A Blogger’s Response to the State of Design 2014

King Macar, the Gold-CursedThis has been a year where Magic has taken more of a backseat for me. From the early birth of my daughter in my personal life to getting more responsibility in my professional one (Which really kicked in right when I thought I was going to have time to write for this and 99CMDRProblems again). My usual interest in everything Magic has moved me from a superfan to only a fan.

While my lack of playing the game has diminished my knowledge of format metagames and draft archetypes, I have kept a huge interest in Magic on how it relates to my main sub-interest: design. This is how I feel about the Theros Block in one sentence:

It was one of the most over-produced blocks of all time.

By produced I don’t mean number of cards printed (but I hear that’s true), I mean in the design/development sense (which is a little old to talk about development in a design blog but I’ll get to that).

Remember the first Iron Man movie? It was the first major movie for Marvel Studios and they wanted to hit it out of the park if they were going to get their long term plan rolling. Iron Man felt fresh, fun and exciting. There were some quirks to the movie but you didn’t care. Then the sequel came along and suddenly all that magic was gone from the first one. Sure, you liked some aspects of it like Sam Rockwell and War Machine finally seeing some action, but everyone was trying too hard to make it work. The movie didn’t feel organic and most everything felt forced to be there. If the movie took a chance, it was only really quick and then back to trying to appease everyone by not alienating anyone. It’s not bad, it’s just no one’s favorite.

Theros block is the Iron Man 2 of Magic.

I love the Greek top down design, and if we were judging on if the cards fit their “real world” counterparts, I’d think it was a pretty good block. But Theros was also billed as the first real Enchantment block and the idea was pushed pretty hard. I think that it was designed all wrong when WotC limited the number of non-creature/aura enchantments. This is like saying that we’re going to go to an artifact world, but only end up having artifact creatures and equipment. That would be a huge disappointment, right?

Where's the enchantments?
Where’s the enchantments?

Having actual Enchantment Creatures that weren’t just Lucent Liminid was great. But if they didn’t have Bestow then they were just enchantments we had seen before but now on creatures. This caused some backlash when Planar Chaos tried to do it with color-shifted cards which lead to complaints about not being “new“. Of course, WotC has been making enchantments into creatures for quite a while now (Kismet -> Loxodon Gatekeeper, Survival of the Fittest -> Fauna Shaman) so I don’t think the outcry was the same.

There are 82 enchantment creatures in Standard:

  • 15 are Gods.
  • 34 have Bestow
  • 5 are Archetypes
  • 14 have Constellation

14 Non-keyword enchantment creatures in the block.

Aegis of the Gods – Leyline of Sanctity
Brain Maggot – “Enchantment-shifted” Mesmeric Fiend
Courser of Kruphix – Lifegift/Oracle of Mul Daya
Cyclops of Eternal Fury – Fervor
Eidolon of Rhetoric – Arcane Laboratory/Rule of Law
Eidolon of the Great Reveal – Pyrostatic Pillar
Fate Unraveler – Underworld Dreams
Master of the Feast – New
Nyx Weaver – “Semi” Curse of the Bloody Tome
Nyx-Fleece Ram – Ajani’s Mantra
Perplexing Chimera – Relativity New
Ripetide Chimera – “Enchantment-shifted” Esperzoa
Satyr Firedancer – New
Spirit of the Labyrinth – New

If these 14 cards were pure enchantments instead of creatures as well, that would’ve almost doubled the amount of pure enchantments in the block (Dictate cycle, Font cycle and five various). If they were spread out over the block at almost 10 a set, I think it would’ve been a bit easier on the players. That would’ve have pushed it to be more of an “enchantment block,” but it would’ve been a step in the right direction.

This enchantment block thing has also got me thinking: why were there so many keyword mechanics that weren’t focused on enchantments?

Keyword Total Ench Ench Cre % of Ench % of Ench Cre/Ench
Bestow 34 34 34 100% 100%
Constellation 16 16 14 100% 87.5%
Devotion 33 16 15 48.48% 93.75%
Heroic 42 0 0 0% 0%
Inspired 19 0 0 0% 0%
Monstrosity 22 0 0 0% 0%
Scry 57 4 1 7% 25%
Strive 19 0 0 0% 0%
Tribute 11 0 0 0% 0%
Total 252 70 63 27.78% 90%

And as a comparison, we’ll examine the Scars block as it was the last one where there was a complete block theme.

Keyword Total Art Art Cre % of Art % of Art Cre/Art
Battle Cry 7 1 1 14.29% 100%
Imprint 10 7 2 70% 28.57%
Infect/Poison 66 13 10 19.7% 76.92%
Living Weapon 9 9 0 100% 0%
Metalcraft 31 6 4 19.35% 66.67%
Phyrexian Mana 33 20 16 60.6% 80%
Proliferate 14 4 1 28.57% 25%
Total 168 60 34 35.71% 61.67%

And a third table:

Block # Cards # of Type # of Type Cre % of Type % of Type in Mech % of Type Cre/Type
Theros 564 143 82 23.35% 48.95% 57.34%
Scars of Mirrodin 544 182 77 33.46% 32.97% 42.31%

This isn’t an exact science as I only took keyword mechanics into consideration, but that’s how most players remember blocks. Now I don’t expect to see WotC keep the same numbers when they go from block theme to block theme, especially when it comes down to the small details, but you can see some huge differences in philosophies. More enchantments were attached to mechanics, but less of the mechanics in Theros block were attached to enchantments. Some of this has to deal with block setting as well though this is a huge gap in the “card type matters” block. It doesn’t feel like WotC trusts enchantments as much as artifacts which is a shame.

There’s also the need for plenty of creatures to needed to make the block run smoothly. This helps with draft and the continuing focus of creatures in Magic. The whole Bestow mechanic is enchantment creatures, which skews the numbers a bit. Living Weapon, on the other hand, make creatures but they aren’t creature themselves. There’s a huge difference between 90% of your chosen card type + mechanic being creatures and 62%. It makes it seem, rightfully so, that the block theme couldn’t stand on its own if you had to completely dowse it in another card type.

But here’s a quick table that I wanted to have all on it’s own. It seems like there are more Auras in Theros than in other blocks.

Block # Cards # of Art # of Ench # of Auras % of Art % of Ench % of Aruas/Set
Theros 564 30 143 41 5.32% 23.35% 7.27%
Return to Ravnica 664 35 65 37 5.27% 9.79% 5.57%
Innistrad 674 48 76 45 7.12% 11.28% 6.68%
Scars of Mirrodin 544 182 28 14 33.46% 5.15% 2.57%
Zendikar 607 38 72 37 6.26% 11.86% 6.1%

If you add in the Bestow Creatures it would bump the Theros numbers to 75 total Auras and 52.45% of the enchantments and 13.3% of the block. Yes, that’s way more than what we’ve seen in comparable modern design. I get that some of this is development issues (the addition of Scry was added in development but fits perfectly in a Greek inspired world due to the oracles), but Design hands the blueprints off to Development.

Most of the time I get why WotC makes a certain choice; it’s either for money or what they believe will make the game better for us as players. I know they don’t make any decision lightly and I don’t always agree with what they do. But I understand it. Theros is the best selling Magic set of all time, so it would be natural to repeat the success there and I believe that would be a mistake. Theros isn’t bad design, it’s just not good enough to what I believe WotC can do. Hopefully the dropped off sales numbers of the rest of the block show that players weren’t happy with the overproduced aspect of those sets.

It’s not really anyone’s fault either. I know that the people making Magic want the best to come from each product that comes out. I believe this is part of the pendulum that Magic is swinging at the moment. The next set builds on the previous one and suddenly your set creation design plan is built on a house of cards. I know that limited is what drives Magic sales and you want to create those perfect environments. My reaction to both Born of the Gods and Journey into Nix was “Huh, I bet these would be fun to draft.” Cards like Retraction Helix only exist in a block like Theros, where it turns an Unsummon into a card that has to enable two keyword mechanics and almost see zero play outside of limited except for the rare Heroic/Inspired theme casual deck. I blame the lack of excitement of this block comes from focusing too heavily on limited, and it’s where the pendulum is going.

I believe that M15 is a step in the other direction, with the focus on the game designer submitted cards. The set seems looser in terms of how everything fits together. The Futurama quote from God, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” M15 certainly feels like that, hiding the strings better of what makes the set work. While Core Sest always are a little more lax when it comes to drafting development, I feel that more sets should ease up a little. But then, I’m not a developer and i could be wrong there.

The mechanics were okay but there’s not much to say about them. How the Gods worked I think is one of the most brilliant designs of the past 5 years. I’m disappointed that Devotion wasn’t throughout the whole block and I don’t mind that it was pushed by Development (A deck needs to be the best deck for Standard, but that’s not my expertise). Constellation was a waste at the end of the block as it would’ve helped out more of the enchantment theme. I don’t think Heroic was good enough as a block long focused mechanic. It’s stretched out and I think warped how the block was designed as it needed to have cards designed around it (See: Retraction Helix). From what’s been previewed of Khans of Tarkir, I think it would’ve fit better there. Bestow was Bestow and I think it has potential in future supplemental sets.The rest of the non-Scry mechanics were one set mechanics that felt out of place in the block.

I’ve only talked about the Theros block, but they weren’t the only products released. I don’t have much to say about Commander 2013 and Conspiracy as I loved both of those. Commander designed cards should stay in Commander release products in my opinion, and WotC should continue to reuse old mechanics in their supplemental products like the Curses were. Conspiracy was a huge leap of trust and I don’t know many people who didn’t like it. Of the few drafts I have done, I’ve enjoyed it. I would fully support another Conspiracy set in the future and encourage WotC to experiment more.

That could be the lesson in all of this: it depends on the right kind of experimentation. Most of what WotC does is controlled experimentation where it comes from focus groups. Only do something so different yet still familiar to players. They don’t want to invest time and money into a product and see it completely flop. It’s just like Hollywood:

The [block] didn’t feel organic and most everything felt forced to be there. If the [block] took a chance, it was only really quick and then back to trying to appease everyone by not alienating anyone. It’s not bad, it’s just no one’s favorite.

I know that WotC can do better than this block; they have before. There are good ideas in there but they aren’t expanded on. Magic isn’t designed for one person, me, it’s for a wide variety of people. I’ve wanted to like it and give is as much of a chance as I could. But even with everything going on in my life, there wasn’t anything of interest to make me pay attention to the block unlike Commander and Conspiracy did. Theros block isn’t for me, and that’s ok.

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3 thoughts on “A Blogger’s Response to the State of Design 2014”

  1. Maro mentioned, when writing about how Theros came about, that it wasn’t actually in his original 7-year plan. There was a different, radical new block idea in its place, but his bosses weren’t convinced and told him to do a Greek enchantment block instead. Part of me wonders if Theros was ho-hum mostly because its lead designer wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as the other things he’d been planning and working on, hence fewer risks.

    I will always remember Theros block for Heroic and for Gods, but not really for enchantments. Not a very forward-moving or forward-thinking design, IMO, and after RTR block (which was essentially just a design carbon copy of something that worked before and then New World Order’d) I hope that we’ll see some riskier design in the future. Miracle was the last design choice that I felt was really risky and exciting, although the Gods are kind of in that ballpark, too.

  2. Calling Heroic “not focused on enchantments” is a bit dubious. It was a mechanic specifically designed to interact with auras and Bestow creatures. There are certainly plenty of cards and mechanics chosen specifically to work with heroic – strive, Coordinated Assault’s cycle, and so on – which are pretty clearly focused on Limited and Standard… but I’m not sure what you’re wanting from the bulk of commons and uncommons if not to be focused on Limited and Standard.

  3. Just to clarify, Theros wasn’t a fun draft environment. It was shallow and stale right out of the box, with Bored and Journey barely moving the dial. In limited, opportunities to interact are rare outside of combat tricks. The strategy of Theros was land a two drop, throw some s#!ƒ on it to make it bigger than your opponents guys, and tap until you win. It’s a sad reflection on a format when a two mana bounce spell becomes first pickable. For all of the fuss about maximizing design space to make the game last forever, they sure have reduced their area of focus to combat.

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