Monday, August 29, 2011

M13 Choosing the Returning Mechanic

There are two clear front-runners for the title of 2013 returning mechanic: Exalted and Terrain (aka The Kird Ape ability). Let me briefly explain why those two have boiled to the top and then we'll discuss what happens next.

Enhance (aka The Ogre Savant Ability) is solid. It's clean and it leads to interesting deck-building and gameplay choices. While it has no flavor of its own, the abilities it grants and the way it grants them always feels right and very often has its own flavor. On the other hand, it's a bit weirder to see mana symbols on a card outside of a cost and the nail in the coffin is that terrain is just better in a lot of ways.

Sunburst will be back someday and probably on colored cards. It's more complex than enhance, it doesn't enforce ally-color-pair dominance and it only goes on permanents. I would consider coming back to this if plans A and B fail, but it hasn't gotten nearly as much support.

Bushido is also a fair back-up plan. It loses the spot to exalted because it doesn't really change the way you play the game. Some of your guys are just bigger sometimes. Exalted makes you think differently about the game. That's the variety we need to keep things fresh.

Rebound is fun, but it's not as clean for a new player as it is in our head. It's also pretty light on the flavor sauce.

Clash has a divided audience. Folks love it or hate it. That's not a reason to discard it though because that's often a sign that we're keeping things interesting. It is very wordy though and certainly isn't helping to teach new players how the game normally works.

Prowl has associations with the Tribal card type that we simply can't afford. That means its limited to creature cards, which isn't terrible, except what creatures do we put it on? Rogues, again? Vampires would work, but that's way too much like bloodthirst.

No one championed gating, kicker or persist. Battle Cry is the other side of the exalted coin but is more recent and fits a more aggressive environment, which M12 just did.

Allies got some love and thematically it's a solid fit. The pre-wrapped gameplan is even a nice way to teach new players about synergy. Ultimately though, Allies scare me because we have to get them just right not only for draft and sealed, but for Standard and Modern. Good enough to excite but not too good when combined with Zendikar's batch? Tall. Order.

Most of the suggestions not on the list are simply too fancy or freaky for a core set. One suggestion that I dismissed at first but on second thought find compelling is provoke. You may scoff, so let me explain. Vigilance teaches that creatures tap to attack by being an exception to the rules. Trample teaches that all damage is absorbed by blockers normally. In the same way, provoke teaches that you attack players rather than creatures. We don't need to draw from a deep well here: M12 had just ten bloodthirst cards and M11 had all of five scry cards.

That said, terrain and exalted are more exciting, so those are our guys. Let me tell you a bit about how I see these two paths rolling out.

Exalted comes with legendary. It doesn't have to, but it's a perfect opportunity. Who better to lead the charge against your enemy than Akroma, Angel of Wrath? We don't need many exalted creatures (5-10) including a couple reprints like Court Archers and either Akrasan Squire or Aven Squire. I'm thinking white (5) green (3) black (1) or so. We also don't need many legendary creatures, but those will definitely be featured in all colors.

Terrain comes with Kird Ape. Seriously, we can't not reprint that lovely little primate. If we give each color one terrain ability per ally at common that's ten cards right there, but if we put one cycle at common and the other at uncommon, we're implying a false preference. Maybe we put a double-cycle at common and just a cycle of doubles at rare (like Cliffrunner Behemoth) for 15 total cards.

What's the next step? Thanks to Benjamin, Chah, Duncan, Nich, Luke and Jen, I was able to use their color analyses to build the bones of the set skeleton. (As Jules points out, the skeleton isn't in order like a proper skeleton; does someone want to sort it?) It's time to start fleshing it out. I've set up a page on the wiki for each of the colors and I'd like any number of folks to propose an initial skeleton for each color (you can do as many as you want).

For our very first pass, I want only reprints. That's absolutely going to change, but I want us focused on the bigger picture for the moment rather than card design. Tempting as it is to design cards, we want the cards to serve the set and not the other way around. Figuring out what the set needs first and what is available to it will inform which cards should be replaced with those of our own design.

In accordance with the goal of being more different than the previous three sets, if a card slot has been occupied by the same card all three years, it is banned from this set. If it's been in that slot for the last two years, its continued employment is questionable at best. On the other hand, if it's been in the set just one year (and it wasn't a scry or bloodthirst support card) give strong consideration to repeating it. Other than that, look for reprints that will be nostalgic or take on new context, but keep things simple.

So what mechanic are we designing around? I love narrowing and clarifying, but I hate making executive decisions. Still, that's what's called for. Let's try out terrain because there's less precedent for that. A bit more challenging and new. Because there are very few existing terrain cards and we're sticking to reprints, you can treat cards like Ogre Savant and Cliffrunner Behemoth in the same category for now. We'll convert them when the time comes.


  1. I think you have a few serious problems with Terrain.

    The first is that it's simply not sexy enough to sell the set. Scry and Bloodthirst can both be very exciting to play with. Terrain, though, simply functions as a an on/off toggle, and doesn't really feel like something with new space to explore, nor does it feel like something that resonates strongly as a flavorful mechanic.

    The second problem is that the mechanic really feels like it needs to be in a multi-colored-centered format. Core Sets, though, tend to be very Monochromatic. I doubt we'll ever see Core Set: Gold Edition, due to how much internal support multicolored sets require in terms of mana bases and other such cards, and how little exploration you're actually able to do in the core sets. (An exception I could see someday: 5 allied gold planeswalkers.)

  2. Of these two I favor Exalted for sure. Like kirbblar024 said, this just doesn't have enough sexiness to sell the set. I think getting too tied up in having mechanical crossover into the next block is the wrong move; do that in other cards, not the returning keyword.

  3. I like the Terrain mechanic since it is so Core friendly and I have a few good ideas for reprints that can put focus on the Terrain theme. How much time do we have to compile a list?

  4. How much time to compile the reprint list, I mean.

  5. I had a dream about provoke being a suitable mechanic, and upon further reflection, I'd like to throw in a voice of support for it. It hasn't been seen in a very long while, does something relatively unique and simple, and most of all is incredibly, overwhelmingly flavorful in terms of top-down design.

    Creatures with provoke are like creatures with flying, in that aspect, even more than exalted or terrain. Do another small cycle of Kird Apes, like the luck/unlucky-cards, to reinforce a given theme (allied pairs), but for a returning keyword, provoke deserves additional attention.

  6. I like Exalted and Provoke a lot, but not Terrain. Multicolor is really not something that I would like to be in the core set. Also, I would like to contribute a skeleton and future projects on the wiki, but I still can't figure it out. May I post them here?

  7. I'm apprehensive about Terrain too. It does have its strengths, which I'd like to post about as well.

    Based on the timeline at, it seems like we have more time to explore before we choose.

    I don't think Terrain is completely impossible for a core set (nothing is completely impossible), and it will make me think about things I haven't thought about before.

    But I'm hoping this is a kind of exploration rather than final decision.

    Overall, I'm all for using specific work tasks instead of endless forum discussion to drive things forward. But in this case I'm not sure we hit all the necessary bases of discussion like "does it change how the set plays?" and "how much multi-color do we go for in a core set?" yet. Could there be a final call for that, with an area to list out the pros and cons on the wiki, for example?

    By the way, with the reprint list, there could be an area in the Wiki for collecting everyone's reprint suggestions. I'm sure many people have ideas for good cards for the set but don't have time to make an entire list.

  8. I suggest that, rather than designing mechanics for the keyword, do this:

    List a bunch of top-down concepts for each keyword. The one with the greater depth for resonance should be chosen to return. Scry and bloodthirst have a lot of resonant concepts. Do Exalted or "Terrain"? Unearth has a lot more resonance and ties nicely with Innistrad, for example.

    Bushido is another good one in that regard. Though, I suggest that if you rename it, drop the number. You will note that with the exception of two legends (Konda, and Fumiko), Bushido is ever only set at 1 and sometimes 2. A new keyword can drop off the number (thus gelling more with the other evergreen keywords that are not variable) and just be cumulative, like Exalted is.

  9. A few things. Remember that first and foremost, this project is about learning. I'd rather try something slightly outside the envelope and fail than do something trivially easy. We'll learn more from the challenge whether the result is great or not.

    We're also waaaay ahead of schedule. Two months to be exact. So we have plenty of time to explore a few options. As Chah muses, this is more of an exploration than a final decision. It's an initial decision, because it doesn't do any one any good to waffle when the project needs to keep moving forward, but it's certainly reversible.

    I'm not saying this to stop you from expressing your concerns, because those concerns are important and help suss out the dangerous curves on this path that we need to take slowly. But let me address why I think your concerns, while valid, aren't show-stoppers:

    Is terrain sexy enough?
    Was scry sexy enough? Scry is a popular mechanic because it's fun to play and it makes the game run a bit smoother. As used in M11, it also had good flavor. On the other hand, it really didn't impact the way people played or drafted M11 as a whole. It only appeared on five cards, a measely two percent of the set.

    Is Kird Ape sexy enough? Is a technically new keyword sexy enough? Isn't it our job to make it sexy? This isn't something we need unanimous agreement for: Remember, if some players love it and some hate it, we're probably doing something right.

    The core set isn't gold.
    Not this time, anyway. There will be no traditional multicolor or hybrid cards in this set. While I believe that gold is a possibility for a future core set, it doesn't make sense for this one since it leads into a gold set. While not gold, terrain does play very nicely with that upcoming gold set.

    Terrain is NOT multicolor; it goes on solid-color cards. It does promote playing decks with more than one color in them, but that's not exactly a stretch for limited (or constructed) core set play. It takes quite a bit of luck and determination to pull off a mono-colored deck in (any) draft and is essentially impossible in sealed. We're just rewarding players for something they were going to do anyway.

    We're not muddying the color pie by putting two colors of mana (well, one color of mana and another basic land type) on a single card, because we're showing what a color can do by itself and what it can do with the help of another color. If anything, that will clarify the differences between the colors. We're also not doing any enemy color pairs at all, so we'll actually be reinforcing the ally color pairs.

    I prefer exalted/provoke
    Understood. Everyone has preferences and there's no choice we can settle on that will be everyone's first pick. Exalted and provoke are both great options and if this path leads nowhere, we will definitely come back and explore one of these alternate paths. In fact, I would love to do that even if we're happy with the way terrain plays out, just to see what would've happened or if we can outdo ourselves.

  10. For the task at hand, let's aim for Friday (or earlier if that's how it plays out). You don't have to give a complete list (that may not even be possible).

    I just realized we could use Google Docs instead of the wiki. Perfect! Especially for the task in question. I've set it up so anyone can edit it (and Google will automatically track all updates). We'll put each color in its own tab.

  11. Remember that the core set is the "introductory level" for Magic players! As you said, vigilance teaches that creatures normally tap to attack and trample teaches that creatures normally absorb all extra damage. These two beginners' lessons seem to favor provoke, which teaches that: A) tapped creatures normally cannot block an attacking creature, and B) the defending player normally picks what creature blocks which attacking creature.

    Also, "terrain" teaches dual-colored play, which isn't exactly your average beginner player's strong point. It introduces mana screw/flood, which could be enough to discourage them from playing more Magic.

  12. Jay: Do you want suggested reprints to arrive only as a full colour's worth of skeleton? I agree with Chah that you'll get more contributions if you don't require an entire ~40 cards worth of reprint selection, but if you're after only contributions from those with a dedicated commitment then this is the way to go.

    I note that terrain would work very well with reprints of the Ravnica duals (or other rare duals with basic land types), and that would allow a small number of sideways terrain support cards like Kor Cartographer.

  13. On provoke: It's a neat ability, but with Fight becoming an evergreen keyword that design space is already plenty open for M13.

    A few responses.

    First, Kird Ape is one of the most iconic/sexy creatures in Magic. He's a fan favorite, he's appeared in a From the Vaults, he's a staple of multiple constructed formats, and was already the marketing icon of 9th edition.

    Second, Terrain gives a good context to reprint allied Shock lands. It doesn't even matter if a return to Ravnica is in the works, that's going to get players excited.

    But the main reason why Terrain works in a Core Set, while you rightly point out that Multicolor doesn't, is this: It establishes color identities. Core sets need to introduce new players to what each color is about. Terrain does this by saying "Here's what happens when a little red ape gets a taste of green" It establishes not only what one color does, but also what another color doesn't get to do. And while it might seem like Kird Ape needs a multi-colored format to feel at home, consider the Loam Lion cycle in monocolored Worldwake.

    Besides, it's useful to point out that Kird Ape has appeared in a core set, 10th edition had the entire Hate Weaver Cycle at uncommon, every core set has had some kind of dual lands, etc. This is hardly radical ground, but the fact that it's still contentious means it does push the envelope. That's probably the right balance.

  14. Preventing any card that has appeared in the last three core sets to appear in this one feels like trying to generate newness for newness' sake. I feel like this will lead to a set that has either a bunch of cards that are very similar in function to these cards that we refused to reprint, or will lead to a set that is too radical in its departure from the fundamental vision of a core set. In general, I don't think all that much weight should be placed on how many previous core sets that a card has appeared in. The necessity of the card in the environment should be a far greater factor than whether it has been reprinted many times.

  15. I noticed that the Doc. was called "M13 skeleton with Terrain". Is there going to be one with Exalted?

  16. Convincing Mirage is going to be awesome. I just know it.

  17. I'll just provide some minor feedback about some glaringly obvious fault in your choice of "returning keyword".

    The fault being, obviously, that it's not a returning keyword.

    Is the returning keyword in M12 hexproof? Nope, it's a new keyword based in an old ability. The returning keyword in M12 is Bloodthirst, because it's a keyword that actually has been used before.

    I know this is just an exercise, and that you just want to learn by practice, but the first lesson you should learn is to "actually do what you are asked to do", which sounds very simple, but it's amazing how terrible people are at it.

    Have fun!

  18. Heh. Seeing as how the returning mechanic mandate is self-imposed (by Wizards), and no one's going to boycott a core set just because they deviate from that or self-impose a new mandate in it's place, I'd say it's more important that we follow the spirit of it than the letter. Semantically, it's true: Terrain was never a keyword and can't therefore be a returning keyword. The Kird Ape ability however, has been a mechanic since Alpha, and we're bringing that mechanic back for the set. We're not attaching an ability word to it as a half-assed attempt to fulfill the letter of the mandate, but to simply give a handle to the mechanic we've brought back, so we can market it and so players can talk about it.