Saturday, December 31, 2011

M13 Holiday is for Play (-testing)

This week I spent about 80 hours working on Magic design. Tweaks and swaps to the card file; printing, cutting and stickering well over custom 300 cards; reorganizing my Magic collection to find reprints (which caused me to clean the whole game room as a result); and writing a couple short theory articles. Oh and playtesting. Yesterday, three of my good Magic buddies and I spent 8+ hours doing Magic 2013 sealed and draft. At least I know I won't have a problem working long hours at Wizards some day.

I've done lots of solo testing with focused card sets since we started and I specifically tested bond (then known as terrain) with a bunch of people via precons back in September, but this is the first time we've taken the set as a whole and played the way it would be at a prerelease. I was pleasantly surprised how well it went, but found about a million ways to improve the set via real experience and the insightful comments and suggestions of my playtesters. Thanks, Brendan, Ty and Andy!

We used 24 packs for our four-person sealed and that took 240 commons, so I made three print runs of our 101 commons, two of all our uncommons and one of each rare and mythic. I also purposely focused the rares that went into packs on the new ones rather than reprints. While their presence will shape how the game plays, we at least know they work as individual cards—something we can't say about the new rares. Mercifully, none of the cards broke the game completely and only a few required instant errata. Apparently, I was so set upon making an exciting Treefolk mythic that I costed Cedarbark Commander at 2GG originally. Yeah, that's embarassing. Honestly, he's still a boss at 4GG.

So what did I learn?

The new Regeneration keyword isn't worthwhile. It's cleaner and more intuitive to new players, but it's full-on confusing to established players. The inability to tap a regenerator by "killing" it before combat was also sorely missed. Do I wish the original regenerate used the new timing instead of making awkward regen shields? Sure. But we're just too far along to change that now.

Spellproof also probably isn't right for us. The idea was that in the same way you can have protection from [characteristic], you could have [characteristic]-proof, allowing you to make Autumn's Veil grant blue-proof and black-proof. Hexproof would be a special form that makes your creatures untargetable by your opponent's 'hexes' and then we could rename Shroud as Spellproof (or Magicproof or Glamerproof—we never really found a perfect name). That's fine if the reason Shroud wasn't in Magic 2012 was that Hexproof is more noob-friendly since it's all-upside, but not if the reason was that R&D doesn't want both to exist moving forward because they're so similar. Either way, Magicproof doesn't belong at Core alongside Hexproof.

Magic 2013 has a lot of 1 toughness creatures. That's not actually a bad thing. In the same way it works for Innistrad, it works for us. Zap and Wring Flesh are very good because of it. A number of these creatures have flying or first strike, so having 1 toughness makes them answerable outside of combat.

On the other hand, we also have a lot of 3/3 and 3/1 creatures. That's a problem because everything feels the same and everything trades. That'd get real boring, real fast. Worse, it's confusing when green has a 3/1 for 2G and a 3/3 for 2G at common (and three 2GG 3/3s between common and uncommon—I know) and black has a 3/1 2B and 3/2 2B at common. Part of that was the result of last minute changes to the file. Part of that was just horrible horrible oversight on my part. Fortunately, it stuck out like a sore thumb in testing and we can fix it, no problem. It wasn't all bad: It was neat that red got a vanilla 3/1 where black got a vanilla 3/2 and green got a vanilla 3/3 all at 2C at common. That's an elegant demonstration of relative strength and weaknesses in the colors.

Another question revolved around the inclusion of cantrips. Nich (IIRC) had suggested that we could try one cycle of cantrips and get around the problem of them feeling unresonant by adding a quote from a planeswalker that made the card feel like a learning experience. Zap is one among this cycle and the concept is that Chandra is teaching you that sometimes precise burn is better than massive burn. I liked the idea well enough to try it out. One playtester felt another reason against cantrips (in general, but particularly in a core set) is they tend to be incremental advantage cards, the type of which Spike will play to slowly build an unseen edge over less tournament-minded players and so marginalizing new/casual players. I'm honestly on the fence. I love how they smooth out the game, but maybe they don't belong.

And finally the big question, how is Bond looking? First, I learned that because of the different executions outside uncommon, no one realized there was any consistency within common. That means to the new player's eye, you have to read each bond card without any idea what it will do. That's too much. My hope is that by sticking with exactly five abilities—one per land type—we can ease that burden and a player can simply read "forest bond" and not have to read any further to know exactly what it will do (once he's seen a Kird Ape or two).

We knew when we chose bond that it doesn't affect the way you play the game as much as how you build the deck. Bloodthirst rewards full-tilt aggro as well as more cautious defensive plays, but bond doesn't change much about how you play the game itself. It does have a real impact on the game before your match, though. Each of the 10 or 11 decks we built were two-color decks (except one splashing for Blaze and Zap) and I don't believe that was coincidence. Because we consciously weakened color fixing (Nature's Lore instead of Rampant Growth, Shimmering Mirage instead of Convincing Mirage, etc) and accidentally nerfed it a bit more (trying a design named Treasure Map in place of Expedition Map, which proved terrible) no one seriously considered three-color decks or one color splashing two allied colors. That was an intentional experiment and having done it, I believe the set would be better with better fixing.

With players sticking to two-color decks, bond was active maybe 90% of the time. This is gonna sound like stopping a forest fire by burning down trees, but I think better mana fixing will make this more exciting. Yes, players who still to two colors will still have active bond most of the time, but then players may consider three color or double-splash decks for which there will be less certainty and therefore more dramatic tension.

So is Bond good for 2013? I think it is. It's not a slam-dunk because it's not as different as bloodthirst and won't drive as much excitement among experienced players, but it is a simple kind of fun that does a lot of good things for a core set. It encourages two-color play and actively guides new players in how to build a deck. It helps teach which colors are good at what and how they interact with each other. It demonstrates at a fairly basic level how sets can differ from each other; I can't be sure but I feel like a brand new player could pick it out if you asked him which one thing in this set isn't common to all sets.

It's a legitimate concern how quickly veterans would tire of the set, and that isn't mitigated by the nature of our actual audience (as opposed to our theoretical audience). I'm the type of old timer who actually really enjoys modern core set limited: Even if it's not zany and clever like expert expansions, it really hits the heart of the game and that game is still fun and challenging. I know there are those who remain impressed with core sets and I guess we shouldn't kill ourselves trying to serve them if it's an impossible task. But maybe we should worry more about the people who did love Magic 2012, 2011 and 2010.

Anyhow, those are the big impressions I got about the set from our test. I've also tweaked or replaced dozens of individual cards as a result. The whole experience was a lot of fun: like our own personal Prerelease. I hope to make some big revisions based on these findings, talk some things through with you and the team and try it again soon.


  1. I always thought including hybrid mana in M13 would have been a good idea. By only using allied-hybrid at common and uncommon, that really reinforces "these colors are actually similar", and also helps showing how they both share concepts. Further, it still encourages multicolor decks, and it also is an interesting draw-in for experienced players -- at least, I've always loved hybrid mana.

    At rare, you could have the quirky "If you spent C to cast this, ... if you spent D to cast this,...", which is also a very cool effect. You could even have a small cycle of monohybrid, even!

    Of course, it might be too late for this... but I thought I'd chime in, as a newcomer.

  2. You're doing a good job with this project, Jay. Next time you decide to go crazy and print 300 cards, could you let the rest of us know? If you tell us which MSE file you're using and when you're playing we can arrange to play in our own groups as well and then share our input. I like a ton of the notes you placed in the file in the last day. I fell like playtesting pushes us ahead by miles instead of inches. What's our revised calendar for this project, btw.

  3. Inanimate, I think hybrid mana might be my favorite mechanic in Magic. Unfortunately, I just see no way to justify it in a core set at any rarity. Basic multicolor-gold cards haven't even made the cut and hybrid is definitely a step up from that. Hmm, I wonder if we couldn't get away with a cycle of gold mythics...

    Thanks, Nich. I think I hinted I was trying to get a real test but didn't announce because it wasn't finalized until the day before.

    We gained a lot of time early in the project and lost a lot in the middle, but we're actually not that far off from the original timeline. I'm most concerned with Limited play, so if we have to lose some constructed time to perfect that, so be it. I'm curious to see whether we'll be able to find a (seperate) Dev team or not. I'd also love for some creative folks (maybe Geordie Tait) to take a pass before we call things final.

    And yeah, real testing is so much more effecient than educated conjecture.

  4. There's rumors that Nicol Bolas is in M13 (he was in a leaked trailer of the new Duels of the Planeswalkers) so maybe it's ok to do a Gold mythic cycle.

  5. he was in the trailer for M12, too.

  6. In light of the Platinum anniversary of m:tg being in 2013, should we put in Platinum Angel, or should that be in m14 which comes out closer to the actual anniversary?