Friday, September 19, 2014

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.

Onslaught was seemingly destined to be a financial success, just from its theme. Hey, you know all those cool lords you little players go crazy about? Here’s a shitload. Also, there’s a ton of sweet creatures at rare.

Now’s a good time to talk about set quality vs its sales, and the incentives it creates. Wizards makes money by selling product. It sells this product when it is brand new. The concept of a “back catalog,” the stuff that a record company would make money off from 30 years ago, is completely opposed to Wizards’s financial model, because they get absolutely nothing from anyone buying product that’s more than two years old (usually a shorter amount of time than this, because stores don’t run out of product for quite a while after they re-up). Because of the short-term nature of their advantage from product sales, their incentives are to make things that appeal to people on an instinctual level for that first purchase: “I have to run out and buy a box of this right now.” Then, they like what they open, and they buy more. Then the next set comes out.

What this means is that the set which is initially received positively, and turns out to play horribly, is a success (to them). A set that is initially underwhelming, but plays wonderfully, is a failure, since by the time people realize its brilliance, it’s already a financial bomb.

I admit: I really liked Onslaught when it came out. It had cool creatures (I was super into red-green), the cards were powerful, and I was thirteen. My high opinion of it has faded over time, and I begrudgingly accept my role in this piece as the bringer of that most dull of views: the consensus.

The biggest issues come with how it implements the tribal theme. Back then, we were all so caught up in the idea of a tribal block that we didn’t think about how little the tribes ended up mattering. Goblins were all red, Zombies were all black, Soldiers and Clerics were all white… this means that you didn’t draft a Goblins deck, you just drafted red. It happened to have some good Goblins in it.[1] The draft format was decidedly unchanged from previous ones, simply coming down to picking two colors and taking the good cards. Whoever had more removal probably won.

[1] This might be a bit unfair, since it’s holding it up to the far superior Lorwyn draft format, but it’s still accurate.

Genuine tribal decks did emerge in constructed, sort of. The Goblins deck, which was renamed to that from “Sligh” sometime after people realized that the Goblins tribal synergies were so important, ranged from good to dominant at various points (depending on whether Skullclamp was legal). Zombies made a small amount of noise in Block. Beasts built around the absurd Contested Cliffs. Other than that, there were mostly just… decks. They played big guys, and the biggest guy won.

In limited, though, when tribal synergies weren’t just getting ignored, they were dangerous to the format. The emphasis on creatures, it was thought, meant that creatures needed to carry the burden previously held by spells. This meant a million different on-board effects at any one time. Goblins got Sparksmith, a comically broken common that would nearly single-handedly establish board dominance over pretty much anything. Elves got Timberwatch Elf, another bomb-level common that won every single combat where it wasn’t against a Sparksmith or another Timberwatch Elf.

And Clerics… holy god, Clerics. Clerics’ theme was activating on-board to prevent damage at instant speed. Now, I don’t know how many of my readers have played against these sorts of creatures in limited. Maybe some of you aren’t serious limited players, or you’ve learned the game recently enough that more experienced people got you stuck on “lifegain and damage prevention are for scrubbos.” Let me assure you that activating a creature during combat to prevent damage to another creature is a) incredibly powerful because you win practically every attacking and blocking interaction, b) a slow progression toward the inevitable demise of the non-preventing-damage player, c) unbelievably complex.

There is a reason this sort of thing isn’t in modern Magic. The reason is that it’s horrifying. Say each player has a few creatures of varying size, and one of them has Battlefield Medic. The non-Medicating player has to consider every permutation of attacking, blocking, and where the Medic will prevent damage (depending on the number of Clerics in play at that point; Onslaught’s implementation of tribal counted creatures controlled by either player). Keep in mind that one of blue’s subthemes was changing creature types at instant speed.

And that half of their creatures are probably face-down.

Prereleases for Khans of Tarkir will start happening around the time this gets published. People are going to be playing a lot of creatures face-down. I was extremely curious at how they’d change Morph from when Onslaught did it, because it had a bunch of issues.

The first issue is one they’ve solved very well: blowouts. This scenario has been discussed by many, many people before me, but it’s such a canonically good example that I have to as well. Say each of you has a morph, and your opponent attacks theirs into yours. They have four Mountains untapped. Do you block?

The reason people ask this is that Battering Craghorn and Skirk Commando were both commons, in the same color, with the same converted unmorph cost, in Onslaught. In the above scenario, you had to guess which one your opponent had. Guess wrong, and they unmorph it to eat your guy. This scenario sucks.

The Khans solution to this is to make every creature that unmorphs for four or fewer mana unable to kill a 2/2 in combat and survive. Basically, their solution is to make morph much, much weaker. The signature morph card, one of the few to see real constructed play, was Exalted Angel. Many people wondered whether we’d see a lifelinking version of it one day, and Khans flatly cannot print a morph that good. It can’t even print Zombie Cutthroat.[2]

[2] One of the top picks in Scourge at common, regardless of the color of one’s deck.

There are also a lot of rules issues relating to Morph. People are very consistently confused about basic things: is it revealed when it’s bounced? Can I respond to unmorphing? For Khans, they decided to change… absolutely none of this. I wish judges the best of luck this weekend.

On balance, I don’t think morph is a good Magic mechanic. It’s attempting something simple and cool (the creature is face down!), but anything that makes it powerful makes it not fun. It’s a bad mechanic for serious high-skill players, who hate the added variance and guessing game aspects of a set with a thousand different morphs. It’s a bad mechanic for less-serious players, who don’t know all the technicalities of its implementation.[3] Morph just isn’t something I want to see on turn three of every single game.

[3] Time Spiral, for the most part, did a great job emphasizing the few cool things about the mechanic (the “split card” aspects, unmorph triggers) while minimizing the number of things the morph could be.

Cycling, though, was an unqualified success in Onslaught. Instead of every card cycling for 2, things would cycle for any number of different costs, and have different triggers for doing so. Getting a small effect from a card and replacing it is an uncountably large amount better than having it sit in your hand useless, and it manages to add more decisions to make without bogging the game down in a thousand different on-board options. Plus, Onslaught gives us cool build-arounds in Lightning Rift and Astral Slide, leading to one of the coolest tier one decks ever made, and a new sort of control deck: rather than depending on blue for card draw, it would use enchantments and spells to control the board and make two-for-ones while interacting with stuff the opponent players. Please, just give us cycling in every set. Krosan Tusker should be printed as often as Rampant Growth.

Khans also brings back Onslaught’s fetchlands. These lands are the Sgt Pepper’s of Magic cards, in that they’ve been discussed to death, and everyone tries their best to ignore the negative aspects. They’re certainly the most powerful lands since the original duals, though it took players quite a while to realize their implications with cards like Brainstorm.

The basic conflict about fetchlands is whether or not their shuffling is worth the positive aspect of their fixing. There is certainly a contingent within Wizards that asserts no, they slow down the game, they make players wait half a minute for looking and shuffling just to end a turn or cast a single spell. And they do this once for every fetchland you play, which could be as many as a dozen, for certain decks. I’m sympathetic to this. It’s an odd complaint, in some ways, because of how many people it doesn’t affect: it’s irrelevant online, in casual games, with people who search and shuffle extremely quickly, and in decks with so much fiddly manipulation that they only take up 10% of that time. Though, on the other hand, they encourage players to make heavier use of Sensei’s Divining Top, which is a nearly-unforgivable sin for similar timesucking reasons.

However, on balance, I’m in favor of them. If I’m designing a cube, would I include them? Absolutely. I’d rather have them in Modern and Legacy than not, because they widen the diversity of decks that are possible. Their mana fixing makes games more fun. They have side benefits, such as rewarding extremely technical Brainstorm play, which a certain category of player find fascinating. But they are, for the most part, not so powerful that they’re better than basics. Are they preferable, from a design standpoint, to making functional reprints of the dual lands?[4] Mildly, yes.

[4] Do not reply to this with something about the reserved list. I do not care.

In what Rosewater called “a very influential piece of data,” Legions was one of the best-selling small sets of all time.[5] A few years later, in laying out New World Order, he blames complexity for the lack of player acquisition (and, in other places outside of that article, the overall downturn of Magic sales). Legions provides complexity to the point of comedy. Because every single card in it is a creature, they thought that the solution to board stalls was to give practically everything some sort of ability. New World Order points to Time Spiral for its complexity scapegoat when it should be pointed directly at Legions.

[5] It may have been the best-selling small set; trying to nail down this sort of information is difficult, because Wizards employees only disclose this sort of thing when they’re trying to win a particular argument with the public.

So, then, is it not contradictory that such a great-selling set would possess the attribute blamed for the lack of Magic’s success? Did players buy it, and then hate it? Was it only a hit with those so incredibly familiar with the fundamentals that they didn’t mind the difficulty?

I do not think that is what happened. Casual players were obviously intoxicated by rares like Phage and Akroma, and drooled over the return of Slivers. The actual gameplay that most of the cards provided was irrelevant, because they wanted to get at those sweet, sweet rare Slivers.[6]

[6] And still do: while Legions was a total tournament dud, the Slivers in it still sell very well.

Legions, as a set, is a bunch of creatures that could have been in Onslaught, some unmorph triggers (a concept apparently simple enough that it’s jumped to first-set duty in Khans), Slivers, and a bunch of terrible crap. Let’s focus on the best of these things.

Slivers, as discussed in the Rath Cycle review, were a brilliant idea that wasn’t really executed perfectly in its first go-around, but hooked players strong enough that Slivers were adored regardless. Legions’s Slivers do significantly better at card-by-card design. Unhampered by tight cycles that dictated them exactly, they can cut loose a bit and make some really cool cards. Brood Sliver is maybe the Sliver-iest Sliver ever printed, and Quick Sliver changes the way any deck using it plays by itself. Personally, I defaced a great many Mountains proxying fetchlands in order to try out a five-color Sliver deck as soon as I saw these guys.

Legions also has the Amplify mechanic. It’s boring and sucks.[7] Provoke is a reasonably cool creature combat keyword for limited, and should probably come back in a set that isn’t all fucking creatures.

[7] Fine, I’ll elaborate slightly: it’s almost never going to hit for more than a couple cards, and it’s a useless mechanic on large creatures, because you’ve already played all the smaller ones.

Let’s talk gimmicks. A lot of sets have them, because small sets need to do something other than be more of the large set in order to sell. Legions’s gimmick was a terrible idea. Magic is certainly dominated by creatures, and for good reason: they interact with one another. But removing every noncreature card from a set does horrible things to it. Sometimes, we just need removal spells to prevent your opponent’s bomb from taking over the game by itself. We need to focus the play space on the 3-6 creatures that matter, not get it clogged with 10-20 and make our heads explode. Creatures that attempt to solve these problems end up making it worse, by adding five more lines of text to an already-unreadable battlefield.

Here is the true story of Scourge: the dictate was given that it would be about Dragons, because Dragons are a creature type, and people like Dragons. It was also decided that it would get a keyword, and a non-keyword subtheme that fit into the above. Unfortunately, the development team was replaced by 1920s German Dadaists, who attempted to destroy culture through the lens of Magic cards.

You want Dragons? You will have four of them. We will use the word “dragon” in other unrelated cards. Your bourgeois ideals cannot stand up to the absurdity of life. Your attempts at constructing meaning are a child shouting into their porridge. We will create a poetry of our mechanic, by opening the dictionary and assigning a word to a concept that directly contradicts the dragon you hold so dear. You wish for a tournament-playable Dragon? We oblige with a white creature that gives you a Plains for seven mana a turn, payable in installments. You cannot win. Bladewing, Mind’s Desire, dada m’dada dada mhm, dada 7U 1/1. Of the parts of the “dragon,” we have decided to reference its converted mana cost. You care about flying, and other insignificant things. You will care about a large number placed in a place you’d rather it not be. Dada is life. What is a dragon? A dragon is a word. It is not real, but nothing is, and words are things, and dada is real.

Overall, Onslaught ventured into territory that was simultaneously experimental and impossible to fail. Tribal is too inherently cool to completely ruin, despite its best efforts. In an era of the slow migration toward a Magic consisting almost entirely of creatures, Legions offered an unintentional satire of what such a game would look like. Onslaught was also the first block to be not the first to use a mechanic.

And Scourge was Art.

(This review led to an addendum about Storm.)

Next week, we get Modern and put metal spikes on kitty-cats. Welcome to Mirrodin.


Spencer F. said...

OK, I laughed out loud at the Scourge part. What a terrible design for the Dragon Set! Let's see if the rumored Dragons of Tarkir third set does better.

Also, I just pulled up Scourge in Gatherer, and was shocked by how many cards made an impact on one format or another. Even discounting the Storm cards, there are the Warchiefs, the common landcyclers, Wirewood Symbiote, Sulfuric Vortex, Temple of the False God, Stifle, Siege-Gang, and the Decrees. Obviously they should probably have put the power in actual Dragon cards, but I was impressed nonetheless.

Lark said...

I had originally heard the Legions thing from the guys within SCG, who assured me after writing an article I was absolutely donkeyfuck wrong about sales of the set. However: I have also been told that 'best selling set ever' is somewhat disingenuous, because each set following has a high chance of being the best selling set ever unless the block is a real dud (Time Spiral, Lorwyn, anything fun forever, etc) with Mirrodin outclassing Legions by a big number. Rumors, though.

Which does sort of make me wonder about the stuff R&D says or how they act, implying a certain atmosphere of apprehension about design where stuff like this makes it sounds like players will basically buy anything in ever increasing amounts.

Great article as usual

Telmo said...

I'm glad you found a reason to keep writing with this series, because the bit about Scourge was hilarious

Anonymous said...

"You want Dragons? You will have four of them. We will use the word “dragon” in other unrelated cards. Your bourgeois ideals cannot stand up to the absurdity of life. " Ahahahahaha this whole paragraph was priceless

John Keck said...
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