This mechanic, the one they're making the attention grabber for Innistrad, is a big, big deal and in my opinion a huge mistake because it breaks one of the fundamental rules of every card game I know of: having unmarked cards. I cannot think of a single card game, either played with the standard 52 card decks nor a TCG, that breaks this rule. Spite and Malice might come close because you mix three decks together but even then, opposing players cannot tell what the face value of the card is, just that it's from a different deck. Professionals might be able to make some deductions and given the evaluations pro card players make in a game like Poker, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if they could narrow the face value down to a few options but they still wouldn't know.
Transform throws that whole concept under the bus and it introduces some serious problems as a result. Mostly I will talk about constructed issues but draft will be touched on too. I won't talk about the power level of the cards in great detail, as power is about context but I will discuss it briefly because power level is what encourages players to pick up and stick with cards with unusual mechanics like Madness or Dredge.
I'll start off with booster drafting, which you can find a definition of here and is frequently part of Pro Tour finals. Booster drafts are usually about signals; you may start picking White but then the White dries up. Someone else is getting the cards before you are, so now you have to make a decision: What color do I move into?
With the Transform mechanic, everyone will see what you've chosen and this will tell people not only what card(s) you've chosen but what color(s) you're focusing on. This is a huge advantage for someone who really knows the format to have against you, just as knowing the suits or even a specific card you have in hand would be a huge advantage for a professional poker player. They will know you've gone green and they will know you have a Gatstaff Shepherd. The savvy player will be able to anticipate and play around your cards. They'll have information that they wouldn't ordinarily and that can easily be an impediment to your strategy.
Of course, you could just use the 'checklist card' they've printed, right? Well, yes but now you have to go through the effort of hiding a card-and everyone will likely see you do that so what's the point- and then marking the checklist card correctly. In the WotC article linked above, they go to awkward lengths to make sure people know that you can now re-arrange your draft pile to hide cards but these Transform cards are still public information so you can't be penalized if other players know what's in your deck! You can't have your cake and eat it too; either cards are public information or they aren't. Splitting the middle is generally bad news because now things are unclear and the gap between what's OK and isn't has just gotten larger.
If you make a mistake, you've got an illegal decklist and will be penalized. If you don't want the card, mark it on the list and someone else takes that card, now everyone knows who has the card you'd marked on the checklist because you have to give it to that player somehow, right? At the very least YOU know. It's already said in the article that Transform cards are considered 'open information' but why should they be and not the rest of your picks? There isn't any physical difference between cards, right? One just has information that gives data away, so why not make all your picks this way. (Note, they do have a draft format that does this: Rochester but its setup is very different. Note #2: this issue doesn't really impact online drafts-which I think is where the format will be more viable. But the online world isn't the only one and Magic is not strictly an online game; there are frequently huge differences between the online game and the paper one.)
Another option would be to have packs opened prior to the draft and then replace the Transform card in a booster with a correctly marked checklist card before anyone gets to look at the cards at all. The first problem here is: Who replaces the card? The only solution that would be ethically OK here would be to have a judge do it (and even that's potentially problematic), which adds a lot of time to drafting; time that is really wasteful to add. The second problem is one of content. There are twenty cards in Innistrad that you have to know by name and converted mana cost. All the other triggers that might help players remember like picture, stats, card type, game text, aren't on the list. The number of Transform cards is bound to at least double by the time Innistrad block is complete and keeping forty plus cards in your head is not easy, especially when I consider the pressure a drafter is under to pick a card; they usually have thirty seconds. The third problem is that logistically, opening up that many packs and keeping them all in order and distributed to the correct player is a nightmare.
If that last paragraph sounds ludicrous, good. That's the kind of scenario that people are having to imagine in order to keep information secret that ought to be secret.
On top of all of this, there's the problem of cheating. These checklist cards open up a huge window for cheaters to claim a card was mistakenly marked either including it in a deck that it shouldn't be in or insisting that the Transform card they have is THIS one and not THAT and I fail to see the upside to giving people an increased opportunity to cheat. I'm not saying they will, merely that the chances for screw ups or cheating has just gone up.
In constructed, there's a new kettle of fish to deal with and much of it has to do with proxies.
I didn't realize it at first but stonethorn picked right up on it: The execution of this mechanic is an endorsement of proxies in Magic.
I understand that proxies do have a place in certain formats, such as Vintage where card availability is such that it would be impossible to play that format without proxies. Related to that last point: very few people actually play Vintage in part because the cards are very expensive to get and Wizards has frowned upon proxies. Outside of Vintage, I see people adding in proxies into many Commander decks, a format that is far more casual and I don't like that, either.
In fact, I hate proxies. Either get the cards you want or find alternatives. This is a personal thing with me but it does speak to a larger issue; Magic is a game that is based in part on scarcity. You play the cards you have, not the ones you wish were there. If everybody had the best cards, what would be the point of playing anything else, ever?
Proxies are problematic for me for two reasons both based on the method used to make the proxy: either the person has taken a card with a different name and Sharpied out the old and written in the new name on it or the person has used a color printer to print the picture and paste it over the old card.
The first solution means that I can't read the card text. I have to take on faith, memory or look online to figure out what that card does, how much it costs and what its stats are. More delays, more intrusion into the game. The second solution means that the card has taken on weight. It is now thicker and will feel different, even in sleeves, which means that it's possible for a player to know which cards are which in their deck, a deck that is supposed to be randomized.
These methods are different than repainting a card, although that can be problematic too, at least in official formats. Even casually, I'd occasionally wonder; is that card completely untraceable? Does the addition of paint after the fact change the card to the point where someone can detect it without seeing its face? Because it's not like people think to repaint terrible cards; it's always iconic ones that get a makeover.
There is another objection I have to proxies in formats where cards are plentiful and it is that I believe that proxies curb creativity. As I said; if everybody had the best cards, why play anything else? It's not having access to the best things that inspires people to innovate and try new things.
But now we can have official proxied checklist cards! So it has all the weight and feel of a regular Magic card and even has official text so who needs the actual card! A checklist card still won't tell me what the marked card does though and if I'm playing someone who feels untrustworthy or is just unfamiliar with the original card, I'll find myself at a disadvantage when someone claims that this card is actually meant to represent A when it's marked B. Could be an honest mistake, or it could be someone trying to monkey with the works to win and either situation calls for arbitration or if at an event, a judge. Neither cheating or mistaken play is a good scene and in a gaming system as difficult as Magic is, making things more complicated instead of less without increasing the fun is a no no, for me.
Coupled with this is how the checklist cards open the door for any card to be proxied up. Previously, if I wanted to run four Primeval Titans, I had to get four Primeval Titans either through trade or purchase or I had to just find another way. With the official endorsement of proxies, why can't I just mock them up? WotC's already done it for other cards, right? Clearly, they're OK with it and trying to insist that "It's only good when we do it" is, once again, like trying to eat your cake and have it. Either proxies are bad or they aren't but you don't get to say both.
If I want to get four Garruk Relentless (a mythic rare that is going to be $30 per card minimum when it's revealed and will likely go through the roof, financially) I don't have to buy any at all, I can just use the checklist. If you use enough checklist cards in a deck, a less scrupulous person could 'mistakenly' play a card from the list that isn't what it is supposed to represent. Then you swap out the real one and no one is the wiser.
Or a player could just flat out be in error and make a mistake. Happens all the time and I don't like to punish people for honest mistakes but it doesn't make that mistake any more excusable, nor the poor design of this mechanic that encouraged this mistake forgivable. Good design is supposed to minimize user error, not increase it.
A short aside: what happens to the secondary market when people just start using proxies? What happens to those game stores? I'm not sure and I don't want to speculate but I think they are valid questions to ask.
In an alternate scenario, let's say that I never use proxies, I want to use actual cards. Now I only have to get one Garruk Relentless because My Money > less of My Money and the other three Garruk's can be stand-ins. Just reveal the actual card when the checklist card comes up so everyone can see what it does and voila! Problem solved and I no longer have to get four Garruks. I'll take it a bit further though and create an imaginary world where people are all as crazy as I am and get four of each card, refusing to use checklist cards as proxies; where does this leave us? Well...
Adding on to the list of issues I have with this design goes back to the hidden information problem. When I shuffle a deck of magic cards, the only thing opponents see is the back of the cards, which I have in clear plastic sleeves because this protects the cards from the wear and tear of handling, beer spillage and general mayhem. The cost of opaque sleeves runs from about $7-12 for 60-80 sleeves so I use very cheap, transparent sleeves because the cards are expensive enough. Why spend another $10+ on sleeves when I can get 100 for $1.25 and have them work just as well, spending that extra 6-11 bucks on beer or cards? (See again, My Money > less of My Money)
Except now those sleeves don't work. The back is revealed and adding to an already expensive hobby is the expense of getting sleeves that are opaque on one side. As a result, I have to purchase opaque sleeves if I want to use this cool mechanic-something WotC just casually tells us we have to do now. Opaque sleeves are not only more expensive but using them would also be a huge variance to all my other decks, so now I'm giving away information I don't want to give away: My regular opponents who I face most often will now know what line of play my deck wants to take before we even draw 7!
Then once I draw and play the card, I have to use both sides of a card I can't see. Neither can my opponents, which is especially unfair to them: as the player of the deck, I know or ought to know what my cards do but I can't expect that of my opponents. That is why the cards come with text: So everyone comprehends what everything does!
So to solve the visibility problem I have to take the card out of the sleeve. But the whole POINT of sleeves is that I put cards in them to protect them from the handling that happens when I play with my cards! Because of this foolishly implemented mechanic, I have to increase the wear and tear on something I bought and that sucks. I take care of my things for a reason: they last longer that way and I don't have money to waste on things I don't take care of.
And if that wasn't enough to get under my skin, WotC's attitude on me having to make more expensive choices seems to be: who cares? People play with opaque cards-you can too.
Whew. That's a lot of ranting, isn't it? But wait, there's more!
This neat tidbit from Mark Rosewater's column yesterday;
The checklist, by the way, comes in roughly three out of every four Innistrad booster packs.Wizards doesn't make randomized decks with lands anymore and so now many players get their lands from booster packs. Basic lands from Innistrad have just become scarcer and thus more costly to get, if you happen to like those lands. Add that to the cost of everything else for players who may need lands, the most basic currency in the game and something that should be all but given away to players.
There's also the print cost. WotC has brought about this change in cards that makes the game less functional for players of all stripes through a design that increases the costs of production of the cards. Printing something double-sided is not cheap and from what friends who work in design tell me, executing a mechanic like Transform the way WotC has is very, very expensive. On top of it all, if there are any errors, it's a big deal since the card is unusable. A player can't just have a Howlpack Alpha and not a Mayor of Avabruck. Any errors means that the card isn't playable. That's pricey and those expenses get passed on to players like me one way or another so again I evoke the My Money rule.
The crazy part is that WotC already had mechanics that would replicate this one. Morph and the flip cards, to name examples from older sets, Level Up from the recent Rise of the Eldrazi set as seen in Transcendent Master or even printing the cards using a portrait perspective as they do with the split cards, like Fire/Ice, (and the split cards have always been very popular) could have been a solution.
Instead, they institute this clunky, inelegant design in order to make the 'flavor' of the cards work, flavor that could just as easily been conveyed with the previous mechanics and with art, flavor text and names, as they've been doing for the last sixteen years. Hell, art alone has been used to illustrate transformations like this throughout Magic's history: Reincarnation is from Legends, Horned Kavu from Planeshift and Ancestral Vision is from Time Spiral and even Chaos Warp from the Commander set, published just three months ago, use art to show this change so there's no reason it couldn't have been handled this way.
The justification for not doing werewolves as split cards is that:
First, the flip cards proved to not be as popular as we hoped.Again from Rosewater's column. This reason essentially ignores the history of the game, because Kamigawa as a block wasn't popular. The mechanics were overcosted, legends were overproduced, a single card, Umezawa's Jitte, became so dominant that games sucked fun out of the universe and the set came right after one of the biggest screw-ups in Magic's history: Mirrodin block, which gave us the Affinity mechanic. WotC was all set up for a huge letdown and that is what happened. Flip cards were the least of Kamigawa's issues and were generally pretty popular at the time, just blown out by all this other negativity.
On top of that, flavor was something that was hugely emphasized in the Kamigawa block-just as with Innistrad. I've even heard complaints that certain mechanics, like bushido, are deemed bad because they can't exist outside of a set that doesn't have an asian-influence to it! The entire Innistrad block has been designed from the perspective of flavor giving rise to the mechanics, instead of the other way around. I have to wonder how much was really learned from Kamigawa block, which would have been a fantastic set if it hadn't been so underpowered and in the shadow of an incredibly overpowered block leaving players wary and unhappy.
The second reason the article gives to not do flip cards, that the text length for the mechanic was too much, I'll concede is a problem for Transform cards. Occasionally, I think one has to bite the bullet and accept that some ideas just aren't functional for the situation. I say this because in Rosewater's column, he shows off a CCG that does have double-sided cards that is apparently big in Japan, especially amongst the younger set.
So there at least one successful game out of the thousands that exist has used double sided cards in a genre that's existed since roughly the 9th Century. I'm pretty sure that trend argues vehemently against making double sided cards in card games, not for them and it certainly doesn't mean that Magic should use this design.
Flavor is the reason they've broken what is the essential form of every card game I can think of and that's a bad reason to do it. The glory of cool things has superceded everything else and I'm fairly certain the players are poorer for it, even the players for whom this mechanic is designed for, the casual crowd.
And make no mistake, Transform -particularly as it's been implemented for werewolves- is for the casual Magic players. What they're going to realize, eventually, is that mechanics that you cannot control aren't very much fun and I'd bet that most pro players have pretty much dismissed werewolves as a group to focus their energies on. Sure, they'll use them if they have to but that's like saying you'd use a butter knife as a screwdriver: it's entirely suboptimal.
That leaves the casual crowd, specifically the ones that think that it will be so cool to change a human to a wolf and back. There's even a physicality to the transformation that can't be overlooked when it comes to making this mechanic seem cool-and I will admit, that part does help even if I think it's a disaster for the game and terribly implemented. But the causes of lycanthropy, the sun and the moon, rise and set regularly. You can even explain it!
Players cannot force opponents to cast or not cast spells so this mechanic gives opponents control over or at least a say in how you use your cards and how you execute your strategy. Let me demonstrate: If you want your werewolf to Transform, you have to wait until someone hasn't cast a spell for a turn. Well, when you cast the werewolf, that's a spell. Your opponent can just cast a spell on his/her turn and you don't get a cool werewolf. So what do you do? Spend an entire turn doing nothing. You lay a land, say go. Your werewolf transforms on their turn!
Then your opponent plays two spells during their turn and on your turn, when you need the big bad you have...a human. Well, yay. Not everything will play out like that of course but the long and short of it is that it will happen and happen when you wish it wouldn't. The werewolf player has to gamble on what their opponent will do, instead of being able to control their own fate.
To turn the screw (with a butter knife) even further, add in multiplayer. WotC can't possibly ignore multiplayer anymore (not that they were) because the success of Commander decks means that there's a huge number of players out there playing Magic of all formats in groups. Well crap. So if there are 4 other people at the table aside from me, and I say go after werewolf, then player B doesn't play a spell: flip. Player C plays two spells. Flip. Player D plays no spells, flip. Player E plays a spell, that spell gets countered by C, then player D had responses and player B has responses and then player E plays another spell.
Flip. Yay, I get a...human? After turning a card 4 times. Now if I want that card to be a big bad, I have to do nothing. Again. What a pain in the ass for so little payoff!
While it might take a little time I think that people are going to find out that they don't like having someone else take control of their stuff. It's why the Punishment mechanic wasn't hugely popular in Odyssey, despite giving players big undercosted effects (see Breaking Point or Browbeat) nor cards like Confusion in the Ranks-though that card does have its supporters- and I have a feeling that it's going to be a problem with Innistrad's werewolves too.
All in all, I think this is a spectacular failure on the part of design. It increases the potential rate of failure of players, increases the costs of the game both for Wizards and for the players and does it for a mechanic that is very flavorful but isn't executed very well, plus due to it's physicality carries more problems than solution and so I have serious doubts about being fun. Good design should never increase fail and Transform has these faults in spades.