Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CCDD 031511—Benalish Throwback

Cool Card Design of the Day
3/15/2011 - Benalish Throwback is inspired directly from the conversation around HavelockV's Reinventing Alpha series. A few of us were waxing optimistic about some magical fix to banding that could allow it to return in some clean, easily grokkable form. Jeff Peterson suggested breaking it up into different abilities. At first I was skeptical, but as long as those abilities can stand on their own as well, it's a decent option.

Before I go any further—while I expect and encourage vigorous disagreement on execution and merit—it will be a waste of time to respond with "this will never happen." We know. It's still interesting discussing how it might happen if it were to happen in some Magical Christmas Land of Design.

Command allows you to attack in a group of any size. The most unnecessarily complicated part of banding was the any-number-of-banders-plus-one bit. Any new banding needs to allow either any number of creatures into a band or only creatures with the ability. That other option might look like this:

Teamwork (Whenever ~ attacks, you may group any number of attacking creatures with teamwork. Creatures that block any of them, block all of them.)

Command is much more open-ended and likely the better choice. When you consider that teamwork is more analogous to bands with other, which is this ugly stepchild's ugly stepchild, it's pretty much right out. Command handles the group-attack portion of banding, but it doesn't replicate the trickier part (the damage assigmnent shenanigans); The defending player still chooses what order to assign damage to your blocked creatures, just as he would if he had blocked with a Palace Guard.

Tactics approximates the half of banding command doesn't. It allows you to choose the order combat damage will be assigned to your creatures rather than your opponent. Note that this is not the same as allowing you to choose how damage is assigned in the original sense because you can't split damage among your creatures without assigning lethal damage first. This is a significant step down, but considering the new rules for combat, I believe it is the most reasonable option. One alternative could be:

If a creature blocking or blocked by ~ would deal combat damage, you may redirect any amount of that damage to any number of creatures blocking or blocked by that creature.

The good news is that, together, command and tactics do a very good job of recreating banding and are not independently terrible to read or understand (though whether they're not terrible enough bears testing). But how often would we print command and tactics on the same card? Does breaking up one long reminder text into two medium reminder texts really help all that much? Does separating the concepts really make it easier to take in? And how often would we print them alone?

Command seems pretty weak by itself: How often do you want to give your opponent the Palace Guard ability for free? It does allow you to get more value out of a few weenies by forcing your opponent to block them all at once (or not at all) instead of picking them off one a time, but—let me know if I'm missing another sweet application here—that's about it. Combos with Umezawa's Jitte? So does Lure. And Creature.

Tactics would be helpful when your opponent blocks with a Palace Guard, but otherwise does nothing on offense. It's also pretty good for double-blocking on your side of the fence, but that scenario's not terribly common either. Altogether, tactics would affect the game less often than almost (I'm looking at you, rampage) any other keyworded combat ability.

I think for command and tactics to make it as package, they would have to make it on their own, and I'm just not feeling it. I know the fix-banding / banding-revival discussion has happened before and will continue to happen again, so feel free to post subtly or wildly different solutions in the comments. The Wright Bros didn't invent powered flight by trying one idea and then giving up.


  1. What about putting Command in a set with creatures that want to be blocked, like Tolarian Entrancer and Chambered Nautilus? Both Command and Tactics get interesting with combat abilities such as Trample or Deftblade Elite.

    A lot of abilities which are marginal in existing Magic could lead to interesting and unique gameplay in a set designed to showcase them.

  2. Command could definitely be fun. I like pairing up Scroll Thief with a Spined Wurm to help get him through, or at least take down a big creature.

    Command would also be sweet with Provoke.

  3. Hey, thanks for the shout-out. ^_^

    While I would miss the complete damage assignement, I realize that Banding only tends to work in one of two ways. You either want to spread the damage out so that it's not lethal for ANYTHING... or you have a designated chump which soaks up all the damage.

    If you want to grant the damage assignment ability, it's powerful enough that it probably doesn't need to have a keyword. It would probably only show up at higher rarities (both for complexity and because of strength), so it can just... be there.

    So in that case, the tactics ability might be fine. It's watered down, but perhaps enough.

    Still, I think we could work in the designated chump somehow:
    Sacrifice (All damage by creatures blocking or blocked by ~ is assigned to it.)

  4. The problem with these (it definitely isn't the names!) is that they don't solve Banding.

    Banding didn't have one problem, it had several. That's why it got dropped.

    First, it was very nitpicky in what could and couldn't band. Your mechanic solves this but in a bizarre way - it is a teamworking ability in which you only want one creature to have it. The name "Command" kinda makes it work though.

    Secondly, banding is horribly complex. The interactions are insane, and far, far too mathy. Just thinking about how much damage is assigned and reassigned and so on makes my head want to burst.

    Thirdly, the mechanic is just not particularly exciting. It does so very little.

    The mistake I think you're making is you're trying to solve #1 and #2, but not #3 and you're trying to preserve the mechanical feel of the 'group'. As a result, I don't think you've succeeded.

    I've read the article three times, and the comments, and I still don't really get how this keyword works. (Maybe I'm just tired.)

    Instead, I suggest this: What you want banding to do is to 'attack as a group'. Now, according to your version and Banding, that means that they attack as one entity. This is kind of a crappy ability. It means that you attack with all your creatures, leaving you open, to create one super-creature that, if not blocked will hurt your opponent. So it gets blocked with a vast number of creatures in which case, everything is attacking and blocking so why bother grouping them at all? Worse, it gets chump-blocked and that sucks because you want to hit your opponent.

    It seems the appeal for Banding that I (and I assume others) had was that YOU got to keep your guys safe because they're working together.

    So why not just have that?

    Team strike (This creature can't be blocked unless the defending player blocks all attacking creatures.)

    The keyword keeps your guys safe because they stay out of combat, and one guy is interesting in a pack because he says "Don't waste a block on me". On the other hand, if all your attackers have team strike then they... operate as a team. They either ALL get blocked, or they ALL get through. It's a team-play ability you want multiple copies of.

    On the other hand, maybe evasion doesn't feel right, and its more about attacking and blocking as a 'unit'. The problem with a keyword that reassigns combat damage is that it hurts. It's just too much work and it hurts. Instead, a simple team-pump makes sense.

    Band together (Whenever this creature attacks or blocks, it gets +1/+1 for each other attacking or blocking creature you control.)

    The guy helps your creatures to work as a team, even if none of your other creatures are actually going to help out. It's like Battle cry.

    Which brings up an interesting point - there are two keyword mechanics that work wonderfully for Banding-substitutes: Battle cry, and Exalted.

    So, there's a part of me that thinks Banding has already been fixed - twice. And there's a part of me that thinks if there must be a new-Banding, trying to keep the horrible combat damage assignment element of the mechanic is doomed to failure because it is an inherently poor mechanic that is too complex for too little reward, turning the excitement of combat into a slow, grinding, mathematical exercise.

    I hope that's of interest/help. Your blog is entertaining (I know my post may be infuriating, but the fact that you intrigued me enough to want to post a comment means I'm enjoying your posts and want you to continue) and I do like the keyword names. :)

  5. Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment! I agree with your conclusion; the "fixed" banding should look a lot like Battle Cry or Exalted.

  6. I suppose it's a testament to how different players get excited about different things, but, really, the damage assignment ability is WHY Banding is so cool for some of us. I think it's why people have tried to come up with fixed versions of Banding over the years.

    You're right that it is complex, but I'd disagree that the benefit isn't worth it. The great reason for damage assignment is that it allows you to do many things, not one thing. The various ways that banding have been fixed are good abilities, but they all really only do one thing. That's fine for the game, but it doesn't say 'Banding' to me.

    You're also correct that Banding had several problems. I think that's been well acknowledged, however. Part of the reason it has several problems is that it was several abilities put together. The attempt here is to take apart those abilities so that it isn't such an unholy mess.

    It's possible that any ability taken out of the whole concept won't be strong enough to stand on its own. Tactics is certainly the breadwinner ability, but without the Command to go with it, it really only works on defense (or, in very rare cases, if there are multiple palace guards on the defense.)

    Upon reflection, that's part of the reason I find these separated abilities so cool. Banding was an attempt to show off the teamwork of the creatures involved. By breaking down the abilities, you actually need to assemble a team that can do what you want. Get a Command guy as the leader, a Tactics guy as the controller, a First Strike guy as the striker, and a Trample guy as the bruiser. Or perhaps you need something to take up the whack you'll get in return. Or a 1/1 chump as a redshirt.

    I think I should start playing around with my GDS2 world concept again. Teamwork should be a mechanical element.

  7. This is my favorite comments thread ever (and to be clear, that's not sarcasm). This is exactly the kind of well-reasoned discussion that leads to better understanding as well as to actual, useable mechanics. Thanks to each of you for that.

    I like team strike, Bass, though it feels more like a sneakiness ability than a teamwork ability. It's reminiscent of Scott Van Essen's breakout, but that's hardly a bad thing. Certainly takes it in a new and relevant direction.

    I agree that exalted, battle cry and the Infantry Veteran ability are all mighty fine abilities and that they are a pretty reasonable substitute for banding, but I'm still excited by Jeff's fantasy scenario of an A-Team of guys with different combat abilities swinging together and in coordination. Maybe that's more nostalgia than vision. Likeable idea is liked.

  8. Havelock - Thanks.

    Jeff - I'd disagree that one of the problems of banding is that it is too many abilities put together. It is one ability (damage reassignment) with a bizarre set of circumstantial interactions to deal with a problem the keyword itself invents, which is the 'band'.

    However, if it really, really, is specifically about the mechanics of damage reassignment, then do this:

    Cooperating (As long as this creature is attacking or blocking, you may redirect to this creature an amount of combat damage up to this creature's toughness that would be dealt to other creatures you control.)

    I think this is a problem because this kind of blanket, static redirection of damage (which is what you say you enjoy) is far too complicated for an ability that doesn't actually make the game any more fun. But, this does precisely what you want. And if you have a bunch of them then they essentially have one big block of toughness that you can distribute amongst them, so they work as a 'group' without actually having to create a separate bunch of rules for "the band".

    What you wanted?

    Jay - The A-Team idea is a pretty nice idea, but I think the idea of keywords that click into place for each other can be done a number of ways. What you want is the idea that different members of a team bring different abilities to their teammates. So how about this?

    Lead with vigilance (Whenever this creature attacks or blocks, each other attacking or blocking creature you control gains vigilance until end of turn.)

    You can have different leaders grant different keywords; Lead with first strike, Lead with haste, Lead with trample, Lead with shroud, Lead with flying - and that lets you build your super-awesome A-team. Four creatures. Each with a different leader ability. All attacking together.

  9. The A-Team already exists in the M11 commons.

    Blinding Mage: tap your Giant Spider!
    Cloud Crusader: get in there!
    Infantry Veteran: pump!

  10. Exactly, Havelock. I think people making their own A-team rather than it being spelled out for them is cool. I don't think you need a keyword for that.

  11. I actually mean that banding is literally a collection of separate abilities. IIRC, it was a combination of two similar, but distinct abilities that Richard Garfield had when designing the game. The complexity arises because those abilities don't quite mesh easily.

    I don't think complexity is something to be avoided. It shouldn't exist with abandon, but allowing players to do complex things is perfectly fine. It encourages them to consider how to apply things and make it work. Banding is great because it's a combat ability that appeals to Johnnies. The problem with Banding isn't the complexity, it's the templating. By combining multiple abilities, trying to get the text to fit on a card is problematic at best.

    I like your cooperation mechanic, except for the name, Bass. It's not quite what I want here, but it's a good ability. More things to throw in the toolbox.

  12. Yeah, the name's not great. Glad you liked the mechanic.

    I, personally, am really intolerant of complexity unless it creates really fantastic things. I find that vanilla creatures can create a very deep board state by themselves, and so any additional complexity needs to really be worth it. :)

  13. I suppose the contention is what "worth it" means.

    Which is probably why there are many designers working on Magic.

  14. So I went to post a "new" idea, saw a suspiciously similar label and realized we'd already covered it in depth here. That said, the wording is a bit better, so I'll just leave it here for posterity.

    Phalanx (You choose the damage assignment order for creatures Pike Phalanx is blocking.)

    Pike Phalanx