Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Avacyn Restored initial impressions

Let me begin with an actual link so readers can reference what the hell I'm talking about, another link to the mothership specifically on mechanics, then leap right down the throat of the marquee card, Avacyn herself.

Ugh. What a boring, boring card. Undercosted by at least 3, she exists to be reanimated or cheated into play somehow, whereupon your opponent has to live in Magical Chrismasland in order to survive. It can be done, yes. But it won't and games will devolve into solitaire because this card is so linear.

Worse is the art: in what universe does anyone not look at that and think, 'wow, that's a dark picture.'? So why isn't there any black in her mana cost? Sorin is black or black/white and in the story, Avacyn is his creation. She's also just gotten out of the worst prison since Snake escaped New York. Why isn't she white-black?

There was an opportunity to show how being imprisoned changed her! But no. No, we get this and it's disappointing on so many levels. If the art was different, at least we'd have a consistent flavor. If the abilities were different at least the card would be a little fairer. Instead it's just dull.

Now let's get a little broader. Undying is coming back. To that I say: Huzza! I like that mechanic and I always wish they'd done more with Persist, back in the day. Hell, I'd like to see Persist come back.

Next up is Soulbond. Somehow, I have a feeling that we're going to get a story about how this mechanic was inspired by Banding-which was probably the most confusing mechanic from Magic's early days. I hope not, because that would mean that there's still water in the well but it seems awfully likely.

That said, I dig it. While it doesn't seem too powerful, the mechanic has been hinted at multiple times in Magic's history. Those cards weren't amazing but getting cards to work together is a very white theme, something this set is meant to emphasize and it'll be fun strategically; a pretty sharp limited mechanic as well as being something that makes cheap, weaker creatures better in the late game. Drawing a 1/1 for U isn't so bad on turn 7 when it can give itself and your Wurmcoil Engine flying. Giving players a chance to come back from bad situations is good for the game.

Which leads me to my next sticky wicket.

"So," stonethorn writes on my Facebook page, "topdecking is a mechanic now."

I want to love this mechanic. I really do. Because there are few things as awesome as needing just that next card and getting it, allowing you to turn a losing situation into a winning one (or even parity!) That feels cool and the name of the mechanic, 'Miracle' helps reflect this. This mechanic is based on -and will be loved/hated on- how it feels. Just as with Double-Faced cards.

But-and it pains me to say this-they did it wrong. First, there are no miracles in Black. From a flavor standpoint that makes sense because this set is about an Angel coming back to set things right but mechanically, it's an awful idea because the color that should've been ignored is Blue.

Here's why: First, from a flavor perspective, Blue is about research and 'science'. There are no miracles, it's all about how damn smart you are!

More importantly, from a gameplay perspective, Blue is the color that is most able to manipulate what card they are going to draw, on top of being the strongest color overall. In Standard maybe nobody will care-even though they should, with U/W Delver being the current best deck. Make 3/2 flyer AND take an extra turn for 2? Sign me up, right? It isn't until you think about how unfun it will be to be on the other side of that that one realizes there might be a problem.

For anyone who plays an Eternal format, though-which includes the insanely popular Commander-this mechanic is broken in half and that's why this is badly executed.

Miracle synergizes so well with what Blue already wants to do, giving it a miracle that functions as a Time Walk, a card that is banned or restricted in every format it could be played in, or really any miracle at all, is a huge problem, mechanically. This is because Blue doesn't have to do any work (diluting the mana base, most relevantly) in order to get something awesome and stupidly cheap. It can just do what it always does and the Blue player doesn't miss a beat. No other color gets this kind of advantage over the others.

And maybe you don't care about that now, because you're a new player to the game or a newly returning player and who gives a shit about an eternal format? The thing is, if you play the game long enough the odds are extremely high that you will play an Eternal format. Very, very few Magic players ditch their collection seasonally and no casual players I know of do this. They either bail on the game altogether (to their regret a few years later) or hold onto their cards for some vague reason, unsure of why they're carrying around all this crap until...bing! and they're back in the thick of it.

Eventually, if you play the game long enough-and with Legacy, Commander and Modern's popularity, it suggests that you will play the game long enough-these miracles will weigh on you, even as a casual player.

Not all mechanics should be designed with the larger game in mind. That's a huge limitation, especially with a game that is 20 years old and always on the march for a new mechanic or twist. However, flavor just shouldn't trump playability, (as I've suggested before-warning, wall of text) and sometimes, whether the machine works or not really needs to be the overriding concern. People don't play a flavor, they play a game.

There's already a deck built around the interaction between Sensei's Divining Top and Counterbalance and it works because of all the ways blue has to manipulate the top few cards of their library, if they don't like what they see, first and foremost being Brainstorm. Temporal Mastery is the kind of card that could push the Top to a $40 card. An uncommon at forty dollars. Jebus.

So what this suggests is that either Brainstorm, a card that is much loved in Legacy, enabling a great many decks and helping keep that format diverse (although also empowering Blue overmuch, so there is a downside) could be banned or Temporal Mastery and other miracles are likely to be banned, in order to keep the format healthy. But WotC has repeatedly pointed out that banning a card before people get to play with it creates ill will from the players. There is no win here and that's a pretty bad place to be in, as a player and a company..

The buzz on the internet is about how the Miracle mechanic could create a rules issue, opening up an avenue for cheating. I don't see it though: the card either is or is not the one you drew and anyone paying attention should be able to keep track of that. It's merely a triggered ability, like one that happens during Upkeep, the only difference is that the trigger doesn't happen publicly, at first. Clearly anyone who shuffles the card into their hand and then tries to play this spell is in for a bad time but aside from that, I don't think it's going to open up the boondoggle people are concerned about.

The final two themes, flickering and loners, are worth taking note of because they could represent 'missing link' cards that could mesh well with other decks but can't really be the foundation of a deck by themselves. Potentially something to keep in the back of my brain while designing.


  1. I loves me some Momentary blink for its synergy with ETB effects and for the cheap defensive evasion it gives, and there they've gone and reprinted it for cheap, I'm in heaven. Works with transform as well: Cast it on your werewolf to turn it back into a human whenever you want.

    But miracle does have me worried, for exactly the reason you state: Blue gets an inherent advantage. Ponder + miracle = win, and it costs almost nothing. All the other colors get a wee bit of scrying on their own, or via artifacts, but blue gets lots of it, cheap and easy.

    I'm very curious to see what other miracle cards we get. Does it make sense for miracles to be common? After all, aren't miracles the definition of rare?

    I'm also seriously curious about the "Forbidden" mechanic that MaRo mentioned in his latest post. It didn't make it into a set yet, but he's determined to see it through, so he won't say what it is.

    But I know what "forbidden" is already: 3-sided cards. That are clear. And flash and play a song when they are tapped.

  2. Blink mechanics have always been fun, frequently striking that balance between useless and broken pretty easily. They're empowering and so I totally get why you dig it: it's fun.

    MaRo is always insistant upon getting those impossible mechanics in: it's a running theme for his column. For the most part it works out well but with this new direction of flavor trumping other concerns, I wonder if his vision is always so wise. It's selling cards but it also creates some really big problems that will have to be managed down the line.

    We've already got an uncommon Miracle: if there is a common one, then I'd say that goes against flavor in a big way: from what you've said, I think you agree.

    Remind me to introduce you to Hecatomb, sometime: http://www.museumstuff.com/learn/topics/Hecatomb_(card_game)