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.

Odyssey and Onslaught led to some sweet decks. Sure, UG Madness was a bit one-dimensional and overbearing, but it often took a backseat to Psychatog, the definition of a control deck… but it somehow killed with a three-mana 1/2 and a six-mana reset sorcery. Those would often go up against Mirari’s Wake, one of the most brilliant combo decks in the game’s history, or Goblins. I can’t speak ill of Onslaught’s reinvention of Goblins from a casual staple into the bedrock of a competitive deck in Block, Standard, Extended, Legacy, Modern, and for actual insane people, Vintage. There are lots of players that have Goblins as their favorite deck of all time, and that’s not possible without Onslaught.

One way to evaluate blocks is, holding one block constant, weigh whether the Standard format was better with the sets it pushed out, or the ones it brought in. Was Onslaught a better Standard block than Invasion? Well, blue players were upset at the removal of Fact or Fiction (and everyone else was overjoyed), but then they realized that blue control was still ridiculous without it. Aggro players who missed Fires could play GR or GW beatdown, or more synergistic strategies like Goblins, Beasts, or incredibly cool GB Overgrown Cemetery decks. Combo players had the aforementioned Mirari’s Wake, or the hipper Tight Sight. The format had its better decks, of course, but it was ever-shifting, never feeling stale, and a new concoction could take down a tournament at any time.

Putting Mirrodin through this test is almost laughable. It was such a miserable block in Standard that there was no point in time where every card in it was legal, because Skullclamp was banned as Fifth Dawn hit the shelves. Then, eight more cards bit the dust less than a year later. Urza Block and Mirrodin are often paired together, for what I think are rather lazy reasons: they had cards banned in Standard, and they had good artifacts. The bannings served very different purposes, though. The banning of Urza cards served to stomp down the overall power of the format, eliminating combo decks built around Fluctuator, Tolarian Academy, and Memory Jar.[1] The bannings of Mirrodin, though, were all specifically targeted at Affinity.

[1] From September 1998 to June 1999, ten cards were banned in Standard. Five of them were from Urza block, and five from Rath cycle. Yet Urza gets all the reputation for brokenness, while Rath cycle gets away with Survival of the Fittest, Oath of Druids, Reanimate, and Hermit Druid… none of which were among the five cards banned in Standard. This also means that Mirrodin block had almost twice as many cards banned in Standard than Urza block did.

People might not remember now, but there was a brief, shining moment when Affinity was just another deck. Prior to Darksteel, there were even different builds of Affinity: from all-out aggressive with Atog, to more top-heavy with Broodstar. They were thought of as being relatively weak to the powerhouse sweeper that was Akroma’s Vengeance. And then Darksteel fucked everything.

But let’s back up. Antiquities attempted an artifact theme, but no one liked this set other than singles dealers and Mark Rosewater. It said the word “artifact” a lot, but didn’t give artifacts anything to do. Mirrodin certainly fixes this: it introduces equipment (and makes them key to white’s creatures), it lets them activate for colored mana, and gives every color a different relationship with artifacts. That’s all fine.

What I question is whether it’s possible to make an artifact set that is neither broken nor awful without changing the fundamental nature of artifacts. Artifacts are colorless. If they’re not colorless, they might as well not be artifacts; a colored artifact just for the sake of making it an artifact is no different than inventing a new creature type and slapping it on there.[2] A good artifact will, therefore, see way more play than a good non-artifact spell, because it’s not restricted by color. Because of this, artifacts are, on balance, underpowered compared to non-artifacts.

[2] Obviously, I will discuss this further in the Shards review.

But what happens when artifacts are what your set is about? You’re obligated to push their power level, because otherwise, your set would be half-full of awful cards.[3] You have to do some pretty funky tricks in order to get the good artifacts to not go in every deck: you can give them a strong color identity, like Gauntlet of Might or Vedalken Shackles. That works well, even though the distinction between a colorless artifact and a colored spell is fairly arbitrary. You can narrow them in some way so that not every deck wants them, like Isochron Scepter, or make truly bizarre build-arounds, like Goblin Charbelcher.

[3] For optimists: half-empty of great cards.

Those cards are definitely the successes of artifacts: cool cards that one doesn’t see in every single deck. Eventually, though, when you have to make over 140 artifacts for the set, you run out of great designs like that. Sometimes, your cards just need to be utilitarian and straightforward. Here’s where you make Bonesplitter, Solemn Simulacrum, and Sword of Abbott and Costello, and then things turn to the dark side.

Sadly for this block, I don’t think it’s possible to execute the theme properly. They’ve had multiple tries at it, including two full blocks in the modern era, and it just doesn’t work out. The artifacts either go full Skullclamp and show up in every single deck, or they go in the deck with all the other artifacts… and because your block is entirely about artifacts, that’s almost definitionally going to be the best deck.

The mechanics of Mirrodin are rather uninteresting. Affinity is by far the best-known, and its purpose in the block is fairly straightforward: all your artifacts are now mana accelerants for some of your spells. Your artifact lands produce two mana, which means you should probably play artifact lands.[4] Imprint is another thing that artifacts can do. Entwine is a narrower kicker, which again shows off why every set should just have kicker. You could literally find and replace “entwine” with “kicker,” if you change entwine’s reminder text to rules text. The main difference is that kicker actively makes games of limited more interesting, by giving everyone both early- and late-game plays with more of their cards, and entwine mostly doesn’t. I can play this spell for seven OR nine mana? Be still, my heart.

[4] The blue-black preconstructed deck, themed around Affinity, intelligently played four of each of its artifact lands.

Last week, I discussed Legions in the context of it being, at the time, the game’s best-selling set. Darksteel topped it. Between these sets and Invasion, we can see a trio of ways to sell a Magic set: you can make cards that immediately grab casual players by their huge coolness, or you can make a set that’s genuinely fun to play, or you can take Darksteel’s approach and break the game of Magic.

Oddly, none of the cards in Mirrodin would have needed to be banned if Darksteel hadn’t existed. But by the time people had been playing with Darksteel for nine months, players were so sick of it that they wanted everything remotely resembling Ravager Affinity gone. Where Mirrodin and Fifth Dawn pushed for more color-focused strong artifacts, Darksteel was seemingly on the all-colorless plan. All the modular cards, everything with Indestructible, all of that was pure, undiluted, play-it-in-any-deck artifact. Shockingly, people tried putting the strongest cards in a deck with the Mirrodin artifacts. Well then.

I don’t know how anyone at Wizards thought this was a good idea. My working hypothesis is that everyone was stretched too thin when it came to development (this is what happened in Urza block, after all), especially since I’m sure the meetings regarding the 8th edition card face were endless and consisting of far too many people.[5]

[5] I’ll give in to popular demand and discuss this, and not even behind a pay wall on Patreon. (Did you know you can give me money on Patreon? It’s true!)

At the time, I absolutely hated the new card frame. I thought they looked bland, overly refined at the cost of seeming remotely fantastical, with no differentiation between the colors other than, well, color. They seemed like a card frame that could be used on literally any trading card game, rather than one distinctly for Magic, like the older one was.

It didn’t help that the first block was Mirrodin. Probably the biggest point of contention was changing artifacts from brown to silver, which seems so much more polished and sci-fi. Remember the word “artifact:” these are not “inventions” or “creations” or “technology” or “contraptions,” they are artifacts. No one uses that word to describe something gleaming that was crafted yesterday; it evokes images of unearthing something lost not for mere decades but millennia, something with possible mystic connotations of untold power. No one ever digs anything up and finds it to be goddamned gleaming silver.

The intervening years have not changed my mind. Immediately after the 8th edition card frame is released, Wizards was forced to admit that, yes, the silver borders they insisted were distinguishable from white cards were not, in fact, easily distinguishable from white cards, and they had to dramatically darken artifacts starting with Fifth Dawn.
What’s more, their claims that it was important to have black text instead of white, and that there was no way to preserve the “magic” of old frames while updating them, were dramatically disproven by Planar Chaos. These more recent frames are such a colossal improvement that, upon seeing them, I immediately wanted them to be the frames for all Magic. A card like Harmonize, one of the few printed in both colorshifted and normal frames, looks night-and-day better in the former frame, the subtle tree rings in the text box evoking earth magic instead of green space goo.

Even worse is that, over a decade since the 8th edition frames, they only revisited them to make the bottom of the card look far worse, leaving the rest untouched.

The best thing to come out of Darksteel was the article explaining Skullclamp’s banning. I’ve almost entirely cut all dailymtg articles out of my reading diet, because it’s a
web site that serves no purpose other than a marketing vessel for whatever’s about to come out, but any article about bannings in Standard I pay very close attention to. I’ve read the Skullclamp one at least two dozen times. Unlike everything else about design and development, it has to serve the purpose of explaining something that they are publicly taking the blame for. This requires unflinching honesty, with a real look at how development functions.

The truly sad part, though, is that by banning the most broken card in a broken set, it made the format dramatically worse. Sure, every deck had Skullclamp. There were the Affinity decks everyone remembers, as well as Elf and Nail, and the Goblin Bidding deck that was probably the best of the trio. But at least there were multiple decks. After Skullclamp got eliminated, Affinity replaced it with the conveniently-timed and unfortunately-similarly-named Cranial Plating and actually got faster. The other decks went away, because they weren’t Affinity with Cranial Plating. You could play Affinity, or you could try in vain to get a 60% matchup against it by making your entire deck hate for Affinity, or you could lose.

Banning the affinity components set a precedent that no one noticed at the time: they were banning for fun reasons, not for power level reasons. Would it have been a good deck without artifact lands, but with the other cards? No, but some people would have tried it at FNM. This was deemed unacceptable; in order to win back their customers, they had to go full HUAC and purge anything that was or had ever been a member of the artifact type. This isn’t good publicity for your artifact block.

Because the developers had a suspicion of how powerful the previous two sets were, Fifth Dawn attempted to play things a bit safer. Safe to them, it seems, means printing Eternal Witness, Vedalken Shackles, and Crucible of Worlds.[6]

Cheap snarkiness like that aside, it’s one of the most dramatic victims of the third set problem: Mirrodin and Darksteel had seemingly eaten up all the territory possible in making interesting artifacts, so it had to do something totally different. From the block that brought you “make colorless mana because half the spells are colorless,” it’s… “make all five colors of mana!”
[6] It’s tough to blame them for this last one, since it was the result of the second “you make the card.” People thought it would be a cool anti-land destruction card, or a neat oddball card for deckbuilders. Then we get a bit of character development where the hero ends up being seen as the villain.

I don’t blame them for wanting to emphasize five-color, because five-color is cool. But it stands out even more than Storm did in Scourge, and it’s not just a twelve-card mechanic, it’s what the entire set is based on.

Fifth Dawn is a great argument for two-set blocks. There just aren’t enough good artifact-based mechanics and gameplay to fill three sets. The theme of emphasizing one-mana artifacts, and pushing some vague notion of combo without printing cards that are actually good in combo, makes a bit more sense than five-color, but it ends up feeling incredibly halfhearted and, well, safe. None of it screams “I can’t believe they printed that!”, instead it’s, “well, I guess that’s the best they can print. Makes sense.”

After a dozen years of reading about the two-stage “design” and “development” process, and seeing separate weekly articles on dailymtg for these parts, many Magic players have started to internalize this artificial separation. If anything turns out to be broken, there’s always the rationale of “well, that was a development mistake, not a design one.” Mirrodin block seems like a case of design not working with development to figure out what the power level and Standard implications of an artifact-centric block would be.

If you have artifact lands in a design file, how do you develop those? Can you just remove them when they’re one of the key common cycles of the set, holding up the entire affinity mechanic? How do you develop a card that’s supposed to be a powerful artifact that every deck will want?

Much earlier in the development process, someone should have built a deck using nothing but commons from Mirrodin. Then, they could play it against Standard decks, and realize they already had a problem. It’s not that no one in development knew that Affinity would be good, because even in the Skullclamp banning article, one of the developers is clearly using a Ravager affinity deck. But what was preventing them from seeing that, even without Skullclamp, this would be an oppressively powerful strategy?

By the time it got to the developers’ hands to playtest some games, it was too late. They couldn’t very easily go to their bosses, after months had been sunk into designing Mirrodin, and say “this block doesn’t work, we need another one.” There was too much invested in it already, and too many people were wild over the artifact theme because they like artifacts.

Part of the reason artifact creatures got so out of hand was an earnest belief that, as long as what they were pushing was creatures, they could do no wrong. Yeah, there’s a best deck… but people are attacking and blocking! That’s so much more fun than those combo decks! You’re having fun, right guys? Darksteel is where they discover that, yes, sometimes creatures can be powerful to the point of being degenerate. Not because you untap with them, use an activated ability, and instantly win (that is, using them as though they were any other spell), but because they’re just too good as creatures.

And how do they get punished for this failure of a block, these sets that drove players away from Standard in droves, the apologies they’re forced to make about nine cards (including seven commons) not being allowed in the most popular format? Darksteel breaks sales records. Great work all around, everyone. You’ve forced your customers to buy the most broken product you have.

If it’s not already obvious, I’m substantially more upset by the mistakes of this block than I am with anything spanning from Invasion through Zendikar blocks. For a two-year period, Standard was just less fun because it had these sets in it, and that’s difficult to say about very many blocks.

Oh, and as a parting shot, I think the whole block looks awful. Not only do we get goofy races like cat boob women and elephant guys, they’re made more xXTREMEXx by having metal all over them, like a mid-90s cartoon show with no purpose other than to sell action figures. I’m not sure whether I prefer Cephalid to these half-Gundams, but I think Magic is capable of better design than either of them. I’ll grant that at least they were trying to do something original and unique to Magic, rather than repurposing everyone else’s aesthetic to go onto their cards, but it falls rather flat.

Next week, I’m going to surprise some people: I don’t think Champions of Kamigawa was bad. Eat it, nerds.


Anonymous said...

this is my shit

u da real mvp

Zemyla said...

My favorite part of this debacle was an article that came out called "Skeletons in R&D's Closet", which was Multiverse comments from Urza's block, whose gist was "Look at how stupid we were before this. Good thing we aren't that stupid anymore! Next week, we talk about Darksteel."

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