Sunday, December 28, 2014

Weekend Art Challenge Review 121914—Syst-eeem

Weekend Art Challenge Review
Here's the challenge we're reviewing today.

Outside the context of Tarkir, a Borderpost that keys off of artifacts might seem odd (particularly since casting one turns on the "free cost" of others), but here it's meant to trigger from playing a morphed creature. That means it'll still come down on turn 3, just not at the expense of playing your morph on curve. That's harder to manage than Firewild Borderpost, but you also get a stronger mana rock out of the deal. This one doesn't enter tapped, which is a power boost, though a very small one. But if it's not critical the card is just better off without the clutter. We could also say "If you cast…, put ~ OTB tapped from your hand."

Abzan Borderpost is obviously very comparable to Abzan Banner: We've traded the ability to cycle it from play for the ability to play it like a land, which is less strong for the long game but considerably better in the early game. I speculate that's slightly more appealing to new players than sacrificing their banner.

Abzan Cenotaph only costs {2}, but you can't use it the turn you play it so maybe that addresses the power concerns R&D has with 2cc mana rocks. From there it accelerates and fixes your mana, and gains you life—which will definitely appeal to casual players.

This looks quite strong. Compare to Pristine Talisman. I quite like the solution of using life gain to direct this design, but would like it even more if we made it {3} and removed the ETBT clause (though that does still leave it fighting with morphs).

Abzan Conduit is a Springleaf Drum restricted to three colors. While that is strictly worse in power-level, I want to reiterate that power-level doesn't equate to design-value and that's a great trade to make for a set like this. Similarly, the modification I proposed for Cenotaph is still strictly better than Pristine Talisman, but still reasonable for the same reason: It's more appropriate for the set it supports.

Where this design loses me is in requiring a face down creature to activate. Morph creatures comprise less than a third of Khans, so I'd expect a much bigger reward for such a small hoop. I was going to add that you can't use this before turn 4 because you'll have to cast your morph on t3, but you can tap that morph for a Conduit you played earlier (which is not something many casual players know).

Oh, hey. Look at that. Cool.

It's worth noting that adding a lot of easy life gain—as a cycle of these would—will slow games down, though I'm not sure that would be terrible for Khans.

Abzan Guidepost gives you the card up-front by simply costing one more mana. That's fair and cleaner. With no sacrifice, this should appeal to casuals more. It no longer competes with morph for turn 3, but it also requires you to play four land before it starts fixing your mana and that's a significant setback for a card made to fix mana. If it was understood that this said "play 18 lands" to ensure you can cast it, it would still be doing good work, but many players think you can remove one land for each mana rock you use and might go down instead of up, which will leave them stranded.

Abzan Monolith is an artifact Esper Panorama or a single-use Mycosynth Wellspring or a front-loaded Traveler's AmuletIt's a good sign that there are a lot of cards to compare this to; that means it's on a good path. Like Amulet, the costs could be split so you can play this with a single land, but this feels different and that's not a horrible thing. I'm more bothered by the ETB clause. Less because of power concerns or gameplay, but because it seems unnecessary. I don't see that it's important to this design and we always want to avoid extra text, particularly at common.

You can play Abzan Petroglyph tapped on turn 2 or untapped and ready to use on turn 3. Effectively, it's a mana converter instead of producer the first turn you play it. I think this will confuse more players than it will help. Might be too strong.

Had to look up 'stele.' Hooray new words.

We've got another 2cc rock that ETBT. This one doesn't fix your colors after the turn you play it, but does refund and fix one of the mana you spent on it. That's definitely too strong and it doesn't serve the purpose this cycle is intended to. Abzan Stele is neat, for sure, but not a strong design for this challenge.

Jeskai Manalith costs {3}.

This mana stone doesn't cycle for a card, and you can't use it the turn you play it (though I rarely see that happen anyhow), but it could be 'free.' Letting you cast this and a morph on the same turn is pretty spicy. That directly addresses the turn-3 morph bottleneck like Abzan Borderpost, this one stronger in context but worse outside of Tarkir. While their power is very comparable, I feel like Manalith reads as more exciting. Disagree?

Jeskai Prism is identical to one of the cards I sketched out for this challenge and I'm thrilled to see someone submit it. Prism doesn't produce mana, it only fixes it, so it doesn't really matter how much it costs. I'd rather pay {2} and draw a card than pay {0} and not (which I suspect would be a fair card, or nearly) so this is solid. Maybe it's too solid and the cycle will see enough play to push decks beyond three-color, but I wouldn't assume so without testing.

I have to mention that mana filtering is more cumbersome to gameplay because (like Rakdos Carnarium) it skews the 1:1 ratio your mana cards usually have with your mana totals, and sometimes you also have to figure out which land to pay for it with.

I also sketched a card like this with "{3}, {T}: Add {R}{W}{U} to your mana pool" instead but that's more awkward to use and probably risks 5-color bleed even more.

Jeskai Spire is massively effective mana fixing, guaranteeing you can cast all your Jeskai spells and a few of your Mardu and Temur cards too. These cards would make 5-color decks ubiquitous. Would five uncommon Chromatic Lanterns be too much? Making this a rare cycle feels like the right as-fan, but would players be excited to get great fixing for their rare or disappointed?

Jeskai Storehouse is better than a mox when you start the game with 0-2 land. I love the idea of starting at {4} and offering a huge discount if the player doesn't have enough land to reach that price, but this card is broken as-is. Could we do something like "If you played no land this turn and no land in your last turn, play this as a land (for {0})." Probably not.

"HOURGLASS" is a placeholder for the hourglass symbol proposed here to mean "activate this only as a sorcery."

Mardu Aviary trades the ability to cycle the banners from play for a clan-specific creature token. (And making it sorcery speed is important to reducing on-board tricks.) We're offering the player a specific reward rather than whatever's in their deck. That's certainly more compelling.

I'd draft a 3/4 flier for {3}{W}{B}{R}, assuming my deck was low on fliers and six-drops. You do have to pay {3} first, so this plays out rather a lot like a morph creature except it starts life as a mana rock instead of a bear and your opponent knows what it will become. When you've got something like a mechanic you're already using, you want to try to use that mechanic instead, but that's not an option here because bears don't fix our mana.

I'm not sold on the entire cycle, but for the card submitted I say this satisfies the challenge well.

Mardu Monument is another 2cc ETBT mana rock, this one clarifying that it's not to be used for other colors at all—which will prevent it from contributing to a glut of five-color decks. Of the submissions like that, this is the most printable in terms of power level, but the text is awkward enough to make these quite expensive commons in terms of comprehension complexity.

Mardu Reliquary is Jeskai Prism + 2 life. I don't think the life is necessary and might push it to be stronger than we need, but again, casual players do love life gain.

Mardu Totem is a 2cc mana rock, but it does put you firmly in your clan's colors. Actually, I could play this in a Jeskai or Abzan deck and still get color fixing out of it as well as the mana boost, so I'm not sure this is as laser-focused as it looks. I will say that apparent purpose goes a long way in how players perceive and use cards, though, so many players will only consider a Mardu Totem when they're Mardu.

Temur Clanstone keeps the exact cycling ability, but downgrades from producing mana to filtering it for a discount of {1}. That gets it out of the morph slot which is good. Given the price of cycling it from play, I wonder if you couldn't drop the cost {1} more and/or remove {T} from the cycling ability. With this cycle filtering instead of producing, casting big things will be slowed a bit, but a card like this should incite fewer players to skimp on their land totals. Not sure, but I think it's a step up.

This cycle would feature each clan's keyword on their respective monument. That's a neat idea, but Temur Monument's execution is that you only get color fixing from it when you fulfill your clan's subgoal and I'd rather have an artifact that helps me get the colors I need to do that.

All told, you pay {3} to get {U}{R}{G}, so Temur Outpost is filtering your mana at the going rate, but it does so in a Green Mana Battery + upkeep payment way that's definitely too complex for common. It's nifty that we can get the three colored mana with just two lands (two turns after we cast the Outpost, which feels too late), but I'm not sure why we want a common to be able to stockpile counters and burn them all at once for a big mana boost.

This was a hard challenge, asking us to walk a thin line to achieve a rather murky goal. While there were a lot of misses, almost no submission landed without illuminating an interesting idea that should be useful somewhere, and there were a few really solid hits, though I expect there will be disagreement about which those are, as well as my judging criteria. I certainly welcome other reviews and responses.

Thanks to Reuben for rendering the cards.

A couple of my sketches still worth sharing:

Mardu Shrine {0}
Artifact (cmn)
{1}, {T}: Add {R} to your mana pool.
{W}{B}, {T}, Sacrifice ~: Draw a card.

Only filtering one color reduces the artifact's ability to fix colors drastically—most likely too much—but produces a card that is essentially entirely free to play for Mardu players (though equally for five-color players too). Eh.

Mardu Bot {3}
Artifact Creature (cmn)
{T}: Add {R}, {W} or {B} to your mana pool.

By making this cycle into creatures like Leaden Myr, stealing the morph slot becomes more reasonable, particularly if they can block 2/2s but not trump them entirely.

Mardu Tower {3}
Artifact (cmn)
You may reveal a red card, a white card and a black card from your hand rather than pay ~'s mana cost.
{T}: Add {R}, {W} or {B} to your mana pool.

This is entirely too forced of an attempt for a common, likely too conditional, and maybe too powerful (since it's better than a mox sometimes), but the idea is to really reward three-color decks. Heck, even the act of revealing three cards will steal a lot of the game's wonder.

Mardu Cylix {3}
Artifact (cmn)
When ~ ETB, add {R}{W}{B} to your mana pool.
{1}, {T}: Add {R}, {W} or {B} to your mana pool.

This works a lot like the {0} mana filtering artifact, but requires you to get three land before you can enjoy its filtering and gives you an extra boost of filtering on turn 3 while letting you cast another morph. I like how much less parasitic this is than Jeskai Manalith, but I'm not sure if it's too strong, and I believe it appeals to casual players less than the existing banners.


  1. Something interesting to note with the cheaper cards proposed for this challenge is that it can make prowess often be easier to trigger.
    I wonder how much consideration that WotC weighed the prowess factor for as a reason to potentially not have a design like Jeskai Prism.

    1. I didn't think of that. Definitely a reason to shy away from the 0 and 1 cost versions.

    2. I don't actually mind it being easy to trigger prowess, after all, they printed Defiant Strike, and artifacts can only trigger it at sorcery speed.

      I wonder how awful this is:

      Red Lens 0
      1, T: Add R to your mana pool.
      R, Tap, Sac: Draw a card.

      I bet it wouldn't lead to 5 color decks!

    3. I didn't realize when I said it how similar this was to Jay's proposal, which I liked, and the forgot about. There is the slight concern that these might be too good in Storm in modern, and not good enough to play in any deck in Limited.

    4. Make it {1}{R} to cycle and I dig it.

    5. I think 1R is probably fine, somehow I thought of R and RR and didn't think of 1R.

  2. I think a good way to go would be to make something that only fixed one color at 3 mana and still was okay on tempo, like the proposed (but unfortunately not shown here) 3 mana 2/2 that taps for C.

    A lot of the proposals fall over the Fire Diamond line, and development (I think rightfully) considers a cycle of Fire Diamonds too strong. It is an unfortunately narrow band between Fire Diamond and Manalith (which is basically junk).

    The danger of plentiful 2 cost mana rocks is highlighted well in this years Holiday Cube. This year's includes the signets, and indeed watching the pros draft, they are often first picks, entirely shaping the environment around themselves [something many players have been complaining about]. Note it isn't the color fixing part that is doing this, as people are playing half off-color signets all the time, it is just the power of dumping a bunch of them in play quickly.

    1. Anybody happen to have a link to the R&D mention of what mana rocks are too strong? I don't doubt it, but would love to read more.

      The Signets are completely bonkers.

      I don't think Manalith is junk. Granted, I wouldn't play it with 0-2 morphs, but I often have 4+ and I'd happily play it then if I were low on fixing or had a high curve (which I probably do because of those morphs).

    2. I posted a link to Mark Rosewater saying it in the challenge. I recommend googling it, as it has come up on blogatog over and over, and each time Mark mentions it a slightly different point gets made. These were my two biggest takeaways when I reread them before this challenge:

      -) This takes too much away from Green, as Rampant Growth is a strong Standard defining card when it is around, and these cards are nearly as strong.

      -) Having a whole cycle of them makes people able to play more of them than development is comfortable with. Mark has suggested before that perhaps it would be okay to have one of them in standard, either colorless or Green.

    3. Yeah, I don't have handy any super insightful write ups about it from a developer, which is what would be ideal.

      This whole challenge was more of a development challenge than a design challenge, though I don't think that is a bad thing, it generated some of the most interesting discussion I've seen.

    4. It was more development than design, yeah.