Monday, April 11, 2011

CCDD 041111—Aura Blast vs The Fizzle Rule

Cool Card Design of the Day
4/11/2011 - If you cast a Lightning Bolt targeting my Brindle Boar and I sacrifice it in response, your bolt fizzles. That is, it is countered on resolution by the game rules because none of its targets are still legal. Fair enough. If you Aura Blast my Zektar Shrine Expedition and I sacrifice it in response, your blast fizzles: You don't get to draw a card. Hmm, okay. If you cast Cryptic Command with the intention of tapping my team, you might as well also bounce one of my guys while you're at it, to slow me down as much as possible. But if you do, and I play Autumn's Veil on my creature in response, your command fizzles: My team is not tapped. Had you chosen a second mode that doesn't target, like drawing a card, I wouldn't have been able to prevent Cryptic Command from going off perfectly and tapping my team. Raise your hand if you're starting to smell fish. Okay, fine, don't raise your hand, you lazy bum. I'll just pretend you are.

I am not the first person to wonder if there isn't a better way. This post was spurred by a tweet by @JonLoucks on the 6th to which @mtgaaron (Aaron Forsythe, Director of Wizards' R&D, for my non-twitter audience) replied that they've had many discussions about this very topic. I am going to propose a rules-change for purposes of this discussion. If we abolish one line of rule 608.2b of the Comprehensive Rules, the "fizzle rule," then a spell won't be countered when all of its targets become illegal. Instead, each effect of the spell that does not affect the illegal target will still be executed.

That may sound familiar to you. It should, because rules 609.3, 614.6, 614.7 and the very rule in question all have language to that effect. It's also one of The Magic Golden Rules (101.3): Any part of an instruction that’s impossible to perform is ignored. (In many cases the card will specify consequences for this; if it doesn’t, there’s no effect.) It's the rule that allows you to Mind Rot me when I only have one card in hand, or perhaps more importantly, to Blightning me when I have no cards in hand.

Here's a funny thing (and another way to look at the issue and solution): Imagine if every sorcery and instant had an implicit line of rules text, "Target games makes sense."

Since the game is not a target that will ever become invalid, no spell will ever have all of its targets become invalid and none will fizzle as a result. If you're able to cast your Aura Blast in the first place, you will get to draw a card. No mode choices for your Cryptic Command—however cunning or foolish—will result in your opponent's creatures not becoming tapped as you had hoped. This seems like a good thing to me and it's ridiculous that the game could be so improved by adding such a silly line to every spell. Surely this simple rules change is a more attractive option.

But is it worth it? Sure, we've found a simple way to make the game more intuitive and internally consistent, but every rules change has a cost. How many cards will need errata? How many cards will become worse or even unplayable as a result of such a change? There was a good deal of trepidation about the Magic 2010 rules changes; many cards were errated as a result and some cards lost a lot of their power (Mogg Fanatic) while others had entire lines become meaningless (Mox Lotus), but all of that was very much worth it. The game is just as challenging and interesting to experienced players but easier to learn for new players and more intuitive for everyone.

Every card with one or more targets that also has an effect that does not require targets will become stronger as a result of this proposal. Will any become unbalanced? Such a card would have to have been designed/balanced with the specific intention of rewarding a player for taking the risk of having his entire spell fizzle if his target becomes invalid. I can't think of any such examples right now, but I wouldn't be surprised if a few existed. If you can think of one, please share.

Could confusing situations arise? Under the current rules, when you Phthisis my creature and I Unsummon it back to my hand, your spell fizzles and I won't lose life. Under the new rules, the Phthisis wouldn't be countered; it wouldn't do anything to my creature, but I would lose life equal to the creature's last known toughness. This is known as the "Last Known Information rule," (114.8b for those of you following along in the rulebook) and is not new. Similarly, Corrupt won't gain you life (because no damage is dealt), Drain Life won't gain you life for basically the same reason. That's clear, but what about Consume Spirit? The life gain isn't contingent upon or equal to the damage dealt, so maybe it does gain you life. On the other hand, the life gain phrase is the same sentence as the target and damage phrase, so maybe the whole sentence isn't executed. While the correct answer is relevant, it's probably not as important as the confusion most players will experience trying to answer it themselves.

What about Dregs of Sorrow? If you target 3 creatures, and any one of them remains valid when the spell resolves, you'll draw three cards. If all of them go away you draw no cards, unless our rule is changed. Lash Out will now always cause a clash, even if the creature targeted is Flickered first, and if you win the clash, you'll still deal damage to the (original) creature's controller. While this will feel foreign and strange to players who are used to the way things work now, I believe players will get used to it over time just as they did the Magic 2010 rules changes. The question is, does it make more sense in the long run?

The last big remaining question is how many cards will need Oracle updates so that they work the way players expect them to. What makes this issue so sticky is how subjective these judgments will be. To me, Aura Blast should always give you a card if you cast it. The cantrip feels like a reward for taking the risk of putting a card in your deck that you may never be able to cast as well as for paying more mana for an effect you could have gotten cheaper. Others feel that the card is a reward for actually destroying the aura. The propose adding a phrase like "If you do [destroy an enchantment this way]..." to the "draw a card" line so that the reward is still contingent on the spell's success. What about Solemn Offering? Should you get the 4 life whether you disenchant something or not? I'm less sure. What about Detonate? What about Swords to Plowshares? If this rule change were to happen, one of two paths are open to us. Either we errata nothing and all of these secondary effects always happen (which will feel a bit odd in some cases, and will make all these cards a better overall, but won't break the game) or some poor Wizard is going to have to read every spell in Oracle and make a judgment call (which is not unprecedented; they did this with the grand creature type update).

If any cards were changed, it would probably affect somewhere between 5 and 25% of sorceries and instants. There are 2703 of those according to a quick Gatherer search, so that could be upwards of 700 cards. Is it worth it?

Please share your opinion or any additional examples of interactions that would be improved, cards that would be nerfed, or situations that would be confusing. If you support this idea, mention it to @mtgaaron and @TabakRules so they can consider its merit in all their infinite wisdom and/or their spare time. You can also thank @metaghost @HavelockV, @ObsidianDice, @JVWoodward and @JonLoucks for their invaluable contribution. PS, invaluable does not mean "not valuable," even though that's clearly what it means.


  1. The weirdest consequence of this change would be effects that have the concept of "draining" something from their target. Say, Last Kiss. If its target becomes illegal before it can resolve, you would still gain 2 life even though there wasn't anything there to drain it from. Same goes for the Phthisis scenario. It introduces a different kind of unintuitive scenario in place of the old one.

  2. The idea of "what affects the illegal target" is extremely vague. Why does "damage to target creature" count, but "damage to target creature's controller" not count? How about Backlash - if the creature gains shroud, it sounds like you think it should not become tapped, but it should still deal damage to its controller?

    I suggest that alternatively, no information can be gathered from the missing target, causing any effects that require it not to function. For example, Phthisis, on resolution, cannot find a target, and so there is no life lost. Backlash cannot find the creature, and so neither taps it nor causes it to deal damage. Lash Out, on resolution, still clashes, but no longer has a target, and so can't figure out which player should take damage.

  3. Hey Jay, sorry I spaced on posting our original dialogue in public form. I should probably do that...

  4. This link will bring everyone to the original little bit of whatever between Jay and I: