Wednesday, June 17, 2009
(submitted by Bert Phillips)
When Wizards announced the changes that would accompany the release of M10, I tried not to be a "they're killing the game" reactionary. Some changes I liked, some I didn't, but all will eventually settle in and start to feel normal, no differently than the 6th Edition changes. What I want to talk about though, is the policy behind the flavor changes. Starting with the Grand Creature Type Update a year ago, Wizards began to take great strides toward streamlining the flavor of Magic. As with everything, some changes have been good, some... questionable.
The Grand Creature Type Update was a good idea, although Wizards probably overreached - I agree that "Summon Murk Dwellers" doesn't really add much to that card's flavor, but by taking every ambiguous Black creature and making it a Zombie, Spirit, or Skeleton you miss out on some cool creature types that DO add flavor (Wights, Mummies, and Ghosts all get absorbed into their respective super-categories, for instance). And then they killed Townsfolk, for which I, and the great nation of Icatia, will never forgive them.
Then Wizards, in an attempt to loop in new players with appealing, easy-to-identify fantasy archetypes, flipped the script with M10. As a whole, I love the idea. More Knights, Zombies, Dragons, Angels... fewer Kavus, Slivers, Vedalken, and, uh, Lhurgoyfs (noooo!!!)... at least in the base sets. I honestly think it's a brilliant idea, no doubt because those characteristics are what originally drew me to Magic in 5th grade.
M10 also ushered in some drastic changes to the surface texture of the game, including the renaming of two zones to The Battlefield and Exile. I'll omit my discussion of Exile's flavor problems (another article...). Suffice it to say, I generally approve of those changes and think they make the game a more aesthetically appealing experience.
My problem is this - why stop where they did?
When I play Call of the Herd, I am casting my sorcery which puts an Elephant onto the Battlefield. But when I activate my Survival of the Fittest I am searching my library (so far so good) by "discarding" a "card", searching for a "card" and putting it into my "hand". Sounds like something I would do in a game of Go Fish. Oh yeah, and all that is done by a "player", not by a "planeswalker," which is theoretically what I'm supposed to be.
The problem is that Wizards has gone only half-way in addressing this broad flavor change. Magic "lives" within a binary that forces upon it a fundamental predicament. It is a game with normal game parts, like chess, but it is also a metaphor, a story, every bit as complex and storied as the world of, say, Harry Potter. Wizards needs to figure out whether it wants to fully upholster the game with this metaphor, or leave some gameplay terminology on the visible surface.
Magic is a game that asks you to pretend you are in a different universe (multiverse :) ). To enjoy the Vorthosian aspect of Magic, you have to buy into the metaphor. Magic is fun partly because of the gameplay, but partly because you are living within in this story. If you stripped away all the art, changed the mana costs from WUBGR to ABCDE, and changed all the card names to "Combat Permanent 1" or "Continuous Game-Modifying Permanent 33" or "Temporary Effect 9,402" - the gameplay would stay the same, but the game would be horribly bland. Chess would be ok if you renamed the pieces ("multi-directional long-range unit to G-2"). In 52-card decks, the parts are already almost stripped to their essential game-related minimal elements ("two of diamonds"). Magic, on the other hand, shrivels up if you take away the metaphor.
I guess what I am suggesting is that Wizards should have thought about this. They might want to make these changes I'm talking about in five years, and by then they will have 20 additional sets worth of cards to errata. We have artifacts that come into the battlefield tapped (another example of a good metaphor, "tapped" being another word for "expended"), and creatures that exile zombies. Why not have sorceries that deal damage to planeswalkers (the player or directly to the permanent!), and lands that you can "forget" ("discard") in order to "acquire" ("draw") another card.
We could redefine what "spell" means, so that a "card" can be called a "spell." Demonic Tutor would allow you to search your library for any "spell," including lands and non-lands, and "acquire" it (not "put it into your hand"). Opportunity would allow you to "acquire your next four spells." Ostracize would force your opponent to forget a creature spell, Remove Soul would counter a creature spell, and Zombify would be a sorcery spell that puts a creature spell from your graveyard into the battlefield. It would be a huge rules change in terms of how cards move though zones, but it would simplify things a ton, which is something Wizards has been looking for, as well as streamlining flavor.
Wizards could add a rule to the rulebook so that you cast land spells without using the stack or triggering abilities. Tell me, what's wrong with that, other than shaking up tradition? (Yeah, you'd have to do something about Rule of Law.)
Admittedly, my changes have serious issues (both mechanically under the current rules and flavor-wise), but there are certainly other workable ideas to compliment them, and the end result could be to complete the story metaphor of magic:
And if you complete the metaphor, you absolutely have a better, more marketable, not to mention a more logical product. I only wish Wizards had had the foresight to do it all in one fell swoop.
The idea of renaming "card drawing" to "spell acquiring" is an interesting prospect. In one way, this makes perfect sense. I cast Concentrate, I acquire three spells, and now I can cast them. Or when Elvish Visionary comes into the Battlefield, she prophesies a spell I then have acquired from her. I have used "forgetting" for "discarding" but shied away from naming "drawing" "learning". This is because, in my opinion, there is a problem with this cognitive metaphor for card drawing.
I guess it all started with calling the deck "the Library." That made it seem like every spell was something you learned in books, whereas in reality there is flavor room for spells that are cast from the heart, the gut, just from yelling really loud (think of "To Arms!"). Nevertheless, cards that manipulated the hand started being flavor-associated with memory and/or forgetfulness. But I don't really have a problem with the library and/or hand somehow representing a planeswalker's mental process. I don't even have a problem with being able to "learn" a battlecry from my library. Where the problem starts... is the color pie.
For some reason, Blue has always been associated with cognitive magic (among other things). And that is fine. Teaching, Genius, Brainstorming,Inspiration... all fine cards, good flavor. Sure, you need your brain to process new spells, but why is the only way to engage your brain by reading books?? The library could just as well be an "arsenal" for a Red mage, or an ongoing prayer by a devout White mage.
Like card draw, both countermagic and stealing cards, two incredibly powerful abilities, had their flavor classified as cerebral-based (read: Blue). But why does taking your creature have to be done by mental manipulation of loyalties? Can't I get him to come over to my side by threatening orevangelizing or outright enslaving him?
Those examples prove that there is a flavor basis for "Blue" (and other colors') abilities to be spread more evenly around the color pie. One reason they aren't spread around more is tradition. Another reason is that because of the library metaphor, all of Magic's spells are cognitive in flavor, and thus Blue gets first dibs at almost everything. Black and White get second dibs because White likes to control the mind and Black likes to corrupt it. But Red doesn't like to use the mind at all, and Green is just always getting high, so they have last dibs, even though, flavor-wise, it doesn't have to be all about the mind, and thus they should all get equal dibs.
I would say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But it is broken. In at least three ways.
1) There is a real power discrepancy. Just ask any multiplayer player how many Red cards they have in their 5-color decks. It's also very perceptible at the competitive level. As a rule of thumb, Red sucks, Blue dominates, and all the other colors are pretty serviceable.
2) Some colors are more versatile than others. Sure, Red decks routinely crop up and do pretty well, or even dominate, for part of a season. But what do those Red decks do? Almost invariably, they cast some efficient little creatures, swing, and then burn you out. When was the last time a Red deck was completive (i.e., not Warp World) with a different gameplan than that? (And no, Swans doesn't count. I guess Wildfire decks from wayyy back.) But even Green, for instance, has mana fixing, recursion, efficient small creatures, efficient big creatures, enchantment/artifact/land removal, life gain, and some card advantage. Black is great at creature removal, they have 1 or 2 great creatures of various sizes in any given format, and they have some life gain and recursion. That's it. I won't even start in on blue, which never destroys anything, but does everything else.
3) Design Space. As of now, blue has almost all counterspell effects. Thus, as of now, "counter target spell" seems like a unique ability, so Cancel is as far as we need to go. But if Black had counterspell effects, you would need to find a way to make black counterspells uniquely black... *ahem* you would GET to make Black effects on permission cards!
(Oh yeah, while I'm at it, I'm renaming "instants" - where's the flavor in that??)
Think about it. It wouldn't be obsoleting the color pie, it would be opening up color pie essentials onto design space they have never gotten to interact with due to tradition tradition. If you look at one of those "how to play" inserts, it says nothing about Black being the color of destroying creature permanents, it just says Black likes ambition and death. Well, here's some death for a creature on the stack, thanks.
The remedy to the color imbalance (as I've been getting at) is that this "spells/hand/cards = cognitive activity" metaphor isn't necessary. Ok, so spells are supposed to be memorized incantations that you can cast by using your mind... but all colors can cast spells, not just Blue. Think of it like this. Blue mage acquires the spell by studying in a library, and casts the spell from memory or a spellbook, etc. Green mage acquires the spell by, oh, say, Harmonizing with nature or consulting with a wise woodland sage, and casts the spell, perhaps, by singing a chant or doing a dance. Red mage acquires the spell by beating up the librarian, and casts it with a magical battle-cry. White mage acquires the spell by praying to god or polling its citizens for information. Black mage casts the spell in a sacrificial ceremony. Etc. The point is, there are any number of ways to "acquire spells" and "cast spells." Thus there is no reason flavor-wise that card drawing, for instance, should be a Blue ability and thus only appear on one or two Red/White/Green/Black cards per year.
If we opened up unique veins of card drawing or countermagic (or for that matter unique veins of creature-kill or mana acceleration) to other colors, so much design space would emerge, and Red and Green could become so much more playable and enjoyable. Take another look at counterspell abilities. Blue mage stops your spell by knowing the opposite spell (if this were Harry Potter, the counter-jinx) that will stop it. But why can't there be other ways to counter spells? Maybe White can counter a spell by levying a tax on it... how very White. Maybe Black can counter a spell by making the caster really frightened while he's trying to cast it. And Jaya Ballard doesn't need a piddly counter-jinx to shut down a spell. She can justblast it! So why can't Chandra Nalaar counter some crappy planeswalker's Giant Growth (or whatever) just by the sheer power of her burning fury?
If they can print Burnout as a color hoser, it doesn't seem like Catastrophic Response is too far off-base, at least flavor wise. If Wizards was willing to do a reinterpretation of what the color pie binds them to, there's no flavor reason why Red can't get a little better (and all the colors can get a big infusion of amazing design space), I'd say.
I'm not asking for a Disenchant that costs 1B, a Terror that costs 1G, or a 4/4 trampler for 2UU. Then everyone would just play mono-colored decks. But if I consider myself a powerful Red-aligned planeswalker who loves to burn things... well, let's just say I think I could be angry enough to stop your CoP:Red when I saw you casting it.
True, there are a lot of people who, if asked to choose one card and one color that are most representative of each other, would say "Counterspell for Blue." It's a reasonable choice. But then if you asked them to come up with a flavor reason why Blue defines Counterspell it would just be "Blue has always been the countermagic color!" But that, friends, is not a reason - 'tis a tautology. There is a flavor reason, based on color pie essentials, why Angel of Salvation is White (healing!) or why Fiery Gambit is Red (chaos!) or why Kaervek's Spite is Black (suicidal malice!). But if you say Counterspell is Blue (complex technical spellwork!) (painstakingly prepared countermeasures!) I could just as easily say it is Red (blunt, all-purpose answer!) (instantaneous retribution!). Even Force of Will: the Bluest card ever, but the mechanic (pitching a card as part of a cost!), the name... even the art is just all so Red to me.
The same goes for creatures with flash. What is the flavor reason for Blue creatures to have flash? The mechanical reason is to allow Blue creatures to counter spells (Spellstutter Sprite) or to keep mana open for counterspells. But flash seems very very Red to me. Flash is about speed and crushing your opponent out of nowhere (sure, it's about trickiness and keeping tabs on your opponent's activities too, but I'm not saying Blue can't have any flash creatures). This seems like a perfectly archetypal creature to me, moreso than, say, Pestermite:
There are other changes I would like to see made for the purpose of evening out the colors and bringing the color pie into accord with the colors' true identities. For instance, Blue has always been the artifact color, Green the land color, and White the enchantment color (give or take). But what about Black and Red? Could Wizards make them the sorcery and instant colors, respectively? (Red did cool stuff with instants from the beginning, and Black, well... it's never too late to start in on sorceries.)
I also think the "Grand Creature Typing" could use some finalizing touches. Merfolk had long been the hope of Blue summoners everywhere, Blue's equivalent to G's Elves, R's Goblins, B's Zombies, and W's... Angels (? Hmm....). But Merfolk ran into flavor problems when they were attacking through forests and mountains. Then Wizards tried to introduce Vedalken as the Blue tribe, but they were always horribly ambiguous, mollusk-like, and unloved. Wizards finally shifted Faeries from G to U, which was brilliant, and fits the tricky nature of Faeries/Blue. Wizards should solidify that change, maybe with a block of Pixies as a subset of Faeries (in the same way that Goblins have Moggs and Boggarts) so that Blue will finally have it's flagship tribe.
There are more changes that I could suggest, but I'll save them for another day. These changes, though - both to the color pie and to the metaphor that is the game of Magic - all deserve some consideration from the folks at Wizards. They also deserve consideration from the magic community, which is why I'm spreading these ideas at large. All I'm asking for is a careful reevaluation of the game's flavor, mechanical balance, and the color pie, and their relationship to each other. Far from "killing magic," as, of course, people are prophesying, I think the M10 changes will be great for the game and draw in new players. I just regret that the changes couldn't have been more thorough. Oh well. Next time. Until then, I can't wait to put some townsfolk into my Battlefield...