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Monday, January 5, 2015

kill reviews: shadowmoor mini-block

pt i: this isn’t about magic so just scroll on past if that’s what you’re here for

I’ve been procrastinating writing about Shadowmoor and Eventide for a pretty basic reason: I didn’t play with it. This is also true of every block before Urza’s (and I had a pretty sketchy grasp of everything before Onslaught, really), but that was easily solved by looking at the cards, seeing how they influenced things that came later, and introducing people to these usually-obscure objects.

The sets we didn’t play with can influence us more than the sets we did. Missing a year in Magic means not seeing what decks were around, what cards were popular, what mechanics were pushed to the point of everyone being tired of them… we’re more likely to go “ooh, neat” to a tier-one deck from a time in Magic we skipped, because it wasn’t piloted by the obnoxious smelly wheezy dude at FNM for six months straight, but we also miss out on the nostalgia of some tier-two deck that did something completely bizarre.


A bit of personal biography: I graduated high school in 2007. I had nothing lined up. I didn’t apply to a single college, I didn’t have a job… nothing. After a brief first job that summer, I went into November with no money and reluctant support from parents growing increasingly agitated with my directionless laying about. I had something I wanted to do, of course: I wanted to lie on the couch and play video games all day. We disagreed on whether that was a good idea.

I didn’t hear back from any of the jobs I applied to, but to be realistic, I didn’t apply at all unless I was at figurative gunpoint. When the aforementioned parents demanded I do something with my time, I agreed to start volunteering somewhere full-time instead. The end of 2007 was a good time to do this, because of the most wide-open presidential race in living memory. The establishment was cautiously falling in line behind Hillary Clinton, but I went with the young upstart Barack Obama instead.

After one day of working, they promoted me from volunteer to intern. After three weeks, they asked me if I’d like to go to Iowa for the weekend, with the caucus two months away in January.[1] From there it was paid intern organizing college voters (who were mostly older than me; I was barely of voting age) to—I still have no idea how I pulled this off—IT as the sole IT person in the city of San Antonio, followed by assistant IT for the state of Pennsylvania. I had gone from lazing around don’t absolutely nothing to working 13-17 hour days, seven days a week. Then, I fucked up and didn’t keep track of a laptop being loaned to the campaign. It went missing. The loaner wanted it back. My boss told me I’d get put on the next campaign stop when I got it “squared away.” I didn’t have the money to replace it, so I didn’t get another job on the campaign. I wasn’t that far away from getting a job in the White House if I hadn’t done that. I went back to being a normal volunteer in a different state.

[1] If you’re not intimately familiar with the American election process, that’s okay. It doesn’t make any goddamn sense. People are generally familiar with the system of primaries; some states, notably Iowa, have caucuses instead. The difference is more than a technicality: it’s what allowed Obama to somehow upset Hillary in the first step of the process.

What does all this have to do with Magic? Not a goddamned thing. This is what comes to mind, though, for the period spanning Shadowmoor, Eventide, and Shards of Alara. My interest in things comes in extremely strong bursts. I will enjoy something, and I want everything to be about that thing while I’m enjoying it. Everything I look at, read, talk about, and do should connect to it, or it won’t interest me fully. There are periods in my life where every waking moment is spent making decks and playing Magic; for the period of these sets, that interest was politics. I was refreshing politics-related sites probably hundreds of times daily (not an exaggeration; there were long hours, and being “the IT guy” meant I had to have a lot of availability and sometimes no projects). Right now, I’m in that stage of being into League of Legends. Have you played Nunu in the 4.20-4.21 jungle? Oh my god, let me talk at you about it.

Magic rewards this type of obsession/addiction in the most enthusiastic, encouraging, “yeah that’s totally normal and awesome!”, enabling way possible. The ratio of people talking online about every new development to people that actually play the game is impossibly high. With a game like League, there is literally nothing worth reading about the game itself, outside of coverage of professional play. Magic, on the other hand, has at least five sites that turn out consistent writing from a variety of columnists on a five-days-a-week basis. If you want to read about Magic (which sometimes is the only thing I want to do), you can read about Magic. Its strong literate culture is one of the best things about the game, compared to others.

Now back to your regularly-scheduled writing about Magic.

pt ii: you can stop scrolling now

Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block has a really cool, high-concept idea behind it: DAY. AND. NIGHT. “One block is day, and the other is night,” the creative lead explains, as he drops the mic and walks offstage.

As expected, though, the execution didn’t live up to the idea. The cards seem to downplay the day/night theme, if anything; yeah, it shows that we’re on the same plane, and that some Big Event changed things into this alternate version, but day/night? Eh. The intention was that Llorwyn would have a whimsical (I hate this word/idea) fairy tale sort of vibe, whereas Shadowmoor would be darker, bleaker, and be influenced by the sort of fairy tales where creatures rip little children in two or whatever.

Llorwyn pretty much held up its end of the bargain. Everything is bright and colorful, and even the black cards are suitably harmless-sounding (Noggin Whack! Wait, I used that card name last time. It’s been so long that even I forgot. Morsel Theft!), with colors in their art (Bitterblossom is one of the most beautiful tournament staples). It’s a lot tougher to illustrate a paranoid grimdark version, though. You can’t just have everything shrouded in a black haze; the cards will look awful, and impossible to differentiate.

There was an honest attempt to make things clearly twisted versions of the previous ones, but there were some obstacles. First of all, Magic already did this back in Onslaught block. How well did that work out? Not so great. The transition of Lorwyn to Shadowmoor also just wasn’t stark enough. Yes, Merfolk changed from blue/white to blue/black… but there were a ton of blue Merfolk in both sets. Quick, which one contained Cursecatcher? What distinguishes Cursecatcher as being from the night version rather than day?

I say that, of course, but looking down the visual spoiler of the set, it’s obvious that the attempt really was there in names, art, and flavor text to make Shadowmoor feel totally different from Lorwyn. It could have gone further, but it’s not a subtle change. The color palette really is totally different in Shadowmoor, and credit is due to the art director for enforcing that. So why does it feel like Shadowmoor didn’t succeed on this front?

It’s the theme. Not the day/night one, no: the mechanical theme. Shadowmoor and Eventide, instead of being about creature type, are about color. What does color, as a theme, have to do with the theme of tribal? Nothing. One has to stretch pretty far to find the connecting idea there. It’s just not a good implementation of the day/night idea to retain none of the mechanics from the first part, and introduce completely new, unrelated ones in their place. The second half of day/night should be a darkening, a twisting of the original, not something unrelated. These are, after all, supposed to be in some sense the same creatures as before. Maybe day/night would have been better as two sets, rather than two blocks of two sets.

But that’s not what Shadowmoor was about. At least, not as far as people playing the game are concerned.

pt iii: color as a theme

Shadowmoor/Eventide used color as their theme. This is remarkable not for uniqueness, but how many times it’s been done: first with Invasion, then Ravnica (remember, this was billed as the “Invasion sequel”), Shadowmoor, Alara, Return to Ravnica, and Tarkir.

That’s not exactly fair. Shadowmoor used hybrid as its theme. Hybrid was the most popular part of the most popular block, so the logic went that Shadowmoor would be a huge hit.

I can feel my mind merging with Rosewater for this awful analogy I’m about to make: imagine Ravnica was an Oreo cookie. People loved Oreos, especially the cream part in the middle. MARKETING IDEA: sell people a huge tub of the cream from Oreos! People will buy gallons of it! Eat it with a spoon, drizzle it on your face, yum yum.

Hybrid was certainly the coolest part of Ravnica, they got that part right. It was new, it was aggressively priced, it looked good on a card, and it got all the benefits of being multicolor with none of the “actually having to use multiple colors of mana” part. But when you strip away the newness, you put it on every other card, and the rest of the set isn’t so heavily gold like in Ravnica… what are you left with?

It’s not enough to sustain a set around, let alone a block. Hybrid was a tool, not something to focus on.

The biggest revelation, as told to me via many drafters and draft articles, was that if you took a ton of cards that were hybrid-red, you’d just end up in a mono-red deck. And all the cards that cared about mana symbols and colors incentivized you to do this. You’d even get some side benefits here and there, because your cards were sometimes colors other than red.

Does this sound fun? Do you want to play a format that tells you to be only one color? I do not. At most, that means there can be… five different archetypes. That’s not good.

Of course, I speak ill of Shadowmoor’s draft format at great risk, because I’ve never played the thing. I’m also told, by highly competitive players, that it’s also a very good draft format. This may be because it has certain innate aspects that competitive players got immediately (like, “play one color, idiot”), while lesser players didn’t.

This is what happens when you remove hybrid from its original context. Here’s what the mechanic really is: it’s halfway between a colored mana symbol and a generic one. That’s it, really. When placed in a strongly multicolor environment like the original Ravnica, it serves as important glue. It provides cards that are great in some decks, but not great in every deck. Taking it out of that context, though, the same thing happens that would happen if you made a block that was entirely about Changelings without being about tribal, or if you built a basketball team around Toni Kukoc.[2]

[2] A friend recently told me that I often say something that makes perfect sense, and then follow it up with a really obscure analogy to undo all the clarification I just did. As a shout-out to this, I’m not even going to explain the entire analogy about Toni Kukoc. I know what it is, and everyone else can either figure it out or continue on, befuddled.

pt iv: kithkin

This has to be the dumbest-looking creature type ever heavily featured in Magic. Good lord.

pt v: eventide

As above, so below.

Natasha Lewis Harrington, of gatheringmagic.com fame, described triple-Eventide draft (oh, how I don’t miss that scourge of the prerelease, triple-small set draft) as being an exercise in game theory. There was a best deck, and you had to determine going in whether you were going to force the best deck or draft something suboptimal. I cannot imagine a dumber cycle of commons in triple-small set than the Mimics. Did you realize they trigger off your other seven copies of the same card? I just farted in terror.

pt vi: reputation

My personal reasons for ignoring these sets are totally unrelated to what was going on with Magic. Looking back, though, it seems like everyone else was ignoring the game, too. Internally, they had already started the enormous overhaul of Magic known as New World Order; Shards would arrive with a new ideology, a new emphasis on planeswalkers (why were there three sets with none after introducing them?), and a new marketing push toward acquisition. Shadowmoor/Eventide was the depths of Magic’s sales, and the game was secretly in crisis then (not that their official marketing vehicle, DailyMTG, ever let on that anything was wrong until they were trying to justify changes from what had come before). How much of Magic’s failure at the time can we blame on these sets?

Very little, in my opinion. People look for tidy narratives about certain corporate actions leading to specific results, but there are bigger things at play. The economy was dog shit at the time, and perhaps more importantly, the rise of “nerd culture” hadn’t happened yet.

I can’t go outside in Seattle without being confronted with some combination of Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who in my vision. Those products are the base of marketing teams taking people who identify as “nerds” seriously (the phrase “geek chic” went through my head and I attempted to recoil in horror from myself), and Magic is fortunate enough to have gotten lumped in with that. This sort of tide carrying the product, along with the essential and usually-awful Reddit, was nonexistent at the time. Trying to say that anything about these sets resulted in their lack of sales is missing the broader cultural point. People are buying Magic cards because the culture is friendly to the idea.
But maybe even that narrative is too tidy.

I think the point stands, though. Even if it didn’t directly contribute to the drop in sales, it provided a useful excuse. “We HAVE to overhaul the way we design Magic sets,” said someone with a six-figure salary in a PowerPoint presentation, “just look at these numbers.”

Next time: New World Order hits us with Alara block.

Works Cited

Harrington, Natasha L. “Some comments regarding triple-Eventide draft.” Local booster draft 15.3 (2014): 0:37-0:40. Personal conversation.

5 comments:

Oberon MTG said...

I was looking forward to your review of this miniblock; it was worth the wait. I also really enjoyed the personal anecdote.

markdash said...

You are an American treasure.

Jeffery said...

The personal anecdote was fantastic. I can't help but feel like you may have been set up with the laptop fiasco, but that's just me. In other news, I loved this review as usual. I can't wait to see if the designers have sold us the dream yet or not. I so far am liking Khans, but then again I am a "new" player as far as things go.
As to MOBAs--I think there's not a lot of gameplay content written because of how un-specific you can be about tactics. You're not playing on a chess board. I've only read stuff on DotA thus far since it's my cup of tea, and it's all about "state of mind" and "work on CS".

Unknown said...

I loved your making a works cited section just for a conversation you had--made me grin madly. Keep talking about your personal life and its intersection with Magic; that's good stuff!

Also, you said one of the best Magic insights I've heard in awhile--and you've already got a lot of good insights here!--with, "Its strong literate culture is one of the best things about the game, compared to others." *That's* why I play the game--and by "play," I mean "read a sh**-ton about every day and do a MODO draft approximately once a century."

Mario Pineda said...

A few comments on this one, too:

1) You talk like the economic crisis only took place during the summer of 2008. It didn't. It went on for years, and, to be honest, I was surprised that Magic was on the rise. (Although, actually and like you yourself said, that always seems to be the case on wizards.com. I remember how Legions was the best-sold small set ever, and how Mirrodin was the best sold set for many years, and how the Betrayers of Kamigawa prerelease (!) attracted droves of people. But I digress). But these people knew what they did wrong the previous times, and sales seems to be a very good criterion. When do a game's sales suffer? When the game is boring. Homelands and Masques were the two previous examples. Although correlation doesn't imply causation, this is the best approach, I think.

2) You do have a point when you talk about the rise of nerd culture, and Doug Beyer has talked about how coincidental it was that Zendikar was released the year Avatar was premiered, and Innistrad at the same time The Twilight Saga was all the rage. But if that was all there was to it, then Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings would have been more than enough. It wasn't.

3) In my eyes, there are two other, probably more important factors: the rise of online gambling (Magic, after all, is kind of a nerdish poker) and the advent of mythic rares. I obviously haven't calculated it, but I'm very curious about how many packs you need to open in order to build a competitive Standard deck, and how many you needed to open 10 years ago.

4) When the Planeswalkers were first released, Maro clearly stated that they might not be in every set, probably to give them some breathing space just in case they turned out to be a huge flop. When they realized that they were very beloved, they changed their plan. That's why we didn't see any between Lorwyn and Shards of Alara. Also, I tried to find an article by Zvi about how terrible planeswalkers are for Magic, but I don't seem to find it.

5) You can't really accuse Wizards of not taking risks. They try and, if they fail, they try again... with a variation. Like I said in my other comment, nostalgia didn't work with Time Spiral, so they tried with Mirrodin, and it worked; top-down didn't work with Kamigawa, so they tried Innistrad, and it worked. The Weatherlight saga lasted an eternity, no one knew what was happening, so they gave up on that. Now, they seem to be finding another way to tell the story, and it seems to be working. In my opinion, these people seem to know what they're doing.

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