Monday, April 4, 2011

Mo' Mythics, Mo' Problems

The primal mechanic has me worried this designer might disagree with his job description — me, MaRo, and everyone else employed by Hasbro (NYSE: HAS) are in the business of creating desire for Magic products. Our biggest seller is booster packs.
— Ken Nagle

Since the introduction of the mythic rarity, a lingering air of dissatisfaction has loomed over the magic community regarding the intent behind the not-especially-distinctive orange symbols. This is primarily due to the effect the additional rarity has on secondary market values, inflating them to a great degree, but also because of various beliefs regarding what type of cards were "supposed" to be designated with this rarity, beliefs often rooted in a frequently stated misquote of Mark Rosewater. As I sat down to work on a cycle of mythics started during the initial planning of my GDS block, I was thinking about the expectations placed upon cards of a given rarity, but also about how monetary considerations can (and perhaps should) affect how the design of mythics is carried out. What I mean by "monetary considerations" is two-fold:

- First we have the simple notion that mythics are intended to drive sales, moreso than a card from any of the lesser rarities. This is most practically achieved by designing cards that satisfy a broad cross-section of demographics, usually through the application of unique and flashy mechanics, even ones that ultimately have no bearing upon tournament play. Of course, there will also be those cards that drive sales by virtue of their ability to define some portion of the competitive metagame.

- Counter to the above is that Wizards has to at least partially approach consumer feedback and be wary of the frequency they print a card like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. This is both because gameplay can't sustain an abundance of cards of that power, but also because the secondary market value of cards such as Jace and Tarmogoyf can create consumer dissatisfaction due to a perception that the game is divided between the haves and the have-nots.

Admittedly, this last little point can't be especially high on the list of "things Wizards should be concerned about", as it ultimately implies a great demand for their product, but it is nonetheless part of what I consider to be "monetary considerations".

With the recent push to expand MTG into diverse casual formats and most recently assimilate EDH into a line of official products, many recent mythics appear designed to cater to this prominent segment of the MTG audience. This is perhaps the safest approach financially, as a card like Praetor's Counsel can be pushed to an absurd end, then costed far beyond what is logical in Standard while still maintaining some semblance of marketing pull because of its impact on EDH/Commander. And though some may argue that the "singleton" nature of said format is a natural economic stabilizer preventing a card like Praetor's Counsel from being all that desirable, I believe it's safe to say that Wizards is reaping well-deserved rewards for acknowledging the value in designing specifically for these formats.

Planeswalkers are another large piece of the marketing draw to mythic, and when reviewing the planeswalkers released since Zendikar you'll notice a gradual reconsideration of what they feel is reasonable for a PW. 5/9 cost 5cc and up, two of which are forced to compete for the same slot at 3WW, and the three at 4cc that aren't Jace (Koth, Tezzeret, and Nissa) are each set up to demand a very particular deck in order to properly maximize their impact. While this is most assuredly a set of design choices primarily rooted in the demands of game balance, as well as being slaves to top-down brand identity, I think it's arguable that this also reflects a truth that Jace's design is more "mistake" than "intentional cash-cow". Aaron Forsythe may be regretting Chandra Ablaze (recently tweeted as being the one truly failed PW design), but I don't think he would revise her by removing the discard from her plus-ability and changing the mini-wheel to a full-on Wheel of Fortune.

Cutting to the chase a bit, as far as designing a cycle of non-PW mythic is concerned, it's important for me to recognize that these designs should possess a certain allure but should not be more exciting than the planeswalkers from the same set. For instance, though the average Spike may be excited to crack a Sword of Feast and Famine in his draft because of its appearance in prominent Standard decks at the moment, Tezzeret is still the most broadly exciting card that can be opened from a pack of Mirrodin Besieged. While Vengevine and the Eldrazi may have had greater marketing cache than Gideon and Sarkhan 2.0, I don't consider that significant precedent for the purposes of this article simply because it's extremely rare that designers have the opportunity to introduce new card types, new frames, and outlandish abilities all within the same design (Eldrazi Titans). And don't even try to mention Primeval Titan and his ilk, as the O.G. planeswalkers had been printed almost three years straight at that point.

So let me first introduce the current PW candidates:

» Click to Reveal «

Sitting pretty in their 4th revision, neither would appear disturbingly imbalanced or unexciting, though I have some concerns that Sila's abilities are a bit too oriented towards a Spike/Johnny hybrid without anything to really offer Timmy other than an enemy-color cost. For most of his existence, Om had a blue mana in his cost to better tie together the theme of time manipulation, but I felt that was forcing my hand and skewing the abilities towards primarily blue concepts that ultimately made him less interesting. Regardless, they serve their purpose as a reference point, allowing me to compare demographic appeal, presumed power levels, and content overlap.

As my GDS set was built around various musical concepts, my initial instinct for a cycle of mythic spells was to design a series of leitmotif, spells that are evocative of a given legendary creature within the block and have a recurring effect that can be activated under certain conditions. In their original form they looked like this:

» Click to Reveal «

Though part of me enjoys the "self-comboing" nature of these designs, there are a number of easily identified problems. The most immediate concern is that in my pursuit of how to portray the recurrence of the spell, I chose to merge the somewhat awkward "Harmony" ability with emblems, a flavorless mechanical device invented by WotC to assuage the memory concerns of cards that create permanent effects that last beyond the lifespan of the card that generated that effect. Not only does this lead to a cumbersome conglomeration of unsightly clauses, but it means that the ultimate form of a given leitmotif is almost entirely non-interactive, a surefire way to lose the interest of players. Another problem is that in my initial exploration of a tight cycle, where the CMC all line up and each primary effect (excepting the Corruptor's) incorporates the number five, I had partially erased the individuality of each leitmotif. That is to say, if these spells are supposed to represent something akin to a theme song for a given character, why are there so many shared characteristics? Moving beyond those two issues, there are other individual problems, mostly revolving around how mass discard isn't fun, mass bounce isn't fun, and actually activating the harmony effect on an 8cmc spell is mostly a pipe-dream, even in EDH.

Into the trash they go, in favor of a significantly more conservative approach that streamlines the card text and provides a bit more individual flavor for each design.

» Click to Reveal «

No longer a tight cycle, I've adopted a similar line of thought as was applied to the Zenith cycle, allowing the CMC to vary between the cards and giving Blue an instant. Some may find the variable cost of Destroyer's Leitmotif disagreeable in the context of a cycle, but it felt like a necessary concession in order to give it a chance at being more than a limited bomb. Of particular note is that the Harmony/Emblem ability has been replaced with the much simpler Buyback effect. I have some reservations about this decision, as repetitive gameplay is almost as disruptive to player's enjoyment as non-interactivity. (Presumably why the Zeniths are all shuffled back into your library.) However, because the Harmony effect requires the expenditure of at least another card AND an unspecified amount of mana, this was a reasonable solution to create the feel of a recurring theme while making this cycle competitively enticing.

Arbiter's Leitmotif has changed the least between revisions, as such it needs the most work to reach a completed state. The combined effects of the card create an intriguing story, pushing the idea of an arbitrator passing harsh judgment upon the world whenever things get out of their control, but I know this card would quickly ascend the ranks of things people hate to see play in multiplayer. Even a simple recurring wrath is upsetting, especially in a format like EDH where matches are already beset by near constant board-resets. The greatest problem for me when designing the white cards in this set is that the flavor has set up the color as a major player in the camp of "bad guys", defined by oppressive tendencies and consequent control strategies. When it came time to apply that train of thought to the creation of a flashy mythic sorcery, I kept arriving back at Balance effects. I had considered a more ridiculous concept of wealth redistribution, whereby the controlling player changes control of each player's permanents until everyone has the same amount of each type and then all excess is sacrificed. That was not only hideously wordy, but would be a major headache to perform in an actual game.

Corrupter's Leitmotif is fairly by-the-books, being a slight upgrade to Beacon of Unrest. It's arguable that allowing monoblack to resurrect card types normally out of its jurisdiction (enchantments, planeswalkers) is a great snafu, but it was interesting enough to test the waters of public opinion. Ideally such an effect would be B/G, as it somewhat explicitly fuses Nature's Spiral and Rise from the Grave, but it's important to properly incentivize casting this card over other reanimation options regardless of whether you can activate the Harmony. An immediate alternative is to pursue a Living Death variant, which could expand the card's appeal into Johnny territory, but that's significantly problematic as a consistently recurring effect.

As mentioned previously, Destroyer's Leitmotif has in some respects been pushed the most, being one of the most outright brutish possibilities for a direct damage spell. Strictly outclassing Flame Wave in situations that don't involve Gaddock Teeg may turn out to be a bad idea, but there's also a chance that the truth of the card's power is largely on par with Earthquake in typical one v. one situations. Comparing it to Comet Storm, its immediate predecessor in the realm of mythic burn, it scales much more rapidly (with the added benefit of unpreventability) but sacrifices instant-speed and adds R to the initial investment. The simplest balance may be to have it hit everyone, but one of the primary directives of mythic design is to ensure that a card is indisputably all upside. All in all, I'm not happy with moving away from the more amusing Dragonstorm variant of the original. Some sort of red token-generator may be a suitable alteration, for instance creating X Hellspark Elementals, but that's rather tame at investment levels equivalent to the costs of the other leitmotif.

In lieu of writing about the remaining designs, I'll return back to the initial topic of this extended swim in the sea of my mind. Upon moving away from the initial leitmotif, I've lost a bit of that mysterious quality that really makes a card feel "mythic". Due to their reliance on staple concepts and parallels to previous rare cycles, the average consumer is unlikely to find these especially exciting. Certainly they have qualities that prevent them from being absolute trash, but Dramatic Entrance 2.0 isn't what I meant by "unique" or even "flashy". I did successfully create designs that would sit below the PWs in terms of marketability and assumed secondary value (an easy task, for sure), and they do possess a more positive representation of "recurring theme", but I've achieved that by transforming them into glorified rares. Though innovation in design is an ideal that isn't always healthy, it's important to pursue a more distinct vision when designing mythics, as mundanity is the last quality you want players to perceive when they crack one of these fabled pieces of cardboard. This is obviously challenging when trying to balance the various defined and undefined goals of such cards.

It can't be emphasized enough that a good deal of what happens after a card is released can have very little to do with how a card was designed. Though I brought up JTMS as problematic, its ascendency to the $100 plateau could be partially explained by an unexpected hunger for a powerful blue card after Alara block did its best to erase the memory of our former Faerie overlords. There's also a certain conspiratorial perception that Worldwake was under-printed, resulting in a mythic more mythic than any mythic before it or since. And while WotC has access to the FFL (an internal development league for testing future formats), their statistics couldn't have told them that Lotus Cobra was going to be worth as much as it is, they just knew it had an evident strength and excitement that made it a viable mythic and smart choice for a Mike Flores article.

So why bother with "monetary considerations" to begin with? Because it's another rubric by which we can evaluate our designs, relevant in a world that has struggled with a number of natural disasters and economic turmoil, conditions that can quickly reassign this game's position in the consumer's mind, from "Disposable Income Vacuum" to "Recently Ebay'd".


  1. Holy cow! There's so much here that I don't know where to start... so for starters, it'd help to break up your future posts, since it'd be easier to give you some feedback, and it'd probably be easier for you to write.

    I really love the WB 'walker's mechanics; the Castigate/Unmake is really clever. The ultimate doesn't really seem either white or black, but it flows naturally from the other two, and seems like it'd be fun to activate.

    I don't think the loyalty counters are right, but I don't have a very good feel for how they should work out, so I guess I can't really judge. I'm also not sure he should be an entirely new character - genuinely new planeswalkers are getting introduced at a pretty slow pace. It's probably worth thinking about whether this design could work as one of the current black or white characters (it's been hinted at that Elspeth could have a black streak, and I could also see Sorin having a white element.)

  2. (Sorry for the double post - there was lots of food for thought here.) I agree that there can't be too many more cards like Jace the Mind Sculptor, but I don't think he was a mistake exactly.

    As of Zendikar block, it seems like R&D was still trying to feel out the appropriate power level for mythic cards. Before and during Zendikar, there were actually a few mythics that were significantly underpowered for their rarity (like Protean Hydra, which got downgraded to regular rare. Jace 2.0 seems like it was an experiment to see how far mythic power could be pushed. The answer came up "too far" on Jace, but it was worth a try.

    (rant) I know Jace gets the brunt of the "mythics are too good" ire, but I really hate Gideon. He's miserable in limited, and in the current standard, if you're playing an aggro deck and you haven't won by the time Gideon hits the table, then you just won't. (/rant)

  3. Honestly this was something that wanted to just be a discussion about the initial topic of "How to balance Mythic vs. Secondary Market", but not only is this supposed to dedicated to Magic Design, I don't really have the Economics background or reams of research to properly approach that issue.

    So I just fused it with other thoughts, and well....

    RE: Om - That's a great point about character usage, as that touches upon the relevant theme of marketability and lessons learned from GDS2. Thankfully Wizards solved who Om should really be and chose Karn.

    The loyalty values feel comfortable to me, though I admit the +1 is perhaps a hard bargain as plus ability.

    And I agree with your perspective about Mythics, by and large. It's hard to make these arguments and simultaneously acknowledge that WotC is working so far in advance that they can neither react to their "mistakes" as well as we think they can, nor can we the consumer/amateur properly evaluate their progress in clarifying the role of the Mythic.

  4. Sila Eoman seems like too much of a team player. He helps you shine, but never impacts the board, which doesn't feel Planeswalker-y.

  5. I don't really feel that's a strong argument against the design, as the original Jace is of a similar mold and has seen consistent play and print. And without the existence of Jace 2.0, it would have almost negligible board impact.

    And that's ignoring the idea that simply by virtue of being PW it has board impact.

  6. Well, milling for twenty feels a lot like board impact. It's something that Jace does by himself. Sila has lots of assists, but never takes a shot.

  7. Pro: Giving Sila more immediate board impact would bring it closer to a more universal Spike/Timmy/Johnny design.

    Con: Diminishes the thematic nature of its abilities. (i.e. how it interacts with the primary mechanics of the set.)

    Claiming Mill 20 "feels like board impact" is going to extremes though.

  8. One more thought (this time about the Leitmotif cycle) -

    The cards are cool, but the Harmony ability is not. Needing to cast another spell on the same turn that you intend to cast your bomb sorcery is a really unhappy tension.

    Also, you have a 4/1 split effect going in the current cycle, with 4 sorceries and 1 instant. Either you need another instant, or you need a sorcery effect for the blue card (to move it to a 3/2 split, or 5-of-a-kind).

  9. Dawg, I totally addressed both of those points in the article.

    Yes, the Harmony ability creates something of an unhappy tension, a tension that was more apparent in the original cycle. I haven't quite solved that issue, but for the moment I don't see it as a greater tension than you might have when dealing with Entwine. (i.e. "I want both effects but can only pay for one, oh no!")

    As to the nature of the cycle, I don't think there's any hard set rule about fudging certain qualities, even if the cards share a number of indicators that would suggest a tight cycle. The primary qualities that denote the cycle are the name, the usage of CCC costs, and a Harmony-buyback. For reference, check the common Allied spell cycle from Shards of Alara:

    Blightning (Sorcery)
    Branching Bolt (Instant)
    Agony Warp (Instant)
    Hindering Light (Instant)
    Sigil Blessing (Instant)

  10. The Harmony mechanic on a game-ending sorcery would encourage playing them with mana ritual spells. That would be so strong that it would obsolete most other ways of using the Harmony spells.

    The "get a better effect" harmony mechanic might actually be better for a cheap spell, where there's potential for the player to use it in many ways.

    The "buyback" harmony mechanic is actually strategically very similar to "Splice into spell" except without a separate splice cost.

    These mechanics that use music as a motif give me an idea; some kind of Soulshift or Cascade for sorceries and instants in grave, although I don't know exactly what.

    But the general image I have is that when you play that spell, you get to replay instants and sorcery cards in your graveyard in a chain, from high CMC to low CMC (maybe they have to form a tight chain with regular increments for you to continue casting from the grave - say, CMC 5, 3, 1). That would get rid of the tension problem - you don't have to hold on to spells.

  11. Chah, amusingly enough, much of what you're saying was mechanical discussion that happened in early days of GDS2.

    Cumbersome as it is, you can stroll through the various discussion pages on the Wiki:

    Your concept for a graveyard mechanic was one of the early iterations for Resonate, which was eventually axed due to brain-freeze and a decision to simply not incorporate graveyard-mechanics into the set. There was also a creature-mechanic designed to set up triadic relationships, where the different colors had creatures that looked for different CMC "intervals". Again, a bit convoluted and forced.

    Regardless, I do have concerns about players being more interested in holding spells in order to prepare for huge chains, but my intent is to force the issue by ensuring that creature strategies are significantly aggressive enough to dissuade passive behaviors.