Design Class – Combating Into the Future

You want to attack with her, don't you?

It’s easy to tell when a plane is at war in the Magic Multiverse: there’s a combat mechanic in the block.

Combat related mechanics always get a bad wrap. They have several things going against them: the creature has to be alive, you have to be willing to attack/block with it, and they mostly stick to three colors. Now each of these can be spun into a positive, but for the most part players are still kinda lukewarm about the idea of a combat mechanic.

For the sake of argument, we’re only going to be looking at non-evergreen keywords. We’re going to let Firebreathing, First Strike, Flying, and the like slide this time. Unless something like “Slow Strike” gets invented, there’s not going to be too many areas of increased development (And don’t get me started on Shadow).

The reason most of this discussion will be focused on keywords is because that’s what players first think of when they hear “Mechanic”.  That’s not always the case but we’ll run with it. And to start out at why combat mechanics are important, and to get to their future, we’re going to hit the way back machine to Legends.

Legends is one of the most groundbreaking sets of all time introducing such concepts as multicolored cards, and Legends themselves. Also debuted in that set was the mechanic called “Rampage”.

Rampage 2 (Whenever this creature becomes blocked, it gets +2/+2 until end of turn for each creature blocking it beyond the first.)

The idea was the the creature got more powerful the more creatures that blocked it, like an enraged caged animal trying to survive. It was cute an all, but who in the world was going to block with more than one creature? The only card that it seemed effective on was Alliance’s Gorilla Berserkers, printed with the “Can’t be block by only one creature” tag. Who was blocking with more than one creature?

Iconic? I think so.

Banding! Dear God, no! Burn it with fire!

Alright, take a deep breath, and maybe a shot of strong alcohol, we’re going in:

Banding (Any creatures with banding, and up to one without, can attack in a band. Bands are blocked as a group. If any creatures with banding you control are blocking or being blocked by a creature, you divide that creature’s combat damage, not its controller, among any of the creatures it’s being blocked by or is blocking.)

And you wonder why this keyword doesn’t see print anymore. Basically any creature with Banding can team up with any number of creatures with Banding plus one without and create one giant “Super” creature. It’s basically like the Fellowship battling the Cave Troll.

Banding was the first combat mechanic. We’ve come a long way, baby.

The important part of Banding was the player who controlled “band” got to divvy up the damage from combat. This was especially important during blocking, because one could give all the damage from the attacking creature to the one that regenerates and have that band gang up and kill the big creature. Banding is flavorful, but it was supposed to be an advantage for weenie creature; only two non-Unhinged creatures with power greater than 2 have banding.

Two of the most unloved keywords printed on one card.

The mechanic wasn’t proving fun, successful, or even understandable by most players, so it was ditched.

The reason Rampage existed at all, at least in my opinion, was because Banding was there encouraging people to block with more than one creature. There were a huge amount of cards that gave Banding (Plenty in Legends itself), so why not make a mechanic that laughed in the face of this blocking mechanic? An aggressive mechanic to go against a blocking one.

Thus began a long history of combat mechanics; where Banding has not seen any sort of descendants, Rampage has followed though with a whole slew of similar style keywords.  If you want to look at ideas, combat mechanics are currently divvied up in four main categories: Power/Toughness alteration, making things cheaper and putting them into play, how attacking/blocking works, and non-combat attack triggers (remember: we are talking about non-evergreen keywords, abilities like First Strike would be put into a new category).

Power/Toughness Alteration

The most common of the categories, this one is divided into two smaller portions even further. There’s the ones that pump creatures and the ones that de-pump. Bushido, Frenzy (that “much loved” one use keyword from the Future Sight Slivers), Exalted, and Battle Cry all pump up (It could be argued that Bloodthirst fits in here two since most Bloodthirst creatures don’t have non-combat related mechanics on them; compare that to the Graft creatures). One of the mechanics that I created for the GDS2 was a pump combat mechanic based on the number of creatures attacking or blocking that share a color.

On the flip side, Flanking and Infect/Wither fit into the de-pumping side (For combat purposes, Infect and Wither are the same thing). They both make the creatures smaller, but Flanking is only good for attacking, and none of the keywords do anything until after the damage has been done which is in stark contrast to the pumping mechanics. This is important because these keywords effect how an opponent blocks, it takes a larger creature to get rid of them; a X/1 Regenerator doesn’t do anything to stop these creatures. If we get another similar mechanic of altering the characteristics of damage dealt, then I would move them into their own category.

Making Things Cheaper and Putting Them Into Play

Very, very specific, but that’s exactly what Ninjutsu and Prowl do. You get a benefit if a creature attacks and isn’t blocked (which I could’ve added to the title but decided that it was long enough already), and it works great with bluffing. The element of surprise is one thing, but these mechanics are more useful when the opponent knows you might have them. Deciding if they should block that innocent 1/1 is a huge mind game of combat. It’s no accident that both of these keywords are in the colors with the most envision: Black and Blue (Flying, Fear, Intimidate, unblockable, Islandwalk, Swampwalk).

Attacking/Blocking Changes

There are a surprising two keywords that deal with changing how attacking or blocking works. We covered one in Banding; the other is a little used keyword called provoke. If we were talking about evergreen keywords Reach, Flying and Islandwalk would all be in this category too. What these keywords try to do is change the normal way combat is done. Banding changes how combat damage is done while Provoke changes how attacking is done. Unless you add more evasion keywords (Hint: don’t), this is a going to be a hard category to find keywords that doesn’t have too much rules baggage.

Non-Combat Attack Triggers

Annihilator is the only one here. It’s very interesting that there hasn’t been much in this area but it makes sense. Why make a keyword attached to combat that has nothing to do with combat? We’ll get to that in a minute.

So this is the past; where does the future go from here? Combat mechanics are important to the game because they encourage one thing: interaction. I’ve stated before the growth of the creature and how Magic’s now become more creature oriented. It’s no surprise that combat mechanics have become more important.

Look at the M11 Titans, they’re hugely strong creatures for 6 mana. They have an enters the battlefield trigger, so if they get destroyed you still get use out of them. And they encourage you to attack to get the same benefit again; the more you attack the more benefit you get. And they’re 6/6’s which means they’ll survive plenty of times? Wow.

But all good combat mechanics encourage involvement by the opponent. We’ve gone away from the play mostly spells and have only a big creature as a finisher style of control (This year’s past Worlds as an anomaly because you had Jace TMS there acting almost like a creature itself. But you know what the choice creature was? Grave Titan.). Obviously one of the easiest things to do when creating a new combat related mechanic  is to change the power/toughness. The creature is in combat, it’s flavorful, and it impacts the board right away. But there’s nothing saying that’s all that combat mechanics have to do. Prowl is one of those that sneakily encourage attacking to get a huge benefit (I almost missed it when compiling this article). You could see a whole crop of mechanics related to just that concept. Just one example:

Incentive Creatures (Creature spells cost 1 less to cast if this creature attacked this turn).

But it’s not just that. Look at Annihilator. What should combat mechanics be tied to combat. Of course, it has to make sense flavor-fully; the Eldrazi where larger than life creatures eating away at the plane of Zendikar. But it could be a whole bunch of effects that encourages attacking or blocking that are small benefits.

Explore (Whenever this creature attacks, put a land card from your hand onto the battlefield.)

Offspring (Whenever this creature attacks or blocks, but a 1/1 Green Sparoling token onto the battlefield.)

Resume (Whenever this creature attacks or blocks, a card from your graveyard onto the bottom of your library.)

But making non-Power/Toughness altering combat mechanics are difficult to do. You have to create something that’s small enough with a benefit, but not too big that it dramatically warps their use (The Eldrazi get a pass because at that much mana, that was the point. You don’t see Annihilator on a 1/1 for 1). Each other category didn’t last more than a set (Banding was, well, Banding and is special in it’s own way). You can’t force the mechanic to got more than 20 cards if they can’t support it. But designing a mechanic for more than one set is a topic for another time.

It doesn’t have to even be a keyword if you don’t want it do. When looking at the keyword you’ve created, if it’s really awkward of three creatures attack and trigger that keyword, then maybe it shouldn’t be a keyword (this requires play testing more than just eyeballing). Maybe they can be a cycle of cards, just like the Titans.

But what colors should we stick the combat mechanics? There’s an easy trail that you can take to find out where they should go. While it’s important to keep them in the colors that make sense, at least for the block, three colors should get a majority of the combat mechanics. Red, White and Green are the combat and creature colors. Black, depending on the flavor and creature type, is 4th while Blue is last. Don’t feel sad for Blue and Black, they tend to get the best mechanics for spells, historically. This is why White has gotten a huge share of the combat mechanics, it’s very combat oriented. Blue isn’t.

This is where Bloodthirst comes in. Bloodthirst wants you to be aggressive with the creatures, no sit back and have you block all day. You get in there, do damage and you get rewarded with a bigger creature to go smash face with. Bloodthirst is a combat mechanic, but in a very weird way. And the colors it’s seen in: Red, Green and Black (that’s where the flavor of Vampires comes in).

As the game gets older, you’ll start to see more and more combat mechanics. For the most part, they have to be diverse enough to be remembered easily. Unless there’s a “fixed” Banding, you won’t see anything that complicated. Because we had Banding in the first place, the game showed that more complex mechanics were possible, just nothing like that.

You could see new keywords from existing cards; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a “blocking” Battle Cry sometime, though it might seem like it would slow down the game quite a bit. In fact, I bet the next combat mechanic won’t even fit into one of these neat little packages but in category all on its own (No inside information, just a hunch). There’s just too much space left undiscovered with the combat mechanic.

After all, there’s always a plane in the Multiverse where people aren’t getting along.


6 thoughts on “Design Class – Combating Into the Future”

    1. By “looks”, I mean, how you’ve separated the keyword types and the examples of keywords that trigger off attacking; i.e. the CONTENT looks good. I just realised my above comment reads like all I’ve done is comment on its layout.

  1. I actually didn’t have a problem with banding. Bands with other, it should be noted, was much harder to learn.

    You forgot “when CARDNAME attacks/blocks/is blocked”, though. Those abilities can influence combat in direct ways.

  2. I always wondered, if they use keyword, why give it’s explanation in parentheses? Isn’t it redundant, especially if keyword introduced many sets away? I hate long explanation texts for kicker, infect, metalcraft, etc. And there are no explanations for some keywords (flying). WotC should make texts shorter, and people should learn terms from updated manuals, not every time card is played

  3. Some Guy – One important thing to remember is that not everyone playing Magic has been playing for a long time. For many players the fact that a mechanic was introduced a long time ago is a GOOD reason to include reminder text.
    Also, almost everyone would much rather learn to play from actually, you know, playing rather than reading a complex rules manual that includes information that would be irrelevant to the large majority of games they play.
    It is much much better for encouraging new players to get into the game, or even for players coming back to the game from a break to include descriptions of how the Ability words (note: not Keywords, they are different) such as Metalcraft, Kicker, Morbid et. al. function. Especially if only one or two happen to pop up in a game. If people had to look up ability words in an online manual everytime they saw one they didn’t recognize it would be terrible for more casual players and newer players. It would slow games to a crawl and take most of the fun out of new mechanics.
    Ability words are there as a short hand for players familiar with the mechanics to use when describing a cards function.

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