Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Something Is Wrong

I've been wondering about it for a little while but Theros puts the problem front and center: the game of Magic is going in a worrisome direction. I used to think it was because they wanted to emphasize form over function and other people probably think that it is because Wizards of the Coast is 'dumbing down' the game in order to gain more players.

I think it's worse than that but I cannot say precisely what. What I can say is this: Theros block is one of the worst mechanical blocks I've ever seen. It has issues from mechanical clarity to flavor execution and more and these issues are being overshadowed by flavor. It makes me feel that players are being duped by the emphasis on flavor in order to obscure the problems with the function that Magic has been de-emphasizing. I'm going to go through these points as seen through Theros in an attempt to illustrate my issues with this block.

Mechanical clarity: I have less issues with Bestow than I thought I would. It has the potential to create some rules headaches but that's true of nearly anything in Magic. For the most part, it's pretty easy to get a grip on but it still has some stickiness when it comes to being on the stack as an aura. This is a rules issue more than it is anything else, I feel, and the kind of thing that players have to accept if they want the game to continue.

The real problem is Monstrous. Because of the way the mechanic was written, there's no way to know if the creature is monstrous, because the +1 counters don't mean that the creature is monstrous. The ability apparently should only be activated once but...why can't you do it again? And again and again? Isn't this a flavor problem, if they aren't going to solve it mechanically; monsters SHOULD get bigger and bigger, after all. Why didn't they just say: you can only activate (ability) if this creature has no +1 counters on it?

Why is this troublesome? Of the issues facing the game, I believe this is the least problematic because it's inherent to the game. Sometimes, mechanics just don't gel and you take the good with the bad, learn from it and do it better next time. However, it's a problem bundled in with all these other problems and if these trends continue then we're left with some real damage being done to Magic as a whole.

Flavor Execution; Heroic is just an atrocious failure of execution. Becoming heroic is, by definition, doing something in the face of great odds. If I (as a wizard) am helping my creatures, nothing heroic is happening. Not a single thing. To make sense, Heroic needed to be a mechanic that responded to what the opponent does.

While I may have hated the Double-Faced mechanic of werewolves, I've always admitted that from a flavor perspective, it was very effective.

Why is this troublesome? Because it shows a willingness to ignore the very thing that WotC is insisting they emphasize and we are left with flavor that is "cool" even if it doesn't make a lick of sense. This is the kind of move that reeks of marketing, of assuming that you've figured out what players think is 'cool' and giving it to them, instead of working on what YOU think is cool and seeing what sticks. 

You know what would've worked? Persist. Because heroes are persistent. Or Undying, because it shows heroes coming back stronger than before! You think you've killed them, but no! Happens all the time in stories, right? Why wasn't either of these used? Undying has an excuse; it's a very fresh mechanic but Persist would have worked just fine and been a very cool contrast not only to the previous block where +1 counters were all over, but provided a strong tie into Greek mythical themes, where heroes were ruined all the time, and even illustrating the costs of the war: the strong become weak.

Reskinning: I don't exactly mind that Chroma was reskinned to Devotion, or Strive (which is a terrible name because it has zero to do with what the mechanic does) was renamed from Multikicker, Inspire keyworded instead of using the untap symbol but I believe doing so creates problems for Magic. That problem is simply this; once you've pushed flavor over function, the words you link a function to now become inextricably tied to that flavor.

Why is this troublesome? The biggest reason is that this kind of practice means we can't have Devotion in a non-Theros block. If we do, it will be named something new. This is creating clutter! Clutter that they had to deal with at the very beginning of the game, when cards would use 'bury' or 'destroy', and they meant two different things! They had to create a plan for cohesive language use and they did so, to the betterment of teh game.

But with this mechanical reskinning, they're stepping backwards. It's utterly unnecessary to create clutter in a game that has over 15,000 cards printed and it's incredibly bad decision making. Wizards has already admitted that there is a finite amount of design space: why are they using reskinning in order to make it seem infinite?

Second: why link the mechanics to a plane this way? They've admitted that using Bushido in Kamigawa block was a mistake, because now they cannot use Bushido as a keyword in non-Japanese themed blocks. With the doubling down on flavor, isn't it logical to assume the reverse is true and also a mistake?

Don't get me wrong; I don't have an issue with older mechanics which didn't pan out getting tweaked, refined and then renamed. Magic is a game about evolution.

But if the tweak isn't big enough, just reuse it, like Echo in Time Spiral block. If it's legitimately different then WotC should stop trying to tie it so strongly into the flavor of a set that they cannot break it out and put it into another one. We have an insane number of words in English but that doesn't mean that new words should be attached to every little thing.

In addition, we know the advantage that mechanical reuse has: Cycling has been in no less than three different blocks and has always served extremely well, Kicker in at least two. I don't recall Cycling being integrated into the flavor of Shards block. Was Kicker integrated into the flavor of Zendikar? WHO CARES? People don't remember that, they remember if the block as fun. And no block can be fun if the mechanics don't take priority. Which brings us to:

Mechanics that are not mechanics.This is the one that really, really irritates me.
When Zendikar came out, calling Landfall a mechanic made a certain level of sense. WotC really hadn't explored this idea before and the permanents that were connected to not only other, unlike permanents but something as ubiquetous as land drops? Whoa. That was a big deal. On top of that; Landfall was a mechanic that ran through two sets so calling it out made sense, since players wouldn't see it in Rise of Eldrazi and have that repetition.

However, it wasn't as though players had zero experience with Enter the Battlefield effects and it certainly isn't as if Magic hasn't used ETB effects throughout its history. That isn't new!

So using a keyword for something that doesn't need it, in this case Constellation, does a whole host of things that are bad.

Why is this troublesome? First it just feels insulting. Players don't need their hands held for every little thing. Lands don't need text on them that say: Play only one of these per turn. Magic should be able to rely on certain pillars like; reading. 

Second; you have the issue of clutter, again. More things to remember, more keywords and it is for stuff that truly doesn't matter! The subpart of this clutter, talked about under the Reskinning part, is also there: now you have linked an atmosphere with a mechanic and WotC doesn't get to use it anywhere else, even in places where it would be outstanding!

Third: it's a step towards dumbing down mechanics. Turing the Untap symbol from Shadowmoor/Eventide into Inspire is a perfect example. Instead of a mechanic that looks like it is doing something, now you just have a triggered ability, so you're rewarded with candy for just breathing, instead of actively searching for interesting lines of play.

The reason all this stuff bothers me. Quite simply, it's that I get the sense that people at Wizards know and some other force is pushing the dominance of flavor over function.

When reintroducing Chroma as Devotion, Mark Rosewater went through a whole host of reasons why Chroma didn't work, including player dissatisfaction. And he says, at one point:
When preparing this article I was talking with Erik Lauer, Theros's lead developer and Magic's head developer, about why chroma did so poorly. He had a simple answer: "The cards with it sucked."
Right. You know what players like? Cards that don't suck. We will figure everything else out!

So maybe instead of letting flavor get in the way of the game, let the game get in the way of the flavor. The game is your priority, the image of the game comes after that.

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