Sunday, February 8, 2015

kill reviews: zendikar block

When I was first conceptualizing this project, I knew a few things about how some of the reviews would turn out. There would be a spirited defense of Kamigawa, loving praise of Lorwyn, and the whole thing would center around the Time Spiral installment. I also knew that, while people would agree or disagree with different ideas, my attacks on Zendikar and Worldwake would have me most fiercely battling against popular opinion.

There’s no way around it: I think these sets are bad. Not that there were a few things that, in retrospect, could have been improved in some ways… they are outright bad Magic sets, and somehow, they’ve retained support from wide swaths of Magic players.

Let’s look back at previous blocks and think about block design, in the sense of the high-level concept of what every set is supposed to contain. Starting with Ravnica, these started to take shape in a defined way: that block, of course, divided up the guilds in a 4/3/3 arrangement. Time Spiral was past/present/future. Lorwyn/Shadowmoor were interweaving mini-blocks, each of which presented a starting theme in the large set, then twisted it in the small one. The block design of Alara seems to have gotten somewhat muddled in the execution, but the idea is there: the first set introduces five different shards, then they start merging, then they’re violently collided together into a multicolor mish-mash.

Zendikar gives the impression that it didn’t even try. It’s a big set, then the small set has some more cards that are related to the large set, then the third set is (mechanically and thematically) completely unrelated. Other than the large-small-large format, this model could just as easily describe Mirage block from 13 years earlier. Whatever happened to the block design of tomorrow? I’d gotten so used to seeing some big idea from previous blocks that Zendikar was a massive letdown in this area.

Let’s narrow in slightly to the first set in the block. Zendikar was intended to be “the land set.” I’m using the somewhat derisive term “intended,” because it certainly wasn’t the land set like Legions was the creature set or Alara Reborn was the gold set; it wasn’t even the land set like Invasion was the multicolor set. There are only 20 nonbasics in the set, less than 10% of its volume.

What Zendikar emphasized more was its landfall mechanic. Maybe I’m being pedantic here, but I see a big difference between being a set that cares a lot about land, and being a set that cares about when a land enters the battlefield. Other than providing enough mana for expensive kicker spells, the lands didn’t really seem to matter in Zendikar.

Explaining landfall in Zendikar requires talking about its limited format. Rosewater, in his 2010 State of Design, somewhat euphemistically said that Zendikar was “too fast.” It was more than just too fast. It was fast in a way that was completely horrible to play.

A summary of Zendikar limited, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure: take two-drops with two power starting from your second pick until there aren’t any left in the pack. That’s your deck. Many of the effective creatures in the format had landfall, which meant that their primary value was going to be delivered on your turn; ie, when you’re attacking. Your opponents creatures are basically useless now, because they haven’t had any lands enter the battlefield this turn. The net result is that only your turn matters, because that’s when your cards have text. You use your turn to attack your opponent with 2/1s until they die. Fun times.[1]

[1] As a minor additional insult, it was the default to play 18 lands in even the most aggressive decks, to ensure that your 2/1s trigger their abilities. Wheee.

I’m rather upset that the “land set,” which could have been something sweet filled to the brim with cool nonbasics shifted down a rarity or two from their usual place, is instead a land set only in that its main keyword uses “land” in the text. And the keyword happened to ruin the limited format.

There were other factors that conspired to ruin it, of course. The most loathsome is the horrific drop-off in quality that cards have after a few picks in a draft. After the first-pick Disfigure or Burst Lightning is gone, then there are aggressive creatures. Then there’s loads of completely unplayable garbage like Mire Blight, Demolish, Desecrated Earth, etc. etc. The addition of a full-art land was great, and I really wanted to take it around pick eight.

The only apparent attempt at making a draft archetype was the ally tribe. Allies are to slivers what a bunch of 40-somethings rapping at a corporate gathering[2] are to Wu-Tang Clan. Instead of the Sliver mechanic of granting all others its special ability, allies trigger on entering the battlefield to give themselves +1/+1 counters. To start with, they read poorly: a 3G ally with trample is printed as a 2/2, and it gives itself a +1/+1 counter. But more fundamentally, that so many of them were just putting counters on vanilla or French vanilla creatures makes the whole tribe rather dull. Very few of them aspire to do anything as cool as what a common Sliver did for its tribe (compare the rare Harabaz Druid to the common Gemhide Sliver). Basically, adding a bunch of counters just isn’t appealing as making a flying double striking trampling lifelinking army with only a handful of Slivers. Allies haven’t made a single appearance outside of Zendikar/Worldwake, and that’s rather telling.

[2] Or Tha Gatherin, if you prefer.

There were some highlights to Zendikar, of course. Kicker, a mechanic that I lavished praise on in the Invasion review, is still wonderful, and serves a slightly different purpose for the set than it did in that multicolored extravaganza. Again, though, when this or cycling get brought back, it’s a showcase of why those should just be in every set. They’re fun, they smooth out draws, people understand what they do, and new mechanics are just small pieces of those. They’re fantastic technological innovations that, because they have the unfortunate feature of being keyworded, are thought of as “block mechanics.”

Let’s try to zip through to Rise of the Eldrazi before I explode with righteous nerd anger. Unfortunately, there’s a Worldwake in the way. Worldwake was Zendikar, except all the cards got pushed by the developers where they wouldn’t have been in Zendikar. I already discussed the face of the set, in all his mind sculpting glory; Stoneforge Mystic is easily the second most-famous card in the set, and that’s better known for bringing out Batterskulls and Swords than anything from these sets.

Here’s a challenge: look up any card from Worldwake, and ask why it couldn’t have been in Zendikar. Sure, Worldwake has multikicker, rather than the old-fashioned version, but there’s absolutely nothing else that distinguishes it. Cards like the rare cycle of manlands are obvious things that got moved from Zendikar in order to give Worldwake something special. This is what happens when block design fails: we get a set that’s a whole lot of minor tweaks, like we had before block design existed.

I’ll admit something embarrassing: I didn’t draft Rise of the Eldrazi when it was new. Not once. This is mostly due to a lot of moving and losing my established card shops and play groups, but I’m sure I was also a bit peeved coming off of Zendikar/Worldwake. While I wasn’t paying attention, Wizards went and dropped a classic.

Therefore, I did something unthinkable, something I won’t dare repeat for these reviews: I coordinated with friends, and did actual research. That’s right: I drafted the fucking set.[3] My first and only attempt resulted in a red-green Eldrazi spawn-based deck that was rightfully critiqued as being “very My First Rise Draft.”

[3] In case my Patreon donors are wondering whether their contributions aided in this: of course not. Someone else brought the packs, and I paid nothing.

Rise of the Eldrazi capped off the block in the best possible way: it looked at everything Zendikar and Worldwake had done and did the exact opposite. Instead of a vague land theme without providing nearly any lands, Rise of the Eldrazi is about Eldrazi. These are huge goddamned monsters, and you’ll open them even at common, and they’ll go in your decks, and they’re really, really cool. Not just because they’re large creatures, either. Their frames are brilliant desaturations and slightly transparent versions of the normal frames, highlighting that the Eldrazi are literal alien monsters.

But it’s not enough that it’s a set entirely themed around sweet aliens. It introduces the Eldrazi spawn tokens, little 0/1 tokens that can get converted into mana (or used for other things). This might be my favorite mechanic to only appear in one set.

There’s a Starcraft analogy I’d like to make. This seems pretty obvious, since the designers referred to it as “battlecruiser Magic,” but this is something else. In Starcraft, the Zerg aren’t just constrained by the resources of minerals and gas like the other two races are. They also have to worry about their larva, which they need in order to make into units (and from units to buildings). Rise of the Eldrazi, with its spawn tokens, is the only set to really introduce a new resource to Magic.
The uses for this new resource vary wildly: you can buff them into big creatures, you can sacrifice them to trigger various abilities, or you can use them seemingly “as intended” as a stepping stone to casting the real Eldrazi. The number of Eldrazi spawn a player has becomes as important (sometimes moreso) than the number of land. The fact that every deck uses them differently prevents the mechanic from ever feeling stale.

When I asked the draft organizer what it was that made Rise so great, she said that everything that looks like it can be drafted around actually can be drafted around. In Zendikar, the cards that look shitty… are actually just shitty cards. Rise is remarkably efficient. There’s scarcely a card in the set that doesn’t inspire, fuel, or go into one viable draft strategy or another. Where there is normally draft chaff, there are instead foundations of archetypes built around Eldrazi, Eldrazi spawn, defenders, instants and sorceries (a draft archetype built around recurring instants?!), and on and on. In Zendikar, there was aggro, and there was slightly slower aggro, and there were bad decks.

Obvious build-arounds like Allies in an otherwise non-archetype-based draft format are a hollow impression of true archetype-based draft formats. Archetypes can’t be simply inserted into a set, alongside its boring commons; the set has to be built, from the least remarkable card up, into something capable of supporting those archetypes. Allies are a single drop of food coloring in a bucket of lukewarm milk, whereas Rise is a delicately crafted cocktail, each sip revealing more about its ingredients without ever diluting the main flavor.

Zendikar was an important moment in the history of Magic design: while New World Order was instituted during Alara block, Zendikar was the first set built from the ground up using its principles. Opponents of NWO use Zendikar as evidence that “dumbing down” the game led to bad things. This is an exceedingly shallow, anti-progressive (I’d use the term “grognardy”) way to look at design. NWO design is certainly a new genre of Magic design. Zendikar and Rise show the wide disparity in quality that can be created within it. Of all the issues with Zendikar, its commons not being complex enough certainly wasn’t where the trouble lay. The set could even be improved while still simplifying its commons, if the commons were redesigned in a way that led them to being useful in a variety of archetypes (rather than just being underpowered for everything).

It’s certainly possible to design simple, fun NWO commons, as Rise showed. What Rise did exceptionally well was be sneaky about it. Our Magic-playing brains, when we look at commons, want to quickly categorize things into enormous bins: here’s the removal, here are the quality evasive creatures, here are the okay ground-pounders, here’s the chaff. So when someone opens up Kiln Fiend for the first time, they’ll just go “that’s an alright creature,” and move on. When their first-round opponent smashes their face in with a 3x Kiln Fiend deck built around cheap rebound spells, they might reconsider.

I think of packs from sets like Rise as being structured similarly to intricately-plotted thrillers. You’re pretty happy after the draft; you have more 2/1s for two than you could have possibly hoped for in Zendikar. This deck is great! Then you’re sipping your coffee, looking back over what passed by in the first pack. There was that bad defender that gave something haste. Oh, and that other defender that added mana for each one you control. Wait, and the defender that dealt damage for every creature with defen-

The coffee mug crashes to the floor.

However, instead of having the bad guy walk away once you figure it out, like in the film Fight Club I was just referencing, you actually get to put this new knowledge to work. You get to do more drafts, and this time, every card with defender pops out at you.

What about the other mechanics unique to Rise, its levelers and rebounding spells? Those mechanics are just… fine. There’s nothing particularly special about them that makes them better or worse than other creature-based or spell-based mechanics, respectively. What makes them special is that they served as more than just a new mechanic. Levelers were a way to put basically-vanilla common creatures in the set, but make them interesting. They served as an additional thing to do with mana when games went to the point of Eldrazi (like kicker, but for creatures already in play). Rebound could have been just another forgettable mechanic in the vein of Replicate or Overload, but Rise used it as the jumping-off point for an entire spell-based subtheme in the set. How on earth the set successfully fit so many subthemes is a mystery that needs to be solved by every designer and developer of a Magic set.

There’s more to Magic than just limited, of course. Zendikar triggered Lorwyn/Shadowmoor leaving Standard, taking with it the dreaded Faeries and five-color control decks. I blame Alara entirely for the misery that was Jund (as discussed to exhaustion in the last installment), and when that rotated out, this block helpfully provided the basis for one of the most oppressive monoliths in Standard: the dreaded Caw-Blade.[4]

[4] Okay, it provided neither the Caw (Squadron Hawk) nor the Blade (Sword of Harold and Maude). It did give the deck the cards considered banworthy: Jace and Stoneforge Mystic. I’m fairly certain that the “caw” part is an obscure reference to a memorable instance on Magic Online where an event crashed, and an ORC said they would manually add people who said CAW in chat. Even if that didn’t provide the name, though, this actually happened. Hahaha, Magic Online.

EDIT: I've been informed that the deck was originally "Caw-Go," then transitioned into the non-pun name of "Caw-Blade" once it had swords.

While I detested Jund, I admire Caw-Blade in a lot of ways. The deck’s playstyle has a stark beauty to it, a streamlined efficiency comparable to a postmodern sculpture. Most people can’t get over how it pushes out anything other than itself, but once that’s been overcome, it’s amazing what the archetype accomplishes. Never before has a control deck been able to seemingly craft its hand and library into the perfect sequence every game. It’s the only time that a deck full of countermagic, card draw, removal, and one-ofs in the format has approached the consistency of a laser-focused Zoo deck. It somehow played exactly the same game of Magic regardless of what its opening hand was, and I sincerely admire the internal machinery that made this possible.[5]

[5] Counterintuitive as it may sound, I really believe this Standard deck is the reason Preordain and Ponder are banned in Modern.

But still. Even if it’s a deck whose style I admire, any two blocks that create not a diverse collection of competing decks, but a cultlike thing that assimilates or destroys anything who isn’t part of it… there were some failures that went into it. Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that, even after Magic designers and developers learned so much about how to create fun Magic formats, Magic players are better than them at turning it into a bad one.[6]

[6] There’s still an unsolved mystery of Caw-Blade, though. If this gets too “second shooter” for any readers, feel free to move on without this footnote… but Caw-Blade just happened to come at the height of the SCG Open Series era, when extremely good Magic players (who weren’t on the Pro Tour) could make something resembling a living going from one tournament to the other, playing and tuning the same Standard and Legacy deck week after week. The question is: was Caw-Blade a symptom of the sets that went into it, or of the generous SCG Open prize structure? Could any format, if subjected to the same week-in-week-out scrutiny by sometimes-collaborating master deckbuilders like Gerry Thompson, AJ Sacher, and Drew Levin, turn into something where only one deck is viable? What if all those wonderful Standard formats that I adore for their openness, like Kamigawa-Ravnica, were only that way due to a lack of incentive to break them? Keep in mind that as soon as SCG Open “revised” the prize structure into something way less beneficial to grinders (at the time that Planeswalker Points debuted in their hideous first incarnation), the next Standard format seemed to have a wide variety of decks. The “one deck” metagame lasted exactly as long as SCG fully sponsored it.

Moving down my list of to-do checkboxes, it’s Creative Time. Specifically: how did Zendikar do at implementing the idea of “adventure world?” To be honest, I had no idea that Zendikar was supposed to be an adventure-themed world until I read this description after the fact. There are some references throughout the cards telling me that Zendikar is dangerous… but isn’t this, like, every plane in Magic? I was under the impression that every block’s setting was full of dangerous monsters and it’s scary to go into the forest. Okay, so Zendikar is supposed to be one of those “the setting is a character itself” type deals that we hear so much about in film class, but straight-up telling the audience in flavor text that it’s a dangerous place isn’t the way to go about it. The actual design and gameplay should tie into the block creatively, and Zendikar does absolutely nothing along those lines.
For some reason, Zendikar is still held up as a good block. Well, I say “for some reason,” but I know exactly why: because it sold well. It’s pretty obvious that Wizards was nervous about how the set would perform, so they pulled out every gimmick possible to drive sales: new fetchlands at rare, full-art lands, and a “hidden treasures” promotion that occasionally slipped old cards into packs. That last one irks me the most: why are old cards randomly going into Zendikar packs? Wouldn’t that have been absolutely perfect for Time Spiral?

The truth is that any set could have fetchlands (as Khans proved) and full-art lands (as Unhinged proved) and use those to drive sales. That doesn’t make Zendikar’s design somehow better. Zendikar came out not just when New World Order was changing how they designed commons, but also when they made a big push toward acquiring new players. Duels of the Planeswalkers was a phenomenal success, and it featured Nissa Revane on the cover. It also caught a cultural wave of “nerd” things becoming more popular to the mainstream, and a lot of 20- and 30-somethings used this opportunity to try Magic, or get back into it.

Zendikar depresses me, because people can come away with the absolute wrong lessons if they don’t look any further than what was popular. But the block also gives me hope, in that just when my faith in the game was at its weakest, it could come out with one of the best sets in the game’s history. Unfortunately, two years later, a set would come out and do exactly the opposite.

Next time, I’ll have no problem whatsoever understanding the structure of Scars of Mirrodin block. The rest… well, that’s complicated. It always is.


EdgeMage said...

Excellent read. I was not playing during this time (started when M14 dropped) but I always loved the flavor of Zendikar. We can only hope that WotC incorporates the feel of adventure and danger when it releases Return to Zendikar. Thank you for the post. :)

Platypus Platoon said...

The part that depresses me the most is that the lead designer of Rise of the Eldrazi, Brian Tinsman, is no longer with Wizards, so we'll probably never see another design of this level of ingenuity and brilliance. What's possibly worse, Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Zendikar, apparently disliked almost every aspect of Rise, especially how it didn't actually adhere to NWO at common, which was at the top of his agenda at the time. If you listen to Maro's podcasts on Rise, he goes into great depth about why Rise wasn't a good design - the levelers seem to irk him at the most, for their complexity.

I think that Rosewater is, all said, a great Magic designer. But I think there should be room for the Tinsmans of the company to do large set designs whole cloth, too, at come at the problem from a completely different angle.

adamjford said...

To be fair, Brian Tinsman is also responsible for Saviors of Kamigawa, and Avacyn Restored, so not everything he touches turns to gold.

And I think you're overselling how much MaRo "hates" RoE. It definitely did not adhere to NWO, and levelers *were* complex, but I don't think he denies it made for a great Limited environment.

Platypus Platoon said...

He also led designed Time Spiral. I mean, sure, everybody swings and strikes out sometimes, but I'll take the guy who's hit two home runs on four at bats any day of the week.

With regards to Maro - it's less about how much he "hates" Rise, and more about getting fresh perspectives on large set design while he remains at the helm. You can be fairly certain we're not going to see something like Rise again while he continues to be the head honcho, and that is saddening.

B. Moser said...

> or of the generous SCG Open prize structure? Could any format, if subjected to the same week-in-week-out scrutiny by sometimes-collaborating master deckbuilders like Gerry Thompson, AJ Sacher, and Drew Levin, turn into something where only one deck is viable?

The answer is no. Everything in the core of Caw Blade is either broken or over powered. Ponder and Stoneforge Mystic are basically Demonic Tutors. The mystic being a Demonic Tutor with two upsides. These two cards in particular, I have no idea what they were thinking. Unless it was "let's make some new cards for Vintage." Ponder is stronger than a three mana Divination for crying out loud; is 1 mana: Draw two cards, gain 1 life, a balanced Magic card? It's shocking to me anyone would think of playing a deck without blue with Ponder on tap.

A format where the best cards have a semblance of equal power would not be as homogeneous. You put nuclear bombs in people's decks, and their decks will have nuclear bombs.

There's thousands of OCD people playing this game: if it were possible to dominate as much as these Necropotence type mistakes allow, without the proverbial Necropotence, this type of thing would be happening every set. 6 mana cards for 2 mana, good grief.

Unknown said...

Loved the Starcraft analogy! I wasn't playing Magic during Zendikar, but even if I was I don't know that I would have come up with that connection between the Eldrazi spawn as a different kind of resource in the same way that larvae are.

Write more!!! I love the way your brain works more and more with each post!

syrazemyla said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on the "land matters"ness of Zendikar.

(a) You say that there were only 20 nonbasics in Zendikar. How many nonbasics were there in any other large set?

(b) How often do we get lands at common that aren't just color-fixing in multicolored sets? Pretty much never.

(c) If people were playing 18 lands in even aggressive Limited decks, that pretty well shows you that the "lands matters" theme was pretty well.

I mean, I've agreed with you on a bunch of stuff in the past, but you're right; if I agreed with you on everything, it'd be boring.

Lennie said...

I guess the real lesson we learned is that making a land set is a bad idea because lands are boring. They tap for mana, they fix your mana by paying life or coming in tapped, or they can add extra mana in certain conditions. The point is they give you mana, and that's it, so as a result, most mechanics about them are rather boring, as they have very little flexibility

Lennie said...

I guess the real lesson we learned is that making a land set is a bad idea because lands are boring. They tap for mana, they fix your mana by paying life or coming in tapped, or they can add extra mana in certain conditions. The point is they give you mana, and that's it, so as a result, most mechanics about them are rather boring, as they have very little flexibility

J. Fabricio Vargas said...

"Sword of Harold and Maude"

I laughed heartedly.

Joe Cotten said...

I feel like the biggest letdown in the history of Magic is that there isn't a Sword of Crime and Punishment.

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