Reparations

History is littered with stories of attempts to address or, depending on who was pitching the attempt to the public, “fix,” things that only made the situation worse. I don’t think I need to list any here: we’d be here all day, and you undoubtedly know better than me which ones loom largest in your own mental landscape. In the global sense, the question of whether Magic’s spells or creatures were stronger or more worthwhile is probably not the most major, but it is still significant to many of us.

For years, we’ve been told that creatures have “always sucked.” There are many things that people have disputed about this assessment; I’m going to point out that these declarations of suckitude are coming from the same people who didn’t realize that Bitterblossom or Jace the Mind Sculptor were broken beyond belief. Still, when it comes from people whose job is supposedly to know everything about Magic, it comes across as authoritative, and it seems to have led to some of us questioning our own experience and the evidence of history (remember when we thought they were insane for printing Loxodon Hierarch and Watchwolf?). It has also led to a perception by some people that creatures that “only” attack or block aren’t good enough unless they’re super-ridiculous in and of themselves (Baneslayer Angel).

The inflation in comes-into-play abilities has troubling implications for Magic design. Attacking and blocking may be a fundamental and thus seem somewhat mundane, but it is the thing that makes creatures unique, and when a higher proportion of them act like spells that also put a token into play, it makes the game feel like it’s more about spells, and less about combat. If, as some people describe it, playing creatures was a “losing proposition” in past eras, it’s not better now, because a lot of decks are playing things that aren’t creatures in spirit.

The issue isn’t that creatures should never have abilities that affect the game state beyond combat: they certainly can, and there should probably be a few in each set. But using this as a wholesale tactic to make creatures “good” is lazy design and is leading to unchecked power inflation. Personally, I wouldn’t mind going back to creatures along the lines of Dakmor Sorceress and Sea Drake, but even if your preferences lie elsewhere, you should be concerned. It’s one thing when you can exploit mechanics in a single-player game like Skyrim to make a weapon that can kill anything in the game in one hit: you can choose not to use it when you realize it isn’t fun. How would you feel if that kind of power could be foisted on you by another player without your knowledge or consent?

Between the lines

Rulers make bad lovers,
You’d better put your kingdom up for sale.

— Fleetwood Mac, “Gold Dust Woman”

I haven’t played in a sanctioned Magic tournament for a long time – since the Worldwake pre-release, in fact. It’s been so long that my DCI number is actually inactive. I have no intention of re-activating it any time soon, but old habits die hard. I mostly identify as a collector now, and tend to pre-order cards just because I like the art (how beautiful are the new pieces for the Ravnica dual lands, by the way?) or something else about them. And yet, it’s hard to entirely stop assessing cards’ game text and/or power level.

From that point of view, I’m not entirely pleased with what I see in Return to Ravnica. I don’t think it’s really possible to deny that power creep is a real thing at this point, when there’s a 5/5 creature for four mana with a beneficial ability that is clearly intended to be played only in limited settings. It took me (and my master’s degree in economics) ten minutes to figure out how to use the overload keyword – so much for reducing complexity. And why in the Abyss are unleash and detain even keywords at all? And can you even imagine how miserable Standard is going to be with Snapcaster Mage and the blue guilds’ charms?

 

Everything about this block positively screams “this is not what it seems.” What do I mean by that? Only that so far, it seems to be on track to replicate many of the mistakes made by Time Spiral – we’re told that that block failed because established players got it and non-established players didn’t. But what reasons have been used as the ones we should buy Return to Ravnica (note the name, by the way)? The guilds are coming back? Well, why should you care unless you saw the guilds the first time around? If you started playing during the Scars of Mirrodin block, you probably don’t even know who Isperia and Niv-Mizzet are, much less why you want to play with them. Further, out of the last three blocks, two of them have been returns (rehashes) of popular old settings, and the other was an attempt to cash in on the turn-of-the-decade horror trend. That, to me, says something quite different from “best year in Magic’s history for the xth year in a row.”

But hey, at least the art is still good.

Filth casser-what?

I’ve been following the emergence of the unfortunately-named Magic format “Filth Casserole.” Primarily, it’s of interest as another singleton format, something which seems to be relatively out of favor among the current player base. I guess not everyone agrees with Abe Sargent that making anything singleton makes it more fun (I do, personally). It’s also interesting to me that it goes in essentially the opposite direction from EDH/Commander: smaller and easier-to-handle deck sizes. I’m an average-sized person with slightly larger-than-average hands, but I have a lot of trouble handling a pile of 99 Magic cards in sleeves – it tends to result in muscle strain, and I don’t consider shuffling without sleeves an option for a serious collector.

If you like Filth Casserole, or even a modified version of it (I personally have trouble keeping strictly to the Modern card pool – how do you say no to cards like Armadillo Cloak or Wonder?), the best thing to hope for may be that it never truly goes mainstream. Whenever something’s done that in the past, it attracts the parts of the online “community” that want to solve everything, optimize everything, and mechanize everything, and it’s hard to argue that the game doesn’t suffer when that happens. Witness the rise of netdecking in Commander.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of posting about something on my blog and then suggesting that it shouldn’t go internet-mainstream. I guess I’m hanging on to the essence of something Paarthurnax says in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “Those who try to hasten the end may delay it. Those who work to delay the end may bring it closer.”

Hard questions

Yes, how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
— Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

Mark Rosewater once wrote an article called “The Troubled One,” on the perception (and the truth) that blue was, at that time, far and away the most powerful color in Magic, and how its cards’ being designed with a marked lack of discipline and caution was a contributing factor in that disproportionate power. When I say “once,” I mean almost ten years ago. How is the effort to bring blue into balance with the other colors going?

Image

Yeah.

If anything, blue is stronger proportional to recent cards than it was in the era of Psychatog and Circular Logic. There was a period in the middle where things seemed to be getting better, especially the Alara block, but other than that, we see the same patterns being repeated over and over and over again: giving blue abilities that supposedly belong to other colors, giving blue near-exclusive access to card-drawing spells and card selection spells, printing overpowered counterspells, printing very few ways for other colors to circumvent or avoid those counterspells, and making blue the only color that can effectively play during an opponent’s turn.

There are a few possibilities, which I’m going to list in their most crudely-expressed form for the sake of simplicity.

It’s an innocent mistake. MagicTheGathering.com and the various R&D people’s Twitter accounts are full of development stories that basically come down to shrugging their shoulders and saying “Oops.” This makes for great PR, as it makes for a very powerful portrayal of an indie-style game being made by ordinary gamers and not a corporate venture, which it has been for many years now. It’s because it is a corporate venture that we can only entertain the “just an innocent mistake” explanation for so long, even when said explanation is couched in a Rosewaterism about “blue is the tricky color even towards Research and Development.” Seriously. We’ve been accepting it for more than ten years at this point. How long are we – by which I mean people who are interested in having a better-balanced game – going to bang our heads against a stone wall? At some point, you’d think that more people would start wondering, and possibly moving on to other explanations like

This actually is what the audience wants. There is, superficially, some support for this. The online “community” is full of people who argue in favor of even the most overpowered blue cards. Part of the problem with blue is that it’s concepted as the color of intellectualism, and many Magic players want to see themselves as intellectuals. Further, professional and wannabe-pro players definitely see themselves as smarter than other kinds of players. It’s also the case that if one color is more powerful than all the others, it’ll probably be played more because people like to win. However, this is probably not sufficient by itself to explain the problem. After all, there are fans of other colors represented, and R&D people sometimes talk about market research that says that the majority of players don’t like counterspells and attrition-based control decks.

R&D is not capable of fixing the problem as things stand now. In my opinion, this statement is the closest to the truth. There are two dimensions to it: first, the issue that most members of R&D have been on the inside for years and are out of touch with how the game is actually played in the real world. None of them show a significant understanding of just how competitive the online “community” really is and how fast it drives to solve new formats and sets. Mark Rosewater has stated that he mostly plays limited, not constructed, and is prone to making inaccurate and outright tone-deaf statements about how creatures that are generally good stand a chance in competitive Magic against synergy creatures like Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets. The second issue is that R&D is figuratively married to many color pie interpretations that may be outdated. It took them until this year to give red and green card-drawing spells that could be considered among a set’s most noteworthy cards. It took them until Planar Chaos to explore the possibility of letting white into the counterspell club even when it made sense for it to be there, and since then they’ve done it precisely twice.

It’s easier to work within the status quo. Humans love security, and there’s no guarantee that what follows major change will be better than what came before. And Magic is probably not the most pressing example of something in society that needs to be changed. But how long can you actually play an unbalanced or, dare I say, broken game? It’s fine to feel powerful, but how long does this satisfy compared to something you enjoy on a deeper level? And how long will it take before we demand the same values – fairness, inclusiveness, transparency – from our games that we say we cherish in our lives?

Primary research

If you haven’t visited MagicTheGathering.com recently, this might be a good time to do so, as they were doing an online survey about player spending habits. Unfortunately, it was the kind of thing that appears semi-randomly in the space on the side of the Daily MTG page, so it may not appear every time. Still, it’s worth doing if you can – especially if you’re not a regular tournament player, because Wizards of the Coast has not always shown as much awareness as it could be of the non-tournament scene’s habits and viewpoints. (I’m aware that tournament players are generally louder and more active than casual players on the internet, and that this post may have not only gone right past its intended audience, but alienated some of you who arrived here via Google or something. Well, we’ll see how things go.)

Eternity

I disagree, Mr. Spock. Beauty . . . beauty survives.

— Captain James T. Kirk, in “That Which Survives,” Star Trek season 3

Have you looked at the video of the Magic panel at the recent Comic-Con? If you haven’t, take a look at it now. At the very least, watch the first couple of minutes and pay attention to how the audience reacts to the land art that they show to open the panel. You are watching exactly what is wrong with Magic’s fanbase and so-called community.

Mark Rosewater asserts that “many players care very much about the art,” which is probably true to at least a certain extent: Magic wouldn’t have the kind of art it has, and they wouldn’t open such a major event as Comic-Con with it, if the statement were entirely false. But you can’t get this sense from much of the so-called community, especially online, many of whose members seem to see the art as a way to identify cards at best and a blank space between the mana cost and game text at worst. I’ve been admonished that “you’re supposed to play the game, not look at the pretty pictures” more than once. You might hear someone complain now and then about bad cards getting good art, which is stupid because if you like the art so much you’ll value the card even if you don’t put it in your decks, but that’s still slightly better. At least it displays some kind of an aesthetic sense, and a rudimentary understanding that Magic is about more than technical play and counting cards.

Far too many of us fail to look beyond the technical elements of the game, to their loss: Magic’s technical play is not unique, and recent competitive formats have been all too solvable, lacking even the depth of the video games that some players deride (for some reason). Further, to put it bluntly, there is nothing in Magic’s technical play that other games don’t do better. If all you want is to manage a group of cards (and make money doing so, as too many of us do), poker lets you do so without a constantly changing card pool and without the potential unbalancing elements of design mistakes. If all you wanted to do was min-max, why pick Magic over all the other opportunities to do so?

Even if you somehow did manage to overcome your dislike of fantasy stuff and become an amazing technical player, you’re not set yet. It is quite possible to be good at one format with certain content, particularly in a rotating setting such as Standard, and have your deck type vanish with a new release and take your ability to make bank with it. This is what happened (mostly) to the completely-reactive blue decks of yesteryear, and although those decks probably deserved it, it’s also a fact that many of their players have failed to adapt to the style of play enabled by new cards. The art, by contrast, is the only part of a Magic card that lasts forever. Some day the game will officially end, as everything comes to an end; there will be no more FNM, no more pro events, and no more self-congratulatory Tumblr blogs. But the art will always remain, a window into a world that exists as long as we are willing to look through it; an opportunity to look beyond the mundane concerns of this crowded, stressed planet and glimpse, for a moment, the eternal.

That’s what art offers. That’s what Magic’s art offers. That’s what we should be thinking of whenever we open a booster pack.