Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Theros Problem

After the Theros draft experience, I ended up talking with Sean a bit about the Theros set. You may recall Sean from his work on the Soradyne set, a fan made MtG set that I helped out a little on.

Sean hates Theros. Hates it. I had my own views on the set which were also not that positive and the draft experience didn't really bring me around. Talking to Sean though has brought up a few ugly points about Theros that I think are worth talking about.

First: it's bland. They've turned Elspeth into Gordon Freeman, essentially. She's referred to by her name only sometimes in card flavor text, more frequently called the Hero and I believe they did it to have players project themselves onto her. The use of Archenemy-like challenges in the pre-release supports this theory, in my opinion: we can take the same actions she does and thus pretend, in some manner, to be her.

Except that by removing personality from one of the major Planeswalkers, they sacrifice the very thing that makes her interesting. Elspeth isn't interesting because she's a Planeswalker, she's interesting because she's a character. Worse, Elspeth is the lens that they want to shine Theros through! But if the lens is boring then what does that do to the plane?

This 'blandening' is what is behind Sean's biggest issues with Theros: According to him (and WotC, so he's not out on a limb), it's about heroes, gods and monsters. Yet those things aren't arranged in a compelling narrative so we don't have the political dynamics of Ravnica, the horror movie conflict of Innistrad or the war on Mirrodin.

We have heroes, who don't get to act very heroic and are frequently ill-defined. See Fabled Hero as a great example: we don't know who the hero is, nor the poet, yet apparently there's a story written about him. He's not the only issue though. When I take a look at the legendary permanents of Theros, I am unable to see who is in opposition to one another. What does Daxos want that conflicts with Tymaret? Forget the mechanics for a moment, just push this into what we know about Theros. Who is in conflict, and why? Theros does a very poor job of setting that up.

From a mechanical perspective, heroes cause another problem: Why do they only get bonuses when you target them? Why not any player? Heroes are defined by actions taken under dire circumstances in opposition to overwhelming odds. Let's just use that as a loose definition. Since the heroes don't trigger off the spells of opponents (or teammates!) you have a lost opportunity to have those creatures demonstrate some kind of heroic activity. They just do what every creature in Magic does which is get better when you do things to buff them.

Since we don't know what the central conflict of Theros is and why those heroes need to be arranged in opposition to it, why is it important that they get better, beyond this being the most bland expression of the Hero's Journey?

The monsters in Greek myth usually spawned from the naughty actions of the gods themselves and were sometimes sent to destroy or punish the citizens. Think of it like Batman's Rogue's Gallery: he has one of the best because the great villains are often reflections of him (and, as a result, his audience.)

Where does Polukranos come from? Hythonia? Does anyone know? I'm sure WotC does but I don't. These are the legendary threats and we as players don't know why we need to defeat them. Now, on a mechanical level, I've already gone into the issue of how I feel this mechanic is often unclear but from a story perspective, I don't know why these monsters are there, beyond; Because the audience expects them and I don't understand how monstrosity sets these creatures apart except that WotC didn't want to use Kicker. These are awful reasons. Hythonia is way less interesting than Visara the Dreadful, and Visara's only reason to be in Onslaught was as a pit fighter in the Cabal's fighting tournament. However, there were pit fighters! And a tournament! She was also one of two gorgons on the entire plane, so where did she come from?

There are questions that have answers and they are set inside a conflict that players understood. Elspeth is being pushed into a conflict of what or with whom, exactly?

The gods would seem to be the answer there but they don't seem to be fighting with each other. They don't speak at all in flavor text so there's very little way for players to understand why these gods need Elspeth at all and mechanically they don't clearly oppose one another, despite being very strong representations of their color.  

Which brings us to the issue with top-down design. A failure of flavor becomes, to me, a failure of design and even mechanics. If one doesn't properly express the world and its conflict in recognizable ways when standing atop the top-down mountain, then clearly there is an issue there. The heroes aren't heroic, the monsters aren't distinctive and the gods are just there. If that conflict was expressed mechanically or via flavor text, then there would be a basis for a story that is truly keyed into Theros's as a place. Instead, this conflict could be anywhere and that weakens the block as a whole.

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