Monarch. I love the different ways Monarch shows up in cards. There are green cards that care about Monarch but are better in combat when you are the monarch. There are red cards that care about being the Monarch but get vengeful and petty if someone else takes it off you. There’s white, making monarch blockers and putting creatures on the board that make you choose between recovering the crown or preventing ever losing it. And in amongst it all, in both drafts, I wound up drafting but never seeing a card that has somehow become my favourite Monarch card of all.

The Knights of the Black Rose are beautifully petty. They’re good on their own, effectively being a 4/4 creature that both draws you a card and leeches an opponent for a card. They’re disgusting if you can get them in numbers, which is a thing about monarch cards that tended to work badly: Often becoming and re-becoming the monarch on the same turn felt like a waste, encouraging you to slow-play a hand (and get killed by players who had no such qualms and were coming for the crown). I had one deck which, with Hymn of the Wilds, had a pair of these creatures, and the mere concept of dropping them as 4 drops – on turn three, thanks to Opaline Unicorn –

What I loved about this entire play experience was that the problems of multiplayer magic were reduced without being rendered meaningless. Board stalls did still happen, but just by dint of drawing more cards, players could see the stall breaking eventually. The card you get as a Monarch happens after you can play it in a main phase, meaning you don’t plan for it or hope to draw something amazing off it. There’s no way to become the Monarch off-turn, so the Monarch card becomes part of your plan for the next turn, which, thanks to the actions of other players gunning for the Monarch status, is also often a plan for getting back the crown.

If you can get your paws on some Conspiracy: Take The Crown boosters, I heartily recommend it as a draft format, and if you’re a new drafter or you’re not used to drafting, go to 4 boosters to give you a lot of chances to correct mistakes. A smaller draft pod means you’ll see the same cards more often and you’ll be more likely to wind up with enough creatures and get used to having to make hard choices without being paralysed by the indecision.

I really owe the friend who bought these cards and our next plan, going forwards is to implement these Conspiracy cards into a cube so we can do this fun all over again. Any recommendations for what to add to a cube that starts out with a box of Conspiracy?

Contraptions: Then and Now

This is an article written by two men; one from 2007, one in 2017. I was there when Steamflogger Boss was printed, a card that I had a personal complaint with. It arrived at a period where Magic: The Gathering was growing in cost for me; when shipping costs for singles became a bulk of the cost of buying them, because there was no local store selling them; a period when I felt keenly that boosters needed to be fun to open, and where I was heavily focused on the feel-bad moment of opening not a niche rare but a rare that I felt was ‘too bad.’

This was a period when Wizards were communicating about their work – and one of the things they did, was to share with us Multiverse quotes, from the internal database. I took these comments very personally, trying to read into them a tea-leaves situation that painted Wizards employees as thoughtless and removed from concerns like mine. Which, to be fair, they probably were but they weren’t responsible for international delivery and my being scrape-behind-the-couches-for-coins poor.

What I wrote back in 2007 for The Money That Was That Week’s Magic: The Gathering Budget, is presented here, redacted to get rid of any really gross language and for brevity. If you want to go read the whole text… don’t. Continue reading

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

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MTG: Modern Rock

Let me show you something embarassing, and old.

Back in 2007 – ten years ago, dear god, Lee Sharpe Ken Nagle and Kelly Digges all work for Wizards now what have I done with my life – I wrote an article for StarcityGames about Rock. Rock, the deck, Rock, the archetype, Rock the type of deck that isn’t really defined by what’s in it – not really – but is really more about how you relate to it.

I wrote about this deck, as a deck that I had had since it was an Onslaught-legal standard deck, with Oversold Cemetery returning Ravenous Baloths.

Ten Year Rock

Creatures (27)
Darkheart Sliver
Frightcrawler
Krosan Tusker
Nantuko Vigilante
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Twisted Abomination
Werebear

Support (10)
Oversold Cemetery
Death Cloud
Life from the Loam
Lands (23)
Forest
Swamp
Barren Moor
Overgrown Tomb
Terramorphic Expanse
Tranquil Thicket

This deck was weird. Looking back on it I mostly remember it being kind of awkward about some of its draws, based on a deck Richard Feldman spoke about once upon a time that was about using Skullclamps to Not Draw Two Cards. It was a different time, but with one lesson I never really got rid of in my deck building.

I like to think this is about having a plan but it’s a little more bald than that: The lesson I learned is that if my deck wants to cast Death Cloud, I want to make sure that every card I draw is okay after a Death Cloud.

This lesson bears out in a lot of other decks I make; I try to think in terms of what I’m trying to do, and then if that plan holds together; does anything work against it? It’s a decision process that sometimes leads to seeing things others do as suboptimal – I don’t like, for example, running expensive cards alongside Dark Confidant, even if the math of it and the play of it works out. I never added Golgari Guildmage to my build of this, even if it was a bear after the Cloud, because it was just a bear. Even Werebear was an iffy include in this deck – because it meant I sometimes wanted to Death Cloud for not as much as possible – because that would leave me with only 2 mana on the board.

The cards that left this deck over time as Extended turned to Modern were cards that were replaceable – Frightcrawler – and cards that very much weren’t – Barren Moor. Strangely, despite what you’d think, nothing ever stepped up to take the place of Oversold Cemetery, a card that lives through a cloud and rebuilds after it; a card that gives you a way to hang on before the cloud and a way to blow out after a cloud. I thought, at first that surely a Planeswalker existed which could take this spot – even just some three mana walker that could ruin an opponent’s face after a cloud, but I’m really surprised to find that there isn’t. Maybe I could splash for Gideon of the Trials, he laughed, but even Liliana The Last Hope doesn’t seem to fit.

When I first penned this article, Ixalan was on the horizon, full of potential. It had the possibility of adding a exciting Vraska planeswalker, perhaps, a 3-mana GB planeswalker that resembled, say, Nissa, Steward of Elements, you know, some filtering, some card advantage, some way to be useful after a Cloud. This has, unfortunately, not proven to be the case. I was hoping there’d be something I could present from Ixalan that would serve as an object lesson how it plays into the plan, but the problem is that there’s almost nothing that could. Sure there are creatures that could be put in the deck, because they cost 3 mana or less and are green and black. None of them do things to advance the plan of the deck, though. Tishana’s Wayfinder is not meaningfully better than Civic Wayfinder, for the purpose of the deck’s plan, after all, and I stopped running that a while ago.

Still, there surely must be something, he told himself, rummaging for an option, until he came to Deadeye Tracker.

Now look.

Deadeye Tracker superficially looks like it could belong in this deck. It costs less than 3, and its abilities – 2 mana+1 mana – tie together nicely to make a 3 mana cost. In a world with haste that would be very efficient unlike some other creatures that tried for this spot like Nezumi Graverobber or Nezumi Shortfang. Plus, after a Cloud, it will absolutely have fodder to feed its exiling ways. If that happens it’ll start fuelling my own card selection and, if not, provide me with more lands as a way to rebuild. It compares favourably to something like Phyrexian Arena.

Problem is, before the Cloud it’s stone worthless. Well, it’s nearly stone worthless.

I do not hold hopes for this one-mana 1/1 to meaningfully beat up other creatures. It will not stand in the path of bears, it will not trade with anything and it will not slow tramplers. It is, before a cloud, not a mid-rangey card, and does not stick with the plan. The plan wants to draw the game out and make a Cloud happen… and the Tracker isn’t going to be any good getting to there. What that means is that if I’m putting this in the deck it’s for the same reason the deck once had a lone Crypt Creeper; it was because I wanted, nay needed, at times, a way to flush out something troublesome from an opponent’s graveyard. Is it better than Nezumi Graverobber, that could trade up, and maybe even flip if it ever somehow did? Probably not.

I was really hoping this format would shake up this little modern toy of mine. Alas, alack, and we move on.

MTG: Blue Pirates

With the arrival of Ixalan comes new flavour, new themes, new mechanical things and with that comes new discussions of how Wizards shouldn’t be doing the things they’re doing, because we’re much better at it than they are. Perhaps.

One topic that’s been brought up is why are the pirates blue? Now, this is one of your classic types of arguments: An argument that doesn’t mean anything, resolves itself, but is still fun to engage with. Far be it from me to complain about fun!

Pirates have been blue in Magic’s history for a while, following an annoying pattern of ‘well we put it in blue and now it’d be just rude to not keep it there’ that defined Magic’s past. They first appeared in Mercadian Masques, a set whose whole theme was ‘uh, sorry,’ and yet despite that still had two cards in it broken enough to get banned in block constructed, because of course.

Now, back in Mercadian Masques I really disliked the pirates as presented – but there’s a lot of stuff in Mercadian Masques that’s a problem (rebels in white? c’mon). I remember reflecting on how Pirates didn’t belong in blue at the time, and, at the time, I was right. The opinion has refined a little though. Pirates don’t belong in just blue.

Still, we’re talking about now, so what are some things about pirates that do fit, wholly and squarely in blue?

Theft

One of the defining actions of the pirate in fiction is taking things that aren’t yours. It’s sort of what defines a pirate. Things like navigating into the ocean, focusing on the self, indulging in strong liquor and being willing to fight over needless nonsense, if it lacks for theft isn’t actually being a pirate – you’re just Jimmy Buffett.

Blue steals! Blue is the colour that steals the most! In fact, blue is the colour that gets the most efficient forms of long-term theft! It’s an area it overlaps with black and red, too, so, yes. Pirates steal.

Change Of Identity

There’s this old rhyme used by outlaws in America.

Oh what was your name in the states?
Was it Johnson or Jenkins or Bates?
Did you kill your wife?
Or flee for your life?
Oh what was your name in the states?

Grim, but it showed a part of the American outlaw life that was by no means unique. Without any kind of central government to control identifying information, outlaws in the wild west would change their names and in so doing, shed entire histories, letting them choose who they wanted to be. Usually, they chose poorly.

This is true for sailors and pirates, too. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for pirates to change their name, head to the docks, and head for nowhere. There’s a simplicity to a life on the sea. Once you’re out, you’re out, and there really isn’t anything else you have to worry about but what’s on the ship. It meant that whoever you were or whatever you had to say, it wasn’t like anyone was going to google it.

Now you can make a case for these sorts of things not being a result of personal choices – after all, many criminals commited crimes of desperation then fled because they knew the society they were in wouldn’t handle it fairly or reasonably. The blue mage could then argue that choices in the face of circumstance are still choices and then you’re in the larger argument about the colour pie, period.

Escape

For all that pirates have reputations as being combative and taking what they want, it’s worth remembering that most of them had fast ships rather than warships – they wanted to catch up to people and take their stuff, but they also wanted to get the heck out when they were at risk of taking on more than they could handle.

Conventionally we see speed as a red thing, or a green thing – Flash creatures leaping in as predators, or red’s hasted beasts. Blue doesn’t get speed in that way. But blue does get the thing speed is used for: Evasion.

Information As Currency

 What’s the conventional thing Pirates are All About? What’s the thing most pirates go out of their way to find? What is usually the object that instigates entire piratical stories?

Treasure maps!

The nature of the pirate as someone driven by information should stand larger than it does, perhaps because the typical pirate movies we’ve seen have been well, thoughtless silliness and nobody reads books any more, apparently. In none of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is much made of knowing things, or of discovering things as much as the treasure-map stage of things is replaced with a sort of ricochet-from-point-to-point approach.

None of this is to say that people who dislike blue pirates are wrong (though they are, sorta). It’s more that I thought about it for a little bit and realised how neat it was that many pirate things are Very Blue.

MTG: Seasons Of Standard Bannings

Magic: The Gathering is a game with a long and storied history in a player base populated mostly by people who seem to be drawn to this game so they can tell other people how to do things better. During the history of Standard, there have been four major rounds of bannings, and, until this most recent I had this personal hypothesis about the impacts of these and what they told R&D about the way the game worked.

Round 0: THE DARK TIMES

I’m not going to lie to you, I barely understand early bannings. Things were the wild dang west. There was a format where ten cards from alpha, the original duals, were made legal, but only them. I don’t know this period well. Moving on.

Round 1: Combo Winter

Randy Buehler gives a fantastic rundown of the decks of this first great era of standard bannings, the time when Standard was A Thing long enough that bannings were themselves, A Thing. This period was known as Combo Winter, which was not the same thing as Black Summer or the Era Of Fruity Pebbles or the like. The impact of Urza’s Block and to a lesser extent, Tempest, on the various other formats like Extended was huge and all, but this is about Standard.

Standard having an era of Combo is noteworthy because combo is kind of one of the easiest things to develop against. Combo decks want to interact as minimally as possible, and if you can just have the time to grind through permutations or tested versions of decks you can head them off. You don’t make combo looking for your opponent to do a thing, you make combo looking for your opponent to not do things.

These three events, by the way, are compared to one another, but it needs to be said and re-said: None of the other eras were as bad as Combo Winter. Combo Winter was a period where you could actually lose on the first turn, or where you could functionally lose on the first turn. Combo Winter was when Wizards banned a card as an emergency. The closest we got to that ever since is when Mind’s Desire was restricted in Vintage before it was ever legal.

Round 2: The Year Of Aggro

Fast forward to Onslaught-Legions-Scourge Mirrodin-Darksteel Standard for the next bannings. Then Skullclamp got axed. Despite that, what followed along with that was a full year of Affinity aggro being the most widely played powerhouse deck in Standard. There’s some argument that Sarnia Affinity, a build popularised by Geordie Tait, was the best affinity deck pre-Darksteel, because it was basically a permission deck that just played double-lands until it could vomit a Broodstar  into your face, but it didn’t matter too much because Affinity aggro decks were good enough that ‘best’ was meaningless. Best builds of Affinity were negotiating winning the game on turn 2.3 as opposed to 2.4, so it didn’t really matter who was ‘best.’

This period is notable because Onslaught Goblins were also running around so you couldn’t even double down hard on your Affinity strategy. Kamigawa wasn’t going to help any either, because by that point the game had bled a lot of player base. Affinity decks were made mostly of commons and extremely expensive rares, meaning they weren’t a bad place to jump into this very awful tournament format, too! Affinity had power but it also had reach, and flexibility and resilience.

Aggro is harder to balance for than combo. It wants to interact. Blockers can gum up the ground. It fails to mass removal without resilience. It’s harder to be sure you haven’t done something like this.

Weirdly, Wizards have actually printed a bunch of much stronger creatures than were being printed back then, and relaxed on global control – but the relaxation of global control has made it so aggro decks are a little more prone to have to deal with blockers, and therefore, aggro decks don’t have to be so utterly cutthroat as they did back then to deal with things like Astral Slide.

Round 3: Control Summer

Cawblade is an interesting thing it is was the first truly oppressive control singular deck that deformed a standard environment. When there were 4-5 permission decks that could shut the game down and keep the environment miserable for all the things people tended to want to do, single decks like that didn’t stand out.

The issue of Cawblade wasn’t instantaneous loss of power. It wasn’t that it was capable of snapping the game out without you ever having a chance to do anything: It was that it was a control deck that could play like a prison, that could just answer everything, that was so powerful and had so many good options for answering anything.

Cawblade was not a deck that won fast. It was just a deck that didn’t lose and took forever to do it. And as a control deck, it was the hardest to hit with bannings.

Round 4: Today

Hey, Standard’s been weird hasn’t it! It’s had a bunch of bannings! But at the same time, the bannings have been about disabling a number of decks, which is pretty weird. Particularly, Smuggler’s Copter was the most obvious one – it was nuked just for being everywhere and going in every deck.

I’m not going to restate things Wizards have said about these rounds of bannings. They’ve been in aid of diversity of the format, of making some cards good enough to play, but most interestingly to me, the decks they’ve hit have been mostly different types. There’s been a combo deck, a control deck with a potentially explosive win condition, a midrange tribal deck, and a control powerhouse finisher that was being played in a lot of decks.

None of these are good things to have to hit. Standard got bannings because Standard had problems.

But oh my god they are problems of a totally different scale as the ones in the past.

The Lesson

This represents an interesting set of ways to view balance, to view ways of balancing. First, make sure no player can do too much on their own. Then, make sure player interactions don’t pressure players into the fastest iteration, and your design isn’t being pushed to force players to go too fast for there to be any meaningful responses. Then, ensure that the game isn’t built to allow for too many useful responses, solutions to problems.

MTG – Balancing Beatsticks

Magic The Gathering is what we in the dank academia call a ludic game1.. There’s not a lot of room for entirely non-system play, not a lot of room to give things an individually boundless creativity.  There’s some creativity in deck building, but it’s not boundless. You have to put in the cards that already exist, for example, and those cards have to be put in with some limitations and to work, they need to be put in in certain proportions and you wind up being fed into a system.

This isn’t a criticism, by the way. Just a basic analysis. This is just something of how the game works.

During spoiler season we saw Sky Terror printed. There was some concern about how pushed that was, about if that was too much for 2 mana, and there was some talk about its impact in limited. It’s actually super interesting to me, to learn how gold cards shape your early picks – it’s the difference between 3 slots and 11 slots in your mana base, I learned.

Anyway, this prompted something of a conversation about how powerful this card was, while a certain body of people, myself included, responded with… big deal. It’s a flier and it has menace. From that, I wrote – mostly – the following explanation.

In Magic, not all evasion abilities are equal. In fact, some evasion abilities, when they start to interact with one another, are pretty weirdly weak. Sometimes this is obvious, like giving a creature with flying reach, or giving a creature with fear intimidate. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little subtler. Lemme tell you about Coldsnap.

Back in Coldsnap, there was this card, Phobian Phantasm, which was a FEAR FLIER. It cost 3 for a 3/3 and it had cumulative upkeep and people thought it would be really strong, because it’d be able to fly and not be blocked and it hit for 3. This was the first impression of myself and others2..

The problem is, fear means nothing on a creature that already flies. Most fliers aren’t getting blocked anyway, because the things that can block it are your opponents’ fliers and most of them don’t want to block because they are also turning sideways. When it comes to the way constructed works out, evasive creatures rarely get involved in creature combat, because they don’t tend to have a lot of varieties of bodies, and combat tricks aren’t commonly played (because they’re not so valuable when people rarely get into combat!). You can usually look at evasive creatures and know whether or not they’re going to get blocked at all. Now, this isn’t always true; sometimes a format will feature something that can gum up the air like say, Hornet Queen, but that’s not the norm.

The reason you tend to kill these creatures by combat in limited, of course, is because you don’t have reliable access to removal, and the removal you have is sometimes truly terribad. R&D have almost made a game of designing bad removal spells just to see who still runs them, and boy, turns out they still do.

The thing with this card looking so pushed (and it is pushed, by the way, just not in the scary way it may seem), is that we’re very much conditioned to think of cards as being generally made as a formulation; that every card is about as good as that card can be. This is something that drove me batty until I internalised it whenever Wizards printed a 4/4 for 5, like say, Game-Trail Changeling .

A menace flier may look impressive but it’s not going to get blocked anyway. In constructed, it’ll get abraded or shocked or pulsed or planked or whatever, because that’s what spot removal is for – wiping out individual things that are trying to carry the game, and a 2/2 creature needs to live for four or five turns to make a big difference on its own. It’s why constructed creatures tend to either be capable of swarming out cheaply, rebuilding after a clean-up, or closing the game on their own in a few short hits. You’ll notice rarely do people bother with 7/Xs in constructed if they can get a 6/X that does the same job cheaper, or a 5/X, because the only real virtue the 7/x has is punching through 7-toughness blockers… which are also suitably rare.

This is one of the magic tricks of design; for most intents and purposes, a number of creatures have invisible or meaningless text on them that still makes them feel interesting, still changes the nature of the game while they’re being played, and it’s very interesting seeing the way they influence the game.


1. The alternative term that’s meant to represent games with more individually creative elements is paidic, by the way.

2. I at least kept my reservations about the card because I hated fear and thought it was bad design.3.

3. A thought that was totally vindicated, mind you.

MTG: The Anti-Legions

Hello, Wizards employees! I understand that you’re not supposed to see unsolicited card designs or conversations about same, and with that in mind I’m going to ask you to head elsewhere. Like to this rad interview with Alison Lurhs about Tumblr and MTG. As for the rest of you, let’s talk about making an Anti-Legions.

Man, that’s frustrating. I can’t help but feel this kind of article – if it’s good – would be great to show as a portfolio of design work. Ah well.
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