Wednesday, September 24, 2014

kill reviews: mirrodin block

Before we get to talking about the modern era of Magic, I want to backpedal a bit on the previous blocks. Those of you who read my descriptions of Odyssey as a bizarre amalgamation of Spike-friendly mechanics and squishy squid people, or my explanation of how Onslaught was partially created by artists attempting to destroy culture, might come away with the impression that I don’t think those cards are fun to play with. This isn’t true. Those blocks each had severe flaws running through them, but somehow, Odyssey-Onslaught emerged as one of the classic Standard formats. There are arguments for Invasion-Odyssey as well, but each of these were certainly better than Standard formats that came before, and it would be many years until Standard was as fun and diverse as those.

I can dissect design philosophies and the settings of various blocks as much as I want, but what I sometimes get away from is that these sets are just groups of game pieces. These game pieces form together into decks, which are entered into Magical combat. Were those games fun? If yes, the set did its job, at a very basic level.

Friday, September 19, 2014

kill reviews addendum: storm

Storm is widely known as one of the most broken mechanics ever printed. It lent its name to various combo decks: from several Vintage strategies since its debut, to blue/red Extended decks, even to Pauper, where Grapeshot and Temporal Fissure ruled the day. Mark Rosewater invented “the Storm scale,” to rate the likeliness of mechanics returning to the game. This is a big impact for a keyword that appeared on a dozen cards in Scourge.

Because of the vast whisperings about its power level, it has often become more legend than anything grounded in fact. Let’s start with what Scourge’s cards did on release. Players who didn’t experience them firsthand might assume that, like Affinity, it dominated Standard immediately. This isn’t remotely true. Mind’s Desire was, at best, a tier two strategy for a few months within the extant Tight Sight deck; numerous pro players attempted this combo concoction at high-level tournaments to disastrous results. Once Odyssey left, Mind’s Desire was FNM-level if not completely unusable.

But how about the next step up at the time, Extended? Keep in mind what else was legal with Desire: Necropotence had only been gone from the format for a year, and decks like Oath of Druids were tournament staples. The next year would bring Mirrodin’s brokenness, ushering in a new wave of combo that made Mind's Desire look like a kitchen table strategy by comparison. This resulted to 2003 banning six cards from Extended, none of them with Storm.

Even after that, Mind’s Desire was just another Extended deck. It was, in fact, the deck that made me a true tournament Magic player. Before it, I had always taken pride in constructing my own decks, but seeing this turn four combo deck take down tournaments had me goldfishing it in Magic Workstation endlessly. I ordered the whole thing online for a PTQ. We weren’t home the day before the tournament, when the cards were supposed to be delivered, so my mom drove me to the post office as it opened to get the cards, then dropped me off at the PTQ after the player meeting had already started. I sprinted up the stairs, gasped at the judges as to whether I could still get in, they pointed me at an empty chair, and I threw money at someone for entry. I sleeved up my deck before the first round and made it to top 8.

So… that’s because the deck was absurdly good compared to the field, right? Still no. Elves with Glimpse of Nature had a full turn on the deck, winning on turn three instead of four. Storm, instead, had a more favorable matchup against control, and those games of combo-on-control are fascinating if you enjoy Magic at its most strategic and chesslike. There are baits, gambits, wild sideboarding strategies, and playing around a dozen cards at once. I adore those matchups.

Okay, but… it was broken in Legacy and Vintage, right? It’s true that Mind’s Desire was restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy before it was even released. It’s difficult for me to muster much animosity at them for this. They realized immediately the effect it would have, and didn’t let anyone play a single match of sanctioned Desire-legal Legacy. This is a thousand times better than allowing one GP: Flash, then banning the deck afterward, or printing a “not broken” but miserably unfun card like True-Name Nemesis.
There was also Tendrils of Agony, of course, which has gone on to see a lot of Legacy play. But I ask: is this truly a bad thing? Is giving Legacy another combo archetype an inherent evil in a format with Force of Will and a dozen other “instant win” decks floating around?

Why does Storm get more hate than Griselbrand, Goblin Charbelcher, or Mindslaver?

There is one indisputable truth about Storm: of all sets, it did not belong in Scourge. Juxtaposing a “play lots of spells” mechanic with a “large converted mana cost” theme is comedic. But this does not make Storm bad, it makes Storm bad for Onslaught block.

The reason that Storm defines “the Storm scale,” the reason it is held up as the epitome of brokenness, is that it appeared in the middle of the largest push toward creature-centric Magic in the game’s history and thumbed its nose. It is a mechanic not for the drafter, not for the Standard player, not for the average Joe. In a small town art museum, it is next to tender realist portraits and smooth impressionist works as a jarring, violent, postmodern sculpture. Mothers gasp in shock and hide their child’s eyes. It is a vulgarity.

Keep in mind that Storm does very little on its own. The actual cards with Storm are not enablers, they are kill conditions. Mind’s Desire costs six mana, and requires a ton of setup. It needs efficient card filtering and tons of cheap Ritual effects. Without those, it is unplayable. With those things getting excised from modern Magic, Storm could exist today. It would be completely irrelevant.

The idea of Storm’s return being impossible is also a bit funny, because it already returned in Time Spiral. Those cards were, arguably, more problematic than Storm the first time around. Dragonstorm, a Timeshifted Scourge card, did absolutely nothing in Scourge, but when combined with Rite of Flame and Bogardan Hellkite, it won tournaments. Grapeshot killed uncountably more players in Standard than Tendrils of Agony ever did.

I’m happy that Storm exists. It provides an alternative to creature-based Magic, allowing a different sort of player to interact on a completely separate axis. I enjoy this. This blog as a whole, in fact, traces its lineage to Storm. I started playing Elves in Extended because Mind’s Desire rotated out (it was never banned). I then made a blog to talk exclusively about combo decks, with a name that fit my penchant for sitting alone for hours, practicing the mechanics of solitaire combo: Killing A Goldfish. I would be nowhere in Magic without Storm.

Storm isn’t just a card for combo. Storm has, by this point, defined what combo can be. Instead of just a dumbass combination of two cards like Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki, Storm provides a deck that functions as one holistic machine, each Sleight of Hand a glimmering cog to turn the Tendrils of Agony. These decks, to me, are the highest form of beauty that Magic has achieved.

As we’ve learned over the years, not every card is for everyone. Storm might not be for you. Storm is for me, and I love Storm.

kill reviews: onslaught block

Last week, Odyssey gave us the strongest single theme ever presented in one block: every mechanic pushed forward its emphasis of the graveyard, to the point where it overwhelmed sacred ideas of “card advantage” relating to cards in hand. Onslaught doesn’t attempt anything quite as grand, but it ends up being almost as weird.
Their lack of inter-block planning really hurt them here. Odyssey attempted a strange gambit where it eschewed previously-established creature types, emphasizing Insects (not Elves), Cephalid and Wizards (not Merfolk), Barbarians (not Goblins), Birds, and Minions (not… well, white and black didn’t really have races they emphasized, so nothing was lost). This was because they didn’t know Onslaught was about to push hard on traditional creature types. Oops. Therefore, all the new creature-type-based decks from Onslaught wouldn’t be able to use hardly anything from Odyssey… other than Wizard decks, a creature type that was dramatically underpowered because of Odyssey’s printing of Patron Wizard.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

kill reviews: odyssey block

After the huge success of Invasion, the pressure was relieved off Wizards a bit. Old-time players came running back to the game in droves, and future blocks had a successful block design model to follow. No block for a long time would be as broadly well-received as Invasion, but that sort of success is nearly impossible to duplicate.

Here is the point in Magic history where the design gets a bit more recognizable, the values that Wizards holds are closer to the ones they currently do, and set reviews will get more controversial. Early Magic sets are easy: the ones that did something good and new for the first time are good sets. The underpowered ones that didn’t are bad sets. Power levels swung widely, and neither extreme was desirable. But with Odyssey, they made something that some people really liked. It just wasn’t for everyone.