Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reinventing Alpha, Part 3: Putting the Band back Together

After traveling to the past and inadvertently running over Richard Garfield with a DeLorean, our protagonist is on a quest to rebuild Alpha.  Last time, he got rid of maximum hand size and the upkeep step.  What could be next?  Past columns: 1 2.

Today, we're going to talk about creature abilities.  The current list of evergreen creature abilities is:

  • Deathtouch 
  • Defender
  • Double Strike
  • First Strike
  • Flash
  • Flying
  • Haste
  • Intimidate
  • Landwalk
  • Lifelink
  • Protection
  • Reach
  • Shroud
  • Trample
  • Vigilance
Although regeneration is a keyword action, not an ability, the difference is somewhat technical,  so we'll throw it in the same pile for deciding what to put in our new Alpha.

For old time's sake, shouldn't we also consider abilities that were in Alpha, but aren't evergreen?  Remarkably, there is only one: Banding!  Remember Banding?  Remember exactly how it works?  Yeah, neither do most people.
Banding (Any creatures with banding, and up to one without, can attack in a band. Bands are blocked as a group. If any creatures with banding you control are blocking or being blocked by a creature, you divide that creature's combat damage, not its controller, among any of the creatures it's being blocked by or is blocking.)
So, yeah.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Some of the abilities above need no fixing whatsoever, and we'll throw them in without question.  Deathtouch, Defender, First Strike, Flying, Haste, Intimidate, Landwalk, Lifelink, Reach, Trample, and Vigilance are all fine.  The others will take a bit of tweaking.

Double Strike - This is a perfectly fine ability, but it doesn't belong in Alpha.  It's better to give people a chance to get acquainted with First Strike before we introduce it.  We'll save it for an expansion. 

Flash - We don't need this anymore, thanks to the Quick supertype.  I like this solution much better than having an ability which does nothing while the creature is on the battlefield.

Protection - This one is a doozy.  On the one hand, it has good flavor behind it, and some gameplay value as well; color hosers are fun and functional.  However, it does a few too many things: Protection prevents damage, enchanting/equipping, blocking, and targeting.  Four is a disturbingly large number of independent abilities to fold into one keyword.  (The existence of the mnemonic DEBT is a good sign that this keyword is overloaded!)  Our solution?  As usual, we get out the scalpel.

Preventing damage is definitely in- it's the most intuitive thing for "protection" to mean.  We also don't want White Knights eating Doom Blades, so preventing targeting is also necessary.

But is it necessary to make enchantments fall off?  No!  Black Knight can't be targeted by Pacifism in the first place.  Short of Aura Graft and its ilk, this situation simply never happens.  So, it gets the axe.

Lastly, does Protection need to grant evasion?  I say no, and here's why:
  1. Between Intimidate and Landwalk, we've already got color specific evasion abilities aplenty.
  2. Every new player, without exception, wonders what happens when a Black Knight and White Knight battle each other.  Will they trade?  Will all damage be prevented?  Wait, no.  They can never fight.  That's lame.  Warren-Scourge Elf, who is ostensibly defined by his talent in slaying goblins, consistently waltzes past them to hit the player instead.  
The crux of the problem is that Protection is used to represent two types of abilities: offensive and defensive.  I propose letting the defensive abilities stay, under the name protection, and move the offensive to cards like this:
Llanowar Huntmaster (uncommon)
Creature - Elf Ranger
Smite Goblins (Whenever CARDNAME blocks or becomes blocked by a Goblin, it gets +3/+3 until end of turn.)
Now there's an elf who will actually scourge some warrens!  I don't think Smite belongs in our new Alpha, though, so we'll stick with the reduced Protection:
Protection from X (This creature can't be targeted or dealt damage by anything X.)
Of course, the removal of evasion will need to be balanced by a commensurate increase in Landwalk and Intimidate.

Regeneration - This isn't bad, but some of its side effects are unintuitive.  We'll keep the tapping, but get rid of the removing from combat:
Regenerate (The next time this creature would be destroyed this turn, it isn't. Instead tap it and remove all damage from it.)
Shroud - I'm going to make a rather brazen claim here: R&D keyworded the wrong mechanic.  Trollshroud ("can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control") is simply a better ability.  Sure, it's longer, but only by three words.  It is no less flavorful or intuitive; indeed, it had never made sense that I can't enchant my own Neurok Commando.  And what do we get in exchange?

Trollshroud is all-upside.  Keyword abilities should be all-upside; they don't need tension.  What's more, Trollshroud makes dreams come true.  Armored Ascension on a Sacred Wolf?  It can happen!  It functions like Shroud roughly 95% of the time, and the other 5% consists of pure fun: pump spells and buff auras on a creature your opponent can't hurt.  Magic should be about letting cool stuff happen, and the awkwardness of normal Shroud prevents some very cool stuff.  So, we're changing it!
Shroud (This creature can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control.)
Whew.  That's it for abilities.  Do you agree with my decisions?  Let's talk about it in the comments!


  1. I agree with almost all of this. I don't think the first set needs half of these abilities (particularly not haste, troll-shroud or quick) and I'd like to see more discussion around how many abilities should make into the first Magic set.

    I don't think it makes sense to cause a regenerated creature to become tapped but not to remove it from combat. The tapping clause has no effect on an attacking creature and is only relevant on a defending creature in a multiplayer free-for-all game. The removed-from-combat clause is a bit confusing, but without it a creature can be slain by a first-striker and still fight back which just feels strange. I'd say all or nothing.

  2. Oh, and I very much like what you did with Protection (though I don't think Smite should exist outside of a single expansion block), except that I would like new Protection to also solve the Wrath problem. It's terribly confusing to new players that Swords to Plowshares can't hurt their Black Knight but Wrath of God can. The two most obvious solutions aren't great, so I'd love to hear a better one: Either Protection X says that the protected permanent can't be affected by X spells; or global effects all still use the targeting template, "Destroy all target creatures." Guh, now my mouth tastes bad.

  3. I'll talk next week about implementation and keywording. The short version is that I plan to sneak all (or almost all) of those abilities into Alpha, but not always with keywords. Serra Angel was an excellent poster child for Vigilance.

    The point of tapping with regeneration is to allow the other player's removal to have a reduced effect instead of none at all. Bolt your guy, swing with mine.

    The image of an Uthden Troll regenerating and beating up a White Knight warms the cockles of my heart. First Strike is already a "trump" creature ability that nullifies Deathtouch, Lifelink, Trample, etc. so think Regeneration beating it is fine.

    I thought long and hard about the Wrath problem, and couldn't come up with a satisfactory solution. The closest I came was a variant of Indestructible: "X effects that say 'destroy' don't destroy this creature." I believe that this does not create horrible rules issues, but it does cause other problems. First, we get the destroy vs. sacrifice/exile/put on top of library issues that make Indestructible appear infrequently. Also, we end up with White Knight surviving Damnation but not Mutilate. It's just not worth it.

  4. I think Banding isn't as bad an ability as most people make it out to be. It's confusing as written, yes, but that's also largely because it's a combination of two different abilities, one that works on attack, the other on defense.

    Now, I'm not sure if separating them out would allow you to fix the confusing templating, but it may be worth trying, especially for the defensive one, since it doesn't require more than one creature with the ability.

    (I admit I have a bit of a soft spot for it, since Banding is just about the best combat ability in the game. Having complete control over damage assignment is huge.)

    Of course, even with a fix, Banding probably isn't justified in a remade alpha.

  5. Pretty sure removing the any-number-of-creatures-with-banding-plus-one would make a huge difference. If it's only creatures with banding or if it's any number of creatures (and there's never any such thing as bands with others), it's much simpler. Not perfect, but better.

  6. If it only requires one creature, yeah. Actually, even on attack that might not be overpowered. You get one pseudo large creature, yeah, but it can still be chumped.

    Then the ability would less be a group of soldiers working together and more one guy commanding a rag-tag group for some benefit.


    Command (Any number of creatures may attack or block with this one as a single unit. If any creature in the unit could be blocked, the entire unit may be. Controller chooses how all combat damage is assigned, overriding priority.)

    It's powerful, still, but perhaps justified at higher rarities.

    Actually, it could still be split into two abilities. One allowing you to create a group and the other allowing you to override damage assignment.

  7. Like you, I really wish Banding could be made to work well. But I think it's a lost cause. The closest we're going to get is things like Exalted and Battle Cry.

  8. I'm not sure I agree. Messy templating ahoy!

    Banner-bearer (Any number of creatures may attack with this one as a single unit. If any creature in the unit may be blocked, the entire unit is blocked.)

    Command (If this creature is attacking or blocking in a unit with other creatures, you choose how all damage is assigned to your creatures.)

  9. I understand where you're coming from on regenerate, but I still think it should lose the tap rider. Given the penalty for keeping mana open, I'm content to grant extra value to regenerate (especially considering how rare it's become in current design - there were 7 creatures with regen in 6th, 3 in 2010, but only 1 in 2011).

    It also gives extra meaning to the rider "can't be regenerated" which I'd argue is a valuable design tool in differentiating removal cards.

  10. Keywording anything that only appears on a single card seems generally unnecessary. I agree that Banding as it's currently worded is too hard to remember, but it should be replaced with something like Battle Cry or something similar. Banding gave white a very strong color definition, and has influences white design to the present day.

  11. I like the 'Banner-Bearer' idea listed above. I'd suggest 'Banner-Bearer X' to allow X other creatures to attack with the Banner-Bearing creature.

  12. I don't think it needs the X limitation. The benefit of creating a single unit WITHOUT allowing you to assign damage priority is minimal. No reason to limit it more.

  13. @Daniel - Regenerate doesn't need to be stronger. It's rare because it's too good at creating ground stalls, which leads to slow games. Getting rid of the tap clause would only exacerbate that problem.

    @Ethan - That's exactly what I mean. Single cards like Serra Angel and Ball Lightning can give players experience with Vigilance and Haste without keywording them. Then they can acquire keywords in later editions.

    I think white can demonstrate its "little guys working together" spirit with cards in the vein of Infantry Veteran, Blinding Mage, and Inspired Charge. I'm reluctant to add new keywords, since we've already got a ton.

  14. For regeneration, why not just change it to "The next time ~ would be destroyed this turn, instead exile it. Return it to the battlefield under your control at end of turn." It cuts out some design space, but solves the ground stall and first strike problems while being flavorful as fleeing to recuperate.
    That said, I really like what you've done with protection and shroud.

  15. I feel like tapping captures the flavor of "fleeing" better than exile does. Exile is just clunkier, causing a change of zone and a trigger to be remembered. Also, this would make auras granting regeneration work very poorly!

  16. My first impulse would be to make Regeneration as simple as possible and not to tap, but that might make it too strong or hard to get around. I think the lesson of the GDS2, however, is that this sort of decision really has to rely upon playtesting.