Monday, July 28, 2014

kill reviews: mirage block

In our last installment, Alliances saved Magic from dumb mechanics, bad art, and whatever was going on in the storyline of Homelands. But one small set isn’t going to do that: we needed to get some Block Planning in the game.

At this point, people had gotten over their early reservations about Wizards printing more expansions to the game, and instead just looked forward to the next one. Magic’s second large expansion was also the last one to have been designed before the game was released (before it got the name Mirage, it was known as Menagerie, which would have been a fine set name in its own right).[1] Like Ice Age, it must have fallen into a development hell at some point; Memory Lapse was poached for Homelands when Bill Rose, Mirage’s head designer, interviewed at Wizards. This makes sense until one starts to think about the design of a Magic set occurring before the person in charge of it even got an interview at the company. After Alliances, the team inside Wizards came together to develop Mirage.

[1] What idiot called it Mirage Block instead of Menagerie Trois?

Unlike modern design, where the creative team gets on board early in the process conceptualizing the set, they had the entire design finished before asking Sue Ann Harkey, art director starting with Alliances, what she thought the aesthetic should be. She proposed an African-inspired setting. So it was.

Hope you like Magic Art Chat, because you’re getting a lot of it in this installment. Mirage and Visions are the most beautiful sets in Magic’s history, and it seems unlikely that anything approaching their greatness will ever get made. Unlike later art directors, Harkey didn’t come up through illustrating cards herself, or through fantasy art. She came from the fine art field, and had a lot of connections to Serious Painters (who, if you know anything about Serious Painters, are constantly in desperate need of cash) and comics artists. Sure, the sets had some of the old boring standards like Shuler, but her stable of artists was of a vastly different ilk, and it really shows. She got a lot of new blood into Magic art, some of whom stuck around for a long time (Terese Nielsen, Donato Giancola, DiTerlizzi, Adam Rex, Kev Walker), and some who were only around for her sets and briefly thereafter.

Everyone has a different idea of what Magic is supposed to look like. Judging by the vast numbers of people in love with the original Serra Angel, or who fawn over the amazing illustration of Liliana of the Veil, many people have vastly different perspectives than I do. Mirage’s style was one where the art really stood out: because Harkey wasn’t a Magic person, the art doesn’t seem to care what color the card is in terms of palette (Force of Will would be a good example of this, except that Nielsen simply thought she was illustrating a red card). She wasn’t even someone who seemed to care about what fantasy art was supposed to look like, so Zombies, Knights, and Big Scary Monsters are liberated from the need to look comfortingly similar to the Zombies, Knights, and BSMs that we’ve seen in ten thousand other fantasy works.

Magic has, in recent years, developed a very strong house style. With few exceptions (Nils Hamm, Raymond Swanland, the aforementioned Nielsen), artists have very little separating them stylistically, leading to a generic “look” for all cards regardless of artist. If Harkey’s artists had anything in common, it’s that none of their illustrations could ever be mistaken for someone else’s.

I said in the review of early sets that The Dark has the best-looking white cards. Mirage has the best black ones. Instead of the spiky monsters, roaring dark beasts, and white people clutching in pain at their heads that we’ve come to expect from the color, Mirage’s black cards evoke horror in a completely different way. I can feel the desert heat from cards like Bone Harvest, and Robert Bliss’s twisted figures are disgusting in an abstract, evocative way, rather than a bunch of blood flying out of a neck.

So why didn’t she stay on for the next decade? From Mark Rosewater’s articles and podcasts, it’s pretty clear that the entire department absolutely hated her. He has repeatedly recounted stories of how they’d design some card that, for example, made Squirrel tokens, and she would produce a piece of artwork that showed cats. Unacceptable! How dare the art require cards to be changed, rather than the other way around. It’s a pretty clear sign of which department is seen as the important one, and which isn’t. Mirage seems to have inspired the style guide in the same way that Time Spiral led to New World Order and Pink Floyd led to punk. The block even has what are, to my knowledge, the only two instances of flavor text blatantly making fun of the card art.[2]

[2] The two cards in question are Reparations and Dragon Mask. Back then, they got the art before making the flavor text. This led to Reparations and Pacifism, both Rosewater-penned, and probably the best flavor text the game has in it. This was another thing that clearly had to change, because they now make flavor text blind, before seeing the art. While Reparations is obviously funny, the story behind Dragon Mask actually feels kind of mean. Yes, it’s not a good piece, and it was bad of Harkey to force it into a set based on a personal promise, but the whole incident gives me spooky “boys’ club making fun of the outsider” vibes.

Drafting started for real with Mirage block. People had been doing it since before the game was even released, thanks to Bill Rose, which means that Menagerie probably had a lot of draft testing. Unfortunately, their first attempt at making a format for drafting was… a bit rough. The commons are almost all closer to the quality of Fallen Empires cards than they are to Alliances, but red gets a better Blaze at common. White inexplicably has three different common artifact/enchantment destruction cards that cost 1W.

And the big mechanic of the set is… phasing. Phasing sucks almost as much as cumulative upkeep. When it appears on a creature, not only is it only in play every other turn, but it has reverse-haste in that it doesn’t get to attack until two full turns after you play it. The only times it’s interesting to play with, instead of just horrendously bad, is when you’re giving your opponent’s stuff phasing (a very blue-feeling thing, which gives it an odd form of removal), or phasing your own stuff out when it would otherwise die. Both of these have been replaced with better versions operating around the exile zone, but since it inspired a later, much better mechanic, I can’t call phasing completely irredeemable.

Flanking is a fine creature mechanic, in a similar way that a lot of creature mechanics are fine. It’s functional, and incentivizes attacking, since it only works on that end. It held up well enough over the years that Time Spiral successfully brought it back, and during Mirage, flanking creatures were certainly the better ones among the commons (despite a shocking percentage of them being three-mana 2/2s).

The commons, though, aren’t the biggest issue with Mirage. That would be the rares. It is baffling that the set could have been designed and developed over such a long period, yet they couldn’t come up with cooler rares than Barreling Attack, Cycle of Life, or the nearly-unreadable Energy Vortex. These cards are Homelands bad. Somewhat ironically, the set’s most enduring card (by secondary market prices) was the intentionally unplayable Lion’s Eye Diamond. People didn’t react favorably to it at the time, to say the least, and for years it was held up as an example of one of the worst cards ever printed.

Clearly, those are the worst of the lot. There are plenty of cards to make new decks around, and the ideology of the set seemed to focus on coming up with some cool concept, make it a card, and people could do whatever they wanted with it, rather than making cards with a built-in audience or gameplay application. Cards like Final Fortune and Forbidden Crypt ask interesting “what if?” questions about the way Magic works, while Cadaverous Bloom… well, it turns out that converting cards into mana is a powerful effect.

Mirage also brings what players had been clamoring for years earlier: the fat. Players were a bit more sophisticated than when Legends came out, so they’re not as blown away by the six creatures with power six or greater as they would have been back then, but they finally decided to print more big flying Dragons (the Elder Dragon Legends were the only Dragons printed since Shivan), more big sea monsters, and even an 8/4 trampler at common. It wasn’t until Rise of the Eldrazi that eight power at common was equaled.

As part of the history segment of these reviews, I’d like to introduce you to William Jockusch. He was, like Rosewater at the time, just another developer on a set that was lead-designed and lead-developed by Bill Rose. Jockusch described his job as finding broken cards before they got to print. A quote from the Tempest promotional materials says that his favorite set was Ice Age, because it had cantrips. In those days, he was known as the one to scale back power levels, while Rosewater was (according to Rosewater in 2002) known for wanting to ramp them up.[3] Jockusch led the design of Prophecy, and no other sets, thank god. Mirage has a lot of Jockusch’s development showing through, and Visions, which came out two months after Mirage, has a lot of Rosewater’s development.

[3] It’s things like this that make me wish we had a broader variety of voices writing about Magic, because unless it’s a few sentences taken from many years ago in the Duelist, it’s often the case that the only source we have for this historical information is Mark Rosewater.

That was a nice way of saying that Visions was fucking broken. Used to a set where everything costs four mana to do nothing? Well, here’s Crypt Rats, Infernal Harvest, Man-o’-War, Undo, Quirion Ranger, River Boa, Fireblast, and Rock Slide.

All those cards were commons. I don’t know how many of them you’ve played against, but a good portion of them should never be commons.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the commons that were so good. Nekretaal, Vampiric Tutor, and Natural Order have defined various formats since they were printed. Vampiric Tutor is probably the most egregious of the power level disparity: it takes three of the best cards from Mirage, rolls them together, and makes a card that’s better than all of them with a negligible drawback.

Even the lesser-known of Visions’s rares are solid, though. People speculated on how good Act on Impulse from M15 is, but compare it to Three Wishes: the latter is an instant, it exiles them face-down, it gives an extra half-turn to play them, and it puts them into your graveyard afterward. City of Solitude has been an obscure-but-effective hoser for a long time, and Tithe was a staple of tournaments in the era.

Our first block meant for limited play runs into a problem that still pops up from time to time with modern expansions: one set in the block will be vastly better than the others, to the point where players end up with up with half their deck’s spells originating in one of the three packs. While it certainly contributed more cards to constructed, casual, and Cube play than Mirage, this also means that the limited format is just wildly out of whack.

A question that’ll come up again when we get to Urza and Masques blocks: is it better to break everything in attempting to make cool cards that people will like, or play it conservatively and risk no one remembering your cards in five years? When compared one-to-one, it’s not really fair. There are way more cards that people want to play with from Visions than from Mirage, especially adjusting for set size. But the path of Visions, just printing ridiculous cards way better than comparable ones from months prior, isn’t healthy or sustainable. We can’t constantly one-up Fireblast and Man-o’-War, or we’ll all be playing Vintage, and no one wants that. My personal taste is that Magic is more fun when it’s at a higher power level, and that’s why I play so much Cube, but regardless of which you prefer, the wild swings between high- and low-powered sets are absolutely not good. The high-powered set will make all the designs of the low-powered set look bad, even if the lower-powered set has good, interesting designs.
Mirage and Visions were their first attempt to design sets meant to be played together, and on that point, it has to be considered a failure. You can’t mix and match and race an F1 car against a Flintstones one.

Oh, and… there’s also Weatherlight. Not designed along with Mirage and Visions, it serves instead as a prequel to Rath cycle, introducing the crew of the ship we’d get to know over the next approximately twelve thousand sets. In some roundabout way, it set up the story that would result in the flavor text of Jilt. Absolutely unforgivable.

Mechanically, it’s trying to play around in territory that would be attempted more successfully later. Did you know it was a graveyard set? I did, but looking over the spoiler I still missed all the aspects that made it a graveyard set. It’s connected to Mirage block in that it has flanking and phasing, but it feels much more like a set they had in the Ice Age cabinet next to the file for Coldsnap. Cumulative upkeep plays a big role, and they try unsuccessfully to make it interesting with effects that happen based on the mana one sunk into it, or make the cumulative upkeep cost the benefit, or giving weird triggers like “shuffle your library” when you stop paying. It’s still cumulative upkeep, and they should have given up far earlier in the process.

The graveyard aspect is handled in the most Ice Age-y way possible, too, with tons of cards referring to the top creature card in your graveyard. It supplies tons of things that make the player discard cards, sacrifice creatures, and exile cards from the graveyard, but no decent enablers other than Buried Alive (which I don’t think was ever used with any of the cards in Weatherlight that it was intended to enable). To be fair, it had other attempts, like Ertai’s Familiar and Tolarian Serpent, but I can’t imagine anyone using those successfully.

(Correction: apparently Familiar was, in fact, played in Mirage Block Constructed to further fuel a Necratog/Song of Blood engine. A couple things: first, block constructed formats are bizarre, and I adore them for it. Second, Song of Blood was actually an extremely powerful enabler for Weatherlight's graveyard cards... and it was in Visions. It was tested for Odyssey, and deemed too powerful.)

The set’s most memorable cards had nothing to do with the theme it was pushing, which is why no one remembers this “graveyard set.” Ophidian, Null Rod, Doomsday, Abeyance, Empyrial Armor… none of these have anything to do with the theme. Empyrial, while an unbelievably powerful common, actively makes no sense in a set that wants to make the graveyard into another usable resource. The cards won’t be in your hand because they will be in your graveyard! That was supposed to be the point!

Weatherlight is in a strange position where it had some decent cards, but people almost never seem to remember that they’re from Weatherlight. It feels out of place: much of the design and art seems like a holdover from two years prior, while the storyline points forward. It’s our first real third set, and thus, our first example of the Third Set Problem.

The Third Set Problem is that it’s really easy to make a large set with new themes, mechanics, and characters, and it’s easy to make a small set pushing further in those areas to try some new things: introduce a mechanic, do it in a basic way, then really show off what it’s capable of in the next set. But what do you do with the next small set? There’s a few different approaches. Weatherlight tries the “go in a whole different direction” method that we’ll also see from Prophecy, Scourge, Fifth Dawn, Saviors, Avacyn Restored, and Journey into Nyx. Simply put, it never works out. One small set doesn’t have the room to support an entirely new thing in constructed, and it’s almost always a disaster in limited, where you get one pack of cards that don’t interact at all with the other two.[4]

[4] Another approach to the third set problem is to sandbag the interesting stuff for the third set, leaving the middle one with nothing but retreads and cards to fill time until the third set comes around. This happens most noticeably with Planeshift, Planar Chaos, Worldwake, Dark Ascension, and perhaps most blatantly with Born of the Gods.

This is not an easy problem to address, and Wizards has kind of forced themselves into a corner with their established pattern of set releases. The number of times they’ve messed around with the pattern of “large-small-small” should be a red flag that the pattern is fundamentally broken… but they can’t fix it, because their distribution system, marketing, and corporate conservatism are so deeply invested in the large set coming out in the fall. Just this weekend, we learned that Khans of Tarkir block (Khans block? Tarkir block?) will be large-small-large, to dodge the Third Set Problem yet again.

Weatherlight marks the turning of an era. It was the last set with Sue Ann Harkey as art director, and judging by the much lower quality visually (even compared to Fifth Edition), there was probably some internal scrambling to fill it up. It was also the last set without a defined style guide, telling artists what each character, race, and device is supposed to look like across all art (though judging by the consistent portrayal of the crew, something similar got sent out to them). Next week, we’ll tackle the Rath Cycle, the first grouping of sets that were all designed to be a block, and the first large set designed inside Wizards since Alpha.


Matt said...

It's worth mentioning that Mirage was the last time we saw cumulative upkeep (formerly evergreen) and World Enchantments.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your intelligent analysis of Magic's Art Direction. It was the hardest and best job I ever had. I miss working with those extraordinary artist. I cringe when I see a supposedly 'word-for-word' conversation published online. Was he recording that conversation with R&D? At least now I know my concepts and direction is appreciated by some players and the artists I brought in. I attribute the great works to the relationships I forged with both developing and established artists. Not an easy task. All the best. Sue Ann Harkey

Spencer F. said...

Wow, if that's actually Ms. Harkey, that's fantastic! I agree, it's unfortunate that we only ever hear one side of the story of the history from back then. Thank you for taking the time to sift through history for us!

Unknown said...

Seconding Spencer F.--Wow, thanks for writing in if it's the real Ms. Harkey! I wasn't playing then, but this blog has opened me up to a lot of the really stunning, beautiful, and unique Magic card artwork from your time at Wizards. Thank you!

Returning to this post, as for "the whole incident gives me spooky 'boys’ club making fun of the outsider' vibes"--yes, me too. It rang false/odd when I read it the first time a couple years back when I was immersed in everything MaRo, but I didn't understand what he meant by the flavor text "hinting at two stories," so I just moved on. Rereading that article with a broader view of the game's history (thanks to this blog), that part does seem pretty uncomfortable/creepy-making.

Fwiw, I actually like the Dragon's Mask art in my own strange way; it hits my sense of the quirky/so-bad-it's-good just right for me.

Sanctaphrax said...

The comments on block structure here are pretty interesting in retrospect.

On one hand, they identify the problem very nicely. On the other, they confidently predict that Wizards won't do exactly what it did.

Actually, given how far ahead sets are produced, it's possible that the prediction here was made after WotC decided to switch to two-set blocks.

John Keck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JasonKeaya said...

Thank you very much for the vision you gave to Magic the Gathering. The art of Mirage and Visions is one of my favorite

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