Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dragon's Maze Review

I hate to say it, but I think this set is one of the weakest sets in years. I feel that Dragon's Maze is an unfocused mess with largely uninspired cards that don't really complete the guilds or add to the environment. The attempt to make it work without the key pieces of the previous blocks, coupled with direly boring characters, a woeful lack of focus on what should matter and cramming in ideas that shouldn't be there, has made this one of the weakest finishers to a Magic block in years. Here's where I think they went wrong:

1) Forcing 3 color to work in draft. Apparently WotC wanted to ensure that three color draft decks were possible. To that end, they added in no less than twenty cards to make it work: ten Cluestones and the ten Guildgates. The shocklands were also thrown in, which I do think is pretty cool, because it gives more players a chance to open them.

Twenty plus cards that are taking up space that could have (and should have) been used to make a stronger set. There are two reasons why they shouldn't have done this: first, there is a ton of mana fixing in Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash and second, three color decks should be risky. Going out of your way to ensure that a three color deck in Limited environments is just as viable as it is in Constructed means that you've diluted the card pool and in a small set, you can't dilute the card pool. That dilution led to the next problem.

2) Flavor was severely weak. For example, there are ten maze runners in the set and they are the face of that set, the lure that WotC was using to hype the audience up. Those runners ranged from OK to 'Why are you doing this to us?' and none of them really thrilled players.

I don't envy the position of the designers in DM: the runners had to be legendary worthy but not game breaking. Good enough to be a rare, not so great as to warrant Mythic Rare status. It's a tough line to walk and they erred on the side of weakness. That disappointment hurts the game, though perhaps not as badly as being in a situation where cards must be banned.

One thing that could have helped was the presence of guild mechanics. This should have been a no-brainer, right? Those mechanics were all carefully thought out to be thematically representative of their guilds! Yet in the monocolor section things are incredibly unbalanced; white has three different mechanics represented, blue only Cipher, Green, Black and Red all get two mechanics each but two of those mechanics are duplicated, for example: Bloodrush appears on two Red cards, Overload on one. Why doesn't each color get two mechanics?

Worse, there are only six other cards that use the guild mechanics. I count a total of 19 cards using guild mechanics and this is barely over 10% of the set! That is not a number that shows an emphasis on flavor. My preference would have been to have close to 40 cards, with each guild getting 4 more. That ties things together.

3) Serving too many masters. Although I just said that the guild mechanics weren't represented enough I think that the is only half the problem. Instead of using the guild mechanics, they attempted to have these 'stand in' cards that would represent what the guild is about. For example: Progenitor Mimic. Copying stuff is blue! Creature creation is green! But token propagation is...Selesnya, the GW tribe, in Ravnica. Now, on the one hand: this is a clever way to suggest White for your GU deck. The card IS in theme for Green/Blue...but is it in theme for Simic?

I'm going to say it isn't, because the mimic is a propagator. Again; this creates a dilution of the card pool because there are cards that are trying to play up their respective guild while missing the key thing that players understand that guild to be about. They aren't bad, necessarily (except for Feral Animist, which sucked then and sucks now) and may have worked fine if the mechanical emphasis had been there but as it stands, they are thinning out a set that can't afford to be thinned.

On top of it all, there was a NEW mechanic, Fuse, which is thematically brilliant but lead to some of the dullest cards I've seen in years. Fuse is a weird case, because WotC has repeatedly said that if your signature mechanic isn't at common, then it shouldn't be your signature mechanic. Yet there are no common Fuse cards. But it's the new mechanic, right? Doesn't that make it the signature mechanic by default? If we're just getting split cards because they were printed in Dissension, then WotC is pushing a mechanic on us because of the echo of the old set, not because it serves the new one.

As flavorful as Fuse is conceptually, it doesn't work as well as the old split cards like Fire/Ice because you cannot just balance the card in relationship to the set, you have to balance it with this whole other card too. This is different than abilities like Kicker or Entwine where the bonus is smaller or even Splice, where you had to a) pay a different splice cost and b) draw the card, two impediments to that mechanic being too dangerous. Fuse cards have to be viable both by themselves and together. So we have garbage like Armed/Dangerous, where half of that card -a weak half to begin with- has to be overcosted in order to keep the Limited environment from being overrun. Although it is fun to note that R/U got the best one. Again.

The rare Fuse cards are even worse, because the expensive half again has to be balanced enough that you don't just build up 7+ mana and win the game. However, the effects they settled on are so weak that there's really no reason to try. Beck/Call might seem to be the exception but it isn't because nobody cares about Call, it's merely Beck that is exciting.

And to top all of that off, the Fuse cards took away the mono-colored uncommon slot, which means that there were no mono-colored singleton uncommons in Dragon's Maze. The problem is that good uncommons are the bread and butter of any Limited environment. Think Vampire Nighthawk, which is may be too good but illustrates the point. Opening a Vampire Nighthawk is a good reason to run black. If all of the uncommons are skewed down for balance reasons then the environment becomes stale and about whatever bomb rares you can get.

4) This is a weird one: the failure of the Guildgates. Players have been told that the Guildgates were a big deal, that there were plans to make them relevant to the game. Dragon's Maze was the set that was supposed to deliver on that promise and it succeeded on one note only: flavor.

That success was because players found raised letters in the flavor text of every Guildgate in Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash, letters which spelled out a secret phrase, prophetising doom for Ravnica. The new Guildgates similarly had raised letters, completing the phrase, showing how doom could be averted.

Pretty cool!

They don't do anything else that matters. And I feel insulted that they used Maze's End as a Mythic Rare, to try and force the Guildgates' relevance. That alternate win condition is awful, though I will say that if one can generate nearly 40 mana producing 10 different lands over the course of a game, then yes, you deserve to win. Spoiler: the times that this will happen will not erase the decades of losses from the times when it did not happen.

After that, there are only 5 other cards in Dragon's Maze--commons, and not really good ones at that--which care about the Guildgates. Hell, in the entire BLOCK there are only 13 cards that care or interact with the Gates. This is not indicative of making something matter.

I could be wrong; Dragon's Maze might be just the thing to make a draft environment work as a block, but it certainly doesn't seem to be a very interesting environment to me and it's a horrible environment by itself.

You can't hit home runs all the time. Hell, most people don't even manage to hit singles and it's not like this set is going to sour me on Magic. You have to have some failures in order to get successes and if the hot mess of Dragon's Maze leads to better stuff in the future, then occasionally that is the price that is paid.

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