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?

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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?

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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?