Wednesday, August 13, 2014

kill reviews: urza block

Everyone has their nostalgia sets. The sets come out at the right time for them, where they’re introduced to Magic, or have an opportunity to devote more time to it, or hang out with a lot of people that play Magic all the time. The Urza sets are my nostalgia sets.

I didn’t start playing with it, exactly. After my friends showed me some cards, my dad got me the Portal intro pack and a 5th edition tournament pack for Christmas one year. As an only child, I played countless games with those cards against myself on the floor of whatever room I was in. I then played a lot against my best friend at the time, whose mom’s patient had given this friend a huge box full of Revised and other assorted cards from that era.

When it came time for us to get new cards, though, Urza’s Legacy was the newest set. All our allowances went toward acquiring further weaponry. $3 per booster pack, and then the really big guns: $10 per preconstructed deck. As my first-ever deck had been blue-green, I got the Urza’s Legacy ‘Time Drain’ deck. Days before I was able to actually play it, I stayed awake in my bed illicitly late, going through each and every card over and over, barely able to read the text in the darkness.

As this might imply, I was not exactly a tournament aficionado during the time of Urza Block. I do remember, though, playing with the cards, making sure I got my lands back from Cloud of Faeries, stopping my opponent’s spells with Miscalculation, and playing Simian Grunts at times that were, I’m sure, completely suboptimal. Then, a year later, I remember playing with our decks that we had crafted into Type II-legal piles (the format of the now-defunct Arena League), and discussing how brutal the rotation would be on us.

Most of the discussion of Urza Block consists of knowing smirks and shaking heads about how completely broken the cards were. They were. There is no way to get around that. But that power level wasn’t left to the craziest of turn one combo decks; it seeped down to children playing with homemade unsleeved piles of their favorites.

There are a few categories that truly well-designed cards can fall into: they can read as being totally, completely bonkers, but actually playing fair (this encompasses a lot of “splashy” cards). They can read as mediocre or worse, but hide a deceptive amount of power. They can remain along the sidelines, not drawing too much attention to themselves but doing work that needs to get done in a way that leads to fun games. Urza Block is defined by cards in the first category. Part of the fun is seeing all these cards, many of which seem incredibly powerful… and some of them really are. But which ones?
Reprints have dulled their ability to shock, but try to put yourself in the mind of a newer player and reading cards like Worship, Pariah, or Serra Avatar for the first time.[1] Even Remembrance puts some deckbuilding wheels in motion. More serious players who miss Crusade will appreciate Glorious Anthem, and control players will love Catastrophe.

[1] Before it got printed five more times, Serra Avatar was in the Sliver Queen category of casual-only cards that commanded a hefty price tag.

Those are all really cool, interesting cards. They’re all cards from one rarity in one color in Urza’s Saga. Earlier sets brokenness comes from the wide power disparity between cards, but Urza Block brokenness seems to spring forth from every possible location. The cards that aren’t broken are desperately trying to be.

This leads to a shockingly high percentage of Saga cards seeing play somewhere. Part of it is because the overall power level was so high, but it’s also because the power level was spread across themes, colors, and styles in a reasonably equitable way. Sure, combo and blue decks got the best of it, but someone has to be the big winner. Cards like Gaea’s Cradle were certainly busted, but it took people a while to figure that out, since they were working through the other two dozen equally broken cards.

Other sets from around this time period mostly fade into memory, but Saga’s cards stick with us. One of the best Legacy decks, Sneak and Show, is named after two cards from the set. Others like Time Spiral, Stroke of Genius, Gamble, and Serra’s Sanctum have bounced around banned lists and defined archetypes in various eras. Many cards like this were broken, and probably bad for the game, but sixteen years later… they’re pretty fun. I wouldn’t call Smokestack’s influence on Legacy “fun,” exactly, but it was touted as the “solution” to Vintage for a reason.[2] Compared to modern haymakers like Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, these Saga cards look downright fair.

[2] The archetype “stax” started as The Four Thousand Dollar Solution ($T4KS), a Vintage deck based around fast mana, Sphere of Resistance, Smokestack, and Meditate to purposefully skip turns in order to make the opponent sacrifice more things.

This is something I’m still unsure of: I don’t know if I’m just excusing these older broken cards out of nostalgia, because they’re the brokenness I remember rather than the new, scary form of brokenness. To be blunt, I’m glad that these absurd cards were made, because Magic is just more fun when we have “power” cards that are powerful in non-1993 ways. Urza’s broken cards have a certain kind of signature to them; they’re all ideas thrown down with seemingly no restrictions. This is similar to the build-arounds from Rath Cycle, except these were clearly never used in any decks to find out just how good they are.

These fun cards are only possible, of course, due to massive developmental fuck-ups. In a lot of ways, these sets are why Development as we think of it exists. Back then, some designers made cards, and some other designers changed them, and that was the process. When they shipped a trio of off-the-charts powerful sets, they honestly did not know. They had a Future League, which was invented to simulate the Standard environment that would exist when those sets were released to the wild (so that designers could make new cards for that format). The problem was that, when people brought Tolarian Academy[3] and Fluctuator decks that consistently won on the second turn to the Future League, it was too late to change them. They could… print future cards that could slow them down, or something.

They realized from this that they should hire, like, actual good players for Magic Development, so that they could change these things before they went to print. At the time, though, they had to emergency-ban Memory Jar because Zvi Mowshowitz wrote them a letter about it.

But that card is from Urza’s Legacy, which would be skipping ahead a bit. First, a mechanical overview: Saga had two keyworded mechanics (both left over from Tempest design), as well as sleeping enchantments and free spells.

Cycling is one of the finest mechanics the game has ever seen, and I wouldn’t be upset at all if they decided to make it evergreen. The base-level utility is to throw away cards that aren’t useful right now, which allows players to dig to cards they can actually use and generally play more interesting games of Magic. The block didn’t really do anything with it, other than having it exist on cards seemingly at random, but it did have one enabler in Fluctuator (seemingly inspired by the previous set’s mechanic-enhancer Memory Crystal), which was… slightly too good. Cycling is a skill-intensive, fun mechanic with a lot of design space, and Onslaught mined a lot of that very successfully. More Cycling, please, Wizards.

Urza’s Destiny also had some cards that “cycled from play,” like Yavimaya Elder. I didn’t realize until years later that this was a mechanical extension of Cycling, but it’s a decent one. They should have done more stuff with actual cycling at the time, though, instead of stretching it in a weird direction. The pitfall is that you had to pay the mana cost for the spell, then throw it away for a card, which negates the entire aspect of paying mana to trade in useless cards for useful ones.

Echo wasn’t quite as good. It had more Constructed applications than Cycling (Fluctuator excluded), because its entire purpose is to make cards cost less than they should, which tends to be rather strong. However, the basic idea of shifting some mana around from one turn to the next is very bean counter-ish and doesn’t scream fun gameplay to me. There are a couple cards later in the block that subtly evolve it to make use of enters and leaves-play triggers, but in its basic implementation, it’s solid but fairly uninteresting. Mostly, people would pay mana for Deranged Hermit or Avalanche Riders for the one-time effect, then only pay the echo cost if their hand was completely awful.

Sleeping enchantments are the forgotten mechanic of the block, but if you pull up a spoiler, they are all over. They probably account for about 2/3 of the forgotten rares from Saga. There are very few worth mentioning individually, because they all do about the same thing: you get a discount on a creature if your opponent does something that directly allows you to have the creature. I do not like this design, and apparently, neither did players. Whether my cards function or not should be because of choices I make, whether during deckbuilding or gameplay, not whether my opponent deems it acceptable to give me a creature out of my two-mana enchantment. Most of them are so narrow that they have to be only sideboard cards, but a larger-than-normal creature when my opponent thinks it’s the best play for me to have one… that’s not the most exciting sideboard card.

And then there are free spells, the mechanic that Rosewater has repeatedly called his most broken. He’s not wrong here, even if he exaggerates slightly. Yes, Frantic Search is absurd, and earns its place on the Legacy banned list. But it’s not true that they’re truly free; they’re free like a $1000 piece of electronics with a $1000 rebate is free. If you’re winning off Time Spiral on your first turn, well, that deck has some other things going on in it that probably shouldn’t happen. Frantic Search might even be an interesting card at five or so mana. I’ve even played completely fair games of Magic with Cloud of Faeries and Snap in pauper decks, and the latter card went in one of the coolest Block Constructed decks of all time.

They had some development issues. Namely: they should probably cost more than, oh, one mana more than they normally would. They shouldn’t be anywhere near Gaea’s Cradle and Tolarian Academy unless you’re designing a Cube. And seven-mana creatures should probably untap the lands if you cast it, rather than if it came into play.[4] It’s certainly a dangerous mechanic, but it has its advantages. It reads very well, even for newer players, whose heads explode at the idea of spells for no mana! With the right up-front mana costs, lands that don’t allow their caster to immediately make way too much mana, and effects that go into strategies other than combo decks, I could see free spells working.

[4] They gave Great Whale and Palinchron power level errata for this reason, to crush people’s Recurring Nightmare decks. Jerks.

Urza’s Legacy is, as far as I can tell, a bunch of leftovers from Urza’s Saga. The design team is the same as Saga, except that it doesn’t have Garfield. All the mechanics are the same. They don’t evolve in any notable way, other than that Echo appears on noncreatures, and on more than one card outside red and green.[5] It suffers very much from being a second set without a unique identity.

[5] Did you know that Urza’s Saga restricted echo to red and green other than Herald of Serra? I didn’t! Why did they do this? Why the one exception? Who knows! Just more Urza’s Saga Mysteries.

The set certainly had its noteworthy cards, but in a much lower quantity (even relative to set size) than Saga. Green made out pretty well, with all-time casual classics like Deranged Hermit, Might of Oaks, Multani, and Defense of the Heart, but other colors mostly got less interesting cards. Tinker, Grim Monolith, and Goblin Welder went a long way toward convincing people that the block was about artifacts.

Oh shit! These sets were supposed to have a theme, sort of! Urza Block pushed enchantments in a big way. There are sleeping enchantments, growing enchantments, auras that came back repeatedly,[6] enchantments that stay around until they trigger and explode, enchantments that care about other enchantments, etc. So, yes, these were enchantment sets in the same way that Weatherlight was a graveyard set.

[6] Rancor obviously the standout. A great example of the things that could slip through in those days: Rancor had a lot of discussion about it as to what it was supposed to cost. The debate was between 1G and 2G, and it seems they decided finally on 2G. No one is sure how it got printed at G, because no one wanted it printed at G.

I vaguely recalled Urza’s Destiny as being the runt of the litter, the Urza set that got powered down a little bit because people inside Wizards realized how powerful Saga was. Going over the spoiler, this seems like total bullshit. While they might not hold up to modern creatures, I assure you, reader, that Masticore and Phyrexian Negator were the hottest things tournament players had ever seen. Creatures just weren’t that efficient back then. Masticore was oppressively good, single-handedly holding down aggressive strategies as the only real creature in the land destruction-based Ponza decks, or standing behind a wall of counterspells in blue strategies alongside (or instead of) Morphling. It was a sad day when players realized that their Supermen and ‘Cores just weren’t good enough.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Urza set without the combo fun continuing. Yawgmoth’s Bargain is the only card in the set to remain banned in Legacy, but its status as a fixed Necropotence (due to higher mana cost) is somewhat questionable due to Academy Rectors existing in the same set. Treachery is probably the best of any of the free spells, because five mana for a Control Magic is really good even if you actually do spend five mana.
Another detour into nostalgia: Plow Under. I know, as an objective, professional Magic reviewer, that Plow Under should probably not be allowed to exist as a strong card. It does not lead to fun gameplay for the person it’s cast against, because they are pretty much out of the game if it hits them early enough. However, as a bratty kid, I have no fonder Magic-related memories than casting turn three Plow Under against opponents far better than me.

…and for some reason they printed Rofellos in the same set. Come on. That’s just not right. Even as someone who loves Forests, Elves that tap for mana, and Plow Under, it feels too close to cheating, like it was planted there to make control players quit the game.

This is a lot of words to say that Urza Block cards were extremely powerful. But, fifteen years after Destiny was released: were they good sets? I’d say they were necessary. If they hadn’t made the mistake that was Urza Block, it would have happened eventually.

Magic needs professional developers, who are good at the game, to develop the cards, and Saga showed why in the most dramatic way possible. After Rath Cycle pushed the tempo, there needed to be a point where people said “stop, that’s too fast.”

We should credit this block not just with leading to “combo winter,” when turn one and two decks stalked the tournament halls until they were (mostly) banned out, but to the archetype of combo decks in the first place. Yes, there was Mike Long’s ProsBloom, with Prosperity, Cadaverous Bloom, Squandered Resources, and Drain Life, but that was one deck among many. It was a one-off gimmick. Urza Block showed that combo was capable of a diversity of decks: Academy-based ones, creature-based ones with Cradle, Fluctuator, Replenish with Serra’s Sanctum and Opalescence, black ones with Dark Ritual powering out Yawgmoth’s Bargain.

For many years, the sacred trio of genres of deck was aggro, control, combo. Now that combo has been made into a historical footnote by modern design philosophies, this isn’t the case. But when it was, it was created by Urza Block, and as long as Urza Block cards were legal in a format, combo decks existed.

This block, which nearly destroyed competitive Magic by making tournaments coin-flippy and unfun, also led to many of my favorite cards of all time. In retrospect, I’m incredibly happy these cards exist. Many formats are richer for them, and Cube would be nowhere without the incredible plays they make possible. That’s the virtue of an overpowered set: the cards can live forever, whether in tournament reports, banned lists, apologies from Wizards, stories from casual play, or unsanctioned drafts. There’s no question that Urza’s Saga is more important to Magic than Homelands or Prophecy… in reality, it’s probably more important than some two-year groups of sets.

This is a valuable aspect that Magic has over a digital game. In League of Legends, if a champion is too good, it gets changed until it isn’t. There’s no way to do this in Magic, so it doesn’t happen. Want to know what it would be like to play 2010 Twisted Fate against release Braum? Completely impossible. Even Hearthstone, a digital card game, adjusts the cost of its cards from patch to patch, making any equivalent of Cube draft with a “greatest hits” of the game completely impossible. It makes the only option “remember when this was better,” instead of “let’s play some games with these old cards.”

Brokenness is good. Brokenness is valuable. Brokenness is necessary. Brokenness is fun.

If Urza Block was Magic going out for an insane night and waking up in a ditch next to naked strangers, Masques block is Magic going straight, finding a church, and preaching incessantly about the evils of the lifestyle it used to lead. Next week, we join Masques Block in the No Fun Zone. Abandon all hope of casting spells.

(Authorial note: due to GP Portland, I'm late publishing this piece already, and didn't want to delay it further just to get the audio up simultaneously. That should get recorded very soon.)


Anonymous said...

I followed that link to the $T4KS deck and checked it out... then priced it... it's not a $4k deck anymore, now it's about $14k. Still looks fun though.

David Fanany said...

When Urza's Saga was the current set, my group was not only very casual, but didn't even look at the internet that much. None of us owned a Tolarian Academy. I'm not sure we even knew that Tolarian Academy was a card. For us, Urza's Saga was about Avalanche Riders and Yavimaya Elder, Multani and Radiant, Congregate and Zephid's Embrace, Great Whale cast on turn seven with basic Islands.

This block has been thoroughly Flanderized by the dominant voices of the Magic-related internet (or Mark Rosewater, which is close enough). Much like Storm, the view seems to be "Broken things happened with this block, so it must have been all about broken things."

Your perspective of Mercadia being a block made only by development to avoid another Urza and thus save their jobs is an interesting one, but I still wonder how Mark Rosewater survived. He himself admits that he designed (in some cases single-handedly) many of the problematic cards from Urza; yet he is still within the walls of R&D, and other designers and developers from that era are long gone.

Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad to see this take on Urza's Saga. I'd stopped playing around Ice Age for reasons not really related to the game itself--the last set I bought packs from was Alliances, and its greatness reinstalled some faith that the game wasn't as dead as Homelands, Fourth Edition, even Ice Age to some extent had suggested. But I still had the lingering suspicion that they were going to avoid the dangers of ABU and early broken cards by never making anything really exciting again. When I would look over the Urza cards about a year after they came out I didn't notice the broken stuff--I wasn't actually playing, after all--I just saw how the sheer number of cool "normal" cards, how the default attitude seemed to be to just make cards cool, not underpowered. It was like the anti-Ice-Age; whereas Ice Age and the sets following seemed to be about keeping everything as tame as possible, the average Urza card seemed to default to being something you would be happy to play, even knowing it might not be ultimately any better than a Craw Wurm. Cards like Serra Avatar obviously weren't up to the snuff I'd learned a Magic card had to be to be competitive, but it was as sweet a version of itself as it be. Contrast to like Seraph in Ice Age. It was like they had decided that Magic cards, every last one of them, should be cool. I remember imagining versions of each Ice Age card that weren't needlessly bad--in my head, I'd trim a mana point here, or clean up a needlessly high activation cost there. That was what Urza's Saga seemed to be in actuality. And I think it was a necessary and invaluable door for the game to walk through to find its way back to fun and awe, even if they overdid it on several (highly inventive) cards. And even those broken cards showed it was a game that *wanted* to allow cool format-breaking tricks. It wasn't forever going to be scared away from grandeur by the experience of '93-'94.

David said...

FWIW, I haven't been able to find anything about Zvi writing a letter that lead to the banning of Memory Jar. Memory Jar was hair-trigger banned when Randy Buehler and Erik Lauer played Memory Jar/Megrim combo to a GP top 8 immediately after it became legal.

Could you be thinking of Zvi's open letter calling for an emergency ban of Quiet Speculation?

John Keck said...
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