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.

Let’s talk about Steamflogger Boss.

Four mana, 3/3, no abilities. Rare.

Wizards… when you want to print a card that will excite us, intrigue us about the new mechanic, and perhaps make us whet at the whistle, why not make it a card that actually has the goddamn mechanic? When you printed Spike Drone, while it was not exciting, it was at least a Spike. This guy is not only not exciting without Contraptions and Riggers, he’s utterly unexciting in his best-case scenario. If you draw all four of them, and bomb them onto the table on turns 3, 4, 5, and 6, you have four 6/3s with haste. That is your best-case scenario, and you spent sixteen mana and a god draw to get it! If you’d drawn, say, four Chars, you wouldn’t be being foiled by your opponent’s creatures and you wouldn’t have spent sixteen mana.

The thing is, I don’t want to see riggers, now. I don’t want to see the riggers in my Future Sight boosters, and I don’t want to see them in my Lorwyn boosters. This card, on its own, has generated an enormous amount of ill-will. Sure, one day, it might be sex on a cake, but right now, it’s crap, and it will invariably never be good in Standard because otherwise, Lorwyn has to feature the mechanics that will make him good… and I sure as hell don’t want to see them.

Thus we have the final vanity of Future Sight. You have at least one example of a parasitic card, and that card has no hosts. It’s Aurochs. Worse than Aurochs, it’s an Aurochs that’s rare.

…Steamflogger Boss’ appeal is far more narrow. More narrow than even One With Nothing, which put itself proudly on a pedestal as a terrible freaking card. Steamflogger Boss is Hill Giant. It’s not unprintable. It’s not totally worthless. It’s just a complete let-down.

… It doesn’t so much build anticipation as much as it makes you wonder why the hell the bad cards of the future sets decided to show up.

Later in the article I added:

Since writing this article, Aaron basically came out and said “Oh, by the way, Steamflogger is a joke hah hah hah hah.”

You know what, Aaron? Screw you. You do this so often. Squire was a joke! Hah hah hah hah! And One With Nothing’s a bad boy who needs to be printed! Hah hah hah hah! Will you kindly get knotted? I mean, I actually spend money on boosters, and I don’t like it when my six dollars turns into a whoopee cushion for the designers of the game to laugh over. A practical joke’s only funny if the person it’s played on laughs as well, and that’s not likely to happen when he has to pay money to participate in the joke.

Now I stand by some of these points. Putting events in your game that suck are not justified by being rare. If the best way to get over a random sucky event is to keep playing and see it not happening, it needs to be in a game that doesn’t explicitly cost per hit.

 I softened a lot since then. Hurt less, less angry at myself, less prone to feeling regret at having spent money on a random chance of a thing and not getting anything good. I stopped buying boosters, of course, but who could blame me? Boosters aren’t for cards – they’re for draft.

Today,  now, we have the end point of this narrative – the final real appearance of Steamflogger Boss, the revelation of the Contraption mechanic, as Wizards finally unveil the system that justified all of this, and…

A quick pause here, for you to bail out, or go find the Unstable Spoilers if you want to read the article yourself.

… I can’t imagine this is worth it.

The contraption mechanic just in terms of physical space requires you to have an extra deck of cards, then next to that deck of cards, a shorter deck of cards which in turn uses its card back to imply three physical spots, a timer that works over turns. I like this. I like this mechanism – as a way to express the unreliability of this ridiculous machine you’re constructing. I like how you don’t have real control over the cards you build, but you could use mechanics to sculpt it, like letting players look at the top numbers of those cards. There’s a lot of mechanical sinew here and I like that.

Good work making a mechanic that hit the flavour Maro was gunning for.

On the other hand, this looks incredibly, incredibly annoying.

Gotcha was a mechanic that proved irritating because it made players check out of conversations, wanting to avoid giving players the ability to talk about things. I feel like this is going to create a similar situation: Do you put this on this sprocket here, for this turn, or next turn, or the turn after that, and do you want these two effects to go together and – it’s time consuming. It’s asking you to make a lot of plans in a small amount of time. If you’re going for whacky, free-wheeling stuff, where you chuck stuff out there and see what happens, then great! It’ll probably work out for you. But Magic players are nothing if not prone to trying to solve things, and this seems like something very difficult asking for a solution.

Contraptions seem to, in draft, present very little cost to your deck, much like conspiracies, but unlike conspiracies, they’re full of ways to immediately affect the board and not as much about deckbuilding choices. Odds are good you’re going to end up with a couple of Contraptions, and that means you’re going to have to pay attention to how to build them and interact with them and that means you’re going to have to work out strategies that want to play three turns in advance.

There’s also the problem that Contraptions take up space on the table. I mean, I have the battlefield, and on the battlefield I have the Contraption deck, and that deck needs to be positioned so three cards can be slotted onto it and that needs to be readable by both me and my opponent and I need a token to track it, and this is in addition to all the other space Magic takes up. I kind of expect to see a lot of adjusting of spaces and decks and cards for the Preprerelease.

I feel that this mechanic would be best for its own, unique game. I know that, because I’ve tried making that game, in an example of parallel development –

A game idea I’ve been kicking around for a while now had players building ‘work order’ paths like this. Each turn your bead jumped down the path and did everything on those cards. No real reason to show it off, because it’s not like the prototype went far. Maybe I’ll get back to it.

While I have hope for Unstable as a set – because I like games, and I like good games, and I like playing good games – I have my doubts. I expect it’ll go badly. I expect this whole mechanic will be annoying, and its ridiculous moments will make for a laugh once or twice, but my involvement with it will start and end with watching the Preprerelease (where professional comedians will make it funny and cool no matter what happens – these people make Nightmare engaging). Unstable’s contraption design, ten years coming, looks annoying to play against, fiddly to play with, sends you into the tank a lot, and takes up a lot of table space. At least it hits all its stated design goals, right?

… Right?

There’s not some major detail that was missed all along… was there?


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