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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.


Invasion’s theme had a broad appeal to it: you have to be a real curmudgeon not to enjoy playing wild multicolored decks. They widen the deckbuilding possibilities, they make creativity more possible at tournaments, and a wider array of colors and strategies are possible, both in constructed and limited. Odyssey’s theme was… a bit narrower in its appeal. By emphasizing the graveyard, Odyssey gave a very specific direction to many Odyssey decks.

This isn’t to say that there was only one good Odyssey-era deck. Quite the opposite: UG Madness and Mono-Black control were block standouts,[1] but Odyssey-based decks like Psychatog, RG beatdown, and Cult Classic Mirari’s Wake made the Standard format very diverse. But Odyssey started a trend that we’d see through Onslaught and Mirrodin blocks: Standard as the battle of the block decks using the block mechanics to overwhelm the less synergy-oriented opposition.

[1] The latter deck made such an impression on its users that people tried to make non-Odyssey versions of it for a decade, in a futile attempt to make up for the lack of Cabal Coffers. It turns out that one of the best lands ever printed is fueling your control deck, it suffers without that card.

A set is more than just some Standard decks, though. Odyssey attempted to turn Magic theory on its head, and it successfully did so. It became not just correct, but a core strategy to discard cards for seemingly no benefit in order to hit Threshold, both in Constructed or Limited. Throwing out a hallowed bit of Magic’s foundation might sound like a sort of populist attempt to show tournament players who the real smart guys are… but this is not what happened.

Tournament players adapt extremely well to cards working differently in different environments, and they crafted an Odyssey-exclusive set of theory that served them well. Odyssey block drafting is probably the height of Magic as a skill-testing game. Do not wager money against a good player in Odyssey block limited unless you have at least a 90% win rate in the format.

Odyssey was, at its core, fucking weird. I can confidently state that it was the Mark Rosewater-iest set ever made, and Wizards internal dynamics and Rosewater himself have changed enough that nothing can possibly top it in the future. Rosewater wanted to break new territory with what a “card” in Magic was, and Odyssey succeeded at that goal marvelously. It had squirrels. It had goofy names and flavor text, because he was in charge of those. It had a cycle of bizarre alternate-win cards, because he likes alternate-win cards. It has cards that read as completely unplayable that are actually rather good, and cards that read as insultingly unplayable that are, in fact, just that bad. It has a cycle of Atogs and an Atog that eats Atogs, with art left over from Unglued 2.

Following Invasion’s brilliant integration of its keyworded mechanics into its block concept, Odyssey’s mechanics are all-in on the graveyard theme. Flashback is among the strongest ever designed for Magic, and it manages to be a lot of things for different styles of player: lower-level players just like the idea of playing their big cool spells more than once, while higher-level ones love how all flashback spells essentially say “draw a card” on the first cast.[2] It would have been a fine throw-in mechanic in any other block, in a similar way to how Buyback was, but in a graveyard-devoted set it does a lot more. The fact that people would be purposefully pitching cards from their hands led to a lot of four-mana Roar of the Wurms, and actually casting it from one’s hand was an amusing oddity rather than just someone casting a spell in a game of Magic. The mechanic is so deceptively powerful that cards with Flashback are almost across-the-board undercosted, and when Innistrad brought it back, there would be no Firebolts or Deep Analysis-type business happening.

[2] Credit Zac Hill for this analogy.

Threshold is more complex. The good aspect of it is that it gave even the lowliest common a very cool best-case scenario, while keeping the overall power level about where it should be. Unlike Flashback, though, with cards that you could just play twice and not have to worry about complex ways to abuse them, Threshold really required you to build around it. You were either a Threshold deck, and cards with Threshold and their enablers are fantastic, or you weren’t, and all Threshold cards are wildly underpowered. Similar to how multicolored cards are allowed to be powerful because not every deck can play them, Threshold is, on average, somewhere between incredible and unplayable… but if it’s unplayable, you don’t have to play it.

This also means that games involving a large number of Threshold cards are pretty straightforward. Can you get to seven cards in your graveyard, and have your Threshold cards in play? Congratulations, your deck is better than your opponent’s. Is this good Magic gameplay? I’d say that it’s fine to have some subset of decks that want to hit a certain point in order to get their power spike (whether that’s in the form of number of cards in graveyard, or seven mana, or five creatures, or no cards in hand), but it’s not a good idea to have such a high percentage of a set’s booster pack to rely on this one mechanic. There probably should have been 10% as many cards with Threshold, and a different, more general mechanic in its place.

Not enough credit goes to the block structure of Odyssey. Instead of relying exclusively on graveyard stuff for three sets, which would have gotten extremely monotonous, Torment gave us a twist: Magic’s first truly color-imbalanced set, with black purposefully better and more frequent than other colors, which were specifically referencing black as a color and its color identity in its cards. I love this twist.

A good thought experiment for any specific set: can you plausibly imagine someone saying that it’s their favorite set ever made? If I stretch, I can imagine that a hardcore “win at any cost” tournament player could name Odyssey, because it made them win so often. Maybe even someone less competitive that loves graveyard synergy. With Torment, though, it’s much easier to imagine. It’s where all the sweet black cards are. Anyone who really loves black spells is going to like Torment. I’m not that person, but I really respect Torment’s ability, as a small set, to come along and drastically shake up both the Limited and Constructed environments that came before. Cards like Mind Sludge, Mutilate, Faceless Butcher, and the aforementioned Cabal Coffers[3] were gasp-inducing for people who expected black to contribute some removal to the black decks, and some bad creatures and more removal to the aggressive ones.

[3] Well, in a footnote.

Torment came at an important time in black’s history. Odyssey rotating into Standard marked the first time since the format’s creation that Dark Ritual wasn’t legal, and lots of people were skeptical. Wasn’t black defined by its usage of Dark Ritual, people wondered; what will it even be able to do without ‘B-> BBB’? After Torment, black certainly had its relative power scaled back from having a Wrath, the best land, and one of the best creatures (Nantuko Shade), but Torment had to forcefully demonstrate that there was a competitive future in the color.

Torment had some other cool ideas in it, but they seemed to play a minor role. I like the concept of black’s ideology seeping into other colors and corrupting them, leading us to other colors paying life for their spells and a cycle of cards themed on mental illnesses,[4] but this could have been played up a lot more. Where was black’s side of the story, showing us that it doesn’t believe itself to be evil, just self-interested? This is supposedly an aspect of black’s ideology, but a card named Cabal Torturer isn’t doing them any favors on that front.

[4] Compulsion, Hypochondria, and Narcissism are great names in this vein. Pyromania is way too direct rather than the vague connections the former makes, whereas Mortiphobia is a made-up thing to fit the cycle. This was supposed to be black’s set, damn it! You ruined it all.

And speaking of things named after mental illness, we have Madness in Torment. It is a powerful mechanic that has the block’s defining deck named after it, despite only appearing on ten cards (none of which were rare).[5] I’m not sure why the mechanic had to be costed as if discarding cards is nearly impossible. In normal games of Magic, when you discard a card, that card is gone. Playing the card instead of discarding it, even if it cost twice as much mana, would still be a great deal: you’d have lost the card otherwise! But instead of them being costed like it’s an added bonus to use sometimes, it’s a monstrously large benefit to casting them for their Madness cost. It was such a powerful ten-card mechanic that it formed the basis of a block deck, which made a dominant Standard deck, which went on to Extended, then even to Legacy and Vintage. Aside from its incredible power level, the fact that the good cards were two in green (supposedly one of Torment’s “bad” colors), one in blue, and one in red… this probably shouldn’t happen in a “black set.”

[5] Odyssey was a wonderful time to be a low-budget competitive player, because the ideal build of UG Madness had zero rares. Even mono-black control had its heavy hitters weighted toward the lower rarities, too; there’s no way that Coffers would be an uncommon in modern design. Magic designers consider it a horrible mistake that you could be competitive without using rares, which says a lot about Magic as a business.

Of course, the issue of the wrong cards being good became even more prevalent in Judgment. This was supposed to be the triumphant return of green and white to the forefront, but… eh. Green was never bad in the first place, having supplied us with the then-omnipresent Wild Mongrel, but white got a shockingly low density of playable cards. Judgment provided nothing near Cabal Coffers-level other than Mirari’s Wake, and that card wasn’t really a green-white deck powerhouse, it fueled a combo deck. Very different vibe than Torment’s black cards that worked with other black cards to make a mono-black deck.

Judgment would have been entirely forgettable were it not for the cycle of Wishes. Even in white’s own set, it can’t get a break: Golden Wish is a five-mana embarrassment compared to the aggressively-costed competition. Black could get anything for 60% of that mana, and that’s in the set that purposefully made black terrible. That quibble aside, I love these cards. For years, they let people use sideboards in a totally different way, and that enabled a lot of creativity: from toolbox strategies, to A+B combo decks that had one card so important they’d play three copies of it plus four wishes for it, to other combo decks that would use Wishes to allow them to pull all the win conditions from the maindeck entirely.[6]

[6] I am irrationally bitter, though, that the Wishes don’t work as they did at the time they were printed. Back then, the exile zone was “removed from game,” and Wishes could get either sideboard cards or RFG’d ones. Since they did this to themselves, this meant that Burning Wish and Cunning Wish could get themselves. Why is this relevant? Because Mirari, from Odyssey, could copy them, thus letting you chain one into the other, giving you the option of spending five mana to get another sideboard card any number of times. There were some builds of Mirari’s Wake decks that literally do not work without this interaction.

I’d probably have more of an attachment to Odyssey block if its aesthetic wasn’t so goofy. I haven’t discussed art much in the past few reviews, but Magic really entered an artistic doldrums with Mercadian Masques, moving to tightly-controlled style guide-driven work, and losing the originality of people like Scott Kirschner, Richard Kane Ferguson, Drew Tucker, and Quinton Hoover. Some of these, like Kirschner, voluntarily moved on to non-Magic projects. Many of them were thought not to be in line with Magic’s new ~artistic vision~, and replaced with more generic illustration. And Hoover, among a few other tragic cases, sees his work transformed into a horrid soulless husk of its former glory.

It is understandable to want your illustrators to know what things look like, and to have a coherent idea of what the races are. But when your ideas are praying mantis dudes for green, and sentient squids for blue,[7] someone should come along and laugh at you until you go back to letting people paint things that aren’t terrible. Cephalid were an awful idea, and the fact that their existence in the style guide, their need to be portrayed just so every single time, crowded out truly original artists’ ability to make the art they wanted is a tragedy.

[7] They decided that they didn’t want Odyssey to use any of the traditional races that had always been in Magic… right before making a tribal block that centers exclusively on the traditional races of Magic. It’s like they purposefully didn’t want cards from one block to be usable with cards from another.

We are finally free of the never-ending Weatherlight saga, and what does the creative team do? Make a new group of people to replace them! This is less than ideal. They are free to tell whatever story they want, and they end up with some sort of incomprehensible mess about the Cabal and pit fighting and a very angry barbarian, and it continues through Onslaught.

These are reviews, so the question is always: “was this a good block?” The answer is usually straightforward. Odyssey block is more complex. Rosewater had a specific vision for Odyssey, and I’d say he mostly got that across. It set out to turn certain things on their head, and it did. The block structure, even if Judgment let it down with mediocre execution, was stronger than almost any block of the era.

Rosewater, in discussing game design as an art, refers to the need for artists to exercise restraint. He sees Odyssey as a set that he was designing for himself, rather than for everyone else to play with. He sees this as a classic mistake that game designers make.

If we connect these ideas, his case that artists need to restrain themselves, put things into their work only if absolutely necessary, and make for their audience rather than for themselves… this is all bullshit. Rosewater and I must enjoy drastically different things. When I think of my favorite creative works, things like Watchmen by Alan Moore, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and The Velvet Underground & Nico, I don’t think of artists restraining themselves, nor of them trying to make assumptions about what the audience wants.

The best quote from this is from Raekwon, about the first Wu-Tang album: “the Wu got something that I know everybody wanna hear, ‘cause I know I been waitin to hear.” Make the things you wish were made.

An artist does not know their audience. They know themselves. They can speak the truth as they understand it; they cannot speak for their audience. Attempting to give people what they want, rather than making the art they want to make, is inauthentic. It is the path of the hack.

So, while I don’t think Odyssey was a great block in every way, its failures were mostly failed experiments, or experiments successful in the wrong ways, rather than straightforward mediocrity. It is an honest block, because (especially for Rosewater’s vision of a Squirrel-filled pun-laden Odyssey, and the idea of black taking over a set) it accomplished what it wanted to. Modern blocks will never experiment this way again, and their failures are of a much less interesting variety. As a game, we learned a lot from Odyssey block, both positive and negative: how to make decks reliant on the graveyard, how “card advantage” is an awful concept, and why blue deserves a better race than goddamn squid people.

Next week: back to Elves and Goblins. There are still squid, though. That’s Onslaught.

4 comments:

Brent Cohen said...

This is my favorite block! I still have my UG madness deck. I also really like the Cephalid. To each his own. Great article.

Garland said...

the mental illness cycle was a cool idea that sort of fell apart after Compulsion. I have no idea how Narcissism is represented by mini-Giant-Growthing. And as you said Mortiphobia is not even a word, I don't get why they didn't just call it "Necrophobia."

I appreciate that the Torment/Judgment color imbalance made drafting Odyssey block weird but otherwise I think it's a shame that they won't do something like that again. The idea of a color taking over a set and getting to sort of prove itself or infect/influence the others is really cool. That they messed up with Green and White is all the more reason I wish they'd try it again.

munchma quchi said...

You make a good point about art as a whole: without taking risks and expressing your own feelings, you're not creating anything special. That said, Mark Rosewater is in charge of designing MTG as a product, as well as an art.

He (and Hasbro) can't afford to alienate wide swaths of the Magic community by going off the deep end every now and again. You can certainly argue that recent designs have swung too far in the other direction, as the game is planned two years in advance and R&D churns out hundreds of new cards a year. However, I think it's unfair to Mark to say he's flat-out wrong about restraint. I'm sure he'd love to go wild with design, release a new Un-set every year, but he has other things to work on, and Magic is a behemoth of business and production that is not so easily swayed.

Consider how divisive certain genres of music are--everyone has tastes, and typically strong ones at that. Despite the fun Mark would have designing (and we'd have playing) a new set that really pushes the boundaries, he and Wizards simply can't afford to turn off so many potential customers. Jobs, revenue, and stock prices are on the line.

munchma quchi said...

Entertaining review, by the way! Thanks for posting.

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