MTG: Defining Pushed

For someone who hasn’t bought a new Magic booster in something like three years, I spend an awful lot of time working on Magic: The Gathering language, card design, and game lore. The primary way I play the game these days is Commander on MTGO, and creating cards on Reddit.

Reddit presents its own challenges, though because just the language of how we talk about cards can be awkward. Reddit’s a really good place to lose your personality and your voice, and just become kind of a rolling space of commentary. Instead of talking with you, people feel like they’re arguing against a fabric of community, of space, and that can make it easy to feel like your tone and intention is being taken away from you. If I’m a little short with someone, and then lots of people upvote it, are they agreeing with my sentiment, or my tone, or does it mean nothing?

It can be hard to navigate.

What I strive to do is to talk about cards in a consistent and reasonably helpful way. Not to say I haven’t had some moments of ‘this sucks’ or ‘hard no.’ Those are often comments where I intend to end the conversation and get out: The problem is obvious and I feel beyond expressing that, there’s no reason to get bound up in a conversation. Someone putting a card like Concentrate in white, as is, probably doesn’t care that they’re breaking the colour pie, so there’s no reason to do a long chat about it.

There are however, some terms I use which seem to get misunderstood, and I’m not sure how to address that beyond writing them down, then sharing the link when it comes up. And if you clicked this from a reddit conversation, sorry, and sorry for Recipe Blogging you.

The main term I use, and which I use as a comment and not a complaint is the word pushed.

In typical set design, there is an idea that power ebbs and flows. Some sets have really good removal and a lot of it, some sets have very little and it’s a bit weak, some sets have a lot available but none of it is great, some have very little available but what’s there is amazing. The typical imagery used by Wizards is a pendulum swinging back and forth. In this context, when I use the word ‘pushed,’ it refers to the idea that one of these factors is stronger than typical.

Pushed is not ‘overpowered.’ Pushed is not ‘this is bad and you should stop.’ It is a reaction of what I think it is, based on the information presented to me (which is typically one card at a time). For example, in a set like Onslaught, a card like Shatter wouldn’t look very strong at all; in the set that followed it, Mirrodin, Shatter was extremely strong.

A single card can still be put in context, after all! If you make a 2/2 first striker for W, well, there’s a 2/2 for W that has a drawback, Isamaru Hound of Konda, and a 1/1 first striker in Timber Wolves. A 2/2 first striker for W probably won’t break the game. Hell, if you’re dealing with a format like say, Planar Chaos, it might not even be good enough to do anything, because there are card-advantage removal effects all around including three standard-legal wraths of god. The overall impact of any one card is heavily dependent on what’s in the format.

This can be important for making cubes, for example. If you’ve got a custom cube full of busted ass cards, then being ‘pushed’ by a typical look may not be worth the time. A storm combo deck can race a lot of extremely scary aggro decks, if the latter lacks disruption.

The tool I use is I look at the card as designed and I try to break it down into a simple form. A lot of complicated game mechanisms can be compared to simpler ones; a card that scries the top of your deck then puts one in your hand can just be compared to a card draw, and considered a little bit better. You can almost always compare creatures to creatures of the same size, and we have a lot of creatures for that comparison.

When you do that, though, you can often see that some cards are just trying to do too much. It’s really comon to see some form of ‘flying, hexproof, indestructible’ or ‘cheap creature with a game-engine ability that is suspiciously resistant to lightning bolt.’

If you can look at cards and compare them to existing cards in a meaningful way, you can get a feel if not for what things should cost always, but how you might dial in their costs, how you might be safer or more careful, and how your card can fit meaningfully alongside the rest of the game as it exists, and what the game is like. It’s useful context, and part of designing cards, is in my opinion, building that context, then demonstrating it.

‘Pushed’ just means pushed. It doesn’t mean broken.

Broken, by the way, is much more hard to use. A broken card needs to somehow violate some of the rules of the game in some way that means the normal ways we control overpowered play patterns don’t work. Affinity was a broken mechanic partly because it encouraged a density of artifacts and fuelled that same density. That meant that when you made the cards cost more, it just meant that you’d hit a tipping point and now get these really expensive spells all at once once you crossed that threshold. Broken tends to be a term to use for an effect that you shouldn’t want in the game at any price.

Lots of planeswalker emblems do ‘broken’ things, but that’s because they’re meant to end the game and shut things down hard and fast once they ultimate. They’re not meant to hang around in the game forever. The point of them being on planeswalkers is that there’s counterplay and ways to attack and remove them before they do the utimate. Cards that do broken things without some existing parameters to control for them are sometimes called ‘broken at any speed.’ That is, if it was cheaper and smaller or expensive and bigger, either would still be a problem.

So, consider that ‘pushed’ is a question; what are your boundaries? What are you pushing past?

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