Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Exploring the Afterlife Pt. 2/3

As we expanded on the many pitches generated for our set design project, it seems that we have produced enough material for several years of set design projects. I'd like to lay out the ideas I've had for Ankh Theb's afterlife theme for the future. It's quite in the realm of possibility that one day we'll design the Ankh Theb set.

In part one of this series, I explored a Mummify mechanic. It was almost the same as a repeatable Unearth, except that it could only be activated as long as you retained control of a land which you designated as that Mummy's "Tomb." While it was very flavorful, it required artificially seeding a lot of balanced but playable land destruction effects into the environment so that players can interact with that Tomb.

Afterlife in Exile
Another mechanic worth considering is this:

This Afterlife mechanic is like a mix of two mechanics I've proposed to represent the afterlife. Earlier, I've posted the idea of creatures that can be exiled from the graveyard so that their activated abilities can be used from exile.

I've also posted the idea of creatures that can be brought back from the graveyard to the battlefield, except that they gain Shadow ("this creature can only block and be blocked by other creatures with Shadow") and possibly have a smaller P/T in their second life.

Allowing creatures to attack, block, and activate abilities from the graveyard or from exile is fascinating, and I'm sure many amateur designers have come up with that idea. I'm also pretty sure that WotC must have considered something like that already.

The Problems of Living in Exile
Creatures living in exile is super intriguing, but it opens up a whole can of worms as well. The cards in exile need to keep track of stats that exiled cards didn't have in the previous rules of Magic, such as tapped/untapped status as well as the amount of damage sustained in the current turn. New processes need to be added to the turns, such as untapping exiled cards at the beginning of the turn and having damage on them cleaned up at end of turn. The comprehensive rules as well as the MTGO engine would need a major overhaul.

Explaining how creatures living in exile can tap, untap or sustain damage would take up too much space on the card, although perhaps this part can be skipped since the players are likely to assume that the card works and intuitively understand that the creatures take damage or untap at the beginning of the turn.

Even if it did work, though, the fact that exiled cards will be untargetable by normal removal spells means that it will be very difficult to balance these cards. That's why I chose examples with low power and focused on utility abilities. I also chose stats that make it easy to set up a stall on the exile front and defend yourself by blocking, because you can't combat them with removal. Usually, you don't want stalls, but when there are two fronts, I think it should be ok. But it will be a major undertaking to figure out what kind of combat balance would be most fun with this mechanic.

The Ascend Mechanic
Because of these problems, I decided to expand on a variation of the "return to the battlefield with Shadow" mechanic.

This mechanic means that as your creatures die off, you can gradually move them onto the "second battlefield" that is Afterlife over the course of the game. There is a one-directional population shift of sorts, where early in the game the battlefield of the living is the main focus, while near the end of the game the Afterlife is the main frontline of battle.

As you can see, I've put up two different versions of the reminder text. I wonder which one would be better. One is more clear, the other is more concise.

Designing Around Afterlife
While most creatures should only enter Afterlife through this Ascend mechanic, there could be just a few exception cards that can move to the afterlife right away to spice things up, maybe like these:

The set should also have sacrifice effects such as Bone Splinters and Altar's Reap, so that you could sacrifice a creature with Ascend and then move it to the Afterlife if it's needed there.

Also, to help fight Ascend, there should be cards to exile creature cards from the graveyard.

Finally, there could be cards that affect the afterlife:

The Problem of Repeatability: Endless Mana Pump Wars
One question I see with this mechanic is: What should happen to the creature when it dies while it's in Afterlife? Currently, it goes to the graveyard and it can keep coming back as long as you keep pouring mana into it. However, when both sides are doing that, it can feel like a futile contest of tapping mana, especially when the Afterlife creatures are entering play and then trading off repeatedly, turn after turn.

That's why I added the clause that creatures enter the Afterlife tapped, so that there is an incentive for players to attack. For example, let's say that both players each have a 2/2 creature in Afterlife. You attack, the opponent blocks, and both creatures die. You pay the mana cost to put yours back into Afterlife, tapped. Next turn, your opponent does the same and pays mana to put his/her Afterlife creature back into the afterlife, tapped. But because it's tapped, on your turn you get to attack past his/her Afterlife creature.

This might not be a good enough solution when there are many creatures in Afterlife, though. On the one hand, it should be ok if a stall occurs in the Afterlife because it's just one of the two battlefronts. On the other hand, it could require a lot of math to even figure out if the Afterlife is really in a state of stall or not. You would need to consider which creatures can attack to cause maximum mana wastage and tempo loss for the opponent, as you force the opponent to block and then re-activate Afterlife for creatures that died.

Death in Afterlife = Exile?
One possible answer is to make it so that when creatures in Afterlife die, they become exiled. This way, when we come back to this world in Return to Ankh Theb block, we can have a mechanic called After-Afterlife where creatures that were exiled in this way can attack from exile. When they die while they're in After-Afterlife, they drop back into normal Afterlife.

Of course I'm just kidding about After-Afterlife, but exiling the creatures after their second death seems reasonable. There is the practical problem of fitting the reminder text onto the card, though.

Finding a New Cost or Trigger
Besides exiling, I suspect that this mechanic could really take off if a suitable condition or cost is found for putting the creature into afterlife, rather than only requiring a mana payment and coming back every turn.

It could be a trigger, such as the one that the Werewolves in Innistrad used. We probably don't want to reuse the same trigger, but there could easily another good trigger waiting to be discovered.

Or, there could be a cost of sacrificing or discarding a land. Those costs come with the risk that inexperienced players might overuse the ability and mana-screw themselves. But perhaps if the cost is something along the lines of "{4}{W}, Discard a land card:" there is less chance of that happening since the ability can't be activated without having a lot of land in play already.

Overall Impressions
The overall feeling I get from this Afterlife mechanic is that it is a whole new ball of wax to work with, with rich potential. Every set needs a fresh element that makes Magic feel like a new game, and this mechanic has that aplenty. At the same time, it's hard to tell what can be made out of it. What kind of play environment, or what kind of game balance is ideal for a set with this mechanic?

Since this mechanic creates two fronts, one way to go is to make it highly strategic, like a war simulation game or even chess. However, that would probably be a mistake since it would overly benefit high-level players. While there is deep, deep strategy in Magic, most of it is hidden in choices such as "do I want to wait before casting this?" or "what should I target?" Recent design and development tries to avoid chesslike decisions that can paralyze a player.

Magic already has a lot of deep strategy in the decision of when to trade a creature. We don't want to make that too complex by making it scary to kill an opponent's creature through trading. But at the same time, Golgari's Scavange mechanic has similar implications and it hasn't caused problems, which gives me hope that there could be a good spot to hit with this mechanic too.

This mechanic requires a lot of test play to feel out what it can become. Perhaps this mechanic needs to be in a slow set so that players have time to reanimate the Afterlife creatures. Perhaps it needs to be in a fast set so that skipping a turn to reanimate a creature that doesn't block on the main battlefield is a real cost. Perhaps it needs to be in all colors so that all decks have a way to block creatures in Afterlife. Perhaps it needs to be in only some colors so that when you get a creature into Afterlife, it truly feels like an evasive bonus. I don't know what kind of play this should produce, but I do feel that it's too rich and intriguing to leave it unexplored.


  1. I can't remember what we discussed earlier. Did we consider just "Afterlife (you can activate activated abilities of this card from the graveyard)"? Or maybe "only from the graveyard"?

    Not being able to attack or block removes the vast majority of the unpleasant complexity. It's still startlingly different to anything that's come before. In fact, more so than ones that return the creature to the battlefield, because they can look a lot more "in the graveyard" when they don't have to be laid out in a pseudo-battlefield.

    You have to be able to lay the creatures out so they're obviously different to the rest of the graveyard, but we've done that before with flashback, etc.

    It's fairly easy to balance because you can choose what activated abilities to have. But you can have a splashy rare that gives other creatures afterlife.

    You can use simple utility abilities. Llanowar Elves or Gideon's Lawmaker would be too strong, as it almost turns Llanowar Elves into Rampant Growth with a body, but a slightly weaker version would probably be ok even if there's not much removal.

    There's existing removal "exile target card in a graveyard" etc which can solve these creatures, and this set can have more of it.

  2. In the spirit of crazy ideas need crazy solutions what if we add the clause that a player can have only one creature in the afterlife zone. The consequences being:

    1) Once a creature is in the afterlife zone, additionally creatures can't be cast, meaning when we keep returning creatures to graveyard without having to worry about either breaking the game or having to add new rules about handling dies/leaves the battlefield rules for creatures in the afterlife.

    2) It offers us a way to track afterlife without having to resort to counters or lots of written notes, which I feel we would have had to resort to if multiple creatures were in the afterlife.

    3) It helps out opponents who are not playing afterlife as they now have only a single creature beating them down instead of potentially a whole army back from the dead.

    The flavour could be that each planeswalker picks a champion for the afterlife, and when one dies another may take it's place (or it just comes back again).

    1. Interesting. If we go with the "exiled creature that can attack" route, then limiting it to having only one such afterlife champion at any one time might alleviate some of the problems such as board stall.

  3. As a flagship mechanic, creatures returning to a new Afterlife battlefield is splashy and awesome and I would want to find a way to make it work. Activated-ability Afterlife is powerful, but doesn't seem as exciting at first glance. It would do good work for a set, but I don't think it could be the main selling point.