Wednesday, August 26, 2015

kill reviews: theros

As with many forms of media, Magic sets can often be summarized as a collection of influences, and Theros may be the epitome of this. Sure, there’s the obvious aesthetic of Greek mythology, but Theros block is mostly influenced by a few previous blocks. Innistrad influenced its top-down perspective, while Kamigawa told it how not to make such a block.

I had difficulty writing that opening summary; it came out rather dull. But perhaps that’s appropriate, because it’s a good summary of Theros. Here ends Kill Reviews, where I do a by-the-numbers review of a by-the-numbers block.

Innistrad was such a success that Wizards immediately wanted to copy it, but copy it in a more horizontal direction than just making Return To Innistrad (coming October 2017). The biggest difference between the two, in terms of being top-down blocks, is that Innistrad succeeded in transferring an entirely different vibe to Magic. The cards were grim, creepy, and something-bad-is-happening across all colors in a way that was a rare sight since The Dark. Theros had no such alternate vibe from other blocks; the cards were fantastical in a Greek mythology-inspired way rather than “traditional fantasy,” but that latter genre is so inspired by Greek mythology in the first place that the feelings they try to convey are nearly identical. Supernatural heroes defeat supernatural foes, using strength, cunning, and magic; there are archetypes of wizards, warriors, archers, etc. etc. Everything seems to be rendered in a shimmering golden hue.

As mentioned above, Wizards already attempted a block where the aesthetic is lifted from extant mythology: Kamigawa, one of the most internally-derided blocks in the Modern era due to its low sales and perceived alienation of the game’s mostly English-speaking, Western playerbase. Weird eyeball creatures were just too foreign to a culture more accustomed to D&D’s Beholders, so Wizards had to be careful not to make another block that was so distinct from the expectations players had. The solution to this is taking a mythology that the expected playerbase already knows: Greek mythology. Everyone had a Greek mythology book growing up, right? Okay, maybe they’ve seen Jason and the Argonauts. Okay, maybe they’ve seen a few minutes of a Let’s Play of God of War. Close enough.

Kamigawa had some design issues too, of course. Its linear mechanics were more suited to limited than constructed, and its overarching Legendary theme didn’t obviously manifest itself as something one could build around. Theros had a different target for the mechanical theme of the block: this would be the enchantment block.

Here’s the part in every review where I have to reference Rosewater. I can’t take issue with many of his points made in the State of Design covering Theros: “enchantment matters” was done poorly, with all the enchantments in the first two sets not having much of a reason to exist until Journey into Nyx came out. By that time, it was basically two late; one small set’s theme isn’t enough to justify the lack of coherence of the two previous sets.

The most immediately recognizable aspect of Theros were its dual-type enchantment creatures. In the first set, these are strictly fifteen cards with bestow, and five gods; that makes all of them cards that were, at some points, strictly acting as enchantments, or strictly acting as creatures. Born of the Gods broadened this, keeping the bestow mechanic but broadening the dual-type cards to include creatures that had sorta-kinda enchantment-ish effects, like Courser of Kruphix. This led to a lot of ambiguity, because creatures have long had global effects that could be thought of as somewhat acting like an enchantment. It was difficult to remember off the top of one’s head which BotG creatures were enchantments and which ones weren’t, unless they had bestow.

I’m not sure I can call bestow a bad mechanic, because it certainly led to a lot of interesting decisions, but god damn was it a complicated one. I remember having rules disputes a year after bestow debuted about what happened if the target of an aura-mode bestow creature was destroyed while the spell was on the stack, and this was not with new or inexperienced players. The ability seems to have a million caveats and exceptions just to make it play “better;” that is, to make it justifiable to have auras in one’s deck. I’ve heard bestow’s reminder text summarized as: “ignore this reminder text and look it up in the comprehensive rules.” If suspend is too unintuitive to print in a New World Order block, it’s unfathomable to me that bestow was somehow allowed. It seems the product of a lot of very stubborn designers not letting people tell them that it was just too much.

Heroic fared a lot better. It made a great fit with all the auras in Theros, and led to some fairly straightforward linear strategies, both in limited and constructed. One or two obvious build-around are a good thing for a large set, just to give people something clear-cut to attempt while they explore the rest of the set’s themes. The only disadvantage was that indirectly, it led to the flavor text of Fabled Hero.[1]

[1] Okay, there were more disadvantages than that. Some of the more powerful heroic cards were pretty dumb in limited. In the Journey Into Nyx prerelease, I opened Anax and Cymede and won a game on the fourth turn. I felt bad. This is one of the downsides of the mythic rarity: the truly silly rares for limited, like that card and Pack Rat, are more frequent than pre-mythic rares.

Monstrosity is a straightforwardly useful mechanic. Kicker is good, so post hoc kicker for creatures is good for giving people something to sink their mana into.

By competitive usage, though not by number of cards, devotion was the defining mechanic of Theros. It appeared on all fifteen of the gods, as well as seventeen other cards in the block (most of them in the first set, with zero non-god appearances in Journey, to symbolize consumers’ lack of faith in late capitalism).

To me, the oddest thing about devotion is how flavorless it seems for a block that’s intended to be so top-down. What is it about mana cost that makes things more devoted? Is a creature that costs UU just more religious than one that costs 1U? And what’s the deal with airline peanuts? *adjusts tie* But seriously, folks.

Devotion has always struck me as being extremely boring from a deckbuilding perspective: to build a devotion deck, put in cards with devotion and permanents with a density of colored mana symbols in their cost. It’s similar to building a tribal deck, where one just searches for all the playable goblins, except that there’s much less that unites Thassa with Frostburn Weird than there is Goblin Piledriver and Raging Goblin. With a lot of decks, especially green-based devotion, it was even simpler: play good cheap green cards and one or two devotion cards. It made all the devotion decks feel much closer to generic one or two color good stuff decks than something with a synergystic strategy. Many of the devotion decks just seemed like old Jund variants.

My bottom-line reaction to Theros was that it was a serviceable Magic set. Not much in it genuinely excited me, because I didn’t see much I really wanted to build around in either constructed or limited, but I wasn’t mad at it. Born of the Gods, on the other hand, was one of the most phoned-in sets since Dragon’s Maze. (To be fair, that was the most recent small expansion.)

I don’t even know how to review Born of the Gods, because there’s just nothing there. There are no new themes to separate it from the first set. There are, as mentioned, enchantment creatures without bestow. There are cards with inspired, a variant on Shadowmoor’s untapping mechanic. BotG was the most blatant failure of block design, and makes me wonder whether the entire concept of carving out unique space for each set years ahead of time was abandoned once upper management called a lot of meetings to discuss What Went Wrong With Magic. That conspiratorial hypothesis seems less likely than the alternative, though: that someone had an idea of the block design, and it got completely lost in execution.

Journey Into Nyx got a lot of shit, but I’m honestly pretty disappointed it wasn’t a bigger hit. This was, finally, the real Enchantment Set that I’d been waiting for. Sure, it still had enchantment creatures, but it also had… lots of enchantments! Real enchantments! Enchantments to build new decks around, enchantments to go in decks that previously had no need for enchantments, enchantments that make you want to play other enchantments.[2] Even the bad cards like Skybind[3] are things that inspire me to write down a bunch of terrible lists with twelve other increasingly unplayable cards.

[2] I immediately dropped hundreds of dollars on a three-color control/combo constellation deck, took it to FNM twice, and pronounced it absolute garbage, never touching it again.

[3] Yes, the deck had Skybind.

The biggest issue I have with Journey is that it wasn’t the entire block. Constellation needed support from the other sets, to have the density required to inspire a variety of different constellation decks, rather than just one or two based on the few constructed-worthy cards with the mechanic. It could have inspired a lot of diversity, since constellation could end up in any genre of deck, due to how many creatures, control-oriented cards, and combo-enablers were enchantments. That’s just daydreaming, though. The previous sets just had lots of enchantments, but no reason to really care about them outside of the third set. It was just bad planning.[4]

[4] Again, I’m just agreeing with Rosewater on a lot of this, so it should sound pretty familiar.

The word that comes to mind to describe the block is “uninspired.” With Innistrad, I at least felt like there were some new aesthetic ideas to the game; the first set succeeded, as every large set should, in creating a cohesive alternate vision of what Magic can look like. Greek mythology is just such an incredibly obvious touchstone that it brought nothing new to Magic, and Magic brought nothing new in terms of modern interpretations of Greek mythology. A Greek mythology block could have been interesting if it made me go back and reevaluate the themes and ideology of that canon. That didn’t happen with Theros, though. It’s straightforward “A + B,” like a T-shirt with a mashup of Pokemon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Firefly and Star Trek, or Doctor Who and literally anything.

Maybe that was intentional, though. The target audience of Magic are people who are prone to absolutely adoring that kind of mashup, and art-as-collection-of-references like an Ernest Cline novel. It makes sense that a successful Magic formula would be two things the audience already knows.

It’s more than fine to have noticeable influences. It’s almost always necessary. But it’s important that these are diverse influences. Going into a new work with only one touchstone just leaves the work as a pale impression of that previous thing (what I think of as “the fanfiction problem.”) Theros is only influenced, in broad terms, by two things: Greek mythology and previous Magic sets. It’s an example of how Magic risks becoming such an introverted game that it only ever is influenced by itself, in a similar fashion to what’s become of modern fighting games, completely devoid of ideas that can’t be expressed in terms of variants on other fighting games.[5]

[5] This is also how I think of metal (the music genre).

Looking at Theros as a block makes me feel like a depressed person who’s been married for decades, looking at his husband wondering: “is this really all there is? Is this what I’ve devoted my life to?” It wasn’t outwardly bad or outrageous enough to make me throw away my cards in disgust and write an angry, year-long review series, but it did nothing to spark my creativity until the final set of the block.

And so ends the review portion of Kill Reviews. Let down? So am I.


King Zora said...

its over? are you gonna do khans?

KillGoldfish said...

no, khans isn't far enough in the past to be able to do a good review.

_ J said...

Out of curiosity, how far away does it need to be before you'll consider a Kill Review?

Alternatively, will you be adding a "Kill Experiences" series where you talk about a set or block as you play it, and then do a Kill Review however many months later?

I ask because this series has been utterly essential for me in "catching up" after a ten-year absence from the game, and I would hate to see it go away entirely.

While we're on that topic, thanks again for all of your work so far. :) It's greatly appreciated.

Make said...

I can't find the Return to Ravnica review. Did you skip it?

Sanctaphrax said...

The RtR not-review is here:

Anyway, Fabled Hero's flavour text is awesome and I can't imagine why you'd object to it. There's other stuff in here I disagree with, but it's all matter-of-opinion stuff. Fabled Hero's flavour text is objectively good.

Ruvyn said...

I found that Theros had a much different feel than other sets. Theros limited- especially when it was just Theros- was very heavy on creature enchantments and relatively light on removal. This meant that Theros got into a more "epic" feel than other decks, with titantic creatures fighting against each other. It was much more common for

The combination of Heroic and Monstrous in the same set as all those auras (many of which were bestow creatures) meant creatures had the potential to get huge, and the nature of removal to so often care about a creature's size meant things got big enough that the best way to fight them was to /get bigger./ And any deck could get bigger, not just the green decks. I had multiple games in Theros limited where creatures broke ten power, which is something that almost never happens in other limited formats, and to me this is what defined Theros and made it more memorable to me than a lot of other limited formats.

And then on the flip side... I don't even remember what changed in Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx outside of what I just read. Theros is one of my favorite sets in the fifteen years I've been playing magic, but man, BotG and JiN were just major failures.

keratacon said...

I have to wonder if they ever, for even a moment, thought to just use real Greek mythology with names and flavor text from primary sources. I understand that Hasbro would probably rather own all their own IP and not have cards directly named after things in the public domain, but lord it would have been better. Theros block felt like they tried to get the licensing rights to Homer and Hesiod and failed, and so came up with the Mexican Non-Union equivalent.

One set I'd like to see you review, though it would be some work: Portal, Three Kingdoms.

I proxied up a bunch of P3K cards once and made decks with a friend, and it is an absolutely wonderful experience. The art is beautiful and the flavor is wonderful. Wizards should absolutely do a full reprint in normally-priced packs. But that would probably cut into their From The Vaults business.

quiet_man said...

You were only off on your return to innistrad prediction by -1.5 years!
goddamit wotc.

jbc_here said...

Are you gonna do Tarkir block now?

Firemaw said...

New RtR review link:

Mario said...

Dominaria would like to have a word with you :p

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