Thursday, November 6, 2014

kill reviews: lorwyn mini-block

Have we all recovered from the last installment about Time Spiral? Don’t get your hopes up for this one, because regression to the mean affects both writers and Magic sets.

Fortunately for Lorwyn, though, it avoided what seemed like an inevitable drop in quality from the brilliance of Future Sight.[1] Rosewater’s 2007 State of Design described it as a “return to their roots,” and it seems that from a high-level perspective, they didn’t think of Lorwyn as attempting anything revolutionary: it was another tribal set. It would be pretty difficult for them to fuck up a tribal set. Legions broke sales records, and it sucked, so if they spent ten minutes making sure the new one was better than the weirdness of Onslaught, it would fly off the shelves.

[1] Of course, that set wasn’t thought of as powerful on its initial release. One of the enduring memories I have of the Future Sight spoiler season on MTGSalvation is someone with a banner reading “FUTURE SUCK: The Worst Set Since Homelands.”

But Lorwyn was revolutionary, though, in how it improved on what had been attempted in earlier blocks. Onslaught gave each color a major tribe, and then had some smaller two-color ones. Lorwyn, instead, had a main color for each tribe as well as a secondary color. This doesn’t sound like much, and for constructed, it didn’t have much of an impact. Elves decks were still green, Goblins were red, etc. etc., but for limited, it changed everything dramatically.

Say your first pick is a bomb-quality blue card. This is pretty likely, because Lorwyn had a ton of extremely powerful rares (and uncommons, and Mulldrifter). For your next pick, there are probably going to be blue Merfolk, blue Faeries (blue got to be the primary color in both, to remind people that blue is always the best), and good cards in other colors. In a normal draft format, you might have to evaluate which of the blue cards is better, or to take something from a second color… but this is different. You have to evaluate cards both on color, and on the tribe that they support. A blue Merfolk-heavy deck isn’t the same as a blue Faeries-heavy deck, though they often overlap.

This is part of what made Lorwyn, to that point, my favorite limited format ever. It’s certainly a question of taste: some people like limited because of the feeling of scraping together 23 playables, the scavengers in a post-apocalyptic scenario putting together some rust-encrusted contraption that still works. I tend to like higher-powered environments where I can feel like I’ve built something legitimately incredible. Lorwyn is the epitome of this, since the draft decks were really, really powerful. Any reasonably-drafted deck is highly synergistic, with card combinations which would be incredible build-arounds in other formats that are just normal aspects of a tribe in this one.

If Champions of Kamigawa invented the modern draft archetype with Dampen Thought, Lorwyn was the reductio ad absurdum of it. No one could just draft two colors and call it good. It mattered less who was drafting green than who was drafting Elves.[2] Every time I sat down to do another draft, I felt like I was exploring new possible archetypes.

[2] It was me.

However, if the archetypes possible had just been the two-color tribes, and that was it, that would have been rather boring. Lorwyn’s cards, though, and the way they relied on one another in off-kilter ways, led to more weird archetypes than any draft format save Innistrad. One key design decision was making some cards in one tribe that relied on others; Silvergill Douser is an obvious one, and people figured out how good it was very quickly. But there were more subtle incarnations of this, such as the famed Elvish Handservant.

To explain that card, and that archetype, I need to talk about Lorwyn’s best mechanic: changeling. To understand the mechanic is to understand the set, and vice-versa. Creatures with changeling are every creature type. That’s it. This seems pretty straightforward and dull at first, but I assure you, it isn’t. The basic level kneejerk reaction is that one can play a 1G 2/2 with changeling in both an elf deck and a kithkin deck. Fine. Then, with more play, one sees it also dodges Eyeblight’s Ending, gets cast by Smokebraider, and turns on cards like Kithkin Greatheart and BoggartSprite-Chaser. Every time I drafted Lorwyn, I took Changelings higher and higher. Amoeboid Changeling became one of my all-time favorite cards.
Once people realized everything the changelings could do, the logical progression was: what if we draft around that? Like… draft a lot of them. Then Lorwyn really opened up to weird, powerful, cool archetypes. That’s where we have Elvish Handservant.

This card is a 1/1 for G. No one plays that unless it taps for mana, they’re incredibly desperate, or it’s their first time drafting. But since you can get a bunch of them, as they go 10th-14th pick normally, you can combine those with all the changelings you can get your hands on, and then you have a one-drop creature that grows in size every time you play a creature. And those creatures you’re playing are fine by themselves!

There are other changeling-based strategies, of course. Boggart Sprite-Chaser, in multiples, gets pretty silly when you play Blades of Velis Vel to turn them into 4/5 fliers.

And that is the story of how a common 2/2 flier for 2W became a first-pick.

As much as I’d like to pretend like it’s possible to objectively rate Magic designs, or anything at all, it comes down to personal taste. To me, Lorwyn is one of the best draft formats because it perfectly hits everything I want to do when I play Magic. I play Magic in order to build cool decks that do interesting things that I’m not quite sure are possible when I attempt them. Lorwyn enables this in every possible way.

It’s worth going into each of Lorwyn’s tribes. Where Onslaught barely defined them, just making them normal cards in their race, but in greater numbers, Lorwyn gave each a distinct identity that departed in many ways from what had come before.

My beloved elves had a more sinister edge to them, doing their normal mana ‘n’ tokens shtick, but flavorfully, they judged appearance to the exclusion of all else, like modeling agents or users of Reddit. Honestly, though, this didn’t come across in the cards themselves very much. There weren’t many black-based elves worth noting, and the darkness didn’t seep into the green ones at all outside of the names. That minor quibble is probably the most negative thing I can say about this set.

Goblins, though, were incredibly cool. Their long-established tendency to die early and often manifests itself here as a black-based sacrifice theme; the goblins decks in draft would make tons of goblins and use the cute fuckers as a resource to throw at opposing creatures, opponents, and one another. It’s an obvious decision in retrospect to commit them so heavily to black, but it was fairly unprecedented at the time. Combinations of lore and mechanics don’t get better than this, and modern Magic’s obsession with evocative flavor could learn a lot from these humorously-named goblins.[3]

[3] If you go to a cube draft with good players in Seattle, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter an unusual way of deciding who goes first: one person picks a category, like “best movie name,” and each person flips up a card at random. Whoever’s card fits the category better decides to play or draw. There are a lot of categories that lead to funny entries, such as “description of your ex,” “adult film title,” “Lifetime Original Movie,” or “CB trucker handle.” For the last category, Lorwyn goblins are unbeatable. Squeaking Pie-Sneak. Boggart Loggers. Goatnapper. Mudbutton Torchrunner. Stinkdrinker Daredevil.

It’s unfortunate that competitive merfolk decks were straightforward “lords and more lords” affairs, because the blue-white combination of this tribe had some great stuff going on. Their emphasis on board control through tokens was extremely unique, with tap-and-untap mechanics that harked back to earlier Opposition decks (without, of course, anything as broken as Opposition).[4] It’s really, really difficult to design a tribe around being “the control tribe” that still depends on creatures to do anything other than the obligatory 20 damage after you’ve already won, and merfolk in this set do it really well. Most impressively, the good merfolk almost all look completely unplayable. It’s a 1/1 for two mana with a tap ability! The tap ability doesn’t even kill anything, and you have to have other creatures in play! THAT’S your first pick?!

[4] These were tournament decks both when it was initially printed, with Deranged Hermit, and when it was reprinted in 7th, with Squirrel Nest. I don’t want to talk about that, though. What I want to discuss is how terrible the 7th edition art was for Opposition. Who was the art director for that set, and why did they commission everything to look awful? With maybe two exceptions, it replaces decent-to-good art with horrendous art.

This sort of gameplay is what I really would have liked to see out of the Azorius in the original Ravnica block. A bunch of senators gathered around blocking progress on anything would have gone really well with a bunch of blue-white tokens that continuously tap and untap to make sure very little happens.

Speaking of 1/1s for two that seem unplayable, blue’s other tribe was faeries. It took a lot for a basically brand-new tribe (at least, one without prior lords)[5] to saunter on in and swiftly become known as The Blue Tribe across formats, but they were powerful enough to do that. It also helps that, mechanically, they epitomize everything that blue is. They buzz on in whenever is least appropriate for them to do so, they’re small and seemingly insignificant pests, and they just keep doing stuff until that stuff adds up to enough to somehow win the game. Their resulting power level in constructed aside, they’re an absolutely brilliant tribe. They just flitter about fucking with things. That’s them in both flavor and practice. The appeal of them is deeper than just being reasonably-sized for the price (which most of them weren’t); drafting and playing a faeries deck successfully genuinely makes one feel clever. The grimace from an opponent because you’ve played your goddamn stupid 1/1 at just the proper moment… nothing tops that feeling.

[5] Is there some Homelands card that cares about Faeries? Probably. I really don’t care.

Kithkin are white creatures that attack or whatever. They’re short.

Elementals! Back on track. Elementals are basically split in two: there are elementals with evoke in every color that pull half-spell half-187 duty [6], and there are mono-red flamekin that do all kinds of weird shit. What’s cool, though, is that elementals in their multicolored incarnation are basically tribeless and go wherever, but if you want to build around them, you can make crazy five-color concoctions with Smokebraider and friends. I certainly made a bunch of Standard decklists and trainwrecked a bunch of drafts on this idea. This is another example of Lorwyn’s staggering efficiency: so many of its cards do different things in different scenarios that it’s like building from a card pool twice as large as it actually was.

[6] This term originated from Nekretaal, one of the original “comes into play” creatures. Some people seem to believe that it was because Nekretaal was the 187th card in the set. First, Visions didn’t have that many cards. Second, those people have clearly never heard rap music. Third, no it wasn’t.

Giants were one of the set’s lesser tribes. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in the tribe, and due to their inherent nature as huge guys, they relied a lot more on changelings than other races for their early plays. They were most often seen not as a tribe themselves, but as the high end (Cloudgoat Ranger) from kithkin decks.

Treefolk were another of the lesser tribe, but this one went a lot better for our leafy friends. They had a mechanical identity based around having really huge butts, including the most famous card of the tribe, Doran, who turned that into outright aggression. Unfortunately, treefolk were the only tribe of the eight that it was nearly impossible to draft around.

Lorwyn had a bunch of keyword mechanics, most of which were completely irrelevant. Champion was an interesting way to print really powerful creatures at a reasonably low casting cost, with a noticeable but not too severe disadvantage. Evoke put in work for half of one tribe. Clash might be the most laughably unnecessary mechanic ever put in a large set. Why is it there? Is it to fix people’s draws? If you want to do that, then just bring back cycling. Cycling always works, and you don’t have to help your opponent and have a 1/3 chance of making your spell better. That was the most frustrating aspect of clash: you’d see this really minor upside when you won the clash… and it felt like it never happened. Every card had to be played as if it didn’t have the ability, and only the few cards that had decent main effects (Lash Out) saw any play. The “clash matters” attempted build-arounds were comical.

A simple way to evaluate a small second set: does the draft format get better or worse than three of the large set? Triple-Lorwyn was an all-time classic. Lorwyn-Lorwyn-Morningtide wasn’t quite as good. Roughly… two-thirds, I’d say.

It’s nearly impossible to take a format that’s been internally tuned to the degree that Lorwyn was as a draft format, then make another set to fit in there. The Lorwyn cards just weren’t made with Morningtide ones taken into account to the same degree that they took other Lorwyn cards into account. The small set has to do similar things to what the large one was doing, or it’ll feel completely out of place (like Saviors), but it can’t be too similar, or you’re just replacing cards with ones that are minor variants.

Morningtide, to its credit, had a Big Idea behind it: most of the creatures in Lorwyn had race-class identity[7], but Lorwyn only cared about race. Morningtide would care about class. This fundamentally didn’t work with the cards in Lorwyn. Lorwyn had its defined races, most of which had something mechanically unifying them, but it made no effort for its shamans to share anything in common. It just had a lot of cards that happened to be shamans. What this means for Morningtide is that it comes around and shaman is a meaningless card type. It is just matching words with the same word, without any reason those “should” go together.

[7] Elementals (the evoke ones) did not.

Morningtide attempted to define the classes. Sort of. I genuinely thought, thinking back on the set, that all five classes got their own mechanic. Then I looked it up, and they did not. Only rogues got that honor, with prowl.[8] There were fifteen shamans, and none of them share anything in common that emphasizes their shaman-ness. I don’t need to go over each class, because here’s what they do uniquely: nothing.

[8] At the Morningtide prerelease, back when those would have triple small set drafts, I entered one, thought I had a very good deck with a ton of aggressive, synergistic white creatures. I got demolished by a rogue-based deck. Determined not to repeat the mistake, I entered again, and drafted rogues. It was the most lopsided draft I ever played. It felt like I was playing constructed against a bunch of new players’ hand-me-downs. I don’t think I lost a game.

Some sets really feel like they were prisoners of the large-small-small block system. Morningtide tries to avoid this by not having a third small set. Instead, it’s a prisoner of being the second and final set. There’s just not enough space in a small set to develop its own class-based theme while also playing nice with Lorwyn.

Even if it had more space, though, I don’t think that emphasizing class was the right way to go about following Lorwyn. I’m not sure there was a right way to follow up Lorwyn, especially as far as limited is concerned. Do you introduce new tribes, thus watering down the eight from Lorwyn? Or do you print more things that care about the same tribes, making everything feel like leftovers and second-stringers from that set? Perhaps Lorwyn was just too beautiful to taint with non-Lorwyn designs. Even with proper planning, the average set is going to be average. Anything that follows up a 10/10 set is, by regression to the mean, probably going to be worse.

Speaking of beauty,[9] Lorwyn’s art direction emphasized a very different aesthetic than there usually is in Magic. As the “day” of the day/night cycle, Lorwyn has a bright, colorful, storybook-esque feel to it, featuring artists like Rebecca Guay whose style fits perfectly. It seems a bit innocent and childlike, which is a welcome departure from the usual grim seriousness of the majority of Magic.

[9] Holy shit are you seeing how good this segue is? Give me a Pulitzer.

It’s not a bad thing to have a little bit of humor and things other than Large Fightmans Kill Things in our card game. It’s a goddamned game. I’m going to play it whether the cards are named Murder or Noggin Whack, and I don’t know why Magic has staunchly decided that it has to be Extremely Serious All The Time. Are they worried about putting people off with humor and cuteness?

I play a lot of League of Legends. In a general sense, it shares the same sort of generic fantasy environment that Magic has. The difference is that it realizes it’s a game that people play for fun. That’s why it has champions that make jokes, do funny dances, dress up as the Easter Bunny, or replace their enormous axe with a basketball hoop and tell people to GET DUNKED. After a period of time when squirrel jokes were thought to be acceptable, this has all been relegated to things that Magic no longer does. It’s all smug Planeswalkers, and their withering comments are the closest to a joke we’ll see nowadays.

Lightheartedness, bright colors, humor, and Rebecca Guay share something in common: especially in a fantasy context, they’re gendered as female. Guay herself said that the art direction thought of her as “too feminine” to use in Magic. She returned in Lorwyn, of course, when she fit what the art director wanted. The question is: why is femininity something only to be broken out once every decade? We have hyper-masculine art in every set, including the garbage that Steve Argyle calls his work, but feminine-leaning art doesn’t get that status. It’s not a coincidence that, in a game that has at best a 10% female playerbase, the art director is a man, and only a handful of women artists work on Magic compared to oodles of men. Last I checked, fantasy illustration isn’t the toughest field in which to find promising female talent.

Well, that’s enough about Lorwyn. Oh it also has planeswalkers, I didn’t talk about th


DrTandtheWomen said...

what is this the final episode of the sopranos!? Hey David Chase, I want my money back.

Otherwise, Loved it.

keratacon said...

If that was a joke at the end, it was kind of a cheap one. I'd really like to hear your thoughts on Planeswalkers and how they were introduced.

I wish you'd put more into this review other than just talking about limited. Lorwyn is my favorite block.

keratacon said...

Also what happened to that interview and the Coldsnap discussion?

informash12358 said...

Nobody cares about Faerie Noble. :(

Amarsir said...

Willow Priestess was the real power. If by "power" you mean "4 mana for a 2/2 so you can cheat in a 2-mana 1/1."

Anthony said...

I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I loved your description of limited motives: " . . . the feeling of scraping together 23 playables, the scavengers in a post-apocalyptic scenario putting together some rust-encrusted contraption that still works . . . " as well as the "legit deck" philosophy.

Your insights about the artwork at the end are fascinating. I went through your Magic's Art History in 89 Cards post (not the exact title, I know), and I remember you introducing me to the wonderful strangeness of Kamigawa art, but I'd still love to hear more on the art from you. The intersection with perceptions of gender is particularly intriguing to me.

I love your mind! You see things so holistically, like every interrelation is laid out before you in this web and you can just pluck up a particularly shiny strand that catches your eye whenever you want. Anyway, weird similes aside, I can't wait to read your reviews of the sets I experienced firsthand (M12 and on).

BILL GATES said...

"They buzz on in whenever is least appropriate for them to do so, they’re small and seemingly insignificant pests, and they just keep doing stuff until that stuff adds up to enough to somehow win the game."

I lol'd. True as true!

Unknown said...

Great reviews so far! I've been reading them all since I found the site a few days ago, and enjoying them thoroughly. I may not agree with your stances on the sets, but you write about them very well.

As an aside, I believe Code 187 is from Demolition Man, not rap music. It's the term that stands for Murder-Death-Kill, which is appropriate for Nekrataal, and Nekrataal-like effects.

Marshall said...

^ Demolition Man, as well as hip-hop and rap, are referencing the Los Angeles Police Department code for Homicide; ergo if a Police radio called out "Code 187 reported at the corner of Main and Broadway" you'd know someone was murdered. The Murder-Death-Kill thing from Demolition Man is just an elaboration on this code for "future-y" effect.
#andifyoudontknow #nowyouknow

Mattman324 said...

Amusingly enough, Homelands DID have cards that cared about Faeries, though they were typically in Green. It even had a really shitty lord for them - Faerie Noble. More useful, however, was Willow Priestess, which would probably have had a spike in play if Homelands Faeries weren't green (and it wasn't mostly inferior to Elvish Piper anyway).

John Keck said...
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