Monday, August 18, 2014

kill reviews: masques block

This review available in podcast form thanks to hitting my goal on Patreon:

Mercadian Masques continues the tale of Gerrard and the crew of the Weatherlight as they go to different planes or whatever, there’s some stuff with a court, blah blah blah, this block fucking sucks.

Last week, I compared Masques to a person going aggravatingly straight after a dangerous and far more interesting life. I have a lot of these metaphors. It is escaping West Berlin in 1955 for East. It is your mom coming home, hearing you listening to Wu Tang, confiscating all your cool stuff, and replacing it with Christian alternatives. It is using “golly” in everyday conversation. It is grinding, it is boredom, it is a vampire that will suck the fun out of games and leave them soulless husks still going through the motions of playing lands and spells.

In retrospect, people remember the block as having a very low power level. This is accurate. Rares like Corrupt Official, one of many overcosted creatures with a trigger when they’re blocked, hold up poorly against cards from Fallen Empires, let alone Urza’s Saga. The trio of Flailing creatures, which opponents can destroy any time they want for a few mana, are only remembered by Magic puzzle designers and people making lists of the worst cards.

But all the focus on the lack of powerful cards distracts people from what the powerful cards in the block do. Almost every one of them is aimed at making the game slow, grindy, and attrition-based. Rishadan Port, Dust Bowl, Misdirection, Nether Spirit, Unmask, Snuff Out, Cave-In, Waterfront Bouncer, Daze, Tangle Wire, Submerge, Rising Waters… these are the best cards in the block, where all the power is located, and they all have one goal in common: making things not happen.[1] Urza’s powerful cards were almost all focused on the opposite, pushing a player toward doing more stuff. Decks using Masques cards used them exclusively to disrupt an opponent along the way to doing something actually relevant with their other cards.

This is not good. Yes, it’s also not good when someone wins on turn two, but that will get people a lot more outraged and calling for bans than when every deck plays four Rishadan Ports because it’s the best card in the format, has to be mono-color because multicolored strategies are so bad against Port, and upkeep “Port your Port” is a common play. I nearly vomited at that thought.

[1] The exception would be Gush, Masques Block’s only entrant on the Legacy banned list, and a card which would have been quite at home in Urza Block.

Oh, but it goes so much deeper than just making a few anti-action cards powerful. Every mechanical design in the block is geared toward stuff not happening: Spellshapers that let you cast the same spell every turn, at the cost of a card (like buyback, but slower, more fragile, less versatile, with no card advantage). Rebels and Mercenaries, which encouraged a player to sit back with untapped creatures and open mana and pass the turn repeatedly until they couldn’t lose. Even the alternate casting cost cards, which could have led to a lot of cool early-game action, were geared almost exclusively toward removal spells, countermagic, destroying strategies from the previous block, and comically undersized creatures. The number of cards that destroy lands, tap opponents’ lands, bounce their lands, make players sacrifice permanents, make spells cost more, make players discard cards, prevent damage, gain life (oh my god, white had so much in Masques)… it’s a grocery list of the least-fun mechanics ever made in Magic.[2]

[2] Daze is one of the pillars of Legacy. Have you ever gotten a spell Dazed? It is misery beyond comparison. It’s a big reason why spells that cost more than 2 are almost entirely unplayable in that format unless they win the game on the spot.

It’s worth delving deeper on a few of these failures. Let’s take the “Monger” mechanic, which allows any player to play an ability on the card. It was introduced on a cycle of cards in Masques, with variants in the Flailing creatures, then evolved in Nemesis and Prophecy. I hate this mechanic.
There are reasons we put cards in our decks. We want to play with them. We want their cool abilities to benefit us. If they benefit our opponents as well, this is not good. Sure, there are some cards with symmetrical effects (Masques block had a ton), but you can build around those to break the synergy, which is fun. But a 3/3 that lets anyone activate its abilities? Please explain how that is better than it having no ability, or why I would tap all my mana and then let my opponent untap and use my card before me. Tapping out for a card that immediately starts cucking us isn’t a good time. Sure, you can give me a complex answer about how maybe under certain conditions you could use “2: give flying” more effectively than your opponent, but I’ve already stopped caring.
Then there are Rebels and Mercenaries. Magic is a game where we shuffle up cards, and as such, a certain amount of variance is important to make sure that not every game feels the same.[3] Rebels get rid of this. If you play Ramosian Sergeant on turn one, the rest of the game is essentially mapped out for you. On turn three, you get a two-mana Rebel. On turn four, you get Lin-Sivvi. Then you untap with Lin-Sivvi, and you pretty much can’t lose. Rebels are a cool concept, and I bought the preconstructed Rebels deck and had a ton of fun with it as a kid,[4] but the mechanical identity of “make every game the same,” especially when you only have to cast a single spell on turn one to establish this, is anti-fun. It replaces the player with a tutoring robot. 
[3] When people defend variance in Magic, they’ll often make the claim that without it, the better player would win every time, and therefore, no one would play the game. This is a horrible argument. No one would play Magic if every game was the same, but there are plenty of other ways to make games feel different other than actual randomness. Chess has such a wide possibility of moves that, even with zero luck whatsoever, games are wildly different from one another. Computer games like Starcraft and League of Legends don’t have any randomness, but players unintentionally add variance themselves via their imperfect ability to play the game.
[4] Because the store was sold out of the Mercenaries one.
It’s hard to describe the “alternate cost” mechanic as good or bad, because there are so many forms it can take. There are some implementations of it, like Delraich, that I think are genuinely cool, because you get a truly powerful thing, but pay a real cost to get it. Those are the things worth building decks around (around the time that I had the aforementioned Rebels deck, my friend did, in fact, build one around Delraich). I’m less high on the “return lands” cost, because setting yourself back in resources for a single spell is something that only the most calculating of players will appreciate, in a similar way to a lot of Ice Age’s designs. I’m not outraged at it, though.
The ones I dislike are the ones that give some mediocre effect because you control a certain land type and your opponent has another. Color hosers are, in general, not the most fun Magic, and when your hoser is getting a free 1/2 with protection… uh, yay, I guess. It’s like being rewarded with getting a quarter off a bad cup of coffee. Even worse are the ones that give actual benefits for the free spell, like Massacre and Submerge. Those cards are incredible blowouts, and how are you supposed to avoid them? Play a different deck, I guess. Getting Submerged is one of the most frustrating things that can happen to a guy casting creatures.
The aesthetic of the block is strange, because each set is on a different plane. Mercadia is a bizarre-looking place, but not in a cool, “look at all these weird creatures” way like Rath is. Everything in Mercadia looks incredibly goofy, and I don’t think Magic is going to have villains with powdered faces and poofy shirts in Renaissance style again any time soon. Unlike Rath Cycle’s style guide, which defined what things looked like but allowed artists to take things in their unique direction, Mercadia’s style guide made everything look equally comical, and it wasn’t always intentional.
Then in the next set, we’re back on Rath again! Why Rath? Who knows! I don’t read the books! Anyway, the illustrators get to make Rath’s creepy-lumpy Moggs again, which are sweet, instead of Mercadia’s frilly-attired court goblins. They seem to have learned from this that this general “look” matches a lot more kinds of cards in Magic than Mercadia does.
You might notice above that I cite a lot of cards from Nemesis as being (sometimes oppressively) good. This is because Nemesis was by far the most powerful set of the three, and because it was the set that was newest when I had my 11th birthday (my first birthday when I was Into Magic so my parents could tell people to get me Magic cards), I ended up busting a shitload of Nemesis packs. It’s fortunate I ended up with this, because it had some genuinely cool cards. Dominate inspired the first deck I ever planned out on paper before building, rather than cobbling something together from cards onhand, or modifying a preconstructed deck. I also built around Death Pits Offering, and my friend used his (totally sweet) Ascendant Evincar to great effect against my aforementioned Rebels. Volrath the Fallen might the coolest creature in the block, both by design and aesthetic.
From a more modern perspective, if you do a Masques block draft,[5] Nemesis is like an oasis of quality. The power level disparity is comparable to Alara Reborn was for Shards Block, except that you didn’t have to be in specific colors to cast the cards.
[5] Don’t.
Nemesis’s new mechanic was Fading, which is a mechanic that sounds dumb when one first reads it, but it led to some rather interesting designs. Especially compared to Masques cards that were never powerful at any point, cards with Fading had a big impact for the time they were in play. I think the gameplay revolving around how much attention you give your opponents’ cards with fading (eg, trading with them is usually not profitable), and making a gameplan for when they leave, is pretty cool. Getting a burst of power is a lot better than meandering around turn after turn, accomplishing little. Blastoderm remains one of my favorite creatures, due to how impossible it is to deal with effectively in the short time it’s on the battlefield.
As noted, though, even when Nemesis was powerful, a lot of its power was drastically misused. I do not think that fading should be used like Tangle Wire, in that it brutally oppresses the opponent until it runs out of fade counters.[6] Parallax Wave and Saproling Burst, though, are cool cards that can either be used in straightforward ways (remove opponents creatures; make dudes) or build-around ones (remove my own creatures to abuse leaves-play and enters-play abilities; make dudes that kill with Pandemonium or haste). Of the three sets, Nemesis has by far the most cards that an enterprising deckbuilder can explore, and I respect that.
[6] This should not be confused with me saying that I will not play with Tangle Wire. In Cube, I will draft the shit out of Tangle Wire. It is one of the classic Cube cards that non-Cube players will underrate until it beats them by itself. Even when it was bugged on MODO to only tap two or three permanents, it was still good. And hey, if I lost: compensation request!
We are now leaving the Acceptable Power Level zone. Say goodbye to temporarily-powerful creatures, things to build decks around, and Legacy staples, because Prophecy is here and it’s flinging feces all around itself (unless someone has an untapped land; in that case, it does nothing).
Mark Rosewater said that Prophecy is the second-worst designed set behind Homelands. I disagree. I think it is worse than Homelands, and saying otherwise is insulting to the bland lack-of-design that is Homelands.[7] Prophecy doesn’t just have bad cards, it has mechanics that are, at their very core, opposed to everything a Magic mechanic should be.
[7] My personal ranking of the worst-designed sets:
1.       Prophecy
2.       Mercadian Masques
3.       Homelands
4.       Avacyn Restored
5.       Saviors of Kamigawa
There were a few successes. The Winds, while not executed well, had a good idea. The Avatars are genuinely cool, and I remember drooling over such huge, powerful creatures. I ended up making a deck around Avatar of Woe, and I think that’s one of the high points of design for the block. The risk/reward of it is perfect, the card made in exactly the right way that you really can set up scenarios where you get this incredibly good creature for two mana. Aside from those cards, though, it’s pretty much a wasteland. Here comes the bad stuff.
Want to pay three mana to tutor up a card? Fuck you. By casting that card, you give your opponent a two-mana counterspell. Want to tap a land for any color of mana? Your opponent gets a Rishadan Port in addition to the one they probably already have (great job choosing to play Standard, idiot).[8] Want to make use of your creature’s first strike? Your opponent can get rid of that ability whenever they feel like it.
[8] Noah Weil once described Rhystic Cave’s Oracle wording as “Tap.”
And here’s the big one. Want to use the ability of… basically anything at all? You have to sacrifice lands to do it. Over and over and over. Sacrificing lands is not fun, because it leads to no one playing spells. Playing spells is Cool and Good, in my opinion as a Magic Design Critic, so mechanics in Magic shouldn’t discourage people from casting their spells. Prophecy was, in a lot of ways, the “lands matter” set that predated Zendikar, but it focused on entirely the wrong aspects of lands. When cards weren’t sacrificing lands or destroying them, they were focused on what players controlled any untapped lands.
How I feel about a mechanic focused around untapped lands should be obvious. What baffles me is how the conversation inside Wizards didn’t go like this:
Designer A: “hey, I have an idea for a mechanic.”
Designer B: “let’s hear it.”
Designer A: “well, it only does stuff if you control no untapped lands. Or it doesn’t do stuff if they have no untapped lands.”
Designer B: “that is the worst mechanic. That is so bad that I automatically become your boss, and you’re fired.”
The most plausible explanation I have is that this happened instead:
Designer A: “hey, I have an idea for a mechanic.”
Designer B: “will it be so obscenely broken that people will win on turn two in Standard and we have to ban half a dozen cards?”
Designer A: “I am absolutely confident that will not happen.”
Designer B: “print it.”
The context of these sets is important to remember. Rosewater said[9] that, when the fallout from Urza Block happened, the entire R&D department got called into their bosses office, yelled at, and told that if this ever happened again, they were fired. This goes beyond scaling back the power level, because hopefully, they were good enough designers to be able to make things more in line with Rath Cycle. It presents an example of the principal-agent problem: the motivations of the person (agent) making decisions are not the same as who they’re making decisions for (the principal). In this case, the agents are designers and developers desperately trying not to get fired, whereas the principal (Hasbro, which acquired Wizards right before the release of Urza’s Saga) want sets that move as much product as possible. The risk of making cards so good that they’ll get banned, and therefore getting the designers and developers fired, is much higher than the possible reward they’ll get for making a fun block. Therefore, we get this thing: a block engineered so that it cannot possibly be broken in the same way as Urza Block was.
The irony is that two cards were banned in Masques Block: Rishadan Port and Lin-Sivvi. For all of the brokenness I already discussed in Urza Block, at least it divided things up pretty well. Masques Block failed at this completely. All the powerful cards were in the Rebels deck, because there was no viable combo or aggro. It was one of the most oppressive monoliths in Magic tournament history.
Is this end worse than making all those cards in Urza Block? It should be pretty clear by now that I think it was. While I certainly understand people fleeing tournaments in droves because of the completely broken decks featuring cards from that block, if I had to remove one block from existence, Masques would get wiped out without a second thought. I might even push that button even if I wasn’t obligated to choose one.
I talk about these two blocks as a pair a lot for a few reasons: they were my first Standard blocks, so I think of them like that because of the imperfections of memory. But beyond that, they make a lot more sense in the context of one another. Hopefully all the metaphors in the second paragraph didn’t scare you away, because here’s one more: imagine a collaborative pair of musicians that makes some great stuff, but they’re two incredibly different people, so they drift apart into solo work. Almost any time this happens, their solo stuff is nowhere near as good as what they made together. At worst, it almost seems like a satire of what they would sound like without the influence of the other.
Rath Cycle was a collaborative effort between design and development. Urza Block was all design, no development. Masques Block was all development, no design. These two departments need one another so that Magic is neither a broken exercise where two players sit down and find out whose concoction is more absurd, nor a horrid slog where no one is able to do much of anything.
Next week, the two parties reunite amicably, and make Invasion Block, a revolution in block design.


markdash said...

So you're saying that Rath Cycle was the Beatles, Urza's Block was Lennon's solo career, and Masques Block was Wings?

I can get behind that.

KillGoldfish said...

That's exactly what I was going for. It fits especially well because I love Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. Love love love.

Norman Dean said...

Offbeat theory for the day: Prophecy is actually a commentary on colonialism and its aftermath, in the form of a Magic set. With the arrival of pale-skinned militarists (the Keldons) on Jamuraa, Magic's closest Africa-equivalent, the previous vibrant cultures disappear (Femeref, Zhalfir, etc. from Mirage are nowhere to be seen) to be replaced by interchangeable adherents to foreign ideologies (Rebels and Mercenaries, representing communist and capitalist regimes respectively, in accordance with the color pie). At the same time, the exploitation of Africa's natural resources is represented by the various land sacrifice and depletion mechanics. The "rhystic" spells, which allow your opponent to suppress your actions, represent the struggles for political representation under apartheid and similar minority regimes. The entire experience of the set is not designed to be "fun," any more than Joseph Conrad's depictions of the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness are intended to be "fun" to read.

...or not. Anyway, I've been enjoying your reviews, and am looking forward to the next ones!

KillGoldfish said...

That is an outstanding theory.

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