Monday, March 16, 2015

kill reviews: scars of mirrodin block

When Scars of Mirrodin first came out, I didn’t think much of the set. It seemed to be a bunch of half-hearted callbacks to a not-very-far-gone era that I didn’t particularly want to remember. It’s only more recently that I can look back and see something different: it’s a block not of misty-eyed remembrance of an older set, but a schoolyard bully taunting you by offering you your favorite action figure, only to gleefully destroy it as you watch. This made me reconsider the merits of the block, as I aspire to nothing greater than enjoying the misery of Magic players.

After the lack of meaningful block design from Zendikar and Alara, Scars demonstrated a return to form, finally granting Magic a third block that can be held up to Ravnica and Time Spiral in regard to big ideas behind the structure. Rather than making ten guilds, then dividing them up, or having the thematic unity of past/present/future, Scars borrows its structure from storytelling. First, we are introduced to a character, and see them meet their new surrounding. Then, we see conflict between the character and the other. Finally, there is resolution in the form of the triumph of the character.

Of course, Magic is not a story, and putting story-like qualities into Magic sets will have unintended consequences. Reading or watching a story unfold is a passive activity, one that the audience isn’t complicit in; the words or images that will conclude the story are the ones that we’re going to see, and there’s nothing the audience can do about it. Games are rather different, and brilliant stuff like Hotline Miami or Spec Ops: The Line evokes a different feeling than if we had simply watched those games. We become the violence we witness, we are the ones carrying it out. Magic does something similar with these sets.

Cards are placed into sets with an explicit purpose: that we engage with the cards via putting them in decks and playing them. Thus, we don’t encounter the Phyrexians as we would a traditional villain in a narrative work. In that context, we would normally meet the protagonist, see them struggle against the antagonist, and usually succeed (failure is certainly an option, especially in the sort of work that most influenced the Phyrexians, such as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers). In Scars, though, we are introduced to the Phyrexians as something that we could, if we want, use in our decks. Then, when Besieged is half Phyrexian, we are almost certainly going to turn at least somewhat Phyrexian. And when the block concludes, we are forced to Phyrexianize ourselves. Our only other option is complete rejection of the premise: ie, not using the set at all.

It doesn’t do the Phyrexians justice to just call them the “villain.” They are, if we translate the block into traditional narrative terms, the protagonist. Compared to even the most confrontational of horror/sci-fi works, this is fairly unusual. Letting them win, sure, that can happen, but the audience is going to be against it happening the whole time.

The block structure of a narrative comes with intrinsic weaknesses. The first act of a story is inherently less interesting than the second or third: its job is to introduce the characters and setting to lay the foundation for what’s to come. Magic, though, always has the first set as the large one in the block. What this means for Scars is that the first set is almost entirely stuff we’ve seen already.

Scars of Mirrodin is about 80% Mirran, 20% Phyrexian. This means that 80% is intended to be nearly the same as it was seven years ago… but, of course, the original Mirrodin was completely broken.

The brokenness of affinity did put them in a precarious position if they wanted to return to it: do they revisit the mechanic, but in an obviously neutered fashion where Frogmite costs twice as much mana? Do they make the affinity cards just as good, but make the enablers worse? Or do they replace it entirely? The latter is, of course, what they went with.[1]

[1] This brings up something I’ve been wondering w/r/t flavor and mechanical connections: is the mana cost of a spell an actual thing that manifests itself in the world, where planeswalkers like the ones we have on cards pay that much mana for spells? Or is the mana cost an intentionally artificial construct that’s entirely separate from the things being represented? The question is rather important for affinity, because if we think of affinity as a “weapon” the Mirrans had (as Rosewater put it), then that implies mana cost to be something the Mirrans are in some way aware of; otherwise, mana cost-reducing mechanics make no sense in a world, and must themselves also be constructions divorced entirely from the world these things inhabit. This view is backed up by how affinity can just suddenly disappear from a plane and no one comments on it.

Instead of affinity as the set’s marquee mechanic for the Mirran faction, we get… metalcraft. Since this is supposed to be a straight continuation from back then, replacing this mechanic is like a sitcom replacing one actor with another and all the characters continuing on like nothing happened in the meantime.

Metalcraft is… fine. It is a milquetoast mechanic befitting something whose raison d’être is being Not Affinity, but substitutable at the last minute for that mechanic. The intent was, for limited, that metalcraft would be something that rewarded playing artifacts, but one didn’t need to play too many artifacts to make it decent. It didn’t work out like that in practice, though: the only Constructed decks using metalcraft cards were nearly all-artifact affairs, and even in limited, if your metalcraft deck wasn’t overwhelmingly artifacts, the mechanic just wasn’t going to happen for you.[2] Three of a specific kind of permanent is quite a few to have in play at once: think about how many games of limited you’ve played where you didn’t get a third creature for a while, then apply that to a card type much less frequent than creature.

[2] There’s a specific Gerry Thompson blog post from the time that I want to cite for this argument. The problem is that I can find absolutely no evidence of that blog at all, let alone a specific post. I remember the specific line that 13 artifacts in a metalcraft deck isn’t “a little low,” it means your deck is unplayable.

UPDATE: @drsylvan found it!

But let’s move on from the boring 80% to the Phyrexian 20%. The Phyrexians, at least at first, are basically all-in on infect. Their cards are all about infect and proliferate, which is rather necessary to make them stand out in a large set: it gives drafters the experience of making an all-Phyrexian deck without exerting any more effort than going into a certain archetype.

Readers might assume, based on my previous praise of archetypes like Dampen Thought in Champions of Kamigawa and all the various tribes in Lorwyn, that I love infect for the same reasons. I do not. It has none of the subtlety of a Dampen Thought-style archetype, one which needs to be discovered before it can be played. It also has none of the interesting archetypal overlap of a Lorwyn tribe, with changelings holding it together. There is no changeling equivalent in Scars: if you’re the infect deck, you take the cards with infect and removal. That’s about it. It’s a rather dull deck to draft, one that requires little creativity at any point in the process, and success is mostly about how many other people at the table made the same decision as you at the same time.

This is not to say that Scars limited was all bad. It was a surprisingly diverse, intricate format, with lots of interesting archetypes based around cards like Furnace Celebration. I didn’t do well in the format, but not for Onslaught-esque reasons of them just having that absurd bomb rare or flipping up the wrong morph for me… it was just too difficult of a format for me to learn in a small number of drafts. It’s impressive, actually, how complex the draft format could be while still being faithful to New World Order restrictions.

Infect just wasn’t the good part of the draft format.

If you want to hear praise of proliferate, click on a Rosewater column at random. He’ll probably make an analogy that compares something in current Magic to how cool proliferate was. I don’t blame him for being proud: it’s a really fun mechanic. Recently, I needed a casual deck to play with coworkers, so I made an all-insect concoction that won off 1-power infect creatures, proliferate, and Blowfly Infestation to control the board. When I would proliferate to kill things and add a poison counter, I would feel the skittering plague slowly infesting my opponent. It’s only a great mechanic that can resonate so well: it’s a well-designed mechanic, used on fun cards, in the absolute perfect flavor landscape for it. Why there are only 14 cards with proliferate, I have no idea.

The block got more interesting as it developed. Mirrodin Besieged[3] shifted from 80/20 to 50/50, which let the Phyrexian themes breathe a bit under slightly less harsh constraints. The Phyrexian watermark was used slightly more freely than just “this has infect or proliferate in its rules text,” which lets us see more sides of them. (It turns out they also like killing stuff.) But Besieged is restricted instead by its status as a small set; it is neither the simple return to Mirrodin of the earlier set, nor is it the full-fledged introduction to New Phyrexia. Its place in the narrative is well-established, but take any individual card from the set and ask: what stops this card from being in Scars, if it’s Mirran-aligned, or New Phyrexia, if it’s Phyrexian-aligned? The answer is nothing.

[3] I only recently noticed that the set symbol is the Phyrexian logo overlayed on the Mirran one. Look, I never said I picked up on all this shit at the time.

It did introduce a couple new mechanics. Once again, the Mirran one is impossibly boring while Phyrexia gets the interesting one. It’s not just about what was powerful; I’ve certainly lost enough games to Hero of Bladehold not to talk ill of Battle Cry. But if Hero had been reformatted just to spell out what the ability does, rather than putting that text in italics, no one would have really noticed.

Living Weapon, though, is fucking sweet. It’s so easy to grasp from a flavor standpoint: it’s an equipment! But alive! It’s the sort of mechanic that one can imagine in evocative Alpha-speak that describes the idea behind it, which is generally a good sign for a mechanic. It’s unfortunate that every single ounce of its possible power was siphoned off from all cards with the keyword and shifted to Batterskull. It could have been a fun mechanic with half a dozen memorable cards, instead of a one-card mechanic whose one card is so oppressively powerful.

New Phyrexia is a set of flawed brilliance, and I’m unsure which part outweighs the other. It has some absolutely wonderful individual designs, and it also has the most gamebreaking mechanic since… the original Mirrodin.

More strongly than anything else I believe about it, I’m convinced that New Phyrexia needed to be a large set. It was, after all, originally supposed to be the first set in the block, and they cheated with set size a little bit to give it a few extra cards. This is finally Magic’s chance to give us what’s been hinted at all these years with Phyrexian-named cards; we see all their great leaders and generals… but not even a large set to do it in? There just isn’t space to tell us more about what it’s like to be green, red, or white in Phyrexia. We only get glimmers.

If you want to know about how New Phyrexia ended up like it is, you’re looking at the wrong article. The one to read is this magnificent Aaron Forsythe piece, which might rank in the top five of the articles that most embarrass Wizards, next to preview articles for Saviors, anything about Gleemax, and a young Forsythe chastising casual players. To know this article is to know New Phyrexia.

Please scroll down to #6 and marvel along with me as Ken Nagle, Literally His Job to Design Magic, tells his boss that cards which put players’ cards in other people’s decks are a good idea. And it’s a recurring mechanic for the set. And it’s called “Pwnage.”

Development was spending so much time fending off blatantly terrible ideas like “Pwnage” that they needed a last-minute replacement for a different mechanic (one they can’t even describe at all; I shudder to think what it was if “Pwnage” is the one that’s suitable to tell their players about). This resulted in what will forever be most closely associated with New Phyrexia: Phyrexian mana.

I’m reminded of a lyric from The Mountain Goats: “selling acid was a bad idea, and selling it to a cop was a worse one.” That’s my professional take on printing free counterspells. I’m not sure what else to say about a topic that has so thoroughly been run into the ground by everyone who’s ever had a creature Dismembered while playing against a mono-green deck. Phyrexian mana didn’t feel remotely Phyrexian, unlike every other Phyrexian-aligned mechanic in the block did. It felt like you were playing spells for way cheaper than they should cost. That’s it. When noted cheerleader Evan Erwin is making a ten-minute diatribe against R&D, maybe something went wrong.

So why, with all the terrible things New Phyrexia did, and my nemesis Ken Nagle helming design, do I feel so much affection for New Phyrexia? I really fell for the overall vibe of the set. Magic thematically can portray battles of good versus evil, or even shades of grey. I don’t usually care much about that. New Phyrexia, for the first time, really dwelled on the darker side of every color. The whole set drips with malicious oil, and it feels so unique compared to every other set. If we expand from the set to Phyrexia across the block, never have mechanics been so closely unified with flavor to create a cohesive experience.

Years of reading Rosewater articles have twisted people into seeing Magic from a designer-centric point of view, when only a small portion of the Magic we experience comes directly from the designers. New Phyrexia is what happens when designers turn over a file that is complete garbage, and they have to redesign everything from scratch. And they had to do that on top of their normal jobs, like making limited and constructed fun. And those latter things… are what we think of as Magic.

Scars block’s greatest uniqueness—its narrative structure—is also what holds it back. It is three sets, because Magic blocks have three sets, but the cards within it resist this structure. Really, the block is two sets: Mirran and Phyrexian. The mostly-arbritrary dividing of those sets into Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, and New Phyrexia made all three of those sets individually weaker. Somehow, it’s a great block comprised of bad sets.

Or maybe the block wasn’t good either. When the sets were played together, they combined into a format where the only playable deck was Tempered Steel. It was a force so powerful that even PVDDR resigned to playing that mindless aggressive contraption. I cannot in good conscience look at a block where only one strategy is decent and call the block anything other than “bad.” But I can’t look at a block that so perfectly defined what it means to be Phyrexian and call it a failure. We have reached an impasse.

Next time: I love Innistrad. Then I get sad.


DrTandtheWomen said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to write these. Literally makes my day every time one of these is posted on Reddit.

Unknown said...

"Scars block’s greatest uniqueness—its narrative structure—is also what holds it back. It is three sets, because Magic blocks have three sets, but the cards within it resist this structure. Really, the block is two sets: Mirran and Phyrexian."

I do see what you mean. I'm really into narrative structure right now, and the problem for the block was that the in-between time that a story in traditional form would gloss right over can't be shown very well in Magic. You can't just cut it out--that's like writing, "Boy meets girl, boy gets girl back again," or "Harriet had a tragic flaw; the next day she died from it." But maybe when players experience all the subtle nuances--the shades of gray you mentioned (ugh, I feel somehow like I'm reclaiming that phrase)--then it *is* enough to have The Mainly Mirran Set; The Primarily Phyrexian Set.

I'm curious to see how storytelling evolves to take into account the mainstreaming of gaming. I don't know if there's going to be a total split between traditional forms and interactive forms. If so, Rosewater's "We're doing a TROPE now! Like in a book or a movie, only it's in MAGIC!" style of game design is going to start to look horribly outdated. There's going to be this whole generation of obsolete thinkers who suddenly learn they can't shoehorn one form of media into another. The message is the medium and video killed the radio star, or something like that.

Unknown said...

The whole "pwnage" concept isn't really as much of a waste of time as you make it out to be. Immediately anyone would know you can't mix up people's decks; it's more of a few killed hours on the side trying to figure out the closest way to do it is.

In a lot of ways, this is just another example of how awesome Hex: Shards of Fate can be as it's not limited to what is possible with physical cards. The card they talk about sort of exists in this game: Relentless Corruption. Grab a card off the top of someone's deck, put it in your hand. It's modified to cost mono Blood mana, because permanently modifying cards is something Hex does all the time always. Isn't that the Blackest kind of card draw ever - you don't have another thought, you steal someone else's thoughts?

And want to make a Level Up/Multi-faced card, where your guy has 20 different levels and branching evolution paths? You can do that. Good lord you could do that.

It makes MTG look small and very limited to what's truly possible.

Jim Harbor said...

please elaborate on how you think this will be outdated

Jim Harbor said...

please elaborate on how you think this will be outdated

Firemaw said...

"pwnage" is a waste of time.
similar mechanic, whose gameplay is both better (but not good, per se) and actually possible in a PAPER card game, is Fateseal (/ JtMS ⟨+2⟩).

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