Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reinventing Alpha, Part 1: I'm an Excellent Driver

Time travel is a dangerous business. There I was, cruising through the streets of Walla Walla circa 1993 in my DeLorean, when some guy walked into the road right in front of me. Okay, not just some guy. A math professor from Whitman College. Richard Garfield. I tried to swerve, but he just came out of nowhere, you know?

Okay. So I traveled to the past and ran over Richard Garfield before Alpha was released. My bad. But I resolved, then and there, to set things right!

No, not by traveling to the future to stop myself from traveling to the past. That sort of negative causality loop never ends well. Instead, I decided to take over Magic: the Gathering and release Alpha myself. Armed with a spoiler, I set about reconstructing Garfield's vision.

But as I went through the spoiler, I noticed a few areas in which Garfield's vision could use a bit of improvement. Did I really need five rare slots for Laces? Should Ancestral Recall cost a bit more? Was ante really a good idea?

I was torn. On the one hand, making major changes to Alpha could unravel the very fabric of spacetime and destroy the known universe.

On the other hand, banding.

So, I'm starting over from scratch. I'm completely redesigning Alpha, armed with nothing more than 18 years of hindsight. Oh, and a DeLorean.


Here are the major aims of this project:
  • Fantasy resonance.
The real Alpha hit this theme extremely hard, and it's been a major goal of recent core sets as well. For our new Alpha to be successful, it must have all the recognizable fantasy tropes we can muster.
  • Robust, simple rules.
Although they've aged remarkably well, there are some mechanics from Alpha that created far more problems than they're worth.
  • Limited play.
Something tells me that Alpha sealed deck wouldn't be much fun. Let's remedy that.
  • Balanced color pie.
By "balanced", I mean that abilities are distributed such that each color feels distinct, but has some internal variety. The color pie we have is the product of convention; Planar Chaos gave us one example of how it could have gone differently.

Card Types

Today, I'm going to talk about changing card types. First, the easy ones:

Lands - Keep.
Creatures - Keep.
Planeswalker - Keep, but rename "Ally".
Legendary - Postpone for expansions.
Tribal - Ditch. Not worth the trouble.

And now the tough ones:

Sorcery/Instant - Combine. These are identical from the perspective of flavor, so there is no need to maintain two card types. Instead, we'll have the Quick supertype, which replaces Instants and cards with Flash.

Enchantment/Artifact - Keep. It's awfully tempting to combine these two as well. Artifact Creatures could just turn into neutral creatures, and then we'd have only a single card type for noncreature, nonland permanents. But I think both card types need to exist for the sake of fantasy resonance. Magical items are an extremely pervasive trope in literature and games; if we throw out artifacts, we have no magic swords, wands, orbs, or statues.

What about throwing away enchantments? Here, we run into the problem of losing auras. We can't lose enchantments without having to re-flavor effects such as Pacifism, Mind Control, and Unholy Strength. The last is particularly problematic as an artifact; if we have artifacts that buff creatures, where does equipment fit in? Both auras and equipment are valuable subtypes, and they wouldn't make much sense as subtypes of the same type. And so the two card types that aren't terribly distinct both survive.

Join me next week when I start rewriting the rules of the game.


  1. I am immediately skeptical of this project, especially the reflavoring of the Planeswalker type. That said, I'm open to being convinced.

    You have an uphill battle ahead of you. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

  2. The word "ally" is not intended to be a reflavoring so much as a clarification. What is a planeswalker? A powerful ally. Why use a word that has no meaning to new players?

    Also, it opens up new design space: creatures with plainswalk!

  3. An interesting, ambitious project.

    "Quick" sounds stranger than "Flash," but that's probably just familiarity. Quibbling about naming conventions aside, an 'instant-speed' supertype is a good concept.

  4. HA. First of all, funny: nice.

    I can get behind calling planeswalkers allies since it allows you to call players planeswalkers again.

    I like the supertype to combine sorceries and instants, but it might make more sense to apply a 'slow' supertype to spells that can only be played on your turn as it's more natural to apply a restriction to a known value than to replace it with another value. Maybe "sorcery" and "ritual sorcery."

    I definitely look forward to seeing your next round of shenanigans.

  5. The idea behind the Quick supertype is that it also replaces the Flash ability. Ashcoat Bear would become a Quick Creature, etc.

    If we went with Slow instead of Quick, we couldn't apply it consistently to other card types unless we wanted 99% of creatures to have "Slow Creature" on their type line.

  6. Does it actually make sense to put Planeswalkers in Alpha? They're an interesting innovation, and I like them as part of the game, but I think they may be best _as_ an innovation. Save some design space for later sets.

    Restricting all spells to Sorcery speed by default is definitely a good move. Alternatively, you could have everything Instant speed, but restrict spells to only being cast during your main phase unless they are "Quick". In either case, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between spells and activated abilities, and explain whether they can be played at different times. Would abilities also be activated at Sorcery speed by default, unless they are flagged with Quick?

  7. Now that you mention it, it might make more sense to save Planeswalkers for later. I like them because they're iconic characters, but we've got a lot to squeeze into Alpha already.

    Activated abilities are Quick by default. I thought about having an icon or something to indicate Quickness, but it could get distracting, given that most activated abilities would have it!

  8. A good reason to include Planeswalkers/Allies would be for your "Robust, simple rules" objective. Having them at the start puts them into the foundations of the rules instead of making them something that's worked in later.