Thursday, February 24, 2011

Goblin Lore: Red Looting

Welcome to Goblin Lore! In the spirit of the namesake card, each column of Goblin Lore will focus on a particular design question, and offer four (approximately) possible answers to address that question. Unlike the card, you get to choose which ideas to keep and which to discard!

The recent Great Designer Search 2 directed competitors to write several essays on Magic design, one of which was, “Choose a mechanic to move from its current color to a new one.” A number of the contestants, including finalist Shawn Main, suggested that “looting” be moved from Blue, a color with many supporting mechanics, to Red, a color with relatively few. Looting, which originated with Antiquities' Jalum Tome, moved into Blue with Weatherlight’s Merfolk Traders, and is now present on many Blue cards including the iconic Merfolk Looter, is the act of drawing a card and then discarding one. Unlike other Blue card draw abilities, looting does not provide card advantage, but the ability to filter through unwanted cards does improve card quality. Magic R&D has responded that they are indeed considering the shift from Blue to Red. The question, then, is how should looting function in Red? Here are four possible approaches.

The first implementation for looting in Red already exists: draw and then random discard, in the proud tradition of Goblin Lore. Although it’s been reprinted, Goblin Lore is actually the only card with the ability. Fortunately, Red has also has tutors that also use the random discard effect, such as Gamble and Wild Research, so there is precedent. However, randomly discarding your own stuff has two problems, which probably explain why the effect isn’t used more. First, random discard has fiddly little actions – you can’t resolve it yourself, you need to roll a die or get help from your opponent to ensure it’s random. Second, getting the card you want and then having to immediately discard it isn’t fun. Making such a play “right” from an expected value perspective might lead to unhappy players too often.

The next possibility is to use looting in Red exactly the same as in Blue: draw a card, then discard a card. This has the advantage of being simple and card advantage-neutral, which gives Development a lot of freedom on power level. The mechanic has also been extensively tried, tested, and proven to work well on cards such as Merfolk Looter, Probe, and many others. The biggest downside of this approach is that drawing a card, then choosing the least useful one to discard, is a very logical and calculating action. It makes a lot of sense in rational Blue, but not as much in wild and gambling Red.

A way to put the gamble back into looting is to discard first, then draw a card. Now you don’t know if the card you’re going to draw is better or worse than the card you’re discarding! This slightly weakens the ability in most situations, since you have fewer choices on which card to get rid of. However, if you happened to have no cards in hand when you used the looting ability, you’ll have nothing to discard, and you draw a free card! Although drawing extra cards isn’t in Red’s slice of the color pie, drawing one card is just a cantrip, and this effect functions similarly to Red’s popular “Hellbent” mechanic, which operates when the player has zero cards in his or her hand. Furthermore, this type of mechanic has precedent in Red – Classic Red card Wheel of Fortune caused all players to discard their hands, then draw seven new cards, and variants have been printed as recently as Chandra Ablaze in Zendikar. Blue has used this type of looting before, but only in very old cards, such as Windfall, or cards where the discard is a cost, such as Compulsion, which make the Hellbent effect impossible.

A final form of looting that makes sense in Red is to discard more cards than are drawn. The best known example of this mechanic is Bazaar of Baghdad: draw two cards, then discard three. Although this mechanic involves the same sort of optimality calculations as the second type of looting described above, and might seem Blue, the sacrifice of long-term card advantage in exchange for getting better cards now is very Red. Only Attunement, Magus of the Bazaar, and Wistful Thinking have done this in Blue.

Overall, each of these approaches to Red looting has some merit, but prior to playtesting, I favor the third option: discard a card, then draw a card. This implementation keeps the main function of looting in Limited, card selection, but gives it a characteristically Red feel. Most of the time players will simply trade a bad card for a chance at a good one, but occasionally receive the Red Hellbent benefit from living on the edge. The third and fourth options could also combine to create Red card draw spells (discard four cards, then draw three), or provide a downside on a fat Red creature reminiscent of Balduvian Hordes (when this enters the battlefield, discard two cards, then draw a card).

For next week: looting is one mechanic that could be interesting if moved from one color to another. If another mechanic were to be moved to a new color, which mechanic should it be, and why?


  1. Agreed on option 3 as the best implementation. I'm certainly not a strong supporter of moving looting to red, and I thought it was fairly ridiculous that people kept putting it into their GDS submission as pure blue looting, but reversing the actions really frames it as a more red action.

  2. I disagree entirely about the merits of "discard, then draw". Traditional looting is all-upside: unless you're getting decked, it is never a bad decision to loot. And if the card you loot for isn't good, so what? You can throw it away, and you're no worse off.

    Discarding first comes with a problem: what if you draw a card that's worse than the one you discarded? Then you feel terrible.

    It also creates a very Spike-y tension, where the decision of whether or not to loot requires nontrivial thought.

    Lastly, if you print a creature with "T: Discard a card, then draw a card", many players won't think you can activate it with an empty hand. The difference between that effect and "T, Discard a card: draw a card" is subtle, and the latter is a more intuitive action, since you're always trading one for one.

  3. I love the way you presented as many reasonable options as you could think of and then dissected pros, cons and precedence for each. That's exactly how I reason through similar questions and I honestly believe it to be the most thorough approach. Looking forward to more posts like this one.

    I also really like the "discard then draw" model for all the reasons you mentioned. My only hesitation is whether it's worth the additional mind-space it will require for players to remember which order to loot in while running their RU looter deck, say.

    I don't like option 4 even though I respect it because it takes a very experienced and/or logical player to see the value in it, and we shouldn't be asking those things of a red player at common or uncommon. I really don't want to see options 3 & 4 combined because being able to discard some of the dross you drew is a big part of what makes Bazaar worthwhile.

    I'm fine with option 2 and agree that option 1 should be used sparingly if at all.

  4. An excellent topic for an article, Jonathan. A lot of people used red looting in their GDS2 submissions; it was an amusing little recurring joke that went through the competition. I agree that Option 3 sounds best, but Havelock brings up some good points against that option.

  5. I'm glad you guys liked the article!

    Havelock, it's true that "discard, then draw" is not quite all-upside; it has a bit of randomness to it. That's what makes it feel more Red, and ideally the gamble involved appeals to Timmy in addition to looting appealing to Spike. It really needs playtesting, however, to see how frustrating the occasional bad draw is. I suspect it wouldn't be a big deal, especially if the deck had more opportunities to loot away the bad card you drew. That said, I think easily repeatable looting (like Merfolk Looter) probably does not belong in Red; the ability is better as a one-shot effect, or as a limited-use trigger (like Riddlesmith).

    Jay, I agree that any effects involving discarding more than you draw should probably be limited to rare cards, perhaps on a spell similar to Urza's Guilt.

  6. I'd like to see Annex effects moved to green. Subverting the mana bonds of another definitely feels green - they're the color with the most power over mana - and I think it feels *more* green than the land destruction green currently gets.

    With regard to moving looting to red, I believe the straightforward current looting is the best candidate. Discard then draw is not going to be fun at common - you'll remember the times you got screwed way more than the times it worked out. I disagree that current looting isn't red, as I can definitely imagine Homer Simpson grabbing more than he can hold and dropping the least exciting thing (safety equipment) in favor of his new acquisition (donuts!). Red goes with what feels good, and I see looting as a perfect example of that child psychology experiment where they left the kid in a room with a cookie and promised that if they waited fifteen minutes they could have a second cookie. Looting grabs the next draw step early, but at the cost of having to discard.

  7. Deleted some posts for trolling.

    If you want to comment here, please be polite.

  8. Looting in red would be great "Madness" support.

  9. One more possibility just occurred to me:

    "Draw N cards. At end of turn, discard N cards."

    1. I can't remember the name, but I'm pretty sure they printed that in Kamigawa block.

    2. They did. That's where I got the idea from (that and MaRo's hints about future red looting).
      Ideas Unbound

    3. That doesn't feel especially red at all, and it'd be somewhat easy for red to abuse mid-late game, as filling your hand with cheap red spells that you can cast that turn negates the drawback.

    4. Why isn't it red? It's like Brewster's Millions!
      "Here's three [million] cards. Spend them by the end of the turn or you lose everything." It's certainly more red than blue. And it sounds like you're assuming we'd cost it the same. Could cost 5 or something.

    5. I'd say it doesn't "feel" red because it reads too much like a distinct balancing of risk vs. reward that requires a foresight that seems out of character for the traditional concept of the red mage.

      As to the cost, there's no real way to analyze the cost of a hypothetical card in an unknown format. But I will say that it would seem somewhat cruel to cost that effect inefficiently, unless there was some other vital set mechanic (such as Hellbent/Flashback/Delve) that offset the penalty. But consider that Drastic Revelation was never playable, even with Unearth.

    6. I'd say it feels super red because you're grabbing immediate (and unknown) benefit at the expense of future wellness. Maybe you'll draw all land and only be able to play one of them. Maybe you'll draw all spells you can't afford and lose all of them. Maybe you'll hit the jackpot and draw three Lightning Bolts. Granted, that second scenario ends a lot better if you cast the spell with trash cards in your hand, but that's not the optimal time to cast Ideas Unbound.

      The key is that the spell is—in the abstract—card disadvantage like Desperate Ravings. You're giving up card quantity for card quality. Unlike Ravings, this spell gives you a chance to negate and even reverse that disadvantage if you have an empty hand, a very red, very nonblue tactic.

      Consider also that it doesn't have to be an exact reprint of Ideas Unbound. It could be "draw two, discard three" or "draw three, discard three at random". Also, there are mana costs between 2 and 5.

      It's much less productive to observe that a card doesn't work (or is too good) in its current iteration and give up on it than to ask if it would work in any configuration.

    7. Please, Jay, don't be pedantic. That I disagree with the effect's place in red doesn't mean I'm absolutely denying the validity of pursuing such a design.

      And I'm sure Desperate Ravings is just as offended as I am that you would call it card disadvantage. I'm not the most qualified mathemagician, but (Draw 2) - (Spell) - (Random Discard) + (Flashback) = +1

      Indeed, the above proof ably demonstrates just how awesome Desperate Ravings is.

    8. Pedantic? Maybe I misunderstood your stance, but it seemed like you're against the idea because of details specific to the card.

      I didn't mean Desperate Ravings. My mistake. I meant Faithless Looting. Ravings is awesome. Looting is too, but it never nets you a physical card.

    9. I was perhaps overly concise in describing an abstraction. Presumably we're discussing a card like:

      Scratch and Win! (Except you always lose.)
      Draw three cards.
      At the beginning of your next end step, discard your hand.

      On one level it's appropriate because it conveys a cavalier attitude in its disregard for future consequences, but the other quality that I see shining through is the gameplay reality in which this effect is rationally paired with cheap burn. We can defend the flavor-only position, but it's important to question that position if the actual gameplay doesn't quite reflect that gambler's mentality. You could keep raising the cost, maybe let the player draw more and more cards, but the card will just become more of a curiosity that has little to do with the intended (subjective) flavor, functioning more like an awful Demonic Consultation in the hopes that you hit a Lightning Bolt and your opponent is at 3.

    10. I think where you're losing me is that it's bad that this effect is best in a deck with cheap spells. Why is that bad? It's an existing red strategy.

      I'm not sure the flavor has to be one of gambling. It could be drinking or drugs. You get a flash of inspiration/adrenaline, but then it wears off and you crash.

      I'm also confused whether you think this card would be too strong or too weak. I thought I was hearing one and now it seems like the other.

    11. There were two initial statements, which I had hoped to clarify:

      1. The flavor feels not-quite-right.

      2. Mechanically, when the effect is ported into red, the perceived drawback of the effect is largely diminished because of the nature of red's repertoire. This hinders the expression of flavor within red's emotional color pie. (i.e. Yes, it's cool that a red Ideas Unbound works well with a red strategy, but if it works too well, are you still expressing what you meant to express?)

      It's not a matter of it being too strong or too weak. When I call an expensive version of the effect an "awful Demonic Consultation", I'm trying to illustrate how the behavior of the effect mutates at a higher casting cost, not trying to draw attention to the fact that I also think that would be an awful card. If the red mage is casting:

      Awful Demonic Consultation
      Draw seven cards.
      Discard your hand at end of turn.

      Why are they casting that? Are they casting it to find a Fireball? Flameblast Dragon? I doubt it. Instead, you're most likely trying to pseudo-tutor up a Fireblast because you have no more mana. Should red have this sort of last-ditch pseudo-tutor, even if only as some Spike/Johnny curiosity? I don't really think so.

      But again, I'm not being absolute in my position. Maybe there's a really great way to have it scale so that it always best expresses HYPER-ADRENALIZED, rather than CASUALLY MILLING MYSELF.