Monday, 16 September 2013

Tweaking Things

Now, never let it be said that I don’t like change. Change is fine, especially when it’s a necessity in order to keep something like Magic from getting stale. However, there’s a fine line between actually necessary change and change for the sake of it and Magic has crossed the line sometimes. Here are my top examples of it being done incorrectly and some of the times it has been done correctly.

Wither/Poisonous – Infect
I’m not about to go on yet another tirade about how much I hate Infect (see this article for my official rant) but I feel I should point out why I see it as a failure in terms of a tweaked mechanic. People inside Magic’s development team have said on the record that all the cards with Infect were going to have Wither and Poisonous originally, but they felt that it would be too wordy so they condensed it down to one word. I agree; two mechanics with fairly lengthy reminder text (especially Poisonous) would have resulted in either creatures that couldn’t have other abilities or creatures that started looking like Takklemaggot. However, I believe that the spirit of Poisonous was betrayed by Infect. Poisonous was originally a set number but Wither was a flexible number. However, I think that more credence should have been given to the fact that a 10/1 creature with Wither won’t kill you outright but a 1/1 Poisonous 10 will. Personally, after giving it a lot of thought, I think that Infect could have been fixed by making it “Infect X” where X is the number of -1/-1 counters or poison counters given out by that creature. I think it fits a little more flavour-wise too. Diseases aren’t really like poison in the sense that a higher dose of poison is deadlier than a smaller dose. Drinking a straight shot of ebola is as deadly as swimming in a pool of it.

-1/-0, -0/-1, -2/-0, -0/-2, +2/+0, +0/+2 counters – -1/-1, +1/+1 counters
Never let it be said that I liked older cards just because they’re old. When my friends play, we usually use dice (d10s or d20s) to mark down how many counters a creature has and if an Ulasht, the Hate Seed enters a Pit Fight with a Greater Werewolf and then Fate Transfers the counters off of Frankenstein’s Monster, that’s (potentially) 4 different types of counters which means 4 different dice! We wouldn’t be able to see Ulhast, the Hate Seed let alone tap it without fear of knocking some of the dice off. Those other power/toughness counters could also ruin other cards’ flavours, such as Spike Cannibal. It absorbs almost everything’s power, but not from the man made up of about 6 different men.

Kamigawa Flip – Innistrad Flip
Yes, I understand that the Kamigawa flip cards may not have had the most space for text as everyone would have liked. They also didn’t have much room for art and they could cause memory problems if someone wasn’t paying close enough attention. However, you want to know what they didn’t do? They didn’t make it obvious what you were drafting in block. They didn’t rely on you having sleeves or special cards that only came in some packs. Finally, they didn’t make you de-sleeve and re-sleeve your cards constantly, causing them to get bent, worn, and otherwise damaged! I have no idea why Kamigawa flip cards are so widely reviled and Innistrad flip cards are loved. The room for text I understand; as someone with glasses, I understand that the small text may have been hard to read for some. Same goes for the art; card art is part of the fun of the game and sometimes it adds a lot especially if it’s good (and most of Kamigawa’s art was stellar). However, the argument of “memory issues” always falls flat for me. Kamigawa flip cards only had a single-use, one-time trigger. For example: Student of the Elements becomes Tobita,Master of Winds when it gets Flying. That’s not a hard trigger to remember. If an opponent is calling you on whether or not it flipped, you can just say “last turn, it got Flying because of X”. Now Innistrad flip cards on the other hand, can have huge memory problems, especially during large games. If an opponent just draws a card and says “go” and you don’t notice, you’ve missed your trigger and you have to time machine any effects that you may have missed which can cause huge problems. Innistrad flips are also a lot less newbie-friendly since they have to constantly remember their triggers as well as their constantly-morphing field. In short, I wish this was one of the concepts from Kamigawa that wasn’t hated out of existence just because it was in Kamigawa.

-1/-1 and +1/+1 Cancellations
I was so happy when WotC made this change. Yes children, back in ye olden days, common sense was not really a factor in Magic and -1/-1 counters did not cancel out +1/+1 counters or vice-versa. I think this confused every single new player because it wasn’t intuitive and made little sense. And again, as I said earlier, the amount of counters that could accumulate on a creature could make it difficult to keep track of them all.

Functional Errata
I’m not going to call out all functional errata here, but I’d like to call attention to two specific types that I consider to be failures. First and foremost is what I call “confusion errata” wherein WotC tries to clarify what’s on a card but just manages to make it much worse. Take for example Oath of Scholars. The text on the card is pretty simple to read. Now look at the oracle text. Seems a bit less clear what the card exactly does, doesn’t it? The most famous example of this type of confusion errata is on Chains of Mephistopheles. Do you want to know what the card actually says? “If an opponent would draw a card that is not the first one drawn in their draw step, they discard a card instead”. How hard was that?!

The second category of bad functional errata is “blanding errata”. This is errata wherein part of the card’s flavour or story is wiped out in favour of “simplicity”. My best example of this is Flying Carpet (which I reviewed here). If the carpet explodes, the guy riding on the carpet should plummet to the ground and die. That’s how it originally worked, but then WotC decided to completely change it for some reason. Another example is Castle, wherein the flavour was that your untapped creatures where protected as long as they weren’t leaving the castle to attack. Now, it’s some sort of magic Green Lantern-esque castle that flies around with untapped creatures wherever they go and can be summoned at will.

Damage on the Stack
This isn’t one that I’d say I was “happy” about, but I don’t really mind the fact that it’s gone. This was why cards with the “flowstone” effect (R: +1/-1) where really powerful. If you let one through, in response to the damage going on the stack, you pump a whole lot of mana into that effect for a lot of damage. Sure, you’d lose the creature, but it resulted in a huge life loss for your opponent.

Mana Burn
Oh God, how I wish mana burn was a thing again. Why? Because then a good chunk of my old cards wouldn’t be useless anymore! Remember Citadel of Pain? Remember how awesome it was to play that down and make your opponent sad because they would either have to play out their hand or take damage every turn? Not anymore! Now your opponent can just tap out and not take any damage. I understand that some people had difficulty remembering simple math, but it prevented stupid things like infinite combos. How satisfying do you think it would feel to do this:
Opponent: “I gain infinite mana with my Myr Galvanizer combo at the end of your turn.”
You: “How much exactly?”
Opponent: “7 quadrillion. Then, I pour all of my mana into my Rocket Launcher…”
You: “I Trickbind the first use.”
Opponent: “Wha…?”
You: “Do you have another mana sink?”
Opponent: “No…”
You: “You take 7 quadrillion minus 2. Good game.”

Fading – Vanishing
This was a great change. Fading often confused new players (and me when I was younger) because it was counter-intuitive to not sacrifice a permanent that, in a seemingly flavourful mechanical sense, had faded out of existence. Vanishing, on the other hand, triggers when you take the last counter off, meaning that you know right then and there to sacrifice it.

New Legend Rule
Wow, this thing is stupid. “If I invite Sarkhan Vol over to my place and someone else comes dressed like him, they explode, but you can also invite Sarkhan Vol to your party and he’ll show up there too somehow”. This could have been changed by either a functional errata adding “but keeps its own name” to every clone effect (a la Sakashima the Imposter, by adding a rule saying that cards that copy other cards don’t cause the originals to explode, or by making a rule saying that Legendary permanent can’t be copied. I know that the “making copies doesn’t make the original go away” kind of defeats the purpose of Legendary, but let’s face it. When Link fought Shadow Link, did Shadow Link have less strength than Link or was he essentially the same? How about the twin clones of Hitler from Superman at Earth’s End? That may be “comic book logic” but this is a game wherein a giant robot infected with goo was saved by the power of friendship because of reasons. And yes, I understand the daunting task of staring down a pair of Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite but that’s a problem that you’ll have to deal with. Just because something poses a tactical problem doesn’t mean it needs to go away. Did Tecumseh (look him up) ask the Americans nicely to bring back a few soldiers so that the numbers were more balanced? No; he made what he had work.

O-Ring Style Wording
We’re all going to miss the old type of wording on cards like Oblivion Ring, but it’s honestly for the best that it’s gone. It confused a lot of players (both old and new) and made cards like that ridiculously powerful (I still fear Auratog because of what it can do with Parallax Wave). Although the new wording is ugly, I think it’s going to be a welcome change.

Okay, this has gone on for far too long, so I’ll leave you with this last tweak, one which I hate more than anything else…

For those too young to have played during the Urza block, there was a huge overarching story that was told through cards and books. It was a magnificent tale that sucked a lot of readers into the game and brought a lot of players into the story. Look a few years down the road and what do we have? Very little. We went from a story wherein a planeswalker goes around fighting a force that threatens not only his plane, but all planes, building a veritable army of the most powerful people he can find, flying around on a spaceship that has an orbital death laser to… a psychopath who gets punched across the universe because the cops are chasing him. I understand the need to change up the characters in your stories to keep it varied, but can we have some consistency? The storyline used to be relatively streamlined, with events from one block having a direct and palpable effect on the next block. What effect did Zendikar have on Innistrad? What about Innistrad on Return to Ravnica? Nothing really. Yeah, Gideon went to Ravnica because of the events that happened in Zendikar, but what was really accomplished? He and Aurelia argued a lot and that’s about it. How about Tibalt, a character who could have been really cool and interesting? Yeah, he’s somewhere, but I think WotC misplaced him and they’re not looking too hard to find him.

There are characters that show up again and again in the story (namely the original 5 planeswalkers), but their stories are just that: their stories. There no longer seems to be the emphasis on the entire multiverse so much as on a few specific people. Also, with this jumping around and radical shifts in focus, it’s hard to know what’s happening relative to everything else. For example, did you know that the events of Kamigawa happen before Legends? Yeah, I’m not kidding: Kamigawa is a prequel. Tetsuo Umezawa, the guy who killed Nicol Bolas is the descendant of Toshiro Umezawa. Also, Nicol Bolas killed the Myojin of Night’s Reach in order to revive himself, so that means that if Kamigawa happened after Legends, that Myojin wouldn’t be there. There doesn’t seem to be anymore interactions like that to tell people where in the timeline certain events take place. Chandra and Gideon’s timelines seem to be the same since Gideon is always chasing Chandra (well, he used to be). Same goes for Liliana and Garruk. Jace appears in everyone’s timeline, but then again, he’s pretty much treated like Jesus, so there could just be a Jace in every single timeline. Elspeth’s doing her own thing and Bolas, well, if Jace is Jesus then Bolas is Satan.

There’s very little character development, there’s no follow-up, there’s not much effort that seems to be put into the stories anymore. For my final example, let’s look at some things in Innistrad. First off, there has yet to be a good explanation as to where the three Powerpuff Girls were during the first two blocks (Bruna, Light of Alabaster, Sigarda, Host of Herons, and Gisela, Blade of Goldnight (?)). If there was such a looming threat to the entire plane, don’t you think that they would get involved somehow? Yeah, they could have been at war with each other, but I’d imagine that these angels, these creatures of mythical power could multitask. How about Griselbrand, the big bad guy who was in the Helvault? He gave Liliana reason to be on Innistrad, but what happened when he came out? Liliana exploded him within a couple minutes. Finally, there’s Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. I think her story was the biggest misstep of the block, specifically what happened to her after the Helvault was opened. She was given the choice of saving her men and allowing the Helvault to be opened or dying (and presumably allowing the Helvault to be opened still). She chose poorly (in my opinion) and asked for her men’s lives. What happened to her afterwards? Did she have to face the families of those that she indirectly allowed to be killed? How did she handle the guilt of that event? What did her men think of her? Well, we don’t know because there was little story written about her. I was really hoping for Avacyn Restored to be something like “Avacyn’s back and it’s not a good thing”. I was hoping for the last block to be people fighting against her crusading forces as she tried to “purify the land” of non-believers. But, instead we got a stereotypical story of good vanquishing evil because “bad things can’t happen at the end of a story because that makes people sad”.

However, this is the one tweak that I will not blame entirely on WotC. I place some (not a lot mind you, but some) of the blame on the player base. We don’t demand stories anymore and when we do, we settle for “novellas” and articles on WotC’s site that vary in quality. Marketing thinks that we’re morons that only buy sets because there are dragons in them (seriously) and we’re not doing much to improve on that perception. I think it’s high time that we as a community start creating our own stories from the fragments that we’re given and do the job that WotC should be doing. Also, we shouldn’t stop demanding better stories. One of the better written stories of the past few years was for Fblthp (?), a character who didn’t even have his own card, but WotC listened (presumably) to the community’s demands for a story and we got one. Maybe if we band together and demand this change, it will happen.

Actually, that “making up your own story” idea is pretty good. Hmm…

1 comment:

  1. On the note of a story, I've been trying to see the bright side of the planeswalkers arch. If they follow what I say then they have been building up to something very SLOWLY (except Return to Ravnica. Screw that story).

    Liliana is on the hunt to get rid of all the demons that have given her her powers so she won't be in debt to them, so she essentially can become free (like Genie from Aladin). Garruk has a hate on now, for a good reason, and I anticipate him showing up more with Liliana as they can have a good story about a grudge.

    Jace is being Jace and Jaceing around. JACE! His story seems to be occurring in a vacuum where he is the star. JACE!

    Gideon has a two fold issue. One, he has to contain Chandra. She is a known interplanar arsonist and he has to keep her from screwing up all the planes. He also has to contend with the Eldrazi, a burden to which he took on himself in the name of justice and ... well, Chandra seems like a cream puff in the face of Eldrazi. He is looking to recruit people for the cause, and no, on Ravnica he did not look. He farted around and then left. Oh, and Nissa fucking hates them both. Almost positive something will go down.

    Tezzeret and Bolas have a "master-scheme"/ we will use them when convenient. Potential there, but seems wasted.

    Elspeth, as recently introduced, has her mind on Mirroden/New Phyrexia. Koth may or may not be dead and she basically blames herself. She saw things she never wished to see and, being Bant, has to help this desperate plane and the Mirrians on it. She is currently on Theros looking to seek consult from Heliod on what she can do, as he IS a god, and she can only equate to the depravity of the Phyrexian Praetors as a form of divinity. She wishes to evoke Ajani, the other Alara-aligned planeswalker, and have his consult and help. Karn is presumably helping but is probably having a rough time, even if he is a piece of the Legacy Weapon.

    Venser died, Vraska was useless, Domri was in a hole, Sarkan died, Tamiyo loves moons, Tibalt loves pain, Ral might do something as Jace is still on Ravnica, but that is to be seen.

    The new walkers for Theros ... I don't hold much hope. But, if wizards can develop these shattered timelines then maybe, just maybe, we will have a magic story again. Maybe.