Thursday, February 21, 2013
Random is the New Shuffle
In the Innistrad podcasts, MaRo mentioned that they were looking for ways to add suspense to build up the classic horror-aspect of the world, and they hit on the idea of adding some “at random” effects to achieve that goal. One important bit mentioned was the old Hitchcock anecdote about the difference between surprise and suspense; if two people are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off, that’s surprise. If the audience sees an anarchist put a bomb under the table and the bomb is counting down while the two people are sitting at the table, that’s suspense. The anecdote is a little bit of a writer’s cliche, but it happens to be helpful for illustrating the two big problems I have with random effects in Magic.
Let’s say in the distant future, in a society where disputes are resolved with nanobots and plasma pistols, you organized a Hitchcock revival fest. If your audience sees the anarchist put the bomb under the table, but they don’t understand what a bomb is or its significance in the movie, there’s no suspense. In other words, the audience needs some prior understanding of the basic circumstances to understand why they should be afraid. The same is true in MtG, where if the players have a loose understanding of the game (and I think most players do), then it can be difficult to exploit their knowledge of the game to create suspense. For example, if my opponent has forgotten which cards are in my graveyard (or doesn’t understand how those cards work), then Make a Wish doesn’t create any suspense. Conversely, it’s also possible to spoil the suspense if you have too much knowledge, much the same way a movie gets spoiled if you know the ending. In Magic terms, if I’m playing something like RWU control where I don’t have any amazing top-decks, and I’m just planning to grind out the game with Snapcaster Mages and Restoration Angels, my opponent won't be concerned by my casting Desperate Ravings as there’s no suspense regarding what I might draw versus what I might discard. (Note: this example is a little bit dated, since there aren’t any current Tier 1 standard decks that are playing Desperate Ravings. The basic argument should still be valid.)
The other big problem with “at random” effects is the way they affect the tempo of the game. Continuing with the Hitchcock example, if the bomb takes too long to go off, the verisimilitude of the scene is lost: the audience starts to check their watches or wonder what they should have for dinner, and the suspense breaks. Magic has the same problem; if a spell or ability takes too much time, the players get bored and the moment gets lost. Moreover, random effects have a significant impact on playing time in paper tournaments.
Most players try to cheat time with quick and dirty randomization methods, with the most common shortcut being to shuffle their hand around, then ask their opponent to pick a card. But this isn’t a real method of random selection, since most people, when offered something, naturally reach out to the closest object (like if I held out my hand with all fingers outstretched and asked someone to pull a finger, they’re much more likely to pull my pointer or middle finger than my thumb or pinky). If I’m a cagey player, I make sure my best cards land on the outside of the fan when I fan them out for my opponent, which negatively affects the chance they’ll be discarded. There’s also the possibility that my opponent can affect the chances in his or her favor. For example, say we’re into the mid-game and my opponent has the advantage on board. It’s been a couple turns since I either added a new threat of my own, or played a removal card on one of my opponent’s threats. I have two lands and a Desperate Ravings in hand. When I play the Desperate Ravings, my opponent might correctly figure that I have nothing relevant in hand. If I just shuffle my hand around and let him or her pick a card, there’s a fair chance that he or she can follow the cards I just drew through the shuffle and pick one of those cards, which minimizes my chance of keeping the relevant card.
To get a more random outcome for your random effect, you have to invest more time. The best way to randomize is to roll a die. Most Magic players at FNM and other regular sanctioned events have dice on them, and for players at home, it’s pretty easy to dig one out of the old Monopoly box. This still has a few hurdles though, since your ordinary d6 isn’t a great tool if don’t have six cards in hand. If you have fewer than six, you have to describe your randomizing convention to your opponent (“Ok, 1 or 2 will be the first card, 2 or 3 will be the second card...”), and if you have more than six, you have a problem. I usually have an assortment of different dice available (habits of D&D days), but I think this is the exception, not the rule. The other good randomization method is to use a smart phone app, but again, this isn’t something everyone will have on hand. On top of that, even if you have the right tool available, it adds more time than the pick-a-card method, and time spent fumbling with dice or phones is ultimately time not spent playing Magic.
This is why I think random is the new shuffle; while both game element enable cards and mechanics that could not work otherwise, I’m not sure they’re worth the “load screens” required. I suppose at this point, random is the old new shuffle; Innistrad has been out for more than a year, and we live in the bizarro time stream where everything we see is two years out-of-date by R&D’s time flow. On top of that, RtR and Gatecrash didn’t have quite as many random effects as Innistrad (the suspense element obviously wasn’t important to Ravnica), but we still ended up with a few awkward cards like Signal the Clans. I still have hopes that some variant of Chicken Egg could see play as a black-bordered card, but until someone figures out a clever way to speed the game along, I’m not counting it until it’s hatched.
Posted by Daniel Stockton at 10:01 AM