Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Shroud Vs Hexproof: Mindspace

Shroud Vs Hexproof: Mindspace
This last Friday, Aaron Forsythe tweeted a question which apparently earned the largest response he's ever seen. It's a qood question: Which of shroud and hexproof should be used in Magic going forward? It sounds simple but it's actually a compound question with an answer that depends on more than one factor.
Which keyword would you rather us use: shroud or hexproof?
First, it is implicit in this question that shroud and hexproof can never mutually co-exist. Even if you interpret his language otherwise, we have practical evidence in Magic 2012 and Innistrad that hexproof is meant to permanently replace shroud and written (if informal) confirmation of that from the head designer himself (1, 2). Let's discuss that for a moment.

The reason not to have two mechanics as similar as shroud and hexproof in the same set is one of mindspace. Consider the transform cards from Innistrad. Villagers of Estwald / Howlpack of Estwald is not a simple card, despite being a "vanilla werewolf" because the first time a player sees it, she not only has to get over the shock of a double-sided card, and grok how both the triggers work, but the fact that only one side's trigger will ever be relevant at a time. The good news is, once you do get it, all of the werewolves become nearly free to process because they transform and un-transform the same way. The bad news is, the remaining transform cards become harder to understand.

That may not be intuitive, but it was most definitely my experience for the first fortnight of Innistrad Limited and I know I wasn't alone. I never consciously thought "transform=werewolf so all cards that transform do it the way the werewolves do," and it's not like I didn't know what Cloistered Youth or Screeching Bat did, because I had read them in the spoiler. Even so, my mind had naturally connected transform with the werewolf triggers and I found myself making numerous play mistakes and missing triggers while slowly building up exceptions.

Even now that I'm fully comfortable with all 20 transform cards, I still find that the cases with different triggers/activations feel like exceptions to the rule. Now don't misunderstand me, Magic is built on exceptions: You can't attack with a new creature except if it has haste. Doom Blade kills everything except black creatures. You can't kill an indestructible creature except if you reduce its toughness below one. Exceptions are important and vital to both the game's depth and breadth. But they come at a cost.

Each exception adds to its set's overall complexity and reduces its focus. If all the transform cards in Innistrad were werewolves, it would take less time for players to understand and appreciate the set and it would considerably brighten the spotlight on werewolves, really driving that theme home / into the dirt. I'm just speaking theoretically, because I think Wizards hit this balance well enough, giving us something to taste up front but with more meat behind to really sink our teeth into (and keeping all but two of the exceptions out of common).

In the case of shroud and hexproof, you have two keyword mechanics that serve the same purpose (keeping those damn, meddling kids off your front lawn) but not in the same way. That's dangerous territory, but not irredeemable. What happens if a player confuses the two? If I try to cast Giant Growth on my Mist Leopard, it will be pointed out that my target is illegal and the game will reverse such that I never tried to target it. My opponent will know I have a trick in hand, which is less than ideal, but I won't be down any resources. If I don't cast my Giant Growth to save my Sacred Wolf because I think I can't, that could easily cost me the game, costing me what may be my only threat and leaving a useless trick in hand.

That would stink. Would it stink worse than forgetting my opponent's Thraben Sentry will transform before damage if I Rebuke his Chapel Geist? I lean slightly toward yes but I'm genuinely not sure. We've got a comparison to risky mindspace-sharing that has seen print recently, so let's round out the picture with a comparison to risky mindpsace-sharing that hasn't seen print in a long while.

No one set (nor any two sets within the limited environment) have had more than one kind of power/toughness-modifying counter since, well, at least since I got back into Magic during the original Mirrodin. Shadowmoor counterpointed Lorwyn's +1/+1 counters with -1/-1 counters, but those sets were not drafted or used in sealed together. While you might argue the problem with mixing these counters is one of book-keeping, fundamentally all games are a practice of mentally substituting one thing for another.

This cardboard isn't cardboard, it's a creature that can attack and block and die, but this cardboard over here is an enchantment that makes the creature bigger (metaphorically, of course) and this glass bead also makes it bigger. Wait, is it the beads that mean bigger and the pennies that mean smaller or vice-versa? And now you're saying my cardboard that's a creature can't have the cardboard that's an enchantment because the word I thought meant "can't be targeted by opponents" actually means "can't be targeted by anyone?"

The potential for confusion between shroud and hexproof isn't nullified by obsoleting shroud because the game must continue to work the way it always has, particularly in this case where errata'ing all the cards that ever had shroud to hexproof would break, um, all of them in half, sidways and upside down. That potential is vastly mitigated however because new players may never have to learn shroud and old players will just know, most everything before Magic 2012 had shroud and everything after it has hexproof.

Is there any other way? +1/+1 counters didn't obsolete -1/-1 counters and I don't know that hexproof has to obsolete shroud, necessarily. Perhaps each block (or limited environment, to be precise) must choose one to exclude so that there is internal consistency there. It was also suggested that green should [only ever] have hexproof while blue should [only ever] have shroud. There's a lot of merit to that argument as it helps differentiate the colors, can be thematically justified (though it's no slam-dunk) and it takes one more anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better away from blue. On the other hand, it does mean that both will appear in the same set so they will still compete in players' minds for "that mechanic that protects my guys from removal."

So what's my stance? I'm prepared to be shown wrong over time or otherwise, but I suspect that that hexproof and shroud should both continue to exist but never in the same limited environment. Even if players can handle the difference (and I do see it as a legitimate problem from casual/new players), a lot of folks judge a set by its keywords and having one keyword that's just a tweak on the other will appear cheap to them. At the same time, letting the pendulum swing over time between shroud and hexproof will help differentiate sets and keep gameplay varied.

The End? Nope! I've got a whole 'nother article about the difference between shroud and hexproof, which is better if we have to choose, and the bugaboo around downside mechanics.


  1. Good article, important discussion, can't wait for the next.

    I'll admit that my personal stance is biased by the fact that hexproof has such potential for broken disaster that I really don't trust R&D. That, though, is a different discussion from the mindspace angle. If shroud and trollshroud coexisted pre-keywording, it says something interesting about the act of keywording itself for MaRo to say that they cannot post-keywording.

  2. Back in the day, I wrote:

    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.

    I felt quite vindicated when Hexproof debuted.

  3. Here's the simple solution that you didn't discuss:

    Change the name.

    Magic has several mechanics that work very similarly yet have completely different implications. Take Double Strike and First Strike. It's not like Double Strike obsoleted First Strike, in fact the interplay makes cycles the Crusaders possible. In fact, Double strike was a super common fan submitted mechanic for that: Players grokked it immediately.

    For an even more striking example, consider Protection. Protection is an ability that works very differently depending on what follows it. Protection from Green and Protection from Creatures could be different mechanics, but their commonality actually makes them them easier to Grok. If I've seen a Protection from Green guy, I know what to expect from a Protection from Blue guy. Does the use of different protections really compete for the "mechanic that protects my guys from removal" mindspace?

    So, how does this apply to Shroud vs Hexproof? Simple. Keep Shroud as Shroud and change Hexproof to Shrouded from Opponents. You can then use both in design, because one actually informs the other. If you like Hexproof, go the other way and reintroduce Shroud as Spellproof.

    "It does not make sense supporting two mechanics that work that closely especially with different names." -- Maro

  4. What I like about Hexproof is that it's just easier to remember: it basically always does what the player wants, so they can forget about it except when they need it.

    What I'm not sure about is how important the downside of Shroud is. I think the decision to promote hexproof is basically implying that the downside to shroud isn't that important on most creatures, so they might as well make Hexproof creatures instead (assuming those are simpler or more fun). But I don't know if that's right. I _assumed_ it was right, becuase that's the sort of thing where R&D seem to know what they're doing. But if it's not, that obviously makes a difference.

    If there are only few potential creatures which specifically need shroud rather than hexproof, then sticking with whichever mechanic seems easier or more fun seems to make sense.

    If there are many creatures which _should_ have shroud but aren't being made, then saving for a "shroud set" or a "shroud in blue" set makes sense, even if hexproof stays the standard.

    But I don't know which is right :)

  5. My favorite upside to hexproof over shroud is that it lets you, the person using the creature, do more fun things. With shroud, you have protection but are prevented from doing some fun or interesting things; you can't enchant or equip your creature to make it better, and you can't target it with combat tricks to outwit your opponent. It's disappointing to have some interesting or exciting play stopped cold because the very effect that protects your creature from your opponent also prevents your own tricks from working.

    There is a problem with creatures with both hexproof and evasion, that I will agree with. That combination removes potential for interaction on two different levels, which is too much. Either one by itself, though, is fine I think. Just evasion is something common as dirt, and clearly isn't a major issue in itself. Just hexproof, similarly, still allows for interaction through combat, and tricks still work when they target your own creatures. And you still always have the option of dealing with a hexproofed threat indirectly (mass removal, edicts, etc.)

    In the end, I favor the fun gained by letting you do more with your own cards over the "balancing factor" of shroud's double-edged shield (you know what I mean).