After MaRo – State of Design Response 2015

Profound JourneyAnother year, another State of Design response.

While I’ve tried to keep up every year that Maro has written one, I think it’s important to voice your opinion about what you have thought about the past year. I know Maro gets so much player response, especially on Tumblr where it’s short bursts of info, it’s also good to write something a little longer. If you’re giving feedback, there’s something you need to communicate that can be very hard to do:

Explain why.

If you liked something, explain the reason. Same for not liking something. There is nothing as useless as “this sucks,” but don’t explain why. “I didn’t like that there were too many aggro decks,” is a valid reason, “I don’t like dragons,” is a valid reason, “Because why can’t we have Counterspell back?” is not a totally valid reason but if that’s the way you feel, please respond that way. Be kind, be courteous. I’m not trying to “tone police”, but even if you disagree with what has happened you can still be respectful. If you want your voice to be heard, write something; WotC will read it.

I know that last year I kinda went into a “Theros wasn’t an enchantment block so it missed its mark” midset and in hindsight, I still believe that. It’s okay to disagree with how things turned out. Did I think Khans block turned out better? Let’s find out.

If you read Maro’s article (and you should), He explained successes. All of those were great with me: The Clans had great flavor and personality, Manifest was awesome and the block structure worked.

A quick word on the block structure: this was very inventive and if this draft concept had been worked out before the demise of the three-set block, I think we might have seen it survive a bit longer. Having a middle block where you draft around completely changes the draft environment as time goes on; perspective shifts on what is good/bad. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of the two-set block and the more rotation of Standard and in the long run think that it could be a great thing. But imagine a block draft where it was Return to RavnicaDragon’s Maze, then GatecrashDragon’s Maze. Of course cards would need to be shifted around and the story changed but if you could set it up and have five guilds draft the small pivot set together, you could really get those guilds to shine like I believe was the intent of the Return to Ravnica block to begin with. Just a thought.

As for the problems Maro brought up, we’ll dive into those a bit more since we can learn more from our mistakes than out successes.

Messing Up Dragons

Maro hit the nail on the head about having dragons before dragons, and having dragons with more variety. You needed to establish a world where dragons existed and it makes sense to have a ton of them in the past where they lived. Here’s what we ended up with in Fate Reforged:

Single (1) Dragon Planeswalker Needed
Cycle (5) Legendary Allied Dragons Needed
Cycle (5) Siege Enchantment Needed
Single (1) Land – Story Reasons Debatable
Single (1) Crux of Fate – Story Reasons Needed
Cycle (5) Uncommon Dragon Death Triggers Unneeded
Single (1) Fearsome Awakening Unneeded
Single (1) Dragonrage – Gameplay Unneeded
Single (1) Common – Lightning Shrieker Unneeded

Shockmaw Dragon21 “Dragon” cards in Fate Reforged (I’m not counting Bathe in Dragonfire because it’s dragon in name only). Cutting down by 8 cards would have made the set feel less “dragon-y” and open up some more room to play with. The reason that they’re all there is because you need so many cards in different rarities to have it show up in “as-fans”, so people know that the dragons are back. Here’s the rub:

You don’t want dragons to be back too much.

The next set is called Dragons of Tarkir so you want them to have dragons (unlike Dragon’s Maze which was a possessive plural referring to Niv-Mizzet). You ramped from having no dragons to the most ever in Fate Reforged to the most ever again in Dragons of Tarkir. In this, the later two sets lose their identity as they both can be known as “the dragon set.” Now, this may seem a little silly since I believe that history will show that Dragons of Tarkir is the dragon set and Fate Reforged has more of the Manifest identity, but it’s still something to think about when designing sets.

Quick aside: sets need to have their own identity; it’s great not for a marketing point from from a creative/design perspective as well. This is the same philosophy that drives Planes as well as each one needs to be different. So are so many sets and places we’ve been to it’s easier to recall them if they’re all different. Notice how all the worlds in Star Wars (movie canon) are all different. You know Hoth as the snow planet, Tatoonie as the desert one, etc. Magic needs that too. This is where Maro’s fear was, the two aren’t different enough when it comes to creatures. If you look at a dragon without the expansion symbol, could you tell which set it was from?

As for dragons being tournament viable creatures, I feel that’s out of my area and I would like to think that people looking to win would find any card that does so useful regardless of creature type.

The biggest knock against the dragon theme was that they just weren’t unique enough. The uncommon cycle of dragons in each of the last two sets just were “okay, here be some dragons,” and it wasn’t exciting. The Legendary dragon cycle from Fate Reforged all had attack triggers which wanted you to swing with them. Then the same dragons in Dragons of Tarkir were very passive and didn’t want you to attack with them at all save Ojutai which is very strange in a White/Blue control deck. There’s an Elder Dragon that’s useless in the format that was formally called Elder Dragon Highlander (Kolaghan, which even though he gives your creatures haste, you want to keep him alive for his 10 life ability in all other formats). I’ll find places for the dragons in my decks but nothing really stopped me in my tracks and said “whoa.” I think that’s a miss right there.

Megamorph as a Mega-Disappointment

Misthoof KirinHere’s where it gets tricky. I don’t think Megamorph was bad in concept, it just didn’t fit with where the block was going. If we didn’t travel back in time, Megamorph would have been fine (name aside). It’s a natural progression from Morph and I think it plays nicely. It’s clearly a mechanic that needs Morph around as well, but I don’t think it’s bad. Since we did go back in time and show a “proto-Morph” of Manifest, I think the feel bad came from we “basically” came back to the same mechanic after altering history.

When Marty McFly went back in time and and helped his father beat up a bully, there was very little change globally. Yet when Sarkhan goes back and saves the dragons from being killed off, Morph still basically came to be. We got to see other time travel tropes (the Khans leaders leading different lives), but it seemed like with Manifest we could do anything. That’s where I thought we were going: Anything has Morph. It fits right in with Manifest as the “what’s in the box” moment that could be fun. This was this golden opportunity to branch out from Manifest and see what an alternate Morph could have been.Of course, this might have been tested and found that it caused too much problems/unfun.

Sure, the name didn’t work as well. But I don’t think it was its main problem.

Leaving Tarkir in the Wrong State

Sarkhan's TriumphThat’s a flavor issue that I feel could be easily worked out. You have the Khans trying to regain power from the Dragon-Lords and you can have your wedge block back. I don’t think it was a problem that players loved the Khans world more than what you expected; I feel that if it hadn’t been a success there wouldn’t have been that emotional investment of finding out what happens on Tarkir. Going back to it with the dragons instead of without makes for a much better story and will get people excited once again to go back. I suggested the set name be Kahns Uprising and you get people wanting more. Go ahead and use it WotC.

Having Sarkhan as a mystery child of time is cute, but I don’t like the shift to the Temur colors. Yes, most of this is based on the fact that I can’t put Sarkhan in my Karrthus Commander deck with the rest of his copies, but he’s now been four colors as a Planeswalker where White is the only one he hasn’t been. I genuinely don’t know, has his character changed that much?

How the Block Did as a Whole

I think the weakest park of the block were the two Temur ability keywords as it felt too much like Naya’s mechanical theme from Shards of Alara.  It shared two of the same colors and I think Blue was the wrong fit for the third. When I think Green-Blue-Red, I don’t think big creatures, I think tempo and experimentation gone mad (Like Rick Sanchez from Dimension C-137, though he does have some Black in him as well). If you ask me what I would have used instead, I don’t have an answer for you since it would change how the play off the keywords already there. If I was picking a mechanic already used, maybe Threshold even though I know that mechanic isn’t well liked by WotC; it would have made it see how it plays with Delve.

The block looks fun to play, and it is fun to play. If you compare it to Theros, Theros just looks fun to maybe draft and that’s it. There’s too many linear mechanics in Theros and not enough of what you wanted (enchantments). Sidenote: it’s interesting that so many of the types of cards that we wish were in Theros were in Magic Origins (Blesses Spirits, Blood-Cursed Knight, Helm of the Gods, Herald of the Pantheon, Starfield of Nyx). Of course, it could be that WotC didn’t want these type of cards to come out until Theros was about to rotate and that’s a perfectly fine answer.

But it seems like Theros didn’t want you to experiment with what you could do in that world. This isn’t a set-up like Odyssey/Onslaught where the decks seemed to be on rails and they were being guided by WotC to create, I’ve just seem more of different decks with Khans block than I did with Theros. Maybe the linear mechanics were too strong (Devotion), but with Kahns, they wanted you to mess around not only with different colors, but different playstyles. You could play with dragons in all five colors, build around a Clan, tokens and +1/+1 counters, Morph and Manifest could go together or not at all. and all the classic archetypes of decks. You couldn’t shove all the Delve cards into one deck whereas you wanted all the Heroic cards in one.

Is that the true test of a block, how many different decks you can play with it? No, but I’d say it’s a good measure. Most everything of what Khans block offered to us worked. Not every cards is a tournament staple, nor should it be. Having Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise being banned in Modern is not the sign of bad design but how powerful a mechanic can be. We want powerful mechanics as players (Powerful doesn’t mean that’s the best option and it should be played that way: Devotion/Heroic).

What Maro says about those are failures are something that any game would love to have if that’s what they call bad part of the year. Maro holds the bar high when it comes to how well a set does it’s insane. Saying that you put too many dragons in the set before you had even more dragons is a good problem to have (notice, this is just about the card game and not about things like MTGO which are a whole separate issue). One mechanic that wasn’t well received out of 12 that you had this year is a fantastic average. There were some experiments taken, especially with the block structure, and they were good ones to take.

One of the best ways I decide if a set’s good is to see how long after the set’s release I still buy packs. I know it’s bad EV and I should draft them (which I’ve had no time to do that), but if I’m still buying backs after the first few weeks of the release, then I think it’s a good set (that obviously still has potential of opening good value). I bought more of Khans block than I did of Theros block. I stopped buying Journey into Nix pretty soon after it came out; I bought a pack of Fate Reforged a few days ago months after its release.

I’ve got a dragon Commander deck, and that’s as far as my love of these flying reptiles go. Sure, I received plenty of nice additions to the deck with this block but I don’t get excited with something just because it’s a dragon. This block has so much going for it besides said dragons and that’s a good thing.

Quick list of things I didn’t talk about:

  • Allied Fetchlands – Glad the were reprinted for cost value, helped Khans of Tarkir drafting.
  • Time Travel Tropes – Loved them. All of them. If you’re doing a time travel block you need to have them.
  • Mode cards shifting to bullet template – Looks fantastic. Great choice.
  • Hybrid in Fate Reforged – This is where I would love to see Hybrid more.
  • More design in wedge space? – I believe there is some, but expect the more interesting cards will appear in supplemental products (Commander/Spring draft set).

I believe that Kahns block can stand on its own and especially as the last 3 set block and be proud. It’s not perfect, but it sure is fun to examine and play.

I’ll be at PAX on Saturday night covering the preview presentation and the PAX party, as well as Saturday where I’ll try and get to the 1:00 panel on how a card is made. Follow me on Twitter (@mtgcolorpie) to keep updated on Magic going ons this weekend.

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