Tuesday, August 26, 2014

kill reviews: invasion block

Last week, Magic was at its dreariest point in the game’s history. It needed something good to save it.

Mark Rosewater wrote an article about things that many people said were going to kill Magic, but guess what, they didn’t. I found this piece profoundly annoying because of its smug, “heh, look at how silly people were to think this would kill Magic” attitude, while leaving out things that genuinely came close to killing the game. A few sets, and their immediate aftermath, are in this category.

The seven-month gap after Fallen Empires probably should have killed Magic, or if not, then the eight-month gap after Homelands could have finished it off. Urza Block saw tournament players fleeing in droves. Masques Block didn’t sell for shit. We can very easily look back on the introduction of Sixth Edition rules, which happened between Urza’s Legacy and Urza’s Destiny,[1] as a great thing now… but that’s because we’re used to Wizards going, “no, really guys, we’re sure this is great for the game long-term. Just trust us on this one.” Who, after those last two blocks, still had faith in Wizards? No one rational. The logic surely went, “they clearly have no idea what in Christ they’re doing with making cards, so why should we assume they know what they’re doing with the rules?”

[1] Yes, Sixth came out two months after Legacy, and was followed by Destiny two months later. They changed the entire ruleset of the game while printing those absurd cards.

After a suck-awful set like Prophecy, the statistically-minded would imagine that the following set, Invasion, would regress to the mean and be better. It turned out to be the most revolutionary expansion printed to that point.

As Rosewater has told,[2] before Magic came out in Alpha form, there were already four expansions in the works: Richard Garfield cranked out Arabian Nights, Skaff Elias et al. had Ice Age, Bill Rose made Menagerie, and Barry Reich made Spectral Chaos. This has to be considered Magic’s great lost expansion: supposed to come out as the debut of multicolored cards in Magic, and pushing a strong multicolor theme, it would change how Magic players thought about the game. But what’s that? Legends comes out first, and steals every bit of Spectral Chaos’s thunder. Fuck you, Legends! With your Legendary creatures that were universally beloved! Ugh!

[2] I’m not kidding about needing more voices in Magic writing for history and design-related topics. Citing Maro over and over, whether for critique or as a primary source, gets tiring.

The design file, or even playtest cards, have never been released from Spectral Chaos. But Invasion lifted its multicolored theme and Domain mechanic, setting the stage for Magic’s first truly cohesive block.

What do we expect from current Magic expansions? They have to fit into their block, advancing the story or themes that the block emphasizes. Blocks pre-Invasion don’t really have this idea. We had cohesive settings from the first expansion, Arabian Nights, and we had a strong mechanical identity from the second one, Antiquities. So what more is there to do? Well, Magic hadn’t done too great at making every set in a block feel unified. Mirage and Visions were just one really big set split into two, but without a mechanical hook, and Weatherlight had nothing to do with them. Urza Block’s enchantment theme was infamously weak, and overshadowed by its artifacts. Masques had a few recurring mechanics in Rebels, Mercenaries, free cards, and cow farts, but nothing tying them together.

Invasion was more than a multicolored set. It was a multicolored block, with the theme introduced in the first set as allied colors, then twisted in the third one, with the introduction of enemy-oriented cards. This is a far more interesting way to split up cards than just throwing everything wherever, or putting cards in the set where that one mechanic lives (like Fading in Nemesis).

And let’s be clear about multicolor: pretty much everyone loves multicolored strategies. Playing more colors is widely considered “fun,” because you get more cards to choose from, which means more raw power. Before Invasion, five-colored strategies were an extreme gimmick, something for the nine year-old kid with their hardcast Sliver Queen; three colors was pretty common, even in Necropotence-fueled combo decks, but going past that was a one-way trip to the Casual Zone. Now, an entire mechanic in the set is outwardly encouraging players to play all five types of basic land to get the maximum power from their spells.

But it goes beyond just encouraging lots of colors. Invasion taught people how to make a multicolored deck, whether in constructed or limited: a base color, a secondary color, and a splash for a third (or fourth). There was risk/reward to consider, rather than your combo requiring X number of colors, or knowing that anything beyond three is completely impossible. For years, strategy sites like SCG would have articles disparagingly referring to the dreaded 6/6/5 unplayable Invasion draft (the basic land counts: six of two types, five of a third).

Invasion laid a lot of important groundwork that later multicolored sets would build on. Up until this block, mana-fixing lands weren’t thought of as an every-set thing; cycles of lands, sure, but they might only make one color. (The base set has allied painlands; what more do you need?) The common sacrifice lands, while never seeing much competitive play outside Pauper combo decks, showed an acknowledgement that some form of mana fixing should exist at common in the land slot, and the uncommon cycle were another idea that, at the time, was controversial and revolutionary, but now seems quaint. Many in Wizards thought of CIPT dual lands as plainly Too Good, as evidenced by the reluctantly-playable lands from Tempest, and now they’re one of the most-obsoleted cycles in Magic history.

The lands are extremely important. Along with some other general-purpose enablers like Utopia Tree, Invasion provided the cards that let you play… well… basically anything you wanted in Standard. Where Urza’s power level and Masques’s emphasis of the unfun restricted deckbuilding design into “how soon can I win” and “can I fight through a Rishadan Port,” Invasion’s cards let people cast their spells and execute their strategies however they wanted. It encouraged multicolored aggro decks, it furthered control decks with wonderful new card draw and countermagic, and gave enterprising deckbuilders tons of narrow-but-powerful multicolored things to build around.

The mechanics used for Invasion are so clean and well-designed that the only criticism possible for them is that they’re too broad and well-designed, thus crowding out narrower mechanics. Kicker is the one true mechanic. Pay more mana, get a better spell, whether it’s an instant, enchantment, or creature. It’s not just a broad, easy-to-understand mechanic that can be used on any card type: it plays really, really well. If you’re struggling to get lands in play, you cast stuff for less mana. If you’re flooded, you get bigger spells. It provides a ton of interesting decisions, the type that separate the great players from the good ones, and everyone has a good time. Why? Because they get to cast their spells.

Special mention, though, should go to how well it works specifically in this set. The time has finally arrived in Magic design when mechanics aren’t just thrown in a set because they’re cool and they can go on some fun cards; they have to play a purpose, a reason to put it here instead of in next year’s block. In a multicolored set, Kicker is ideal, because mono-colored cards get to be vanilla guys in their color that also do something the color wouldn’t normally have access to via the kicker cost.[3]

[3] Invasion has a lot of very technical stuff going on in it, and Kicker is a good example. There are three different types of Kicker costs in the set: generic mana, same-colored mana, and allied-colored mana. Generic mana kicker costs give the spell bigger numbers, or make the creature bigger. Same-colored kicker costs make it do something extra. Allied-colored kicker costs make it do something extra that the color would not normally have access to.

Ice Age introduced cantrips, and because that mechanic belonged to Ice Age, it was thought that Urza’s and Masques didn’t have access to it. Invasion undid that, because cantrips just play such a great role in games of Magic (especially Limited) that there’s no reason to think of them narrowly as just a “block mechanic.” I think similarly of Kicker. While other sets have plainly realized that they wanted some form of Kicker-esque card, even the basic implementation of it is so good at smoothing things out that it should be evergreened into every set that comes out. I think that’s the highest possible praise I can give a mechanic. It makes Magic a better game, and should be everywhere.

There are three kinds of mechanics in Magic: creature abilities, kicker, and split cards. And what do you know, Invasion introduced split cards as well. If you can’t choose to get a bigger spell, you can choose to get an entirely different spell. The actual split cards included in the set are nearly all underwhelming, but they printed two cards on one card. That really caught on with people.[4]

[4] Yes, both Assault // Battery and Wax // Wane saw plenty of Constructed play. They’re still underwhelming to read.

Any design discussion of Invasion has to touch on Fact or Fiction. This is one of the best-designed spells in Magic, and the developers seemed to know it: they realized how popular its skill-testing nature would be with competitive players, and they pushed the hell out of it. Zvi Mowshowitz and his team spent time doing nothing but practicing splitting Fact or Fiction piles, and it paid off for him with a Pro Tour win. Designing cards for competitive play is more than just making some cards extremely good. The good cards should be ones that high-level players can really sink their teeth into, and Fact or Fiction is up there with Brainstorm in the most skill-intensive, and the most fun, cards to cast in Magic. It still has a lot of variance to it, because of all the different combinations that can happen with revealing five cards from a library, but the better players will find the edges to get the most out of it that they can.

For the review of Mirage Block, I talk about the third set problem in the context of Weatherlight, a set that tried to go in a completely different direction than the preceding sets, and ended up failing at it, becoming one of the least-known of any expansions. Apocalypse dodges the third set problem by carving out a unique space for it: Invasion would introduce the multicolor theme, but only in allied colors. Apocalypse would provide the twist by moving entirely to enemy color pairs. So… what does that leave for Planeshift? Not much.

Alluding to what would happen in Shards, Magic’s third multicolor-themed block, Planeshift emphasizes three-colored cards, sort of. The cycle of Lairs, along with the matching cycle of Charms, call back to the Dragons from Invasion. The issue, though, is that those dragons were not in Planeshift. Invasion completely stole Planeshift’s thunder on the three-color front by taking the cards that were a thousand times cooler than what Planeshift had, leaving it with only scraps.

Planeshift’s big mechanic was “gating,” which was on multicolored creatures that required you to return a creature of one of its colors to your hand when it comes into play.[5] This is exactly as exciting as it sounds. Doomsday Specter and Shivan Wurm were intended to be the big, splashy, marketable cards in Planeshift, and while I certainly flipped out over Shivan Wurm at the time in my RG-loving youth, now I can’t give the entire mechanic a big enough yawn. It’s a twelve-card mechanic that is almost entirely downside, and doesn’t interact with anything in the block in a particularly notable way.

[5] The most notable card was Cavern Harpy, not because anyone wanted to play the thing fairly, but because it was a key combo piece in Aluren.

Kicker predictably fared a little better. It had a lot of space to expand into, and Planeshift poked its nose into some of it. Non-mana kicker costs? Of course. Spells that keyed off a certain aspect of the non-mana cost paid? Another natural extension. But the best were the Battlemages, Grey Ogres with dual allied-colored kicker costs that did something associated with those colors. Their strength was their incredible versatility: they made a color feel like they could do anything, off just a little splash for a kicker cost. They also furthered Invasion Block’s emphasis of the creature over all else.

This is something that continues to this day. Invasion was, first and foremost, about playing guys. The turn two Grizzly Bear defined the format, and the best Grey Ogre was one that trumped their Grizzly Bear. Vision’s greatest innovation[6] was the comes-into-play creature. These are important not just for being good creatures, but because they let creatures do things normally associated with spells. They interact with the board in a way that feels like playing a two-for-one, and they push people that would normally just load their deck with efficient removal spells to play a lot more creatures… which leads to more interactive (on the traditional creatures-attacking-and-blocking axis) games of Magic. The Battlemages were another step toward allowing players to do everything they wanted to do solely with creatures.

[6] Something I absolutely should have mentioned in that review, but neglected.

Apocalypse is Invasion and Planeshift, but enemy colors. That’s it. That’s the idea. That sounds like I’m demeaning it, but I’m really not: it was an expected-but-great twist, provided cards in combinations that no one had, and its status as a small set allowed it to concentrate the coolest part of the previous two sets into one small package of enemy-colored goodness. It brought back split cards (Planeshift didn’t have these for reasons I don’t understand), played up the themes of Invasion some more, but finally and most importantly: we are seeing Gerrard and company for the last goddamned time. Huzzah! He gets a card, it is awful because for some reason they needed to make a “fixed” version of Master of Arms, and we can move on to a new cast of equally-uninteresting characters in the next block.

It’s worth singling out the debut of enemy-colored painlands in Apocalypse. These have been reprinted to death by now, and are almost always trumped by better lands wherever they’re legal, but I promise that at the time, they were a huge deal. No longer would enemy-colored decks be considered second-class citizens when it came to the manabase. The only issue was that they weren’t influential enough. Their relegation to Apocalypse made later designers think of enemy-colored manafixing as some one-off thing, rather than something that should be in every block.

Going back to the death of Magic: breaking new ground in Magic requires some sort of crisis. The dreadful power levels of Homelands led to design being done by teams of people working together, rather than whoever felt like it. Out of the ashes come Alliances, a great expansion. The lack of development on Urza’s almost gets everyone fired, and to prevent that from happening they hired pro players to test the environments. And then, the drudgery of Masques forces the best designers Wizards had to cooperate and make absolutely, positively certain that Invasion revolutionized the game.

It did. Whether it is, by today’s standards, a set as good as newer ones feels irrelevant. It reminds me of the first Ramones album: it absolutely blew people away at the time, no one had heard anything like it, and it inspired millions of young, great musicians… but have you listened to it in its entirety recently? It doesn’t really hold up that well, beyond a couple good melodies. It feels very basic, and doesn’t push in all the ways that later punk bands did. But you can’t hold that against the Ramones in 1976.

How many cards from Invasion (just the large expansion) can you name, right now? The cycles of lands, dragons, and cards I used images of don’t count. A lot of people remember Rout, Armadillo Cloak, Fires of Yavimaya, and maybe Ghitu Fire.[7] After that, it gets pretty sketchy. Very few cards from Invasion actually see any play nowadays.[8]

[7] Personally, I’ll always think of Jade Leech because of one of the classic bits of Magic humor (written by someone suffering the symptoms of a severe wheat allergy).

[8] The most expensive card, for some reason, is Phyrexian Altar. I assume it sees play in EDH or some other fictional format.

But that doesn’t matter. Invasion was what grabbed people back into Magic. There’s no way around it: multicolor is fun. Drafting Harrow and some wacky multicolored concoction is one of the best times you can have with cards from that era. It was such a success that Ravnica, before any guild or city theme was thought up, was conceptualized as a revisit of the multicolor theme at least five years after Invasion. They certainly didn’t disguise that Ravnica was a thematic sequel to Invasion in the marketing leadup to the former set. Then Shards was a sequel to Ravnica, and Shadowmoor was a pair of sets based on a mechanic from Ravnica, and Zendikar prominently features the triumphant return of Kicker, and we Return to Ravnica, and now we get a sequel to Shards… the sequel to the sequel to the sequel to Invasion, and one of those had its own sequel.

The reason we’re seeing so many sequels and retreads now is that, secure in the financial success of Magic, they no longer feel the crisis bearing down on them that forces a dramatic reappraisal of the basic way they make Magic cards. We’ve moved past that, corporatized it, isolated the aspects from Invasion that make people spend money, and conservatively dribbled that over each new expansion.

Contrary to what its supporters say, Invasion is not the best block. It does not contain the best-designed sets. The draft format pales in comparison to later multicolored blocks.

But that also doesn’t matter. Invasion is the most influential expansion in Magic, and everything else is a distant second.

Next week, Odyssey guarantees the better player wins every single game.


Eli Kaplan said...

If you're interested in watching my set retrospectives, they may be useful to you. I totally agree with your argument that Rosewater, while a valuable resource, is not someone we want to rely on wholly. An insider perspective, particularly from someone who doesn't pay attention to the way the players use the printed cards all that much, is not exactly the best source for the record.

My channel, for what it's worth:

You may find some of my commentary of use. I'm not particularly thrilled with the reviews prior to episode #10, though.

Amarsir said...

First of all, these are really awesome pieces. I played and absorbed all the information at the time so little of it is new, but even so the way you present the package is tremendous. (And you earned my respect earlier when talking about the drought after Homelands, a very important factor that many people don't account for.)

That said, let me nitpick so to imply that you're a hack.

>Before Invasion, five-colored strategies were an extreme gimmick, something for the nine year-old kid with their hardcast Sliver Queen; three colors was pretty common, even in Necropotence-fueled combo decks, but going past that was a one-way trip to the Casual Zone.

I think you're overlooking Type II during MirVisLite (yes, we called it that) + Tempest. The block included City of Brass, Gemstone Mine, Undiscovered Paradise, Reflecting Pool, plus 5th edition Painlands and Bird of Paradise.

5cGreen was very popular as a midrange deck (which led to Tradewind Rider builds). It took advantage of color availability for utility like Granger Guildmage, and could use any of the 187 creatures it wanted. This led to more tempo-based attempts like 5cBlack (allows Nekretaal with Man-O-War and Uktabi Orangutan) and 5cRed (aggroish I think, Mogg Flunkies and burn but also the above. I don't remember it as well.)

And then there were 5cBlue and 5cDonais as control. (The latter gained life with Gerrard's Wisdom and won through boredom ... I mean Gaea's Blessing or a single Fireball.)

So there was definitely a heyday for 5-color in Type 2. But it was gone by the time Invasion came in, if that's what you meant.

> It’s a twelve-card mechanic that is almost entirely downside, and doesn’t interact with anything in the block in a particularly notable way.

OK I buy that it's an underwhelming mechanic, one that reads as a drawback and went on mostly vanilla creatures. But it definitely interacted with Kicker. Curve out Pincer Spider early and replay later with kicker, or get multiple uses out of Battlemages. These were important Limited plays. (Not to mention regular comes-into-play triggers.) And then Gating even saw a little constructed play, allowing a replay of Flametongue Kavu or Blastoderm in successful Fires decks.

It certainly wasn't a 4-of and I think post-Lorwyn's "Champion" ability they wouldn't sell a block on anything like that. But it wasn't a bad fit for Planechase quite the way you said.

Lark said...

It's not a gluten allergy, it is an allergy specifically to wheat. Normal histamine reaction. I've told you this before.

AWJ said...

Armadillo Cloak is interesting because it answered the question "how strong does an aura that doesn't protect the guy it's on and doesn't have any built-in reusability have to be to be playable?" Improving previously-bad card types expands the design space of the game just as inventing entirely new card types does. Invasion block also pushed fatties pretty hard by the standards of its time.

John Keck said...
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