Threats to Magic

The Magic world is buzzing right now about a slate of rules changes that were just announced, but I for one don’t think they are much of a threat to the game. The only one which should even be controversial is the elimination of “damage on the stack” tricks and (for reasons I will detail below) I think that’s going to turn out fine. The biggest threat to Magic right now, in my opinion, is actually coming from an entirely different direction. I walked away from my weekend at Pro Tour Honolulu depressed about the state of Alara-block constructed. At first I thought I disliked the format because everyone’s mana sucked, but upon further review I think I have a more subtle and potentially more interesting critique: Where have all the instants gone?

                M10 Rules Changes

I knew these changes were coming from my time before I left Wizards in January, though I only got the chance to play a small handful of games with them. I think all of us need to actually play a bunch with the modifications to the combat step before we jump to too many conclusions, but with that caveat in place I’m not going to let my lack of experience stop me from speculating.

I had the same knee-jerk reaction to the proposal that everyone else is having: I’m all for bringing new players into Magic, but not at the cost of making the game less interesting. (Aka: “Please don’t fuck up my game for the sake of some imaginary brain-dead newbies.”) Here’s the thing though … are we sure the new rules are dramatically less interesting? While R&D’s motivation for the changes is to make the game simpler, Aaron Forsythe makes a very different defense of the new combat rules on his Facebook wall:

                Using the old damage-stacking cards correctly just got more difficult. Try blocking with a Siege-Gang and a Husk now and figuring out what to do. There are sacrifices to make (literally and figuratively) and it isn't just "best possible outcome all my guys live and yours die once again". The game is still quite, quite difficult. And this doesn't cater to the bottom 10%. It also doesn't cater to the top 10%.”

He’s right that damage-on-the-stack always works out to let you do everything you want to do. The new system is in fact going to force some interesting trade-offs. While some game-play goes away, some other game-play decisions are actually created where no interesting decisions existed before. At first blush it seems like fewer options is just bad, but there’s any number of Rosewater articles that argue fairly convincingly that restrictions are actually good and often breed creativity. I’m not trying to say that game-play will get more compelling for us long-time veterans, but I think a decent sized chunk of the “lost” game-play will actually be replaced with other stuff rather than lost.

(This argument is a bit reminiscent for me of arguments around the use of the designated hitter in baseball. Proponents of having the pitcher hit often argue that National League baseball has more strategy in it, but if you study the statistics it turns out that the decision to have the pitcher lay down a sacrifice bunt is so automatic that it’s the American League that actually sees more interesting and diverse managerial strategies deployed. Damage-on-the-stack-sac-my-guy is so easy and obvious that we might actually be up strategy thanks to the creation of more judgment calls.)

Meanwhile, I know that I as a good player will now have less tricks that I can deploy against mediocre players, but in my heart of hearts I actually felt guilty when I won that way. It never stopped me from using the tricks, of course. I’m way too spike-y to let a little thing like empathy get in the way of hanging a ‘W’ on the scoreboard, but I’m pretty sure most of you reading this have had the same experience of being forced to explain stack tricks to someone who is initially surprised by them. Wizards is right that they are initially counter-intuitive. Yes most people smart enough to want to play Magic can figure them out after one or two explanations, but some percentage of them will walk away from that initial negative experience, especially if it comes at the hands of some asshole at a PTQ.

And you’ve also got to admit that Wizards has a pretty good track record when it comes to shepherding our game. They never muck around with it lightly and very few of their controversial decisions look bad in hindsight. I’m struggling to even think of one.

                Pro Tour Honolulu

Magic is at its most fun when it is interactive. The best moments are those when you’re trying to figure out what your opponent is up to and then trying to figure out how you can use your resources to thwart their plan. The resulting “ah-ha” moments are among the game’s most enjoyable. Unfortunately, there weren’t very many of those on display in Hawaii last weekend.

Part of the problem is that the tools available within the Shards block for fixing your mana were not up to the task of supporting all those gold cards. It’s not that the mana fixers were bad – they’re probably better than what was available in Invasion block and might be on par with Ravnica. The difference is that this time the gold block is all about 3-color shards instead of 2-color guilds. On top of that, Shards is extremely fast and aggressive. The block gives you access to very powerful spells, but in order to wield that power you pretty much have to have 3 different colors of mana available by turn 3. So it’s both faster and more color intensive than Ravnica, but the mana fixers aren’t any better. As a result there were a ton of mulligans all weekend long. The odds that both players had a playable opening 7 were depressingly small and the raw power of the cards meant that no one had any time to hiccup. If you stumbled at all you got blown out. As a result a majority of games were just blow-outs.

Things might have been better if the borderposts allowed you to return any land instead of just a basic land. As printed they do a good job in Limited, but they add a whole new level of inconsistency to constructed mana bases. Kibler went 8-1-1 with an Esper Beatdown deck that runs 8 ‘posts, but he just straight-up admits in the Deck Tech we filmed that he doesn’t actually have enough basics to support them. His plan was just to get lucky. The other break-out deck of the tournament was green-white aggro, which the Japanese ran not because it was actually good, but because it had the most consistent mana in the field and was fast enough to punish anyone who stumbled. If both players draw their mana, they are an underdog. In practice, however, they won 64% of their matches – the best winning percentage of any deck in the field with a meaningful number of people playing it.

If I want to place 60-40 bets and then just shuffle cards and see who wins, I’ll play poker. Luckily, the mana in Standard is better and this block format isn’t being used for very much.

Like I said at the top, though, I think there was a more interesting and subtle flaw buried under the mana issues. R&D has made a concerted effort to push creatures. R&D has also introduced a very powerful new card type in Planeswalkers. Both of these are valiant and successful efforts. R&D also printed cascade at a level that is very powerful in at least block constructed (jury is still out on Standard in my mind). R&D also printed a bunch of powerful sorceries, including Maelstrom Pulse, Blightning, Slave of Bolas, Martial Coup, Cruel Ultimatum, Thought Hemmorage, Identity Crisis, and Lavalanche (though the latter didn’t see much play thanks to its bad interaction with your own cascade). Throw in Behemoth Sledge plus Finest Hour and most of the action that happens in this format happens at sorcery speed. There’s no permission to speak of and while there is a decent selection of instant speed spot removal, there are really powerful trumps available like Wall of Denial (and to a lesser extent Uril).

The result of this cocktail is a format that’s really low on interactivity. One of the basic rhythms of Magic is threats versus answers. Figuring out how to play around their answers and/or how to use your own to break up their plan is fun. However, that interaction was largely missing last weekend. Even if you both drew a reasonable balance of land and spells, all those powerful sorcery-speed effects meant that the games played out more like a race between my threats and yours. The most telling sign of this was the complete lack of matches that went to extra turns. The rounds flew by all weekend long and both days ended something like an hour ahead of schedule. That’s because no one had anything to think about. Normally, at the end of 55 minutes there’s still a decent number of matches going on and a couple of them will take 10-15 minutes to resolve those last five turns. Not in Honolulu, though. There were never more than a couple of matches and those never took more than a couple of minutes.

Cascade was a big culprit here. It’s extremely powerful but doesn’t set up any interesting decisions. You pretty much just cast your cascade spell at the obvious time and then hope for the best. Opponent spun up a Blightning and all you got was a Putrid Leech? Oh well. Shuffle up and try again. See again my poker comment above … Magic should be more interactive than that. (To be fair – I do think there’s a place in the game for cascade. It’s a fun mechanic for more casual players. It just shouldn’t be pushed to a level where it’s this relevant to high-level constructed tournaments. Hopefully it’s enough weaker in Standard that it only infects this one weekend.)

I don’t think there was a concerted plan on R&D’s part to remove interactivity from the game or anything, but I do think it’s something they should be paying more attention to and I hope they don’t look at the diversity of decks that did well in Honolulu and conclude that the format was actually good. It wasn’t fun and even the pros who normally like constructed were looking for bridges to go jump off of.

I think this lack of instants was accidental and very optional. R&D has made some nice strides toward reducing board complexity and making the game more accessible. Having creatures as 2-for-1’s can be interesting as well, but at the same time I think they’ve started making too much use of “french vanilla” keywords like shroud and lifelink. They’ve also let the creature curve get too inflated relative to the spells and they’re spending too many of their constructed points on sorceries.

In summation: Wall of Denial is dumb. Permission is not. And we’ll all be better at making judgment calls before damage is dealt than our newbie opponents.

P.S. My favorite story from PT Honolulu comes from a feature match between Brand Nelson and Kazuya Mitamura. Nelson is Fffreak, a well-known Magic Online player who was making his Pro Tour debut (arguably the most anticipated Pro Tour debut ever, as it's rare that anyone knows who you are before you play on Tour). Nelson drew a brutal schedule, including a round 1 feature match against LSV (welcome to the tour!), and was in contention for most of the weekend. With five rounds to go he drew (eventual champion) Mitamura and played a brilliant game 1, using his Magma Sprays to great effect after attacking into Thrinaxes and Broodmates. He manages to exhaust Mitamura's hand and kill both halves of a Broodmate and he's got the game won, but Mitamura top-decks a second Broodmate Dragon. Nelson's response? He laughs! He's not pissed, or angry, or depressed, or frustrated. He genuinely seemed to find the situation funny. That window into Brad's psyche told me a lot about Brad's character and convinced me even more than his results that he's going to be around for a long while. Nelson lost the match but went on to finish 9th. And if Magic Online rules had been in effect and the top four tables had been unable to take intentional draws in the last round, Brad would have made Top 8.

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