Tuesday, July 21, 2015

kill reviews: core sets (magic 2010 through magic 2015)

Last week, I opened by comparing Alpha to the Bible. I had one more reason for that analogy that I didn’t mention: much like American conservatives love the Bible, Magic’s conservatives love Alpha.

It’s this love of Alpha that inspired Magic’s shift from its renaissance period (Kamigawa through Lorwyn/Shadowmoor blocks) to its conservative era (starting with Shards of Alara). While Magic 2010 didn’t kick off this period, it summarizes the ethos of Magic conservatism better than any other set.

Conservatives (specifically, reactionaries) are defined in part by their desire to return to a mythical “way things used to be,” back when everything was wonderful and kids had respect for their elders and traditional social institutions. There’s been a good deal of research proving the stereotype that people tend to get more conservative as they age, so it should come as no surprise that as Magic (and its designers) age, the game grows more conservative in ideology as well.

I’d like everyone to go read Forsythe’s essential feature article outlining the ideology behind Magic 2010, with an eye toward a few things: first, the word choice he uses and how it lines up with conservative phrasing and talking points. “Recapturing.” “In the beginning” (literally the opening words of the King James Bible). Talking about “that long, slow transition” as a bad thing.

Second, this article is the best introduction of an important conservative-era buzzword: “resonant.” This isn’t a word that was in Magic parlance previously, either in official or community vocabularies; if one searches for it, it’ll return a lot of very boring articles about physics rather than equally-boring articles about fantasy games or literature. Buzzwords like this are important, especially when they come in a big feature article from the director of Magic R&D. It means that there were many hours of meetings where this word was written on a whiteboard, possibly underlined, and people were invited to brainstorm different things that fall under it. At the heart of every new buzzword is an ideology.

But what is Magic supposed to resonate with? Forsythe is very clear about this: it should resonate with “traditional fantasy.” But what, exactly, is traditional fantasy? A tradition is something passed down within a culture, rather than globally; since Magic is an American game, made by white people, it follows that the tradition Forsythe refers to is the white American concept of what “fantasy” is. Because white Americans hold as an invisible assumption that they are the majority, that their traditions are the traditions, Forsythe doesn’t even need to specify what falls under traditional fantasy. Forsythe simply presumes his reader will see “traditional fantasy” and immediately jump to CS Lewis and Tolkein; it never seems to occur to Forsythe that people might have different ideas of tradition, or even no idea of “traditional fantasy” at all.

Forsythe specifies that M10 replaces “names and concepts meaningless to anyone not already involved in the property” with cards that will make it feel like “the fantasy they know is coming to life.” He is making assumptions about who will, in the future, be interested in playing Magic:  not necessarily people coming from other competitive games, or people worldwide who want to play a card game while hanging out with friends, but people who want to evoke his idea of “traditional fantasy.”

Here’s how I read this: Magic no longer wants to make new things, because new things will not be recognized by the general population. The game should be “resonant” in that everything in the game reminds the player strongly of things they know already. Not that Kavu were the greatest idea for a new race of creatures, but he seems inherently dismissive of the idea of Magic creating a genuinely new race of beings, rather than one that players see and go, “oh, like in Lord of the Rings.”

The grand goal for Magic 2010, from Forsythe’s point of view, is making a core Magic set that’s resonant like Alpha was. Of course, it’ll be filtered through a lens of modern design, nostalgia, and ideology just like the Bible is filtered by people talking about it.

A small irony that sticks out to me is that the attempt to make Magic 2010 resonate like Alpha resulted in replacing Alpha cards with new ones.

In a move that was widely mocked at the time, Magic 2010 was marketed as having half new cards, but twenty of them were extant cards given new names (and sometimes creature types). Savannah Lions became Elite Vanguard, because they wanted it at uncommon and to play up the “soldier matters” theme, while Glory Seeker (a soldier) became Silvercoat Lion… for… hmmm.

One of these changes was replacing Alpha’s Grizzly Bears with Runeclaw Bear. Even if we accept the concept of making Magic resonant with Lord of the Rings and other canonical Western fantasy, trying to make Magic more magical by making Grizzly Bears into Runeclaw Bear is silly. I don’t know what a Runeclaw is. I don’t like reading or saying the word Runeclaw. It seems perfectly normal to me that a wizard would, for a small amount of resources, summon non-magical creatures to assist them. It might not resonate with me in a fantastical way, but at least I know what a Grizzly Bear looks like.  A common vanilla 2/2 does not have to be magical and imposing. It’s a bear.
One of the conservative era’s defining aspects, alongside the mythic rarity and New World Order, is the emphasis on planeswalkers. Any design guidelines about complexity, cultural non-recognition of specific names, or resonance with extant fantasy fall before the specter of the planeswalker. Complexity? Players like them, so they’ll learn how they work, and they’re mythics anyway. People don’t know who Liliana is? Well, they’ll want to know, and maybe they saw some marketing material about her already. They don’t need to resonate with other media, because they’re Wizards’s iconic characters.[1] The biggest example of this contradiction is how a card like “Counsel of the Soratami” is unacceptable because it makes a reference to something players don’t know, but “Jace’s Ingenuity” is a fine name for a core set (even going so far as to replace Arc Lightning with the clumsier-sounding Flames of the Firebrand, but that’s jumping ahead several sets).

[1] What’s always been striking to me is the gap between how hard Wizards pushes planeswalkers as a marketing vehicle and how little the general public seems to give a shit about them. Sure, they’re the default things to cosplay as for the few people doing Magic cosplay, but they don’t seem to have really caught on as key to a person’s identity as, for example, specific League of Legends champions do with people, or even a person’s color/guild identity. Maybe it’s because we’re merely using these characters toward a bigger goal in the game, rather than embodying them. Or perhaps it’s because Magic had such a deep culture, with other iconography that was more important to us, before planeswalkers existed. Or perhaps, as I’d like to imagine, it’s that Wizards is just trying to force characters down players’ throats despite those characters just not being that interesting.

So was Magic 2010, like, a good set? It was… okay. For all their rhetoric about a grand new design for core sets, including giving them prereleases just like Real Sets, Magic 2010 turned out to be about as different from Tenth Edition as previous core sets had been from one another. It was notably more pleasant to draft, which was a definite upside, but looking over the spoiler basically makes it look like any other core set, but with mythics, planeswalkers, and nominally new cards.

Magic 2011, on the other hand, was the genuinely notable core set, and on a card-by-card basis made a much bigger splash than its predecessor. I remembered off the top of my head that M11 had Scry as its one repeated mechanic, then looked at the spoiler for Magic 2010 to remind myself of which one that earlier set had. The answer: none. The tradition of each core set repeating one mechanic was started by M11, and it’s a brilliant idea: it keeps the core set fairly simple, because newer players only need to learn one “new” keyword, and it won’t be that complex. Plus, it gives these sets a Time Spiral-esque opportunity to reprint cards that would otherwise be off-limits.

Scry, as I’ve discussed previously, fucking owns. Foresee might be one of the most fun-to-cast cards ever printed, let alone for a card that was in a core set (but that’s not too surprising for a Future Sight card). It smoothed out draws, making games just more fun for everyone. The beauty of scry, to me, is how difficult a mechanic it is… but in a way that hides its difficulty from newer players. Need land? Move spells to the bottom. Need spells? Move land to the bottom. To them, it’s really that simple. To more advanced players, of course, it’s worthy of entire theoretical discussions. I love scry, and I’m delighted that it’s going to be printed more often in the future.[2]

[2] A guide to drafting Magic 2011: take bombs, then Crystal Ball, then Foresee.

M11’s scry did highlight that library manipulation is still considered a blue thing, and I have the same issues with this as I do with making card draw blue. If Crystal Ball is a printable artifact, then why is there only one card with scry in M11 that’s a color other than blue?

The other issue is that it had five cards with scry, instead of more than five. This would have been the perfect set to introduce scrylands.

While the big ticket cards from Magic 2011 were the extraordinarily powerful titans, their equivalent in Magic 2012 was… the same titans! Again! This plays into Magic 2012’s theme of being completely forgettable.

M12’s mechanic was bloodthirst, a justifiably-obscure Guildpact mechanic that had similar issues to Zendikar’s landfall. If you have creatures that are attacking and hitting, you’re probably going to win the game. Except… now you’re really probably going to win the game, because your creatures get unreasonably bigger (and often harder to block on top of that). M12’s limited format was a great deal faster due to this, as well as the lack of draw-smoothening scrying to help out the slower and less reliable decks. Opening a bad sealed pool of M12 at a Grand Prix resulted in one of the most miserable Magic tournaments I can remember.[3] M11 was designed well enough that the mythic titans were forgivable, but in the faster environment of M12, the turn six blowouts of a Grave Titan against a deck composed of nothing but 2/2s were impossible to overcome.[4]

[3] Longtime readers of mine will recognize this as Grand Prix Montreal.
[4] M12 also introduced My Least-Favorite Planeswalker Design.

When people opposed to “modern art” are confronted with a painting such as a minimalist Piet Mondrian work, their reaction is often dismissing it as something that anyone could have done (such as the cliché of “my five year-old”). Similarly, any twelve year-old who’s familiar with Magic could assemble something resembling a core set by rummaging around their collection, picking simple cards, and making up some new ones. The difference between that twelve year-old’s set and Magic 2013 is the difference between abstract art by a five year-old and a work by Mondrian.

Magic 2013 is credited as being lead designed by Doug Beyer, but everyone associated with Wizards knows who the real author was: Zac Hill. This was the perfect combination, where Beyer provided the high-level view of what M13 was allowed to do, and Hill molded it into a modern classic. The lead developer of another core set was known to complain that all Hill did was test and tweak M13 draft all day. As it turns out, nonstop limited-centric iteration is the absolute best way to design a core set in this era.

Similar to the way Innistrad was constructed, with optional-but-powerful archetypes, Magic 2013 hides its deep archetype-driven draft format behind a visage of simplicity. The timeless draft strategy of “dudes and removal” is just as viable as ever, but decks such as mill, white-based tokens, and BW exalted are possible. Mix-and-match discovery is hidden among the commons, such as how multiple colors have common enablers to play nicely with white’s token-making. Seemingly simple uncommons like Fungal Sprouting aren’t there by accident: that’s an off-color bomb to go with the Exalted plan, in a way that also ties into other decks.

Magic 2015 tried its best to be M13, bless its heart. All the pieces were there: a build-around, creature-based mechanic in Convoke, reasons to play different archetypes in draft, some hidden gems scattered around the rarities, even Kird Ape-esque allied-colored uncommon creatures with activation abilities in that paired color. It just… wasn’t quite tuned as nicely. Convoke, rather than being a nice mechanic that could also get built around, was oppressively the best, with Triplicate Spirits crowding out everything else at common.

I can’t fault M15 for design reasons, really. It just needed a couple more weeks of development iterations to make its cards play nicely with one another. As opposed to my miserable M12 experience, I did team sealed at a Grand Prix with M15, and had a ton of fun both playing the format and divvying up sealed pools into different decks. But I also realize that the same format would have been even better if it was with M13 instead. Too much of team sealed came down to how good the white tokens deck was, with how many Spirits.

And so Magic 2015 ends this era of core sets, not with a bang but with a non-incriminating shoulder shrug. Wizards thought they had solved the problem of core set sales with Magic 2010; the early returns from that set were extremely positive, with Wizards crowing that it was their best-selling core set ever. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough; either that, or it was just excitement for the new and different that faded into realization that every year of core sets would basically be the same, the year just iterated by one. Forsythe had talked favorably of the Madden series, which its devotees unfailingly buy every year. The differences are many between Magic and Madden, though: for one, there aren’t three other Madden games every year with brand-new, more interesting features.

A pillar of conservative era dogma is that players need comfort and familiarity from Magic. As far as selling things to people, this is true in some ways. However, when the marketing tells people that things are comforting and familiar, rather than new and different, it’s hard to get people busting down the doors for it. I might want to buy a new, soft blanket to snuggle, but I’m not going to be camped out all night waiting for the chance to get it first.

The architects of this Magical conservatism say that players crave familiarity, but I’d accuse them of projecting a bit. As the game nears its 25th year, it seems more that Wizards themselves is trying to cling to an ideal past, for the comfort and old-timeyness of Alpha, more than the players are. The conservative era is an acknowledgement that Magic was an exciting and innovative game, but that the new innovations should be more subtle and less surprising (“innovation that doesn’t shock,” to quote Rosewater’s most important essay).

This era aimed to have a basic, non-challenging design, and the sets tuned it from somewhere between M13’s perfection and M12’s sticky blandness. Some of the sets were interesting and useful. That’s the highest praise I can give them, because that’s the highest they aimed.


Unknown said...

You talk about M13 without even mentioning Thragtusk once. M13's year in standard was defined by Thragtusk because the set just before it had Restoration Angel.
M12 was pretty good for Standard, a little bland but functional, but maybe that was just Scars/Innistrad carrying it.

Mario said...

I remember reading that the problem with Grizzly Bears is two-fold: first, its a race of bears existing on Earth, and second, it's "bears". The fact that a bunch of bears is just 2/2 doesn't really make sense, and neither does the fact that, for tribal standardization reasons, it should be "Creature - Bear", because they're several. The second argument also works for Llanowar Elves.

Also, I don't know why bear is still supported as a creature type, when beast would do just fine.

Amarsir said...

A little ridiculous, but I guess that's what I read you for.

It's hard to chalk Magic2010 up to "nostalgia" given that it was designed during the "boy was Time Spiral a mistake" years. I'd say the keyword is accessibility. Sure, not everyone has the same shared culture, but Vampire is a much more understandable creature type than Vedalken or Boggle.

More importantly it was a shift to more top-down design. Scry is a great mechanic, but it's a lot more "resonant" on a Crystal Ball than on a burn spell. 2010 didn't have a featured keyword but it did start this idea which would probably peak around Innistrad. (For better or worse. I don't know if Magic needs shovels, but it is an accessible idea.)

And we can't really complain that they aren't breaking new ground while also saying they push planeswalkers too hard. While I don't personally care about any of their stories I certainly recognize a brandable concept when I see it. Plus I'm sure the Planeswalker-themed movie will bea disaster, so we have that to look forward to.

Unknown said...

Spot-on, as always. With each passing year, the Planeswalker angle seems more and more to me like a sophomore English major's excited attempt to write a novel immediately after learning what a bildungsroman is. (I should know; I've kind of been that person--minus the actual majoring-in-English part.)

I'm very happy this came so quickly on the heels of the last post after waiting so long before that, but now I'm wondering where you'll go next with these. I hope you can find a sustainable new angle.


Unknown said...

P.S. I just got into the AI-creates-Magic-cards thing, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on what, if anything, that says about the actual game.

Anonymous said...

You really stretched this one to fit a political ideology.

It goes without saying, of course, that it's your review and your political ideology and it's entirely for the best, both for you and for overall pan-review quality, if you get to do whatever you want with both of those things.

However: it feels like the stretching weakens the review, especially when you dislike the Conservative Era kicking off with replacing old cards for the sake of replacing them. Reading this and the previous one after the other, it sounds like the CE has way more new stuff and innovation than the BCE. It's quite confusing given what "Conservative" would typically imply.

Overall I think this would be plain better if the contorted political shot-taking were just flat out removed. And this is from someone who agrees that conservatism and bet-hedging is a bane on game design (and a lot of other forms of creativity besides)

BILL GATES said...

No hesitation when I'm castin a spell
I could never be a thug
they don't dress this well

Stroodle said...

I got annoyed with the contorted political potshots (you are not a political theorist, and they are not original or novel potshots, so just stop, it's embarrassing), but I found it difficult to take this seriously once you decided that M10 somehow didn't offer anything new.

The set printed Baneslayer Angel. A *huge* part of M10 and resonance was that the cards that looked good and seemed cool to newer players should *actually* be good. They didn't want new players to look at their awesome dragons and angels and vampires and what have you, and then try to build a deck and be told "no, those cards all suck, you want to playing with nothing but 2 mana instants, sorry".

Moving Serra Angel to uncommon and bringing in Baneslayer as the signature 5 mana angel crystallized this decision in a way no article could. I don't think any magic card summarizes the new card sets more, and probably no other card summarizes the new development philosophy more *in general*.

Also, as far as "reprinting titans" and what have you, that was intentional. The original idea with the new core sets was that the splashy powerful things would stay in for 2 sets - so each set would have the previous splashy things, and a set of new splashy things.

This is why M10 and M11 both had Lightning Bolt and Baneslayer Angel, and M11 and M12 both had Mana Leak and Titans (there's other cards that fit this pattern too).

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Unknown said...

I'm reading through your articles to catch up with the sets I missed between Ravnica and now, and I just saw the art for the M14 slivers. I want to die.

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