Saturday, May 7, 2011

Holy Crap! Phyrexia is Evil! (Part 2)

Tomorrow is the New Phyrexia prerelease, so I'll be heading out to inflict terror on the pathetically incompleat. But before I do, I wanted to write a follow up to Part 1, in which I explain why I have a few reservations with the new set regarding how its designs affect the way the game works. To do that, I first want to explain the different types of actions available in a typical match.

Proactive Plays are the first type, and include any action in the game that a player can take to directly and positively improve their own standing within the game, generally one that advances a plan for winning. Every game has proactive elements, since these are what provide a means to finish the game and provide some sort of final rankings. In MtG, things like playing a Glistener Elf, targeting my opponent with a Scrapyard Salvo, or milling my opponent with Mind Crank are all examples of proactive plays.

The second type, Reactive Plays, influence the gamestate by negatively impacting our opponent's plans for winning the game. Not all games have reactive elements (for example, in a game like Go, there's really no difference between proactive and reactive plays, since your board state is inversely related to your opponent's board state). In a typical 1 vs. 1 game of Magic, the positions in the game aren't directly related — reactive plays that negatively affects my opponent's board or game state help me by improving my relative standing in the game. Spot removal is the best example of a reactive play. For example, say my opponent controls two creatures, and I only have one. My opponent taps mana to equip one of his creatures, and in response, I destroy it with a Doom Blade. I haven't directly improved my own standing, I still have the same win condition (my one creature), but my relative position in the game has improved. The trick with reactive plays is that even though sometimes they hurt me, they're still good for the game overall, since they increase the number of ways I can interact with the game and other players.

And lastly, we have Preemptive Actions. In Magic, these are usually board neutral: they neither directly impact my opponent's board position, nor do they directly advance my own plan for winning. Instead, preemptive actions prevent or otherwise inhibit my opponent's abilities to make proactive plays of their own. These are the most "griefy," since by preventing my opponent from taking actions, they limit the ways we can interact, which in turn limits how much fun we have playing the game. Enchanting an opponent's land with Evil Presence, targeting him with Despise, playing Torpor Orb, taking a nearly free peek at my opponent's hand with Gitaxian Probe, or targeting something like Stoneforge Mystic with Surgical Extraction are all examples of preemptive plays.  In the last few years, Magic R&D has clamped down on "don't let your opponents play" style-effects (especially after 9th edition rotated five years ago, taking with it a lot of nasty cards like Stone Rain and Persecute), so New Phyrexia (which is chock full of preemptive cards) is obviously a significant departure from recent design standards.

This is not to say that I don't like the individual cards named above, as something like Surgical Extraction is a neat card on its own, and I'd like to own a set. Same with Mental Misstep, Despise, and so on. The problem is that if there are too many different preemptive plays available, they start to choke off the available proactive plays that we can use to win the game. And this is a major hazard, especially in competitive environments where we need the ability to finish three games in 50 minutes or less.

This is also the reason I'm unconvinced that New Phyrexia will do much to shake loose the current top decks in an environment like the current Standard. The strength of the various Caw-Blade decks isn't just that they can dig for reactive solutions, it's that they can generate multiple, robust, proactive plans to win the game by playing a mid-range aggro strategy with small creatures and equipments, or a controlling long-game using manlands and 5-6cc creatures as finishers, or by using Jace 2's library destruction, or by winning via Inkmoth infections. And this will likely continue to be the trend for constructed decks in the near future: players will need multiple paths to victory, because it will be easy to choke out narrow win-cons.

So this is a puzzle for me, and I wish I could get someone from Wizards to answer the question: "Why do a griefer set now?" Because it'll be fun for the majority of our players? Because the Spike population is dissatisfied with the current metagame? Is this a one-time deal just to mix things up? Or is it part of an experiment to test how much grief the current game can handle?

Edit note: I'm also not sure how well I've articulated what I want to say, so for this post, I'd extra appreciate any feedback!


  1. New Phyrexia is a griefer-heavy set because it's New Phyrexia. The set's design sensibilities follow from its setting, as it should be. Concern and care for how that theme affects the metagame is important but the metagame is not the reason that theme exists. New Phyrexia needed to feel a certain way, to express its unique setting through its tone and mechanics, and an unusually high emphasis on meanness, violation, and griefing are the most pure and direct ways of accomplishing that. It's not something that should be emphasized for more than a single set at a time, definitely not, but in a chunk this size the game can tolerate it, especially when it is part of such a wonderful marriage of setting, tone, and mechanics.

  2. I don't really think that having a set known for griefing or even promoting it as such does much to improve the game. I remember the non-Spike psychographics being described in terms of how many games they could lose and still be happy with an occasional win of their play style. I'm sure the type of losses those non-Spike players are willing to take will be a factor in how well New Phyrexia is received.

    Spikes will obviously love and buy it.

  3. Though this may be premature to state, I do think there's every reason to believe they felt this was a ripe opportunity to push such a Spike-oriented set because the next block sees the return of Richard Garfield, suggesting that even if New Phyrexia were to flop (which I don't think it will) WotC can still be confident that M12 + Innistrad will quickly erase any harm.

  4. "...even if New Phyrexia were to flop (which I don't think it will) WotC can still be confident that M12 + Innistrad will quickly erase any harm."

    I hadn't thought of it that way - I wonder how much of a consideration that is in R&D...

  5. It would have taken a MASSIVE screwup for NPH not to do well. It's New Phyrexia for Yawgmoth's sake. Magic's oldest and most popular villains put front and center in every color. That's virtually a guarantee for success.

  6. That's a bit of projection on your part, LC. If we're to take R&D's word, Time Spiral was not a success, and they clearly felt a pressure to pull in new players post-Lorwyn block. These new players not only have no idea who or what Yawgmoth is, but infect has already been a divisive mechanic to focus upon. This is certainly not a common formula for "guaranteed success".

  7. Time Spiral's failure lay in a combination of obscure nostalgia and ridiculous levels of complexity. The nostalgia presented in this block has been far more straightforward and accessible, even to those not previously familiar with Phyrexia. We've also been told that infect is a very popular mechanic, even if it has some very vocal detractors. With the first two sets of the block being so successful, NPH was set up for success as well.