Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mo' Forests, Mo' Problems

This article is a long answer to the short question:
“What upsets you about Sylvan Primordial?”

The Aesthetics are Ugly

The shotgun blast of power and toughness values on the primordials looks weird and ugly, and Sylvan Primordial is the worst of the crew. Typically, P/T numbers for high-end creatures reflect the casting cost of the card. If a card costs 5 colorless mana, it might have a 5 somewhere else on the card, or if it’s total converted mana cost is 7, then it might have 7s instead. Setting up multiple instances of a number not only creates pleasant symmetries, it also provides a mechanical clue to players to signal, “Hey, this is a good card,” since constructed playable cards usually need to get at close to their CMC in power or toughness to be worth playing. This is one of the reasons tight cycles usually have similar (or identical) P/T, especially when all members of the cycle have the same cost structure.

I’ve been trying to work out some logic for how the numbers were assigned for the primordials, but I’m stumped. Is there some sort of hidden math code like on Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind? Was there some Development issue that meant Sepulchral Primordial needed to die to Avenging Arrow, but Diluvian Primordial needed to survive? Why does Molten Primordial have worse numbers than Ashen Monstrosity? And why on earth is Sylvan Primordial so much bigger than its siblings? I think it’s kind of neat that it was printed at 6/8 (it’s only the third creature with those numbers), but it comes across as lopsidedly better than the rest of the cycle.

It Does More Than Its Peers

It could make sense to give Sylvan Primordial the best stats if it was otherwise the worst of the cycle, which is probably the case in Limited or regular two-player Constructed, where sometimes there’s no worthwhile target, and the extra land is often irrelevant. But I think the fairest way to evaluate its power is to look at its multiplayer power, and in this arena SyPrime is crushingly better than the rest of the cylce.

Each its brethren does one thing per opponent: an Ashen Powder, a Threaten, a Swords to Plowshares, or a... mono-blue Memory Plunder? (Maybe it’s a card that hasn’t been printed yet.) But Sylvan Primordial gets to double up on effects per opponent; it gets a removal, and it gets to ramp as well. The closest card would be either Mwonvuli Acid-Moss or Bramblecrush, and Sylvan Primordial’s effect is a strict upgrade over either of them, despite both of those cards being solid performers.

Sylvan Primordial also has the fewest conditions required for its maximum effect. Diluvian Primordial needs each of your opponents to play worthwhile spells without too many conditions of their own; otherwise you get stuck with a couple cantrips and an unusable counterspell. Similarly, Molten and Sepulchral require your opponents to play useful creatures; otherwise, you end up overpaying for a Minotaur Aggressor and a second-rate Grave Titan. Diluvian and Sepulchral are also limited by their graveyard dependency; if an opponent has rest in peace, they're just french vanilla beaters. By contrast, SyPrime is almost guaranteed to have easy targets, and the extra lands are unconditionally useful.

This last point leads me to suspect that R&D doesn’t have a good grasp on how powerful mana advantage is in multiplayer games. In “normal” Magic, ramping from 7 mana to 10 is usually irrelevant; the top-of-the-curve finishers typically run in the 5-7 range, and even in decks with X-spells, the difference between a Banefire for 6 damage or for 9 damage is usually academic. But in large multiplayer games (like Commander) respectable creatures usually start at 5 or 6 mana, most decks have X-cost effects or other mana sinks, and decks’ mana curves often top out in double digits. Furthermore, 10 mana is often an important threshold in multiplayer games, since it’s the point at which a player can cast Wrath of God or another sweeper and immediately follow it up with a new threat. As a result of these factors, ramp strategies tend to dominate multiplayer games (especially Commander!).

In ordinary circumstances, this isn’t a problem. Even if a player hits all of his or her early ramp spells and gains a relative mana advantage (in other words, when have more mana than any other player at the table), that player could still be overcome by the confederacy of their neighbors. Getting ahead by 4-6 mana might be good enough to control one or two opponents, but the odds are good the fourth player can break through. Sylvan Primordial changes this dynamic dramatically, since with a little support, it’s possible to gain an absolute mana advantage (where you have more mana than every other player at the table combined). At that point, the group has stopped playing an ordinary game and started playing Archenemy instead.

Its Effect is Mandatory

The other obnoxious aspect is that its trigger is mandatory. The others are templated with an intervening “may/up to” clause, which I think is great since it makes for interesting table diplomacy. Without that intervening “up to” though, I feel like Sylvan Primordial disrespects the social give-and-take that makes multiplayer games (again, especially Commander!) so much fun.

For example, let’s say you’re in a 4-way Commander game. You’re playing a big green monster deck against Ghave, Guru of Spores, Olivia Voldaren, and Rasputin Dreamweaver, and the game’s into the mid-game phase. Ghave just played Doubling Season, which is bad news since it can combo off with the fungus shaman. Meanwhile, Olivia is on the field and equipped with a Basilisk Collar, which prevents you from putting anything threatening on the board. Rasputin’s stuck on five lands and no other permanents, but you suspect he’s holding some sort of countermagic. You have seven mana available and Sylvan Primordial plus a couple Eldrazi in hand. What do you do?

The obvious play should be to slam down the primordial. Doubling Season and Basilisk Collar are both loaded guns, and you need the extra mana to play the rest of your hand. But because of the way Sylvan Primordial is templated, you’re also obligated to Sinkhole one of Rasputin’s land, despite him not being a threat. Not only that, since he’s in the best colors for counterspells and graveyard hate, in the long term you’ll need need him against the black decks, so it’s in your best interests not to mess with him. From Rasputin’s perspective, even if he needs the problem permanents dead just as much as you, he also needs his lands, which leaves him with a tough choice on whether or not to counterspell the primordial. Whatever you and Rasputin decide, one of you is going to have a feel bad moment.

As with the P/T issue, I can’t figure out the reasoning behind the template. My best guess is that the rest of the cycle was easy to make, but for some reason they either stumbled on the green effect, or someone made some last minute changes and lost the original phrasing. Even if it was just a mistake, it’s really unfortunate, because it exacerbates other problems for Commander beyond its effect in-game.

It Encourages Lame Dudes Strategies

Mark Rosewater mentioned in his podcast on the mana system that one of its best features is the restriction of certain cards to certain decks. This innovation usually restricts how many of the best cards you can include in a single deck; if you take the strongest cards in the format and try to shuffle them together, it’s likely your mana base will fail. The evolution of different deck archetypes has also created a restriction by redefining what it means to be the “best” cards within colors; Champion of the Parish and Gather the Townsfolk might be the best cards in a white aggro deck, but Terminus and Angel of Serenity might be the best cards in a white control deck.

Unfortunately for Commander, it looks like this limitation is starting to break down. While the overall diversity of the format is quite high, the anecdata suggests that the “best” staple cards are starting to dominate deck building strategies, especially when it comes to generic Giant Green Monster cards. So instead of using a variety of different strategies, Commander players are starting to revert to the same set of lame stock Big Dudes strategies. Sylvan Primordial’s certainly not the only offender, but it’s the most egregious and most recent example of the trend. It makes me wonder, if Wizards prints 2-3 staple cards per set for Commander, how long will it take before generic goodstuff decks take over the format? Considering that most Commander decks have about 60 unique nonland cards, that probably works out less than 5 more years worth of staple space. While I appreciate the support Wizards is showing for multiplayer, going forward I’d prefer them to stay away from clumsy auto-include creatures. This isn’t to say that I think big, swingy creatures are bad, but please, instead of primordials, give us more cards like Kresh the Bloodbraided, Titanic Ultimatum, and the other Shards block cycles.


  1. I think a lot of these thoughts have been floating around in a lot of people's heads, but putting them into a well written and cohesive setup is worthwhile. Hopefully people take notice.

    1. Thanks. I think there are quite a few players flailing around and trying to figure out why a card that looks like it should be ideal for EDH really isn't that much fun.

  2. To give Sylvan primordial some credit, the last time wizards made a cycle like this were the titans, and this thing is not Primeval Titan. I can see you point on the mandatory trigger, the may should have been included but it was probably omitted for the same reason as Obzedat gets permanent haste instead "haste until the end of turn", it reduces the lines of text and only create rare moments where the effect differs from what you might expect/want.

    The differing p/t between the cards helps with versatility, making them all 7/7 would have been too strong on most, especially considering we have one creature with haste, two with evasion and one with vigilance. Given the green primordial the biggest stats fits with what we expect in color wheel terms and choosing reach limits it's attacking potential. Remember that development had to keep these cards fair in all formats, and out of all the primordials, Sylvan seems to be the most passed around in drafts (in fact it's the primordial I've seen wheel).

    I agree that wizards will need to keep a closer eye on multiplayer when designed/developing cards but most players have shifted their casual needs to edh and other formats and given the lack of pro tour points or other incentives it will probably be safe from too many staples in the long run. Normal people get bored playing the same deck over and over and will eventually seek out to find new decks/experiences. Compared to all other areas of magic, edh still holds the most surprise factor.

  3. I didn't realize that each color might have enough auto-include multiplayer cards to completely fill out commander decks within a few years. Great point.

    It's true that players are looking for fun in multiplayer, so they would never just play straight up auto-include.dec and would play diverse cards just for the heck of it. But I still think many players want there to be an in-game reason that makes it "right" to play diverse cards in diverse decks rather than play diverse cards only based on whimsy. Part of the reason why Commander is popular must be because choosing your Commander gives you different directions to build decks around, including the color restrictions. The same goes for multiplayer powerhouses - they shouldn't just go in any deck of that color.

    1. I don't think it's that big of a concern really. Wizards prints multiplayer cards to be big and exciting for multiplayer. To that end, the Primordials work like a charm. They help to sell the set to EDH players who want these cards for their deck.

      What Wizards doesn't need to do is work to ensure these cards are particularly balanced. EDH is basically a broken format, it's entirely possible to build very abusive combo decks and the banned list does little to really prevent it. The reason it doesn't is because of the social contract implicit in the format (don't be a jerk) and the nature of politics in multiplayer. If you don't like Big Dumb Green Ramp, announce it and start going after them. They'll switch decks after a few rounds of that.

      But when it comes to the design of Big Timmy Commander cards, Wizards is stuck either A) Not designing cards explicitly for the format or B) Designing cards that will be frustratingly ubiquitous in a format geared towards diversity. You can design narrower cards (Like the Legendary guild leaders), and they do. But you also want to design cards for everybody, which means large, mono-colored monsters are here to stay. And of those, Sylvan Primordial is far cry from its Primeval forefathers.

    2. Even if the format can't be balanced in a tournament sense, there's still a reasonable community consensus on the kinds of cards most players like and dislike, and cards that tamper too much with player's mana production are definitely disliked.

      And I think your A or B options are a false dichotomy. Not counting the assorted legends, we've seen a few cycles that have been successful in both 1v1 and multiplayer magic: the Shards Ultimatums, the Mirrodin Swords and Zeniths, or the Innistrad rare utility lands.

      I'm not convinced that a group of people as smart as R&D can't figure out a better way to apply the same level of variety to non-legendary creatures.

  4. I have not found normal multiplayer to be as forgiving to topping out your curve in the 8-10 mana range, and I've been playing it off and on for 18+ years at this point. If your entire playgroup is doing that it works, but if anyone actually plays aggressive creatures you're in for a world of hurt with only 20 starting life.

    I agree that EDH is a different beast, but frankly no one is making you use the "auto-includes". I know I personally enjoy some variety in the effects I have available to me, and Sylvan Primordial is just another Woodfall Primus or Terastodon as far as I'm concerned. He may be the strongest on paper, but I don't think he's always the right answer.

    I am disappointed the destruction isn't a may ability, but other than that the card is fine. The primordials have to have different stats - they are different colors and are producing very different effects. Probably the biggest design mistake for the titans was to make them all 6/6s for 6 because it severely limits the ETB effects each color can have. Adjusting the P/T on each gives development a lot more knobs to turn to get the creatures to the right power level. Inferno Titan is one of the most retarded creatures Red has ever gotten simply because it's extremely efficient AND it gets repeatable removal. If it was a more typical red body (say 6/4 like the red primordial) it would've still been amazing and one of the best 6 drops for red ever, but not head and shoulders above. Primeval Titan needed to be changed to only fetch lands with basic types or only get a single land per trigger, not sure which would've been less dumb. The green one should be bigger than all the others - it's green, and big creatures is what they do.

  5. Building off of Antny223 and Robert Davis:

    It's not hard to imagine that the Primordial cycle is a replacement for the Titan cycle. Timmy wants big creatures to play and a cycle like this gives an excuse to do it in all colors. R&D demonstrates with the Primordials what they learned from the Titans: First, if you make them too good Spike will steal them from Timmy. Hence, these all cost more and aren't as strong. Second, differentiate their bodies. Blue, and Red shouldn't be getting bodies as efficient as Green, period. Why 6/8? It's 7/7 (for seven) with the standard -1/+1 that spiders get. Is it pretty? No, but it's not hard to see how they got there.

    An argument for making an ability like Sylvan Primordial's not optional in multiplayer is that you can then use the ability without negative diplomatic effects. If it did have a 'may' and you choose target someone you claim to be working with for now, they'll see it as a declaration of war, but if you don't have a choice, they can't really blame you. That said, it should have been consistent with the other primordials.

    1. "First, if you make them too good Spike will steal them from Timmy."

      I'm not sure what you mean... are you talking about in draft?

      Second (and this goes for some of the other replies too), the Titan cycle was targeted to be appealing to a wide variety of players. The Primordials are targeted specifically at casual, multiplayer. So I'm not sure they're an entirely fair comparison.

      And I don't think they all need the same P/T. I probably would've assigned them like this:

      Blue and Black: 5/5
      White and Green: 5/7
      Red: 7/5