Sunday, January 18, 2015

kill reviews: alara block

Hope you enjoyed all the chat about Lorwyn and Shadowmoor, because this thing's about to get sad.

During Alara block’s time in Standard, many tournament players played in events using Jund, in a format where it was the only good deck, in order to grind against other Jund decks that varied by no more than two cards. This illustrated to me the great importance of having non-Magic hobbies to fall back on.

Alara block set out to define three-color combinations, consisting of one color and its allies, in a similar way to how Ravnica defined two-color combinations. It did not do this. Instead, it printed a bunch of rather dull three-color cards that ended up getting used in dull three-color decks; those three-color cards said nothing about their shard other than that it could have efficient creatures and general-purpose spells.

I think of Alara block as a failure, but Magic in this period is moving toward something that fails in different ways than earlier blocks could fail. Ice Age block failed like the treehouse of a group of industrious but overly-ambitious children, all their hopes and ideas for a place to hang out crashing down in the breaking of twigs and twine and their project laying in a heap in front of them. Urza block was a shining star that burned so bright it exploded the instant it was exposed to the sky. Masques block aimed so far away from anything resembling fun Magic that it circled back around and succeeded as a commentary on human misery.

Alara block, though, failed like an up-and-coming executive who sets out to change corporate culture who gets the job and turns thirty, forty, fifty years old without recognizing that he long ago became the culture he set out to change. Until the last set of Alara, I see none of the optimism and ambition so overflowing during Magic’s Renaissance era.

If you were playing during this block, a trivia question: what was Jund? What color was it supposed to embody? What were the ideas that expressed themselves mechanically? What was the keyword mechanic? Four of the shards, including Jund, got one.

Jund was the red shard. Its ideology was centered around dragons (Sarkhan Vol makes his first appearance here), though the set only had four of them. Its keyword mechanic, devour, was supposed to embody the strong triumphing over the weak, which is… somehow more red-centered than anything else? It was practically invisible to players, because it was only on seven cards in Shards, and five of them were rare. Jund just wasn’t defined in any interesting way, and it tragically went on to become the period’s defining Standard deck.

I realize that, similar to the review of Mirrodin, I’m focusing a lot on a single Standard deck in a review of the block. But in this case, I think it’s appropriate. Surely, a shard from the block seeing big Standard play should showcase all the immersive power of modern design… right? The deck, to me, symbolizes what Magic design had become: so terrified of printing open-ended combo enablers or powerful control cards, the defining deck is a huge heap of powerful nothing. It’s not fast, it’s not slow, it’s not synergistic, it’s not implementing a specific strategy. It’s just playing the most powerful cards available, and those cards all happen to be in three colors. There’s no counter-strategy to trump it, because there’s no strategy there to react to. Its only vulnerability was the manabase, so the only deck that could consistently defeat it was the blue-enchant-land-based Spread ‘Em that functioned mostly as a satire of competitive Standard decks.

I really hated Jund. Not sure if I’ve gotten that across yet.

It wasn’t just the Standard environment that sucked, though. Limited was hampered by how this inherently three-color format (as the marketing, and the cards, told us) just didn’t have the mana fixing necessary to support that.

From playing a lot of Magic in various formats, I’ve come to the conclusion that decks basically want to be two colors. You only need a few nonbasics or other mana fixing to get good mana in a two-color deck most of the time. Going to three is a little sketchy. Even in cube draft, where the playables are plentiful and the mana fixing is a million times better than in booster limited formats, you have to make some hard picks to get the fixing possible to enable going beyond two colors. In a booster draft environment, where fixing isn’t allowed to be that powerful and everyone is supposed to be three colors, it’s just awful. What’s more, being “a three color deck” is almost always terrible; your mana just won’t work. You want to be two colors with a splash. All of Alara’s tri-colored spells just led people astray.

One of the shitty parts of Magic is that a certain percentage of games just aren’t games because of land issues. We’ve all heard the annoying guy complaining about it to no one in particular about how he just can’t get any lands, but there is some truth there. Something like one out of four games, one player or the other doesn’t draw the lands to play their spells, so they lose. Skewing Magic toward that happening more often—where the game is essentially not played due to land—would have to make the average non-mana-screw game way more fun just to break even against those awful lopsided games. From what I’ve seen of Shards when things actually do work out for both people in the game, the payoff didn’t seem worth it.

Let’s break things down, shard by shard: Jund was unquestionably the one of the five shards that was worst-executed. Esper, the blue-based one, was by far the best. Instead of a keyword mechanic, its gimmick was that all its creatures were artifacts, plus it got artifacts with colored symbols in their costs. Obviously, it also got a lot of “artifact matters” cards. This might seem like the most base possible “we added a word to some cards so play cards with that word on it,” but the fact that it interacted so well with previously-printed artifacts (plus the non-Esper-aligned artifacts from the block) made it a lot of fun to build various Esper decks.

The other three landed somewhere in the middle. Grixis was a bunch of black dead stuff, and the Unearth keyword actually made it into some pretty cool Standard decks. Holding it back, though, were all the restrictions that modern design levies against putting things into play from anywhere but the hand; you had to squint really hard to see it doing anything more “unfair” than normal creature decks just casting spells the normal way. Speaking of which, both Naya and Bant were about casting creatures, and that was the shard. Naya pointed more toward large things with a “five power matters” theme that absolutely no one cared about, while Bant incentivized only attacking with one creature with Exalted and the phenomenally silly Sovereigns of Lost Alara.

Those shards really needed a lot more time in R&D to match the quality that Esper reached. Apart from a couple cards that cared about enabling one specific mechanic, there really wasn’t much tying them together as a shard. And remember: these places were supposed to be entirely separate from one another! We should have instinctively felt how a Grixis card could only have possibly been from Grixis, but the cards just didn’t accomplish that. Only Esper could, by the bluntness of “everything is an artifact.” That worked, though, so maybe everything needed to be as direct as that.

With very little emphasizing the shards’ separation in the initial set, their merger in the second set just didn’t hit with the impact it should have. Conflux may be the epitome of the dull second set: more of the same, plus a half-hearted subtheme that gets dropped by the time the third set comes around. It attempted a return (and ability word-ization) of the Invasion mechanic domain, which was met with a massive shrug. For a mechanic making a return after nine years, it didn’t seem to explore any new territory. Wasn’t there something better to do with it other than bring it back for ten cards with changing it at all? One of them was a reprint from the earlier set, and it’s impossible to distinguish it from the new ones. Not a good sign. Everything in the set that wasn’t explicitly telling the player to play five colors was something that could have been in the first set.

The worst thing I can say about Conflux is that I only needed one paragraph to dismiss it entirely.

Alara Reborn, though, is a different beast. If you drafted the block the first time around, before the inversion of pack order took effect, you know what I’m about to say: the first pack, hey, there are some good cards here. Pack two was a bit rougher, maybe a couple high-tier ones before they go into mediocrity. Then Alara Reborn comes around and hits you with a firehose worth of massively overpowered gold cards. It’s like waking up on Christmas morning to find out that your parents got you a new house… because the current one couldn’t hold all the presents they bought for you.

Unlike the previous two sets, I cannot fault Alara Reborn for conservatism. It is all-in on its “only gold” gimmick, and every card is pushed power-wise to the absolute breaking point. For a lot of them, that meant that deckbuilders got a whole ton of new things to play around with. But a few cards… had cascade.

As a general point of starting research, I always look at Rosewater’s “state of design” for the year covering the block I’m writing about. His 2009 did not mention cascade. If memory serves, the designers defended it at the time and after, saying that it led to fun gameplay, and any power concerns are to be addressed toward developers.

Cascade was fucking stupid. It is so fucking stupid I cannot imagine a reasonable designer playing Magic and going “hmm yes well this mechanic is rather magical” and not “this mechanic is fucking stupid.” Designers might not be the ones that have to decide exactly what mana cost and power/toughness something ends up as, but they should be able to playtest, say, a three-mana 2/2 with your new mechanic and go, “this mechanic is fucking stupid.”[1]

[1] It wasn’t in Shards, but Planechase did print a gold three-mana 2/2 with no other abilities. It defined a Legacy deck for a period of time.

Cascade is inherently incredibly powerful: you get something that could cost only one mana less than the spell you played, so if you hit a spell that costs that, any non-cascade parts of the card only cost one additional mana. This probably means that you would get, say, a vanilla 2/1. Instead, Alara Reborn gave you a 3/2 with haste. That’s so beyond what it should be that it’s just not in the same stratosphere. That’s on the developers, obviously, but I blame the designers, too. They created a mechanic that inherently could not be balanced. And how do the designers respond to this? They basically tell people that we’re wrong, and it is a good mechanic. Nope, sorry.

It might be one of the most tilting things to play against in Magic. Normally, when someone topdecks a good card, unless they explicitly tell you (or their hand was empty and they immediately cast it), it’s basically hidden from the other player. Cascade brings this out into the open. When you cast Bloodbraid Elf and flip cards off the top until you hit Blightning, you are commanded by the card to rub it in your opponent’s face. “Look at what I got off the top!”, your card says out loud to your opponent. “FOR FREEEEEE”, it adds helpfully. If it had just drawn a card, that would have been less insulting. Of course, a 3/2 with haste that draws a card would have been way too good at four mana (as Nantuko Shaman told us). But if it’s the same, but way better? Oh, that’s fine.

What I see when I look at the block as a whole as something that went along same-ol’-same-ol’ to start, then gave us more mediocrity, then went completely off the rails trying to accomplish its gimmick. Alara Reborn being all-gold certainly must have taken some of the coolest cards away from Conflux; the only noteworthy ones that ended up in the second set were the five-color ones like the bizarre-looking Child of Alara, and the card used as the poster boy of the set: Nicol Bolas.

I’m not opposed to the idea of an all-gold set. It’s certainly an idea that grabs you. But the issue is how inherently unbalancing it is to the power level of the block. A card that costs 1GW has to be better than one that costs 1WW, and one that costs GWU has to be better than either of them. That’s just how it works; if it was any other way, there’d just be no incentive to ever play gold cards. So, then, a set with all gold cards has to have cards that are more powerful than a set that’s only partially gold. The tradeoff is supposed to be that they’re harder to cast… but no one wants a set that’s nothing but mana fixing, followed by the set that’s the cards you’re actually trying to cast. Putting my design hat on, the only way to resolve this would be if the non-gold cards from previous sets had something about them that made it more difficult to play them (making them more narrow, or requiring a certain threshold, etc) or the gold cards had to have something that made them easier than most gold cards. Alara Reborn did the latter a little bit with the Borderposts and half-hybrid cards, but those didn’t do anything to quell the rising power level.

But speaking of gold cards, and multicolor in general: Shards block is where I got really, really tired of multicolor as a theme. Invasion was revolutionary, Ravnica made it better, then Shadowmoor brings back hybrid as its mini-block’s theme… and we’re back to full-on multicolor immediately after? That gave us all of one block that didn’t have multicolor as something anchoring it between Ravnica and Shards. When multicolor is done that often, it ceases to be something special. It’s just… another Magic block.[2]

[2] And yet they can’t give us full-art lands all the time for the exact same reason.

The art is worth mentioning in this block, because I won’t be talking about it much in the reviews to come. The reason: Shards set the standard for what all Magic art would look like, and it wouldn’t vary. The style guide would be followed exactly, and no impressionistic or otherwise non-representative art would be allowed in these worlds of mages and spells. It even unleashes the full glory of Steve Argyle on us, and that’s worth a piece by itself.

There’s a reason I chose Alara as the block that starts the conservative era of Magic. It’s the first block where we see New World Order unleashed upon us in its full glory. My precise review is: ehh. They can do whatever they want at common if it leads to good limited environments; later sets would show that it’s very possible. But Alara block was a mediocre way to kick off this new stage in Magic design. The top-level design was promising, but the execution was lacking. The creative didn’t tie into the gameplay. Standard was bad. Limited was bad. It gave us two non-memorable sets, and a third that was memorable only for how broken it was.

Next time, it’s Zendikar block. Did you know that there are people that think Zendikar and Worldwake are good sets? They exist, and I don’t understand them at all.


Matthias said...

In defense of poor old Jund, it wasn't just "the Red shard" but the Green-Red-Black shard, and the strong triumphing over the week is very Green and Black.

But yeah, what a snooze of a set. Alara: who gives a fuck?

The one nice thing they did was the Planeswalker's Guide - Esper and Bant had some fun worldbuilding in particular (canny observers will note a North African aesthetic for the one and a Mesopotamian one that runs though the other, and not just in the Sphinxes,) though the others were rather uninspired.

Unknown said...

I started just before ISD, and I've always been curious about Shards block precisely because I heard so little about it. Now I know why.

@M: Interesting comment on the cultural aspects, going to go read the Guide now...

Unknown said...

ETA: Nvm, not going to go read it; I thought my first Google hit was for a Mothership article, but the first 3 hits are actually all trying to sell me some BS ebook. Screw that.

Adrian said...

NWO started in zendikar according to rosewater

AWJ said...

Gotta disagree with you on Jund. Jund did have a strong mechanical identity, it's just that Constructed "Jund decks" didn't really partake of it--they were "Jund" only in terms of their colors.

Jund's mechanical theme was "dying matters". In addition to the devour dudes, Jund had a partial cycle of uncommon creatures that permanently got bigger each time something died, and some more creatures and a rare enchantment that triggered to do other stuff whenever something died. To feed the death eaters, Jund also had spells that made tokens and creatures that turned into tokens when they died, such as Sprouting Thrinax.

Although it may have been a coincidence, it's worth mentioning that Innistrad's dying-matters ability word Morbid ended up squarely in the Jund colors--green primary, black secondary and red tertiary.

NolalanD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NolalanD said...

Reposted left out a thought.

I thought the shards all had an identity. Down at my FNm the Bant decks would give jund a run. We played the normal bant list : hierarch , Rhox warmonk , rafiq, but also we played jenara and the hammer. Lots of life gain to stretch the games out.

Eventually it was 4-5 color control (bolos) that took over, and then Zendikar swept in like fresh air.

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