Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Theros, or: When is a Mechanic Not A Mechanic

A healthy portion of Theros has been previewed at this point so I feel like it's OK to talk about it. The usual caveats of: I still haven't played with these cards, apply, so things are still subject to change.

To begin: it appears to be a very slow set. I would be OK with this if it brought some interesting mechanics out, things that might change the way the game is thought of but I'm just not seeing that, so far. So let's talk about the mechanics.

Devotion isn't a mechanic. It is a condition. If you meet the condition, you get the prize and the way Magic is currently structured, you get something even if you don't meet that condition. However, Devotion will exist regardless of you having a card that cares about it. It is very much like Landfall in this respect, as people play lands with or without Landfall except that Landfall feels more active: you play a land and something happens.

Whereas a mechanic, to me, only exists if you have the card. Take the untap mechanic from Eventide. You get a specific effect from a particular branch of cards. If you don't have the card, you don't get the effect. But Devotion? You probably have met the Devotion conditions already, there just was a very narrow list of cards that cared about it.

What's boring about Devotion is that you don't activate it. I referenced Landfall's similarity for a reason: there was a small subset of cards in Zendikar block that cared about how many lands you had in play, like Scute Mob or Dragonmaster Outcast. But they didn't have Landfall and they weren't lynchpins of that block, they were an extra. Devotion feels like this: you just have a bonus where you didn't before, whereas with Landfall you play a land then you get cool things.

It feels better, more active. Devotion feels boring, as though I could win without it and getting it won't keep me from losing in a critical situation.

Monstrous is like...the worst Kicker I ever met. I really don't like the execution of this mechanic. Everything is expensive and the effects have been awful for the cost. A 6/8 that can block 100 creatures for a 10 mana investment (Hundred-Handed One), an 8/8 that turns a land into an Island for a 12 mana investment (Sealock Monster.) For 11 you get to sacrifice 3 lands and get a 7/8 in return that has no other abilities (Ember Swallower.)

Ugh. But to make sure that you are able to get to your 10+ mana investments, there isn't much removal, so no problem right?

I disagree. I find this mechanic to be one that provides me with stuff I don't need. Getting a 5/5 for 4 mana is already a pretty good deal! Paying 3 mana to do 1 damage to another creature and making it a 6/6 is not a good deal. Why should I do this when I could swing for 5, bait out any removal they have, and then put that 3 mana towards another 5/5? Yay, Polukranos, World Eater.

No, this slowdown is all done to keep Limited formats from being crazy and that. is. boring. We need some crazy Limited formats.

What I really don't like is: how do you tell when a creature is Monstrous? The game doesn't want to give you an indication, as the +1 counters that a creature has on it could come from so many places that it could get confusing. Worse, if you remove the +1 counters, is the creature still Monstrous? I presume it is but how do you tell, now? What's to keep someone from reactivating that ability? This ability is apparently meant to be used once per game and it doesn't keep track of itself very well. It probably isn't a big deal in block and there will certainly be clarifications as the set further revealed, but combined with even Return to Ravnica's mechanics? It's incredibly easy to imagine complicated board states due to muddied information.

The lack of clarity Monstrous has extends into Theros's final new mechanic, Bestow. I feel it is an inelegantly structured but at least practical way to solve the 2 for 1 problem that happens with most creature enchantments. (In brief: if you kill the creature that an Aura is targeting while the Aura is on the stack, they both go to the graveyard.) When this ability first appeared, there were multiple questions about what happens when the card is on the stack as an Aura and the creature it's targeting is destroyed.

This is because Bestow does something that, as far as I know, has never been done before in Magic: the card changes 'midstream' and becomes a creature on the stack, should its target as a Aura spell go away. It is a creature on the stack anyway, because of its type but this is still weird.

Got that? Maybe not? Essentially: this is a creature unless you cast it as an Aura. And if for any reason the creature that this now-Aura would/does enchant goes away, the Aura becomes a creature. Ah, the heck with it: the rules have been posted here.

It is, again, extremely expensive. Why should I ever use this enchantment that costs 7 to give a creature +4 when I can just cast the 4/4 creature for 5? Because getting from 5 to 7 mana is very, very challenging, even in Limited formats.

On the upside Theros is slow. The removal is apparently weak (black is the least-revealed color at the time of this writing) and it's looking like Onslaught block Limited, where you hang on tight for your bomb and ride that pony to victory. Scry is there to help people hit their land drops so they can build to that 7+ mana zone but I'm not seeing a lot of mana production spells just yet. I am wondering how grindy games will become because when you have grindy formats, Blue tends to be the color that does the best, and Magic really doesn't need more awesome Blue formats.

As it stands, U/W control decks are poised to make a huge comeback, U/B is going to be shored up by the reprint of Thoughtsieze and the best card draw spell in years is going to be printed in U/R with Steam Augury. I cannot understate how relevant I think Steam Augury is going to be. Fact or Fiction was an absolute monster of a card for years in the formats it could be cast in and if it existed in Modern, every Blue deck would run it. Steam Augury alone could account for U/B/r or U/W/r decks taking center stage or it could even officially kick off the U/R Young Pyromancer deck as being 'legit'. (I think it's legit already but I'm not a professional.)

The return of Blue wouldn't bother me so much if there was a proper counterbalance: A way for other colors to have stack interactions that gave players options. But I don't see that: I just see ginormous creatures (which can now be turned into pigs), wordy and expensive abilities (which can be nullified with Blue) and flavor overriding function, without interesting interactions that would suggest a deeper format for Standard-or contributions to a larger format elsewhere.

Finally, and this is just a personal thing, I utterly despise the Enchantment Artifacts, something every god apparently has. Here is a case where, for flavor reasons, they are erasing the line between two card types that has been eroding for years. As a matter of fact, flavor is the thing that did the most to separate them, as artifacts would show players how machines worked on a plane and enchantments how magic could manifest. The melding of this strongly suggests that there's no reason for one of those card types to exist and I would rather have had an emphasis on enchantments doing something that artifacts just couldn't, or the acceptance that gods -gasp- use tools! Hell, how about a storyline where the tools of the gods are being destroyed and thus transmuted into enchantments run amuck? This is the enchantment block, right?

On the upside, there are only going to be 15 of them so perhaps it won't be the flavor wrecking ball I feel they are.

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