Sunday, December 14, 2014

kill reviews addendum: coldsnap

Coldsnap was not a good idea. The execution has its ups and downs, but the core concept of reviving the themes of Ice Age for a set that “completed” that block was bad.

I reviewed the original Ice Age block as my second review. Ah, how we’ve all grown since then. Remember the good old days, when these reviews would come out on a weekly basis? I’m glad that we’ve moved beyond such trivial preoccupations. Readers from way back when will remember that it was an alternate vision of Magic that emphasized marginal value gains and horribly bad creatures over the sort of immersive flavor-based gameplay that defined Alpha. Its mechanics included snow-covered, which had as many cards that punished the player for using it as it did ones that rewarded it, and the rewards were mediocre at best. There was also cumulative upkeep, which needed no external influence to make it bad.

In a world where Coldsnap didn’t exist, a revisit of Ice Age might be an interesting thought experiment for those of us who are incredibly into Magic design at a deep level. The thought experiment level is about all that a revisit of Ice Age is good for, though. There just isn’t anything worthwhile in Ice Age to revisit. There are very good reasons that the ideas in Ice Age, other than one-offs like Necropotence and Brainstorm, disappear in Magic from Tempest forward (Mirage block definitely showed an influence, including Weatherlight’s revisit of cumulative upkeep).

Maybe the best way to do Coldsnap, then, would have been to keep the flavor theme of This Place Is Cold and discard everything else. The actual Coldsnap did not do this. It made a valiant attempt to make cumulative upkeep good, it included slow cantrips instead of fast ones, and snow-covered got a big update.

I remember Jötun Grunt seeing some sideboard play against Dredge decks. That’s the most I can remember any of Coldsnap’s cumulative upkeep cards getting used.[1] Braid of Fire got some hype when the rules changed, and maybe it was in some weirdo combo decks. Cumulative upkeep just shouldn’t be on any cards. Nothing resembling it should be on cards. Paying more and more for cards just isn’t a fun thing to do, and the only way that people will use it is if it’s giving people more and more advantage every time (like the two previously-mentioned cards). But then, is it really cumulative upkeep? It’s drifted pretty far from the core concept, if instead of an “upkeep” (in the sense of payments made to keep something functioning) it is paying the user.

[1] And I even tried to make Hibernation’s End work in a Standard green creature deck; I was much more successful when I switched it over to Protean Hulk/Greater Good.

Why are the cantrips delayed in Coldsnap? Because that’s how it was in Ice Age. Boo. Lots of things were different in Ice Age; they didn’t go back to the old card frame, or print everything to make it feel shitty and look grey with little white circles of printing error all over, or make all the creatures 1/1s for four mana. This is a nostalgic change for something no reasonable person was nostalgic for.

The snow theme, though, was a big success. The invention of “snow mana” was a huge upgrade from the way Ice Age handled snow-covered things, and the way that every color could use it, but decks could decide to what degree they were going to focus on snow (if at all; maybe Boreal Druid is good enough by itself) gives so much more depth to the mechanic that it ever had before. Scrying Sheets turned into at least one very good Standard control decks, especially combined with the absurdly overtuned Skred.

Probably the worst part of Coldsnap was that it was a small set unconnected to the other blocks. This left it completely isolated both thematically and when it came to draft. For some reason, Wizards wanted it to be both a small set and something that was created to draft by itself. I wasn’t a limited player back then, but from everything I’ve heard, it didn’t accomplish this especially well. If you’ve ever drafted triple-small set at a prerelease or on Magic Online, you know the issues: it’s basically like playing Pauper constructed with special guest stars Super Unbalanced Rares. You figure out what colors have the best and most synergistic commons, then you get five of whatever card you want. Small sets just aren’t meant to be drafted.

What I see in Coldsnap are the negative assumptions that people have about Time Spiral: it’s heavily focused on nostalgia. It’s a bunch of inside references to things that almost no one cares about. It’s impenetrable if you haven’t played with those old cards.

Those things aren’t true about Time Spiral, because thatblock was a frank reassessment of everything that had come before in Magic. By focusing on one older set for its source material, instead of all of Magic, Coldsnap restricts itself to only being relevant to the small number of people that were, for whatever reason, really, really into Ice Age.

Not all of Coldsnap’s design was bad; it was simply mired in the bad ideas of a standalone small set directly inspired by an ancient bad set. It’s not in my top five of the worst designed, but it’s probably top three in the worst ideas for sets.


monolith94 said...

As a Northern viking man, I really, really love the flavor of a wintery set. I got into magic around the era of ice age, and just ate up all of the ice-age flavor. So, to me, revisiting ice age is a GREAT idea, just you know, make it more fun.

Unknown said...

From what I've been told, you can explain the problems with the draft format in five words:

Surging Dementia is a common.

Unknown said...

@monolith94: I think the point was that the setting *was* the only good part of the set idea. The others parts of the set idea were what stank, like "make a draftable small set," "revisit Ice Age to complete the block after the fact," and "use Ice Age mechanics indiscriminately." (Okay, that last one's more of an execution than an idea component, I guess.)

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