Monday, July 21, 2014

kill reviews: ice age block

So! Yeah. Ice Age block. It’s… certainly cool! Am I right guys? Is anyone still reading this?

Ice Age, the second set and first large expansion in the grey-bordered era (has this caught on since last week? I hope so), was not a good set. It was the first large set expansion in Magic’s history, and gave them the opportunity to reboot a good chunk of Magic design: because you could get everything you needed to play from Ice Age (unlike previous expansions), they could toss out all the dregs of previous design and really give players something to sink their teeth into. This is not what happened.

Alpha certainly had its share of needlessly wordy cards, but it seemed to have good intentions. Raging River was a re-reader, but the core intention of it was pretty clear: it’s a really big river! Creatures that don’t fly are on either side of it! Why would you want to play with it? Well, because it’s a Magic version of a really big river, obviously. Why is Balduvian Shaman cluttered with so much text? Well, it’s a one-mana 1/1 that can change a color word on a white enchantment you control while also giving it cumulative upkeep. There is no flavor there, no compelling reason to make the card so verbose while also making it terrible. There is just a bad card with way too much text.

What sort of designer would think that such fiddly, bean-counting cards would be fun? If you guessed college guys studying math and physics, you’d be right! Skaff Elias’s feature article is pretty essential background material here, so go read that instead if you were looking for actual history.[1] The short summary is that they started making it way before Alpha was even released (leading to some of their cards getting poached for that set), it got stuck in development hell, and eventually got released years later with a lot of oddly-last-minute changes. It wasn’t just a set of cards: it was supposed to be an alternate vision of what the basic Magic could look like. What did this vision consist of? Cumulative upkeep!

[1] If anyone else actually did this: didn’t there seem to be a bit of a residual anger that Mr Elias has for people that fucked with ~his set~ and stole ~his cards~ for ~their set~?

The main idea is that you play a card, and it costs more and more every turn to keep it in play. This is… not fun. It is a bad mechanic. It isn’t bad for some sophisticated, newfound reason that we can’t really expect Ice Age designers to have understood at the time. It is simply an unfun design to sink more and more resources into your (probably mediocre) card, only to eventually sacrifice it, for a slight discount up front. Cumulative upkeep was a bad idea, and even Coldsnap’s modern take on it couldn’t salvage its inherent awfulness.

Snow-covered lands were an interesting idea badly botched. The basic concept is that your basic lands would still be basic lands, but cards referred to whether you had lands that were snow-covered. None of the cards that did this were remotely good, and the set had so many ways of punishing players for doing it that it was all completely pointless. There are also a ton of cards that either make things snow-covered or not snow-covered, which… still doesn’t matter. Coldsnap actually did this mechanic right, however, because there were some interested ideas underneath all the terribleness.

The set does have its gems, though, where the mechanics-based cards shine in ways that older ones never did, where the resources-turning-into-other-resources motif progresses Magic design. The most notable of these is obviously Necropotence. Magic had already established that black turns life into cards with Greed, but the risk that Necro presents of locking oneself out forever is perfect. It is the most evocative black card without needing to be a top-down design. Not everything flavorful needs to have a ton of extra words playing up that flavor, or be instantly recognizable as a real-world thing. Necro just feels how it should. I think of aggressively top-down cards, like a SIEGE DRAGON that DESTROYS WALLS or whatever, as the brute-force approach to flavor. The disadvantage they have is that once you’ve read the card, that’s pretty much the end of the flavor. It’s told its joke. The flavor of Necro carries over to every game you play with it, because it’s not a few words on the card that make it an impactful design, it’s the feeling.
This and the other interesting cards in the set, like Demonic Consultation that addressed risk in Magic from a mathematical direction, are those that allow resource conversion in ways that are off-limits in modern Magic. Zuran Orb asks: “how much do you value those lands at?” Orcish Lumberjack wonders the same thing, but converting it into a different resource. “How much is each player willing to pay in life to alter another player’s draws?”, says Zur’s Weirding.

So, while it didn’t get all the details right, Ice Age was the first salvo in the still-ongoing conflict between those who want Magic to be a fantastical game of large creatures and huge plays against those who enjoy gameplay revolving around seemingly-mundane resource allocation, attrition, and casting Pox. In general, the people who enjoy this kind of gameplay tend to be the self-identifying “hardcore” crowd that play to win, and win often. While lesser players are baffled by the idea of trading away life for cards, lands for life, and three of my cards for four of yours, the more calculating sharks love these cards, and their spiritual descendants: Smokestack, Cadaverous Bloom, Tinker, and maybe even Skullclamp (but that one’s so obvious, it doesn’t feel like losing anything to draw two cards).

Homelands is different. Homelands is a bad set. This shouldn’t shock anyone: the badness of Homelands has permeated Magic culture to the point where people know that Homelands is bad whether or not they can name a single card from Homelands, just like so many people are vaguely aware that Plan 9 From Outer Space is a bad film. Mark Rosewater calls it the worst-designed set in Magic history. Silver-bordered cards, which generally are playful fun rather than mockery of Magic, had an outright shot at Homelands.

While the design of Homelands isn’t very interesting, the history of Wizards leading up to it is. Homelands was designed somewhere around the time that The Dark was released, a time when Magic could practically do no wrong. Stores were still ordering comically large amounts of sealed product in order to get allocated a small percentage of it. Sets were essentially designed by whoever was around at the time: Arabian Nights by Garfield with a library card and a lack of sleep, Antiquities and Ice Age by Elias and the East Coast group, Legends by some Vancouver friends of Garfield, and The Dark by Jesper Myrfors. (When I wrote last week’s review, I didn’t know he designed the set, but this explains a lot: why it matches his aesthetic so closely, why it has such a beautiful unifying look yet no mechanical identity, and why his best pieces are included in it. I’m a bit suspicious that he purposefully stashed away the best art from his freelancers in order to save it for his set.)

While it’s true that Homelands was designed not by R&D, but by two people from Customer Service, this is misrepresenting what was going on back then. Homelands is more unusual for the fact that it was designed by actual Wizards employees. Scooter Hungerford, one of the designers, also happened to be the head of Continuity (precursor to today’s creative department), and no one is upset nowadays if a Creative person is on a design team.

R&D as we currently think of it didn’t really exist. Peter Adkison put the call out for anyone in the company to design a set, so Hungerford and Kyle Namvar did. They designed a set that was essentially for them and their friends: Scooter was obviously going to care more about story, so they created an extraordinarily deep backstory tying together just about every card in the set. (I haven’t the slightest interest, but Evan Erwin’s video on the set spends three and a half minutes on the topic.) They filled it to the brim with personal references and in-jokes. Why’s there a Didgeridoo in the set? Because one of them had just bought the instrument in real life.

There’s some disagreement on why, exactly, Homelands turned out like it did. The designers claim that they were hamstrung by not being allowed to make any new mechanics, and that their powerful cards got axed by development. Development claims that they weren’t allowed by Peter Adkison to change too much of the original design, despite that they thought the design was hot garbage.

There are a few standout cards, including Autumn Willow, which has a much more fun application of shroud/hexproof than the creatures that it inspired. Giant Oyster is often pointed to as a really cool implementation of a top-down design. A lot of the cards in the set have this sort of sensibility, where the wall of text (or kelp) is there in order to attempt to articulate a vague idea in someone’s head, as opposed to Ice Age, where the text is added for reasons that are completely beyond me. Memory Lapse, though taken from Mirage, is the set’s best-designed card, even though I have fonder memories of Sengir Autocrat (with Nemesis’s Death Pit Offering).

While it’s certainly bad, I don’t think Homelands entirely deserves all the hate it’s gotten over the years. It’s underpowered, but in a way that’s comparable with the previous three sets. It attempts a broad story-driven design, and ends up being entirely bland, filled with legendary creatures very few people care about… but with a few more power and toughness on them, they’d surely be classics. There are 14 legends, and at least a couple of them should’ve been made into eight-mana 7/7s to send the kids wild.

Being forgettable is, itself, a bad aspect, but it didn’t attempt some theme that was horrifically unfun, like Prophecy. It’s basically a fan-designed set by a couple of storyline-driven casual players. If Legends was The Splashy Set, The Dark was The Art Set, and Ice Age was The Min/Max set, it’s only fair that storyline people get something to latch onto. However, this is a very small percentage of the playerbase.

Even the art for Homelands feels phoned in. Normally reliable artists like Mark Tedin have wild inconsistencies in quality, and mediocre artists like Mike Kimble who illustrated very few non-Homelands cards have tons of work featured. Not a single piece by Richard Kane Feruguson, Drew Tucker, or Quinton Hoover appears. Just like designers were working on other projects, leaving Homelands near-abandoned, the same thing seems to have happened to the art.

Possibly the worst aspect of Homelands was the timing. After it was released, there were no new Magic cards for eight months. No core set revisions, no expansion reprints, no new foreign language printings. Nothing. It was released in the fall of 1995, and fans had to wait until the next summer for Alliances to relieve them of their pain. There was genuine fear that if Alliances wasn’t well-received, Magic was dead. The fact that this huge gap appears after the unreasonable pace of sets in 1994 can’t reflect anything but a lack of proper planning by Wizards.

Alliances ends the grey-bordered era with a monstrous explosion and mic drop. Spend a few minutes looking at cards at random from the previous few sets, then pull up Alliances. The difference is immediately noticeable: four-mana 1/2s with marginal abilities become four-mana 2/4s with decent ones. Instead of scraping for creatures that can attack for damage, there’s a three-mana 2/1 first striking regenerator at common. Where previous sets might not have anything with more than five power without a colossal drawback, there’s a common 6/1 Shroud creature for five. After years of entirely underwhelming cards compared to the Alpha standard, Alliances set the baseline power level for sets far higher, and it wasn’t until Urza’s Saga that it got pushed up again.

I’m sure people will see that previous sentence and think immediately of the ridiculous cards from the early sets: Library, Workshop, Mana Drain, and the like. No, Alliances didn’t have anything at that level. Competitive Magic is a game defined by its outliers: if 99% of cards are at one power level, and a few are far, far above that, those are the ones everyone’s going to play with. Alliances didn’t have those absurd outliers, but it moved the median card way up.

Unlike previous sets that had minimal effort put into design and playtesting in order to ship it out the door, Alliances had thirteen people working full-time and sleeping under their desks in order to polish it. The difference doesn’t just show in the increase in power level, though. It has new mechanics and ideas seeping out of every pore.

On two cards, it invents kicker and multikicker. Balduvian Horde, the chase rare at the time, is an undercosted beater with a revolutionary red drawback. Multiple cards use cards in the library as a resource, and many others will recur themselves from the graveyard under certain conditions. Any one of these, if it had slipped into Homelands, would be the most interesting card in that set. While Alliances still had no unifying identity (it made a few minor attempts to relate back to Ice Age with cumulative upkeep and snow-covered lands, neither of which were in the original design file), it was the best expansion to come out of the philosophy of “print a bunch of cards people want to play with.”

A couple groups of cards deserve further discussion: first, the most famous cards from the set, the cycle of pitch spells. There’s not much left to say about Force of Will, the most revolutionary blue card ever printed in an expansion. It simultaneously covered a traditional blue weakness, while enabling blue to convert something it’s always been good at (drawing cards) into meaningful impact without spending mana. The other ones, while certainly not as well-known as FoW, made big impacts on their own, in Stompy, Necro, and burn decks. If you know what the white one does off the top of your head without looking it up, I’ll be really impressed.

Why are these cards important, beyond just being exceedingly powerful? They push at what resources in Magic are. The basic resource is, of course, mana. Cards like Greed and Necropotence turn our life totals into another resource, and Zuran Orb turns lands into life. But neither of these are direct replacements for mana; rather, they just give us more stuff to spend mana on. Alliances invented a way to entirely replace it, at the fairly steep cost of an entire other card. Ice Age, by comparison, seems so focused on alternate ways to use mana that it doesn’t bother to try skipping it entirely.

Less often discussed, but even more important from a design perspective, are the lands. Alliances had seven rare lands: a cycle that made their controller sacrifice the corresponding basic, Thawing Glaciers, and the entirely forgettable Sheltered Valley. While lands had been doing stuff other than tapping for mana since Arabian Nights, these lands were different. A Kjeldoran Outpost, left unchecked, could completely take over a game when used in a control deck, and Lake of the Dead is a high-variance way to power out some backbreaking Mind Twists (or, more realistically for the time, Lord of the Pit). Thawing Glaciers, though, was the true standout.

While there have been control decks from the moment someone discovered that Counterspell and Wrath of God cost less mana than Shivan Dragon, Thawing Glaciers gave them their best reason to exist. Just for sitting back and not dying, the Glaciers deck would accumulate an incredible amount of mana to do… well, whatever control decks did back then. It was so overpowering that it (along with Zuran Orb) received bans in Ice Age block constructed, something Necro never managed to do.

These cards symbolize a sea change in the way people played Magic. Rather than, as assumed by its original creators, being primarily played between games of Dungeons and Dragons and at home, people would go to tournaments at card shops. And what are they going to see? Decks fueled by Kjeldoran Outpost and Thawing Glaciers. Alliances was the debut of the modern control deck.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Alliances brought up the artistic standard from the last three sets as well. There’s one woman primarily responsible for this: Sue Ann Harkey. After reading a lot about old Magic and looking at all these cards, I have developed a massive intellectual crush on this woman. Sue Ann Harkey became Magic’s art director sometime during Alliances, and it feels like one can look at cards in the set and see exactly where it happened.[2] She recruited Terese Nielsen based on Ms Nielsen’s work in comics, who immediately came back with the iconic Force of Will illustration.[3]

Rebecca Guay also debuted in Alliances, though I can’t confirm whether that’s attributable to Harkey. It’s not all great, including Mike Kimble pieces that look like portraits of melting androids, but it set the stage for the rest of Harkey’s reign, which will be a large aspect of next week’s review.

[2] Several Mark Rosewater articles, and his Drive to Work podcast, refer to her first set being Mirage. Every other source, including multiple on the mothership, says she took over during Alliances.
[3] Force of Will art facts, from the artist herself: this is the first piece that Terese Nielsen ever painted for Magic. She did it on 18x14, much larger than most Magic art at the time. She thought it was supposed to be a red card, and modeled it after Wolverine. The actual model, though, is… herself. She was ripped as hell.

One more question remains about Ice Age block: was it really a block? This might seem like a silly glasses-adjusting definitional argument, but what Magic’s first block was is up for some debate. Homelands had nothing in common with Ice Age other than some cantrips, and none of the sets shared designers or even philosophies. Plus, after eight months of no sets, it’s unlikely the players were just clamoring for more Ice Age. While “Ice Age block constructed” exists as a sanctionable format, Wizards thought so little of the concept of these three being one block that they replaced Homelands with Coldsnap in the structure when the latter set debuted.

Ice Age is a block in that it’s three sets with a small amount of things uniting them. It certainly has nothing in common with the block design that we’ll see a little bit of from Mirage block, or in larger part from Rath cycle.

Overall ratings:
Ice age: “this mana is only usable for cumulative upkeep”/10
Homelands: “tap target blue creature you control and remove a polyp counter from Coral Reef”/10

Alliances:  /10

These reviews are funded through Patreon.


D M said...

Interesting stuff.

I started playing during Homelands, so the nostalgia factor is high for me but it's interesting what cards can be looked back on as influential to now.

Alliances certainly went a long, long way to getting Magic back on track and really establishing that WotC had a plan, listened to its customers, and wanted to establish a pattern of releases with the game.

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